Seventh-day Adventists, serious by nature and emotionally conservative, may have inadvertently given rise to one of the greatest political humorists of this century: Art Buchwald. In his recently published Leaving Home, a Memoir, Buchwald devotes a chapter to the loss of his mother, followed by his formative years in a religiously rigid Adventist shelter for kids. Buchwald's mother was taken to a mental institution only weeks after his birth and was hospitalized for 35 years until death. His father, a financially successful New York City businessman, placed Arthur and his three older sisters in foster homes and visited them weekly So traumatic was the son's sense of abandonment by his mother that he never visited her, although she died in 1960 in a mental hospital when Art was in his thirties. Buchwald's revelation of this deeply personal experience shows the candor of this autobiography But still the author cannot suppress his natural humor. For example, early on he warns the reader not to be "surprised to find that I am the hero of all the stories, and I present a magnificent profile in courage."From: Art Buchwald, Leaving Home, A Memoir, Putnam: 1993), excerpt posted alongside book review by James W. Walters published in Adventist Today, May/Jun 1994, (http://www.atoday.com/magazine/archive/1994/mayjun1994/articles/BigMan.shtml; viewed 15 July 2005):
Although Buchwald feels that many strange ideas were thrust upon him by his Adventist attendants, he recognizes their sincerity, kindness and good intentions. Coming to the home when one year old and leaving when five, he knew this as his only home during the most impressionable years. It was finally time to leave the foster home when his Jewish father, who was less than orthodox, heard his son singing "Jesus loves me, this I know..." Arthur clung to the screen door as his father took him away. He was still crying 45 minutes later, and his father decided to calm him by taking him to a movie. "He couldn't have come up with a worse idea, because it had been drilled into us from infancy by the Seventh-day Adventists that movies were your ticket straight to hell. As he tried to drag us into the theater to see Laurel and Hardy, we were fighting to get out."
For years after his time in the Adventist foster home, young Arthur had dreams of that period. The household was run by a kind German nurse whose strict Adventist vegetarianism made a vivid impression: "I once had a bull with four horns attack me in a dream because I had eaten steak for dinner that night. To this day, I can't eat fish with scales on them. I have made my peace with shellfish and meat, but there is still a tiny Seventh-day Adventist inside of me screaming to get out every time I make a pass at a tuna fish sandwich."
"By the time I was six or seven, I said to myself, 'This is ridiculous. I think I'll become a humorist.'" And what a humorist little Arthur became: published in 750 newspapers biweekly, member of the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Letters and Pulitzer Prize winning author of some 30 books of his humor. Leaving Home is Buchwald's first "serious" book, and early this year it appeared on various best seller lists. Leading newspapers have featured this volume, calling attention to Buchwald's Adventist connection. For example, the Los Angeles Times in a February issue ran a large photo of Buchwald and an extended story on the front page of its feature section. Buchwald's sense of abandonment and his Adventist relationship received primary attention.
Art's lack of contact with his mother and his abundant contact with Adventists were the major issues he later dealt with as an adult in psychotherapy: "During my sessions with Dr. Morse, I concluded that somebody had been messing around with my head during those early years and they left footprints on my brain. I have spent almost as much time on the Seventh-day Adventists in my analysis as I have on my mother. I am willing to bet that this place was responsible for many of my hang-ups.
Conventional wisdom holds that traumatic childhoods can yield very creative adults. Still, few adults and fewer Christian denominations espouse aberrant child-rearing practices. Some Adventists may get some strange pride in knowing that Art Buchwald had Adventist ideas impressed upon him in childhood. But many of us are ashamed that sincere members of our faith are remembered, not for their love and emotional warmth, but for their dietary restrictions.
Our maturing church desperately needs some Adventist behavioral scholars to study the effect on children of traditional church mores and beliefs. Detailed ideas of good and evil may be a comfortable guide, if one stays with childhood views. But how serviceable are these ideas in more contemporary forms of Adventism-or for those who leave the church? Art Buchwald's autobiography presses such important questions for Adventists today.
Somebody recommended that I be sent to a small boarding house for sick children in Flushing, New York, run by Seventh-day Adventists. A German nurse named Mrs. Schneck was in charge of the home, and she occupied the house with her husband and two daughters, and eight to ten child boarders. When my sister Doris was discharged from the hospital, she was sent to the same place.
I lived there until I was five years old, and it played a vital role in my development. It was a large, warm house, set back on a generous piece of land with plenty of room for children to play. My memories of particular incidents from that time are rather dim, but I remember that they had a dog. There were several photos of me with him-including the one on the cover of this book-and he was shaggy and very friendly. But I have no recollection of his name.
My strongest impression of the home was the strict religious upbringing I received. The nurses were God's messengers on what constituted sin and what didn't. I am talking about serious sin now. They practiced their religion faithfully, and they expected us to do the same. Eating meat, fish, and eggs was a sin. Dancing or listening to the radio was a sin. The German nurses filled my head and heart with hell and damnation, and if you broke the rules, their demons were waiting to shovel you into the fiery pit down below, somewhere near China.
I have no memories of the weekdays but I have total recall of attending church on Saturdays in New York on Riverside Drive. We were bundled up and taken on the trolley to Jamaica, and then the train into New York, changing many times, until we got off on Riverside Drive.
The church was enormous and had scenes depicting the life of Jesus on many of the windows. But it was the area around the altar that intrigued me the most. There was a stage, and below the stage was what I took to be a swimming pool.
I remember people standing in line to have the minister submerge their heads under the water. Baptism is very much part of the Seventh-day Adventists' religion. I was fascinated when people were dunked into the water, and I was sure that it was being done against their will. I was constantly waiting for someone not to come up, but it never happened, which disappointed me very much. There was a little thrashing around, but once everyone dried off they looked very happy.
"Did you have any desire to want to dunk your own head in the water?" Doris once asked me.
"No, I didn't. That is the funny part of it. Somehow I knew I wasn't a Seventh-day Adventist. I also knew that I didn't belong to the people who were taking me to church. Although they took care of all our physical needs, they showed no love or affection that I can recall. They scared me with all their religious dogma, and even though I attended the rituals I had no interest in becoming a member of the congregation and being drowned on stage."