The Gods

We were short on bibles at our house, but we still had religion. Instead of a cross or a mezuzah, we had a living room shelf crammed with thumbed-through Theodor Reik tomes, next to our unread set of the Harvard Classics. After Mom and Dad fought, I’d see their tense faces seeking an uplifting passage in one of their autographed copies, Reik’s Masochism in Modern Man, perhaps, or Psychology of Sex Relations. My mother so prided herself on these books, which had been there since before I was born, that she grew angry when I accidentally dislodged one. For a long time, I didn’t know who this Reik guy was, but I knew that my parents bowed down to him. I thought we got those books from our friend, “Aunt” Berkeley, of the tight smile, iron gray bun, sensible shoes, and string of pearls. The light shone in Dad’s eyes when he talked about her. I could almost hear a heavenly choir.

My father’s psychoanalyst, Dr. Ruth P. Berkeley, worshipped Theodor Reik, her own psychoanalyst, contributing to a Festschrift for him in 1953 and writing gushing reviews of his books. Born poor on an isolated farm in a remote Georgia hamlet, Dr. Berkeley could claim a pure gold analytic pedigree reaching back to Sigmund Freud, who analyzed Karl Abraham, who analyzed Theodor Reik. Hickory-nut pioneer all over her homespun face, Ruth Berkeley could trade in her yahoo Bible belt identity for that of Freudian sophisticate.   

Like many Southerners coming north, my father remained suffused with a nostalgia that thickened his accent. His favorite film, seen forty-three times, was Gone with the Wind. He grew up among hellfire preachers who urged parents to break hairbrushes over children, and my cousins were always readying themselves for Doomsday, one sure sign of which was Comet Kohoutek. Arriving in New York on the eve of the Second World War, Dad attempted to enlist. Because the army psychiatrist classified him 4-F, irredeemably unstable, and because the New York City Police Department turned him down, he converted to the local religion, psychoanalysis.  

As Dr. Berkeley’s first patient, my father proved a delight. Like her, he appreciated grits, knew where in New York to buy them, and how to cook them. A homely menopausal fifty-three to Dad’s handsome thirty-something, Dr. Berkeley enjoyed talking recipes: The main ingredient of ham with red-eye gravy—a delicacy she was to cook for our family on several occasions—was, the two of them liked to repeat, co-oh-oke. They didn’t hold with folks who made it with coffee. Like Dad, Dr. Berkeley could not go home again—and like him, she was homesick.  

The two had in common their sense of exile, lovers of Manhattan fated to be oddballs by virtue of their highly noticeable accents. Dad with his prissy ways and his inability to chat or joke without a stiff drink and a cigarette, Dr. Berkeley, her thin, leathery lips looking pursed even when smiling, could share merry, but not sexual moments.Somehow, it was revealed that Dad’s prophet was getting a divorce. The implosion of Dr. Berkeley’s marriage dovetailed with the U.S. Army’s rejection of him.

“Marry me!” he said.

“You know I can’t do that. Lie back down on the couch and say what comes to mind.”  

I can imagine a sigh escaping. If only she might lie down beside him! I wasn’t a fly on the wall in that session, but I cannot remember a time when I did not know Dr. Berkeley and her daughter Laura. Dr. Berkeley made visitations at Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving, wearing her jovial smile and silk print dresses. She impressed me as a benign household saint preventing my parents from fighting. When she was around they acted like toddlers on their best behavior, eager for Mommy’s attention. Every Halloween, the whole family went on a pilgrimage to “Aunt” Berkeley’s cottage in Valley Forge, New York, to see the fall foliage, and then to visit Tice Farms in New Jersey, where she treated us to pumpkins with day-glow eyes and turnip noses. We gorged on fresh-squeezed apple cider and hot fried donuts.  

