Many Contacts

Unraveling the mysterious mind of Richard Ruston

Young Delaney Ruston and her father
A man wearing a baseball cap and a red coat with tan slacks stands at the Santa Monica Pier with his daughter and grandson.
He looks off into the distance and begins reciting an old poem he wrote: “The sea is calm tonight, the sun is going down, it’s not fortune I seek, it’s being renown.”
This was the same pier Richard Ruston would take his daughter to play chess when she was a little girl. It was also the same pier where he would later take his own life.
Where it all began
Delaney Ruston sits in a wooden chair, while music from the early 2000’s blasts from the intercom behind her. I sit across from her with my Americano on the table. It’s my second time at Zoka, a coffee shop not too far away from University Village. I thank her again for buying my drink.
“To this day, I don’t understand how his mind worked,” said Delaney, who is Richard’s daughter. “I remember him being really great with words. He would recite poetry he had written and remember it from memory.”
Richard, a gifted English graduate student at UC Berkeley in the 1960s, met and married Delaney’s mother, an English teacher, while pursuing his graduate degree. A poet and aspiring novelist, he showed signs of living in an increasingly imaginary world. At the age of 22 he began exhibiting symptoms of schizophrenia, a mental disorder that affects more than 21 million people worldwide. His wife knew of his illness and hospitalization prior to their getting married and settling down.
“My mom was so angry with my dad,” she said. “She was dealing with an immaturity and an inability to see the illness separate from how my dad would have been without it. There wasn’t a place of compassion that I could have gone to her for understanding, nor did she offer it or look for it herself.”
After Delaney was born, Richard’s mental condition worsened. His erratic behavior, loud outbursts, and psychiatric hospitalizations put a strain on the young couple’s marriage. He climbed telephone poles and yelled at people who were walking by. The family was evicted five times.
Delaney’s mother tried to maintain a relationship with him, but countless difficult nights left little hope of having a happy marriage. Eventually, she escaped in the middle of the night in search of a normal life with her 6-month-old daughter.
“When I was growing up, it was unpredictable how he would show up to pick me up,” she recalls. “Usually he would come on an electric scooter and could be kind of odd: in and out of control, pacing, drooling, and saying how the police were after him. He was always ‘dad,’ but there was this odd asking of questions and a distance in his mannerisms that prevented me from thinking that he was a traditional father.”
The silence that follows
Delaney lived with her mother in Berkeley, California and would continue to see her dad on and off throughout her childhood and teenage years in Los Angeles.
“I remember my dad holding me in the middle of the night, I was around eight or nine, and there were police officers outside saying how they had to take him away,” she said. “It’s all kind of a big haze, but there would be this silence afterwards.”
Much like that night, discussing Richard’s illness was slim to none for Delaney and her mother. This became a reoccurring cycle throughout Delaney’s adolescence, causing her to have difficulty connecting with her dad on an emotional level.
The lack of discussion about her father’s illness only added to the stigma that surrounds schizophrenia. Although Berkeley was becoming increasingly progressive in the 1980s, mental health was not a subject that people willingly discussed in public.
“The word ‘schizophrenia’ was around when I was growing up, but it wasn’t really explained to me in any way,” she said. “Ideally, my mom could have been getting support and that could have translated to me. I could have been more comfortable with my dad and known when to not feel bad that maybe I was causing these symptoms.”
Inner battle
As Delaney grew older, she became more frustrated at her father’s condition. As she began medical school at Stanford, she further distanced herself from him. He became fixated on being near her and traveled 500 miles to see her. He would show up in the courtyard of her college campus disheveled, wanting her to take care of him, but refusing treatment.
“He would show up often off his medications, really incoherent,” she recalls. “When I would try to get him help, he said he didn’t want to be hospitalized. The ER couldn’t do anything about it either. But, this wasn’t the ‘dad’ I knew. I thought he was doing well.”
He began clinging to the idea of becoming an English professor at UC Berkeley, even while living on the street, or landing in jail.
His life work, an unpublished novel, shows moments of brilliance and insight, humor and anger, while at the same time being impossible to follow.
To understand more about her father’s illness, Delaney took a psychology class during her undergraduate years. She remembers the class opening her eyes to the mystifying phenomenon of mental illness and how universal schizophrenia symptoms are. It helped her differentiate her father’s behaviors from who he wanted to be if he hadn’t developed paranoid schizophrenia.
Despite trying to find a way to maintain a healthy relationship with her father, his illness continued to bring her more shame and frustration. Eventually, she unlisted her phone number and address in the phone book, losing all contact with him for a decade. Instead, she focused on building a career in medicine and starting a family.
Time of reconciliation
However, in 2005, 10 years after disconnecting with her father, Delaney’s son, Chase Small, a 6-year-old at the time, started asking questions about his grandfather, prompting her to realize she was the one who needed answers. To get them, she turned to filmmaking in the hope of reconnecting with her estranged father, documenting the emotional journey they would take to understand how his mental illness had shaped her childhood.
“I would have a bigger hole in my life if I didn’t try to have a relationship with him,” she said. “I was able to experience him in a new light, not from the perspective of the guarded daughter I was before.”
