Excerpt

Ballad of the Black and Blue Mind

Anne Roiphe

May 20, 2015 
The following is from Anne Roiphe’s Ballad of the Black and Blue Mind. A writer, essayist, and journalist, Roiphe has published eighteen fiction and non-fiction books, as well as articles for The New York Times Magazine, Vogue, and Elle, among others, and columns for The New York Observer and The Jerusalem Report.

It wouldn’t be polite to ask Dr. Berman if she was listening. He was sitting opposite her in the patient’s chair but he was not a patient. He was a young analyst and he had his own analyst, the newly appointed head of the education committee at his institute, Dr. H., whom he had just seen several hours before. Dr. Berman was the young analyst’s supervisor. She was supposed to listen to his reports of an analytic patient he was working with and to offer advice and comment on his technique, to deepen his thoughts, to help him, help the patient. It was a good system. The older analyst could see around the corners that the younger analyst could not. Also the older analyst could provide protection and support for the younger in the institute and so create opportunities for him to become a training analyst himself, the head of various faculty committees, to join the international organization, to hold prominent positions in the American Psychoanalytic Association. Ultimately, if he did creative work he himself could be the one who gave opening speeches at meetings, who was respected or feared by his colleagues. Dr. Berman could be, if all went well, his psychoanalytic mother. Or she could not. He knew he had a few long years of work ahead of him before he would be certified to work on his own.

Analysis is not a romance novel. She lived happily ever after with the love of her life in his castle by the sea and developed a vaccine that prevented river blindness was a result to be devoutly pursued but most improbable. The end was more modest, more attainable than that. The end of the analysis would approach when the patient could manage to travel through the debris of his or her past and nod in its direction as it attempted to interrupt the pursuit, the daily boring pursuit of happiness that is all of our right to seek. The young analyst knew that but like a person learning a new language he had to repeat it to himself several times a day.

The young analyst understood that the rest of the world did not think so well of analysts. His own brother who was a physics professor at a university in Minnesota was convinced, and repeated his conviction at every family occasion, that the entire Freudian idea and all its offshoots and its incessant babble was without scientific basis and as dated as their grandfather’s pocket watch. The young analyst was not swayed. This is what he wanted to do. This is what interested him. It might be alchemy. The gold it produced might be mere copper, but it had caught him and held him tight. His brother teased him. You could have gone to India and walked about bald, barefoot in an orange robe with a begging cup. At least you would have been earning an honest living. The young analyst went right on. If he was in a cult, so be it. If his work became totally irrelevant because pharmacology replaced him with a cheap cure that came in a bottle, it would have been worth it, worth it for him and he believed, despite his brother, for his patients.

But today, Dr. Berman had a gray pallor and her lipstick did not appear to be applied carefully. She had turned her head to look out at the park. Had he been boring? Had he said something so wrong that she had simply blocked out the rest of his words? He waited for her to turn toward him. She did not. Dr. Berman, he finally said, shall I go on? There was no answer. He leaned forward in his seat. Are you all right, Dr. Berman? he said loudly.

She startled. She turned toward him. Whatever you just said, say it again, she snapped. She was back with him, he hoped.

She talks about her ex-husband’s love of Renaissance painting. She talks about his hands, how they make shapes in the air when he speaks. She does not talk about his wanderings at night, although she told me he often left the bed after midnight and didn’t return until dawn. I asked her what she thought he was doing. She said she had no idea. She talks about her more beautiful sister, who remains more beautiful, but when I ask her about her dreams she says she has none. When I ask her to tell me about her childhood, she tells me how good she was at archery, and that she had the lead in her high school production of The Sound of Music. I ask if she thinks about me between sessions. She says not at all.

And then I ask her why her husband left. And she weeps and she weeps and she says she has no idea. None? I ask. She weeps. He is living, she tells me, with a roommate in Boston. I ask her what attracted her to him when they first met. Did you desire him? I asked. She wept. I don’t know if that was a yes weeping or a no weeping.

Dr. Berman says, Don’t use words like desire. Say what you mean. Did she want to have sex with him when they met? You use language that makes it possible for the patient to speak without the cover of social pretensions. Oh, said the young analyst. He sighed.

Dr. Berman responded to his sigh. Don’t worry. You weren’t born an analyst.

It often starts this way. She will tell you what you need to know in time. Just keep listening.

