Excerpts from Must Read Books & Articles on
Mental Health Topics
Articles- Part XXVIII
Man Goes to See a Doctor
Adam Gopnik, New Yorker- 8/23/1998
Lately, a lot of people in New York--why, I'm not entirely sure--have been sending me clippings about the decline and fall of psychoanalysis. Most of the reasons given for its disappearance make sense: people are happier, busier; the work done by the anti-Freudian skeptics has finally taken hold of the popular imagination, so that people have no time for analytic longueurs and no patience with its mystifications. Along with those decline-and-fall pieces, though, I've also been sent--and in this case I don't entirely want to know why--a lot of hair-raising pieces about mental illness and its new therapies: about depressions, disasters, hidden urges suddenly (or brazenly) confessed and how you can cure them all with medicine. Talking is out, taking is in. When I go back to New York, some of my friends seem to be layered with drugs, from the top down, like a pousse-cafe: Rogaine on top, then Prozac, then Xanax, then Viagra.... In this context, my own experience in being doctored for mental illness seems paltry and vaguely absurd, and yet, in its way, memorable.
I was on the receiving end of what must have been one of the last, and easily one of the most unsuccessful, psychoanalyses that have ever been attempted--one of the last times a German-born analyst, with a direct laying on of hands from Freud, spent forty-five minutes twice a week for six years discussing, in a small room on Park Avenue decorated with Motherwell posters, the problems of a "creative" New York neurotic. It may therefore be worth recalling, if only in the way that it would be interesting to hear the experiences of the last man mesmerized or the last man to be bled with leeches. Or the last man--and there must have been such a man as the sixteenth century drew to a close and the modern age began--to bring an alchemist a lump of lead in the sincere belief that he would take it home as gold.
So it happened that on a night in October, 1990, I found myself sitting in a chair and looking at the couch in the office of one of the oldest, most patriarchal, most impressive-looking psychoanalysts in New York. He had been recommended to me by another patient, a twenty-year veteran of his couch. The choice now presents itself of whether to introduce him by name or by pseudonym, a choice that is more one of decorum than of legal necessity (he's dead). To introduce him by name is, in a sense, to invade his privacy. On the other hand, not to introduce him by name is to allow him to disappear into the braid of literature in which he was caught--his patients liked to write about him, in masks, theirs and his--and from which, at the end, he was struggling to break free. He had, for instance, written a professional article about a well-known patient, in which the (let's say) playwright who had inspired the article was turned into a painter. He had then seen this article, and the disputes it engendered, transformed into an episode in one of the playwright's plays, with the playwright-painter now turned into a novelist, and then the entire pas de deux had been turned by a colleague into a further psychoanalytic study of the exchange, with the occupations altered yet again--the playwright-painter-novelist now becoming a poet--so that four layers of disguise (five, as I write this) gathered around one episode in his office. "Yes, but I received only one check was his bland response when I pointed this out to him.
His name, I'll say, was Max Grosskurth, and he had been practicing psychoanalysis for almost fifty years. He was a German Jew of a now vanishing type--not at all like the small, wise
cracking, scared Mitteleuropean Jews that I had grown up among. He was tall, commanding, humorless. He liked large, blooming shirts, dark suits, heavy handmade shoes, club ties. He had a limp, which, in the years when I knew him, became a two-legged stutter and then left him immobile, so that our last year of analysis took place in his apartment, around the corner from the office. His roster of patients was drawn almost exclusively from among what he liked to call creative people, chiefly writers and painters and composers, and he talked about them so freely that I sometimes half expected him to put up autographed glossies around the office, like the ones on the wall at the Stage Deli. ("Max--Thanks for the most terrific transference in Gotham! Lenny") When we began, he was eighty, and I had crossed thirty.
I've read that you're not supposed to notice anything in the analyst's office, but that first evening I noticed it all. There was the couch, a nice Charles Eames job. On one wall there was a Motherwell print--a quick ink jet--and, opposite, a framed poster of one of the Masaccio frescoes in Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence. I was instantly impressed. The two images seemed to position him (and me) between Italian humanism, in its first, rocky, realistic form, at one end, and postwar New York humanism, in its jumpy, anxiety-purging form, at the other. On a bookshelf beside him were nothing but bound volumes of a psychoanalytic journal, rising to the ceiling (He had edited that journal for a time. "Let me give you some counsel," he said to me much later. "Editing never means anything.")
He was lit by a single shaded bulb, just to his left, in that kind of standing brass lamp with a long arcing neck This put his face in a vaguely sinister half light, but, with his strong accent and the
sounds of traffic out on Park Avenue and a headlight occasionally sweeping across the room, the scene had a comforting European melancholia, as though directed by Pabst.
