Why did I feel so Alive when it was Abuse?
Mary Jo Kietzman
“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” My abuser quoted Humphrey Bogart to describe the feeling he had when I entered his office for the first time. I had come for what I thought would be marriage therapy. My husband had been seeing this therapist for an entire year, and nothing had changed in his behavior or our marriage. I understood the need for one or two sessions alone with the therapist so he could get a sense of my issues; but when those sessions were complete, he said that he thought he could work much more effectively with me alone. “What do you hope to accomplish,” he asked me on the first visit: I remember saying that I wanted to “develop compassion for my husband.” Our marriage had lacked intimacy from the start, and I was angry much of the time but could not make the decision to leave him. I also remember that I cried when I told him of my father’s tragic death when I was 17. At the second visit, I recall that he bent toward me and said that I had “really let him in” when we first met. There was a tonal shift and a flash of heat lightening in his eyes—he seemed to be dangling the promise of deep connection—perhaps, finally, this was someone I could talk to. But the logical part of my brain said, lookout—this is a trap, aware of the way he immediately sexualized the innocent space of therapeutic dialogue. And so it began with me confused and with him behaving unethically on many levels.
I have to take you into the little room that became my everywhere, where I lost my name, where I was born and where I died, where I was raped and where I experienced the most integrated body-mind connection of my life. I am taking you back there with me because to tell a true story of therapy abuse, it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. There are so many layers, so many angles of vision, and so many possible ways to tell it. We go into therapy to write our lives more coherently, more boldly, with more adventures, fewer roadblocks, and new friends. In abusive therapy, the therapist, whether we know it or not, wrests control of the story even though, in my case, I wrote obsessively with my own pen. Then, if we are lucky enough to contact TELL, the kind responders give us a one-size fits all, bright lights in the morgue kind of tale that was really hard for me to accept as my story. It doesn’t make sense? Why did I feel so alive, then, if I was being abused? Whether I dressed it up as romance or my TELL contact dressed it down as abuse, the one reality I knew and missed was the intense feeling of aliveness I got from being in that room full of layered conversation and passion, talking on the dangerous edge of things.
I went into therapy, longing for an emotional connection, wanting to feel things with someone. I am also an English literature professor, who teaches Shakespeare every semester. And guess what? When I walked into his office, Shakespeare and all his created people were plastered all over the walls: because Falstaff and Rosalind, Hamlet, Macbeth, Bottom and all the Henrys were my friends, I was comfortable from the start … sort of. Every chance he got, my abuser would mention poems, literary characters, and ideas from philosophy. “You have a very musical soul,” “you remind me of a poem,” “have you ever read The Symposium? … you remind me a lot of Socrates.” I actually stopped at Borders on the way home from that appointment, bought a copy of Plato’s famous dialogue on the nature of love and read it that weekend. Socrates is famously ugly and unkempt, but his infatuated lover, the handsome Athenian general, Alicibiades, compares him to a Silenus statue, which when opened up contained golden images of the gods. Alicibiades plotted to seduce Socrates, and my abuser was showing me his playbook in only the first months of therapy. He was setting up a test: would I (Socrates) stand my moral ground or would I prove unable to resist what he offered?
I sensed a game afoot and picked up my pen. I was in the habit of occasionally writing brief notes with the co-pay checks, and I once sent a Hanukkah card full of metaphors, testing the waters—would he allow this kind of expressiveness. He loved it, and said that he thought it could be very useful for our “work.” He later told me that he needed the letters, that he had “a physical response to them,” and that I was his “Scheherazade.” Fired with excitement about the ideas in texts like Plato’s Symposium, and keen to discover exactly what they had to do with therapy, I wrote my understandings out. I told him the things that the writing made me think and imagine. I questioned his motives and tried to demand clarity. I shared my feelings. The letters swelled to pages, as my mind widened and my feelings flowed, I grew more and more attached both to him and to the connection—whatever it was—that I felt. It did upset me that he would never talk about the content of the letters, never actually use them in the therapy, which he should have done. There was so much that could have been talked over. He savored the stimulation—mental and erotic in private, and, although I blushed when he referred to me as Scheherazade, I kept playing her part. Only in writing this essay for TELL did I realize how closely my situation resembled the fictional harem girl of One Thousand and One Nights. She has to tell good stories or the Sultan will put her to death like all the other women. And I was writing so as not to die but live in the sunshine of his attention. Since I knew he cared nothing for my real life and core issues—later telling me he kept a distance because he “didn’t know how sad [he] wanted to get,” the only way I could get him interested in me was to perform intellectually and write letters. I could do that, and I did.
