My girlfriend argued no man could be treated by a female therapist because complications due to sexual desire would impede every discussion
One night less than two years ago, intoxicated on cheap wine and infuriated by a long fight, I lay naked next to Clarice, my girlfriend at the time. In my opinion, the cause of our argument was ridiculous. Earlier in the evening, Clarice had made the claim that no man, under any circumstances, could be treated effectively by a female therapist. I asked how come. "Because the man will always," she said, "want to fuck her brains out."
Complications due to sexual desire, explained my girlfriend, would impede every discussion. A man would never be able to tell his doctor the whole truth, either by exaggerating his accomplishments or by abridging his mistakes, because he would want to present himself in the best light possible. The therapist would be trying to get in his head while the man was trying to get in her pants.
I'd been seeing Dr. Phillips, a female therapist, for a little over a month. It was my first attempt at therapy. Despite the large number of people out there who currently see a psychiatrist, I considered my decision to get help particularly courageous, mainly because I was raised in the South, where psychotherapy is, by some if not by most, considered akin to snake oil. My mental problems were more than legion. Not only had I suffered anorexia in an earlier period of my life, but I'd recently been coping with an anxiety disorder. I had issues with self-esteem. I had issues with substance abuse. I had issues with depression. Therapy was a big step toward getting healthy.
That's one of the reasons I got so angry with Clarice. I wanted Dr. Phillips to fix my brain; I did not want to fuck hers out.
Another reason I got so angry was that one of the most frequent topics of discussion with the doctor was my relationship with Clarice. Now I faced a dilemma. Should I tell Dr. Phillips about the argument? On the one hand, telling her might compromise the integrity of my treatment because, possibly, she would wonder if I really did want to sleep with her, and on the other hand, not telling her might compromise the integrity of my treatment because, definitely, I would be lying to her by omission of the complete truth. The funny thing is I had thought about that very same issue before I was forced to deal with it.
* * *
Shortly after I began treatment, a few friends, members of my writing group, said something over dinner that took me aback. All three of them agreed to its veracity. Even when I expressed shock, telling them my situation was different, my friends repeated the statement with odd disregard, as if explaining the humorous nature of the Pope's headgear, the defecation of bears, or the constructive material of Howdy Doody's testicles.
"Everybody lies to their therapist."
Such a thing, ironically, seemed insane. Lying to your therapist discredited the whole point of therapy. In her book, Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, Janet Malcolm ventures the claim that her titular subject, the first practice to be called "psychotherapy," has had the biggest cultural impact since Christianity. The comparison to religion seems apt in light of what I was told by my friends at the restaurant. No one likes to think of something so influential to modern society as having been founded on lies.
Until the fight with my girlfriend, I had been totally honest with Dr. Phillips, especially about my relationship with Clarice. I'd told my therapist about the hotel room where my girlfriend tried to slit her wrists with the tines of a room-service fork because of my own childish inability to confront our emotional straits. I'd confessed about the night I passed out during a blow job, and I'd admitted to having later claimed it was only me faking it. I'd told my therapist about the clinic where my girlfriend listened to those sucking sounds while holding her sister's hand instead of mine because of my stupid need to maintain distance. Only after I claimed to be honest with my therapist did I become dishonest with her. I never told Dr. Phillips what Clarice had said about us.
* * *
Doubt began to corrupt my belief that I did not want to sleep with Dr. Phillips. Although I had been aware of her physical attractiveness since the beginning of my treatment -- if only she had been some wrinkled, gray-haired lady creeping toward retirement -- I now found myself doting on all of my therapist's attributes, her slim figure, her long limbs, the way she daintily tugged a cardigan around her delicate shoulders.
Soon enough I questioned everything I said to my therapist. Would I have catalogued my sexual partners from throughout my life if her belly were stratified with fat rolls? Would I have referenced my publication history in such detail if her face were perforated with acne scars? Therapy started to drive my crazy.
In addition to wondering whether, during our sessions, I treated my therapist like a woman I was trying to seduce, I also wondered if I had, in the past, treated women I was trying to seduce like therapists. Could I have been not a womanizer but a therapizer in my love life? My girlfriend in college, Lara, once tried to break up with me, claiming I wasn't "complicated" enough for her, after which I told her about the time in junior high when I dropped 45 percent of my body weight. We got physically intimate for the first time that night. My girlfriend in grad school, Tatum, could not commit to our relationship, saying she was too "damaged" for someone like me, after which I told her about the time my father drunkenly almost killed my mother in a car wreck. She called me her boyfriend for the first time that day. Although I believe my motives were far from malicious -- I genuinely cared about those girlfriends and simply wanted them to care about me, too -- I'm still compelled to question my past relationships as well as my recent ones. Did I manipulate Clarice into loving me?
