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.
Talk? I’d done a lot of talking, particularly in therapy. My parents, baffled and embarrassed by my academic underachievement, had started me early. By age 13 I was a veteran self-discloser. I picked up a smattering of the specialized language of therapy and knew what I was expected to talk about (childhood memories were always welcome and dreams were a sure-fire hit). Before I moved on to Riggs, I’d logged many hours sitting in leather armchairs facing a series of mostly silent practitioners and talking, not to the therapist but into the air between us. I produced my talk as a kind of specimen, to be examined by the therapist, or by the therapist and me. But apparently the ground rules in Dr. Farber’s office were different. I’ll never forget the Copernican moment when he broke into my extended opening monologue to say, “Excuse me. When do I get a chance to talk?”
So this was how it worked: I told him a story about my life (or the other way around; he just as often went first), and he responded, though not necessarily with another story, which made it tricky. As the weeks went on and Farber continued to invite me back, I saw that I was being auditioned (I’d heard that he chose his patients carefully), and just when I despaired of being taken on, he told me that a space had opened up. Our talks continued; they were, it seemed, the therapy. The only semiregular feature of our sessions was brief literary discussions. When he realized how little I’d learned in the high school classes I had failed to attend, he began to toss books at me, mostly novels and poetry, which I read conscientiously, preparing myself for what I guessed would be Farber’s questions.
What else did we talk about? Often our conversations would start, as conversations do, a little awkwardly. Sometimes they sounded like small talk; sometimes they were small talk. He might tell me a story about his children—he and his considerably younger second wife had three under the age of six—or about his boyhood in Douglas, Arizona, and his two brothers, one of whom was the film critic Manny Farber. We did a certain amount of gossiping about Riggs patients and even about the staff. I tried not to let him see what a treat I considered this, fearing he’d take it away. On one occasion, he began the session by telling me that he’d just received news of his father’s death. I offered to leave, but he gestured to me to stay, and I kept him company for an hour, feeling honored and panicky, while he sat for long periods in silence periodically interrupted by reminiscences about this man, the proprietor of a dry-goods store in a desert town on the Mexican border.
When I think about those early sessions at Riggs, I marvel at how unguarded Farber was—much more so than I, who was often tongue-tied by self-consciousness—and how much his openness was at variance with his native reticence and his grave, sober manner. Once it got going, a conversation seemed to run itself, swooping and gliding like the planchette of a Ouija board. What kept our sessions grounded was his readiness to offer counsel. He introduced me to the idea that other people had claims on me that I shouldn’t fail to honor, and he often questioned me about my responsibility in various situations. Over time, he instructed me by example in the practice of making distinctions. My tendency, like that of many young people growing up in the 1960s, was crudely Manichean. I began to appreciate how much Farber took into account, how intricately ordered and articulated his notions of good and bad and right and wrong were, how carefully he weighed things up. Even so, he didn’t hesitate to render judgment: once he warned me that in 20 years I might be one of those regulars who plant themselves on a barstool at noon and stay until the management escorts them to the curb. Another time, he called me a “female jerk,” which delighted me. At 19, I longed to be judged, the more accurately the better. I recognized that there was indeed something male-patterned about my occasional outbursts of blustering defiance. I left the office smiling and shaking my head: a female jerk!
He did not, as some of my earlier therapists had done, steer the session in a therapeutic direction. If, for example, I’d mentioned to one of them that I was tired, the next move would be inevitable: why was I tired? Because I hadn’t slept well, I would answer, sometimes allowing a little contempt to creep into my tone. Ever the straight man, the therapist would ask why, and I would reply in one of three or four ways I knew he’d find acceptable. I tried to vary them, so as not to be a bore. Psychotherapy was a system I’d learned to game, though to what purpose I had no idea. But if I happened to mention to Farber that I was tired, there’d be no predicting his reaction. He might say that he too was tired, tired of Stockbridge, or he might conjecture that my habit of staying until last call at the local bar, Simmy’s, had something to do with my fatigue. Or he might let my complaint pass and change the subject entirely. I can see now that he was acting as a kind of deprogrammer, deliberately breaking up the chains of inference and association that my years as a therapy patient had formed in me, blocking my tendency to follow familiar routes to familiar conclusions. One of his favorite phrases was, “I’m not interested in that.”