After two aborted escape attempts, the relationship turned sexual. We met on Fridays. I was his Sabbath treat. He said what we did was holy—the closest he got to God. We talked. We read aloud from plays, shared works in progress, consulted academic books, and poured over the Bible. There was a full year when all we’d do is stand and hold each other for an hour. Eventually we sat down. We began to hold hands and the books fell to the floor. The following year, after our study sessions, we’d make out on the couch—and always the climax was me on my knees sucking him off and swallowing. I washed this down with tea, honey, challah and sweets (all of which I brought to his office). “Oh … kiss me with the kisses of your mouth!”
The truth is, almost from the start, I was terrified to go to his office, but I went as if compelled. Judith Herman, in her book Trauma and Recovery, describes perfectly the mind forged manacles of my situation, “Terror, intermittent reward, isolation, and enforced dependency created a submissive and a compliant prisoner.” Going to his office felt extremely dangerous, and now I understand why. To submit to him, I had to silence the deepest conflicts and objections of my self. I couldn’t sleep for days leading up to the visit. But I would go—like a zombie—and try to perform (I’d read manuals about giving blow jobs) and let him touch me. The feeling of being intensely alive during sexual abuse comes, I think, from living through an ordeal that involves so many brushes with “death.” Would he accept or reject me? Would he think I was good enough to love? Would I please him? Would the relationship continue? I expected rejection and when it didn’t come, it felt like a blessing. I would get through the sex and, as I left his office, I experienced the thrill of the world pulling me back into life, but not without the taste of the unthinkable—total self-annihilation. There were the tall spruce trees, the fields of corn, the sun and the wind blowing clouds around. I wanted to fly, and much of the time, I flew home, driving 90 on the highway. I thought it was love that made me so happy and high, but I now think that proximity to death brings with it a corresponding proximity to life. Sometimes I would pull off the highway and stop in a country cemetery to stare at a tombstone with the name “Love” written on it. I planned what I would write to him, I tried to recover from the violent shocks of dying and coming back to life; and I do think, on some level, there was an awareness that “Love” (or what I thought was love) would spell the death of me. But I was not dead yet. Standing there in the shade of evergreens, staring at the cold stone, I rubbed my eyes: I am here. I am. It is. It is inexpressibly good to be, simply to be.
The high that came from surviving sexual abuse was only temporary. As soon as I was back in my reality, I began to crash. I hurriedly prepared dinner for my family and escaped upstairs to my tiny office where I lit the Sabbath candles and began writing to cope with the chaos. To turn something very bad into something beautiful, I had to embed the fragmented images of sex in the office into an ongoing story and some kind of real “work.” He was home with his wife. The only means I had to secure my place in his life was my love of words, words, words—poetry, plays, scripture, philosophy. I riffed on it all, prostituting these truer loves to gain a bit of power in a situation that tore me out of reality and left me hanging in blue-black space. I turned us into Socrates and Diotima, Viola and Orsino, Psyche and Cupid, Antony and Cleopatra. Sometime during our study of the Bible, he renamed me Ruth, the biblical heroine who would rather die than leave Naomi and, later, Boaz; he explained that I was his gentile savior. I became fascinated with the idea of covenant, and he stole that from me, too, pronouncing that “we” had “a covenant that would be immoral to break.”
