A Serious Woman

Reflections on a life in feminism and psychoanalysis

By Vivian Gornick

Photos By Adrianna Glaviano

A photo of Vivian Gornick, a woman with short white hair and sharp blue eyes, wearing a black sweater

I had known from the age of eight that I wanted to write; writing was fun and the teacher always praised my compositions. Within 10 years I knew that writing was not play, it was work; and work, I had come to know, was the basis for a serious life, a thing I thought I dearly wanted. Yet I grew into a compulsive talker who could not stay put at the desk for more than one hour in 24. There were days, even weeks, when I didn’t sit down at the desk at all. In short, although I moralized endlessly about living a serious life, it seemed I could not take the act of working seriously enough to do it. On the other hand, neither could I give up the hope that eventually I would. For years, I lived an untethered existence of half efforts, produced half-arrived-at pieces, and walked around waiting for my life to begin.

In my late twenties I fell in love with and married a man with whom I’d gone to school. Things looked promising. I had a sympathetic partner, a sufficiency of time and money, and marriage to anchor me. Now, I thought. Now I will work. Wrong. As always, I sat staring at the blank page for days on end, the fog in my head filling the room, now and then pecking out some small essay or review. So what did I do? I got a job teaching freshman English at a nearby college; that way I could complain that I had no time to write! In a few years, looking around for more reasons to explain why I felt like a leaf in the wind, I concluded that I had married the wrong man. Soon enough I was divorced and married to a second husband. Now I would surely work. Wrong again. 

When in 1970 I caught up with the women’s movement, it seemed to me that at long last the big picture was coming clear. Those early feminists had much to say, but the thing they said that most struck home with me was this: the idea that men by nature take their brains seriously and women by nature do not is a social belief not an inborn reality, one that serves the culture and determines the whole of our lives. At last, I understood the root cause of my problem. It wasn’t my fault or the fault of my husbands that I couldn’t work; it was ingrained sexism that was at fault. Surely, now! Wrong again. An internal conversation began after the second divorce that went something like this:

A photo of a woman with her cat by a window with a skyline of New York behind her

“Everyone thinks you’re a liberated woman,” I would say to myself, “act like one!”

“But I’m not a liberated woman,” I would answer myself. “All I’ve done is announce that I’m not liberated, that’s as far as I’ve come.”

Every day now I felt the distance widening between the simplicity of my rhetoric and the entanglement of my emotional will. Chekhov’s famous words began to haunt me. “Others made me a slave,” he had said, “but I must squeeze the slave out of myself drop by drop.” It was the drop by drop that made me despair. 

Dr. F. was a small, neat woman in late middle age, a German-Jewish Freudian analyst who wore an air of gravity that was both reassuring and off-putting. On the one hand I appreciated the calm it exuded, on the other I feared I wouldn’t hold her interest. Ultimately, neither of these postures prevailed. That first hour I talked a blue streak while Dr. F. listened quietly, only speaking close to the end of the session when she said, “You have a lot of problems with men. I think that’s what we should work on.” 

To my own surprise, I grew angry. It had never before occurred to me to challenge a cultural authority, but feminism had given me a new kind of chutzpah. “Problems with men!” I sputtered. “Is that what you think this is all about?”

She blinked visibly. “What do you think it’s all about?”

“It’s about me not working! That’s what this is all about.”

“Oh, I see,” she said softly. “You don’t want to marry the Great Man, you want to be the Great Man.” She sounded, for all the world, as though she had discovered my dirty little secret. Once again, I surprised myself.

“You say something like that to me again,” I replied, “and I’m out of here.” 

