By John Bliss
March 2003, I received a flyer about a conference exploring the psychoanalytic collaboration of Masud Khan and Donald Winnicott. The two men were prominent members of the British Psychoanalytic Society. Their collaboration ran parallel to Khan’s self-destruction. His intoxicated uncontrolled rants earned him a street reputation as an inebriated, abusive, anti-Semitic crank. Khan’s infamy eclipsed the popularity he enjoyed as a brilliant psychoanalyst. He ruined his career, friendships and marriages. I admired Khan; the luminous outsider intrigued me. Khan was Winnicott’s patient. The two men wrote and edited articles, socialized and had drinks together. I wondered if their relationship was like trying to be “friends” with someone you’re madly in love with: pure torture.
It is difficult, sometimes devastating, to dare and push the boundaries that we invisibly impose. Winnicott died of heart failure in 1971. Khan’s delinquency escalated after his mentor’s ticker gave out. Heavy drinking expedited his demise. He died in 1989 at the age of 67. I thought tragedy like this could only be explained by the intense love the two men felt for one another. Love was a conundrum for me. I hadn’t been able to love romantically without destructive heartache. I registered for the conference.
My ex-wife, Janet and I had started dating when I was fresh out of a two-year stay in a rehab for heroin addiction. I was working full time as a truck driver and going to college full time. While using heroin, I had contracted hepatitis C. At 25, I was already way behind schedule and my life expectancy predicted by a prominent gastrointestinal specialist was another 30 years. I felt lucky that someone loved me.
We had good times and two daughters, Jenna and Jillian. They were great company and collaborators. They also kept me close to home. I was growing too, became a psychoanalyst, opened up my own private substance abuse clinic, was teaching and felt successful. My progress threw my relationship with Janet out of balance. I wanted to go out more, make new friends and play music. The division between my wife and I became more pronounced after 9/11. The impermanence that we all confronted that day sparked me to assert myself in the world more.
I bought a tenor saxophone and started taking lessons. Jenna and Jillian developed strong senses of themselves and their independence gave me more time to pursue interests. Janet would loudly accuse me of loving the saxophone more than my family. Music had always made me want to love everyone more.
During my training to become a psychoanalyst I befriended an instructor, named Anastasia. We became close friends. Anastasia was happily married to James who I also became friends with. Janet was threatened by my friendship with Anastasia and James. Janet mobilized her family and convinced them I was committing transgressions that were ruining our marriage and destroying our family. Their narrative was basically that Anastasia and James were evil and brainwashed the idiot husband and father, me.
Janet specifically accused me of having an affair with Anastasia. I wasn’t having an affair but I was finding understanding and closeness in my relationship with Anastasia that I craved. The rumor of an affair got Janet’s sister and her husband very excited. They frequently appeared at our house. It always perplexed me what they thought they’d accomplish. The more I was pressured to stop seeing Anastasia, the more I dug in. I refused to be bullied and wouldn’t stop seeing her just because they were uncomfortable with my relationship. Their interventions made it clear I had to stand my ground.
I was naïve as to the rigidity I was confronting from Janet, her sister and her husband. What I learned was that building new ways of relating entailed destroying old ones. I told myself love would prevail. Janet and I had been together almost twenty years. I incorrectly calculated the strength of our foundation.
We saw a therapist who predicted if we broke up, I would reproduce the same angst in another situation. I told him that was a pretty dismal critique of the effectiveness of therapy and protested.
“Angst, I just want to meet, make new friends and blow my horn. Just leave me alone. I won’t compromise the integrity of our marriage. I need to see what else I can do in life. Your sister and her family are boring. I want to be around people who are interesting. It’s got nothing to do with love.”
The therapist and Janet challenged me, most likely the dare was unintentional. They kept the pressure on. In hindsight, maybe it was the hepatitis C volcano smoldering in my psyche. Mortality was daring me to see what I could do before the Banshee came calling for my soul. The saxophone and Anastasia represented survival and life. If I quit growing and pushing the boundaries, I was sealing my coffin before I was dead. Quitting any of it was death.
