Cover image for The listener : a psychoanalyst examines his life
The listener : a psychoanalyst examines his life
Wheelis, Allen, 1915-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : W.W. Norton, [1999]

Physical Description:
256 pages ; 22 cm
Personal Subject:
Format :


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Material Type
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BF109.W44 A3 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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As a psychoanalyst, Alan Wheelis has helped many patients understand themselves and cope with the legacies of trauma or obsession that shape the neurotic personality. Here he uses his own life for the same process of discovery.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

Brooding yet illuminating, this memoir reveals the struggle of a psychoanalyst practicing in San Francisco to reach a deeper understanding of the effect of childhood trauma on his own life. Having grown up in rural Texas with a cruel, consumptive father and a confused mother, Wheelis examines the disastrous results of bitter poverty and complex psychological woes on a family largely devoid of love and kindness. As his bedridden, dying father sought new ways to torment everyone within the sound of his voice, Wheelis, as a boy, became more insecure and withdrawn. His mother, unable to find solace in her religious fervor, created a world of comforting myths, amiable ghosts and soul-numbing fantasies to help her face her husband's inevitable decline. Told in extended bursts of free-flowing thought, short asides and emotionally charged rants, the book is chiefly a shattering portrait of a family that becomes more bizarre and inhumane with each page until Wheelis recounts how his father, nearing his end, ordered him to cut foot-high grass on an expansive lawn with a straight razorÄa backbreaking task that took almost an entire summer to complete. Wheelis's sister escaped by departing for college, leaving Wheelis and his mother in a strange limbo of emotional dependence, sensuality and need. The author, seeking a stable sense of self, later stumbled through two marriages, believing that a so-called happy marriage is nothing more than "an agreed-upon diminishment of life." This cleverly written celebration of cynicism and despair ultimately wears down the reader with its self-absorbed and disturbingly one-dimensional view of love and life. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

