From Madness to Manhood: Growing Up A Little In Love With Death

I wrote about my early experiences visiting my father in the mental hospital. Our home attracted death like a magnet. The same year my father went to Camarillo, a close friend of the family shot himself. I remember going to the service, confused and afraid, but no one talked about why he died. Yet, everyone knew it was suicide. Later that year my closest friend, Woody, drowned in the river near our house. My mother was so glad I was alive, she couldn’t listen to my own grief or feelings of loss.

My mother was preoccupied with her own death. From the time I was born, I knew my mother was about to die. She talked about it all the time. “I just hope I’m around to see you off to high school,” she would tell me. Her voice was always light and breezy, but it chilled me to the bone. When she was still around when I went to high school, she wasn’t reassured, she just moved her imminent death a little farther down the line.

“I just want to see you go to college before I die.”

I was seven when the Forester man came for a visit. We sat in our small living room and he painted a wonderful picture of the International Order of Foresters (IOF).

“The Foresters are a fraternal organization that started in Canada in 1874 to help families just like yours,” he smiled and I was mesmerized by his voice. I can’t remember much of the story, but I liked the word “fraternal” and I pictured Robin Hood and his band of caring outlaws, taking from the rich and giving to the poor. I thought of the Three Musketeers—“all for one and one for all.”

I knew we had very little money, but the bottom line purpose of the Foresters was to sell insurance and we bought the whole package. My mother signed up for insurance on herself, so I’d be taken care of when she died. She also bought an insurance policy on me because “it’s never too early to think about your wife and kids.” As a dutiful son, I felt proud to own an insurance policy to take care of my family…while I was still in the first grade.

I began to see death as a companion, a deadly twin that shadowed my dreams. I begin having recurrent nightmares. I slept alone and had developed a ritual to enable me to go to sleep. I had to arrange the sheets and blankets in such a way that I created a safe cocoon and when it was just right I could fall asleep. But every night I would have the same dream:

I awaken and get out of bed. I walk from my bedroom into the dining room and from there into the kitchen and the living room. Somewhere along the way a dark figure jumps out carrying a long knife. I immediately begin to run away. I know if I can get back to my bed, I’ll be safe. But I never make it. I’m stabbed and wake up screaming.

 My mother never seemed to hear the screams and I didn’t want to worry her. When I finally told her the dream she had no clue of the cause, nor did she seem concerned. The dreams continued, but I never discussed them with her or anyone. Yet, my own preoccupation with death took hold in my subconscious. It surfaced many years later in college. I took my girlfriend to see the play “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” Eugene O’Neill’s autobiographical masterpiece about growing up in a crazy, dysfunctional family. My girlfriend hated it. I felt I had found a kindred spirit who was telling my story. One small section spoke deeply to my own life to that point.

As his family unravels around him, the younger son, Edmund, tries to make sense of his place in the family drama. He says:

“It was a great mistake, my being born a man, I would have been much more successful as a sea gull or a fish. As it is, I will always be a stranger who never feels at home, who does not really want and is not really wanted, who can never belong, who must always be a little in love with death!”

After I stopped visiting my year visiting my father in Camarillo, we never talked about him. It was as though he were dead or had never existed. We became a family of two. My mother never mentioned him and I told kids in school that “my father died,” which got me a little sympathy that I never got when I said he had a “nervous breakdown and was in a mental hospital.”

With my father gone, I became the “man of the house.” It was just my mother and me in 1950. I turned seven-years old in December and she was forty-two. I would bring in wood and start a fire in the big fireplace and often help with dinner and the dishes. I continued in kindergarten and she got a job as an executive secretary for company that built structures out of metal piping. She was a short woman, five feet four inches. She had salt-and-pepper hair stylishly cut and a commanding presence. Throughout her working life she was always the woman behind the scenes who saw to it that the men in front were successful.

My mother had been raised in Savanah, Georgia in a conservative Jewish household. “I crave adventure,” she told me. “My motto is I’ll try anything once.” One thing she had tried early in her life was marriage. Until I was an adult I never knew that my mother had been married before she met my father. She dropped the news in casual conversation.

“You know I was married once before I met your father,” she told me one day out of the blue.

I was shocked and the look on my face was one of disbelief. “You’re kidding me. You never told me that.”

“Well, it wasn’t really important. It never lasted long,” she went on in her breezy, I’ll try anything once, style.

“He was a boy went out with in Savanah. Everyone assumed we were ‘an item’ and would get married, but I was never serious about him.”