Why was I there? Nothing interesting: the usual mixture of hurt feelings, confusion, and incomprehension that comes to early-arriving writers when the thirties hit. John Updike once wrote that, though the newcomer imagines that literary New York will be like a choir of angels, in fact it is like the Raft of the Medusa--and he was wrong about this only in that the people on the Raft of the Medusa still have hope. In New York, the raft has been adrift now for years, centuries, and there's still no rescue boat in sight. The only thing left is to size up the others and wait for someone to become weak enough to eat.
I spilled out my troubles; told him of my sense of panic, anxiety; perhaps wept. He was silent for a minute--not a writer's minute, a real one, a long time. "Franz Marc was a draftsman of remarkable power," he said at last: the first words of my analysis. His voice was deep and powerful, uncannily like Henry Kissinger's: not quacky, pleading Viennese but booming, arrogant German.
The remark about Franz Marc was not quite apropos of nothing--he knew me to be an art critic--but very near. (Franz Marc was the less famous founder of the German Expressionist movement called Der Blaue Reiter; Kandinsky was the other.) He must have caught the alarmed look in my eyes, for he added, more softly, "There are many worthwhile unexplored subjects in modern art." Then he sat up in his chair--swallowed hard and pulled himself up--and for a moment I had a sense of just how aged he was.
"You put me in mind," he said--and suddenly there was nothing the least old in the snap and expansive authority of his voice--"you put me in mind of Norman Mailer at a similar age." (This was a reach, or raw flattery; there is nothing about me that would put anyone in mind of Norman Mailer.) "Barbary Shore,' he thought, would be the end of him. What a terrible, terrible, terrible book it is. It was a great blow to his narcissism. I recall clearly attending dinner parties in this period with my wife, an extremely witty woman, where everyone was mocking poor Norman. My wife, an extremely witty woman . . ." He looked at me as though, despite the repetition, I had denied it; I tried to look immensely amused, as though reports of Mrs. Grosskurth's wit had reached me in my crib. "Even my wife engaged in this banter. In the midst of it, however, I held my peace." He rustled in his chair, and now I saw why he had sat up: he suddenly became a stiff, living pillar, his hands held before him, palms up--a man holding his peace in the middle of banter flying around the dinner table. A rock of imperturbable serenity! He cautiously settled back in his chair. "Now, of course, Norman has shown great resourcefulness and is receiving extremely large advances for his genre studies of various American criminals."
From the six years of my analysis, or therapy, or whatever the hell it was, there are words that are as permanently etched in my brain as the words "E pluribus unum" are on the nickel. "Banter" and "genre studies" were the first two. I have never been so grateful for a mot juste as I was for the news that Mrs. Grosskurth had engaged in banter, and that Norman Mailer had made a resourceful turn toward genre studies. Banter, that was all it was: criticism, the essential competitive relations of writers in New York--all of it was banter, engaged in by extremely witty wives of analysts at dinner parties. And all you had to do was . . . refuse to engage in it! Hold your peace. Take no part! Like him--sit there like a rock and let it wash over you.
And then there was the wacky perfection of his description of the later Mailer, with its implications of knowing (not firsthand certainly; Mailer, as far as I know, had never been his patient) the inside story: he had, under stress, found appropriate genre subjects. American criminals. The whole speech, I thought, was so profound that it could be parsed and highlighted like one of those dog-eared assigned texts you find on the reserve shelf in undergraduate libraries: Artists suffered from narcissism, which made them susceptible to banter, which they could overcome by resourcefulness, which might lead them to--well, to take up genre studies. ("Genre studies," I was to discover, was Grosskurthese for "journalism." He often indulged in strangely Johnsonian periphrases: once, talking about Woody Allen, he remarked, "My wife, who was an extremely witty woman, was naturally curious to see such a celebrated wit. We saw him in a cabaret setting. I recall that he was reciting samples of his writings in a state of high anxiety." It took me days of figuring--what kind of reading had it been? a kind of Weimar tribute evening?--to realize that Dr. and Mrs. Grosskurth had gone to a night club and heard the comedian's monologue.)
I came away from that first session in a state of blissful suspended confusion. Surely this wasn't the way psychoanalysis was supposed to proceed. On the other hand, it was much more useful--and interesting, too--to hear that Norman Mailer had rebounded by writing genre studies than it was to hear that my family was weird, for that I knew already. I felt a giddy sense of relief, especially when he added, sardonically, "Your problems remind me of"--and here he named one of the heroes of the New York School. "Fortunately, you suffer neither from impotence nor alcoholism. That is in your favor." And that set the pattern of our twice- and sometimes thrice-weekly encounters for the next five years. He was touchy, prejudiced, opinionated, impatient, often bored, usually highhanded, brutally bigoted. I could never decide whether to sue for malpractice or fall to my knees in gratitude for such an original healer.