Hurting my children defied qualities that defined me. I wanted my daughters to depend on me without doubt. Fatherhood was the source of so much of my joy. How would a divorce affect my relationship with them? There was a battle raging inside of me. I was supposed to protect them not be the person hurting them. Could I live with myself if I inflicted this kind of nightmarish pain on them, my precious girls who for years were my closest associates?
After a few rounds of this, I packed my shame, my doubt and I left. Destruction wasn’t so bad. Losing stuff was liberating; hanging on was torture. I eventually became closer to my daughters yet still worry about how they were hurt by the divorce.
About six months after I left my home and a year before the conference about Winnicott and Khan, Anastasia her husband James and I planned to go out to dinner and met at their home. While they were getting ready, I browsed through a photo album. A single print drifted like a solitary autumn leaf out of the collection onto the glass coffee table. In the picture was a strikingly attractive woman. She reminded me of a young dark haired Jeanne Moreau.
“Who is she?” I asked Anastasia. “She is beautiful.”
“Oh, that’s my friend Leslie,” Anastasia answered.
She told a story that during a trip to Italy, Leslie was able to return a blouse she had brought from a street vendor in Rome two days after the purchase. Leslie got her money back. The formidable grit it must have taken to return something for cash from those hawkers was impressive. I admired intensity and persistence. James added that Leslie was also a psychoanalyst and a graduate of Cooper Union.
At that time, I lacked the imagination that anything good could come of an introduction to this beautiful woman. It was difficult for me to shake an archaic conviction that I was bad. My mother had predicted that I would ruin Janet’s life just like I ruined hers. Frances (my mom) claims she was addicted to morphine when she was pregnant with me. It was a difficult pregnancy, birth, adolescence and adulthood with her son John. Frances claimed she almost died carrying me. Whenever she mentioned this it always filled me with apologetic confusion. That shame followed me for years. I wouldn’t doubt I was in trouble or even did wrong but would be perplexed as to what I had done exactly. Wrestling with the conviction that I was bad news was a consistent theme of mine. I was cautious and didn’t want to hurt anyone else or get hurt.
After my divorce, the consideration of any romantic harmony was a blur. I was lonely but couldn’t envision being in love without what I believed was the inherent destruction that went with it. After all I almost killed my mom before I could literally lift a finger. My focus was on my daughters, my therapy practice and playing music. It was as if I was cranky because I was hungry but wouldn’t realize it until after I ate. My ambiguous famine could only be fed by the transformation that one experiences from being in love.
Slowly, the generosity and love from my daughters, friends and colleagues was convincing me that I might be safely lovable. Surprisingly, my mother was very supportive. I had more time to see her and take care of my dad who was very ill. Frances was grateful to have me around and I felt lucky to be there. The archaic belief of my own malevolence was being metabolized with everyone’s kindness. My future was brighter.
My thoughts about Leslie were fractured by Anastasia’s enthusiastic offer to make an introduction. I declined. If I was to meet Leslie and screw it up I would be lonely and hopeless. I also wanted to protect Anastasia. If I ruined Leslie’s life then Anastasia was implicated in the destruction. I needed to take the risk, the dare had to come from me alone. That way I would be solely responsible. I was scared shitless.
I had a unique and intimate relationship with fear. My determination to confront the jitters was founded in the dares and double dares of my youth. These provocations assisted me in having the town record for stealing 31 pumpkins on Halloween when I was 12. On a double dare, John Monsees and I swam across the Kensico Reservoir one night and topped off the feat by jumping off the Rye Outlet Bridge where route 22 passes over the water in Armonk, N.Y.
These achievements gave me the fortitude to kiss Geraldine Moore with her encouragement, the way they did in France at a graduation party held at Katy Kork’s house. I was thirteen; the quest for love was the behemoth double dare. Pursuing love became magical when you met someone who shared your appetite for the wonderful mutating lunacy it brings.
