A 23-Year-Old’s Diary Entries From Early April, 1975
by Richard Grayson
Tuesday, April 1, 1975
It’s after midnight, so the first day of the cruelest month is over, and it was quite a good spring day. It was sunny and in the 60°s. Before dinner, I could sit out on the porch and read the newspaper.
I saw Mrs. Ehrlich tonight at 7:15 PM. The first thing I noticed was that the wooden stairs of the Atlantic Avenue loft building had been painted and repaired. Mrs. Ehrlich looked much the same, and it was great to sit in my swivel chair facing her once again.
I recounted much of the last six months. I told her about my jobs at Alexander’s, at the Village Voice, at the Flatbush public library and how I came to have the teaching job at LIU. I spoke of my successful breakup with Ronna and my adjustment to not having a girlfriend.
I never really put it into words before tonight, but I found myself saying that I don’t really want another girlfriend. I just don’t want to devote the time and emotional energy required in the kind of intense relationships I had with Shelli and with Ronna.
Mrs. Ehrlich felt that maybe that’s a sign that I’ve grown past the adolescent stage of always needing someone around. I’m too jealous of my time alone now to give hours over to another person.
Right now my writing and my reading and my exercising are the most important things in my life – especially my writing. I told Mrs. Ehrlich about selling my first story and said frankly that I was the most talented person in the MFA program.
She was pleased that I’m so sure of my ability. It’s not immodest to be honest about one’s capabilities, she said. Today I wrote another six pages of “Coping” and dashed off a slight, humorous piece called “The Virtues of Jethro.”
I await the mailman eagerly each day, but since January there have been no more acceptance notices; perhaps I should send more stuff out.
I explained my encounter with Shelli and Jerry and their lifestyle, with Jerry having come out, to Mrs. Ehrlich. She seemed to think that my anger towards them may indeed be gone, especially after I told her that Shelli and Jerry were “irrelevant” to my present life.
I mentioned how I coped with a stolen car and how good finding it in East New York by myself made me feel. All in all, I’m more of a grownup, we agreed.
She wanted to know why I’d made the appointment, six months after I quit therapy. I told her there were several reasons and in part, I wanted to show her that I could endure without therapy.
Also, I admitted that I want her approval and her feedback about my present life. And I just plain missed her and was thinking about her.
I told Mrs. Ehrlich of my dream about not wanting to see her on a social level. I guess I don’t think her as a goddess and me as a scared child anymore; we’re almost on the same level.
The dream seemed like a primitive taboo; now that I see myself as her equal, I recognize more clearly the sexual undercurrent that always has been present in our relationship. And tonight I recognized – no, I felt – that I wanted to go to bed with Mrs. Ehrlich.
She said that if there’s ever anything specific that I want to work on, I could call her. “It’s good to come home for the holidays,” I said to her. “Maybe I’ll have good things to tell you about me next time I see you.”
“It’s not necessary to tell me good things about yourself,” she replied.
“No,” I said. “I know you’ll accept me just as I am.” I felt sad to leave her but happy to know that she’s still there if I need her as a therapist.
Perhaps that was another reason I came. After my abandonment experiences with Bob and Rochelle Wouk, I wanted to make sure that Mrs. Ehrlich is still around and hasn’t left the city.
Tonight I got a call from Allan, and we talked for an hour. Yesterday was the session in Small Claims Court. Elihu came with his father and was all dressed up to make a good impression.
But when they came before the arbitrator, Allan was well-prepared with notes and documents stating he was at work in his office or in Florida at his parents’ house at the times the international phone calls were made.
Elihu started off on the wrong foot with the arbitrator, Allan said, when the man asked both of them what they did. Allan said he was a secretary at Columbia and Elihu stated he was a grad student and tutored part-time at LIU. “So Daddy pays the bills,” the arbitrator said.
Elihu and his father lost the case and Allan was awarded $110, not everything he wanted, but he felt it was a moral victory. Dr. Farber has to shell out the money, and he must be angry with Elihu.