It’s like listening to white noise, says the young analyst.

No, says Dr. Berman, it’s like listening to the tide come in. Be patient, said Dr. Berman, something will wash up on the shore.

Go back to sex, says Dr. Berman. Perhaps she will tell you some moment, a boy’s hand on hers, a sight of a couple kissing, something that began in the outside world and moved into her body, and she knew, at least for a moment, that sex was more than a word in a manual.

I think, said the young analyst, her longing is for a better wardrobe.

Dr. Berman did not smile. She said, Every woman wants a better wardrobe.

The young analyst was suddenly shy. What was he supposed to say?

You don’t like this patient? Dr. Berman said to him.

I don’t know her very well, he said.

You will, said Dr. Berman.

And what if then I don’t like her? said the young analyst.

Then we will talk about you. If that happens the problem is yours to understand. We will look at your countertransference. It sounded to the young analyst like a threat but of course he knew countertransference was normal, a flow of his own emotional responses back into his consulting room, hanging over his patient, seeping into his every comment.

Dr. Berman put on her glasses and glanced at the clock on her desk and the young analyst gathered himself together and left.

Dr. Berman liked the young man. She wondered about his own sexual history. Where was the crucible that drew him to his chosen profession? What had seared his brain? It would be good to know that, she thought.

As he walked down Central Park West back to his own office, the young analyst considered his patient. She had come to him because she couldn’t sleep, because she was afraid of the dark and had kept all the lights on in her apartment since her husband had left. She had been an art history graduate student but had dropped out of the program after her marriage ended. Her parents were supporting her and wanted her to move to the Napa Valley where they had retired. She loved her parents, she said. She had a good childhood, she said. She seemed stunned, like a cartoon person hit on the head with a frying pan. He thought of her like Sleeping Beauty, a kiss would revive her. He was the prince, she was the comatose princess. This was one of those thoughts he would not tell his wife. He would tell Dr. H., but he wished that image had not drifted up into his consciousness. It should have stayed in the deep mud of his unconscious where it belonged.

The patient had a name, Lyla Shulman. She had a social security number and a driver’s license: which should have been sufficient proof that she was not a character in someone else’s story. One moment she had been an ordinary person. She picked out her wedding gifts at Bloomingdale’s. Her mother had tears in her eyes when she tried on her bridal dress in the store. One moment she had been considering a thesis on Otto Dix and his use of bold dark, thick strokes, carrying, as her professor had pointed out, the hints of the Weimar Republic’s infernal destination. The moment before that she had been fighting off Bobby Schwartz in the back of a taxicab on their way to a party in SoHo.

Her analyst seemed to be listening. She could almost feel him leaning forward in his chair, concentrating on her words. Of course that might not be true. He might be thinking of his own wife or their vacation plans or his child’s crossed eyes. He might not have children. He wore a ring. She had noticed that when she came to consult him, recommended by the clinic at the institute that had itself been suggested to her by her cousin in New Rochelle who had promised her good results at less than the full rate. Her mother appreciated the discount.

When she walked through the park to his office she thought of herself as a figure in a Seurat painting. A shape formed by tiny specks of color that might separate off and go their own ways if the wind blew strongly or the painter decided she didn’t belong on the canvas and preferred to put a tree in her place.

Now that her husband had left, at night she sometimes fixed herself a frozen dinner and then went out for a walk. She would look up at the sky, or what she could see of it between the buildings on Lexington Avenue, and consider the billions of people on the planet and the miles to the moon and beyond and she would feel soothed by the very immensity of the universe. If she walked in front of a car, if she fell off a cliff in Montauk where they had been on their honeymoon, if she took all the pills in her medicine cabinet, no matter what, it would not matter. She was replaceable.

Sometimes this thought calmed her. Other times it made her tremble and go home and call her mother who would repeat her hope that her daughter would come to California. There was a room waiting for her. Her mother knew from experience that this invitation would be rejected and often rudely. Her mother suggested she adopt a cat or a dog from the rescue program. Lyla thought people who lavished love on dumb beasts were pathetic. Anyone can win an animal’s affection by serving up kibble day after day. Lyla wanted more. Lyla wanted her analyst to love her even though she knew that was out of the question, outside the rules, the worst possible outcome of a therapy. On the other hand it might be the best possible outcome.