We were together for a goodly number of years, Dr. F. and I, with me regularly making what I thought of as a corrective disturbance over some conventional theorizing of hers, and she just as regularly waiting out the storm before returning to some ground-level conviction about what would secure my basic well-being. True, each time around the argument between us took on more nuance, but still… 

This was the 1970s, not a good time for women or gays in psychotherapy, especially not when the therapy was classically Freudian. If you were gay, in those years, the analysis concentrated on converting you to “normalcy” — that is, weaning you from homosexuality, which was considered a life-destroying aberration. If you were a woman who wanted to work more than she wanted to be a mother, the analysis concentrated on weaning you from those unnatural discontents that only placed you in competition with your man. Either way, the goal was to free us — both women and gays — of the neuroses that prevented us from becoming sufficiently conflict-free to function as contented and productive citizens. Whether the therapists knew it or not, they were keepers of a culture that people like me were now rebelling against. The possibility that they might actually endorse ideas that threatened the status quo was literally unthinkable.

A photo of a woman's profile while she speaks on a corded house phone, abstract drawings hang on the wall behind her

Dr. F. was an intelligent woman. She was also wise. Above all, she was honest. She did listen to me, and she did understand that I was struggling to make terms different from the ones that only yesterday I probably would have subscribed to (I hated being called an “unnatural” woman), but I had presented her with what at the time I’m sure she considered a personality disorder, one whose social defiance she felt compelled to treat as a symptom not a cause. She did realize that something important was happening out there, in the world beyond her office, and that I, and others like me, were harbingers of coming change, but she could not easily abandon her professional sense of what it was that we were trying to rescue from my recalcitrant subconscious.

Naturally, I thought the problem between us lay entirely with Dr. F. Whenever I felt my wheels spinning — my words failing to gain purchase, thereby wasting the hour — it was never because of my emotional stubbornness, it was always because she wouldn’t get off the Freudian dime. Once, in an anguish of frustration, I cried out, melodramatically but really meaning it, “I am at the bottom of a black hole, with you sitting up there, on top. You want to send down a rope to help pull me out, but you’re afraid I’ll drag you down with me, so you’re sitting so far back the rope can’t reach me!” 

Nonetheless, the analysis went on and on and on — and then it went on some more. For the longest time, Dr. F.’s devotion to Freudian catechisms paired with my noisy belligerence made our hours together simply an exercise in reinforcing our analytical impasse. As for me, I balked, I bickered, I sneered. Especially, I sneered. Embedded in the analyst-patient relationship was an authority I felt honor-bound to cut down to size. For starters, there was the question of money. I quarreled incessantly over Dr. F.’s prices. They were ridiculous. Way too high. After all, who was she? Where was it written that she should make more than a teacher or a social worker? (“Interesting,” she remarked blandly, “you want to see me as a social worker.”) And then I’d spend weeks arguing about the demand that I pay for sessions I didn’t attend. In no comparable agreement, I insisted, did such a lack of equality exist between the partners. If we didn’t meet, why should I pay? She got nowhere reasoning with me. Finally, exasperated, her voice went flat and she said, “Listen, this is not piece work we’re doing here. You are buying a hunk of my time. Whether you use it or not, you must pay for what you have bought.” That brought me up short. It was perhaps the first time I’d felt the delay of analytic insight inherent in my quarrelsome nit-picking. 

During these years in psychotherapy I did have a number of affairs — each one lasting about six months — and in essence they all helped Dr. F. maintain her early belief that my inability to sustain a stable relationship with a man was the thing we were aiming to correct for. When I fell in love with a married man old enough to be my father, she was certain it was my way of avoiding an appropriate relationship. 

A photo a white floor to ceiling bookshelf filled with books

One day there came an hour in which I was concentrating on how overdue a piece of mine was, and how frustrating it was that the pressure my own procrastination had put me under still did not force me to work steadily. Before I knew it the conversation had veered toward an unsuccessful date I’d reported on the week before last — as though that had been the real subject of this hour all along, with my whining about my dilatory work habits only an obfuscation. 

I stopped talking, and stared at Dr. F. Then, very slowly, I said, “Y’know. Sometimes I have the feeling that you think we’re going to end with me one half of a happy couple who meets up with two other happy couples on Friday nights for dinner somewhere on the Upper West Side.”

“Would that be so bad?” Dr. F. asked.

