That Night at Elaine’s

Uncharacteristically, I was late. And not because I had offered some extra time to a distraught patient. No, I was late because I had gotten lost. As a more-or-less native New Yorker, I hadn’t bothered to look up the address of New York’s most famous literary canteen, Elaine’s. But when I stepped off the First Avenue bus and started scanning the storefronts, it was nowhere to be found. A kind Korean greengrocer directed me to Second Avenue where I managed to walk past the entrance three times before recognizing my error. You might conclude, as I did, that I was not looking forward to this particular dinner party.

Elaine’s is a perfectly nondescript restaurant, defined by the massive maternal presence of its owner, a woman who visibly enjoys eating. Nothing about the place — not the food, not the service, not the decor — can distract you from the pleasure of your friends’ company. Lacking the red-velvet opulence of the Russian Tea Room, the spectacular cuisine of Nobu, or the touristy kitsch of Tavern on the Green, Elaine’s is a hangout for literary celebrities. George Plimpton, Norman Mailer, Gay Talese, and Woody Allen have been sighted there. And it was in honor of Mr. Allen that I had convened several of my psychoanalyst friends a decade ago to discuss an extraordinary turn of events: the finest living example of the benefits of long-term in-depth psychoanalysis had recently become the poster boy for bad therapy.

Outside of Manhattan the story played as a juicy tidbit of celebrity gossip. Within the great metropolis, however, Woody Allen’s announcement that he had fallen in love with his son’s half-sister, Soon-yi, produced emotional tremors — nowhere more so than within the beleaguered community of mental health professionals.

After apologizing to my colleagues for keeping them waiting, I sat down and ordered a Jack Daniels on the rocks. The bourbon soothed me. The waiter took our food order, and I was just beginning to relax when George, of all people, started bellowing: “What was he thinking?” A woman sitting two tables away shot him the kind of withering look that New Yorkers reserve for uncouth out-of-towners. I started looking for the quickest way to disappear under the table.

George’s question hung in the air for an indecent interval. We had all been amused at Woody’s Manhattan, where a middle-aged lothario, Isaac Davis, overcomes the trauma of having his wife leave him for another woman by launching into a love affair with a seventeen year-old Dalton girl, played by Mariel Hemingway. True sophisticates understood that it was a joke; the movie covered the liaison with a thick layer of irony. But now that reality had imitated fiction, suddenly it wasn’t funny anymore.

The most agitated of our bunch, George was balding and plump, a large man whose cherubic face was framed by the severe black-rimmed glasses that denoted a classical New York analyst. I doubt that he ever allowed the least trace of an emotion to cross his perfectly blank visage. His placid demeanor was such that his patients could project on it whatever fantasies they thought he wanted to hear. But now he was furious, as though he had been betrayed.

Sam, bearded and contemplative, resembling a young Sigmund Freud, tried to calm him down with a mantra that is part of every therapist’s stock-in-trade: “Don’t take it personally; he wasn’t your patient.” Hearing that, we all chimed in that if he had been one of our patients, none of it would have happened.

To savvy New Yorkers Woody Allen had typified the benefits of interminable psychotherapy. He had become a one-man public relations machine that had elevated our profession to new heights of coolness. Three and a half decades of analysis had liberated his creative potential and had brought him fame, fortune, and the love of beautiful actresses. The crowning glory was his postmodern semi-marital relationship with Mia Farrow, who had once been married to Frank Sinatra. It didn’t get any better than that.

And Woody was not some gussied-up lumpen prole: he was an intellectual. Remember the night when the Motion Picture Academy awarded him an Oscar for Annie Hall? He snubbed the Hollywood illiterati in favor of playing the clarinet at Michael’s Pub.

Now, the man who had chronicled the vagaries of love and relationships in the world’s greatest metropolis had called a news conference to announce that he had found true love, and that no one had any right to be judgmental. To top it off, Woody had declared that we all needed to understand that she was not really his daughter. This at a time before Bill Clinton taught us that fellatio is not sex.