But I think Allan is right when he said he thought Shelli and Jerry were the ones who made the phone calls and that Elihu was covering for them.
Wednesday, April 2, 1975
8 PM. I was just staring at this pleasant-looking fellow in the mirror, a young man with nice hair and glasses that keep sliding down his nose and sprinkling of acne at the corner of his mouth, a fellow with hazel eyes and what was once described by a girlfriend as a “Catholic nose” and very little chin.
I asked him why he was living as he does. His reply was a shrug of his shoulders. But seriously, folks, as they say in the Borscht Belt (and we know from the Borscht Belt), what the hell am I doing with my life?
Why have I turned myself into a recluse, a writing machine?
Why do I continue to exert myself every morning with my RCAF exercises (I invariably end up in a pool of sweat, gasping for air) and in the afternoon with the Tensolator?
In hopes of finally looking like the guys with the big muscles on the inside covers of comic books long thrown away? Because I remember Truman Capote once saying that writers need physical exercise to create? Because Ronna used to quote Oscar Wilde saying much the same thing? Because I want to acquire discipline?
Well, then, why do I trek out to public libraries, the way I did today, to come back with arms full of T.S. Eliot, Freud, Jung, Borges and Peter De Vries? Because writers should read? Because I want to be on the alert constantly for new material?
And why do I fill notebook after notebook with scrawls of half-remembered dreams and snatches of phone conversations with friends and ideas for stories that will never get written? Why do I write stories at all?
I finished “Coping” today, and I’m not sure it’s any good but I went out to have the story xeroxed, spending five dollars. Why? How come I mail out stories to magazines I’ve never heard of, and why am I so damn impatient until the mailman comes each day? I never get acceptance notices.
Deep down, I’ve begun to wonder whether selling “Rampant Burping” to New Writers was just a fluke. After all, all they publish is writing from college programs, and maybe the editors just wanted to get in good with Baumbach by publishing one of his students.
Why, why do I continue to live this weird, second-hand, once-removed kind of existence when I know that “there’s no market” for quality/experimental/counterculture/weird fiction by new/unknown/obnoxiously-know-it-all writers?
That, my friends, is the $64,000 Question. And the answer, my friends, is not blowing in any wind but is relatively simple: I want to do this. At least for now.
Right now I can’t stop writing, even though the rewards are not much in evidence: a good word from people in my program or a “nice” rejection letter from some little magazine editor.
My eyesight is going, slowly but surely, and typing gives me headaches, and I’m neurotic about losing some of my precious manuscripts. Right at this moment, I’m disgusted, but I know that by tomorrow morning I’ll be back at it again.
And I suppose that for this spring, at least, I’ll continue to live this way. The teaching job will sustain me and I can always go over to Brooklyn College or elsewhere to bullshit with Mason or Mara or Mikey when I need the sound and feel of another human being.
Josh was over today. He came on his bicycle, and he and I rode around for a while. See, to me, Josh isn’t a writer. I think he has talent and could develop it, but he’s not willing to make the sacrifice. I don’t blame him for that.
God, I sound so smug and superior, just like the martyr Leon implied I was when he wrote on my Safari Awards invitation, “Good for one trip on the Dallas Motorcade ride at Disneyland.”
Well, you know, Leon is in Madison, hanging out in that home for retarded people, soon to be joined by the bankrupt (financially, that is, although Allan insists they’re morally bankrupt, too) Jerry and Shelli.
I do agree with Allan, though: I think Elihu’s trying to get out of paying the phone bill, Leon’s sneaking off in the middle of the night to avoid paying four months’ back rent, Shelli and Jerry’s misuse of Mastercharge – these are not things to be proud of and they can’t be seen as political acts “against the system.”
Unaccountably, I’ve been missing Avis a lot lately.
Thursday, April 3, 1975
If, as Marianne Moore states, the cure for loneliness is solitude, then the cure for depression is action. And I finally took the action of handing in a master’s thesis at Richmond College.