Sometimes, not necessarily at the end of the hour, we touched on something deep. When that happened, it was unplanned, incidental, serendipitous, which is not to say that it went unnoted. Farber made a point of registering those moments, often pausing to repeat what had just been said. But there was no attempt at carryover from session to session, no expectation of analytic progress. Only our friendship developed. I remember the exhilaration of those talks, the prospects they opened up, but I have to admit that I don’t remember much of what we actually said. I can recall moments, bring back scattered quotes, but to my great frustration the content of our talks resists retrieval. Who can recapture an improvisation?
In 1975, some years after he left Riggs, Farber wrote “Lying on the Couch,” his best essay, I think. (The Ways of the Will is the title of his selected essays.) Among other things, it reveals something about the origins of his peculiarly methodless method as a therapist. He tells a story from his training analysis some 30 years earlier with the émigré Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, a contemporary of Freud’s and a “true believer” in classical psychoanalysis. Struggling to free-associate during a session one day, he was visited by a childhood memory of his father’s scornful outrage when he failed to win a prize at a violin recital. Lying there on the analytic couch, he startled himself by bursting into tears. Here was the reason, he saw in a flash, that he later gave up his musical ambition—a loss more significant, he realized, than he’d ever allowed himself to acknowledge. His free association had yielded a prize: a thrilling, painful revelation of the kind that analysands and their analysts fervently seek.
But the excitement didn’t last. Sometime later, a little sheepishly, Farber admitted to himself that his realization had done violence to the truth. He had never been seriously ambitious about music, and the cartoon villain he’d conjured up and pressed into the service of free association was not his father at all. That man, the real father, seemed to have disappeared temporarily from his memory. “I had lost him,” Farber writes, “and I had to work to get him back.”
Farber’s therapeutic approach, unlike Fromm-Reichmann’s, was anti-reductive and anti-revelatory; he listened for truth, not for epiphanies. His ear was tuned to something he described as “problematic, partial, modest—and still breathing.” He discouraged the “Aha!” proclivities of his patients, many of whom, like me, had been trained to dig for insights like hogs rooting for truffles. It took me many years to fully appreciate how thoroughly he upended the conventions of psychotherapy. He conducted his talking sessions inside the husk of psychoanalysis, an ideology he had long since discarded. As far as I know, he has had no imitators (probably just as well: if anyone else tried to do what he did, the results would most likely be Dadaesque).
But what was truly unusual about Farber was the friendship he offered his patients. It demanded much more of us than the “unconditional positive regard” that therapists have handed out so freely. Instead, his regard was highly qualified, and as I put it in Mockingbird Years, “real as rock.” He never encouraged us to fall apart, the better to be therapeutically reassembled. Instead, he expected us to come into his consulting room as pulled together as possible, prepared to fulfill the claims of an ongoing friendship, ready to talk.
Far away from peaceful green Stockbridge, the ’60s were happening. The Vietnam protests had ramped up. I drove with a small group of Riggs patients to New York City to attend the big march in the spring of ’67, but I don’t remember any procession, just a lot of milling around. The Summer of Love got under way in San Francisco, or so we learned after it was over. A patient who spent his days in front of the TV in the Riggs basement rec room reported that riots had broken out in cities all over the country.
Farber hadn’t yet made up his mind about the ’60s. He was put off by the culture of drugs and programmatic sexual license, but beguiled by the Beatles’ lyrics and amused by the levitation of the Pentagon. I did my best to act as his informant, but at Riggs we were removed from the action; in those pre-Internet days, geographical distances meant something. While we patients were sympathetic to the anti-Vietnam war cause, most of us were too self-involved to take an interest in movement politics, and though we did our best to keep up with the clothes and the music and the drugs, we often felt a little left behind. When we crowded into the patient library to listen to the Beatles’ newly released Rubber Soul album on the excellent sound system there, our own hushed eagerness embarrassed us; we were like civilians in World War II, gathering in parlors to tune in to Radio Free Europe. When we managed to lay our hands on a joint, we passed it around in a gingerly, experimental spirit, often when we were already drunk.
At Riggs, the ’60s hovered at a distance. Later, after I’d followed Farber to New York, those years swarmed. For a number of months in 1968, I supported myself by doing clerical work in an office at Columbia University, where I was regularly sent out to Broadway to pick up lunch orders. When the protests were in progress, this was hazardous duty: I learned how it felt to be caught up in a surging crowd and borne along against my will, or conversely, how it felt to turn against the tide, to lower my head and butt my way back to the door of Dodge Hall, where I’d often find that my Chock Full o’Nuts takeout bag was soaked through with spilled coffee.
