Grosse Pointe, Michigan, had long been famous as an enclave for the rich, but even fancy mansions look rundown when they front on streets lined with dirty snow. Roads were nowhere near as manicured in the 1990s as they are now, anyway, so I didn’t think twice about the slush as I parked my mother’s old Ford Fairlane next to a huge snowdrift in front of the turreted stone house I’d come to visit. I hoped it was the right place. Because of my errand, the house and its vast gray lawn reminded me of someone’s (a moi?) unconscious mind: dark, furrowed and impenetrable. Anything could be lurking under there. To a girl who grew up in the shadow of Sigmund Freud, even a front lawn was rarely just a front lawn.
My father had been a patient of Dr. Richard Sterba, the world-famous psychoanalyst who lived in the creepy house I’d just parked in front of. My mother parallel-played in her own analysis with Dr. David Greenstein, a psychoanalyst from a school of thought that feuded with Dr. Sterba’s. Epochal doctrinal quarrels were part of my family’s daily vocabulary, but in an odd way, arguing about the pros and cons of Sterba vs Greenstein lent normality to our lives, in the same way that a family might be riven—yet united at the same time—by defending two churches that sat across town from each other. Unlike arguments about the role of the Eucharist, though, nothing could be revealed—to anyone, ever—about what went on in my parents’ four-times-weekly sessions with these good doctors.
Now, sitting in my cooling car to gather breath and courage, I was ready to pull back the wool from those secrets and examine a key piece of the puzzle that had been my father. I stepped out into the frozen muck, slammed the car door, and crunched up the icy walkway in my mother’s too-small boots, borrowed during this brief visit home. Dr. Sterba’s house was dark upstairs, but I could see a fire flickering through the mullioned living room window. I rang the bell.
The old psychoanalyst opened the door and welcomed me with a slight smile. “Come inside vhere it’s varm. We can sit by ze fire.” His Viennese accent was both charming and disarming.
I stamped my boots dry on the mat and looked into the consulting room to the right off the foyer. Dimly lit by a floor lamp, the room was just the right size for the essentials it contained: a leather couch for the patient; a medium-sized photograph of Dr. Freud visible to the analyst (but not the patient) above the couch; and the analyst’s comfortable chair with armrests for, perhaps, contemplative dozing. I remarked to Dr. Sterba that, even though I’d expected no less in the home of one of Sigmund Freud’s most important acolytes, the set-up still came as a shock, sort of like experiencing a real sunset after a lifetime of seeing only postcards. He smiled, a real smile this time, and I began to see how easy it could be to talk to this man. Dr. Sterba showed me into the living room and directed me to the left of two worn wing chairs in front of a crackling fire.
A few days earlier, I’d cold-called him for recollections of my father, who had died almost 20 years earlier and whom the analyst had not seen in more than 30 years. Despite the decades of absence, though, Dr. Sterba’s memories had been crystal clear when he heard my name. He didn’t miss a beat in recalling my father: “Oh yes Johnny…born in Eye-o-vah, or vas it Nebraska…somewhere out west…he always hated to help with the bulls every spring…so bloody, the gelding, you know; so scary for him.” Already, he’d provided a novel insight into the violent man I’d barely known. So, my father, who chased my mother around the house waving a knife and who beat her up at will, who’d thrown a sewing machine at her down the stairs, had been upset by a few hundred bloody prairie oysters roasting on a bonfire? Who knew? Soon into our phone call, he’d invited me to his home in Grosse Pointe.
Sitting before his tamer midwestern bonfire, Dr. Sterba and I shared a comfortable silence. The man was good at waiting: after all, much of psychoanalysis consists of listening for the patient to squeeze out a choice associative nugget. He clasped his hands, left over right, laid them in his lap, and turned toward me. He asked, “So. What was it you wanted to know about your father? How can I help you?” The side-by-side seating gave me courage to open up in a directionless way, like how your children in the back seat tell you things they might otherwise withhold if they didn’t feel safe from beady parental eye contact.
I’d anticipated this question, of course, so I answered, “Well, my father had big problems.” He nodded, encouraging me with a nod. “Please, go on.”
One of the family myths was that Dr. Sterba had terminated my father’s analysis abruptly and without explanation, thereby causing Daddy’s desperate decline. This old Viennese gentleman was the villain of the story, my dad’s acquired father whose rejection, my mother maintained, led to his drinking and serial purchases of new Lincoln Continentals, each of which had to be driven across the country to parade in front of his real father. When a car sustained even minor dents, it was immediately traded in to the dealer. This was cited as a major contributor to Dad’s bankruptcy, uncommon for a physician in those days.
I asked, “Well, can you tell me why it ended, his analysis with you?”
Dr. Sterba shook his head, the firelight glinting off his glasses. “Johnny stopped. He just stopped coming. I couldn’t make him continue.” He sounded sad.
