Thirty years and four shrinks later, and what have I learned? My personality seems to come with two presets: stentorian bore and class cutup, neither of which exactly enchants the mental-health professional. “Character isn’t fate,” I say to my friend Adam, now living in England, over the phone. “Isn’t this the very American lie that sends us crawling back to the shrinks?”
“To see how the little, invisible filaments that weave together the individuals in a family into a single unit—how over time they turn to iron ore and become your character? I mean, to somehow exit the labyrinth of the group mind that conceived you? To move toward enlightenment and a hair further toward mitigated misery …”
“We’re on metaphor four, here, Steve.”
“To penetrate the self and transcend it …”
“Steve, hang on a sec. Zzzzzzzzz.”
By this time, the jig is up; you see what I’m about. Admit it: Like my friend Adam, you’re getting sleepy … very, very sleepy. The problem is, of course, just as the problem is in my therapy, between the yuks and pseudo-insight, I’ve revealed nothing of substance. If I’m entitled to keep the Gothic particulars of my self-dispossession quiet, well, then, you’re entitled to the Dean defense. But to break the spell, I will tell you a story:
In 1963, a young and very unmarried girl in Poughkeepsie discovered, to her mounting terror, that she was pregnant. Her father was an IBM executive—this was when IBM executives were confined by sumptuary bylaw to wear white shirts and blue suits—and her mother was from the proper South. The household was run on the fifties model: The father was an authoritarian, everyone else toed the straight and narrow, and God forbid the neighbors found out. The young woman dropped out of college, and conveniently disappeared, to the Inwood House for wayward girls in lower Manhattan. The Inwood was then located in a large brownstone and run like a dormitory, with about twenty girls in residence at a time. There was a nurse and a Friday clinic, and, in offices across the street, a weekly group-therapy session. In November, the president was shot, and West 15th Street filled with pregnant girls, listening to the radio and smoking.
In January, she gave birth to a boy, and with a social worker holding her hand, she cabbed it up the FDR, to an adoption agency on the Upper East Side. On his 14th birthday, she wrote a letter to her son via Ann Landers—“Going into your teen years, I wanted you to know you had been loved, and are loved”—that Ann Landers did not print. The young woman was my mother, the baby boy was me. I first heard this story in my late thirties, sitting with her in a small picnic area overlooking the Hudson River. That is my preverbal, prenatal story; my ancient prehistory. After I heard it for the first time, I boarded a train in Westchester and returned to the city. And then something peculiar happened. I fell asleep—not just asleep, but into the deepest sleep of my life. When I woke up, the train was empty, sitting idle in Grand Central. The platform was empty, too. I had slept through the thronging of passengers exiting a crowded New York commuter train and then slept for an additional half-hour in the deserted car. No conductor was in sight; no one; not a soul.
I have never felt so cleansed by sleep; I’ve also never felt so alone. What could it mean? I haven’t the slightest idea. But I have decided, for now, to leave that stone lying at the base of its Sisyphean incline. Instead of gearing up again—forms, waiting rooms, Kleenex—I called my biological mother and told her about my four therapists and how they had fallen asleep on me. She laughed and laughed and laughed, then said, “Did you ever think it means maybe you don’t need therapy?”