Molly Peacock on one modern woman’s life
IT WAS NEVER an absolutely “classical” analysis. It was more like exploring a vast chambered nautilus shell, say, the size of a small planet—for 38 years. Not a straight four decades, but in bits and fits and long waxes and silent wanes. Then just before our, what was it, 1300th? appointment (over a thousand lustrous chambers), I received a call from her colleague saying that my psychotherapist had suffered a debilitating stroke. Apparently it was the biggest brain bleed they’d ever seen in that frenzied New York City hospital Emergency Room—an AVM. (Arteriovenus Malformation occurs as the brain develops in the womb, like a little time bomb. Hers went off at age 77.) When I heard, “She will never practice again,” on that cold, humid March Sunday in 2012, I assumed she would die. Instead we entered a new chamber that, even in my 40 years as a poet with a huge tolerance for strangeness and metaphor, devastates and inspires me. Call it a coda for that never absolutely classical analysis.
Let me say straight off that she no longer practices. And that she has asked me to name her: Joan Workman Stein, Radcliffe Class of 1954, Smith College School of Social Work, Analytic Training at The Postgraduate Center for Mental Health (now The Postgraduate Psychoanalytic Society and Institute). She was first my therapist, then my analyst, later an interesting combination of both. Before I get into particulars, let me describe Joan to you at her most vivid. She is short, about 5’2”. In her prime: dark haired, dark-eyed, piquant, trim, with an expressive face, intelligently alive. Her vocabulary was, and still is, full of a New Yorker’s hyperbole: “marvelous,” “exciting,” “huge,” “spectacular,” yet this energy used to be held in check by a slow walk to open her apartment door (I could hear those steps as I waited in the hall), and the low hello of welcome: as neutral as an expressive person could muster. She was beautifully, slightly unconventionally dressed, in the way that many painters—no matter how tall, short, fat or proportioned they are—have an innate sense of what looks perfect on them. A woman who wore a red lipstick with élan.
And she was someone who, though capable of waiting hours for me to creep out of the rainforest of my own tears and silences as if she were Jane Goodall patiently waiting for a chimp, could also speak her mind in no uncertain terms. On occasion, when the years of ‘the worst’ were long over, I sometimes, especially if we had an appointment on the phone, wrote down what she said. Here’s something I scribbled down, five years before her stroke:
If I wrote about my work, what I’d write about is how the classical Freudian psychoanalysis leads toward termination, toward cleaning up all the little issues. But in fact, many therapists now see patients for decades. Termination is no longer thought to be something that must come to an end as if it were a course of penicillin. The fear used to be that, if you hold on to patients, they will have an unhealthy dependence that reflects the therapist’s own pathology. However, if you work with people who are creatively re-inventing themselves, then the therapy is inventive. You don’t have to give it up like smoking or alcohol! Instead it increases the likelihood that things will work out. I have the absolute conviction that it’s a creative process, that it isn’t pathological, not even a smidgen.
Not even a smidgen.
I first saw her in my twenties, in face-to-face therapy in Binghamton, New York, as I left a young marriage and launched off to graduate school. But our most serious labor—our analytical work—took place in my thirties and early forties as I forged my literary career in New York City. Twice, sometimes three times a week, for eight years—all that my teacher’s salary at a Quaker school with a generous insurance policy allowed me. I grew up, got a grip, and slowly managed (between screaming matches and makeup sex with the artiste who greeted me at 5 pm still in his bathrobe) to make a true life of letters. (Four books of poems! President of a national poetry organization!) My wild father, a violent alcoholic, had died; my wilder sister had given up heroin for methadone. My depressed mother was free and managing financially and emotionally. I’d gotten the literary existence I dreamed of by the indirect route of describing my dreams with Joan’s encouragement—and note the word courage between the “en” and the “ment.” Also notice the “rage” at the end of courage. Joan had the courage to see me deep into the journey. I supplied the rage.
Rage was the last thing I experienced after her colleague called. It was instant, unmitigated grief. I burst into tears. Unlike with my mother’s, father’s, or sister’s deaths, I didn’t have a complicated reaction. This was pure, full out keening, basic and unalloyed. As an older woman, I hardly ever feel anything unalloyed. Layers upon layers of emotions and experiences react and reify and ricochet as things happen in my seventh decade. (I’m 68, and Joan is 81.) In this latest loss I had the pleasure of purity. I pitched into childhood; I could have been Timmy losing Lassie.