In his latest book, Wheelis, an eightysomething San Francisco psychoanalyst in private practice, reflects on his life and work. Here he returns to themes in The Quest for Identity (1958) and in subsequent novels and memoirs (The Way Things Are, The Life, and Death of My Mother) while also exploring new ones. Memorable sectionsÄsome of which have been reproduced in their entirety from earlier worksÄtake up the motif of the footless pigeon, his authoritarian father's grueling punishments (including cutting the lawn with a razor), his emotionally dependent mother's last days, his early attempts at writing and the resulting psychogenic illness, and the summers he spent with his wife and daughter on Puget Sound. Interspersed with these old pieces are new musings on sexual desire, the value and limits of psychoanalysis, and the meaning of life, marriage, old age, and approaching death. A listener by trade, Wheelis is also a powerful yet disturbing storyteller with a gift for evoking compassion and sympathy in his listenerÄthe reader. Recommended for public and academic libraries.ÄLucille M. Boone, San Jose P.L., CA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One THE UNRULY TRIO When I pick up a novel, I look first for the sexual passages. I want to know what this author thinks can happen between a man and a woman. I discover the girl undressing, examine her undergarments, see her twisting and moaning under her lover--all this without yet knowing her name, nothing of her interests, values, family, education, job, or friends. I go right to the limit, the far edge. Before learning whether it's safe for her even to have coffee with this guy or to go for a walk, I have her skirt up, her legs spread wide.     It never happens this way in real life. Unfortunately. The cup of coffee and the walk on the beach are mandatory. We can't skip these first steps; we're too frightened. Read properly, one page after another, the novel, if it's good, will portray a relationship as it develops in real life; read in my greedy and desperate way, it shows a feverishly speeded-up affair, a breakneck development, an unreal intimacy.     How interesting it would be--how wonderful!--to have in real life an affair so purged of props, of exposition, so telescoped. Would save a lot of time. Be far more exciting. And more dangerous. Who knows? I might find myself between the legs of a murderess, a vampire's mouth on my throat.     When I pick up a novel and seek out the sexual passages, it happens at times that these turn out to be pornography. Suddenly I am seized, locked in, like metal to magnet: nothing could tear this book from my hands. But even while devouring it in this rapt way, I know that something evil is being offered to me, and that it is something evil in me that is responding. And I know, further, that this lunge into the forbidden is limited, that it will end soon, and that I will then put this book from me, will reject with aversion what I have but a moment ago so avidly consumed. Actually it's not quite true that I look first for the sexual passages; that's what I go for by default, not finding that for which I really hunger--which is subtle and elusive, lacks the hypnotic lure of evil, and is far more rare. All voices claim to grasp reality, but I don't believe them. They sound synthetic, like those computer-made voices in electronic mail. The reality they present is window- display, not what happens in the street. I seek the sound of a human voice. A voice that bears witness, attests the way things really are. This means a voice that has freed itself, usually with great suffering and effort, of the vast corruption of language and experience, of the clichés, the jargon, and the kitsch, of that sea of deceit and pretense in which we drift. When I hear it, I feel respect, I turn back to page one and read carefully. Such voices are rare, are usually drowned out by the din around us. A human voice is one that bears the awareness of death--that once-only-once-and-never-again resonance. Sex and death, eternal antagonists, forever contending, forever overturning and contradicting each other. And beyond these difficult two, that impossible third, love, inextricably commingled.     This is the text of my life, this unruly trio. The advertisement for the travel agency shows a black-haired girl in the surf at Acapulco: black bikini, shoulders hunched forward exposing the heft of breasts. She is laughing hysterically, her long hair hanging wet, one hand raised to the side of her face in a gesture of vulnerability, a movement that bespeaks (so I imagine) a capacity for passion and for tenderness. I study the picture with an intentness both savage and desolate. Desire springs up, envelops her, pushes beyond the presenting laughter, beyond the innocent beach games, into the hotel behind her, takes her into the privacy of a luxurious room where an incandescent eroticism, the heart and soul of this vacation, is to occur. Is this the way the adman wants me to think? It works! It works!     In the hospital, a nurse walks toward me down a long hallway: tight white uniform pulled into slight transverse wrinkles across the full hips (I slow my pace), white stockings, full round face, Italian romantic style, broad soft mouth, very dark eyes and eyebrows (I stop), white skin, glistening black hair, straight and soft, drawn back loosely across her ears (I'm backing up a bit now). Just before she passes, the liquid eyes look up, and for a moment the face is transformed with a smile of breath-catching trustfulness.     Longing mounts, becomes frantic. If I had one, I'd want the other. I want both, I want them all. I ascribe to these creatures a quality of heaven, a gift of redemption, a love that would enable me to become what I am not, will never be. Great beauty inflicts a wound. Private and somehow shameful. It can neither be acknowledged nor complained about. A deep, burning pain. It will not go away. The pain is the longing; the wound is the knowing that the longing can never be fulfilled, that, like hell, it will go on forever, always there, always inside. It can be pushed aside by exigencies of work or by the press of dailiness, but never extinguished. Beauty calls it forth as from a dark cavern, from some forlorn hidden place in me, and I know then that this longing is my essence, that this private unacknowledged thing is what I am, the one true photograph of myself. I keep it hidden, in a secret compartment, in that submerged cavern. Once or twice in a lifetime, if I'm lucky, I might venture to show it to someone I love.     And what might that photograph reveal? Do I allow even myself to see? A vast beach perhaps, stretching out in the distance endlessly, and one solitary figure: a woman. She looks out over an empty sea. She is waiting without hope. She knows no one will come. She waits for me, and I seek her always. We will never meet.     What is the objective, the public reality? Of that, there are many photographs. Many people could come up with them. They would show a lot, many different things. You would see me with my family, in my study, on the Golden Gate Bridge leaning over the rail, working with patients, playing tennis, having lunch with my publisher, conversing with friends--all true, all real, all surface. That's all that can be known of me, and, knowing it, you would miss me entire. I will have fallen through your net. The reality of my being is that hidden photograph.     This is the kind of reality I seek in fiction. I'm not interested in the everyday reality of a man's job, family, fishing trips, clothes, business deals, the house he lives in or how it's furnished, or whether he becomes a senior partner in the law firm. Unless, magically, such details become signs pointing to a hidden reality, I am impatient, skip forward. I grant them some slight relevance in establishing a context, a place, but what I'm after is the hidden reality. The man's longing. How does he experience it? What does he do with it?     Specifically, I want to know what this author believes can happen between a man and a woman. I believe that we, all of us, are locked within the prison of self, that in this prison we yearn for release by fusion with another. And I have come to believe that this fusion, this transcendent love and oneness, is an illusion, that it can be achieved if at all only briefly, that as a vision of a possible state of being it is fool's gold, that the reality is that we have to live in the solitary confinement of our tiny cell, and that, should we briefly escape this cell, we will soon be back in it.     It is the ubiquity of conflict that dooms the fusion. For conflict forces the lovers back into their corners. One cannot avoid that estrangement by finding the lover with whom one has a perfect fit; for she does not exist. And one cannot avoid it by finding a meek lover who will renounce conflict, will always give in--the Japanese wife solution! For, as she sacrifices her separate and contending interests to maintain the fusion, she accrues a resentment that, however rigorously silenced, will itself destroy the fusion.     But no matter. The yearning won't go away. It is ubiquitous and forever, and when I pick up a novel, I'm wanting to see what this author has found out about it. Perhaps he denies it altogether, is unaware even of its existence. Then I'm not interested; I lay the book aside. Or perhaps the longing is portrayed as fulfillable: The pain is a mistake, not necessary but neurotic; it can be overcome with resignation or with religion or wisdom or psychoanalysis; the good life is possible, requires only that one come to terms, make a good adjustment. Then the author is a liar or a fool, and his work is escapism, not art.     For art--however fragmented, bizarre, surrealistic its means--is always a quest for the real, it seeks to grasp the way things are. And when an author persuades me that he is honestly and ruthlessly in pursuit of the real, then I am intensely interested in what he has found out about love.     I seek out the sexual passages because it is here, in these restless, intimate touchings, that the hidden longing is most likely to surface, here that I may see its face. And here that it may be fulfilled. But rarely! rarely! and only for a moment--while what we want is deep, deep eternity.     The cruelty, violation, and sadism that lurk within sexuality are born of that transience. To come so close, to have it for a moment, and then, unavoidably, to lose it, to see it slip away--this evokes rage, a powerful surge of destructiveness. One wants to devour her, to soil her, to destroy her--all because one can't stand to lose what one has come so close to having, which is the only thing in life worth having, and which one did, for a moment, actually have. What is this, anyway? one of my patients asks from the couch. Do you guys have an explanation? Is this an infantile conflict--to be analyzed? Or the way things are--to be accepted ? Looking back over my now long life, what should one say of the pain and the longing? This is the human condition? Or, He was not well analyzed?     And if the latter, what possibly can well analyzed mean? Copyright © 1999 Allen Wheelis. All rights reserved.