While the four men at our table were suitably outraged, the lone woman, Joanne, remained serene. A consummate professional, her graying hair clipped short, she was smartly dressed in a cashmere black sweater and charcoal slacks, her neck wrapped in a riotous Hermes foulard. Within our group Joanne was easily the most pious; she alone knew what it meant to have a meaningful personal relationship with God. Quietly, sensibly, she mused: “I was just thinking: what if they really are in love? Perhaps Woody has spent his life looking for true love. Now he finds it, only the woman of his dreams is peripherally related to him. Should he sacrifice true love to placate respectable society? How many times have we told our patients not to be influenced by what others think?”

George attempted to interrupt. In his zeal he mis-swallowed a clam and began coughing. Joanne asked if he was all right, and then, seeing that he would need a few minutes to recover, she expanded her thought: “Woody Allen was a typical Brooklyn nebbish; now he reminds me of Eros, the Greek god of love. Isn’t that a valid result for psychoanalysis?”

“That isn’t entirely true,” Sam corrected her, “Eros was not a god; he was a demon, as Plato said.”

By now George had regained control of his voice. Even more lathered up than before, he blurted out: “What are you thinking? Today the country is awash in cases of child abuse. And the perpetrator is most often the boyfriend or second husband of a divorced mother. What if one of those guys got on television and started explaining: Well, we were really in love, and besides, she is not really my daughter. Is that guy a modern Eros? Even if Woody does love Soon-yi, how about the charges that he molested another of his son’s half sisters?”

George seemed to like this last point so much that he chose it for his exit. He was late for his daughter’s bassoon recital. Clearly it was time to change the tenor of the conversation; we were making a spectacle of ourselves. So I paused before continuing my assault on an oversized veal chop and proposed a new question: “What would any of us have done if Woody Allen had come to his session one day and announced that he had fallen in love with Soon-yi?”

“I would see it as a flagrant acting out,” Sam responded. “Doesn’t it sound to you like a violent repudiation of his Oedipal longings? Why else would he choose a woman who is practically a child?”

Charles was openly puzzled. The most senior member of our party, a master of Eurostyle, he was impeccably dressed in a blue-gray Armani suit and a blood-red turtleneck, his graying hair combed neatly over his balding pate. Always even-tempered and jovial, he represented what was best about the profession, even if he had long since strayed from the analytic party-line. Charles had for some time expressed skepticism about the future of psychoanalysis. Now he challenged Sam: “So, you’re saying that after thirty-five years of psychoanalysis Woody Allen still had not come to terms with his Oedipus complex. I think above all else we find this incident embarrassing. Too many people have discovered that psychic excavation, even when it unearths a few relics, does not really help them face the moral dilemmas that haunt their everyday lives. Woody took it all to an extreme. But haven’t we made a career out of railing against repression? Why wouldn’t someone want to try living without it?”

“People do get well while they are in psychoanalysis,” Joanne declared, waving her fork in the air, “Wouldn’t you agree?”

“Yes and no,” said Charles. “People who undergo years of psychoanalysis sometimes get better. But, no one has ever shown that they were cured by analysis itself. Even Freud predicted that psychoanalysis didn’t have a future as therapy. But Woody Allen did transform himself into a mythic creature. I’m just not sure that is such a good way to lead one’s life.”

“What’s wrong with that?” Joanne objected. “At least he transcended his problems and wrote the script for his own life. Then he succeeded in living it. Surely that’s better than being a pawn in someone else’s game.”

Charles ignored the mixed metaphor. “What of the other people who have been induced into becoming actors in Woody Allen’s fantasy?” he replied. “How many people has he damaged in the process? Wouldn’t it be better if we offered our patients more practical guidance about their lives? We are so absorbed in mental processes and emotional whims that sometimes we completely lose touch with reality.”

I was listening to Charles closely at that point. What he was saying ran counter to my training; it defied the analytic orthodoxy in which I was steeped. It was unsettling, but I urged him: “Go on.”

“I’ve been thinking that psychoanalysis is a kind of mental alchemy that transforms everyday problems into mythic events. What would you rather be: a boy who is too attached to his mother or Oedipus the King; a man who is picked on by others, or Prometheus? You are relieved of any obligation to change your situation, and you can pretend that you gained insight. It’s appealing, don’t you think? Unless there’s a redeeming virtue to being a grandiose narcissist, it doesn’t produce good therapeutic results— what do you think Lacan would have said?”

