GETTING THERAPY IN BEIJING IS A PRODUCTION
– An excerpt from a novel “Waiting for Love Child”
by Maya Alexandri
I went to the International Harmony Hospital family counseling clinic because – well, because I’m an American expatriate, so I wanted an English-speaking, American-trained mental-health counselor, and Beijing offered no other options. On this front (as so many others), Beijing isn’t New York City. Talk therapy (as you well know, Sandra) isn’t something people do in China – except maybe the “all things foreign”-besotted set, and even with them, therapy’s a new development.
And I picked you, Sandra, among the four practitioners at the counseling center, because I wanted to unburden myself to a woman, and you looked nice in your picture on the counseling clinic’s website, and you were the only one who, as a licensed clinical social worker, wasn’t a doctor. I know it’s inconsistent (hypocritical, maybe) because I enjoy narcotics so freely, but I didn’t want anyone giving me psychotropic drugs. I don’t know why. If you ask me now what I was thinking two years ago, I can only speculate through the lens of my drama-therapy enhanced awareness: maybe, like Blanche du Bois, I was in denial about my need for psychotropic drugs; or, maybe, I thought the doctor would remove the primal “me,” like he did to that kid in Equus; but truthfully, I have no idea what I was thinking. I knew I needed a shrink, but, as you know, I’m not good at making decisions, and the thought of a doctor made me feel, you know, discombobulated about how to proceed, and you seemed to offer a way out of that conundrum.
After our first session, though, I wasn’t sure what you were offering. First off, I said you looked “nice” on the website, but I don’t mean “nice” in the sense of “sexually attractive” (sorry, is that harsh? I’m just trying to be honest here), and at our first session, I guess I kind of felt disappointed about that. I mean, let’s face it, what man doesn’t want to be turned on by his shrink? At least give me the fantasy. But there was no way I could enjoy any fantasy like that with you. You looked too much like a mom. You’re short; you’ve got sensible hair, dyed a sensible brown to hide the gray; you smile in a way that makes everyone in the world feel like they’re being hugged; and you’ve got the kind of plump, practical body that’s been serving peasant women well for centuries. And your wacky glasses, huge lenses, multi-colored frames: not sexy.
Then there was the problem of your “methodology,” if I can call it that. When I left your office the first time, I was thinking, So: those who can’t do teach, and those who can’t teach become drama therapists. Obviously, my thought didn’t reflect the entirety of my feelings after our first session because I came back for the second, and your technique eventually won me over – or maybe that’s too strong, what I mean to say is, I stowed my doubts and followed your lead to the best of my ability; but, my God, that first session was weird.
Part of the problem with that first session was me (I admit it, and I’d like you to acknowledge that my admission is a sign of maturity): sitting in your waiting room, I became absolutely panic-stricken that someone would see me. Secrecy, of course, was critical. Zero possibility existed that my Beijing-born wife, Lan, and her parents would understand my needing therapy. In the best case scenario, my in-laws would pressure me to enlist in the People’s Liberation Army as the fix for my undisciplined emotion. In a less positive scenario, they’d put me in a cage next to the laundry line, feed me a “calming” diet of vegetables and rice gruel, and tell Lan to find another husband. Plainly, if I was going to seek treatment for my addled brain, I’d have to keep it secret from them. So if someone spotted me, how could I explain sitting in the family counseling clinic’s waiting room? The only explanation was that I was waiting for treatment because I was some kind of mental case.
“Jittery” understates the condition I was in by the time you opened your office door and bellowed, with your theatrical voice, “DEAN CANNON!”
But I was so relieved to escape from the waiting room into the sanctuary of your office that I didn’t shout, “Have respect for the ethics of your profession and keep your voice down!” I didn’t scream, “How could you keep me waiting for this long when every moment increases the chance that someone will walk by and recognize me?” Instead of giving voice to any of these pressing concerns, I merely scooted by you and took a seat in the expansive, easy chair (“a modified couch”) across from your desk.