Our exchanges hardened into a routine. I would take the subway uptown at six-thirty; I would get out at Seventy-seventh Street, walk a couple of blocks uptown, and enter his little office, at the corner of Park Avenue, where I would join three or four people sitting on a bench. Then the door opened, another neurotic--sometimes a well-known neurotic, who looked as though he wanted to hide his face with his coat, like an indicted stockbroker--came out, and I went in. There was the smell of the air-conditioner.
"So," he would say. "How are you?"
"Terrible," I would say, sometimes sincerely, sometimes to play along.
"I expected no less," he would say, and then I would begin to stumble out the previous three or four days' problems, worries, gossip. He would clear his throat and begin a monologue, a kind of roundabout discussion of major twentieth-century figures (Freud, Einstein, and, above all, Thomas Mann were his touchstones), broken confidences of the confessional, episodes from his own life, finally snaking around to an abrupt "So you see... " and some thunderously obvious maxim, which he would apply to my problems--or, rather, to the nonexistence of my problems, compared with real problems, of which he'd heard a few, you should have been here then.
For instance: I raised, as a problem, my difficulty in finishing my book, in writing without a deadline. I raised it at length, circuitously, with emotion. He cleared his throat. "It is commonplace
among writers to need extreme arousal. For instance, Martin Buber." I riffled through my card catalogue: wasn't he the theologian? "He kept pornography on the lecture stand with him, in order to excite him to a greater performance as a lecturer. He would be talking about `I and thou,' and there he would be, shuffling through his papers, looking at explicit photographs of naked women." He shook his head. "This was really going very far. And yet Buber was a very great scholar. It was appropriate for his approach. It would not be appropriate for you, for it would increase your extreme overestimation of your own role."
Mostly, he talked about what he thought it took to survive in the warfare of New York. He talked about the major figures of New York literary life--not necessarily his own patients but writers and artists whose careers he followed admiringly--as though they were that chain of forts upstate, around Lake George, left over from the French and Indian War: the ones you visited as a kid, where they gave you bumper stickers. There was Fort Sontag, Fort Frankenthaler, Fort Mailer. "She is very well defended." "Yes, I admire her defenses." "Admirably well defended." Once, I mentioned a famous woman intellectual who had recently got into legal trouble: hadn't she been well defended? "Yes, but the trouble is that the guns were pointing the wrong way, like the British at Singapore." You were wrung out with gratitude for a remark like that. I was, anyway.
It was his theory, in essence, that "creative" people were inherently in a rage, and that this rage came from their disappointed narcissism. The narcissism could take a negative, paranoid form or a positive, defiant, arrogant form. His job was not to cure the narcissism (which was inseparable from the creativity) but, instead, to fortify it--to get the drawbridge up and the gate down and leave the Indians circling outside, with nothing to do but shoot flaming arrows harmlessly over the stockade.
He had come of age as a professional in the forties and fifties, treating the great battlers of the golden age of New York intellectuals, an age that, seen on the couch--a seething mass of resentments, jealousies, and needs--appeared somewhat less golden than it did otherwise. "How well I recall," he would begin, "when I was treating"--and here he named two famous art critics of the period. "They went to war with each other. One came in at ten o'clock. `I must reply,' he said. Then at four-thirty the other one would come in. `I must reply,' he would say. `No,' I told them both. `Wait six months and see if anyone recalls the source of this argument.' They agreed to wait. Six months later, my wife, that witty, witty woman, held a dinner party and offered some pleasantry about their quarrel. No one understood; no one even remembered it. And this was in the days when ARTnews was something. I recall what Thomas Mann said.... " Eventually, abruptly, as the clock on the wall turned toward seven-thirty, he would say, "So you see ... this demonstrates again what I always try to tell you about debates among intellectuals."
I leaned forward, really wanting to know. "What is that, Doctor?" I said.
"No one cares. People have troubles of their own. We have to stop now." And that would be it.
I would leave the room in a state of vague, disconcerted disappointment. No one cares? No one cares about the hard-fought and brutally damaging fight for the right sentence, the irrefutable argument? And: People have troubles of their own? My great-aunt Hannah could have told me that. That was the result of half a century of presiding over the psyches of a major moment in cultural history? And then, fifteen minutes later, as I rode in a cab downtown my heart would lift--would fly. That's right: No one cares! People have troubles of their own! It's O.K. That doesn't mean you shouldn't do it; it means you should do it, somehow, for its own sake, without illusions. Just write, just live, and don't care too much yourself. No one cares. It's just banter.
