NONFICTION – Lucy on the Couch: A Memoir by Karen Wunsch


My friend Lucy wanted me to ask my father, a psychoanalyst, about something her own analyst had said, but she was reluctant to tell me what it was. This was in Manhattan in the 1960’s, during the heyday of psychoanalysis. Lucy and I, who’d met in college, were in our mid-twenties. Tall, with wavy auburn hair and green eyes, she was striking and, with her small pointy breasts, unshaven armpits, and chartreuse silk lingerie, sexy. She was the first person I could talk to for hours, day after day, and never get bored. I loved her “insights”— we were always sharing insights—especially the one about how people who are secretive about being in therapy don’t realize how obvious it is that they need it.

Like his colleagues at the prestigious New York Psychoanalytic Institute, my father was an orthodox Freudian who believed that the mostly silent and nondirective analyst acts as a kind of blank screen upon which patients can project their fantasies. Lying on the couch, the patient can freely associate and eventually, as Freud said, turn his “hysterical misery into common unhappiness.”

My father tended to be reticent and socially awkward, a good fit for his profession, but unfortunately he brought his analytic manner home. His silences were long and frequent. He’d answer questions with questions and, most frustrating, he’d try to analyze me. If I had, say, a stomachache, he’d gently ask if something had happened that upset me. He rarely talked about his work—the main thing that interested him—because he was scrupulous about not revealing his patients’ confidences.

Occasionally, though, he’d say something that would give me a glimpse into his world. He’d written to the draft board for a young patient who didn’t want to go to Vietnam. “He’s elated to get the exemption,” my father told me, “but what he doesn’t realize is that he really isn’t well enough to serve.” He clearly appreciated the irony. I was sort of sorry for his patient.

Once when I praised a beloved aunt who, despite suffering from Addison’s disease, was warm and cheerful, my father mused that his sister’s “masochistic needs” had been “taken care of” by her illness. Although I felt vaguely deflated, it all seemed mysterious and intriguing.

When I graduated from college I began my own five-day-a-week analysis, paid for by my father—the analyst’s version of giving his child a trip around the world.


A few days later, after Lucy finally told me what her analyst had said, I knocked on the closed door of my father’s study. I could overhear him, as I often did, dictating his notes about the day’s patients into a tape recorder. He’d say things like, “X dreamed she was a shark holding her supervisor’s ‘tiny cock’ in her jaws….”

My father was in his mid-fifties, with thinning dark hair and glasses. After a long day at the office, he’d briefly take off his glasses and slowly rub the sore-looking indentations they left on the side of his nose.

His small study had floor-to-ceiling bookcases filled with books and journals about psychoanalysis. Above his desk was a small photograph of Freud’s office and rug-covered couch. A similar photograph was in my father’s office.

“Lucy wants me to ask you something about her analyst.”

“Yes?” My father didn’t know Lucy well. If she or any of my friends were visiting when he was home, he’d usually be in his study with the door closed.

“He asked her to masturbate on his couch and tell him her fantasies while she’s doing it.”

Some daughters might have felt uncomfortable talking to their father about masturbation, but I’d grown up hearing about penis envy and the phallic symbol, plus whatever I’d overhear through the closed door of my father’s study.

“She wants to know if you think that’s okay.”

I hoped he wouldn’t gently suggest, as he sometimes did when I’d ask him a question about psychotherapy, “This is something for you to bring up with your own analyst.”

But without missing a beat, he said, “That’s Lucy’s fantasy.”

I was taken aback; and then annoyed with myself for not having anticipated that this would be his response. And when I told Lucy what he’d said, she had a similar reaction. I believed her version, but was confident that whatever happened, she could take care of herself.

At around this time Lucy and I began to drift apart. For one thing, I was very busy—teaching, writing, seeing my analyst, and spending time with Jim, who seemed more promising than my previous boyfriends even though he’d never been in any kind of psychotherapy.


My own analysis wasn’t going very well because I was turning out to be a “resistant” analysand. If anything troubling came up during my hour—for example, did the idea of a young woman masturbating on her analyst’s couch make me wonder about what went on between my father and his patients? did I have fantasies about what my analyst was doing while I was lying on his couch?—I’d quickly change the subject.

My analyst occasionally broke his silence to encourage me to try harder, but although younger than my father, he was an orthodox Freudian who usually said little, and whatever he did say tended to be nondirective.

One day after Jim and I had had a fight, “That’s it!” I told my analyst. “The last thing I need is another dead-end affair.” I didn’t exactly expect praise for having finally learned from past mistakes—as my father once remarked, the analyst isn’t there to discuss what’s right with the patient—but I hoped my analyst was thinking that maybe I hadn’t totally wasted our time (and my father’s money) after all. “I’m going to break up with him, and then….”

Interrupting me, my analyst said something like, “This young man…Jim…you seem to …care about him…more than you have about other…boyfriends.” And then, “Maybe you shouldn’t be in such a hurry to break up with him.”

This outburst was so shocking that I felt as if I had his blessing, as it were, to try to work things out with Jim. And before long—I can’t remember which came first—my analyst and I “terminated” my therapy, and Jim and I got married.


The first time Jim suggested that instead of complaining about whatever was bothering me, I should try pretending to be cheerful, I was annoyed.

“Fake it,” he said. “Smile, and maybe it’ll come true. Actually, a little repression can be a good thing.”

Sometimes, this works.

And when I’m unhappy and Jim says, “It’s only a life,” I’m not sure exactly what this means, but sometimes it’s a comfort.


By the time our daughter was born I’d been out of touch with Lucy for several years. I’d heard that she and her former analyst were living together. One day she called and invited us to their apartment.

Dr. X looked old enough to be Lucy’s father, but was pleasant enough. We’d brought our sleeping baby, and I remember his making a fuss over her. Lucy served us drinks and snacks. She seemed happy. We chatted easily, but it was as if we’d never been close. Jim and I were tired from getting up at night with our baby and left early.

I never told my father about the visit. I didn’t see what good it would do. He’d point out—and I’d agree—that Dr. X was the exception: most analysts are able to resolve their counter-transference. I’m sure that if my father ever couldn’t resolve his, he either went back into therapy or referred his patient to someone else. I don’t know if he was a good analyst. He worked hard and was devoted to his patients. For years he’d go back to his office after dinner to see a patient who’d finally been able to get a job and was only free at night. I know that my father never stopped being fascinated, even awed, by the power of the unconscious.

He died when he was eighty-seven. It was 1996, and the world of orthodox Freudianism was long gone. We never discussed his feelings about how his profession had changed. He never really talked about his feelings. But this awkward and reticent man did his best with me, too. It’s only a life.

Karen Wunsch’s stories and essays have appeared in The Literary Review, the Beloit Fiction Journal, Hotel Amerika, Epoch, Ascent, Confrontation, Willow Springs, and many other publications.. A recent essay was selected as a Notable Essay of the Year in Best American Essays 2014.


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