Interviewsand Articles


My Defining Moment

by David Feldman, Sep 20, 2023



The Forces Arise
My senior year at college felt like a gift from the universe. My parents generously supported me financially. I knew this was the last year of “irresponsibility” and I dived in. I lived in a small, studio apartment on the upper west side of Manhattan, an area bursting with life. I was finally thriving at school taking almost exclusively psychology courses, my chosen field. I had a wonderful girlfriend, Torie. Our relationship had been off and on over the prior two years. Now was happily on again. I volunteered at a halfway house, attended weekly Synanon “games” with Torie. My friend Leo and I had lived at Synanon for six weeks in San Francisco the prior summer, and on occasion attended Dr. Jacob Moreno’s psychodrama sessions in New York. My cultural education included concerts, movies, lectures, poetry readings, folk music, long walks through city parks, and once a rented farmhouse for a weekend in the country with friends.

Cesareo and Psychodrama
There was also another flow begun two years before like a gentle stream that would turn into a torrent in my inner life. I’d never met anyone even remotely like Cesareo. He was Leo’s residence counselor at Brandeis and later his roommate. He was a fiery, fierce Cuban immigrant with interests that matched my own, but with abilities far exceeding mine. He’d landed at Brandeis to study with Abraham Maslow, was 15 years older than me, and like an older brother, guide and fellow traveler.
     Cesareo was a practicing psychologist who often utilized psychodrama. My understanding was that Dr. Moreno had invited Cesareo to join him and his wife, Zerka, to run the psychodrama phenomenon world-wide. Dr. Moreno was a force of nature and recognized this same quality in Cesareo.
     In December, Dr. Moreno held a week-long psychodrama training at his institute in Beacon, New York, two hours from where I lived in New York City. Cesareo, Leo, and a few other Brandeis graduates (now all attending graduate programs) were going and I signed up. During this week, I saw why Dr. Moreno wanted Cesareo to join him. As a director, Cesareo’s timing and theatricality were stunning. He had an uncanny way of getting to the heart of the matter. I experienced the power of psychodrama to explore our deepest wishes as well as our inner resistance.
     The week on this retreat provided the opportunity to hang out with Cesareo more than I had done in the past. He had a different take on life than I had ever known, and had a way of giving specific details to what appeared as fantasy and making it feel real.

(David Feldman is third from left, Cesareo is bearded figure)
     He talked about a “growth center” he was planning to start—a place in the country, a retreat. We had both been to Esalen so we had a point of departure. He envisioned three groups of staff: teachers—for body work, art, theater, hypnosis, etc.—and he would bring psychodrama; managers, for operations, accounting, and the practical aspects of such a place. The third group would be apprentices, young people like myself who would participate in everything, learn from everyone, and do whatever was necessary. He used Maslow’s Theory Z as a model. As you can imagine, I loved his vision.

Have. Do. Be.
I asked, “Isn’t it necessary to have the money first?” He took a long pause, looked at me carefully and then picked up an ashtray. In those days, we all smoked— usually Marlboros. “Let’s call this HAVE.” He took a cigarette box from his pocket and put it near the ashtray. This one is DO.” Then producing a pack of matches, he said “This one is BE.”
     He assured me and the others listening that understanding this triad could help explain many things. “Conventionally,” he continued, “we live in a HAVE, DO, BE triad. First, get the degree and HAVE it. Then practice your profession and DO the work. Finally, you now have become and finally ARE (BE) a doctor, lawyer, psychologist or whatever.” He let that sink in. “But some things don’t work that way. Think about acting as if. We were all familiar with this. “In that case, DO comes first.” And he gave examples. “Finally, there are cases when BE must come first, and that is how this growth center will get going. Its Being will be a magnet attracting money, staff and all the resources needed.” With that, he took a cigarette from the pack, lit it, and ceremoniously tossed the match into the ashtray. We all laughed. The class was over. A seed was planted.