The above text covers the first three pages of this eight page article. For the remainder, visit the archives of the New Yorker Magazine at www.newyorker.com/archive.
My Father's Troubles
Nicholas Dawidoff, The New Yorker- 6/12/2000
My first memory of my father is of leaving him. For months, he had been unhinged, experiencing hallucinations so powerful that he communicated with dead squirrels. Then he began hitting my mother, and not long after that she decided it was time for us to go. It was raining steadily
when my mother, my younger sister, and I drove away from Washington for the long ride to our new home in New Haven, Connecticut. I was three. At a certain point, I remember seeing the water streaming down the car window and deciding that the sky was unhappy, too.
During the next several years, I made a couple of visits to Washington. When I was six, my father took me to the National Zoo, where he got angry and walked away from me. Only by running along after him was I able to keep him in sight. He went up a sloping walkway, and I followed until, finally, he slowed enough for me to catch him. My father didn't look at me, but he let me follow two steps behind.
Later, when he was living in New York, I'd occasionally stay overnight with him. Once, when I was nine, I was in bed in the back room of his cramped garden apartment. My father was sitting next to me, and he wanted to tell me about his encounters with Italian prostitutes. I managed to put all the details out of my head except for a description of a Roman bordello decorated in red velvet. Over the years, every time I entered his apartment I expected to see the red velvet.
After I had finished college and moved to New York, my father asked me to meet him one day at the Yale Club. I was talking with him in the middle of the lobby when, suddenly, his eyes looked strange and he began screaming at me, telling me and the cocktail-hour throng what a horrible person I was. I ran out of there. Some nights, I'd arrive home to encounter my father standing in front of my apartment building, waiting there to let me know what a pathetic excuse for a son he had.
At Manhasset High School, on Long Island, Donald Dawidoff was the valedictorian of the class of 1952, a member of the National Honor Society, and a varsity athlete who starred on the football and lacrosse teams with the future N.F.L. Hall of Famer Jim Brown. My father was also a French-horn player in the orchestra and the jazz band, and an editor on the school newspaper. His classmates voted him "Most Likely to Succeed."
At Harvard, he was admitted to the select History and Literature program, and one year, in lacrosse, he finished among the nation's leaders in assists. A photograph of him making a graceful feed appeared in Sports Illustrated. But life in Cambridge became too much for him. In the spring of 1955, when he was a junior, there were some troubles with a girlfriend, and he was given the first bad grade of his life. Then, one morning, he saw all around him huge faces with green ears. He began giving away his possessions--all of them, right down to his watch. My grandmother has always described the telephone call she received that week from Harvard with the same words. "Mrs. Dawidoff, come get your son," she was told. "He's crazy."
My grandparents did what they were told, and arranged to take him to a sanitarium in Connecticut. A few months later, my father returned to Harvard, and completed his degree cum laude. He then spent a semester at Harvard Law School, but did poorly and left. That summer (by then it was 1958), my father took a job at a camp in New Hampshire, where he met Heidi Gerschenkron, the daughter of a Harvard economics professor. In July, my grandfather--Donald's father--died, and Donald went to pieces. It took him a year to recover. Then, in the fall of 1959, he went back to law school--Yale this time--and returned to Heidi Gerschenkron. They were married the next year. By 1962, he was working for a prestigious firm in New York and he was a father--my father.
One day, he came home from work and confessed to my mother that a partner in his law firm had told him he was "a lame horse, and I wouldn't keep a lame horse in my stable." So we moved to Washington, where my father went to work in the Office of the General Counsel of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Shortly before my sister, Sally, was born, in late 1964, he suffered a complete breakdown.
Many years later, my mother told me what it was like to watch her husband fall apart. It began with non sequiturs. Friends would be visiting, and during a conversation about politics my father would offer a comment that made it clear he thought they were discussing a George Bernard Shaw play. Soon the hallucinations returned. He believed that everybody was talking about him, and that rodents in the yard were giving him special instructions. He grew violent. My mother says I couldn't eat. My sister wasn't sleeping. Fifteen months after Sally was born, my mother put us in the car and headed back to New Haven.
When I look at snapshots of my father and me as a young boy--in one I am sitting in a red fire truck, my father crouched behind, his arms circling my shoulder--I am always surprised by how happy we seem. "You were crazy about him," people tell me. Since I didn't see much of him anymore, I tried to compensate by spending time with his photograph. I would sit in a rocking chair and stare at his handsome bald head for hours.