I failed to reach out to Geraldine after our kiss. That blunder became a vehement affliction that haunted me. No one dared me to call her. Geraldine unknowingly taught me that risking everything was the only way to wind up with something. I missed my chance with her. I kept pushing myself and was surprised by what I was able to do. The dare and double dares became part of me. I learned from my mistakes, usually after repeating them several times.
The conference about Winnicott and Khan’s collaboration was on April 17, 2004, at a psychoanalytic institute on the upper west side of Manhattan. Unbeknownst to me, Leslie was a member there. It was one year since I’d seen her photograph. I took a seat in the back of the institute’s library where the presentation was to take place.
“Hi Leslie!” Someone called out.
I quivered at the sound of her name. Was she the glossy Leslie, who had been framed on four sides flat on Kodak paper, now walking among 84 people, and eight rows in front of me? (I counted). My excitement surprised me, it was as if I had been looking for Leslie for months but was so busy looking I didn’t know who or what I was looking for. My vague budding belief in providence blossomed at that moment. I thought, of course she is here. It’s destiny.
Her dark brown hair was different; she had let it grow, it was now outlining her sculpted chin. She wore a beige suit with a silk scarf loosely tied around her neck. She reminded me of Maureen O’Hare’s Esmeralda from ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame” unaware that Quasimodo was about to swing down and save her from the gallows. Her stroll looked as if she might erupt into an arabesque or toss a bowling ball. Leslie’s right hand dangled behind her thigh with her fingers poised to snap. At intermission, she stood and turned around with a beating heart I swore I could feel.
The possibility of her being as special as I thought and falling in love or not was terrifying. I thought of my archaic and grisly fascination with great white sharks.
Stan Waterman was an underwater cinematographer. Once while filming great white sharks off the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, he left the safety cage and used his camera to bang the first shark that came up to him squarely in the nose. By shocking the predator, Stan communicated he would not be its victim. He then swam comfortably with the school of sharks. This approach was a bit intense but I wanted to make a distinct first impression. At an intermission, minus camera, I walked directly to Leslie.
“Excuse me, my name is John Bliss, Are you Leslie Pendleton?”
“It’s Hendelman, Leslie Hendelman.”
“Are you sure?” I asked.
Leslie chuckled with a slightly furrowed eyebrow.
“Yes it’s Hendelman. I am certain. Are you interested in one of the training programs?”
I briefly considered attending one of the programs as a way of getting to know her and promptly dismissed this strategy as inefficient. I had taught for several years and to become a student again to possibly get to know Leslie was silly. Plus my psychoanalytic training had taken eleven years. Doing another training would take way too long; much better to just ask her to go out sometime.
“No, I’m friends with Anastasia and James. I saw a picture of you at their home and was struck by how beautiful you are. I asked Anastasia who you were and I promised myself whenever I ran into you I would introduce myself.”
I had the distinct sense she was suspiciously charmed by this encounter. She had faintly smiled; it reminded me of a salacious smirk Mae West might make. The intermission was over. I sat down and breathed, in, held it, out, three times. At the conclusion of the conference, I went to tell Leslie how happy I was to meet her. We exchanged business cards. I offered to call her.
“Well then call me sometime.” Leslie answered with a distinctly different furrow of her brow. The telltale eyebrow crinkle and her tone had dare all over it. I was so grateful that I was a 49-year-old man and not the 13-year-old boy afraid to call Geraldine after our kiss.
Proudly demonstrating restraint, I waited until after 11AM the following day and called. I suggested we go listen to music and then have dinner somewhere. We made a date for the week after next on a Saturday. I was grateful to Stan, the shark man and Geraldine’s kiss for their help with this dare.
When our first date finally arrived Leslie was late. She called.
“I’m a few blocks away, I’ll be there in a few minutes.”
“No worries, I got seats, I’ll meet you upstairs. I know the drummer; he agreed to delay the show, he saw how excited I am.”