The young analyst wanted to help Lyla Shulman rejoin her life and grow into a vibrant woman. The young analyst did believe that loving someone was essential to mental health. Or at least holding on to the hope that one might love and be loved was essential. In addition he wanted to impress Dr. Berman with his skill. He also wanted his own analyst, the often inscrutable Dr. H., to be pleased, pleased and admiring.

But what was love? He knew it began in infancy. He knew it was mixed with fear of loss, terror of separation, and he believed that there could be no love without anger at the loved one, who must disappoint, who is never good enough, not all the time. He knew that love had nothing to do with valentines and cupid and everything to do with sharp-tipped arrows often dipped in poison, the poison of memory, and the poison of helplessness.

No patient is boring, he had learned in one of his classes at the institute. It is you, the analyst, who is boring. Was this really true? Was he boring Lyla Shulman?

Some days lying on his couch holding on to her tissues as if they were small lifeboats bobbing in her sea of tears, Lyla would feel as if she were drowning in her own grief, as if there was no sandy bottom in this immense lake, as if she were Alice shrunken and paddling frantically in a sea of her own grief. Would her analyst say something before she went under for the third time or would he just sit there, a sunbather, on a shore she had no hope of reaching?

Sexual arousal, she heard the expression, before she made sense of it. Her analyst wanted to know if she had wanted her husband to enter her and what it had felt like and how was it when she first felt it. The tears stopped. She wanted to answer him, but what was the answer. I’m not sure, she said. The young analyst waited. He almost held his breath. He did not shift in his chair. Lyla said, I had to have a boyfriend.

Because? said the young analyst, not at all bored. And she told him and she told him and when the session ended he thought it had gone by too quickly. And one fact had come clear. Lyla Shulman had not desired her husband in the usual sense. Her desire more closely resembled something a woman must have like good teeth and clean hair. She had desired her husband to please her mother.

Sexual pleasure, thought the young analyst, how sad to live without it, without it rising in the nighttime, rising when watching the lovers in a movie kiss, when walking behind a woman with long legs and thin heels clicking on the sidewalk. How could it be someone like Lyla was not clear what he meant by sexual feelings? She knew the words but had not felt their consuming force. But the young analyst was not ashamed of his day’s work and on his way home that evening he stopped and bought his wife a bottle of not too expensive Pinot Grigio. They would share it after the children were in bed and sexual lust, his awakened senses, would fill his mouth, his ears, would shine out from on the top of his head where his hair was already thinning, would come through his fingers onto her breasts and instinct, animal instinct, would carry him forward.

Later when he slept he had a nightmare. One that left him sweaty and kept him awake until morning. It is not easy to be happy, to be guilt-free, to keep anger caged in its zoo, and at night in one’s sleep, the cages open, the rotten residue of memory rises and frolics, its malicious frolic, till dawn. This did not surprise the young analyst. He would tell Dr. H. about his dream.

What was sexual lust? It was the precursor of pornography, exploitation, whips and chains, screams and blood and at the same time it was the fuel of connection, affection, passion. A man with the best intentions could sometimes lose his way. A young woman like Lyla Shulman could learn to dance and dress in tight skirts and high heels and still miss the point. He wasn’t allowed to just tell her that. He would have to wait until she told him.

The young analyst cut himself above his lip while he was shaving. Everyone needs a little punishment from time to time.

And so he considered Lyla Shulman. She was not hallucinating. She did not hear voices telling her that she was worthless, lazy, or criminal, like his first hospitalized patient whose eyes fixed on his face with a look of wild hope he couldn’t bear, couldn’t bear because he couldn’t cure, couldn’t change, couldn’t write a different end to her story. He had made soothing noises—adjusted medications—felt broken himself, as if she had a contagious disease. Lyla was not like that. But all the same she might have needed a more experienced analyst. He knew that the more experienced analysts once were inexperienced.

Lyla was stalled. Lyla was dull. She had left the subject of sex behind but she would come back to it. Dr. Berman did not doubt that. Lyla was depressed but not in the way that called for an ambulance. He thought of his family cat Mookie stalking a bird in the garden, silently, slowly, one paw raised, stillness in all the muscles. He would be Mookie in the garden of his office.

