“One morning last week I accidentally locked myself out of the house before my therapy session with Beth, and, in no mood for hassles, I smashed in the back door with my shoulder, tearing the latch out of the doorframe and ripping off the six-foot strip of molding that held the chain lock.

“Friday night I’d laundered some money—well, a check, actually—in the pocket of a pair of jeans; it came out as lint all over the wash. When my bank statement arrived, I balanced my checkbook, only to find I was $20 overdrawn. Which meant I had to take a trip to Danville to get my employer, Adam’s dad, to write me a new check. My gas tank was empty, however, and I only had a dime in my wallet. Then a stroke of inspiration—I remembered that in a basket I had accumulated a mess of pennies. I stacked them in piles of ten, bound them with masking tape, and headed for Jiffy to buy a dollar of premium.

“When I got home many hours later, Meredith told me, breathless and bug-eyed, that she’d called out the police—that the apartment had been broken into. ‘I would have left you a note,’ I winced, ‘but I didn’t have time.’”



From time to time I flew down to L.A. to visit Ella too, who was working for a translation agency.

“A gardener is trimming a lozenge-shaped hedge in the grassy courtyard between the wings of Ella’s apartment building. His rake scrapes the sidewalk as he clears away his prunings. There’s a bush that reaches up one story to just under her window—it has large, pale pink, five-petaled blossoms with hot pink stamens that I can reach out and touch.

“I camped out on the living room floor last night in a sleeping bag on two huge pillows. I slept on my back, with my bottom in the crevice between the two cushions, so that, jackknifed all night long, I couldn’t straighten up in the morning. At breakfast I hobbled between toaster and table with an octogenarian stoop.

“Walking with Ella toward the beach where I once lived, I couldn’t see the surf at first—the coarse sand formed a ridge that fell abruptly away to the waterline. As we came over the rise, I beheld the water, seething and spitting its foamy fury upon the steep shore to no avail—it was making little headway.

“The sight of that vast fluctuating kingdom—its dazzling wavelets extending out beyond apprehension, the clash of its body against the body of the land like a love struggle—made me fierce with joy. I wanted to live seaside again—to lose myself in that endless surf sound, to be ground down to something as simple and elemental as a polished stone.”



My friend John from the language lab had moved down to L.A., where he was a gaffer—a lighting technician—for TV and film.

“Another day John and I went antiquing—he was supposed to buy a stained glass window for a cathedral movie set. All we found were some windows depicting polo players—and I couldn’t talk him into those. I gave him a piggyback ride at the beach in Marina Del Rey, and when I stubbed my toe, we toppled together higgly-piggly onto the sand. We watched the antics of a lone sea bird who hustled down to the water’s edge at each wave’s ebb, pecked a couple of times, then skittered back up, trying not to get his feet wet, chased by the tide. Says John, ‘What a way to make a living.’ Then we played hangman’s noose in the sand.

“Later, John and I had crepes, Mexican and Genovese respectively, in a cozy restaurant under pendant bicycles suspended from the ceiling. I kissed him repeatedly in the street at leave-taking, and he responded with nervously tremulous lips. ‘Are you trying to start something?’ he asked. Then said, ‘You’re a sweet lady.’”



I find a journal entry about an impulsive trip to visit high-school friend Meryl in Chico—how the Bomb broke down after dark, just outside of a tiny town called Winters, and I wound up spending the night in the trailer of the clerk who worked the night shift at the neighboring 7-11.


“I’m sitting in my swimsuit at a window across from Cervantes’ Automotive Shop. A wiry old Chicano and half a dozen of his offspring are climbing around on the roof, laying tar paper. The air is abuzz with insect racket, the heat a heavy sedative. This is Chapman Town—parched, weedy plots and ramshackle huts…

“I arrived in Chico in the late afternoon yesterday. There was no ‘Ramby,’ Meryl’s geriatric station wagon, parked alongside her hovel, but I decided to knock anyway, my jeans ripping stickily from the seat as I climbed out of my car. On the highway I had pulled the pop-top off a Coke I had braced between my thighs. It fizzed over and ran down the seat. Sitting in my soft drink, I remembered the old Coke ad. ‘Well, there’s more than one way to take the pause that refreshes,’ I mused.

