“The only time you’re truly safe from harm is when you’re dead.”
I’ve decided to keep my Christmas lights on in my new apartment year-round, a choice denied me during my staycation with Joe, a “relationship” where my job was to keep Mr. Happy happy come hell or highwater, and parrot the parrot, gold chains encircling his hairy, hirsute, weight-lifting neck. Overeducated, depressed, and anemic from years of veganism, if I had a choice, while dating Joe, to leave or, if staying, change, I wasn’t aware of it at the time, having spent my childhood watching my parents (it went both ways) engage in spousal battery and then, after my bachelors’ degree, seeking shelter in what turned out to be a bomb shelter with its own torture arsenal: higher education and loan predation, enslaving would-be intelligentsia to federal and private lenders for life.
After working, in my twenties, as a cleaning woman, barista, and hostess upon receiving a BFA in dance, I fell down the rabbit hole of psychology. I might have been broke as a dancer, participating in various troupes and helping stitch together funding for travel, but at least I had a body. Within a year of grad school, I had learned my last dance: that of necromancy, with my own insensate corpse. Speeding down the path of materialist determinism, I decided to continue rather than quit, receiving, seven years later, a piece of paper declaring me to be a snake handler of and pill-pusher for the maladies, compulsions, and nightmares, of the unconscious mind.
“More useful to society than asking $20 in admission to watch you stomp on a stage!” my mother said over brunch, the day I announced my decision to wall myself within the academy in pursuit of my PhD. She had a point: at the time, I was into Martha Graham-based modern techniques, her "Primitive Mysteries” set combining her interest in the religious rites of American Indians and other pagan and Catholic ceremonies. My last (donation only) performance included a flame-thrower and a woman who paced the stage carrying a detached door on her back.
“What was that about,” an audience member asked me after the performance, titled “Interior Castle,” based on the ecstatic visions of St. Teresa of Avila. I drank deeply from my plastic champagne flute, containing a dribble of all we could afford to serve (Barefoot Pink Moscato).
“It’s a metaphor for metaphor,” I said, with confidence. “You know, debt.”
The plan, in transitioning from body to mind mechanics: in learning how to more expertly “interpret” dreams, in language rather than gesture, I could afford to buy a condo, read rather than waitress at night, vacation in Napa Valley, get twice-monthly massages, and finally relax.
The reality: more poverty, “added value” of chronic misery thrown in as a boobie prize.
All my lovers, during grad school, were phantom lovers, in books, and my long-harbored illusions of success or financial stability, fitting the DSM-V rubric of grandiosity, were now seeming impossible: the market was collapsing like a 100-story modernist building falling to pieces on the cement—the only reliable construction material, other than dirt and clay, left.
Then I met Joe, during my fifth year, during clinical rotation, at a Halloween party. I was dressed as Cleopatra, he as Jason, from Friday the 14th. Costumery: destiny?
Initially I was charmed into believing he was different than most men I’d known: potty-trained dogs, polite in public, barbaric tyrants in private, intent on lording over their prized possession, after the Homestead (Homemaker) Act: a half-acre to hoe potatoes. Post-agrarian translation: a remote-control bitch with a nice ass and mad skillz in the kitchen and bedroom.
We moved in together after six months: 12 months of slow declension into a living hell followed. Two weeks after graduating from Loyola, the bubble of hope in the good-white-men-exist theory popped, I broke up with Joe, and moved out on my own.
Within two months of independent living, living off the last of my loans and bartending tips, I’d found a job, as psychologist in a small office with five other clinicians. In the two weeks before starting, I spoke to no one except service personnel, spending mornings on the phone with RCN, Com Ed, and Chase Bank reps, 1-800 operators, and handymen. While it’s déclassé to speak of money, and labor, and the means to acquire either, lest our tone shift from fake largesse to actual desperation, I had a few hundred dollars saved which allowed me to purchase these goods and services and DAMN if it wasn’t the cheapest of thrills to pay someone to meet my needs and desires for internet connectivity, a room with a locked door, and a bed, and pretend they cared, for a change! These hardy, indefatigable servicemen and women were, or were paid to pretend to be, to quote Maya Angelou, booted and brave and trembling for me—the citizen-consumer, the client, the Heidi Fleiss of the market brothel. I was their guest, putting Disney to the test, and after the initial spurt of delight in the power money wields (bullshit walks, and that’s all I’d ever done, or been), I again desired to make love with humanity: to talk instead of mutter with my clients, clinging, like Milton in Office Space, to their phallic fetish: the stapler, occupational or social stability, the past.
