I am thirty-three years old and I am sitting in a psychiatrist’s waiting room, wondering what I’m doing here. I am a good suburban wife. I have three children, a beautiful home, a rich husband. I am fortunate. So why am I waiting for a psychiatrist with a Time magazine in my wet palms that I’m too nervous to read? I do not know. Or I do know. It is my baffling misery. It is my confusion. It is because my husband tells me frequently that I’m stupid. Also crazy. It is because I believe him.
I open the magazine on my lap. There is a full-page ad for a Chrysler, the same color and model as ours. It reminds me of the night Nate pushed me out of it on our way home from a party.
As soon as we got in the car that night I saw he was furious about something. “What’s wrong?” I asked.
“What’s wrong?” he imitated in a singsong.
“What did I do?”
“You’re so stupid I have to tell you what you did? I told you not to wear that dress!”
“I told you not to wear it and you snuck out with it under your coat. Then you act like a dumb jackass, talking to Chuck Stern who you know I can’t stand. Don’t think I didn’t see you flirting with him. And with Al Whatshisname, hanging on his every word like he’s the Messiah or something.” He turned to me with the same self-righteous look on his face as the night we first met at Lenny Adelson’s party, when he slipped my date a Mickey and made Bob so dizzy and sick he had to pull over to the side of the road on the way home and throw up out the window. “Then you go and let that idiot Arnie put on your boots!” he went on. “I saw him
looking down your dress. I saw him. I told you not to wear that goddamn thing.”
I was beginning to understand. I hadn’t spent enough time at his side. Or worn that damn tweed suit. Unable somehow to defend myself, choking with unexpressed protest, sick of his accusations, sick of his rage, sick of him, all I wanted was to get away. “Let me out of here!” I yelled.
He reached across, opened the door and pushed me out of the car. I landed in a snow bank. The car hadn’t been going very fast and I got up, brushed off the snow and looked around. We were on our street. I could see him pulling into our driveway.
I walked home. Inside, Nate was sitting in the family room. “I want a divorce,” I said.
“What is it with you? Every time we have a fight you want a
I went to a lawyer the next day, a different one this time. He successfully discouraged me the way the last one had, which, thinking of my children, was easy to do. So once again, I knuckled under. Besides, Nate usually behaved better for awhile after I threatened divorce, and I always made myself believe the change would last.
But just this morning he stormed into the kitchen and shook the
bill in my face. “I make the money and you spend it? Is that how it works?” Halle
I took the bill from his fist and looked at it. “Nate, a pair of shoes.”
“Yeah, shoes. Last month, a dress. What the hell do you do with the money I give you?”
“Groceries and--” I stopped. I was guilty. I slipped my mother money from my household allowance.
“Take the shoes back,” he ordered.
It was my fault. I forgot to ask his permission before I bought them. He was actually generous. Very generous. He bought me jewels --diamonds, emeralds, real pearls. He liked to go shopping with me, he liked to pick out my clothes. But he didn’t like my buying anything without his okay.
I didn’t protest. How could I? He was generous, I was guilty; I even felt guilty for my misery, as if I was being punished for committing some unknown crime in a dream. I observed myself with curiosity, perfectly aware that this wasn’t normal. I should fight back, defend myself, point out that he didn’t need my permission for his cashmere jackets and custom made suits; his expensive cameras and golf clubs and tennis rackets. Antiques and paintings. (Our art collection was written up in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.) The 55 foot yacht and the captain he kept year round on full salary in Ft. Lauderdale, the first class travel to four star hotels and world class restaurants. I should scream, throw things, weep. I wondered, is this how people go crazy? Calmly, quietly, going numb?
The next time I went to the supermarket I wrote down the cost of everything I bought; milk, eggs, coffee, bread, pot roast, bananas, apples, lettuce, cereal, tea, ham, bacon, peanut butter, canned soup, hamburger, carrots, potatoes. But that night when I showed it to him with each price neatly itemized, he waved it away without looking, like a king irritated with his subject’s pathetic efforts to please.