He thought of a firecracker he and his brother had set off one July 4th on the Jersey Shore. It had made a whooshing sound, it had soared upwards, it had set off a few glowing lights in a pinwheel shape and then suddenly it had faded in the darkness a few feet above the dunes. His brother had said it was his fault but it wasn’t his fault. Every firecracker does not succeed in lighting up the sky.

Words, words, if only his patient would use words and dry her tears and give him some material to work with. When he said that to Dr. Berman the following week, she said, Let her be sad, let her feel what she needs to feel. Dr. Berman spoke in a low, tired voice. She was disappointed in him, or she was tired. He wasn’t sure.

Lyla considered Bruegel. She considered the painting of Icarus falling from the sky, his wax wings melted by the sun, while the peasants continued undisturbed to cut the hay, feed their horses, carry their vegetables in baskets to the market. Flowers bent their heads in the breeze while Icarus, unnoticed, fell and fell and died in the waters off the shore and if not for the artist, not for the poet, would have been forgotten, wiped away. She felt she was falling. She felt her wings had melted. She felt the water below, deep and lethal. She did decide to tell her analyst and see what he thought about Bruegel, about falling, about the great inattention of the world to the screaming boy headed downwards.

The young analyst had not seen the painting. He was pre-med after all. She described it well enough. He got the point. Do you think I don’t see you? he asked.

Do you? she asked him. He waited.

Nothing.

Everyone is dying, she said.

But while they are dying they are living, he said. Was that a pompous thing to say? Maybe? The red button on his answering machine was flickering.

One afternoon as the light was fading in his office and the shadows were spreading across his oriental rug, the one he and his wife had bought on sale at a rug warehouse in New Jersey, Lyla said, My ex-husband likes men.

The young analyst considered asking her if she had hints of this before they got married. Instead he was silent, but sitting up very straight in his chair, leaning forward, willing her to speak.

Everyone is bisexual, Lyla said. I read that in New York Magazine.

Are you bisexual? the young analyst asked.

I told you already, she said. I am normal. Aren’t you listening to me? she added in a tone that would have hurt his feelings if he didn’t know that his feelings were part of the tool kit he would use to help his patient and were therefore welcome even when they were not welcome. Lyla Shulman told him her husband had always closed his eyes when she appeared nude before him. He told her, in the last days they had been living together, that he had discovered his true self, a self that could not be attracted to her. It wasn’t personal. It was her gender. It’s not my fault, she said. It is nobody’s fault, said her analyst.

The young analyst heard his own heartbeat. The session was over at last. Her big secret, at least one of them, was his at last.

Lyla left his office spilling no tears. She left his office with a new thought. Maybe, she thought, I can, I will.

Dr. Berman was not pleased with his report. Sex, she said, you think that is all that this about.

No, he said, not at all. She interrupted him.

This young woman has locked herself up. Find her, release her, sex is just part of the story. For God’s sake, she said, stop thinking about sex all the time. The young analyst blushed.

But sex was the subject of his next session with Lyla and the one after that and after that.

It had begun at a party at her best friend’s house at a brownstone uptown. There was a small garden terrace with candle lights on little tables and chairs and she had gone outside to get away from the air conditioning which was too cold and there at one table her future husband was leaning back in his chair and his face seemed so perfect, like a Greek marble statue. It turned out that ancient Athens was just the right town for him. She should have paid more attention to the clue. Her analyst said that she did just that: pay attention.

One afternoon before her session, Lyla Shulman went to the museum. Perhaps she might pick up a man in the museum. She saw one just ahead of her in line to purchase a ticket. He was talking about something intently to someone just ahead of him. Lyla saw his face when he briefly turned around to glance at the revolving door. He was tall and his hair almost reached his shirt collar. Maybe he was a painter? Lyla thought about what she might say to him, to start the conversation. She considered tripping in front of him and apologizing. Then as he was leaving the counter he put his arm around the man he had spoken to, who was now waiting for him, and she saw that they were together. Had she known all along that her husband was just pretending an interest in her? Was this her choice? When her mother asked her, How is it going with the doctor? she answered, Fine thank you. When I next come to town, her mother said, I would like to meet with your doctor. Never, thought Lyla. Maybe, she said.

Good work, said Dr. Berman to the young analyst. But then she dismissed him twenty minutes early. He thought it would be rude to mention the time. He thought she might think he was greedy. He felt cheated. He was going to tell Dr. H. but he forgot about the twenty minutes she stole from him before his next appointment.

