The Malady Lingers On
Dr. Helen Feingold knew today’s session would be different from the very moment Beth Martin walked into her office. There was no cheery “hi, there,” with the self-conscious smile and shrug. This time, Beth dropped her tote bag on the floor and sat down heavily in the chair. “I can’t get this stupid song out of my head,” she said. “I don’t know what’s happening to me.” Then she began to cry.
This was not at all typical of Beth Martin. She’d expressed almost no emotions during the three months she’d been Dr. Feingold’s patient. At the first session, she’d talked about the day she discovered her boyfriend’s infidelity like it was someone else’s story, someone she didn’t even care much about.
“It’s driving me crazy,” she said now, trying to compose herself, taking a tissue from the box next to the chair and blotting her eyes. “I was in the studio this morning, singing a solo for a jingle, a national commercial, thousands of dollars. I could hardly concentrate on the music in front of me. That song just took over everything. This is scary.”
Dr. Feingold, a wiry little woman of seventy, nodded in sympathy to her patient, a young woman whose voice was anonymously familiar to millions. The beauty of that voice, however, was far more than that of its owner. Beth would never be a pop star, no matter how great a singer she was. Her eyes were small, her nose was big, she was thirty pounds overweight, and the world already had one Susan Boyle.
“What were your feelings right then?” Helen Feingold asked her. “Right at that moment.”
Beth looked annoyed. “We need to find out why this is happening, don’t we? What does it matter how I felt?”
“Because feelings are at the root of everything.”
Beth sighed and gave it perfunctory thought. “I felt…frustrated, I guess. But that’s not the point.”
“My career!” she wailed. “What’ll I do if this doesn’t go away? I won’t be able to function. I’m telling you, I stared at that piece of music and the notes were like hieroglyphics. All I could think of was that stupid, goddamn ‘My Baby Does the Hanky Panky’!”
Helen thought she’d misspoken. “You mean, the Hokey Pokey?” she asked.
“No, the Hokey Pokey is that dumb song they play at wedding receptions. This is another dumb song, the one from the sixties. Tommy James and the Shondells or somebody; you don’t know it?”
“How does it go?”
Beth rolled her eyes. “You want me to sing it for you? I’ll never get it out of my…” Then, “Okay, it goes, ‘My baby does the Hanky Panky. My baby does the Hanky Panky. My baby does the Hanky Panky…’ You getting the idea?”
“Hmm. And what does it mean to you?”
“Nothing, absolutely nothing,” Beth said helplessly, “just a stupid melody with mindless lyrics.”
Helen nodded. “Have you ever had a song stick in your head before?”
“Sure, haven’t you, hasn’t everybody? It’d happen to me especially when I came out of some recording studio and couldn’t get rid of the tune I’d been singing, but it was no big deal. I’d just think of another song, something good like ‘Mona Lisa’ by Nat King Cole.”
“Can you do that now, think of ‘Mona Lisa’?”
A look of fear crossed Beth’s face. “I’ll try,” she said, “but I’ve been trying all day.” She stared off in intense concentration.
Then she slowly shook her head and began to cry. “It keeps taking over,” she sobbed. “What the hell is wrong with me?” She grabbed a handful of tissues and buried her face in them.
No matter how many years Helen Feingold had been doing this, she always felt conflicted when her patients cried. Even as her heart went out to them, her professional self would be sitting back, taking note of things. It was good when feelings came to the surface, even if it wasn’t clear what they meant or what caused them. But in this case, she thought she had a pretty good idea.
But she had to be careful. She had to be aware of countertransference, repressed feelings in the therapist that are aroused by the patient. And Beth aroused plenty of them in Helen Feingold. She, too, had been an overachiever, someone who’d spent her life compensating for a lack of physical beauty. She’d managed to attract, then marry, Max Feingold, the handsome and brilliant psychoanalytic theorist who’d been her doctoral advisor, even though she was far from the prettiest of his advisees. She’d pulled it off by being the smartest and most interesting.
The early years of their marriage were idyllic, until she realized that his interest in young female students was still in full flower. But she loved him and valued his intellect, so she’d tolerated it, thinking of his womanizing as an eccentricity of his genius. Only after he’d dropped dead while receiving fellatio in his office from an eighteen-year-old coed was she able to admit to herself the shame, humiliation, and outrage she’d always felt but denied.
Was it countertransference? Was she projecting her own issues onto her patient? Max would probably say she was, the son of a bitch. In her mind, she had frequent arguments with Max. It balanced her judgment and was a good way to work out aggression. This particular argument she won.
“Tell me, Beth,” she said, “how do you feel about Josh?” Josh was Beth’s unfaithful boyfriend, now ex-boyfriend.
“What’s he got to do with it? Why are you changing the subject?”
“Bear with me. How much time do you spend thinking about him would you say?”
She gave a snort. “None. He was a part of my life that’s over.”
Dr. Feingold nodded. “And you feel a sense of accomplishment that you got over him so quickly.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” Beth said, a little wary.
“Are you angry at him for what he did to you?”
“No, not anymore.” There was no hesitation as she said it.
“And the reason is…?”
“I’ve moved on.” Beth nodded her head as if in confirmation.
Helen could imagine Max clucking his tongue at what she was about to do, but to hell with him. Her patient was in crisis and, sometimes, you have to step it up a bit.
“That song, ‘My Baby Does the Hanky Panky,’ it’s about some kind of dance, isn’t it?”
“I guess so. I never really thought about it.”
“What kind of a dance would you say it was?”
