Relationships are complicated.
Every once in a while, however, I see patients whose relationships aren’t complicated at all. In the case of old George, a man I met while working as a group therapist at the Sex Offender Unit in a large prison in New Jersey, it was just a bad case of Love that gave George no end of grief. Literally.
His first arrest occurred in 1928. He had been diagnosed with “schizophrenia” and “mental deficiency”. I suspect that neither of the diagnoses was accurate. Studying his records, I learned that he was the proud owner of a catering service; he owned two car washes; and he was the deacon of his church.
The problem George had with “Love” showed up when he was a teenager. He had worked as a valet for some of the more prosperous families in Georgia. He seemed to be drawn to homes of girls between the ages of 7and 12 years. The homes were similar: all were of the ante-bellum variety, all included vast acreage and all belonged to families with at least one daughter who was blond-haired and blue-eyed. The girls were fond of George, often regarding him as a surrogate parent while their parents were away. He never physically harmed any of them, nor did he molest them, but he was compelled to stroke their arms or touch their hair. Complaints by the girls’ parents led to convictions of sexual assault although there was in fact no evidence that sex was involved with any of the girls. By the time I had met him, George had been arrested at least a half-dozen times for identical crimes.
What was the cause of this mysterious behavior? Why always the same kind of girl? Why touch the hair and stroke the arm? What was this obsession all about?
The best place to find answers to questions like these is within the offender’s unconscious mind. And the best place to find the unconscious mind at work is within dreams. So that is where I went. I was sure that George’s obsession would show itself in his dreams.
The 18th century poet, Lord Byron, wrote (italics are mine):
Sleep hath its own world,
And a wide realm of wild reality
And dreams in their development have breath
And tears, and tortures, and a touch of joy
“And Tears and tortures, and a touch of joy” seemed to be a perfect description of what George had been experiencing for 40 years or more. He couldn’t explain why he did what he did. He repeatedly told the other men in the group that he didn’t want to be “like this”. He just couldn’t help himself. It was like an itch he had to scratch.
I was eager to learn what kind of psychological knot was tying up the rational thinking of an otherwise hard-working, ambitious, and socially and financially successful man. Clearly there was some unfinished business going on here, an obsession.
“Who wants to work?” I asked the men in the group on this Saturday afternoon.
George was eager to discover why he got himself in trouble. His hand shot up.
I asked him to sit next to me. In front of him was an empty chair, a prop popularized by Gestalt Therapists at that time. I asked him for a dream, saying that even a small fragment would be helpful. George volunteered the following dream:
“I was in a field with two girls. I was really young, maybe five years old. One girl asked me to touch the other one. I didn’t want to do it, but she was bigger than me and I thought she would yell at me if I didn’t. Then I woke up.”
I asked George to tell us what he remembered about growing up. Here’s what he said:
“My momma and me was living in a rich man’s house in Georgia. This was a long time ago, back in the 20’s. My momma cleaned the man’s house and cooked for the family. The man had two daughters, Dolly an Abigail. We played outside together all the time. Those were really happy days.”
I asked George to describe the girls. “Abigail—she was the youngest, maybe 6 years old, a little older than me…always playing and running around. She liked me and we liked to swim down by the creek. Everything was fun until she went to school. I stayed at the house and helped my momma. Dolly was a couple years older…she real pretty… had blonde hair and pretty blue eyes. I really liked her. I think she really liked me too. I liked to touch her skin. I wondered whether her daddy painted her white when she was born. I kept trying to rub the paint off.”
Every part of the dream is part of our own personality. I was curious about the role “the field” might play in George’s recounting of the dream. I asked George to pretend he was the field and to describe what he was experiencing.
“You want me to be the field?” he asked somewhat confused by the request. I nodded yes.
“Ok, I’ll try that…I’m the field, right? (I nod, yes) I’m a field and I am really big. I got trees and a creek and a big house and a big important man living there. And the kids are playing again. They’re always playing on me. Especially Abigail. She’s always running and jumping and climbing my trees. But most of me is empty. Those kids got each other, but I’m all alone.”
That was the first “existential message”: George felt empty and alone.
I asked George to pretend that the older girl, Dolly, was sitting in the empty chair directly in front of him. “Tell Dolly how lonely you are.”
“Dolly, I ain’t seen you in 50 years. I’m so lonely for you. I miss Abigail too but I am lonely for you.”
“Tell her what you just told us about her. Make believe she’s right here with us now.”
Without losing a beat, George began a dialogue with the young blonde-haired girl of whom he was so fond.
“I miss you, Dolly. Remember when you and me and Abigail were in the field. You told me to touch Abigail. I didn’t want to do it, but I didn’t want you to get mad at me. I really wanted to touch you, not her. I liked the way you looked and the way you treated me and my momma so good back in those days. I’ve been searching for you all over. I keep looking for your hair and your pretty eyes. I keep thinking that I see you, but then you turn into someone else and the police arrest me. Can’t we be together again? I’m really lonely without you.” (Becomes very sad and tearful.)
I asked George to create a dialogue between Dolly and himself.
As Dolly: “George, you know I like you. We had good times in Georgia, but I can’t be with you anymore. I’m an old woman. I’m married. I have five children and seven grandchildren.”
As George: “But I don’t want you to leave me. I love you, Dolly.”
As Dolly: “I need to say goodbye, George. We’re both too old. You’re married and I’m married and we need to say goodbye.”
As George (tearful): “Please, Dolly, can’t you stay for a little while more?”
As Dolly: “I’m so sorry, my little man. Goodbye, George.”
As George (crying): “Please don’t leave. I’m so lonely.” (more tears)
As Dolly: “Please be a good little boy. We’ll have to wait for heaven to be together again. Goodbye, George.”
George finally said (shoulders back, taking a deep breath, looking at the ghost of Dolly’s memory sitting in the chair): “Goodbye, Dolly. I’ll be good. I ain’t lonely no more.” (sobbing uncontrollably).
Dreams are often part of the grieving process. Grieving means “letting go,” and “letting go” often means that we experience a great loss. The loss of a lover, a husband or wife, a parent, a child, a job, or a friend, leaves us feeling empty—a hard-to-describe feeling that most of us want to avoid. After all, “letting go” demands that we resign ourselves to a life without the person, and there are some relationships that we never want to change. We adapt by having dreams and nightmares that disguise our loss as something else (for example, a missing railing on a staircase, a fish without fins, etc.). Nonetheless, the sense of despair, sadness, and the emotional turbulence that often accompanies the “letting go” process lies just below the surface of our conscious mind waiting to show itself in strange ways. We sleep perchance to dream, perchance to learn how to undo the knots in our minds and in our souls.
Shortly after that group session, George went home to be with his wife and 12 children. I think he was ok when he left the prison. As I recall this session with George, I remember that he looked at me and through tears, he smiled and nodded quickly, just once, enough to tell me that everything would be alright. For the sake of the children and for George, I hope he was right.