Maybe it was my apparent nervousness, or the fact that I was mute in response to all your initial questions, that led you to begin our first session with an explanation of drama therapy as you practice it. Or maybe you thought that you could set me at ease, lull me into a comfortable state, by entertaining me a bit. You know, of course, that you’re a compelling performer, and your explanation of drama therapy was in fact terrifically entertaining. You mesmerized me with it:
“Dean Cannon, you’re a lucky man,” you began with low-volume intensity, and I snapped to attention. “You’re about to embark on an odyssey of drama therapy. You’ve come to counseling for a reason that you haven’t revealed yet, but whatever that reason is will find its answer on our drama therapy odyssey.
“I’m not promising that drama therapy will cure you, if curing is what you need. An odyssey is an experience, and drama therapy is a positive experience, which is not the same as a happy one. What I’m promising you is a positive experience at this time of vulnerability in your life. That experience may prove a cure, or it may prove a springboard to a career in theatrics. It will in all events be an education in the most valuable repository of knowledge about human behavior since the dawn of humanity: the theatrical canon.
“‘Canon’ – wonderful segue. I was going to explain next why Stanislavski, and not Freud, is the patron saint of our therapeutic odyssey together – you’ve heard of Stanislavski?” You pronounced the name “Stanislavski” with brio and an accent that I don’t think was Russian.
I shook my head.
“Never mind,” you said, lowering your volume. “You’ll soon recognize Stanislavski’s greatness as surpassing that of all the other so-called great minds of the 20th century —”
“— Einstein?” I asked, surprising myself by speaking, but you’d already commanded my full attention, and I was curious.
“Well, no, not Einstein. But all the others. All the ones that devoted themselves to the human condition anyway. Why are we discussing Einstein? I was explaining why Stanislavski – ah yes, canon. ‘Canon’ you know is a homophone for your last name, Cannon. And a cannon is a phallic symbol,” you said, turning your head so you could give me a loaded look from the corners of your eyes.
“If I were a Freudian I’d care that your last name is a large and threatening representation of a penis,” you warned, your voice rising again. “We’d spend a lot of time analyzing what effect such a name has had on your psychic development. Because, to Freud, underlying every significant aspect of the person is sex. Sexual desire, sexual repression, sexual perversion, sex, sex, sex —” and here I was distracted by your dramatic hand movements, which struck me as a cross between Vishnu and a frenetic traffic cop. I even ducked a little in my chair, giving credence to a worry that one of your arms might fly off from the exertion.
“But I’m not a Freudian,” you continued, to my relief – not because you weren’t a Freudian, but because the hand-waving stopped – “because Freud is wrong.” You made the statement simply, as if it was beyond debate, and restraint returned to your voice. “We don’t have to look to a genius like Stanislavski, or even to depart from the Freudian tradition, to see Freud proved wrong: his own student, Jung, proved him wrong. Have you heard of Jung?”
I shrugged my shoulders. I was guessing that the “Yoong” to whom you were referring was actually the “Juhng” I’d read about, but I couldn’t be sure.
“Never mind,” you sniffed. “It’s more critical that you’re familiar with Shakespeare, anyway. You’ve heard of Shakespeare?”
“Titus Andronicus,” I said, grinning.
“Interesting choice,” you commented, treating me to another of your significant, sidelong glances and jotting a note on the yellow pad on your desk. “Well, Jung rightfully pointed out that we are more than mere products of our sexual predilections, conscious and subconscious,” you continued, as you sat back in your chair and rested your hands, fingers interlaced, on your chest. “Jung says that, in our development as people, culture and society also play a role, particularly as distilled in that grand, amorphous intangible, the collective unconsciousness. But instead of looking to the theatrical canon for the aggregate of human wisdom throughout history, Jung relies on myths, fairy tales and archetypes. If I were a Jungian, our sessions together would be absorbed by questions like, do you particularly identify with Jack and his bean stalk?” Here you shrugged off the silk scarf around your shoulders and unfurled it above your head in a move that Martha Graham might have choreographed, if she’d been particularly influenced by the Dallas Cowboys cheerleading squad, and cried: “Or, seeing that Little Red Riding Hood is your favorite fairy tale, should we explore the possibility that you’ve squelched an ingrained desire for cross-dressing?”
“No!” I yelped involuntarily, caught up in the performance.
“No is right!” you volleyed back, allowing the scarf to settle again around your shoulders and throwing one end of it across your throat with thespian flare. “Because Jung might be right, but he’s not efficient!”
