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Celebrating my Jubilee 50 Years after my Kindergarten Trauma

We can all heal from shocks, even a little child with a growing body and brain

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When Alfred Hitchcock was a child, his father allegedly stuck him in a jail cell overnight.

The young Hitchcock panicked while he was in that cell, and he never forgot that nightmarish episode from his childhood, which deeply impacted his life and his filmmaking career.

He was able to transmute that horror into art, as he became the master of suspense, one of the world’s greatest movie directors, renowned for his insights into and ability to prey upon the human mind.

As we emerge from the COVID-19 plague, it has become quite apparent that humans were not meant to be placed in any form of solitary confinement, even if that solitary confinement or social isolation takes place in our own homes, let alone a jail cell.

I can understand how anyone, who has been stuck in jail or prison, could become depressed, anxiety-ridden, psychotic or suicidal, while he or she is incarcerated.  

However, the vast majority of inmates do not start out with a mental illness, and most of them have committed crimes that deserve punishment.

It is refreshing when criminals and former prisoners admit the truth about the crimes that they committed and when they seek to atone or rehabilitate themselves.

Tragically, some of the incarcerated have been punished in ways that violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment.”

In his recent op-ed in The New York Times, titled “My 18 Years in Solitary Confinement,” Ian Manuel admitted that he shot a woman in a robbery attempt when he was 13 years old.  “It was reckless and foolish on my part, the act of a 13-year-old in crisis, and I’m simply grateful no one died.”

Manuel was stuck in solitary confinement for much of his 18 years in prison from the age of 15 to the age of 33.

He indicated in his op-ed how research has shown that solitary confinement “causes post-traumatic stress disorder and impairs prisoners’ ability to adjust to society long after they leave their jail cell.”

Manuel then pointed out that the U.N. has declared that solitary confinement lasting more than 15 days is “cruel, inhumane or degrading.” 

Though the Obama administration in 2016 banned juvenile solitary confinement in federal prisons, this “cruel and unusual” punishment still pervades our criminal justice system, according to Manuel.

He cited statistics from the Liman Center at Yale Law School, indicating that 61,000 Americans, including children, endured solitary confinement in the fall of 2017.

I admire Manuel for his honest op-ed, which appeared in the March 29, 2021, edition of the NYT.  

And his coda truly resonated with me.

Manuel’s piece concluded with these words: “Sadly, solitary confinement for juveniles is still permissible in many states.  But we have the power to change that — to ensure that the harrowing injustice I suffered as a boy never happens to another child in America.”

I agree with Manuel that no child should ever be punished with solitary confinement or any other type of torture.

While I have never been in jail or prison, let alone in solitary confinement, I have written about how I, as a 5-year-old boy, was abused by my public school kindergarten teacher.

Mrs. Crawley started to torture me right after Yom Kippur in Oct. 1970.

She smacked my left hand, my dominant side, and would not let me use it, then she dragged me to what she called the “dunce corner” because I missed school for the holiest day of the year on the Jewish calendar, the Day of Atonement.

As she yanked me over to the “dunce corner,” Mrs. Crawley announced to the class that I was a dunce, the first dunce, even though and undoubtedly because I was the only kid in the class who could already read. 

And this infuriated her, as did the fact that I was also the only Jewish kid or the only practicing Jewish kid in that class at Spring Glen School in Hamden, Conn., a suburb of New Haven.

I had been reading since I turned 3 years old when my mother, herself a former public schoolteacher in Hamden, Conn., introduced me to flash cards.

She put the flash cards up in the kitchen of our clapboard home in Hamden, and I began to read with love.

Early on in my kindergarten class, I was asked to help the other kids learn how to read.

At first, Mrs. Crawley asked me to help the boys, who sat in the back row with me.

Later, the kids asked me themselves.

I was delighted to help my classmates, and I remember walking along the back row and assisting the boys, all of whom I remember.  I started to teach them how to identify letters and how to pronounce or sound out phonemes, the building blocks of language.

But things began to change after Yom Kippur in Oct. 1970.