So I figured if I were only smarter or nicer or more careful; if I could somehow become a better wife, mother, person; if I could figure out what I was doing wrong instead of always being blind-sided, Nate wouldn’t have such shouting scorn for me. Clearly, I had to change. So when I asked my doctor to recommend a psychiatrist, all I wanted was to become a woman who didn’t fill her husband with contempt.
“Good afternoon,” Dr. Herman says, startling me. He holds the door open. “Please come in.”
I get up and enter his office. Following me, he shuts the door and walks around to his chair behind the desk. I stand in the middle of the room. I hear the radiator hiss. I eye the couch. Am I supposed to lie down? I want to run out of there.
“Please,” he says, indicating the chair facing his desk. He has dark hair, eyeglasses, and looks to be in his mid-fifties. I think I had been expecting someone more exotic, maybe with a beard, maybe a Viennese accent, because I am faintly surprised to be looking at the mild even-featured face of a man you’d see on the bus or working in a bank. Even the room has an anonymous look with its leather couch, ordinary desk and chair. The light is muted, the pictures on the wall unobtrusive, dull even (a pastoral scene of sky and barn, a seascape, a still life of fruit and flowers) as if nothing is permitted to distract from whatever it is that goes on in here.
He looks at me, waiting.
I sit down. But I don’t know what to say. How can this stranger help me when I don’t even know what’s wrong? I decide to escape this shadowy, barren room. I’ll tell him I’ve made a mistake coming here and leave so he can treat someone who needs him.
“What can I do for you?” he asks.
Uttered by a psychoanalyst the cliche suddenly takes on weight. What can he do for me? What can he do for me? Was someone actually offering help who maybe even knows how? And to my astonishment and chagrin I start to cry, the tears beginning somewhere way behind my eyes, my soul, stored up like heat in some deep unknown region of my being, mysteriously released by this quiet, calm stranger in this unknown room. Tears fall down my face in a torrent. I weep in embarrassment and relief. He hands me the box of Kleenex from his desk and sits silently while I blow my nose and mop up my face.
“What made you sad?” he asks.
I shrug. I am afraid I’ll start crying again.
He asks a few questions -- ordinary questions that anyone might ask, except his are quieter, almost gentle, like a doctor probing a sore abdomen: Does this hurt? Does this? This? Answering, I find myself talking about my misery and confusion.
“Our time’s almost up,” he says, “and we need to discuss your treatment -- what kind, when, the fees, and so forth.”
“I think you would profit more from analysis than therapy.”
“What’s the difference?”
“Well, therapy is a narrower approach, sessions are once or twice a week usually for a limited period. Analysis goes far deeper, with sessions every day. It takes much longer, too -- usually no less than three years and often more. Also, analysts are medical doctors who have had to be analyzed themselves. They then go through two additional years of training and another period of supervised work with patients.”
“What do you do?” I am beginning to like this guy.
“I do both.”
“Okay, analysis then.”
He leans back in his chair. “How do you feel about a daily commitment?”
I don’t know how I feel about anything. “Okay.”
“My fee is $25 a session. How do you feel about that?”
$125 a week was a lot of money back then. But I know how I feel about that. “It’s only money,” I say.
He opens his appointment book. “Can you come from 5 to 5:50?”
I nod. My housekeeper always cooked dinner anyway. Still, I didn’t like the idea of being away from the children after school. “Is there any other time?”
He shakes his head. “As it is I’m lengthening my day. I usually quit at five.”
“Will you move me if another time opens up?”
“Certainly,” he says, getting up. “See you tomorrow.” We shake hands and I leave.
Driving home I feel a wave of something like release. Dr. Herman is an utter stranger; I have no idea how this analysis works or even if it works; but for the first time in my life I don’t feel all alone.
When I told Nate I had decided to go into analysis I expected a fight, but he surprised me. “Go ahead and waste your time if you want.” He narrowed his eyes; “Just get this straight. I’m not paying for it.”
“Okay,” I said. I’d manage from my household allowance.
