From Madness to Manhood: My Father Escapes from the Nuthouse
We were planning to celebrate my 13th birthday with a dinner at my special restaurant, The Pump Room, which served my favorite dessert, a strawberry shortcake with homemade whipped cream. But the celebration was interrupted with a phone call from my uncle, Harry.
“Edith, Muni escaped from Camarillo today,” uncle Harry told her. I could hear his anxiety and worry coming through the phone lines as I put my ear close to the receiver to listen.
What do you mean, he escaped,” she asked. I could hear the fear in her voice. “He’s been there seven years and the doctors told me his condition was chronic and untreatable and he could never leave.”
“Yes, I know. They told me that too. But he escaped.”
“How the hell did he escape?” Her voice was controlled, but I could hear the panic begin to rise.
“I went to visit like always and he seemed to be better so I took him into town to get an ice cream. He told me he wanted to get some stamps and went across the street to the post office. He never came back and I couldn’t find him.”
“He just disappeared,” Harry said. “I looked everywhere, then finally went back to the hospital and told them. They’ve put out an all-points bulletin and they feel he’ll likely be apprehended and returned soon enough, but I wanted you to know.”
When my mother explained what had happened I was shocked and disoriented. After I stopped visiting my father when I was six years old, I stopped thinking about him. It was too painful. Bill entered my life and my father’s memory faded. My mother didn’t talk about him and he became a shadowy figure who slowly disappeared from my world, like cigarette smoke dissipating from the air.
We had my birthday dinner and I did enjoy the shortcake. We didn’t talk about my father, though my mother was clearly unsettled. “He probably won’t come back here,” she said. “But tomorrow you’ll go and stay with the Carlson’s for a few days just to be sure.”
“Why can’t I stay at home?” I wanted to know.
“It’s just better if you weren’t here, in case he should come back. He would get irritable and angry sometimes and at other times morose and depressed. I don’t know what state of mind he might be in and I wouldn’t want him to hurt you or try and take you.”
A chill ran down my back. On the one hand, I shared her fear of a “crazy man” who might harm me or steal me. On the other hand, I thought this might be my real birthday present, my own father, coming back healthy and cured of his mental problems to join the family and take me to my next awards ceremony.
I stayed at the Carlson’s house until New Year’s Day, 1957. My mother dropped in to see me every day. I could see the fear leaving her face as the days went by and my father never showed up and never called. I enjoyed being in the Carlson house with the three sisters, Glenda, Sheila, and Caroline. We talked, colored pictures, and had hot cocoa in the mornings. We celebrated Christmas and they took me to their Lutheran Church. I liked to sing and I joined in with the prayers and songs.
Before we’d go to bed I’d join the girls with their nightly prayer. “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I could die, before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” The prayer always frightened me. I still had nightmares from time to time and still had fears of dying or having a parent die. I didn’t know exactly what my soul was, but I didn’t want anyone taking it while I was asleep. I would lie awake at night with fears and worries swirling around in my mind. What if he comes back and hurts my mother? What if he takes her away and I’m left without any parents? What if he comes back looking for me and can’t find me? And the worst fear–maybe he just doesn’t care.
I began pestering my mother for information about him, but she seemed to have moved on, first with her interest in Bill and now that Bill was gone, she put her energies into her work and volunteer activities.
I already knew the basic information about my father. He was born in Jacksonville, Florida December 17, 1906. His birthname was Morris, but everyone called him Muni. He was one of eight children whose parents had been born in Eastern Europe. Like many Jewish families they came to the United States in the late 1800s to escape anti-Semitism in Czarist Russia. From the little I could gather I knew my father was emotionally sensitive, artistic and talented. He wrote stories, poetry, and put on little plays for the family.
Unlike most of his brothers and sisters who either went into the insurance business or married business men, when he was eighteen my father went to New York to become an actor. At first things looked bright. New York in the 1920s was full of glitter and glitz, a great place to be for a young man seeking fame and fortune. He was accepted into the Civic Repertory Theatre Company headed by famed actress, producer, and director Eva Le Gallienne, with other young actors, including Burgess Meredith and John Garfield.
Greenwich Village in the 1920s was not only a wonderful place for creative artists, but also for creative lovers. My mother, as I learned later, experimented sexually. She had numerous boyfriends and although she never came out directly and said it, I suspect she had a few girlfriends, as well.
