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Tales of Pan Am: Pathological Passengers

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In previous blogs, I spoke about my experiences as a flight attendant for Pan Am. As any former Pan Am employee could tell you, our adventures ran the gamut from silly to tragic, odd to unbelievable. Now as a psychoanalyst and psychotherapist in private practice in Los Angeles, I often reflect on the incredible range of human behavior I witnessed during my 20 years flying for Pan Am. Not knowing diagnostic labels at the time, I developed my own intuitive system of labeling, a system that served me well but had no technical language. I had well-developed antenna, based upon solid experience, though it wasn't the kind of experience that would look impressive on a resume.

Feeling at times like a nurse in a psychiatric ward, I was endlessly fascinated by the human drama that unfolds on a long flight across the Atlantic or the Pacific. The behavior of one couple particularly intrigued me, because I had never seen anything like it before, and I've never encountered it again. I wondered at the time if there is a name for their weirdness. I would now diagnose it as a case of folie a deux, which means "shared madness."

Having been on a 16-day Africa trip, I was finally on my way home from Nairobi. A man and a woman, both about 40, boarded the airplane dressed in matching safari suits. The man was visibly upset and the woman was trying to placate him. The woman took me aside, explaining that she had been upgraded to First Class and her husband had not. She said that the husband was "insanely and irrationally" jealous, and that she was afraid of him: in fact, he had threatened to kill her several times. She warned me that if she was seated by a man, her husband might just explode. Tellingly, she made no effort to change to an Economy Class seat next to her husband.

Our airplane was a 707, and the husband was seated in the first row of Economy, behind the curtains. After take-off, he sat as if spring-loaded, with the curtains angrily pulled back enough so that his eyes never strayed from his wife. The glare on his face was truly frightening.

Unfortunately, but sure enough, the wife was seated right next to a man. As she settled back in her seat with her champagne, she began talking to her new companion, ready to enjoy Pan Am's famous First Class meal service. That's when things began to get crazy. By the time that we had finished with the oxtail soup, I noticed that the wife's hair, previously wrapped tightly in a bun, was now falling softly around her shoulders. As we served the Coquille St. Jacques, I noticed that a few buttons on her blouse were unbuttoned. As I rolled the roast beef cart down the aisle, I saw the orchid that we had given the wife had been perkily placed above her right ear. She was blatantly flirting with this stranger who, I might add, was totally unaware of the husband who was not very far behind them.

I, on the other hand, was only too aware. I nervously watched the husband watching his wife. I alerted the Captain, and put the CO2 extinguisher (the best anti-psychotic weapon available to me!) within easy reach. Throughout that three hour First Class meal service, I had to repeatedly tell the husband not to stand, staring, from the back of First Class, even though I felt sorry for him. What, I wondered, would be happening by the time we got to the Cherries Jubilee?

For the next few hours, while most people slept because it was dark, I could hear the wife and the stranger giggling under the blanket that they now shared, with the husband growing more and more frantic.

That flight to New York seemed endless. This tormented man never sat in his seat, never stopped staring at the back of his wife's head. From where he stood, he could undoubtedly see everything that was going on. The cockpit had radioed ahead to make sure there were police on hand to handle the potential violence that might erupt.

As we landed, the wife kissed her new acquaintance passionately on the lips for the last time, and straightened her hair and clothes. I waited for something dreadful to happen when the husband and wife reunited; the entire cockpit was on hand, because they had monitored the proceedings throughout the flight. To our stunned surprise, the couple walked off the airplane, hand in hand, merely squabbling like when we first met them, as if the hours in between had not happened. I shook my head, having found one more reason to study psychology someday!

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