I’d grown terribly protective of my own ventriloquist act—a disembodied voice speaking through a puppet body. The public thinks they are entitled any nameless object (me) and won’t get their grubby hands off my corporatized (tagged and branded in the imperialist, poaching, and capitalist senses) body, the electric grid of my mainframe, because, on a good day, I am money. Remember that song Detachable Penis? In choosing jouissance over partner relations, hetero- or same-sex, and the inadmissibility of female sexuality, I have acquired one of those.
What’s your name? Talk to the hand. Wait, I no longer have hands.
Talk to the price tag, on my diamond ring. Wait, I don’t have . . .
Talk to the PLU on my human capital, market-ready hot bod! Score.
I wasn’t an elephant: I couldn’t keep dragging the bones of those who hadn’t, or wouldn’t, survive, along behind me, in a faux-meritocracy where only the insane prevailed. I’d tried everything, from raw food diets to Ashram retreats to Catholic self-flagellation to shock therapy, only to return to the cold, hard, facts: I was a poor, white woman shackled, in purgatory.
Heaven: gainful employment, insulation from rape culture, and three meals a day.
It was at this time I decided to return to performance. I’d been eyeing dance studios and contact improve groups for months. Finally, rationalizing it as a professional development expense, I signed up for a ten-pack of classes in advanced ballet at Oh!, a studio near my apartment.
The five 30- and 40-something shrinks at my office firm resembled an Aetna commercial: one Caucasian (me) one Asian, one African-American, one Hispanic, and one LGTG woman undergoing a sex change. I painted the walls of my office a warm shade of pumpkin, hung my $85k diploma beside the door and got down to the dirty work of recruiting.
My first client, however, was hand delivered, to me.
Stan was referred to me by Lisa, another Chicago psychologist not in his insurance network. Stan, she explained, had a speech pathology (Roman Jakobson’s contiguity disorder? I jotted down on my notepad), or mutism: either way, he preferred to conduct therapy online rather than in person. My job was to create a safe environment for Stan’s revelations, yet virtually: no cresting waves white noise machines, aloe plants, Persian rugs, or phallic curios from my travels lining my well-stocked bookshelves to symbolize my cosmopolitan professionalism, soothe his neurotic ego, or lubricate our initially awkward sessions.
“Sounds fascinating,” I said. It’s a seller’s market in the first year of any business venture.
After my first email exchange with Stan, we arranged a schedule for email exchange and time spent together, simulating realtime in gmail chat. Fascinated by case studies of aphasics, language development and acquisition, and PTSD, as well as skeptical of technocracy, I found the votility of our dyad and his presented symptomatology exciting, believing as I did that all trauma stems from the trauma of exchanging, literally or figuratively, womb for world, symbolic for the real, and coming into, after the cut with the dream, the law of the father. On a more practical level I had begun repayment on my student loans: thus, for reasons personal, theoretical, and existential, I was looking forward to beginning “treatment” with Stan.
Many patients exhibiting anti-social behavior or, on the far extreme, loss of speech, resort to gesture, or text. I grew excited: our work would mirror the progress in the Amy Hempel short story “In the Cemetery Where Al Johnson is Buried” wherein the chimp, in adoration of her offspring, signs “Baby, drink milk,” “Baby, play ball,” and then, after the baby chimp dies, “Baby, come hug,” in despair, without the death of the baby, of course. Symbolic communication, with my bachelor’s degree in cognitive linguistics, was my forte: I should have been a matador! I would wave my semaphore flag, he his: we’d skate right past the danger zone of transference and countertransference by keeping our relationship virtual, lacking the erotic element of play, gesture, gaze, and the communicative grain, as Roland Barthes said, of the voice.
