You make row upon row of Play-Doh pinch pots in your father’s consulting room while he types invoices. He uses a typewriter: it’s 1982 and computers haven’t made their domestic debut. Your father has one—a Commodore 64, with a tape deck for loading programs, and a joystick—but the parameters of its use have only extended to a game of Donkey Kong and one joyous moment when he caused a tiny neon ball of pixilation to bounce across the screen.
The typewriter clacks and you abandon the pinch pots for the sandpit. This is a room designed for children to play in, your father has told you. His job is to observe them; much like a doctor looks in your throat, holds a stethoscope to your heart. Listens. The children who come here to play have been upset in some way, and after some time here—weeks, you think; years are unimaginable, things that stretch out ad infinitum—they feel better. By watching them play, your father explains, he can interpret what it is they are feeling, as a historian can decipher hieroglyphics. Once, a child threw a spade at his head, he tells you.
You wonder if a child has ever built a castle from black Lego, though you don’t know what rage is yet; or drawn a picture of an enormous cave housing tiny people holding wilting kites. Which would be disappointment. You do know this.
At school one day a girl comes up close to you and says, quietly but urgently, ‘Your father doesn’t love you.’ You have seen her, from your living room, walk down the path to your father’s consulting room.
You’re not hurt by what she says. You don’t believe it. But you do wonder how she knows you are your father’s son. Your father’s work is private. You are not supposed to encounter the children he works with. He has explained this to you countless times, because you have asked, countless times, why the garden has a separate entry for them. You suspect he knows that you watch the children arrive, but you have enough sense not to talk about it. You know, from hearing him discuss his work with your mother over dinner—which he does a lot because your mother is also a therapist, only her work does not feature in the tableaux vivants of your imagination because her office is out of your sight in a hospital somewhere in the city—that it is very important that the children remain unknown to you. You don’t know why, though, and the little girl’s words confuse you: why can she know about you if you can’t know about her?
You feel it might be important to tell him about the little girl and what she said; but you decide not to.
When you turn fifteen your parents divorce. You are in the throes of teenage cynicism, from which vantage point it seems a deeply clichéd thing to do. And, much as you have a sense of sorrow about it, there is disappointment. You feel you have been unwittingly shoved into the growing club of the Broken Home. You decide to avoid any other clichés so, while the other members cope by smoking pot, you just drink more coffee. Also, you ask your father if you can see a therapist, which seems in some ways a cliché but in others an important forging of your responsible-adult identity in the face of your parents’ infantile collapse.
He agrees that therapy would be a good idea, and refers you to someone. You recognise her name, and think that you met her once, at a cocktail party your parents hosted. You were ten and you carried silver trays of Morello cherry tarts around the living room, greeting guests in your salesman voice. You worry that your father has somehow overstepped an important boundary in this setting up of your therapy with a therapist whom you have already met in a familial setting in your lounge room, but you let it go. He knows you better than anyone else, you decide, and he knows the best therapists.
He assures you that your new therapist is an analyst, which in your family is the equivalent of being a Jew. You are, in fact, a Jew, and there is a very short existential moment, as you sit in her waiting room examining her lithograph of a baobab tree and trying to loosen your mind, in which you feel quite alien from your therapeutic and your Jewish origins. During that moment you consider whether you might have moved into some sort of parallel universe in which you have become an actor playing the part of a Jew about to see a therapist. This, of course, is the first thing you talk about once you are in her consulting room.
When you are twenty, and you have finally worked through your anxiety about your father’s traversing of boundaries, you come to feel that you can take things with this therapist no further. Also, you want to travel. You have completed your psychology degree, which was not too different to the days you spent lying around on your parents’ Persian rug in the study leafing through their vast library of texts, only university involved examinations and mice.
For the past year you have been grappling with a growing sense that you have not left home. This despite having reached adulthood and moved to a student apartment in a suburb that, you assure your parents, is being gentrified. But still, you feel that you use your mother’s words in Scrabble, that you iron the way your father irons: shirts, then trousers, then socks. You wonder what else you do that has their shape.
You have reached that point of early adulthood where all that was once comfortingly familiar seems only homely and kitsch. Your planned trip to Europe, to trace the journey your great-grandfather took from Lithuania to England, no longer excites you. You feel you have been there.
You find yourself underlining passages in your Freud reader and graffiti-ing the margins with triple quotation marks. This feels anarchic, and you have some sense of shame about it, but it is an expression of all you have never understood—and there is more you want to know. You book a ticket to Vietnam, which seems as far from your Eurocentric childhood as possible.
