Editor’s note: The following is offered as an excerpt of Dr. Jed Diamond’s book My Distant Dad: Healing the Family Father Wound (Lasting Impact Press, 2018). “Mad Father, Dutiful Son” is Chapter One of the book. Information follows on how to purchase and continue reading.
I was five years old when my uncle drove me to the mental hospital. I was confused and afraid.
“Why do I have to go?” I asked Uncle Harry.
He looked at me with his round face and kind eyes. “Your father needs you.”
“What’s the matter with him?” I was beginning to cry, and I clamped my throat tight to stop the tears.
He turned away and looked back at the road. In our family, we didn’t talk about difficult issues. I knew my father was in a hospital and it was my duty to visit him. It never occurred to me to ask why my mother didn’t come to visit. I just knew I was being her “brave little man.”
I remembered my father standing by the side of the road a month earlier, not far from our house in Sherman Oaks. The police had called my mother to tell her there had been an auto accident, and we had walked the three blocks to Sepulveda Boulevard. My father had a cut on his forehead that was bleeding slightly. His sandy brown hair was mussed, and he stared off into the distance.
In my five-year-old mind, I thought my uncle was taking me to a hospital that dealt with accidents, cuts, and bruises. I had my blankie with me, which I brought everywhere. I rubbed my cheek against the soft cotton and repeated over and over again in my mind, “You’re safe and sound. You’re safe and sound.” I talked to Monkey, my little hand puppet, as Uncle Harry drove. “Daddy’s going to be fine,” I told him. “He just has some cuts on his head, like I had when I fell down chasing my dog Spotty.” Monkey agreed with me.
I sank down into the leather seats of uncle Harry’s new Buick, a beautiful car painted a soft shade of yellow. It had four ventiports on each side of the engine. I imagined the ventiports were eyes that could see into the future. The grill in front looked like an open mouth with huge teeth. I worried it might swallow me up if I got too close, but I felt safe inside the car.
Harry was a songwriter and sang the words to one of his most popular songs, Sweet and Lovely, which had been recorded by Bing Crosby and Ella Fitzgerald. He looked at me and smiled, patting my knee as he drove. “Sweet and lovely,” he crooned, “sweeter than the roses in May. Sweet and lovely. Heaven must have sent her my way.”
It was 1949 and the drive from our home in the San Fernando Valley to Camarillo State Hospital took more than two hours, though the distance was less than fifty miles. I looked out the window and imagined I was flying over the citrus orchards spread out for miles as we drove along Ventura Boulevard. Harry called out the names of the towns as we drove through them—Encino, Tarzana, Calabasas. I loved the sound of the names and imagined them as kingdoms in far-away lands where I would slay dragons and rescue damsels in distress.
We passed through a tunnel of trees, and I felt a chill run down my spine. Uncle Harry called out “Camarillo.” He seemed happy we had arrived at our destination, but I began to shiver. I pulled my blanket over my head. Uncle Harry sang another verse of Sweet and Lovely, “Skies above me. Never were as blue as his eyes. And he loves me. Who would want a sweeter surprise?” I thought of my father and pictured his blue eyes dancing as he told stories of his adventures in New York when he was an actor.
As we drove up to the building, I felt calmer. Camarillo looked like one of the old California missions with palm trees in front and a big bell tower in the center with adobe buildings that had grassy lawns in front. As we got closer, I saw the windows. They weren’t like our windows at home, these windows had thick bars over them, and they were painted a puke pink, like Pepto-Bismol.
When we walked in, I immediately wanted to go home. I tried to pull away and leave, but my uncle held my hand tight and said we had to go in. “Your father wants to see you,” he said in his quiet, soothing voice. I liked Uncle Harry. He was married to my father’s older sister, Sophie. He was a round-faced, roly-poly man with glasses and a receding hairline. He was always smiling, happy, and upbeat.
As we walked on clean, polished floors, I gazed up at the plain off-white walls. I peeked into a big room filled with rows of identical, white metal beds nearly touching each other. Some women were in bed, moaning and others were sitting in chairs, rocking. I tried to pull away and turn around but my uncle held my hand and led us to the visitor’s room.
Everywhere in the room, people were in motion. A man in a white hospital gown walked around in circles, mumbling to himself as he made strange gestures with his fingers. A woman ran into the room yelling, “Don’t let them take me. Jesus, save me.” Two orderlies grabbed her by the arms and took her out of the room. A group of men walked back and forth, talking, but not to each other. A woman with grey hair dressed in a long dress that had once been blue, but was now faded nearly to white, twirled in circles and sang a sweet, sad song.
“Uncle Harry, please, let’s go home.” This place wasn’t like anything I’d experienced. I was terrified.
“It’s going to be OK,” Uncle Harry told me, looking scared himself.
Along the sides of the room, men and women sat in wooden chairs, their bodies rocking in a strange way. They looked like little toy ducks bobbing up and down sipping water. I thought of men I’d seen in the synagogue who prayed as they rocked up and down bending from the waist.
