Collecting bottles, tossing leftovers, taking out the garbage
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At the exact moment my rear end hit the dark green cushioned seat of the straight-backed wooden chair in Dr. Greenberg’s waiting room “Hatikvah,” the Israeli national anthem, began playing on a small beige radio. “Hatikvah” commemorates the establishment of the longed-for homeland for the Jewish people. I was astonished by the synchronicity of the anthem sounding at just that moment. At twenty-five, I was in desperate need of a place to call home. Though I believed therapy was for very disturbed people, I was so miserable and at sea that I was ready to try it.
My problems had nothing to do with the history of my oppressed people. I had married the wrong man: a kind but dominating and pompous guy eleven years my senior. Michael had been my first boyfriend and lover. (I was so shy around boys that I didn’t even kiss my cousin Ira at his bar mitzvah.) Our wedding felt lavishly alien, with all its fancy-shmancy décor and my teased-up, hair-sprayed “do,” which my mother and her hairdresser insisted was just gorgeous. As my mother was buttoning up the long ladder of satin-covered buttons at the back of my white gown, she said, “My, you’ve gained weight!” Michael had convinced me that withdrawal was an effective method of birth control. We went to Puerto Rico for our honeymoon, and for an abortion.
Three years later, during my first year of teaching English (at the same high school where Michael taught social studies), I found myself crying for an hour at the end of each school day. My students were almost as old as I was, and entirely unmanageable. I’d just read A.S. Neill’s Summerhill, a brilliant book about education, but its central premise — that students respect those who treat them with respect — proved to be unworkable in Queens, New York. The only way I could keep my eighth-period class in their seats was to have them pull out their textbooks, turn to a forgettable poem about Jesse James, and shout in unison, “Jesse James was a two-gun man / Roll on, Missouri,” as they slammed their desktops with their fists in rhythm. The racket brought my department chairman, Mr. Rheinish, to the door of my room, nodding his head sadly. I hated teaching.
Michael and I had a daughter, two years old, and I was pregnant with our second child. I was supposed to be happy, but I didn’t like my husband to touch me; in fact, I didn’t like my husband. I’d gone from the cage of my parents’ home to a cage of my own making. I could hardly breathe.
Dr. George Greenberg had dark, bushy eyebrows, a receding hairline above a round face, a droopy mustache, and a flabby body. I followed him into his small office after watching a miserable young woman leave with a crumpled pink tissue peeking out of her hip pocket. I knew that people were supposed to cry in therapy, but the woman didn’t even look at me, which confirmed my belief that it was shameful to need this kind of help.
George — he told me I should call him George — asked me why I was there. He was roughly my husband’s age, maybe a few years older. There was something about him I immediately liked. Within minutes I was sitting across from this benevolent stranger, sobbing.
“Last night,” I told George, “Michael kept asking me to scratch his back. I hate scratching his back. And he always goes on and on about his latest thing, like it’s the answer to life’s mystery. Right now it’s a Leica camera with a Zeiss lens. Before that, it was goldfish. I mean, it’s fine if he likes things, but what about me?”
“What about what I want? Or don’t want? I don’t want to scratch his back. I want a life, and he’s killing me. When I agreed to marry him, do you know what his mother said?”
George shook his head.
“She said, ‘Thank you, Genie. He’s very difficult.’ I was such a kid. Such a jerk.”
“Why did you marry him?” George asked.
I tried to explain that I’d thought I loved Michael. He was basically a good person and a great father. He seemed to love me. But, in truth, I didn’t really know why I’d married him.
George’s office was poorly lit, with only one window at the far end. The grayness was helpful. It didn’t intrude; it allowed. George leaned back in his faux-leather armchair. His desk was littered with cups, papers, and books. I liked the mess. My mother was a “neatnik,” and I was a wannabe beatnik.
But I wasn’t thinking of my mother that day. I was feeling bereft at the thought of facing the future. Despite the life and beauty I saw in my child, I felt there was no life or beauty for me. The only divorced person I knew was Nikki Wortzman, my piano teacher, and she was an outsider in our little Queens neighborhood by virtue of her formerly married status. Mom had told me that you got divorced only if the man drank or beat you.
Outside the office, on 72nd Street in Manhattan, it was 1971, but the inside of George’s office seemed timeless. I discovered I had an ancient past, one that predated my quarter century of life, with its restrictions imposed by my controlling mother and sanctioned by my silent father. George, a biblical scholar, helped me see that I lived not only in my individual body, but in the time of myth. I walked in that mythic desert; I ate in the land of milk and honey, as well as in the apartments in which I’d lived all my life. Once, when I tried to explain to George how barren my life was, how I felt as if I were drowning, he said — and I can still hear his voice — “The Red Sea doesn’t part until the water reaches your nose.” Being human meant there were difficulties, and sometimes you had to almost drown before you were offered safe passage onto solid ground, freedom, the promised land. It was hard to see at times, but there was an escape route, a way out of Egypt.
