Healing the Father Wound: It’s Never Too Late

2797936422_4fc7547a3b_zMany of us have been wounded by our father’s lives. For some we experienced abuse growing up.  For others we dealt with neglect. Many of us were abandoned physically or emotionally. For most of us, we wanted a more loving, connected father than we experienced. Many of our fathers died too soon.

The first wound occurred for me when I was five years old. My father, a writer like me, was having great difficulty making a living during tough economic times. He wrote in his journal:

“Your flesh crawls, your scalp wrinkles when you look around and see good writers, established writers with credits a block long, unable to sell, unable to find work. Yes, it’s enough to make anyone blanch, turn pale and sicken.

            Yes, on a Sunday morning in early November, my hope and my life stream are both running desperately low, so low, so stagnant, that I hold my breath in fear, believing that the dark, blank curtain was about to descend.”

Four days after that journal entry, he tried to commit suicide. Like most young children, I didn’t understand the wounding that made him feel his only option was to end it all. I knew he felt shame and deep sadness that he wasn’t able to support his family the way he wanted to and he blamed himself. I learned a similar lesson. I blamed myself for him wanting to leave. “I must be a burden on him,” I thought. “If it weren’t for the pressure of supporting a family, he would be O.K.” Deep down inside, I thought there was something terribly wrong with me. “Why doesn’t he love me?” I wondered. “What’s the matter with me that he wants to get away from me?” He was 42 years old and I was 5.  The wounds didn’t end there.

Send Him to the “Nuthouse”

Following my father’s suicide attempt he was committed to Camarillo State Mental Hospital. Although I had friends who had fathers who were “a bit strange” or “different,” I didn’t know anyone whose father was in a “nuthouse.” We all shared the common view that anyone who would try and kill himself must be crazy. And anyone who was “sent away” must be really crazy.

Most of my father’s family shared the view that my father had failed as a man. Some thought if he were a “real man” he would have gotten a “real job” and not followed his crazy dream to become an actor and playwright. Other’s felt he was a coward for trying to take his own life. All wanted to write him out of the family history. They blamed my mother for not forcing him to become a responsible adult. They had no conception of “mental illness.”

They were relieved when the doctors said my father would likely spend the rest of his life locked up. However, my Uncle Harry didn’t give up on my father. He visited him every Sunday and wanted my mother and me to go with him. My mother refused, but wanted me to go. She never said anything to me. But it was clear that it was my duty to go and do what I could to help my father.

It never seemed to occur to anyone what a terrible burden they were placing on a five-year-old child. It was a two hour drive from our house in Los Angeles to the hospital outside of Oxnard. I knew we were getting close when we drove between a huge stand of eucalyptus trees that lined the road. The closer we got the more terrified I became. I wanted to see my father, but the other “inmates” were strange, sitting alone rocking or talking to themselves.

Saying that patients were warehoused was not an exaggeration. Back then, they didn’t know much about depression and what caused it. And they certainly didn’t know about manic-depression (Bipolar disorder) which is the diagnosis that would fit my father if he was seen by a competent professional today.

I did my best to cheer my father up, but he was usually quiet, and interacted very little with me. Driving back my Uncle would tell me how glad my father was to see me and how much I helped him by being there. I hated going, but even then I was a “good little boy” and thought it was duty to be strong and do what I was told.

I went to Camarillo every weekend for a year until it became evident that my father didn’t know who I was. He’d look right through me and my Uncle would have to remind him that I was his son. I finally was allowed to stop going and I felt I was given a reprieve from the weekly wounding.

Forget My Father: I Can Do Just Fine Without Him

Over the years I did my best to forget my father. There was too much hurt and pain and underneath the pain was the fear that somehow I was destined to end up like him. When kids asked where my father was, I began telling them he was dead. Death, I found, elicited sympathy. Telling them he was in a “mental hospital” brought taunts and shaming. It seemed better to think of my father as deceased rather than crazy.

My mother seemed content to let his memories fade. Eventually she remarried and I had a new father in my life. He seemed better than the old one, more fun to be around. I eventually graduated from college and went on to graduate school. I became a therapist and marriage and family counselor. I wanted to help people, but I had all but forgotten the person I longed to help the most, my father.

My First Book Brings My Father Back Into My Life

            Although my conscious mind was able to push my father’s memories into the background, my subconscious mind was working to heal the old wounds. I wrote my first book, Inside Out: Becoming My Own Man, in 1983 and talked briefly about my father in the book. I received a letter from a reader which floored me. She said, “I was moved by what you said about your father and how long it had been since you had seen him. I know where he is. I’m a nurse at Laguna Honda Hospital, in San Francisco and your father has been here for some time. I’m sure he’d like to see you.”

