by Emily Fox Gordon
WHEN I WAS EIGHTEEN MY PARENTS WERE FACED WITH A PROBLEM: what to do with a
sullen, disorganized daughter who had failed to graduate from high school and who had returned home to Washington D.C., wrists
bandaged, from an extended stay with her boyfriend's mother in Indianapolis. They took me in tow to the psychiatrist I'd been
seeing off and on through my high school years, who recommended that I spend some time in a "therapeutic environment." He
suggested Austen Riggs, a hospital in Stockbridge, Mass. where patients none of them too sick, he reassured us were free to
come and go, and where I might spend some months away from the immediate source of my confusion, the boyfriend and his mother.
I stayed at Riggs for three years, one as an inpatient, two as an outpatient,
living in apartments with various roommates. These were years I should have been in college, and they were so empty and aimless
that when I remember Riggs now my mind pans around the corridors of the big comfortable patient residence, the Inn, as we
called it, and in my imagination it is absolutely uninhabited. I drift through the central hall, and into the dining room,
where the fruit bowl and the iced tea urn rested on a polished sideboard, replenished by the staff at regular intervals. I
cross the hall to the living room with its twelve couches, grand piano and tall windows hung with flowered chintz curtains.
Then I withdraw to the wide central hall and approach the reception desk below the great curving central staircase, and wander
in memory through the back door to the grounds, where deck chairs were arrayed in pairs under the trees. I skim by the volleyball
and tennis courts and across the parking lot behind the medical building, where patients met with therapists, past the patient
run, staff supervised nursery school and the greenhouse.
Riggs was an anachronistic institution even then. (I often wonder what it's
like there now; the patients are a lot sicker, I'm told, and they stay for shorter periods of time.) The population was very
young, very bored. There were a few middle aged people there, but we younger ones tended to avoid them. They
looked baggy and defeated, truly sad in a way we sensed had more to do with life than diagnostic caregoriest Years
later, when I actually went to college, I read The Magic Mountain in a seminar, and I felt I had a certain advantage over
the other students. How well my Riggs experience prepared me to understand the convalescent languors of the tuberculosis patients,
reclining on their deck chairs, blankets draped over their knees, eyes fixed on the middle distance. Now, whenever I see one
of those chairs, the white painted wooden Adirondack type which seem to show up in soft focus lithographs on the walls of
so many doctors' offices, I feel a familiar jelly limbed ennui.
My suicidal gesture had been feeble, a few swipes with a pair of nail scissors.
I knew when I arrived at Riggs that I was quite sane and only mildly sick; I had no business being there. But I had no business
anywhere else either no diploma, no prospects and no ambitions.
I arrived excited; going to Riggs was the fulfillment of an adolescent fantasy.
The status of mental patient would invest me with significance. The frantic little act which landed me there had been my entree
to a process; life would work on me in this particularly colorful way, and who knew what might happen? Riggs had a special
interest for me because by coincidence I had spent some time hanging around there at age fifteen, when I visited the home
of my friend Caroline, whose father was the financial manager of the institution. We had recently seen the movie David and
Lisa, and we were smitten with the romance of madness. I think we believed that if we cultivated dissociation we would become
as beautiful as Lisa; our complexions would turn luminous, our faces grow expressive hollows, our hair lie flat and glossy. We spent our days edging cautiously around the grounds, taking drags on shared cigarettes and muttering
"a touch can kill," hoping to be noticed by the patients, drawn into their glamorous orbit by the magic of proximity. The
patients frustrated us by staying indoors, their windows open to the July breezes, playing "Mockingbird" on their stereos.
We heard this song constantly, from multiple windows under which we passed, and for us its refrain became the perverse anthem
of mental illness:
When the psychiatrist in Washington recommended that I be sent to Riggs, I
quivered inwardly, afraid to blow it all by showing my pleasure, and the moment I got home and free of my parents I called
Caroline long distance. "Guess what?" I whispered. "Guess where I'm goin'?" Caroline was going to college, but I was going to Riggs, and I knew by the envy in her voice that I
had double trumped her.
At community meetings patients sat cross-legged on
couches, or A lay sprawled on the carpet, and were encouraged to ventilate Their feelings by the nurses and a small, round
eyed man, a nondoctor whose function I couldn't understand at first, a kind of professional gadfly and controversialist. Years
later I found a category for him; he was a proto facilitator, perhaps the first of his kind to emerge from the fledgling family
systems school of psychiatry.
These meetings, meals and therapy sessions were the only real structure of
our days. We were assigned tasks, called "work jobs," in the mornings, but most patients slept through
the hour reserved for them. It felt a little gratuitous to spend an hour sponging down baseboards when that hour was being
charged to one's account. The issues of work jobs and D.N.R., or Day Night Reversal (this was the late sixties, and already
we were using acronyms: Riggs was both anachronistic and ahead of its time) were the staples of discussion at community meetings
not so much discussion, really, as nagging and resistance. The nurses and the proto facilitator kept after us. Why couldn't
we take pride in our environment? Could we get to the bottom of this, please? The patients sank deeper into silence and into
the contorted positions young bodies assume in shamed repose.
