Before I’d read any psychoanalytic texts, or attempted therapy myself, I was drawn to the practice for its facility with plot. This intrigue began in high school, when my mom went into training to become a clinical psychologist. Occasionally, she would arrange for a classmate to try the inkblot test on me. As a result of these sessions and of being exposed to the new terminology floating around our household, I began to sense that a problem, stared at over time, changed form—it generated its own alternatives. Strangers met up in the same room for years to talk each other into new realities. It was all very exciting, enough so that this method I barely grasped inspired me to begin writing fictional stories of comically exaggerated circumstance. One was about a woman who shows up to every session dressed as a different historical figure who shares her name. (She has no wardrobe budget for this fantasy.) In another, which was written as a play, two characters—Freud and his unconscious—are each other’s friends, family, lovers, and enemies.
This is the sort of enthusiasm for the drama of psychoanalysis that animates Judith Rossner’s novel “August,” from 1983. Reading it for the first time, last year, was like returning to the home of an old family friend after a long absence, somewhere filled with the comforting noise of loved ones rattling off associations. Before coming across “August,” I’d read some novels in which characters go to therapy, others that take the form of a patient’s confession from the couch, and plenty with characters trying to overcome their pasts. But this was something different: heaps of melodramatic stories, recounted in sessions between a therapist and one of her patients, interspersed with scenes from the therapist’s personal life, and written by a master of middlebrow genre romps that were themselves informed by Freudianism and developmental psychology.
If it sounds like too much, it is. As with therapy, you need to sit with these outbursts for a while before you begin to discover why you decided to show up in the first place. When the eighteen-year-old Dawn Henley meets the forty-year-old Lulu Shinefeld at the latter’s office on Central Park West, she’s just moved to the city from Vermont to start her freshman year at Barnard. A procession of plangent incidents and reverberating memories attends her young life. Dawn’s mother died by suicide when she was an infant; her father passed away a year later in a boating accident. The girl was raised by her mother’s lesbian sister, Vera (“your prototypical New England WASP patriarch”), and her partner, Tony, who chairs the math department at a local high school. Vera and Tony’s separation, four years prior to the start of these sessions, has left Dawn unhappy. There’s also the bike accident, the car accident, the abortion that imparted neither cheer nor regret. Her first therapist, Dr. Seaver, was a man to whom she developed a reverential and romantic transferential attachment. He has just effectively broken up with her.
Lulu, we learn in the intervening chapters between Dawn’s sessions, has lately endured ruptures in her own personal life. When the novel begins, she’s just left her second husband, with whom she shares two boys, after learning of his emotional affair with a teen-ager he met at a deli. She is also estranged from a grownup daughter from her first marriage, to a Stalinist filmmaker who left her after a few months. Two years into Dawn’s analysis, the precocious, out-of-touch daughter makes her bumpy return, and Lulu embarks on an affair with a married colleague.
The novel gets its title from the cruellest month, in psychoanalytic terms, when many therapists, especially the fancy Manhattan ones, tend to take their vacations. Rossner’s novel is preoccupied with how this intermission plays in the theatre of the patient’s psyche. For Dawn, it conforms to a certain script lodged in her unconscious: that those she loves will one day leave her—like her biological parents, her ex-therapist, and various romantic figures—and she must do everything in her power to defend herself against these impending dissolutions. At her first session, she arrives armed with a cassette recorder, lest she lose to time a single word of her and Lulu’s conversations. Another tell is her aversion to lying back on Lulu’s couch and free-associating, preferring to face her analyst head on. She fears that lying down would make the ordeal unbearably intimate—she’d “get attached.”
This getting-attached is arguably a necessary step in a Freudian analysis, and is known as transference, when the patient begins relating to her therapist as she would to any object of her desire. Ideally, this helps the therapist discover and address the immiserating relationship patterns—or plots—that their talk seeks to transform. Early in her analysis, Dawn alludes to a lithograph that she made for Dr. Seaver but never had the chance to give him. The image references a Dylan Thomas poem: “After the first death, there is no other.” Given the details of her case, the implications are clear enough. It’s not that we cease to hurt or lose after life’s first blows, but that we keep arriving to fight the same battles again and again.
“August” was Rossner’s seventh novel and the only one to take psychoanalysis as its explicit subject, yet it feels less like a detour from her previous books than their culmination. When it was released, Rossner was forty-eight years old and had just divorced for the second time; she was well into her career groove of publishing pulpy page-turners. Her writing was self-conscious and dishy, unfussy about the beauty of the prose, sometimes downright uncareful. A man is described as having a predilection for dating “upwardly nubile” young women. Words get repeated to the point of distraction.
But Rossner’s novels excel at creating scenarios that are ripe for obsessional thinking. Always the protagonist is put through the ringer of her looping fixations; only occasionally does she clamber dizzily out of the fray, her desires productively askew. Everything that could happen just might. In Rossner’s best-known work, “Looking for Mr. Goodbar” (1975), which sold millions of copies and was adapted into a movie starring Diane Keaton, the reader knows from the outset that the fate of the protagonist, Theresa, is to be murdered in her late twenties by a man she picks up at her local Manhattan bar. What we discover throughout the novel—which details Theresa’s entire life, beginning in early childhood—is that her killer is something like the monstrous apotheosis of all the men she has ever dated.
