My psychoanalyst's twisted final session

Once a legend in his field, he was clearly losing his grip. Still, why did he have such a hold on me?

By Simon Yisrael Feuerman

Published December 6, 2011 1:00AM (EST)

      (<a href=''>Franck Boston</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(Franck Boston via Shutterstock)

It was with some trepidation that I called Dr. M.

I had read his articles in various psychoanalytic journals and heard his name tossed around at conferences and institutes. He was one of the princes of psychoanalysis and supervision, a member of the old school. He knew people who had been analyzed by Freud and was a colleague of some of the last century’s bad/good boys of psychoanalysis – Hyman Spotnitz, Lou Ormont, Ethel Clevans, Phyllis Meadow.

Nineteen years I had been with a previous analyst and supervisor with whom I had an irreparable break. Nineteen years may sound like a long time for most people, but in the rarefied world of New York psychoanalysis, 19 years is merely a beginning.

Finally, I had made the phone call. And now I was at Dr. M's Upper West Side office for my interview. I had built a practice that was already sizable, but would I rate for his famous supervision group?

I had arrived about 10 minutes early and expected to read in the waiting room until the appointed hour. By tradition, an analyst will open his door precisely at the right time, neither early nor late.

To my surprise, he came out 10 minutes before our appointment time. Anticipating a silent rebuke I quickly said, “I apologize for coming early.”

“I apologize for seeing you early,” he said. “Come in.”

He had a shock of white hair. He was handsome. Looking at him in that dimly lit hallway in the late spring of 2009, I was taken aback. Why, he must be 90 years old, at least. (He was 89.) His body sent my body a message: I am dying. But at the very same time the vigor in his booming voice said something else entirely. It took hold of me. I was confused: While on the one hand he looked as though he might be nearing the end of his life -- the office was dusty, his pants were hiked up too high, subtle but telltale signs of a man losing touch -- his voice said, “Beginnings!” New life.

He talked, I talked. I talked, he talked. We had a rhythm. He seemed to be building an enthusiastic lather about having me as his newborn as though he were a man of 30 being given a baby to hold outside the delivery room. There was, you could say, a kind of love in the air.

And it made me somewhat uneasy. In fact, I was quite certain that I had made a mistake. I wanted to run away fast. I did not want to be in this man’s group. Perhaps I feared that I would have to face his death and my own here. I wanted to go to a group that promised me everlasting life. I did not want a dying analyst. I was looking for potency, vitality, virility. I had quite a bit myself, but sought it in others too.

As if magically sensing my turmoil, he stood up. “Enough for today," he barked. "I would like you to join my group, but say in about nine months. Not before.”

I was astonished. Was he a master, I thought, one of these wonder-worker analysts who can read the mind and even ride like a bronco, two wildly opposing winds of thought in a man? Such things were possible in my world. I had great faith in analysts and their mad magic, their alchemy, their abilities to turn lead into gold and ambivalence and even death into life.

But nine months?! This shocked me and made me respect his powers. Here was a man who may not even live nine months and he has all the time in the world. “You will call me in November,” he said.

He was right. I wasn’t ready to join his group. I was just coming off the heels of a horrible breakup with an analyst/mentor of nearly two decades. A man whose ambition and greed were very helpful to me until they weren’t and when I told him, he viciously attacked me, but that is another story.

I needed time to heal. And nine months were what the doctor ordered. But the months passed and I still did not feel ready. On the last day of November, I called him.

“I’m not ready yet to come in, Dr. M," I began. "There are some things getting in the way …”

“You’re worth waiting for,” he said and then hung up.

At the end of January I was finally ready. I reported to his group at 10:30 on Tuesday. There was only one problem: No one was there.

Could I have gotten the time wrong? I checked and rechecked my calendar. I called his office. No answer.

Could he have died? Did I wish him to die? Could I have caused his death? In analysis even the wackiest of thoughts must be considered.

I left a message for him and returned to my northern New Jersey office. The next day I received a telephone call. It was Dr. M. “Something happened. I can’t go into it. Come back in two weeks. Same day, but at 10, not at 10:30.”