This was an embellishment. I had met the drummer previously, he often plays with a good friend of mine and did say hello. My excitement was real. The club was on 27th street in the basement connected to a BBQ restaurant. We planned to eat after the show. BBQ wasn’t food for a first date. I had made reservations at an Italian restaurant a couple of blocks away. The headliner was a guitarist I had known about but never heard live. Leslie arrived and I went to open the door to the cab. She looked like a dame from one of the 4 o’clock movies I watched as a child after school on rainy days. Leslie wore red silk blouse, black pants with an embroidered rose pattern, black leather hip length jacket, red ankle high boots and purple scarf. My calm was noticeable to me as I held my hand out to guide her out of the cab. Somehow, as she took my hand and gracefully got out of the cab her intimidating beauty and physical strength put me at ease. In retrospect, it felt safe. I wouldn’t have to pull punches.
I never learned to appreciate free jazz and am wedded to melody. The music was a succession of bus stops in the middle of nowhere; the passenger gets off and is baffled about where they are and how they got there and could get home. Henry Mancini, the wonderful composer once said that jazz was the only art form he knew of that committed suicide. I thought of Henry during the set. I was uneasy and worried if Leslie was enjoying it. This show was not a good choice. Dares were often bound by dissonance and false starts. Fortunately, the set only lasted an hour.
The spring night air was refreshing and beckoned a new start. As we walked to dinner, I asked, “How did you like it?”
Leslie squinted and tilted her head. I assumed that she was cautiously disappointed and possibly didn’t want to offend me. This was my cue.
“I was ready to pull the fire alarm! I was afraid it would turn into a version of “No Exit” and we’d be stuck there forever. I’d never get to talk to you, trapped in an abyss of incoherent choruses. Then there was that looming threat of an encore. I just wanted to shout ‘Hey that’s OK, we’ve had enough, we’re tired and hungry and just want to get going.’ The tunes were cleverly disguised as if the band was playing some self absorbed trivia game.”
“Yes, like ‘I Bet You Can’t Name This Tune.” Leslie said.
“Exactly, music should be a social interaction not some secret language, like twins develop.” Leslie and I were getting in sync.
She didn’t miss a beat and said, “Idioglossia!”
“ Ah! Jesus! Great word! How do you spell it?” I said as I looked up and vigorously praised the evening sky.
As if in a spelling bee Leslie responded with flawless elocution, “I-D-I-O-G-L-O-S-S-I-A.”
“Nice!” I said.
“He kept his back to the audience the entire time. Did he know this was a show? I did like your drummer friend.” Leslie said.
This was very funny to us. I was grateful for the disappointment in the show. Laughter when shared burrows into your body. I always remembered who I had a good laugh with long after the punch line has waned. The admission of my foolish choice in the show led us to a verbal volley that was sweet collaboration.
I looked at Leslie, “I’m so happy to be out of there and be talking to you.” The restaurant was in walking distance but far enough to give us time to talk.
The Italian restaurant was a much better choice, quiet, familiar food and attentive service. During dinner, Leslie talked about traveling, living in Spain, her career as an artist, a psychoanalyst and how she avoided marriage. She had this twinkle in her dark brown eyes that revealed an engaging sorrow. I dared to see her sadness as similar to mine. Her intelligence and a great sense of humor made this 5 feet 7 inches tall dark-haired beauty even more alluring than her photograph. She wasn’t skinny and liked to eat. This was a great relief to me. Federico Fellini once said never trust a woman who doesn’t like to eat.
I never found success or gratification when I adhered to a general policy as to when was a good time to let someone know something. Thanks to Einstein I knew time was relative. Regardless of the form our relationship might take, I needed to know if we could become close which meant could we dare to reveal ourselves. I was definitely intrigued by Leslie. After dinner I drove her home. I glanced over and looked at the side of her face with her chiseled jaw line.
“I had a great time, I’d like to see you again.”
We were at a red light; Leslie studied me for a moment and with a subtle smile answered, “That would be nice.” Dares can create a volley, an exchange of challenges that makes the tension build.
I found out later the refreshing impact my decisiveness had on Leslie, I said, “How about next Saturday? We could drive up to the museum in Beacon?”
