Pensive pondering about childhood past Derek Alger From the Editor

perm_identity Pensive pondering about childhood past

by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 171 ~ August, 2011

I’ve always had trouble accepting the intricacies of the so-called grown up world, finding the behavior of most adults completely bewildering. This started in childhood with the way I viewed my father. I thought he was strange, whereas he was revered by his peers in the psychiatric world. This made me even more perplexed, and as a result, I came away with the wrong message and conclusion. Quite simply, I believed if my father, the psychiatrist, was celebrated by a majority in the grown up world, and I thought his views were a bit off kilter, then what chance did I have of ever fitting in, much less thriving in life?

Basically what it came down to is I’m not good at pretense. My father always insisted there was a specific motivation behind every act or spoken word. My mother was more accepting of life being life without needing a convoluted psychological interpretation of everything, large, small, or insignificant. You could sit in a room with my mother watching a baseball game on television without feeling the need to say anything. My father, on the other hand, couldn’t stand such a situation; for him, silence inevitably signified something was wrong, and therefore, he felt compelled to rectify the situation by talking.

Shortly after my parents got married, and my father graduated medical school and became a psychiatrist, there was a trend in Manhattan where psychiatrists were encouraging their wives to become co-therapists. Most of my father’s psychiatrist friends — I’m not sure he had any friends who weren’t psychiatrists — succeeded in talking their wives into becoming co-therapists. My mother, a low key, sensible woman, wanted no part of it. She was the quintessential example of someone being kind, with many others miscalculating and concluding that such kindness was weakness, when nothing could be further from the truth.

It should be obvious that my mother never became a co-therapist. Despite my father’s attempts at persuasion, his increased efforts to point out the benefits of my mother becoming a co-therapist, my mother couldn’t be swayed. So, when my father ended up without a partner, a co-therapist spouse, at meetings of his psychiatrist friends and their co-therapist wives, my mother took the subway from Manhattan to go to Ebbets Field in Brooklyn to take in a game played by her beloved Dodgers.

A love of baseball was something I shared with my mother.¬†There was a rational logic to the game which my father could never appreciate. Perhaps because baseball is relatively simple, despite the complexity of the many given situations which can come up during an actual game. No great speculation over decisions is required about how to move the runner from first with one out. Sure, a hit and run can backfire into a double play, or the batter might fail in an attempt to sacrifice bunt, but chances are neither play resulted from some deep, hidden, unresolved conflict from the manager’s childhood.

Once, when I was nineteen, I was at a conference of psychiatrists and psychologists near the college I attended in western Massachusetts at the time helping my father out by videotaping other psychiatrists giving speeches. I had proposed an independent study course about the effectiveness of videotaping in therapy, based on my father’s specialty, and somehow the appropriate authorities in the educational hierarchy approved what I wanted to do, which to this day, I’m not sure I ever really figured out.

I don’t remember how videotaping enhanced therapy, or even if it did, though I do remember having lunch at the conference with my father, who sat at the head of the table, and the psychiatric students who were in his seminar. I was sitting one seat down from my father, next to a young woman, a psychiatrist in the making, who, like the others, looked upon my father as somewhat of a deity. The woman gazed across the table at a young man and uttered a phrase I will never forget. “Chad, you look pensive,” she said. Such an observation left me wondering if she had really used the word “pensive” in everyday conversation and if she truly believed her colleague indeed appeared that way. I was caught off guard when Chad promptly answered, “Yes, Stephanie, how perceptive of you.” And then Chad elaborated on how he was thinking of some unfortunate incident when he was in grade school.

The exchange was greeted by much acclamation, with the young psychiatrists praising each other, mutually complimenting each other over their respective ability to discern the feelings of others, and, of course, offering great tributes and accolades to my father for successfully guiding them down such a path. I was at a loss, a solitary individual at the table, but then again, I wasn’t really a legitimate card carrying member of the conference.

Many times, I’ve observed, when folks stress one should be honest and open in sharing feelings, the exact opposite is true, and such individuals generally prefer the pretense of open Hallmark card dialogue rather than normal discourse. I could be wrong, but I’ve been in enough programmed settings over the years to understand the accepted script, even if I don’t deliver the expected lines, many times to my own detriment, merely because I find it impossible to play a game I can’t comprehend, at least emotionally and logically within.

I think I was nine or ten, when my father began holding family conferences with my mother, my siblings, and me in the living room on Sunday evenings. I remember feelings of dread always hit me on Sunday the minute the Walt Disney show started because I knew the beginning of another school week was just ahead. Inevitably, I began having trouble sleeping. I had difficulty falling asleep already, but family conferences added to the problem because I don’t recall many such conferences that didn’t end with everyone annoyed or angry, except perhaps my father, who actually thought something constructive was accomplished.

