Group therapy started several weeks after my individual sessions.
“I could summarize my therapy with three C’s,” Alfonzo told the eight of us that first group, holding up his three middle fingers for added effect. “Confession. Confrontation. Communion. First you confess your story–tell someone your life, expose your shame. Then you confront those who wronged you in some way, which is why we have the batting station over there. And finally, and most importantly, you commune with the Divine through the act of reparenting. Without this final step, receiving the love you were denied as a child, no true healing occurs. A Course in Miracles says it all: ‘Only love is real, all else, illusion.’ A loveless mind is a mind in error. And a mind in error can only be corrected with the help of my therapy and the aid of reparenting.”
Understanding Alfonzo through his Spanish accent was sometimes difficult, but everything he said about only love being real, all else illusion, made sense to me, much more than the Catholic doctrines of my youth, which had taught me sin and forgiveness. I listened to him, we all listened to him, as he continued on about his theories around reparenting, which, he explained, had evolved over the course of his own therapy, beginning in the late 1960’s with Arthur Janov, the supposed “inventor” of Primal Therapy, at his Primate Institute in Los Angeles.
“It’s amazing to me now, the fact that Janov never thought to bring us mommy. All of us, a sea of primal patients, all lying on our own mattresses in a room as big as a gymnasium, crying out for mommy’s love, and Janov never thought to give us the obvious: mommy’s love. Reparenting with the mother, and to a lesser degree, the father–it’s the glue that holds that baby’s mind together. It’s the missing link in all of psychotherapy, and I discovered it. Such is the level of denial of the male mind. But of course you can’t get to mommy and daddy before going through yourself.”
He stopped talking long enough to look at us one at a time, as if each were an obstacle course he was about to begin. “So, who wants to go first? Who wants to confess their shame?”
All our eyes turned to the floor.
An image of Brother Roberts, my grade nine sex education teacher, popped into my mind: the way he roamed the aisles of our class, all of our faces, mine included, buried in our books as we prayed he wouldn’t call on us to read aloud from our textbook.
“Okay then. We start at one end and go in a circle.”
Just like sex education class, I was sitting somewhere in the middle, time enough to mentally prepare, or maybe even to pray for the hour to end before it was my turn to speak.
First up was Aimee, who, before even opening her mouth, I could see was anorexic. Her voice, when she started explaining her reasons for not eating, was frailer than bone china. “Speak up,” Alfonzo repeated throughout her meek, disjointed soliloquy, each time that he did her fossil-like arms wrapping tighter and tighter around her body.
She lasted one week, and when Alfonzo told us she would not be returning to the group, he added that her eating disorder, her refusal to feed her body, was directly related to her fear of love. “Love is to the self what food is to the body,” he told the group. “Without it you die. You understand what I’m talking about, don’t you Peter?” Everyone turned and looked at me. Alfonzo smiled. I blushed but said nothing, embarrassed as if being singled out in class.
Ronnie, a mid-thirties University student who wore faded Bob Marley t-shirts and seemed to “like men,” shared his story about his wife he’d not had sex with for over three years. “I don’t know what her problem is,” he explained, tugging at his dread-locked hair. “Maybe there’s nothing wrong with her,” Alfonzo reproached. “Maybe there’s something wrong with you.”
He lasted one week longer than the love-starved anorexic. Presumably, when Alfonzo called his home to check up on him, his wife said that he’d dropped off the face of the earth and that no one, not even she, could find him.
“One day he’ll show up,” Alfonzo told us in the group the following week. “And when he does, he’ll still have the same problems that he left with when he disappeared.”
“My sixteen year old daughter’s the problem,” Samantha, a late-thirties single mother, shared with the group. “She stays out late, comes home drunk, skips school, and now I’ve met her drop-out boyfriend, who I’m sure is a member of some gang.”
“So why are you here?” Alfonzo asked.
“Well I wanted her to come but she refused.”
“So why are you here?” Alfonzo repeated.
“I don’t know. My daughter’s the problem.”
“Okay. Get on the mattress.”
“Lie on the mattress and let’s see what’s inside you.”
And so she did, reluctantly, moving her arms and legs as if she were under water, the sound of her voice bubbling up but blocked somewhere between her chest and throat. After twenty minutes on the mattress her body broke open, like a Pandora’s Box.
