A Life in
And Out of
Emily Fox Gordon
(Basic Books)have lived, says Ms. Gordon, "in a culture that has been saturated with therapy, in a world which has become a hospital." Indeed, her world since her teens have been a process of moving forever from one psychotherapist to another. She refers to them Dr. V, Dr. H, Dr. G., Dr. B. --- and the anonymity of their names is a good symbol of their impact on her, and on us.
Many people in America grow into various addictions: some to mountain climbing, some to alcohol, some to sex, some to gambling. Ms. Gordon grew to be a psychotherapy junkie. The first three doctors --- of the Freudian persuasion --- were chosen for her by her family. (Her father worked in the Johnson administation, was a leading economist and successful enough for the family to be able to afford these expensive excursions for their daughter.)
Gordon was your typical fifties neurotic kid, with sulks and temper tantrums. Nowadays, you stuff someone like her with ritilin --- or, if you are poor, you beat up on her some and hope she'll grow up fast, get pregnant, and get the hell out of the house.
It was different forty years ago. If you were rich in those days, you'd hunt up an expensive therapist --- or in Ms. Gordon's case, an army of them. And if those guys don't work out, you ship her off to Austen Riggs, a fancy psychotherapeutic hospital built for those who can't make head nor tail of their child, who can afford to get her out from underfoot and into the hands of "the professionals."
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What kind of a life is it for a person who spends their days examining themselves through the everpresent eyes of a therapist? If we are to believe Ms Gordon --- it's a mess:
I am one of those people --- we're not so very rare --- for whom life has been not so much examined as conducted in therapy. In the place of a conventional moral and cultural education, I was offered therapy, and when the beguiling emptiness of therapy left me hungry for something like spiritual nourishment, I was offered still more therapy. I was formed by therapy, absorbing its influence in ways that would require most of my life to raise to consciousness. I brought into my therapies not the problems of life, but the problems of therapy.
Mockingbird Years is half about Ms. Gordon's family, her work, her schooling, and her life with several inartistic practicioners of the helping profession. The other half treats of her involvement with a Dr. Leslie Farber. She met Farber at Riggs, where he was on staff, then, when he left to set up private practice in New York, she and three other patients followed.
Her time with him should not be labelled, I suspect, "therapy." Better, it would be described as one of guru and seeker (in the eastern sense). For the first time, Gordon found someone who could tweak her intelligence, her sense of fun, make her think, make her respond. "How difficult it is to abandon the ironic mode and speak enthustiastically!" she says as she begins, half-way through this tome to describe Farber, and his effect on her.
His full, rich, pungent, complex humanity was a revelation to me. The power of his presence jerked the world into focus; what had seemed pale and attenuated, blurred and mixed, jumped into clarity and bold relief. I remember the surprising verve of his walk and the elegant and efficient way he handled his keys when he let us into his office early on a Saturday morning, one eye squeezed shut againt the cigarette in the corner of his mouth.
In other words, she fell in love with the only man in the world that she could relate to. He was funny and sad and profound, one who ran the sessions not with a dull unearthing of her past, stolid reflections on motives, drives, needs --- but with the ability to treat her as an equal. She was a child just waiting to bloom. Mockingbird Years becomes, then, less a biography than an old fashioned Jane Austen romance --- in this case, a love affair between a somewhat confused young woman and an older, wiser man. (We hasten to affirm, if we can believe the author, that it was a love affair that was never consummated. For Farber was, she points out, despite his unorthodox ways, a highly moral man).
Ms Gordon was, and probably still is, in love with Leslie Farber --- even though he is long in the grave. His very appearance here lights up her words; his time with her on these pages makes her eloquent and wise and sometimes very funny. At the same time, the treatment was not only unorthodox, it was, we suggest, a mistake.
Though they were close, they never got to a consummation that could resolve (or ruin) whatever it was going on between them. But if the sexual line was never breeched, others were.
