A woman does not bring her own story into therapy; she brings many stories about her life. In addition, the therapist brings stories, both spoken and unspoken, about her own life into the process. We can use the image or metaphor of two women on a journey or walk together, meeting at a particular moment in their lives during a particular historical period. The therapeutic journey then is the combined activity of both womens’ stories during that time.
Autobiographers must pay particular attention to the self that is informing a person’s story. Sidonie Smith, in A Poetics of Women’s Autobiography: Marginality in the Fictions of Self-Representation says:
“Every subject, every author, every self is the articulation of an intersubjectivity structured within and around discourse, available at any moment in time…. Self-interpretation emerges rhetorically from the autobiographer’s engagement with the fictive stories of selfhood.”
I was born, raised, and lived in the rich and stimulating environment of Greenwich Village, in New York City. I attended Greenwich House Music School from the age of 8 on, where my gifts were nurtured by loving teachers who tolerated a young child’s limited attention span and concentrated instead on our joint love for music. As I grew, I heard Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie play and sing folk songs and political songs outdoors in Washington Square. I attended the concerts of Marian Anderson, who sang spirituals and Bach in the night air at Lewisohn Stadium but, because she was black, was refused by the Daughters of the American Revolution the right to sing at Congressional Hall in Washington, D.C. I was aware of Paul Robeson giving the first performance by a black man in Othello at the Metropolitan Opera House. Eleanor Roosevelt lived and worked quietly in an apartment on Washington Square West, two blocks from my childhood home. The Whitney Museum of Art was housed a few blocks away in its first home, a small brownstone on West 8 th Street. The poet Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote poetry and performed at the Cherry Lane Theater. The Village Voice was a four-page newspaper that covered local events of community interest.
Most of us at the High School of Music and Art, where I majored in the cello, could borrow free librettos, musical scores, and records from the Music Library somewhere in the east Fifties. If we could find a ride to Tanglewood in the summer, we could lie on a blanket and watch the sky grow dark and the stars come out and listen to the glorious music of Brahms, Beethoven, and Bach all for free.
All of us, both female and male adolescent students whose first love was music, were free to play any of the instruments required in a full symphony orchestra. However, it would take many more years before I realized that the scores that were given to us to sight-read or intensively practice together were all the works of male composers. Over time, as I examined my high school experiences with a more critical eye and through a different lens, I realized as well that all of the conductors were male and white, with the exception of Dean Dixonwhose American Youth Orchestra I played inwho was male and black.
When I was not playing music or studying art history at high school, I was in the caring hands of one or another of the many librarians at our local library. So while I may have been failing in geometry, or stuck on some assignment in music theory, I was thumbing my way through Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations , or going through the entire theater section of the well-stocked library.
The total experience of the musty smell of the old books lined with dark shades of maroons, greens, and browns, the unexpected hidden messages in the pages of the books, seemed to speak directly to me. The ticking of the pendulum of the oak Regulator Clock often put me into an altered state of consciousness. I experienced there in the hushed quiet of the library an open and free invitation to learn in the presence of loving, professional adults who themselves loved books and ideas.
As a child, I went to public school during regular school hours. On Sundays I went to Hebrew school. In about third or fourth grade I became aware that the history I learned during the week was different from the history that I learned on Sunday mornings. Which adults were telling the truth? Which story was the true one? Troubled, I asked my “Sunday” teacher about this, and she answered, “A minority group must always know its own history first, or the story we get from others will often not be the true one. But,” she added, “if you know your own history, then all the other stories can be there too.” Her answer has served me very well over many years. It addition, I learned how to write and read the Hebrew language, a different experience from public school.
All of these early experiences occurred against the backdrop of “The War.” Thrown in with music and art and my love for books were the blackouts. When a siren sounded in our neighborhood, we rushed to turn off our lights. Air raid wardens patrolled the streets below our apartment. All of New York City stayed in this hushed state of darkness and ready alert until the siren wailed an all clear. All of this seemed exciting to a child, secure in the safety of her home. But the local movie houses, which predated television, showed newsreels called The Eyes and Ears of the World . These films changed our lives and our consciousness forever, particularly for those of us who were Jewish. We graphically and immediately understood oppression and persecution.
