I said, “Ok, let’s hear about it.”
She said, “Don’t rush me. I don’t know if I can trust you.”
I said, “Fair enough.”
Erica was in her mid-50s. She was tall and willowy with a hard-life face but still a beautiful woman who years earlier must have been stunning. She was in her fifth marriage, which she pronounced as “great!” She described her husband, a rancher, as “One of the nicest guys who ever lived.” They’d been married three years. (I eventually met him. He was one of the nicest guys who ever lived.)
After six sessions I still hadn’t heard what she felt guilty about, but she was a very talkative, interesting person with a “rich history.” That’s analytic-speak for a patient who has had numerous, terrible, life experiences. Erica had been raised in an orphanage in New York City, never knowing her parents. The nuns told her that her parents had been killed in an auto wreck. She had no relatives.
She lived at the orphanage through high school and had no complaints about the experience. She described it as, “Having 20 mothers — the nuns were good people.” She then moved to New Jersey and enrolled in secretarial school. She took dancing lessons at night. In her first class her dance instructor noted her extraordinary talents and through his connections was eventually able to get her an audition for a Broadway play. Erica got the job. “Good thing, too,” she laughed, “I couldn’t type for shit.”
Broadway introduced her to booze, drugs, and big spenders. She had at least four abortions (“There may have been more. I was wasted for years.”), did time in drunk tanks, and suffered an assortment of beatings by her husbands and boyfriends. Sometimes she woke up in places having no idea how she got there. Once she came to in Los Angeles. Another time in Santa Fe. Rich history. She also met many famous people and for a time was famous herself with her name “up in lights.”
That was her life until she checked herself into a re-hab hospital after her fourth divorce. She spent almost one year drying out and “Getting my head on straight.” She then traveled west to Colorado where she eventually met “Ben,” the rancher, and life has been wonderful ever since. Although much of what Erica told me would be guilt producing for many people, this was not the case with her. In the telling of the stories there was much anguish and many tears but no guilt. She blamed her bizarre life in New York City on being drunk, stoned or high.
In the seventh session I decided it was time to ask Erica if she trusted me enough to tell me about that great guilt she carried around — the one she mentioned in our first session. She had been so candid and forthcoming I felt it was safe to bring this up. I was wrong. “Not yet,” she said. “I’m in no hurry. What’s your hurry?”
By the tenth session, or so, Erica’s stories of her past life dried up and she was now telling me about her day to day life on the ranch. She used up an hour describing the calving and branding she and Ben were involved in, another hour on some of the characters who worked on the ranch, another hour on how they’d built an addition to the barn and another one on a recent elk-hunting trip they’d taken on horseback. Interesting stories, but hardly the stuff of psychoanalysis. Erica’s defenses were not coming down.
Yet she was eager to continue to see me, twice a week, and she was paying full fee. Good for me but not so good for her. I was missing something and decided to take a different tack. I would use my intuition.
My office in Durango had a nice waiting room with comfortable furniture and my consultation room was warm and pleasant. I had a leather chair and ottoman, the patients had either a large, winged back chair or the couch, which was covered with tasteful throws. The walls were adorned with old barnwood siding and there were paintings, weavings and knick-knacks around the room. Although it was in an office complex the entrance to my psychoanalytic office was fairly private. But it was still a psychoanalyst’s office and somewhat clinical and intimidating. When Erica arrived for her next session I was waiting for her at the door.
“Do you have to cancel our appointment? Do you have an emergency?” she asked with more than a hint of anxiety and disappointment.
“Not at all. I just feel like getting out of here for a change. Let’s take a ride. I’ll drive, you talk.”
“Oh, OK,” she said and happily climbed into my truck. The not-so gifted, uptight psychoanalysts that Freud conned into coming to the U.S. would have been appalled. Patients were not to encounter their analysts outside of the treatment room.
My office was on Florida Road and you may analyze that if you wish. We headed north toward the higher elevations while Erica chatted away about nothing with analytic value. Meanwhile I listened for unconscious clues and got nothing. About 10 miles up the road we arrived at Lemon Dam. I parked the truck on top of the dam and turned off the engine. Erica looked out across the water and said, “My God, this is beautiful.”
“Yes it is,” I agreed. “And this time of year there is a special treat.” I told her to look across the lake and above the tree line where a pair of bald eagles were circling. “Oh my God, are those eagles?”
“Yep. We’ll sit here awhile and watch them fish. It’s fun and you’ll be amazed at how inept they are.” Moments later one of them dove to the lake’s surface, leveled out, and stuck his talons into the water. A fish jumped up right next to him but he missed it and flew back up to join his mate. Then the mate did the same thing, missing her fish also.