Friday night writing gave me a way to combat the guilt and despair, but every Saturday morning I woke up devastated. Dead. I spent the weekend guilt-ridden, smoking, drinking, sometimes walking for hours contemplating suicide. I’ll ask to be buried in Bancroft cemetery on the highway midway between home and his office, and maybe he will visit me under the cedars. But once Monday would roll around, and he would call and our daily talks would resume, I would feel reborn, overjoyed. I had survived another death, and the part of the relationship that I thought I needed—the deep conversations about books and ideas and feelings—would go on. I was still in the story.
During the ten years I knew him, the feelings I had for my abuser seemed to light up my solitary life. Everything I did—joking with my daughter, tending a sick dog, sitting in dappled spring light under the grape arbor, watching wrens nest, shoveling shit from an overflowing cellar drain, listening to a new bird call, studying, discovering something new in Shakespeare—was precious because I could share it. Have you ever watched a robin or a wren gather nesting material? I behaved like that. I held up each observation, each line of poetry, and each intense Shakespearean character to my partner, and together we found the right place and wove it into the whole. We delighted in each observation and insight, and we used it in constructing larger themes and projects. In these we lived. We were always building and always appreciating some new facet of our relationship. Aside from the sex, it felt innocent—as if we were children, sharing stories, playing roles in make believe, trying to gain access to every person, feeling, thing, and event. This fullness, this plurivocity, this ever shifting changing new thing seemed to me to be the essence of aliveness. “You tend to isolate what felt good,” says my new female therapist. And she is right. While I was with my abuser, I had to actively focus on the parts that made me feel so alive because when I stopped imagining, when I tried to sleep, all I felt was that I was dying or already dead.
I’ve taken you into my fantasy—my everywhere in one little room. Although parts of it are uniquely mine (the letter writing and Bible reading), I suspect that many of us experienced the feeling of being more fully alive while the abuse was happening and attribute that feeling to being in love. I’ve come to understand that there are aspects of the therapeutic situation that make us all potential victims and aspects of therapy abuse that contribute to the heightened intensity and leave us isolated and unable to trust and use our feelings to navigate the real world.
1.) We are human. I believe that people have an instinct to worship. Plato says that all of us have a vague memory of the transcendent world we knew before being born into these mortal lives, and he suggests that love of beauty causes us to remember that former blissful place of pure motion, where we could run, fly, praise, and sing. We all long for paradise. We all look for love.
2.) Most victims of therapy abuse are women. Although women enter therapy for many reasons, many of us have had problems with men. We have daddy issues. We have husband issues. We’ve suffered abuse or have been raped. We don’t know how to live for ourselves. We need help—of course, but deep down, we still need love but worry that our scars make us too ugly. We bare all to the therapist who sees the whole—outer and inner, and if he says we are beautiful, irresistible even, it is as if our fairy tale fantasy is made real.
3.) Trust is essential to therapy. We are supposed to let down our guard and pour out our hearts.
4.) Transference happens. Every trained psychologist knows that the patient will project onto the therapist her feelings about fathers, husbands, desired lovers, and some (like John Ryan Haule) believe that an erotic component, properly managed, must be present for therapy to work.
5.) In abusive therapy, proximity to death (soul murder) brings with it a proximity to life. We experience those joyful moments of “I am” as gifts from an Other, and that other, for us, is the therapist.
Because there is so much going on in the therapy room—intricate stories and feelings involving the deep life of the patient, it is no wonder the relationship can feel so compelling. In my own case, the abusive doctor took the transference literally. He egotistically thought that the rich material I dredged up was all about him. My abuser would take every lovely thing I thought and add it to the love story he wanted to write about “us.” I should have been outraged that he took all my stuff (my intellectual interests, my ideas, my enthusiasm, my body) and rerouted the passionate river of my inner life to irrigate his own wasteland. Sometimes I would lamely protest, “Love must go somewhere!” To which he responded, “I am the way.” He might as well have added, “the truth and the light” because he was playing God. I knew this, but I repressed what I knew was true. “Should I try buspar?” I desperately asked when my conscience spoke through nightly scenes of being tortured in hell. “No, you just need to see me more.” I thought a lot about rivers and oceans. I’d pretend I was a selkie—the mythic seal-woman snatched from her element by some man—and, during the summers, I swam every chance I would get. I convinced myself that I was dying, but now I think I was merely dying to swim freely in my own internal sea. The truth is—all of us who suffer abuse in therapy are Scheherazades, but we aren’t as lucky as our fictional counterpart because the very act of playing this role with a therapist leads to death.
