Letters by Freud written over a hundred years ago are important to me, to my imagination, to my mind, to my writing. I’ve felt this since 2007, when I bought my first volume of his correspondence in Madrid, in Spanish translation.
Another, seemingly unrelated book found me on May 2, 2016, in Elliott Bay Book Company here in Seattle (there are advantages to writing the date of purchase on the flyleaf). In the Mind Fields: Exploring the New Science of Neuropsychoanalysis by Casey Schwartz felt good in my hands. I walked home on that warm midday in early May feeling that part of my mental and emotional and writing futures was within my grasp. What awaited me were the experiences of discovery themselves.
At around the same time I discovered a video on YouTube, a lecture by the neuropsychologist and psychoanalyst Mark Solms, who is an important part of Schwartz’s book, on the brain in psychoanalysis (these words come to me now), and as months passed, I wondered why I kept watching the video of him speaking at this event in New York sponsored by the National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis (NPAP) over and over. At the beginning of his talk, Solms said that he was going to speak about something simple. Then I heard him say that his talk was called “A neuropsychoanalytic perspective on the talking cure (which is psychoanalysis).” During the following several minutes, what I heard was simple in a complicated way. Solms seemed to be wondering aloud about what happens inside the two human beings in a consulting room. He used the term communication. As he continued talking, it became clearer to me that he was referring to what happens in the two brains of the two people in the room. Rudimentary communication starts inside our brains. I have written these last several sentences while watching his talk once more. Feeling states become means of communication. “Emotions are a perceptual modality.” These were Solms’s words in his talk. The two human beings in a psychotherapist’s office react to each other in their brains, in their minds, with feelings, which can lead to thought. Words become proof that feeling action has happened in our brains and minds. The final words of his talk were: “The talking is about feelings.”
I’m wondering what all of this has to do with letters Freud wrote in the early 1900s. Freud’s mind interests me. His brain interests me. What kinds of feelings do I imagine in him while he wrote his letters to colleagues and friends? I feel as if I’ve been drinking coffee all day. In reality, I finished my morning mug of coffee at around 7 am. I’m excited that after more than a decade of reading from around a dozen volumes of Freud correspondences that I’ve finally found an imaginative focus: what I imagine he was feeling while he wrote his letters late at night, after a long day of work. And somehow, from these imaginings, I have faith that images and ideas will come to me here at my desk as I become anxious about writing words on paper.
She doesn’t know that I’m also a writer. There is so much to think about in each of her sentences. We started ten or fifteen minutes ago. These two statements, about me as a writer and about her as a writer, have repeated themselves in my mind during what feels like minutes. She has a brilliant mind. Her struggles to begin her career have been difficult for me to experience. Experience is not the word I want to use, which reminds me that what happens in my mind in this room has little or nothing to do with what I want. I should have used witness or observe. These are sentences in my mind. Why am I giving them such importance? I haven’t spoken in minutes. This is her time. My inner words suggest that I want her to use her time to discover that I am a writer. I’m discovering that I am frustrated. With whom? About what? I’m angry with myself. How might my client discover that I have written novels, none of which have been published? The word brilliant comes to mind again. And then I realize perhaps why. She’s speaking about someone she knows whom she considers brilliant. Someone else. Not me. I’ve been having an inner experience. How might it be related to what the client across from me is experiencing? I have asked the right question.
I wanted to forget that I still didn’t know whether or not Y and I were going to have our weekly session in two days. He needs to tell me. I need to know now. It was important for me to listen to these sentences in my mind. They belonged to me, not to the client. I was pouring myself a cup of coffee down the hall from my office. I didn’t stop pouring in time and created a mess. Somehow, this last sentence seemed connected to my work with Y, who had told me that he would let me know by the end of today whether or not he could keep our next appointment. And if he could, the session would happen over the phone, which I was starting to realize I was more anxious about than I wished to admit. I’d done phone sessions before. Perhaps my anxiety was related to where he would call me from, from a city I didn’t want to see again. The appearance of the word see seemed to help me think and to calm me. Maybe the possibility of not seeing this client in person was connected to my fear that I would fail and that something bad would happen during the session. I was in my office, with my coffee. I checked my email. The client had responded. Now I knew. Y and I would have to wait another week for our next session. Meanwhile, my own inner work would keep me connected to him.
