10.07.2012

"Therapy" by Peter Weissman





I wasn't against couples therapy on principle, and my wife and I were certainly in need of a referee, if only to come out of our respective corners and fight out loud. So we went into the therapist's office with some optimistic expectations and a grudging measure of goodwill.


Right away a smattering of small talk about New York City intended to put me at ease tested my tolerance. Yes, like Dr. Cynthia Levine and her lawyer husband, we'd all emigrated upstate, but hardly for the same reasons or from the same pool. I could tell by the way the psychoanalyst winced at my informal manner of speech, the spines of Freud, Jung, and Adler looking down on us from the bookshelves behind her, the diplomas on the wall, as we sat on the leather couch before she got down to business.


Out the plateglass window wall on one side, a barrier of suburban leaves occluded the New York State Thruway and our road back home, which would have been its dream significance; an oppressive room where a figure resembling my wife bared her feelings to a stoic stranger as I held myself in check.


But the barely glimpsed highway meant something else too. Despite our estrangement, we still traveled well, discussing her mother or my parents after we’d visited them in the city while our daughter, whose behavior and upbringing was the usual focus of contention, slept in the backseat or was enveloped in the white noise of air rushing past a cracked-open window that sucked the smoke of my cigar outside. True, our heady psychological deconstructions in the car precluded the more personal things about each other, but it proved there was still something between us.


Which the doctor brushed aside without actually calling it irrelevant.


Anyone who’s had a job eventually gloms to its parameters well enough to be able to fake serious work. And I knew enough about the psychoanalytic profession to recognize Dr. Levine’s faux neutrality. I’d read a bit, was familiar with the names on the spines in her bookcases, and had been to a shrink once before, years ago.


Circumstance had brought me to Dr. Morong back then. It was part of a package deal with my father, who said he’d front me money to rent an apartment if I agreed to see a psychiatrist, which he would also pay for, since I was broke at the time. Not that my father knew much about or had any faith in psychotherapy. On the contrary, he was disgusted that his sense of parental obligation had brought the discomforting if not distasteful notion of psychology into his life. As a former Marine, he thought in terms of boot camp and bootstrap discipline. In retrospect, it was probably my mother’s idea, based on things she’d heard and knew as little about, which suggested psychiatry as a cure for an errant son who’d fallen into disrepute by taking drugs instead of pursuing a career, a wife, and a family. For my part, I saw no reason to see a shrink; my problems were existential, not psychological. But I had no animus about it. I would at least have a place to live, and a deal’s a deal, after all.


Working in the city, seeing Morong a couple times a week during extended lunch hours, I didn’t learn much I hadn’t already known. But it was pleasant reclining on the couch in his office, recalling the past, answering questions—Morong harped on the reason I’d immersed myself in psychedelic drugs; it was his obsession—since I’ve never been reluctant to talk about myself, and he was good listener. He wore a different well-cut suit and tie to each session, an unassuming man, and in time a friendly acquaintance who once in a while offered practical advice.

In response to the misperceptions of my colleagues at work, for example, he told me: “They probably think you’re odd because you don’t give them the usual cues—a nod to show you heard and understood what they said, or a humming sound from your throat.”


Indeed, a year of taking drugs had rendered me distrustful of intellectual talk, and, perhaps due to altered synaptic connections in my brain, left me mute most of the time. Which wrought havoc with my adjustment to ordinary life. Clearly, I was in need of relearning the basics of social interaction.


Sometimes, in the comfortable office setting, Morong and I would switch roles and he’d confide in me; about his daughter’s graduation ceremony from kindergarten, for instance, which he’d been obliged to attend and considered absurd.


This, during the Vietnam years, when the army turned down my conscientious objector appeal and ordered me to report to the induction center. Having run out of appeals, I asked Morong to write a letter that stated I was unfit to serve.


