MANHATTAN, NEW YORK—Several years ago, when I stormed out of psychoanalysis with Dr. S., I decided to journal at my little desk instead, but I could not get past the attempt to describe my view to the street. I’m still trying.
The window by my desk is the only place in my studio apartment where I can see a segment of sky above the opposite building rather than the secondhand sun that’s dispatched from it. It’s a front-loaded, precarious feeling—to lean out toward a wider world that won’t arrive—like hoping for shooting stars on a bright moonlit night, or waiting for a married man to leave his wife. Now, the street I was always trying to see better is scraped clean of life. One block east, Mt. Sinai has set up a tent hospital behind police barricades. The white peacocks that wander the gardens of St. John the Divine have been corralled and the cathedral has assembled a silent congregation of two hundred sickbeds.
It’s my house / And I live here. When I first moved in to university housing to begin a PhD five years ago, I played Diana Ross on loop, intoxicated by the dream-come-true of safety and security—one big “room of one’s own,” which, as Virginia Woolf states clearly in her feminist manifesto, is a mindset only money can buy. But my journal from those early years just registers the romance of it: “If I say the love of my life in New York is my apartment, is that like a child saying the love of her life is a doll? A me outside me that can hold me if I care for it when the main me can’t?”
I must have already been reading the psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, who writes of dolls as “transitional objects,” the child’s first “not-me object.” Dolls help children both suspend and contend with the distinction between their own fantasy life and the (often brutal) disappointments that begin to discipline it. “Transitional objects,” Winnicott writes, construct a “transitional space” that can come to serve as “a resting-place” from “the perpetual human task of keeping inner and outer reality separate yet interrelated.”
I sometimes feel ashamed about how “perpetual” this task remains, how fragile I feel as I reprise the familiar performance of agency: There’s my chair / I put it there. More precisely, I feel ashamed about my hunger for complete control over my environment. There’s a manic frenzy to it even under normal circumstances, as if I unconsciously experience the world as an impending disaster. As if I still can’t afford “a resting-place,” materially or morally.
Maybe this ambivalence explains the rock and pitch I feel up against the north-facing windows—working-class neural programming gone haywire over middle-class comforts. In seeking to feel more secure, am I cutting myself off from the world I so badly want to live in? There’s the part of me that wants to remain inside forever, and the other part of me pacing restlessly, pressing my nose against the glass—the same part of me that left analysis exasperated by the whole elite hermetic enterprise, unsure I’d ever return to those rationed hours behind the double-locked door on the Upper West Side. I grew protective of this other impulse to be absorbed by the difficult crowd, to violate the rules I’ve been told exist to protect me, to betray the privilege of privacy, even my own. Diana Ross has always had more than one song for me: If there’s a cure for this, I don’t want it / If there’s a remedy, I’ll run from it.
I ran back eventually—to Dr. S. The pandemic institutionalizes and exacerbates all preexisting conditions, and I can feel the old security anxiety flaring up again in quarantine. But now, neither her abandoned office nor my studio apartment feel so stridently set apart from the rest of the world. I startle at dawn, mistaking passing sirens for the alarm I set myself—a less and less relevant distinction. Physically, the walls between us matter more than ever, but psychically they feel thinner. On Twitter, the artist and activist Hannah Black writes: “I keep telling my analyst that my transference isn’t working rn bc she seems like an equally vulnerable and singular body, I can’t abstract her into being my mother or whatever.”
Dr. S. is old-school, so I’ve never known if she lives alone or has a family, and we’ve played on that precious shore of uncertainty for five years. When I ask, she responds, classically, with her own questions: “How do you think I live?” and “What would it mean to you if I were married? To a man? To a woman?” How abruptly these questions were answered the other day, on FaceTime, by the chaotic rustle past the door of the room she’s commandeered at home, the tripping rhythm that could only be a child’s. We heard the sound at the same time, and instantly my eyes filled with tears.
