“An experiment. It’s too hot in the house to do anything but sweat, so I’ve turned amphibian and made bath water my element. I’m presently squatting in the tub with my typewriter on a board and my hair in a shower cap to keep it off my neck.

“Today was a bummer. I went to a certain office in the City to look over listings for civil service jobs. I was toting a wool coat (though the temperature in Berkeley was 90 degrees, I was prepared for any exigency), a pastrami sandwich (will the mayonnaise spoil in the heat and poison me?), and a jumbo sketch pad (the only paper I could find). Once in the City, I drove in dazed circles for an indeterminate amount of time around the appointed block—parking lot prices having shorted out my circuits.

“’One hundred’ was lettered across the entrance of the building I sought. I passed a futuristic arrangement of lights suspended from the ceiling in the lobby and took the elevator for floors 10-18. The floor numbers lit up dimly in a little black window over the buttons as they do on computerized cash registers. I mention this because it took me only half a minute to notice this—and they call me a slow study! On the eleventh floor I got out and stared down blank corridors.

“When I took the elevator down again two hours later, I felt as deflated as a popped balloon—job titles I couldn’t decipher, entailing responsibilities I couldn’t fathom, conveying a tedium that numbed my mind to contemplate.”



Lafayette is all of fifteen minutes from Berkeley on the freeway, but being on the other side of the East Bay hills, it might as well be the ends of the earth—no one will come to visit you. Consequently, I felt like I was living a peripheral existence—in exile, if you will. So, after I lost my job at Sofabed Warehouse, I moved back to Berkeley, back into the thick of things. I took an apartment on Hillegass Street with two artists—Susan, a graphic designer who free-lanced for Levi-Strauss, and Carolyn, who made fabulous costumes and “did” the historical fairs.

My bedroom was a long, narrow sun porch, facing the bay, with a solid bank of windows on three sides.



“Last night I dreamed I came down with mononucleosis and had a mumps-like swelling of the neck. Consequently, the first few hours of the morning I couldn’t quite shake the residual notion that I was ill—and dragged myself around listlessly.

“In the early afternoon Carolyn found me in the kitchen, trying to pry the lid off a Schiller’s spice can with a screwdriver. The thing popped off suddenly, discharging curry powder all over my lap. Carolyn laid down some newspaper, which I carefully sidled onto and beat the ocher stain from my jeans. Then, mounted on a chair, she went spelunking in the spice cupboard while, with a note pad, I chronicled her discoveries.

“While my egg was boiling, I played two games of backgammon with myself, allying myself with white and losing both times.

“Before Meredith arrived to see my new place, I took down the clothesline I had strung up on the far side of my bedroom last week and razed and carted off the tower of boxes I’d left there since the day I moved in. Afterwards I stared around my room at the orderly files of colored folders, freshly laundered rug, dainty new underwear, folded and ready to be put in the dresser I didn’t own yet—and felt overawed by the tidiness of things.”



It’s not hard to grasp the idea that if you’ve been victimized as a child, until you learn to protect yourself—and come to know that you’re worth protecting—you’re liable to keep stumbling into situations in which you’ll be victimized again.   But what can be harder to identify are the mechanisms by which you open yourself to misuse and abuse.

For much of my life I held an ideal about living harmoniously with everyone who happened into my life. When someone cut me to the quick, I’d get appropriately angry. I’d rail at them in my mind to work off steam, then confront them as diplomatically as I knew how. But if nothing got resolved, I’d find a way to “swap heads” with them. Suddenly I’d find myself seeing everything from their point of view, intuiting what they thought and felt and why they’d done what they had—or, at least, imagining I did. Then my anger would subside, and I’d experience a sense of personal transformation. I’d feel humbled, clear, and whole. In this rapt state, I no longer felt vulnerable, so forgiving and mending fences came easily. This transformation always felt like a spiritual passage. There was only one problem…well, two, actually: I wasn’t really invulnerable—and the other person hadn’t changed. In fact, now I was more vulnerable because in the process of identifying with and forgiving the other person, I came to feel an even deeper sense of connection with them, so that when they repeated whatever behavior had wounded me in the first place, which they were bound to do because they hadn’t taken any responsibility, I was even more deeply hurt than before. The cumulative effect of experiences like this was to make me feel that the harder I tried to be a good person, the more misery I brought on myself.