When I looked at photos taken of Dad during the time he first entered analysis with Dr. Berkeley, I deduced that he must have been a real temptation. A dashing young blade in a white suit, those long-fingered hands of his poised elegantly over the keyboard or casually lighting a cigarette, he must have looked like the kind of guy she could never get. Like many a patient, he fell in love with the messiah. Like many a high priestess, she didn’t grant his wish.  

Yet they were made for each other. They must have known it. Now that she was getting her divorce, Dr. Berkeley let him know that her honeymoon had taken place in Russia during Stalin’s worst purges. Dad knew that her ex-husband hailed from New York (with Southern Harry on her couch, well, meat loves salt.) He knew that her ex-husband often threw the daughter, Laura, into closets, locking the girl in. Meanwhile, the ex was busily firing off letters about the peace movement to Norman Cousins and Linus Pauling, and organizing protests to stop nuclear war. Dad was invoked to give little Laura piano lessons. Interposing her daughter’s body between herself and Harry had the same effect on Dr. Berkeley’s longings as Phaedra’s interdict against speaking Hippolytus’s name. Decreeing that Dad’s nervousness and insomnia must have originated in his toddlerhood, when his mother, wishing to prevent another pregnancy, forced him to breastfeed until he was over five years old, Dr. Berkeley ordained that psychoanalytic treatment alone could not save him. 

Forestalling the desire to become pregnant by him herself, she handed him containers of little red Seconals and big yellow Nembutals, which took pride of place on his dresser the entire time I was growing up. I can still remember the pop of those plastic lids, the click of the containers being set back on the wooden dresser. Dad gulped his pills with gin and tonics before settling down to sleep, a nightcap pulled over his head, a transistor radio singing under his ear. 

“She had the most beautiful eyes,” Dad told me years later, after the doctor finally died in her mid-nineties.

Around the time that Dr. Berkeley was putting the finishing touches on that homage to Theodor Reik in the Festschrift for his sixty-fifth birthday, along came another patient. This new patient, a very pretty woman, could not figure out why, at thirty-one, she remained unmarried. A clue appeared in the form of a “funny smell” that she noticed from “down there.”  Concerned that she was suffering from a dread disease, she went to her gynecologist, who pulled out a tampon that had lain ripening for several weeks. 

“Isn’t that funny?” I was asked, over fifteen years later when Mom was prodding me to laugh at this episode. I was not laughing.  

“How old were you when your gynecologist found that tampon?”  I asked.  

“Oh, around thirty.”

I was fourteen years old when this conversation with my mother took place, and my response—having just been initiated into psychoanalysis—was to give her, for her birthday, a copy of Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, then a bestseller, which my analyst had dismissed with a wave of his hand and the following comment, in his heavily Viennese-accented English:  “Jong writes well of her fucking.”  

I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that I’d been the only one to hear about my mother’s festering tampon. Mom did tell me that she and her father were “chummy,” volunteering that he put his hand on her bottom and between her legs. She said she never talked with Dr. Berkeley about him, “because my papa was wonderful.” Dr. Berkeley and she did talk, a few years before my birth, about how much Mom longed to find a husband.

Isn’t it always the Madonna who lights the way? My grandmother preceded Mom as a devotee of Dr. Berkeley. Uplifted by the belief that the good doctor would find a way to marry off her daughter, grandma quit treatment. The doctor did not disappoint. 

Mom’s phone rang.

“Could you please come in for a session to discuss your mother?” 

“Of course,” said Mom.

“That would be helpful,” Dr. Berkeley told her. 

Mom assumed that the phone call was a ploy to address her own unmarried state, a condition that she herself considered critical.   

“You know, I felt like an old maid two times over,” Mom told me when I was fourteen.

“But how old were you when you went to Aunt Berkeley?”  I asked.

“Over the hill!  I was past thirty-one. I thought I’d never have children,” Mom confessed.

Statistically speaking, according to the women’s magazines of the day, her single status was, in 1953, an illness. Only the deformed, the deviant, or the physically feeble woman remained unwed. Besides, photos reveal Mom as a knockout, her long brown hair twisted into a coronet, sparkling blue eyes, rosy cheeks, and girlish smile. 