From as far back as I can remember, my mother and her mother and I had a monthly Sunday ritual. We would load up brown paper shopping bags with cookies, candy, combs, brushes, toothpaste, tissues, soap, and plastic hair barrettes, and make the endless train ride from Greenwich Village to Pilgrim State Hospital on Long Island, where my mother’s sister, Nettie, was a patient. There I saw firsthand all the stages of hebephrenic catatonic schizophrenia.
My young aunt Nettie was one of the first schizophrenic patients to receive a frontal lobotomy, one of the popular scientific treatments for schizophrenia then. Before the treatment, she laughed incessantly into her cupped hands, which she kept over her mouth, or otherwise stared out into space like a statue. She could be stubborn. Impetuous. Unpredictable. Difficult to manage. When she was like this, she never spoke to us, but we spoke to her all the time as if she were having a conversation with us. It made the visit tolerable for my mother and grandmother.
After the lobotomy Aunt Nettie lost her laugh, lost her various poses, and lost anything that felt like life to me. She could easily be directed by the staff to do anything they wanted of her. “Eat your food. Take this medicine. Wash your face. Leave the thermometer alone. Go to occupational therapy.” There is in the brain of my childhood a montage of smells, sounds, and images of mental illness that has produced in me, somewhere at the core level of my being, a compassion for human suffering and isolation. To this day I can smell fear and hear suffering with a knowledge that does not come from any textbooks or classroom teachers.
Now I am about my aunt Nettie’s age when she was lobotomized. I am a student nurse at Central Islip State Hospital, also on Long Island, with thousands of psychiatric patients. The ward smells of paraldehyde, which we give to patients to sedate them. I must participate in putting an "over-active" woman, my patient, in heavy, canvas, full-body restraints. It takes four people to hold her down. Then we tie the whole thing with strips of canvas to the side-bars of the metal bed. My patient, in her attempt to release herself, actually has the strength to hop herself and her bed clear across the room in what I think is a clear act of defiance, not insanity.
On Wednesdays, I have to put wooden tongue depressors padded with gauze into my patient’s mouth to prevent her from accidentally biting her tongue. I have to stand at the side of the examining table and hold her immobile as the doctor walks into the room for five minutes, puts the cathodes on the patient’s temples, and jolts her with electrical currents. Her body gets rigid, spastic, and she goes someplace else. The energy that arises from her body is stored now in my body memory. Afterward, my patient walks around like a living zombie. She is now less depressed and under control. In the process she has lost a significant amount of her memory.
On alternate days another group of patients I am not sure on what basis they have been chosen receive insulin therapy. Large doses of insulin are given by yet another five-minute doctor. My patient goes into convulsions, and it is my job to give her a glass of sweet-smelling, dark brown syrup, which brings her out of the coma she is in.
In hydrotherapy I again restrain my patient in full-body, heavy canvas restraints, only this time in tepid water. The room is kept dimly lit. I work to stay alert against the hypnotic effect of the whirring motor and the running water by walking around the four tubs. On another shift, one of the patients manages to get her hands under the full sheets of canvas, rip off a strip of it, and choke herself to death.
Carmen, my Hispanic patient, is 23. It is Monday, shower day for all patients. I guide my patient to the shower room. She reluctantly goes under the shower-head. I stand outside the stall in my starched uniform and give her the brown soap and green washcloth. She does not move. She stands there letting the warm water flow over her, but she refuses to pick up the soap. I feel tested now. I go into the dressing area, remove my starched uniform, and don a patient’s gown, the gray institutional kind that patients normally use for sleeping. I get into the shower with my patient. She smiles at me, with an ancient wisdom that only the mentally ill have, and starts to help with the task at hand. I look down at the hospital key on a thick, black cord around my waist. This key is the only way out of the closed ward. It is here in the shower, with the same warm water running over both of us, that I feel our combined humanity. I have this instant awareness and clarity that we are the same. There is no difference between us except that I have this key. I make a promise to myself about keys and doors. I will use keys to open the doors for those who have no keys around their waists.