Dr. Berman left the hair salon with a red flush at the nape of her neck where the back of the sink had pressured her and the hair blower had been too hot. She stood on the street, the familiar street. She turned left toward Central Park. She stopped. Should she have turned right? She looked at the street signs but found no clue. She continued up the side street. It was a long block. It was a familiar block but should she have gone the other way? A fear came on her. It was the wrong way. She turned and retraced her steps. But when she got back to the corner she still wasn’t sure. How was this possible? It was a passing confusion. Anyone could get turned around in a city where sirens wailed and buses wheezed and crowds pushed into markets and stores, and strollers, everywhere strollers crossing and recrossing streets. Dr. Berman stepped into the curb and hailed a taxi and gave the driver her address. It was only a ride of a few blocks but she was safe and as she stepped out of the cab and saw her own doorman on the steps of the building, she gave him a warm smile. He deserved the large gift she had placed in his envelope at Christmas time.

Lyla sat beside the window looking out at the building across the street. She saw a child running with something in his hand. In the next window she could see a woman who now bent down to the child. She could see neither of them anymore. She turned away from the window. She called a friend from school, now living in Boston, expecting her first child in a few months. They spoke of another friend who had gone to Egypt with her boyfriend. No one had heard anything for months. People just disappear, said Lyla. Come and visit me, said her friend. I can’t, said Lyla, I’m too busy just now. Masterpiece Theatre began, a rerun of Inspector Lewis, who never failed to find the murderer despite his lack of a university education. Lyla called her mother.

Through the cloud, into the atmosphere, riddled with electronic fragments, invisible to the naked eye, one coast to another, speech was carried, instantly. Or was that not right? Perhaps the spoken words were transported without bodies, or form, but like people in Star Trek, beamed across the mountains, re-formed in the ears of the people they were meant for, as words, or in her case as a call for a bedtime story, another glass of water, a holding on to the daylight as long as possible.

Nothing is happening, said the young analyst to Dr. Berman.

Nothing you know about is happening, said Dr. Berman.

What should I say? asked the young analyst.

About what? asked Dr. Berman.

And then one morning Lyla Shulman said to her analyst, My mother thinks my sister is smarter than I am. And Lyla didn’t weep. She said, She isn’t. And then she said, She’s nothing, nothing at all. The voice she used for this sentence startled her analyst. It was like an ice pick, sharp, made of unbreakable steel, a weapon to pierce and draw blood. Lyla had not mentioned her sister since their first meeting. Was she older or younger? He had forgotten. He could look at his original notes later or he could ask her right now. He made a decision. Tell me more about your sister, he said. And Lyla told him. She was older. She once pushed her in a closet and wouldn’t open the door. That closet was a metaphor, the analyst knew. Soon enough he could say that to Lyla, but not yet. First he had to listen, as still as a small toad under a fern leaf, as the storm from the sea approached and the sky above the pines darkened and the cracks of lightning came closer.

And this worthless sister was a lawyer, a graduate of a top-ranked law school, who worked for a public interest firm that protected the interests of the homeless, the unfairly fired, those denied medical care, the illegals awaiting deportation. She had a husband who was a professor of archaeology and the author of a book whose title Lyla didn’t remember. This professor had said to his mother-in-law that Lyla needed to grow up. That Lyla did remember. This sister, who had prevented Lyla from sitting on her mother’s lap, from combing her mother’s hair, from singing songs into her mother’s ear, also had two little girls, one named Lyla. This sister, Lyla told her analyst, had very small breasts, the left smaller than the right.

This remark made the young analyst think about Lyla’s breasts, which did not seem uneven or small.

And there it was, a thread to Lyla’s soul. This thread would lead through the most ordinary of matters, tennis lessons, a school play, a fight with a girlfriend who had a crush on their teacher, and it would come to a hard hating place where jealousy and rage and the other demons of the soul would stamp and roar, not harmlessly, but with real fangs and claws that could cripple and destroy. And the young analyst wanted, wanted now with a ferocity he didn’t know belonged to him, to bring Lyla to life, real life, with a life-sized sister and a way forward. This was everything; this was it, what his training was for, to add just one finite amount of good life to a person who might otherwise have missed their moment. It wasn’t much, he knew. It wouldn’t stop starvation or disease on the African continent. It wouldn’t lift up the poor or save a single river from drying to dust, but it was his work, this little moment of freedom from the past, that he might be able to bring to Lyla Shulman, if he didn’t make some clumsy mistake and she had the courage and the persistence to go on, and her mother kept paying for the treatment.

