The Thief of Happiness: The Story of an Extraordinary Psychotherapy

The Thief of Happiness: The Story of an Extraordinary Psychotherapy

by Bonnie Friedman




The Thief of Happiness is the story of a sevenyear therapy between the author and the mysterious Dr. Sing-a therapy that was part cult of two, part enchantment, and part love story. In an age when the great and subtle gifts of

therapy are downplayed in favor of psychopharmacology, Friedman has written the most detailed and vivid portrayal yet of what actually goes on between therapist and patient.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780807072479
Publisher: Beacon Press
Publication date: 01/28/2003
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.03(w) x 8.95(h) x 0.86(d)

About the Author

Bonnie Friedman is widely known as a'writer's writer.' Her Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction, and Other Dilemmas in the Writer's Life was on the Village Voice best-seller list in 1994. Her work is anthologized in many

writing textbooks and collections like The Best Writing on Writing. It has also appeared in The New York Times, Self, Redbook, and Ladies Home Journal. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Read an Excerpt


"Enter treatment with me and you will write your book," said the woman with the molasses-edged Virginia accent on the other end of the phone, and so I did. I'd been unable to write for four months. I'd cursed, wept, stared out the window at tall boys banging basketballs as they went striding to Collins Cove at the end of my street and then, lazily scratching their arms from sunburn, came loping back; 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.

    Two weeks after I began treatment, I was writing my book.

    And addicted.

    Dr. Harriet Sing was a tall woman with sardonic blue eyes and a ballerina's posture. She wore glossy black boots from which occasionally emanated a horsey scent, and dangling silver-and-turquoise earrings that framed a shrewd but welcoming face, and she had a sort of wry Andie MacDowell merriment although her hand when she shook mine was always firm and dry as a wood paddle, even after we'd sat for hours in her overheated office. She was finishing her doctorate while working at the Princeton mental health clinic when I first met her, a woman of about thirty-seven with an oboe voice, her hand scratching notes into a yellow notebook.

    At the start I sat on a gray fabric bench opposite her inquisitive gaze. Most of the treatment, though, I lay on a hard vanilla couch and stared into a Picasso room that opened onto a plank of Mediterranean. Sometimes the blue ofthat high sea was a wall of water rising, about to cut off the air supply. Usually, however, it was the very shade of bliss itself, and if I could just work my way past the eleven fat white chickens in the painting's foreground (how often I'd counted them!) and the two scrawny crows, if I could only decode the hieroglyphs flourishing up from the unconscious, the bliss would be mine.

    Dr. Sing nodded her head. She seemed to be scratching her way into me with her pen and yellow notebook, as if she'd transformed into one of those arsenic chickens with its little red claws.

    And from our very first sessions, strange things happened. A switch seemed to have been thrown in my life and the entire electromagnetic field reversed its current. My best girlfriends became terrifying. My husband's parents, too, converted into ogres. My pen flew across my page and I pumped gas into my Civic and raced north every other week, and mice overran my dreams, and my very own glorious sister turned and was revealed to be someone I'd never seen although we'd shared a bedroom growing up and I knew her imprint was on me like a fleur-de-lis pressed into warm wax.

    "You're so different from how you were!" said my friend Linda, a decade-long reporter for Newsweek. We hadn't spoken in four years.

    "What do you mean?"

    "Well, you're much more confident. You've got your own opinions. No, it's more than that. You just really didn't believe in yourself before. There was always something questioning in your tone of voice. Did you do something?"

    "I've been in therapy."

    "Honey, whatever that person did, it works!"

    I nodded, and Linda's words rang in my mind. No, I hadn't believed in myself. I'd seemed to be make-believe, at any instant liable to collapse back into a Cinderella with scabby knees whose true function was to scrub out ashes. That conviction of being worthwhile that many others had—I'd just never had it. I didn't know it could be acquired. I didn't know that there was a systematic way by which one could acquire it.

