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(For reasons of readability, the male form is used with personal names, however the female form is also always intended.)

An Unexpected Essay (Part I)

Author: Nicholas Fox Weber

(06/28/2017)
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When a lay person is psychoanalyzed, one of the astonishing surprises is the discovery of the unpredictable way that things happen. You professionals may say that sequences of thoughts and events are, in fact, predictable, or at least understandable, or, if neither of those, analyzable. But those of us who think we are doing unusually well simply when we have sufficient cognition to deduce that, if our opponent at tennis hits a deft drop shot over the net, deliberately manipulating it to fall softly at the front of the forecourt, we have to run like hell in order to reach the ball and still have a chance to win the point, are far less apt to know in our everyday lives why one event or feeling has led to another. If some further intuitive recognition of cause and effect inspires us to return the taunting drop shot at a sharp angle and win the point, we are surprised to discover ourselves that much more astute. We laypeople, you see, are unlikely to know why we respond as we do to a lot in our lives. The reasons for reactions more profound than those in a game of tennis elude us.

You ask, perhaps, why my analogy is coming from tennis. It is above all from your questions, at least in my experience, that those of us who believe in the analytic process make the greatest progress. We will get to the tennis issue later.

When I say “a lay person,” I mean people like me, one of those highly educated, sufficiently fortunate, neurotic individuals who chooses to be psychoanalyzed in the most traditional sense of the word. To amplify on what that sentence means, I will explain my own particularities to you.
 
Let’s start with “highly educated”:

Until age eleven, a small and very ordinary public (in the US, the term signifies state-run and free for everyone) elementary school in an affluent New England suburb during the Eisenhower years. The prevalent ethos was “the golden rule.” We had to say The Lord’s Prayer and to salute the flag first thing every day. The invention of the polio vaccine was, we were told, something to celebrate, but to kindergarteners it was primarily the occasion of all of us comparing the piercing pain of the needle, an early experience of shared suffering, and of a certain excitement over the prick from that sharp steel point smelling of alcohol. We learned the name “Jonas Salk” and were told that in spite of the miserable jab in our young tender flesh we should deify him as the hero he was. Yet no one bothered to tell us that this man we mistook to be called “salt” was married to Picasso’s most feisty and beautiful ex-mistress.

Most of us also attended some form of religious school on the weekends. But, for reasons I am still, half a century later, trying to sort out, and that underlie the inchoate ramblings of Freud’s Trip to Orvieto, even though I did very well in regular school, I absolutely could not pay attention to a form of education that said “God did this” and “God did that.” What made Sunday school worse was the use of an incomprehensible language, all the more irritating because it was always intoned with unbearable “Hear how important these words you do not understand are” pomposity. Sunday school gave me headaches and toothaches, so sharp I had to phone my mother to come get me early and take me home. The five-minute drive in our car was so curative that I immediately ran to the tennis court after getting home. My friend Ricky, whose Sunday school was in the Congregational church, and who met me for those tennis games, told me he thought the God stuff was silly too, but at last at his they only spoke English.

I trust that you professionals who are reading this are already sensing how “meshuggeneh,” this writer is. I might see that as well, but of course I have no idea whatsoever what the word “meshuggeneh” means.

For the next two years, an enormous public junior high school, serving a sufficiently large and diverse geographical area that I discovered the student named Finnigan, who came from a working-class part of town with three-family houses, and who headed a gang. Finnigan knew how to operate a switch blade, and threatened people with one. He became my hero. When I got to eighth grade at this junior high, I fell in love with a girl named Terri (last name deliberately withheld,) also from a different neighborhood than mine. Her father was something called “a psychiatrist,” which to my parents made him a holy man. Terri allowed me, at the movies, to feel her up. After I had done this a couple of times, I sought coaching from the savvy Arnie Krugman on how to go further. I will never forget Arnie, whose glorious girlfriend Nora was the class beauty, strutting along Foxcroft Road, and, with his deep voice, giving me expert advice on how to unhook Terri’s bra strap. I admired Arnie for his savoir-faire and manliness; he already had insipient dark leg hair. I was immensely grateful to him the Saturday afternoon following his counselling me when I discovered the glorious softness of Terri’s breasts. Alas, she gleefully reported the experience to her older sister Karen. Karen told that you should never even kiss a boy until you are married. Petting Terminus.

There was certainly no chance of feeling up the girls I encountered at the other form of education I had during those same years: weekly ballroom dancing classes.

I am writing this for you on June 14, 2017. Only last week, I went to the studios of National Public Radio in Hartford, Connecticut, my home town. NPR’s broadcasting studios are on Asylum Avenue. You, of course, see more in that name than I ever did when growing up. I never thought about what an asylum was, or, if I did, I never imagined this street as an asylum from anything. I know only that the poet Wallace Stevens walked on Asylum Avenue every day, to and from the insurance company where he was a director. This long thoroughfare is, meanwhile, nowhere near Hartford’s resort-styled private psychiatric hospital, the Institute of Living. The Institute remains a place of great allure for those of us always fascinated by people one step more gone and less functional than we are; they are of course called “inpatients,” while we are merely impatient. But what evoked the strongest flow of memory in the driving directions provided by NPR was the reference to Woodland Street, since the studios are on the corner of Asylum and Woodland. Woodland Street was where I went to those dancing classes, given by Mr. and Mrs. John Hammond Daly.

