I’ve had an argument with my father that’s lasted 20 years. It’s a friendly argument, though a spirited one, and it started when I was a teenager, intent not only on convincing him I was a bright kid but on pushing some buttons. It began when we were driving from our home in Brookline toward Cambridge (two towns lousy with adolescents afflicted with the same two goals). I don’t remember the precise destination, yet I remember the street we were on-Harvard Avenue, just past Herrell’s Ice Cream-when I opened my mouth. I said something to the effect of “I just don’t see how it really helps to talk about your problems over and over again.”
To understand how intensely provocative a statement it was, you need to know this: My father is a psychoanalyst. He has made a career of listening to people and their problems. For much of his adult life, he has sat in a room with strangers. They tell him their fears and anxieties and regrets; they weep and yell. They confess deeply irrational phobias. There are, my father has told me, long, often difficult periods of silence, full of hope and expectation. (Ironically, he’s a man who is rarely quiet outside of his office. He has the manic energy and talkativeness of a restless child.)
From a very early age, I knew that my father did something that most other dads did not-this despite my growing up in one of the more therapist-infested towns in America. His office, which I called “the workhouse,” didn’t look like the workhouses of lawyers and businessmen. There were the doors: The entrance to his office was actually two doors, one sandwiched right against the other. This was for soundproofing. And then there was the couch. Before I even knew its significance, I sensed that it was some sort of talisman. It was simple and pale orange, with a white square-the kind draped on airplane headrests-lying on the triangular pillow. It looked like it had a different purpose than our sectional sofa at home.
Gradually, I learned what my father did. People entered those double doors, lay down and started talking. For 50 minutes, they spilled themselves. Then they came back the next day and did it again. Some patients came four or five days a week. Some saw him every day for more than a decade. He has seen them through marriages, divorces, births and deaths. Their sessions are littered with reports of dreams, recollections of childhood, dark fantasies, memories both real and manufactured. It is sobering, really-there are strangers out there whose lives are deeply enmeshed with my father. Sociopaths, saints, neighbors maybe. Aside from an occasional disembodied voice on the phone-“Is Dr. Hauser in?”-I will never know a single one.
All of which is to give some context for my statement in the car that day: It’s the equivalent of Martha Stewart’s daughter saying, “What’s so great about votive candles anyway?”
I don’t recall his exact response, but I suppose my father tried to explain to me that it was indeed helpful for people to discuss their problems. If he weren’t a shrink-indeed, if he were a little more like Martha Stewart-maybe he would have smacked me in the head, a far more effective rebuke to my teenage insolence; it would have spared him two decades of debate as well. The Sox were on the radio, toying with our hearts yet again; year after year we believed, and year after year we were devastated. (That was a problem I could have used some professional help with: how to deal with the annual heartbreak otherwise known as the Boston Red Sox.) I didn’t know then that I had just started a conversation that would last 20 years.
Partly because I am stubborn, and partly because I genuinely believe it might not be helpful for people to talk about their problems, I have clung to my argument. I have relented a bit, since it’s not as important to me simply to be right anymore-one of the great freedoms of outgrowing the strident teen years. I have also witnessed the growth and peacefulness of friends who have been in therapy. Some have the zeal of religious converts.
The past few years, my father has groused that I remind him of all the managed-care philistines, the executives intent on abolishing psychoanalysis. I point out that I’m not convinced, as many of those efficiency experts are, that the answer is a pill. The answer, I believe, might be in shutting up. My father shakes his head and says, “I can’t imagine you actually think that. No one who writes the stories you do could possibly believe people should shut up.”
This is where our argument has veered, after two decades: It now encompasses both his career and mine, as a fiction writer. The characters in my stories, according to my father, are sensitive and troubled. (He also believes they are often based on him and my mother-they aren’t, except in this particular story.) “They even talk,” he reminds me. “True,” I acknowledge, unsure just how these two things are connected. “They speak,” I say, “because that’s what people do. People talk to each other.”
Our argument reaches its apex every January, when my parents venture to New York for the American Psychoanalytic Association meeting. It’s held at the Waldorf-Astoria, which produces striking juxtapositions: the old-world Europeans in their minks, the analysts very much not in fur coats (they’re more likely to wander out to Park Avenue absent-mindedly without any coat at all, just a tweed sports jacket). They used to tote my brother and I along, and we poked around the hotel while they attended seminars. One year, we skulked by the doors of one of the ballrooms, gazing at a debutante ball. The girls in pearls and gowns, their dates in military uniforms-where did they come from? Where will they go?
One night during the meeting, we go out to dinner with family friends with whom there is a neat symmetry: The fathers are analysts, the mothers are social workers, the sons are writers. Pictures of grandchildren are trotted out, current events dissected. At one recent meal, the parents discussed a colleague who had gotten a face-lift. When I didn’t express a suitable degree of surprise, they were taken aback. Maybe, I explained, it’s because I’ve worked at fashion magazines. Plastic surgery is about as remarkable to me as forking over $200 an hour to talk about your problems is to them.
Later, fueled by wine and nostalgia, I might revive our argument. My father dutifully takes his opposite corner. Sometimes it continues as we venture back to the hotel, amid the sparkling avenues. There’s something comforting about our redundancy, something unspoken in the familiar choreography. The cabs and buses stream by us. We will talk again.