Therapy in the Holy City: Self Psychology

When I heard that the International Association for Psychoanalytic Self Psychology was holding its annual conference in October at the YMCA in Jerusalem – a twenty-minute walk from my house – it seemed like fate.  While I had certainly become more active and less solitary in my Israeli existence over the two years I’d been working with Ronit, most of the activities I was engaged in still had a second-best feel to them: I did them because I knew I should, because I knew they would be good for me, and because what else was there for me to do in this second-best (for me) adopted country of mine?  I was glad to learn about General Mickey Marcus and the Burma Road, but on Thursday mornings, when my Sixty-five Years of Israeli Statehood class met, I wasn’t exactly leaping out of bed to get there.  By contrast, the conference – subtitled, “Where Do We Feel At Home?: Self Psychological Perspectives on Belonging and Not Belonging” – sounded truly enticing.  Not only was I interested in the subject matter, I would also be able to indulge in four days of guilt-free English-speaking.  Instead of attending something because I thought I should, I would be attending because I wanted to.

“You’re not going to be there, are you?” I said to Ronit, shortly before the deadline for registration.  I had filled out the forms, but the fee was hefty, and I didn’t want to pay it unless I would definitely be going – something I would not be doing if she was.  Since I had already floated the idea in a previous session and she had barely responded, I was almost positive she wouldn’t be.  Still, I had to make sure.  One thing working in my favor was that although I didn’t know which particular school of psychology Ronit subscribed to, I had the feeling that Self Psychology, the brainchild of Heinz Kohut, wasn’t it.

Ronit was quiet.

“What?” I said.

“I think we should talk about why you want to go to this conference.”

I bristled at her response, much the way I had the time she’d suggested that I’d put myself outside her apartment complex one evening as a way of reenacting a long-ago pre-bedtime interaction with my mother.

“You know how interested I am in psychology,” I said.

Ronit nodded.  “Yes,” she said.  “You probably do more reading in the field than I do.”

“So?” I said.  “Then what don’t you understand?”

“This is different from reading.  This is very different from reading.”

“I don’t see how, ” I said, and I recited the list of reasons I was going:  the topic fascinated me, the presentations would be held in English, nobody said that I couldn’t go, and even though it was true that I wasn’t a therapist, the keynote speaker at the first plenary session was also not a therapist!  As a matter of fact – like me – he was a writer!

“So,” she said, after I revealed the name of the writer.  “You’re going to attend a psychoanalytic conference in order to hear David Grossman speak?”

I didn’t know whether I was angry about her implication or about the fact that her implication was partially right.  How many times over the years could I have gone to hear David Grossman speak, in some venue or other, but hadn’t?  As recently as May he had participated in the International Writers’ Festival, getting up on the Mishkenot Sha’ananim stage – practically across the street from the YMCA – and holding a conversation with the American writer Nicole Krauss.  In English.  I had not attended.

“I’m not saying he’s the reason I’m going,” I said. “I’m just saying that I won’t be the only person in the auditorium who’s not a therapist.”

Ronit nodded.  Even to me what I had said sounded lame.  Was I doing it again?  In my deep wish to be close to an idealized authority figure, was I violating a boundary?  When I was in my twenties, I had taken a secretarial job down the hall from my former therapist.

“You’re mad at me for going,” I said.  “You think I’m forcing my way into your professional world.”

“I think we should try to understand why you’re going,” she said.

“I like this stuff!” I protested. “I’m sorry, but it’s a lot more interesting to me than Sixty-five Years of Statehood!”

Ronit smiled.  Notwithstanding her suspicions regarding my motivations, it seemed she could appreciate my situation.  For someone like me – who had not moved to Israel out of love for the country but rather out of love for my husband – the pickings were slim. How much was there for me to do here in English?  How much was there for me to do here in English that I loved doing?  My wanting to attend the conference may have been in part about wanting to be close to her, but it wasn’t only about that.

So I registered.  I paid the hefty fee.  I attended.  And here’s what I discovered:  I did not belong.  At a conference whose topic was “Where do we feel at home?” I did not feel at home.  Ronit had been right.  There was a difference between reading about the field and thrusting myself into it.  At the first post-plenary session, we were asked to go around the room and introduce ourselves.  One man was a training analyst from Rome.  One woman was a founding member of a Tel Aviv Psychoanalytic Institute.  Another woman was the Director of the Vienna Circle of Psychoanalysis and Self Psychology.  Vienna, for heaven’s sake! Home of Sigmund Freud!

And who was I?

“I’m here to represent the other half of the dyad,” I confessed, my face reddening, my voice trembling.  “I’m not a therapist; I’m a patient.” Then, as if further explanation were required, I added, “The organization seemed happy enough to take my enrollment money,” and the crowd laughed.  At least they knew that this patient had a sense of humor.

But the discomfort continued. The next day when I went over to say hello to someone with whom I was socially acquainted, I got the distinct sense he was giving me the brush-off. I could hardly blame him. He was there to take advantage of an international conference for professionals, of which I was not one.

And how was David Grossman, one might ask, seeing as I had used his attendance to justify my own?  He was terrific, though some of his comments – like the one about how the problem with Israelis and Palestinians was that they both loved the land too much – made me feel rather the way I felt when I was sitting in Sixty-five Years of Statehood.  I was more emotionally involved the next day, in a workshop called “Analytic Adoption of the Psychically Homeless,” about a 36-year-relationship between a therapist and a patient.

“Thirty-six years?” Ronit said, laughing, when I told her about it at our next session.

It was a laugh which would prove to have consequences.

About the Author
Eve Horowitz is a freelance editor and writer living in Jerusalem. Her novel Plain Jane was published by Random House, New York, in 1992.