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…


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.