The Making of Crazy Fred

After Grandma died, Uncle Fred took to disappearing, going on long, dangerous walks, as if searching for his beloved mother. At some point, someone discovered him in their basement, curled up and filthy from traveling along a dirt road. I don’t know whose basement. I don’t know if it’s that basement from those nastier family stories. All I’ve been told is that Fred wanted to die, to be reunited with Grandma. 

When Uncle Fred got found in that basement, his younger brother, the very one who’d joined that schoolyard beating decades ago, fetched him and drove him to a facility for the “retarded,” according to family tales. That’s where Uncle Fred got left. 

When it comes to Fred’s institutionalization, I’m back at that old stack of family recipes, picking up scraps, desperate to create something more satisfying. Mom fills in what she’s able, which isn’t much. Too many years, secrets, and miles kept her from truly knowing her brother, or his fate. 

There’s some sweetness baked into this part of Uncle Fred’s story, and I gobble it up, delighted to hear that he loved the facility, supposedly. Too, he’d finally found a girlfriend. These elements cling to me like powdery sugar, alongside the memories of him twirling me and hanging a swing for me. 

Inevitably, I bite into something hard. 

“When he died,” Mom says, “they said he suffered an aneurysm.” And she lets slip something so foul I want to omit it, but it’s an important piece. 

“I think he was murdered.” 

She’s added this suspicion to the mix only twice, and I’m sickened each time. 

Apparently, Uncle Fred had been institutionalized for years. Details get murky, but at some point, he got his arm broken. Mom never could get a good explanation for his injury, no matter how hard she’d pressed. 

“He was always so vulnerable to abuse.” She blends these words into most of her stories about Fred, helping me better understand my uncle. 

Truthfully, though, I’ll never really understand him, at least the creation some called “Crazy Fred.” Maybe I’m not meant to. Maybe some old recipes are best forgotten. Instead, I’ll focus on my remaking of him. For starters, I’m going to drizzle a lot more honey, sweet and raw, into my version. Uncle Fred will rise, and I will relish memories of him, the kindly uncle who twirled me, his laughter swelling, delighting in my delight. 

Kelly A. Dorgan’s work appears in The Delmarva Review, The Nasiona, Motherwell Magazine, and Performing Motherhood. An award-winning author of over 40 nonfiction publications, she explores illness, gender, sex, race and culture. Raised in Southern Appalachia, she has rooted herself in the mountains where she teaches at East Tennessee University. Connect with her at,, and