The Father Who Might Have Been

(The following is a reprint of an article written about my son and I by Brain And Behavior Research Foundation May 27, 2014.)

Holidays are sometimes very hard for those with depression and other forms of mental illness, so I wanted to share our story again to give hope to families who are in chaos due to mental illness to give them hope that research and cures are our biggest priority. We care about you.

In Schizophrenia’s Wake, a Son Laments the Father Who Might Have Been

Sandra and Emerson Hart, Professional Actress from “Romper Room” and Grammy-Nominated Singer/Songwriter, Lead Singer of Tonic
Sandra and Emerson Hart

Emerson Hart is a singer-songwriter. In the 1990s, he co-founded the Grammy-nominated rock band Tonic and, as the lead singer, has written hit songs for the band’s multi-platinum albums. Emerson credits his mother, Sandra Hart, an actress and writer, for his love of language and performing, and his late father, Jennings, a singer in his youth, for handing down his musical talent. But Jennings also bequeathed to his son a darker legacy.

The most salient fact of Emerson Hart’s life from earliest childhood, one he kept hidden for years, was his father’s mental illness. Untreated and only belatedly diagnosed as schizophrenia, it manifested itself in abuse and rages that cast a shadow of unrelenting terror over the family, which included Sandra’s two small daughters from an earlier marriage. A decade ago, Emerson began confronting the family “secret” with the release of his first solo album.

Emerson Hart, singer/songwriter

“I love kids and I wanted to be a father,” he says, “but I felt that if I continued to keep that stuff inside, it would poison my relationship with a child.” (He now has a daughter, Lucienne, age six.) Since he has gone public, many fans tell him, often in tears, that his story is theirs. This is a main reason he and his mother so strongly support the work of the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation—there should be a way to diagnose and treat these illnesses before havoc is wreaked.

The story began in 1968 when “Miss Sandra,” then the Baltimore-area hostess of the children’s television show “Romper Room,” found “the perfect husband.” Jennings, she says, “was handsome and charming, had his own business, lots of friends and a beautiful Irish tenor voice.” He also, she was to learn, had great skill at hiding the symptoms of his illness.


After Emerson’s birth in 1969, Sandra struggled to keep the family functioning. Then came a night when goaded by inner voices that told him she was unfaithful, Jennings, brandishing a screwdriver, lunged at her. She was somehow able to knock him off balance long enough to grab the children and flee. Arrested and hospitalized, Jennings was finally diagnosed and treated, but as soon as he was released and returned home, he stopped his medications and the violence resumed.

Unable to help him and increasingly concerned for her family’s well-being, Sandra divorced Jennings in 1977. Then, she says, the stalking began. “He stalked and threatened me constantly. I was certain he would kill me.” Instead, in a stranger-than-fiction twist, Jennings was killed, or so it is presumed. In 1980 he vanished without a trace, believed murdered by a jealous husband.

Sandra Hart – “Behind the Magic Mirror”For Sandra, Jennings’ death brought relief, but closure came slowly. Although she married again, happily, and resumed a career as a television and film actress, it took her decades to exorcise the past. She did, finally, by writing about it in the book “Behind the Magic Mirror.” (photo above) (Romper Room fans will recognize the allusion to the show’s “magic mirror.”)

For Emerson, the death brought nightmares. “To this day,” he says, “when I’m under great stress, my father will appear in my sleep, sometimes alive, sometimes dead, smoking a cigarette and staring at me.” Because of the unresolved circumstances of the death, Emerson long feared his father might return. Another “hammer over my head,” as he calls it, was the worry that he would inherit his father’s illness.

Ultimately, however, his deepest feeling is sadness. “If my father had had the right diagnosis and medication early on, if treatment had been possible, with all the good qualities he had going, I know he would have been an awesome father.”


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Welcome to my world! I have always loved to write, but I have spent most of my adult life in front of either a television or film camera. First as a Romper Room Teacher, then in television series and movies where writing took a backstage place in my life. I am now over 50 and have the freedom to get back to expressing myself through writing. I muse about my life and thoughts and just about everything under the sun. The only order to it is life itself as lived. Natural chaos! I am married and have three grown children who are interested in breeding horses, flying and creating. My youngest is the lead singer/songwriter of the Grammy nominated band, Tonic, Emerson Hart. So here I am, wanting to read about you and at the same time bringing you along with me to mine. I hope you will find me just as interesting as I do you! Hop aboard for the ride.

8 thoughts on “The Father Who Might Have Been”

  1. I so much admire you. Your youtbe segments actually give me goosebumps like a great musical performance. You are amazing and very inspirational.


  2. As someone who is trying to navigate the ocean of opportunities and challenges approaching my sixth decade of life, I recently discovered your videos and I can not express the impact of you sharing your advice and wisdom has had on me. You are a beautiful soul. I truly am grateful for the universe directing me to you and your musings.


  3. Thank you for writing this my fiance is a paranoid schizophrenic he takes a lot of medications they make him very tired he doesn’t have a lot of initiative and it’s really hard I never really realized it until lately I don’t know if I can handle it my children are grown up so we don’t have children I don’t want to hurt him by leaving but I don’t know if I can handle it when he is angry he does yell and a lot is very loud but he is very good taking his medication what do you think


    1. I can only tell you from experience, even with medication it will never get better. It will be a very hard and may be dangerous life for you and the days ahead. This is one time you have to think about yourself before anything else. When my husband was first diagnosed, I thought, just taking his medication, would make everything OK. But that is not reality. I really can’t tell you what to do, all I know is that you are asking for a life of uncertainty, and quite possibly extremely dangerous and unhappy. If I were in your shoes, I would not stay in that relationship. It’s up to you. Your choice. Best of luck to you.


    2. I honestly cannot tell you what to do, I only know my experience. If I had to do it all over again, I would not have thought that medication would cure everything. that is not reality. If I were in your shoes, I would break up the relationship and save yourself. There is no cure for paranoid schizophrenia, and you will be living a life of uncertainty and quite possibly fear for the rest of your life with him. It’s your choice. Best of luck to you and I hope you make the right decision for you and your health and safety Sandra


      1. I hope you got my other texts telling you how grateful I am I don’t know if they came through but I am so grateful that you cared enough to answer me I know it is up to me but I I also realized that I cannot change things and must accept that I am not God I do not have the power to do things that only God can do


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