“I don’t see any reason why you couldn’t capably function as a soldier,” he said in his reasonable way, proving that despite his intelligence, he could be a dunderhead.


“What’s more insane than war?” I asked him. “And what’s the point of therapy if I get killed after seeing you for a year?”


So the good doctor wrote a letter saying I was a homicidal maniac, a potential danger to anyone who had to depend on me, and when the army shrink took his word for it, my somewhat ordinary life as an American was spared.


Which is to say I could talk to Morong, like one person should be able to talk to another. He had a diploma, but didn't take it all that seriously.


Dr. LevineCynthia, she asked me to call her, which I never did; we were hardly friendswas a different story.


My wife had met her in a monthly seminar whose purported aim was to recognize patterns of behavior, in order to alter them. A worthwhile goal. Yet Levine had a feminist slantI saw that too on her bookshelveswhich conflated with her imbalanced reaction to my wife, who was more soft-spoken and vulnerable than her husband, and thinly veiled disinterest in me.


Was it my fault that I was seemingly an emotional dolt? I did feel things, in fact, though they usually eluded me, which I compensated for by locating them through my senses. Dr. Jung, whose book on personality types I’d carted around like a bible for years, knew what that was about. Did my makeup mean I was a hard case, to be indirectly spoken to as if I felt less than I did?

Meanwhile, as we were engaged in this therapeutic experiment, things got worse between us at home, in the guise of getting better. In truth, nothing significant had changed. We still disagreed about our daughter, and now had the added burden of proving to ourselves and each other that we were making progress. Where before we'd retreated, we now strove to transform that bristling silence into calm communication; which resulted in equally tense overattention to each other's feelings.


Soon enough, in the spirit of evasion, following the shrink's suggestion to set aside a half hour a day for so-called serious conversation, which would be about feelings, we devolved to focusing on harmless things, like what to eat for dinner and who would shop for what.


Painfully circumspect, I might ask, "How about chicken?"


"Only if you want it," Rita would reply.


"No, I mean, that's why I'm asking. Is that okay?"


"Chicken's fine."


"With maybe potatoes and broccoli?"


"That’s fine ... but asparagus is in season now."


"Oh ... okay, then. Asparagus."


"Unless, of course, you'd prefer broccoli ... "


Until, with unspoken agreement, those dreadful daily sessions disappeared 
altogether. It could be said that at least we mutually recognized a shared sensibility, a reprise of the notion of quality time the books on child care were big on, and that neither of us adhered to, since our child had never been an afterthought. We talked about that other formulation in the car, where our therapy sessions should have been held, without Dr. Levine as an interlocutor, whom we discussed too, when I confessed that it bothered me that the shrink cared more about Rita's welfare than mine.

I said as much to Levine in her office at what turned out to be our last session. She was taken aback, and adopting her familiar false, neutral mask, asked, "Why do you feel that way?"


"Because you're not impartial," I told her.


After a longer than usual pause, she asked, "
Why do you say that?"


"I suppose you might say it's how I feel," I explained, "but more to the point, 
it's true. When the three of us are here and you ask me a question, there's a tone, an underlying attitude, that tells me you don’t think I understand you, and afterward, instead of considering what's happening between me and Rita, I’m wondering about that ... You see what I mean?”

She didn’t, replied, “That you feel bad about yourself?"

"No, I'm saying that rather than thinking about the two of us, I think about you."  In the ensuing silence, I added, "Rita and I have talked about it, and she agrees that we should both feel comfortable here."


Abruptly, after several interminable months, the doctor finally became Cynthia. She sat back in her high chair and, deflecting my rejection, said, "Of course I respect your decision. Rita’s right. You both should feel comfortable ... But at least something positive has come out of these sessions ... That the two of you were able talk about it."


                  *                                *                                 *

Elizabeth Smith might have been sixty, or maybe seventy. Perspicacious as I was about other things, people of a certain age merely looked old to me back then. But there was a lively sparkle to her eyes and a warmth to her smile, and not having met many kindly old ladies, only hearing about them in fairy tales, there was something special about her.