The essential passivity of life at Riggs, a life lived to be examined in therapy,
worked against the staff's attempts to get us to clean up after ourselves and keep sensible hours. The
domestic staff in the Inn, the nurses and Richard, operated at cross purposes with the therapists, those austere beings in
the big white building across the way who received us singly in their offices and were seen in the Inn only when a patient
was having what the nurses called an "upset," with the accent on the first syllable of the word, late at night. The therapists
viewed our sloth as symptomatic, and we all tacitly understood that any attempt to expunge what was symptomatic in our behavior
was antitherapeutic. The therapists were the radicals, the staff the exponents of realpolitik. The conflict between these
factions was never open, and perhaps it was never a real one, but rather a deliberately engineered tension, a therapeutic
master plan, a good cop, neutral cop ploy. But even if that were true, I know that like most master plans it was often lost
sight of, even by its designers.
Not all of us were essentially normal late adolescents. Some were seriously
depressed, not just sluggish. Some were harmlessly odd, like L., a lapsed seminarian who carried on a constant internal debate
about the supremacy of the papacy. He would emerge from his room to keep a running score on the blackboard above the mailboxes
L. 24, Pope 17. Some of the elderly outpatients seemed beyond hope. The parameters of their worlds
shrank as they aged; their compulsiveness stiffened. Never quite accepted by the townspeople, they shuffled up and down Main
Street, stopping for the lunch special at the drugstore, ducking into the library for a nap.
A few patients were mad. I can think of two in the early days of my stay there;
one somehow got her hands on an antique cannon, fiddled with it to make it operational and fired it out of her bedroom window.
She also pulled a gun on her therapist, made him plead for his life. The other, a young man who could
have doubled for Charles Manson, stuffed hard boiled eggs into his rectum and laid them publicly, dropping his pants and squatting
in the hallway.
Still, making allowance for the effects of idleness and boredom, most Riggs
patients were much like people in the outside world. Graduate students, for example, don't seem much saner as a group, or
even much happier. The striking difference between Riggs patients and comparable young people living outside was that Riggs
patients were richer. I believe I came from the least wealthy family of any patient while I was there.
My mother delivered me to Riggs. She spent the first night with M in the local
guest guest were shown into our room, with its flounced twin beds and space heater, its view of Stockbridge's famous main
street, the one painted by Norman Rockwell. She closed the door and took her flask from her purse. "I guess the sun's over
the yardarm," she said.
The next morning was frosty and bright; we said goodbye in the parking lot
of the therapy building, and she alarmed me by bursting into tears, very uncharacteristic behavior. "Goodbye
my dear," she said, and clutched me. The sun bounced off the lenses of her dark glasses and blazed in the car windshields.
I remember staring over her shoulder blankly, eager to see her go, eager to get started.
I was led from office to office in the warren of small rooms in the basement
of the therapy building, tested and interviewed by five or six of the psychiatrists on staff. I was given the standard Wechsler
Intelligence Quotient test for adults. (What is the Koran? What does the following quotation mean: "A
single swallow does not a summer make?" Assemble these blocks so that the result exactly reproduces the pattern in this booklet.
Tell me a story which explains this pic boy stands at the head of the stairs, a broken violin in his hand. A man stands over
him.) I was given a Rorschach, a Personality Inventory. When I hesitated, the examiner leaned back in his chair, drummed the
desk with his thumbs, took a furtive look at his stopwatch. "Take your time," he said.
After my diagnostic workup was complete I was the subject of a full dress staff
conference in which my prognosis was discussed and my treatment plan drawn up. I think I may have been the last patient at
Riggs to be brought into her own conference. The custom was dropped, probably because it had an unenlightened, nineteenth
century feel to it.
I remember entering that room, led in by a nurse, shown to a chair at the head
of a polished oval table that seemed to me the size of a fishing boat. The nurse withdrew. Seated
there, looking down the rows of faces which looked back inquiringly into mine, I was visited with an impulse to say "Perhaps
you gentlemen were wondering why I called you all together today." That made me smirk inappropriately. "Emily," said one of
the doctors," I'm interested in this detached feeling you described in your interview that floating,
disengaged sensation. Are you feeling that way right now?"
"I guess I am," I said, and I lifted my lowered eyes to hazard a smile at the
assembled doctors. They smiled back encouragingly, and at that moment I felt a desolate certainty
that now there would be no backing. Now I had left home for good.
I was a hog for attention and welcomed nearly any kind, but the doctors' questions,
the nurses' charting of my moods and actions, All this had the feel of the speculum about it.
