Posts Tagged ‘therapy’

So It Turns Out…Part One

Monday, November 6th, 2017

Goddy and Casey and Howard

Winton & Waltons

“I was curious by nature. I observed the grownups, their behavior. I listened attentively to their talk, which I sometimes understood and sometimes did not.” Isaac Bashevis Singer

I’m in therapy again at the age of sixty-eight after a twenty-seven-year hiatus. And very much to my surprise, something has come to light that I got an inkling of when I was twelve and came to understand was a huge emotional component of my life when I was forty, but it was not something I fully opened to, delved into, and accepted as a fundamental aspect of my being until now.

I’m Jewish.

I don’t simply mean I am descended on my mother’s side from Jewish people who came to America from Poland and Ukraine in the late 1800s and settled in and around Detroit. I mean I carry in my psyche, in my neural pathways, and in my DNA, the experiences of an entire society as represented by unique individuals: my Jewish ancestors.

My non-Jewish father was a powerful influence in my life, but the deep emotional lake I swam in from the moment I was conceived and throughout my childhood was largely fed by the psycho-spiritual torrent flowing from my mother and her parents and her parents’ parents. I should also mention that my father’s parents disowned him when he married my mother, for they felt marrying a Jew was the worst thing their son could do. And though my father’s parents relented somewhat along the way, my connection to my father’s people never amounted to much.

By contrast, we, my siblings and I, adored my mother’s parents, and they, Goody and Casey, adored us. Nevertheless, I did not know my mother and her parents were Jewish until I was twelve-years-old. However, that didn’t stop me from becoming best friends with Colin, one of the only (other) Jewish boys at my elementary school—a friendship that has lasted sixty-two years and counting.

And I now realize that my friendship with Colin saved me from a childhood of denying my authentic self; for when I was with Colin, which was frequently until I was twelve, I was free to be who I really was, a Jewish kid who didn’t know he was Jewish.

How did I get to be twelve without knowing my mother was Jewish? Well, my mother’s parents, Goody and Casey, changed their last name from Weinstein to Winton during the Great Depression—the 1930s—so they could rent places to live in Los Angeles and find work there during a time of ferocious anti-Semitism in America. Thus they raised their two children, my mother Avis and her younger brother Howard, with the dictum: tell no one you are Jewish and exhibit no behavior that will reveal you are Jewish.

This imperative was re-enforced in my mother when kids at two different elementary schools she attended discovered she was Jewish, followed her home after school, shouted Jew and Kike, and threw rocks at her.

Which is no doubt part of why my mother rebuffed her Jewish suitors while attending Beverly Hills High and chose instead to marry my non-Jewish father. Raising her four children in the cultureless anonymity of the San Francisco suburbs, my mother gave no clues to her friends or her children that her parents were Yiddish-speaking Jews and her grandparents were immigrants from Poland who came to America to escape poverty and murderous prejudice.

Goody and Casey, however, continuing to reside in Los Angeles, eventually became wealthy from Casey’s real estate investments and “came out”, so to speak, in that city full of Jews. In the post-World War II boom times, they hobnobbed with other Jewish folks in the intertwined entertainment and real estate industries, and one summer when I was twelve, during our family’s annual visit to Los Angeles, Goody and Casey threw a big party, and at this party…

Picture a skinny twelve-year-old Todd wearing black slacks and a short-sleeved white shirt, reveling in the delicious food and the company of his cousins and siblings. Picture Goody, Todd’s effervescent grandmother, five-feet-tall in heels, leading him to a group of four Jewish matrons, introducing Todd as her grandson, and hurrying away to greet a newly arriving guest.

I stand before the four matrons. One of them pinches my cheek and says, “Oh what a cute Jewish boy you are. You’re gonna break lots of hearts, honey.”

To which I reply, “I’m not Jewish. I’m Unitarian.”

The matrons laugh and the cheek pincher says, “Of course you’re Jewish, sweetie-pie. You’re Avis’s child. What else could you be?”

“What do you mean?” I ask, feeling confused and a little frightened.

And another of the matrons frowns at me and says, “They would have burned you. The Nazis.”

I seek an explanation not from my mother but from my father who tells me in his I-Know-Everything way, “According to Jewish law, if your mother is Jewish, you are Jewish, but that’s religious nonsense. You’re just a person. And you’re too intelligent to get tangled up in primitive religious stupidity.”

Thereafter, the few times in my life when the subject came up, I would tell friends and girlfriends that my mother’s folks were the children of Jewish immigrants, but my mother didn’t consider herself Jewish, so…

In 1979 a movie was being made of my novel Inside Moves. For the first time in my life I had more than enough money to cover rent and groceries. With some of my surplus cash I decided to make a fifteen-minute movie from a script I’d written: Bums At A Grave. I was twenty-nine. This was in the days before digital everything so I hired a cameraperson, sound engineer, producer, and continuity person to make the 16-millimeter movie starring my brother and me.