I now believe that the reason the experience of “self-transcendence” transported me the way it did was that it allowed me to feel hopeful in situations where, in fact, there was no hope and created the illusion, on a symbolic level, that I’d resolved my childhood predicament. What underlay this hope was the apprehension that if I could transform my feelings, so could the other person—hadn’t I just proved it could be done?—and underlying this apprehension lay the misguided assumption that, like me, they would want and aspire to.

I suppose the bottom line was that I kept trying to extend to other people the same degree of empathy and understanding that I wanted for myself, not so much because I expected a return, but rather because by offering it, I felt myself creating the possibility of such empathy and forgiveness in a world that hadn’t admitted such a possibility to me.



In A Patchwork Memoir I wrote:

The Drama of the Gifted Child has been the single most important book I’ve ever read, in terms of the impact it has had on my life. For years I could find no explanation for my ongoing battle with anxiety and depression, for the depths of despair I so often felt, for my failed relationships, and my inability to make a success of myself. I had done everything I knew to do. I’d excelled academically, tried therapy, different jobs, various living situations—I’d taken risks, I’d been disciplined, I’d persevered. I couldn’t understand why I continued to be so unhappy. My parents hadn’t been grossly abusive—I hadn’t been locked in closets, starved, battered, raped… What was wrong with me that I couldn’t seem to get a grip?

Miller’s short book was my introduction to the concept of a false or adapted self and a true self that has been sacrificed. When I understood that the loss of one’s true self is the greatest tragedy of all and that it happens, at least partly, as a function of a child’s sensitivity and capacity for empathy—that is, their vulnerability to unconscious misuse by their parents—I finally began to understand my own history.

I understood why, during my adolescence, I’d developed, as a response to my mother’s admonition “deprivation makes us grow, unless the deprivation is too great,” the notion that I was more heroic than other people—that my suffering would yield an advantage when I was older. And why in my early twenties I made the conscious choice to relinquish this form of grandiosity because I saw through it—because I recognized that, in my own case, the deprivation had been too great, that rather than making me strong, clearly it had crippled me. I also understood why I became so deeply depressed after surrendering this defense.

Now I could begin to see the ways my parents had, unknowingly, misused me. I had always felt I had to be the perfect child to buttress my mother’s shaky self-esteem; especially after my brother was burned, she’d needed a model daughter to prove to the world that she was a good mother, as well as to justify her vocation as a therapist. I could see how, for my father, I’d had to be the accommodating companion, the childhood friend he hadn’t had—who kept him company but made no demands of my own.

I understood that I’d had to be an independent and trouble-free child because neither of my parents could tolerate anyone or anything that impinged on them too much. I couldn’t have needs because neither of them could tolerate my having them. I couldn’t express any negative feelings because they couldn’t tolerate those either. My father was contemptuous of fear, incensed by anger, and dismissive of sadness. While my mother wasn’t contemptuous of fear, she was impatient with mine, threatened, perhaps, because it suggested I wasn’t as well-adjusted as she needed me to be, and, like my father, she was incensed by anger and dismissive of sadness—at least of my sadness.

When, after puberty, I could no longer be the perfect child because I was coming apart at the seams, my parents abandoned me emotionally. I think on some deep level I felt betrayed then—that I’d sacrificed who I was to be what they needed me to be, and now that I was in need, all they could do was blame and disparage me. I stopped kissing my mother “good night” around the time of the divorce—in my memory, though I could be mistaken, it was the night she assured me that after the divorce “nothing would change.” We never hugged again, either, until I began to initiate embraces as an adult. As for my father, my fantasy about my mother remarrying so I could have a new, nicer (step)father is testiment to how disillusioned I was with him.



– There was a mother/parent who at the core was emotionally insecure and who depended for her narcissistic equilibrium on the child behaving, or acting, in a particular way.

– The child had an amazing ability to perceive and respond intuitively, that is, unconsciously, to this need of the mother, or of both parents, for him to take on the role that had unconsciously been assigned to him.

– This role secured “love” for the child—that is, his parents’ narcissistic cathexis. He could sense that he was needed and this, he felt, guaranteed him a measure of existential security.

“As I think back over my last twenty years’ work, in the light of my present understanding, I can find no patient whose ability to experience his true feelings was not seriously impaired.”

“For the majority of sensitive people, the true self remains deeply and thoroughly hidden.”