Within a few months, though, the staff's vigilance had dissipated, and I took
my place among the other patients, lounging on the leather sofas in the entrance hall, ashtray balanced on my knee, running
my eyes over back issues of Horizon. I learned to scorn the activities Riggs offered, ceramics and woodworking in the Shop,
repotting plants in the greenhouse. I learned to pretend that I hated the food, which was actually the best institutional
food I had ever eaten, or ever have since. My adjustment was quick and unproblematic.
I was assigned to a therapist, a research psychologist. I learned later that
I was only his second clinical patient. He was a man in his middle thirties, amiable, earnest, eager. He had a spade shaped,
high cheekboned, luminous face a beautiful face, really which sat at an odd angle to his neck, a disc facing up rather than
out, and he stood rocked forward on his toes, his shoulders so hunched they were nearly level with his ears. My adolescent
sensors instantly registered something alien and slightly gooey in his aspect, and I never fully accepted him. Now I understand
him better; experience has provided me with a context into which I can place him. He came from the Bronx, a yeshiva butcher from a Yiddish-speaking household. When I think of him now, I put a yarmulke
on his balding head and append Hassidic curls to his temples, and I see his face as a throwback to visionary and ecstatic
I was re-tested a year after I arrived, and my I.Q. had declined significantly
how much, my therapist wouldn't tell me. He would only say the test results were "disappointing." My diagnosis was altered.
Now my anxiety neurosis had become a "schizoid personality disorder with borderline trends. "This
is a bad diagnosis, and an insulting one, I've been told since, but at the time I rather liked the sound of "borderline trends."
It made me think of a stylish flourish, an extra, like piping on a jacket or whitewall tires on a car.
Apathy wasted us. I had been a failure as a student, but I had always read
voraciously. At Riggs I stopped. We lost our normal adolescent interest in sex for the most part, at least. We hung out in
groups, but we tended not to form real friendships; we saw one another as fundamentally inaccessible, three quarters submerged.
We wore kimonos and hair curlers, jeans and slippers as we padded around the Inn— half dressed, half there. News of
the Vietnam War protests reached us; we crowded into the patient library where the record player was kept to listen to Blonde
on Blonde, Music from Big Pink and Abbey Road, but still we felt wistfully peripheral. The great countercultural storm was
rising, but far away from us. Actually, to the degree that a therapeutic view of life has been a legacy of the sixties, we
seem in retrospectt to have been an advance guard. But at the time we viewed ourselves as the last
of the stragglers.
Many of us got worse rather than better, and for some, getting worse was dangerous.
By the time some patients ran out of money, and this was bound to happen eventually, even to the multi million dollar trust
, their parents and doctors had come to view them as too debilitated to go back into the world. Instead they moved on to state
institutions, where sometimes they stayed for life.
My therapist became inappropriately attached to me. Our meetings were charged
with feeling, every session seemed to end in an epiphany. But it was Dr. Schiffer's eyes that beaded with tears, not mine.
My parents, we acknowledged in therapy, had rejected and abandoned me. I had known this for years, but pretended it was a
revelation because I found his emotion too gratifying not to play on. At the same time I felt itchy and uncomfortable, instantly
sated with his love, made queasy by it. I'm not sure whether this was because I felt myself to be in bad faith or whether
I was unaccustomed to this kind of moony empathy, this cherishing pity. I was not the kind of young girl a lot of men fell
in love with. And I always felt that the object of Dr. Schiffer's love was not me, but some phantasmal
waif who only half inhabited the chair in which I sat.
"Thank you," I would say as we paused at the door of his office at the end
of an hour. "No, thank you," Dr. Schiffer said. I had opened up the world of feeling for him, he told me. The years
of charts and statistics and rat mazes were over for him now. We began to take walks on autumn days. Dr. Schiffer taught me
to drive and accompanied me when I took my driving test. I taught him to smoke cigarettes.
Around the time when Dr. Schiffer's wife was due to deliver a baby, I became
an outpatient. Dr. Schiffer began to appear at my door. One evening we drank a lot of wine, he and my roommate and I, and
we all took a tipsy walk after dinner. Dr. Schiffer put his arm around my waist. This was the first
physical contact between us, and the only, but it changed things unalterably. I woke the next morning charged with a theatrical
anger and teased by doubts about its legitimacy.
In therapy I remained mostly silent after this incident, and glared. Dr. Schiffer
became frantic. He told me one day that he had spent the morning weeping in his parked car on a farm road in Lenox, one of
the routes we often took on our drives. Hearing this confession puffed me up with scorn like a blowfish. I was thrilled and
enraged. Inwardly, I felt some alarm at this reaction; it seemed partly out of my control. My disgust at Dr. Schiffer had
something to do with the way his clammy feelings for me entwined with professional ambition at my second staff conference
he presented our work together as a new way of doing therapy in which the therapist makes himself vulnerable, fully embraces
his own transference, drops his therapeutic distance. A triumph, except for my unfortunate deterioration,
documented in testing. But that was easily finessed with the familiar psychoanalytic rationalization that explains an increase
in symptoms as a necessary precursor to a breakthrough. As for my baleful new diagnosis; that was drawn from the testing.
