Therapy in the Holy City: Transitional Objects

I started keeping a journal about my current experiences in psychotherapy on Yom Hazikaron, 2013.  I had walked to the Mount Herzl National Military Cemetery with a friend that morning, along with throngs of other Israelis streaming down Herzl Boulevard, and the two of us had randomly ended up in a section of graves marked by the same last name as Ronit’s.  Despite the fact that her family name happened to be ubiquitous – the equivalent of, say, Smith in America – I took this coincidence as a sign, and that night I wrote my first entry about how meaningful it was for me to be there, on that day, honoring her dead.  I was ridiculous. Her last name was undoubtedly her married last name, and therefore the dead, if they belonged to anyone in her family, belonged to her husband.  But that didn’t stop me from finding meaning where there was none.  Later I was glad I had started keeping the journal when I did; otherwise, without the documentation provided by my entries leading up to the missed appointment, no one – including me perhaps – would have believed the real coincidence that had taken place, the one in which I predicted she was going somewhere and then found out that in fact she was.

In the meantime, I was finding the journal-writing to be an emotional lifesaver, perhaps akin to what writing must have been like for me as a little girl.  In keeping with the aforementioned “grave” theme, it seemed my mother had dug her own:  at some point in my young adulthood she had returned to me all of the notes I had written to her and my father when I was very young, notes accusing her of not loving me, notes informing them of my imminent running away, notes saying “Bye, I’m packing.”  Stories too.  It pains me to think of her innocently handing over these weapons of destruction – to me, her destroyer – and brings to mind an image I have of my parents attending a bookstore reading I did of my first novel in New York in 1992.  At around the same time, the New Yorker had published a cartoon whose caption, against the backdrop of a young woman sitting at a table signing copies of her book – her parents standing haplessly behind her – said something like:  If we’d known you were going to be a writer, we would have been better parents.   That cartoon, clipped neatly by my mother, hung on my parents’ refrigerator for years.

I didn’t write “The One Lonley Child” (sic) to hurt anyone.   I suspect I wrote it for the same reason that now, 45 years later, I was keeping a journal:  in an attempt to manage impossible-to-manage feelings.  The story had been about a six-year-old girl who goes in search of a mother, finds one, and proceeds to set up house with her.  The girl has in her possession old dishes, cups, forks and spoons, while the mother brings to their union knives.  A perfect match!   What one of them lacked the other one had!  And – for what it’s worth – I doubt I saw the knives in any metaphorical way, as anything more than useful utensils that lay to the right of the dinner plate each night.  Neither mother nor child in this story had a home; neither mother nor child had siblings or spouses; neither mother nor child had anyone at all until they found each other.  It seems I had been longing to get rid of the competition for a while, and in my story I succeeded in doing so.  For at least as long as it took me to write it, I’d had my mother to myself:  hadn’t had to share her with another soul.

“Actually it’s kind of like a letter that I’ve written to you in entry form,” I told Ronit one day, of the writing I was doing now in the journal. “I address myself to you in it.  It’s the place where I talk to you when I can’t talk to you in person.  It tides me over between sessions.”  Then, thinking about a passage I had just read in Alison Bechdel’s fantastic graphic memoir – Are You My Mother? – I said, “Hey maybe it’s my transitional object!”  The psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott had likened a good psychoanalytic interpretation to a good feed, or to being properly held, and saw the transitional object as the means by which a child made the necessary shift from primary caretaker to everything else in the world.

Ronit didn’t seem as happy as I’d thought she’d be about the fact that I had started writing again.  While both of us saw me as having recently made some real and significant strides in my life – getting out into the world more, repairing important relationships – the holy grail, at least in my opinion, had been to get me back to the writing table.  I had left it not long before first meeting Ronit; after twenty years of failed efforts I had come to the conclusion that whatever writing ability I might once have had was gone, I had lost my voice, it was never coming back.  But now, in the journal, I seemed to be discovering it again:  a voice that felt natural and effortless to me, perhaps because it had finally found its subject.

But Ronit said, “I wonder if there’s something you don’t want to tell me.  I wonder if writing in the journal is your way of avoiding telling me something here.”

“I tell you everything,” I said, although of course nobody told anybody everything, and right then I flashed on something I hadn’t told her.  It was about a book that had been written and published by the psychoanalyst I had worked with in New York.  Not long before, I had ordered this book online and when it arrived, I promptly deposited it into my closet where no one else would see it.  The shame again.  The secrecy.   The not wanting anyone to know what this New York analyst had meant to me, how important she had been to me.  But then one day when I opened my closet, the book fell out, and my husband said, “Oh, wow, Dr. R______.”  Then, spontaneously, he added, “Your lover.”

Shocked, I swung around and said, “What?!”

My husband laughed.  “Oh, nothing,” he said.

I laughed too but in an anxious jittery uneasy way.  “No!” I said.  “Not nothing!  Something!  Definitely something!  Definitely not nothing!”

What did my husband think had gone on during my treatment in New York?  What did he think went on in my sessions here?

I told this all to Ronit now.  “Hmm,” she said.  “So your husband’s got an unconscious of his own, it seems.”

“Yes, I guess he does,” I said.

“How did you feel about his remark?”

“At first it really bothered me,” I said.  “But then I realized something.  He’s not wrong.  A kind of love does go on in this room.  Not the kind of love he was ‘joking’ about, but love nevertheless.  Maybe even a deeper love.  Certainly a more primitive one.”  I thought about it.  “The first love,” I said.

In my father’s later, post-retirement years, he had occasionally dabbled in psychotherapy of his own.  But one day he told me that he had made the decision to give it up, for good.  Apparently, he too had discovered what therapy could be about:  a parent’s finely tuned attention.  A parent’s love.

“Why should I have to pay for something,” he said to me then, “that other people get for free?”

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.