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Between a Couch and a Hard Place

Bonnie Friedman writes a memoir about a therapy that enslaved, but freed her.

by Carmela Ciuraru

May 9, 2002 | 8:00 pm

We never feel quite so much ourselves as when we are seduced -- a feeling no less intoxicating or sublime when the seducer happens to be a therapist, even when no sex is involved. In her latest book, "The Thief of Happiness: The Story of an Extraordinary Psychotherapy," Bonnie Friedman sorts through the complex, confusing, ambivalent relationship between therapist and patient by way of her own psychotherapy, revealing the seductive "thief" to be Friedman's trusted doctor, a fact that the reader realizes immediately, but that takes the author years to understand.

In 1993, Friedman published a slim, excellent book on the emotional aspects of a writer's vocation titled, "Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction and Other Dilemmas in the Writer's Life." In its eight lucid essays, Friedman offers not only a manual for writing, but, more importantly, advice on shedding the toxic emotions and negative voices that stop the writing from getting done. In her foreword, "Why I Wrote This Book," Friedman explains that she wrote for others the book that she wishes someone had written for her. And it reads that way: intimate, honest, liberating. What she doesn't reveal, ironically, is the torturous process she experienced in writing the book. In fact, after she signed her contract for it with HarperCollins, she couldn't write at all. That is where the therapist came in.

At the age of 32, happily married and living in Massachusetts, Friedman saw an important dream realized after getting a book contract -- yet she had been unable to write for four months, a paralysis she details in the introduction to "The Thief of Happiness": "I'd cursed, wept, stared out the window, watched the yellow leaves twirl down from the London plane trees and the sky go lard white, holding back snow; scoured books by experts, even chanted affirmations, and nothing, nothing. The page stayed blank."

Desperate and depressed, Friedman got in touch with a therapist whom she'd previously dismissed as ineffectual. But at the time of her writer's block, Friedman reconsidered. Maybe she hadn't put enough into her own therapy to make it meaningful, she thought; maybe she should try again. Just two weeks after beginning treatment with Dr. Harriet Sing (a pseudonym), she began writing the essays that would become "Writing Past Dark." Too good to be true? Yes. Faustian? Sort of. It took Friedman seven years to extricate herself from the intense relationship that inspired her to write again, but one that also harmed her marriage and her closest friendships.

That Friedman's book is a memoir about therapy might put off some readers. In recent years, the explosion of memoirs seems to have covered innumerable pathological behaviors, or minor crises best left private. The memoir is sometimes dismissed as a genre for the self-absorbed and self-pitying, yet "The Thief of Happiness" is neither.

Unlike such authors as Elizabeth Wurtzel or Mary Karr, in Friedman we have a likable narrator. There's nothing grating about her tone and no self-indulgent psychodramas -- no battles with cocaine, alcohol, sex addiction or manic depression. In fact, what's most notable about the memoir is how ordinary Friedman seems. Her problems could be our own. As narrator, Friedman comes off as smart, self-effacing, compassionate and well read -- just the kind of person you might like to call your friend.

Initially, the author feels empowered by her therapist, who enchants her with her "cobalt eyes," "cello voice," cool demeanor and Princeton doctorate. Soon after beginning treatment, Friedman admits that her therapist became "mistress of my soul, the queen of my unconscious. I worshipped -- but how could I know this? -- Dr. Sing. She possessed magic when everything else in my life was dull and degraded; she set the magic in my hands, in my pen."

Indeed, Friedman does seem to have been in denial about how much power she'd handed over to Sing. In "Writing Past Dark," Friedman writes eloquently about the necessary courage of making one's own path through life. "Can someone give a map to you? Only you can write such a map," she writes. "I could choose my way or not choose my way. Nobody else's way would deliver me into my own territory."

Yet Friedman was so obsessed by Sing -- their relationship was like a "cult," as Friedman's kind and patient husband, Paul, later told her -- that she continued to see her regularly even after moving four hours away. When she told Sing that she wanted to hold their sessions by telephone, she was made to feel guilty. When she wanted to go on vacation with her husband, she was told that it would ruin the therapeutic momentum she had achieved. And when she wanted to terminate their relationship, Sing responded like a spurned lover: "Your very restlessness is a sign you have more work to do," Sing told her.

To her credit, Friedman neither glorifies her own character nor demonizes Sing. If anything, she forgives her therapist's manipulative behavior to a frustrating degree. Friedman, who meticulously documented in her journals all of her therapy sessions, is a judicious reporter of her own missteps and embarrassing moments. Under the influence of her powerful doctor -- "The more I praised her, the happier I felt," she writes -- she began to shut out her best friends and to see her sister and mother as monsters.

At one point, Friedman writes, "They're so dangerous, these therapists! They have no idea whatsoever of their power!" She adds that her perceptions have become "distorted, my nightmares run wild in the world." Here is one typically maddening exchange between the two women:

Sing: "But it comes from within you."

Friedman: "You always say that, but I was never like this before."

Still she's silent.

Friedman: "You think I was like this before."

Sing: "Secretly, yes."

Friedman: "Frightened of my friends."

Sing: "Yes."

Friedman: "Angry at them."

Sing: "Yes."

Friedman: "You're wrong. I loved my friends. They delighted me."

Sing: "I'm sure that was true, too."

Ultimately, the façade of the therapist's perfection is chipped away; Friedman likens it to approaching a painting too closely and seeing "the sloppy brushstrokes." The spell is broken. "How had she become such a thief?" Friedman asks.

It is fitting that Friedman includes the adjective "extraordinary" in the subtitle of her book; her therapy was nothing less in terms of how controlling her therapist was, how much of herself Friedman lost over the years and how hard she had to push to recover. Yet the therapy was extraordinarily positive, too, which the author readily acknowledges. It seems that she needed to go through an intense, dependent relationship to assert herself at last. And Friedman does seem to have learned a lot from Sing, although it's unclear how many epiphanies she would have arrived at without any therapy at all.

While perhaps not as incisive or stirring as Janet Malcolm's brilliant writings on psychology and psychoanalysis (among them are "In the Freud Archives" and "Psychoanalysis: the Impossible Profession"), "The Thief of Happiness" is an impressive accomplishment and a fine addition to the existing literature on therapy. The moral of the story is that Friedman lost herself so that you don't have to, and there's much to learn from her wise and personal cautionary tale.

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