    The therapy lasted seven years, more than many marriages. The last two I drove four hours in each direction to see her, a Friday pilgrimage. Count up the miles and I circled the earth. I packed peanut-butter and banana sandwiches and oranges and wedged my cup of coffee next to the emergency brake, and set off early to ascend to Dr. Sing's hot white attic by one. And I went from being a person obliviously scraped out by envy to being someone who tended to feel okay and often thankful and glad. From being a person who chose spectacular, intimidating friends to being a person who chose friends with whom it was possible to feel interesting, too.

    But the biggest effect of the therapy was something incalculable. In so many circumstances I used to simply vanish, as if a trapdoor had flopped open beneath my feet, or as if certain other people represented warps in the air, heat miasmas, the sight of which fixated and jinxed me, converting me into something inanimate. Now I could stay alive in far more situations. No, the effect of this therapy seemed bigger than even that: it acquainted me with something quite good and enduring, a tribe of downy chickens that thrive despite the persistence of two gaunt morbid crows, a feeling that life itself is good, and that most people are good, and a relief from a certain melancholia and hypervigilance.

    "Leaving therapy is like stepping through a circle of fire," a great novelist once wrote. This proved accurate in my case.

    Dr. Sing said I shouldn't stop. Her outright disapproval of my decision frightened me. I was afraid to leave without her blessing, afraid that without it I'd lose my writing again, and my equanimity. She had a mortgage on me, although it had been I paying her all those years. Still, she was the 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 life was dull and degraded; she set the magic in my hands, in my pen. She infused with meaning experiences that up until then had the blandness of Styrofoam, the bulk and screech of Styrofoam—the shadow of a tall brother slicing like a scissors up the pavement, a sister squat as a pasha at her desk, licking her finger, flipping an endless page in The Father Brown Omnibus, the part in her hair a perfect bisection of her head in the night window, ruler-straight and frighteningly pale.

    Leaving Dr. Sing after a session was a protracted descent down Jacob's ladder through Maine, through Massachusetts, down to lower Connecticut and my own tan ranch house. The trip south was so long that by the time my garage door started to hoist I had the sensation I'd consumed the highway itself, and was full of grit, soot, pebbles—everything that Dr. Sing had for a shining moment transfigured. The disparity between the road under my wheels and the pagoda-esque height she occupied always seemed proof I must keep returning to her until no disparity existed and the shining pagoda had somehow become my world. She charted me; she formulated me. How could I ever go? She truly seemed the conquistador of the unbounded country inside, as if by naming my rivers and mountaintops she'd staked an indelible claim and, if I left her, everything would be reduced to ink on a map, rendezvous points I couldn't reach alone.

    Oh, fine for others to say go, leave, you'll be perfectly all right, don't worry a thing about it. I didn't know how to leave intact. And that was the way I wanted to go.

I was sitting in an apartment in Brooklyn half a year after I terminated, sipping from a big cool glass of pineapple juice and watching a TV balanced on a new, uninstalled boxed Sears dishwasher, when suddenly I put down my glass. A man was being interviewed whose wife had left her earthly "vessel." She was one of the Heaven's Gate people who synchronized their suicide to coincide with the Hale-Bopp comet, on which they believed they would fly off. This man himself had been a member of Heaven's Gate until just last year, when he'd left.

    "Do you ever wish you'd just kidnapped her back to society?" the interviewer asked.

    "No." The man shook his head firmly. "It would have done no good. She'd have been miserable and run back."

    "What do you think of the leader, who went by the name of Do?"

    "The thing you have to understand about him," said the man, "is that he bled sincerity."

    I nodded. For my therapy had taught me a great deal about cults. It taught me what it feels like to think you know things lots of ordinary people never will and to believe you've been lucky enough to be taken up into the ranks of the elite. I'd discovered, too, what it means to be in the thrall of another person, to believe this other person has unique access to mystical information, and to have connection with her be synonymous with well-being and any division from her at all cause for racing anxiety. The entire rest of the world constituted outsiders. The words she said had an ecstatic effect on me whether or not I understood them. I couldn't imagine happiness in a life without Dr. Sing: How to stop missing her? I didn't know—despite the most excellent practical advice from those who wanted the best for me—how to gain release.

    "You're wrecking your health!" screamed my mother when I got sick with a fever for the fourth time running after my eight-hour drive. "Wake up, honey! The coffee is burning. Look," she said desperately, "if you go up to her this week, I really don't want to talk to you again!"