Having forsworn objectivity in his dealings with me, Dr. Schiffer took no part in it.
I was witnessing the final collapse of adult authority, and my anger was a
cover for fear. But it also served to conceal a kind of sexual frustration. I think my semi conscious thought process went
something like this: if I'm going to do something so extreme and destructive as to have an affair with my married therapist,
I want him to be so powerful, so seductive, that my culpability is washed away. I want his passion to overcome me and leave
me blameless. But Dr. Schiffer's feeling for me was more emotional than sexual, more tender than passionate. I could feel
a smug slackness in the arm that encircled my waist, tentativeness in his dangling fingers as they brushed against my hip,
and it made me mad. I never fully acknowledged this to myself at the time. But let me give my former self the highly qualified
credit she deserves; my self suspicion was like a thready, persistent extra pulse.
I began an unsystematic search for a new therapist, approaching doctors who
looked sympathetic and explaining guardedly that I felt I would do better with somebody more experienced than Dr. Schiffer.
The answer was always the same: this is an issue to be worked out in therapy.
The new Director arrived, startling us all with his appearance. He was tall
and boney, with a comic villain's brilliantined black hair and a waist that seemed to begin six inches below his lantern jaw.
He wore cowboy boots and string ties, and he brought with him a bevy of beautiful psychotic young girls from the hospital
he had directed in Washington, D.C. He was a swashbuckler, a florid, impulsive personality. Going crazy is an occupational
risk for therapists who work with psychotics, and the new director was famous for his hands on treatment: if the patient crawled
under a bed, the story went, he crawled under too, and conducted the session right there.
But those girls! They were like a team of NBA all stars trooping in to watch
a Junior College practice. They quickly showed us their tricks; one inserted needles in the pupils of her eyes; another plastered
her face with chalky makeup and walked around the Inn with her eyes closed and arms extended, a kabuki somnambulist. A third
became a member of my therapy group (Subgroup C), and she enlivened the proceedings by screaming at unpredictable intervals,
full throated operatic screams that lasted for fifteen seconds. The arrival of these girls precipitated
an avalanche of competitive upsets among the patients, and the nurses had their hands full for a few months. Then these patients,
too, "settled in," being human as well as mad.
Dr. Leslie Farber had come to Riggs with the new administration. He was an
old friend of the director, who lured him with promises of time to spend on his writing. I first saw him when he visited our
community meeting, which began with the usual nagging by the nurses and Richard about the work jobs left undone, the unwholesome
hour at which most of the in patients had gone to bed, followed by the usual silence, and then the dribble of patient complaints.
Sue M., the lanky Floridian, wanted to know why scrambled eggs could not be substituted for the food offered at every meal,
not just breakfast. Howard Z., a new patient housed in the East Wing of the Inn complained that trucks making early morning
deliveries to the kitchen were waking him.
Diana D. spoke next, from her cross-legged position
on the floor, leaning forward from the waist, arching her neck and gesturing extravagantly. Diana's speaking style was expressive
and tormented. She would make a stab at saying something, fail, erase the air with flailing palms, cover her face with her
hands and rock back and forth on her haunches, then try again. Today she said: "I
. . . I don't feel very good about this, but I'm just so uncomfortable. I don't think this is something I can say."
"We're listening, Diana," said Richard. "We want to
hear what you have to say."
"It's the outpatients," Diana finally blurted. "The
outpatients are making me depressed. Especially John Haviland. I wish he didn't have to come into the Inn. I wish he didn't
have to eat with us. He's so depressing, the way he eats." John Haviland, wearing a soiled windbreaker, looked up from the
piano bench by the window. He was a little man with a built up shoe. He was often the object of imitations by the late night
crew in the patient kitchen; stuffing a roll of toilet paper down the front of one's pants and locking one knee helped to
evoke his off center lumpiness and his fractured gait. "When they're around, the older ones, I feel like that's how I'm going
to end up, and I don't want to have to look at that. I don't really think I should have to."
I had been stealing looks at Dr. Farber, who sat quietly in the wing chair
by the fireplace. I had noted that he was slightly plump, balding and middle aged, with an elfin Semitic face and an air of
masculine elegance that none of his constituent physical parts accounted for. (Later I learned from him how he felt about
his embodiment: "a fat little Jewish dentist," he said, quoting a former patient.) In the silence
after Diana's remarks I slid my eyes in his direction again and saw on his face an unmistakable expression of shocked contempt.
His eyebrows were arched, his lip curled, his nostrils distended.
This look jolted me. I knew instantly that Dr. Farber was a different kind
of being than the other therapists. His was not the neutral watchfulness I had become so used to; he judged, and revealed
his judgment. This was striking enough, but it was really just the first layer of my reaction. I think I also sensed, if obscurely,
that he was a person whose way of looking at the world unlike that of any therapist I had encountered was integrated with,
and undetachable from, his self.
