Sometimes, though not all that often, my psychoanalyst makes me laugh. These occasions, when he seems to slip out of analytic stance, stick in my mind.
Once, I was talking about how my father was always late. We would run through airports while they paged us, the plane growling on some scorched runway. My analyst commented that mine wasn’t the sort of father who had a timetable. I imagined Dad, a shambolic, weathered, chain smoking, hard-drinking war correspondent, standing in a bus shelter shaking out his umbrella and checking the coach timetable. I laughed.
“No,” I said. “He wasn’t.”
“And you think I might be that sort of person, with an anorak and a timetable?” he asked. Well, given the importance he seems to give to a minute’s lateness, yuh. You see, my analyst is nothing like my father. Tall, yes. Thin, yes. About the same age as Dad would have been, yes. But nothing like him, I tell you…
We might think someone isn’t like our mother or father, but spookily we react to them just as if they were. A patient told me recently that he can’t call his mother “Mum” to her face, because of the violence she inflicted on him when he was little. He then described a woman at work, a “bitch” who makes his life a misery in various ways. “I won’t even dignify her with a name,” he said. “Just like your Mum,” I said. He looked baffled briefly and then laughed. “She is a lot like her, actually. She is skinny like her too. And their names are even a bit similar. So, that’s why I hate her!”
I was once in a clinical seminar (a group in which patient notes are presented for reflection and comment every week) with a woman who felt viciously persecuted by the seminar leader, an eminent psychoanalyst who wore soft shoes and a soft expression, listened attentively and interpreted incisively. “Every time I speak she winces in contempt!” my frantic colleague complained. I could see no evidence of this. Only when I got to know her better did I understand—her witheringly contemptuous mother was a similar age to the seminar leader. She couldn’t see women of that age as anything but cruel persecutors, whatever the reality, blinded to the current external truth by her own internal truth.
And to a greater or lesser extent we are all thus blinded, whether or not we are aware of it. A friend of mine has a mother who was chronically late for him throughout his childhood, leaving him alone on station platforms and at freezing bus stops for hours. He took his revenge by skipping therapy sessions without warning, leaving his middle-aged female therapist waiting for him for the whole 50 minutes. “Oh, I just forgot,” he said in explanation.
If you were close to your mother then women of her age passing you on the street seem basically benign. Your therapist, if old enough to be your mother, will seem warm and nurturing. If you were hit by your father, older men will seem threatening, your male therapist aggressive and hostile.
So, I lie on the draped couch in my analyst’s attic as he sits behind me, occasionally noting something, occasionally shifting position. There are so few ways in which this man is actually like my Dad, but… I assume he finds me charming if I’m in self-deprecating raconteur mode, irritating if I’m being emotionally sincere. I imagine he is delighted to discard me in the breaks, that I am never his priority, that he is about to say something that will hurt. I lie on the couch frozen in anxiety, waiting for, longing for that final, “I’m afraid that’s all we’ve got time for today,” when I when I can get into my battered Mercedes and finish the coffee I brought from home in a chipped mug.
My Dad had a battered Mercedes and the mug in question was actually his.