    I laughed. "It's okay, Mom."

    "It's not okay," she said.

    And it wasn't.

    Still, it was imperative I find my own way out.

    Cults aren't rare. Lots of us surrender our independent thinking surprisingly frequently; many passionate relationships are really a cult of two. And when you get something extraordinary from another person, something long-craved and with repercussions that shimmer through your entire life, something that literally affects your dreams at night and your use of them in the morning, it's probably good not to leave too soon.

    I received something supremely useful and in leaving I gained still more. This is the story of a valuable spiritual apprenticeship and a triumphant independence. It starts with a block. As Dr. Sing pointed out, "All blocks are a fulfillment of the wish to say no." I didn't know to what I was saying no or that I was saying no. But no it was.

Chapter One

The Girl in the Cake

The prize I'd won had transformed into a curse. After a decade's hard work, I'd received validation. A book contract; a door to Oz. But instead of feeling rich, I was desperate. Instead of being handed a key, I'd been locked. I couldn't work on the book. I could scarcely breathe. An alarm rang just on the edge of audibility and something inside me went rigid, quivering, like a dog hearing a whistle that my conscious, human self couldn't detect.

    My predicament, from what I could gather, had little to do with writing. It seemed to have to do with being a woman and a daughter. I'd arrived at some outer boundary of my personality and stepped past. I'd walked through a force field, unbeknownst. Activities that had been as easy as breathing now presented irresolvable complications—pointing out to the woman at the dry cleaner's a shattered button caused by her pressing machine and asking that the button be fixed, deciding whether or not to meet a friend for supper in Harvard Square. My very thoughts fled me as if fearing contamination. I felt trapped in a fairy tale where gold spins backward into hay, and the damsel, kissed at last, climbs into a block of ice.

    I was thirty-two, happily married, and living on the ground floor of a sunny Victorian house in Salem, Massachusetts, with a scrap of beach at the end of the block and a big pink flourishing rosebush in the yard. I couldn't understand what had gone wrong.

    Hadn't I been trained for success? I'd spent my girlhood sledding face-first down the hills of Van Cortlandt Park and reading The Hardy Boys and then Ms. When I was in seventh grade my sister mailed away for the Virginia Slims datebook, which, aside from pictures of women dashing from outhouses with cigarettes in their hands, featured a feminist quote for each week. I copied the quotes on orange and purple squares of paper from the chunky, twisting pad I kept in my thing drawer. Gloria Steinem. Betty Friedan. The squares formed a throbbing checkerboard I slept under: a women's lib grid. At fourteen I entered the Bronx High School of Science just as my brothers graduated, marching in every morning beneath the towering mosaic of Madame Curie with her test tube and Ptolemy beside a splayed, glittering compass, and the words EVERY GREAT ADVANCE IN SCIENCE HAS ISSUED FROM A NEW AUDACITY OF IMAGINATION.

    One brother became a hematologist/oncologist who directs a blood bank. The other is part of management in a prestigious engineering consulting firm that originated at M.I.T. My sister, unfortunately, succumbed to multiple sclerosis. But I continued to believe heart and soul in the American virtues of hard work and eventual reward. So why did my own yes turn into no? Why did the good thing, once I finally had it, thwart me?

    Before I found Harriet Sing I tried and tried to understand, and blindly collected the materials I'd need for the journey ahead.

"If you can't write the book then we'll send the money back," suggested my husband one morning. We were side by side in the car in the driveway. I was wearing a plum, imitation-down coat over the T-shirt I'd slept in and red Dr. Scholl's sandals. He wore a pinstripe suit.

    "We will not send the money back!" I said.

    The magic money! It seemed like such a great quantity then, although in fact it would scarcely have afforded a diet of macaroni and cheese along a corridor of housemates in Allston.

