“So was it when my life began;
So it is now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old;
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the man.”
— William Wordsworth (1770-1850)
Wordsworth’s message was clear. The habits, positive and negative, that are inured in our youth invariably accompany us to our grave.
Indeed, they can survive beyond our grave.
I rarely remember the words of the bereaved after I pay a shiva visit. Words of Torah, as well as anecdotes, all tend to blend together in my mind. For me, the deceased rarely comes to life.
George’s mother was an exception. At her shiva, he described an incident when she insisted on teaching him, at the age of 12, how to smoke. He was thrilled. She made it into an elaborate, elongated ceremony. She used her most elegant lighter; she purchased the finest cigarettes for the occasion.
She showed him exactly how to manipulate the lighter, precisely how to hold the cigarette, how to inhale that first long pleasurable draw, and then to hold it in his lungs to savor its flavor for as long as possible.
George, flattered by her attentions, followed her instructions to the letter. He burst into a paroxysmal coughing fit and was sick to his stomach for hours afterwards. For years subsequently, he was repulsed by the stench of smoke.
Her lesson had been successful.
Somewhat enigmatically, it brought to mind the Ten Commandment verse that warns us that the sins of the parents will be punished for the succeeding four generations: “For I, the Lord, thy God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children onto the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.”
How brutal. How inequitable. The common explanation, by Rashi and most other rabbis, that it applies only if the progeny continue to sin themselves, is singularly unconvincing. It renders the verse redundant, the moral equivalent of “slippery when wet.”
What however, if the verse was not a threat, but a promise? What if God understood that sin perpetuates itself? After all, epidemiological studies consistently reveal that child beaters sire child beaters, alcoholics raise alcoholics and thieves beget thieves.
In view of that, God is not being punitive, but merciful. He is saying that rather than allow the vicious cycle to continue in perpetuity, He will end it after only four generations. In doing so however, He needs assistance. He needs parents like George’s mother, who perhaps realized that three generations before her had smoked and that only she had the power to end the cycle.
Decades ago I was walking with a business client down Fifth Avenue. Suddenly she instructed me that we needed to cross the avenue. I disagreed. I knew that our destination was on our side. She insisted; I followed.
As we detoured, I glanced back and noticed that a large dog had been approaching us. Insensitively, I blurted out: “Do you have a dog phobia?”
She glared at me. She didn’t want to discuss it. Stupidly, I persisted. I reminded her that I was also a psychiatrist who treats phobias. She reminded me that she wasn’t consulting me in that capacity, and, less than gently, suggested that I mind my own business.
Years later, she called me with a question. She was pregnant. She wanted to know if phobias were genetic.
I told her the good news; the biological answer is no. The bad news, however, was that her son would undoubtedly inherit her phobia nonetheless. He would eventually learn from her behavior that dogs must be avoided at all costs and intuit that they must be dangerous
She determined that such would not be the case. From the time he was even in a carriage, if she was with him, she would not avoid dogs. She would stand still, but she would not cross the street.
She died a thousand deaths. Dogs would come up to her and sniff her as their masters obliviously admired her baby. She suffered palpitations, headaches and nausea. But in the end, two things happened. The first was predictable. Her son never developed a dog phobia.
The second was not. She cured her own dog phobia. The method she used is referred to as flooding, or implosion. It is exemplified by throwing someone with a water phobia out of a boat. It’s as brutal as visiting the sins of the parents upon their children, but it often works.
In a larger sense however, she didn’t cure her phobia; her son did. Her child was the father of this woman. As with George’s mother, she prevented her handicap from being visited upon the next generation.
I think of those two women frequently. In my efforts to raise my children, I try to become the person that I want them to be. I am inspired by the examples of those women. Simultaneously, I am frightened by the precedent of my mother.
When my mother’s dementia had progressed to the point she had almost burnt down her apartment, my sister and I had no choice but to put her in an assisted care facility.
My mother was furious. She didn’t know where she was, her own last name, or where she lived, but she was adamant that she wanted to return there.
She railed against us. She claimed that she would not have wanted to survive Auschwitz if she had known that she would be imprisoned again. She said that we were worse than Hitler. It was brutal; it was inequitable.
At one point towards the end, she screamed at me: “Isaac, pray that your children never treat you the way that you’re treating me!”
I was going to ignore her provocation, as I always did, but this time, I couldn’t help myself. After I sent my children out of the room, I turned to her and said quietly: “Mom, you know for what I pray? I pray that I never treat my children the way that you’re treating us.”
She started crying. I held her. I started crying. After a few minutes, she whispered to me that I should remind her grandchildren of who she used to be.
She never vilified us again. The thought of her grandchildren suffering had been therapeutic. Even in her dementia, she was determined that the sins of the parents should not be visited upon the third generation. My children, in the end, were the father of my mother.
Wordsworth’s message was clear. With these three courageous women, God’s mercy was equally clear.
Dr. Isaac Steven Herschkopf, a practicing psychiatrist, is president of the NYU-Bellevue Psychiatric Alumni, and the author of “Hello Darkness, My Old Friend – Embracing Anger To Heal Your Life” (Xlibris). This excerpt is from a forthcoming memoir.