That was my cue. At that time, I was a disciple of the exotic and bizarre French psychoanalyst named Jacques Lacan. Not only had he refused to play by the rules of the international psychoanalytic establishment but in his personal life Lacan had flaunted social customs and conventions, the better to create a public persona of mythic proportions. He had spawned personality cults in France, Argentina, Venezuela, and Brazil.

Bedecked in a maroon velvet cape, chomping on a twisted cigar, Lacan drew masses of intellectuals to his public lectures from the late 1960’s to the late 1970’s. From 1973 to 1977 I was among them — a young man who had forsaken a career teaching literature to fly off to Paris and sit at the Great Man’s feet. Lacan was idolized by people like myself who saw in his radicalism a chance to test the limits, both of thought and behavior. In his public performances he served up a cornucopia of tantalizing oracular pronouncements, never bothering to explain himself, never really caring whether his assembled acolytes could grasp his meaning. It may have been indigestible, but it was a feast for the mind. It mattered little that we did not understand; Lacan had implicitly promised that once we were well-enough analyzed we would.

For those of us who felt socially disconnected these talks reflected our life condition; we came to believe that once we ferreted out the nuggets of truth that Lacan had hidden in his verbal meanderings, we would find a higher meaning and join the company of the enlightened. Learning how to connect with people or to develop social skills was never at issue. So powerful was the cult created around Lacan’s person that when, near the end of his life, his cancer was so painful that he often became mute during his lectures, his all too clever students thought that they were being called upon to discover the Freudian meaning of his silences.

By that point Lacan had fallen into a melancholic depression, supposedly because the analysts he had trained were demonstrating distinctly deviant tendencies: they wanted to become respectable professionals. Lacan considered this a repudiation of his life’s work.

Those in the know saw something else in his despair. A friend who was something of a luminary in the French intellectual firmament described the problem to me in the bar of the Closerie des Lilas, the Montparnasse version of Elaine’s. “You see what is weighing on Lacan,” this man confided in hushed tones. “His mistress just left him.” Then, after a pregnant pause, he added a phrase that distilled the essence of Parisian tragedy: “He has had his last woman.” Lacan was 78 at the time.

All of this my dinner companions already knew. To them I could only contribute the following: “Two of my Lacanian friends told me that they were appalled by Woody Allen because he made the profession look bad. But, nothing about Lacan’s theory and precious little about the man himself would have made clear that this behavior was unacceptable. People who spend their lives testing limits are hardly in a position to criticize others for going further than they would have.”

Joanne fidgeted in obvious discomfort. She believed in psychoanalysis and was upset to hear me selling out: “Lacan lived life to its fullest. He would never have allowed bourgeois scruples to control his behavior. The same goes for Woody Allen. People who overreach, who surpass the limits of polite society, always create enemies. I may be the only woman in New York who doesn’t sympathize with Mia Farrow, but I find her earth mother routine repulsive.”

Joanne arched her back and fired off the ultimate insult: “Would it be better if Woody became an accountant? Most of our patients are suffering from terminal ennui. They live boring middle class lives, with boring middle class spouses; they have tedious sex lives and have nothing to look forward to beyond a few rounds of golf in Boca Raton. If that’s all life has to offer, no wonder they come to us to experience their full human potential.”

I was about to ask Joanne what it meant to be fully human. Trying to fulfill all your human potential could easily make you into an amoral dilettante. Staring directly at me she hissed: “So why did you suggest that we come here? Wasn’t it to get a glimpse of Woody? Admit it, you secretly admire his audacity. Your only regret is that you couldn’t do it yourself!”

I took a deep breath and counted to ten: “One thing that bothers me the most about psychoanalytic thinking — and this has infected a goodly portion of the therapy world — is the recourse to ad hominem attacks. It’s as though there is only one true dogma, and if you don’t believe it, you must have a problem. Shouldn’t we show some respect for differing opinions? Don’t our patients have a right to disagree without being accused of resisting? Don’t we believe in freedom of thought?”

“Okay,” Charles interjected, “New York is a city full of free thinkers, all of whom think exactly the same thing. Is it an accident that they have all undergone psychotherapy? We’re tolerant of strange behavior, but God forbid that any patient should disagree with our opinion. We call it a resistance and say that it must be analyzed away.”