    Yet every box of Stella D'Oro Breakfast Treats it bought was enchanted and the two radial tires it purchased from Cambridge Tire in Malden seemed more beautiful than any others could possibly be. The money vanished fast. Yet even if I could, I wouldn't return it: that would be handing back the ball gown for rags. Still the spoken words haunted: "Send the money back ... send it back," like the whisper initiating a dream sequence. How to flee that voice? Or could one annihilate it? The windows chattered and murmured from the trucks pounding their way down Broad Street. A phone rang in a distant apartment. If only the world would be quiet, then I could think. But even when I woke in the middle of the night the streetlamp across Pickman Street hummed like a cicada, and distant sounds rushed in, a plane overhead, an ambulance racing.

    Each sound seemed to spool toward an answer. Each sound—interruptive, commanding—was something to which I couldn't help but devote myself. I flew away on the roar of that plane but it dissolved into the thrum of the fridge compressor, the cube of the orange clock whirring on the peach crate beside me. In the morning, sitting at the desk, I couldn't think a thought through to the end or even the middle. Brakes screeched, the surface of the world broke like a pond. Eleven-thirty and the sun was a grinning fool in the sky, but I crept into my bed. In my ears rang that alarm on the very edge of audibility, as if God Himself were stroking the hi-hat.

    I'd longed to achieve, longed for a sign of acknowledgment. Still, when it at last came, it upset me—the dash of sugar that throws everything out of solution. The stuff that had lurked inside, saturated in transparency, became visible at last, crystallizing, cascading. But what exactly was coming out? I'd always assumed I was basically invisible. It didn't matter if I wore the same pilled gray sweater three days in a row at college: no one saw. It didn't matter if I read a book under my desk in fourth grade: no one could see. I believed quite literally I was mostly transparent; if I kept my glance averted then I was no more than a mirage shimmer, a warp of air.

    Yet with what hunger I had yearned to be "recognized"! As if someone else's seeing me would endow me with something that deserved to be seen. As if someone's perception of me could compensate for my inability to perceive myself. I was in fact my own phantom limb. And I assumed the world's caress would arouse missing sensations—which would be delightful. Yet the first sensation of a foot that's fallen asleep is a ghostly distension. There is an impulse to pinch that limb, to force it to feel. There's even at times a fascination toward one's own helpless self—a nonchalant savagery released by happening upon a victim who can't complain. With what glee did I, as a child, probe the crusted yellow heel of my own inert foot, lavishing disgust, daring to feel toward it what I would never feel toward another person? My fingernails gouged it, I scribbled with a pencil on its miraculous surface—that surface so like the orangish paraffin of old candle wax, the shiny rind of a cheese—astonished to discover when I at last stood the tremendous suffering of which that foot was capable. My eyes overflowed. Poor foot! Each step agonized. As did something raw inside me these days, something unsheathed.

The weeping was interesting. It obeyed a subterranean pattern of its own. It surfaced at odd times: while I was driving to Shaw's Superstore for ground turkey and soy sauce, and had just successfully executed a brisk left onto Route 116 across three lanes of traffic; while walking to the laundromat late one afternoon with my shopping cart, noticing a Russian blue cat with burning gold eyes staring out a basement window.

    In the laundromat, I pried the clothes apart. They'd rusted to each other in the black Glad bags, a sharp-edged puzzle of fabric. But in the water the clothes relaxed and were restored to their lives as supple shirts and socks. Like seeing planks of salt cod turn into swimming fish. I shut the lid and leaned against the listing white machine. "Mama!" shouted a boy clapping two tiny orange boxes of Tide.

    "Shut up and sit!" she said.


    "Don't make me say it twice!"

    The boy trailed over to the gray seats bolted together in a row. Janet Jackson sang. I sailed through the ceiling, through the cloud cover, breathing detergent. Maybe it would all be okay.

    Later, walking the cart of clean socks and shirts home over the blue slate of Salem, I still felt inexplicably happy. Maybe I'll be able to work tomorrow, I thought. Yet how many evenings I'd felt this way! I gazed into the Colonial-era homes edging the Common—the chandeliers vast as hoop skirts, the forest-green dining rooms. It seemed as if the inhabitants of these homes had inadvertently given me a gift, a view available just at this instant when day ceased to cloak the world in innocuous visibility and before the maids drew the curtains.