Two years into Mom’s psychoanalysis, Dr. Berkeley threw a buffet supper party to which she invited her patients. She seated Mom beside a slim, stiff young man who could barely speak. 

“He was handsome, but pale, almost white, like someone who’d been inside too long,” my mother told me, making me think of Boo Radley. “He got rosier and livened up after he finished one scotch and started sipping another,” she added.

Knocking back his third, he drawled, “My, you’re sweet!” 

Mom hadn’t said a word. The skinny fellow clutching the drink was, after all, a man—and he was looking at her. She peeped into his eyes, trying to remember that line you were supposed to use. You were supposed to bat your own eyes while asking, “Do your eyes bother you?” When the man said, “No,” you had to lean forward, smile, gaze into his eyes, and breathe: “They bother me.”

But Mom could not bring herself to do this. Lowering her eyes, she let Dr. Berkeley introduce her. I have often imagined the scene:  alcoholic, paranoid Dad sitting on the analytic couch beside girlish, frightened Mom, raising a glass to anything but insight. They had absolutely nothing in common but Dr. Berkeley. Throwing together two patients, a virginal thirty-three year old with a fortysomething penniless piano player—what else could a psychoanalyst do when she couldn’t get rid of the urge to sleep with the prince herself?

“I thought of Dr. Berkeley as a fairy godmother bringing your dad and me together,” my mother remembered. Three months after Dr. Berkeley’s buffet supper, the wedding took place. Dr. Berkeley’s daughter, Laura, was thrilled to be a bridesmaid. In a note, Laura exclaimed that she had known my father “so long,” and that “going on that trip” with my mother “made her a part of the family too.” Going on that trip? Did my mother take a trip with her psychoanalyst?  Did the psychoanalyst’s daughter, Laura, tag along?

I have the photographs.

While my mother enjoyed a two-week tour of the American West with Dr. Berkeley and Laura, riding donkeys down the Grand Canyon and circumnavigating giant redwoods, my father, back in New York, sent lovelorn telegrams. 

A wedding photograph of Dr. Berkeley posing between the bride and groom is a theatrical tableau: Dad stares at Mom as if she might run away. Mom clutches Dr. Berkeley’s arm. Act Two consisted in Theodor Reik turning up during the honeymoon. Tucked inside our copy of Reik’s Of Love and Lust I found a note written by my mother explaining that on their second day at Lake Minnewaska, she and Dad entered the hotel veranda, and “Dr. Reik” was there.  Reik jumped up and addressed me:  ‘You—you are not just beautiful—you are delicious!’ My mother added that “of course” she and Dad invited Reik to join them at dinner. 

Meanwhile, Dr. Berkeley was building a temple in the form of the Theodor Reik Clinic for Mental Health, mustering a number of patients, including my parents, who proved happy to make and haul bricks for this particular pyramid. By 1955, both were listed in The Third Ear, a newsletter named after Reik’s term for intuitive psychoanalytic listening, as active committee members in the founding of the Clinic. Mom offered her paintings to be raffled off, and Dad was on the fundraising committee. They passed out tracts proclaiming:


“Walk down the street! Count the first sixteen people you pass.  One of them is sick . . . mentally sick. Walk on, and count four more.  One of the twenty will be sent to a mental hospital some day. Walk into a school and count ten children.  One of them is “emotionally maladjusted.” 

             This is America 1955


Move over, Joe McCarthy! You got nothing on psychoanalysts, who are just starting to cover your turf, exploiting the well-worn savior mentality of evangelical Christianity: 


When we know that whatever ails so large a community can multiply—through close association with family . . . school . . .business . . . and approach the proportions of a plague, a national threat. We must, now, make available to the community all the new knowledge, the new Skills of our medical, psychological, and social sciences: To prevent . . . and to help . . . Because we are a democratic republic.-


It’s all in there. Psychoanalysis would save America. No wonder Dad, fleeing that shameful 4-F classification from the U.S. Army, wanted to join this brave new tabernacle that would save souls. Was it any wonder that my mother devoted herself to Reik, the father figure who interrupted her honeymoon, ignored her husband, and flirted with her, telling her she was “delicious?” Mom had after all told me—never Dr. Berkeley—that when her father put his hands under her skirt and touched her, “I never felt threatened, but I did stop him when I had my period because I was afraid he’d get his hands all bloody.”

