I'm a spy, a sneak, an intruder. Or so the feelings go as I clean out the office where my late father practiced psychoanalysis.
In recent days, since my mother's death and the inevitable sale of my parents' Spanish-style home in Beverly Hills, I've been clearing out closets and cupboards and drawers. The act of folding up my mom's clothing and placing each blouse, skirt and pair of shoes into a cardboard box isn't easy. Nor is divvying up the china with my sisters and brother. But the hardest job of all has been dismantling my father's office.
If there is one thing my father valued, it was the gift of memory--how it plays out in our dreams and the dark recesses of the unconscious. His own memory was amazingly tenacious. At the same moment that I need to chuck most of his stuff into the trash, I want to memorialize him. How do I, a daughter still grieving, soak up the essence of my dad without overstepping my bounds? How to sift through it all without treading on patient confidentiality?
The air-conditioned office is quite modest by shrink standards, but there is an elegance to its simplicity: A desk and chair, a beige couch, a brown leather-and-chrome swivel chair and ottoman. The bookshelves are lined with volumes on Freud, psychoanalysis and child development. A cupboard houses games, such as checkers, Monopoly and Life, that my father played with his youngest patients. Before it was a shrink's office, this warren of rooms was my brother's bedroom. While on Christmas break during my college years, I'd head up here to type term papers on my Smith Corona and sneak Marlboros. Now, it is my job to take apart all that my father created. What to throw away and what to hold onto?
The framed diplomas and plaques of appreciation that lined his hallway I'll keep. The tapes from his answering machine I'll toss. His professional pride, his role as provider, his care-taking qualities--am I throwing them all away for good? Boxing his professional texts and journals to donate to the local psychoanalytic institute he helped develop is a breeze. Reading his Week-at-a-Glance from the days before his death--the planned family trip that never materialized because of illness--brings a rush of tears and a reminder of his gambling spirit, which tried to beat the odds. From his Brooklyn boyhood, the street fighter was ever present.
"Kushen tuchis," he'd say when life knocked him down. Kiss my ass.
With a thick roll of black trash bags in hand, I sort and seek. My father was nothing if not meticulous in maintaining patient confidentiality. Once, at my son's Little League game, he suddenly disappeared from the bleachers into the bushes nearby. Why? A ballplayer's parents were his patients, and he didn't want them to feel awkward. He wasn't beyond bragging or blabbing. But the most he revealed to us was that one patient had recorded a song with the awful lyrics, "Dr. Horowitz, won't you, ooh-ooh, help me come to grips?"
Now I arrive at the patient files. And, OK, I admit it. I peek. Frankly, there isn't much there. No real damaging information. No secrets revealed. Only records of payment. Boring stuff, actually. I pay special attention to the files of friends and famous actors. Could my searching be actionable? It hardly matters. Again, nothing enticing. Nothing even entertaining. All my snooping turns into a sobering rite: throwing Manila folders into plastic Baggies and lugging them to the giant trash bins in the alley.
What, exactly, am I looking for? In truth, I'm not sure. My dad seemed to keep a wall between office and home, where his holier-than-thou pose came crashing down amid reminders of his status as the family fumphiologist, a Yiddishism for a quasi-doctor who is full of himself. Once my siblings and I were grown and had started our own families, he moved his psychotherapy practice back home to this suite of rooms over the garage. His patients walked up the driveway, past the kitchen and into the backyard garden, where they ascended a flight of stairs to his little waiting room, flicking on a switch to signal their arrival. Sometimes my husband and I came here, too, drawing on my father's expertise for our own children, relying on his common-sense approach to parenthood: Keep listening.
Maybe that's what I'm really searching for now, a clue that he's still here somehow. If he is, he's surely still holding onto his patients' secrets, the things he'd never tell me and the things I'll never know. But after all these years, the bad girl in me needs to look, anyway, because there's no one around to stop me; no one whose time with my father I'll envy or whose intimacies he'll share.
An immigrant grocer's son, my father was a man of exquisite contradiction. He translated Japanese during World War II and studied psychology at the Menninger Clinic, thanks to the GI Bill. Yet, despite his sophistication as a world traveler and a lover of human foibles, nothing made him more nervous than figuring out whom to tip and how much. He brokered in a world of feelings but often had difficulty expressing his own. When he called me on the phone, it was as if by shorthand. "Joy-Joy?" he'd ask, using the childhood nickname he gave me. "Dad here." As if I didn't know.
Now, as I take apart his office, I wonder how much of who he was is really a part of me. He once said that patients completing successful analysis feel as if they are unwrapping gauze from their eyes: They finally see the truth. No doubt I became a journalist in weak imitation of his life's work. I wanted to ask the right question; to listen to what people mean as well as what they say; to embrace ambivalence rather than see the world in black and white; to distinguish fact from truth. Also, like my father, I can hide behind my questions but still feel connected to the person I'm interviewing.
In a cardboard box I'll take home, I keep his desk pen, some tchotchkes from his travels, a photograph of a lion for my middle son, who is looking for courage. My father's files, I realize, are a mishmosh of the personal and professional: journal articles, old PhD dissertations from students he trained, some of my earliest newspaper clippings, a lecture he delivered on love and psychoanalysis, Father's Day cards from children and grandchildren, an unpublished manuscript of a book he wrote about being "a frantic football father"--a tribute to my brother, the jock. In a file cabinet, there is a Valentine's card. It is from my mother. My parents had been married 48 years when Dad died. "And it goes on and on and on," Mom scribbled to him on the bottom of the card, likening their love to the relentless vim of the Energizer Bunny.
Only one discovery really stands out as a final unexpected gift. In his desk drawer, my father kept a quote from Flaubert's "Madame Bovary" that he had copied by hand onto a piece of stationery. It reads, in part, "none of us can ever express the exact measure of his needs or his thoughts or his sorrows; and human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars."
The futility of words in the face of feeling; the longing for more. This is what my father the psychologist understood best. Still, we keep trying, because even as words fail us, the greater failure is in abandoning our hearts.
So I write, having taped Flaubert's words to the wall above my desk. What else is there? Tomorrow, the Salvation Army van arrives for the final load of office furniture.
published in the Los Angeles Times