BASS 2019: Mona Simpson, “Wrong Object” from Harper’s, 11/2018

Until then, I’d reflexively assumed the logic of the final two lines of Auden’s stanza: Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return.
But damage, it turns out, is not always reciprocated. My friends, the young therapists, told me about the vast number of people, a majority, they believed, who spent their lives containing the trauma they had endured, working not to pass it on.
My interest in the idea of this containment of destructive desire started there, with this work to which my friends have now devoted their lives.
Of course, much of what I learned did not make it into the story.

Mona Simpson, Contributor Note

Stories impact readers in different ways. A clever structural or narrative technique often tickles my fancy. Humor and satire can make us smile or find our way to solutions we hadn’t thought of. Beautiful sentences are art forms in themselves. And then there’s a story like this one, that leaves the reader with a burden, a question that maybe we never thought to ask, a crack in something that always seemed so clear. To my way of thinking, this is the power of a story: to use a character, someone we can connect to, to shake us up, make us look at our attitudes and our certainties, and say, Really? What about now?

I found the way the information is revealed to be particularly interesting, and important to keeping us connected to both characters. The story is about a therapist and a patient; the narrator is the therapist. That means the patient feeds information to his therapist. The story could be told so as to make the therapist a kind of observing narrator, but that isn’t what Simpson does. The therapist is also feeding information to us, via asides and additions, and she is feeding information to her supervising therapist. This puts the therapist in the middle, and forces the reader to also pay attention to her. We are firmly placed in her chair.

He is a nondescript man.
I’d never used that adjective about a client. Not until this one. My seventeenth. He’d requested an evening time and came Tuesdays at six-thirty. For months he didn’t tell me what he did.
The first session I said what I often said to begin: How can I help you?
I still think of what I do as a helping profession. And I liked the way the phrase echoed down my years; in my first job I’d been a salesgirl at a department store counter.

Complete story available online at Harper’s

The first sentence is about the patient, but it makes him almost invisible. Then we’re given information about the therapist. We know right away – this quote is the opening of the story – that she’s female, she’s a newly-minted therapist, she values being helpful, and she hasn’t lived in an ivory tower all her life. We know a little about the patient: he plays it close to the vest, and he’s nondescript. That nondescript rather twanged my antennae; it’s been my experience that nondescript characters eventually descript all over, in one way or another.

Next, we learn something about what brought him to the therapist.

I want to work on my marriage, he said. I’m the problem.
His complaint was familiar. But I preferred a self-critical patient to a blamer.
It’s me, he said. My wife is a thoroughly good person.
Yawn, I thought, but said, Tell me more.
I don’t feel what I should for her.
What do you feel?
Gratitude, I suppose. And when I think of leaving, pity.
What do you wish you experienced?
He slumped in my old chair. (I’d just signed the lease; the furniture I’d ordered hadn’t come yet.) I don’t feel enchantment . . . or the hope that we can make each other better. Married ten years, together thirteen. But I never had that.
That being enchantment.
He shrugged. All the things people say about being in love.
I never felt she was necessarily the one, he said.
The one, I repeated.
That we were destined for each other.

I find the detail of the office furniture interesting, not in itself, but that Simpson chose to put it there. A further indication, perhaps, that this therapist hasn’t been theraputing very long; she doesn’t even have her furniture set up. Since this is the second mention of her greenness, it must be important.

The patient is pretty unusual, it seems to me. A lot of people might see a therapist because they’re unhappy in their marriage; most complain that their spouses don’t understand them, or aren’t the person they married. He’s pretty clear that he is the problem, and wants to work on that. He’s not in love. We find out a few other details: the couple has kids, he’s well-off, he’s about 40. We find out he’s a lawyer not because he tells this to the therapist, but because she googles him. That feels… intrusive to me. What a person doesn’t reveal is as important as what they reveal, and that she conducted outside research may be the result of her inexperience. She sees a supervising therapist, an interesting detail; I wonder if she told him she googled her patient. I wonder if that’s considered solid therapeutic procedure.

I’m curious that she calls him K. It connects immediately with Joseph K in Kafka’ The Trial. Unfortunately, I haven’t read it, though it’s generally mentioned in most classes involving modern philosophy or literature. I am aware it involves a trial, and a lack of clear information, which seems like a potentially strong connection to this story. I must put The Trial on next summer’s reading list, but too late, I fear, for present purposes.

Then just when we’re feeling pretty safe and secure with this boring situation of a therapist trying to figure out this nondescript, self-aware man who seems sincerely motivated to improve himself for the sake of his marriage, he drops a little piece of information that shakes the foundation beneath us and begins the story in earnest; the inciting incident, if you will.

And then he told me. At the time I had a pencil in my hand, and I wrote down the date: January 28, 2012.
I’m a pedophile, he said. The problem with my wife isn’t . . . I’ve never been enchanted with anyone her age. Which is to say my age.
The light in my office made him look dangerously thin, pretzeled on the corduroy chair. (My furniture had finally arrived. K was the only one of my clients to notice.) I was aware of the narrowness of his shoulders in the gray, collared sweater, the niceness of his socks.

Everything is the same – he’s still very honest, dressed the same – but everything is different. The new office furniture is here – aha, that’s why it was mentioned before. Before and after January 28, 2012. I told you it’s the nondescript ones that’ll get you every time.

The “wrong object” of the title refers to the psychological idea that a child abuser needs to shift from children to adults, just as, in the past, it was believed that gay people needed to shift the object of their attraction (this is a highly controversial connection, as it involves consenting adults rather than the abuse of children, but I can see the therapeutic idea behind it). Here, it isn’t just K who has a wrong object. The therapist seems to have a wrong object as well, and hiding the facts from her supervisor turns it almost into a kind of conspiracy, or maybe a game is more appropriate. She isn’t exceptionally young – she refers to having a few grey hairs – but she seems somewhat childlike in this, almost like a victim herself.

The story is available online, so I’ll leave it for readers to follow events to their end. There’s one other detail I’d underline, however. When the therapist finally gets around to revealing her patient’s underlying problem to her supervisor, she tells him the patient has not acted on his impulses. “According to his own report.” That gave me a shiver. Child abusers are notorious for winning the confidence of their victims with charm and deceit. But given the lack of action or intent, what really are the options here, regardless of the odds of future actions?

This is an intriguing story, not for its imaginative plot or moving prose, but for the question it leaves for the reader: Does K deserve admiration and support for having resisted his impulses (at least, as far as we know per his own report), or does he deserve condemnation for having them at all, and conviction based on the likelihood that, some day, he will indulge? I have the impression at the end that the therapist still doesn’t really know, so we are on our own.

Given Simpson’s Contributor Note, I have the sense some admiration is in order, though caution would also be wise. I have a personal observation as well. I’ve been in therapeutic situations of many kinds over many years, and I’ve known many people who suffered trauma and abuse, who only did harm to themselves. It may be that all abusers were abused, but it is not the case that all those abused become abusers.

As is my usual procedure, I went googling for other insights into this story. Jake Weber has done another solid analysis, as did Paul Debrasky, another blogger buddy from days past. But I was surprised that, given its appearance in Harper’s, which has a wider readership than most litmags, and the controversial nature of the story, that there wasn’t more discussion. Maybe too controversial?