I missed two days of school, as we also celebrated my 5th birthday in Providence, R.I., where my grandparents lived.  Then we drove back to Hamden in the morning of Oct. 12.

As I have written before, I arrived a bit late for class on that October morning, and Mrs. Crawley stalked me to my seat in the back row.

She barked, “Why couldn’t you have gone here?” 

“We don’t belong to this synagogue,” I said of Mishkan Israel, where my public school was being held in 1970-71 because Spring Glen School’s regular building on Whitney Ave., about a half-mile away, was being renovated.

Shortly thereafter, when I tried to cut and paste with my left hand at a desk set up for a right-handed person, Mrs. Crawley proceeded to smack my arm, the first act of torture, while she sent me, as I previously noted, to the “dunce corner.”

An anti-Semitic witch, Mrs. Crawley clearly did not approve of the 1960s policy changes of Vatican II, in which the Catholic Church, among other developments, stopped teaching its parishioners that Jews killed Christ.

As I have written in other articles, Mrs. Crawley continued her abuse against me for the next six to seven months until the spring of 1971, near the end of the school year.  

It was chronic and severe.

I was not allowed to sit in the dunce corner and was in fact forced to stand or hunch against the wall for many minutes, perhaps 10 to 15 at a time, perhaps longer.

You don’t have to be an endocrinologist to realize the damage that Mrs. Crawley did to my growing, 5-year-old body, as well as to my mind and soul, when she punished me repeatedly in this fashion.

Her behavior was not unlike that of Olympic gymnastic coaches or doctors, some of whom reportedly terrorized young girls competing for spots on the Olympic team.

Many of those girls have discussed the chronic abuse and the physical, as well as spiritual and psychological, ramifications of the abuse that they endured at the hands of their male coaches and doctors.

It has taken me roughly 50 years to heal mentally, physically and spiritually from Mrs. Crawley’s abuse, which took its toll on me in ways that I did not understand for decades.

I still remember one of my pediatricians, a man of compassion, asking me when I was a little boy if something had happened to me.  He said that I was doing fine in terms of my growth until then.  “Did someone do something to you?  You can tell me.”

I also remember his partner, a disciple of Dr. Spock and a gruff fellow, who fancied himself a scholar.  He preferred writing academic papers to treating patients with empathy.

I can recall him barging out of the examination room and speaking rudely to my mother, just as he did to me.

What had happened to me, of course, was that I, at the age of five, had been subjected to savage abuse that had apparently damaged my body, as well as my brain and soul.

The main reason why I did not realize that I had been so damaged was, paradoxically, because I was so filled with love, as well as innocence.

God is love, and love is the most powerful thing of all, to quote Barbara, my late wife, who was herself a public school kindergarten teacher and an angelic and brilliant one at that.

As I have written before, Barbara taught her students Shakespeare, poetry and how to love.

She would end up saving my life in the late 1990s, when I was suicidal and diagnosed with schizophrenia in my early 30’s.  

Barbara, who passed away at the age of 80 in Sept. 2019, restored and re-doubled the love that I always had, well before Mrs. Crawley tried to destroy me.

I never lost that love or strength, even if my growth appeared to have been stunted when I was younger.

When I was sent to the “dunce corner,” I almost felt like a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp, where guards forced Jews and other inmates to stand and march for hours, among other acts of torture.

Though I was not in an actual prison, I was just 5 years old when I was abused.

I was younger than most prisoners in a concentration camp and certainly much, much younger than any inmate in the United States’ penal system.

When I tried to talk to and look at Mrs. Crawley, she, like a sadistic guard, would yell, “Don’t look at me!” 

One time, when she dragged me to the principal’s office, a friend, who protested when Mrs. Crawley first sent me to the “dunce corner,” held onto her in the hallway.  “Don’t make him stay back.  He’s the best in the class, and he’s my best friend.”

Mrs. Crawley threatened this friend of mine.  “You know what we’ll do to you,” she said to him.  Then she said menacingly to me, “We’ll do to you what we did to him.”

Unbeknownst to me, my erstwhile friend had stayed back the year before.