Therapy with Stan began at 9am that Monday. Eager to get a little salvo going, however formally, I typed into the chat box: “Stan, can you tell me why you’re seeking a therapeutic alliance at this time?” I strove to match my diction with my tone (upbeat professional neutrality).
Within seconds, carried by the fleet feet of Hermes (king of the cyber networks) came his reply: “Deliver me from evil. Evil as defined by myself.”
Clearly, I needed to determine whether, for Stan, “evil” was a paranoiac psychosis (fears of persecution, surveillance), or a malapropism for bad luck.
I flexed my fingers and typed: “Is there a particular person in your life wishing you harm?”
“What has she done?”
“She wants a divorce.”
“Is divorce evil?”
“No one says no to me.”
“So, you wish to punish her, or, by leaving you, you feel punished by her?”
“Do you love her?”
“No. But I realize she is, objectively, a good catch.”
“Do you think she owes you something—money, subservience, solace, sex?”
“Why else would I have married and put up with the bitch for eight years?”
A little more digging into the tangled roots of his Oedipal rage, and we called it a day.
I didn’t want to go home. Home: cold leftovers, a pile of bills and junk mail in my mailbox, and a strange waft of turpentine, plaster, and jungle curry, seeping from the walls. I kept my email browser open for an hour, glazing over Zappos shoes, e-invites, and facebook, before gathering my clothes for my first ballet class, after work.
Upon arriving, I changed, and slipped on the Capezio ballet slippers I’d bought online, grimacing at the capital investment ($54.23) I made for a dance form I hated. Only one woman in the class was on pointe (I had never advanced that far): I began stretching at the bar with the other woman in neutral beige and dusty rose leotards, hair pulled back into flawless buns. We were a Degas painting, “Dance Class at the Opera,” only well into our thirties, sans tutus, and missing the painting’s disappearing point (a chair).
A few girls murmured to each other while warming up, at the bar, and a sole prima donna already pinwheeling across the room, perfecting her jeté entrelacé. I had stopped attempting to befriend women, convinced that the only relations possible under capitalism were structured by envy, or tribalist competition for scarce resources, so stared into a corner, flexing my feet, alone. I was here for body conditioning, but most of the other women at least appeared to be professionals. The room was silent, sans music, the air laden with anticipation for the arrival of Ricardo Fernandez, our instructor, a member of the Joffrey Ballet, who, in time with the pianist, a mousy-looking woman in her fifties who, between songs, busied herself knitting a rainbow-colored skull cap, pounded out Tchaikovksy’s rhythms with his fist on his open hand.
I hated having to look at my unconditioned body in the mirror. During college, I danced or exercised for up to four hours a day, and now was lucky to make it to the gym three times a week. Having internalized the rules of immersion therapy in grad school, however (confronting rather than avoiding a fear) all too well, I was determined to stay until the class was over, and past that, until my class pack expired. Unluckily for me, I applied the rule of immersion therapy to any stimulus that scared, repulsed, or even bored me: how then to distinguish courage from masochism? My as-yet-written autobiography’s title: Beyond the Pleasure Principle: Purposeless Suffering, or Moral Fortitude?
I’d studied Erickson’s stages of psychosocial development, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Freudian drives and (oral, anal) fixations, and was, to be blunt, done. Especially after Joe, and Stan: psychotic muppets dominated by the death drive and a desire to control nature—theirs and others’.
I kept up with ballet, practicing my battement tendu jetés, cabrioles, and pas de bourrée, with the other silhouettes of women in the class, striving with every tendon in their bodies to elicit a “brava!” from Ricardo. The pianist, by the grace of god, had finally given T-bone (as I privately referred to Tchaikovsky) a rest, and started playing excerpts from Léo Delibes’ opera Lakmé.
In the evenings, I began reading performance theory: Jerzy Grotowski’s theater laboratory, the proletarian mass dance, the chorus line of the Ziegfeld Follies, Martha Graham, the dance movement of the proletarian avant-garde, African-American “ethnic” opera-ballet, Lincoln Kirstein's “American” ballet. Upon seeing a color photograph of Isadora Duncan, persecuted for her pro-Soviet sympathies, who believed movement originated from the solar plexus, dancing Oedipus Rex at the Century Theatre at West 60th Street and Central Park West in 1914, I set the book down, leaned back, and smiled. I had nothing to lose, and nothing to gain, but death!