IN OUR SESSIONS I constantly used the image of a tin pail. A white-enameled tin pail sat in the kitchen at my grandparents’ very cozy, very primitive little house (electricity, but no running water) near the swinging wooden door that led to a pump room where you pumped well water for everything: to flush a toilet, fill a kettle, wash a body or a dinner’s worth of dishes—all the ablutions. The pail was essential to the activities of living. It had a singularly important role, as I felt I did in my own family. In our house, also small but distinctly not cozy since my father had broken all the decorative objects, I cooked, cleaned, and saw to my sister’s homework plus my father’s beer bottles. I did this from the age of 12 to 18 when I blessedly left for college to re-begin my adolescence.
Crucially, my grandparents’ pail stood empty until it was time to be used. Like the pail, I was fully formed, but dry, a well-made, functional receptacle (My college advisor said, “Molly, you were 104 the day you were born!”), beautiful in shape. But I was only formed on the outside. My inordinate adult responsibilities left no time for the inner core to coalesce, for a natural childhood and adolescent growth. Yet, I had enormous energy and a personal power I only partly recognized. Others did. Especially, Joan.
In the early 1990s, after a 20-year gap, I re-encountered the man who had once been the boy who took me to the senior prom, and we shared a fully adult kiss. It suddenly felt as if I had been filled with well water. At one point in a session Joan reached her hand over the top of my headrest pillow from her position behind the couch and held my hand as I trembled (literally) at the prospect of that teenage attachment becoming full-fledged love. Then she cheered when I married him. Off I went into the random beauty of a totally unexpected turn: creating a bi-national life between the Canada of my maturity (and part of my ancestry) and the New York of my youth.
Almost immediately after I married that boyfriend, my mother, who’d been seriously depressed, died of lung cancer. A couple of years later my sister relapsed into addiction, then, diagnosed with throat cancer, died of an overdose. The telephone became critically important. Being on the phone, me in Canada and Joan in New York City, was like being on the couch. I couldn’t see her and spoke into the satisfying blackness. At first we kept up these regular appointments because of those crises, and later because I feared that, if I let go, I’d have to start all over again with someone else because of the extreme fluctuations in my husband's health. (He is a six-time melanoma survivor, and I developed a way of living a “two track” life, one track full of plans for life insurance and retirement, the other full of “seize it now, you might never have another chance.”) So I didn’t want to go to a Canadian analyst. I wanted to carry New York with me; I wanted my collaborator, my witness, my questioner, my encourager, my analyst who, unlike the other analysts who sensibly vacationed in August, instead took off six whole weeks in April (National Poetry month for heavens sake!) and May to venture to Italy without us, her patients. I wanted my infuriator.
“I assume when Freud was an analyst, there were no phones,” she joked one pre-stroke day in one of our 2007 sessions, when I was writing things down:
Sensitive to language. Perhaps it was a 38-year poem we were writing.
I am drawn to the phone, and am devoted to my iPhone, with its library of Audio books for when I wake up in the night. Three months after Joan’s stroke I went to Dublin and, jet-lagged in a hotel bed, rolled over onto this beloved cell. When it suddenly glowed with her name (had I pressed Joan’s number on my Favorites?), I cancelled the call—marveling at the unconscious. I’d actually reached out to her in my sleep!
Another chamber of the dream life?
But it wasn’t my torso that had pressed Joan’s number. The call had come from her. Returning home, I discovered she’d left a message on our land line—reaching out to the 27-year-old young woman who had once appeared at her door and who still existed at the surviving edge of the blast-hole in her memory. It was a tentative voice on the voicemail, just recovering language enough to leave a message: “I. Can’t. Be. Your. Therapist. Anymore.” Then the central core of her warmth and emotion became volubly present in the next four ringing words. “I miss you hugely.”
I hightailed it to New York.