At this point the waiter arrived with the check. Tens and twenties were unceremoniously thrown on the table. Putting on her black leather jacket, Joanne could not resist a parting shot: “It’s easy to trash Freud, and it’s easier for us to criticize bad therapy. God knows we hear enough about it. What I would really like to know is whether you can offer a better way for people to understand themselves and come to terms with the complex forces that drive them. Until you do, you’re whistling in the dark.”

On that note we scattered to our different corners of Manhattan. I didn’t quite grasp that Joanne had thrown down the gauntlet with that parting shot (to use a Joannean mixed metaphor). But as my taxi went down a dull and subdued Second Avenue — past the locked-down storefronts and dreary Irish bars — I felt that I had lost my professional bearings, that I was adrift.

My doorman’s open smile barely made it through the jumbled thoughts that had invaded my mind. “Good evening, Juan,” I muttered mechanically. My words seemed to echo on the expansive lobby’s red tiled floor. Not noticing noticed the stairs descending toward the elevator bank, I barely kept myself from tripping.

Once inside my apartment I was surrounded with the physical evidence of my more than two decades of intellectual labor. There were shelves full of books about psychoanalysis: the complete works of Freud sat next to selected books by Lacan in French and English; countless obscure journals were mixed with philosophical and literary classics, from Aristotle to Aquinas to Henry James. Finally came the books by lesser authors; I did not have fond memories of Heinz Kohut’s fuzzy thinking or Otto Kernberg’s garbled syntax.

I pulled out my well-worn copy of Lacan’s Ecrits and opened to a passage warning against the dangers of directive therapy. The patient’s life, his dilemmas and difficulties, were to be as nothing when weighed against the analyst’s interest in his unconscious mind. Other therapists have changed the vocabulary — they emphasize the need to explore feelings in depth — but the tenor was the same. We had to be non-directive. We could not make any judgments about the way the patient was conducting his life. We would wash our hands of all such banalities. It was certainly an appealing notion, but was it really such a good idea? Did such an approach run too high a risk of producing Woody Allens? Did it form the basis for bad therapy? After all, neither Freud nor Lacan had ever claimed that psychoanalysis was good therapy.

I was concerned with this because of an experience with a patient a couple of months before when I had violated Lacan’s rule. The case concerned a despondent young playwright, a balding British expatriate, aptly named William, who had come to see me because he had lost the woman of his dreams. Dressed in a washed-out work shirt and tattered blue jeans, sporting the downtown unshaven look, his reddened eyes and his scraggly blond hair completed a picture of depression. As William explained it, his was a great love story gone bad. One day, two years before, for reasons he did not understand, he had allowed a pleasant evening with the love of his life to degenerate into all-out verbal warfare. Something about his vehemence had frightened her, and she had fled, not only from him, but from New York. None of his subsequent efforts could repair the damage done. He had tried to deal with it by undergoing psychoanalytic psychotherapy, during which he had explored his difficult relationship with his mother. And yet, for all that, nothing in his feelings of grief and despair had changed. Worse yet, he could not keep working on his new play: “The Short, Happy Life of Pantyhose.”

As I listened to his account of his previous therapy, I recognized with some chagrin that I might well have tried the same approach. Then a thought passed through my mind: “I don’t want to sit here for another two years listening to these same stories.” I said to him: “If you have something to say to her, why not say it to her directly?”

Almost as soon as I said it I regretted it. But things quickly took on a momentum of their own. I couldn’t have stopped it if I had wanted to — and over the next few weeks I often longed for a return to analytic neutrality. What happened was this: William seized on my remark and wrote a letter to his lost love. She responded with a suggestive and encouraging missive of her own. After two months of heated correspondence they had arranged a meeting in her home city of Washington, D.C. I was still uneasy about the level of my involvement, but, sensing which way the wind was blowing, I worked to prepare my patient for this meeting. And I began to imagine that I was witnessing the triumph of true love.

Two days before the dinner at Elaine’s William had traveled to Washington. His love was to meet him at Union Station, then to spend the day with him, seeing the sights and catching up on things. As I leafed through Lacan’s text, I anticipated the news I would receive the next afternoon at my patient’s two o’clock session. How had she responded to him? How had he held up during the encounter? Would he come in and tell me he had packed his bags and was moving to Washington?