With some fear and trepidation, I did go to see him. I learned that he had escaped from the “nuthouse” many years before and had been living in San Francisco. He had become a street puppeteer and showed me some of the puppets that were made for him. We spent ten years together until he died at age ninety.  He met my wife and children and put on puppet shows for them.  He even came to a family reunion and was able to heal a lot of wounds with his brothers and sisters.  I would visit him at his little apartment in the Tenderloin District.   I still remember our last walk together.  The new San Francisco library had just opened and he wanted to leave a flower on the steps to thank all those who had helped bring the library into being.

It was a long walk and we took it one slow step at a time.  He laid his flower on the steps and we sat on a bench to rest.  Finally, he looked me in the eye, gave me a slow smile, and told me “It’s time to go home.”  A week later he died.

At a gathering of friends and family I told the assembled group:  “By the standards of society, my father was not a success.  He didn’t make a lot of money.  He was labeled as mentally ill.  He liked to live among people that society pretends do not exist.”  Someone read one of his last poems, “Because of you,” said one, “old madness has become new meaning.  Because of you, my tongue is no longer lead.”

A young friend of his, Nathaniel Rounds, created a website with pictures and poems my father had written, along with letters from me. A wonderful, heart-felt tribute to healing the father wound.   Happy Father’s Day.  May all our souls heal from our father’s wounds.  It’s never too late.

 Slowly, we began to talk about our lives and the old wounds began to heal. We had ten good years together and he had a chance to meet my wife and children.

He’ll Never Leave.  He’ll Die Here

The doctors told my mother that he’d never leave the hospital.  His mental illness hadn’t improved and she could accept the fact that he needed to be taken care of the rest of his life.  I started having nightmares about going crazy and being locked up for the rest of my life with my father.  I didn’t tell anyone about the horrible dreams.

In school, particularly around holidays, like Father’s day, other kids would ask about my father.  At first I would tell them he was in the hospital.  But I was stymied when they wanted to know when he was getting out.  I finally told them he was in a mental hospital and I didn’t know when he was getting out.  I felt very ashamed to have a “crazy” father and the kids taunted me endlessly.  When I changed schools in the third grade, I told anyone who asked that “my father is dead.”

But he wasn’t dead and we got a call from my Uncle one night telling us that my father had escaped from the hospital and police were out looking for him.  My mother was terrified that he was coming to get me and so she sent me to live with neighbors.  I lived there for a couple of weeks.  And one day there was a knock on the door.  It was my father.  I hid under the bed and he finally went away.  I knew he was out there somewhere and my mother continued to tell me to be careful.  “There’s no telling what your father might do.”  But he didn’t do anything.  He disappeared.  We never heard from him and gradually I concluded that he probably was dead.

A Ghost Attends My College Graduation

I graduated from U.C. Santa Barbara and had been accepted to U.C. San Francisco Medical School in the fall.  I felt on top of the world.  As I walked across the stage to shake hands and get my diploma, my hand turned to ice.  I saw someone in the audience that reminded me of my father.  It was a momentary glance and then he turned away.  I was shaken to my core, but I didn’t tell anyone.  A day later I got a letter in the mail from my uncle.  He said he had run into my father by accident in Los Angeles and had given him the information about my college graduation.  “He seemed OK,” my uncle wrote, “and he said he wanted to see you.”  He also left his contact information in Los Angeles.  “He goes under the name of Tom Roberts gave me a number where you can reach him.”

After I returned home for the summer, I called him at the number I had been given and we set up a meeting.  I had a jumbled mixture of feelings.  I longed for the father I had never known.  I was afraid of his “craziness.”  I felt I should help him.  The first meeting went pretty well.  He told me that he was a street puppeteer and I saw how much joy he brought putting his shows on around his neighborhood in Ocean Beach.  But he still had an edge of anger, weirdness, and unpredictability.

I visited a number of times, but by the end of the summer he seemed to be becoming more and more agitated.  I didn’t know what to make of him and I’m sure, unconsciously, I was going to medical school to find out what was wrong with him and how he could be fixed.  I had planned a trip to Mexico before I began Medical School in the fall and my father suggested we spend a few days in San Diego before I took the bus on to Mexico City.  Our time started off OK.  He showed me parts of San Diego he liked, bought me a book of letters from Theo Van Gogh to his brother Vincent, and we went out for our last dinner before my planned departure in the morning.  But when I got ready to go the next day, he became extremely agitated and angry and forbade me to leave.  “You’re my son and you have to stay and take care of your father.”  I was dumb struck.  I couldn’t believe what he was telling me.  As I boarded the bus he screamed after me, “You’ll never be a good doctor, if you can’t even take care of your own father.”

