When we were still on speaking terms, my mother once asked me, “How on earth will you ever know if you’ve cured anyone?” It was a loaded question to ask a psychology major. It encompassed entire realms of parental disapproval: a sly challenge to my pride, a devout Catholic’s skepticism for any form of secular salvation, an implied reprimand for my abandoning my “vocation”—I had just left the seminary—and, of course, an Irish mistrust of a world without suffering.
Our arguments were the ideal initiation into my profession. From them I learned that the crucial element of conversation is the unspoken, the deftly avoided chuckhole that words swerve around—which dictates by denial, deception, and omission the path and shape of human conflict. She taught me to keep a lookout for the invisible choreography we all dance when we think we’re merely talking. It took me years to decipher the astonishing levels of guile in her words. In that sense, she was my first analysis. She taught me that nobody is who they appear to be, and nobody says what they really mean, especially if they love you.
So I answered her, or the implied question I felt I could return with the most spin. “It’s a science, Mother. Doctors know when their patients are cured. I will know.”
“Well,” she said with a forgiving sigh, “I’ve no doubt you’ll learn from your failures.”
I always wondered whether Mom’s benediction should be formally recognized, take a place on the wall of my notoriously ragged office. All my clients comment on it, my idea of interior decoration: Leave it where it falls. It’s an habitual sloppiness I no doubt developed as a declaration of independence from a childhood home obsessed with cleanliness, which, as you know, is next to You-Know-What. I’d get it notarized and framed and mount it above my scummy aquarium next to my diplomas: an Official Certificate of Failure. I could put it on my business card: John Donelly, B.S. in Psychology, Master of Social Work, A.C.S.W., Licensed Therapist, Lapsed Catholic, Failure.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying: This is the story of my greatest failure. Laura came into my life in the spring of 1990. To say she was the most unusual client I’ve ever worked with would be an understatement of vast proportions. To say I didn’t cure her is laughably beside the point. In fact, she did for me exactly what I’d always hoped to do for all my clients: she changed the way I thought, felt, and lived forever. She split my life into two neat historical periods: Before Laura and After Laura. She was not just the only client I’ve ever fallen in love with, she was the only client I ever wanted to kill.
I was in my fifth year of private practice. An appropriate description of therapy: practice. It’s a craft at which I always feel like an apprentice, an amateur in the process of learning. Therapy is the jazz of sciences: free-form, unscored, and largely improvised. Amidst the rare sweet passages when everything syncs up and harmony prevails, there are a lot of bum notes. No wonder people regard it with suspicion, and rank it for discomfort somewhere between dentistry and plumbing.
Usually people seek me out only after reaching some state of critical mass: a job lost, divorce, depression, abuse, addiction. They come with sharp hurting eyes, or bewildered pleading smiles; they come bitter or blaming, or full of polite reassurances that they have no idea why they’re here; it’s really their spouse that has the problem.
But by far the worst off are the ones who come benumbed, unaware of their torment, at best able to admit that their lives have become unmanageable. I brace myself for them. I don’t tell them that they have to work back to the point where it hurts again; if I did they wouldn’t stay. And I want to help them, perhaps more than they want to be helped. For I know them well: people who choose survival and cheat themselves out of life, people who squelch their grief and block out any chance for joy. I’ve been to that dark place and I tell them: there’s a way out. I tell them joy and suffering are not mutually exclusive, they flow from the same valve. Close that valve and you may not hurt as much, but neither will you shine.
How many people have entered my office, sat opposite me in the blue overstuffed chair, the Kleenex box beside them, the clock in my line of sight (not theirs), sat down with the mess of their lives and waited for me to work a miracle? They expect me to do something to them. They charm or chat and tell me lots of delightful stories, until at last they use up their routine, and like a newscaster who has finished his report too soon, they feel the great emptiness of the clock, the beating heart, the imperfect, unscripted human gap that aches to be filled with the only terror that heals: the terror of being ourselves. How we suffer to avoid it.
It is this reluctance that forces people into the most artificial encounters: two strangers alone in a room, talking about the most intimate troubles. Friends specialize in acceptance. Families in saving face. Neighbors in keeping up appearances. The clergy in moral absolutes. So to the therapist falls the lot that no one else will take: confrontation. Which is why most people see me only as a last resort. They’d prefer to search in the light for something lost in the dark.
I listen; I talk; I encourage, and together we build a trusting place: a halfway house between the inside and the outside of themselves, a safe place where the issue is Reality. Often I find myself moved by their struggles and the little offerings of courage they make me (not yet aware they give it to themselves).