“Experience has taught us that we have only one enduring weapon in our struggle against mental illness: the emotional discovery and emotional acceptance of the truth in the individual and unique history of our childhood. Is it possible then, with the help of psychoanalysis, to free ourselves altogether from illusions? History demonstrates that they sneak in everywhere, that every life is full of them—perhaps because the truth often would be unbearable. And yet, for many people the truth is so essential that they must pay dearly for its loss with grave illness.”

“That probably greatest narcissistic wound—not to have been loved just as one truly was—cannot heal without the work of mourning. It can either be more or less successfully resisted and covered up (as in grandiosity and depression) or constantly torn open again in the compulsion to repeat.”

“Before he can develop his own form of criticism he first adopts his father’s hated vocabulary or nagging manner. And so the long repressed anxiety will surface in—of all things!—his mother’s irritating hypochondriacal fears. It is as if the ‘badness’ in the parents that had caused a person the most suffering in his childhood and that he had always wanted to shun has to be discovered within himself, so that reconciliation will become possible. Perhaps this also is part of the never-ending work of mourning that this personal stamp must be accepted as part of one’s own fate before one can become at least partially free.”

(I had to look up cathexis in the dictionary. It means “Concentration of emotional energy on an idea or object.”)

After rereading this last quote, I had an “Aha!” moment. So that’s what I was intuiting when I wrote about my therapy with Beth:

“What is it that I’m not allowed to express—my own craziness? Keep those psychic hobgoblins hidden, those two-headed, twelve-toed tenants of my head—bitterness, paranoia, self-pity. Must I then, always and only, manifest what is sane and sound and good and right?

That’s why I needed a safe place to express those ”uglier” feelings—because healing involves discovering, exploring, and accepting the darker aspects of your parents in yourself.



So why were you such a tortured soul? readers of my memoir may be wondering. I didn’t get an answer myself—well, half of one—until my mid-thirties, when I went back to St. Anthony Park for a Murray High School reunion. And it did come from a therapist, just not one of mine. Right before I left Minnesota, my cousin Mark gave me a book called The Drama of the Gifted Child, originally called Prisoners of Childhood, saying he thought I might find it helpful. I read it on the plane.

In her small book, Alice Miller, a former psychoanalyst, writes that children who are sensitive and empathic may try to take care of an insecure parent by adapting to that parent’s wants and needs—to their own detriment. Which is to say, these children become not who they truly are, but who their parent needs them to be. This sacrifice of one’s “true” self, Miller tells us, is the most painful loss a person can suffer. This is what I’d done instinctively, I came to realize, with both my parents—my mother especially—though, of course, not consciously.

And I would go on to do the same thing in other relationships too—with my sixth-grade teacher, Mr. Main, for example. I sensed his insecurity from the start and tried to be the perfect student for his sake. Wanting to reassure him that he was a good teacher, I laughed at his jokes and was determinedly attentive during his instruction, even when he was at his dullest. I actually felt I had to make up for the inattentiveness of my classmates. No wonder I became his pet—though that was never what I wanted. When he wouldn’t give me another day to memorize my Australia oral report, it felt like a betrayal. Why? Because I’d been trying to take care of his feelings all year, and it was the only time I’d ever asked anything of him in return.

And the same thing happened with my mother. When I went through my own crisis after the move to California and could no longer be the perfect child she needed me to be, she became abusive.

When you’ve never been loved for your true self, Miller says, you have no feeling of being loved at all.



My very first session with Beth had gone well, I remember—I’d even thought she teared up a little when I told her my story. But it soon became clear that she’d decided to take a “tough love” tack with me. And the more I appealed to her for a gentler approach, the more rigid, critical, and judgmental she became. Alice Miller writes that it’s an integral part of the process for a patient to feel disappointed or frustrated or angry at their therapist at times, but Beth took it as a personal affront. And the smaller and more inadequate she made me feel, the more powerful and admirable she appeared to me. If I was deep in the heart of transference, she was deep in the heart of counter-transference. The only way to get on her good side, I saw, was to appease her, so I set out to become the perfect patient just as I’d tried, as a child, to be the perfect daughter. And so our therapeutic relationship became about her feelings, not mine.