“Right on,” I encouraged her.
“It’s not enough to be right, the methodology must also be an efficient treatment of neurotic disorders. Efficient,” meaningful pause, “and appropriate! The methodologies of Freud and Jung are simply not appropriate to modern times. The subconscious is passé. It’s impossible to know with any accuracy what’s going on in the subconscious. When you ask, ‘Will my mother get the death penalty?’ when you meant to inquire, ‘Will that serial killer get the death penalty?’ does that ‘Freudian slip’ mean that you subconsciously want your mother dead? Or does that it mean that you subconsciously recognize that your mother is a serial killer? Who can say which interpretation is right? No one!” With that pronouncement, you introduced me to your practice of “physicalizing” emotions as a means of dispelling them: to exorcise your frustration with the subconscious, you picked a dart up from your desk and hurled it with alarming speed (and what proved to be thankfully impressive accuracy) onto a dartboard hanging over my head.
“Wretched subconscious!” you crowed at your bull’s-eye. “I must therefore ask you, Dean Cannon, with the inaccuracy of the subconscious established as indisputable fact, can a psychological method that is premised upon it be efficient?”
“No?” I hazarded.
“No is right!” you agreed. “Inefficiency may be justifiable in the absence of an alternative, but we have alternatives to the subconscious.”
“We do?” I asked, hopeful. Truthfully, I’d never been comfortable with the idea of a subconscious.
The idea that part of me was unknown and unknowable, lying in wait, springing dirty traps on the rest of me – well, I’ve never liked it.
“Absolutely we have alternatives to the subconscious! It’s called ‘manifested behavior.’ What we say, what we do and what we know we’re thinking are vastly better indicators of our mental health than what we dream and what we don’t know we’re desiring. When Freud started out in the Victorian age, everyone was repressed. They couldn’t talk freely. Freud thought their dreams would betray what they could never otherwise say.
“But, more importantly, all psychoanalysts are power-mongering control freaks. Freud invented the subconscious so that he alone would have interpretive authority about what it meant. If you dream that you’re having sex with your mother, does that mean that you want to have sex with your mother? Or does it mean that you realize your mother is a serial killer? Who can say? Only Freud!”
And, with what I now recognized to be the wind-up to a dart-throw, I crouched forward as another projectile reached its target at missile speed.
“The subconscious is a chimera! An illusion! A foul and pestilent congregation of vapors! I say what’s important is the concrete, not the ephemeral!” you proclaimed, like a campaigning politician. “Let’s look at and value what you say and do and think, not place undue emphasis on your accidental bloopers and your repressed actions and your dreams —”
“— But . . . ” You fixed a gleeful stare on me when I began to interrupt, and I felt embarrassed, worried that the question I wanted to ask would sound stupid in the context of all your theories.
“Yes?” You had the triumphant look of a parent who’s lured a small boy out from under a bed by tempting him with a lollipop.
“I was just thinking that China’s a lot like Victorian – not that, but people don’t talk freely here. My wife’s parents don’t talk to each other. My wife Lan has to act as a go-between for all their communications. And Lan never tells me anything. Her parents bought us a business to run together, and nobody bothered to mention it to me until Lan told me to resign my old job. Lan’s parents notified me about the date of our wedding. They even bought me and Lan an apartment – right next to theirs – which I found out about when our driver took us home there after the honeymoon! I don’t have any control over my own life. All my behavior is determined by Lan’s and her parents’ expectations, and I hardly know what I’m thinking. And I lie. I can’t let them down, but I can’t go along with their demands, either, unless I lie. I know I’m not supposed to lie to you, and I won’t but, I don’t know, if you were to analyze what I say or do, maybe you’d think I was a responsible husband, but if you were to focus on my dreams —”
“— Brilliant! Brilliant!” You actually stood and applauded for me, Sandra. I think I blushed. “You will go far in our drama therapy odyssey, Dean Cannon, because you have given me such a wonderful segue to explaining why Stanislavski is the great genius of the 20th century.” You inhaled loudly through your nostrils and resumed speaking in a high-volume theater whisper: “Stanislavski . . . understood . . . that people,” you said very slowly, “can behave the same whether they’re responding to real or imagined circumstances,” you finished, speeding up the last clause. “That’s the essence of ‘the Method’ that actors talk about: living truthfully under imagined circumstances, that’s acting. We . . .” and you slowed down again for emphasis, “use . . . that same insight . . . in drama therapy. Hear me? Living. Truthfully. In imagined circumstances. This technique allows us to enjoy the lessons of experience without incurring the scarring consequences that an experienced life entails. It allows us to experiment, to put you in a lab and test you until we discover your real-life behaviors, but without cost in your real life. Other than financial cost, of course.