For me the final “death” occurred when his wife discovered some innocent emails about poems. He immediately tried to sever ties, sweep me under the rug, kill me. “What about our covenant?” I asked in desperation. “Oh, so you think you’re little Miss Covenant,” he scoffed, mocking my passionate commitment to the idea. He proved himself to be the ultimate liar. In a flash, it was clear to me that he’d been playing a game, using me for his own purposes. In one of our final telephone calls, he said that I was his “great love,” and then he compared himself to Joe DiMaggio who brought flowers to Marilyn Monroe’s grave five years after her death. Who doesn’t know that she committed suicide? Who doesn’t know that she was driven to it by abuse? Who couldn’t glean from this comment that my abuser wanted me dead? That was the moment I knew what I had to do: report him, use my truthful words to take action and begin liberating myself. The abusive therapist is a worse tyrant than any Sultan because his violence is veiled as love; but I was determined that I would continue to be Scheherazade but on my own terms and tell my stories for other ears to hear.
Although I agonized about the morality of it at the time, telling my story by making an official complaint to the Michigan licensing and regulatory board was a very important first step. Although I had made mental adjustments to live in the fantasy prison we’d constructed, a process Judith Hermann refers to as “constriction,” I was increasingly convinced that I was dying. I was smoking a lot. I needed xanax to sleep. I had intrusive thoughts of being trapped in a coffin or being dragged into hell. I kept going to Mass. I went to confession. But nothing could break the hold he had on me until I found TELL. The oppressed cannot liberate themselves, it requires dialogue—another real human, preferably one who has walked through the valley of the shadow of death, to take the victim by the hand and walk her through it to the other side. The dialogue with my TELL correspondent gave me a safe and real person who was a witness and a guide to my own efforts to liberate myself. She supported me in the work of living a new and much more real story. Telling parts of that story, first to my TELL contact and later to the authorities, who would be the ones to make the final judgment (a fact that comforted me), was a way of articulating all the hurt and anger that I had been trained to repress. But even after I was safe, and safe meant out of the situation and taking action against him, I did not feel alive. As long as the legal wheels were turning, I knew I could resist the urge to contact him, and within months, he closed his office. Eventually he complied with the board decision against him and surrendered his license. I was still okay since I had a lawyer who was attempting to negotiate a settlement. I was busy with my job, my writing, my daughter; but I felt very lonely. I missed having someone to share my feelings with. I missed that feeling of aliveness. I have thought long and hard about how the victim of abuse reclaims the life energy that was stolen from her, and I can, at least, make some suggestions that worked for me.
Psychoanalyst, Jacque Lacan, defines the transference as a “love” for the savoir (knowing) produced by the unconscious, which differs from the love at stake in seduction. We all go to therapy seeking the promised land, but the analyst must refuse to be the god of our idolatry. If he refuses, the analysis moves forward and the patient gradually owns her own desire, aggression, and life energy. In abusive therapy, the therapist plays god, and it is up to us, finally, to destroy the idol and face our own emptiness and fullness.