This stunned me. As long as I could recall, Dr. Sterba had been the Freudian manipulator responsible for duplicating, not healing, my father’s childhood trauma. Had it not happened that way?
“But Dr. Sterba,” I was too upset to choose my words with care. “That can’t be! I thought…that you told him to leave. That you…gave up on him and kicked him out.”
The old man’s eyes didn’t leave the fire. He raised his index finger and rubbed his chin, then shook his head slowly. “No, Linda,” he said quietly.
He went on. “You see…for years I tried to find any seed of love in Johnny that I could nurture and help grow. But there was nothing there. There vas no seed and there was no soil. I couldn’t plant anything. There was simply…no love there. Or anywhere in him.”
But I was still too trapped inside my childhood myths that I had to know, concretely and for real, who was responsible for ending my father’s psychoanalysis, which had been held out to me as the only hope for normalizing my life and finding both parents in the same house when I woke up each morning. I had to know, Whose fault was it?
“But…why?” I asked. “I know that his own father was very mean to him…” I trailed off, not wanting to venture too far into the private space that Dr. Sterba and my father had shared. (Not really caring if I did, though: this was old, dead stuff, and this right now, right then, was about me).
I pressed on: “You know, I’ve had problems, too, figuring it all out. It was a pretty rough childhood. So…” I had to get my words in order. “I was thinking…hoping… that if you could tell me what was wrong with my father, it would… help.”
I didn’t want this sensitive man to think I was reducing my alcoholic, drug-addicted father to a stereotype (even though he had seemed pretty bipolar-y much of the time). But yes, I did want to know what, beyond the unceasing rage that my mother stoked continuously (with some delight), really had been wrong with him.
I could sense Dr. Sterba’s close attention: now we were in a psychological zone that was familiar to him. He shifted in his chair. “You mean, ‘vat’s his diagnosis’?”
That was it! If anyone could understand the varying sounds of silence, it was Dr. Sterba. His calmness slowed me down: why rush when you’ve waited decades for the answer to a question?
The doctor leaned toward the fire and tented his hands on his chair’s arms. He nodded slowly. “I see what you mean…” He began to speak softly..
“Vell, it was hard to know with Johnny. I’m not sure what I would say…” We looked ahead, players, but not adversaries, at this tough game.
I grew bolder. “You see, I think this will help me understand. If I just knew what was wrong with him…. What would you say, today, with modern diagnosis and DSM III and everything, that he had? Manic-depressive disease? Schizophrenia? What do you think?” As I listed these disorders, it seemed plausible that my father had had all of them.
The fire spat, and I thought of the portrait of Freud in the consulting room overlooking the leather couch. Such a warm fire here, but wouldn’t that couch feel cold to lie on? Had Freud himself ever tried it out? Physician, heat thyself!
Now Dr. Sterba spoke. “You see, it was chust so hard with Johnny. Very, very hard.” I wasn’t surprised at this: his illness aside, my father had been intelligent, witty, and, yes, insightful (including even about himself). His mind moved like a rocket ship. People said he was a gifted psychiatrist, and when he wasn’t drunk and throwing sewing machines or chairs, he was a fun guy. Indeed, a person who might have invented the concept of “mixed messages.”
“I can imagine,” I said, unable to imagine. “But if you had to guess…”
“It was hard because…well, because…” He paused, I waited.
“It vas hard because…well…he…was just so... NUTS!” With that, Dr. Sterba turned and looked me straight in the eye, as though anxious to see whether I could bear hearing these words.
I so shocked that I could say only what first came to mind: “I can’t believe this. I come to you, the most respected analyst in the world…looking for answers…and you tell me ‘he was just so nuts’? That’s all?” He nodded gravely and said, “Yes, he was. Indeed.”
We turned our heads back toward the fire, and suddenly the hilarity of the situation overtook me. I started to laugh and then, so did Dr. Sterba. Together, I and this living relic of one of history’s greatest humanitarian advances guffawed over the impossibility of pinning a label on one man’s madness. It softened me.
It freed me, too. That the person who had seen my father’s deepest mind could do no better than “chust so nuts”, meant that no one could. Guilt and responsibility, the twin albatrosses of children from torn homes like mine, bit the dust in a roar of laughter. Who can deal with a nutcase? No one!
It hadn’t been my fault. It hadn’t been my fault.
Soon, we said our goodbyes and I left Dr. Sterba's home to drive across town to my mother’s. The drive was slow and slippery, but I am a good driver and it went well.
That night, I dreamed of a different trip in a different car, this time a shiny red Corvette convertible. As I approached the exit gate of the concentration camp where I’d been living, the guard waved a cheery salute and raised the wooden gate. Dr. Sterba, riding shotgun, gave a thumbs-up as we accelerated onto the open pavement.
The sun was shining and the road ahead looked inviting.
 https://mcpp.online/14-library/237-a-history-of-psychoanalysis-in-michigan, accessed Feb 19, 2018.