Just like that we began dating.
We did go up to DIA Beacon. Leslie was chilly. I ran back to the car to get her jacket and I started skipping at one point until I got a hold of myself. On our third date Leslie insisted on taking me out to dinner. We went to a new tapas restaurant in SoHo in Manhattan. Leslie’s generosity and appreciation were new to me. It was weird and wonderful. After dinner we strolled up West Broadway. There was a pause in our conversation and we looked at each other. It felt as if a magnetic tow pulled me towards her, Leslie stayed buoyed to her spot. I leaned and caressed her cheek with my right hand; my left hand circled her shoulder blade. Our eyes met as I moved my head closer, our lips found each other then our tongues met.
After, Leslie smiled and exhaled, “Well!” I felt as if I plunged into a mountain stream after hiking in suffocating heat. The water was so cold that my body sizzled as the frigid liquid surrounded it. Leslie’s heat and my archaic chill welded us together in that moment.
We realized the magic in our story by telling it. People asked, “So how did you two meet?” I was grateful to hear Leslie’s side of our introduction and courtship. I swallowed her version like an antidote to my poisoned romantic past. As she told others about my daring approach, I felt special. I had made her happy and sure of herself. She made me feel certain. Her story about us meeting taught me so much. I was getting to know parts of myself through Leslie’s experience of me.
Leslie appreciated my certainty. I was going with what I felt and always thought I lacked the polish and sophistication to play games in the romantic arena. Leslie experienced it as confidence and I was someone who knew what he wanted and would go after it. This was true. When I asked her out twice on Saturday nights, she knew that I wasn’t coy or courting another relationship. The futility of that kind of juggling always perplexed me. Trying to handle multiple romances was an invitation to wasteful chaos. I devoted my time to improving as a person. Wilhelm Reich referred to it as becoming a “Citizen of the Earth.”
Leslie felt my directness gave her space to consider what she may want in a relationship with me. She felt she could trust me. Up until hearing all this from her, I figured I was just simple.
Leslie was the same person who took off and traveled throughout Europe when she was twenty, settled in Spain for a year and pursued her photography career. It was invigorating to talk with her about how entrenched she was with art. On one of our early dates we went to the Whitney Biennial. She had studied and worked with some of the artists who were in the exhibition. Leslie told people her shyness was obliterated when she talked about her artwork with me. She found my curiosity encouraging and felt like an artist again.
Over coffee after the art show, Leslie talked about the struggle she had maintaining all the facets of her personality. She claimed I was unlike anyone she had been with. She saw my reinventing myself, trying to grow and improve as indications that I wouldn’t constrain her and would able to surprise her and be surprised. She said I was a nut, a good kind of crazy. She saw me skipping back to my car up in Beacon when I volunteered to get her jacket. Leslie was touched that I observed she was chilly and that sparked me into action. She was not intimidated by my youthfulness. I was relieved when I found out that was okay with her.
She told me once that I must be a very good therapist because I was out of my mind; in order to understand what went on in other people’s minds it helped to be out of your own. We laughed a lot.
We had both worked hard and at times gambled with conviction. Inevitably, we had paid dearly for some of the dares and double dares we exposed ourselves to. We had both ended relationships with the hope that there was greater love awaiting us in our future. Taking a chance of finding this ambiguous greatness were dares of humungous intensity. Leslie and I had performed the trapeze of life without any safety net.
We both embraced the dreaded loneliness when we couldn’t live with the vacuum that only two people can create. We had been in serious relationships and felt the harrowing distance that is created when you feel misunderstood or unappreciated. When we embraced that heartache we used the solitude to improve ourselves and got ready for the possibility of finding love again.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, Leslie wasn’t going to just let the two of us fall in love. She had formulated a plan, a dare, probably a double dare. One Saturday afternoon, she called me at my office while walking her friend Donatella home from having a few drinks at a birthday party. I answered on the second ring.
“I am in the neighborhood and wondered if you would like some company?”
“I’ll meet you downstairs, the door is locked.”