My father had met my mother at a Jewish youth gathering in Jacksonville, Florida in 1927 and when they met again in New York, I learned that my mother had two men seriously interested in her—my father and a young, New York Times, reporter named Milton Bracker. She had hoped Milton would ask her to marry him, but just when she thought he was about to “pop the question,” he was sent on assignment to Europe. My father leaped into the breach and they were married on her birthday, October 5, 1934.
With the Great Depression still going on, finding acting jobs was increasingly difficult. When I was born on December 21, 1943, there was added pressure on my father to make a living. We moved to California and my father tried to break into writing for T.V. and the movies. I knew a something about his struggles and the eventual outcome when he became increasingly depressed, took an overdose of sleeping pills, and was committed to Camarillo, but I learned much more of the story when I found ten journals he wrote between 1946 and his hospitalization in 1949.
“The heaping up of many failures has a tendency to unbalance a man’s worth and I often lose complete faith. The feelings of inferiority are overwhelming. Accomplishments, no matter how small, must be constantly made to me keep my self-respect believe in my intrinsic worth.”
August 6, 1946:
“As a writer’s creative talents weaken, and the fabric of honest work, honestly created, begins to deteriorate under long periods of neglect, the writer begins to lose confidence in his own power, and begins to fill the spaces of emptiness with an animal-like instinct to steal, covet, and to devour others, ‘til in some cases the desire to create has been completely lost.”
January 7, 1947:
“Terror is a family in a house divided against itself. It’s the closest thing to man’s conception of hell on earth. The husband has been so degraded that he loathes the very children he has helped conceive.”
April 9, 1947:
“What goes on in a mind that holds one brother in contempt? MONEY! With a difference of ten dollars a week, the ‘money brother’ smiles, he writes, he sends pictures, tinted, not plain. He begins to treat his brother with the same civility he shows to strangers who might become insurance clients. He lets his brother know, ‘I made money. I always made money. What I can do, you can do. Lazy, that’s what you are, very lazy. Why can’t you hold a nice steady job, sell shoes, sell hardware nine to six, send money home on the first of the month. Then you’ll be considered a brother once again.’”
January 12, 1948:
“Pain drains the life force and we lose our desire to live. It’s not only the pain. It’s the worry that the pain drives deep into the marrow of your bone. Is the pain a sign of deep, deep-rooted, problems, or not so deep? How numb my body feels.”
March 18, 1948:
“How incredible, how maddening, and how much cold pain this thought of death instills in me. How you long for it when life’s ups and downs unnerves and unbalances you. How you fear it with deepest despair in the blackness of night. What do I do with urge to go mad?”
September 10, 1948:
“I could see worry of the present and worry of the future in Edie’s eyes and it hurts me, hurts me deeply. How can I provide for my wife and my child? It shouldn’t be so fantastically, brutally, hard. But it is.”
June 8, 1949:
“A hundred failures, an endless number of failures, until now, my confidence, my hope, my belief in myself, has run completely out. Middle aged, I stand and gaze ahead, numb, confused, and desperately worried. All around me I see the young in spirit, the young in heart, with ten times my confidence, twice my youth, ten times my fervor, twice my education. I see them all, a whole army of them, battering at the same doors I’m battering, trying in the same field I’m trying. Yes, on a Sunday morning June, 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 is about to descend.”
Six days after his June 8th entry, my father took an over-dose of sleeping pills and was committed to Camarillo State Hospital. I get tears of grief and joy reading my father’s journals. Grief at experiencing his deepening pain and rising panic as he suffers because he can’t support his family financially. I also feel joy to hear and feel the intimate words of my father as he reaches out through the years to tell me what was in his heart and soul and how hard he worked to support me.
Like most of us, I’ve tried to make sense of my family history and where I fit in it. This is part of a series of articles that are part of a new book to be released next year. Your comments are very important to me. Comment here and let me know how my family stories touch you and what your stories are that we might share. May we heal together.
Jed Diamond, PhD, LCSW, is the Founder and Director of the MenAlive, a health program that helps men live well throughout their lives. Though focused on men’s health, MenAlive is also for women who care about the health of the men in their lives. Diamond’s new book, The Enlightened Marriage: The 5 Transformative Stages of Relationships and Why the Best Is Still To Come, brings together the wisdom accumulated in 40 years helping more than 20,000 men, women, and children.