“I dreamed I was traveling with strangers through a strange landscape of tiny, flat, barren islets and labyrinthine channels, the shallow waters bright, clear yellow and seemingly devoid of life—a wasteland extending as far as the eye could see. We got out of the car to stretch our legs, took off our shoes, and began wading about; I was nervous, fearing this bizarre terrain might produce some menace, some fearsome animal—an electric eel, leeches, or carnivorous fish. And sure enough, through the clear waters, I saw the approach of several large, red-spotted, fanged fish. Frantically, we tried to scramble back onto the land, but the low banks were so slippery we could hardly climb out. At the last possible moment, I managed to pull my legs just out of the reach of the jaws of the snapping fish. Then we began to run back the way we had come. When I got to the car, I glanced behind me and saw in a waterway a dark reptilian shape—several feet in length—crawling menacingly toward me before I scrambled into the car.

“In the next scene I was alone in a public bathroom with numerous stalls. There was urine on the floor and on the toilet seats of all of them. I began to wash my feet in a sink, lathering and scrubbing to remove anything from those sinister waters that might have accrued—any bacterium, fungus, or microscopic parasite.”


Beth thought that it was appropriate to express all of her angry, critical, disapproving feelings about me, but I’m convinced it wasn’t. I believe the wasteland of yellow water—urine—where nothing could grow represented the environment she created for me in therapy.

Throughout my childhood and adolescence I’d managed to hold myself together, despite the trauma I’d suffered—through sheer force of will, it seems to me in retrospect. But maybe there was always going to be a day of reckoning. When I realized, in the wake of Britte’s rejection, how broken I was, I understood that it was time to let go—to allow myself to experience and address all the feelings I’d been struggling for so many years to suppress or control.

With Dr. F., Dr. G., Dr. A., Helen, and Beth, I was trying to find a safe place to do this, but my therapy with Beth turned out to be such a fiasco I decided never again. I would have to make it on my own.



She’d shut her door on me, Beth told me angrily at our next session, because I hadn’t formulated a request—told her specifically what I wanted of her. It didn’t occur to me till later that she had done exactly the same thing to me that afternoon—failed to articulate what it was she’d needed from me, i.e., a request.

Later I wrote:

“I want to tell Beth about that Friday, about sitting on that beanbag chair, trying to buckle my shoes to go, with fingers that didn’t work, suffering, wanting to believe the back she turned on me was not a dismissal, unable to interpret it any other way.

“Somewhere along the line, I learned never to ask. Perhaps I was refused repeatedly—or simply experienced people as intractable and situations as immutable. I know I experienced reality as a fixed system which disallowed any breaking or bending of rules. I know that one idea never had any reality for me—that I could change anything with a request, a plea, a demand… There would—could—never be any adaptation to me.

“So it’s been almost impossible for me to ask favors, to ask for accommodation. That’s why going to her office that Friday afternoon was so difficult for me. Why couldn’t she understand that I was reaching as far as I could, instead of resenting the fact that I couldn’t reach farther?”


I remember asking Beth on one occasion why she never expressed empathy for me. “Because it doesn’t do any good,” she answered. (Ah, but it does.)

On another occasion I asked why she couldn’t conciliate me after an argument. “Why should I?” she shot back. “Because I conciliate you,” I said.

Like my mother, when I told her about a problem I was having with someone, she would criticize me, telling me, “You’re rigid,” “You hear selectively,” “You just want to play ain’t it awful.”

Instinctively, I knew what I needed from a therapist, but when I tried to talk to her about it, she resentfully declared that I needed to define relationships and didn’t give the other person any room. Despite her lack of empathy, I kept trying to make myself understood to someone who, like my mother, was never going to understand me, and I might have gone on indefinitely—except that one day she announced that she was leaving county practice the following month, which meant I couldn’t afford to see her anymore.

I’d put away any anger I felt toward her early in our therapy together because she led me to believe that getting angry was immature. But when—during that last month, feeling betrayed and abandoned—I took finally the lid off, she threatened to throw me out of the session, which, also, was reminiscent of my mother, who on more than one occasion had screamed, “I just want you out of here.”

At our last session, when I was so overcome with grief I could hardly talk, Beth paid me the only compliment she ever did during the six months I saw her (if I really heard selectively, I shouldn’t remember it, should I?)—she said that I had courage.



When Harry finally finished his Ph.D. dissertation, he was commended for a brilliant piece of work. But there was only one job opening in his field in the world—in New Zealand. He applied for it, of course, and he and Arlen waited hopefully.

