Libido Dominandi

My father felt I owed him something that children can’t give to their parents—perfect understanding

by
Emily Adelsohn Corngold
November 19, 2021
Patricia Voulgaris, 'Untitled,' 2019
Patricia Voulgaris, 'Untitled,' 2019
Patricia Voulgaris, 'Untitled,' 2019
Patricia Voulgaris, 'Untitled,' 2019

One day, when I was a sophomore in high school, my dad asked me to walk over to see him after school. His rented room, which he had occupied for a week, was less than a mile from my school.

It was 1958, a year in which my family was still suffering, each of us in our own way, from the aftereffects of my parents’ divorce and my father’s ill-advised remarriage to someone we called “that crazy woman,” who left him within a few months. With half a century between that time and this, I recognize how, even before that divorce, I had been numbed by the disruption of my family life, and how I had come to regard school as a place of refuge. In school, people were cordial with one another, even friendly.

I arrived that day at my father’s door with a faint stirring of ancient hope for something spontaneous and good to spring back to life between us after a long absence—but the stunned quality of that blanketed and muted single room, and the peculiar glint in Ethan’s eyes, snuffed out my enthusiasm for the enterprise as soon as I entered.

I see myself standing before him awkwardly, pressing my schoolbooks against my hip, deeply reluctant to walk in and sit down. It was not my home; it wasn’t anyone’s home. A temporary apartment was all the place was or would ever be for anyone occupying it, and that realization provoked a desperately sad and hope-extinguishing dread. In such an environment, even my father was an unknown. I stood there unsure even of how to address him.

He was gazing fondly at me, eagerly grinning, filled with energy, all but dancing on his toes—ready to get started, urging me to sit. He indicated a chair and then, moving deeper into the room, seated himself on his bed, crossing one leg over the other as if to show how utterly relaxed he was; yet there was something too keen about him. Already wary, I succumbed to a sort of enervation that left me with a cool, distant stream of disconnected thoughts and sensations.

The chair was Danish modern and had water-mottled teakwood arms. Next to it stood a water-ringed teakwood desk holding a copy of the American Journal of Psychology and an ashtray with numerous cigarette stubs, and along the back side of the desk hung thin, floor-length, multicolored curtains drawn across a wide patio door. I remember lowering myself cautiously onto the eroded royal blue seat of that chair, still uncommitted, and resting my books tentatively on my lap.

It is easy to picture myself as I was then, dressed in a plaid wool skirt and a sweater, with bobby socks and saddle shoes, the non-uniform-winter-uniform of my high school days. My thin blond hair would have been pulled back into an insubstantial ponytail. My bangs were regularly cut too short by my inexpert mother, and in those days I wore 1950s-style eyeglass frames known as “cat-eyes,” which slanted up sharply at the corners and glittered with rhinestones at the points.

I was nearsighted like my dad, and my blue eyes looked small and weak behind my thick lenses, just like his.

“I’ve been on a strange voyage this past year,” my father said, “and I have much to tell you. I hope you’ll hear me out.”

The young me looked toward the bed and into my father’s face, the same face I had loved in childhood, his wavy light-brown hair, graying somewhat around the temples, the fervid blue eyes covered by wire-framed spectacles, the soft, full cheeks decorated with one colorless mole. The familiar face alone might give a teenage daughter reason to hear him out.

From infancy until I went to school, my father had bathed me in his teaching. His expressive voice and vast vocabulary had described the world for me. I had adored everything about him. He recited nursery rhymes and played recorded music for me on the phonograph, explaining, as we listened, the story of Peter and the Wolf or The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Outside, on summer nights, he expounded on the mythology that lay behind the names of the constellations he pointed out above our heads. Inside, he would recite complicated rhymes for me: “The Nightmare” from Iolanthe, say, or Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.” I loved his words and so I loved words themselves, and with no effort he taught me to read from storybooks as I sat on his lap. Mommy might take care of my physical needs, which to my memory were negligible, but when I was small it was my daddy who flooded my mind and imagination, my whole conscious being, with the light of knowledge.