My scholarly research had focused on Kleinian play theory, Lacan’s mirror stage (modeling being the basis of many other disciplines, from pedagogy to engineering to math), schizoid splitting and other-objectification (“bad object”), Kristeva’s good/bad breasts and Winnicott’s good enough mother, and during clinical rotation, I’d worked mostly with traumatized children and addicts.
I solidified a therapeutic “approach” for marketing that month with a clinical practice blurb on my website. Remembering to make it punchy, inviting (tea and cookies provided at no extra cost!), and succinct, I settled on emphasizing the cultivation of “A Warm and Nonjudgmental Atmosphere; A Focus on Relationships; Identification and Development of Coping Skills; and Recognition That Social Exclusion and Disempowerment Can Affect Well-Being,” promoting identity-based experiences to compensate for the damaging experiences of racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression impacting the client’s sense of herself (along with bad luck, and poverty).
Work with Stan was at a standstill: his last two emails were evasive and nasty, and our sessions were routinely ending after twenty minutes, rather than 50. As I had only two more clients on the books (an autistic teenager, Sarah, yet with no savant talents: boooring) and a middle-aged woman, Lenora, divorcing her truck-driving husband after finding evidence he’d picked up at least two hookers on the road, I decided to make the most of this dead time by turning my work with Stan into a clinical research paper on attachment theory and its bifurcations when attempted through cyberspace, without the affective non-quantifiable aspects of clinical practice and communication (tone, eye contact, gesture).
The American Psychological Association, driven to understand the causality of mental illness and categorize hysterics into groups (psychotic, avoidant), as tested in placebo, double-blind studies, revealed the whole diagnostic and treatment structure of mental illness to be, in my professional opinion, smoke and mirrors: men doubling up their phallic lack by projecting their inexistence onto the mother-mirror of the purchasable wife. When she cracked after a decade of isolation, bearing children while doubling as ego-masseuse, sex worker, and domestic slave, she was, a century ago, granted a hysterectomy or bed rest: today, she also had a full-time job outside the home and received, if insured, a lobotomy (Zoloft) and mani-pedi, before getting back on the hamster wheel.
Add rape, coercion, violence, blame, and silencing: the female condition, since 2000 B.C.E!
I stayed up late that night, watching Hulu. At 2am I chanced across Heather Hansen’s live performance “Emptied Gestures” in which she attempted to mark space smearing black ink on the floor with her body: a human Rorschach smear. How else to signify existence without language?
Stan warmed up after his last IM chat, in which he told me I was a frigid bitch and I told him I had zero tolerance for hate speech. Contrite, he wrote back the following day to ask for a reading list. I suggested Eros and Civilization by Marcuse, Norman O. Brown's Life Against Death, Philip Rieff's Freud: The Mind of the Moralist, Paul Goodman's Growing Up Absurd, Paul Ricœur's Freud and Philosophy, and Jürgen Habermas's Knowledge and Human Interests, selected texts of Julia Kristeva, Melanie Klein, and Colette, and the films of vonne Rainer, Chantal Akerman, and Valie Export.
No emails from him for two weeks, except to say he’d be missing our “appointments.”
I continued to do my homework, reading Freud's writings on aphasia and the Wolfman, and case studies of feral children rehabilitated into society.
Three months into my private practice, I glanced over at my toilet while flossing: American Standard was the brand and manufacturing stamp. Ha. In order to make a post-industrial, post- Cold War come-back we first had to admit our country was a teeming pool of self-satisfied, consumerist barbarity, greed, ignorance, and sloth. The American Standard had replaced the Golden Standard as swiftly as the dollar (now fiat money) had gold currency.
Nothing left to do, but wait for the apocalypse, or happy hour, whichever comes first.