“When no one answered my knock, I rattled the front and back doors, excavated in the dust on the stoop for a hidden key, and howled ‘Meryl!’ in complaint. She was supposed to be home by 4:00, and it was 4:33. Not knowing what else to do, I scrawled a message on a paper towel from my car, left it in her mailbox, then drove back uptown to wile away some time.

“Though it was Saturday, the stores along the main street were closed, to my surprise, and the sidewalk so deserted, it might have been a ghost town. I saw a temperature display outside a bank—94 degrees. About this time my cockpit was feeling more like a barbecue pit, my steering wheel grilling my hands, so I parked and staggered up the smoldering sidewalk like the last survivor on a Sahara dune.

“When at last I found an open hardware store, I stripped off my sweatshirt in the restroom and swabbed myself with sopping paper towels. Still dripping, I left in search of air conditioning and anything potable with ice.”


“Meryl’s’s homestead is two tiny rooms. The door and window frames, painted a peeling, unappealing turquoise, are all skewed at improbable angles to the floor. The corners are inhabited by colonies of spiders taking siestas in their cobweb hammocks.

“‘Meryl, why is there a scummy ring in the bottom of my glass of lemonade?’ She’s asking me whether she should take along her whoopee cushion to ingratiate herself with the Eskimos. She’s going to Alaska to do research for a botany paper on the ways they use plants. She wants me to help her wrap her Christmas gifts for her sister’s family (it’s June)—in birthday paper, since that’s all she has.

“Now she’s wondering whether to bring a couple of recorders to teach the subjects of her thesis how to play ‘The Sailor’s Hornpipe.’

“Her odd, unfinished projects are scattered everywhere—assorted tool handles she turned on a lathe but never attached to blades, a smelly old sheepskin she cured, drying on a beam, and the aforementioned, overdue gifts she made herself: a gnomish spice rack, a chicken-shaped cutting board and accompanying egg-shaped one, and a brass fig leaf paperweight.”



On the way home from Meryl’s, I happened upon an isolated highway:

“On dusty back roads, I zigzagged across miles of farmland—flooded fields with needles of green poking out, new-furrowed plots looking at a distance like patches of umber corduroy, orchards planted in neat rows which appeared to march in formation like ranks of soldiers as I sped past. At last I came to a steep, solitary blacktop that ascended heavenward, cushioned on either side by plushy hills. Up I sped, the single sentient thing on the landscape. The world and I seemed to belong exclusively to each other for that hour. Even in the heat, I felt transported by that voluptuously private communion. My back adhered to the seat with a sticky suction. Drops of sweat ran down my belly. Without slowing, I pulled off my shirt and bra and felt the hot wind rushing over my breasts. Still driving, I wriggled out of my jeans and panties. Momentarily naked, I felt as voluptuously reckless as Eve in the primal garden, having just tasted the apple and wanting urgently and without preliminaries to fit her body around the warm firmness of the first man.”



“Adam. Towhead. We speed down 680 toward Danville. He presses his mouth against the back of his seat and contemplates abstractedly the junk piled in the back of my car.

“I press his nub of a nose with a fingertip. ‘I just pressed your talk button. Now you have to tell me something.’

“’No, I don’t!’ he retorts. ‘It’s my bellybutton you have to press.’

“I tell him a true tale. He tells me a tall one.

“’Look! The llamas are out!’ I cry.

“’The llamas!’ he enthuses, adding spuriously, ‘I saw them first.’

“We pass a dirt slope on the right, surrounded by a chain link fence—within are the llamas, a fuzzy brunette burro, and assorted goats.

“’Have they put the big balloons in cars yet?’ he asks querulously, as though running out of patience with the auto industry.