I see, now, how I’ve wanted her to be like me: single, childless, a little bit queer. Not because I’ve wanted her to be lonely, but because I love the little I’ve seen of her life, and if the rest of it resembles mine, then mine might also be enough. I’ve often felt myself straining towards the bourgeois comfort of her career, but a marriage plot threatens to place her beyond the range of my ambition to belong. I want to get better while remaining unreconciled to the status quo—can she be trusted, now, to show me how? “I’m not sad,” I told her, as we processed the accidental revelation, and it’s true—it’s sweet, a relief almost, to feel her real life, how impervious it is to my fantasies for it.
In the next session, I wonder if the loss isn’t only mine, if it means something to her sense of personal freedom to have the facts of her life suspended in my presence. She doesn’t really answer, of course. Instead, she talks about how long we’ve been working together, how those fantasies aren’t meant to last forever. I think of Winnicott again: “The mother’s eventual task is gradually to disillusion the infant, but she has no hope of success unless at first she has been able to give sufficient opportunity for illusion.”
In the FaceTime sessions, we talk more casually than usual, like friends—I notice the stack of books in her windowsill, a volume on the debate between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley Jr. “Oh, I won’t read it,” she says. Her concentration is shot, like everyone’s. “But I like having it here.” A transitional object? I know I’m not alone in how fervently I scrutinize this new, semi-private realm. The journalist Rachel Syme, on Twitter: “I’ve seen my therapist’s home now and it has changed me!” Piercingly, the poet Lara Mimosa Montes: “Today my therapist showed me what was outside his home office window on zoom. There was a pond, a fence. I said, ‘it looks like a big house.’ What I meant: I didn’t like the idea that my suffering sustains his beautiful living.”
I read the tweets aloud to Dr. S. “Is that how my beautiful living feels to you?” I tell her no, that I am liberated from resentment by the fact that my insurance reimburses her for my sessions and she recently decided to forgive my copay, taking into account my longstanding financial constraints. I resent her less because she’s brown. I resent her less because I’ve seen, in her waiting room, the range of patients she treats—my overactive eye for race and class constantly scrutinizing the company she keeps.
And yet, even if I don’t resent her, I resent the privilege of my freedom from resentment. How it all depends on my university. I often tell people I’m in a doctoral program because it was the most financially viable choice for me at twenty-seven, an aspiring writer without a real safety net. But in quarantine, the fateful prudence of that choice—my guaranteed student housing, my robust coverage—doesn’t make me grateful. It makes me angry. I feel how rigorously my mother trained me to seek security, to take shelter in the university’s bootleg socialist state in the absence of a real one. Never mind that my university also specializes in busting unions, in displacing people like my grandmother, who still lives one neighborhood north of the institution’s implacable shadow. My grandmother, once an “essential worker” herself, put my mother through Catholic school as a grocery checkout girl, and now relies on other “essential workers”—home health aides—to stay alive.
“Why can’t you enjoy what you have?” Dr. S. asked, as I watched my plants turn towards the afternoon’s high lemonade light. “Are you afraid you’ll lose it? Or is it the guilt?” “It’s both,” I told her, and she nodded gravely, as if my feelings are facts, which in this case they are. “Of course,” she said, “of course it’s both.” I should feel afraid, I should feel guilty. I cannot close myself off from these honest assessments of the world beyond my doorstep. Later, I try reading Winnicott again. Maybe “the task of reality acceptance is never complete” because reality is never acceptable. It’s like Angela Davis says: “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.” Trying to.
In the long meantime—lifetimes of meantime—a car idles in front of my building playing Drake’s “Controlla.” I can hear it as clearly as if I queued it up myself. I stand in the open, lighted window and dance in plain view. Tonight, the transitional space we might occupy together dilates briefly, then disappears. Winnicott’s “perpetual human task of keeping inner and outer reality separate yet interrelated” has never seemed a sweeter, more sacred labor.
Carina del Valle Schorske is a writer and translator living between New York City and San Juan, Puerto Rico. Her first book—The Other Island—is forthcoming from Riverhead, and an excerpt published at the Virginia Quarterly Review was recently nominated for a 2020 National Magazine Award. She is a PhD candidate in English & Comparative Literature at Columbia University and Contributing Editor at The Point Magazine. (April 2020)