Brief Encounters of the Wounding Kind 

I headed for Mexico, badly shaken, but glad to get away from this “crazy man.”  I wondered where the gentle, supportive father I was dreaming of having had gone.  I had a great summer and started Medical School in the fall at U.C. San Francisco.  I lasted less than a semester.  I dropped out and enrolled at U.C. Berkeley in the school of Social Welfare.  I took many years to deal with the curse hurled at me by my father.  It took even longer to realize that he was probably right.  Medicine wasn’t for me, but not because I wouldn’t take care of my father, but because I had to learn about taking care of myself.

He and I ran into each other unexpectedly four more times over the next fifteen years.  Each time we’d spend a few days together and I thought maybe we would be able to have a real adult-to-adult, father-and-son, relationship.  But each time it would end the same way.  He would make some demand that I wouldn’t meet and he would scream at me, “You’re no son of mine.  I disown you.  Get out of my sight.”  I had armored myself to the blows and they didn’t hurt as much, but they still struck home.

The Last Wound and the Courage to Heal 

I hadn’t seen nor heard from him in over five years.  When my first book, Inside Out:  Becoming My Own Man, came out, it developed a wide-spread readership.  I wrote about my father, his inner demons, and our wounding relationship.  I got an email out of the blue:  “I read your book and was very touched by what you said about your father and your relationship with him.  I work at Laguna Honda Hospital in San Francisco and I’m a nurse on the ward where your father lives.  I think he’d like to make contact with you.”

I wrote back and said, I wasn’t so sure, given our history.  But I wrote a letter to my father.  For the first time I told him the truth and didn’t hold back my feelings:

Dear Dad,

    I just learned that you are in the hospital and I’d like to come visit you.  But things have to change.  I’m tired of being blamed for your pain and I’m through with your angry outbursts when I don’t do what you want me to do.  It was you who left me, remember?  I was five yours old.  All I’ve ever done was to try to love you and all you’ve ever done is reject me over and over.  You are my father, but this is the last time I’m reaching out to you.  I’m the only one in the family who makes any attempt to get through to you.  If you keep acting like this, you’re going to end up a lonely old man.  I’m through.  It’s up to you.

I figured that would be the end of things for us.  At least I could say I had done my best to connect with my father.  But I’d done what I could do.  I was totally surprised when I got a letter back and even more surprised with what it said.

Dear Jed,

     No one has ever talked to me like that in my life.   And you’re right.  I have blamed you, the family, everyone for my own unhappiness. And I don’t want to do that anymore.  I do want to see you and I promise to you that I will treat you well.  Please give me another chance.

The End and the Beginning 

I did go and see him and he did treat me well.  The only exceptions were letters I would get which were written at 4 AM (he’d always but on the date and the time).  He was depressed and would chastise me for having plenty of time to travel all over the world, but didn’t seem to have much time for your Dad.  I didn’t get many of those.  And they’d usually be followed by a much more positive letter written in the light of day.  As a mid-life man I now understood something about the weariness, depression, and sadness that can hit us when we’re awake into the wee hours of the morning.

We spent 10 years together until he died at 89.  He met my wife and children and put on puppet shows for them.  He even came to a family reunion was able to heal a lot of wounds with his brothers and sisters.  I would visit him at his little apartment in the Tenderloin District.   I still remember our last walk together.  The new San Francisco library had just opened and he wanted to leave a flower on the steps to thank all those who had helped bring the library into being.

It was a long walk and we took it one slow step at a time.  He laid his flower on the steps and we sat on a bench to rest.  Finally, he looked me in the eye, gave me a slow smile, and told me “It’s time to go home.”  A week later he died.

At a gathering of friends and family I told the assembled group:  “By the standards of society, my father was not a success.  He didn’t make a lot of money.  He was labeled as mentally ill.  He liked to live among people that society pretends do not exist.”  Someone read one of his last poems, “Because of you,” said one, “old madness has become new meaning.  Because of you, my tongue is no longer lead.”

Happy Father’s Day.  May all our souls heal from our father wounds.  It’s never too late.

What is your experience with your father?

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  1. Gunther says:

    Dear Mr. Diamond:

    Beautiful story!