Stan and I continued apace, and I was enjoying work with new clients: Agnes, a kleptomaniac middle-aged divorcee, and Igor, a Russian, type-A, neurotic mortgage banker who cut his food into tiny pieces, before weighing it, and then chewing each mouthful for 40 seconds (he was terrified to cook for or dine out with his current girlfriend, Natasha, for good reason) and was obsessed with the Flagellants of the early Catholic church (sanctified by Catherine de' Medici and France's King Henry III) though himself skirmish of any bodily harm beyond that of a paper cut.
“I like to meditate on the crucifixion, and the Stations of the Cross,” he told me. “And Jesus’ emotional suffering, especially that chapter where it just says, ‘Jesus wept.’”
“Damn! You know your bible.”
“Ten years of Catholic schooling. No doubt conditioning me for the obedience required in grad school. I also find the story of Jesus interesting, particularly the figure of a persecuted, tortured man. Mary suffered too, from the Annunciation, to Joseph’s betrayal, to the foot of the cross, but it was Jesus who was stabbed through the hands and feet and left to bleed to death on a wooden beam, and that’s an interesting gender reversal, as women have a higher pain threshold than men, though the research on that is inconclusive, as complicated by reporting bias and accuracy. You can scale pain from 1-10, or quote Emily Dickinson’s descriptors of grief and agony, but really, if you’re histrionic, your “10” might be my “1,” and your annoyance, when someone cuts you off in traffic, might send you into a rage, whereas for someone else, or an animal, it might take decades of systemic violence and abuse before they even emit a perceptible moan. Endorphins dull pain in our nociceptors and produce the lubricant of analgesia: a little bonus from Nature, designed to keep us from dying in childbirth, and yet now, as many of us aren’t reproducing, and causing us to endure unthinkable working conditions and psychological harm, not protesting or questioning because we’ve been biologically designed to suffer, cope, and survive, with or without aspirin or an epidural.”
“I think about blood a lot,” he typed back. “Buckets of it, like in The Shining, or streaming from the bodies of the stupid hookers Christian Bale kills in American Psycho!”
I excused myself for a restroom break, and upon returning, suggested we end early (I’d adjust the pricing on his bill, as I had for the last two months). Stan agreed, asking me to give him, next time, a definition of deviance. The following week, I defined “non-normative” and maladaptive behavior for him with an example from literature, a higher rubric of modeling, as based on imagination and interpretation, than the faux-objectivity and provisional “facts” of science. Kurt Vonnegut, I explained, satirizes a society in which difference is deviant and punishable, and yet didn’t let the soul-crushing mediocrity of the US of A kill his sense of humor or intelligence.
We went on to discuss Bolshevik capitalism and state-capitalism of China, and the role of conformity and the status quo in shaping the conscience of a nation in relation to Vonnegut, who found the “lowest common denominator society” and other normative standardizations (Kinsey reports, ACT/SAT, hell, even the DSM-V) to be the worst after-effect of “the greater good” obviation of the individual, and personal excellence, under the banner of communism.
“Have you read Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron?” I asked. He hadn’t.
“The ballerina was the strongest and most graceful of the dancers, for her handicap bags were as big as those worn by two-hundred-pound men. She not only won, but killed it, for those of us who can appreciate what it means to not just overcome adversity, but Nazism.”
Stan1847 has signed out of chat the screen read. Whoops!
I fell asleep, delirious. Conducting this “relationship” online was a literalization of what was happening in species (de) volution: one phantom trying to reify the existence of the other, through assembly-line reduplication. Contemporary translation of Benjamin’s “A Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” wherein the work of art was the work of being, or becoming human, amid ghouls, vampires, aliens, marauders, charlatans, screaming babies, rapists, and thieves.
If there were no humans left, was nothing real, then, other than the commons (the airwaves on which David Mitchell’s character Zookeeper, in The Cloud Atlas, prophesized): the energy, or chi, that connected, via the butterfly effect, the waking dream of consciousness, self, other, and world?
