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Authors: Jeanne Safer

The Golden Condom

BOOK: The Golden Condom
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For Terry Laughlin, my coach, my friend, my inspiration

 

AUTHOR'S NOTE

The names and identifying characteristics of most of the interview subjects, patients, and acquaintances described in this book have been changed.

 

INTRODUCTION

Another book on love? No emotion has transfixed, perplexed, devastated, and inspired humanity more than this one, and none has been more exhaustively dissected. Nonetheless, I believe that the lovers whose intimate voices you will hear in these pages have something unique to contribute.

I bring a special perspective to this daunting topic: forty years as a psychoanalyst, researcher, and teacher of dream interpretation, during which I have witnessed and facilitated the secret struggles of my patients to create real love in their lives by figuring out why it has eluded them. I have also spent six decades in this struggle myself; the golden condom of the title has a starring role in the story of my own passionate and tormented love affair at age nineteen.

A note about what kinds of love did and did not make the cut: I touch on adultery only in passing and masochism only in its emotional form as a key element in obsessive and unrequited passion, not in its currently trendy sadomasochistic sexual guise. I also explore relationships that are not usually included in examinations of love—friendship and its discontents, and the subtle and often underground emotions between mentors and protégés and patients and therapists—because I believe that they have more in common with classic passionate love than most people realize. In fact, it was my insight into just how closely intimate friendship and sexual passion are related that inspired me to write this book.

The dark side of love—obsession, betrayal, vengeance, and unrequited longing—gets serious attention because these excruciating experiences are so common that few people escape them, and everybody could use more insight into them. I am especially fascinated by how the past informs the present, by why we choose the beloveds we choose, and most of all, by how lovers who start out, as I did, only attracted to the “wrong” people ever manage to extricate themselves from the torments of loving those who cannot reciprocate.

I also wanted to celebrate the kinds of love that I love best: love that comes late in life, love that prevails through conflict and hardship, love that persists after the death of the beloved, and love that can be reclaimed even from the ruins of abandonment and betrayal.

You will find both cutting-edge and time-honored research on the science and the psychology of love, much of it by my favorite psychoanalytic theorists, as well as my own clinical insights and explanations of lovers' intriguing and powerful dreams.

The book's three sections follow a trajectory from love that tortures us, through love that causes as much pain as pleasure, to love that makes life worth living. The middle-aged and the old, you will find, can love as passionately as the young—and often more wisely.

What attracted me to the particular stories I've chosen to tell? Many are quirky, against the grain, surprising. Among many others, you will meet the woman who wreaked vengeance on a rival by putting chopped-up tilapia to an off-label use; the man who had never let himself love another living thing, including his dog; the producer who found love for the first time at age fifty-six; the writer who decided to forgo friendship forever after her closest friends betrayed her when she was a teenager; the executive who revealed her youthful passion for a sexy heroin user; and the beautiful and charming Internet stalker.

A certain optimism born of my long professional experience with lovers underlies even the most devastating relationships in this book: I believe that insight is liberating and that because of it, people are not doomed to blindly repeat past hurts forever.

There is no subject in the world more thrilling, terrible, or complicated than love in all its manifestations. I hope that these essays will illuminate your experiences of love in your own life.

 

PART I

HOPELESS LOVE

 

1

LEAVING UNLOVING LOVERS AND UNFRIENDLY FRIENDS

Out of the blue, the woman who had once been my closest friend and confidante left me a message that she was in the hospital. We hadn't spoken in two years. I decided, after several days of agitated deliberation, not to call her back.

It was one of the hardest, and smartest, things I've ever done.

At first I was gratified—even thrilled—to hear her voice again, speaking my name. “Hello, Jeanne,” she said, informing me of her whereabouts in the slightly stilted tone that I remembered she always used whenever she was uncomfortable. “I'm getting some tests—an MRI and some others. I think I'm all right. We'll talk over the weekend.” My first impulse was to try to reach her immediately. But something about her message and the way she delivered it, both what she said and what she omitted, gave me pause.

I remembered all too clearly our last conversation, two years earlier. She had used the same tone then. I had been the one in the hospital—for an entire month, with a dangerous but curable form of leukemia—and I had asked her to come and see me when I felt desperate for her company and some edible food, and she neither came, nor called, nor sent me anything, abandoning me on one of the darkest nights of my life. It took her two days to call me back with a lame excuse (there was too much traffic, and the hospital food couldn't be
that
bad, as if that was the point). Her voice was flat, vague, slightly disembodied, and subtly defensive, and she had gotten off the phone as quickly as possible. She promised to explain later, but she never called back.