On one of those days when she dragged me to the principal’s office, Mrs. Crawley issued me another threat.  “If you say anything to anyone…”

She also yelled that it “wasn’t fair” that I could already read.

It did not take long before I started to dissociate from Mrs. Crawley’s abuse, which is to say that, at a subconscious level, I started to drift away from her evil, as I stood or hunched against the wall in the back of the classroom.

Mrs. Crawley mocked me in front of the class when I started to talk to myself in the “dunce corner.”  She ignored or ridiculed me whenever I raised my hand.  And she terrorized the class into silence by threatening them with trips to the “dunce corner” if they revealed what she was doing in abusing me.

She did send some other kids to the dunce corner, so that she could act as if she was being egalitarian in her acts of evil.

But she singled me out for abuse in an isolated and somewhat hidden location, the eastern wing of the basement of Mishkan Israel, a dark and lonely space, far away from most of the other classrooms, which were located upstairs.

There was another kindergarten class in the western wing of the basement, which was well out of ear shot and eyesight from our class.  That class was taught by the beloved Mrs. Mulcahy, whom I would sometimes see meandering down the hallway on her way to her classroom on the other side of a garden between the two wings of the basement.   

In his recent New York Times op-ed, Ian Manuel described how “egregious abuses” often occur when prisoners are placed in solitary confinement, because, by its very nature, solitary confinement “is hidden from public view and the broader prison population.”

I was not hidden from my classmates.  The boys in the back row, in particular my then-best friend, would sometimes turn around and wave at me.  They knew what was going on.

But they had to be careful, or else they too would be sent to the dunce corner.

And all of us were left alone in that wing of the basement of Mishkan Israel with Mrs. Crawley, who created what some might characterize as a “culture of fear” and terror, not unlike that administered by a Nazi guard at a concentration camp.

That this evil took place at a synagogue, one that my family would later join in 1973, just before the Yom Kippur War, is about as perverse and sinister an irony as any I can imagine.

The good news is that, 50 years and roughly six months after the torture began, I have been freed from the enslavement of Mrs. Crawley, just as my ancestors were freed from Pharaoh about 4,000 years ago.

Like Jews around the world, who are celebrating Passover, or Christians, who are honoring Jesus’ time on the Cross, I am celebrating my own release from horror.  

God always defeats the devil on Good Friday and every day, because God is all-powerful, and God is love.

As I have pointed out before, it is a case of perfect, poetic justice that, after having the worst kindergarten teacher ever in Mrs. Crawley, I ended up marrying the best kindergarten teacher ever in Barbara, who taught public school kindergarten in Anaheim, Calif., for 26 years beginning in the Civil Rights era.

Barbara instilled in me, as she did in her students, the power and beauty of love. 

And there is nothing that God loves more than a song of joy, a song of love, a song of praise and thanksgiving to Him.

As I write this long-form essay, I do so about 25 years, a silver jubilee, after I met Barbara in a UCLA writing class.

Barbara read the first chapter of fiction that I wrote for that class, which began in June 1996.

Twenty-five years later, I have finished composing our opus, which has many elements, many motifs, to it.  But, more than anything, it is a song or psalm of love to God and Barbara.

It is not so much an irony as it is another case of poetic justice or perhaps Biblical prophecy that I should finish this very long psalm approximately 50 years after I was abused by Mrs. Crawley, who practiced the savage techniques of the Nazis, more than the artful suspense of Alfred Hitchcock’s films.

We must all understand that God works in mysterious ways, a key piece of wisdom from the Book of Job.

I have noted in the past that the name, Job, or Yov in Hebrew, is not so different phonetically from God’s name, Yahweh or Jehovah in English.  In fact, Job almost sounds like a shortened version, or nickname, for one of God’s many names.

This suggests that Job, who suffers horrible afflictions for most of the Book of Job, has a godliness to him.  It also suggests that Job can achieve a divine transcendence, which indeed he does at the end of the book.

Jubilee is another word with a divine etymology and with cognates that would please Kabbalists. 

Jubilee derives to an extent from the Hebrew word, Yovel, which means ram’s horn.

Jews blow the shofar or the ram’s horn at the end of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, as well as on other special occasions.