Lyla Shulman’s mother was worried about Lyla. She had a whine in her voice. Lyla Shulman’s mother recognized that whine. She thought her daughter had left it behind but there it was again, an aggrieved nostril wheeze. After the light was turned out and the dog had settled at the edge of the bed where he wasn’t supposed to sleep but always did, Lyla Shulman’s mother felt as if she were vanishing, despite being a size fourteen, and struggling not to go to sixteen. She thought of Lyla’s birth, the pain she did not remember, although she had done it the Lamaze way, no medicine, no spinal tap, just nature moving her second and last baby down a canal, with some difficulty. The exhilaration, the pure unequaled exhilaration of the life created, the newness, the softness, the tiny hands, the red chapped lips, the sucking noises, and she was glad it was another girl. And now she felt defeated, defeated by enemies she could not see or hear. She did not know what to do about Lyla. There was in fact nothing to do about Lyla. And if Lyla was not content, then her mother—together with the billion small choices she had made over the years—was implicated in the fact of Lyla, less than happy, Lyla alone, Lyla divorced, Lyla adrift. Had she preferred Lyla’s sister? Of course not. She sat up in bed and reached for the heavy novel on the night table. Her book club was reading War and Peace. Her husband was sound asleep.

Lyla would have to do it, whatever it was, herself: with the help of her young and very eager, maybe too eager, analyst.

Lyla Shulman told her analyst something very private. Something she would not say to a friend or a date or even her mother. She wanted to be famous. She didn’t know for what or how to start. How jealous that would make her sister. There is nothing special in me, she said. It’s safer to think that, said her analyst. I’d fail if I tried, she said. Try what? asked her analyst. She didn’t know. Her analyst let five minutes pass with the weight of silence pressing down on his chest and on Lyla’s too. And then the session was over. Dr. Frankenstein at least had wires that connected to his monster.

Dr. Berman sat on her bed and spilled the entire contents of her jewelry box out on the spread. She placed the pieces in order. There was a line of bracelets, three Tiffany’s silver bangles and the gold one with a small diamond and a small ruby linked one to the other by a row of emerald stars, from her husband on their twentieth anniversary. It was engraved with their names on the inside. Sometimes she thought when she placed it on her wrist before one formal dinner or another she thought it looked more like a handcuff than a piece of valuable metal. There was the necklace Betty had given her: the one that Justine had surely stolen. She should return it but how could she without violating patient confidentiality. On the left side she placed necklaces of various kinds of precious stones and pearls that had been formed in the depths of coral reefs across the datelines and as far from Central Park West as the imagination can go. On the right there were earrings, not so small and delicate, not so discreet in their value. Above, set in the tufts of the velvet was a ring with a ruby stone the size of her thumbnail and a gold star with a chain that she had never worn. Why was it there? Once they had gone to a meeting in Israel. Was the chain a worthless souvenir, a giveaway from some pharmaceutical company, or had she wanted it, purchased it from some shop in the lobby of the King David Hotel? The real diamond necklace her husband had given her when they married was in a safe in a bank vault. The name of the bank was emblazoned on the cover of her checkbook so it would never be forgotten. The diamonds themselves, having been taken from a mine in Africa, carrying with them the memory of geologic ages and human bondage, saw no more light then they had back in the mine.

With determination, Dr. Berman took her date book and on one of the back pages she began to catalogue the baubles, the valuable baubles laid out before her. She wanted to write this down so she would be able to tell if someone stole from her. She wanted to write this down the way the mayor of Amsterdam might want to add another brick to the dike. It tired her. But she persisted. When the cleaning lady knocked on the door wanting to do her job, Dr. Berman screamed out, Go away. And then she scooped up all the jewelry and placed it back in the large heavy box and carried the box into her bathroom, her beautiful beige marble bathroom, and she locked the door and sat on the floor, unwilling to come out, until late in the evening. What were they these jewels? She could throw them all away and nothing in her life would change.

She canceled her supervision appointment with the young analyst, the third week in a row that she had canceled.