The other night I dreamed that Prof. Cullen and others were making me feel uncomfortable for not handing in my thesis. And I’m aware, consciously, that I’ve been nervous about the possibility of Dr. Farber discovering that I really don’t have my M.A. at all yet. So today I crept into action.
I had a difficult time getting to sleep last night; it’s been a problem lately. But I’ve been having pleasant dreams of good times shared with friends. One night I dreamed of attending a joint engagement party for Avis and Mara, who were both getting married, and Phyllis and Mason were seated at my table. Last night I dreamed I went out for an evening with Allan, Libby and Bobby.
A very heavy rain was falling when I awoke this morning. Gary called, saying he’d become quite ill last night with a fainting spell, heart palpitations and a queer tingling in his extremities.
His parents revived him with smelling salts and rushed him to the doctor, who found everything normal – heartbeat OK, blood pressure strong – and wrote out a prescription for Valium.
Even Gary admits that it was probably an anxiety attack, but he’s not sure what the cause of the anxiety is. He’s under pressure in his department at Columbia, but no more so than usual.
Gary did have a big fight with his Aunt Estelle at last week’s seder, but he didn’t think that could upset him enough to cause such an attack.
Also, Gary’s been involved in the middle of the hassle between Joel and Aviva, Kay’s good friends (it was through Joel and Aviva that Gary met Kay).
It seems Joel is very attached to his domineering mother, who’s already been the cause of one broken engagement, and now the woman has Joel wavering on his commitment to marry Aviva this year – something Aviva has been expecting and planning on.
Anyway, I didn’t feel it was my place to suggest psychotherapy to Gary although I think it would help him.
I went to Richmond College at about 2 PM today, and to my surprise, their vacation was over and classes were in session. I just managed to avoid Prof. Ebel, who was walking out from a class; I was too embarrassed to see him after a year.
But then, in the lobby I picked up a copy of the school paper and read an article, “On Being Human,” by Prof. Ebel. It seems that he’s married again, to one of his students, and she’s expecting a baby any day now. In January of 1973, Prof. Ebel, “alone and by accident,” experienced a “primal”:
”My soul seemed to be leaving my body, and in my panic I wanted to pull it back. Then an inner voice, for which I will always be grateful, whispered not to worry, that everything will be all right. . . My head lay loosely across my bare chest, and as I began to rock, it became the caressing hand of the mother I never had, and I said in my life’s highest ecstasy and in my native tongue, ‘Act, Mami, das ist so schön.’”
Then his life changed; he continually drains himself of pain, hate and cowardice. He writes that he no longer has any use for the unfeeling places we call universities: “the classroom is an all-too-perfect vehicle for the life-denying emotions”:
“I feel more and more when I leave my home, my wife and my desk and come to Richmond – I feel more and more that it is a symbolic suicide.”
Right then and there I realized Ebel was the kind of man I could open myself up to, so I rushed home, collected all my stories in a binder, and returned to Richmond.
I met him after his 4:30 PM class – he remembered my name – and I told him I was handing in a creative project as an M.A. thesis in lieu of the essay; he said he’d read it and pass it on to Profs. Cullen and Leibowitz.
So at least, coming home over the Verrazano in the terrible wind, I felt that I made a step forward.
Saturday, April 5, 1975
“Act, Mami, das ist so schön.” I’ve thought a lot about what Prof. Ebel wrote in the Richmond Times.
I even included it at the end of a piece of writing, all full of puns, portmanteau words and free association. (I titled it “The Psychopathology of Everyday Life,” after Freud’s book, which I was reading the other night.)
It’s another night, a Saturday night, alone at home (actually, Mom and Dad and Jonny are here but that makes it worse), and this time I’m really feeling lonely and depressed.
I was going stir-crazy last night. One can read only so much, and TV is full of junk. I’ve got to admit to myself that I’ve been deeply disappointed and somewhat hurt by Rachel’s casual indifference.