My parents endured a marriage that kept their psychoanalyses going for twenty-five years. Dad threw objects at walls, opened and slammed shut dresser drawers, and drank heavily, while Mom burst into tears daily. Having children, they both believed, would improve things, so they produced me first and then my brother. Family photos show Dr. Berkeley dandling me, age about four months, on her knee. Dr. Berkeley encouraged the two of them to tattle on each other in separate sessions, telling Mom that Dad needed his drink, while advising Dad that Mom felt less anxious when she gave people presents. Dr. Berkeley’s colleague, who started treating me when I turned fourteen—puberty having ritually designated the time to begin analysis—mentioned to my mother that my father would “never change.” This had never occurred to Mom.  She wondered why Dr. Berkeley hadn’t indicated that. (The very next day, Mom applied for a quickie divorce in Haiti.) 

Throughout their marriage, Dr. Berkeley remained oblivious to psychological oddities so blatant that I could not help but notice them, even as a distracted teenager. Giggling, Mom told me that before she met Dad she had never heard the word “shit.” When Dad used it at a cocktail party, she stopped him and asked him to define the term. She also believed—“isn’t that silly?” she asked me, that the word “pedophile” meant “a silly person.” She came from a long line of silly persons, but I didn’t discover that immediately, and Dr. Berkeley never stumbled over the fact.   

I asked no questions when Dr. Berkeley recommended as my analyst her colleague, Dr. Oskar Sternbach, every inch of whose office was crammed with Biedermeier furniture and Wiener Werkstatte sculpture. He wasn’t a doctor, but I didn’t find that out until later.  

The place oozed Gemütlichkeit, at least at first glance. Sternbach practiced out of his apartment. When you entered the waiting room, you saw French doors just beyond his white noise machine. You knew that beyond those doors lay the kitchen, because you were immediately engulfed in whiffs of roasting Schweinebraten redolent of onion-garlicky gravy.  Or you were swimming in aromas of baking sugary-raisiny Gugelhupf. Sometimes I smelled what he was having for dinner right after I stepped out of the elevator.

“You know, I was analyzed by Paul Federn,” Dr. Sternbach announced to me during one of my first sessions.  

My embarrassment at not knowing the name must have conveyed itself, for Dr. Sternbach immediately pointed to his very crammed bookshelf.  There, in a place of honor, surrounded by small oval family photographs arranged so as to resemble admiring worshippers, sat a bronze bust of Federn, of the bald head and pained expression.

“Now he was loyal to Freud!” Sternbach told me, waving a forefinger. So loyal, I learned, that Federn became known as the “Apostle Paul.” Like Theodor Reik and like Sternbach’s other psychoanalyst, Ludwig Jekels, another name that my analyst seemed grieved to find I had not heard, Federn was among the Viennese inner circle of Sigmund Freud himself. Oskar Sternbach could trace his lineage back to God, his sainthood to his Jewish refugee status. Oh when the saints come marching in! Ultimately Dr. Sternbach encouraged me to purchase a Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, and to read and study it, which I did, underlining passages and inking in marginal comments. 

              When Dr. Sternbach asserted that Federn and Jekels “were much closer to Freud” than Reik—whose name provoked a sniff—I understood that my analyst was so high in the pantheon that he could look down at the balding heads of these archangels. Reik’s book, Listening with the Third Ear, was old stuff. But Dr. Sternbach had a Theodor Reik story up his sleeve for one of my first sessions:  

“My wife and I invited Dr. Reik for dinner,” he declaimed, “and our daughter, Susy, she was seven years old,” he added. “Susy stared at Reik all through dinner before asking him where his third ear was!” He laughed loudly.