* * *
Clarice and I met through an online-dating service. Our first date was at a bar called Spain. The athletic build of a former college soccer player and the cup size of a former high-school cock tease, Clarice struck me as outrageously beautiful, but what I found most attractive were her physical imperfections, hair a bit on the frizzy side, voice a little hoarse, skin a touch dry at the joints. Every man loves that one crooked tooth.
At the bar that night, doubting my own good fortune, I got to know Clarice while the bartender, wearing a prim, red tux jacket, served us cheap drinks and free tapas. The stories we told each other about our lives gradually progressed beyond the anecdotal type. I must have managed to muster a modicum of charm -- sometimes I can do magic, but I am not a magician -- because soon we were sharing a cigarette on the sidewalk. She told me about her ex-boyfriend, and I told her about my ex-girlfriend. She told me about her family's troubles, and I told her about my family's troubles. Each of our hands glanced the other's thigh. Outside of the bar, crouched on a stoop and hunched from the cold, I kissed Clarice for the first time, her tongue as grainy and floral as pear pulp.
That night I did not therapize my way into her pants. We waited until the second date. Some people think of that as being a gentleman. I think of it as letting the woman dictate the terms.
The question remains of whether I used the murk of my psyche to trick Clarice into wanting me. Even though each of us had made personal confessions to the other, the reciprocity of those confessions disinclines me to consider my motives sinister. I was not trying to manipulate Clarice into feeling a certain way like Hannibal Lector beguiling her namesake.
Over the next six months, Clarice and I underwent the usual trajectory of a romantic relationship. Those first, hesitant declarations of love were followed by the later, habitual postscripts to phone calls. We house-sat for her parents while they were away. She came as my guest to my friend's dinner party, and I came as her guest to her work's office party. We took a weekend trip to visit my little brother in college. Our conversations, however gradually, began to assume a future in which our lives, at least physically, were closely interwoven. Favorite breeds of dog are rarely discussed in a short-term affair.
Certainly we were not without our problems, but neither of us dwelled on our difficulties very long. The truth is, I never considered my relationship with Clarice as it pertained to my past relationships, the similarities and the differences, the positives and the negatives, until I first met with Dr. Phillips roughly eight months after that night at the bar.
* * *
My relationship with Dr. Phillips was as rough to begin as my relationship with Clarice had been smooth. We met twice a week, each session 45 minutes. Our therapy was part of a program to train residents in psychiatry. The program consisted of one year of intensive therapy, free of charge to the patient, followed by a group examination with fellow doctors. In order to qualify, I'd taken round after round of tests and sat for round after round of interviews, all of which were meant to determine, more or less, whether I was messed up enough for the treatment. If only college admissions had been so easy.
Although at first I took well to the therapy, describing my recent problems with panic attacks, explaining my past issues with self-esteem, I soon began to dread our scheduled appointments each week. Every Tuesday and Thursday became an excruciating countdown to 5:15 in the afternoon. Why? The most obvious reason was the sheer amount of time I had to spend talking about nothing but myself.
Psychotherapy is inherently solipsistic. Going into the treatment I was aware of that key trait. I had no problem with it. The trouble that arose during my therapy was that not only am I inherently solipsistic but I also do not like that about myself. I've written a dozen essays about the inconsequence of my love life. I've spent hours at the bar boring friends with anecdotes. I've written a novel that didn't even veil its autobiographical sources. In therapy as in life my brain began to throw up warning signs whenever it seemed as though I were becoming self-indulgent by discussing matters of little importance. It was not simply that I was reticent in talking only about myself. If I were going to have to discuss my problems, so went my thoughts, then they at least better be the really big ones. By the tenth week of treatment, though, I'd run through all of my greatest hits. Therapy became a contagion for me, irritation its consequent antibodies, all of which was supposedly a cure.
Nevertheless, two times each week I had to sit in a white room, discussing myself. If I had a hard time thinking of something interesting to say, then I would have to talk about that very inability. The only thing more irritating than being forced to talk about yourself when you find it difficult is being forced to talk about your difficulty with talking about yourself.
