I had been married about two years. My wife and I were sitting near the back of a darkened theater, watching the 1970 movie “I Never Sang for My Father”. The movie explored the relationship between a man just a little older than my 23 years with his aging father, who haunted his here-and-now romantic relationships. While the story offered some hope, showing the man make some headway in a big relationship, at the ending it did not soft-soap the fact he was still haunted. The last line of the movie was something like, “To this day, the word ‘father’ causes my blood to run cold.”
The movie ended, the houselights came on, and people started moving into the aisles. And I sat there, absolutely frozen – tears rolling down my cheeks. This was a very big deal. In those days, I did not cry. I had not shed a tear since seventh grade – when I think I had had the wind knocked out of me in a football game and shed a few tears.
My wife and I were both alarmed. What did this mean? What were we to do? I knew that I had been engrossed by the movie, but not once – until that last line was uttered – had I thought about my father or that any of the content of the movie might have relevance for my life. Now my father and my non-relationship with him were sitting on my chest: I could not breathe, and I was crying. I was panicked.
And I knew at the same time that this was important. I was in my first year of clinical psychology graduate school and if I had learned anything it was that feelings were important – even if, in that clinical worldview, feelings were also frequently suspect and to be analyzed. I wanted desperately to keep feeling these feelings that I was feeling in that moment, but not in that situation – with the now-glaring houselights on and people filing past the row where I sat there helpless. Any of them might notice my tears – and I would feel humiliated.
“Let’s get out of here” I said to my wife. I wanted to hold on to this thread that might lead back to some aliveness in my relatively cold and empty relationship with my feelings. Maybe if we got back out to the darkened street I could keep this spark alive.
We got out to the street, but that spark of aliveness was already slipping away. Maybe this was still too public, too exposed. “Let’s get to our car.” But by the time we got into the relative privacy of our car, the moment had passed. The tears – and the sudden, unexpected, sharp stab of emotional pain…of deep sadness and loss that had provoked them were gone. This sudden glimpse of a whole, vivid emotional world that I hadn’t realized was still there had passed – and I didn’t know if this was perhaps a one-off. Perhaps I would never find my way back to that doorway.
But I wanted to find my way back. Besides the professional psychotherapy which we were just beginning to learn about in our Ph.D. clinical psychology classes, I had been learning about a much more wild-and-unruly, radically peer-oriented approach to the exploration of feelings. Bob Pierce, one of the supervisors in this program’s clinical placements – way more hands-on and experiential than our somewhat cold and analytical graduate school faculty – was a big admirer of a non-degreed personal growth facilitator named Harvey Jackson.
Harvey had developed this peer-counseling approach called Re-evaluation Counseling that led to “emotional discharge”, in which non-professional people would learn how to help each other reclaim their feelings in a kind of radically strong, deep way. Periodically, Harvey would come through Rochester, NY, to lead a workshop in the “Re-evaluation Counseling Community” – in which “professionals” and budding professionals like myself were welcome, but slightly suspect and definitely held no greater respect than regular people who were developing their counseling chops on the street.
Every time Harvey was in Rochester, Bob would bring him to the Rochester University teaching hospital for a one-day workshop on counseling skills – where psychologists and trainees like myself would be shocked, horrified, amazed and inspired by Harvey’s brilliance (he would say this “brilliance” was only developed skill from thousands of hours of developing and practicing this approach to emotional discharge) as he would take student therapy volunteers right to the heart of their emotions – which they would “discharge”…release in explosive or very deep ways.
When I came back home from my powerfully revelatory movie, I sought out this local “counseling community” and began a laborious process of reclaiming my feelings. I would pound on pillows, yell loudly, or be held by a peer co-counselor as I attempted to feel my feelings. And little by little they came. Some tears started to leak out again, as they had at the movies – but this time intentionally welcomed instead of shockingly unbidden.
These feelings that started to emerge in a genuinely emotional way felt a little threatening at first: I had no idea how to manage them and feared they might take me over. But, in fact, I began to learn that my emotional life had a wisdom of its own – and I still had very powerful defenses against it – so my feelings would only bubble up in manageable packets that little by little started to add some color to my grey emotional life. The first time that – pounding on pillows – I went from a rote exercise to the eruption of powerful, red-hot anger, this similarly threatened my illusion of “emotional stability”. Was there any bottom to this emotional power? Again, I little by little learned to both respect and trust this return of my feelings – it never seemed to take me over.
Feeling my feelings became, over time, a natural part of my life – tremendously enriching and satisfying. I was learning, once again, to live within my own human skin – my body, rather than just my head. The content that at first led me into this emotional world was my relationship with my father. I truly had never sang for my father – my father who never sang for his father and so on for many generations back. These Irish-Catholic men were hard workers and hard drinkers, who carried loads of emotional guilt, and never felt any feelings when they were sober. My father was an exceptionally remote, self-contained man who slid way into his very private world of alcohol, was awkward with children and never really connected with his own two sons. I had a much more bright, extroverted personal style, never (aside from my wild college years of temporary “alcoholism” that no one ever attempted to diagnose as a real “problem”) seemed to develop the Irish “Curse” of alcoholism – but did inherit the curse of being not able to feel my feelings. Until now, at age 23.
In my early 40’s, a whole other – much more ominous – layer of my emotional life emerged. This bright guy, who was frequently described as “enthusiastic” and only occasionally as “too intense”, started – over the top of powerful emotional resistance – to to have dreams of childhood sex abuse that began symbolic, indirect and relatively detached and then become progressively more progressively more vivid, horrific and terrifying. My practice of Re-evaluation Counseling, which I had stayed immersed in for those 20 years – in lieu of ever getting professional therapy – had no apparent capacity to manage the terrifying onslaught of dark, menacing, overwhelming, despairing emotion. I felt an entirely new kind of helplessness and hopelessness, I could nowhere near control the raw, powerful pain that was taking me over – and my life started to fall apart. I tried sex abuse support groups and, when those didn’t help, finally got professional therapy from a male clinical psychologist who specialized in men with this history.
This post is getting pretty long – and, this is the unfinished state that I find it in today – not having looked at it for at least a couple of months. I’m going to just go ahead and post it – and trust that the rest of this story will get told in other places in the blog.
I wish I could add to this post pictures of me as a young man, but – after many years of the emotional chaos of “mental illness” and many, many moves – I have preserved essentially no belongings from the earlier parts of my life. This includes, very sadly, essentially no old pictures.
Ten years ago, as I was preparing for a “move to Mexico” that never happened, I sent a whole lot of old photos and documents to my brother Terry in Chicago – for “safekeeping” in his garage. Years later, when Terry’s widow Lesia and I were looking through the garage, it was jam-packed with his daughter Alana’s stuff, but we could find nothing of mine.