“I will give you a monologue —” and here you crossed the room to a bookshelf and began riffing through the bound plays, looking for a text, “— your wife Lan is Chinese, I gather?”
“Alright, you’ll recite the monologue in our next session, and you should think about speaking the text just as you would if the circumstances of the play were your own.”
“What’s that going to do?” I think I was only brave enough to ask you this challenging question because your back was turned to me.
“Othello!” you screeched, grabbing a slim volume, and tossing it to me with a throwing arm that I’m sure the U.S. Olympic softball coach is regretting hadn’t come to her attention sooner. Instead of trying to catch the book, I blocked my face with my hands, and Othello bounced off my knuckles onto the floor.
“You, Dean Cannon, are going to be a star.” You snatched the book off the floor and flipped through it: “Here! This is what I what I want you to recite. Othello’s monologue about how he wooed Desdemona. Take it home, memorize it, and come back here next week ready to perform.” Folding over the corner of the page on which the monologue appeared, you thrust the book into my hands.
I stared at the book. I looked up at you. “But what’s that going to do?” I repeated.
“It’s an experiment, Dean Cannon. We’re going to see how you viscerally behave, when you’re not aware of what you’re doing. And we’re going to help you move beyond your base reflexes. Emoting conquers emotion, Dean. Our drama therapy odyssey is going to make you a man capable of exerting the greatest control possible over his destiny.”
“Really?” I was shocked. “It won’t turn me gay?”
“No force on earth will coax a woman into bed faster than a man’s appearance on the stage. As you’ll see from the Othello monologue you’re going to perform next week, the woman falls for the man because of his peerless capacity to tell his story. And, as the sex lives of the many actors who’ve played Othello demonstrate, women fall even faster for men who stand up and recount other people’s stories! After our drama therapy odyssey, you will walk the earth a man forever descending from a stage into the arms of admiring women.”
I felt certain that the FDA hadn’t evaluated the accuracy of your statement, but it made such a deep impression on me that I suspended my skepticism. I took the book with me, and I read the monologue. I couldn’t memorize it because I didn’t have time. Just reading the monologue was challenging enough because I couldn’t let Lan know what I was doing. “Why are you reading Shakespeare?” was a question to which I couldn’t imagine a credible answer, so I had to sneak glimpses at the text while my driver, Lao Chen, was shuttling me to and from client meetings.
Lao Chen and I had worked together long enough that I knew he respected my privacy; while driving, he erected a “fourth wall” between him in the front and me in the back. Still, I didn’t want to take any chances, so I gave him 50 kuai and instructed him never to mention to Lan or her parents that I was reading in the car.
When I returned the following week for my second session, I arrived a few minutes late to ensure that I wouldn’t have to risk exposure in your waiting room. Proceeding directly to the easy chair across from your desk, I sat, opened the book, and began to read: “Her father loved me, oft invited me —”
“STOP!” you commanded. “Why are you —”
“— I’m a busy man, and a professional, and I didn’t have time to memori—”
“You’re sitting. Don’t do that. Rise! You are a star. A man on the stage is as Cortez astride his horse appeared to the Aztecs: a god!”
I stood and raised the book, preparing to resume reading. But I paused. Standing was awkward. I felt like I was under scrutiny. Get this over with and never come back, I thought, and began reading again: “Her father loved me, oft invited me —”
“STOP!” you intoned. “Take a deep breath. Plant your feet hip’s width apart. Straight spine, stop slouching. You’re standing like a petulant teenager impatient to flee detention. But Othello was a general in the Venetian army. You must stand like a man, a hero and a soldier.”