Still another problem I had with therapy was that, due to exposure to movies, television shows, and books that portrayed the process, I was aware of the various tactics therapists use. Noticing the strings does not make a puppet show more enjoyable. Unconsciously I would cross my arms whenever Dr. Phillips said, "Tell me more about that," and consciously I would grimace every time Dr. Phillips asked, "How did that make you feel?" I faced another source of frustration when Clarice began to ask me, in person and over email, at concerts, on the subway, at restaurants, out loud and in a whisper, what exactly I told my therapist about her.
* * *
One night during the spring of last year, on our way home in the back of a cab, I told Clarice she was bad in bed, particularly when it came to oral sex. We were both drunk. Clarice said to me, "What did you just say to me?"
"Remember what happened on Saturday night?" Earlier that week, after still another night of drinking, I had passed out while Clarice was giving me a blowjob. "I only pretended to pass out."
"That's the problem."
Clarice was right. I really was lying to her, but I didn't yet know why. Although we had gone through plenty of serious episodes -- the comically unsuccessful suicide, the tragically successful abortion -- our arguments tended to veer toward the frivolous. She once threw a club sandwich at me because I'd forgotten she hates deli meats, and I once ripped my own t-shirt to shreds because she'd claimed not to be a big fan of v-necks. What do they say about arguing with your significant other? If you don't then you should worry. I have absolutely never had to worry, according to that logic, about my relationship with Clarice.
The thing I found most upsetting about what I had said on our cab ride home wasn't, therefore, that I had told her something so vicious, so infantile, so imprudent, so hateful, but that I had done so with the obvious goal of wounding her. Even now I find it hard to believe I said that to a woman I love to this day. It seems that what little sense I was capable of at the time had succumbed to the whims of my furor. My id had won out over my ego.
In actuality, Clarice and I were great in bed. Our penis and vagina fit together like, well, they fit together like a penis and vagina. I still think about the saucer indentation at the pedestal of her lower back. I still think about the way her nipples at rest are inverted like two belly buttons and have to be coaxed out with continual swaths of the tongue. I still think about the weird little scar just below the curve of her midriff. In relationships that fail, reality becomes, sooner or later, the provisions for fantasy.
So then what prompted my cruelty that night? All I could come up with, then as now, was that I had just recently started seeing Dr. Phillips, an experience I found so frustrating that, then as now, it made me senselessly furious. Only the likes of a therapist, I thought, could drive someone this mad.
* * *
Allow me to play devil's psychiatrist. In his book, The Heart of Psychotherapy, George Weinberg defines the concept of transference as the patient's "carrying forth of expectations and impressions and feelings from a past person" to the therapist. Transference is a kind of superimposition. "What the patient brings from the past and imposes on the therapist," Weinberg said of Sigmund Freud, who first termed the concept, "contains the whole essence of the patient's problem." Resolving transference was tantamount to curing the patient.
The person from a patient's past whose expectations, feelings, and impressions are superimposed on the therapist, albeit most often a parent, can actually be anyone in whom the patient has invested a substantial level of emotion. They can be a sibling. They can be a child. Why not a girlfriend?
During my sessions with Dr. Phillips, I began to wonder if I reacted so adversely not because of my feelings toward her, but rather because of my feelings toward Clarice. My resistance to therapy was similar to a lack of commitment. Rather than treat my female therapist as an object of sexual fantasy, it seemed to me, I treated her as a source of emotional confusion. I couldn't become intimate with Dr. Phillips because I was afraid of intimacy with Clarice. My difficulty expressing my feelings to the latter caused my difficulty talking about them with the former.
Moreover, if it were possible to transfer emotions for someone else onto a therapist, it should also be possible, I thought, to transfer emotions for a therapist onto someone else. Consider it anti-transference. The notion that every action has an equal and opposite reaction might not just apply to classical mechanics. Maybe my outburst at Clarice in the back of the cab had been caused by my anger at Dr. Phillips during our treatment.
The question remains as to what caused my anger in the first place. Aside from the frustration I felt at having to talk about myself, Dr. Phillips didn't actually do anything that would justify or explain my anger. She was there to help me. Although at the time I wondered if it were some cycle of transference, my anger toward Dr. Phillips transferred from my difficulties with Clarice and my difficulties with Clarice transferred from my anger toward Dr. Phillips, I now understand that one crucial part was missing from my assessment. I had forgotten about my own guilt.
* * *
If we can never forgive someone for the wrongs we have done to them, as the saying goes, we can also never be forgiven by someone for the wrongs we have done to ourselves. The resolution of two arguments with my girlfriend, the one about her sexual abilities as well as the one about my female therapist, came to illustrate that point in hindsight.
