When I was six years old the teacher made the kids in the class all stand up and say what our dads did for a living. I remember the moment because it was deeply embarrassing: I didn’t know. I knew that no one else’s dad did anything like what my dad did, and that my dad wasn’t allowed to talk about what he did. If I had known what I spy was I would have guessed that.
Turns out he was a psychoanalyst.
My friends were dying to know what he did, and they asked lots of questions. I had no answers. There were no TV shows with psychoanalysts, and psychoanalysis wasn’t ever even mentioned in passing. So without popular culture to help, I was forced to gather my own clues.
On weekends my dad would take me to his office when he did paperwork. The office was weirdly dark, and it had a couch that was more like a bed. There was a large box of Kleenex on the table next to it. I was afraid to ask why the couch was there. Who had sleeping couches in their offices?
Around the time I was ten I started scanning the books on my dad’s library for more clues; there were some blue bound volumes by Sigmund Freud that caught my eye. I hated reading most of what was assigned to me in school, and this looked much more daunting, but I was obsessed with figuring out what my dad was doing. One book had the word “jokes” in the title, so I grabbed it and started skimming. The jokes weren’t that funny, and Freud took too long to explain them. But I was amazed by one thing: Freud was sort of comprehensible.
My dad obviously wasn’t telling his patients jokes, so I opened another volume. I discovered that Freud seemed fixated on sex. Why would anyone write about sex in a medical book? Freud’s discussions of sex (and sexual fantasies) were even more tedious than his explanation of jokes. So, I gave up; the search for useful information about my dad came to a dead end.
A year later, when I was about eleven years old, I caught a lucky break. My dad left some folders on the foyer table. One folder was labelled “A patient case study.” Inside the folder was a name of a person and then an initial. Freud had written about patients without giving their full name, and my dad’s notes apparently followed the same convention.
Finally, something written by my dad. No drawn out explanations of theory. Just simple words, which hopefully told a story I could understand.
The case report was about a 30 year old mom who was having marital problems. Since my parents had gotten divorce when I was five years old this keenly interested me. My dad wrote that she loved her husband but was having fantasies about having sex with other men. She loved her children, but felt trapped by them and sometimes dreamed of running away. I continued reading every word of the report, and then put it back in the folder. I walked away completely dumbfounded.
I finally had something very specific, and yet totally confusing. I thought that more information would help, but it made things worse.
Obviously, I couldn’t ask my dad to explain. And there was no one else I could ask either. I had been told that dad’s patient’s were “normal people.” Not people with major psychological problems, and certainly not the kind that would land you in a hospital ward.
In the coming weeks I struggled to reconcile two conflicting ideas: “normal people” (as portrayed by everything I’d been exposed to growing up) didn’t have weird sexual fantasies or dream of abandoning their kids, right? And yet my dad’s patients were supposed to be more or less “normal.”
Eventually, I learned a lot more about what my dad’s profession was all about. I learned that “normal” isn’t really what most people think it is, and that, even by most people’s definition of the word, most people aren’t normal. We’re all different, and the only thing that matters is how we feel about ourselves and how we adapt to our society and circumstances. We’re complex creatures, and yet we follow some pretty simple patterns most of the time. Those are a couple of things I learned.
Most of all I learned (at an early age) not to probe into people’s private lives without a really good reason (and there are rarely good reasons). When you spy on someone, or read their anonymous case report, you always come away with more questions than answers. The people who came to my dad needed to tell someone their secrets, but they wouldn’t reveal them if they were asked.
That’s why he needed a couch. They could be comfortable and look off in a different direction than my dad. My dad sat in his chair with his yellow notepad, waiting for them to say something. Waiting, mostly, for them to receive a useful insight.
People criticize psychoanalysis and say analysts don’t do anything except sit in a chair and listen. I understand that criticism, and I’m sure my dad heard it a lot. But most people in modern society don’t understand the value of silence, and how it can often lead to insight. Anyone has the physical ability to sit in a room, close their eyes, and await insight. But not many people have the inclination to do that on their own.
I doubt that many people ever will.