“His parents are punishing him for hitting a classmate with a toy shovel—no snack after school. So he snatches a stale bun from last night’s dirty dinner plate by the sink and gnaws it with a challenge in his eye. I put him in his room—but two minutes later when I go to clean the toilet, he ambushes me from behind the shower curtain with a chocolate–coated spoon and befudged grin.”



“’Callie! Max has got something!’ Adam shrieks from the next room. I chase Max the mutt down the hall and wrestle a stuffed animal from his jaws for the dozenth time that day. He drags the ten-foot hall runner into the living room, leaves masticated morsels of stereo earphones littered in the bedroom, pulls folded sheets and pillowcases off the top of the drier and tramples them, chomps the leaves off house plants.

“No sooner has Adam set up his ranks of plastic cowboys and Indians for a mock battle than Max scampers through, scattering them for yards around. Adam howls, in hot pursuit, beating him with a Batman doll.

“I’m in the kitchen, slaving over the dishpan. In an unguarded moment I turn, and Max leaps on my hands, slaking his thirst for dishwater with a great lolling tongue. When I try to load the dishwasher, he strains his head through my legs, slurping last night’s gravy from the dinner plates I’ve just stacked.

“Another mad dash and he knocks down Adam, who bumps his nose, which I have to kiss in order for it to mend properly.

“I drag Max to the door by the collar and deposit him in the back yard, where he sets himself to digging trenches, flowers flying. My patience spent, I corral him into his cage, but he leaps up on the sliding glass doors, dirtying the panes and rattling them with a thunder that reverberates throughout the house—another no-win day in the life of a dogsitter.”



“Helen said she didn’t believe my grief was real,” I tell Toni, “that real grief is quiet. Another time she told me that everything I was saying sounded rehearsed.”

“When feelings weren’t allowed in your family,” Toni observes, “they’re liable to come out defended.”

“What do you mean, ‘defended?’” I ask.

“Well, people defend their feelings in a variety of ways.” She lists four, which I resolve to remember, but on the drive home, reviewing our session, I can only remember three of them.

Later I plunk down on the sofa with a pencil while I’m microwaving some meatballs, determined to remember the one I seem to be blocking. As I write down various words that pop into my mind, suddenly it comes back to me—“manipulative.”

After giving some thought to what Toni said about feelings coming out defended, I wrote in my journal:

“When you haven’t been allowed to experience or express your feelings—fear, anger, grief—as a child, you’re not going to be able to experience or express them in a pure form as an adult either; instead they’re liable to be adulterated by other feelings and attitudes. For example, if your parents told you—or treated you as though—you were being manipulative whenever you expressed sadness, you’re liable to imagine or fear you are being manipulative whenever you do. If they didn’t believe your sadness was real, you may doubt or question its reality too, so that your sadness becomes contaminated with self-doubt, anxiety, shame, etc. that affect its expression.

“A therapist who isn’t experienced is liable to mistakenly assume that a client’s feelings aren’t real because they don’t look or sound like feelings in their pure form. So Helen could imagine that my somewhat histrionic grief wasn’t deeply felt because it didn’t look or sound to her like authentic grief. Unfortunately, it was. I suspect the way I expressed grief seemed histrionic to her because I unconsciously ‘amped it up’ in a desperate effort to overcome the incredulity that I expected, from experience, to encounter—as if sheer intensity were my only hope of breaking through the other person’s wall of disbelief.

“I say ‘unfortunately’ because Helen’s incredulity only served to heighten my own self-doubt, alienating me still further from my true feelings and compounding the problems I came into therapy with.”



In my then journal I wrote about my therapy with Helen:

“There was a moment when understanding failed irrevocably, when, bonded until then by a united effort, we split apart like a fractured atom.

“That trim little woman with her wide, scrubbed face, close cap of red hair and mannered courtesy. I believed in her impersonal good will, relied on her unflagging cheerfulness, clung to her awkwardly, like a child of one species to an adult of another.