What flavor of shrink am I? Well, I use a sort of smorgasbord of methods. My discipline derives from Depth Psychology, the discoveries of Freud and his devotees; I believe in the contents and structures of the human unconscious, the benefits of dream analysis. Hell, I believe in whatever works, from Prozac to primal screams. The fact is individual problems require individual treatment, not theories. Having said that, I admit that the heaviest emphasis in my work is on the theories of Carl Jung (a mental genuflection here). While I’m not strictly a “Jungian,” and I have no official certification in that area, I do try to practice what he preached. And I am continually amazed by the efficacy of his ideas in my daily work. I’ve seen too much synchronicity, witnessed too much of the human shadow, seen over and over the healing guidance of the psyche, to doubt the breathtaking depth of Jung’s insights. There are many useful tools available to shrinks. Jung’s, however, in my opinion, seem to cut deeper, heal stronger, and salvage more real growth from real trauma. In my experience, he works. End of commercial.
If I’m due any credit for this healing, it’s only because I have a gift. A reflexive hypervigilance I learned as a survival tactic to get through my childhood. An early warning radar system I used to gauge my mother’s moods, dodge her disapproval, maneuver my way through a maze of mysterious and unspoken demands. I can actually read a person’s disposition at a glance—a very neurotic holdover from my youth that serves me well in my profession.
Or, it did until Laura. I simply could not “read” her. And though her story was incredible, it contained no obvious patterns of disturbance, no subtle hints at the dark secrets that normally take months to uncover, no sense of self-deception or guile, and no clues as to what this striking, well-adjusted person was doing in my office on a cold May afternoon. I couldn’t even hazard a guess at her ethnic background: this tall dark-haired woman with the brown skin of a Native American, the green eyes in the almond shape of an Asian, and an elongated English face and chin. Surely the genetic uniqueness alone might have enticed me into believing this creature (I keep calling her that) was “otherworldly” in some sense. But all I saw was a young woman with grace and calm and that unusual beauty you see in the offspring of mixed races, like the soft curly hair and golden skin of African/Caucasian children.
Her voice was deep. I remember thinking she had a cold, but it never got higher in the thirty-some sessions we had together. She told me she would see me once a week. She agreed to my fee of seventy dollars for a fifty-minute hour. Then she fixed me with her penetrating green gaze and said she had only one condition. I was to tell no one. No one.
A husband? Relatives? I asked. She shook her head. Not even the clinic’s psychiatrist? (I explained his approval was required by law when prescribing sedatives.) No one. What about emergencies? She smiled and shrugged. Surely she understood that for insurance purposes I had to keep a record? I saw then a fierceness, something that boiled behind her eyes as she bent forward in the blue chair. No one. Not my supervisor. Not my co-workers. Not my friends. Not my mother. Not “my mate.” No one. There would be no insurance problems. She would pay cash.
“Why the secrecy?” I asked, trying to ease the tension. “Of course our sessions will be in total confidence. But I might, for instance, want to consult a colleague who could shed some helpful light on your problems. There’d be no need to mention your name.”
“I have no problems,” she said with a sad smile.
“Laura,” I asked reasonably, “if you have no problems…then what do you need me for?”
She nodded, accepting the logic of it. Then I saw her bracing herself for a difficult truth. “They gave me one year. In that one year I have to convince one sane person that I’m telling the truth. If I can do that…I can stay.”
An emigration problem? Was her visa going to expire? Sane person? “Stay?” I asked.
She did not answer, but her eyes shivered slightly as they pleaded and spoke words too full of longing for language. And in that first brief breach in her calm I saw how much this meant to her. Then she regained herself and continued. “So I guess…I need you to believe me. My only problem is time. I’ve only got a year. Eleven months, actually.”
I noted she put an odd twist on the word Time, as if it meant something quite different to her. “What do you mean, ‘only one year’?”
“That’s when they return for me.”
“Who?” I asked.
I doubt I can express the impact her answer had on me. My intuition should have registered a eureka—for certainly this was the simple heart of the matter. Instead, all my trusted instincts told me the impossible: she spoke the truth.
“Who is coming?” I repeated.
“The Holock,” Laura replied.
“Creatures,” Laura said, like someone who didn’t expect to be believed, “from another world.”
In the long silence that followed, I flashed on The Song of Bernadette, the film about the young girl from Lourdes with the visions of Our Lady. Jennifer Jones is radiantly innocent: disarming her host of inquisitors, the professional skeptics of the government and church, quoting Mary as claiming to be “the Immaculate Conception.” It was an idea theologically problematic and way beyond the comprehension of such an unschooled peasant girl. Then I thought about the recent appearances of Mary in Yugoslavia. In a small country church, people kneel and stare for minutes at a point on the wall, enraptured by a vision no one else sees. Then, on cue, the devoted begin the Lord’s Prayer in chorus at the exact point where they are bidden to follow: “…who art in Heaven…”
So why not “aliens”? Jimmy Carter himself saw a UFO. So did John Lennon. So have thousands more. Carl Jung said flying saucers are a Modern Myth, a “psychic reality,” a technological mandala symbol that the unconscious, yearning for “wholeness,” projects upon normal reality: if you stare long enough at a floor of checkerboard tiles your mind will begin to form various geometric patterns upon their randomness—that way. How we long for meaning.
