Lake Effect, Spring 2015, Volume 19: from "If I Were You, Honey, I'd Run, Not Walk"

Megan Thygeson, from "If I Were You, Honey, I’d Run, Not Walk"

My father’s stock response to every ill was, “If I were you, honey, I’d run, not walk.” The destination was understood: to the nearest psychiatrist.

Freud ruled the roost in my family of origin and my father—a liberal Jew—was really a proselytizer in disguise, though it was not religion he was pushing. He wanted us all to lie prostrate like he did and spill our innermost secrets to an impassive stranger—week after week—our own personal Day of Atonement. A day did not go by without my father using the word “psychosomatic” because, according to my father, illness was aggravated by inner turmoil. Physical pain was particularly suspicious. My siblings and I did not have the luxury of contracting a common cold, headache, or virus without having to trace the root cause stemming from our devilish subconscious. We were trained to constantly ask ourselves, What am I avoiding? Our father reinforced this with statements like, “Repressed feelings will always come back and bite you in the ass.”

The couch my father frequented during our childhood—sometimes as often as five days a week—was not a couch of beer and peanuts and slapping fellow sports aficionados on the back shouting, “Go Team!” My father would lie on his back in an office of sleek Swedish lines (as I imagined it) recounting his miserable childhood, which had all the hallmarks of an Oedipal snare. In a nutshell, he had a smothering Jewish mother who loved him too much and a stern, withholding father that my father subconsciously wanted to replace. 

Coached by his psychoanalyst, my father ran with the Freudian ball, casting himself in the role of Sophocles’ King Oedipus, the brilliant riddle solver who, upon learning he had slain his father and taken his mother for a lover, blinded himself. There were sound pathophysiologic reasons for my father’s loss of vision in his twenties. Notwithstanding, he personalized the Oedipal drama, accepting his fate as the tragic Greek hero who tried to escape the oracle’s decree that he was destined to “be the slayer of the sire who begot him” and “defile his mother’s bed.” My father’s identification with the Oedipal myth was so fervent that, when asked about my childhood, I often claim that I was spoon-fed Freud.

The archetypal incident occurred on a school day when my father was a teenager. He was tasked with driving his mother to the hospital for a hysterectomy because my grandfather refused. My father could not let go of the Freudian undertones of this experience and his resentment about being the inappropriate stand-in for his father. According to him, the pain of being miscast as the husband later manifested itself in crippling arthritis and ultimately blindness. As children, we accepted our father’s narrative. It was just one more element of the family culture. In Freud we trust.