My new therapist, Chiarna, has a kind of mid-90’s gallery-owner minimalist look going on: frenzied black curls, pale skin, small black plastic frames, dark burgundy Vamp lipstick and black (or black and white) clothing. I imagine her liking the designer Yeohlee and others who might use the adjectives “structural” or “architectural” in an interview.
Her office has white walls and small gray-toned etchings. She sits in that quilted black leather Eames chair. I sit on a small white denim couch. It’s not my style, but I can respect it.
When I’m shopping for a new one, a therapist’s aesthetic can make or break her chances of winning me as a patient. One woman I saw en route to Chiarna had long, overly manicured peach nails and navy pleated slacks reminiscent of Scientology uniforms. That could seriously block the transference. And more to the point: Can you trust a therapist when you can’t stand her pants?
I’m not totally inflexible. Lisa, the couples therapist whose counsel my husband and I briefly sought, had cloying Big Sur–genre poetry on the walls, but she also had shelves jammed with freakishly fascinating children’s toys. She once dug through them and procured for me a four-inch, poseable Wonder Woman action figure to ease my fear of flying.
But ultimately, I always feel that I’m settling.
The problem is that I carry around an anachronistic, idealized image of shrinky glamour days: Freud sitting in his sophisticated- gemütlich , Oriental-rugged, chaise-adorned office in a three-piece flannel suit. Of course, it hasn’t been that way since the 60’s, when the monarchy of Freudian analysis was overturned and split into the fractious republics of Gestalt, Object Relations, Control Mastery and so on, and along with the deregulation of theories and schools came the freeing up of the analysts’ once-formal uniform. Now there are the New Agers swathed in chakra colors, the gender theorists who embrace the feminine masquerade by wearing six-inch stilettos in session, the bohemians in chunky jewelry, the ego psychologists in their playful ties. Basically, anything goes. And the patient is left not only to winnow out the therapist smart enough to help her, but also to find one whose office décor and outfits won’t make her serotonin levels plummet faster than the Stuntman’s Freefall at Six Flags.
When I raised the issue with friends, some claimed they would find a style-conscious therapist discomforting. A playwright I know said she liked the drab clothes her practitioner favors: “She wears these shapeless gingham shifts that I can’t imagine actually being in any store anywhere.” But most responded strongly to the visible aspects of the talking cure.
My friend Cameron, a fashion editor, e-mailed me: “I’ve started going to a therapist who specializes in gay men. I can’t stop staring at his shoes-they’re those awful sport/dress hybrids with chunky rubber ergonomically designed soles. They’re so distracting. I’d much prefer him in a longer, flatter and leaner shoe.” Oh, Cameron, how well I understand the perfect world that would be embodied in that longer, flatter, leaner shoe.
My mom, who’s the anomalous well-dressed psychologist in Berkeley, has, as you can imagine, seen the very worst. At her psychoanalytic institute meetings, Eileen Fisher is considered the height of chic-shorts and Tevas are the norm. She thinks addressing the problem directly is the only ethical response and has gone so far as to upbraid her own analyst on his ill-fitting suits. She claims he’s actually starting to dress better.
Freud said that he hid behind the couch because he didn’t want to be stared at all day. But maybe he also wanted to avoid critics like my mom. And from his safe, behind-the-head perch, he could also avoid giving his patients (many of whom were analysts in training) the kind of snap-judgment fodder their own modes of dress provided him. As he notes in his Papers on Technique: “A clever young philosopher with exquisite aesthetic sensibilities will hasten to put the creases of his trousers straight before lying down for his first hour; he is revealing himself as a former coprophilic of the highest refinement.”
One acquaintance of mine, Ellen, read her doctor’s scuffed Ferragamo knockoff flats and droopy Pierre Deux bags as a sign, though not of anything as piquant as coprophilia. “I finally decided it meant that she didn’t feel good enough about herself to make me feel better,” Ellen said. “I mean, she practically made the noise schlumpf when she walked down the hallway.”
Of course, in a session, when you bring up what you perceive as a taste transgression, the therapist-sitting in the catbird seat-can simply pull the old Gaslight maneuver and act like your comment merely indicates something about you, not her: “Do you think your dislike of my badly dyed hair has anything to do with the fact that you feel I’m abandoning you by going on vacation?”
Some shrinks try to level the playing field. “She made everyone take their shoes off in the hall,” one woman told me about a “therapeutic” encounter. “I felt it was to make us put down our defenses: If you’re wearing high heels, it gives you a certain power. Or maybe it was because she had white carpets … I don’t know. But it was disgusting.”
I did talk to one patient who is content-nay, ecstatic-with her shrink’s sartorial savoir-faire: Jen has found, of all things, her dream therapist. “She buys her clothes in Milan; she’s impeccably dressed. The last time I saw her, she was wearing a tight, knee-length leather skirt, perfect real stockings, very high Manolos with these crazy details on them, a simple silk blouse. Oh, and she has these reading glasses on a gorgeous chain with stones around her neck.”
Was Jen threatened? “No-she’s so out of my league, I’m just inspired. I’m obsessed with my therapist: She’s my fashion/sex-life guru/cheerleader. She’s in my corner, you know what I mean?”
I was momentarily envious that Jen had found her ideal therapist, one who demands no aesthetic compromises of her. But I’ve been in therapy long enough to know that if I did find my ideal New York therapist, I wouldn’t even need her.
It’s my perpetual disappointment in the discord between the real and imagined that keeps me forking over the $120 a week in the first place. I’ll be done the day I stop feeling let down and sad every time I look at Chiarna’s Oriental rug and notice that it’s machine-made, that the colors aren’t rich enough, and think impetuously: “This should be our last session. With a rug like that, she obviously couldn’t get me .