Like Morong, Elizabeth had a self-contained modesty. She wore long dresses and sensible shoes, her legs in parallel lines, feet planted solidly on the carpeted floor of her living room in another suburban style house, this one in Kingston. It was a surprise, in that ramshackle, oversize town that was considered a city, to come upon a neighborhood where the lawns were all mown and the streets, lacking sidewalks, curved around the corners of a somewhat contemporary development.


Inside, her house was pleasantly nondescript, the framed paintings on the walls tasteful—landscapes mostly, barely noticeable—the furniture comfortable but hardly opulent. Out the sliding glass door to the patio, the backyard was bordered with bushes, with a fallow garden of stakes and chicken wire next to a plank wooden fence.


“You like her,” Rita said after our first session, sounding relieved.


“Yes,” I replied, “I do.”


I liked the way Elizabeth leaned forward in her chair, planting her wiry 
forearms on her thighs, as if dropping down to weed in that garden in back, before asking a question, and how she leaned back and away, studious behind her spectacles, as we took turns answering. Talking with her, and through her with each other, was more dialogue than competition.


In some ways, she was not unlike the Rita I knew when we got along, how she listened without giving hint to her thoughts, then listened some more, not with the restlessness of storing up a response, but following a new line of information. I’d always liked how Rita responded simply, conveying more than her phlegmatic temperament had led me to expect.

No doubt that stoic placidity was what earned her the respect of the troubled teenagers she counseled. I could imagine her mixing questions and comments with acceptance and encouragement. Drawing on that, she’d assumed she could counsel our daughter the same way. But her vocational approach was no more successful than my own improvisations, differences between us that surfaced in Elizabeth’s living room; Rita with her particulars, me with my philosophical generalities.

It was a complement that had once worked, and now, my voice raised in exasperation, I’d watch her retreat into self-protective silence, which Elizabeth would attempt to ameliorate. Fathers and mothers as behavioral templates; in Rita’s case, a tendency to placate ... Offering the solace her mother had never offered as she soothed our troubled child when I insisted she stop crying.


“You attack me because what I say to Raphaela discomforts you.” 


“But you scare her.”


“I do not ‘scare’ her.”


“She’s afraid of you.”


“Or maybe you’re the one who’s afraid of me.”


“Sometimes,” Rita said, “your anger does scare me.”


“Well, that’s no surprise, what with your father who never raised his voice 
and left that side of things to your mother ... Those patterns of behavior I hear so much about ... ”

She and Elizabeth attended the same monthly group sessions, along with Cynthia Levine.


“With Raphael,” I said, “though your approach is sympathetic, it’s also formulaic. I mean, you can’t always react the same way in all situations. Sometimes, even if it’s difficult—even when she’s upset—you might have to say unpleasant things.”


“And what about you? Why are you always so angry?"


“Not always.”


“It seems that way to me ... and to Raphaela.”


Elizabeth had gone through her own emotional struggles with her child. Like 
Morong, there were times when she talked about herself.

She and her husband, whose photo was on the fireplace mantel, looking kindly and old fashioned, had decided to adopt when she was younger. Their son was restless, even before her husband died. He was never satisfied, wanted to know about the parents who’d given him up, and so she petitioned a child service agency in Pennsylvania and managed to locate them. With the birth parents’ permission, she drove down with her son to visit them. Afterward, when he was older and could drive, he’d leave home to spend weekends with them, and after a while hardly came home.


She related the story in a matter-of-fact tone, and when Rita commiserated anyway, because it was what she did, Elizabeth said, “To be honest, it came as a relief. Clearly, he didn’t want to be with me anymore.”


Her adopted son now lived in Pennsylvania. A separation and divorce to which she’d resigned herself.

It brought to mind the aphorism that you don’t choose your parents.


