10/23/2012 07:59 am ET Updated Dec 22, 2012

Too Good To Be True (EXCERPT)

Excerpted from Too Good To Be True (Amazon Publishing/New Harvest, $25). © 2012 by Benjamin Anastas. All Rights Reserved.

In 1972, Benjamin Anastas's mother was suffering from depression and sought treatment from an experimental residential program that he calls in the book "Freedom to Be." It was a "concept house," using elements of Gestalt Therapy, drug treatment programs and other faddish encounter groups from the 1970s.

His mother and the family were all observed and treated together; the goal was to break down the residents' defenses in order to liberate the true, authentic selves buried inside, beneath the roles we adopt in society -- starting with each person's role in the family. Fritz Perls, the founder of the Gestalt method, had a saying: "Lose your mind and come to your senses." The therapy group disbanded later in the 1970s after the founder faced legal action.

There's a memory I have, the earliest on the playlist that's determined who I am. It's always had a special power over me, even if I've never understood why that is, or what the memory means.

When I was younger--still a child--and much closer to the time when it takes place, the memory, as incomplete as it was, used to bring on a numb, abstracted feeling that would almost paralyze me, the fear that I wasn't in control of my own life, my own destiny.

I would lie awake in the middle of the night and replay the memory in my head until I felt connected to a pain so deep and old and mysterious and not of my own making that I couldn't begin to name it aloud, let alone chase it away. Later, as I got older, I learned to disarm the memory of its power by telling it aloud to the amazement of friends, tease it out long or slow depending on my audience, use their laughter as a kind of Novocain.

It begins with a glimpse of my family intact. My first family, the original one. Before my parents went off to find themselves in other lives, settled down with the second parents I have known for decades now. It's the one memory I have of all of us living under the same roof: my mother, my father, my brother, my twin sister, me. My mother is lying on the couch. There is something wrong with her, but I don't know what it is. She doesn't want to get up. She doesn't want to move. She doesn't want to do anything. My father is on the phone with her doctor in the kitchen. They are hollering back and forth to each other between the rooms. The doctor wants her to go to the hospital, but she doesn't want to go. I don't want her to go. But she has to. My father yells, "You don't have any choice!" I can see sunlight in this memory. I can see my father standing in the kitchen, holding the black receiver to his ear, and I can see my mother lying on the couch. But that's all. The memory stops.

Next, we are together, without my father, at a place that is like a hospital, but not a hospital. It has a name: Freedom to Be. There is a big, wide parking lot with traffic cones where we sometimes play. There are buildings with tall staircases that we like to climb, trees and grass and hedges and stone walls. It is summertime, and the days are hot. We sleep and eat together in one building--big group meals where everyone has a different job. My brother, sister, and I pitch in and help. Most of the adults don't pay attention to us and stay in little groups instead, tapping cigarettes on the table before they light them.

I have a favorite adult who always talks to me: his name is Jimmy Stone. In my memory, Jimmy Stone is younger than the rest of the adults; he is almost one of us. He wears a white T-shirt every day and a baggy pair of chinos. A beat-up pair of tennis sneakers. He lifts me high in the air when he sees me in the place we have dinner and then I laugh when I say his name out loud. His name is funny. There is something wrong with Jimmy Stone, just like there is something wrong with my mother, but it doesn't bother me. He's my friend. That's what he says:

"Friends, right?"

"Friends," I say.

"Good," he tells me. "I need one."

In the day, and sometimes at night too, our mother is away in group. When she's in group, there is always someone to take care of us. A few of them are staff, which is special; they ask a lot of questions. They watch us playing with one another. They ask us to draw things and use building blocks. They tell us to move the blocks between different boxes and to keep them "organized." My brother hates doing any of the things they ask and argues with the adults a lot, so they usually end up taking him off by himself for long talks. My sister and I are better at doing what we're told when our mother is away in group, although sometimes she misses our mother and she cries. I try to make her feel better. She is my twin sister. I know her face even better than my own. I try.

One day, while our mother is in group, they bring us to the room where they watch us playing and sit us down. I have no memory of what they say to us. But for each of us they have a sign: my brother's sign says MR. KNOW-IT-ALL, my sister's sign says CRYBABY, and mine says TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE.

The signs are hand-lettered on white cardboard. They punch holes in the corners and tie a piece of string to each so we can wear the signs around our necks. That is our job: to wear signs. We do what we're told and put them on. We go outside. I have a vague memory of playing under a tree with my sister, and I don't like her sign. Not one bit. I tell her that she's not a crybaby and she doesn't have to worry. At lunch, Jimmy Stone gets upset when he sees me at the table wearing my TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE sign. He won't look anyone in the eye, including me. He doesn't talk. I eat in silence too. After we're done and the adults are smoking cigarettes over in the lounge, I can see him talking with the staff person who made us wear the signs. He is trying to keep his cool.

He points in my direction and turns an incredible shade of red.

Jimmy Stone. My friend. Jimmy Stone. The staff person puts a hand on Jimmy Stone's shoulder to try to calm him down. He rips himself away and goes over to a corner, where he smokes a cigarette on the couch and keeps on punching the cushions, over and over. It's the last image I have of him in my mind, and I don't know if it's real or if I dreamed it up. I go out into the sunlight and the grass again, still wearing my TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE sign. I wear it for the rest of the day, and I don't cry.

My twin sister and I are three. My brother is seven. We are far away from home. We miss our father. Sometimes we get scared. There is something wrong with our mother that has brought us to this place, but we don't know what it's called.

From Too Good To Be True by Benjamin Anastas (Amazon Publishing/New Harvest, $25)

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