    My experience with my father is the same thing with my mother. They never say that they are sorry or apologise when they are wrong. When I dd something wrong, instead of using it as a tool to help me, they use it as a sledgehammer to knock down a nail. They never help me to develop my self-esteem and confidence and smack me down mentally when I tried to defend myself plus did not want to hear what I had to say because their mind was already made up. If I criticized the country, they would tell me to leave the country. They get mad when I don’t call them, but then you wonder why you should have to call them when they should take the initiative to call you?

    In the movie Field of Dream, Kevin Costner’s character stated that he had regretted hot telling his father what he thought of him before his father had died.

    You wonder how many parents who are lying on their deathbeds ever had any regrets in what they have done to people in the workplace apart from not having a good relationship with the family members?

    • Just Plain Jim says:

      Your eloquent story gave me a tsunami of memories of my stepfather, who never missed an opportunity to demean me or dismiss the talent and skills others appreciated. I regret, too, I never took the opportunity to tell him how I felt about his unrelenting treatment. All I ever did in rebellion was to decide, at age 12, to commit suicide from a sense of hopelessness.

      We lived poorly in the country. The toilet facilities were down the back yard. I tiptoed out one night and lay in the snow and waited to die. It seemed simple enough. Several hours later, surprised to still be alive, I stumbled back to the little cottage where we lived. I ended up in the hospital with pneumonia for several days. but the medical people were all very kind. It was a strange feeling to be treated with so much care.

      I would like to have later reminded my stepfather of all the pain and loneliness he caused my life. Understandably, I would have preferred to do it with an oversized hammer. Sadly, I lacked the courage.

      Interesting, isn’t it, that you have to be vetted and buy a license to adopt a pet — but anyone can have a kid. As a result, countless unwilling and incapable people keep having kids when there is no room in their lives for them. Time to rethink some universal problems?

    • Healing these father wounds can take a lifetime of work. We never deserved the hurt, yet can turn the hurt into love for ourselves and those we care about. Over time we can also come to understand that our parents were themselves wounded in their families growing up. Wounded people often wound others. We can break the cycle of abuse, neglect, and abandonment, and feel compassion for ourselves and others.

      It starts with sharing our stories and giving support to each other.

      May the healing continue.

  2. Mark Boone says:

    Quite a poignant story, Jed, to which I can well relate, and very apropos for upcoming Father’s Day. I, too, have been wounded by my father, but unlike your situation, my mother did not marry him, so I did not grow up with him in the home. He was an inveterate gambler, which was why she did not marry him, or so she said. I can count on both hands the number of times that I remember seeing him in my life, and ironically enough, when he died, I had to plan his funeral and write and deliver the eulogy for him so that he would have a proper funeral. I was only 24 years old at the time. While I have long forgiven him, realizing that as a black man in America during the time in which he lived, he had too few options available to him for a meaningful and productive career– the heart of what it means to be a man in this world. I remember early in life vowing never to gamble, which is why Las Vegas holds so little allure for me, so that I wouldn’t be like him. The irony is that I ended up in a profession–as a writer–which is as much a crap shoot as rolling dice. I fought the so-called “gift” for a long time until I came to realize that it was what God put me here to do; otherwise, He wouldn’t have made it second nature to me. I found the old adage to be true: do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life. I did know that I couldn’t make a living as a writer, however, so I parlayed my writing skills into becoming an editor–a calling that has provided me a decent living and a measure of satisfaction such that I can’t imagine my life without having answered the call. I often wonder what my father would think about the man I turned out to be–so different from him. The one legacy he did leave me was a determination not to allow history to repeat itself with my own son, which adds a challenging dimension to our relationship.

  3. Holly Hennessy says:

    Ah, and some of us have an equally powerful curse:
    That of The Perfect Father. No man measures up to his character and integrity, and as such, I leave.
    Love your stuff, Jed. My favorite emails to get!

  4. Dear Jed,
    This piece about your father is deeply moving to me. It speaks so fully to the shame we carry about our fathers as well as the longing for deeper connection due to the wounds of abandonment. I experienced both with my heroic but distant father, who also held up standards of perfection that were impossible to meet. I became a father myself and needed to compensate by being the most dedicated father I could be to my kids, even at the sacrifice of my own presence in the world. I showed up for my kids but in some ways did not show up for myself. I love your story and am inspired by it and would love to see more men telling these stories. Thank you so much!

    • Joseph, thanks for the comments from you and all. I agree. I think more of us would benefit from sharing our stories. My men’s group, which has now been meeting for 37 years, started with a workshop with the author Herb Goldberg (The Hazards of Being Male). Part of the day was sharing our stories about ways our fathers had wounded us. Like you, I’ve tried to do everything I could to be a different kind of father for my children than my father was able to be for me. May the healing continue.