And so, on this occasion in his temporary habitation, I did not say no or openly mock him, although I knew that if my younger brother were present, he would certainly have offered some barely visible gesture to represent our shared secret judgment about “hearing him out.” Richie and I had heard those words all our lives. It was a joke between us because we knew that there would never be enough time to hear Dad out; his expression of ideas seemed never to come to an end. Conditions could be counted on, therefore, to be such that Ethan would never be heard out to his satisfaction.

Perhaps that was just the way psychologists were. It is possible that by now, a psychologist myself, I too have become that way.

I lifted the books from my lap and set them on the floor to indicate my commitment to let him have his say, no matter how disengaged I might feel. And I gave in to a small hope that in this circumstance, following a lengthy and largely unexplained absence, perhaps he would address the reasons for his unexpected arrival back in our Hollywood neighborhood.

“I say a strange voyage …” He paused to light a cigarette. “You see, I had caught the flu out there in the desert. I was sicker than I can ever remember having been. There were stretches of time that I cannot recall at all—perhaps hours, perhaps longer; I was most likely delirious some of that time. When I came back to myself again, I found that I was alone inside the trailer that Marie and I and her young daughter had been living in. She never came back. I never saw her or her child again. But there’s no need for you to hear any more about that. It was very bad, but I survived.

“I had little strength, and so I spent my time reflecting. There was nothing else to do but reflect. I thought about everything, and most particularly about what had gone wrong between me and your mother. You must try to understand and believe me when I tell you this, Isabel: I never had the slightest desire to divorce her. From the very beginning, I felt about her as if she were my own right arm. How could it be that Charlotte and I, of all people, would get divorced? Could she not see that we were joined forever, that there could be no question of divorce or remarriage? I set myself a task: I would try with all my might to comprehend what had happened. To get to the bottom of it, no matter how difficult or how long it took.”

I can remember feeling slightly ill. Something wasn’t right; someone must be incorrect. My mother had asked for a separation, that was what she told us. She wanted time to “think things through.” She said it was he who rushed to file for the divorce, and that when that had been done, he married Marie on the very same day! It was that act that she could never forgive him for, she said. But I didn’t have the experience then to be certain if the thing that wasn’t right was my mother, or my father—or was, somehow, myself.

“With effort, I teased out every memory,” he went on. “Every conversation. Every faint trace from the 20 years of what I had always believed was an exceptionally close marriage. When I was well again, I returned to the texts of the old analysts, examining more closely, splitting the hair more finely. It didn’t help one iota. Even reading the texts—neurotic interactions in marriage—I found a few more clues, a few more possibilities about what goes amiss between married couples, but still no adequate account of what had happened to break us apart. I didn’t know what to make of it.”

I continued to listen, trying not to think, though I was certain that what I was hearing was not the actual truth of it. But I was only 16. How could I be sure?

I stared hard at the window curtains, which were decorated with a repetitive print of short, horizontal, parallel lines of diminishing length, each line a different color—blue, red, yellow, black, small pyramids of colored lines stamped on the thin muslin that stretched across whatever view lay on the other side of the glass door.

“After more time passed and I was strong enough,” my father continued, “I made it my business to find out more, speaking to the people who had been close to us, to her sisters and to our friends, trying to catch some little glimpses, some little clues, something that perhaps I didn’t see but they might have seen about what had happened.

“And then at last I gained a glimmer of light. I came to understand that it was inevitable that the marriage fail, as all marriages must fail. This is something that no one else has sufficiently seen or understood. This is what I wanted to communicate to you, Isabel, to give you this gift and save you years of difficulty. Because I have finally crossed the threshold into a new understanding, one that no one else in my field has paid the slightest attention to: All intimate relationships must fail.”

