June 1999
s m u g
by Todd Levin


Analyze This...Please

My therapist gives me a lot of homework. The homework, though probably necessary, has become just a convenient failing of mine. When I first started seeing my therapist - this was a while ago, back when I couldn't get out of bed in the morning unless a friend, at my own instruction, would call my apartment, disguise his or her voice to approximate my mother's, and threaten a protracted Vicks Vap-O-Rub full body rolfing - I received only occasional bits of conventional wisdom. This was fine by me; I purposefully sought a professional with a concentration in folk psychology. While I lamented about my inability to accept gratitude or flattery without experiencing a paralyzing self-doubt, my therapist would look up at me from beneath her spectacles and offer homespun advice like, "Kill no more pigeons than you can eat." The advice rarely applied to my neuroses but it was always memorable. Plus, I would get to leave each week with some type of craft hand-fashioned by my therapist during our session, like a squirrel carved from hickory or a god's eye.

The relationship was symbiotic until she started assigning homework. It began with small, easy assignments, such as asking me to compile a list of all the people I knew whose skulls I fantasized about collecting. I took to these assignments without objection as they were generally things I'd been doing anyway. Then the homework became more complex - reading assignments, breathing exercises, drug trafficking - and I began to "forget" my homework, showing up the following week with excuses instead of thoughtful lists or piles of non-sequential 20-dollar bills. My guilt over neglecting homework assignments became an enormous source of my anxiety, and I found myself dreading each session, feeling like a failure for my inability to complete homework assignments that were supposed to help me heal. It also occurred to me, more than once, that my therapist might be conscious of the guilt cycle she was perpetuating; that perhaps there really was nothing wrong with me at all and my therapist was generating anxiety to keep me in therapy indefinitely. This did not explain, however, why I would collapse into a defensive crouch, scratching at the ground and growling, every time someone attempted to show me physical affection. So, despite my suspicions, I continued to attend my sessions somewhat begrudgingly. (I was also operating with an ulterior motive; after 20 visits, I would be receiving a personalized, embroidered foot pillow.)

my homework

I tried and tried to complete my homework but consistently failed. When I complained that I was unable to concentrate or remember my assignments, my therapist suggested I purchase some gingko-biloba. When I got drunk one night and lost my gingko-biloba at an after-hours club, my therapist suggested I cut back on drinking. When I cut back on drinking and began huffing Rust-o-Leum out of an old athletic sock, my therapist suggested I hire 24-hour supervision. There was always something useful prescribed to combat my misbehavior. But when I complained of vivid, disturbing dreams, and my therapist suggested writing down my dreams, our relationship began to fall apart.

I am not someone who would get out of bed prematurely to avoid Nazi death squads, so I was certainly not likely to summon enough half-conscious ambition to rouse myself from bed for the purposes of committing a ridiculous dream to paper. Unfortunately, after feeling like such a disappointing student, I volunteered for yet another homework assignment, determined to turn myself around and win the favor of my therapist. (Is it now becoming extremely clear why I began seeking professional counseling in the first place?) I soon hatched a plan, though. Actually, it wasn't so much of a plan as it was the exploitation of a lucky accident.

I was up late one night, ducking responsibility with ninja-like concentration. My tool that evening was a copy of the Alfred Hitchcock film, Spellbound. In this film is a particularly surreal dream sequence (which was, apparently, conceived by sartorial misfit Salvador Dali, rendering its surreal quality all the more particular). It's a pretty wild series of images, and very convincing dream material. Inspired, I took detailed notes. And presented these notes to my therapist the following week as my own dream. It went over wonderfully and gave us a great deal to discuss during the session. Being a former film studies major, I even brought a lot of my own ideas to the table, which my therapist regarded as significant progress in understanding, and eventually conquering, my own demons. It didn't matter much to me that I was actually on the road to conquering Gregory Peck's demons, so long as demons were being conquered and progress made. I suddenly didn't feel like such a failure and got to take home a lovingly crafted wooden snuffbox to boot. All in all, a good day.

This happened again and again. Each week, my therapist would ask me to describe a particularly vivid dream I experienced during the preceding week, and each time I would relate the plot of whichever film came to mind. Citizen Kane provided a lengthy discussion about my inclination toward megalomania and my unhealthy need for perfection in my work; That Obscure Object of Desire touched magnificently on my trouble with intimacy; C.H.U.D. II: Bud The CHUD caused my therapist to suggest doubling up on our sessions for a couple of months; and Saving Private Ryan really helped me address my problem with relying too heavily on tested, pat formulaic devices to manipulate the emotions of others.

But when I told my therapist about an especially disturbing dream -- in truth, the chess scene from Bergman's The Seventh Seal -- I could not restrain my contempt for her gross misinterpretation of the film/dream. When she suggested this dream might represent my own blocks with artistic success, I flew into a rage, smashing a ceramic jug filled with butter that my therapist had been slowly churning all morning. I accused her of having only a pedestrian knowledge of Bergman's work and lacking any kind of critical understanding of his play with existential visual symbols. I quoted several academic papers on Bergman's oeuvre and then stormed out of her log cabin office. I finished the remainder of my Zoloft prescription that night and vowed to never return again.

I cooled off after a few weeks (a few weeks spent mostly in fetal position, clutching the empty bottle of Zoloft I had inexplicably squandered that rueful day) and returned to my therapist. I even paid to have the butter stain cleaned from her hand-loomed office rug (ironically, the stain was removed by applying more butter). We never spoke of my dreams again, or of Swedish cinema. And I'm still getting homework but I've taken a new attitude about it, which has relaxed me considerably. In fact, as I write this I am anticipating receiving an email containing my list of "things I like about myself/things I hate about myself" from the high school kid I hired to complete my assignments from now on. He's a clinically diagnosed borderline schizophrenic but he's punctual as hell.





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