I learned later that Dr. Farber was well known not only in psychoanalytic circles,
but in the wider intellectual world as well. He was a maverick, humane and cultivated, who challenged his colleagues to confront
what the science of psychology had refused to acknowledge—the inextinguishable presence of will in human behavior.
In one of his essays Dr. Farber wrote of the therapist who is like a man who
has spent decades building a splendid mansion, a great complex multi storied edifice with wings flung out in every direction.
But when the man has finally completed his dream house he settles contentedly into a shack next door. So in his view the house
of psychoanalysis was impressive but unfit for human habitation.
Dr. Farber's face, its expression that afternoon, was a life lesson for me,
the first I had received since I willingly immured myself at Riggs, a very dense, impacted lesson which I would spend years
absorbing and have yet to learn completely.
I made an appointment with Dr. Farber immediately, and once seated in his office
I wasted no time in blurting out the story of Dr. Schiffer and the driving lessons and the baby Mrs. Schiffer had just given
birth to and the arm around my waist and his tears. I felt some terror as I spoke; Dr. Farber's dour expression was not encouraging.
He heard me out without interruption, though, and when I was finished he agreed it would be impossible for me to continue
in therapy with Dr. Schiffer. Which doctors on the staff would I consider compatible? I didn't really know, I said.
They seemed kind of indistinguishable from one another. Would he, Dr. Farber, take me on as a patient? No, he said;
his docket was already full. We sat in silence for a few minutes.
Next Dr. Farber startled me by asking what I thought of Washington, D.C. He
had just come from there, he said, and he had noticed a Washington address in my file. I stalled, floundered. What could this
question mean? Finally I said that I liked Washington, although it was kind of a weird city. He nodded gravely. It is kind
of weird, and I like it too, he said. He added that he was having some trouble adjusting to Stockbridge. Did anybody actually
work around here, or were the townspeople all models for Norman Rockwell? I laughed explosively. A joke!
We went on to talk about other subjects. Poetry: did I like John Crowe Ransom,
a special enthusiasm of his? Yes, I did, I replied, although I had never read or heard of John Crowe Ransom. Dr. Farber stubbed
out his Camel and propelled himself headlong out of his chair so abruptly that for a moment I feared he was having a seizure.
He rummaged in one of the cardboard boxes that surrounded his desk— he was still unpacking his library and drew out
a book. He tossed it to me, and I caught it two handed. Take it, he said. You can return it when you come back to talk to
me next week. He moved to the door and opened it. What about therapy? I asked, rising from my seat. Do without therapy for
a while, he said, ushering me out. Just come back next week and we'll talk.
My father was understandably outraged when he learned that I had gone without
therapy for three weeks. Just talking, he shouted over the phone, at eighty dollars a day? Just chatting? He handed the receiver
to my mother.
I read the Ransom anxiously, preparing myself to be quizzed, but when I awkwardly
got out of my chair to give back the book even the simplest physical transactions between patient and therapist made .me self
conscious—Dr. Farber took it, opened and leafed through it, reading passages aloud in his fine deep voice, smiling,
shaking his head in confounded admiration. "The curse of hell upon the sleek upstart," he read,
That got the Captain finally on his back
And took the red red vitals of his heart
And made the kites to whet their beaks clack clack.
(I copy these lines from the same Vintage paperback Dr. Farber threw at me
twenty six years ago, one of many books he loaned me which I never returned.) Involuntarily, in a burst of delight, I clapped
my hands and repeated "clack clack." I blushed. Dr. Farber smiled his odd, wounded smile and we lapsed into a long, for me
unnerving, appreciative silence.
I was desperately eager to please Dr. Farber, but the open-endedness
of our arrangement made me so anxious that my conversational timing thrown off. I sensed that he was wavering in his refusal
to see me as a patient, that I was being auditioned, and the more urgently I wished to pass this obscure test, the more clumsy
and aggressive my efforts to win him became. Too shy and fearful of rejection to plead, I sometimes
veered off into truculence, imposed my own attention demanding silences. I wanted to talk about Dr. Schiffer, my parents,
myself. So we talked about these things, but in a novel kind of way. I told him the particulars of the mess that had precipitated
my suicidal gesture the boyfriend and his mother, the train ride from Indianapolis to Washington when I lay in a roomette
and wept myself sick. And instead of inviting me to continue with a receptively neutral psychoanalytic silence, he forthrightly
responded with an anecdote from his own life. He told me about the breakup of his first marriage, the car trip he took from
San Francisco to New York, driving for eighteen hours a day and collapsing in roadside motels for six. I hung on these stories,
these amazing offerings, but when they ended I lapsed into panic. What now? How was I to respond? And could any response be
adequate? I wanted to lift Dr. Farber's confidences out of the hour, out of their contextual bedding, and take them home with
me to gnaw on in private, extract all the nourishment to be had from them.
Did I like Joanne Woodward? This one came from way out in leftfield. Did I?