Over the next year, she reconnected with her father, who by then was living in supportive housing in L.A and receiving assistance with his medication and some supervision. The provided housing and medication gave him stability, allowing her to re-enter his life.
She visited him three times in L.A. When she took her son along, her father played chess with him. He never did ask his daughter the purpose of the film.
At one point during filming, a former classmate of Richard’s, who is now a child therapist, asked him why his daughter was filming him.
“She wants to find out who she is,” her father told his friend, a moment caught on film. “She’s on an identity search.”
Finding hope in tragedy
The fourth time Delaney hoped to film her father, she found he had gone missing. The staff at the housing facility called to tell her he disappeared. The next day, she got on a plane.
What followed was a frantic search to find her father, something that millions of families with mentally ill loved ones can identify with.
Before his disappearance, he had been calling Delaney, each time sounding confused. She would also call, suspecting that he stopped taking his medications. Eventually, he stopped taking her calls.
A few days later, he called a relative, saying he had gone to Las Vegas. The relative persuaded him to come home, and he promised to return and see a psychiatrist.
Meanwhile, Delaney returned to Seattle to begin the long editing process to transform her 80 hours of footage into a story that she hoped would spark more public discussion about how society disconnects from those with mental illness, and how an inability to understand the mental condition breaks families apart.
She was sitting with an editor when the phone rang on a Monday. It was a phone call she wasn’t prepared to hear. The director of the home her father had been staying at told her:
Before dawn on Oct. 16, 2005, her father had packed his belongings into a few boxes and walked down to the Santa Monica Pier.
He handed his wallet to a young couple and jumped in before they could stop him. He was 55.
“It was very helpful in healing to work on the film and be with my dad and hear his laughter,” she recalls. “I was really a big focus in his life.”
Her experience with her father has shaped her work as a doctor. To this day, she works with underserved communities at Pike Market Medical Clinic as a physician and helps connect them to the right services and support.
“What’s interesting was that I never in the least thought about going into psychiatry,” she said. “It’s pretty shocking that it’s been 10 years now and I have devoted myself so much to mental health advocacy. A pretty scattered health system can be challenging, but absolutely worth it when you can impact a person suffering from mental illness.”
Defining schizophrenia
With her multi-award winning PBS documentary, Unlisted: A Story of Schizophrenia, released in 2009, Delaney has continued to be a mental health advocate. She has since then released Hidden Pictures, a personal story into global mental health that took her on a journey to uncover some of the challenges affecting the mentally ill. Both films continue to air on PBS stations and have gained nationwide recognition.
“Part of the reason I wanted to film was that I was so saddened when family members are often kept at bay when it comes to finding support and treatment for their loved ones in a mental crisis,” she said. “In particular, that interface in trying to get someone hospital care when their psychosis is telling them that they’re not ill.”
Currently, she is working on a new podcast, Finding Mental Health, which explores the ways patients deal with and improve their mental health condition.
“It’s getting harder and harder for me over the years to talk about schizophrenia because we are doing a disservice,” she adds. “When a disease takes your whole brain and your whole persona, we need to consider readdressing the illness in terms of its multiplicity.”
Delaney also hopes to break the cycle of fear and misunderstanding that comes with talking about mental illness with her own children.
“The key point she really tries to emphasize is that people with a mental illness shouldn’t be ostracized,” said Ruston’s son, Chase, who is now 15 years old. “She tries to make it perfectly clear that they’re capable of doing things and are oftentimes great people. I am really proud of her for touching people in that way and getting a discussion going. It’s pretty great.”
Advocacy at the UW
Just like Delaney’s outreach, there are several advocacy groups in Seattle, a few of them being on the UW campus, which have made it their mission to reduce the stigma that comes with discussing mental health and uniting families to openly share their experiences.
Jennifer Stuber, assistant professor at the UW School of Social Work, lost her husband to suicide and has since started Forefront, a UW-based organization to help prevent suicide across the region and provide resources for grieving families.
“There is definitely hope,” says Stuber of families who have lost loved ones. “Reach out to community members who have also experienced suicide loss, join a survivors of suicide support group, or call Forefront to get help from a peer though the Forefront Cares Program. And, in the future, helping with prevention can also help with healing.”
Flashback: Process of healing
Delaney sits on the floor in the basement office of her University District home with a box containing the last of her father’s belongings.
She opens a box and digs through what remains of his life. She takes out a teddy-bear pin he always wore on his lapel, a cell phone that connected them at one point in time, and a trophy that marked him as the year 2000 “Chess Champion” at Step Up, his residence. She finds pictures she can’t quite recognize, and a chess game that was interrupted.
The portrait that emerges is of a man whose complex mind was difficult for others to understand. A tortured mind, full of wit and intelligence, that longed to leave a powerful mark on the world.
She reads a letter he had written her. It’s signed, “Love, your old pop, Richard.”

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