Updated: Jan 4
I have been fired three times, although they didn’t always say the words, at least not that I can remember.
Over the years, I have had many opportunities to be with friends and colleagues who were living with anxiety about being fired. I understood the fear. I had lived through the embarrassment.
“What do I do?” “What do I say?” “What will people think of me?”
The first time was in 1968, at the end of my first year at Brookdale.
I was hired at Brookdale in June 1967, and my first year there was a challenging year for me. Social work school had not been easy, and I had recovered from the bruising by staying at the Mt. Vernon YM-YWHA where I had finished my second-year placement for one year as the teen supervisor. But once I recovered, I wanted something more challenging and exciting, landing at the newly opened Brookdale Community Mental Health Center. I was probably over my head. My mother certainly thought so. When I called to tell her that I’d been hired as a psychiatric social worker, she asked in astonishment, “How did you become a psychiatric social worker?”
“I don’t know. That’s what is says on my hiring letter.”
When I arrived, the whole program was family-therapy oriented. I was plunged into the training, observing and being observed through a one-way mirror as I worked with families. It was very exciting.
And then, the whole family therapy leadership team was suddenly fired, and the psychoanalysts arrived. I think all of us felt a loss. I certainly did, but nothing changed immediately in my workaday world. I had the same supervisor, Regina, and the same chief social worker, Ben. They were both Black at a time when Brookdale was very white, remarkably so since Brownsville, the community we served, the poorest neighborhood in New York City, was overwhelmingly Black and Hispanic.
Other than Ben and Regina, I don’t think there were any other Black people in the department. Although Regina had never been critical of my work, I never really warmed to her. She was a very sharp dresser. She always brought her lunch in a shopping bag from Bonwit Teller’s or Bergdorf’s, and she always left the bag prominently displayed on her desk. It always felt to me that she was making a statement to our patients, “I may be Black like you, but I am not poor like you.”
I liked Ben better, felt more comfortable with him. America was changing, and I was excited to be part of the change. Very much in the atmosphere of the day were the voices which were taking exception to white, male dominance of American institutions. Caucuses were springing up on college campuses, in professional organizations, in workplaces. Women’s caucuses, Black caucuses, radical caucuses. What it was that inspired me I don’t know, but one day meeting with Ben, I suggested — what chutzpah — that he ought to organize a Black caucus at Brookdale. He ignored the suggestion, but I knew that I had made him uncomfortable.
A month or so later, Ben met with me. I don’t remember what he said or if Regina was present. I wasn’t being invited back for the following year. My short career as a psychiatric social worker was ending at the end of June.
I was dazed. I was humiliated. And Joan and I had planned a seven-week summer vacation in Europe. My vacation request had already been approved. And I had two more months to go at Brookdale. How would I face my colleagues and friends? I was sure that everyone knew, although I don’t remember talking about it. How do you deal with something like this? I had never been fired before. I just kept going toward the finish line.
Late in June, Justin Simon called me into his office. He was then the Associate Director of the Department, part of the new crew, a psychoanalyst from San Francisco via Downstate Medical Center where he had been part of a research team studying verbatim recordings of a complete psychoanalysis.
“What are your plans for the future?” he asked.
“Joan and I are going to Europe for the summer,” I told him.
“Well, have a great trip and call me when you get back. Things may have changed by then.” He added, “I can’t tell you any more.”
Joan and I went off to Europe. I am not sure where I got the nerve to do that, to just go off without a job to come back to. Perhaps it was enough that Joan had her teaching job. Europe was a great adventure, lots of hitchhiking, lots of really interesting people including French sociology graduate students in Paris.
I called Justin when we got back. Over the summer, Ben and Regina had been fired. I could have my old job back. In fact, the Brookdale personnel records only show that I had been on leave that summer. That first fall back, Geri Fink, another of the psychoanalysts — she had come from the Downstate research project with Justin — told me that they had been very impressed with how I handled myself during those two months the previous Spring when I had known I was being terminated.
How had I handled myself? I had just kept going, just putting one foot in front of the other. I don’t know how I did it, but I learned something very important, that the things I fear the most do not always turn out to be as terrible as I imagined. Sometimes, the disasters don’t even happen.
I stayed at Brookdale another five, amazing years, ended up working very closely with Justin and having dinner many evenings after work at his house with his wife and kids.
Sometimes getting fired, is not such a big deal.
And sometimes, it happens more than once.