I asked myself, and rummaged frantically in the underused opinion forming sector of my mind. Finding no ready made response
I asked myself what movies I had seen in which Joanne Woodward appeared. I knew I'd seen some, but my memory was clouded and
roiled with anxiety. I called up an image of Joanne Woodward's face. "Yes," I said, "It's her face
I like. It's plain and handsome at the same time. It's very direct." Yes, said Dr. Farber, with gratifying emphasis. That's
the thing about her, all right. And we went on to talk about Joanne Woodward movies, a few of which, now that I had relaxed,
bobbed up naturally onto the surface of my recollection.
Thus does the despairer appear before us to ask that most extraordinary and
truly diabolical question especially when addressed to a psychotherapist—"is there any good in talking?" After this,
we may recover our composure and succeed in engaging him imaginatively, so that real talk, does, after all, begin to come
about. Despite his absolute certainty of a few moments before that even momentary relief from the torment of despair was no
longer possible, his despairing self absorption may yield to forthright interest in the subject at hand, a yielding which
goes beyond mere distraction. Relief has, in spite of everything, actually been granted him; his despairing certainty has
been exposed to the real world of discourse and proved false. We might even say that a minor miracle
has occurred. What are we to answer then, when, as the hour nears its end, our patient or friend, preparing to take his leave,
turns to us and asks, "But haven't you something useful to say to me something I can use after I leave here?" If there is
an answer to this question, it has not occurred to me.
This passage comes from Dr. Farber's essay "Despair and the Life of Suicide,"
and it describes exactly the experience of therapy or friendship; for him the two were inseparable with Dr. Farber.
"The real world of discourse": this is where we are all free to live when we live outside of systems, but I had lived
inside one for a long time. Years of psychotherapy (I started at age eleven) had made me smoothly
practiced at collapsing into my components, exposing them for convenient inspection on cue. I had learned to "assume the position"
so automatically that Dr. Farber's requirement that I come to our talks as pulled together as possible ready to exercise judgment,
to make distinctions, to listen and respond, to view myself first as a moral and then a psychological being, most importantly,
to tell the truth; the high value he placed on tact, empathy, intellectual substance, wit all this bewildered me at first.
It bewildered me later too. In fact, it bewilders me now all over again, having lived for nearly fifteen years after Dr. Farber's
death in a culture that has become saturated with therapy, in a world which has become a hospital.
The patient or friend in this passage is in despair, for Dr. Farber a very
specific state, which he vividly describes and carefully documents as a drastic spiritual condition which presents its sufferer
with an opportunity for redemption (not recovery) at the same time that it provides "fertile soil" for the "intrigues of suicide."
What bothers me when I read this passage is a nagging sense that I never was the patient or friend of whom Dr. Farber speaks
here. "[D]espair seems to afflict only those whose relation to life is a serious and potentially responsible one," he remarks
later in his essay. While I hope I was "potentially responsible," I don't believe I was "serious"
in the way that Dr. Farber's hypothetical friend was serious. Despair was not my condition; neediness was. In fact, from my
perspective now, in middle age, the story of my attachment to Dr. Farber would seem more likely drawn from the annals of Primatology
than from Philosophy or Theology (the latter, really, was Dr. Farber's stomping ground.) It seems plain to me now that while
I felt the purest and most ardent admiration for him that I had ever felt for anybody, I was also an unprotected young female
trying to find refuge in the care of a "silverback," a dominant male.
Dr. Farber was extremely sedentary; his idea of exercise was to fumble energetically
for his lighter when it fell between the cushions of his red leather chair. Now that they had moved to the country, his wife
persuaded him to buy a bike and ride it to Riggs in the morning. He fell off the bicycle almost immediately, cracked a rib
and broke an arm.
He sat uncomfortably upright, twisted to shield his injured right side from
collisions with the arm of his chair, lighting his innumerable cigarettes one handedly. He looked miserable. After a few minutes
of halting monologue I reverted to the politeness I had been taught in early childhood and suggested he go home. He thanked
me, and we broke the session off.
The next week he greeted me with warmth. His arm was still in a sling, but
he looked much better. At the end of the hour he announced almost casually that a space had opened up and he would, after
all, be able to take me on as a patient.
Dr. Farber insisted that I have a final, civil talk with Dr. Schiffer. I protested
that I was too angry at Dr. Schiffer to speak to him. Dr. Farber suggested that I consider the connection between guilt and
anger. I countered with genuine indignation that Dr. Schiffer was far more guilty than I. Dr. Farber allowed that, and observed
that the greater guilt did not completely mitigate the lesser. I made the appointment and spent an hour with Dr. Schiffer,
the details of which I can't remember. I think he cried, and I do remember walking into his office with the sullen air of
a child forced by adults to apologize. Now I want to say to my former self: you didn't need to apologize, you dolt! You needed
to ask to see the baby pictures, and to say goodbye.