I have finally crossed the threshold into a new understanding, one that no one else in my field has paid the slightest attention to: All intimate relationships must fail.

I turned away from the curtains to look again at my father, feeling as if my own eyes and mind at that moment had become something like the compound eyes of a fly. My vision seemed fragmented in every direction, even inward and outward, taking in at one moment all that was present before me in the room and what might be yet to come; all of what I had already lost and all that I hoped for. From where I sat, it was a view of failure upon failure upon multiples of failure, and with that fragmentation there was also profound fear and self-disgust, a sense of my having failed to offer anything of value to the people who had equally failed to give me anything but self-doubt and anxiety.

My father fell silent too late. What had gone wrong was that all intimate relationships must fail, and that was something I was supposed to believe even though it went against everything I needed at that time in my life, every beautiful notion that buffered me from the shocks that seemed to fall on me from all directions. How was I, the young me, to differentiate between the shining truths my adored father taught me in my infancy and the terrible new ideas he was introducing me to within the walls of that cheerless room? I—a romantic, poetically inclined young girl on the verge of womanhood—was now required to sit silently for eternity (for that’s how it seemed) listening to his message of doom. Was this the gift he had to give me?

“What we usually think of as love is not love at all,” Ethan said, offering me his gift. “It’s wanting to be loved. In what we usually call love, each person is seeking from the other. None of us, none of us, realize—we simply do not see—that we are like vacuum cleaners trying to suck onto other vacuum cleaners who themselves are trying to suck onto yet others or onto us. Nobody has love to give. Everyone is trying to get.”

Was it possible for me—the young me, the still virginal me—even for one instant to consider myself one of those he called “we”?

“Do you understand what I’m asserting?” he asked. “In all interpersonal difficulties, it’s always the feeling about one’s own self, never the feeling about the other, which poses the difficulty—always, always, always!”

We were both so vulnerable and full of distress. Even so, as I remember this I am seized by outrage at the now-long-dead father I had so needed to love. I had still been a child, and he held me in thrall with his stream of words, words that spun themselves around me the way a spider’s sticky silk threads are spun around a fly until I could scarcely breathe.

He was trying to give me something, and I didn’t dare to risk angering him. “It sounds hopeless,” I can hear the girl whisper. “Like love doesn’t even really exist.”

“I am saying that and yet at the same time not saying precisely that, Itzy,” he replied in a kindlier voice, calling me by the nickname he used when I was a little girl. Perhaps it was my reward for patiently listening and not kicking up a fuss. It could be that he actually felt heard—which might have heartened him. “I’m saying it is indeed hopeless, utterly impossible to the extent that you—all of us—believe deep down that we are unlovable. But it is possible to free oneself from these feelings and to experience the greatest love in the world. But it takes work. A great deal of work. Years of work.”

My foot was asleep. I wriggled my toes against the pricking of needles beneath my skin. Years of work? How could anybody put in years of work before giving or asking for love? The need to love and be loved is too great. My need to love and be loved was everything!

“What is the work, Ethan?” I ask as I write this, still futilely protecting my younger self from so much grief. If the reason Ethan invited me into his dispiriting room that day was to try out his germ of an idea that would grow to become the central thesis of his working life, then he had never had a gift intended for me. By any standard I had been too young for that message. He was a trained psychologist, and no matter his intentions, what he had done was use and hurt me.

What kind of a man was this?

Many years later, I would sometimes sit with my aged mother as together we browsed through an ancient photo album holding portraits that my grandfather, a professional photographer, had taken of his family at his Brooklyn studio nearly a century before. One of my favorites was of my father at the age of 3, dressed up in a double-breasted overcoat and cap and resolutely standing, like a pudgy young nobleman, upon the upholstered seat of a thronelike chair.