“That,” I said, “is never going to happen.” 

Now she stared at me. Suddenly, and for the first time, I felt that she was seeing me as I saw myself, understanding me as I understood myself, and (to her everlasting credit), was no longer going to sacrifice me to theory. She was prepared to help me become what I wanted to become: a woman set on inhabiting a serious life. Then and there the analysis turned a remarkable corner.

During the years that I worked as a journalist, I proved to be an exceptionally good note-taker. I had an almost photographic memory, could listen to a subject for two hours without taking down a word, then leave the subject, go sit in a coffee shop and write up the conversation, almost verbatim. If I didn’t do that, I’d wait until I got home and then write down 80 percent of what had been said. If I didn’t do that I still never lost the feel of the interview. 

The problem was never with my preparations for writing a piece; the problem remained with my actually writing it. Time passed with seemingly little or no progress on that score. The brilliant notes that I had so scrupulously taken would more often than not remain sealed in a notebook I could hardly ever make myself open. For years, it seemed, I sat in the chair opposite Dr. F., complaining bitterly about another lost day in which I could not think, could not find a way to frame the essay, could not get from one sentence to the next, much less one paragraph to the next; above all, could not remember what on earth had made me want to sign on in the first place for this extremely boring piece I couldn’t wait to get rid of. Meanwhile, Dr. F. would annoy me no end by repeatedly asking, “Have you read your notes? What do the notes suggest? Surely, the notes must be of some help.” 

For the longest time I could not grasp that she saw the notes as my raw intelligence at work and my failure to consult them my ongoing refusal to give it shape and content. Once she actually said to me, “Your books are your babies. If you don’t want to give birth to them, I’d say your claim on a serious life is a sham.” Nonetheless, she went on asking me, session after session, if I’d taken a look at my notes.

For years, I repeated those behaviors that continued to compel me against my conscious will, and for years Dr. F. called me on it. One of the things I also did regularly was play-act a progress that was apparent to no one but myself. Periodically I’d come into the office and announce, “Now, for the first time I see….” and repeat, emotional amnesiac that I was, word for word something that I’d said a number of times before, while Dr. F. neither flinched, nor backed down, nor failed to pull me back from the edge. One day, however, her tone suddenly grew sharp and she said to me, “Listen, you’re out on the street, you’ve reached the curb, you need to cross the street. I’m standing on the opposite curb, urging you on. I can call out to you. I can hold out my hand to you. But you must cross the street by yourself!” It was just that she was tired. She never actually lost heart or patience.

A photo of Vivian Gornick at a dining table with some papers spread out, and in front of abstract paintings

The value of the analysis lay in that extraordinary devotion both Dr. F. and I had to our unyielding effort to make a dent in the defensive armor that inevitably surrounds the damaged self. In time I came to understand how penetrating was that damage, how respectful one needed to be of its shocking refusal to give up its territory. The repetitiousness itself came to assume a ceremonial character, the ceremoniousness in turn coming to feel metaphorical. If I myself could not easily part with everyday neurosis, how could I expect the culture to rid itself overnight of social convictions that had held sway for centuries? Drop by drop, indeed.

A photo of an organized but busy workspace, including a mac computer, posters on the wall, vintage photos on a self

One day not too long ago I sat down at the desk, determined to sit there until at least one thought clarified itself sufficiently to serve the essay I was writing. I failed. Next day I sat down again. Again, I failed. Three days later, same thing. But the day after that the fog cleared out of my head. I solved a simple writing problem, one that had seemed intractable, and a stone rolled off my chest. Once again, and perhaps for the 4000th time since leaving analysis, I thanked the daily effort, my gratitude profuse. I saw what by now I’d seen many times before: It wasn’t the writing itself that was everything, it was sitting down to it every day that was everything. It’s the miserable daily effort that is everything. It is when I am honoring it that I become a woman still set on inhabiting a serious life.

Vivian Gornick is a writer and critic in New York City. Her most recent books are Unfinished Business and Taking a Long Look.