During our two days of filming on forested land near Grass Valley, I felt I was doing what I was born to do—write and direct movies. Bums At A Grave turned out well and we had a premiere party at my house in Sacramento—a house purchased with more of that movie money.

A hundred people came to the lavish affair, many of the guests dressed as their favorite movie stars. My parents attended, and my mother came as Gloria Swanson, the famous Jewish actress and producer.

Bums At A Grave was subsequently screened at Filmex in Los Angeles to thunderous applause from a huge audience and was shown several times on an arty television station in the early days of cable TV. I never for a conscious moment thought Bums At A Grave had anything to do with me being Jewish or denying my Jewishness or being a self-sabotaging emotionally derailed human being. But this morning, opening and delving as never before, I realized that if there was ever a movie about a Jewish man unconscious of his Jewishness trying desperately to connect with his hidden identity, Bums At A Grave is that movie.

The movie is set in 1933, the year my grandparents changed their name from Weinstein to Winton. Willy, played by my brother, a handsome fellow who certainly sounds Jewish, is a homeless bum. He comes upon another itinerant, played by yours truly, completing the burial of someone.

Who am I burying? An old guy who happens to be…wait for it…a Jew. As we stand by the grave, I ask my brother if he knows anything appropriate to say, and he innocently asks, “Do you know any Jewish songs?” And I say, “He taught me one.”

I then proceed to sing “Hine Ma Tov”, a song I learned as a counselor at a Quaker summer camp when I was nineteen. The lyrics are the first verse of Psalm 133. “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.”

When I finish singing my heart out over the buried Jew, my brother invites me to join forces with him to sing for our breakfast at a nearby farm, and on the way to the farm we talk about the buried Jew who I reveal was a great joke teller. I then tell my brother a joke about Democrats and Republicans that could just as easily be a joke about Jews and non-Jews. Then we sing an Irish folk song together. Fade Out.

You can watch Bums At A Grave on my web site, Under the Table Books.

Getting Well

Thursday, August 12th, 2010

“Programming our intelligence with illusion and fantasy of there’s something wrong with us and enough isn’t enough and too much isn’t too much then turning us loose on ourselves and the world.” John Trudell

My folks are no longer alive, but the shame I feel for doing what I love still surfaces now and then to remind me of how terribly jealous my father was of his own children and how angry my mother was about having her creative ambitions so painfully thwarted. The famous quote by Carl Jung, “Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on children than the unlived life of the parent,” elucidates a big part of my mother’s influence on me, while Jennifer James sums up my father with, “Jealousy is simply and clearly the fear that you do not have value.”

My parents were relentlessly verbally abusive of me, and on a few terrible occasions my alcoholic father resorted to physical violence that severely injured me. When I was eleven years old, he nearly killed me. I blocked all memory of this most vicious assault until my fortieth year when a vivid movie of the attack emerged from the archives of my memory. Watching that old footage sent me racing into therapy for the first time in my life.

Therapy saved me, and that does not overstate the case. My savior was a down-to-earth woman who could read in my facial expressions and physical mannerisms the unspoken text of my self-doubt, and she would bring my attention to these physical cues so I might become aware of them and explore the deeper feelings they were attached to.

Of the many discoveries I made in therapy, the most overwhelming one was that I was so entirely acclimated to being told I was worthless, I created most of my relationships to support my parents’ foundational message: no matter what you do, Todd, it isn’t good enough. Which meant I wasn’t good enough. For anything or anyone. So why go on living?

“If you have no critics you’ll likely have no success.” Malcolm X

Having known many struggling artists, I am well aware that my back-story (as they call the past in Hollywood) is hardly unique. Indeed, I have yet to meet an artist whose memoir could truthfully begin, “My parents lovingly supported me in all my artistic pursuits.” This is not to suggest that abuse and the resultant self-loathing are prerequisites to becoming an artist, though certainly such emotional history typifies the lives of many American and European artists, especially those artists creating things that don’t fit neatly into the stifling little boxes maintained by our corporate-sponsored academic/cultural mafia.

O, beware, my lord, of jealousy! 
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
 the meat it feeds on. 
William Shakespeare

When I lived in Berkeley I was in the habit of listening to the radical pinko radio station KPFA. Shortly before the most recent American invasion of Iraq, in anticipation of a huge anti-war demonstration, one of the radio hosts invited two of the demonstration’s organizers onto his show to talk about the upcoming march. To my chagrin, though not to my surprise, these two fellows spent twenty minutes of the half-hour show arguing about which of them was the more authentic (for lack of a better word) radical. As I listened to these two “revolutionaries” demean each other and recite extensive proof of their radical pedigrees, I recalled an old friend saying, “The Right has nothing to fear from the Left because we would much rather fight amongst ourselves than actually unite in any substantive way.”

