American Imago 62.3 (2005) 339-363
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Esther Altshul Helfgott
Dorothy O'Brien Center
6522 Fremont Ave. North
Seattle, WA 98103
[From January 1990 to June 1994], I underwent a four-and-a-half year, five-day-a-week analysis with a traditional male Freudian psychoanalyst (or he tried to behave that way). The maternal aspects of the analysis were wonderfully gentle, but the paternal/fraternal aspects were horrendous. He came to hold an incredible amount of power over me and would not help me leave, terminate, be done with the process that was, from the beginning, highly sexualized and erotic. . . . He refused to confront the "here and now" between us, always taking me back to my past; in so doing, he helped repeat/reenact a condition that brought me to analysis in the first place. . . . In the end, I thought he would keep me there forever . . . and so I left. Eventually I came back to the study of psychoanalysis, which is, with all its faults, one of my intellectual homes.1
In 1978, when I was thirty-seven years old, a single parent of three, a doctoral student in history, and a housemate with my seventy-nine-year-old mother, I entered into a therapeutic relationship that would last until the week of September 11, 2001. The first eleven years of the relationship constituted a one-, two-, or three-day-a-week psychoanalytic psychotherapy; the next four and a half years, a five-day-a-week analysis where, for the first couple of years, I sat in a black leather chair and, for the next two and a half or so, I lay on a couch.
I had not been in therapy before 1978 and had no idea what I was getting into. My children, two boys and a girl, were fifteen, fourteen, and ten. My doctoral focus was women's history and outwardly, at least, I was a strong woman. My mother, Anna (1899–1996), had lived with me and my family ever since my father died in 1964, and she continued to do so after my divorce in the early 1970s. This had its good and not-so-good aspects. [End Page 339]
I sought therapy when, in my second year of the Ph.D. program, I began getting migraine headaches. Also at this time, I went to a doctor who told me I was dissociating; I learned from still another doctor that I was actually experiencing a good case of grad school hypoglycemia (too many glazed donuts instead of proper food between classes). These two medical issues, in addition to the complexities of parenting with a mother beside me, compounded by significant cognitive dissonance regarding academia, sent me to the counseling center. Did I forget to mention a persistent need to delve into questions concerning my emotional and physical position within my family of origin—my place vis-à-vis parents, siblings, and extended families, particularly my paternal family—questions that had always interfered with my academic (and emotional) learning ability?
The counseling center teamed me up with a psychiatric resident who, like me, wanted to work with someone long-term. But as soon as I saw this guy I thought: uh oh, won't work, not a chance. He was about my age (a few years younger, it turned out—I looked him up) and might as well have been in my father's uptown family of Jewish doctors (he wasn't the least bit Jewish, though he pretended to be, presumably to facilitate transference). Just what I need, I say to myself. How the hell am I going to get out of here? And that was the start of our work together: how the hell am I going to get out of here? All the while I wanted to stay. And wanted to run. And wanted to stay. And stay and stay . . . And run. Of course, I did both.
The stories within the eleven years of psychoanalytic therapy2 are different from the...