I was getting to know my fellow Israelis via my weekly bus trips to Tel Aviv. Like the guy who sat down next to me one morning and whipped out his shaver. “What’s going to happen to the hair?” the driver asked laconically, turning to look at him. A good question, one I understood even in Hebrew, as I imagined having to brush razor stubble off my lap. My seatmate was undeterred; he took his time, giving himself a nice close shave, the electric hum filling my ears.
Then, when we arrived at Arlozorov, there was the woman who was always waiting outside the turnstile, shaking her collection cup and calling: “Girl, sick with cancer, aged 19!” (She’s still only 19? I’d find myself thinking after a while).
And the young guy selling Middle Eastern-style bagels – “beigele, beigele!” – eleven of them for ten shekels.
And the Russian man with his microphone, his amp, the cap on his head, singing Hava Nagila.
But all of these bit players vacated the stage once I reached Ronit’s. The minute I stepped inside her office, something magical and mysterious happened, and after I began the descent down into myself, everything else fell away.
“I know you won’t tell me this,” I said to her one day, “but I really want to know how you know English so well.”
She shrugged. “I have nothing against telling you this kind of thing, but we’re here to do what’s best for you. What does your wanting to have this piece of information tell us?”
I could be as superficial as I could be deep. It seemed to me I wanted this piece of information because I was in awe of people who were able to speak a language that was not their own. I wanted to know: how, how, how – how had they mastered it?? I had now lived in Israel for 20 years, but could as likely conduct a psychotherapy session in Hebrew as perform open heart surgery; I forwent lots of things, including fabric softener, because I didn’t know how to ask for them.
Nonetheless, I dug deeper.
Ronit and I had recently been talking about the kind of mother I had: the very private kind of mother I had. She played her cards close to the chest and had a well-deserved reputation for drawing people out while rarely revealing anything substantive about herself. Also, on the physical front, we weren’t one of those families I’d sometimes hear about, the kind in which mothers and daughters and sisters got undressed in front of each other. The females in my family had always gone into separate dressing rooms, kept the bathroom door closed, said, “Close your eyes” or “Don’t look” when changing clothes.
Now, putting all the pieces together, Ronit came up with what I thought was a brilliant insight vis a vis my intense curiosity about her.
“You’d like to see what’s underneath my clothes,” she said. “You’d like to see me naked. You’re the little girl who wants to know what a grown woman looks like.”
So, finding out how she knew English was just another way of trying to uncover her. Of trying to see her naked. Yes.
Free-associating, I mused, “When my sister was here visiting last week, she very gently tried to convince me not to write my blog anymore, or at least not put it out there for people to read. For her, reading what I write is like seeing me naked.”
Ronit didn’t say anything.
“I keep having this image lately, this memory. A few years ago my family went away with another family. The adults were lying around on the grassy area outside the hotel rooms, and the little girl from the other family – she was six or seven at the time – kept running over from where all the other kids were playing together and whispering in her mother’s ear. I could see that the mother was getting irritated. Finally she said to her little girl: ‘What is going on here? Private parts are private. Enough already.'”
Ronit smiled. “It’s very interesting, you know. You ask me about language, about how I know English so well. I wonder if what you’re asking me is why I haven’t used my English more directly, to protect you from yourself. Why I haven’t come right out and said to you what that mother said to her little girl: private parts are private.”
“You have said it,” I said. “I know you’re against me writing about what goes on here.”
“But I haven’t forbid you,” she said. “I haven’t said, Enough already.”
“You wear two hats,” I said, feeling somewhat annoyed. “You’re a therapist, but I know you’re also a reader. As a reader, how would you like it if writers only wrote about things that could be said in public? When writers write about private things, everyone feels less alone.”
Ronit shook her head. “There’s a big difference between writing about therapy when you’re in it and writing about therapy when you’re finished with it.”
“I don’t see it,” I said. “I don’t see the big difference,” though I did find myself thinking about how, at least in the old days, therapists generally advised their patients not to make any big changes while under the influence of therapy, not to divorce spouses or relocate or make any dramatic shifts in their professions. Was this what she meant? That one day, when I was no longer under the influence, I would regret having exposed myself? And what was this influence anyway?
“If I wait until I’m finished,” I said, “I won’t remember any of the details. I have to write it now.”
At my next session I brought in, as if to provide support for my argument, one of my favorite books, Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story. I read aloud to Ronit:
The question clearly being asked in an exemplary memoir is “Who am I?” Who exactly is this “I” upon whom turns the significance of this story-taken-directly-from-life? On that question the writer of memoir must deliver. Not with an answer but with depth of inquiry.
When Rousseau observes, “I have nothing but myself to write about, and this self that I have, I hardly know of what it consists,” he is saying to the reader, “I will go in search of it in your presence. I will set down on the page a tale of experience just as I think it occurred, and together we’ll see what it exemplifies, both of us discovering as I write this self I am in search of.”
I looked at Ronit. Her facial expression had not changed.
“They say that writers write the book they want to read,” I went on. “That’s what I’m trying to do.”
So I was being defiant. I was doing something that I knew for sure Ronit was against, something she did not approve of, something that would not earn me her love. I was doing it anyway. Was this progress? Growth? On the other hand, perhaps in defying her I was acting out, to my own detriment. Like many children did.