I was in the presence of a high priest if not a magician, surrounded by Dr. Sternbach’s gold-limned books and Egyptian figurines, his couch enshrined in a bright red cloth, Aztec designs snaking through it. He told a story of a woman patient complaining, when she ran into him outside on a wintry day, “God doesn’t wear an overcoat.” Idols abounded: huge mahogany African masks boasting gigantic, phallic noses and large-lipped mouths practically jumped off the walls. A somber portrait of Freud, cigar in hand, hung on the wall above his phone. Dr. Sternbach’s office, with its storm windows fifteen flights up and low hum of that white noise machine in the waiting room, seemed quiet as a shrine. Between the silence and the exotic art, I thought of it as a vast improvement over home, what with daily screaming matches between my parents. I felt a certain unquestioning loyalty, worshipping his décor. I did not think to wonder why, as my “analysis” went on, he got so angry so often.  

“You are an idiot!” he yelled one day when I came in worried because I’d raised my hand in class and the teacher hadn’t liked my answer.  

His behavior was familiar—my father often shouted at me, sometimes throwing things, and it did not occur to me at the time that not everybody behaved that way.   

“Your mother has a constant need to be freeing herself,” Dr. Sternbach observed one day. His oracular pronouncements from behind the couch on which he insisted I lie mostly terrified me, although occasionally they shocked me and once in a while I laughed. This particular interpretation stayed with me because I enjoyed the implied criticism of my mother. He didn’t know her, I realized. If you were a drunk lying on your side with a few flies buzzing over your smelly body, my mother would love you. She would find you and she would love you. You’d be sleeping peacefully in a subway car, and she’d come up from behind, tap you somewhere inappropriate, and say, “Oh?  Excuse me? Do you need anything?” Sometimes she held out a dollar 

bill or a chocolate bar, and cheered, as if for a favorite team, when it was accepted.

              I thought that Dr. Sternbach was encouraging me to say what I felt, so I went ahead and did so.

“When we walk down the street she starts doing high kicks like some chorus girl. It’s always where there are a lot of people around and they turn and stare. She does that all the time and it really is weird.  It’s embarrassing.”

“Do you know why you dislike your mother?”

I sat up on the couch and twisted my head around to see his expression, which looked ominous. I felt thrust off-balance. He seemed to be saying there was something I had missed about why I disliked my mother. I’d been around long enough to figure out why: she expected me to admire or reassure her all the time, liked to pretend that she was the little girl and I was the mean mother—I was just getting warmed up talking about how she couldn’t cook, mixed food the way she mixed paints, let my father—

Dr. Sternbach interrupted me.  

“Do you know why?” he repeated.

I fell silent, since he wanted another answer and I didn’t have it.  

“Because you are so dependent on her!”

So I was wrong to be dependent on my mother? Or to want to be? She was anything but dependable. I hadn’t figured out the source of his rage: Why was I not dependent on him? 

Dr. Sternbach pronounced me “severely disturbed,” but whenever I had the temerity to question anything he said, he called me “schizophrenic.” He arranged for a clinical psychologist to run tests, waving her five pages of single-spaced small print at me but never letting me see it, reading snippets, like the one that said I might be “salvageable.” I was alarmed, since my brother held conversations with persons whom neither I nor anyone else could see or hear—when he wasn’t doing drugs or setting fires in his room. Meanwhile, my father’s face reddened, his eyes bulging whenever he insisted that “the Communists” were bugging our light bulbs. The thought that I was like them—that I would be suffering the kind of delusions that plagued my father and brother—if not my diagnosis on the Rorschach, the Thematic Apperception, the Figure Drawings and the Bender-Gestalt, ensured my allegiance to “Dr.” Sternbach. But he was really only a J.D. from the University of Vienna who once admitted that he had nearly flunked out of the Columbia University School of Social Work. He dictated that he was the only one who could save me—“salvage you!”—he said.