He had been his mother’s darling, object of her absolute love. Not surprising, then, that the relationship with his father was somewhat strained. “Your father hated having to pose for his father’s pictures,” Charlotte told me. “He didn’t want to be part of the old country, the old century—he identified himself as modern. American, not Russian. He was hot-tempered, and his father was stern and disappointed by life. There were long periods when the two of them didn’t exchange a word.”

I recall her stopping to contemplate a portrait that Grandpa had taken in the late 1930s, of herself and Ethan in formal dress. ”Your father,” she sighed. ”I knew I should never have married him.”

“Why did you marry him, then, Ma?”

”I felt sorry for him,” she answered, smiling sadly.

Mom had been an attractive young woman, quiet and serene, when she and Ethan met in the summer before college. She had dark hair back then, and heavy brows over blue-gray eyes. Her pale eyes held depth, almost a spiritual quality. Many people remarked on that spiritual look, although I can’t recall even a hint of actual spiritual belief in any of her statements. She came from a family well-off enough to own beautiful things—Persian carpets covered their oak floors, a grand piano stood in the living room—whereas Ethan’s family dwelled in a less prosperous section of Brooklyn. Not that I believe that Ethan saw her as a step up the social ladder; he was too much of an egotist for social calculations of that sort. But he did always have an eye for attractive possessions. He engaged her with all the eloquence that so easily flowed from him, the plethora of ideas from his wide reading, the sonnets he wrote to her, the friendships with other interesting young students that he proffered to her, opening up for her a dazzling frontier of new thought—social justice, the brotherhood of man.

Though she sensed his possessiveness and wanted to get away from it, she also recognized that he needed her, and she believed she could tame his arrogance, could keep him attending classes instead of spending half the day browsing at the library or playing tennis as he did; keep him attending to all the dull duties to which college students are assigned—duties she, with her principled ways, deeply and devotedly believed in, but that he, with his hot-headed personality, thought impeded him in his quest to gobble up all knowledge and then to take over the world.

When I once asked Mom why she had requested the trial separation that ended in their divorce, her answer was, “I thought I needed to protect you children.”

“Protect us from what?”

“From your father’s erratic behavior when NYU rejected his doctoral thesis. The faculty wasn’t prepared to accept the legitimacy of a scholarly paper on a radical figure like Carl Jung from one of their students. Without the Ph.D., he was required to go on seeing patients under supervision until he could qualify for a license to practice. He was very disturbed about not having full autonomy. He took it out on you.”

“On me in particular? What about Richie?”

“Oh, you know, dear. Richie was never home, and you always were. And you were not so easy to get along with.”

“I was a teenage girl.”

“You were indeed.”

When I thought about that later, I remembered a screaming fight at the dinner table that I never understood: Daddy at the head of the oval oak table, Mom at the foot beside the stacked bookcases where the reference books were housed. (There was always some subject that required instant research at our dining table.)

I don’t know what I said, but suddenly my father erupted in fury at me. I immediately jumped up to flee. He picked up a lemon from a basket of fruit and hurled it at me as I ran screaming from the room. He followed me through the living room and out into the hall. By the time I reached my bedroom door, he was yelling that I was insane and should be locked up in a mental hospital. This was a psychologist, yelling at his daughter that she was insane and needed to be locked up. Could it be true? Was I insane? I was certainly insanely frightened and enraged.

The immediate cause of his anger is not part of my memory. There was no room in my consciousness for anything other than the insult of his sudden assault on me—on my body, on my person—with that hard piece of yellow fruit he had used as a weapon, and that terrible taunt about my mental health.

For all I know, it might have been the very next day that Mom asked my father for the separation that destroyed our family. That is not improbable. The proximity of the two events makes sense to me as I reflect on the matter now, although I did not back then understand the timing and the basis for most of the events, major and minor, staged by our grown-ups. At the time, such happenings appeared to me to be as immovable and omnipresent as the walls of the house in which we children lived.

