I was five years old when my Uncle Harry drove me to the mental hospital. I was confused and afraid.
“Why do I have to go?” I asked him.
He looked at me with his round face and kind eyes. “Your father needs you.”
“What’s the matter with him?” I was beginning to cry, and I clamped my throat tight to stop the tears.
Uncle Harry turned away and looked back at the road. In our family, we didn’t talk about difficult issues. My father was a successful writer and actor in New York; eventually he moved the family to California so he could enter the emerging television and movie industry. But he ran into the “red scare” in Hollywood, where progressive playwrights, actors, and directors were accused of being Communist Party members. Like many in Hollywood at the time, he was blacklisted and found it nearly impossible to find work.
Though I didn’t understand why we were visiting my father in a hospital or what was wrong with him, I knew that as the only child it was my duty to be there. It never occurred to me to ask why my mother didn’t come along. I just knew I was being her “brave little man.” Looking back, I see I’d become the family “care-taker,” whose job it was to take care of my parents and act as a bridge between them.
It was a two-hour drive from our home in the San Fernando Valley to Camarillo State Mental Hospital, just north of Los Angeles. The hospital looked like one of the old California missions with palm trees in front, a big bell tower in the center, and adobe buildings with grassy lawns. But as we got closer, I noticed the windows. They weren’t like ours at home. There were thick bars over these windows, which were painted puke pink, like dried-up Pepto-Bismol.
Once inside the hospital, we were told we could meet my father in the visitors’ room. There he was, sitting in the back. He jumped to his feet when he saw us. Although I wanted to run to him, I held back. My father looked strange. His hair was messed up, his clothes hung loosely on him, and he had a wild gleam in his eyes I had never seen before. He looked like he had shaved himself with a pocket knife, and there were small bits of food in the corners of his mouth. He walked toward us, picked me up and hugged me, but he seemed agitated and quickly put me down.
He suggested we go for a “stroll” on the grounds. I was glad to go outside, and those words calmed me. We had often gone for strolls at a park near our home in Sherman Oaks, and I can still picture my father hoisting me on his shoulders. I felt safe and on top of the world during those strolls, but that was before he was hospitalized.
It was a beautiful day outside, with soft white clouds floating peacefully by. We sat on a bench and looked out at the mountains in the distance, but my father was anything but peaceful. “You’ve got to get me out of here,” he implored, reaching out and grabbing Uncle Harry’s shoulder.
“Take it easy.” Uncle Harry tried to calm him down with his soft words and kind smile. “The doctors say you just need some time to rest and recuperate.”
My father jumped to his feet and started pacing and talking rapidly. “I don’t get any rest here. This is a crazy house. All I get are drugs and shots, and now they’re talking about shock treatments for my brain. Get me the hell out of here! Jeezus, Harry, I got a little depressed because I couldn’t find work to support my wife and son. Is that a crime I should be locked up for?”
Harry got up and put his hand on my father’s arm like he was gentling a frightened colt. “I’ll talk to the doctors, I promise. Just calm down. I’m sure you’ll get out soon,” he said quietly.
I was confused and scared. Why was my father in this place, and what kind of place was this? Why did he call it a “crazy house?” My uncle’s assurance, “you’ll get out soon,” didn’t come soon enough for my father.
My uncle came to visit my father every Sunday, and I went with him. Being a dutiful son was something I had learned early. The story of why my father was in a mental hospital, however, emerged slowly. I came to understand from overhearing my mother and uncle talking that my father had suffered a “nervous breakdown.” He had become increasingly depressed because he couldn’t support his family, and finally took an overdose of sleeping pills.
In my child’s mind, I saw my father as a failure because he couldn’t take care of his family. In fact, I felt responsible. Since I was the newest family member on the scene, I reasoned that I must have been the cause of his breakdown. I grew up wondering what happened to my father and whether it would happen to me. I’m sure, subconsciously, I went into the mental health field in hopes of curing my father and warding off any “craziness” I may have inherited.
It took me years to understand that my father wasn’t a failure. In fact, he was a hero. He was a man trapped in the “man box,” which demanded that a man be strong, silent, tough, and the sole breadwinner of the family – in spite of the fact that, like many men both then and now, he couldn’t find work no matter how hard he tried. His breakdown was the only way he could escape from the societal constraints that were killing him.
When I was forty, I found his personal journals, with entries leading up to his hospitalization. They chronicled his struggle, desperation, and eventual despair. It helped me understand what he was up against and to understand my own struggles with depression over the years.