“It must not be nice to be so young and so crazy,” he said, and similar expressions, on numerous occasions.  I allowed him to tell me “you are psychotic” for the next twenty-five years, rarely registering that he shouted this routinely whenever my ideas deviated even slightly from his own. The Wechsler-Bellevue test had after all proved that my I.Q. was barely average. A withering look on his face, Dr. Sternbach made a point of divulging that score, wondering aloud whether I were capable of going to college.

After one of many break-ups with increasingly older, increasingly Jewish men I dated into my thirties, Dr. Sternbach asked me to join him on a vacation.

“Freud took patients on vacations!” he yelled. 

 I spent thousands I couldn’t afford to accompany him and his wife to a spa in Bad Gastein, Austria, where he resurrected himself by climbing to the top of the waterfall from which Jews were thrown during the Third Reich and posthumously addressing Hitler:  “I am here, but you are gone!”

On my second such vacation with Dr. Sternbach and his wife to Switzerland, however, luck flung itself my way like a thunderbolt thrown personally by Zeus. Hiking in the Berner Oberland, I met an old friend with whom I’d long been in love. When I told Dr. Sternbach, he insisted that this man—now my husband and the father of our three children—did not love me, or even if he did, would certainly not marry me: “You are a very difficult girl,” he intoned.  

He said he would attend our wedding, did not appear, but wanted to see me. When I was five months pregnant with my first child, my husband and I agreed to meet him, again in Switzerland, a seven-hour drive from our home in Bavaria. Dr. Sternbach rolled up in a wheelchair near the foot of the Jungfrau, just as I was expressing surprise at seeing Chasidic Jews pedaling up the mountainside.  

“Those awful people, the Jews!” he declaimed, addressing my husband, who is German. “Really, we should throw them out of here.” He grinned expansively and regaled us with how he had, as an Austrian Jewish lawyer in 1938, gone through Adolf Eichmann’s emigration office, Zentralstelle für jüdische Auswanderung, right after the Anschluss, leaving behind, he said, a girlfriend with whom he was never reunited and a sister who died in the Warsaw Ghetto. Glancing again at my husband, Dr. Sternbach raised his arm in a Nazi salute.  

Heil Hitler!” he yelled. Then he took his arm back down, but not for long. He turned to me with a confidential air, ignoring my husband, drawing closer to me in his wheelchair, and wagged a finger in my face like a schoolmaster.  

“Always remember, your husband must be your Führer. Sieg Heil!” he announced, his arm jerking up at the elbow again, as if he were Hitler himself reviewing the troops. He looked very pleased with himself. 

My husband is an understanding man, but by this time his face was a pale green, and he cast me a wounded glance before shrugging, grinning, and putting his arm around me so that we could face Dr. Sternbach together.  

“Look, darling,” my husband smiled, after the café mit schlag, after the goodbyes, “I could have told him that my grandfather nearly got sent to Dachau because he wouldn’t join the Nazis, or I could have invented a Satanic, cigar-chomping Heinrich Himmler. Don’t you think your Dr. Sternbach would have loved me as much either way?”

The question thrust me back to the moment when I’d lain in tears on Sternbach’s analytic couch, my ears ringing:  

Listen to me!  Doctor’s orders!  I already told you he’ll never marry you! And of course it’s too late for children.” 

It chilled me to think that I could have gone on believing in Sternbach for the rest of my life.

He lived long enough to meet my first child, who crawled up and anointed his feet with drool.  The stricken look on Sternbach’s face was sweet revenge, but I’ve never rid myself of him completely.  That would take an exorcism.

Melissa Knox’s essays have been published in Brain, Child and Gravel, her poetry in The Mom Egg Review and Non-Binary Review. She teaches American literature and culture at the University of Duisburg-Essen, and writes a blog She is working on a memoir, one chapter of which will be an extended version of “The Gods.”