I’m disappointed that we couldn’t get together again, but what really bothers me was that she wasn’t honest with me.
Of all the people I know, I thought Rachel would be the most open and up front. If she didn’t feel like seeing me, why not just come out and say so, instead of making plans with me and then backing out?
Even a week ago Wednesday: the only reason she showed up at Sugar Bowl was because she couldn’t reach me in time to cancel the appointment. Was her needing to be home to help with the seder just an excuse, I wonder? No, that might not be true – at least at the time I had no reason to think so.
But when I called her last Sunday, she said to call her on Wednesday; on Wednesday morning she called me to say that she was sorry but that she was busy; when I called her this morning, she said she’d call me back but never did. I feel foolish and angry, and frankly, very surprised.
Perhaps I am not the great judge of character and observer of human nature that I picture myself to be. Of course, if Rachel isn’t above-board, then I guess we would have not had a good relationship even if she had been madly attracted to me.
Naturally, if she just said she wasn’t interested, my ego would have taken a beating, but it would have been much less painful had she just leveled with me. I can understand her not wanting to hurt someone, but now I am left feeling more alone than ever, and what’s worse, becoming cynical.
At least Ronna was always honest with me. I want to cry in somebody’s arms, but there’s no one, and I feel silly (yes, even now) crying for myself, so instead I cry at the plight of the Vietnamese orphans and refugees as their country finally falls to the Communists.
I’d love to adopt a Vietnamese orphan, but I’d be doing it for the wrong reasons, and that isn’t realistic or honest, either.
I got a silent phone call at midnight last night, just when I was feeling my loneliest. It was probably a crank or for Marc, but it made me feel good to fantasize that someone is trying to reach out to me.
I was glad when Scott called this morning to say that he was in from D.C. this weekend, and I told him I’d come right over. Scott’s latest reincarnation is liberal law student; he was dressed in a corduroy sports jacket and has a mustache now. (A beard would be too much, I guess.)
He made the law review but turned it down (because of lack of time), so he’s doing very well academically.
Scott’s still living at the big house in Chevy Chase, dating rich JAPs who go to American (“I made it with the daughter of the doctor who cut off Betty Ford’s tit” – I don’t think I could ever top that line).
Scott’s on welfare and food stamps and is living off his grandfather’s inheritance. He asked about Avis and I gave him her address in Bremen. Scott offered me some Rolaids, but I told him I don’t touch the stuff anymore.
I guess studying six to ten hours a day does that to you; thank God I never went to law school. Scott said Sheila’s apartment was broken into; the robbers axed down the door and stole a lot of stuff, including all of Scott’s letters to her.
Scott went off to see Nancy the nurse, and I went over to visit Gary. He’s had a couple of recurrences of the hyperventilation; yesterday he had a complete physical at the internist’s and today he went for some blood tests.
So far the doctor has found nothing wrong with him, so both he and Gary himself are convinced it’s due to stress. I didn’t want to say anything, but I just hope it’s not the beginning of a long string of anxiety attacks.
I shudder when I remember my bouts with anxiety attacks in high school and college.
Tuesday, April 8, 1975
11 AM. I’m writing in the morning again, just after breakfast. It’s a quiet time and it’s good for me to try to write at different times of the day. I don’t think this is the time most conducive to good writing, though. It doesn’t have the peacefulness of twilight or late night.
I have my Fiction Workshop today, and I’m teaching at LIU tonight, and I’ve got to prepare. I marked my class’s paragraphs, but the whole thing is so arbitrary; I hate to give marks.
Not because I’m afraid that they won’t like me if I give them a bad grade, but because the process is so subjective. Why is one paper with good ideas but in poor style inferior or superior to a well-crafted but deadly dull paper?
Last night in Comp Lit, Colchie handed back our papers (I’d put mine in his mailbox earlier); he didn’t keep the grades for his records and just wanted to know what we were into.
