All I can do is assert—with more passion than proof— a psychoanalytic mode that is more lyric than rational, more metaphysical than scientific. It has long been commonplace in our profession to say that Freud always hoped psychoanalysis would find itself on firm scientific footing, in which case his speculations would be replaced by biology and chemistry. My reading of Freud’s disclaimers about psychoanalysis is that it was his way of deferring the scientific question to some future time, thereby clearing a space for his more theoretical and often hypothetical, philosophical, and even novelistic pursuits. In my reading, he is being a bit sly, coy even.
I am the white Jewish mother of Black sons. My older child was called “the N word” for the first time in Fire Island, New York, when he was three years old. The younger one was called “the N word” for the first time in Massachusetts when he was six.
It is Tuesday at 4:00 pm, and it is time for Ben, a white man in his early thirties. He often refers to himself as “strange” for feeling out of step in not holding popular, mainstream views like most of his friends. He feels like that is due to a lack in him, and this lack makes him feel on the outside of things. He does not feel lacking or strange to me but familiar. I find myself holding him in warmth and fondness.
“I was thinking to myself, I can’t wait to tell them. They’re going to be so excited!” Or maybe the patient didn’t say excited—maybe they used a different word. I can’t exactly remember because my mind got stuck on them/they’re. It took a moment before I realized the patient was referring to me. They referenced me not as her/she but them/they. My preferred pronouns. I was moved, for a moment, out of the shared space of the session, out of the patient’s experience and into my own. Something caught in my throat, my eyes watered just a fraction, and my heart skipped a beat. I felt fear; I felt gratitude. I slowly settled back into attunement with my patient, and though they remained on the screen, many miles away, I felt closer to them than before.
Many of us have had the experience of standing in front of the window of a hospital’s newborn nursery, a partition that simultaneously protects and allows visitors to gaze at the variety of human life displayed within. The tiny creatures, hatted in little ski caps, are only hours to days old, yet how distinct they are from one another as they sleep, squirm, smile, grimace, and cry. It’s fascinating in those early weeks, especially if the infant is a familial one, to watch the play of expressions that crosses its face and then shifts, calling to mind now the contemplative gaze of one relative and then the loopy smile of another—features that over time will coalesce into a more stable facial configuration.
Even though a virus is blind, we have learned, yet again, that like so many oppressive things, it disproportionately finds its way to those who are already suffering. I feel privileged that, during the coronavirus pandemic
The weather report had been dire—a nor’easter, heavy winds, rain. But the day opens sunny and light and warm. I get up from the room in which I have been working for the past ten months and walk into town: Sag Harbor, a village that goes back to the eighteenth century, curving main street, part of the whaling world of the East End of Long Island, now the sweeter part of the Hamptons, a spot for writers and artists back in the ’60s, a village with outlying neighborhoods including a middle-class African-American world, the space Colson Whitehead writes about in his novel Sag Harbor. I have had a house here for thirty years, so am a relative newcomer, and this past year I have been here more than ever before, moving through seasons, garden blooming and leaves falling, watching through the same set of windows as the light and the seasons change. I am both still and absorbed in a single red room and walking through the village, beaches and gardens, in a natural world that seems eerily benign.
The concept of radical openness proposes not that we empty our minds but that we open our minds to the prospect of losing the understandings to which we are attached. In order to engage in a dialogue that could be described as radically open, we bring our prior understandings into the new, emergent conversation with the idea that they, when brought into contact with the speaking and listening of the other person, may be subject to revision, augmentation, or even relinquishment.
Back in 1987, I was in a doctoral psychology program outside of Los Angeles. I had the good fortune to do my final internship in a solidly middle-class section of town at a community mental health center staffed with social workers, psychologists, interns, and a psychiatrist. Every week, we had meetings to discuss new cases as well as chronically troublesome ones. In many instances, the patients who came to the clinic were from the local community and had been coming there for years, as had their families. Such was the case with the man I came to call Motorcycle Man.
Within the Black community, there exists a hidden caste system of “good” and “bad” hair, just like skin color hierarchies. “Good” hair is considered to be closer to straighter, wavier, Eurocentric hair, and “bad” hair is kinkier, coiled, thicker hair. Although these hair valuations are seen as being on a gradient, there is almost always a natural splitting that takes place when seeing and being seen. This dichotomy contributes to the double consciousness in the upbringing of Black girls in America. This twoness originally described by W.E.B. Du Bois is between the “American and the Negro, two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”