Now it is May 26 th, 1997, and I read in the New York Times that in 1955 there were 19,000 patients at Pilgrim State Hospital, the largest psychiatric hospital in the world. The hospital was part of a network of hospitals housing 93,314 patients. According to Susan A. Greenfield in The Human Mind Explained , in the forties, fifties, and sixties 50,000 people had lobotomies, otherwise called psychosurgery. Andrew Solomon wrote in The New Yorker (January 12, 1998): “In the heyday of lobotomies, about five thousand were performed annually in the United States, causing between two hundred and fifty and five hundred deaths a year.” In the sixties, community-based services and new psychotropic drugs replaced the old public policies about how we would care for the aged population and the mentally ill, and the locked doors were finally opened and the endless halls of the old brick buildings emptied out. I wonder what happened to all those old keys. Are they being recycled or melted down for some later use? And which new public policies of imprisonment and containment will utilize a different set of keys?
In the early fifties, I became a licensed professional nurse. I specialized in pediatrics and public health and prevention. I worked in public and private health agencies in the Spanish-speaking East Harlem community and the Yiddish- and Spanish-speaking sections of the lower east side of Manhattan.
I received my BS degree in education by attending full-time evening classes at New York University on a scholarship while I also worked full-time.
In 1962, when I was 36 years old, married, and the mother of three young children, I had a set of very frightening symptoms that my psychiatrist labeled “clinical depression.” I was placed on an antidepressant. I traveled thirty miles each way three days a week for fifty minutes of therapy. Over time, this schedule was changed to one day a week. Three and a half years later I was "cured" and taken off medication. One of the more positive outcomes of this therapy was my decision to go to graduate school. But because it would require a huge family move, the decision took me more than two years to realize, to exorcise my feeling of guilt that it was not right to do this to my family, particularly to my husband’s own successful career.
However, the therapy also left many unanswered questions for me about my life as a woman. A few years later I returned to the same therapist for help with those questions. He astonished me by saying, “I cannot help you with these ‘women’s issues’.” Confusion. Wasn’t I a woman before, during my past therapy? What were these issues that he was ill prepared for?
I returned to higher education with these questions hanging close to my side like the old keys to the doors.
In the early seventies, at the age of 40, I earned a master’s degree in counseling and later a Certificate of Advanced Studies, in which I designed a curriculum that brought together the fields of education, psychology, and philosophy.
Upon graduating with my master’s, I designed and implemented, under a Title I Head Start program, a guidance counseling program for three elementary schools in our community, and I continued in that position for eight years. I was professionally active at the local and state levels, particularly in peer education. I also supervised and taught many practicum students and taught graduate courses as adjunct faculty in the College of Education and Social Services at the University of Vermont.
Though this work in the schools was challenging and fulfilling in many ways, I eventually became restless. I had become uneasily aware that many of the mothers I worked with were viewed by our profession as the cause of their children’s problems. These mothers came to conferences often without their husbands, who were working during school hours. A growing number of these mothers were also single parents. It seemed to me that these overworked mothers had become the victims of a societal value system, transmitted through the schools, that subtly indicated that they had not quite raised their children well enough. It did not escape my notice that these attitudes toward mothers were supported by psychological theories I had learned in graduate school.
Gradually, I began to identify with these mothers: their tiredness, their silences, their depressions, and their quiet desperation, which matched the long periods of silence in my personal and professional life during my own motherhood.
Contributing to my awareness at this time was my leadership role in the school district related to the implementation of Title IX of the 1973 Civil Rights Act. This educational amendment was aimed at defining and eliminating sexism in educational institutions. The law challenged us to consider our own often unexplored and biased attitudes toward female children and female faculty and staff in our schools. We were federally mandated to examine how these biases were transmitted, particularly in the content and processes of education, not only in kindergarten through twelfth grade but in higher education as well. We examined the ways in which teachers inadvertently reinforced stereotypes in young children of male and female behavior. We critically examined the textbooks that were in use and slowly demanded that publishing companies provide us with textbooks that did not support keeping female and male children limited by gender roles. These activities led to a form of consciousness raising for both female and male teachers about our own biases and the societal and cultural limitations imposed on all of us.
As a result of my own analysis and new awareness, I began to recognize a more subtle silence in the female students I supervised from the university. It seemed to me that they also demonstrated a perplexing passivity - intelligent women who were not critically examining many issues in their own lives or what they were being taught in higher education. I identified with these women, too. I had not critically examined many issues in my own life as a woman or as a student.
