“It was a great mistake my being born a man. I would have been much more successful as a seagull or a fish. As it is, I will always be a stranger who never feels at home, who does not really want and is not really wanted, who can never belong, and who must always be a little in love with death!”
–Eugene O’Neil, Long Day’s Journey into Night
At a celebration party for the publication of my book, My Distant Dad: Healing the Family Father Wound a number of close friends and family shared some words of support for myself and my work with those in attendance. Tom Sipes is one of my oldest friends and a founding member of the men’s group I have been in for forty-four years now. He shared his own reflections on the theme of the gathering—Me, You, and the Work.
“I’m going to start at the deep end,” Tom began, and proceeded to read the quote above by Eugene O’Neil. “Chances are that doesn’t sound like the Jed you know and that is a testament to his work.” Of all the things Tom might have said about me, the quote from O’Neil, more than any others, captures a core essence of my life’s journey. What follows are some highlights and reflections:
Death Stalked My Conception, Birth, and Early Years.
My parents spent many years after they were married looking forward to having a child. After eight years trying to conceive, they finally found a doctor in New York who was using an experimental procedure of injecting the man’s sperm into the mother’s womb. The year was 1943.
When my mother found out she was pregnant she was overjoyed, but terrified she would lose the child. She told stories of walking down Fifth Avenue, worrying with each step that she would dislodge the fetus. On December 21st, their dreams were answered and I came into the world. But the words of philosopher Thomas Hobbes rang true for me when he observed that
“my mother gave birth to twins—myself and fear.”
When the doctor announced, “It’s a boy,” they were shocked. They had been so sure I was going to be a girl, they had girl dolls waiting for me along with a number of potential girl’s names. It took a number of days to come up with the name John Elliott Diamond, a name that never felt like me. I changed it to Jed when I went to college.
My birth also brought terror to my father. They moved from New York to California with the hope that my father could build on his New York theater career as an actor and playwright. But jobs were difficult to come by and he became increasingly depressed because he couldn’t support his family.
A close family friend was in a similar situation and died suddenly. Though it was never talked about, the whispers at his funeral let me know he had shot himself. Years later I found my father’s journals in our attic and this entry about his friend Holly helped me understand what was to come:
How alike Holly and I are in our basic situation in life. We both struggle trying to make a living, feeling a furious hate inside, the hot breath of necessity blaring down our necks, the constant finger about to stick itself in our noses and telling us, “Times up. It’s too late.” Now, you’ll have to make it by working at what you loathe. The hands of the clock point to twelve.
A later journal entry brought the fear of death even closer to home:
A hundred failures, an endless number of failures, until now, my confidence, my hope, my belief in myself, has run completely out. Middle aged, I stand and gaze ahead, numb, confused, and desperately worried. All around me I see the young in spirit, the young in heart, with ten times my confidence, twice my youth, ten times my fervor, twice my education.
I see them all, a whole army of them, battering at the same doors I’m battering, trying in the same field I’m trying. Yes, on a Sunday morning in June, my hope and my life stream are both running desperately low, so low, so stagnant, that I hold my breath in fear, believing that the dark, blank curtain is about to descend.
Shortly after this June entry, my father took an over-dose of sleeping pills and was committed to Camarillo State Mental Hospital. Although he didn’t die, our lives were never the same. I grew up with the sword of suicide hanging over my head waiting for it to fall on my own neck.
Following my father’s commitment to Camarillo, my mother was forced to work outside the home and I grew up fast, learning to take care of myself, but also terrified that my mother would die. My mother was thirty-five when I was born and obsessed with her own death and mine.
She used to joke about hoping she would be around to see me graduate high school. She was so afraid something would happen to me that she wouldn’t let my father hold me when I was a baby, afraid he would drop be and I would die. Her fears of my death were almost realized when I got my neck stuck through the bars of my crib (I was an adventurous child and didn’t like being confined) and she found my limb body and my lips turning blue. Fortunately she was able to revive me.
