I like shrinks, she said, chuckling, her face twitching. She should know. For over two years now, she has been in the care of an alienist. Mary—actually, that is not her name, but since she doesn’t want us to use her real name, let us call her Mary. (I like giving names to animals, to things, and all else in-between.) Besides, her life, as will become evident during the course of this story, has concrete affinities with the etymology of the name I have decided to embroider her with. You may remember the astute ways Ilyas Khoury talks about the origin of that name—a Hebrew word that means “rebellious.” I do not wish to belabor the strangeness of the origin of a name that is universally interpreted as the epitome of obeisance. Nor am I interested in peering through Mary’s other name, the one given her by her mother. Fritla, she would call her out of affection, but especially when she wanted to lull her to sleep. Fritlaaa, she would croon, and in an instant Mary would be yawning.
(I don’t know if this is important, another piece of information, perhaps, to construe a meaning. In any case, her mother’s father was from the ever-expanding Rift Valley. The mother’s mother, though, came from the Caribbean basin. Hyperbole aside, her maternal lineage traced its origins to amphibians. If you added to the equation Fritla’s mother’s paternal grandmother’s insistence that her ancestor had a twin, a scorpion, you would certainly think of myths and totems and natives—the sort of conviction that would bring to mind the lament of a relative of Fritla’s mother’s mother. That, she said, was why they never killed scorpions; instead, they could cure its deadly stings with blissful saliva rubbed on the victim’s wound. Yet Fritla always joked about the stings of a deadlier animal she refused to name. All she said about this animal was that it was ready to hit you with a pestle. I remember once when she wryly remarked, “How could I rest knowing that Mehras was on my tracks? After all, life is in trust with you.”)
As will become apparent shortly, the name “Mary” has also some affinity with what she has been telling me about her life in the care of a shrink. “Shrinks,” she once told me, “help you get on with your life. They help you to confront your inner demons, demons that are securely lodged and hidden not in your bosom, but in your consciousness. It’s easier to dislodge those in the bosom; not so with those that find a home in your consciousness.”
I was all ears, trying to decipher where she was going with this.
“I have learned;” she continued, “to differentiate between the two. The first confounds your emotions; the second warps your ability to reason. People early on try to discount and demean what’s in the bosom—the seat of motherly feed, they would say—and, if you were a woman acting on bosomy things, they would give you a sobriquet fit for hysterics. I’m sure the old Greeks didn’t associate it with some pejorative meaning. Womb signifies closure, protection.”
“You are in a feisty mood today,” I interjected, barely bothering to weigh the consequences of my words.
“And why not let it out? When men do it, they are said to be fiery, crazy, who speak their mind. …”
But, I interrupted her again.
“Why that great writer of Notes was allowed to ramble in the first half of his book, in essence throw tantrums. A prelude, we are told, to the rationalized second part of the book. Strange that we have to shock our compatriots before they even listen to our pain.”
I thought, albeit tongue-in-cheek, that she had a point there. Even shamans and diviners and healers had to go through some saintly fits before they could proffer any advice. A diviner without some form of pyrotechnics would be deemed a novice, still in pursuit of the golden fleece of her profession.
“So,” she said, with zest and exuberance. “So I was telling you about my shrink. She’s really helpful. She uses a whirlwind of induction larded with compassion and les mots glissants. Thanks to my reading of the Poétique, I know when I hear or see words that make a cascade of sinuous sound. My shrink has shown me how my fears are rooted in reality. I’m not making them up, you know.”
As I was listening to Mary, I couldn’t help but agree with her assessment of shrinks. They are almost always the best defense a civilized society could field or produce to re-socialize those who, for whatever reason, fall through the cracks.
“It’s not easy,” Mary once told me, “to keep your sanity in a place where you’re told to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, without first ensuring that you’re wearing some boots. Da. Give me some footwear first before I venture out to walk on thorns… Da.”
Mary is forty years old. Slightly cross eyed, she is five feet six inches tall, and weighs about 90 pounds. Her petite physique, however, overshadows her inner strength. Tall for a real woman, she’s told by her abusive boyfriend. Yet, you cannot help but admire the woman, her integrity, innocence, and philanthropy. She was raised somewhere in the American corn belt, with a loving, happy family. That’s what she thought, until the shrink let her mind wander a little bit. Meandering always affords us time, and what we find about ourselves when we are not looking astounds us. Be in tune with your body, she was told by her doctor. Mary’s background is also that of an ordinary American childhood. It’s true that her brother was treasured more, but that is understandable in farming households. As a kid, she liked horse riding. That was, she said, the closest she could get to her father’s Scandinavian origins—the nomadic past of the Viking warriors. Galloping through the plains north of the barn, the horse reminded her of how precious it was to roam freely, without tethers, visible or invisible.
