Honoring traditions that helped me escape:
My revolt against my father’s and my family’s legacy was not well understood without lists of psychiatric labels. Now, as I am preparing to honor my father in a seventy-fifth birthday reunion in the belly of the beast from which I fled, I have a better sense of how I let the traditions of my family down.
The reunion is to happen in a small company town in upstate New York that was founded a century ago. The town provided timber for city-folk and funded a family structure that I have chosen to leave. Those profits are perhaps dwindling due to close of the family business in the fifties. As far as I know, the just property taxes that exist for swaths of vacation property that remain kill any kind of profit. My father has honorably and at times thanklessly managed the whole deal for us all.
The gifts that I was given:
I had an intuitive sense that my family of origin was going to collapse. I could see that the old hair-shirt values that I was raised by that caused me to be ridiculed and bullied in the private school where both my parents taught, disbanding. With this premonitory sense I also believed I would be abandoned and blamed for their problems. Additionally I believed that my only remaining friend after the divorce, my father, was somehow going to give up and withdraw from an apocalyptic mainstream world that was doomed for destruction. I cannot otherwise understand my rage.
I didn’t sleep for about nine months because of these foresights. My mother had bought a new, custom-built house with air conditioning and carpeted rooms and aluminum siding. During the day I would come home from school and practice and throw matches in the carpeted family room without any sense of risk or remorse. The nights were so long, though I usually end up getting two hours or so. Because I had significant learning disabilities that were denied by a family that expected me to be capable of Ivy League administration, homework took four to six hours a night. I never did burn the house down.
Outward Bound ended my insomnia. The group dynamics had vastly improved my ability to communicate and assert my needs. My father pulled me aside a day after I returned and said that he could see the change. “But now that your back in the family I can see that you are going to lose that ability,” he stated. I felt defeated as my Dad’s negative predictions had always had a way of leading me down in life.
But in reality, my father had already demonstrated to me that my insomnia could be fixed before I went to Outward Bound. He had taken me up to our property for a week and we worked 12-16 hour days every day and I slept.
On the way up my father said that I didn’t have a work ethic the way my grandmother and the welfare kids who we had just evicted, my blood brother friends, had. He had a pattern of depicting me as untalented.
For a long time, I was only mad at my father for shaming me into weeks and weeks of free labor that would ritually ensue up in the property. But I did not have the premonitory sense that the work that summer would save me from the utmost squalor of homelessness and institutional living that I was yet to endure. Hard worthless work would likewise save me from learning to risk my health by selling drugs. Life would bring me perspective
Born to Run:
At age eighteen I was plucked up from my second stint in the Eating Disordered Unit from a twenty-five-year-old photojournalist who also idolized Bruce Springsteen. The daughter of a working-class binge-drinker, she had the habit of rescuing damaged animals.
The last handy project I accomplished on my own was the cage for a malnourished pigeon she rescued and brought back to life in our ghetto residence in North Camden. She had found him abandoned under the Ben Franklin Bridge. I had to leave the relationship and set up ghetto residence on my own within a year. All the neighborhood kids, my primary community of contacts, were very hard on me for leaving her, but the fighting and pain was very hard for an emotionally dysregulated boy.
I remained living in the ghetto for six years. I’d only endeavor to take a vacation trip to the Appalachian Trail two or three times. I worked for three years at a deli where I trained neighborhood kids to work hard until they’d have to leave to sling ready-rock and make money for their families. It was a lot like working with my blood brothers up in the small company town in upstate New York. They would grow up to run drugs and hold up stores to put food on the table in spite of their many talents. I wouldn’t have to.
In life all my blood brother company propped me up against the hard desolation and bad memories of prep school days that were often dragging me down.
I was able to fund Masters Level training without any help via continuing to labor in the service economy on the weekends and with social work positions I managed to obtain in spite of my lack of talent. I had a phony sense of having survived the ghetto.
As soon as I was degreed with a Master’s, I did go west. I did very well until I militantly took on the ghetto kings in the heart of Seattle’s underworld. I suppose I did it because I blamed them of sucking my blood brothers in and potentially killing them off one by one. It only took a single suspicious dead body to turn me into a snitch and to a decompensation that would result in a 3 month commitment in a state hospital.
Reconnection with Family:
I spent the last month of my psychiatric incarceration on the most chronic of units and my father begged me not to leave promising that I would only end up back in the hospital if I exerted my freedom. My mother, didn’t believe anything I had to say about my complaints about the Mexican mafia’s hold on the institution. The Mexican daughter of a don was stalking me throughout my stay. Indeed, I did learn about the underworld from her the other inmates. However, my Mom did come out and pay me a visit and even though words were not always well received by either of us, we had a good time. She even had to admit that I wasn’t, “that bad.”
My conclusion after being picked up out of a ditch on a mountain pass by some cops who had been harassing me, was that my father was the kingpin head of a powerful mafia and was ultimately responsible for all street killings.
After an unsuccessful relocation in which I had support from my mother but still spent up most of my meager nest egg, I was too scared to go back to work in social work with foster care children. I was given an out by my family. I could move out to a satellite town near the Bay area and bike commute two hours each way to a suburban Italian Deli for nine dollars an hour. If I maintained this schedule, I could get financial support with mandatory therapy.
In a sense I thought I might be delusional about the mafia shit that was running through my head so I took my parents up on their offer. In another sense I also thought that the move was what the mafia wanted and I was tired of fighting.
After ten months my mother gave in and sent me three thousand dollars for a car against my father’s wishes. Still with my year of support coming to a close, one night the coincidences and the gangster bullying was so bad I wanted to quit and move home. When my mother refused, my father sent me a letter extolling the value of the hard work I was doing. It would eventually give me enough hope to forgive him and go back on medication.
Honoring my father:
The psychiatric diagnosis that I give myself now is: I could not put up with the ways of the world so as to continue the traditions that my father has maintained. I have to acknowledge that I have gravely let the family down as I, the first born, was reared and expected to assume his responsibilities. As such, I feel I am seen as a shameful secret by some in my family. I now have maintained secure employment for fourteen years working with blood brothers who are in the most institutional of circumstances, living, primarily, in ghetto board and care housing.
Not only was my father able to maintain the family tradition, he was willing to read and honor my book that documents all the stone cold details of my journey. I am grateful my father has worked his whole life only to let me be free from traditions of privilege that I know torment him the way they torment me. I am ready to celebrate him just as I am still tormented by mine.