“I don’t know.” Beth was getting annoyed again. She started drumming her fingers against the armrest.
“Do you suppose it’s a dance of deception?”
The fingers paused in mid-drumming, and she thought about it. “You mean because ‘hanky panky’ means dishonesty? Maybe,” she mused, “maybe.”
“You said you’ve moved on. Is it because you understand why Josh slept with other women?”
“No,” she said, again, no hesitation. “It’s because I don’t care anymore.”
“I’m wondering, though,” Helen said, recognizing that she was now stepping it up a bit more than a bit, “I’m wondering if maybe you think a good-looking man couldn’t be attracted to you, only to your money. I’m wondering if you’re trying to deal with that feeling by thinking it doesn’t matter, that you don’t need anyone’s love. Could that be so?”
Beth blinked at her.
“But you don’t really believe that, do you?” said Helen. “You can’t, really. Everyone in the world needs to be loved and you’re no different, so your subconscious won’t let you get away with it. The subconscious is a very stubborn thing; it won’t take no for an answer. If you don’t listen to it, it finds a way to get your attention. I’m wondering if that’s what’s happening now. So let me ask again, and I want you to think this time: How do you feel about Josh?”
There was a long moment of silence. Beth, her face racked with indecision, tried to speak, but couldn’t. She tried again. “You want me to say I hate him, but I don’t,” she said. “I swear I don’t. I really don’t care about him anymore. I know you think I’m fooling myself…”
“No, I believe you when you say you don’t hate him or care about him. You’re not fooling yourself about that.”
“Then what?” Beth cried out in frustration. “What am I fooling myself about?”
It was the kind of question a therapist never answers, and Helen wasn’t going to. She had to approach this in just the right way.
“It’s true, you don’t hate him,” she said, “but that’s only because you weren’t surprised to find him cheating. You expected it. Because that’s what they all do sooner or later, right?”
A tear trickled down Beth’s cheek. “I thought he was different. I actually hoped…” She sat there for several seconds with a puzzled expression. Then her eyes grew wide.
“Oh my god, it’s me, isn’t it? He’s not the one I hate. I’m the one I hate. I found a way to make lots of money as a singer, even though I wasn’t pretty, and I thought it was all I needed. I never wanted to be a star anyway, so it was fine with me.” Her fingers, which had been drumming before, were now balled into a fist. She brought it down hard against the arm of the chair.
“And I could even go out with good-looking men and have sex with them, as long as I paid for their dinners, gave them presents, and got them tickets to ball games. And that was fine with me too.” She brought her fist down again and again.
“But it’s not fine, is it? It’s not fine at all. It’s pathetic!” She buried her face in her hands. “I hate myself, and that’s why I’m destroying my career. Oh, god!”
Helen said nothing, allowing her patient to fully experience the emotion. Half of her wanted to cry too. The other half was noticing the clock on the table, seeing that they were getting close to the end of the session.
At last, Helen spoke. “You have nothing to be afraid of, Beth,” she said gently. “You will not destroy your career, I can assure you.”
Beth slowly raised her tear-stained face. “I won’t?”
“No. Because you don’t want to. You may be punishing yourself right now, but you’re a survivor.” Like me, she added in her thoughts.
Beth considered it. “Maybe I am a survivor,” she said. “I’ve always been able to take care of myself, that’s one thing. I’ve done it my whole life.”
She glanced down at her ample midsection, then looked up at Helen, sudden determination in her eyes. “I’ve been meaning to go on a diet, and you know what? Now I’m totally going to do it.”
“No reason why you can’t,” said Dr. Feingold.
“And another thing, maybe I’ll get my nose made smaller; people do that all the time. And while I’m at it, I can get my eyes done too. I can afford it, why not?”
“Why not, indeed?”
“And…oh my god, wait a minute. I think that song is gone!” She reached down into the tote bag at her feet and pulled out several pages of sheet music. “This is for a recording session tonight. The arrangement is tricky, so they gave it to me in advance, but I’ve been afraid to look at it.” Her eyes scanned the first page, and her face lit up. She did have a lovely smile, Helen observed. “I can read it; I can hear the tune! That horrible song is gone!”
“I’m so glad,” said Helen. “But now, I’m afraid our time is up for today.”
Beth shook her head in disbelief as she stood and began to gather her things. “You know, Dr. Feingold, I have a confession to make. I never liked it when you’d say ‘I wonder about this,’ or ‘I wonder about that,’ but now I realize that’s what you are. You’re a wonder!”
Helen smiled modestly. As she saw her patient out, she told Beth they’d done very good work today, and she’d see her next time.
She went back into her office and softly closed the door behind her. She sat down contentedly and thought, How about them apples, Max?
She generally used the fifteen minutes between patients to sit quietly and recharge her batteries. Sometimes she jotted down notes to remember for next time, but not now. Her mind drifted to what she’d told Beth before, about how feelings are at the root of everything.
For years, she’d felt only love for Max, despite all. It was a false feeling. We have many false feelings, she’d realized, mostly to protect ourselves. Human beings have an infinite capacity for self-protection.
Unfortunately, we also have an infinite capacity for self-destruction. And it’s so hard to tell them apart.
William, her next patient, arrived. He was a gay man in his twenties who’d suffered terrible sexual abuse from his father as a boy. He sat in the other chair now, telling her about a harrowing childhood incident that he’d only this morning recalled.
She found she was having trouble concentrating. Dominating her thought process was, “Feelings…woh, woh, woh, feelings…woh, woh, woh, feelings…”
Max, goddamn you!