The Synanon Trip and Graduate School
Although I loved Cesareo’s vision and energy, my reality was that the Vietnam War was still in full swing, and my student deferment would end in June when I graduated from college. I’d applied to only two psychology programs and didn’t know if I’d be accepted by either. One was at Duquesne University which offered a unique phenomenological psychology program. I’d studied Sartre, Merleau-Ponty and Camus, and felt an affinity for their approach and wanted to learn more.
     The other school I’d applied to was Sonoma State University in California offering a Masters in Humanistic Psychology. All my heroes were in this tradition: Maslow, Albert Ellis, Carl Rogers, Fritz Perls, Dr. Moreno and so on. I’d even had the good fortune to meet some of these remarkable people.
     Synanon had invited Torie and me to join their “trip” in Santa Monica in January. Synanon owned a beautiful hotel on Santa Monica beach. I arranged my interview with Sonoma State to be held immediately following the Synanon “trip”—an appropriate name in those days. It was a 48-hour, no-sleep, immersion experience that included many Synanon “games,” lectures, free time for walking on the beach, dancing, listening to music and eating lots of food. One aspect of their method was to utilize fatigue to help break through the resistances that we always carry around. More than 100 people participated and I got a chance to meet many new people from varying backgrounds. The weekend ended with a big celebration. Both Torie and I—and almost everyone else—were flying high with happiness and wonderful energy.
     We left for Sonoma on Monday morning. Once there, I discovered that it was a group interview. What an innovative idea! Still in my beatific mood, positive energy came flowing out. The interview came at the perfect time.

The Draft
When I returned from California, I was greeted by a letter from the Draft Board to come for an interview a few weeks before my 21st birthday. I had a bit of time before the interview and I did not want to go into the army. There was an underground network of psychiatrists who would write letters explaining “unfitness” for the army. This was an open secret in my circle. I’d seen a psychiatrist for several months a few years before. I’d been selling drugs and transitioning from teenage-hood and my parents were concerned. They’d paid for an expensive Park Avenue psychiatrist and I found it an interesting experience, but unfortunately nothing much happened. However, he was against the war and agreed to give me an “unfit” letter. Both psychiatrists found appropriate psychiatric diagnostic categories, and thus I had two letters confirming my unfitness.

The Draft Interview
The meeting with the army psychiatrist was a surprise. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I was in front of a 35-year-old, bright, thoughtful Chinese with a slight accent. He had a warm way of asking his battery of questions—very polished, but genuine. He told me a bit of his background, how the U.S. had been a blessing for him and his family, and that he was glad to be paying back. I was getting nervous that my resolve might collapse.
     He then outlined in detail how he understood my position—a student doing well in school, a girlfriend, a possibility for graduate school, a good relationship with my parents and a desire not to go into the army. “Many other young men your age are in far worse positions,” he said. “But they will have to serve their country and so should you. It’s the right thing to do, no matter what your politics.”
     I held firm. To my surprise, he said that he was going to give me a 4F. He told me the designation would follow me all my life, and interfere with many other things I’d want as I got older. Finally, he said. “One more chance! Do you want to make the ethical choice?” I said, “No.” And he gave me the 4F.
     I really had not expected this and it took a while to  sink in. As I rode the subway back to my apartment, I noticed young men, my age, and wondered if they would have to go. At the same time, I felt like shouting HOORAY! I hadn’t yet connected this decision to any others, I’d have to make later.  
The Forces Collide
In March, I received acceptance letters from both Sonoma State University and Duquesne, and both offered me full scholarships. I had not even been sure I’d get into either of the schools. I preferred Sonoma State.
     Each of the forces penetrating my life (Torie, Sonoma State, Cesareo) was wonderful on its own. However, I could not figure out how to keep them all going simultaneously. In my impulsive exuberance, I asked Torie if she would like to get married so we could go together to Sonoma State. She agreed. Even though she was an “A” student, she was willing to come to California with me while I did the Sonoma one-year graduate program. She was a blue-collar girl, had worked all her life, and was sure it would be no problem for her to find a job and take some graduate courses in the sciences.  So, it was settled. I thought we would go to Sonoma State and everything would be hunky-dory. We began making wedding plans, which were completely over my head—finding a place, having it paid for by either my parents or perhaps hers, letting our close friends know and so on.

The Quagmire
Then something happened that I had never experienced before. I began to have panic attacks. I didn’t even know what they were. I’d wake up at night, short of breath, with very scary dreams of being trapped. Torie and I were living together most of the time by then, so there was no escape. A week passed like this. I fully realized the insanity of my marriage proposal. I was not even close to being ready for a committed relationship, much less a marriage—whatever that might mean.
     I told Torie. It was miserable for both of us. Lots of anger, tears, and threats of cutting her wrists. She moved back to her apartment. After a few days, I started thinking about Cesareo, his growth center, my 4F and what I really wished to do with my life.
     There was no one I felt I could talk with since all logic pointed to going to Sonoma. Besides, this was MY decision and perhaps for the first time in my life, I had to make it and then be responsible for the consequences
     Should I go to Sonoma State and establish a career in psychology? I loved San Francisco and Esalen. The West Coast vibe felt like home. Or should I join Cesareo in his quest to start a center? Bear in mind, he hadn’t invited me specifically to join him. It was my initiative. I knew that if I asked him, he’d tell me to go to Sonoma State. I also had the thought to go to Sonoma, get the Master’s degree in Psychology and then re-connect with Cesareo. But it just didn’t feel right. I wished to do what I felt called to do. My sense was that the boat was leaving. I could get on board or not. And it was now or never.
     I wrote to Sonoma State, thanked them for their generous offer, and told them no. I told the head of Synanon in New York (Chester) of my situation and the choice I’d made. He was very understanding and kind and told me the Synanon door would remain open. He was quite familiar with people making life-changing decisions. I explained to my parents, as best
I could, why I’d made this choice. They could not really get it, but they accepted it and wished me well.
     Thus, at the end of June, after graduating from college and tying up as many loose ends as possible,
I got into my green Peugeot with about $200, packed what I thought I might need and drove the four hours from New York City to Boston.