In “Goodbar,” Rossner’s hangup on the old relationships that we bring into our new ones takes a gruesome turn. In “Emmeline” (1980), it takes an Oedipal one. The manifold plot unspools like an elegantly coughed-up silk scarf, as the novel shifts from a nineteenth-century Dickensian labor saga to a creepy Regency-style romance to a marriage plot. But the most consequential upheaval is yet to come, when Emmeline makes the brutal discovery that she’s unwittingly married her own son. Another of Rossner’s early novels, “Attachments” (1977), is told from the perspective of a woman named Nadine, who has a particularly strong need to fuse with the objects of her affection. In a bit of strained literalism, she and her best friend, Dianne, marry and have children with conjoined twins. Things fall apart; the twins are surgically separated. Nadine talks of returning to school and learning to adapt, in her own way, by hoping to be of divine assistance to others: “Back in full force was my old daydream of being a sort of Goddess of Psychology, dispensing magic words that would help mortals change their lives.”
Rossner appeared to be fascinated by the possibility of personal change, but she wasn’t an avid believer in it—neither in individual lives nor when it came to politics. The books that she wrote in the seventies express a prurient interest in pot, orgies, communal living, and feminist consciousness-raising groups. By the time that “August” was published, in the early eighties, the frothy, feminist free-love plot had congealed back into the old hierarchies. In the novel, Ronald Reagan is about to become President. Dawn moves to D.C. for a guy named Jack, whose new job at a law firm is contingent upon Carter’s reëlection. In therapy, she complains bitterly of the relative ease with which her boyfriend impresses himself upon his times: “The real world is Jack’s. Politics. Computers. Law school.” The upper-middle-class cadre of therapists who summer in the Hamptons parry bullish battle-of-the-sexes observations that signify not the fruits of radical transformation but frustration at being put back in one’s place. “In the sixty or seventy years since Freud had documented women’s sexual anxieties,” Rossner wrote, “those anxieties had metamorphosed into a set of lenses that did little more than refract the sexual anxieties of men.” In contrast, Dr. Seaver, on the fringes of Lulu’s scene, has had great success doing “pioneering work on middle-aged men and the fear of death that led them to abandon their families and begin younger, duplicate families.” Dawn’s lesbian parents are “assumed to be relatives”—they’re not at all out in their small Vermont town.
Meanwhile, the drama in Dawn’s and Lulu’s personal lives is relentless; this is to be expected in a novel that focusses on the confessional bits of one person’s life and the leisure time of another’s. Dawn spends Christmas with her boyfriend and, soon after, starts sleeping with his father instead. The wife of Lulu’s guy leaves him for a former student of hers. He goes back to his wife, then they all get invited to the same party. Dawn makes several startling discoveries about her past as she delves into the archive of her birth parents’ lives for the first time. The amount of crying, choking, suffering, and realizing things that goes on in that office by the park could fill a season at the Metropolitan Opera.
All this death and betrayal in the analyst’s office can come off as quite garish when compared with more contemporary literary depictions of therapy in a similar social milieu (i.e., American Northeast, college-educated, access to health care). Over the past few years, therapy has come to prominence again as an object of fascination among artists and intellectuals, as it was in Rossner’s heyday. We have seen the rise of “therapy-speak” and the trauma plot, the “self-care” industry and the backlash against it, and a renewed eagerness among writers on both the left and the right to incorporate psychoanalytic thought into political commentary.
Recent fictional therapists tend to be subdued comic figures who exemplify, rather than engage with, the protagonist’s state of mind. In Ottessa Moshfegh’s 2018 novel, “My Year of Rest and Relaxation,” the narrator begins seeing a psychiatrist by the name of Dr. Tuttle, a blank script pad in human form, who prescribes downers to calm a range of personal troubles that they both unconvincingly refer to as “insomnia.” Dr. Tuttle is unethical and droll, but she occasionally employs recognizable talk-therapy techniques, like asking the narrator to keep a dream journal. There’s a twenty-dollar-psychic lilt to her old-school Freudian remarks, such as “fussing with animals in dreams can have primitive and violent consequences.” In sum, she’s a wonderfully flat auxiliary character: the door to her office swings open and shut, and so does she.
Shades of Dr. Tuttle creep into Christine Smallwood’s 2021 début novel, “The Life of the Mind,” in which the protagonist, an adjunct professor named Dorothy, sees not one but two therapists—a revolving door. Dorothy is particularly obsessed with her second therapist, whose professional and financial success she’s conscious of resenting. “Probably the therapist could afford real art, but she might have hotel art taste. Dorothy resented that the therapist’s painting activated her critical insecurities, not to mention her envy.” In Elif Batuman’s “Either/Or” (a sequel to 2017’s “The Idiot”), her narrator, Selin, a sophomore at Harvard, treats therapy much as she would a Henry James novel: she picks it up, questions how it relates to her own life, puts it down. She visits a therapist at a student center, hoping to talk through romantic disappointment, but finds his account of her life too alienating to continue. “The psychologist said that I was in an imaginary relationship with an unavailable person, because I was afraid to be in a real relationship with an available person,” Selin recalls. “What ‘available person’ was he talking about? Where was that person?” In each of these novels, therapy sessions are trotted out from time to time to inch the novel’s thought processes along. These narratives noticeably, if not radically, eschew plot, relying instead on adventurous self-reflection, journeys through the bloodstream.