The paper I’d began, in an attempt to theorize this experiment, had stalled between a section on how the internet evoked tribalist rituals of masks, totems, and split selves (bush souls), as a primitive origin to performance theory, flashing forward to the human genome project and robotics, and by our fourth month of therapy, I was losing hope. I’d set Stan’s therapeutic goals as an integrated social life outside work, the cultivation of romantic interests in real-life, not online, going cold turkey from snuff films and violent porn, but he was still spending most of our sessions elaborating his fantasies about world domination and seeking revenge on his soon-to-be ex-wife Susan by releasing home-videos of their BDSM sex-life, and dreams of strangling her to death, while maintaining a high degree of hostility toward me. He was eager, nonetheless, to gain insight—objectivity, even—into his own pathology, so I drilled him in the concepts of the fetish and transference (confusing actors in our life with parents or other significant others from our past).
“Serial killers often transfer unresolved rage toward previous love objects onto surrogates, or individuals resembling the original object of hate. Ted Bundy, for example,” I typed, between sips of coffee, “killed brunette women who reminded him of a previous girlfriend who dumped him.”
“I know you think I’m narcissistic,” he wrote back. “But I’m actually a really nice guy, who just wants to be complimented, massaged, and to have, or be shown, a good time.”
We’d sworn off emoticons, which was good, as all I could think of to say was @#$#&*$.
One good thing about online counseling, and, I imagine for teachers of MOOC and online courses, to say nothing of love-seekers on OK Cupid and other dating sites: virtual reality tunes not your eye, nor your ear, but, rather, forces you to “overread” textual cues in the quest to identify, and appropriately respond to, tone. In a classic case of overcompensation for a lack of stimulation to all five senses, by reducing faces to screens, and accented language to type, I’m convinced online users actually become blind and deaf to visual and aural forms of information and intelligence, to say nothing of social nuance: we ROTFL because our bodies have been emptied of brain.
By month five, I’d gathered enough client capital (six steady clients, a part-time gig at a pscyh ward for teens, and a weekend gig at a suicide hotline) to terminate therapy with Stan, whom I’d assessed as sociopathic and in need of intensive in-patient treatment or house arrest.
Before terminating therapy with Stan, I had lunch with Lisa, the psychologist who referred him to me. We chatted lightly over bruschetta and wine, before discussing Stan. I explained the situation calmly, as a psychotherapeutic experiment of sorts in medium, and while I couldn’t determine if it were the medium or the pairing of he and I that was causing the disconnect, I felt I’d reached the end of my use-value, with regard to our work, and was ready to give him another list of referrals, and encourage him to seek subsequent therapy in person.
Lisa, who had a Phd in educational psychology, approved of my decision. I then asked her how her own practice and research was going. “What interests you most about contemporary psychology, or do you believe it to be a dying profession, ego stroking for the elite and insured? That’s how I feel on my worst days, when the CBT model just seems like a recapitulation of arguments for the chicken and egg conundrum of Grecian causality and Western metaphysics. What’s the point of acting your way into new behavior, if what we really need is to realize what we’re calling ‘thinking’ is in fact the siphoning of cognition and emotion by the incessant cloning machine of post-industrial capitalism?”
She waved her fork. “You’re overthinking it. CBT is just a way for people to adapt to hell successfully. I’m working on contemporizing the pain avoidance/pleasure seeking model, using Pavlov’s theory of operant and classical conditioning to argue that today’s version is “incentivization”—whereas so-called moral behavior was once incentivized by fear of God in the afterlife, and civic behavior, by a nationalist conception of self as a political agent, today it is incentivized by post-humanist market economics. Blog and tweet, or lose social reification—a quick death—and be ever-ready to serve the market, with your newest c.v. or bio line, or die a slow death, waiting in welfare lines and food pantries, begging for the means of subsistence.”
The waiter materialized. I smiled. Hell wasn’t his fault. “Just the check!”
“The eyes of god, to quote Zora Huston, are now the blinded Oedpial eyes of Big Brother, unrelenting because unable to see itself, unless mirrored and projected in the gaze of the other?” I asked, signing my name carefully when our split bill arrived.
“Thanks for referring Stan to me,” I said, upon parting. “It was a learning experience.”
What I failed to ask: could a lethal attraction, to a disturbed client, lead to love?