Our fight about whether or not it was possible for a man to get successful treatment from a woman was fueled by our unsuccessful reconciliation following my outburst in the back of the cab. In an attempt to absolve myself, I had mentioned that my therapy sessions, particularly the confusion that is said to prelude a breakthrough, might have contributed to the horrible things I had said to her.
The truce lasted a few days.
That night we were drinking wine from coffee mugs. With each sip our words became more heated, and with each word our sips became more frequent. Clarice wanted to know why, if the treatment had caused my outburst, I would continue seeing Dr. Phillips. "I mean, herro!" At times of extreme duress or levity, Clarice's vernacular gained notes of a racist comic imitating "the Asians." It was adorable.
"Your excuse just proves my point," she said, taking a seat atop the backrest of her futon, "about guys with lady head-shrinkers."
"But I don't blame her." I sat beside her feet. "I just think it's her fault."
"Stop being cute."
Of course she was right. I didn't really think it was anybody's fault but my own. Somewhere hidden in the gulag of my brain I understood that not lying to Clarice was more important than not lying to my therapist. The only way I could stay true to that sentiment, however, was by ending the argument at its peak. Without saying anything at all, I kissed Clarice in the middle of her sentence, lifted her from the futon, carried her to the bed, and took off her clothes with my teeth.
Certain things cannot be helped by words alone. They are beyond the reach of talk. Telling myself that was what I thought helped me show myself that was what I had done. In the cab I had used words as weapons because of my inability to say what I felt at the time. Discussion would not bring our fight to a conclusion. We had to fuck our way through it.
Only months later, after Clarice and I had broken up, would I realize, speaking with Dr. Phillips in her office, that I was wrong.
* * *
Nothing is beyond words. That's what I told my therapist when she asked what I'd learned during our time together. We were close to our last session.
During those 12 months in therapy, fatalism had overtaken my thoughts. America is all about being American, life is all about living, literature is all about being literary: The hell matters if I'm all about being me? Even though I was still by no means great at it, I had gotten better with talking about myself, coming to terms with the solipsism of therapy and accepting it as fundamental to the process. I was even fine with the "meta" nature of our current conversation, the kind of thing, talking about talking, that would have annoyed me earlier in our treatment.
"One of the topics we've focused on more than anything during our time together is your relationships with women," Dr. Phillips said. Her brown hair fell down her shoulders, and her sweater clung to her thin waist. She asked, "What do you feel you've learned about yourself regarding that subject over the past year of treatment?"
Self-reflexively I considered answering, 'Self-reflection.' I thought about how I had noticed her hair, not because I wanted to run my fingers through it, but simply because she almost always wore it up. I thought about how I had noticed her waist, not because I wanted to wrap my arms around it, but rather because it might explain her cold nature. Understanding those thoughts required the distance of retrospection.
Instead of lusting after or trying to seduce Dr. Phillips, it seems now, I had been creating a narrative of her, speculating about her disposition by studying her appearance. I wasn't a womanizer, and I wasn't a therapizer. I was a storyteller.
* * *
Narrative clarifies the experiences of life into matters of consequence. Therefore, if narrative in its simplest form is cause and effect, therapy could be considered the search for an answer to one question, 'Why am I this way?'
On the day when Dr. Phillips asked me what I had learned throughout our therapy, in general and in particular, she might as well have asked that one question. Why am I this way? I could not tell my therapist, unfortunately, what I myself did not yet know.
I could not tell Dr. Phillips how much I care for Clarice even now. Ruining our relationship, her memory of it, my memory of it, is one of my greatest regrets. I could not tell Dr. Phillips how I would always be grateful to the Laras and the Tatums from over the years. Allowing me to get close to them, if only for a little while, is one of the kindest gestures possible. Most of all I could not tell Dr. Phillips what I really thought of therapy.
I believe in love at first sight, but I also believe in hate at second. At my most vulnerable moments I can admit I hate Dr. Phillips, and at my least vulnerable moments I can admit I love Clarice. Both of the objects in those two sentiments, "Dr. Phillips" and "Clarice," would still be accurate if replaced with myself. Given that many therapists consider transference to be the key to resolving psychological conditions, the final twist of it inside the lock, I think, would be the patient's realization that all transference, no matter the type, is based on his appraisal of himself.
I did not tell my therapist those ideas, however, because I had not yet thought of them. There in her office, during one of my last visits, Dr. Phillips repeated the question, asking what I had learned throughout our time together, not only about my relationships with women, but also about myself. The only thing I said to my therapist was that maybe one day I would write an essay about it.