The things I did during childhood do not seem as important to me as the overall mystery of existence. I went from one thing to another, as the Buddhists say, like a drunken monkey. Toys, games, junk food — this is what we are raised on in the West, and in much of the world it is considered the acme, and worth rewriting history for.

Years later I look back on that childhood with dismay. What did I learn compared to peasant children in China who worked the farms and raised food for villages? What about the self-sufficient offspring of the Eskimo and the other northern tribes? From the beginning of life they are taught where they are, the manner of the land, the habits of animals and plants, and how to find their way home in a blizzard. In New York City one is raised in an arcade without a sense even that survival is real.

What about the young in India and Tibet, taught to meditate, taken to the crematory pyres to observe the passage between life and death? For us life and death are just products leased to us on time. Our elders, who hold the life and death of the planet in their hands, have never dwelled at the heart of creation, and they owe their souls to the markets and the machines.

What about the children initiated into warrior societies, trained in yoga, raised as shamans with knowledge of medicines and astral realms, taught ancient harmonies on classical instruments, made repository for the crafts and skills of the ancients? Perhaps they are the romanticized primitives of our own myths; perhaps they never existed, except as single avatars born into widely separated lands and aeons. But they are the light beings across whose auras our lives flit.


The oldest memory I have is of finding an Easter egg hidden at the spot on a small bush where the trunk met the branches. The egg was enormous and very blue. I plucked it from the shade and came running out.

This moment is lucid and anterior to my whole life.

I remember a number of occasions later, of getting lost as a child. They all have a quality of straying out of the world into a place where I felt closer to the center, more inherent to myself. In the oldest such memory, I wandered from my nurse in a place I now recognize as the Park at 98th Street and Fifth Avenue. I kept walking in a daze, astonished to find that the sidewalk rippled beneath my feet (I had thought all pavement was smooth). I came to a zone of enormous flowers around a perfect silver ball; they stretched far above me, brilliant and storybook in the sun. I stood there among them, outside time. Then Nanny came with a policeman, and reclaimed me.


One night Daddy — my stepfather — brought home a new machine called a Victrola, and two records. The music from that moment still resonates:

“Oh where have you gone, Billy boy, Billy boy?”

And . . .

“Cruising down the river/on a Sunday afternoon. . . .”


I was born in 1944 and came to New York with my mother when she left my father soon after. The first apartment I remember was at 1220 Park Avenue, on the corner of 95th Street. My brother Jonathan was born in 1948. My mother had stayed in bed for months, and then she went away. Nanny told me she would return with a baby, and I saved a favorite stuffed animal — a bear — for him, and was surprised and a little hurt that he did not take it from me when I held it out to him wrapped in the blanket in my mother’s arms, but he was hastened inside and put out of sight. Soon after, I plotted to hide him behind a chair in the living room, teach him my words, and surprise everyone with a talking person at dinner.


The horror and melancholy of childhood are what stand out. I can no longer remember most of it explicitly. I cannot even swear that the haunting happened in this lifetime. The so-called moment of trauma has vanished into the darkness of existence itself.

Nanny was hired by my father’s family to take care of me. She was there at the beginning; on the first morning of time itself, she stood in the kitchen squeezing oranges. All her attention was on me; she fed me, dressed me, checked my BM’s, and guarded me from my mother. She imagined flying things in our room by night. She woke me and brought me to the window to watch them pass invisibly through the open courtyard. I shrank back in a terror that knew no bottom.

In the afternoons I was put into a crib from which I stared out the window at the faded brick. How did I get here? When will this end? When will I go free? Who will carry me out? I felt a dank force seeping in from the space beyond. Only the animals on my quilt were friendly — Zebra and Tiger and Bear; in my hands underneath, they chased each other, tossing the covers up and around me until I hugged them into a tight bundle and, together, we rolled over into sleep.

Sometimes an opera singer practiced, her voice flooding the courtyard with trills. The sound was extreme and unrelenting and carried nuances of secret things. It was as though the whole sky sang, and to me. Even then, there was the echo of an older, more terrible thing. But what could have been antecedent, unless it were, as the Reichians say, birth itself?