“You think I wanted you?” she screamed while thrashing on the mattress, eyes locked shut, limbs like clubs against the insulating mattress beneath her. “You think I wanted to have some ungrateful brat I never loved, never wanted, never asked to have and now I have to support and feed and worry about all the time? I wish you’d die, just die, die and leave me to my life so I can live my life, goddamit!”
The woman’s eyes flashed open and she tumbled off the mattress and toward the door while looking back as if the mattress itself had possessed her into what she’d said, into what she’d felt, into what had come from her.
She left before the end of the hour. We never saw her again.
Week after week, like characters killed off in an Agatha Christie novel, another patient disappeared from the group until all but myself of the original ten little Indians had been replaced with new patients from an ever-growing list of patients referred to Alfonzo for treatment.
When it was my turn to share, to confess my shame, I told them all, the ever-changing cast of characters, about the first time, after the time in my elementary school toilet, I was sexual with another man. I was thirteen years old.
I had skipped out of school and was downtown, alone. A crater-faced man passed me on the street. He smiled. A smile was all it took. I glanced back. He returned and asked what I was up to. “Not much,” I said, “just walking around.” He told me to meet him at his apartment later that afternoon. Then he was gone and all I could think about was maybe getting from him what I could not find in anyone else.
For over an hour I waited outside his apartment. Three-thirty. . .four o’clock. . .four-thirty. My parents would be expecting me home from school, but I couldn’t leave. Leave and return home as I had left, as I left every morning: in need? Finally, at five o’clock he arrived, strolling along the street. “Oh hello,” he said, without an apology or an explanation for being two hours late. “I’m glad you’re here. Let’s go upstairs.”
Once in his apartment he told me to get undressed and to lie on his bed. He scared me. He was tall and scraggly and ugly. But I did as I was told, ashamed at my still-hairless body that I knew would contrast against his own of at least three times my age. When he stripped I saw his penis, like a club, hanging between his legs. “Lie on your stomach” he ordered. I wanted to leave. What was I doing? I imagined my mother at the stove, preparing dinner for us all, my dad arriving home, tired from a hard day’s work. “Where’s Peter?” they’d ask. “He should have been home hours ago. Where’s our baby boy?”
His pubic hairs were like bristles against my smooth behind. When he stabbed himself inside me, lightning ripped through my body and my body jumped off the bed and ran away and apart at the seams: hysterical, naked and torn, bleeding, in pain like jagged glass through bone, raw and unbearable.
After that I didn’t know what happened. My mind must have fallen out of time. I must have calmed, some time later stopped the tears and dressed: put on my underwear, pants, shirt, socks, shoes, coat. I must have left his apartment and walked out the door, walking one foot in front of the other down the street and to the bus: stood and rode the however-many-minutes it would have taken me to arrive home, where I must have entered the house and explained, stepped outside myself as from a room in order to explain, to lie, cogently, articulating one word, sound, syllable after another about why I was arriving home three hours late from school. I must have done all of that. But I couldn’t remember.
“There’s nothing gay about being gay, is there Peter?” Alfonzo said from across the workroom as I finished sharing my story, chilled, but tearless, with the group. “In all my years as a psychiatrist, I’ve never met one happy homosexual.”
I could not deny that I had struggled with my homosexuality for years, and that it had made me unhappy. I was lost for words. In my silence, Natie, an older, deeply commanding woman from the group, spoke up.
“Maybe the reason why you’ve never met a happy homosexual is because you’re a psychiatrist,” she said, “trained to treat unhappy people, gay or straight. Besides, Peter’s story had nothing to do with his homosexuality. He was raped!”
“Are you challenging my lifetime of experience?” he snarled at her. Natie was a therapist herself, as I’d learned through the course of our sessions, so her opinion seemed to matter to Alfonzo above the quibblings of the other patients. “You had better shut up–or else.”
Later that night, after my writing workshops at school, I arrived home to a phone message.
“Peter, it’s Dr. Alfonzo. How are you? That was quite a session today, wasn’t it? Peter, please don’t give up hope. My thoughts and love are with you. You’re not alone.”
Love? Not alone? I rewound the message and listened to it again. And again. In all the time since coming out to my parents, almost two years earlier, even they had never said such supportive words to me, on or off the phone.