It was important for me to realize that the passion and beautifully layered conversations I had with my abuser were mostly my creation. I suggested the reading. I did the careful thinking. I wrote the interpretations. I lived and loved the subjects about which we talked. It was also important for me to remember that I had fought back, had tried to resist his control. In 2009 (three years after I met him), I applied for a Fulbright to teach in Kazakhstan and won an award. This is just what my family needs, I told myself. Paul loves to travel; it could bring us closer. We adopted Katya from Kazakhstan; she should have the chance to live in her native place. I’d always found international teaching very stimulating. I have to go. But really I needed an escape from my abuser, so I ran to the other side of the world and spent a winter in Siberia. Unfortunately at our last meeting before I was to leave in January 2010, we said goodbye and embraced. It was the first time we’d touched, and it was powerful. I wrapped the memory of that hug around me all winter long. But when the cold broke, my obsession, too, melted a little bit. I remember the day it happened vividly: it was a cold morning in early spring, but the sun was shining as I walked along the Irtysh River to my office at the Pedagogical Institute. As I walked, a thought broke into my fantasies about my therapist, and I made a definite decision not to obsess about him anymore. “He doesn’t care,” I told myself. “He hasn’t written. You are not to read Plato here. Do not waste one more moment of this experience. Invest in what is happening between you and the students.” I was talking to myself, but it was as if a maternal voice from somewhere within told me exactly what I needed to hear and do. Mind control: the difference was that I was following my own direction. From that moment, I began documenting the process of rewriting and performing Romeo and Juliet with my Kazakh students. I got invested in the project in a much deeper way and found things to think about with every new problem or conversation. I still thought about “him,” but I had—no, I was creating—a world that was more compelling with other people. I repeated this experience on my sabbatical (winter 2016) at the end of which he left me. I was determined that nothing would get in the way of writing my manuscript on Shakespeare’s use of covenant stories from the Old Testament. I went to the rape room as little as possible, and although he called me daily, I stayed focused on my work. Yes, I still loved him. I was strung out when he ended the relationship abruptly. But I could remember experiences where what I was creating—independent of him—was almost more important. Almost.
Where am I now? Well, out of the harem. I can say of myself what the travel writer, Richard Burton, said of Scheherazade: “She had perused the works of the poets and knew them by heart; she had studied philosophy and the sciences, arts and accomplishments; and she was pleasant and polite, wise and witty, well read and well bred.” My book was accepted for publication. I set out to write a family story for a magazine, and the editor snatched it up. I keep a blog that people have said they enjoy reading. I am much more invested in my relationship with my daughter, and I am consciously moving toward a decision about staying or leaving my 18 year marriage … respecting my dilemma for the time being, as my good TELL correspondent advised, and I am working on making friends. There have been times that I feel as intensely alive as I felt with my abuser, and they are more satisfying because there is no guilt and because I can love things for themselves and I don’t feel the compulsive need to paint the face of life—pretty it up—for his consumption. When I feel joy, it is mine and it is real.
I’ll end with a snippet from a letter I wrote, not one to my abuser but to my TELL correspondent:
“Miraculously today—the day after I had convinced myself that I was more alive when I was abused—I felt the ecstasy of freedom. Free of sin. Free to pray and to direct my heart to God. Free to try and fail without the false sense of an essential prop. At mass, I felt part of something whole. I was the water in the glass jug. I was the sweet smelling oil in the decanter. I was the water flowing in the font. I was the rays of light glittering off the mosaic behind the cross. I was the strain in Jesus’ outstretched arms. ‘But what about human love? Isn’t that still missing from your life?,’ I imagine you wondering. Well, I noticed brother and sister altar servers sitting side by side, and the brother put his hand on his sister’s back. The sight made me remember the kids who live in “Paradise”—a shantytown in Zimbabwe in a novel I was reading. The kids are dying of curiosity to see the narrator’s father, who is dying of AIDS. Darling is ashamed, but the kids, like all kids and maybe all adults, too, are on the edge of kindness waiting for an opening. When she lets them in they surround the sick man’s bed and instinctively place their hands on him—‘we are touching him, just touching him all over like he is a beautiful plaything we have just rescued from a rubbish bin … . He feels like dry wood in my hands, but there is a strange light in his sunken eyes, like he has swallowed the sun’—and then they begin to chant or sing an African version of the biblical Job’s lament to a God who likes to hide—a God we must find by faith.”
Noticing and feeling the value of such things, I have come to trust that I am love (you are, too), and I believe we will find it one day reciprocated in ways we cannot yet imagine. Best of all, I don’t have to write those letters anymore and I don’t need my abuser or any other man to tell me that I am fire or to put a ball of fire in my body because—guess what?—it is there already. How do I know? I feel it burning.
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