No one I knew or heard of back then was seeing a psychiatrist, or if they were -- as I discovered years later -- like me, they didn’t confess. Besides, seeing a psychiatrist was another sign of my failure to be like other people, a secret mysteriously connected to the murders, and it made me ashamed. So I didn’t tell anyone else except my mother. She answered with a comment I’ve remembered all of my life. “Let me know when you find out what a son of a bitch I was.”
The next day I find myself standing uncertainly in the middle of Dr. Herman’s office. The room with its couch along the wall now seems as familiar and strange as a place you see in a dream. I watch him settle himself in a chair behind the couch. (Why hadn’t I noticed the chair there before?) He sits, waiting. I get the idea and gingerly lie down on the couch, carefully tucking my skirt under my knees.
He is behind me now, out of my vision. The room fills with silence. It is in an old building with high ceilings, wood floors, radiators. I can hear the creaky elevator. I smell his piny aftershave. Overhead, someone in high heels walks briskly across a bare floor. I stare at the ceiling. I don’t know what to say. I lie there feeling ridiculous.
“Just relax and say whatever comes to mind,” Dr. Herman prompts.
But I lie there, mute. He sits behind me, making me nervous. I want to escape this room, this silent, waiting stranger.
“I don’t think I know how to do this,” I finally say, thinking Nate’s right, this is a waste of time. I have nothing to say to this person I hear breathing behind me.
“What are you thinking?” he asks.
“Nothing,” I lie.
I need him to say something. Anything. “Am I supposed to tell you my dreams?”
“Dreams are helpful,” he says.
“I don’t remember my dreams,” I say. Another lie. I’ve got to get out of here.
“Well then, tell me about your family.”
“My mother’s a secretary, my brother’s vice president of sales for a paper company in
. I have three children, two boys, Lewis and Andrew, and a baby girl.” New York
“What about your father?“
“I told you about him yesterday.”
He sits in his chair diabolically waiting for me to stir up buried skeletons and banished ghosts. But I joined my mother in silence about my father years ago.
“I don’t want to talk about him,” I finally say.
“Okay, what about your husband?”
“Well, you mentioned your mother, father, brother and children, but not your husband.”
“His name’s Nate.”
“What’s he like?”
“Nate? Oh, Nate’s very talented -- he’s won prizes for his photography, you know. He’s a city councilman and he runs one of the biggest auto agencies in
and he’s an expert gardener -- all our friends come to him for advice -- oh, and he’s a gourmet cook. He has a great sense of humor, too -- he likes to play practical jokes on people. (I don’t tell him how mean the jokes can be.) Ohio
“How do you you feel about him?”
“I just told you.”
“That’s not what I asked.”
“How do I feel about him? Fine. I feel fine.”
I hear him stir in his seat. “Babette, why did you come here?”
“I came because--” I stop. “See, there’s nothing wrong with Nate. I just told you. It’s me who’s a mess. He’s always criticizing me. That’s why I’m here. To find out how to change. Isn’t that what psychiatrists do?”
“And what do you do?”
“What do I do?”
“When he criticizes you. What do you do?”
“Nothing? You don’t defend yourself?”
“No, we never fight.”
I told you! Because it’s always my fault!”
“What’s your fault?”
I am crying. “I don’t know.”
“We need to work on that,” he says, handing me the box of Kleenex.
“Work on what?”
“On why you feel so guilty.”
I breathe. “See, Nate’s a good provider.”
“A good provider?”
“Well, yeah. I have, you know, a house, food, clothes.” My words vibrate in my ears. I feel my face heat up. “Listen,” I say, “it’s not how that sounds.”
“How does it sound?”
“Oh, as if I’m like begging for my room and board like a waif or something.”
“Is that what you think?” I demand.
“You’re the one who said it, not me.”
“Well, it’s absurd.”
“You sound angry.”
Cowering for my keep? Subservience for room and board? No way. I made no such bargain.
“Our time’s up,” he says.
I rise to my feet and slam out of there.