In ancient times, on the Jubilee, the 50th year, the Israelites were released from servitude, from bondage and from debts, in particular those that related to the land.

During the 50th year, as well as every seven years leading up to it, the land in ancient Israel was supposed to rest, to lie fallow, though some rabbis believe that, because the Jubilee marks the end of seven cycles of sabbatical, it is really during the 49th year, or at the end of the 48th year, when Jews and the land start to be released from bondage, from debts, from slavery, from indentured servitude.

I have not been a slave in this lifetime, as my people were in Egypt 4,000 years ago.  But there can be a metaphoric resonance to the concept of enslavement, bondage, release and jubilation.

In recent years, as I have more fully processed the torture to which Mrs. Crawley subjected me, I have also begun to recall other acts of evil that targeted me over the decades.

Those later acts of evil triggered an effect in my brain, in which I would dissociate or drift away and tune out the sadism.

Unfortunately, there were many such cases of sadism directed against me by people who not only lied about me; they ganged up on me in their lies.

Like Mrs. Crawley, they wanted nothing less than the destruction of my soul.  They wanted me to kill myself, as some even said despicably.

In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, Margaret Renkl wrote about a former Nazi guard, who, armed with a gun, “stood silent” while the prisoners at the Neuengamme concentration camp were forced to dig trenches in “deadly winter weather” in 1945.

The Nazi guard, Friedrich Karl Berger, was 19 years old in the winter of 1945 when he supervised these prisoners in their trench digging.  Many of the inmates died under the watch of Berger.  He then guarded the survivors on a “nearly two-week march” back to the main concentration camp.

Though Berger is now 95 years old, he was recently deported by the U.S. government from his Oak Ridge, Tenn., home, where he lived for years.  He was sent back to Germany, which, as of March 9, when Renkl’s op-ed appeared in the NYT, had refrained from prosecuting Berger.

That Berger was only 19 years old when he “stood silent” in the face of Nazi war crimes seems to have given some people pause.

As Renkl wrote, “We know enough about brain development to understand that such people are often too young to recognize the true import of what they are seeing or doing.”

Renkl added, “Teenagers are neurological works in progress.”

But, as the subhed in the op-ed pointed out, “Some offenses are so hideous that even time offers no shield.”

So, what are we to make of Mrs. Crawley, who was a middle-aged woman, not a 19 year old guard, when she went out of her way to torture me, a 5-year-old Jewish boy?

In 1970, when I was in kindergarten, we were not that many years removed from the Milgram experiments, which took place on the Yale campus in New Haven, Conn., in the early 1960s.

Those so-called shock experiments were conducted around the time of Adolph Eichmann’s trial in Israel, as I noted in a Nov. 2018 piece for Thrive Global, “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from Kindergarten.”

As sickening as is the human penchant for sadism, which was revealed by the Milgram experiments, not everyone in those experiments relished inflicting apparent electric shocks on the victims.

And the apparent victims, who shouted in pain, were all adults.

It bears repeating that I was a child, not an adult, when I was abused.  And I was a very, very young child.

As prejudiced and ignorant as she was, Mrs. Crawley knew that my brain and body were just growing at that time and that I was a “neurological” and physical “work in progress.”

Nonetheless, she viciously tried to destroy me.

Why?

The answer is simple.  She was furious and even jealous that I could already read and read well as a 5 year-old boy.

I have been writing about this story since Nov. 2018 at the onset of my Jubilee, my freedom from Mrs. Crawley’s torture.  And I will continue to write about it, not only because it helps me heal from her abuse.

I will continue to write about her act of evil because not all kids are as strong as I was or am.

And many would not and have not survived.

My late wife, Barbara, herself a former public school kindergarten teacher, used to say that she always knew that she was stronger than the sadists who harmed her.

I have always felt the same way.

Barbara and I saved each other.  And we are, in essence, the same person.

But, again, not everyone has the strength or the good fortune of Barbara or me.

Many kids, who have been abused at an early age, lose the ability to speak, as studies have shown. Other kids lose other cognitive and physiological functions.  

