Introduction: I attended the 4-Day Sacred Path Men’s Retreat to recognize and support Stephen Johnson’s life and work and pay tribute to the men who have made possible these retreats over the last 30 years. I had never heard of Pierre Grimes, know little about philosophy, and next to nothing about the Greek philosophers. Yet I know when I’m in the presence of a master and took Pierre up on his offer to work through a dream and a daydream I had. I had no idea it would change my life.
Basic information: My parents were married on my mother’s birthday, October 5, 1934. The story I learned was that they tried to have a child, but were unsuccessful until they tried an experimental procedure of injecting my father’s sperm into my mother’s womb. I was told I was the “miracle baby, they had always wanted, with my birth December 21, 1943. They were sure I was going to be a girl and had dolls waiting along with an assortment of agreeable girl’s names. When the baby arrived sporting a penis, they had to quickly settle on a name.
My name: When I was born, I was named Elliott Diamond. I was named after my father’s nephew who had recently died. The story was that my mother cried for days until my father relented and I was given the name my mother preferred John Diamond, adding Elliott as a middle name. This time I was named after my mother’s dead father, John.
My life focus: I’ve always thought of myself as special, that I was a wanted child who brought great joy to my family. But there was a darker undercurrent of death that invaded my life.
Surrounded by death as a child: Soon after my birth my mother was convinced she would die before I was out of high school and bought a life insurance policy she couldn’t afford so I’d have money after she was gone.
She also got a life insurance policy for me when I turned five, insisting you can never start too soon to take care of your family after you’re gone. When I started nursery school she was already preparing for my life after she was dead and for the life of my wife and family after I died.
A close friend of family, Holly, shot himself in 1948 when I was five years old. I remember going to the service, confused and afraid, but no one talked about why Holly died. Later that year my closest friend, Woody, drowned in the river near our house. My mother was so glad I was alive, she wouldn’t listen to my own grief or feelings of loss.
My father became increasingly manic and depressed after my birth because he couldn’t support his family. When I was 6 years old, he tried to take his own life and was sent to Camarillo State Mental Hospital. Being an only child I was dependent on my mother, yet afraid something would happen to her and I would be alone. When Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were sentenced to death in 1951, my fear of abandonment increased. I learned early that we didn’t talk about death in our family.
Dream and day dream work with Pierre Grimes: In the recurring dream I had from age five until age eight, I would be in my bed (I always made my bed into a little nest where I felt safe and protected) and in the dream I would get up and walk through the house. At a certain point a figure would jump out of the darkness with a knife. I would run back towards my bed. I knew if I could get back to the bed I would be safe, but I never made it. I was always stabbed and woke up terrified.
In the day dream at the retreat, I was recalling my growing up in Los Angeles and my taking the bus from Sherman Oaks to Hollywood from age 9 to 13, my joy and exuberance about being on my own, going to movies at the Grauman’s Chinese Theater (seeing romantic movies like Singing in the Rain) and sneaking into T.V. shows (The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show). I’d feel alive, free, safe, and adventurous.
Working With Pierre: Pierre read my dream and day dream, took out his case of pens and wrote notes on the page I had written. He asked questions I’d never thought of, engaged me deeply in dialogue and drew little pictures to illustrate my answers. During the hour we spent together, I felt seen, heard, and cared about in ways I had never experienced.
New Learning and Understandings from work with Pierre: My early years carried a lot of strong beliefs about death—i.e the world was dangerous, my home and family were not safe, my parents could die at any time. In the dream I can never escape death, but I try again and again each night, hoping this time the result would be different. It never was.
As long as I stayed in my mother’s house I was trapped. But I found a way out. Once I began going out on my own, my world opened up and I realized I could surround myself with my own loving friends and family. The price I paid for my mother’s presence and love, was that I had to comfort her and live in her world of fear. As my wife, Carlin, said, I became my mother’s companion, her little doll, her comfort and joy. But being out on my own, taking bus rides, exploring Hollywood, helped me escape to a larger world.
Working with Pierre helped me better understand the false security I had gotten from my mother and the cloak of fear with which she covered me. I had forgotten how oppressive it was to be in the home and how free I felt to get away. As my wife, Carlin, has pointed out, I often get sick when I go on trips away from home.
The realization is that now home is safe. I don’t have to escape to be free. I don’t have to carry that deep fear that the world is about to collapse. A lot of that fear comes from the false beliefs I received from my mother. I can trust my life more fully and not be so caught up with death.
I still remember this quote by Eugene O’Neill, in his biographical play, Long Day’s Journey Into Night. I never knew why, but it always seemed to reverberate in my bones. “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 working with Pierre, on top of the rest of my life’s work, I’m learning to rewrite my life script to say, “It was a great blessing and gift being born a man. I can be successful as a man with the name I gave to myself, ‘Jed.’ I can now truly feel comfortable and safe in my home, with a wife who loves me, unconditionally, just the way I am, in all my magnificence. I truly belong now and am more than a little in love with life.”
Thank you. I look forward to hearing about your own experiences with life, death, and healing. Please share a comment below and then join me on Twitter.