Before starting therapy, I believed that if you did the right thing all the time, you would be happy. So I did what was expected of me: went to college, made Phi Beta Kappa, got a degree in education so I could have summers off. Underneath all of this, however, I sensed something ineffable that was me, and occasionally it showed itself in feelings and words. When I was seventeen, I wrote in my journal: “You will not get what you want from other people. It has to come from inside.” One summer at camp, when I was thirteen, I stood alone in a field of Queen Anne’s lace and felt as if I, too, were a flower, as if the whole world were one flower, one thing. Now I yearned for that feeling to return. Visiting George was like seeing the holy gardener I’d first met in that field. What I’m saying is that there were three of us in that office: Genie, George, and God.
After a few months of working with George, I called one day to cancel an appointment and try to arrange another. I talked on and on, apologizing and offering options. There was a long pause at his end of the line, during which my toddler daughter ran into the kitchen where I was talking, looked up at me, and tugged at my long batik skirt.
“You know, Genie,” George said, ”you won’t get what you want by being good.”
Zap. George’s statement was the stick of a Zen master slapped against my skull. It was a contradiction of everything I’d been taught. I was beginning to see the way out of my personal Egypt.
As my therapy progressed, George suggested I bring my husband in for a couples session. Michael came with me just once. He was decidedly uncomfortable and defensive. He did, however, weep at one point, just a little. When I returned to George’s office alone the following Monday and began talking about Michael, George stared at his hands, which were crossed in his lap. He wriggled his fingers. He listened closely. When I’d finished, he raised his head, locked his dark eyes with mine, and said, “I wouldn’t want to be married to him either.” For me, that was permission.
George called me “the Queen,” because, he explained, I felt somewhat entitled. Toward the end of my first year with him, he said, “You don’t make decisions. You arrive at them.” He once asked me how I shit. (Perhaps he used the term “bowel movement.”) Did I push, or just let it come out? He had my number. I was a more sensitive version of my controlling, aggressive mother, coupled with a girl hungry for a father’s love, any father’s.
George was a decidedly unconventional therapist for that time. In addition to studying psychology, he’d been trained in Bioenergetics, which focused on the release of repressed feelings that lodged in the body and caused chronic muscular tension. He had a bed in his office that patients would lie on to release emotions by hitting, kicking, and making noise.
At one session, George had me lie on the bed and kick to release my anger. He sat nearby, and when, after a bit of kicking and yelling, I began to sob, I reached for him — my good father, my kindly God. He came over and held me for a minute. Then, without a word, he got up and walked to his desk. I stopped crying and composed myself.
“Why did you go away?” I asked.
”Because,” he said, his hand cupping his chin, ”I was starting to feel sexual.”
I remember being confused and hurt by his response at the time, but what has remained with me is the power of his honesty, the respect it embodied.
I also remember him telling me, “The healthier you get, the less people will like you.” I wondered about that. I hated for people to be mad at me or to disapprove of me.
I described to George my early religious feelings, the awe I’d felt in synagogue, Hebrew filling me up. But that awe had expired after I’d reread the Book of Job and decided I could not pray to a God who was so arrogant and cruel. I would become an agnostic, like my father, although I felt empty and sad in my new identity. George said he thought I’d become an agnostic because my early spiritual feelings had scared me.
After my fifty minutes with George, the people on 72nd Street seemed alien — or was it me who was different? My parents were children of the Depression and two world wars. I’d grown up in the fifties. George challenged so many of the assumptions I’d absorbed as a child that I often left his office dizzy. The sidewalk swayed. He said it was like putting on a new pair of glasses. If things were not as I’d been told, how were they? If you didn’t do what was expected of you, how did you know what to do? If you didn’t get engaged, get married, have kids, and invite the grandparents over on Sundays, then what?
With George’s guidance, I saw that there were no set laws, no how-to’s; things were constantly in flux, transforming, shifting with the context. I began to understand that being yourself meant being open to how things were in the moment, then acting according to your own perceptions, making choices that made you feel alive and free. And, as George often said, “There are no guarantees.”
I took some baby steps that year: African dance classes, a graduate English class. The following year Michael and I moved to the country, and I filed for divorce, the first woman on my block (now a dirt road) to do so.
A respect for mystery has continued to reign in me, replacing my mother’s fear-based rules of conduct. George helped me think for myself after a quarter century of jaw-clenching obedience. His words stayed with me for thirty-five years, and I have often repeated them to others: friends, my children, my students, and my clients when I became a therapist myself. Finding George is the closest I’ve come to finding a personal Moses, someone who saw more of God than I, someone who pointed to many a golden calf of mine and said, “See.”