Navigating Limits in the Land of Free Association
Pursuing a career in the arts is bungee jumping for the ego -- just as you feel like you're flying high, you fear you're about to crash face first. For me, a debut novelist with a novel being published in April, the publishing process has come with a spectrum of anxieties from paralyzing fear of rejection to anguish over whether I would ever be able to quit waiting tables.
Anxiety is no stranger to me. My last semester of graduate school I began to have panic attacks on a daily basis, and I've been in weekly therapy since then. In order to stop my panic attacks I had to delve into my childhood with my anxious mother, and to understand her, I had no choice but to go through the painful work of accepting the trauma in her own childhood.
Six years with my therapist has brought understanding and peace, due to my therapist's gentle, firm, insistence on examining my mother's childhood suffering and resulting psychological struggles. Nothing was off-limits.
During these six years I was working on my first novel, Dear Lucy. Lucy is a learning-disabled girl deserted by her mother to work on a farm owned by a mysterious couple named Mister and Missus. On the farm Lucy befriends a pregnant teenager named Samantha and together they uncover dark secrets of the farm. Tackling my panic freed up the space for me to get words on paper. Therapy also allowed me to wrestle my fear of rejection and submit the book to agents.
At the same time, I was unconsciously incorporating issues being explored in therapy into the novel: Lucy's fear of abandonment and loyalty to her mother, Missus' dangerous idealization of motherhood, Samantha's resentment of her parents, and childhood sexual trauma.
When I received the advanced reader's copy of the book, I thought of my therapist. Without the work we had done together I wouldn't have had the presence of mind to finish the book, let alone appreciate holding it. I couldn't wait to hear what she thought. Not only because of her instrumental support, but also because I was sure she would recognize our sessions in the familial dynamics of Lucy, Samantha and Missus.
Turns out, I am never going to find out what she thinks. My therapist thanked me for the copy of the book, then told me we were never going to talk about anything in the book.
What happened to nothing is off-limits? Wasn't it the analysis of those uncomfortable realities that had liberated me from panic? Allowed me to understand myself and my mother? Wouldn't the book be an opportunity for us to analyze my psyche from a totally novel perspective, through the fraught dynamics between Lucy and her unavailable mother, Samantha and her unwanted child, Missus and her obsession with having a son?
My therapist explained that by talking about the book in a therapeutic setting we would be at risk of using the book as a reference point to my unconscious at the cost of losing my own direct recounting of my internal life. Analyzing my characters' fears and desires is not the same thing as analyzing my own, and to conflate the two would be dangerous.
Intellectually I followed her reasoning. But emotionally, I didn't want to accept it. Knowing a reader is withholding feedback feels like restraining from opening college admission letters. I wanted to argue, make a case that it was important to our work that she tell me what she thinks of the book, that the book was a real tool for a new lens on all the mommy issues, a decoder ring for my psyche.
Eventually, I admitted that I wasn't fighting to hear her reaction for the benefit of my therapy; not only did I trust her reasoning, we'd been doing meaningful work in therapy for six years without any novel of mine to reference. I was fighting to find out if she liked it. And it was hard to make a case that her liking my writing was important for therapy.
Whatever my therapist thinks of my book, I'm never going to know. And so will it be with most readers' reactions. Not only can I not control what anyone thinks, I can't control knowing what anyone thinks either. I no longer get to choose if and when to hear the bad or the good. I have to make peace with the feeling that my ego has submitted her picture to Hot Or Not. I have to find a way to manage.
Thank God I can talk to my therapist about that.