Years later after seeming to laugh for no reason, Leslie told me after she called that day she saw me waving from a block and a half away, oblivious to the confusion I was creating. (Everyone on the block thought I was fluttering at them).
Once upstairs, Leslie sat on my black leather couch I sat in my shrink’s chair. Her hair was tied back as it was on our first date. She looked serious and I was concerned. She took a deep breath and said “I want to talk to you about something and you may want me to just get out of here or have me leave after I tell you.”
I felt a visceral tightness that froze my body. I focused on Leslie like a man who cuts diamonds for a living. She continued.
“I decided that the next man I sleep with would have to be someone I could spend the rest of my life with.”
I was the shark that had just gotten banged in the nose. Did Leslie know Stan Waterman? Leslie was a heavy weight and had just challenged me. Bernard Hopkins was a world champion boxer at age 49. Here I was at 49, being given a shot at the title.
“Leslie, are you telling me I’m a contender?”
She smiled, a tear welled up in the corner of her left eye as she answered, “Yes, John you are indeed a contender.”
I took her hand and she let me take her in my arms, we were laughing, crying, we hugged each other and we kissed.
“Leslie you are one of a kind, I’m in love with you.”
“I know John.”
We announced in unison, “I’m hungry.”
I couldn’t have predicted what was at stake when I dared to introduce myself to Leslie. In the most literal and physical sense, I would have died without our dares to one another. We got married on July 24, 2005. Five years later she dared me to try a new treatment for Hepatitis C. This was the fourth time I was to be treated. The three previous treatments failed and I was certain that this would fail also. I only did it to humor my wonderful wife. The new drug killed the Hep C, but an MRI towards the end of the treatment detected liver cancer. The medical community referred to liver cancer as the silent killer. Usually, when you found out you had the cancer it was too late to treat it. My cancer was found early and Myron Schwartz, a wonderful surgeon at Mt. Sinai, was able to cut it out.
I have grown accustomed to living happily growing as a couple, a father and a step-mom; free of hepatitis C and cancer for over four years now.
I looked at Winnicott and Khan differently after all of this. The two men dared to stretch the boundaries of the therapeutic process. Dares depended on the courage of the players. The risk and the bravery were subject to the gravity of chance and time. I had taken many chances that hadn’t worked out.
It seemed to me the baseball player who stole the most bases also got tagged out the most. The great Mickey Mantle’s nickname was the ‘strike out king’. Muhammad Ali without losing wouldn’t have had the distinction of being the only boxer who won the World Heavyweight Title three times.
Winnicott and Khan wrote such wonderful books and helped so many people and helped many therapists to help many more. Wasn’t that the real celebration of their relationship? None of it would have happened if they cowered from one another.
In the spring of 2016, Leslie and I went to hear the wonderful psychoanalyst and writer Adam Phillips, who had been analyzed by Masud Khan. During a Q & A, Mr. Phillips was asked about his treatment with Khan. Adam told us that when he first called Masud to make an appointment, he quoted a fee that was nonnegotiable; Adam countered with what he could afford. Masud responded to Adam’s dare with a day and a time to meet. Adam said, “I loved him.”
Dares and double dares start out as challenging invitations. The arrangement can lead to collaboration that brings you to a place you wanted to go to but never knew existed. Daring took Leslie and I beyond what we thought we were capable of on our own and luckily it took us to love. I liked to think it took Winnicott and Khan there as well.
About the Author:
John Bliss lives with his wife Leslie in New York City. He is a psychoanalyst and clinical social worker that co-founded an outpatient licensed substance abuse clinic thirty years ago where he continues to work. He has focused on writing about personal experiences at the encouragement of his wife, daughters Jenna, and Jillian, and musician friends and now his writing buddies. Map Literary is publishing his story ‘Keep The Change’ in the fall of 2017. The process of developing narratives in his therapy practice, playing saxophone, and writing is exhilarating to him. Writing has a special appeal, he can do it anytime and it doesn’t wake up the neighbors the way the horn does.