In addition, I began noticing a disconnection from my own daughters, who were then college undergraduates. I could not identify with the issues they raised about their sexuality, about the experiences they were having as young women. The ideas and research projects they put together from their studies and personal experiences were increasingly complex. I found that when my daughters asked for my help or opinion, I was unable to respond, which at first they took as my lack of interest in their lives. And what, I wondered, would I teach my young son?
As a wife, too, I was beginning to feel a discrepancy between what I knew to be my own good accomplishments as a professional woman and the lack of status I inwardly experienced compared to my husband’s status as a university professor. I wondered why. My husband felt that my feelings were inaccurate and unwarranted and that I did have status in my field and simply didn’t recognize it. However, convinced that my perceptions were reasonably congruent with reality, I wasn’t satisfied with his conclusions.
I began to resist my role, as I thought it was perceived, as the professor’s wife. I felt invisible around his male colleagues. I resented their insensitivity to my physical and psychological presence, to my right to be someone other than the woman standing passively by as the men “talked shop.”
I used my final oral exam, in the Certificate of Advanced Studies, to share with my teachers and colleagues my learnings about sexism in education and my conclusions that the graduate counselling program was sexist and needed to be reconsidered from that perspective, that it worked against the best interests of myself, my students, the teachers, and the mothers with whom I worked. I posited that the program did not address the essential issues and experiences in the lives of women. My paper was highly self-disclosing. My all-male committee was uncomfortable with it, even hostile. They said the paper was “too defensive, too personal” and they refused to address my concerns in any serious way.
After more studying, and convinced that my concerns were legitimate, I discussed my observations with the dean of the College of Education, some faculty members, the chair of the advisory committee, the university officer of affirmative action, and finally the president of the university. Their reactions ranged from complete silence to directing the discussion away from my topics, toward responses that seemed not connected logically with my questions. My inner rumination started. Did I wear the right clothes? Did I say it wrong? Was my voice too soft? Did I speak incoherently? If only I could have had a tape recorder, so that I could have listened to myself afterward.
The reactions to my questions stunned me. I had previously had a high regard for my teachers as carriers of The Truth and had trusted them implicitly. I assumed that what was being taught was important and worth knowing. I now thought, therefore, that I had heard incorrectly, misunderstood their words, not done a good enough job of presenting my observations, timed the meetings poorly, approached the problem incorrectly. In other words, my first reaction was to blame myself.
As a result of this new experience I felt isolated, confused, and disoriented. I spen thours and days going over and over in my mind what I had done wrong. It was only later that I understood that everything I had previously been taught in higher education would have to be regurgitated, exorcised, and discarded because it was hazardous to my health.
I saw this lack of attention to my serious questions, and the lack of a curriculum and plan of study that addressed my concerns as a graduate student, as a form of deceit and lying.
In her book Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life
Sissela Bok notes that deceit, like violence, is a deliberate assault on us as human beings. Both violence and deceit can coerce people into acting against their will. Deceit controls more subtly, for it works on beliefs as well as actions. Its potential for coercion and for destruction is such that society could scarcely function without some degree of truthfulness in speech and action.
Bok asks, What do we do about deception? How can we make changes?
“What steps can individuals take by themselves and which measures require collective action? [There are many problems to individual action.] Individuals differ greatly in their ability to carry through such changes. They differ in their knowledge of deception and its alternatives; in their desire to bring about changes; and in their understanding of what lying can do to them, either as deceiver or as deceived. … Still another difference among individuals cuts sharply into the capacity of many to make changes: the difference in the power to carry through a change and in the freedom and security from repercussions should they challenge deeply rooted habits of duplicity.”
To be aware of one’s self in relation to others is thus a moral choice.
As a result of these experiences I felt compelled to continue my graduate studies. Given my background in nursing, education, and counseling, and many additional courses in psychology, it seemed appropriate to apply to the Ph.D. program in psychology at the University of Vermont. I heard two views about my chances of acceptance. The most encouraging was that my diverse background would be valuable to the department and that I could teach some undergraduate courses once in the program.
The second was that I was deficient; I could not qualify unless I took the Graduate Record Examination in psychology, and I would have to make up all the required courses starting at the undergraduate level. I would have to take a one-year course in experimental animal lab research, which, I was told, would weed out undesirable candidates. Furthermore, this course was offered only during the day, and I worked full-time in the schools during those hours.