Around this time you start to have panic attacks. You try to understand them in terms of your neuroses. You plunder your thoughts for repressed ideas, and pick over your dreams for latent offerings. You try to attach your anger to its rightful object, to root your obvious fear in its opposite, but the panic free-floats and only pressing your forehead to the cold bathroom floor provides relief.
You begin meditating, though you don’t tell your parents.
In Vietnam you try an ascetic existence. You find an eco-farm where you learn to plant and harvest rice, and you live on less than five dollars a day.
The panic has subsided, and the order and simplicity of your days is sublime. It seems that you need nothing more than water, bananas and rice, the sun on your back and something to read, though you are now only reading incantations. You think your panic attacks may have been because you were thinking too much, falling down a rabbit hole of ideas. It feels much better to enjoy the sound of language than to decode it.
Your only contact with home is through a letter that you write every few weeks to let your parents know you are safe. You are going along swimmingly. But then you get sick. It starts with a fever, nausea, the chills. After a day or two your joints hurt so badly you can barely move. You don’t want to move.
They take you to hospital and you spend days slipping in and out of consciousness. You have malaria, and it has thrust you into the darkest part of your mind. You dream technicolour episodes from your life, only the real ending is always twisted: your dog is run over, your arm is crushed, the spider gets you and your aeroplane crashes.
When you wake properly five days later, you eat a sandwich and take solace in a copy of National Geographic that someone has left in the waiting area. You’re too tired to follow the articles, but you run your fingers over the glossy cover again and again, remembering your father’s collection back home.
All you want is your mother.
You come home. This time you don’t ask your father for help. You don’t want to spend the next eight years rehashing the boundary issue.
You visit your GP, who asks what the problem is. You struggle to distil your experience into a paradigm that might have a solution. You decide to somatise it. You have insomnia, you say.
So when you start with your new analyst, who wears a tie and bifocals that remind you of your childhood bear, you talk about sleep for more sessions than you would like. After that you spend quite a few weeks unravelling why you found it so hard to put a stop to talking about sleep.
One day, after a session in which you explore a niggling wish that your analyst might offer you tea during your session, you feel a return of equilibrium, as though you have finally recovered from a long bout of flu.
You had planned to drive down to see your mother that night, in her new apartment by the sea, where you know that the evening will be spent playing cards and discussing the origins of your panic, but you decide this would be a waste of your new-found wellbeing. Instead, you arrange to go out drinking with your psychology buddies.
Well into the evening—though sober enough to be aware that you are drunk, and to know that in such a state you are prone to feeling that your thoughts are brilliant—you have an epiphanic moment of clarity about yourself. It happens during an argument between two of your classmates about Freud and his cultural dominance. Where you had only ever felt a strange ambivalence about this whole argument—indeed about Freud himself, such that you had never really been able either to follow or to remember his theories in any useful way—at this moment you feel so enraged by his dogma that your glass breaks in your white-knuckled hand. It is in this that you understand you have not broken free of your wish to kill your father.
Over the next few months you reassess where you are headed with your studies. You had been researching the application of cognitive behavioural therapy to children with anxiety. Now you see that you were only trying to challenge your father. You decide it would be healthier to follow a line of enquiry that does not have at its centre a hope to undermine him.
At the same time you are all too aware that you have never taken much interest in your mother’s work, which is in the field of grief. You drive down to see her and, over a bowl of bouillabaisse, you ask her about it. You want to know why she chose grief, and she tells you it was the only area of work that your father hadn’t been interested in.
This topic opens some sort of gateway in her, and you hear, for the rest of the evening, the story of your parents’ divorce. It’s a story that fills many gaps for you, and involves a degree of dysfunction and hysteria on the part of your parents that you can’t fathom. How could two people so deeply involved in work of the mind have been so nuts, you wonder.
During the drive home you have a sensation that you can’t pin down; something like invigoration, but wilder. It comes, you think, from the feeling of driving away from your mother and back to your own bed.
You finish your degree, having focused on the theory of neuroplasticity and psychoanalysis. It’s nowhere near either of your parents’ interests, and it excites you greatly, mostly for its suggestion that all the talking and thinking can cause physical change. Tangible proof of the value of all those hours on the couch.
You make what feels like only a small contribution to the emerging research, by observing the brain scans of ten people with depression undergoing analysis. You find that there is some structural alteration in the basal ganglia of these people: change at the core of their organ of motivation, as you see it.