“But society won’t let you do that,” she moaned reflectively.
“And you think the shrink will let you do that?”
“You know,” she continued, without dwelling on my words. “The other day with my shrink, I was telling her about my boyfriend. He doesn’t let it out. He holds things swollen, inside. I swear the man is passive-aggressive, you know the type. Anyway, I was saying…you tell him something, and instead of responding to it like a man, he contorts his face. You can see he’s saying something, but he eats the words—like saying ‘Why bother.’ Arrogance? Pity? I don’t know what it is, but I wish he would spit it out.”
What did you want him to say, I almost screamed. I was fuming, my insides burning. How could someone so smart not see the charade behind shrink chicanery? I have nothing against them. I admire them for their resourcefulness, their patience. But come to think of it, who wouldn’t be patient to bask in an $85-an-hour bonanza. Hell, I would be happy to listen to people’s woes, agonies, fears, and bedside manners or lack thereof, and be paid for it. Voyeuristic behavior is in all of us. That’s why we read literature or go to the movies. Or gossip. But I wonder if Freud’s Anna O. really felt about proto-shrinks the way my friend Mary feels about her shrink. Anna was restless, anxious about something. The master’s preoccupation was to bring her back to reality. Whose reality was never an issue, since the master knew how to detect deviant symptoms in their inchoate, embryonic stage or form. So obviously the yardstick against which deviancy was measured was inbred. The master’s amazing ability lay in his intuitive powers that connected him to the collective unconscious—that pool, you know, primordial, androgynous, human. It didn’t matter much if Anna’s gender was different. The master had access to the real Anna O—Anna Ordinary, that is—through osmosis, since the tree of life for both master and patient was our human backcloth. Knowing the primordial Anna, Anna before contamination, the master could look into his crystal ball and divine a cure for her afflictions.
Mary is right. Shrinks do really help you adjust or reinvent yourself, which doesn’t necessarily mean to integrate. Sobriquets, my mother used to quip, are never given in vain. (Think about Cratylus in creative ways.) Whoever came up with the nickname “shrink” was intuitively smart. Must have been a shrink! Shrinks help people whose egos are out of bound—horizontally or vertically—with consecrated reality. They deflate in order to recreate, thus shrinking egos in order to tailor them to their surroundings. Our society has come a long way, though. In times past, those out of bounds with reality were dealt with rather harshly. We had a bed, a symbol, a measure, a reflection of our ready maxims and matrices, indices of our world. To measure other people’s egos, we asked them to spread themselves on our model bed, forgetting that a model after all was only a trope. Those who didn’t fit, we agreed, would need a little bit of help from our enforcers. Too long for the bed would necessitate chopping off feet in order to conform to the one-size bed. Too short and you could be in for a stretching of the limbs. In our civilized society, the short-limbed are pretty much harmless. They chase their shadows and see blemishes in their silhouettes. They pray for elongated limbs, which they view as privileges.
The trouble lies with the taller ones, those who do not fit our model bed. There is something about their internal make-up that resists make ups. Since Procrustean methods are out of fashion with human decency, human progress has invented the shrink, who saws away at the rough edges of patients, fine-tuning them, without shedding real blood. The patient, recumbent, supine, feels nothing but comfort. The shrink helps society regulate its members, not itself. Well, the day will come when regulating members of society will not be needed, but eugenics is far behind us now, and we make do with what we have. Believe you me; civilized society has come a long way. No more lobotomies. No need to excise parts of a brain, when all you need can be done through a simple form of exorcism that does not beg for frankincense or other requisite paraphernalia. Yet it is here that shrinks have something in common with shamans and diviners. In both professions, the “priest” is preoccupied with getting the monkey off the back of the patient. And that absolves the old master of any guilt or malice in his attempts to have Anna O. brought back to the fold. Indeed, Mary’s putative ancestor forced the master to ponder the depth and trajectory of his profession. Looking at Mary, I concur with the old master’s epiphany that led him to equate “healing” with teaching and governing. Three impossible professions, he called them. He could have added: and their practitioners …diviners all.
“You are just like him.” The words startled me, and the voice sounded like that of my former wife.
“Hah,’ I said.
“Did you hear a word of what I was saying the last few minutes? Anyhow, I was impressed with my shrink’s interpretation of a dream I had two nights ago. She’s unbelievably marvelous. Sharp. Shall I tell you about …”
“The dream or the interpretation?”
