TRANSFERENCE BY GASLIGHT

The two female clinical psychologists had sat up talking so late the previous night that they decided to clear their heads by walking. Nothing drastic — no competitive hiking, no trails through the hills, just a pleasant stroll through an ordinary neighborhood with few distractions and not much traffic.

“Do you have any personal insights about transference?”

“Well, I suppose everyone’s understanding of transference is inevitably guided by one’s own emotional attachments. One can’t exactly be cold and theoretical about them because that would kill all empathy.” They slowed to step over a place where roots had buckled the sidewalk.

“And yet, empathy — which is directly feeling what the other person is feeling — CAN’T be like one’s own experience. The whole idea of empathy is that one can actually feel in one’s own experience what is so strongly and differently felt by someone else, sometimes to their pain or harm or why would they deliberately come to an office and ask for help?”

Two boys went whizzing past them on their bikes, charging down the sidewalk so fast they almost knocked the women over with their pure slipstream momentum. The women laughed, stepping aside just in time.

“It sounds as though you have a specific case in mind.”

“Yes, and it’s not quite like an office practice where the person comes knowing what the terms are. This is a social relationship, but not really a very close one. It’s nothing like dating. There’s a surgeon I know professionally, a bit older, very respected. He’s trying to pull me into his orbit.”

“What does that mean, his “orbit”? Sounds planetary.”

They had to pause on the corner for a delivery truck before they could cross the street.

“He’s between wives and wants me to be a kind of surrogate, a person to escort to events who will make it appear that he has an active relationship but without actually having one.”

“So this is not what the youngsters are calling ‘friends with benefits.’?”

“No, and I don’t think he’s gay either. But I think he had a lot of therapy in his adolescence — he’s hinted as much — and he may have transferred that to me, though his therapist was male — this was years ago when ALL therapists were male. It feels more like Asperger’s, which would not have been a diagnosis then. It wasn’t named until 1944 but not really understood very well for many more years.”

“I suppose it was confused with post traumatic stress syndrome from the war.”

Their attention was grabbed by a passing ambulance with lights flashing and siren going. Emergencies hit both of them in the gut and it took a moment to settle into conversation again.

“Since then, in the Fifties, there’s been such emphasis on being brainy, having professional status, and dividing up the genders so the men are steely and the women are cushions. It’s hard to separate the cultural from the personal.”

“So give me some specifics. Why can’t you just say you’re not interested and let him find someone else.”

“Because he’s begun to gaslight me.”

“WHAT??”

“He made a play for me a few years ago and I had the conventional reaction, but I probably explained too much. It was when I started to work with delinquent boys. I think that’s what stirred him up. On the one hand he seemed to think I shouldn’t do that, that I would be contaminated somehow, that their stigma would rub off on me. That I was not sane to help them. On the other hand he seemed to think I knew something magic about those kids and that he wanted to know what it was. That I was withholding it.”

They walked several blocks without speaking. Dogs barked at them from yards. There was a little girl sitting on her front steps, but when they came near, she went inside and closed the door hard.

“He’s begun to hint that I have a romantic interest in the boys.”

“Do you think he’s a pedophile?”

“Possibly, but I don’t think so. I don’t think he’s a person who has desire at all. I think that’s the mystery to him. But he’s not a patient and I know nothing about his background. If I were guessing, I’d say he had distant parents who related to him only if he were a high achiever and gave him no emotional contact. He’s almost like a person raised in an orphanage, but always makes it a point in conversation to emphasize how important his father was.”

“What did he do?”

“I think some kind of executive in a corporation. Not an academic, not political. The kind of person who is high enough up to watch his back and worry about respectability. I think this surgeon has thoroughly internalized that. He’s very concerned about how he dresses and what he eats or drinks. He would never sit around in his underwear swilling beer.”

The listener laughed. “Back in the day when people cared about such things! And could actually define it!”

A woman in an apron and a straw hat waved from her yard. Digging in her flower borders, she had made a pile of pulled weeds beside her on the grass.

Now the listener turned the conversation back to her friend in a new line of inquiry. “There’s really only one way to solve this and that’s to see what the counter-transference might be. You can’t control him, but why does he bother YOU?”

They passed a barbershop, complete with the spiral-striped pole, and both the barber and the man getting a haircut waved at them cheerfully. The bright interior of the shop was gleaming with mirrors and bottles of mysterious liquids. But the protective sheet that hid the man from the neck down was bright red! His feet stuck out the bottom: he was wearing sneakers.

“It would be so easy for him to spread hints about me in a way that would destroy my reputation and get my insurance canceled, if not invite law enforcement to take a look. So much of our work depends upon how people understand what we are doing, and the culture doesn’t keep up with us.”

“There’s got to be more.”

A little string of birds flew overhead and lined themselves up on the telephone wires, or were they power lines? How does one tell the difference?

“Those boys. They suffer so much.”

“It’s transferring to you. You are suffering with them?”

“Some days I’m enraged at the way society destroys their own future.”

“It’s more than that.”

“I suppose it’s something almost like PTSD. I wake in the night hallucinating that the starvation, the beatings, the sexual assault, are happening to me . . . and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

They had come to a Starbucks. Exchanging glances, and then a hug, they went in for what they jokingly equated to drugs: caffeine and sugar. But so trendy, so upscale. They could afford it. One said — it doesn’t matter which one, “We’ve got to find a way to be more political. This is systemic.”

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