I started to cry.
“You don’t have to say it like that,” I said, lowering my eyes.
“Isn’t that what it was?”
“I skipped out of school. I told you.”
“Why? What was going on at home?”
I looked at him, but said nothing, knew only that I could not be at home. Or at school. Both had been worse than wandering the streets, alone, downtown.
“Lie down,” he said.
In the months that I’d been working with Alfonzo, my regressions on the mattress had been like diving back into a wreck, the furthest reaches of my past where events and circumstances, like images caught on film, played through me, the moviola of my body, once again. I never knew just what to expect, which memories I would have to swim through and survive, until I lay down, closed my eyes, breathed deeply, and started to move.
When I did, there was my thirteenth birthday, the cake my mother had baked complete with candles and a song after dinner, and the feeling of depression settling into my young body like an influenza that I could not fight; wanting instead to go to bed, to turn life off, as if unconsciousness could hide me from myself. It never did. In sleep my dreams enunciated everything I could not bear the weight of while awake. In one I stood inside my parents bathroom when I realized my thumb had been severed from my hand and that I’d have to fix it, somehow reattach it to my body, myself; but then my mother was banging on the door, wanting to see, to help, to know what had happened; but I was hysterical, panicked, without a thumb, crazed and alone inside the bathroom and I could not breathe, could not scream for her to go away, to leave me to my shame, or what I wanted most of all: for her to come and somehow help me make me into who I was when I was whole.
There were dinners, seeing all seven of us around the kitchen table as my father joked with my two older brothers that they’d better not talk back to him or else he’d stuff them in a potato sack and tie it up so they could never get out again. Everyone would laugh, or at least smile. Potato sacks aren’t big enough for my brothers, I’d think, yet understood his message perfectly well: We were not, under any circumstance, at any time, to speak back to our father. If we did we were slapped across our face; or else he told our mother to pass him the “fakanál”–a wooden spoon in Hungarian, pronounced “fuck-u-null”–which usually meant that someone was about to get the slapping of their lives. Every night Walter Cronkite’s voice could be heard from our black and white Fleetwood console in the living room, telling us of Vietnam and Watergate and the atomic bomb. It seemed the world was splintered into pieces: filled with betrayal and heartache, at war with itself, imploding and coming to an end.
Later, after dinner and the dishes, my brothers and I repeated our father’s Hungarian word, “fakanál,” while forcing its first syllable through our lips and back and forth at each other like darts hurled through the air. “And that’s the way it is,” Walter Cronkite signed out in the background of our lives, as we raced around the house, chanting “fakanál. . . fakanál. . . fakanál.”
“Where are you now?” Alfonzo asked, and then I was remembering, seeing with eyes I’d never used before, the night my oldest sister, Sara, ran away from home. She was sixteen. I was eight.
“Okay, keeping moving,” he said. “And don’t forget to breathe.”
In the workroom I was on the mattress, moving and breathing, but in my mind I was in the den, sitting on the floor, the multi-colored shag carpet, watching The Brady Bunch with my other older siblings when Sara entered the room holding a bundle of laundry. No one paid her much attention; but as she walked past us I looked up and she looked down and in that moment, that fractured, timeless glance, I saw her eyes, a searing, searching look inside her eyes. Then she was gone, around the corner and down the stairs and, as I learned later that night, out of the house and our lives like an unwelcomed guest taking flight.
“Keep talking,”Alfonzo said as I continued to breathe, to move, to see me lying in bed, later that night, after my mother found Sara’s note. “Your sister doesn’t want to live with us anymore,” she’d said, shutting my door and leaving me adrift at sea. When I cried I begged for God to tell me why, why life took from me my sister that I loved. But no one answered, not God, not my parents. There was only silence and pain: the breaking apart of what was supposed to have always remained whole.