In 1970, my father abruptly quit his government job, moved back to New York, and opened his own law office. Once a month, on a Sunday, he'd ride the train up to New Haven. He always took Sally and me to the International House of Pancakes for lunch. That was my father's effort to inject a sense of the quotidian into the relationship, his attempt to be a normal dad. In fact, these visits had the quality of a long-distance love affair. Each one came after such a lengthy interlude that they felt like occasions, not ordinary life.
Back at the house, he could be a lot of fun. He invented a belly-tickling game called "So it does that, does it?," which I liked a lot, and he gave me a nickname, Rascal, that suited me fine. Like many children from immigrant families, my father was devoted to the English language. He was fond of puns and worked them out in elaborate ways. After Zbigniew Brezinski got a job in the government, my father's response was to ask me what a jailed nationa lsecurity adviser was. "I don't know," I said. "A Zbig in a poke." Dad collected unusual nomenclature the way some men amass stamps or coins. When the basketball star Lew Alcindor changed his name to Kareem Abdul Jabbar, my father was ecstatic at the possibilities. "Say it, Dad, say it," I would plead, and he'd grin and repeat the name again and again for me, lingering on the hard vowels like an auctioneer.
In a beautiful tenor, he sang American folk songs like "The Ship Titanic" and "Deep Blue Sea." Abstract art made sense to him, and so did American Indian paintings. He liked bespoke suits, and Paul Robeson, and Mel Ott. My father was a lover of elegance.
There was a period when my chief interest lay in road construction. One day, my father took me to visit the Leonard Concrete Pipe Company, in Hamden, Connecticut. On the way out, I somehow persuaded him to buy a souvenir for me: a three-foot section of concrete sewer pipe. I have no idea how we got the thing home, but I know that when my mother saw Dad and me on her porch with it, she directed us around to the cellar entrance, at the rear of the house. As my father, the pipe, and I went by, our nosy next-door neighbor remarked, "Now I know why she divorced him." I recently visited my mother in New Haven and went down to the cellar. The pipe was still where Dad and I had left it.
When I was eight, he took me to my first baseball game--a Mets-Pirates contest at Shea Stadium that went into extra innings. My mother and sister were camped out at his apartment, waiting to take me home, and, as the hours passed, I worried about upsetting them, but he said they would understand, explaining that real fans stayed for the whole game. And so we did--all fifteen innings. Many years later, I realized that it was one of the few times he ever tried to impart wisdom to me. Usually, it was a babysitter, a family friend, or my father's younger brother, Robert, who taught me how to catch a ball, ride a bike, knot a necktie. As I got older, I always had male friends close to my father's age. I notice now that I chose men who were successful, intelligent, and, almost invariably, bald.
There were times when I'd observe other father-and-son relationships and long for them. Then I'd become angry and sullen. During a summer vacation, my mother took me to the Baseball Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown, and as I walked around the little village, looking at all the boys with their fathers, I felt diminished at having come to such a place with my mom.
One night when I was thirteen, Dad called while we were eating dinner. When he asked my sister how she was, Sally replied that she'd had a bad day. "You come by that naturally," he said. "I'm mentally ill." Sally hung up and told us, "Dad says he's mentally ill." I can't remember that evening at all, but my mother says that this disclosure upset me terribly--"You cried and cried for months."
With that exception, nobody really talked with me about what was wrong with my father. Family members made vague references to my father being "in the hospital again," but that was it. He saw many psychiatrists and was given prescriptions for all kinds of antipsychotic medications, but they never seemed able to decide what the problem was.
In the early years, both of my parents had made an effort to shield Sally and me, but things were different after I got to be old enough to go in to New York unescorted to see him. As my train pulled into Grand Central Station, I never knew which Dad would be meeting me. He always looked the same, but his speech was often not lucid, his behavior erratic. When he got into altercations with people we encountered on sidewalks or in restaurants, when he told me things I knew he shouldn't--he liked to describe new women he wanted to "lay." When he suddenly lashed out at me, I didn't know what to do. Your father is supposed to protect you, and mine was scaring the hell out of me.
Many times, I told my mother I didn't want to go to see him, but she never made our visits optional. On the appointed Sunday morning, before she put us on the train my mother would call around New York to get reassurances about what kind of shape he was in, and, as far as I know, nobody ever told her, "Don't send them." Even as a small boy, I was bothered by the idea that he was my responsibility, and not the reverse. As I got older, I saw that it was a moral obligation to spend time with this person I had begun to loathe.
The above text covers the first two pages of this five page article. For the remainder, visit the archives of the New Yorker Magazine at www.newyorker.com/archive.