May 13, 2009 / Creative Writing
I watched Rebel Without a Cause on TV late one college night when I learned …
September 27, 2018
One of my favorite lines, and I read it with sorrow and shame, is E. M. Forster’s “I do not believe in Belief,” because for most of my life I thought I was above religion.1 But like a sorry alcoholic tormented by thirst, I drank up belief like you wouldn’t believe, all the while proud of what I really, yes, believed, was my atheism.
Drowning children gripping a raft, my parents caught hold of psychoanalysis and held on tenaciously, through all the stormy seas through which it took them. I can’t remember a time when they weren’t running off to an appointment with “dear Dr. Berkeley,” whom we children were instructed to call “Aunt Berkeley.” In fact, apart from Aunt Berkeley, we had almost no other friends. Aunt Berkeley had actually thrown Mom and Dad together after they completed their analyses with her, and then, thinking they both needed continued support, she attended their wedding, came to our holiday dinners, took us to her country house for Halloween, and continued to see—and charge—my parents in separate sessions. Judging by their arguments that thundered over me as a child, Mom and Dad spent these individual sessions tattling on each other.
If you were to observe my parents welcoming Aunt Berkeley as she stood at our front door for Thanksgiving, you would have thought the pope was paying a personal call and the acolytes were lining Saint Peter’s Square. Faces uplifted, eyes hopeful, Mom and Dad struggled to be the first to take her coat. Our equivalent of a communion wafer chased with wine was free association followed by “insight.”
At fourteen, puberty prompted a new ritual: I was to get my own analyst, a Viennese one, too, Dr. Sternbach. This sacrament, I learned, required a commitment of five days a week, although when money was tight, I occasionally received a dispensation of three days a week, provided I was extra devout to make up for the deficit. Each day, I went to the analyst’s office, lay on the couch for fifty minutes, and spilled whatever verbiage happened to trundle through my head, no matter how embarrassing, no matter how inane, no matter how incomprehensible. I seemed to get extra salvation points for free associations of humiliating sexual fantasies or bowel habits, and if I felt reduced to muttering, “Shit fuck cunt goddamn I hate my Latin teacher” for the entire fifty minutes, then, well, I just had to have faith, honey.
Still, no matter how long I lacked inspiration, unable to come up with anything better than, “I brushed my teeth and vomited and then I had a weird dream about my brother’s penis,” I knew I was improving. But if I had dared to entertain what I was really thinking—“all this is an expensive waste of time!”—then Zeus would have rained down thunderbolts on my ungrateful head and I would have endured the torments of Job; I would have left my session knowing I was a hopeless schizophrenic or an incurable narcissist. Or both.
Believe me, I know. I tried uttering my doubts. More than once. I got threatened with excommunication—“Maybe you are too disturbed for me to treat you”—or a cold insinuation that I wasn’t remotely curable. I felt like one being cast into the outer darkness, as beyond the pale as Lucifer.
On good days, my analyst would inform me that one of us had had an insight. And when I was told an insight had descended, I felt rays of light from above, heard cheers from the nine muses. All that hard work and boring blah-blah and excruciatingly embarrassing confession was paying off, and I was just that much closer to salvation, because I had had an insight!
Content of a typical insight: “You are competitive with men!” or “You are dependent upon your mother! So dependent!” or “You are a slut because you wanted your father to touch you!”
Of course, the insights tended to be as damning as the free associations, but I was invariably rewarded with the notion that now “we are finally getting somewhere” in the path toward understanding. When true understanding—mature insight!—was finally achieved, and I was told that I could expect that process to take years, I knew I would be a “healthy” person who had replaced neurotic conflict with the ordinary miseries of the world. On that day I would be capable of having true relationships, even a marriage.
But now, during my psychoanalysis, I was not supposed to have intimate relationships. Such relationships would interfere with another mystical attachment called “transference.” The whole dream of psychoanalysis lay in transference, in the idea that we can never really love or understand a person for him or herself. Instead, we can only resurrect, without understanding, our earliest relationships and experiences. In love, we react not to the real person but to our unconscious projections of mom, dad, dog, cat, hamster onto our lover.
The shrinks never admit that this, to know one’s past projections, is the true goal of transference. To do so would mean admitting to their role as God slapping down Moses or the devil (take your pick). The analysts think their insights replace our bad experiences with good-enough insight or good-enough parenting, depending on the school to which the analysts subscribe, and by the way, these schools all hate each other, just as the Protestants hate the Catholics and the Hindus hate the Muslims, so too the Freudians hate the Jungians, and everybody hates the Lacanians.
So, what did I get out of psychoanalysis? Well, belief, and that floated my boat through typhoons. For decades, I thought that if I stuck with “the process,” I’d eventually go through a miraculous transformation. It’d be like growing an extra five inches, sprouting bee-stung lips and a gorgeous bust, and suddenly developing a newfound talent for singing and dancing. I’d be beautiful, too, and not at all shy. I’d swim through life.
Heady stuff, belief.
That life can change in a nanosecond, irrevocably; that good relationships come through luck, not some magical unneurotic state; that we fall in love with personalities that appeal to us and not to strange echoes of an earlier past; that I could love a man whose background is as unlike mine as cheese is to snakes, or holy water to piss—the obvious truths escaped me when I believed.
Who wants to believe in uncertainty? But there it is, the elephant trumpeting in the room, trampling all my stuff.
These days, I’m the infidel of most denominations. I believe I’ll have that hot chocolate. I believe I’ll kiss my husband. I believe I’ll cook dinner. I believe I’ll feed the guinea pigs. I believe I’ll go to ballet class now. Yes. I believe I’ll do just that.
Melissa Knox is the author of Divorcing Mom: A Memoir of Psychoanalysis, a forthcoming book from Cynren Press. Her recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Concho River Review, Offbeat, Clarion Project, Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, and elsewhere. She teaches American literature and culture at the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany and blogs at The Critical Mom: http://www.thecriticalmom.blogspot.com.