We were there in her living room, the therapy room. She sat in her chair. I sat on the couch I usually lay on. She looked surprisingly good, despite the still shaggy hospital-stay hair. She wore a long black sweater vest and a low-slung silver belt over her black pants. But now there was an attendant who slipped into the bedroom to leave us alone. Joan’s face wore a new expression, a wide-eyed quizzical look. She told me that she could not read a novel, or write an email, or watch a whole hour of TV—“But I hope,” she said, “I hope.” There was absolutely no possibility of continuing her practice. A cadre of doctors and post-stroke therapies awaited her. But the unadorned directness of our former, therapeutic conversations was alive. I could be as forthright and presumptuous as always. “Would you rather be dead?” I asked her. “No,” she answered with candor. “I check myself for signs of depression all the time.” That’s the therapist talking. But then I heard a new tone of voice, and a new assertion. “Since I can paint, I want to live.”
You know, chambered nautili have distinct shapes. That’s why their calcification is beautiful. But now the shape of this one was dissolving. We were back at sea.
For all along, in what I thought was my analysis, I have also been inside her story.
And herewith is the tale of the woman who dressed like a painter—and became a painter at last:
WHEN JOAN WAS a college freshman, just after her father died, the Radcliffe Dean sent her, a gifted girl who had studied art with a group of adult artists in high school, off down the street to study painting with a die-hard abstractionist at Harvard. But all she wanted to do was paint images of her father. Faces were what mattered. His face. The human form as close as one could come with one’s hand to draw and paint it. Figuration. Then the abstractionist delivered his blisteringly brutal critique.
The bold seeker I knew, and know, and love, did what any self-respecting student with a rebellious heart would do. She walked out of the class.
But after that she froze in stubborn rigidity. Never went back. And didn’t pick up a brush for more than twenty years.
FOR DECADES IN our work together (but isn’t “play” a better word? isn’t it the back-and-forth of metaphor, analogy, simile that creates the flexibility to grow?), I refused to ask anything about her. “If I know about you, I’ll feel I have to take care of you,” I said. And we guarded those boundaries as distinctly as Henri Matisse guarded his figures when he outlined them in black. But slowly, as that central core of myself filled, as I wrote a memoir, performed a one-woman show, collected my poems into further volumes, and then embarked on the huge project of writing the biography of Mrs. Mary Delany, an 18th-century woman who invented collage in her 70s, the biographical details of Joan’s life became meaningful to me. So I began to ask some questions, and she began to answer me. In the past decade, she has in various versions confided the story of the critique and how her painting stopped, and how, when she moved to New York in her forties (the late 1970s and early 80s) she began taking psychoanalytic training and painting again. I knew when that happened, because some of those watercolors began appearing on her walls.
On this day of my first visit to our altered universe, there was a whole gallery of her work. And I, who thought I might never have the chance to see her after that, was emboldened to ask for a painting. It was almost at the end of the hour (isn’t that when the best “work” gets done?) that I summoned the courage to ask. She was delighted (what had I feared?), and asked me to choose. I asked for a still life of lemons and a blue bowl that now hangs on my wall—I pass it hourly. Two yellow citrus fruits. One fruit for the devastation of the end: the end to novels, the end to reading The New York Times, the end, ever, to walking in the city by herself, the end to flipping out a bank card and stopping to get cash at an ATM—those machines are objects of mystery and mistakes now—and another fruit for the yield of time, the shining possibilities of the coda. Now, the brush is all. The chastised 17-year-old has lifted up her head, and her dark hair is gray, and her hands have arthritis, and she doesn’t see nearly as well as she did before the stroke. Nevertheless, the once-stopped life of the artist now flows. Now flowers.
We walked from watercolor to watercolor discussing their patterns and light. And there I watched the woman who backed me up in every artistic decision return to the artist she’d once lost. The therapy-room/living-room of her one-bedroom Upper West Side apartment? Now it’s a studiolo. Paints are permanently installed on the small dining area table. Not much to read piled up, but the classical CDs are on. Print departed. Music stayed.
From her clothes. To her walls. What a delicious sense of line and design. I have shared memories of how Joan used to dress with several of her other patients, one of whom, the novelist Janice Eidus, published a piece about her online. In our reminiscences we delighted in Joan’s clothes: one coat-vest was a paisley of reds, browns, and blacks. Joan wore it over a black turtleneck and black pants. Add the belt with its silver buckle. Cap that with well-cut hair, streaked with gray. Apply the signature lipstick.