My father had a tendency to clear his throat before speaking. He was a great public speaker, could hold an audience in awe, yet he always cleared his throat before launching into his first sentence, as if to emphasize that what was to come was certainly significant and important. And he was the one who always started off the family conferences, which was natural, because he was the only one who wanted to participate in them. “Pretense and fraud!” I wanted to scream, but instead simply listened with a true sense of bewilderment. I think my brother and my two sisters thought the entire situation was bizarre, though they tried to contribute to the dialogue initiated by my father. My mother, like myself, chose silence, though she was polite, and supportive of my father in a way similar to a non-believing spouse going to church with a religious partner, while I was seething, enraged at being subjected to such a ridiculous charade.

“As a family,” my father would usually begin, and then he would share his observations about how the family was functioning as a unit, the interaction between and among different members, and then on to suggested conduct of behavior, what he thought and wanted, and how he thought things were and could be improved. And then, it was time for everyone else to share or add to the discussion. I never had anything to say. I was the oldest of four and I think my brother and two sisters felt caught between my position and my father’s, and so they reluctantly straddled the middle by offering pithy comments which showed acknowledgment of what my father had said but didn’t really advance any conversation, since, of course, the premise for such conversation was faulty from the beginning. The one concrete, tangible item I remember from such family conferences, before they ended in explosive anger after my father passed out copies of a 20 page document as if it was a set of behavioral by-laws, was a bowl of popcorn on the table in front of the couch, accompanied with a pitcher of Hawaiian Punch and an appropriate number of red plastic cups.

I suppose such early exposure to confusing and conflicting behavior helped make me more of an observer than a participant in many circumstances. Growing up in my family, I often wondered whether language had meaning or was simply noise filling uncomfortable gaps. Perhaps I was asking too much, wanting to understand the incomprehensible. Family conferences never came close to providing an answer, or even offering relevant clues, but for those who liked popcorn, I suppose, they were tolerable.

A few years before my father died, before he cut off verbal communication with his children and began to fade away, he said to me, “My only regret about your childhood is that I didn’t put you on Ritalin.”

I’m not sure what response one can have to such a statement. Should I have said, “Don’t worry, it’s okay.” or maybe, “I don’t hold it against you, Dad.” But, instead, true to the historical pattern established early on in conversation with my farther, I remained silent. I don’t know much about Ritalin, except that it’s frequently used to treat children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. To be honest, I never even knew my father, or anyone else, thought I suffered from attention-deficit disorder. I knew I was hyperactive as a young kid, but didn’t think my behavior unusual, I just thought I had an active imagination and a lot of energy.

The Ritalin comment was a good example of my father’s inadvertent use of delivering mixed messages. On one level, he was genuinely trying to be helpful, wanting what was best for his kids, and yet, many of his comments and observations could easily be taken as criticism. I think he¬†regretted not putting me on Ritalin as a kid because he believed it would have helped me navigate through life better as I got older, making him a more responsible parent, but on another very real level, his comment could be interpreted as “Since you weren’t on Ritalin as a child, son, I think you’re fucked up.” Whatever the intention or true motivation behind my father’s comment, malicious or benign, it was a bit late in the game to do anything about it, so why even bring it up?

My father was considered a great therapist, many colleagues and patients attest to how much he helped them, which I don’t have trouble believing; he was great in a crisis situation, an actual crisis, like when one was really ill or injured, and his words could be soothing and reassuring when one was distressed or anxious about something, real or imagined. And yet, there was a disconnect, my father was very keen on observing and analyzing behavior in the moment, in the present, coming up with speculative questions, leading to speculative conclusions, which inevitably led to life being reduced to a parlor game where individuals became objects to be scrutinized under a psychiatric eye.

One morning, when I was about twelve and my brother was seven, we were in the playroom, which was the television room, watching Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, when my father, dressed in pajamas, slippers, and a robe, walked in, cutting in front of the television set before us without stating a word, and continuing across to the far corner of the room. My brother and I turned and saw our father’s back as he faced the wall. Suddenly, he spread his arms out above his head and let out a mighty scream, yelling, “AAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHH! My brother and I didn’t know what to think, and at the time were too stunned to laugh. My father turned toward us, with a satisfied smile, and said, “I feel much better now,” and then promptly left the room.

Whether I should have been on Ritalin as a child, I’ll never know. What I do know is that I have never yet walked into a corner and let out a primal scream. Maybe it would make me feel better, but somehow I can never bring myself to the point to actually try it. And if I ever felt my capacity was diminished in maintaining alertness, or combatting fatigue, and really thought Ritalin would have improved my attention, I think of my father, who never took Ritalin, standing in a corner and screaming, and I’m content with the way I am, at least for another day.

  • Derek, I find this piece very compelling. I’m particularly intrigued by the language element, how you interpreted it — or the lack of it — both as a child and an adult. You very effectively show the confusion of children, and how unaware of this a parent can be. Thanks so much for posting this! Sue