And some children never recover from trauma, if it occurs when they are very young.

Yes, I have recovered, but that does not mean that I have not had severe repercussions to my health and to my life prospects.

As I have mentioned previously, I did stop reading for five and one-half years.  And my fine motor skills remain atrocious, including my penmanship, as my former co-workers can attest. 

That is because I am really left-handed, something that I did not realize for decades.

I always thought that I was somewhat ambidextrous.  In fact, I am non-dextrous, though my arms and hands are relatively strong.

Despite my limitations and the psychotic breaks that I endured in the late 1990s, I have managed to “keep on keeping’ on,” as Bob Dylan would say.   And that is because I opened my mind and heart to love, which I always had within me.

Just as my brain healed, and I regained my love for reading, my body has healed, too.

I never actually lost the ability to read, and I never lost the ability to love, despite the hateful lies that some people made up about me.

These people, some of whom have taken the Hippocratic oath, clearly lacked empathy, at least as it concerned me.

Not unlike Mrs. Crawley, they were jealous.

These hateful people were also devoid of sophistication.

Too many scientists and non-scientists are reductive, rigid in their thinking. And some are imaginatively impoverished.  But even a scientist or an agnostic ought to know that there are outliers out there, that some of us range far beyond the curve, that our lives are ruled by irony and paradox, that many of us are more than a little idiosyncratic and that some of us even contain the contradictions of King David or Hamlet, who happen to be my two greatest heroes.

Of course, there are some people, who love to “blacken the names” of others, to use a phrase employed by one such individual, who was tricked into believing lies about me.

These wannabe Machiavellis have never understood why their acts of evil against me have backfired.  Some have projected in hilarious fashion that perhaps I am the devil, just as others claimed that Bob Dylan or Robert Johnson made a deal with Satan.

I am sorry to tell these Iagos that they have willfully misunderstood me and they have willfully misunderstood the Bible, literature and life.  

It is true that I am like a character in the Book of Job, but I am not the devil, as some hate-mongers would like to think.   And, needless to say, I am not God.

As I have written before, I am Job, except I am a Job as a little child.

I am convinced that I was the subject of a cosmic bet between God and the devil, as takes place in the Book of Job, except this bet revolved around a 5 year-old boy, not an adult.

I would remind the wannabe Machiavellis, Iagos and Sammy Glicks, that God wins His bet in the Book of Job, as He always does.

And those sadists might also realize that Job’s wealth, spiritual and otherwise, is doubled at the end of the book.

Like Job, I will pray for many of the people, who have gone out of their way to lie about me, who have tried to destroy me, and who have blamed me when they have been ensnared in their own traps.

I keep in mind what Jesus says in Matthew: “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake; for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” 

Just as Hamlet, were he in Othello, would see through the moves of Iago, I want the Masters of War to know that “I can see through their masks,” to quote Bob Dylan again.

Some predators used to think that I was like Othello, a war hero, victimized by Iago, a villain.

But they misread me.

I have always been Hamlet; I was just a traumatized Hamlet for decades.  Now, I am a healthy prince of Denmark, and a loving one, a Jewish one in the tradition of King David.

Many are familiar with this line from Psalm 23: “Yeah, though I have walked through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”

But we all need to remember what follows that verse.  

King David fears no evil, because, as he writes and sings in that beautiful psalm, “for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.”

God is indeed with King David.

And God is love, as Barbara, my late wife, always said.

I have plenty of love in my life, something, as I wrote earlier, that Barbara restored and re-doubled in me.

Still, we need justice in the world.  We need to bring light to the truth, or else our society could die in darkness, and more children could be abused in the shadows.

We cannot allow any more kids to have their lives damaged, or destroyed, by hateful teachers, clergy members, Boy Scout leaders, Olympic coaches, or other predators.

As Margaret Renkl wrote in her March 9 op-ed in The New York Times, “life isn’t fair, and we all know it, but justice is about doing our best to impose fairness in an unfair world.”

Mrs. Crawley can no longer atone.  But others can.  

And they cannot do this only in a confession booth; they will need to do so through good deeds for the rest of their lives.