“Daddy’s bringing Sara home tonight,” I heard my older brother, Sandor, telling me; and then I saw us, weeks later, crouched beneath the kitchen table, peering through the rain-streaked window, beyond our fenced-in yard, down the potholed laneway, at Daddy: dragging Sara by her golden hair as she kicked and punched him like an untamed animal being dragged back to its pen for the slaughter. When they entered the house, through the basement below, their screams were like a fire that burst us all up in flames. “Sit at the table and eat your dinner,” our mother, our protector, ordered my siblings and me before Sara ran past us, escaped her beating in the basement to run up the stairs, through the kitchen and around the corner to the bathroom, as our father, her captor, closed in on her like the moment of her death; and all of it, the beating and the screaming and the fear, the threat that I could be next, that if he did it to her he could do it to me, was all like an ice storm to my body.
“Go to the bat,” Alfonzo ordered. I didn’t want to, wanted instead to hide, to do what I knew and allow the quicksand called despair to take me in its fold; but I crawled to the batting station, as instructed.
I had not yet learned to talk and found no words, like tools, to use against my father.
“Just keep batting,” I heard Alfonzo, my leader, say. “Breathe and bat and stare at the X.”
From nowhere I had known before a rage pulsed through me, like all the inmates of my prisons were breaking out, all at once, and all I had to do was breathe, gutturally punch the air before me, and bat. Breathe, bat, and visualize all the years I’d imagined grabbing the kitchen knife and stabbing it into him, into both my parents, and seeing the blood, the pool of red tar, oozing out of their heads and across the shiny linoleum floor. Those thoughts, as a child, were bigger than my body, were rage that blistered, then, unexpressed, deflated, leaving me numb inside an igloo of depression. Now I was breaking out, through years of ice, one bat at a time, and back into the rage.
When I finally stopped batting several minutes later because of the sweat pouring down my face, stinging my eyes, puddling my back, my chest, preventing me from gripping the bat one moment longer–when I stopped and fell back into a sitting position still tightly holding the bat, panting like a dog whose owner had forced it on a run, no one spoke. For several minutes, neither one of us exchanged a word.
“I guess that’s it,” I said, dropping the bat, wiping my brow, crawling back to the mattress, where my session had begun.
I looked to him for guidance. He looked at me and waited, knowing, no doubt, what I had not yet learned. Clearing away the rage had allowed the underbrush of mourning to appear. And it did, moments later.
“Lie back down and move,” I think he said, but by then I could barely hear him, could not follow instructions, thought nothing, really, was already awash in tears, mourning a constellation of losses.
He touched my chest, gently guided me back.
“Move,” he said, “keep moving.” I tried but there was nothing I could do but cry, as powerless to the sadness as a shore is to its waves.
And then it stopped. My body, in its infinite wisdom, knowing it had accomplished all it could for one day, stopped its crying.
“Good work,” he said as I lay there, spent.
After my father returned home from the factory every night, sometimes he talked to me about God, His love for all His children. Secretly I wanted to ask how God could love His children, but he, my father, beat his own. But I didn’t dare. The only questions we were allowed to ask were those that reinforced the righteousness of his beliefs. If we ever disagreed with anything he said, exerted our own minds over his or contradicted him in any way, punishment was meted out accordingly.
But one night, instead of God he started talking about Sara, which surprised me because he’d hardly mentioned her in the six years she’d been living with a foster family. “She had the devil in her,” he said. “You don’t want to end up like her. You’re a good boy. She was a troublemaker.”
“No she wasn’t,” I shot back, knowing better than to respond, but unable to contain myself.
“What did you say?”
The tremor of his chin and a burn in his eyes warned me of what was to follow.
“Bloody hell. . .”
He raised his hand like a paddle, backed me into a corner of the kitchen. I darted past him, heard the snap of his belt buckle, like a bullwhip, and ran, as if trying to run outside me, through the living room, the dining room, up the wooden stairs and down the hallway to my room.
Once inside I locked the door as he pounded up the stairs in the distance. Then he was on the other side, banging with fists for me to open up and let him in.
“Open this door! This is my house, this is my door, as long as you live in my house you will open my door!”
Nothing, not one word, breath, escaped my body. Everything, all fear, incomprehension, knotted in my belly. Then a stiffness I did not want or understand swelled between my legs. Outside, my father gave up and returned, I suppose, to my mother and The Lawrence Welk Show; but in my room, crazed with tension, like angular objects jabbing in and out of me, I rubbed my pants to stop the stiffness. Then something exploded, like a pipe bursting down below, was shooting out of me and a flush of light-headedness spun me down as the release of all of everything that had been trapped inside me, seeped into my pants. On the floor, chilled, sweating, still dizzy, I unzipped and looked with horror at the goo, a sticky, whitish blood, oozing from my penis. I had broken myself. Oh God oh God oh God. . .forgive me, please, forgive me. . .
