A Painful State of Mind

For years, I have been searching for a rational explanation for my father’s mental illness – looking for anything that might help me understand the painful state of mind that made him so paranoid of everyone but his closest family (see my blog post Paranoid Dreams).

Since I have no background in psychiatry I can’t pretend to be able to understand his mental state: was his illness biological – a family trait? or a response to his environment? an inability to cope with life’s challenges? or all the above?

So I go back over his life to find clues or perhaps signs of when this sickness began hoping to know him better.

Bernie in a sailor suit age 2, 1926

Bernie in a sailor suit age 2, 1926

One of the earliest things that I know of happening to him, is that he was in a bus accident when he was about two years old. I remember seeing the old newspaper clipping, yellowed and fragile, that showed him still in his seat by the smashed bus window; a toddler, hurt and slumped. The accident was such that he had a flattened part of his skull (on the rear right side) for the rest of his life. The injury was apparently bad enough that the City of New York paid damages to my father’s family – money that later paid for his college degree at Pratt Institute of Art.

My father also nearly died of pneumonia when he was very little. There were no antibiotics back then to save you from deadly infections (penicillin wasn’t discovered til 1928 and not commercially produced til the 1940s) so the family relied on practices they knew from the “old country”.

He told me the story of how a man came and put a mustard plaster on his chest that burned. The man also cupped his back – the practice of placing the rims of hot glass cups on the skin to create a searing suction that presumably pulled the infection out of the body and brought down the high fever. My father remembered the pain of these procedures vividly. He also remembered, when he finally pulled through, the absolute delight of eating a baked potato.

When my father would tell me stories about his childhood sometimes they were full of wild fun, like a Dead End Kids story – as when he and his buddy would sneak into the movies through the alley door, and then eat raw garlic to breathe on people to get them to move seats so they could have the good seats to themselves… or playing street hockey on roller skates and zooming down the middle of streets jumping pot holes…

Bernie Safran boxing on the roof, Brooklyn c 1934

Bernie (on the left) boxing on the roof with his best friend, Brooklyn c 1934

Sometimes the stories were dark and scary – he lived in the Brooklyn neighborhood where Murder Incorporated operated – one time he saw a store that had been shot up with dead men inside, another time he saw a man shot and dead in the gutter…  His best friend was the local bookie’s kid, so they hung around the pool hall, ran errands for the bookie, and watched the tough guys place bets and play pool.

Bernie and Harry Safran c 1929

Bernie and his father Harry Safran c 1929

But perhaps the most negative influence on him when he was a kid was his relationship to his parents.

He wrote in his personal papers about how much he “resented, despised and hated his father until he was in college and began to develop a better relationship with him”. All through his childhood his father said such things to little Bernie as “when you grow up you will support me” and “you don’t know what you have cost me” , “You are a coward” ” You will never amount to anything” and “You have it too good”.

My father  also wrote about his resentment of my grandfather being stingy and controlling of money –  but he became that same person as I grew up –  spanking me in front of my friends when I was about 7 because I spent ten cents at the movies that he hadn’t given me permission to spend (I never forgave him for that) or fighting with my mother because she spent $5 he hadn’t approved of for a lipstick…(me never forgiving him for that either).

My father also resented my grandfather’s “violent temper” and says in his papers that he never wanted to behave like that, especially because it was embarrassing to him when his father lost control in a rage – but he was the same way. He could be terrifying in his rage – his face turned a deep red and one eyebrow would go up and his eyes would blaze – a sure sign that things were really bad.

As for his mother, she belittled him and used to tell him that he was very stubborn and had no patience. She would try to make little Bernie feel guilty by saying things like: “I have failed. You don’t love me” (she was the ultimate Jewish Mamma, and Grand-Mamma too I might add). Though she often neglected my father’s care and left him to run wild, she indulged him with praise for his artistic endeavors which perhaps gave him the insecure need to be the center of attention.

Grad photo High School of Music and Art, 1939

Bernie’s Grad photo from the High School of Music and Art, 1939 age 15

She saw herself as a revolutionary and a suffering writer and felt burdened by her responsibilities and disappointed in her working class life. She believed that people were actively trying to squash her dreams and her success with her writing. According to my mother, by the time my mother had married my father, my grandmother resented and despised my grandfather (a long story) and didn’t let him speak at the dinner table – saying he was a peasant and beneath her.

She was promiscuous and carelessly (or defiantly) brought her lovers into the apartment while my grandfather was at work. More than once the kids met men who were “sick” and needed to lie down in her bed…one time when my father Bernie was about 14 he walked in and found his mother ‘in flagrante delicto’ and threw the man out…

Whether any of this had any influence on my father’s mental state – we’ll never know.

What we do know is that my father suffered from depression in the 1950s. My mother told me that after they were married and she was working as his agent in the illustration business, she’d come home to find my father sitting in the dark, brooding. She thought he was depressed because his work was unsatisfying and not bringing in much money despite the long late hours he put into it. Perhaps that was the cause of the depression… or perhaps – since it was just after WWII, he was suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from his military service in Southeast Asia?

At any rate, he never sought help for his mental health, nor did my mother encourage him to get it. She never spoke of any of these problems to anyone – not even to her mother or sisters or best friends. She was his confidante and all his emotional support for their entire married life – she spent hours with him listening to and discussing his paranoid theories. She never tried to dissuade him from his beliefs or challenge him.

She told me once that to be a great artist you have to be very sensitive – more sensitive than other people, to be able to see and express things with raw emotion. She felt that life was just too hard for these people.She told me that she saw my father as a great artist and she felt it was her role to help him get through life so he could paint.

He had a few good years from 1957 to about 1962 when he was working at Time Magazine – he was happy, satisfied with his work, and enjoying money and fame. But even this came to an end in 1962 when he started to doubt the senior editorial staff at the magazine and to believe they were out to get him. By 1965 he was convinced there was a conspiracy to destroy him and from then til the end of his life in 1995 he believed he was continuously harassed and blacklisted by the corporation.

Bernard Safran, early 1960s

Bernard Safran, early 1960s

to be continued…


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