I had come to view guilt as a noxious psychic by product, something to be gotten
rid of in the interests of health. It took me a while to grasp that Dr. Farber's idea was different: for him guilt was a state
which must be acknowledged and, only if possible, expiated. Farber believed that people have real moral claims on one another,
and that a full honoring of each of these claims is always impossible. Guilt— some of it a permanent burden—is
thus inevitable. For Dr. Farber, guilt was a moral, not a psychological, category.
Dr. Farber's attitude toward me was never the "unconditional positive regard"
with which therapists are charged to view their patients. His regard was highly qualified and partial, and it was as real
I studied for and passed my G.E.D. certification. I took a few night classes
at the local community college. I began to read again, mostly books loaned to me by Dr. Farber—Goncharov's Oblomov (appropriate
for me,) Martin Buber's I and Thou, which I still fail to appreciate, poems by Randall Jarrell and Phillip Larkin. I got a
summer job in the kitchen of a summer camp."Girl, we've got to teach you to work" said the cook, and I quit after a few weeks.
I also began to get myself in trouble with alcohol and bad companions. When
night fell we could be found at the Stockbridge Inn, known to regulars as Simmy's, drinking beer and waiting to be picked
up. Simmy's was full of local characters, pool players laid off from their jobs at G.E., reprobates thrown out of their houses
by their wives, glumly stewing at the bar, low life freeriders on the sexual revolution, buying us drinks and dragging a carpe
I became promiscuous, and I confessed my promiscuity to Dr. Far I think I told
him about every encounter. His response was surprisingly muted. Again? he would say. Once he called me a "female jerk." He
got truly angry only when the man in question was married.
Why did I behave like this? I can think of psychoanalytic explanations: perhaps
I was "acting out" the unconscious feelings that Dr. Schiffer's seductiveness had aroused in me, or, more likely, punishing
myself for having rejected him and having won Dr. Farber as a protector. I can think of obvious explanations: I was bored,
and getting picked up was fun.
I tried out my hypotheses on Dr. Farber. His response was to cut me off. "I'm
not interested in that," he would say. His approach, as always, seemed to steer a slalom course around the causal markers
I had put in place. Instead he turned the discussion to my drinking, and drinking in general. We talked about the coarsening
of feeling, the blurring of distinctions and the deadening of thought that habitual drunkenness brings about. He also talked
about the joy of another kind of non habituated drinking. Stop the bad kind of drinking, he advised me, so that you can regain
the good kind. You were meant, he told me during one of those talks, for the conscious life.
I carry that around with me still, and also the "female jerk" remark. One negative,
one positive, they were both his gifts of confirmation.
Then I got pregnant, not by one of my Simmy's pick ups, but as a re encounter
of a brief re encounter with another patient who had been my boyfriend for a summer.
I had skipped a period, felt sick in the mornings, but I refused to acknowledge
my condition until one of the nurses, a local woman with a pungent sense of humor, whacked me on the rear as I stood serving
myself in the Riggs dining room and made some remark about eating for two. Then I panicked.
A Pittsfield gynecologist confirmed my condition. There
are certain circumstances in which bringing a pregnancy to term may not be bad, he told me. Do what you can do on your own,
and call me in two weeks if you haven't had any luck. Perhaps they can help you at Riggs. I wonder now why I didn't take this
as a veiled and provisional assurance that he would give me an abortion (then illegal.) That was surely what he meant. Instead,
I put emphasis on his instruction to "do what I could."
When Dr. Farber asked me if I wanted my parents told I said no. I did tell
two of my in patient friends about the pregnancy, though, and soon everybody knew. The Director barged into Dr. Farber's office
and demanded that my parents be called immediately. The institution would be liable, he insisted, for anything that happened
to me. He picked up the phone receiver. Dr. Farber grabbed it away from the Director, he later told me, and a physical struggle
ensued. The image of a wrestling match between that aging Mutt and Jeff pair seems hilarious to me
now, and Dr. Farber's part in it heroic.
Dr. Farber reported to me that the Director had suggested a therapeutic abortion.
This would require Dr. Farber's assent, and his signature on a document attesting to my unfitness to bear and raise a child.
Dr. Farber explained his refusal carefully; he could not arrange the abortion because he could not agree with such a statement.
I nodded, barely listening. He had raised my hopes and dashed them, but I felt no resentment, no reaction except an acceleration
I spent a week on the phone, following leads, being scolded long distance by
abortion activists for my past failure to get involved in the issue. Finally I was instructed to dial a New York number, to
wait until the phone was picked up and to give my number and area code to the silent person at the end of the line, then to
wait for a call. I followed these instructions; the phone rang and a deep, emphysematous male voice told me to be at the Port
Authority bus terminal, standing by the third phone booth at the forty second street entrance, carrying six hundred dollars
in cash at a certain time and date the following week.