I thought I overheard a psychotherapist say to a colleague seated alongside him that he was forced to work more than he’d like to this month. Something in his words bothered me. Why? He wasn’t my therapist. I didn’t like it when she cancelled one of our sessions. He probably said something different than what I thought I heard. Mishearing and hearing seemed close to each other in my mind, as if they could physically touch each other, the image of which made me uncomfortable. The thought came to me that I was afraid of getting something wrong. Then the title of this talk that we were attending came to mind: Trying to Get It Right in Psychotherapeutic Listening. I don’t belong here, do I? The question frightened me. I was in a psychotherapist’s office every week, seated across from her. The psychotherapist whom I overheard speaking to the other middle-aged man seated alongside him was uttering more words. They belong here. You don’t. I thought I knew why I was here. I didn’t want to overhear more of this guy’s words. Listening was dangerous. What? Listening wasn’t what I thought it was. Another thought came to mind: no one forced me to come here. Therapy interested me. My inner life was important to me. I was not only afraid of getting things wrong. I was afraid of living my life in a way that felt right.
I have brought this book with me. I don’t know why. It’s here on my chest. I’m lying on your couch with it. This experience has been a surprise. And you’re silent. I’ve been listening to my own words. I want you to say something! The book was written by another psychoanalyst. You might know her. I imagine that her theoretical approach is similar to yours. I was about to say that her approach to psychotherapy is familiar to you, which would’ve been my way of trying to make you frustrated with me. I should’ve said: of attempting to make you frustrated with me.This book on my chest makes me uncomfortable. I’m afraid it’s going to fall to the floor and be damaged. You could tell me I’m acting out or that what I’ve done is what some psychoanalysts would call an enactment. Perhaps I’m trying to discover something that I want to get off my chest. And I’m realizing, one image and word at a time, that this book, which in a way is about forgetting and remembering, is connected to my fear that you’ll reject any interest I might show in psychoanalysis. Growing up, I wasn’t passionate about my own books. I’m remembering my first bookshelves, which I think I got in my last year of high school. You haven’t rejected me yet, and the book remains with me. I hadn’t thought of those bookshelves in years. And I finally feel ready to start thinking about why I’ve brought this book with me.
This is an impossible task. How can I know what happens in each of our minds during the fifty minutes we spend together? I can’t. So why try? I don’t have time to do this. Who has enough time to do anything well these days? This question frustrates me. It seems intended to move me away from imaginative thought. I’m seated at my desk. I need imaginative help. Seven hours have passed since I left my psychoanalyst’s office. I’ve started typing on my laptop. Some sort of departure from normal cognitive activity seems to be preparing itself in my mind. I’m imagining that today’s fifty minutes in my psychoanalyst’s consulting room have created the possibility for imaginative thought that now depends on the writer in me to bring it to fruition. A thought comes to me: I can limit my imaginative inquiry to what happens in my own mind. This was not the sentence I’d intended to write. Remain in the present. What’s happening in your mind right now? I need your help. This isn’t the dialogue I’d planned on recording here, which seems to have become the story of my writing life. Surprises determine the experience. Reality is often different than I imagined it would be. Writing these sentences feels like an impossible task. I’m without control, which is how I felt this morning on my psychoanalyst’s couch. I wish I could know what happens in my mind and in other minds, as if the contents were knowable. What is knowable in the mind? Perhaps this kind of uncertainty helps me write every day.
I was absorbed in a memory when I heard the voice of my psychoanalyst seated behind me. “What are you thinking?”
This was probably the first time in our two years of sessions that she’d asked me this. Her voice sounded inviting, which was a welcoming experience. Sometimes her voice sounded as if she disapproved of whatever I’d just said. I would be afraid, and if I was able to verbalize this fear, we would start to look at what this inner experience might have to say about my state of mind during that particular moment of the session. Her question might have felt like an interruption. I was on the second floor of Half Price Books in Seattle in 1994. It was April, wasn’t it? It was a sunny afternoon. I was twenty-eight. I left the store with two books. One of them was Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections. I think the other book was on Freud, not one of his own books. These were the first two psychological books I’d ever bought. My conscious passion for psychology was born on that day. I know I said some of these things in my response to my psychoanalyst’s question. It might have occurred to me as I spoke that I couldn’t remember her ever having asked me this question before. I wasn’t afraid. There was no fear to verbalize. I became sad. I am a psychological thinker. It’s how my mind works. And I didn’t become aware of it until I was twenty-eight. I verbalized this inner experience probably a few minutes later when I said I was depressed. Several minutes remained. I didn’t know I would write any of this. New memories have been created. And the previous sentence helps me realize that writing is part of the process of remembering itself.