A related phenomenon is that of outsider artists and musicians (outside the mainstream) attacking and undermining each other rather than joining forces ala The Impressionists to collectively bring their creations to a larger audience. As a former devotee of open mike nights (vaudeville enacted in pubs by anyone wishing to perform), which I’m guessing grew out of the egalitarian poetry and folk music scenes of the 1960’s, I have experienced love fests wherein every performer of every imaginable level of talent was resoundingly applauded for simply having the courage to perform, and I have suffered through hateful competitions where the audience might as well have been a mob thirsting for blood, applause begrudged, the more talented the performer, the more openly despised she was.

My favorite thing to do at open mikes, in either scenario, was to interview my fellow performers, to learn their back-stories, and to ask them what they hoped to accomplish with their performances. And I was fascinated to discover that virtually everyone who came to these open mikes—old and young, hopeful amateur and fallen professional, men and women, talented and tone deaf, told tales kin to mine and containing the same essential elements.

1. Missing or disapproving parents

2. An abiding sense of being different, not fitting in

3. Finding solace in their art

4. Idolizing social and artistic renegades

5. Criticized and rejected for their art and lifestyle choices

6. Fierce determination to succeed and prove the naysayers wrong

7. Choosing poverty over giving up or compromising their art

8. Substance abuse to numb the pain of failure and rejection

9. Lousy relationships

10. The dream/belief they will be discovered by someone who makes of them a star

Based on my open mike experiences and interviews, I eventually wrote a screenplay for a musical comedy/tragedy entitled Open Mike, though #10 (see above) has yet to befall my opus.

“Depression is rage spread thin.” George Santayana

When I turned fifty I was at the lowest point in my career as a musician and writer, and I sank into the deepest and longest lasting depression of my life. After a tortuous year of living under what felt like the gravity of Jupiter, and desperate to understand what was happening to me, I came upon a book of essays by the psychiatrists Sylvano Arieti and Jules Bemporad with a title that minced no words: Severe and Mild Depression. One of the essays by Arieti presented a case study of a novelist with a life so like mine I gasped at every sentence.

Prior to his most severe depression, this novelist only exhibited mild symptoms of depression when he was between novels, at which times he would quickly launch himself into writing a new novel. Thus he, as I, managed to outrun and subsume his depression by pouring his energy and attention into his novels for thirty years until exhaustion and failure finally caught up to him. Furthermore, his sustaining fantasy, and mine, was that he would eventually write a novel so great and successful that he would be lifted out of his dreary life into a realm of exquisite happiness wherein his previously rejecting mother and/or father, as well as their embodiment in his wife or lover, would at long last love him.

Reading Arieti’s words, I had an epiphany. I must henceforth give up the unreasonable hope of winning the approval of people incapable of approving of me, for they will never approve of anyone, least of all themselves, and I must learn to accept myself for who and what I am here and now, and not for what I fantasize about becoming.

“Do what you feel in your heart to be right – for you’ll be criticized anyway. You’ll be damned if you do and damned if you don’t.” Eleanor Roosevelt

Without question, the most hateful critics of my writing and music have been fellow artists. Before I got well, to the extent I have, I maintained relations with several angry and deeply bitter artists to whom I gave money I could ill afford to give, and praise, often false, I hoped would soothe them. Our rules of engagement were that I would support and encourage everything they did, and never dare offer suggestions about their music or art. In exchange, they would feel entitled to denigrate me, and to spit on any of my creations I was foolish enough to share with them. These relationships were such obvious re-enactments of my relationship with my father and mother it seems laughable I was unaware of the parallels, but before the veil is lifted we are blind.

After many years of working hard to reform my psychic operating system, I thought I had successfully exorcised the last of these destructive folk from my life, but a few days ago I was made aware of one such person I had overlooked. Having just released my first CD of solo piano music, 43 short Piano Improvisations, the culmination (so far) of forty-five years of piano practice and exploration, I received a letter that ranks among the most sickening and cruel attacks I have ever experienced. This letter was not a critique of my music, but reviled me for daring to make music at all, and as such recalled my mother’s rage and my father’s sense of worthlessness they both so diligently impressed upon me.

“Fortunately,” I wrote to my assailant, “I am finally well enough to trust my own judgment about what I wish to share with others, so that your most unkind words will not deter me.”

Todd’s CD 43 short Piano Improvisations is available from iTunes and UnderTheTableBooks.com

(This essay originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser August 2010)