That Friday I dropped by their place right after Beth closed her office door on me, and Harry tried to comfort me, awkwardly patting me on the shoulder as I tearfully told him what had happened. But when Arlen got home from work, she lambasted him for not cleaning up the house as she’d asked—they were expecting Jeff and some of his college friends for dinner. Harry explained that I’d needed to talk, but that only made her so mad she lashed out at me, too, for sitting around and not helping out. I heard him telling her quietly in the kitchen that if she treated her friends this way, she was going to lose them. She’d already had a falling out with my mother after announcing that she could discard her “as easily as an old coat.”

On this occasion, I walked out. When Arlen and I talked on the phone a week later, I told her I couldn’t deal with her relentless anger. I met Harry over hamburgers at a fast food restaurant once after this—and he said he understood why I needed to distance myself. When I asked why he stayed, he said simply, “I love her.”



As I can attest, the more a therapist is like your parents, the more powerful your transference—your positive and negative feelings towards them—will be. Of all my therapists, Beth was most like my mother, and consequently, I developed a violent crush on her.

When George Salikas’s offer to me of a stint as boat tour guide fell through (my dad never explained why), I took a part-time position as the secretary for a Sofabed Warehouse that had just opened in Pleasant Hill—and was glad I landed where I did. I was making more money, the workload was light, my boss was affable and the salespeople lively and companionable. I found it such a congenial atmosphere I looked forward to going to work each morning. Until I was unceremoniously fired a month later by the owners—just told one Friday not to come back Monday—because they’d decided their secretary at the main branch in S.F. could handle all the paperwork.

The afternoon I lost my secretarial job at Sofabed Warehouse, I wrote:

“On impulse, I took the exit and found my way to Hill Crest, which oriented me. I knew Beth might not be at the Center today, and even if she was she might not have time to see me. It was a hair-brained thing to do, so I resolved not to be disappointed whatever happened.

“I paused at the Center door, knowing my face was puffy from weeping. To my relief the receptionist had gone, and the waiting room was empty. On the main desk was a schedule with today’s date—Beth’s name headed one column, her appointment times listed down the side. At four, a name was entered. She’d be finished in twenty-five minutes, I calculated.

“I went down the hall to the kitchen unit and opened a cupboard to get a styrofoam cup. As I fixed myself some tea, I pressed my cool fingers against my hot cheeks and forehead and smarting eyes. It felt soothing. In the bathroom, I blew my nose and collected a handful of tissues.

“There was a recreation room, red-carpeted and strewn with enormous beanbag chairs. I curled up on one of them, putting my tea on a folding chair. The bag was soft, the tea warm. Crying, even silently, was a relief. I lay back on my cushion, cradling my head in my hand, daubing my nose, which kept running, and wondered what I was doing there, what I would say to Beth. A man’s voice rose and fell in the next room. I whispered, ‘Beth, don’t stay overtime with him! I need to talk to you.’

“Eventually I heard footsteps in the hall and saw two people pass the door. But the woman wasn’t Beth, which confused me momentarily, until it occurred to me that it was a couple she had been seeing.

“I hurried out into the hall, saw her office door standing open and the front door just shutting. Had I missed her? Had she been ahead of them and gone to her car for some reason? I opened the front door and looked out, calling her name. The young couple, at their car, glanced around at me. I went back in, bewildered—and saw Beth walking toward me from her office.

“’Beth?’ She looked at me without emotion, not—apparently—perplexed or surprised by my tear-stained face or unexpected visit. In fact, there was no glimmer of response in her face at all. It felt to me in that moment that our acquaintance only existed during a certain hour on a Tuesday morning. Now she was a stranger who admitted no claims upon her. ‘Are you about to leave?’

“’Yes,’ she answered briefly. ‘You’re upset about something?’ The question sounded perfunctory. Her eyes were vacant of concern.

“’I lost my job today.’

“She turned without comment and walked to a desk, where she busied herself with some papers. Her reaction was so strange I didn’t know what to do, so after a moment I turned and walked down the hall.

“I sat on my beanbag and began to buckle the straps of my sandals in slow motion. My body felt unendurably heavy. Would it be wrong to ask for something for myself—a few minutes of time? Would it be wrong to just ask? But I couldn’t, after such a chilly reception; I’d felt dismissed. I began to cry, wondering whether this was some test Beth was devising for me. I saw her pass by the door. I picked up my coat and went looking for my purse. When I entered the hall, she’d shut herself into her office.

“So I got in my car and drove off, reassuring myself over and over again that it wasn’t wrong to have tried to get help. There wasn’t anyone else I could go to. Or so I thought.”