I returned to his office on a snowy day. This time there was a crowd of 10 people outside. They were white, middle-aged and disgruntled New Yorkers. I figured this must be the group.

“I am so angry at Dr. M,” I heard one of them saying.

I gathered that he was late. “I’m the new guy,” I introduced myself. I quickly learned that this was the third time he was late this month. A pleasant woman who looked to be in her early 60s said, “He even forgot my appointment last week.”

Someone with a cellphone said that Dr. M called to say he would be one half-hour late. Sure enough, after 20 minutes, he emerged out of a small car with a young African-American woman.

“Give me a few minutes to organize myself and then come into the office,” he shouted.

Dutifully, our group waited five minutes and then filed in.

Dr. M started. “I am so uncomfortable,” he said.

“Why?” someone asked.

“Because I hate to keep people waiting.”

“You’re worth waiting for,” I asserted.

“Well,” he said with a sly grin, “that’s certainly true. I am worth waiting for.”

Everyone started talking at once. It was a rabble. “You have been late. You are late, Dr. M. What is going on?”

“I’ll tell you what’s going on,” he shouted. "I have lost the ability to tell time. I have aged to the point where I no longer have capacity to know what time it is.” He folded his hands in his lap.

The group was stunned into silence. They had been meeting together for almost 40 years.

“I am taking steps to account for this handicap. From now on, my … I have a wonderful African-American woman who I have fallen in love with!” he explained with a twinkle in his eye. “Her name is Claire. She will keep me on track with all of my appointments and I will give her everyone’s phone number. She has saved my life since my wife died and has given me reason to live. We now go everywhere together -- to the movies, to museums. Thanks to her I am painting again.”

“But Dr. M,” one male group member said. “This is a serious thing. This has to affect your ability to care for us."

“You are not listening to me,” Dr. M broke in, swatting an imaginary fly.

“You are not listening to us,” the group answered in return.

“You missed one appointment with me,” one attractive woman said, “and fell asleep in another … I was traumatized.”

“You are not listening to me,” Dr. M thundered.

“I think we are. It is you who are not listening to us,” the group shouted back.

The woman persisted. “I need to talk, I need to talk.” She sounded like an emergency room patient with a gall bladder attack. The group psychologically parted way for her to speak, but just as she was about to, Dr. M preempted the woman.

“You need to be quiet. I have been listening to you for 30 years. Your talking is a resistance.”

I was aghast. Talking was one of the tenets of faith of psychoanalysis. Without talking there is no progress. Now one of its holiest apostles was actually telling someone not to talk.

I could feel my colleague’s hurt, anger and bewilderment at being silenced. As if any proof was needed, quiet sobbing could be heard from her corner.

A number of people in the group were prepared to take up her cudgels: Dr. M had practically told her to shut up. We might have risen in insurrection, but I think what stopped the group was that it was difficult to discern whether this almost bestial frankness might in some way be, well, therapeutic.

At this moment Dr. M got up from his seat (considered verboten in group treatment) and walked over to his desk to get a battery to put in an electronic device. Problem was that it was a nine-volt battery that he was trying to get into a compartment that could only fit AA batteries. Everyone could see that he was struggling. One man tried to tell him, “Those batteries are nine-volt, Dr. M. They require AA’s,” but to no avail.

Other attempts were made to reason with him. “The batteries are too big,” several said. Dr. M shrugged them off. I felt sad in my stomach, like something broke at that moment. In the span of an instant, the wizard of Oz had become Mr. Magoo. Here was a gifted man who was both terribly on and terribly off at the same time. Perhaps, I thought, this is like the filament in the old light bulbs. It burns brightly just before it goes poof.

One short man with hairy arms said, “My dear Dr. M. We hire you to work with us and you may not be able to do this anymore. Try to put yourself in our position. We pay you money. Tell us how you would handle this.”

“You’re resisting taking care of me. You as a group want to be taken care of, but you need now to take care of me. You are resisting taking care of me!” He said it with emphasis at least three times, first low, then shouting, then an octave higher still.

Such a thought seemed outrageous. My brain was working fast to wrap itself around this idea. The chutzpah! Why would he expect us to take care of him? Didn’t we pay him to “take care” of us? But then it occurred to me the genius of his words. His job was to tell us about our resistance. He was absolutely right. We were resistant to taking care of him. (That he had his own resistances didn’t matter. We were in a powerful, brick-headed resistance.)