Later, after I didn’t die from shame, all that remained was the experience that what came out of me had released me from my self when I was still too young to escape, or like my sister before me, run away from home. Whatever it was called, whatever I had done, all I wanted was to do it again, and again, for it to come out of me again, and again. . .
That same year, in grade nine, I started sex education class at my Catholic high school. Like a revised Book of Revelation, the final chapter of our textbook was devoted entirely to the lifestyle of the homosexual–beginning with their choice to act on an immoral and intrinsically disordered behavior, and ending with their self-imposed exile, misery, diseased body, and assured annihilation.
If I thought of anything during the hours of English, French, Mathematics, Catechism, History, and Social Studies, I thought only of how I could divide myself in two, like a wishbone, straying as far away from my desires as possible. The fact that I had Final Chapter Tendencies did not mean that I would have to become a Final Chapter, I told myself. I could control my urges, my behavior.
Instead of homework each evening I listened to music. Elton John’s “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” Three Dog Night’s “The Show Must Go On.” The Rolling Stones scared me because Sara had listened to the Stones and now she was gone. Maybe if I listened to the Stones then I, too, would end up like her: an outcast, unloved, a run-away and living on the street. So I listened to Queen, lip-synching and acting out the lyrics to “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality.
Despite my prayers the blinding light of day forced me up and out of the house and back to school where facts and figures from all my classes flowed over me. Nothing stuck, sunk in, was absorbed, retained. If the Catholic Brothers didn’t mock me, make fun of my endless failed exams, my sixteen percents, then the boys crowded around me during recess like crows around a carcass, chanting my surname, pronounced “gay dicks,” all I’m sure because they’d sensed in me a sensitivity they knew could not defend itself against aggression. Escaping was as easy as raising my hand during class, pretending to go to the bathroom, then, instead, running out the backdoor of the school and busing downtown.
And that’s where I was–downtown, one Monday morning–when I noticed a man three times my age wink, lick his lips, and motion for me to follow; and follow I did: for over twenty minutes as we wound our way through a crowded shopping mall, into a parkade, then down what seemed like coils of concrete stairs that bottomed near a single exit door. The stink of piss and cum dizzied my mind as the stranger pushed me up against the concrete wall and kissed me, hard, on the lips; held my hands above my head and devoured me, as I did him, each of us like sexual cannibals, starved for what the other had to give. When I opened my eyes two other men were above us, five steps up, like on a balcony, rubbing their crotches through their bulging 501’s and kissing, then entering each other while spitting, sweating, watching.
After that I skipped out of school every day. Back and forth, I walked the crowded shopping malls for hours, from one public washroom to another, then down into the guts of that parkade. If I held a man and told him that I loved him, I also knew I’d never have to see him again so it didn’t matter what I said. Some of them scrawled their names and numbers on a piece of paper, and as I walked away I’d see their faces, hopeful that I’d call them one day soon. I would smile–always the polite, Catholic boy–and tell them that I would, then throw their number away as soon as they were out of sight. The world of sex with men had nothing to do with who I was in my real life, I told myself. Sex with men was something that I did, a force that took hold of me, like my father’s angry fist. It was not who I was. And always, when I got on the bus to return home, sex with men was part of another world that I left where it belonged: downtown.
Hitchhiking was what I learned when I saw a boy my age stick out his thumb and a car pull over. Days later I followed suit, and sure enough a car pulled over for me. The man inside asked me how far I was going. “All the way,” I told him. Halfway home he began to rub his hand over my leg. Within the month I was hitchhiking home every night, and being picked up by a different man two or three times my age. When they pushed me down into their crotches, shutting my eyes could not stop the ugliness from staring back at me, and the shame from making me do the things that I did not want to do. Sometimes I asked them why they liked to “do it with guys.” Mostly, we never talked at all.