“This is great, Jim, I’ve got to tell Ben about this. Do the eagles ever catch the fish?” I told her they appear to average about one successful attempt out of four. As we sat watching them they didn’t make a liar out of me. One out of four.
For the first time since we began seeing each other Erica became silent as we watched the eagles. Many minutes went by before she broke the silence. In a barely audible voice she said, “Jim, I have lied to you and I lied to Ben. I was only a dancer on Broadway for three years. After that I quit to be something else.” I said nothing.
“Don’t you want to know what else?” she asked still at a whisper.
I looked at her, gave her a smile, and said, “I’m in no hurry.”
She said, “Touche.” Then, looking me right in the eye, and with tears welling up in hers she said, “I was a professional call girl.” She buried her face in her hands and sobbed.
We were halfway down the mountain before the tears stopped. I’d said nothing. When she was finally composed, she looked at me and asked, “Will you still continue to see me?”
I could not hold back a guffaw. I twinkled my eyes and said, “Only on one condition. You have to tell me how much you charged. I’ve always been curious.” She punched me, hard, on the arm. (Another rule broken — no physical contact with patients.)
Erica and I spent many more sessions together dealing with her “great guilt.” The fact that she had four disastrous marriages, abortions and untold episodes of blacking out from drugs and alcohol did not haunt her. “I never intended for those things to happen, they just did.” But being a prostitute, in her mind, was different. “It’s what I was, what I chose to be, drunk or sober. That made it different.” She had a point.
Erica’s problem, in her mind, was how to tell Ben the truth about her past. She loved him and he loved her, “But my lies to him are eating me up with guilt.”
“Does he ask you questions about your past?”
“Then you’re not lying to him, so why bring it up?”
“Because it’s the right thing to do.”
“No, it’s not. It’s childish and destructive. In other words, it’s nuts. It would be a massive undoing of your wonderful life,” I said.
I then asked her why she wanted to screw up her marriage with Ben. “He wouldn’t leave me because of it,” she said defensively.
“Probably not,” I agreed. “But it would change things. Ben’s a great guy, but he’s human. And you know it would change things. Hell, it took you a dozen sessions just to tell me. Do not tell him,” I said as strongly as I could — breaking strict analytic rules about giving life advice to patients.
We had that dialogue many times until we traced her need for “complete truth” to the concept of Confession. She had gone to Confession weekly and dutifully for all those years in the orphanage. But, finally, she was able to make the intellectual and emotional distinction between a priest and her husband. “But I always thought you had to be totally honest about everything,” she said one day. I told her, in theory, it was best not to tell a specific lie but no one is commanded to tell everything they know, and confess everything they did, except in Confession. The Jesuits, I explained to this long ago Catholic, call this “mental reservation:” Don’t lie, but don’t volunteer more than is necessary. She finally got it. We terminated her therapy, and she lived happily ever after with Ben. She really did.
I don’t know how long Erica and I would have been together before she admitted her great guilt had I not taken her to see the eagles. Being out of the artificial setting of the office and seeing me more as a person than simply a shrink obviously lessened her defenses. Before Erica I had only taken children and adolescent patients on the ride to Lemon Dam, but after my experience with her I occasionally took other adults. The eagles seemed to free them up, also.
All professions have rules that sometimes need to be altered. Letting Erica see me in a normal setting — out of the office and driving my truck — was helpful to her. Also, she was not a “psychoanalytic case.” Smart as she was intellectually, she was essentially devoid of insight. I never suggested she lie down on the couch because it would have scared her to death and she’d have fled. Also, I did not want to psychoanalyze her. She was 55 years old, had led the cruelest of lives and had finally found happiness. Why mess around with that?
I could have convinced Erica to continue treatment, but did not. Too risky. If we had unearthed her deep feelings which accompanied her horrible past, there is no telling where it would have taken us. Emotionally she was a very fragile person. “Letting her be,” was the thing my gut said to do. In-depth psychoanalysis is not for everybody.
And not only did I not psychoanalyze Erica, I only gingerly conducted psychotherapy with her. Our time together could best be described as “psychotherapy-ultralite.” Mostly I became her surrogate priest and she was the penitent for the longest of Confessions. This was a therapeutic experience for her – but not to any depth. Confession is great for the soul but has no lasting effects on someone’s unconscious psychic dynamics. We barely touched her unconscious mind, and I’m glad we didn’t. She’d found Ben and happiness on her own. All I did was convince her not to screw it up. A trusted friend could have done the same thing.
Waynesville resident Jim Joyce’s memoir, Use Eagles if Necessary, is being published in weekly installments in The Smoky Mountain News. Each week we begin a chapter in our print edition and then put the entire chapter on our Web site. All previous chapters are available online. The book can be purchased at rockpublishing.com/eagles.htm, and may be ordered through bookstores.