No such luck: When William arrived he was tense and bitter. The one eventuality we had not foreseen had occurred: she had stood him up. He arrived at the station and waited; she was not there. He waited some more; still no sign of her. He called her house and only got the answering machine. Humiliated, he waited for hours; still she did not appear. When he returned home that evening he found a post card announcing that she simply could not go through with it. He was disconsolate, and none too happy with me.

The fact that he even returned to treatment was something of a surprise. I had, in his eyes, set him up for yet another failure. As I offered a lame expression of regret, I was thinking that if I had a supervisor, he would have said that I had just learned a valuable lesson about the dangers of not following the letter of the psychoanalytic law. Perhaps the stand-offish silent treatment really was the better way, in spite of Woody Allen. By now it was impossible to get the toothpaste back into the tube. I was at a loss. How could I analyze his anger while I was feeling that I was at fault? Over the next few weeks William became increasingly withdrawn, missing sessions, sinking deeper into his depression. And I wasn’t doing much better myself. Even though many of my other patients were doing well in their lives and their treatments, none of it seemed to count when weighed against what seemed to be a calamitous failure.

After three weeks, I was entertaining a friend from Paraguay. Given her relatively poor command of English, I invited her to a Broadway musical, Cats. I was anything but good company. After the show and a drink at the Paramount, I feigned illness, dropped her off at the Marriott Marquis, and decided to walk through Times Square and across town to my apartment.

A decade ago Times Square had not yet been gentrified by the sleek towers of Morgan Stanley and Conde Nast. Nor had the entertainment been rendered family-friendly by the Disney Company. At that time, if you stood beside the statue of George M. Cohan, you could see acres of insistently flashing neon lights accompanied by giant billboards touting the virtues of one or another brand of designer underwear. Beyond that, as is well known, was one of the world’s greatest concentrations of sin. From the raunchy and racy to the sordid and criminal, Times Square had it all. As I hesitated a second to assure myself that my wallet was protected against pickpockets, I glanced up to see a pair of strippers hanging out a window, inviting me, or anyone else, to sample their wares. On another corner some shady characters were engaged in what looked like a drug deal. Beneath the closed TKTS window two people were shouting at each other. No one paid them any mind. Meanwhile a uniformed officer of the Salvation Army was collecting donations. Perhaps it was all telling me to go back to the Marriott.

I realized that I was surrounded by cauldrons of id energy. Wherever I looked I saw people who had largely overcome their inhibitions and repressions. I had arrived at Freud Central. Evidently, it would not be very easy to walk away from Freud. I decided to go home.

Meandering down a lifeless avenue, I passed a street full of Brazilian restaurants, and strolled through the diamond district, rendered immortal by the final scenes of Marathon Man. But none of it was getting through. I was too absorbed in my own thoughts. I reflected that Freud himself, after declaring that human beings’ primary psychological motivation was an inexorable desire to commit unspeakable evils, had tacked on an injunction to rein it in, to keep it under control. Civilization could not survive the full expression of our truest base impulses. Following in his footsteps generations of psychoanalysts sat back, inert and unmoved, making their patients feel angry and discombobulated, the better to help them gain insight into their propensities toward incest and patricide. Was it really surprising that some enterprising Post-Freudians had chosen to let go, to release their patients’ id energies, to expel all of their emotional gasses, no matter what the consequences?

By the time I had gotten to Fifth Avenue my thoughts had drifted from the Broadway theatre to William. I reminded myself that Freudian treatment, and most other forms of psychotherapy, would have sought to teach him that the fight he had with his girl friend was symptomatic of a deep-seated hostility toward women. In taking a more direct approach I had, on the contrary, guided him toward acting more honorably and treating her with greater respect. Had I thereby aligned myself with the forces of repression and blocked his access to his unconscious sadistic fantasies? Was I wrong to have treated him as a decent human being who needed counsel about the right way to handle a difficult situation?

As I reached home, my head was spinning. I had been seduced into accepting this one-size-fits-all version of human motivation, and in the process I had developed a derogatory attitude toward of my fellow humans. Clearly, evil did exist, but to go from there to the idea that only evil exists was nonsense. Suddenly I felt that I had spent the first part of my professional career prey to an illusion.