Those of us who have been in therapy for many years know that the therapist's office is the place for any and all ideas to be explored --- even the idea of love between therapist and patient. Now the realities of love are treated with a certain icyness by the profession --- as reflected in the language. The words aren't "passion of patient for therapist," or "the love of therapist for patient," --- but those rather chilly words "transference" and "countertransference." It makes it all sound not unlike a subway stop somewhere there on the royal road to the unconscious.
We know, and both Gordon and Farber should have known, that when a patient follows her shrink to a strange city, takes menial jobs in order to be with him, baby sits for him and his wife, appears at his house as a regular visitor (fighting with herself as to whether she should get off the subway and go to his place, filled with interesting people, or go home alone to her sad apartment) something is askew. And someone is setting herself, and her love, up for a fall.
The blowup between Farber and Gordon comes not over lust --- at least overtly --- but over confidentiality. It has to do with Daniel, another misguided patient who was allowed to follow the doctor from Riggs to New York. He had been enrolled in Columbia, but he dropped out. He has not told Dr. Farber, though he did tell Gordon. As soon as she finds out, she hot-foots it over to Farber's wife (who she has, apparently, also fallen in love with), and squeals on poor Daniel. Wife immediately tells the good doctor.
Many years later, our author is still wondering why Farber blew up at her: "How could you come into my home," he asks, "and ... solicit ... my wife?" End of therapy, and end (mostly) of her relationship with him.
It is, by-the-bye, an excellent question. For both of them.
Confidentiality is held by all good therapists to be necessary to a good relationship with clients. You don't go around babbling about one of your patients to the world. You have to observe the sanctity of the confessional. Such confidentiality is the therapist's ace in the hole.
In this case, the confidentiality was violated, even though it happened backwards: it went from patient to patient, then from patient to wife, and finally to husband/doctor. The "violation" (brilliant word!) was --- indeed --- sexual, for her doctor knows that she is not only in love with her therapist and his wife --- she is begining the process of trying to dismantle their marriage. She couldn't have picked a more potent weapon than she did.
Our author --- despite all her psychotherapeutic learning --- doesn't get it. After the denouement, Mockingbird Years wanders on morosely for another sixty pages. Another letter doctor --- and a lesser one, too (she says) hoves into her therapeutic harbor --- a "Dr. B." She constantly and boringly compares him to her now long lost heart-throb. Her therapy with him drags for seven years (seven years!). This probably quite adequate therapist must put up with seven years of tedious comparison to the brilliant, witty, tale-spinning, delightful, droll Farber. Thank the Lord she pays him $85 an hour for the insults. (If we were Dr. B., we would have kicked her ass out after the first session. She claims, he couldn't. Why? Because she is so witty, smart, funny, interesting. She was a prize patient for him. Sure.)
Except for her therapeutic tic, Gordon is not a bad writer. At times she can be downright funny (she said that she was in her thirties before she learned that the Belgian Congo wasn't in Belgium). Her tale of the decline of her mother into alcoholism is truly touching, and she is magic when she touches on the paradox of a totally disfunctional family like hers that, at times, comes into moments of joy and pleasure so that one is fooled into thinking it's somehow "normal:"
The truth is that sometimes we all were happy, a happy family. Periodically, some spell would lift from us and it would be as if we had always been happy. The great glass jugs that the milkman left on our cold kitchen porch would spontaneously pop their corks, and all of us at the breakfast table would laugh. Or my father would sing, basso profundo, his chin tripling on his shirtfront: "Rocked...in the cradle...of the...deeeep." Or my mother and I would take a short evening walk to the end of College Place to admire a crescent moon, and we would sing as we ambled:
Au claire de la lune,
Mon ami Pierrot.
Prete-moi ta plume,
Pour ecrire un mot.
Happiness challenges everything. It upsets causality, undermines explanation. Because we were sometimes happy, I can never make sense of my childhood.
Insights like this almost make the whole befuddled book worth it. It's too bad that Ms. Gordon didn't wait a few more years to integrate the real truth of what happened to her and her knight in shining armor. If she had, the book --- and perhaps she herself --- might have been more of a piece.--- Lolita Lark