The Shrink Files

The Swimsuit Issue

It was January, 1990. In other words, it was pre-Prozac. My patient was becoming frantic. She was convinced that her husband was scoping out other women. He was a letter carrier and he had plenty of opportunity to observe women in various states of deshabille as they collected their mail. But the first week in February posed a particular threat, a threat exceeding that of any other week of any month…..the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated. Her husband would be delivering the magazine to many homes. Surely he would look at it. The thought of this was unbearable to her.

Reading between the lines, as therapists are wont to do, I realized that my patient’s husband’s “looking” behavior was probably no different than any other straight man’s “looking” behavior. It was her problem, not his. Because of her worry, she held held her husband on a short leash and restricted his travel. He was not even permitted to go fishing lest he observe women in bathing suits on the shore. Interestingly, he did not seriously object to these limitations. Eventually she recognized the absurdity of her rules for him, and she came to see me.

Deconstructing her  fear of her husband’s wandering eye, my patient recollected that as an adolescent she noticed that her father spied on her when she showered. She tried to lock the bathroom door, but, somehow, the lock would never stay fixed. Her father disgusted her. He smelled of cigarettes, and when he died in his sixties of emphysema, she felt relieved. His legacy to her:  an aversion to tobacco and a fixed belief that all men relentlessly engage in  lascivious looking.

My patient was able to use this insight about her past to undo her needless anxiety about her husband. She endured the the first week in February issue of S.I. without incident. She released her husband from geographic confinement. She stopped monitoring his “looking” behavior. She wanted to to party, to go into the city to the theater and restaurants, to have fun.

That’s when the real trouble in their marriage started. The more she wished to expand their horizons, the more he resisted. He was happy to stay within the boundary of his neighborhood and mail route and became anxious when he strayed. It turned out that he was suffering from agoraphobia, but had never noticed because he had never tested himself.  He simply never left town. Their neuroses perfectly balanced each other….but now that she was better, the marriage came apart. Eventually they divorced.

I wonder, in retrospect, if I did anyone any favors.


A Hates B

Patient A viscerally hated B, about whom she had murderous fantasies. Both were women in their twenties who had  met on the job, but B had moved on and up. Though B was gone from Patient A’s life, Patient A’s bitterness remained steadfastly in place. How could B have so much, when she, the truly deserving one had so little? B was rich, sophisticated, a world traveler with European parents who spoke multiple languages….and, most humiliating of all, the boss preferred B.

Patient A grew up with few advantages. Her father fled  the nest when she was about five years old, leaving her, her mom and two younger sisters to fend for themselves. Her chronically aggrieved mother did not warm to her girls, especially Patient A, and Patient A, in turn, warmed to no one — including me.

In session after session, I dutifully listened to a laundry list of grievances, notably her resentment of  the good fortune of B.  Her hostility crystallized on the other, now absent,  young woman. When I tried to empathize with her feelings of deprivation and sibling rivalry, she shot me down. She wanted me to loathe B as much as she did. She wanted me wallow in her hate-fest, to talk about B’s awfulness in elaborate detail. I wasn’t being helpful, she said. Talking to me was a waste of time.

After a few weeks, I was shocked to realize that I knew B, that she was, by coincidence, another client. Neither patient was aware that I was seeing the other. To be sure, Patient B was nothing like Patient A described her. She was timid, polite, self-deprecating, a little depressive. Far from being rich, she had grown up on welfare. It was hard for me to understand how such a mild-manner individual could ignite such passionate dislike. Of course, Patient A’s hatred of Patient B was not about B at all. It was entirely impersonal.

Though they were no longer in contact with each other, I  worried that they would cross paths in my neighborhood, or worse, in my waiting room. I felt guilty that I was harboring a secret —  that I knew and was kindly disposed toward the object of her intense hatred. I was rigorous about scheduling wide spaces between their appointments. The whole dynamic made me anxious.

Through it all, Patient B never mentioned Patient A…not a word…not even a subtle reference. Patient A was not on her radar screen. Patient A never knew about her own triviality to Patient B. She quit therapy, and, I suspect, is still nursing her grudge.

.(Note that the patient’s identity is disguised)

The Pleasure of Scandal

There used to be consequences to scandal. These days, nothing much happens. Woody Allen, Bill Clinton, Eliot Spitzer, Britney Spears, Newt Gingrich — they just go on, even flourish. I should be happy about this. I’m a fan of second chances. Besides, their transgressions weren’t so transgressive. But it feels like there’s something missing. There’s no denouement. No schadenfreude. I think we could use a nice juicy scandal where the perps get punished, where we vicariously gratify our vengeful feelings, where we have the pleasure of seeing others get punished for deeds we’d like to commit. When there are no consequences to scandalous behavior,  it does not titillate. Scandal becomes “meh.”




My new twenty-something patient, told me that she had a shocking secret, but she couldn’t talk about it. Even after I assured her of confidentiality she remained tongue-tied. I asked her how the secret made her feel. “Ashamed,” she said. “I feel like an imposter” We talked around it, about her life. I tried to make her feel safe.

On her second visit, she seemed even more hesitant, but was resolved, she said,  to spill the beans. She took a deep breath, stared past me and began to talk. As she spoke I observed that she began to glance at me. I recall that I didn’t react. I recall, moreover, that I didn’t feel the need to react. I had heard this kind of thing a million times. I remember looking at her pink dangling earrings. Afterwards, she was visibly relieved. She thanked me profusely. She felt so much better.

I never saw her again.

I’ve forgotten her secret.

(Note that the patient’s identity is disguised)


Dog Love

The woman on the phone sounded hesitant. “My girlfriend makes love to our dog,” she said. After thirty years of practice I thought I had heard everything, but making love to a dog was a new one to me.  Dutifully  channeling my inner Sigmund, doing what therapists do, I invited her in to talk about it.

Not that I know anything about bestiality. I practice in a city. Lots of amorous people cruising around but no cows or sheep. Be open-minded I counseled myself.  After all, bestiality is harmless. No one is hurt. No human. But…what about the dog? Was it an adult? Was it consenting? The truth is, I find the idea of making love to a dog repulsive. No, no, this is not about me, nor bestiality…. it’s about the quality of the women’s relationship, their ability to communicate and respect each other.

I didn’t know what to expect, but the attractive, thirty-something professional woman from Colombia who came to my office did not match any of my mental pictures of her. I immediately asked her the obvious question:  What do you mean, exactly, by your girlfriend making love to their dog. She answered with disgust — that her girlfriend actually kisses the dog on its face, allows it to  sit on her lap and lick her,  and, believe it or not, takes it into their bed.

I burst out laughing. “Welcome to the United States,” I said. A few years later, when she became a citizen, she sent me a photo her girlfriend and herself hugging the dog.