And yet with William perhaps I had inadvertently stumbled onto a better way to practice my profession. Still, for the moment, I did not know how to treat him. The weight of my psychoanalytic training had rendered me powerless.

Fortunately, fate interceded. William’s demeanor, when he returned for his session two days later, was radically improved. He explained that over the weekend, as he lay motionless in bed absorbed in self-pity, a friend had called to invite him to an outing with a group of congenial souls. William demurred and began sharing his overwhelming feelings of grief and loss. At which point his friend interrupted with a curt declaration: “Look, guy, she’s history!”

As though a light had just gone off in his head, William immediately came to his senses: he bounced up from his bed and went out to have some fun. In the months and years that followed, he has never looked back.

Aside from the fact that I should have made this intervention myself, I concluded in retrospect that William had profited by facing his problem like an adult. Since no one can control the actions of another person, there is no reason to regret good behavior, even when it does not produce a desired outcome. If I had erred, it was not for breaking an analytic rule, but rather for not being sufficiently involved in his decision. I, too, had accepted that true love was the only reasonable outcome for any treatment, and, by an excess of empathy, I had come to believe in the script he was living out. I had failed to advise him to lower his expectations and to think of his meeting as a means to closure rather than a way to rekindle a lost love. It would be better for me, as a clinician, to participate actively in the therapeutic process, rather than to continue passively observing something that would increasingly resemble a staged drama. I would guide people, offer something like direction, toward the ethical conduct that was the true basis for emotional well-being.

My training had taught me to seek out the worst in people, their repressed sadism and masochism, their will to destroy and exploit others, their criminal intent. And yet, with this patient, I had taken him at his best, as a competent individual who was not impelled by a wish to destroy, but who wanted to resolve a situation that was, for him, incomprehensible. But why was it still so painful? If not because he was repudiating his sadism, what then? My new conclusion was this: in acting out of anger by engaging in a nasty altercation, William had betrayed his own good character. And this was the last impression he had left with a woman he had loved beyond reason. He didn’t need to retrieve this love as much as he had to correct his self-presentation.

Having undergone psychotherapy as a child, William feared that his momentary lapse had revealed a repressed truth. But if his was merely an aberration, and not a meaningful action, then he would need, without delay, to repair his self-respect by acting courteously toward women (which he eventually did.).

But that was still in the offing when, in the weeks following the unexpected resolution of my William’s problems, I began seriously reconsidering my role as a professional. What did it mean to be a psychotherapist? Was I a shaman who sought to isolate a core of evil intentions and then remove them by a kind of catharsis? Should I become like my own analyst, a guru leading people on a mystical journey of self-discovery that would teach them not to care if they were dysfunctional? For most of my patients this could hardly serve any real purpose.

I had reached an impasse. It took me longer than it should have to conclude what every therapy patient knows: that the more he introspects the more he resembles the man who is caught in quicksand and decides to struggle mightily, thus ignoring the overhanging branch that can pull him to safety.

I thought about my patients. Almost all of them, like William, had been involved in therapy of some sort before they had come to me. In our day and age, the therapy virgin is an endangered species. My patients had long shocked me with their accounts of previous treatments. The only words to describe what they had undergone were: bad therapy. A patient who had recently come into my practice divulged in her first session that she had been encouraged by her therapist to beat a cushion with a broomstick in order to realize her hatred of her father. Another explained how, when his marriage was falling apart, his therapist just sat there, silent as a tomb. The city seemed awash with Freud’s gremlins. Was I any better? No! I was one of them! Psychobabble had infected everyone’s mind, not least my own. Woody Allen telling the vultures in the New York press “not to be judgmental” was only the latest example of a travesty in which I had played an unwitting part.

Mulling this over none-too-happily, I sat with my feet up on my desk in the room where so many patients had poured out their hearts. Looking out my office window I could see the UN building on First Avenue. Beyond it garbage barges wended their way down the East River; a giant Pepsi-Cola sign announced the entrance to the borough of Queens. On impulse I called a friend and invited him to lunch at the UN’s Delegate’s Dining Room. As a true New Yorker I had rarely visited the UN — the architectural monument that rose out of the massive landfill on what was once called Turtle Bay— but, being in such close proximity to the place I had treated many of its employees. And I had often heard rave reviews about its lavish buffet lunch, open to the public. As was my wont, I had never tried it. Give me some credit for having resisted temptation.