Walking home, my eyes smarted. Sane conversations with “like-minded individuals” in my field were a rarity. Other than the annual conference, 75% of which was devoted to networking, pharma-sales, and exchanging business cards, the opportunities to actual speak to other professional about the field, or engage in a non-binary conversation in which I wasn’t forced to play conductor, “good mother” or judge, were the 2-3 hours a year of my life I savored for the other 8,757.
I received a check for our last session one calendar week after explaining (via email, of course) my reasons for terminating treatment, and giving him a list of referrals. Two days later, while I was researching the latest research on the regaining of neuronal plasticity and situational flexibility after psychological trauma, my phone rang. It was Claudette, the front-desk manager.
“Your client, Stan, is here to see you.”
“Former client. What? Shit. No.” My mind raced. Should I call the police? “Can you tell him I am busy, and that he is not welcome in this building again?” Fuck! That wasn’t legalese, and didn’t contain an if/then causal threat. My professional training and APA membership wasn’t going to steer me through “borderline” situations such as these.
“Hold on, Claudette,” I said.
Reiki and yoga were expensive and time-consuming, but I finally was learning to access a form of instinctual knowledge not born of either social conditioning or conceptual thought. I did a body scan, and found, within thirty seconds, a very faint undergarment to the terror and anger: curiosity (could this misogynist monster be humanized?), admixed with (fatalistic) desire.
I sat up straight in my chair. This cretin wasn’t getting the best of me. And to top it off, the second he entered my office, my billable hour started ticking, while the police were en route.
“Let him in.”
There was a knock on my door. I opened it. There stood a handsome man in his 30s. How does one describe a face without reference to another, inwardly seen, face? I knew that face, knew the layers of its mien (shame, stubbornness) as it read my face, a closed book, or so I thought.
“I terminated our work together for professional reasons, as I explained clearly in the—”
“Come off it, Helen,” he said. “I came by to see if you wanted to get dinner.”
In the millisecond of intervening silence (all praise Catherine Clément’s syncope, Henri Bergson’s durée réelle, and Kierkegaard’s pause: we do have choices, despite all evidence to the contrary!) to contemplate my options, I realized this was a trap, an in-person e-vite to abandon caution and rush, headlong, into a disaster porn film: psychiatrist by day, confidentiality-breaching lawless lover of criminal men by night.
Still, it was good to see the Phantom of the Opera existed, in a body.
Sorry, Clyde, I thought. But you’ve got the wrong Bonnie.
“Excuse me for a moment,” I said. I buzzed Claudette. “Stan, my former client, needs an escort out of the building. Could you please call security?”
He glowered at me.
“Let me guess. Stan is not your real name?” The scene was playing out beautifully—the tempo was perfect—somewhere between Puccini’s Le Villi and Giodano’s Fedora. The blocking could be improved, though: he stood in the doorway, one arm poised on the doorframe, shooting for machismo menace and landing at mobster buffoonery. I recrossed my arms, realizing that what I loved about opera, and ballet, was the excuse not to think. All the roles and movements had been choreographed, for women (the reactor rather than the initiator), in advance: even the prima donnas (Marie Callas, Carmen, Melisande, Isolde, Elizabeth de Valois) followed rather than wrote the script or funded the production. When a female attempted to conduct: panic at the disco, no more memorably so than when Gina Rolands, in John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence, instructs the children in her care, while enacting Swan Lake, to “Die like a swan for Mr. Jensen,” another parent who arrives on the scene, horrified at the carnivalesque chaos that is, for bored housewife Mabel Longhetti—in an earlier scene she begs her husband’s co-worker to sing opera at a spaghetti dinner—the most exquisite of pleasures, because real.
Still. I saw promise, especially when his gaze drifted to my feet, the body part Freud erotitized. We never even got to Winnicott’s theory of transitional objects, I realized: the very origin of the fetish being the desire to turn the figure, whose absence and presence couldn’t be predicted, into an amalgam of parts, thralldom of the painter in Poe’s “The Oval Portrait.” Before the transitional phase, the child believes that his own wish creates the object of his desire (specifically the qualities of his mother that fulfill his needs), which brings with it a sense of satisfaction. During this phase the child gradually adapts to the (frustrating) realization that the object a. cannot be controlled to serve the child's needs, and b. contrary to popular fact, a woman is not an object, or a UFO, but a person, with agency and desires, often, if her life-instinct is intact, to escape from the hell that is invisibility in the eyes of (o.k., most) men.