Maintaining the contradiction that my life had become grew increasingly difficult. Fear of discovery was always imminent. Once, during dinner when I was seventeen, I told my parents that I thought I was a Final Chapter. They just stared at me, as if I’d spoken a foreign language. And in a sense I had. But having said that much, codified as it were, released the pressure to tell them all, to tear the mask completely off the actor, then live to regret it.
Every night I prayed for God to take me in my sleep, and every morning I awoke to feel my body, alive and heavy with despair. Why was I sentenced to a life of sin? Why did God hate me so? How was it even possible that I was “becoming” as my surname, “gay-dicks,” implied, while my two older brothers, by every indication, weren’t. I could escape nearly anything except my name. How was this possible? Often I could think of nothing at all, and felt only numb and lifeless. Through the fog of my depression I could hear my siblings ask me what was wrong; but at sixteen, then seventeen, eighteen years old, lying catatonic, face up on my bed, there were secrets from my past, and fears about my future, that I could not share with anyone.
“So, how does it feel, now that you’re sharing?” Alfonzo asked me in his private office, when we were alone after one of my groups.
“Like I’ve dropped twenty pounds. Like I want to run away and hide.”
“And the therapy in general? How are you finding the therapy?”
“Draining. I have to go home and sleep afterward I’m so exhausted.”
“That’ll pass. In the meantime you should take extra B vitamins.”
“For the stress. Overall, though, you find it helping?”
Was it helping? I didn’t quite know what he meant, or how to respond. I felt worse than when I started, but I figured that was normal. Poison rising to the surface before draining from the body, I told myself.
“I want to cry all the time. At work, at the Student Union Building when I’m serving up chili. It can be a bit embarrassing.”
“At some point you may have to take medication. For your own good. But we can talk about that another time. What about sex?”
“What about it?”
“Are you still having sex with men?”
Despite having shared my sexual history, my shame, in group and with Alfonzo personally, I’d still not talked much about my current life situation. “I had sex last week. I went to a bathhouse, here, in the city.”
“So, did it help?” he asked, with an edge of sarcasm.
“Did you get what you were looking for?”
I looked at him, unsure of how to respond. Clearly, by his expression, there was one, and only one, acceptable answer. “No,” I said, not quite believing myself, but knowing we could now proceed.
“Well then maybe you’re starting to learn a thing or two? This isn’t all a waste of time? You know, Peter, at some point you’re going to have to make a choice between sex with men, or therapy. You’re like a chocolate addict who wants to go on a diet but doesn’t want to give up his fix. I don’t think any therapist would treat you while you’re off fucking in a bush.”
I was not off fucking in a bush, but I received his words as if they’d been hammered into me, into the same spot inside myself with all my other shame.
“I understand your difficulty,” he continued. “Believe me. I’ve been on this path since before you were born. Not with men, but with my own demons. Like you, my therapy was forced upon me. It was sink or swim. I had no parents to guide me.”
“You didn’t have a father?”
“My father died when I was young.”
“My father was a writer, like you. Completely outspoken. He had his own press, nothing fancy, just a little newspaper where he wrote articles against Franco and his army. One day they came to our house, took my father outside, lined him up with all the dissidents, and they shot him to death.”
“You saw this?”
“And a lot more.”
“How old were you?”
“Five, maybe six.”
“Where was your mother?”
“My mother couldn’t help me. No one could help me. I was alone before I knew how to talk.”
“So, you’re mother raised you alone?
“Me and my brother, but. . .let’s just say my mother knew how to twist the knife.”
“What do you mean?”
He smiled. “You know what I mean. Our curriculum may be different, Peter, but we’re all in the same school. I left Spain to get away from her, her and my wife. Another woman who knew just how to twist the knife. Twist and turn.”
“You were married?”
“For a time. I have a son back in Spain. I hope to bring him here soon. I think he needs to get away from his mother. Before it’s too late.”
“How long have you been in Canada?”
“Just over twenty years. I graduated from McGill and then I worked at the Allan Memorial Institute, in Montreal. I was at the forefront of treating gay couples when you were still in diapers.”
Alfonzo’s disclosure, his willingness to share so much about his life story, surprised me, especially considering his past reluctance to do so. But I liked that we were talking, that he was talking about himself. The inner sanctum of his thoughts and feelings were a cave into which I wanted to take recluse.
“Was this before you were with Janov?”
