"Mockingbird Years" and "The Last Good Freudian"

Two memoirists look back on their many years of psychotherapy -- and what they see ain't pretty.

By Laura Miller

Published June 14, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

Failure played an intimate part in the beginnings of psychotherapy, although the fact that Freud's patient Dora stalked out of his office in (justifiable) disgust didn't prevent him from presenting his analysis of her case as significant and accurate. Nevertheless, first-person accounts of therapy's revelatory healing powers still seem to outnumber indignant tales of its errors. These two memoirists do their part to even the score.

The respective authors of "Mockingbird Years" and "The Last Good Freudian," Emily Fox Gordon and Brenda Webster, both come from affluent, educated, distinguished Jewish families, and neither woman ever suffered from acute mental illness. Psychoanalysis was as much a part of the atmosphere Webster grew up in as salt is a part of the sea. Her mother, abstract expressionist painter Ethel Schwabacher, saw Marianne Kris (Marilyn Monroe's analyst) for 30 years, and Webster's first analyst, Kurt Eissler, was the founder of the Freud Archives. Gordon, about 20 years Webster's junior, wound her way through a series of less strictly psychoanalytic treatments, including a three-year stint (one year as an inpatient, two years as an outpatient) at a lilac-bedecked rural psychiatric hospital after a patently halfhearted suicide attempt at age 18.

Webster is the less accomplished of the two writers, and the story of her escape from the couch is a fairly simple, almost generic tale of a woman gradually shedding her dependence on male authority and coming into her own in the 1970s. Its entertainment value lies chiefly in anecdotes of therapeutic mischief. Only true Freudians are capable of such ludicrous antics as telling a young patient having second thoughts about marriage that she sees herself as "wafting over a field of penises picking the most appealing" ("If anything, this was his fantasy," Webster retorts) or intrusively writing to her fianci to explain that his need to get up more than once a night to pee indicates a sexual insecurity severe enough to merit postponing the wedding. The harsh, self-hating female analyst Webster saw when she was a young mother was even worse.

Gordon has a more complex relationship to the practice, which began when she was a child. (Her parents were concerned about her rages and her "chronic underachievement" in school.) She considers herself "one of those people -- we're not so very rare -- for whom life has been not so much examined as conducted in therapy." She believes that she acquired too early "the habit of the analysand, the ruthless stripping away of defenses. But in my case not much self had yet developed, and surely none of it was expendable. I was tearing away not a hardened carapace, but the developing layers of my own epidermis." Ouch.

Apart from this intriguing point, it's abundantly easy to see why conventional therapy annoys Gordon. Her writing reveals the sort of mind that seeks precision and a tart, exacting authenticity. She doesn't so much describe people and things as pin them down mercilessly, like insect specimens. She's astute enough to reserve her most rigorous scrutiny for herself, and her memoir is studded with little frissons of ruthlessness: Describing her youthful posing during sessions, she writes, "I enjoyed the waiflike image I conjured up of myself, and the resultant gentle tide of self-pity that washed over me, raising the hair on my arms and leaving my eyes prickling with tears." When she turns this faculty on someone else, look out: Fighting with her ambitious academic husband, she taunts, "If you had an inside you'd leave me ... But you stay because you'd lose too much writing time." Ouch again.

In an irony that is, naturally, not lost on Gordon, the great inspiration of her life was a therapist, Leslie Farber, who began working with her during her late teens. She idolizes Farber because, unlike the other therapists who treated her, he exercised a discerning -- and here's a key phrase -- moral judgment. Gordon first notices him at the hospital when he makes no effort to hide his "shocked contempt" after one patient says something callous about another at a community meeting. Here, she realizes, she might find an antidote to sessions in which "almost anything I said would disappear into a pit of silent neutrality." Farber, by contrast, treated her like a responsible moral agent. The fact that he might withhold his approval lent meaning to her behavior in her own eyes. When she writes that Farber's "tendency was deflationary: he nearly always preferred a modest exactitude to a rapturous generality," you know she's found a soul mate.

By contrast, the mushy impartiality dictated by the professional ethics of therapy profoundly irks Gordon, who feels that "society has remade itself in therapy's image," reducing all human interaction to innocuous symptoms or treatments. After Farber's death, she goes back to therapy, ostensibly to puzzle out her marriage, but also, it seems, to test herself. She bridles when her therapist takes her side, complaining of his "lawyerliness ... if my husband were the patient he would receive the same treatment." To someone who as a child quickly learned how to manipulate her doctors, "recognizing which gambits and attitudes caused the therapist to signal his receptiveness," all this seems like mannered, empty gesturing, not genuine dialogue.

However disillusioned, both women do credit psychotherapy with fostering their literary confidence. Perhaps, though, the fact that they've written memoirs makes this nod less surprising; talking about yourself is no doubt an excellent preparation for writing about yourself. With the Webster book in particular, the anti-therapy argument sometimes seems like window dressing for the memoirist's routine litany of childhood games and nursed grievances. In Gordon's case, the mordant observations make her recollections much more appealing. Still, when she complains of "the powerful reductive suction of psychoanalytic thinking" that pulled her attention "away from the world and toward the self," you can't help noticing that this certainly isn't a book about "the world."

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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