Thanks to a popularised version of your research that is promoted to the media, you become quite famous. The New Yorker runs a feature on you, and you field calls from around the world inviting you to conferences. Your parents are proud of you. Your father sends you newspaper clippings that mention your work, underlining your name with the same authoritative stroke of his fountain pen that you know from the school reports and permission slips of your youth. Your mother prefers to read the articles to you when you visit her.
While all this is happening, you feel lonely. You are in your late thirties now and you haven’t found a woman to spend your life with. You are watching a lot of Seinfeld episodes and eating a lot of canned soup. There have been relationships, but you always mess them up. You start out feeling the rush of love, but soon you feel you are losing your sense of self. You begin to feel ambivalent about what you like to eat, or whether you enjoyed a film.
You always end it.
Ambivalence is the theme of your midlife years. Though you continue to see your analyst, much of the time you feel you have nothing to say. You can’t even riff off the idea of nothing; you find it exhausting. Week after week, you pay for the privilege of having someone in the room while you sleep. You don’t even dream.
Your research work continues, though people are less interested in changing the brain through talking these days. Someone has invented a device that can illustrate the memory that arises for a person during a specific emotional experience, and this is causing a frenzy in your field. They are calling it ‘memory sketching’.
You have an opportunity to try the device one day at a symposium. They attach nodes to your temples, and a man attempts to evoke emotion from you. Without any warning he sticks a pin in your hand, and you are pleased to see you do feel something: across the screen bounces a tiny ball of neon pixilation.
Things get bad. You feel so numb that you can’t work out what to do. You decide you have done good work in your analysis over the years. You have identified your anger towards your father; you have made use of the idea that you gravitate towards women who emulate a version of your mother that made you feel inadequate as a child. But you are still depressed. Your hard-won insight doesn’t seem to have helped you.
In the meantime the research into memory sketching is building momentum. They have now been able to isolate specific, microscopic parts of the brain that correlate to a particular memory. You read about it in all your journals, and at a lecture on its possible applications you have the fortune to meet its pioneer, a Russian woman, Dr Ostrovsky, with a double doctorate in neuroscience and agriculture.
She tells you she has been trialling a radical kind of neurosurgery on sheep: a tiny part of the animal’s brain that appears active during specific activities—eating and so on—can be isolated and removed. The sheep’s correlating memory sketch, meanwhile, seems to change once the operation is performed. It boils down to this: a particular, problematic memory might be able to be amputated from a person.
But the research is extremely limited in its application, since they cannot know what the sheep is feeling at the time of the excision, nor make an adequate interpretation of its memory sketch. It won’t go any further, she tells you, without research on humans, which at this stage involves far too many risks.
You ask for her business card.
You are forty years old, tied to nothing, and numb. The decision is not hard. You have nothing to lose.
There is a lot of paperwork to sign, of course. The world is now more litigious than ever. Courts have begun to award monetary compensation for personal hurt, and people have been claiming distress for bruised fruit and bad haircuts.
Dr Ostrovsky and her team interview you at length about your personal history, and you spend many afternoons having nodes attached to your head while being made to feel a range of emotions, from horror to joy. During this time they map a tiny area of your brain that seems to become overactive when you feel sad. The same memory sketch appears each time this part of your brain activates: it’s a face, but you have no idea who it is.
You are emerging from an anaesthetic. A team of surgeons stand above you, with Dr Ostrovsky by your side. Her face is not right. They found what they were looking for, she says. Buried deep within the folds of your amygdala, under a dream about a cave bearing ancient pinch pots, in the middle of a garden set at the end of a path where a window looks out onto a sandpit set in rough seas, there is a single memory pressing against your basolateral complex: it’s the little girl bearing the message she divined from your father.
They excised the memory, but it turns out sheep are altogether different from humans. In humans, Dr Ostrovsky tells you, memories are symbiotic; they depend on one another. They got the memory they were after, but that memory was holding up another one, and so on, and by removing it they have caused your glial cells, the ones that provide structure, to collapse like a stack of dominoes. They have, unwittingly, undone you.
You are altered, though you can’t say how. The people around you are looking at each other, and you recognise panic in their movements. Dr Ostrovsky is saying something. She is saying ‘sorry’. You can see her lips move but you have forgotten sound. She is saying sorry over and over again, and you know you should feel sad or angry or scared, but you feel like laughing. You try to remember your father’s voice, your mother’s hands. It is like trying to hold water. You feel only pleasure as you go.