    Blue ginger jars tall as soldiers flanked a doorway. A mirror floated above a mantel. The rooms were hardly furnished, as if their people had left behind just the odd grandfather clock and Persian rug necessary for afternoons when they traveled up from their Beacon Hill apartments on a nostalgic whim. Abandoned rooms of aristocratic childhoods, like tin-and-enamel dollhouses only half-loved. Two blocks remained. The slate lifted platters of streetlight that shrank as my feet drew close.

    I thought of certain people I knew who used to their advantage the opportunities they created. A journalist in a leather bomber jacket who swaggered into any room. An ex-student with blue-black hair chopped in bangs who instantly sent a rejected story back into the world until all were taken; she was married with two children, nonmonogamous, undeceptive. Envy seeped through me for those who could want something and know it and not be crippled by that knowledge. In the gutter, bouquets of light wove amid the indigo. What a waste of life to be unhappy now, when there was so much beauty! A. thousand keys seemed to be strewn all over, keys like those for a diary were hanging in clumps from the bushes, gusting in the air like pollen, rattling like the husks of bees, dozens of charm keys jingling—all useless. Answers were everywhere. You have to accept yourself. Ease up. Trust your impulses. Perfect answers weren't rare. They were in fact ubiquitous. But I couldn't use them. They loomed like the streetlamp haloes in the gutter, impossible to pick up.

    But it made no sense to be so stuck. Nobody had told me "Stop!" Not teachers, not my parents. Yet somebody must have. Someone was saying "Stop!" right now. Who? A woman or a man? The wind heaved in the treetops. A fist of rain stung my cheek. The small side window of my own house swung up like a lantern containing a swatch of blue futon, a green vinyl chair. But my legs carried me right past.

    I walked until my calves were sore and my cart had developed a wobble. My face felt swollen, gritty, my jaw inflamed. Foil leaves pasted themselves to the pavement. Something was at my back, and I wanted to see it. I wanted it to jump out. I gave it chance after chance. Get in front of me. Go. Come on, whatever you are! Right now! The cart handle was ice under my fingers. Then a long screech pared down to the very core of my ears—

    "Are you crazy?"

    A truck had hurled to a stop three inches away. The driver's mouth flapped like a sock. Red, corrugated. "What are you staring at?"

    "Sorry," I murmured. Snippets of light raced across the pavement like the freed legs of scissors.

    "Watch where you're going!" bellowed the voice, deep as an air horn. But obviously I couldn't be run over! I was busy. I was thinking. I yanked my cart up over the curb, jangling its measly frame like some idiot child. "Come on," I muttered. My legs bounced, rubbery. My husband's car was in its spot.

    "What happened to you?" he asked.

    I wiped my face with my hand. How bright the room was—a Xerox machine with the light flooding up. "Took a walk."

    "In this weather?"

    I shrugged.

    "Well, I hope you got the exercise you wanted, sweetie, if that's what you were after." He smiled, a sympathetic smile beneath his russet mustache. I came over to him and gave him a hug, inhaling. "You smell good."

    "I smell bad," he said.

    I sat in a vinyl chair. My fleshy chin seemed scoured, burning and numb from the cold, something punished. My hand rose to it. "I don't know what's the matter with me."

    "You'll be okay."

    "You think so?"


    I gazed at him as he peeled a grapefruit and chewed it, watching the news on TV.

    "You really think so?"

    "I said so. What do you want from me?"

    My shoulders shrugged. In the background was that siren, like something muffled by a series of shut doors. That, I felt like saying. Don't you hear that? Doesn't that bother you? But it lurked so softly behind all the ordinary sounds I didn't think I could ever pinpoint it for him.


Excerpted from The Thief of Happiness by Bonnie Friedman. Copyright © 2002 by Bonnie Friedman. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

1. The Girl in the Cake00
2. Aliens00
3. Shangri-La00
4. In the Gold Star Room00
5. The On-Off Switch00
6. Red Masks00
7. One Hundred Bakeries00
8. The Blue Valentine00
9. Walking Under the Earth00
10. My Gertrude Stein00
11. My Paris00
12. The City of Envy00
13. Please Get Up00
14. The Secret Smile00
15. Learning to Think00
16. Leaving My Goddess00
17. The Spectral Palace00

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