Following that incident, she not only bought a life insurance policy on herself, which she couldn’t afford, but she also bought one on me. As she explained, “So that when you are grown and have a family of your own, your wife and children will be taken care of if something should happen to you.” Growing up, death was a feared, yet constant, companion.
Being a Man Means Risking Life for Love and Duty
Like many boys I grew up watching war movies and cowboy movies and imagining myself fighting bad guys and attracting the love of a beautiful woman who gave her heart to the man who defended her life and virtue.
My absolute favorite movie was High Noon starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly. The plot, depicted in real time in the few hours before high noon, centers around the town Marshal, Will Kane (Cooper), torn between his sense of duty to stand up to the bad guys and his love for his new bride, Amy Fowler (Kelly) who is a Quaker and pacifist and wants him to leave town with her before the gang of killers arrive.
“They’re making me run,”
Kane tells his wife.
“I’ve never run from anybody before.”
The theme song for the movie, Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darlin,’ speaks to Kane’s conflict:
Oh, to be torn ‘twixt love an’ duty.
S’posin’ I lose my fair-haired beauty.
Look at that big hand move along,
Nearing high noon.
The song and the movie captured my own fears and conflicts. Do I continue to try and be my mother’s brave little man and bury my fears or do I speak my truth and risk pushing her away? Her fear of death, my own and hers, was never far away. I always worried that if she became too upset she’d get sick and die.
In High Noon, Kane seeks help from town folks and friends to stand with him to oppose the killers who are out for revenge, but everyone refuses. Kane must make the decision alone. Will he stand for what he believes and risk his life or stand with the woman he loves and risk disgrace? Time ticks ever closer to a decision as the clock in town reaches high noon.
Growing up I never questioned the view of masculinity that put “love” and “duty” on opposite sides of the scale. The movies offered a choice. We could either choose to listen to the woman in our lives and choose love or we could listen to the call of duty, which usually meant standing alone against evil and facing certain death being out gunned by bad men.
In this view of masculinity it is always preferable to die as a hero fighting other men, than to take care of your wife and risk being shamed as a coward if you don’t strap on your guns and face death. In many ways, my whole life and career have been built on my struggles to find out what it really means to be a good man and how love and duty can come together for the good of all.
I have talked and written about these issues throughout my professional career. In my book 12 Rules for Good Men, I say,
“This is a confusing time to be a man. Manhood today is maligned and misunderstood. Some believe maleness itself is inherently destructive and should be eliminated. Others view males as superfluous. This idea is reflected in the witticism, ‘A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle’. Some view men as being unsuited for today’s world. Finally, some believe that traditional masculinity itself is toxic and needs to be eliminated and we’d be better off just seeing ourselves as human beings.”
The Gift of Becoming Our True Selves
There are no easy answers and our understanding of what it means to be male or female changes through time. I have a different view than many. Evolutionary science tells us that the division of life into male and female began one billion years ago. This ancient lineage continues today. Men are not better than women, or vice versa, but there are important differences between males and females.
According to David C. Page, M.D., Professor of Biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Director of the Whitehead Institute, says,
“There are 10 trillion cells in the human body, and every one of them is sex-specific. We’ve had a unisex vision of the human genome, but men and women are not the same in our genome, and men and women are not the same in the face of disease. All our cells know on a molecular level whether they are XX or XY.”
Dr. Page, as well as other scientists, recognize that though the sexual binary is true for 98% to 99% of the human population, we need to recognize, acknowledge, and support, the minority who are not XX or XY or know that they were assigned the wrong sex at birth. We also know that there are many stereotypes of what XX or XY humans are supposed to act like. We are each unique human beings and each of us must find our own way to find and accept our true selves and come to peace about our lives, including how we die.
You can follow my healing journey through my writing, particularly in my books, from my first, Inside Out: Becoming My Own Man, published in 1983 to my most recent books, 12 Rules for Good Men, Long Live Men! The Moonshot Mission to Heal Men, Close the Lifespan Gap, and Offer Hope to Humanity, and my memoir, My Distant Dad: Healing the Family Father Wound.