After a troubled life, peace
By JOHN BARRY
Published November 5, 2006
The obituary for Jacquelyn Obenschain was brief, a postscript to a much larger story that is violent, sad and ultimately noble. It said that she died of cancer on Sept. 12 at age 59 at a hospice in Tallahassee. She had suffered from paranoid schizophrenia for more than 40 years.
It mentioned that she had co-authored with her mother a book titled Possessed Mentalities, writing a last autobiographical chapter. That book was about how Jackie, then 26, murdered her 24-year-old sister Jyl in 1973, how she stabbed Jyl more than 30 times, how she was locked away for life in an insane asylum.
You might picture a monster. You might imagine a hellish existence at Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee.
But listen to Jacqueline Obenschain:
"Clouds rain, evaporate, and exist as clouds like our hearts. We try to be happy but our hearts are vulnerable to thousands of things that make our hearts rain. There will be joy when our hearts become the sky. There will be joy because we will not feel what makes clouds rain."
A murder in the family
The murder was a sensational one involving a prominent family. Jackie and Jyl were the daughters of Jack and Maxene Obenschain. Jack was director of health in Hernando County. Maxene was a public school teacher.
Maxene had found Jyl in the dining room of their Redington Beach home. There was blood all over the house. A large kitchen knife lay near Jyl.
Jackie was arrested. She later told her parents what had happened.
"She began by telling us that she had stabbed Jyl," Maxene wrote in Possessed Mentalities. "She did not say that she had killed Jyl. She abruptly continued by saying that when she stabbed Jyl in the abdomen, Jyl did not scream, but turned and grabbed her by the hair to try to pull or shove her away." Jackie explained that Jyl quickly let go and said, "I'm sorry." She had interrupted her own murder to apologize to her killer for pulling her hair.
The case never went to trial. A judge found Jackie not guilty by virtue of her madness and sent her to Florida State Hospital, where she would never leave.
The 'program world'
Jackie always disputed that she was schizophrenic. She believed she had multiple personalities. There were always two Jackies.
"I live in two different worlds," she wrote. "The apparent world was where I was mentally ill, that there was no government torturing me, that America had a free democracy, that I had really killed my sister. The program, which was the government agency in charge of hypnotized slaves in which I was one, controlled the program world. In the program world, I was totally sane, the government was a torture democracy that had hypnotized slaves which it tortured with physical torture using hypnotic suggestion and used radio, TV, movies, and free people to torture slaves psychologically to make them cooperate in torturing other slaves. In the program world, I had not really killed my sister."
That was the psychotic Jacqueline Obenschain. There was the other Jackie, who wrote this from Florida State Hospital:
"In a way, I am happy and content because at least I have food, shelter, medical care, and all the leisure time I want to think and analyze about the psychological laws. I spend most of my time alone and thinking, figuring out more about the laws our emotions and thoughts obey. I love being by myself and thinking - figuring out the truth about life."
A mother's crusade
Her father, Jack Obenschain, died just four years after the killing. Her mother, Maxene, remarried in 1980, to Kenneth Kleier. She lobbied in Tallahassee for better care for the mentally ill for 25 years. She organized the Association for Mending Minds. She helped start a Florida chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. She won state funding for hundreds of case manager positions and the creation of a Continuity of Care Management System. Most of those reforms, passed in the 1980s, have been lost to budget cuts and reorganizations.
"Nothing survived," says Maxene, who now lives in downtown St. Petersburg.
Maxene has a phone message from Jackie recorded the day after Jackie got her copy of Possessed Mentalities. There's a soft voice, a slight Southern accent. It sounds young, vulnerable.
"I stayed up all night reading the book. I am so sorry, Mom. Please forgive me. I just hope I never cause anyone pain like that again. I love you."
Jackie shared a room with another patient at Florida State Hospital. She had a small family inheritance she used to buy books, paper and art supplies. She had a computer. She used the hospital library. She developed multiple sclerosis and diabetes and had to use a wheelchair. She was allowed to sit outside. "I can go out and look at trees and flowers and feel better," she told her mother.
Hospital administrator Diane James says Jackie "moved freely" at the institution. The woman who had stabbed her sister 30 times held a job as a "greeter" of visitors. "She didn't have a mean bone in her body," says staffer Harry Harrington, who asked to be identified simply as "her friend."
Eileen Murray, who runs the resident advocacy program, recalls her toughest job interview was with Jackie Obenschain. "She came to my office and asked what I could do for the hospital." It was the start of a 15-year friendship. "She ended every conversation with 'I love you.' "
She debated religion with Chaplain Darell Roberts for 20 years. "She wanted me to know that there was cruelty in the world because God had created it."
The evil and the good
Jackie was dying of cancer. She wanted to die in hospice, not in a mental institution. Florida State Hospital cut substantial red tape to expedite a court order allowing her transfer to Big Bend Hospice in Tallahassee.
Jackie rejected all efforts to save her. In Possessed Mentalities, she had written:
"When people ask me how am I doing, I always say, 'Things could be worse. There could have actually been a Christian hell. You can't make a heaven out of this earth hell, but we are going to leave this hell and go to heaven.' I am no longer afraid of death. I now know that death is a beautiful, pure, perfect peace."
She was admitted to hospice at 3 p.m. on a Monday, Sept. 11.
Twelve hours later, Jacqueline Obenschain was dead.
Among her effects was a letter from Dianne Evers, who was committed to Florida State Hospital after drowning her three small children in Clearwater on New Year's Day in 1980.
"I will miss you if you leave me," Evers wrote her dying friend. "I guess it is selfish of me to want you to stay in this cruel world when you've got your heaven waiting for you."
Jackie had once written:
"Everyone goes to paradise when they die, both the evil and the good."
John Barry can be reached at 727 892-2258 or firstname.lastname@example.org.