“It was a horrible experience,” my mother recounted. The doctor used forceps to pry me out. I was black and blue; my mother was covered with blood and in pain. I was screaming so much she thought I was dying.

That was her story. I have had all my life a recurring dream — an elevator in a hospital building, old and long ago; I visit my mother in a room and wait there, expectant in primordial darkness as at a theater before a movie. (In later years my wife is there, too, waiting to have our son.)

I have no name for the feeling of this dream; it is just “the feeling.” I recognize it as marking the end of the known world: “Beyond this point dwell monsters of the deep” — things with no name. Words give pale approximations: homesick . . . déjà vu . . . alien . . . acrid. The sense of premonition is basic . . . footsteps approaching . . . and I feel I cannot prevent calamity.

The quintessential then-ness of the dream stands apart from the unbroken now-ness of everything else.

At other times I have dreamed of a jungle of magnificent plants in my mother’s room, fountains of unimpeded water, so many species of flowers and small sea animals with shells, all arranged as in a biological laboratory. I have also dreamed that it was not her in the room at all. I have caught glimpses of a fleeing stranger.

Sometimes the doctor attacked me . . . and I awoke with the wound of his knife above my Adam’s apple.

Sometimes I could not find my mother’s room and kept taking the elevator up, hundreds of stories past decorated corridors and ballrooms, each one filled with weddings and celebrations.


The voice of the singer in the courtyard was like my mother — not like her voice but like her. It was lethal; it went everywhere; it was incomprehensible; it barely kept its own hysteria under control. In those early memories my mother was an alarmed, vigilant lady, moving swiftly down the hallway to her room, a dim chamber of medicinal smells. I would hear her only in the distance. She was like the lady with the jewel on her forehead on the record cover, whose name, I later saw, began with the impossible letters “Xt.”

Nanny was my rough nanny-goat, and she and I lived in ordinary quarters. We were graced by Mommy’s royal visits, but we had to behave. She invaded our room with a prescience and alarm. Is he all right? Does he look well? I pulled back from her icy Noxzema kisses so that she was infuriated and grabbed me and forced her affection on me, her painted-red nails sharp like those on an animal, her eyes flashing to corner me.

The horror and melancholy of childhood are what stand out. I can no longer remember most of it explicitly. I cannot even swear that the haunting happened in this lifetime. The so-called moment of trauma has vanished into the darkness of existence itself.

As I came to consciousness, I found myself in a world laden with danger. Everything needed checking, a second glance — the window, the lock, the tint of the bathwater, the food. . . . We lived in a state of unending siege and shadow. Who was that man? Had poison formed overnight in the jar of jelly? Why was that red mark on my groin? Had I gone to the bathroom yet? When I visited my mother in her bed at the throne, I saw the haggard but adorned ruler of a nation at war. Yet she was clearly important, and I was proud to be associated with her.

Nanny was a softer person, but she was also a goblin. She was with me all the time, cuddling me, punishing me, loving me so much that “love” was a password between us. I was never well-behaved or grateful enough. The biggest problem was my bedwetting, and when Nanny couldn’t get me to stop she tied my penis with a string so that it hurt. “Mischief, mischief,” she said. “You’re a big mischief, and you’re going to make yourself sick.”

Nanny scared me, but she took care of me, cooked my meals, and played with me. I remember her presence as that of life itself: vast and ghostlike.

Daddy was an odd, infrequent presence in his brown suits and beat-up wool hats, smoking a cigarette, and often chanting in Hebrew or singing, “Old Man River, that Old Man River. . . .” I can remember waiting the whole afternoon to see him and then breaking loose from Nanny (who regarded him with suspicion and held me back), running down the hallway, throwing my arms around him as he came in the front door. In great surprise he exclaimed and hoisted me up in the air. At least he smelled of other worlds and not like our charnel home.

“The stars above, the one I love, waiting for the moon. . . .”