My father jumped to his feet at the back of the room when he saw us. I wanted to go to him but I held back. He looked strange. His hair was messed up. His clothes hung on him, and he had a wild look in his eyes I had never seen before. He walked our way, picked me up and hugged me but quickly put me down. He suggested we go for a “stroll” on the grounds. His words calmed me. We had often gone for strolls at a park near our home. I can still picture him hoisting me on his shoulders. I felt safe and on top of the world.
My father took one hand, my uncle took the other, and we walked outside. We found a bench in a grassy area outside on the hospital grounds. We sat side-by-side, my uncle, my father, and me. I looked up at the palm trees, then turned towards him when my father asked, “How’s your mother?”
“She’s OK” I told him. I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to explain why she wasn’t here but I didn’t know. His attention shifted quickly to my uncle.
“You’ve got to get me out of here,” my father implored. He reached out and grabbed Uncle Harry’s shoulder.“Take it easy,” Uncle Harry tried to calm him with his soft words and kind smile. “The doctors say you just need some time to rest and recuperate.”
My father jumped to his feet and started pacing and talking rapidly. “I don’t get any rest here. This is a crazy house and all I get are drugs and shots, and they’re talking about shocking my brain. Get me the hell out of here. Jeezus, Harry, I got a little depressed because I couldn’t find work to support my wife and son. Is that a crime I should be locked up for?”
Harry’s voice was quiet, He got up, and he put his hand on my father’s arm like he was gentling a frightened colt. “I’ll talk to the doctors, I promise. Just calm down. I’m sure you’ll get out soon.”
I was confused and scared. Why was my father in this kind of place? What kind of place was this? Why did he call it a “crazy house?” My uncle’s assurance, “You’ll get out soon,” didn’t come soon enough for my father.
My uncle came to visit my father every Sunday, and I went with him. Being a dutiful son was something I learned early. Even at age five, I felt responsible for my parents. Though the story of why my father was in a mental hospital emerged slowly and was never talked about, I came to understand from overhearing my mother and uncle talking that my father had a “nervous breakdown.” He had become increasingly depressed because he couldn’t support his family and took an overdose of sleeping pills.
When I was a child, I saw him as a failure because he couldn’t take care of his family and I felt responsible. As I was the newest family member on the scene, I reasoned I must have been the cause of his breakdown. I felt, somehow, it was my job to fix him.
I visited my father for 52 excruciating Sundays with Uncle Harry. I came to fear the tree tunnel as we approached Camarillo, and I thought about the story of Alice in Wonderland.
“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
– Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
My father’s condition grew increasingly worse. On one of our visits, he seemed particularly agitated. He didn’t seem to notice me standing beside my uncle. Finally, he looked at me with a blank stare. “Who’s the kid with you, Harry?” I was devastated. My father didn’t even know who I was.
The doctors told my mother he would need treatment for the rest of his life. In my first act of rebellion against my role of the dutiful son, I told my mother I didn’t want to go on any more Sunday drives to Camarillo to see my father. She hesitated before answering, and I held my breath. “Of course,” she said. “If you don’t want to go…” She paused and seemed to think about what to say next. “I’m sure your father will be OK” Even as a six-year-old, I knew that wasn’t true.
Now my duty shifted to being my mother’s little helper while I asked myself questions I could never voice out loud. Why didn’t my mother ever come to visit my father? Why did I have to go with my uncle all that time?
Whenever I’d experienced a difficult situation through my life, my mother would ask me, “So, what did you learn?” From my days visiting my father, I learned that even when we can’t get answers to questions, we should still ask them, even if only to ourselves. Now, years later, I think of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet:
Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given to you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.
Rilke was someone I’d learn about later in my life. But when I was younger, I lived for many years with five terrifying questions that haunted my dreams:
- Is my father “crazy?”
- Did he really try to kill himself?
- Will it happen to me?
- Who can I trust?
- How can I become a man without a father to guide me?
Terrors from childhood can act like beacons of light forcing us to focus on our wounds and the ways we might heal them. But when we are too young to grapple with the memories, they hide underground and are held in our subconscious. They surface, then submerge under the waves of consciousness, surfacing again when least expected. When we can, we try to sort the memories and what they mean. Occasionally, we are offered a glimpse into the truth of our lives. When we can, we grab a little piece of our life puzzle and hope the pieces will come together someday and give us the full picture of who we truly are.
As I left the confusing world of my father and the mental hospital, I was drawn into my mother’s world. One question kept rattling through my mind: “What will I do when my mother dies?”
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This post is sponsored by Connection Victory Publishing Company. Lasting Impact Press is an imprint of Connection Victory Publishing Company.
Featured photo: doble-d on istockphoto.com
Book covers courtesy of Connection Victory Publishing Company
Inset courtesy of the author