Reflections from Sag Harbor
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.
I am walking, doing last-minute shopping for holiday dinners and thinking about writing this essay. I find I want to/need to start with the complicated mix of relief and guilt in which my life is currently being lived. It is in the discourse with many colleagues. Being a therapist, a psychoanalyst, has meant for many colleagues, nationally and internationally, a sturdiness and familiarity to life. My income—and that of most colleagues—has not been affected by the pandemic and attendant crises. I am working a lot, writing and teaching as well as seeing patients. The routines of my work life are unaltered even as the content of sessions change, both following and avoiding the collective experience therapist and patient are having of watching and following the news. Between the composition of this essay and its editing and publication, the political framework has altered in ways beyond imagining. Rooms— the House of Representatives, the Senate, so usually in our minds as representations of work and gravitas—are forever altered into frightening signifiers of violence and rebellion.
Virtually everyone I see on Zoom—patient, student, friend, family, stranger—comments on the beautiful color of the room I work in. An odd red-orange East Indian–evoking color, it calms me as well as the other person(s) on the screen. Sitting in another room, quiet and sunny in a house built in 1807, still containing the wide-beamed wood floors, the simple lines of an old house, I read the newspaper, take in the grim statistics. What we see is the COVID-19 social contract and the racism and caste system in which it occurs.
In Chicago, more than 50% of COVID-19 cases and nearly 70% of COVID-19 deaths involve Black individuals, although Blacks make up only 30% of the population. Moreover, these deaths are concentrated mostly in just five neighborhoods on the city’s South Side.
In Louisiana, 70.5% of deaths have occurred among Black persons, who represent 32.2% of the state’s population. In Michigan, 33% of COVID-19 cases and 40% of deaths have occurred among Black individuals, who represent 14% of the population.
In New York City, this disproportionate burden is validated again in under-represented minorities, especially Blacks and now Hispanics, who have accounted for 28% and 34% of deaths, respectively (population representation: 22% and 29%, respectively). (Clancy, 2020)
Weekly, I sit in my red study, on Zoom, while my class of young, new clinicians process their first experiences with patients in this daunting time and its alienating spaces. Learning to be therapists on screens and phones, handling unsettling and scary breakdowns and breaks in clinical situations that, even when people and colleagues and teachers are onscreen with them, is so assuredly not the same and not enough. I think of the same experience a year earlier in a live setting where looks, eye contact, smiles, and nonverbal and verbal links create a safe fabric where one can move from novice into more clinical experience. I think back to the capacity, in those real rooms, to support, to stay engaged with fellow students and professor, and to worry. I realized in processing this now that I worry more about the students than about my patients. My patients I feel able to take care of; perhaps there is illusion in this too. Do history and longstanding connections really hold across shifts in the frame? Does the one-on-one contact allow for more links and safety?
I am remembering an amazing talk Joshua Durban gave this past week. On Zoom from Israel, he described harrowing but also very powerful and transformative work with his young and also adolescent and young adult, deeply disturbed patients. Sometimes the screen contained, and sometimes it excluded and fractured, the patients. He spoke about the intense anxieties of his autistic and psychotic patients, people whose earliest experiences or their own subjectivity had been fragile, disrupted, and discontinuous. He was describing disruptions in the earliest stages of linking with a parental figure, lived as bodily anxieties of discontinuity, dissolution, falling forever, freezing and/or burning.
This seemed so familiar to me from thoughts I had been having at the onset of the pandemic, seeing it as an après-coup, an event in the present stirring, for all of us, primitive experiences of early helplessness. Durban’s patients suffering the more extreme aspects of these anxieties of being reminded me also of the way Bion and Green describe the early rupture of “ongoingness” and the disturbing present of gaps, absences, dissolved spaces.
For each of us, depending on our early experience of linking and parental attunement, the pandemic evoked and set up the early crises of helplessness and rupture. A patient, whose childhood included the massive disruption of removal from a psychotic parent and unstable time in foster care, began after decades of stability and emotional sturdiness to fear her dissolution and that of one of her children. The universe shook, an experience lived through with varying degrees of disruption and fragility.
Writing about the experience of solitude in the red room, I realize there is another experience in that room when I do not feel alone or alone in a clinical dyad. Early in the experience of lockdown and pandemic, the American Psychoanalytic Association put together process groups assigning each to a facilitator, and I found myself meeting a new group of analysts, spread across the country, different kinds of clinical practices joined on Zoom and joined in a shared (and also distinct) experience of vulnerability. We have met weekly for about ten months. We gave ourselves a name: we were not doing Supervision, we were having CO-vision, as in COVID and cooperative, and we are the CO-visions. I think all of us, in different ways, feel able to say and share things that are hard to say elsewhere, to speak about clinical matters that have often felt unshareable. We send each other readings and notices of talks and projects. We can be light and heavy, frightened and aggrieved. I think we all feel blessed.
One final room to speak about: I take the dog for a walk into Oakland Cemetery. I have been noticing how many family plots seem set up as rooms, with entrances, with bushes planted to contour the space where family are buried. The dog and I go to a familiar such room. There is a stone bench, a small tree of a variety I love: stewartia. I read the line on the tombstone where my husband, Bob Sklar, is buried. It’s the last line from The Great Gatsby, a book he wrote about in his early years as a cultural historian:
“And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne on ceaselessly, into the past.”
Now my grandson studies the book in high school. I remember that Bob described it as a book about the West, about coming East, and within that project, it is a story about the illusion that money and youth bring happiness. Right now, at this moment, we are living in and dismantling that dream. ■
Adrienne Harris, PhD, is faculty and supervisor at New York University’s postdoctoral program in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis and at the Psychoanalytic Institute of Northern California. She is an editor at Psychoanalytic Dialogues and Studies in Gender and Sexuality. In 2009, she, Lewis Aron, and Jeremy Safron established the Sandor Ferenczi Center at the New School University. Along with Lewis Aron, Eyal Rozmarin, and Steven Kuchuck, she co-edited the book series Relational Perspectives in Psychoanalysis. She is an editor of the International Psychoanalytical Association’s e-journal Psychoanalysis.today.
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