Janet Malcolm famously opened her book The Journalist and the Murderer with the line: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” She was talking about Joe McGinniss and how he betrayed his subject in Fatal Vision, but she might as well have been talking about herself, and how she betrayed her subject in In The Freud Archives.
“Or about me,” I said to Ronit, “and how I betray you.”
In The Situation and the Story, Vivian Gornick writes about James Baldwin’s eulogy for Richard Wright, in which Baldwin comes “to honor his dead mentor and ends by trashing him because he can’t figure out how to face his own mixed feelings.”
Had I come to honor Ronit but, in reality, trash her? And even if I wasn’t trashing her, just writing about her – when she clearly didn’t want me to – had to be considered a form of betrayal.
“Writers aren’t the greatest of people,” I said to her. “They will sell their firstborn for a good first paragraph. They will hurt people in pursuit of telling the story they have to tell.”
I went on to quote more Janet Malcolm. I talked about Malcolm’s Sylvia Plath book, The Silent Woman, and how astutely she described the relationship between Anne Stevenson, who had written an earlier book about Plath, and Olwyn Hughes, the literary agent for Plath’s estate:
Back in London, Anne set to work on her newly conceived biography. She was on course now, and no longer needed a genie. She knew what she was doing, and would work alone. She commanded Olwyn back into the lamp. Naturally, Olwyn refused.
By reading this passage to Ronit, I suppose I was trying to say something about the Anne-ness of me and the Olwyn-ness of her. When I had first started writing about the two of us, I had been on shaky ground. I had wanted Ronit’s approval, her cooperation, her green light. But I was on course now and had been for a while; I didn’t need her anymore, at least not for this. I knew what I was doing, and I could work alone. For a long time already I’d been trying to command her back into the lamp, and while she didn’t exactly refuse, she also didn’t give me a free pass.
“You asked me last time why I can’t just enjoy our relationship,” I said, “why I have to share it with the world. And I told you that I share it with the world because I like the way you think – I enjoy the way your mind works.”
Ronit waited, as if to hear an example of such.
“Like that thing you once said . . . about the sheets of writing paper and the sheets on the bed . . . I never would have come up with that! Sheets and sheets! So clever, especially in the context of what we’d been talking about, and English isn’t even your first language!”
“Okay,” Ronit said, “so you enjoy that. Would it be less enjoyable if that stayed between the two of us?”
I mulled over her question and said the first thing that came to mind. “I need witnesses.”
“Ahhhh,” she said. “So there’s something frightening for you about the relationship between us. Something threatening.”
This certainly sounded like a credible argument, but was it?
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know if that’s really it. I realize that that’s what it must sound like, which is why I sort of wish I hadn’t said it. The word witnesses makes it sound like I think something bad is going on. Something unsavory.”
The look she gave me was, like: Uh, yeah, ya think? We talked about other, earlier, dyadic relationships in my life – relationships that might have been frightening to me. The idea of bringing in witnesses felt familiar to me, perhaps because there had been a divide between my mercurial father’s public persona and the person he’d been at home; perhaps I’d wanted people on the outside to know how he was on the inside.
“But couldn’t it also just be that when a writer finally finds her subject, she doesn’t want to let it go?” I said. “When the writing is going well, writers don’t care about the consequences. Or rather, they care, but not as much as they care about getting it right.”
Ronit didn’t say anything for a minute. But then, as if deciding to change tacks, she said, “You know, when you talk about writing, there’s a tone to your voice . . . ”
Now I waited, eager to hear what this tone was . . .
” . . . and I can’t help thinking of that note you wrote to your mother when you were a little girl . . . your first book, one might call it . . . ”
“I love you but you don’t love me?” I said.
Ronit nodded. “This is a very serious matter for you,” she said. “Very serious.”
I thought of Renee Zellweger in Chicago: “I’m a star . . . and the audience loves me. And they love me for lovin’ them and I love them for lovin’ me, and we looooooove each other . . . and that’s because none of us got enough love in our childhoods. And that’s showbiz, kid!”
Love. So was that what writing was about for me – and was that what therapy was about for me? Love? And did the fact that both the writing urge and the therapy urge seemed to be lessening signify that I was coming closer to finding it, to being filled up with it as a result of Ronit’s careful ministrations? I was asking myself this question more and more these days, as the all-consuming subject of Ronit’s move to Tel Aviv receded into the background and confusion about what I hoped to achieve in the future moved front and center.
“What are my goals?” I said to her restlessly one day, half-admiring myself for being able to sit there in the presence of the Beloved and – could it be? – wanting to get up and go! This was a new feeling for me, something I associated with “normal” people, with people who were capable of forgetting a session or being happy when one was cancelled.
“Goals?” Ronit said.
“Yeah,” I said. “How will we know when I’m done here?”
Ronit offered no answer, so after a minute, I did.
“A while back I told a therapist friend of mine that I’ll know I’m done with the blog when I run out of things to say. And her response was: Ha! Just like with therapy!”
Ronit neither confirmed nor denied this idea, but something told me she begged to differ. I had a vague recollection of her once telling me that, according to some professionals in the field, the true therapeutic work only began once the patient “ran out of things to say.”
In any event, filling up with love was a tall order.