“Can one be without the other?” she shot back.
“I don’t know…I mean, I don’t remember enough of my dreams to subject them to analysis…”
“Analysis,” she explained, her eyes dilating, “is knowledge that doesn’t know itself, nay, that doesn’t attract attention to itself. That’s why you go to a shrink.”
“But how do I remember the dream I had the night before?’
“You could if you listen to it carefully. Anyhow, my shrink told me of this Italian writer—something Malerba, I think—who collected over a one-year period his dreams in a book called Diario di un sognatore.”
She mangled the pronunciation of the words with her distinctly American twang.
“My doctor,” she continued, “is awesome. She gave me translated vignettes—get this, by her! —to help me understand how to save and savor my dreams for my sessions with her. But let me come back to the dream. Ready? Here goes:
“There’s a shack built for a red female rhino to take refuge from a white male rhino. The refuge was built by my late mother. On this particular day, I am in the shack—resting? —when suddenly the red rhino emerges out of nowhere, and tries to enter the shack. I jump to my feet and slam the door in her face. Then the white rhino bull also appears out of nowhere. Yet: now, here! The two rhinos move in circles round the shack, the red rhino running away from the bull rhino, the white furiously chasing the red. I empathize with the red rhino yet I do not or perhaps cannot help. As though in slow motion, the white rhino bull breaks into the shack, and I’m instantly confronted with danger. The bull was huffing and puffing, and snot was seething and shooting from his snout. The red rhino had suddenly disappeared from the scene. I tremble. Then in panic, I look to my left and find a black belt lying next to my leg. I grab it with a force I have never known I had inside of me, and confront the bull with it. The black belt slows him down. It had a tranquilizing effect on him. Its power was reduced to a few grunts.”
“I thought you said the white rhino was a ‘he.’ Why the change of pronouns towards the end of what sounds like an eerie and weird dream?”
“Sorry, I didn’t realize I called the bull an ‘it.’ But it was conquered. Anyhow, at that moment I was startled by a strange kind of fear. I ran the incidents and their sequence in my head. I didn’t open my eyes, as I tried to reconstruct the dream fragments carefully in my mind.”
I wanted to ask Mary about the shrink’s interpretation of the dream, but decided against it. Indeed, what would the one be without the other? The dream also had for Mary a significance I couldn’t fathom. She once said the circular movements of the red female rhino left their mark on her body.
“See,” she said, pointing to sores on her feet. “These sores are direct consequences of the red female rhino’s running for life. The sores also had—still do-- a devastating impact on my psyche. They have left their mark on my soul. Residues from that encounter will always reverberate in my head. Ironically, they will do so as the residue of a residue. Beware of what you say or do, lest they induce possessing dreams.” Then she talked about a book she once read, “Victims of Remembering or Satanic Memory, or something like that.”
“Don’t look at me. I’m not the one who read the book. The only satanic thing I read is—what’s his face’s book?
“Ruddy,” she said, with her characteristic chuckle.
“The only thing satanic about the book is the satanic greed of its author, his satanic quest for obdurate fame. Fame—light? Fire? Both? Ask Amina Saed, if she is still with Aakhiri Saa’a. Or if the Egyptian paper is still in circulation. …”
“Enough of your moralizing inanity,” she said.
Her words jolted me out of reverie. They also deflated my sense of self, my ego. What do I care about spoonos or Zamors stolen from, excuse my French, el culo del mundo?
“My shrink is too traditional a shrink for me,” she said.
“Spoono or Zamor,” I said.
“What did you say?”
“How do you mean, she is too traditional a shrink, for you? Only a while ago you were rhapsodizing about her?”
She looked at me with the stare of someone looking at you, but thinking through you. She smiled contemptuously, her upper lip twitching.
“She is too traditional in her interpretations of my dreams. I once told her of one of my other dreams. Do you want to hear it or not?”
Do I have a choice, Miss Dream Mill?
