Paranoid Dreams

This is a subject that I have resisted writing about for a long time but it will inform many further posts so I have to address it sooner or later…

Bernard Safran November 1965

Bernard Safran, November 1965.

It wasn’t clear to me for most of my life that my father suffered from a devastating mental illness til a few years ago when I took out my father’s personal journals after his death, and found meticulous entries recording the time and location of a neighbor in Bronxville, NY who went out twice a day to walk his dog. Since this neighbor lived down our street he would have to go past our house in one direction or down to a major road in the other – so naturally he went by our house frequently.

My father interpreted this as the neighbor spying on him, and every time the dog would defecate on our property my father took it as a personal threat and act of intimidation. The pages are manic in their details and start a few months before we finally left New York forever. Included are entries about his suspicions about the real estate agents and the people looking at the house for purchase. It is a wonder that the house ever sold.

1962 The Safrans (and family friend) about to leave the US

This is us in 1962 on the dock by our ship saying goodbye to my mother’s best friend in New York. My Dad is holding me – I’m in my pretty pink coat. Europe here we come!

His paranoia first became evident early in my life when I was just 2 years old. In the first few months of 1962 he received a paltry number of cover assignments and when some months passed without any work my parents decided to go away on a long trip to Europe. (He had signed on exclusively with Time in 1957 so this was his only source of income).

Our trip to Europe in the fall of 1962 was thus inspired because my father believed that the senior editors at Time Magazine were playing games with him due to his immense popularity – he believed they were teaching him a lesson to put him in his place.

One of the reasons we went to the Italian city of Florence was that my father wanted to study the art masterpieces there. Despite his best efforts he couldn’t get permission to copy paintings at the galleries even though many other artists were there doing just that. He believed Time had intervened – that somehow they were following him and influencing the Italian authorities. He grew so frantic about this that we were packed up and went instead to Munich, Germany so he could go see the Rubens paintings there.

My sister became very sick in Germany and we had to suddenly fly home. When we got back to Bronxville, it turned out that Time had been trying to get in touch to offer my father the 1963 Man of the Year cover of Pope John XXIII – a major and illustrious assignment. He felt tremendous relief when he got this – but when he later found that his painting had been severely damaged (deep long grooves slashed into the paint at the Time offices) he felt desperate again. Why had they done this?

By 1965, when my father left Time Magazine, he had formed a conspiracy in his mind about the men at Time. His story was that he had insulted Henry Luce Jr at a late night gathering and Luce fired him on the spot…. then blacklisted him, and set up a siege of intimidation and spying that lasted til the end of my father’s life.

Betty Safran c 1967

A not so happy Betty circa 1967.

From 1965 on my father’s behavior became extreme and a black cloud descended on our house. Everything the neighbors did was evidence that they were spying on us. Every job that fell through was evidence that he was blacklisted. Every wrong call, every crackle and click on the phone was evidence that our line was tapped. Every time I came home from a friend’s house I was interrogated – I was literally held at arms length and asked probing questions about what my friend’s parents said or did. By Grade 4, when my best friend moved away to Florida, I had no friends outside school. I spent most of my free time with my Nanny next door.

The paranoia followed us to Canada too. It must have driven him mad that we had a country party line and our neighbors could literally listen in to our phone conversations (we could too if we were interested in who’s cow had calved, and how their potatoes were coming and other country news). Time Magazine remained the puppet master in his mind – this time working through the art department and administration of Mount Allison University. I avoided going to the art school but was still regularly questioned since I knew other professors at Mount Allison who knew other people, and so on, and so on, and so on…Eventually I left the Maritime provinces to get as far away as I could – but it still continued.

Since I grew up with all of this it was especially hard for me to look objectively from the outside – much of what I accepted while I was growing up really seemed to be happening at the time. There is still a part of me that wants to believe he wasn’t paranoid and that we were spied on and he was blacklisted and his career destroyed for vengeance…

There were many sad outcomes from this sickness – the worst being that my father destroyed his career  – he trusted no one and in the end refused to show his work or even sell it. Though he had modest success and recognition in Eastern Canada – it was never at the level he should have achieved – he just burned too many bridges and closed too many doors.

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