But I found myself in the Delegate’s Dining Room, letting go, descending into complete self-indulgence, filling plate after plate with a variety of meats, cheeses, vegetables, and sweets. (A good Freudian would have said that I had overcome the castration anxiety brought on by my professional crisis.) Between helpings, my friend and I discussed the vitally important issue of that year’s football season. What a relief it was to momentarily forget about William, Woody and my whole misbegotten profession! I wielded my cutlery and tucked in my chin. My friend felt constrained to marvel at my Gargantuan appetite: “Did you learn that in France?” he asked. I attacked my plate with renewed vigor. Finally, I had unleashed my repressed id energies. By the meal’s end I felt sick.

I wove my way back to my office, my brain as bilious and bloated as my belly. Were table manners, I wondered, and dinner rituals anything but civilization’s effort to repress our polymorphously perverse impulses toward breast-feeding and thumb-sucking? I felt condemned to forever jabber in the language of the gremlins. I consumed a pot of coffee in a futile effort to be semi-alert for my afternoon appointments, without great success.

By the next morning, thank God, my head had cleared. Shaving, looking at my face in the steamy mirror, I tried to find a saving grace. Perhaps I had chosen the UN for lunch because it provided a perfect metaphor for New York —and my practice, at least what my practice might become. For whatever reason, my city attracted people from all over the world. They brought their talents and their neuroses; they were flamboyant and mundane. All were trying to succeed, to make their mark, but they also needed to connect with others, to form relationships and families and communities. But with a myriad of social customs came the constant risk of an inadvertent insult producing inevitable conflicts. While I had worked almost exclusively on personal issues, often very private matters, my job actually resembled that of the diplomats who filled the Delegate’s Dining Room. I, too, was working to help people solve moral dilemmas, to mediate and negotiate different interests and opinions, and to show respect for alien customs. I was being called on to guide my patients toward fruitful social relations with people who came from different cities, states, nations, and cultures. And I eventually came to the conclusion that psychotherapy, with its dogmatic belief that the mind had to be changed before meaningful action could be taken in one’s life, had turned things inside-out. People best achieved emotional equilibrium by correcting the way they conducted their relationships in public. Mental change did not precede this — it followed. To ignore public behavior by exploring feeling and fantasy was like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. So it was that I began to reconstruct my practice, slowly and with care, to give my patients a set of practical tools with which to fix their lives, thereby to restore their good sense and peace of mind.

Certainly, the practice of therapy has “advanced” beyond Freud’s crude beginnings. Yet, vestiges of its origins persist in disguised form. Instead of teaching people to be more diplomatic, more willing to negotiate and compromise differences, therapists have induced people into believing that if they learn to speak a universal language — today, the language of emotion — they can then have satisfying relationships. No longer content to be audience and critics, they have refashioned themselves as drama coaches who teach people to emote on cue. Little matter whether the person expresses the right feeling to the right person at the right time and under the right circumstances. Emoting is everything; catharsis is its own reason for being. So, rather than see people as social animals dealing with complex social realities, psychotherapy has tended to see them as isolated individuals compelled by some kind of internal necessity to let it all hang out. For all of its vaunted emphasis on feelings, the profession is conspicuously silent about the emotional matrix of all good relationships: humility about one’s self and tactful consideration for the feelings of others.

Imagine two diplomats trying to forestall a conflict between neighboring states. Would they insist on the consummate importance of their own personal needs? Would they try to find common ground on the basis that they are both human beings, that they both have sex drives, or that they are both going to die eventually? Questions that therapists consider redolent of meaning would be useless in this context. Would they call in a shaman to expel their negative feelings, so that their love could flow more freely? Would they dredge up the history of their past conflicts to prove that they have both been perfidious and thus cannot be trusted?

Such are the ways and means of bad therapy. And, need I say, bad diplomacy.

Originally published in The Reading Room/4.

Stuart Schneiderman is a Life Coach in New York specializing in Executive Coaching and Relationship Coaching. He is the author of numerous books and articles about psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, among them: Jacques Lacan: The Death of an Intellectual Hero, and, more recently, Saving Face: America and the Politics of Shame. Currently he is working on a book about moral character.