One day a secretary in the department took me aside and told me that these requirements were often waived for students from other countries. This was a new learning for me, another awareness. From then on I always took the time to find out what the secretaries, who were all female, knew before I started a new task of any kind.
It was ironic to me that one of the mental health agencies listed as one of the internship requirements I would have to satisfy was an agency that I had helped to start during my years of volunteer work when I was "mothering" three children. It occurred to me that at the very time that I was involved in developing this same mental health agency, the members of this mostly male faculty had been acquiring their credentials as psychologists.
One of my conclusions was that the educational institution had exhibited one attitude toward me as an undergraduate musician and nurse, and quite another when I was an ostensibly intelligent, competent professional at the peak of my knowledge and skills. I asked myself what had shifted that could explain why people perceived and treated me differently now. The answers coalesced in four key areas of my life: I was older, married to a professional, a mother, and a graduate student now more critical of existing educational norms. Ironically, I was less valued than I had been as a young woman entering nursing school in the late forties,despite my increased knowledge and leadership.
I was denied acceptance into the doctoral program at the University of Vermont, and it was the best thing that happened to me. The year before that I was one of the first practitioners in Vermont to receive a state license in psychology without a Ph.D., because of my advanced credentials and leadership in the profession.
In 1978, at age 48, the opportunity to continue my academic studies came when I learned of Union Graduate School, an institution with a philosophy and doctoral program much better suited to my interdisciplinary background and broader in scope than traditional educational programs. Because of my experiences in searching out a doctoral program, it become clear to me that I wanted to pursue a degree in women’s studies, with an emphasis on feminist education for adult women. This became the umbrella for my study of the psychology of women. Several months into my program, as I started designing it with my committee, I realized that there was no other doctoral program in women’s studies in the whole country. In fact, there were no complete programs of study at the undergraduate level either. Women’s studies courses were just beginning nationwide.
I also came to realize that I was a new breed of student: an older, re-entry woman who had not experienced the consciousness-raising groups of the sixties, as had my daughters and the new women scholars starting to study and teach in higher education.
I had not only been accepted into an innovative doctoral program, I had chosen a field in which I had to design, implement, and synthesize the elements of my program as an independent and self-directed learner. For the first time in my education career, I worked with women who were the first feminist scholars: Rita Arditti, Betty Boller, Barbara Dubois, Marjorie Bell Chambers, Ellen Cole, Jeanette Folta, Ruth Roseland, and Elizabeth Minnich. These women represented the fields of philosophy, science, sociology, nursing, psychology, history, and education. The course of my studies with them, which lasted four years, was rooted in working from my own questions and observations outward.
During this period of study I started to map my ongoing process. Lucy Lippard, the feminist art critic and historian, has written in Overlay that a place isn’t owned until it is mapped. When I say I “mapped” my experiences, I mean that I noted and watched my movements from here to there as I became exposed to, and then questioned, evolving ideas, concepts, and theories. I watched my forward and backward movements from hereto there as some ideas left me adrift and others seemed to give me direction on my journey. I began to understand that any body of knowledge was a map that could take me many different places. These maps until very recently belonged to the experiences, values, beliefs, and history of too many white men in positions of power.
I became interested in the general study of maps. In his book The Power of Maps , Denis Wood notes that “every map has an author, a subject a theme.” Maps, as such, are subject to all of the assets and liabilities of human perception, cognition, and behavior. Every map comes through its author.
There is a myth about the neutrality of maps, but actually every map is embedded in history. Maps work by serving special interests. Maps have often been described as mirrors, windows, transparent and neutral documents. These descriptions conspire to teach us to think of our maps as a reproduction of the world. These teachings keep us from recognizing maps as social constructions that, along with other social constructions, bring our world into being.
Our maps draw our attention to some things. Wood adds,
“Unless we continuously question the map, doubt -yes- its accuracy, but more critically what of past or future it is linking up to the present and how it is doing so, the map will disable us from acting with intelligence and grace, will doom us to a living that is fatally flawed, partial, incomplete.”
The map is and is not the terrain.