Another man spoke up. “I always respected you, Dr. M. I thought that you would know when to quit. Why not consider retiring. You already have 60-plus years of work behind you.”

Dr. M cut him off: “Harry. In the event you pre-decease me, and I have to give a eulogy at your funeral. What would you like me to say?”

A woman from the group hissed. “He’s trying to tell you something, Dr. M, on behalf of all of us, but you don’t want to hear.”

“You don’t want to hear. This group has a resistance to taking care of me!”

“Don’t people have any cases to bring up? This is a supervision group,” he cried. A female therapist from one of the suburbs obliged: “A patient of mine went on a tirade. She asked me to sign an affidavit in a custody battle that she is having.”

“Tell her that you don’t sign forms or affidavits.”

“But I have done so in the past.”

“Tell her that you don’t do them anymore.”

“But --”

“You’re not listening to me. Your job is to bring people together. This is your calling in this field. You help people reconcile with themselves and each other. This is what you do. If she wants forms signed, then let her go to another therapist.”

“But she’s insisting …”

“Then you insist that she leave, that she go to another therapist. Tell her that you don’t want to work with her.”

“What if she sends me emails, texts, saying that I am the only one who can help her?”

“Don’t answer her.”

Dr. M turned to the rest of the group now. “Silence is the greatest, most effective intervention that we therapists have. See you all in two weeks."

The session that had begun late ended promptly.

“Are we really going to meet in two weeks?” someone asked.

Overhearing this, Dr. M raised his voice to brush away any doubts. “Why wouldn’t we be meeting in two weeks? My doctors tell me I am fine. My heart rate is perfect. My blood pressure is like that of a young man. Earlier heart damage has been completely reversed."

Not surprisingly, his reassurances did not reassure anyone. We looked at each other, shaking our heads in doubt.

As we filed out of the room, Dr. M said, “Please pay me for only a half session today because I was late.”

I respected him for this. He was honest, an honest Jewish man from the Bronx. This was his core, but I was stimulated by him too. I felt that I had just witnessed something spectacular and sad too – the flameout of a comet or even a shooting star across the firmament.

As I walked to the bus stop after group, I felt as if I just had to call him. It might be my last call to him.

“Dr. M? I had to reach out to you to say thank you for inviting me to your group.” I wasn’t sure whether he would be familiar with the biblical phrase for child of old age. It was "ben-zekunim." (Benjamin was the patriarch Jacob’s child of old age) But I gave it a shot. “Dr. M! I am your ben-zekunim." I shouted into the phone.

There was a split-second pause as if he were considering the phrase, to comprehend it. “Ben-zekunim," he said. "That’s such a nice thing to say!” And without warning he hung up.

I had this irresistible urge for further contact. I redialed his number filled with the bursting of my own cleverness, my own need to be special, to come up with the mot juste, for the dubious, chimera-like reward of being the favored son (at the advanced age of 46).

He picked up the phone; he knew it was me. He did not let me speak; he said simply: “Simon, don’t be a noodge.” And he put the receiver down.

So, dutifully, two weeks later I trekked in from New Jersey to his haunt at Central Park West. I had received no call from anyone, so the group must be on, I thought, even as I knew, knew that he could not continue to lead the group. So why did I practically sleepwalk my way into Manhattan on buses and trains against the currents and waves of reason and common sense without even calling to confirm? I had spent a lifetime with unbreakable men, Houdini-like father figures that seem always able to pull a rabbit out of a hat. Magically I assumed Dr. M too would emerge a hero-saint. He too, even as he had to obey the exacting demands of decay and death, might at least shine a beatific light on the matter, instructing his faithful disciples.

I arrived at the office at the stroke of 10 and no one was there.

I later learned he was hospitalized, and placed in a nursing home shortly afterward. A few months ago he died.

Simon Yisrael Feuerman

Simon Yisrael Feuerman is director of NCAPS (New Center for Advanced Psychotherapy Studies) and is a psychoanalyst in private practice in New Jersey.

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