We lived at 1220 only a few years, moving across Park Avenue soon after my brother was born. But we had my fifth birthday there; the aunts and uncles came, and my mother’s brother, Eddie, blew up balloons and twisted them into animal shapes so rapidly that the room was filled with floating creatures and I ran, slapping them in the air.

I remember sitting on the floor of the living room, the stuffed chairs like caves I crawled between; along the walls stood bureaus with mysterious pale Chinese figurines and tiny bottles. The wind on the Avenue rattled against the windows, especially at night, but never so hard as during the hurricane.

My mother was giddy in preparation, making phone calls, stocking food, warning me dozens of times to stay back from the windows. The sky did turn dark, and rain blew in sheets down the Avenue. Daddy rushed to the store to buy milk. As he worked his way back up the street, he had to hold on to lamp posts to keep from being blown away.

I saw a man frozen at the corner, his umbrella turned inside out and torn apart by the wind.

I stayed in the center of the room, filling my scrapbook with cars and trucks from magazines, cutting neatly around the tires and bumpers, and sticking them two to a page. The roar of the storm became almost cozy.

In the winter, huge Christmas trees lined the central mall, their red, blue, yellow, and orange lights filling the Avenue with the most beautiful gems I had ever seen. I sat by the window mesmerized by their textures and hues. In the morning Daddy took me to the Park. I lay on his back on the sled and put my arms around his neck. We glided up and down hills, the snow raw on my cheeks as he pumped the wooden frame just a little bit farther. The cold on my cheeks and warmth inside my suit combined unfathomably — the sounds of bells and metal runners against snow, my white puffs of breath and tingling lips and eyes. Smoke rose from the hunched chestnut vendor at the Park’s exit; the awnings of the Avenue were heaped with snow, the doormen trying to beat it down.

I remember the books from which they read to me. The stories were arranged by the length of time it took to tell them, three minutes up to a half-hour; I tried hard to get Nanny to reread me the longer ones, until I knew them by heart: leprechauns and clowns, and dogs with eyes as big as saucers.

When I was sick, I lay in my mother’s chamber and was fed spoonfuls of horrible-tasting medicine: “Myocin,” like dead mice ground up. Then I went to the hospital, “to have your tonsils out. They will give you this . . . and you will go to sleep. . . .” It seemed as though it might already be the end of life (I had been here so terribly long), but I awakened with a sore throat and was handed glasses of pineapple juice I could barely suck down.


It is not what I remember but what I can’t that threatens me still. Dreams periodically take me back to that old ground-floor flat at 1220. I appear at the door; the present occupants let me in. I see the living room, stretched out like countryside to my right, the land through which the hurricane passed. The hallway to my bedroom curls off beyond, darkened or invisible. Giant crumbling walls create foyers like rooms at a museum, with hanging tapestries and gold ornamental ceilings that merge with the sky. These spaces are in decay and obscured from the current inhabitants; I see through them into other habitations, which are merely rooms without end.

I tell the people that something happened to me there once, and I want to find out what it was. They direct me to the oldest sector of back rooms (which they never use). I begin down the hallway. I want to see where “they” put the trance on me. But I never get there. Once, large grotesque dolls with wooden heads drove me out. More often the interdict is incomprehensible . . . or there is nothing there at all, just empty rooms, long abandoned, their sterility and disuse marking the closure of a zone of consciousness. I have awakened at that point in an inexplicable cold fright.

Once, Nanny came, laughing, and scolded me for thinking badly of her.

On at least two occasions gentle magi have interceded, led me up the elevator to the roof where they showed me massive windmills drawing power from light, translating it into energy for the City.

I believe the haunting was original and absolute and did not occur in language.

But the vigilance is forever.

Richard Grossinger is an anthropologist and the author of a number of books, including Planet Medicine, Embryogenesis, and The Night Sky.

“The Child in the City” is an excerpt from his as-yet-unpublished New Moon, the provocative and deeply moving story of his own life.

— Ed.