mental health and depression

From Madness to Manhood: Sunshine and Shame

Growing up in the San Fernando Valley was a delight. It seemed that summertime lasted forever and our little home in Sherman Oaks was the center of a wonderful universe from which I began to explore. The front yard was big and it was lined by trees, which I soon began climbing. I was a small, slightly built boy, always one of the shortest boys in my classes, a fact limited my potential to impress the girls. My mother always told me not to worry that I would grow to be a tall man, even though both she and my father were short. “Yes, but your uncles are tall,” she would tell me and I looked forward to the time when I would get my growth spurt. I hoped and prayed to be six feet someday, but I never grew taller than five feet, four and three-quarter inches.

There was a split rail fence that enclosed the yard without cutting us off from the neighbors. The split rails and the rest of the house was built by the man who sold the house to my parents in 1944 for $4,500. He had worked for the phone company. Times were difficult during the war years and the phone company couldn’t pay him. He finally had to leave to find a new job and the phone company paid what they owed him in telephone poles, which he used to build the house and the surrounding fence.

In addition to the fence, the house was made of roughhewn timbers. There was a large fireplace in the living room made out of stones that were brought in one at a time from the river that ran two blocks from the house. There was a large mantel piece above the fireplace where my mother placed mementoes from her time in New York. One I still have is small container with the face of an old man with a beard and turban and a cover on top. I always thought he looked very exotic, like one of the wise men who came baring gifts from afar.

We had a car, though it wasn’t driven much due to the cost of gasoline. Before he was hospitalized when I was five, my father would take us out for a drive on Sunday afternoons. We’d often go north along Sepulveda boulevard towards the mountains. The air was fragrant with orange blossoms and the air was clear. It was exciting to see a waterway cascading into the Valley, part of the Owens Valley Aqueduct which made it possible for the Valley to bloom with orange blossoms and also produce walnuts, beans, strawberries, tomatoes, alfalfa and flowers.

We had a friend in Calabasas who made hand-carved puppets and I loved visiting him. Puppets would play a part in my father’s future, but that would be many years ahead.

Although my father seemed to be preoccupied in his own world during those early years before he was hospitalized, I remember him taking me to the little park in Encino. There was a fountain in the center with trees all around. I would ride on his shoulders and hold on to his big ears and laugh with delight when he’d run around and play horsy. My mother would be waiting at home for our return and make us peanut butter and honey sandwiches.

I felt we were a typical middle-class, Jewish, family, living the good life. More than once my mother would recount the story of my circumcision. “You had just been born and we still lived in New York,” she said. “We had the mohel come to the house eight days after you were born.” I always began smiling as she got rolling with the rest of the story. “I wasn’t convinced that circumcision was a good idea,” she went on. “I mean, we weren’t religious and I didn’t like the idea of my baby being cut, but your father insisted.”

“Well, the mohel, wanted your father to hold you down while he did the cutting. And do you know what you did?” At this point she would muss up my hair and begin laughing. “As they cut your foreskin you let out a bloody scream and launched a stream of pee that arched over your head and hit your father right in the eye.” My father never looked that pleased to hear the story, but I felt proud that my penis could fight back even as I was being held down.

Later in life, when I had learned more about circumcision, I was sorry I had lost an important part of my sexual anatomy. I learned the penis is meant to have a covering so that the sensitive glans could be kept moist. When we cut it off we reduce the level of sensual pleasure enjoyed during sex, which is likely one of the reasons the early religious leaders came to make circumcision a part of traditional Jewish life.

There were no Jewish kids in the neighborhood when I was growing up, and few kids at all so I spent a lot of time playing alone. There was one family, The Carlson’s who lived just up the street and I played there a lot. They were a real family with a father, Glenn, a mother, Louella, and three girls, Glenda, Sheila, and Caroline, who everyone called Sissy. Glen worked in electronics and built the first television in the neighborhood. It was just a big picture tube and lots of smaller tubes and we watched the limited pictures available in the late 1940s. It was so new and interesting that we’d watch the “Indian-head test pattern” that would be broadcast before the first shows would start at noon and again after the National Anthem was played before the shows would go off at night.