June 4th: Sunday morning, my humanness has fled, my sense of comedy has gone down the drain. I’m tired, hopelessly tired, surrounded by an immense brick wall, a blood-spattered brick wall that is splattered with my blood, with the blood of my head, where I senselessly banged to find an opening, to find one loose brick, so I could feel the cool breeze and could stick out my hand and pluck a handful of wheat. But this brick wall is impregnable; not an ounce of mortar loosens, not a brick gives.
July 5th: I stand naked, untrained, and my body and spirit have turned to water. I am confused and desperate. I have so much, so very much. The most gracious, lovely, tender, understanding mate any human being could ask for. I have a sweet, growing, elfin son. And I can’t find bread to feed them.
August 2nd: Your flesh crawls, your scalp wrinkles when you look around and see good writers, established writers, writers with credits a block long, unable to sell their work, unable to find work, Yes, it’s enough to make anyone blanch, turn pale and sicken.
September 12th: Faster, faster, faster, I walk. I plug away, looking for work, anything to support my family. I try, try, try, try, try. I always try and never stop.
November 8th: 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 in early November, 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.
Three days after this last journal entry, he took the overdose of pills that led to his hospitalization.
Becoming a mental health professional didn’t enable me to cure my dad, but it did help me understand his struggles and the stress so many men feel when society demands they be the “breadwinner,” even when that may not always be preferable or even possible. My father would have been a great stay-at-home dad, and my mother loved to work outside the home, but each were caught up in roles that kept them from being themselves.
When I become a father, I thought to myself, I’m going to do things differently. The birth of my first child changed my life. I wanted to be a great father, but I was afraid I’d screw things up. My wife, Carlin, and I practiced Lamaze techniques and took birthing classes together. She wanted me to be in the delivery room with her, so I could experience the beauty and wonder of childbirth. The idea sounded good, and all our friends were doing it. But still, I worried. I passed out once when I had my teeth cleaned. I wasn’t good with pain and wondered whether I could deal with my wife’s pain and still remain standing.
The labor was a long one, and my wife practiced the breathing techniques we had learned in class. I did my best to coach her and gave her chips of ice to wet her dry lips. By the time we heard, “Let’s get her into the delivery room,” I wanted to go all the way through the birth. But I was told to go to the waiting room and they’d let me know when I could see the baby.
I was both relieved and disappointed. By then I didn’t think I’d pass out. I wanted to be with my wife and see our newborn child. However, being a good boy, I followed doctor’s orders and walked to the waiting room. But I didn’t even make it through the doors. In the quiet of the hallway, I felt the presence of my soon-to-be-born son calling to me, “I don’t want a waiting room father. Your place is here with us.”
I reversed direction, found the delivery room, pushed through the doors and took my place beside my wife. She smiled through her pain and I held her hand as our son, Jemal, came into the world. Amidst tears of joy and relief, we looked at each other and at our newborn son with a love we had never known before. The nurse handed him to me, and as I looked into his eyes, I made a vow: “I will be a different kind of father than my father was for me. I will do everything I can to help bring about a world where fathers are fully engaged with their families throughout their lives.”
When I took days off from work to be with my wife and our baby, we learned the basics of child care together. We both got up at night to change our son, comfort him, or just look in wonder at him as he slept. We talked to him, played with him and fed him, though my wife had the advantage of having breasts, so in essence, “the lunch counter was always open.” I had to go back to work after a month, but even in that month, my son and I bonded.
When Jemal was a year and a half old, my wife announced that she wanted to visit a friend. “Listen,” she told me. “I need some time away. I love our son, but I need a break.”
I smiled and said, “Sure, I can take off some time from work. How long do you want to be away?” I was thinking a few days.
“I’d like to take two weeks,” she said.
My first thought was that I’d already used up my vacation time when Jemal was born. I wondered if we could afford for me to be off work. I was also worried about whether I could handle taking care of our baby for two whole weeks by myself.
Being with Jemal when he was born helped me feel comfortable caring for a newborn. But I felt I was just filling in for my wife, that she was always there to take over, if needed. Mothers have special expertise they acquire through months of carrying the baby inside their body, expertise that dads can never learn. I saw my know-how kicking in when he was old enough to play basketball and I could teach him how to dribble with either hand, and master a jump shot.
Deep down, I felt terrified. What if he starts crying and I don’t know what to do? What if something happens to him while my wife is away? What if I just freak out? The only thing that calmed me down was my wife’s quiet assurances, “I trust you to take care of our son; things will be all right. You’ll do fine,” she said. “And I really do need to get away and see my friends.”
