Exclusive: Speaking of trauma

Mental health activist Rosalynn Carter says she recognizes the emotional damage caused by Hamas terror.

Rosalynn carter 224.88 (photo credit: Judy Siegel Iztkovich)
Rosalynn carter 224.88
(photo credit: Judy Siegel Iztkovich)
Having spent almost four decades working to minimize the stigma of mental illness worldwide, Rosalynn Carter is well familiar with terms like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, bipolar disease and schizophrenia. And that is why, in an exclusive interview Monday with The Jerusalem Post, she described the rocket attacks on Israeli civilians in Sderot - now and for the last seven years - as "criminal acts of terrorism." When the former US first lady and her husband, Jimmy Carter, were told last week by Dr. Shimon Scherf, director-general of Ashkelon's Barzilai Medical Center, that 95 percent of the patients admitted to the emergency room suffer from PTSD or other types of mental distress, she did not doubt the figure. She recalled that during the couple's visit to Sderot last week, "We saw a little woman sitting in a chair in her home, half of which had been destroyed by a Hamas rocket from Gaza. She had come back to be in her apartment, even though it was destroyed." Yet Carter thinks her husband's self-appointed shuttle between Israel and Arab capitals might help end the attacks, even if only as part of a temporary ceasefire. "Jimmy really pressed [Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal to stop the rockets. But it has to be mutual," she said. The interview was conducted in a sixth floor suite of Jerusalem's King David Hotel - much more modest than the luxurious Royal Suite they occupied during the couple's March 1979 visit, when Jimmy Carter was American president. Downstairs in a banquet hall, he had just given a press conference on the results of his current visit - against the will of the US and Israeli governments - with the Hamas leader. Israelis in the lobby while this was going on gave me a thumbs-down sign and whispered that Carter was "one sided," "anti-Israel" and "out of touch with reality." This was not my first encounter with Rosalynn Carter. During the 1979 presidential tour here, I had covered the first lady's attendance of a Purim party with dozens of Ethiopian Jews who had come on Operation Moses and lived at the Mevasseret Zion Absorption Center. On Monday, she said she remembered the event, and her eyes lit up when I presented her with a cutting of my Post story. I also gave her a clipping of the 1980 interview I did with the president's then 81-year-old (and now deceased) mother, "Miz" Lillian, who said: "All my kids were raised exactly the same, but they wandered off different." Asked then which of her four children was her favorite, she said: "Jimmy always thought he was, and Gloria thought she was, and Ruth thought she was, but Billy's my favorite. He's the youngest, and I see him more often." Rosalynn - today still softspoken, straight-backed and petite, wearing a pantsuit - had been the initiator of the first Friendship Force cultural exchange that in 1978 sent 425 Israelis (including me) to Hartford, Connecticut for a week, and an equal number of Americans (including her second son, James Earl III ["Chip"]) to Israel. She smiled broadly when I gave her these clippings. I was allotted only 20 minutes (which grew to 25) for our chat, and the questions could not be political. An aide sitting with us gave Carter a look when the subject neared the controversial, thus there was no chance to ask about Israeli hostility to her husband for giving recognition to Mashaal by his visit, or about his last book that aroused fury by comparing Israel's actions towards Palestinians to "apartheid." Carter, who will turn 81 in August, said she has visited more than 120 countries either alone or with Jimmy, to whom she has been married for 62 years. Born, as he was, in the tiny peanut-farming town of Plains, Georgia (population 500), Carter was raised by her dressmaker mother after her father died of leukemia at 44. She was valedictorian of her class at Plains High School in 1944, and two years later married Jimmy, who had graduated from the school three years earlier and gone into the Navy. They have three sons and one daughter (Amy, who was 10 when they reached the White House in 1977), and now have 11 grandchildren and one great-grandchild. She has been a vice chairman or a member of the board of the Carter Center in Georgia since 1986, and established the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving at Georgia Southwestern State University in 1988. Three years later, she founded the Every Child by Two organization to promote early immunization. And both she and her husband have often been photographed in overalls, while helping to build dwellings for the homeless. "Every year we spend a week doing this. Next month we will be in the New Orleans area building homes for Hurricane Katrina victims," she said in her suite overlooking the Old City and the Temple Mount. Carter said she was not inspired to campaign for mental health because of any friend or relative she had who suffered from such illness, but rather due to people she met during her travels with her husband. "One morning, while Jimmy was campaigning to be governor of Georgia, I saw an exhausted woman emerge from a cotton mill, with cotton all over her hair, after having worked through the night. I asked her if she was going home to get some sleep. The woman confided that she had a mentally retarded child at home, and that she had to work nights because her husband's income couldn't cover her son's expenses,"she recounted. The next day, Rosalynn approached Jimmy at a campaign event. "I stood in the back of the hall while he was speaking, then joined the line with everyone else to file by and shake his hand. He reached for my hand before realizing who I was... I had an important question to ask him: 'I want to know what you are going to do about mental health when you're governor.' He said: 'We're going to have the best mental health system in the country, and I'm going to put you in charge of it,' she continued. "He never appointed me," she added. But he did name her to be a member of a governor's commission on mental health. In the 1990s, she wrote two books about mental illness and caregiving, and next year, she will have completed another book on the subject. Her institute has granted nearly 100 fellowships to journalists around the world to train them to know more about mental illness and write about it more knowledgeably and fairly. "One newspaper editor who was a fellow said that before he participated, there were only six articles on mental illness, most of them negative, but afterwards there were 66 positive ones," she said, stressing how much has changed in the field. "There are new medications and research. Today, patients we never dreamed could recover live normal lives. Even in my books then, I didn't speak of recovery." Asked about the current US presidential campaign, Carter said she and her husband can't officially name their choice until after the Democratic primary. But, she said, "All our children support Barack Obama."