Mrs. Daly wore a different ball gown each week; they were white and covered in sequins. She and Mr. Daly, who wore evening clothes (I was raised never, ever to use the word “tuxedo,” its use a crime,) both instructed the fox trot and waltz in whiskey-rich, cigaretty voices. We boys were made to wear blue blazers, gray flannels, white shirts, and neckties. I rather liked the uniform, but not the short white cotton gloves the boys also had to wear. Yet it was an agreeable challenge to try to be manly with these ridiculous things on our hands, obligatory so that we would not get sweat and other forms of filth on the girls with whom we danced.

The Dalys’ classes at the Town and County Club were for Catholics and Jews. Ricky went to Miss Mary Alice, as did a girl I renamed in Freud’s Trip to Orvieto, and who is in the book because her father was the first person who made me aware of anti-Semitism existing in my own milieu, and not just being a historical phenomenon. The girl’s mother had told her, upon learning that we were going steady, “There is something about Nicky Weber Daddy would not like,” and my own parents told me what the “something” was that rendered me beyond the pale.

Miss Mary Alice’s classes, for Protestants only, were given at the Hartford Golf Club. They had the same dress code and same dance steps as the Dalys, and I assume that, there too, the boys smoked in the men’s room, as I did. But for all the two dancing schools had in common, the strictures were inviolate.

Before we were miked up at NPR so I could explain the work done by a non-profit organization I created to do medical, educational and cultural work in some of the poorest parts of Senegal, I told two of the radio journalists about my memories of those classes on Woodland Street half a century ago. They were properly astonished. I did not have time, though, to tell them what happened just last year when I was babbling about what we do in isolated rural villages to a grand dame of New Haven. After fifteen minutes of my carrying on about the paucity of psychiatric care in isolated regions near the border of Mali and at the hospital of Tambacounda, and then about an educational facility that gives young women a chance to continue their schooling rather than marry and start bearing children at age twelve, it was only when I mentioned a school we are building in a Muslim village that she said to me, with an astonished smile, “Oh, my dear, until now I thought you were saying ‘in synagogue,’ now I realize it is ‘in Sen-uh-gall.’”

I now see that even though I had no intention of reporting any of this to you distinguished readers of The Vienna Psychoanalyst, everything I recall seems to touch on the themes of Freud’s Trip to Orvieto, the book that caused Margarita Bolldorf to suggest I write for you. Why do the subjects of anti-Semitism, snobbery, masculinity, power, truthfulness, and sex come up time and again? 

I’ll bet you know why I am telling you all of this. In fact, I am absolutely sure you are fully cognizant of why, all these words later, I am still amplifying on my first sentence. The reason I am letting my thoughts take this course in this way is because, my readers, are either psychoanalysts or people passionate about psychoanalysis. For me you are the real McCoy, being in Vienna; writing for you in particular is like eating Sachertorte at the Sacher (as I did with utmost pleasure a few years ago.) You belong to the inner sanctum, and are in its capital. I have never before been asked to write for such an auspicious group of readers. Sure, I have published in The New York Times, Vogue, Le Monde, The New Yorker, and other such places (you see, I never can stop trying to prove myself to you,) but they are not the same; in those cases, I picture my average reader as a woman under a loud hair dryer. I have gone completely off subject, and forgotten (yes, forgotten, and, yes, I know that that is no small matter,) what subject I had agreed to with your editors, but I am relishing it. How liberating it is to run amuck. My God!

So now I have found—just this very minute—the paperwork saying what subject Margarita Bolldorf and I initially agreed upon. I wrote your kind editor, “I would like to write about my use of psychoanalytic articles published about Piet Mondrian and Paul Klee in my writing of biographies of both. A subtitle might be, ‘The benefits to an art writer of having an intrepid daughter burrowing around in the Tavistock Library.’” She agreed to the topic. But when I sat down this morning, some other force overtook me. It is summed up in my otherwise inexplicable interjection of the words “My God!” at the end of the preceding paragraph.

What happened is that, with you as the audience, I experience the very great luxury and freedom I came to know in my own psychoanalysis—with a doctor whose role in my life became that of a god. He was, and of course we explored this a lot, my god. He was also “God,” as I first imagined God when the single deity was represented in my life by a white-mustached rabbi whose first two names had the initials “A.J.” For that reason, during the initial months of analysis, I always made the same mistake with the middle initial of the white-bearded analyst who was treating me. I erroneously made it an “L” rather than a “J.” His getting me to recognize the importance of that mistake guided me to see the issues I had about the rabbi. I thought that Rabbi A.J. Feldman had the power to see everything about me and would judge me with an absolute conviction of right and wrong. Now, allegedly a grown-up, having started analysis in my late thirties, I thought that Dr. Albert J. Solnit had the same power. I wanted him to, and I also wanted him to make all major decisions for me about my life.


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