“Before, yes. I started therapy with Daniel Casriel in New York. Have you read his book, A Scream Away From Happiness?”
“You should. But then I heard about Janov, and his Institute in LA. After a couple of years with Janov I got a job in a hospital in Quebec. That’s when the fun and games began. I built my own sound-insulated workroom, next to my office, continued on with my primal sessions, alone. Every day, between seeing my own patients, I’d lock myself in my office and I’d lie down on the mattress and the tears–well let’s just say there was a sea inside and it wasn’t long before I was drowning in it. I primaled and I primaled, without a life raft–I primaled till there was nothing left of me to primal. Till my child self was completely wiped out.”
“What do you mean, ‘wiped out’?”
“The tether connecting me to the mother ship had been severed. It was my dark night of the soul: an emptying of the well of my identity. My mind was shattered. You think you’ve known grief? Anxiety and panic attacks overwhelmed my system. My sleep deteriorated. The amount of medication I was taking, just to function, would have killed a horse. To this day I don’t know how I maintained the illusion of being a practicing psychiatrist for as many years as I did. Reparenting was something that I stumbled on by accident. There was a nurse at the hospital where I worked, a very warm and loving woman, a Mother Teresa figure. One day I asked her to hold me, privately, in my office. All I knew was that I needed to be held, and loved, that my child self needed to be nurtured. I never realized for a second the extent to which my child self depended on that love as a cure to all my grief. My dues have been paid with sweat and heartache. The fact is, Peter, I’m the only person alive doing this kind of therapy. No one else out there has figured out the obvious, that the child can only cry for so long before going into despair. That’s where you’ve been for the last, well–I don’t know that you’ve never not been in despair. We’re all running around the same track of life, Peter. The only difference between you and me is that I’m a little further ahead of the game than you are. That’s it.”
Back home, after my session, I thought about my father, the fact that he had never talked to me, to any of my siblings, about his life the way Alfonzo was already talking about his own. The only time I glimpsed my father’s history was when he played the piano–late at night, after dinner, or while we were readying ourselves for bed. Unlike my siblings and I, who all took lessons, my father could not read music; instead, his fingers seemed to simply channel storms raging in his heart.
Sometimes my brother, Sandor, and I joked when we were alone that daddy should have been a priest, because the only thing he talked about was God.
“Don’t you ever want to ask him about his own life?” I asked Sandor, one late night after lights out, “–where he came from?, who his father was? After all he was our grandfather too.”
“We didn’t have a grandfather, you know that.”
“Everyone has a grandfather.”
“Don’t ask him. You know we’re not supposed to.”
“Because you know what’ll happen if you do.”
I did know.
“What was your father like?” I’d asked him once. When his slap came, came without warning, the suddenness of his fury reduced me to ashes. I ran to my room. By the time my mother arrived to comfort me, I was crying into my pillow.
“Doesn’t he want me to know who he is?”
“He’s scared, that’s all,” she said. “He’s just scared.”
“One day he’ll be dead and I won’t be able to remember him,” I cried. “I won’t remember my own father because he didn’t want to tell me who he was.”
If I begged my mother when we were alone, sometimes then she offered up a sliver from his past, but always making me promise never to discuss any of it with him for fear of causing him more pain.
Growing up in 1930’s Hungary, she’d told me once, “bastard” was not a word that anyone said aloud, but my father always knew what he was, what the other children, and even some of their parents, called him behind his back. Abandoned by his mother as a child, sent into hiding outside of Budapest, every two years he was shuffled from one foster family to another, from one surrogate mother to another, but none belonged to him, knew or loved him as their own. His body had not come from theirs. Some nights he dreamt that one day he would find his way back into her arms, the arms of his birth mother. Then there would be wholeness again. Completion. Maybe then sleep might become restful, dreamless. When news of her death reached him at the age of 16, it was as if his hope, the blood and breath that kept his spirit alive, had been eviscerated. Now there would be no one, not even in his dreams, to show him the way.
When I left home, as a young adult, in addition to my books and a few pieces of clothing, I took with me my father’s shame, and confusion, his rootlessness, that later became my only map: all had been unknowingly lodged like splinters in the heart of me since childhood, bred into my soul, given new wings to soar inside of my young body. They became for me, as they had always been for him: inexhaustible.