Naturally, Colchie loved Simon’s paper because they’re both into structure and form. It makes me so angry when content is ignored. I know that’s “what’s happening” in literature (and in all art) and in part I’m sympathetic to it, but it appears to me that all this emphasis on form is sometimes an excuse for no content, no ideas.
Baumbach and Spielberg are into the same bag. Yet in the end they only end up talking to themselves, which further reinforces the sense that what they are doing is right.
Today in class we’ll be doing another one of Simon’s two-page prose poems. It’s well-crafted and moving in spots, but I can’t help feeling that there’s less here than meets the eye.
Maybe it’s just jealousy. I write and write and write, and then Simon turns out a couple of paragraphs a term and Baumbach goes wild over it. Maybe I’m the one who’s “wrong.” But I feel I’m observing people and I’m communicating ideas and creating situations – why is that no longer a valid form of expression?
Gary phoned last evening to say that he felt he was returning to “normalcy.” He said he owed a lot to me for getting him out of Sunday’s depression. Gary called his aunt and thrashed things out with her, and in the morning he felt moderate anxiety, took a Valium and went to school.
I didn’t want to say anything, but I think Gary may be overly optimistic; I wonder if such excruciating anxiety can appear just because of “a bad week” or whatever. Gary doesn’t plan on seeking professional help and that seems to me just sweeping things under the carpet.
That’s a fine art, as Bergman noted in Scenes from a Marriage, and certainly I’ve grown up in that atmosphere. Dad has had a lump by the side of his face for a year and yet will not see a doctor.
I’m certain Dad has a tumor of the parotid gland (although I guess watching Medical Center doesn’t qualify me as a pathologist) and it’s probably benign, but Dad prefers being an ostrich to finding out the truth.
I sympathize with him, yet I feel revolted by his whole attitude – just as it makes me terribly angry when I hear Alice’s mother tell her, “What have you got to be depressed about? You’re a teacher!” These shoulds and oughts are worse tyranny than any totalitarian government could impose.
A letter from Avis arrived yesterday, I am happy to say. I miss her terribly. She had a busy March, working at her mother’s helper job. They had a pleasant Easter holiday, and Helmut’s mother came over with chocolate and wine-flavored eggs.
They built two boxes for Helmut’s stereo recorder, and all seems to be working out well. She took her two brats to a carnival the other day; it exhausted her, but as she writes, “Everything is a new experience, and if I think about it that way, I don’t get too depressed.”
Teresa, Avis reports, has moved to Palo Alto to live with Ted, who will soon be divorced. Avis says that California and a man who she wanted to live with were Teresa’s two dreams for a long time.
She gave me Teresa’s address and I’ll write to her as well as write back to Avis. But it’s so frustrating to communicate that way, even for a writer. I miss the verbal and visual in Avis and other people.
She thinks Glen is having a sort of breakdown and she inquired about Scott. Avis will be hearing from Scott soon, I guess.
I’ve been reading Games Analysts Play by Martin Shepard, an unconventional psychiatrist whom I find more to my liking than anyone else in the field. Through his books, I was better able to recognize how my therapists played games with me.
Dr. Lipton would write on a pad with a scratchy pen and keep interjecting “Hmmmm” to deny his guilt over his fees and justify what he was charging me. (I am certain that he once fell asleep on me).
Dr. Bob Wouk would try to deny his boredom by asking leading questions like, “What do you suppose would happen if . . .?” and “How would you feel if . . .?”
Dr. Rochelle Wouk would deny her feelings of superiority by stating indirectly that “There’s no difference between us” and telling me how much she learned from her patients.
Mrs. Ehrlich would play “professional” to deny her affection for me and she’d keep turning the sessions over to the subject of my sexual fantasies about her – naturally I began to have them after she kept insisting that the girl in my dreams was really her – because she may have been overly concerned with her own attractiveness.
I was helped enormously in therapy, but it’s in spite of, not because of, these games. And you can’t win with them because the game is rigged; everything is turned around to you.
