Picking Up the Pieces

The total breakdown of my marriage that came to light over that weekend with Tanya and Sherman would have forced me to reassess my life and goals even if soul-searching hadn’t already become for me an avocation. By now, we had been to mainstream Ph.D. and M.S.W.-type marriage counselors and Diane had been in treatment with two different psychoanalysts. Nevertheless, and despite the shambles we had made of our marriage, neither one of us seemed ready to call it a marital day.

Tanya and Sherman, meanwhile, were assuring us that the “healing” of our relationship had already begun. If we wanted to accelerate the process, they and several other couples were forming what amounted to a live-in support group for dysfunctional families. In, of all places, a town called Normal, Illinois.

They described it as a community in which, under Mr. Dillon’s ultimate authority, the participants would pursue their individual spiritual development while reconstituting their marriages and family lives. It seemed a unique opportunity to turn our adversity to advantage. With one stroke, we could make a clean physical break from our sordid past and begin a new spiritual adventure.

When Sarah answered the door on my next visit, her greeting was, “Going somewhere? Come in and tell me about it.” In spite of some misgivings about Tanya and Sherman, she was respectful of Tanya’s psychic gift and never questioned the reality of Mr. Dillon. She also intimated that we would gain much from this experience in the wilds of Central Illinois.

For our families and friends, we tried to make the transition as respectable looking as possible. There were plenty of good reasons to be moving out of Chicago in the spring of 1983. I told my academic colleagues it was time for me to return to private practice and that I preferred to do so in a smaller-town environment. There was so much crime and traffic in the city! And with the equity we had accrued in our tiny, three-bedroom house, we would be able to afford a veritable palace in Normal. All these things of course were true, but beside the point.

Like us, the other couples moving to Tanya and Sherman’s community were struggling, to one degree or another, to hold their marriages together. About half (including Sherman) were Jewish. There was another lawyer, another psychiatric social worker, a psychology professor, a medical school professor and, a bit later, a dentist. Along with our collective emotional baggage, we shared an egalitarian vision of communal living and psychological self-help.

We purchased five large homes on the same block of a nice residential neighborhood. We developed a home-schooling program for the children. The idea was to create a close-knit community in which our kids would be surrounded by a nurturing extended family. We would all feel welcome in any of the five households. And we’d be knowledgeable of and engaged in each others’ personal and familial processes.

To that end, but also for economic reasons, we lived two to three families per household. For while some of us had arrived in Normal with money in the bank, the group also included waiters, delivery-people, construction workers and lots of kids. As a result, our mission to save our marriages came also to entail forging community under these emotionally dire but adventuresome circumstances, across social and economic lines. Just as husbands and wives were recommitting to each other as eternal soulmates, our families were undertaking to share all aspects of the communal burden – social, psychological, spiritual and economic.

Neither Diane nor I had ever been involved in anything so radical. But we were doing this together. We were once again on the same team. And we believed that we were finally turning our dysfunctional relationship into something truly noble – not just for ourselves, but also for our 7-year-old son.

As I recall these early, halcyon days in the community, I am still struck by our bold idealism. Here we were, eventually 40 or so adults, many of us professionally if not interpersonally accomplished, committing ourselves and our resources to a common vision of marital and communal life that we were learning and inventing as we went along. We were going to help each other uproot all vestiges of selfishness, pride, deceitfulness and self-suppression. We would work diligently, within each relationship and household, to handle every interpersonal conflict and every practical challenge of daily living at the inspired level we had all experienced during our weekend sessions with Tanya and Sherman.

And for the first year or so, while we were able to live off our savings, it was truly an exhilarating experience.