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LBJ's Cage

Recurring dream, May-June 1924 by Lyndon Baines Johnson, as told to Doris Kearns

Lyndon Baines Johnson as a teen.

When Johnson graduated from high school in May 1924, [his mother] Rebekah allowed her quarrel with her son to surface at last. When she spoke, daily taking him to task for his slovenly manner, she had, as Johnson later described it, "a terrible knifelike voice." She inquired scrupulously into his plans for the future and, eliciting no assurance that he was even willing to entertain the notion of college, she closed him out completely. During supper she would direct her remarks to her husband and her younger children, never so much as confirming Lyndon's existence. Directly after supper, she went to bed.

"'We'd been such close companions, and, boom, she'd abandoned me. I wanted to please her, but something told me I'd go to pieces if I went to college. I'd just finished ten years of sitting inside a school; the prospect of another four years was awful. It would make me a sissy again and I would lose my daddy's respect."

In this stormy period, Johnson suffered a recurrent dream that he was sitting alone in a small cage. The cage was completely bare, he said, except for a stone bench and a pile of dark, heavy books. As he bent down to pick up the books, an old lady with a mirror in her hand walked in front of the cage. He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror and to his horror he found that the boy of fifteen had suddenly become a twisted old man with long, tangled hair and speckled, brown skin. He pleaded with the old woman to let him out, but she turned her head and walked away. At this point in the dream, as he remembered it, he woke up, his hands and his forehead damp and dripping with sweat. He sat up in the bed and then, not fully knowing what he meant by it but believing in it faithfully, he said half aloud: "I must get away. I must get away."
[Despite his mom's pressure tactics, LBJ put off college for a year; he left Texas to work odd jobs around California--ed.]

The dream is almost too good, too easy to fit into the pattern of his other dreams. It is without jagged edges, the false doors, blank spaces, and swerves that usually complicate our memories of dreams. I wondered as Johnson described it to me whether he was telling it in part for my sake. Perhaps the obvious interest I had shown in his earlier dream provoked him to construct an additional one. Perhaps he said to himself: "You intellectuals, you like dreams? I'll give you all you like." There is no way of knowing.

But whether it was truly a remembered dream or simply a yarn for the sake of the conversation, the image of the jail and the old woman suggests again a hostility toward his mother. He has done the duty his mother has asked of him. He has voluntarily caged himself in another educational prison. But the price of recovering his mother's love is nothing less than his own manhood. Yet here, as always, the bad feelings toward her had to be deflected, as if an acknowledgment of her failings would be treasonous. She was ever the "great lady," the "perfect woman;" "brilliant," "sexy," "beautiful," and "endlessly enchanting." Over time, however, while unfailing in his expressions of love for his mother, Johnson adopted those patterns of behavior she most despised: he wheeled and dealed behind closed doors; spoke crudely; interrupted family occasions with unexpected guests; turned to alcohol for relaxation and solace; and expressed a lasting distrust and fear of ideas, intellectuals, debates, books, and eloquence.

Actually, he believed, it was the intellectuals who hated him: "The men of ideas think little of me, they despise me." And that, too, reflected his unconscious perceptions of his mother's feelings. That there was some truth to this--given the prejudices of the literary and publishing world toward the boisterous style of the Texan--made it all the more useful for overlooking his own feelings of hatred toward the type of people whom his mother so admired. It was not he who wanted to injure them; it was they who wanted to injure him and were responsible for his failure.

In retirement, Johnson sincerely believed that he would have been the greatest President in his country's history had it not been for the intellectuals and the columnists--the men of ideas and the men of words.

Source: Doris Kearns interviews with LBJ in Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream, pp 40-41.

LISTS AND LINKS: nightmares - recurring dreams - caged! - elders - mirrors & reflections - I'm Just Not Myself Today! - age-bent dreams - school - college - choice - warnings & advice - moms - kids - nagging & guilt - loneliness - juvenilia (young dreamers) - class - more LBJ nightmares: LBJ's Stampede, LBJ Shackled - LBJ or Woodrow?, LBJ's River Nightmares - Texas - the Heartland cages its kids again in Family Jesters

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