But you do choose your partners, and I was wondering about that now, 
more than ever. How Rita guarded her privacy as if afraid I’d take it away. The things she held onto, for instance, not the keepsakes, which didn’t bother me, but half-empty coffee cups from convenience stores, junk mail addressed to her, several months’ worth of book review sections of the New York Times that sat in yellowing piles on the living room floor ... She resisted throwing anything away, and wouldn’t without an argument.

“The books are probably all out of print by now!" I told her. "And the mail—it’s fucken junk, for chrissakes! I have to live here too, y’know, and it brings me down to see your leftovers everywhere, on the table, the chairs, the couch ... ”


She preserved the mundane visitations of daily life as an extension of herself, had a notion of stability that clashed with mine. Sometimes, her odd way of holding a tenuous life together by keeping it close to hand, as if her universe would otherwise fly off centrifugally, seemed a heroic adaptation to insecurity. But more often those pack-rat habits perversely intended to counter chaos merely annoyed me, presumably as my straight-ahead, blunt way of dealing with life struck her as cold. It could be said that concerning each other we both lacked empathy.


Spring came late that year, after another long winter. When it finally warmed up, the forsythias had already turned green and there were pale buds on the trees. We were similarly askew. Where relations between us should have been thawing, there was instead a tense, unnatural wariness. Even the civility of our sessions with Elizabeth had grown testy, despite the gentle woman’s well- meaning presence as we presented our side of things once again, all the old stuff, dearly held, like perverse possessions.


It was too much, and one day, in the wake of another bout of criticism aimed at me for the way I reacted to our daughter, I abruptly said so: that it was time for us to go our separate ways.


A startling silence came over the room. I looked across the sofa at my wife, jolted by my abrupt announcement. She was curled in on herself like her ceramic figurines, which sat like old memories on shelves and end tables in the house we’d never quite made our own.


“Don’t you feel that way too?” I asked in a dissociated voice.


“Yes,” she replied softly, fidgeting with her fingers, ducking her head in a reluctant nod.


Sadness permeated the sun-suffused room. I wanted to say something to alleviate the sudden grief, to take back what I’d said, to bring us back to where we’d been before, but then Elizabeth spoke up, saying, in her always surprising matter-of-fact voice, “So ... the two of you have initiated the first stage of divorce.”


It was a startling statement, sounded cruel, or would have been had she not merely restated what she’d heard.


Before we left that day, there was none of the usual small talk between the three of us in the foyer. Outside, the grass was green and the sky blue. We could have been anywhere as we got into the car and drove home, except we were two people who shared a history and yet had just met and didn’t know what to say to each other.

Later I’d wonder about that—how shy we were. Had it been catharsis? Or maybe just shock followed by autonomic reflexes and curiously detached discussions about how we’d go about our separate new lives, finding a lawyer, disbursing money and possessions we had in common, and then, tentatively, attempting to talk about dividing our daughter, which seemed impossible.


For months we’d both argued and avoided the subject. And all the while, even when we couldn’t agree about anything else, it was her welfare that kept us together.


No two seasons are the same. Even the same season is always different from year to year. Spring that year was a miasma of uncertainty with no clear end. We continued to eat and sleep in the same house, drive down to the city to visit Rita’s mother and my parents, make preparations to celebrate a birthday, and nine days later another one. A fugue spring.


And then, in the deceptive passage of time, it was summer. We enrolled Raphaela in camp, Rita signed up for pottery classes, the two of us in transient suspension yet still together, with nothing resolved, like life itself. Which takes place, as they say, while you’re waiting for something to happen.



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Peter Weissman is the author of two previous memoirs, I Think, Therefore Who Am I?  Memoir of a Psychedelic Year (2006), and Digging Deeper: A Memoir of the Seventies (2010).  "Therapy" is a chapter from a novel-in-progress, tentatively titled, True Stories: A Nonfiction Novel, slated for release in 2013.