I stand here at the point where Hamlet’s tragedy begins, at the appearance of a father’s ghost. But instead of demanding revenge, my father’s ghost asks that I give him what he was grooming me for all along, which was perfect understanding. All he ever wanted from me was to agree that his truth was true. But I have not been able to give him my agreement, and for that reason I have the persistent notion that I will hover around Ethan Aronson’s stage forever.

Once, in the process of deciding whether to proceed with my own degree in psychology, I attended a daylong retreat at the UCLA Conference Center in Lake Arrowhead. I was by then becoming involved in what became known as the Human Potential Movement. The leader of the retreat, a well-known figure of the growing counterculture, led our group in an exercise of guided imagery.

His presentation turned out to include a revealing exercise. He asked us to close our eyes and imagine strolling through a garden, following a path that the leader described aloud. At a certain point, he turned us loose on that path, to follow it wherever it led us and to observe our surroundings as we went. He instructed us that in the garden’s center we would come to a fountain, and beside the fountain would be a pedestal. “And on the pedestal will be a chest, and inside that chest there is …” We were told to write down what we found inside, and later to share it with the group.

On my pedestal, next to a splashing burst of clear water, stood a bronze treasure chest, the top open and filled with gold and jewels. I approached hesitantly, looked down at it, then backed away, certain that I did not want that treasure.

I walked around the fountain and continued stubbornly along my own path. It was someone else’s treasure, not mine. It was my father’s treasure, and I did not want it. My treasure was to be freedom from other peoples notions of what was of value.

That was what I believed then. But in truth, all I have ever done is circle that treasure.

Unlike Shakespeare’s famous character, I am only a minor player in the drama of my father’s life, but I am content with that. Sometimes unfairly treated, sometimes exalted by his attention, always interested—but wary, always watching. A close observer.

What I intended, as Hamlet most surely would have wished had he not come into existence already entangled in a playwright’s web, was merely to have a life—an ordinary life made up of bits and pieces like most people’s lives: that is to say, with no one single destiny, but with the possibility of many different destinies, a life full of discontinuity. Not a continuous stretch of gleaming ice, as it may appear to the yearning youth, but an icy river made up of hundreds of individual chunks, each stable enough. The fragments support you all right; they do bear you up, but they can never add up to the glory you once imagined, to anything close to the literary completeness that you once thought your life story would surely amount to.

The era of the drama that my father and I shared—the electrifying 1950s and ’60s—is over, with few or none left to mourn it. And any day now even the college where I have taught psychology will close and I will retire from teaching, and the students now eager to learn from me about Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung; the orgone box of Wilhelm Reich; B.F. Skinner’s techniques of operant conditioning; the humanistic approaches to psychotherapy of men such as Abraham Maslow, Erick Fromm, and Carl Rogers; the mind-expanding delights and terrors of Timothy Leary’s lysergic acid as an aid to therapy—will give up on psychotherapy and become pharmacologists or career coaches.

“I’ve been on a strange voyage,” Ethan had claimed in our after-school meeting 10 years before his death. In his later writings, he repeated that assertion, and added: “The experience cost me something, I suffered some, but something happened.”

Though my father has been gone for more than half a century, I am only now ready to pay attention to those words. My first reaction has been to take his statement, something happened, as hyperbole—always a possibility coming from someone so verbal and intellectually turbulent as Ethan. And most of us can claim to have suffered, can we not, though the suffering often enough comes as a result of actions we ourselves initiated.

What was the cause of your suffering? I want to ask—psychologist to patient, as it were. And what was the result? But by now I know, of course, that the problem is always with the nature of ones self. Always, always, always.

Hamlets father knew precisely where to lay the blame. Ethan’s ghost has yet to provide a straight answer.

Emily Adelsohn Corngold, a writer and editor, lives in Pasadena, California.

Join Us!

All of Tablet’s latest stories—in your inbox, daily. Subscribe to our newsletter.

Please enter a valid email
Check iconSuccess! You have subscribed to the Tablet newsletter.