“Why on earth would you call her?” said my husband, who knew our whole history and had witnessed most of it, both our long intimacy and its abrupt demise. “Be careful.” His pronouncement seemed so bald, so final, so devoid of hope. What he said disturbed and frightened me because I didn't want his verdict to be true. Here was my chance to get back the one woman in the world who spoke my language when I thought I had lost her forever.

We had been soul mates and professional colleagues for more than twenty years before she vanished, each other's bulwark in life. She understood things about me I didn't understand about myself, and I never knew anyone more generous, more delighted by a friend's success, or more consoling in adversity. She was brilliant, mordant, and astute, and I loved that she never suffered fools. Our conversations were my stimulant and my solace; “I've never talked to anybody the way I talk to you,” she told me once, and I felt the same way. But even before she deserted me, the fallout from an extended marital crisis had made her increasingly self-absorbed and subtly demanding, and I found those conversations less mutual as time went on. Her fuse also got much shorter, and I, who prided myself on addressing problems in relationships, never felt I could reveal my growing discontent without risking the fallout of her displeasure.

Despite her shocking behavior, I missed her so intensely that I wasn't ready to give up on her yet, so I made excuses for her, putting the best possible spin on that twenty-second message: clearly, I wasn't forgotten. She was seeking me out; she was turning to me in her hour of need. Maybe she felt all the things I hoped she felt, but couldn't put them into words. Being hospitalized must have brought me to mind. Maybe she identified with me, felt sorry about the way she had acted, and wanted to make amends. It must have taken a lot to make that call; after all, she risked getting me on the phone, and then she would have had to explain herself. I was glad I hadn't answered the call, because caught unawares I would certainly have followed my first instinct and engaged with her, even if all she'd wanted was advice. But shouldn't I at least give her the benefit of the doubt after two decades of intimacy, acknowledge the effort, and send her a brief e-mail asking what she wanted to talk to me about?

I couldn't immediately see the message for what it was: the presumptuous, self-absorbed expression of a person who now only thought of me to make use of me—for support, for attention, for the medical expertise I had often provided in the past. There was neither empathy nor apology in her voice or her words—no acknowledgment of how I might feel to get a call from her two years late, and then only when she needed me because she was in trouble herself. The person who left that message, regardless of what she had once been to me, was not capable of apologizing now; she could never again be a true or trustworthy friend to me. Slowly it dawned on me that the woman I wanted back in my life didn't exist anymore and hadn't for years.

The first sensible thought I had was to do nothing, to wait and think it through. If she were sincere, if I really mattered to her still, she would certainly call again. I listened to her message twice more and asked my husband to listen as well in case I was misinterpreting. So much seemed at stake that I felt I had to be careful; one false step and she might retreat forever. The fate of the relationship seemed entirely in my hands, a thought that in itself should have tipped me off to its precariousness.

Then two songs came into my head. I found myself singing them aloud, over and over. “Cry me a river…” I belted repeatedly as I walked around the apartment pondering my options. Julie London's bitter torch song segued into Linda Ronstadt's “You're No Good,” the unofficial anthem of all reformed masochists—and of masochists trying to reform. I hadn't thought of it since the seventies, and very satisfying it was to proclaim.

But why, I suddenly asked myself, was I singing about exorcising a tormented love affair after getting a cryptic call from a former friend? Because the state of mind that she evoked in me—the paralysis, the desperate attempts at self-control, the justifications that couldn't justify, the anxiety that a wrong move on my part could be fatal, the strangulated fury, the feeling that parting would be unendurable—was exactly the same.

I had heard that same cool and heedless tone she used from the first man I felt I couldn't live without. He was a graduate student on a time-limited fellowship from another university—graceful, sardonic, golden haired, with a motorcycle, and I was an intense, lonely, nineteen-year-old sophomore. My parents' marriage was disintegrating, and I tried, unsuccessfully, to make him my refuge. I would do anything to have him reach for me, even though I could never count on him, even after he told me he preferred an old girlfriend in another state. The night before he left town forever, my darkest until the one on which my friend forsook me, I had also waited by the phone that never rang. When he finally came to say good-bye the next morning just before he rode out of my life, he explained gratuitously that he had spent the night consoling another woman who was broken up by his leaving. Unprotesting and dry eyed by force of will, I let him kiss me good-bye and promise to stay in touch.

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