“Then, how the hell did you end up married?” I wanted to know.

“Well, when I was attending a youth conference in New York, he put an announcement in the newspaper saying we were engaged. When I got back I got all kinds of calls and letters of congratulations…so we got married.”

“Crazy reason to get married,” I said.

“Yes, it was. That’s why I changed my mind and had the marriage annulled. So, you see it was no big deal.”

But a bigger deal for her and for me was the presence of Bill Morris in our lives. Shortly after my father was hospitalized Bill began showing up at our house to take us out to dinner. Bill was a tall, good-looking, blond. He seemed the opposite of my father. He and my mother clearly knew each other and I glommed on to him like a lost puppy-dog. I’m finally going to have a real father, I thought to myself. Unlike my father he was skilled working with his hands. He was a master carpenter, welder, and electrician.

And Bill stepped into that role easily. He soon moved in and we went places together. He built me a tree house and installed a basketball hoop over the garage.

But I soon learned that Bill was married and had another family, a girl and boy in high school, and an older son in the Army. Bill would stay with us for a week or sometimes a month and then would be gone. I never knew when he’d leave and I never knew when he’d return. Unlike my father who once lost was gone forever, Bill was lost and found, over and over again.

He came and went from the time I was six until I was thirteen when he and my mother returned from a weekend in Mexico and announced that they were now married. I was overjoyed. Finally, I had a father. For the first time, I had a Dad who would accompany me to the school award ceremonies. I was proud as could be when we met with other Dad’s at this year’s ceremony where I won two awards for my basketball skills.

A month after the awards ceremony, he left again. This time he never came back and I never saw him again. The night my mother told me he was gone, we played cards for hours. She sang a tune, popular at the time, “Got along without you before you, before I met you, gonna’ get along without you now” over and over again. She smiled wistfully. I clamped down my throat to stifle my scream, while tears ran down my cheeks.

From the time I was five I would go into my mother’s closet and smell the clothes. Her scent calmed and reassured me. Whenever I was afraid something might happen to her I would spend time in the closest, insulated from the world. I imagined that we were safe and she would never leave, that all those I loved were with me, and I was safe. There was one piece of clothing that I particularly liked. It was a big fur coat that she brought with her from New York. It was always too hot to wear in California, but I would use it as my security blanket and wrap up in it when I was scared.

For months after Bill left, I would pull out the fur coat and rub my face against the soft fur. My mother never shed a tear. I assumed that adults didn’t hurt like kids did or if they did hurt they had some magical powers that enabled them to make the pain go away. Maybe if I could sing the song, “Got along without you before I met you, gonna’ get along without you now,” my heart wouldn’t break. But I couldn’t sing and I cried alone at night in my dark room wondering what was wrong with me that, once again, my father didn’t love me enough to stay or to stay connected after he left.

It took years for me to deal with my own depression, my anger, my preoccupation with death, as well as my risky sexual behavior as I played out my history looking for love in all the wrong places.

I’m hoping to continue writing these personal stories and turn them into a book, From Madness to Manhood: In Search of My Lost Father and Myself. I very much look forward to your comments and questions. Please share below and then join me on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. I hope you write this book, Jed. This is powerful writing. Raw and empathy-encouraging.

  2. Bill Harrison says:

    Jed, I, too, would like to read your book. I’ve long admired your work, and I’m sure this will be a strong and worthwhile effort for you.

  3. Gura Lashlee says:

    I look forward to your book. Meanwhile, please keep us all enthralled with these glimpses into the being of you. As I read I hear your voice.
    With each episode, I am reminded of what I went through during childhood and young adult years.
    Seems to me it’s a miracle any of us have grown up to be functioning citizens. It’s rare for me to talk to anyone who had a really happy childhood. I sometimes think some of those folks are repressing the trouble times.
    How terrific that you are purging yourself by putting it all down on paper, so to speak.
    What sort of ‘risky sexual behavior’ are you talking about? Now you have my curiosity aroused. Remember, sex sells.

    Carry on, my friend.

  4. Thanks for the feedback. I love the encouragement and I’m definitely writing the book. As you know, this will be my 15th book. If you’re interested in the others, check out my website store: http://menalive.com/store/, If you can’t wait for the sexy parts of the new book, you might take a peek at Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places: Overcoming Romantic and Sexual Addictions, where I share my own experiences of looking for love in all the wrong places. Keep the comments coming.

  5. Kelly Viss says:

    This it beautiful and heart wrenching. I enjoy reading your writing. Thanks for sharing your story.