As Harvey Keitel’s Charlie says in Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, “You don’t make up for your sins in church.  You do it on the streets.  You do it at home.  The rest is bullshit.  And you know it.”

Those are the opening lines in one of the most influential films of the past 50 years, a film that was directed and co-written by Scorsese, who had considered the priesthood before he became a filmmaker.

God knows of the evil that Mrs. Crawley and many, many others did to me.  And, all these years later, so do I.

With Good Friday approaching, I invite those people who committed evil against me to come forward, to admit their sins and to ask for forgiveness.

Of course, they will need to do more than that.  

They will need to apologize not only to me.  They will need to admit their sins, apologize and atone to God.

Sadists may laugh at that, but they do so at their spiritual peril.

The bullies and the ethically challenged, who ganged up on me over the decades, when I was dissociating from the evil of Mrs. Crawley, must “reconfigure” their lives, in the words of the late Major League Baseball Commissioner Bart Giamatti.

A former president of Yale, Giamatti gave that advice to Pete Rose, the baseball star, who illegally bet on the national pastime and was kicked out of baseball in 1989.

Rose was a rogue and had a gambling problem.  He was also a brilliant, clutch ballplayer for more than 20 years, beginning in 1963.

For all his flaws, Pete Rose has always had a number of redeeming qualities.

Likewise, there are some people, who hurt me but who did not intend to do so or who did not set out to do so.  

Some of them were decent and even caring individuals, who actually meant well at the beginning.  They thought they were helping me.  

When I did not admit to something that is not true, some of them got upset.  

Unfortunately, they were suffering from confirmation bias or even desirability bias, two of the psychological mistakes that people frequently make, as Adam Grant has pointed out.

I am not angry at these individuals.  People often see matters through their own prisms or have a need for validation.

But people, especially those in positions of power, like teachers, clergy, doctors and coaches, need to recognize that they should not foist an agenda on a young person.  

Sometimes, a child is different but not in the reductive way that is hoped for by an adult.

You can’t shoehorn a unique adult, let alone a unique kid, into a slot simply because it is what you desire for your own personal, spiritual or political reasons.

If you try to pressure a person, particularly a young person, into such a role, you only add to the trauma of that person, who may have already been brutalized, as I was as a little boy.

We need to train educators, doctors and others to be more compassionate and nonjudgmental when they sense that they have identified a survivor of trauma.

Often, it is the most gifted kids, those who are artistic and sensitive, who are targeted by predators.

I am grateful that I have recovered for many reasons, not least of which is that I can tell my story and try to prevent abuse from ever happening again to another child.

As I wrote in a previous piece, we need to do a much better job of screening our teachers to weed out racists, anti-Semites, homophobes, sociopaths and others, who reek of hate.

We need to have many more surprise visits by principals, superintendents and other education officials to monitor teachers, especially those who teach the early primary years.

If at all possible, we should also have in every classroom a teacher’s aide, who is not dependent on a recommendation from the main teacher.

Finally, we need to foster an ethos of love.

I have healed from Mrs. Crawley’s abuse and the hatred of others, because of the love of Barbara, who was and always will be my besheret, my soulmate, and my Shekinah, which is a Kabbalistic term for the bride of God or God’s female essence.

I am just a man, but Barbara Bunny is my savior.

My little angel and I will always be together, not only in the world of my dreams but also on the page.

Barbara and I are co-authors of our opus, and she comes first on the title page as my Muse, for, without the Muse, there would be no psalm, no song of love. 

And, as I have stated before, God loves nothing more than a song of love, a song of praise to Him and his Shekinah.

As for the hateful people, who went out of their way to gang up on and try to destroy me, they may have damaged my reputation, but they really did put their souls in peril.

Yes, there are gradations to evil.  Not all of these hate-mongers demonstrated the same level of sadism or depravity when they tried to hurt me.

Some of these people may still have a chance to atone, to ask for forgiveness and to cleanse their souls by reconfiguring their lives, through good deeds.  

And they must know at this point that you cannot con or trick God.  

As John the Baptist said in Matthew, “Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

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