During the years I’d been away from the world at Riggs, the hard, reasonable seed at the center of the antiwar movement germinated like a magic bean. In New York, I witnessed its full flowering. I felt the force of the rage and joy it generated and also felt an instinctive resistance, a fear that if I yielded to it, I would somehow lose my self. I resented the bullying slogans and hated the bright ugly colors, the puffy poster graphics, the compulsory hairiness that turned young men into herd creatures, the demonic Uncle Sams who teetered around playgrounds on stilts. But I also loved the ’60s, or at least I loved the music. Not just Aretha Franklin, whom Farber also admired, but all the top 40 songs I heard on the radio. They slid past my reasoning brain and went straight to my limbic system, where they lodge still, melody and lyrics intact. When I call them up and play them internally, I find I’m visited by an odd retrospective fantasy. I envision my young self not as the observer I was, looking down on the protests from an office window, but as a member of the throng. While the music continues, I’m there in the thick of it, brandishing my clenched fist, my head thrown back as if I’d fallen into some divine ecstatic seizure.
My memories from that period seem to have a warp running through them. I distinctly recall that as Farber and I sat in his office on Riverside Drive, the drumming and shouting and chanting from the insurrection rose up around us, making it hard for us to hear each other. His office was 13 blocks from the Columbia campus, so that can’t actually have happened, but by compressing two memories, my brain makes an elegant point: what could have been more antithetical to our conversations than the roar of revolution? The kind of talk Farber taught me to prize is a quiet thing. The range of circumstances in which its delicate attunements are possible is rather narrow; rising to the occasion of talk requires a steady, undistracted attention that in turn depends on an acceptance, however provisional and temporary, of the world as it is. This acceptance doesn’t require a suspension of awareness of what’s wrong with the world, only that our attention not, for the moment, be focused on changing it. While we talk, the world becomes a reservoir of meaning into which we take turns dipping.
Free-range talk depends on a cultural consensus, now no longer in place, that the individual, not the group, is the primary social unit. The mob chants; people speak and listen. Talk like this is a great luxury. It’s a product of the high-bourgeois social stability that the radicals who emerged from the student protest movement set out to smash. Its tones vary—it can be light or melancholy or confessional—but in its essence, it is playful and gratuitous. Though it often contains elements of argument and analysis, its first aim is not to solve problems. In the case of Farber’s practice, any therapeutic benefit lay in the talk itself, the self-forgetting human connection that can lift a person out of desperate isolation and remind him that in the future such reprieves will continue to be possible. As Farber observes in his essay “Despair and the Life of Suicide,” this can seem like a “minor miracle.” Of course, it often happens that despair reclaims the patient almost immediately. As he leaves the office, he turns and asks, “But haven’t you something useful to say to me—something I can use after I leave here?”
Talk is elitist in one sense but egalitarian in another. Participants enter into it separated by any number of the differences that were beginning to be made much of in the ’60s and that many now see as unbridgeable. In the case of my own encounters with Farber, we were divided by age, gender, and the huge power gap between patient and doctor, between student and teacher. These differences were natural and ineradicable, but the oddly game-like rules of talk allowed us to establish a temporary equality. The deeper we went into an exchange, the less our differences mattered. The more level our vantage points, the further each was able to venture into the other’s reality. If Farber had remained entrenched in his disproportionate power or his maleness or his middle-agedness—if he hadn’t been able to transcend these inalterable facts—his view of me would have been drastically canted. The same was true on my side. If I’d been invested in my youth and my femaleness and my disempowerment—if I’d identified myself with those attributes rather than merely acknowledged them—my view of him would have been similarly distorted.
Talking feeds no one. It’s entirely unresponsive to the cries for peace and justice and a new human order that rose from the Columbia campus 50 years ago and have continued to be heard ever since, but it may be the only human interaction that is not ruled by power.
My New York conversations with Farber lasted for about three years. Toward the end of that time, they began to wobble. There came a series of weeks when I was seized by a self-consciousness worse than any I had suffered at Riggs: I struggled, and failed, to talk. Then, quite shockingly, Farber blew up at me. The occasion for his anger was his discovery that one of the other Riggs patients who’d followed him to New York had been lying to him, something I’d known about but assumed I had no right to mention. He calmly dismissed that patient from therapy but blamed me for my complicity in the deception. At 23 I was a credulous and worshipful acolyte, hurt and bewildered by his sudden rage.
