Fathers of daughters can make or break their girls’ sense of worth, competency, confidence, ambition, ethics, zest for life, feminine appeal. Traditionally, they’ve served as bridges for their daughters into the wider world. Unless they totally blow it, they are their daughters’ first loves.

My own father has been gone for twenty-five years, and I’d give anything to bring him back again. Charlie Karson — actually, Charles Kirschon until an Ellis Island immigration official decided to Americanize his name — walked this green earth for seventy-seven years. His original family constellation was complex: youngest child in a Russian Jewish family whose father left for America before he was born; son of a religiously devout mother who couldn’t find her way to care for him; darling of his oldest sister Rivagolda, who pretty much raised him before he was spirited off with the youngest of his six siblings to join their father in the New World. 

As The History of My Body’s Fleur Robins would put it, he experienced many incarnations in his lifetime. Before leaving his native land, he would live through a terrifying Easter pogrom, perform Shakespeare plays with his family in Yiddish (actually, as the youngest kid, he was the prompter), and witness the Reds riding into his starving village on horseback bearing baskets of bread and fruit, prompting his oldest brother Jack to ride off with them. When he arrived in America he was suffering from rickets. He’d barely begun junior high in Minnesota before he had to quit school to help support his family as a plumber. Within no time, he became a YCL organizer, stood on soapboxes and ran from cops’ billy clubs in a successful drive to organize steel workers, and had his heart broken by revelations of Stalin’s monstrosity. He never lost his zeal for socialism, though, and retained his advocacy of the underdog until the end. Generosity was a given in my father’s house, bed and board provided without question to the hungry, the lost, and the out of luck.

My dad suffered more loss than anyone should. He lost his native land, his parents at a young age, his young first wife and the baby girl she was carrying to pneumonia, two of his older siblings to Hitler, a brother and a sister-in-law to a drunk driver, a friend’s nephew whom he was kindly putting up in his home to a heroin overdose.

A rakishly handsome man who in his younger days resembled Frank Sinatra, my dad was a working-class intellectual who read Engels and Ibsen, Tolstoy and Poe, Sholem Aleichem and Langston Hughes. He had an exquisite singing voice, revered science, took guitar lessons, played chess with Bobby Fischer and played the horses at Hollywood Park, passionately shouted his way through thousands of dinner table political “discussions,” adored his grandchildren beyond measure, and left behind a body of secret poetry more spiritual and psychological than this daughter would have imagined. He imprinted my soul with a legacy of tenderness and fire, the profound valuing of family and friendship, and hearty laughter and love as the best medicines in the world. 

But just as my Jungian colleague Clarissa Pinkola Estés urges women to surround themselves with numerous “little mothers” to their development and creativity, so I’ve had more than one “father” to my spirit in this life. One was my precious zayda, Chaim Wodlinger, a determined bull of a man who lived with my family until his death in 1956 and served as the inspiration for Fleur’s beloved grandfather in The History of My Body. Just months ago, I was fortunate enough to find his gravesite after many years of fruitless searching, and I tearfully “introduced” my kids to him there, delighted to discover that his grave is currently home to a beehive. Talk about images of death and rebirth: you can’t get more auspicious than that!

Another of my “fathers” was Paul Robeson, which I write about in this issue of Jung Journal: Culture & Psyche in my essay, Tangled Up in Brown. In that piece, I describe how my olive skin prompted many of the tow-headed, pale-skinned Dust Bowl refugee kids in my hometown Hermosa Beach to call me “Nigger.” Here’s how I describe my special relationship with one of America’s most extraordinary native sons: 

“The hateful sobriquet ‘nigger’ was all the more confusing as my leftwing parents were in the habit of joking with their friends that my father was really Paul Robeson. They undoubtedly meant it as a compliment, but I was hardly sophisticated enough to appreciate their meaning. If anything, I felt I’d been given away to a stranger — belonging, not to my Russian-born father, but to a man I’d never met. I knew how Robeson looked from an album cover. His skin was even darker than mine, the darkest of chocolates, and his bass-baritone voice unsettled me; it went so deep it could have been God himself singing, ‘O Shenandoah, I took a notion to sail across the stormy ocean…'”

Though I was confused by it at the time, I could have done worse in the “little father” department. Paul Robeson exemplified what is most golden in the human spirit and much that is wonderful and terrible in our American story: class valedictorian and football All-American at Rutgers, he completed his law training at Columbia while playing in the NFL; he became a gifted singer and actor on the world stage, as well as a tireless advocate for social justice; his stellar international career was destroyed by McCarthyism, especially once the State Department revoked his passport. These days, I’m happy to claim Robeson’s glorious giftedness and the reach of his engagement with the world as an inspiration for my own creative attempts, my advocacy of our Mother earth and her precious creatures, and as one of my bridges to the wider world. 

But I can’t refer to the (spiritually immense) “little fathers” of my life without expressing the depth of my gratitude to Carl Jung. Also in this issue of Jung Journal is an “enterview” of me by the wonderful Rob Henderson, titled When Everything Began to Change, in which I describe my first exposure to the man who would truly alter the direction of my life: 

“I was introduced to Jungian psychology in the seventies while I was assistant teaching at a Montessori school. Another teacher, a particularly vital and creative young woman, was in Jungian analysis at the time and spoke in reverent tones about a mysterious Miss Miller, who I instantly associated with a line in Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” that I misheard as ‘Miss Miller!’ (That particular mondegreen turned out to have been synchronistically prophetic, since the ‘Miss Miller’ I thought I heard Freddie Mercury and the band deliver in full operatic bravura was actually ‘Bismillah,’ a word used throughout the Qur-an to express the phrase, ‘In the name of God!’) So my own personal Miss Miller led me to approach my first book by Jung, Symbols of Transformation. Opening the pages of the worn used book I’d purchased, my eyes lit upon the words:

From the written records of all times and peoples we learn of significant and prophetic dreams, of warning dreams and of healing dreams sent by the gods. When an idea is so old and so generally believed, it must be true in some way, by which I mean that it is psychologically true. (CW 5, 1967, {4)

My life would never be the same. In two brief sentences, Jung linked all eras and all cultures with the spiritual and the scientific, establishing the reality of the psyche and its symbolism as co-equal to the concrete realities of everyday life.

Those realities are particularly complicated in these times of profound technological change, increased awareness of the interconnectedness of us all, dangerous political polarization, senseless violence, and environmental depredation and climate change threatening the very continuance of one of nature’s most hopeful experiments: us. 

We need all the good fathers we can get. 

So it’s with a particular sense of reverence that I bow my head to Charlie Karson, Chaim Wodlinger, Paul Robeson, Carl Gustav Jung, and, yes, even Freddie Mercury for offering us bridges into an ever deepening engagement with ourselves, one another, and the wider world, for showing us how it can be done and doing it in style.

Happy Father’s Day, with love.