“For a year and more, I sat on the green vinyl seat of a metal institutional chair beside a small aquarium. Minute blue striped fish zigzagged in confinement, like my thoughts. She was always strange to me, and I felt closer to her one foot beyond her door than closed in behind it. I used to prop my feet up on that chair, knees to chin, bind my legs in an embrace, and try to feel as secure as I did perched on a pillow in my own bedroom.

“Though she sat only a few feet away at a desk with a folder that bore my name, that narrow space between us was daunting—perilous somehow—and I could rarely span it with a gaze. Instead I stared in another direction—at a poster on the wall—and saw a seashore with an aqua wave, when I was able to see anything at all beyond the specters that my own psyche raised.”



After thirteen months of therapy with Helen, things hadn’t improved.

On one occasion she said that she didn’t believe my grief was real because authentic grief was quiet. (Not true, as anyone can testify who’s heard someone react to being told that a loved one has unexpectedly died.) 

On another occasion she said that in our sessions what I was saying sounded rehearsed. Well, I was often in so much distress that, just as I had with Dr. A, I unburdened myself in obsessive fantasies about my next session during the days in between. In fantasy, I was able to pour out my feelings without inhibition, but in my actual sessions, I still wasn’t.

And speaking of fantasizing, I did a lot of it when I was young. My most frequent fantasies were replays of actual interactions I’d had with people. But in the replays, I imagined being in the other person’s head, having a variety of positive responses to our exchange. I suppose I did this partly out of insecurity and the need to reassure myself that I’d acquitted myself well and made a good impression—which I suspect came from an absence of positive mirroring by my parents, essential to the development of self-confidence and self-esteem.

I also remember that when I told her about my vivid, empowering year in Spain—when, for a time at least, I came into my own—she deprecated my achievement, saying that one’s student years are easy compared to real life. Really? Just try, as someone who struggles with anxiety and depression, to adapt to life in a foreign country where you don’t know anyone and can’t speak the language yet. What I needed from Helen back then, perhaps more than anything else, was positive mirroring—to help me reclaim some of the self-esteem that was dragging around my heels at the time.

She also suggested, near the end of my therapy, that I’d developed the masculine side of myself but not the feminine. Years later, Toni would point out to me that since I was a child I’d tried to take care of the feelings of the people around me. “What could be more feminine,” I would like to ask Helen, “than caretaking?”

Then came a day when Helen said she didn’t see me making any progress and was handing me over to another therapist at the Center—Beth.



Almost all absurdity of conduct arises from the imitation of those whom we cannot resemble. Dr. Johnson

“Last night I had a chill dream about celebrating my birthday with the Hartwicks, a family I never felt approved of me. I was supposed to appear on the balcony of a lavish art deco opera house with them for some formality—photographs? But I got lost in the crowded hall and couldn’t find the right stairway. Eventually I came upon an odd narrow staircase with unnaturally high steps, which I began to climb. They became narrower as I went—and slanted, as well. Still I continued upward, though there was hardly space for my feet and I had to cling to a ridge overhead to keep from falling. When I came to the last step, I found I had climbed a huge gilded frond, that was purely decorative—and ended dizzily high in the air, several stories above the floor. Now, cold with fear, so precariously balanced that I knew that with one false move I would pitch to my death, I began to inch my way down again with excruciating care.”


“The huge gilded frond did actually exist—two of them, in fact, on the walls framing the screen in the art deco California Theater; they reached all the way to the top of the balcony though they didn’t have staircases.

On rereading this last entry after several months have passed, certain words strike me—formality , unnaturally, lost, gilded, decorative. Trying to integrate my impressions: the Hartwick family seemed admirably traditional and “formal”—pillars of the community—to me as a child. From the time I was young I was distressed by some of my own impulses and aspired (the staircase) to be correct and virtuous like they were (I’m going to join them on the balcony). My reward is conspicuous respectability (the photographs). But my outward adaptation to conventional mores proves a difficult way to go (unnaturally high steps, narrowing, slanting) and ultimate a false way—form, no substance (the frond is gilded, not gold, and merely decorative), and I find myself so alienated from my true feelings, so “up”tight, that I feel in psychological peril (I’m on the verge of falling to my death).”