Cesareo lived in an apartment complex in Winchester, a suburb of Boston. During my ride, I had a chance to reflect on what I’d done and the bridges I’d burned. I was particularly sorry and guilty for the sorrow and pain I’d caused Torie. I also wondered about Sonoma State and the life that might have opened for me. But I’d made my decision.

No plan B
It was a Wednesday, a sun-drenched New England day in late June. I arrived at Cesareo’s ground-floor apartment and saw his yellow VW bug parked in front. I rang the doorbell. He looked surprised to see me and invited me in. We sat down and I gave him a brief overview of the past three months of my life including my decisions, bridge burnings and hopes for the future.
     He did not comment on anything I said. He didn’t ask any questions about it. He listened—really listened— and I felt heard. To feel heard really mattered to me. Then he simply asked “Are you hungry?” We had some supper and washed the dishes.
     In the evening we discussed practical plans. “What if you find a nice room near the beach? Then I can come and visit. I was brought up in Cuba and love the beach.” He suggested Nahant. “And what are you planning to do for work?” he asked.
     “I don’t know, but I’m willing to do anything.”
     “Do you have any money?”
     “Yes, about $200.” I slept on his couch.
     The next day I headed out to Nahant. To get there it’s necessary to cross a causeway, parting the ocean waters on one side and the bay on the other. It felt like entering another world. I drove around this little island looking for rental signs. Not finding any, I stopped at one of the few stores on the island, where I was told the Anchorage Inn might have something.
     Approaching this inn on a little side street, there was something funky, warm, and inviting about it. I climbed the stairs, pushed open the front door and met the owner. I told her about my situation and that I was hoping to stay there for the summer.
     “We don’t usually rent out a room for that long, but we have a porch that’s been converted into a room,” she told me. It included sheets, blankets, a small gas space heater, a hot plate and was literally over the ocean. “You can hear the water on the rocks at night,” she said, “$25 a week paid in advance.” I gave her $25.
     That evening I called Cesareo from the public pay phone in the hallway and told him where I’d landed. He said, “I have good news, also. A friend of mine may have a job for you for the summer. Come tomorrow night (Friday) and you can meet her.”
     I had the next day free and began exploring Nahant as well as the nearby seacoast towns of Swampscott and Marblehead. I’d drive my car somewhere and then walk and walk, just taking in the sights and sounds. I’d landed in a place of great beauty.
     When I visited Cesareo that night, he brought me to his friend’s apartment. Marylou, like Cesareo was in her mid-thirties. For me, they were adults. She’d made a delicious meal with fish, potatoes, vegetables, and we had plenty of wine that Cesareo had brought. He outlined in some detail his vision for the “growth center.” She was as intrigued, as was I.
     Marylou ran a Title 1 government program—a summer camp/school in Lowell for inner-city teenagers a half-hour from where she and Cesareo lived. The program was beginning on Monday and she needed a few extra counselors. She preferred college graduates who would also like to tutor. The one requirement was that I have my own car. Fortunately, my green Peugeot was running well. The salary was more than fine and paid for all my car expenses, rent, food and even some extra.
     So, there it was. All so serendipitous, as if someone or some benevolent force had arranged it all and paved the way. From my vantage point now, 55 years later, it’s fair to say that virtually all the significant events of my life stemmed from this one decision.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I—I took the road less traveled by and that has made all the difference.
—Robert Frost



About the Author

David lives with his wife, Catherine, on a small farm in Ipswich, Massachusetts with four dogs, three horses and a gaggle of chickens and ducks. After a life full of adventure he is now a mediater and a therapeutic dog massager focusing on elderly dogs and hospice work.    


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