And no wonder. I have plenty of firsthand knowledge of the starved casualties of the mechanistic materialism of our western culture, which will gladly give us a paycheck so long as we don’t expect clean air or water, quiet, a sensible tempo of living, or the luxury of knowing why we are alive. Something is out there. Or in here. And, surely, not all these witnesses are hoaxers or gullible, losers or Californians.
“Aliens?” I asked, making sure.
A long pause. I started moving my hands, as if the words had to be juggled into sense. “The aliens…told you…if you can convince me…then…you can…stay?”
“Stay on earth,” I clarified.
I coughed. “Let’s move back a bit. Tell me, where were you born?”
“In another world.”
“Your mother and father…?”
“I don’t have a mother. I have two fathers. My earth father, I never knew. They tell me he was from Detroit. And my alien father was a Stillner. That’s something like a conductor on a train.” She paused. “His name is Sukamon.” A longer pause. “I called him Suki.” She tilted her head and smiled. “Do you always twirl your hair like that?”
“Does it bother you?” I asked.
“No. I like it. It’s sort of childlike. May I call you John? Or do you prefer Doctor?”
“Doctor, John—whatever,” I replied.
A long, long pause.
“You’re wondering why I chose you.”
I was. It wouldn’t take a clairvoyant to guess that.
“I saw your lecture on ‘Dreams and Memory.’ I thought you were intelligent, sensitive.”
“Thank you,” I replied.
She smiled. “I’d never heard dreams compared to plumbing. Or, for that matter, psychosis compared to constipation.”
“It’s just a pet theory of mine.” I shrugged. I’d been wondering for years if, as the latest research in the field indicates, dreams are critical to memory storage, then why do we forget so many of them? My lecture suggested, somewhat humorously, that maybe they are the equivalent of RAM (Random Access Memory): they serve their function, then empty themselves; they operate as a holding tank that flushes when we log out (wake up). We haven’t learned to Save them, maybe because dreams are an organizing Process, not a Content: a Dewey decimal system of the mind. This could explain why they feel both meaningful yet evasive, orderly yet jumbled, richly symbolic but coded. Put it another way: Imagine trying to make sense of a play if you could only read the stage directions and not the actual dialogue: “Curtain, King Enters Stage Right, Distraught, Whispers to Himself, Lights Candle, Explosion Off,” etc. So, my theory suggested, maybe dreams are the index, not the text. It was received with amusement by the audience, which, I suppose, was all it deserved. I was flattered that she’d enjoyed it.
“I liked what you said: ‘An open mind is the best assurance of sanity.” I wondered if you practiced what you preached.”
I liked her deep voice: it seemed to vibrate in her chest before it spilled out—there was something comforting about it. And she smelled unlike any woman I’d ever known. It wasn’t perfume. It was the scent—it sounds absurd—of a wild animal. But what struck me most in that first session was her enormous composure. She had complete self-possession. Not the insulated smugness you sometimes see in real psychos. No pretensions whatsoever. She had that bearing certain people have about them who have endured ultimate degradation and terror. Some concentration camp survivors are said to have it: an eerie aplomb; the knowledge that “Nothing you can do to me could ever be worse than what I’ve already endured.” Certain Native Americans have it. Laura had it.
“I try very hard to have an open mind,” I said.
“Good. And you agree to my condition?”
I thought a moment. I did not yet comprehend how difficult this would be. “Of course.”
She looked at me for a second, then pulled off her blouse. She wore no bra and her breasts were tan and full. I gasped at what I saw. Her nipples were brown and square. Perfect brown squares.
“Laura, please,” I said.
“I wanted to show you something you’d never seen before. I thought, perhaps, this would make it easier for you to believe me.”
It was to be the first of many such surprises. The shock was so great I dropped my cigarette and it rolled into the folds of my chair. I had to get down on my knees, tear off the cushions, brush off the orange cinders, and dig out the butt. I was glad for the distraction. I didn’t want to imagine the kind of surgeon and procedure that did such a thing to a woman’s body. I suppressed an urge to gag before I settled back to see she had covered herself again. I lit another Salem. I cleared my throat.
“Who did this to you, Laura?”
“It wasn’t an operation. I was born this way. Your genes have a fractal organic structure. Their genes are crystallike. You merge the two and you get…strange hybrids. Did I embarrass you? I’m sorry.” She smiled, as if flashing were a mischievous habit she hadn’t quite broken. “I won’t do it again.”
Copyright © 1995 by Patrick O’Leary