I got the money from the ex boyfriend, and the two friends in whom I had confided
drove me to New York. I waited at the designated place until I was approached by a little man in a green suede feathered cap,
who beckoned me out of the terminal and into the back of a, limousine, where I was soon joined by an engaged couple from Teaneck. We were all blindfolded and driven to some place in the Bronx (my friends,
I learned later, were following in their car). I waited in the parked limousine while the couple were ushered into a building. They emerged a half hour later, the girl walking a little unsteadily, the boy shielding her solicitously
with his arm.
Then it was my turn to follow the little man up the back stairs, to shake hands
solemnly with "Dr.Adams," to lie down on my back on the linoleum table in a kitchen furnished as sparely as a stage set while
five or six radios blared, all tuned to different stations, a crude wall of sound. It was over soon, and I was given pads
and an envelope full of antibiotics, and allowed to go.
I was delighted to see my friends waiting for me at the end of the block, waving
and jumping. They had spent the time eating a late lunch at a nearby Chinese restaurant, and they had saved me an eggroll.
Later that evening I stood dialing Dr. Farber's Stockbridge number, up to my
wobbly ankles in sawdust in the back of a West Village bar and steakhouse, full of Brandy Alexanders and Demerol. Dr. Farber's
wife answered and handed the phone immediately to Dr. Farber. "You're all right?" he said. I heard
his wife whisper "Thank God!" in the background. Years later, when I got to know her well, she told
me that Dr. Farber had spent hours that day in acute anxiety, pacing back and forth in his study.
I launched into a description of my experience, but he cut me off "Tell me
later. You really feel all right?" I feel fine I said, and I did. I was celebrating my passage through
a rite; my friends were treating me with respect and solicitude; the adventure had ended safely and I was high as a kite.
At the end of the conversation I said something like "You're really a great guy!" or perhaps "I love you!" I don't remember.
Many of the things Dr. Farber said have acted on me much later with a "time
release" effect. Only a few years ago, some time after Dr. Farber's death, I realized what Dr. Farber meant by his refusal
to endorse a therapeutic abortion for me. At the time I had dismissed it, if I thought about it at all, as adult boilerplate,
the kind of carefully worded refusal every adolescent recognizes. Now I realized, he really meant it. Let me put it another
way; he did not refuse to sign this statement because of a legalistic moral scrupulousness (i.e., he could not say that I
would not turn out to be a fit parent.) He refused to sign it because he believed I was able, even then, to bear and raise
Living in the world has been hard enough for me without the complication of
what then was called an illegitimate child. I'm retrospectively relieved that I had an abortion. I cannot imagine myself in
one of my many chaotic apartments, feeding and rocking and changing a baby. Apparently Dr. Farber could, though, and perhaps
he was right. But whether or not he was right doesn't matter; what does is his faith in me, which took me some twenty years
to appreciate, or perhaps to accept.
Was Dr. Farber acting out of an anti abortion agenda? He was, after all, a
religious man, a private and non observant but passionate believer. Was his refusal to endorse a therapeutic
abortion an attempt to influence me? No. He was an anti ideologue, and no manipulator. He took the crisis of my pregnancy
far more seriously than I did; he understood it as a true dilemma, and he showed a respect for me which I perhaps did not
deserve by allowing it to be mine.
Have I found myself, now that I am older and the mother of a living child,
capable of guilt about that abortion? Not really. I find I can't ad very far along the path of speculation about alternative
fates for that dead fetus who would now be twenty five without backing up in confusion. The voice of the conceptus is too
faint, too garbled and muted by the distance of time and the crosscutting static of possibility for me to hear it clearly.
He is no more apparent to me than Dr. Farber's God.
I am just as needy now as then. But perhaps by now I've also be come the serious
friend—the despairer—of whom Dr. Farber wrote. This is the question that continues to haunt me: what would Dr.
Farber make of me now? How would he judge the person I've become?
My third staff conference came and went. "They made
you sound like a little machine," Dr. Farber reported, "a little machine that could barely make it
to the bathroom."
Things were jumping at the Inn under the new regime, plenty of upsets, angry
contention in the community meetings. Dr. Farber waved it all away with a gesture of disgust. For the most part, it didn't
interest him. He was an enthusiastic gossip, though, and sometimes he would find some piece of exhibitionistic lunacy diverting.
He loved the story about the patient (the same one who laid eggs in the hallway) who shaved his head bald except for one sideburn
and then felt so delighted with himself that he jumped up and down on his bed until it collapsed.
Dr. Farber began to complain about Stockbridge. I hate this place, he said.
I hate this goddamned maple sugar Norman Rockwell tourist infested place where you can't find a decent corned beef sandwich.
He announced that he was moving to New York, where he would set up a private practice and continue his writing.
"If you don't believe I'm going," he said, quoting some old blues lyric, "just
count the days I'm gone."
You're welcome to come along, he told me. Or perhaps that was my idea. At any rate, all three of us who were his patients at Riggs packed up and followed him to New York, as
if on a dare. He beckoned, and we were sprung.