“I had a dream in which a rind opens up slowly, showing stress marks of strange proportions. The opening is inward, drilling deep into the bark. A deep hole is formed. Then in my dream I see a twisted palm with hair at the center lunge outward. The lunge is brisk, beleaguered, and methodical. Slowly the palm hangs out of the hole. It looks like a stump whose bottom is perfectly balanced in the rind. To my surprise, the palm lets out a scream, piercing, persistent. My eyes are still on the rind. The scream becomes a holler that now surrounds the landscape around me. Even though there are no mountains near or far, I hear echoes of shrieks. Slowly the echoes become one with my breathing. It seems that I’m the locus of the echoes, and the echoes are my own voice, reverberating, seeking the rind, surging outward. Then the snap of a twig sends me running for cover. The twig morphs into several moist twigs. Then I see something I cannot define. I squint. I see what looks like a birch rod on my trail, catching up to/with me. I run as fast as my legs let me. But the birch rod is gaining on me …Suddenly I hear a squeaking halt, followed by the sound of a punctured balloon. I look back and I see strange-looking abatises dotting the landscape behind me. I’m awake.”
Mary seemed excited with the telling of her dream. Her eyes were glistening, almost brimming with water. Of joy, perhaps. I wasn’t in a position to tell. It has always been difficult for me to tell apart triumphant tears from their cousin—lachrymal.
“And do you know what my shrink wrote in her notebook after hearing my dream?”
“How would you know what she said in her diary? No. You didn’t…”
“I took a peek at her notebook. I was curious to know what she really thought of the dream—not her official interpretation of it. Anyway, this is what she wrote in her notebook: ‘Brainwashed into accepting doubletalk. She basks in the sunset of obfuscations wrought on brittle minds by props with fangs of gobbledygook.’ Can you imagine that she would say some goofy stuff like that? Give me a break. I was disillusioned with my shrink’s roadmap concerning my healing. I was hoping she would turn the tables on domination, both as process and as destination.”
I was impressed with Mary’s lucidity and her clairvoyant intimations. Did she really need a shrink to shepherd her through life’s oftentimes dense fog? For no apparent reason, I remembered a joke my father once told about a patient, a female relative of ours, in a mental asylum. The doctor saw the woman separate herself from her group at their once-a-week excursion to the beach. She moved to a far corner of the shoreline and, with her hands cupped on her temples, pensively stared at the waves. Encouraged by the situation, the doctor asked the patient what it was she was thinking.
“Oh, nothing important, doctor. I was only …”
“Yes, you were only thinking, I know. But of what?”
“I was thinking … I was thinking, how many loaves of bread would be needed if the ocean were stew.”
Mary’s ability, I knew, lay in her discerning mind—that is, if she put two and two together. Which most times was not the case. Hers is a discerning mind that can pierce through any wallpaper. As she put it during our last meeting in a whisper, beyond the prying ears of strangers, “I see through its patterns their composition, their tentacles, their tattoos, their grins, and their venomous verbiage that stunts self-worth. One has to only see beyond the charade and through the intricate maze that fronts caring complexities.” Then she kept quiet for a few minutes, shook her head, and looked crestfallen. Then, like someone possessed of a smothered vision, Mary opined, “I don’t understand why my father and siblings were not called to account for my ‘shortcomings.’ After all, it takes a whole nation to raise a child.” Here was Mary unfiltered, unfettered. Then she smiled and said something to herself of which I was able to hear fragments. “A social being …reified…doll thinking …morphs into a consciousness…” That day, I felt Mary looked and sounded much better than ever before. She was cascading with confidence. I didn’t ask what my role had been in all of her sinuous, torturous taciturnity. Perhaps, her shrink had helped her break through the ramparts of oppressive Maya. Perhaps I, too, through Mary, had been helped by orphic rotundity. Otherwise how could I tell her story? No, our story? How could the one be without the other?
Indeed, shrinks are important fixtures in modern life. Like semaphores, shrinks regulate. Like semaphores, they also save lives. Unlike semaphores, however, shrinks are human, all too human.
Ali Jimale Ahmed holds an M.A. in African Area Studies and a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Poet, cultural critic, short-story writer, and scholar, Ahmed is Professor and former chair of Comparative Literature at Queens College of the City University of New York, where he also teaches for the Africana Studies Program and the Department of Classical, Middle Eastern, and Asian Languages and Cultures; he is also on the Comparative Literature faculty at the CUNY Graduate center. His books include The Invention of Somalia (1995), Daybreak Is Near: Literature, Clans, and the Nation-State in Somalia (1996), Fear Is a Cow (2002), Diaspora Blues (2005), The Road Less Traveled: Reflections on the Literatures of the Horn of Africa (2008, coedited with the late Taddesse Adera), When Donkeys Give Birth to Calves: Totems, Wars, Horizons, Diasporas (2012) and Gaso, Ganuun iyo Gasiin (a novel) (2018; roughly translated as “Kraal, Milk, Sustenance”). His poetry and short stories have been translated into several languages, including Japanese, Danish, Bosnian, Portuguese, and Turkish.