Coulda Woulda Shoulda. I was done being punished as an object rendered “bad” because unable to satiate a man’s psychopatholgy that who you are or what you provide is “never good enough,” even in an role-play or institutional setting. The premise was flawed: I was a human being, not a machine, or derivate, recognizable only by my failure to approximate a Platonic ideal.
To be or not to be: what is the post-human, post-death, post-suicidal existential dilemma? To recharge one’s batteries or let the wind-up doll die? This therapeutic “experiment”—a disembodied sensory deprivation chamber of relationship, in language—had come to a close. Stan and I were either going to have to start dating, or never “see” each other again.
I also realized it wasn’t fair to lay the blame for all men on him—the imperative to “Die like a Swan for Mr. Jensen,” had, after all, multiple resonances, include the rape of Leda, and Du côté de chez Swann, by Proust (Swann’s Way), the story of Charles Swann's love affair with Odette de Crécy.
Armchair philosophers were right: the world exists to end up in a book, because books script, and create—from memory, and, out of the future, the known. And yet, need the body for inscription, as site, sense, and name: a well-turned ankle. A lingering scent (herbal, flowery, musky, redolent of linen, sweat, lilacs, hyacinth, or peppermint), olfactory attraction remaining the most powerful (because beyond language) of all forms of seduction. I had more research to conduct on the Frankenstein effect of other-consciousness: did I call him into being, or he, I? What is the human genome project other than a search for origins, and, once found, the reduplication of forms?
If my relationship with Stan was staged, upon his exit, all that would be left would be his top hat, as he is a ghost, waiting to be animated and loved not back, but into, being.
Tall order, for a man-hating therapist for whom calling our, let alone reporting to the police, a paying male client on deviant or psychopathological misogyny, after Alfred Kinsey and The Institute for Sex Research created a rubric for “normal” auto-erotic and other-seeking sex relations, now including culturally sanctioned (with safe words) practice of sadomasochism, disaster porn, and orgiastic killing sprees of prostitutes but wives, girlfriends, and strangers, would result in job loss. It’s all fun and games until someone gets slayed (or paid), and in the former case, their family isn’t likely to prosecute, and if they do, you can buy your freedom with a hotshot attorney, celebrating the escape clause from justice—cashola—afterwards with beers and brats!
Still. I hadn’t wanted to say no: I’d wanted to say yes. But unlike my unemployed and underemployed friends, tossed around the market by vampiric beasts like rag dolls, doomed to contingent labor and bad relationships because lacking leverage power, I had (however slim) choices, including that of self- and other-denial.
And if we’re still stuck in the gun-slinging Wild West (effete, criminal federal government playing cops, and greedy Wall Street pawns, the robbers) nothing left to do but finish the game.
“Get the fuck out of my office,” I said. I spoke with authority, because, however indebted, I had a job, and an office, and a website and business cards and a tax statement to prove it. Beet red, he turned around and left. Easy capitulation: interesting for a prize fighter, and a quiet dénouement to our scene. Maybe I would get in touch with him once my practice stabilized.
The animal science of chemistry and attraction: the ultimate symphonic composition, in harmony with the punctum of a well-turned (in the money) phrase.
Author of Vox Populi (forthcoming, Finishing Line Press), Virginia Konchan’s poetry and fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, the Believer, The New Republic, and StoryQuarterly among other places. Co-founder of Matter, a journal of poetry and political commentary, she lives in Montreal.
Souvenirs (the very word for memory, in French) are to me the objective correlative of the past- we need the remnant, the physical object, to convey our experiences to others and to preserve, without fetishizing, the self, sequential logic, and narrative time as more than mere chimera. Objects carry a karmic trace, and keep us in the market, exchanging goods and services, instead of, hopefully, human capital. After living in seven states and four countries, my erstwhile souvenir is a pocket-sized (travel-friendly) miniature: a glass-blown heart, forged through experience, pain, and baptisms of water and fire, given to me by my high-school best friend, Penelope.