Different maps are used for different purposes. Over time I became interested in cognitive maps. In describing cognitive maps, Jerome Bruner, the psychologist, notes in Beyond the Information Given that cognitive maps are coding systems - that is, a manner of grouping and relating information about the world - and are constantly subject to change and reorganization. A cognitive map is a perceptual schema. It accepts and guides exploration. It also functions as a plan. It is a pattern of action as well as a pattern of reaction.
My teachers helped me to analyze and carefully map out my questions and concerns within their own fields of study. Together we decided which discipline or framework might best help me find the answers. These feminist scholars were committed to me, listened to me, heard me, laughed with me, and nurtured me. They helped me to find my own voice and thus undo my own silences. They were, in short, the midwives of my rebirth.
My course of study was a highly liberatory experience both in content and in process. Certain characteristics of my teachers stand out from that experience. These characteristics had a marked influence on how I would later work with women in therapy.
• Their steady love and respect for me.
• Their belief that the task at hand was possible.
• Their trust that my own process would unfold with its own uniqueness.
• Their constant support of going from my own questions and observations outward. In other words, the curriculum was grounded in the questions that came out of my lived experiences and observations as a woman.
• Their careful attention to language and how I chose to describe or label my experiences.
• The open mental attitude with which they re-examined and challenged their own particular disciplines.
• Their skills at matching the knowledge and modes of inquiry of their own disciplines to my questions.
• Their willingness to reveal their own life stories and struggles as they related to my educational search for meaning.
• Their generosity in opening their personal libraries and journals to me.
Built into their educational philosophy and strategies was the requirement of attending women’s seminars, which was itself a highly liberatory process. Women students and faculty planned the seminars. Defining ourselves to other women, articulating our personal and often painful professional experiences, and discovering that these experiences were also collective experiences had a profound effect on all of us. We discovered we were not alone. We gained the necessary experience of speaking publicly to large groups of other women. This became a model many of us committed ourselves to as we went back to our own fields of work. It was for all of us a demonstration of the power of shared knowledge. We could be conduits for this knowledge.
As I continued my doctoral studies, I learned that barriers to women in higher education were rampant and included policies and practices within educational institutions that actively discriminated against or discouraged women. Also, social constraints in women’s life situations mitigated against their participation in higher education.
As I worked from my own questions and utilized the various fields of knowledge within my faculty committee, during my process. I created many elaborate diagrams, notebooks, and journals full of notes. I realized I was engaged in a process that Michael Polanyi (1958) has called “personal knowledge,” a willingness to observe what is occurring inwardly and outwardly in your life and the commitment to examine this over a long period of time. We are, after all, our best longitudinal study.
In my own longitudinal study, the beginning of my own venture in higher education was marked by considerable stress. Because of my own stress, and the stresses that I had observed in the lives of other women in the program, I became very interested in stress research.
Barbara Brown, a psychologist, has done extensive work in biofeedback. She notes in her book, Supermind , “Worry…is simply problem-solving activity fraught with uncertainty.
She has observed that:
“Worry, is first and mainly a process of the intellect, and only when problem solving is unproductive or frustrated does worry cause overt emotion and anxiety and the signs of stress. … The brain is a problem-solving organ and when it doesn’t have enough data or the correct data to solve the problem it ruminates. It is not a failure of mind or thought that makes rumination destructive to mental and physical health; it is the lack of information the mind needs to solve the problem it detects.”
As I considered the impact of her research, two questions came to mind. What exactly is the “problem?” What would constitute correct and relevant data to solve the problem? What is it that worries women? Could it be that a major part of stress is rumination? Is this what brings women to therapy? While each woman comes in with a specific cluster of particular problems, is it a matter of assessing what particular data this woman needs to solve the problems confronting her?
This web site is an outgrowth of my own life experiences, my research into the study of stress, and the major ongoing learnings in the field of women’s studies, which include innovative and creative approaches to art, literature, music, religion, the social sciences, humanities, and the impact of the mass media upon women’s lives. These areas of study provide significant, correct and relevant data, which can change women’s lives from endless rumination and stress to cognitive, emotional, and spiritual transformation.
From the simple act of making a shift of interpreting data along expected dimensions, I had made a quantum leap from the known, to the unknown, to reconstructed data. I moved from spectator, to informed observer, to a woman with a potential for vision. In conclusion, the quality of my own life had been transformed. What I started out with was an image of a frozen cross section of my life, but what I ended with was a life form that defied limitations.