Soon after that, our talks ended. I married and moved away, and except for one episode when I briefly left my marriage and returned to the city to ask Farber to take me back as a patient (he welcomed me warmly, but refused), I never saw him again. Two years later I heard from his wife, Anne, that he’d suffered a stroke. He lived for another eight years, during which, interestingly enough, he did his best writing. I learned of his death in the fall of 1981, when I happened upon his obituary in The New York Times.
Nearly 50 years have gone by, but I’ve never quite come to terms with the way my talks with him ended. I’ve asked myself if he was irritated at me for the hours I spent hanging around his apartment. Did he love me less than he loved the patient who lied to him? The answer is yes, in both cases, and I’d add that he did indeed act wrongly toward me—anger was his besetting sin. But even so, my considered judgment is that I had nothing to do with his outburst, that its origin was despair. Not depression, though he was no stranger to that condition, but despair, the affliction he anatomized so exactly in his essays. He had always carried around his own melancholy weather, but in those late months he was nearly swallowed by darkness. It was his despairing silence, no doubt, that tied my tongue as I sat in his office trying to talk.
He was aging, and he was not entirely well. Those conditions made him susceptible to despair, but I don’t believe that his despair was about his health or his mortality. I think it was about the world and its future. He’d taken his time coming to a judgment of the 1960s, but when he did, it was resoundingly negative. He feared and distrusted the utopian passion for social transformation, indiscriminate in application and sometimes violent in expression, that rose up out of the Columbia demonstrations and spread into the larger world. He saw that the revelatory impulse he’d learned to distrust in psychoanalysis—the false “Aha!” that simplifies and illuminates the world—had been vastly amplified. Now it was a culture-wide political movement.
By the early ’70s, psychoanalysis itself had begun to seem antique. The therapeutic imperative had found mass expression in the pop psychology of group encounters, primal screams, hotel ballrooms packed with people clutching teddy bears. Farber had been alienated by psychoanalysis, but he reacted to the spread of pop psychology with a mixture of irony and alarmed dismay. He saw its demagogic potential, warned against the culture’s acceptance of a “decibel scale of emotion … in which intensity, significance and validity are all directly proportional.” He watched in alarm as one trend after another rolled in on waves of tearful catharsis, joyful solidarity, righteous indignation. He feared that the things he valued most, chief among them the possibility of talk, would be swept away by a great inundation.
I believe he saw what others missed, and in the process lost hope. As confirmation of that hunch I can offer a piece of anecdotal evidence. His daughter, with whom I’ve stayed in touch over the years, recently told me that, some months before he died, he asked her to drive him to the polls, where, after a lifetime of taken-for-granted affiliation with the Democratic Party (politics never particularly interested him), he voted for Ronald Reagan.
Imagination, humor, discretion, judgment: these were words Farber often used, both in his writing and in conversation. They were drawn from the reservoir of everyday vocabulary, not from the specialized lexicon of psychoanalysis. At first they puzzled me; to someone coming of age in the ’60s, they sat together strangely. Discretion and judgment made a natural enough pair, though I considered them outmoded notions. Humor could be grouped with the other three, I supposed, though that would require some stretching. Imagination was the chief outlier; it seemed to have little to do with humor and no connection at all to discretion and judgment.
I understood imagination to be the ability I called upon when I indulged in fantasy or tried to write a story. Alternatively, it was the backlit chamber in my brain where shapes and colors swarmed. Farber understood the imagination in those ways, too, of course: though he was bored by psychedelic effects, he was a passionate movie fan. But he also used the word in a very different way, having less to do with individual subjectivity than with relations between people. He often spoke of imagining the reality of others, and when I considered the talk that went on in his office—the submerged intuitions that animated and directed our exchanges—I realized I was doing just that, making tentative forays into what I was able to imagine of Dr. Farber’s reality, and that he too was imagining mine, only more confidently.
Discretion and judgment guided and limited our imaginative explorations. And humor, too: perhaps that was the most important of these four Farberian terms. To look at the world humorously is to adjust for the ballooning effect of strong emotion, to make a meeting of minds possible by shrinking reality to a size both parties can recognize. The object of our talks (it took me some time to grasp this) was not to dig down to truth directly, but rather to take the long way, to observe the limits that dialogue imposes on the headlong pursuit of meaning, to honor at least some of the proprieties of human interaction.