The best thing about T.V. in those days was watching Beany and Cecil about a boy named Beany who sails the seas aboard the Leakin’ Lena accompanied by seasick sea serpent Cecil, and the boy’s uncle, Capt. Horatio K. Huffenpuff.  My favorite character, though, was DJ, Dishonest John, who wore a green hat and black cloak was always going “He, he, he,” in a funny, sinister voice. The characters were originally puppets created by animator Bob Clampett. Years later I met Clampett at a film festival and he gave me one of the original art pieces for the show that he autographed to me.

My favorite things at the Carlson’s was learning to play canasta which was the big game of those times and Sunday mornings where Louella would make hot cocoa and stacks of buttered toast that I’d dip and devour the hot cocoa-soaked toast while drips of brown, buttered goodness would stream down my chin.

Glenda and Sheila were older than me, but Caroline was my age and we’d play together. We were seven years old when we explored each other’s bodies playing doctor and knew that part of the game was putting my penis in her vagina. I have no idea how we knew to do that, but it seemed fun and innocent, playful, and dangerous. Though we enjoyed playing, we knew it was something you didn’t tell your parents. It was our little secret. I never thought of it, really, as sexual, more an extension of exploring the world of sunny San Fernando Valley. Sissy was my playmate, my explore-mate, and my friend.

I also imagined I was getting back at her mother, Luella. I must have been three or four years old when my mother decided I was constipated and in need of regular enemas. She enlisted Luella to help her. They laid me on the floor of the little bathroom, a tiny corner off of the small kitchen. Louella held my feet while my mother inserted the tube into my rectum and water flowed into me. I wiggled and fought, but Lou held me tight. “Stop, stop,” I yelled. “You’re hurting me.”

“Just relax,” my mother said. Her voice soothing me. But I couldn’t relax. I felt like I was going to explode.

“Don’t you dare shit on me,” Luella yelled, “or I’ll kill you.”

I cried and tried to hold it in until my mother finally finished filling me with water.

“O.K., quick now, get up and sit on the toilet,” she told me.

Finally, I could stop holding it in and could let it out.

Louella was also present with a few other neighborhood friends of my mother when they’d talk about their husbands. “I wish Muni could find a job,” my mother told her friends. “He can’t find work and he’s either depressed or angry. He’s never around when I need him and when he is here he just gets in the way. It’s like having another child in the house.”

“My husband works,” said Louella, “but the money he brings in is hardly worth it. I bust my butt taking care of our three girls and I’m tired of being poor.”

“Joe makes good money, but we don’t see much of it,” Clare lamented. “He either gambles it away or drinks it away. What the hell is the matter with men these days?”

“Who the hell cares,” said Marie who was five feet tall and must have weighed two-hundred pounds. “I make my own money and I don’t expect much from Harry. He’s good for sex, but not for much else.” I pictured her rolling on top of Harry and killing him with her bulk.

Their words seared into my 4-year-old brain. I hated the women for dumping on men I knew and cared about and I was ashamed of my father and the other men for being so deeply disrespected. Worse than the words were the feelings that went with the words. There was a mixture of contempt, pity, and disdain. I’ll die before I ever let a woman talk about me like that, I vowed. In my four years of life experience, I didn’t know how I’d do it, but I made three promises to myself:

  • I’ll never be out of work.
  • I’ll never show weakness.
  • I’ll never let myself become dependent on a woman.

I failed on all counts and my vow nearly destroyed my life.

Increasingly, I lived in two worlds, the world of sunshine, success, puppets, and hot-chocolate. And the other, darker, world where pain and suffering is denied and hidden, where a boy’s penis is cut, enemas are given, threats are made, and fathers are shamed.  I was happy and playful on the surface, but walled off and buried my fear, rage, and desires for revenge. I longed for my father and when he escaped from Camarillo after seven years, I hoped he would return for me.

This is the third chapter of my story. You can read the others on my website beginning here. Please share our comments and stories below.

This article first appeared on Jed’s blog.

Photo by Larm Rmah on Unsplash

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