Description. It recreates life from extinction. Analysis is all gone now.
It is hard for me to write it: the analyst I knew is dead.
But the painter is alive, and hungry.
Time for brunch—brunch??? How we have altered. Who is she now to me? Sort of mother. Sort of sister. Sort of friend. Partner in endless levels of ambiguity.
The enthusiastic, cane-wielding Joan tucks away a whole platter of French toast. “I like being with you,” she says, and I beam. Who doesn’t want their analyst (excuse me, former analyst) to like being with them? “Because you’re not afraid of me.” She is sublime in her clarity. “Other people don’t know what to do with me. They’re afraid or embarrassed. They push away. They’re nervous. But you get me.”
And what do I get? Or is it beget? The creation of something the mind makes as it meets a description the hand makes: art. Continually the old image of Joan passes through the new. It is time for me to get her. No! I only want to be gotten… But that idea is misbegotten. What a model she is for continuing on with zest, and for the salutary, life-giving power of an art she gave up—helping me, and so many of her other writer-artist patients, never give up on this power in our lives. I see it rescue her, refresh her, fill a world with the vigor of her perceptions. The vigor of my own art was born in the hiatus of hers. After she stubbornly walked out of that abstraction class at Harvard, after the critique shut her down, she turned to living faces. She married, had two sons, divorced, eventually became a talented psychotherapist, moved to New York City, established her practice—and began taking art classes again. A molten life, a modern woman’s life.
One thing that hasn’t changed at all is her voice: it is rich, ribbony, husky, and open to laughter, to a good chortle. It comes across on a voicemail with a deep, distilled quality, for she regularly leaves me messages—another thing I can’t quite get used to.
Language. Gauge. Engage.
“We work so well on the phone because we’re both very engaged,” I wrote down in those 2007 notes. Joan went on about our not-so-classical analysis:
It’s got a life… You and I have had the leisure of going for decades…What it’s enabled me to do—well, one has a sense of one’s own history and epiphanies. I feel as though I have your life in my head in the same way as I know myself. To have the images and vocabulary to enter into someone’s mental study… It’s the way one feels when they are finally bilingual, have studied a language so long they dream in it.
WILL I EVER be bilingual in the new and old Joan, the dead and the living Joan, the artist become the listener, and again become the artist? When I hear, “since I can paint, I want to live,” I take the deepest consolation from those words. But I deeply miss the therapist I love. Images of the Joan who helped me flicker across the Joan I help into a taxi to jaunt to a museum. After three years I am still in the state of shock that is a little bit like being caught on the other side of a simile, not being able to cross back into the reality you tried to describe with that simile in the first place. “Her face was wet as a trout,” Anne Sexton wrote in her book of fairy-tale poems, Transformations, about a girl weeping. Sometimes I feel my tears changed me into that fish—and I cannot swim back.
Yet the activity of making art—the creative process that never comes to an end “as if it were a course of penicillin,” that always is “creative” and not “pathological, not even a smidgen”—is exactly what happens when a person “is creatively reinventing herself.” And with that breathtaking thought I must put the nautilus that was once like a small planet but is now something small enough to hold in my hand back on the shelf. It is an artifact now. But an artifact (as anyone who has seen a photograph of Freud’s room, or has been to the living room-therapy room, now studiolo, of Joan Stein, or to any analyst’s space well knows) can provoke our deepest responses. So now, with that vast planet of a shell whorled back into its small, sturdy, redoubtable suggestion of an image:
I lie down to dream in her.
MOLLY PEACOCK is the author of The Analyst, forthcoming from Biblioasis and W.W. Norton and Company, which features poems about her therapist’s stroke and recovery through painting. “My Analyst of 40 Years Had a Stroke—Then Became an Artist” will appear in How Does That Make You Feel? True Confessions from Both Sides of the Therapy Couch. Peacock is also the author of The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72, a biography and meditation on late-life creativity, and Alphabetique: 26 Characteristic Fictions with illustrations by Kara Kosaka.