I won’t try to rehearse the cultural and political history of the past 50 years, but it seems clear that in 2019 we find ourselves in the latter days of the revelatory age that began in the ’60s. One difference between that time and this is that fresh revelations have grown scarce: in recent years, we’ve been reduced to rolling out variations on familiar themes. Another is that we’ve run out of ecstasy. The barbaric yawps that arose from the Columbia campus have been replaced by a steady twittering, dense as a chorus of cicadas. Nobody speaks of love or peace or brotherhood anymore, nobody joins hands and dances in a circle. However hysterical the ’60s were, and however thuggish, they were joyful and expansive. The present era is cold and divisive and grows steadily more repressive. Every day there’s something new that one can’t say without risk of censure.
Just as Farber feared, we have reached a bad time for talking. It’s not only that the culture has split into warring factions and that representatives of these blocs have very little to say to one another. That began to happen long ago. What’s newer is that on one side of the division, the one that houses the professions, the universities, and the arts—the one I occupy—talk has become so inhibited. The four conversational virtues Farber spoke of don’t have much application anymore. Judgment and discretion have ceded their function to the political censors who stand guard at the gates of the mind, and humor, unless it’s entirely anodyne, is tightly regulated. As for the imagination, these days it’s viewed with suspicion. When human relationships are understood in terms of power and privilege, their inquiries are taken to be intrusive or voyeuristic or appropriative. How can we imagine the reality of others when they’ve come to see themselves as defined by their race, gender, history of trauma, and status as victim or victimizer?
We still talk, of course. It’s hard to imagine a talkier time. We jabber endlessly on the Internet and the various social media platforms, but the talk that goes on in the electronic world is quite different from what Farber called real talk. The use of pseudonyms is utterly at odds with the honesty that talk requires, and the ease with which identities can be altered obliterates any possibility of mutuality or trust. The Internet chops up its users: one can be known as a scrapbooker, a political zealot, an ostomate, a gatherer of wild mushrooms, a pedophile, a new parent, but one can never be known in one’s totality. Even in a forum like Facebook, where people display various aspects of themselves, one can never be fully present. (And Twitter: I can’t bring myself to imagine Farber’s reaction to Twitter.)
Talk is risky. The cultural and political tripwires that have been strung across the world unnerve us and discourage it. We can still talk to our intimates, which is a saving grace, but between people who don’t yet know each other well, open-ended conversations seem increasingly rare. Not that they were ever common, or ever safe: long before the era of political correctness, they were full of hazards, hidden agendas, pockets of concealment, boredom, and disappointment. Sometimes they simply failed, for reasons too complex to be analyzed. They were like bull-riding contests—one knew one would fall off, the question was how long one could stay on. But even if their success rate was low, something has been lost as they’ve grown scarcer. They allowed us to enter, if only briefly, the great houses of other minds.
Once, people saw their minds as containing spaces yet to be mapped. Freud was the first cartographer of the psyche, but his chartings were too intricate and fantastical to be absorbed by the public mind. The id and the superego were the stuff of cartoons in The New Yorker, and The Playboy Forum was full of references to penis envy, but the larger Freudian system remained the stronghold of experts and licensed practitioners. Its influence on the culture was profound but slow acting. Then, during the years when Farber and I sat talking in his office at Riggs, the great pileup began. Suddenly the world was teeming with revelations about the self. Some, like feminism and the various identity movements, threatened the hegemony of psychoanalysis while others, such as child abuse and trauma, drastically simplified its concepts so as to make them available to everyone. These ideas, whether political or psychological, were powerful; once installed, they became the means by which people understood themselves. Over the years they’ve cluttered our minds, taking up the airy spaces that once gave room to the play of thought and the movements of the imagination. By now we’re so full of them that we can hardly negotiate the interiors of our own great houses, and visitors find that the way is blocked.
The conversations that went on in Farber’s office were talking lessons, conducted in ideal conditions. As things turned out, I haven’t been able to put them to much practical use. They’d have been a waste of time if they hadn’t allowed me entry into a mind that has influenced me more than any other. Those lessons went deep; they entailed a moral education, one I sorely needed. “Despair,” Farber wrote, “seems to afflict only those whose relation to life is a serious and potentially responsible one.” When I first met him, I was a morally backward late adolescent. Under his influence I became more serious and more responsible. The process continued long after his death—I had a lot of developing to do. I’m two years older than Farber lived to be, and after a lifelong apprenticeship, I now aspire to despair. As ever, I follow my mentor, who taught me so much and left me such a dark and difficult legacy.
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