A Sad Man, A Strange Dream

East Hampton beach–where we spent summer weekends

I hadn’t thought about Akou in years—decades, maybe. We were friends in the early 60s, over half a century ago. This past week, however, he appeared in a dream. The person in the dream didn’t look at all like the man I remember, yet somehow I knew it was him.

The Milieu

I met Akou, whose real name was Isidore Goldman, through the Sullivanians. They were a psychotherapy group—a cult, really—clustered around the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I had started seeing one of their headshrinkers in 1963, at the urging of my first woman lover. As it is with most cults, members were encouraged to make friends within the group and recruit outsiders. Therapists and patients partied together. We were expected to be non-monogamous—that is, to be sexually available to other members. Some of the therapists owned vacation homes at the eastern end of Long Island, either in Amagansett or East Hampton. The less affluent patients formed groups to rent summer houses in those towns.

I was part of such a group for at least a couple of summers, maybe in 1964 and 1965. Eight of us went in on a large house, four coming out on alternate weekends. After work on Friday I’d take the Long Island Railroad from Penn Station, detraining three hours later. My memories of that time are of shared spaghetti meals, salt breezes, sand in my swimsuit, sand on the floors, and parties lubricated by white wine or screwdrivers. Of going fishing on a charter boat rented by a wealthy gay guy I was dating—I actually caught a bluefish! Of wearing a long-sleeved white shirt to the beach to cover a painful sunburn, because I wanted to hang out with the others rather than mope indoors.

The Man

One of the people I shared a house with was Akou. He was older than me, perhaps late 20s or early 30s. He told me about how he’d managed to convince the military that he was insane, in order to avoid being shipped to Vietnam.

He’d been born in Belgium and escaped or was rescued from the Nazis as a youngster. What happened to the rest of his family? He never mentioned them. Like many Belgian Jews, he was familiar with the jewelry business and made at least part of his living polishing pearls. Sometimes I watched him as he worked. He had black hair, big chocolate eyes, and a dark olive complexion. He wanted to be an artist.

Among the Sullivanians the therapists had the highest status. Saul Newton, the leader, was at the top. Below him was a cadre of more experienced psychiatrists and psychologists, and below them newer graduates and students in the field. Another way to gain prestige with them was to be a successful artist or theatrical person. Akou painted but never achieved the recognition he longed for. I didn’t care for his work but then again, abstract art leaves me cold.

The Sullivanian men, at least the heterosexual ones, were typical for their time. They were male chauvinists. Some of them could be quite nasty. Akou was no exception to the rule—he referred to his Volvo as his “vulva”—and yet, I liked him. He seemed like a wounded puppy, desperate to be valued and even honored within our social circle, rather than someone who would deliberately hurt others to inflate his own importance.

I don’t think he was terribly successful with women, either. Renée, whom he dated when we were sharing that summer house, came out as a lesbian after a threesome. I have to confess that I was the third corner of that little triangle. Akou was the one who told me. He wasn’t even angry—he admitted, unhappily, that Renée had never enjoyed sex with him.

I drifted away from the Sullivanians after finishing college, and in 1967 joined the gay movement. Then, around 2003, I reconnected with Mike, someone I had known in the cult. He told me that Akou had died in a car accident. Apparently it was late at night and there were no other cars involved; he had run off the road, into a tree or something. Mike (who had become a therapist himself) said he thought it was suicide, whether conscious or not. That Akou killed himself because he hadn’t been able to obtain the respect he craved.

Maybe, maybe not. Maybe he’d had a couple of drinks at a party, hit an oil slick in the road, and couldn’t regain control of the wheel in time. Maybe a tire blew out.

I recently looked for Akou on the internet. All I could find was an abstract painting done by someone of the same name in 1954. Was it him? It seems unlikely. The painting was much more sophisticated than anything the Akou I knew had been capable of doing when I met him ten years later, and he would have been only 25, at most, when he produced it. It wasn’t him. I found nothing else, no mention, no obituary, no trace of the man’s life.

The Dream

About a week ago I dreamed about visiting some people on one floor of an apartment building, and then going up to another floor where Akou now lived with a male lover (though the man I remembered in real life was not gay). The dream Akou was pale and didn’t look anything like his old self. He had metal bolts through his shoulders. Apparently various parts of his body had been replaced medically. The lover showed me a recent watercolor that Akou had done, a realistic scene with trees and children and animals playing. I really liked it.

And I woke up thinking, never give up. Keep doing your art, whether it’s painting or, in my case, writing. Keep going, even as your body falls apart, whether or not you achieve recognition, because you love doing it, and spending your life doing what you love is the best and only success.

12 Responses to A Sad Man, A Strange Dream

  1. Connie O Byrne April 28, 2023 at 7:55 pm #

    thought provoking as usual…and definitely keep writing. you’re good at it

  2. Roberta Arnold April 29, 2023 at 5:45 am #

    The way you write. Factual and honest without embellishment. Enough visual and sensory detail to bring us into the picture. Including the first person narrative of intimate truth. And a socio, economic, and political truth perspective too, no less. Then, a gelled wisdom. Blows me away every time. Thank you for your words. So real. So true. So you. I can connect with everything you say even when it is your singular experience far different from mine. What a gift you have. Yes, through it all: let’s keep going, being doing, and sharing our gifts.
    Right on.

  3. Martha Shelley April 29, 2023 at 10:03 am #

    Roberta, after I read your comment I ran to the freezer and got out an ice pack to slap on my scalp. You are giving me a swelled head!

  4. Mary Ann May 1, 2023 at 9:16 am #

    This piece is somehow strangely beautiful. Thank you for continuing to write and share your art.

  5. Debra May 19, 2023 at 10:45 pm #

    This is wonderful, Martha.

  6. Edward Goldman June 20, 2023 at 9:39 am #

    Hi Martha,

    I am/was Akou’s nephew. I had not seen him since I was 6 when he disconnected from the family. And then he died in the car accident. We never met any of his friends. So, nice to meet you.
    Edward Goldman

  7. Judy June 20, 2023 at 10:14 am #

    The Sad Man was my uncle, my Uncle Isi. We missed him terribly after he cut off all communication with my grandmother, my father, and his nieces and nephew.
    The painting mentioned was in fact his work.

    When he died, the coroner told us that a woman had been in the car with him, so it is unlikely this was a suicide.

    Thank you for remembering Akou.

    • Martha Shelley June 20, 2023 at 10:22 am #

      I just emailed Edward and will email you as well.

  8. Debbie June 20, 2023 at 3:52 pm #

    Uncle Isi aka Akou was my beloved uncle who came to our ballet recitals and birthday parties before cutting off from the family. Uncle Isi remains an enigma.

    • Martha Shelley June 20, 2023 at 4:19 pm #

      It looks like Akou had a large and loving family. I’m not surprised that he cut off–people who became involved with the Sullivanians were pressured to do so. It was a cult. If he hadn’t been killed in that accident, he might eventually rejoined you all. I know I did after leaving the Sullivanians.

      • Judy June 21, 2023 at 12:19 am #

        Heartbreaking, My dad – Akou’s older brother – is turning 99 this year.

  9. Debbie June 21, 2023 at 4:22 am #

    Thank you for that glimmer of hope that he might have reconnected. Among the papers he left, there’s an application to work at Washington U as an art therapist so maybe he was trying to get out of the Sullivans. He left a big hole in our family, and i hope he was happy.

Leave a Reply

Privacy Policy

We do not retain any credit card information
and will not sell, lend, or otherwise transfer your
contact information to anyone, ever.