Lyla’s analyst was going away to a conference on “Object Relations in Early Childhood.” He didn’t tell her that he told her he would be out of his office for the week of the fifteenth to twenty-second. Object relations is the technical term for the fact that human beings need someone to care for them and someone to care for and if they don’t have an object relation they die, literally sometimes, if they are babies, almost always, in spirit. Object relations is a phrase invented to convince analysts that they were talking about something you could put under a microscope, like dividing amoebas or RNA loops or enzyme production in the female frog. It also served to dignify the real story: who loved me, who loves me, who loved me not, who loves me not. The old daisy petal pull of childhood which is after all the main and maybe only drama, unless you are a Yankees fan or a collector of rare stamps, both of which serve as ways to evade the real question: who loves me, who loves me not.

The young analyst’s brother had said to him, What’s the matter with you analysts? You make the Politburo look like a town meeting in Akron, Ohio.

Conflict can be a sign of vitality, the young analyst had answered. Agreement is the sign of a fascist organization.

And this penis envy stuff, said his brother. For God’s sake, you can’t believe that.

The young analyst shrugged. He’d read all the articles. He knew all about Freud and Anna O. and the unfortunate judgments made along the way.

My brother is not my friend, he said to Dr. H. just before his session ended.

Very unusual, said his analyst.

There had been major wars inside psychoanalytic institutes. The young analyst knew all about them. There was Freud and Jung who parted company over questions of a religious sort. If you looked at their quarrel from a great enough distance you would see two giant behemoths with tusks at the ready pawing at the ground, ready to fight for dominance of the wild lands that reached north and southwest and east as far as the eye could see. There was Ferenczi, the Hungarian who wanted to put his patients on his lap when Freud wanted them untouched on the couch. Then there was Melanie Klein and Anna and the question of just how murderous was the infant mind. While sleeping peacefully in its basinet was the baby in fact chopping up parts of parents and sending death signals to invisible predators? Did children wish to devour their mothers and if so should you reveal that fact to them or not? That disagreement almost undid the London institute and made the New York ones tremble.

No one threw anything at Donald Winnicott when he came to America expressing a Kleinian idea or two but they did make him miserable with their derision and the night after his lecture he died of a heart attack. These New York psychoanalysts played for real. They didn’t have disagreements on the nature of the human mind, they had territories to defend, borders that could not be crossed without proper passports. They played for keeps. And keeps was a trench in which many bodies were buried. Psychoanalysis was a science indulging in mayhem. Like priests fornicating in the parish house, this was to be expected. Freud believed he was a scientist. He had no interest in becoming a rabbi leading his followers into paradise with enchanting song and dance. And he was not a peaceful man, serene in his convictions. He thrived on the rivalry and the combat among his followers. He had favorites and non-favorites and the intrigues were political, tinged with sexual flirtations, and always mattered. After all the stakes were high. Was there a dangerous core of the human mind that expressed itself in dreams and went about disguised as politics or art or business the rest of the time, or wasn’t there?

The young analyst had many questions about this or that part of the theory or that but he did believe unconditionally that the underground rivers of the unconscious existed in real time and crocodiles lined their banks.

The conference was in New Hampshire but the young analyst did not tell Lyla where he was going or why. Perhaps her guesses would open a path, would let him see her connection to him. Maybe she won’t really care, he said to his own analyst.

Why would you think that? Dr. H. asked him.

The conference was only a four-day matter but the young analyst took an extra two days to visit his old roommate in Boston and to attend a Red Sox–Yankees game, which was lost by New York in the final inning, leaving a disgruntled young analyst with an urge for pot, a memory of a smell that filled his dorm room, carrying with it both defiance and peace.

And during this vacation, this brief suspension of her treatment, Lyla wilted. Like a plant without water she seemed to contract. She had bad dreams that woke her at night. She called her mother even more often and she thought more seriously about going home, although it wasn’t actually her old home. I may visit, she said to her mother, who said, Yes, come, come as soon as you can. Lyla went online to look for airfares and direct flights. But she made no reservations.

When the following Monday her sessions resumed she arrived at the office looking unkempt, a kind of unemployed look, a rejected wife look, a who-cares-if-my-skirt-is-on-backwards look. Her analyst wondered if she had showered in all the time he had been away.