I squared my shoulders, pushed my chest out, raised my chin, and tried again: “Her father loved me, oft invited me —” I paused, prepared for you to scream “STOP!” again, but when I peeked over the edge of the book I saw you watching me raptly. This time, you let me get through to “And sold to slavery; of my redemption thence,” before you interjected:
“PHYSICALIZE!” You bolted upright at your desk. “How is the emotion supposed to come out if you don’t physicalize it? ‘Wherein I spoke of the most disastrous chances!’ Doesn’t the word ‘disastrous’ make your skin prickle? ‘Of hairbreadth scrapes i’ the’ imminent deadly breach!’ You’re talking about almost DYING! Let the fear show in your behavior!”
I had no idea how to do what you were insisting, so I shook my head and started over – but you interrupted me again: “PHYSICALIZE! You can’t live truthfully under the circumstances if the scene isn’t in your body! Be a necrophiliac, Dean! In our sessions together, you’re not burying emotion, you’re digging it up! And having sex with it! Let’s see it on the surface!”
At which point I marched over to your desk, grabbed a dart, and hurled it at the wall. You’ve had a lot of practice, Sandra, and I’ve always had lousy aim – the dart whizzed off to the right and embedded in the carpet. Absorbing the dart’s pathetic trajectory, I felt humiliated, but you stood and applauded me anyway. “Bravo, Dean Cannon! Bravo! That’s behavior. You obviously understand how to physicalize your frustration with this process. Now let’s see you physicalize Othello’s courtship of Desdemona.”
This time, you let me get through to the last lines:
And bade me, if I had a friend that loved her,
I should but teach him how to tell my story
And that would woo her. Upon this hint I spake.
She loved me for the dangers I had passed
And I loved her that she did pity them.
This only is the witchcraft I have used.
After I finished speaking, a moment of quiet prevailed in your office. But in that silence, I did indeed detect witchcraft – an atmosphere in your office of a spell inadvertently conjured. Your next remark confirmed my perception:
“Dean, your wife doesn’t see you as heroic,” you pronounced, leaning forward to jot notes on your yellow pad.
“She thinks I’m adorable.”
You nodded, still writing, and said, “But you think you used a kind of witchcraft to make her think that.”
“Well, I am adorable, but I lied to Lan. And her family. I’m not the person they think I am. They think I’m astrologically compatible with Lan, but I was born in the Year of the Tiger, not the Year of the Dragon. They think I’m a prestigious Harvard graduate, but my alma mater is the State University of New York, Albany. They think I’m filial and obedient and dutiful, but I’m pissed off at my mom, and I only do what they say because I’m a coward, and there’s this other woman, Lisa, who . . . well: I may be adorable, but I’m a bad boy.”
You looked up, appraising me. “Presumably, you’d rather be a heroic man than a bad boy.”
Maybe I flinched, I don’t know. I don’t know what I did, but my unspoken response to your question made you raise your eyebrows. And it was because of that eyebrow raise that I came back the next week, and every week for what’s been almost two years. Accuse me of reading into it, go ahead, but what that eyebrow raise said to me was: Why, Dean Cannon, you wouldn’t rather be a heroic man than a bad boy – you like being a bad boy, you just wish Lan would spank you for it, instead of thinking you adorable.
And knowing that you’d gleaned that insight about me, well, I felt very intimate with you in that instant. Intimate in a way that saluted you for your intuition. It wasn’t a massive salutation, and it never happened again, but that second session I got chubby enough to need to lower my copy of Othello, and as I did so I crowed inwardly, I’m living out my fantasy!
I’ve always assumed that you understood what I was experiencing as it was ongoing, but if not, well: surprise! And I’m sorry. I know this might be difficult for you to accept, but I continued with therapy, not because of Stanislavski, but because of Freud.
The Author About Herself
My novel, The Celebration Husband, was published in 2015. My short fiction has appeared, or is forthcoming in, The Stockholm Review of Literature, Fabula Argentea, The Light Ekphrastic, and Thrice Fiction. In addition, I am an organizer of the Amplified Cactus performance art series in Baltimore, Maryland, US. I have lived in China, India, and Kenya, and I have worked as a lawyer, UN consultant, blues-rock singer, and EMT. I am currently applying to medical school. Present writing projects include a novel and a cycle of linked short stories that take place in an epidemic quarantine camp. For more information, see http://www.mayaalexandri.com.