Article - Autumn 2019

How I Learned to Talk

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Conversation once offered entry into other people’s minds. Has that disappeared?

By Emily Fox Gordon | September 3, 2019
Garrett Coakley/Flickr
Garrett Coakley/Flickr

When I was young I spent three years as a patient at Austen Riggs, a posh mental hospital in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where patients were, and still are, free to come and go. My parents parked me there because they had no idea what else to do with me. I’d been truant throughout high school and had failed to get into any college. At Riggs, I encountered the contrarian psychoanalyst Leslie Farber, who joined the staff a year after I arrived. I’ve written about him before; he figured prominently in my 2000 memoir, Mockingbird Years, but in those pages he was a character in my own story. Here I want to focus on him and in particular on the importance he attached to talking. He was hardly a garrulous man, but he was a talker like no other.

Farber was not happy at Riggs, nor did he enjoy Stockbridge. He soon grew weary of maple sugar and Norman Rockwell and power struggles within the hospital administration. He’d been recruited by the new director with the promise of abundant time to write—Farber was a remarkable essayist, later to be admired by many New York intellectuals—but that turned out not to be forthcoming. After two years he grew exasperated and decamped to Manhattan, inviting me and his two other Riggs patients to follow him. I believe he rescued us. None of us were seriously ill, but without his intervention we all three might have stayed inside the therapy world for life.

I was 17 when I arrived at Riggs, 20 when I left. Life was idle there. Without study or work, we tended to deteriorate. When our parents’ money ran out, we sometimes moved on to more restrictive institutions. Or worse, we became long-term outpatients, chronic cases who padded back and forth between furnished rooms and therapists’ offices. I myself was inclined to spend hours lolling on a chaise longue in the high-ceilinged central hall of the patient residence, smoking cigarettes and leafing through magazines. I was stable enough, if passive and lethargic, but I had no picture of the future. It hadn’t yet dawned on me that I had one.

I first saw Farber when he paid a courtesy visit to one of our interminable community meetings, where patients aired grievances about the upkeep of shared bathrooms and nurses who confiscated liquor and a certain outpatient with poor personal hygiene who showed up too regularly for meals. This daily circus was kept in motion by a member of the staff, neither doctor nor nurse, whose special purpose was to direct and motivate the meeting, to ask leading questions (“Are we happy?”) or redirect discussion (“People, people!”). The role of “facilitator” had yet to be defined, but this man was ahead of his time; he moved among us hectoring and cajoling, flinging his arms skyward, mugging extravagantly. His performance was so familiar that I hardly paid attention. Instead I kept my eyes fixed on Farber, who sat quietly in a wing chair on the edge of the action. He was middle-aged, balding, slightly plump, alert as a bird—a very Jewish bird—and almost preternaturally composed. I watched him as he watched the proto-facilitator, the highly mobile muscles around his mouth twitching with incredulity, amusement, and something like horror.

Here, I remember thinking, is a human being, and then and there I made up my mind—something I rarely did in those days—to persuade Dr. Farber to take me on as a patient. I appealed to the administrator in charge of such things, and when he reminded me that I already had a therapist, I went over his head and made an appointment with Farber himself. He received me cordially and we spent the hour talking about movies, about Washington, D.C., where we both had lived, about the tedium of the community meetings, and finally about my current therapist, who had become inappropriately attached to me. Farber didn’t offer me a place among his patients, but he advised me to stop seeing my therapist immediately and invited me to come back the next week to talk.

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