Jemal and I both waved good-bye as she drove off. We spent the first day playing and feeding. I cleaned up both of us after a spaghetti dinner that had way too much sauce. We had fun … although the first night was scary. What if something happens during the night? What if he cries, and I don’t hear him? Gradually, as the days went by, my fears subsided. Some of my men friends came to visit, taking turns holding Jemal while he smiled and gurgled. Women friends from our baby-sitting co-op were impressed with my wife’s willingness to leave our son with me, and with my skill and engagement as a new father. Somehow we made it through the two weeks my wife was away.
She came back refreshed and invigorated, though she seemed a bit surprised when I said things had gone wonderfully well. Jemal was overjoyed that she had returned. He and I shared a secret look of delight: The boys did all right, even with mom away.
I still believe that moms have some special sauce that only women possess. But I also believe there is something unique that only dads bring to a family. When he got older, my son gave some examples. “Our play was more rough-and-tumble, and I loved that with you. When I would share my music, Mom just loved everything I did, while you were more honest in telling me what you liked and didn’t like, and how I could improve.” I felt proud knowing I had a unique, fatherly perspective that my son valued.
Although he never met my father while he was growing up, my son inherited his artistic talents. Jemal wrote poetry and began acting in high school plays.
After I wrote my first book, Inside Out: Becoming My Own Man, in 1983, I received a letter from a reader. “I know your father, and can tell you how to reach him.” I hadn’t seen my father in many years.
We reconnected, he met my family, and learned he had a grandson. I arranged for the three of us to get together. My father and my son read their poetry aloud. I read excerpts from my book. It was a magical encounter that made me proud of our male lineage that continues with the birth of my grandson, Jonovan.
Having been in a men’s group for nearly forty years, I know that “male energy” is different from female. As a biology major in college, I learned that every cell in a male body has an XY set of chromosomes, and an XX pair in a female body. I love the idea that every cell in my body vibrates to a certain male frequency, and creates a symphony that is deep and beautiful, vibrant and loving.
Writing this, I think about my father. I know that his father struggled to support his family, never felt successful, and was often withdrawn and depressed. The doctors did not discharge my father from the hospital as he had hoped. In fact, he became sicker, and our family was told he would probably need to be in the hospital for years and in fact might never leave. Eventually, my mother got a divorce.
Even though the doctors had given up on my father, he never gave up on himself. After seven years in the hospital my father was given a pass to go off the grounds for lunch with my uncle. He told Harry he needed to get stamps at the post office, crossed the street and never came back. My uncle looked but never found him, and returned alone to the hospital to tell them their patient had escaped.
My father walked for three days and eventually made it back to Los Angeles. He never returned to a mental hospital. His story had a happy ending, including our reconnection and reconciliation. He changed his name to Tommy Roberts, so the authorities wouldn’t find him. He became a puppeteer in San Francisco and brought joy to hundreds of children and their parents. As a much beloved and well-known street performer, he achieved a level of celebrity he had never known in New York.
When he died at age ninety, we gathered in the visitors’ room of his apartment house on Turk. A reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle attended the service and wrote an article, “Requiem for a Puppet Man,” that celebrated his life. Here’s an excerpt.
Over the past 30 years, Roberts had a way of showing up on college campuses and in city parks with paper bags full of ragged homemade hand puppets. The puppets, only slightly smaller than their 4-foot, 8-inch master, would proceed to recite Roberts’ poems.
The crowd jammed every seat and spilled out into the hallway. They signed the memorial book. They snatched up free copies of Roberts’ poems.
“Because of you,” said one, “old madness has new meaning. Because of you, my tongue is no longer lead.”
“By the standards of society, my father was not a success,” said his son Jed Diamond. “He didn’t make a lot of money. He was labeled as mentally ill. He liked to live among people that society pretends do not exist. Einstein said that one should strive to be not a man of success, but a man of value,” his son said. “My father was a man of value.”
Paper cups of bright red punch were raised all around.
“Him and me, we got along good,” said the guy down the hall. “He was the puppet man.”
I feel blessed to be the son of the puppet man, the father of Jemal and the grandfather of Jonovan. And as a psychotherapist and author of fifteen books about men’s health and wellbeing, I’m doing everything I can to bring about a world where fathers are fully engaged with their families.
Jed Diamond is a licensed psychotherapist with a Ph.D. in International Health and Master’s degree in Social Work. His passion is to help men do three things: live a fully authentic life; love deeply and well; and make a positive difference in the world. For fifty years he has been a pioneer in the field of gender medicine and men’s health. Please visit him at www.MenAlive.com. He’ll enjoy hearing from you.