She had nothing to say to him. She stared at the ceiling as if a message from God had appeared in the faded yellow paint. Are you upset at our missed sessions? said the analyst after a very long time. No, said Lyla. I don’t need you. I don’t even like you. I avoid men with weak chins like yours. I am not going to keep on seeing you. I’m through.

Because I went away for a week? he asked. You’re angry, he observed.

And Lyla did not weep. She said, I hate you. She said it coldly. She said it like a knife was placed between her teeth. She said it for eternity, for all of time. Her analyst waited.

What are you thinking? he finally said.

Nothing, she said, but in her rose a new unexpected feeling. As if she weren’t a young woman whose husband had just left her for—for a man—but as if she were a terrible beast of the darkest forest, with a bloodlust for all living creatures, a desire to gnaw and smash and violate and trample and tear apart and spill to the ground the tissue and the muscle of other creatures, as if nothing but her great roar of rage existed and she would devour everything in front of her, wearing only her Nike sneakers, her red sweater, and the Banana Republic skirt she had on backwards.

She became very pale. She thought she might faint. I guess I’m not made of sugar and spice, she said.

I admit to a few puppy dog tails myself, said her analyst.

That night the analyst said to his wife, Do I have a weak chin?

I think you’re perfect, she said to him, although of course she didn’t.

Then in the real world something happened.

There was a black mole on Lyla’s inner thigh. She ignored it. Two months later she had a dream about a mountain that kept sliding toward her. She mentioned to the young analyst that this mole on her thigh looked like a tiny mountain. He suggested she go to the dermatologist. There was a wait in a small room. There was a quick cut. She put Neosporin on the little wound. There was Lyla’s belief that all would be well. She was young. Everything lay ahead of her. Everyone has moles, thought Lyla. I will be all right, thought Lyla.

But the doctor called and she wasn’t all right. Melanoma, said the doctor. Are you sure? said Lyla. He was sure.

How does that make you feel? asked her analyst.

That is a really stupid question, she said.

It was, he agreed, clumsy and stupid. Why had he asked it?

Because he was nervous. Because he was scared for her but didn’t want to say so. Because he always believed that the sky could fall down on your head at any moment. Because despite being a doctor, he was afraid of the void, the pain that could come before the void, and sickness of cells, nerves, sinews, brain stems, that kind of sickness, he was afraid of that too.

Chemo? asked Dr. Berman in a very girlish voice. She too was afraid of death. You can live a long time these days, she added.

I know, said her supervisee.

Patients get sick and die. You need to get used to it. You’re not Saint Teresa and you have no weapons to rescue the physical body. She said that coldly. As if he were a delinquent child.

The polish on her fingernails was fire engine red and chipped. Her hands repulsed him slightly. The young analyst repeated the conversation in his own session the next day.

Later that evening Dr. H. wondered if Dr. Berman was sick herself. How old was she exactly?

Lyla Shulman called her ex-husband. Do you want to meet me for a drink? he asked. No, she said.

She said to her analyst that she had dreamt about her mother. In the dream she saw her as a shark swimming in a turquoise pool, circling and circling waiting for the menstrual blood of her daughter to draw her close for the final kill. This seemed something of an exaggeration. All her mother had actually done was ask her daughter to come home, so she could provide refuge for her child at a difficult moment in her life. To paint so dark a view of her mother was surprising, at least to Lyla.

The analyst said: It’s your dream.

Lyla said, You probably made me dream it. The young analyst considered what a wonderful thing it would be if he could only put dreams into his patient’s heads. It would speed things up. It would give him power, and he was not one to shun a little power. Lyla said, If you met my mother, you might like her.

Why? asked the analyst. And Lyla could not find one single reason. They had nothing in common. The analyst however heard in her remark the thunderous footsteps of old rivalries accompanying the insulted, the wounded, and the powerless into old age. Lyla Shulman knew, even if she did not admit it to her analyst, that there was in that description of the shark in the swimming pool, truth. The young analyst sneezed. He may have been allergic to the discontents of civilization.

She won’t die, said the young analyst. Probably not, said Dr. Berman. But I suggest you inform the institute that you will need another patient to meet the supervision requirement anyway. A backup? asked the young analyst. Yes, said Dr. Berman. This one is going home to her mother.

 

 

From BALLAD OF THE BLACK AND BLUE MIND. Used with the permission of Seven Stories Press. Copyright © 2015 by Anne Roiphe.


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