They don’t tell you that the Oedipus complex was put forth by Freud because he was dominated and overprotected by his mother, or that shrinks use couches, not really to let the patient’s verbal productions go free but because Freud couldn’t stand people staring at him!
I’m thinking of writing a piece about my therapists called “The Four Faces of Freud.” The dilemma is that I still don’t know a better way to feel better emotionally.
It’s something which is a puzzle – a therapist would say I was “ambivalent” about therapy. It’s a maze of conflicting feelings; perhaps I can somehow work it out in my fiction.
Friday, April 11, 1975
4 PM. It’s not warm out, but it is sunny and pleasant. I guess spring is something well worth waiting for. The apple blossoms are beginning to bloom, and I feel good about things.
Fridays are such nice days, and I love Thursday nights, after my class, when I can look forward to Friday and the weekend.
I’m starting to look forward to things again, which is a good sign. I haven’t made any plans for the summer as yet, but I want to be in the sun again.
Things did not go badly yesterday. At Brooklyn College I ran into Davey, who’s let his hair grow long. He’s such a nice guy, and if he wasn’t rushing to the Rockaway bus, I would have told him about my RCAF exercises. Maybe this summer I could try running on the beach mornings like Davey: I think I’d enjoy that.
I saw Susan Schaeffer and arranged a tutorial session for April 22. And the Fiction Workshop was a surprise. After Josh read “Summoning Alice Keppel” aloud, Simon commented first.
He said that he felt I had stolen the fictional essay idea from Borges and really criticized the story. Josh said it was a mediocre Monty Python sketch, and at that point I said, “All right, it was just an experiment; I want to try some new things and I’m prepared to fail.”
Peter Spielberg said, “Whoa! Don’t get so defensive.”
Sharon caught the basic idea of my story and Barbara understood it best. Denis was, as usual, annoyed at my references to things he never heard of; Anna said, “You hadda be really smart to get this.”
Finally Peter said he found the story delightful and compared it to Barthelme and felt it was entirely successful. Then I went through all the veiled references to Dean Acheson, Cardinal Spellman (Spielberg caught that), Virginia Woolf and Proust; it was a real trip for me.
I have to admit that I was glad to see Simon put in his place, so to speak, by Spielberg. Afterwards I was inclined to be much more charitable with him when we went to the Pub with Todd.
Simon asked Sharon for a date, and she was friendly but mentioned that she had a boyfriend. I had figured she did.
I left the Pub at 6:45 PM and drove downtown. From my office, I tried to call Ronna, but both her lines were busy. Class went okay; at least I wasn’t boring. Probably because Tuesday had been so boring, a lot of people were absent.
But I read aloud from the reader and Ebel’s article, trying to get them to write personally and meaningfully. I assigned a paragraph defining one of six things: joy, depression, honesty, anxiety, rejection and liberation.
I let them out early because I ran out of things to say and rather than keep the discussion going until the clock said it was 8:30 PM, I stopped while most people seemed interested.
Then I went back to my office and spoke to Ronna. Earlier, she said, the line had been busy because Ivan had phoned her. “He talked for an hour about himself,” she said.
Ivan’s doing well with his job; he sold an article on computers to some publication and he bought land upstate. I’ve got to keep reminding myself that Ivan and I are no longer in competition with each other (not that we ever really were; that was something I cooked up by myself).
I asked Ronna how her taping at the TV center went; casually I asked it if was for Henry. It wasn’t, but Henry was on the show with her. I’ve got to stop thinking of Ronna as my girlfriend; if I don’t, tonight will be a disaster.
I’m supposed to pick up Ronna at her office in an hour, which was what we arranged on the phone last night.
Gary saw the psychiatrist at Columbia yesterday and he feels it helped somewhat, but he’s still very unsure of himself. He’s worried about a lot of real factors: whether to continue with the doctoral program or get a job, for one thing.
And Gary’s father retires from the post office this summer; the family’s lease is up in July, so Gary’s unsure what’s coming off for him. Perhaps his trip to Europe will bring him relaxation; a change of scene does sometimes help.