Just One More Question [Article]
Originally published in The New York Times, February 2, 2016 [Link]
It had been 16 years since I’d ended my analysis and there I was, back again. Not to return to analysis, but rather for a kind of tuneup. I felt that something wasn’t quite right with me.
I was in analysis from 1988 to 1997, four times a week, lying on the classic couch covered in a Persian rug like Freud’s own, in an office lined with bookshelves, anchored by a desk with a perfect orchid in bloom and offering a majestic view from Central Park all the way to the George Washington Bridge.
My analyst was Martin Bergmann, an eminent but somewhat dissident Freudian. (He also came to be known for his role in Woody Allen’s 1989 film “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” in which he played, extemporaneously, a philosopher named Louis Levy.)
Sitting again in Martin’s waiting room, I remembered the last session of my analysis. Martin had greeted me as always, only that day he was smiling broadly. I asked him if he was always this pleased when a patient finished.
“I suppose,” he answered. “But I am especially pleased to still be alive at the end of your analysis!”
I knew exactly what he meant. I myself had been worried that he would not live through the analysis. He was nearly 75 when I began treatment, and psychoanalysis is a long commitment.
Death was something of a stranger to me when I began my analysis. I came from a family decimated by the Holocaust, which meant, in my case, that I had no aged relatives. No grandparents, no great-aunts or uncles. The generation older than my parents all were killed before I was born.
So it was with some trepidation that I began psychoanalysis with Martin. At the same time, it was my first experience speaking straightforwardly with an elder about dying.
“Are you afraid of death?” I asked him one afternoon.
“I feel that my life has been rich and fulfilling,” he answered. “I can’t say how I’ll feel when push comes to shove, but I believe I will be able to say, ‘I am satisfied.’”
Not long after that, in another session, I was lying on the couch talking about what it would be like for me if Martin died suddenly. Free associating, I observed that I superstitiously feared that just by talking about his death I might bring it about.
As I was an analyst myself by the time, I offered my own interpretation: that there was a wish behind my fear. The wish that Martin would die, that my parents would die, that I could learn about death and in the process feel more fully alive myself.
Martin was uncharacteristically silent when I was talking. “But I know that my words won’t kill you,” I ventured.
“Martin?” I said.
I said it louder: “Martin?”
Panicked, I sat up. “Are you O.K.?” I asked, turning to face him.
He started, as if woken from sleep. “Yes,” he said, looking around, and then at the clock. “We have to interrupt for today.”
I said that something seemed wrong with him. He said only, “Yes, I will look into it.”
The next day, I returned and sat across from him in the Eames chair reserved for patients who sat upright during sessions. I asked if he was all right. He told me that he had consulted his doctor, who diagnosed a transient ischemic attack — a kind of “warning” stroke.
“Is there anything you need to do for it?” I asked.
“My wife thinks I should work less,” he said.
I explained that his attack had been especially disturbing to me because when it occurred I was talking about my fear that my death wishes would kill him. He smiled. “For you,” he said, “that was frightening, because it reinforced your fantasy that you are omnipotent. For me, it was the most hopeful part of the whole episode, the possibility that my attack was psychological and not physical. But I am afraid neither is likely the case.”
As it turned out, Martin lived to complete my analysis. And now, here I was back again, 16 years later. The consulting room had not changed, except that instead of one orchid on his desk, the room was filled with them.
Martin had changed. He had grown thinner. His dapper suit hung on him differently. His eyes, though, had the same, familiar look of pleased recognition. He smiled at me. “What brings you to see me?” he asked.
“I’ve been unhappy,” I explained. “And I can’t seem to resolve it on my own.”
“Oh, I see,” he said. “I thought you had come because of my celebration.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t know about your celebration.”
“Yes,” he said, “I turned 100 this month.”
I couldn’t resist: I asked, after congratulating him, what his thoughts were about death, now that push had come closer to shove.
“Well,” he said, “I console myself with the thought that Shakespeare died, and Beethoven died, so, yes, death will come for me, too.”
We spoke about his birthplace in Prague and I mentioned that I was planning a trip there. He said that I could see the house where he was born: In the town square was a building with a plaque indicating that Albert Einstein had once played the violin there. “I was born on the third floor,” he said.
Eventually, we came around to my problem, which, of course, had echoes of former problems of mine with which he was familiar. He listened closely and, after a pause, looked me squarely in the eye, and with a deep knowledge of me, said, “You will not be fully yourself until you are wholly aligned with your sexuality.”
I tried to soften and generalize what he was saying to me: “You mean my life drive?”
He shrugged as if to say, Eh, that’s not quite it. “No, not your life drive,” he said. “That’s not your problem. Your sexuality.”
Martin’s generation of psychoanalysts had worked to tame sexuality, focusing instead on a more general need for relationships. This gentler version has become prominent in today’s psychoanalytic circles. But for Martin, this was only half the story. The other half was the problem of how to connect intimately with other people without compromising the productive disturbance that comes from true, physical sexual drive — what Freud called the “mischiefmaker.”
I knew what Martin meant. He meant that I had to live my life in a way that included and harnessed that aspect of my life force that made me vibrate, that made me thrill to take action in the world, the part that connected me profoundly and physically with the world, with others, the part that was — there’s no other word for it — sexual.
People think of classical Freudian analysts as neutral and nonjudgmental. But that was not Martin. He was not neutral and, in an essential way, he was indeed judgmental. He paid attention, not primarily to anxiety or symptoms, but to the capacity to be loving.
When I would report some action that was unloving or unkind, especially if I was trying to justify my own bad behavior, Martin would be visibly saddened. That was his natural response, to get sad, and he would say something like, “That wasn’t you at your best.”
Sometimes I could sense it just listening to his breathing or his silences. And without my being aware of it, this sense of what it means to be a decent, loving human being began to guide my associations, my development, my becoming who I was capable of becoming.
Now, 16 years after he last treated me, Martin had zeroed in on the area of my life where I was holding back: the courage to live passionately, to bring sexuality to all aspects of my life. It was, perhaps, the session that nine years of analysis had prepared me for. I have, in the years since, found this insight to be transformative, a key to a richer experience of life and love.
When the clock indicated the hour was at an end, Martin gave a sigh and said, “I’m sorry, I have to let you go.” He had often ended sessions that way, as if to say, this is a pleasure for us both, and yet there is also the reality principle, and we must bow to it.
This tuneup was my last session with Martin. Not quite a year later, like Shakespeare, like Beethoven, Martin died.
Steven Reisner is a psychoanalyst and couples therapist in New York.