The doctor Is dead

The sudden passing of a shared confessor

San Diego is small. As I began to see Dr. Johnson in early spring, I began to meet others of his patients.
  • San Diego is small. As I began to see Dr. Johnson in early spring, I began to meet others of his patients.
  • Image by Dan Perkins

Such are the conceits of first-world living — they follow you. A late-night call from San Diego slips through a satellite onto the shore of a beleaguered nation with the news of my psychiatrist’s death. My upbringing hadn’t prepared me for this.

 ”I imagine you’re a little confused, a little tired. But the past few weeks have been hell for me.”

”I imagine you’re a little confused, a little tired. But the past few weeks have been hell for me.”

“How much was he charging before he died?” I asked the caller, a fellow patient.

“One hundred and fifteen bucks for forty-five minutes,” she says.

“My God... ” boomerangs through static. I should feel something, I thought. “My God... ”

I had paid him to know me at a time when my “two projects for adulthood” (as Freud outlined them), work and love, were both in miserable disarray. I was also reeling from calamity to calamity. A causal chain had lead me to his cluttered Pacific Beach office with its moldering terrarium. As I sat before his desk, a black digital clock facing me (each minute being, at that time, two dollars), I talked, and he annotated my misery onto a note pad.

By the time I started seeing him, I was a seasoned traveler. I had, Lord have mercy, been in the storm too long.

Months before I began my sessions with Dr. Johnson, I opted for an evening of bridge. I sat at a red light, off Broadway in Golden Hill, and sang along with the radio. Something slammed into the side of the car. I looked up. A man wearing a ski mask pointed a gun at my face through the half-opened window.

“Get out of the car or I’m gonna fuckin’ kill you,” he screamed. “Excuse me?” I said.

“Get out of the car or I’m gonna’ fuckin’ kill you!” he said it again, wagging oblivion at the space between my eyes. Although he, this criminal, was otherwise undeserving of my trust, I trusted him. Inasmuch as I trusted him, I believed utterly that he would blast the bridge of my nose through the back of my head, spattering the interior of my 74 Datsun with id, ego, superego, anima, animus, and the wise old woman within us all.

I sat planted in my seat, a quivering skin bag of marrow-deep fear. Sniffing the air, I waited for the next directive. He gave it: “Get out of the fuckin’ car!”

I was a mewling, jittery fool. “Oooooooo,” I said. ‘‘Oooooooo. puhleeeeeez dohn't kill meeeeeee.” Never having planned on having to say this, it was difficult to get the intonation right — and intonation, I felt, counted. I sounded pitiful. In fact, I sounded convincing enough that even I felt sure he could not deny me this, my last request, and so I fled.

Golden Hill’s low rents had attracted me. I knew about the crime, but it was a neighborhood in transition. Nice apartments were cheap. Life was cheap. He was cruising around in my car with his gun. I knew he was. Hunting me. I saw a house with the porch light on. I landed, panting, on the welcome mat. Knock knock. A big, strong man in jeans and tank top leaned against his forearm, across the door.

I babbled: “Manwithagun tried to kill me. Call police. Call police.”

My mantra ground to a halt. A trail of needle marks ran along his forearm. Wrong house. Wrong man. Wrong night. Out into the street I went, frantic to find a sympathetic ear.

At Twentieth and Broadway, the corner store, the Christian Arabs from Beirut allowed me to use their phone. They were accustomed to gunplay and its deleterious effect on the psyche. The police dispatcher asked. “Do you know your vehicle identification number?”

I told her, “It is difficult, at this point, to remember my own name.”

Soon I was outside. “Victim is at the corner of Twentieth and Broadway,” the dispatcher announced through five police radios, “Victim is upset.”

“Of course victim is upset!” I shrieked at the officers. “ ‘Victim’ means upset!” Two weeks later, I sit in the blood-spattered shambles of my home. Everything I had was taken. Everything. And the clutter left behind was covered with blood. Clots on the table, smeared on my bedroom ceiling. The bathroom a tabloid photo from the Tate-LaBianca murders. A criminal, desperate for my few possessions, severed an artery as he broke the window.

Again, I wait for the police. I am finishing a second bottle of wine. I see a lop-eared rabbit sitting in my driveway. Behind him, ten feet away, a fat orange tabby. I feel I must somehow get the rabbit inside my house. I stagger outside. Waving my arms, “Here bunny, bunny, bunny ...” I move toward the duo. Bunny goes hop, hop, hop! Tabby follows. “Here bunny, bunny, bunny.’’ Hop, hop, hop. And so the three of us go up the block and around the corner. Suddenly, my shadow is cast before me. Bunny hops beneath a car. The police I called had arrived. Their guns are drawn.

Empty moments. I seemed to be wrestling with existential truths.

Weeks later, at 3:00 a.m., I was wearing something that resembles a large paper napkin with matching blue paper booties. I sat in the gastrointestinal lab of a local Kaiser hospital. Cold sweat sluiced off me. A crescent of pain in my abdomen throbbed. The male nurse-practitioner, who had conducted the initial exam an hour before, told me, “I think you’re constipated.”

Curled up on the table, pale with pain, I doubted his diagnosis. “Where did you get your degree?”

“University of Arizona at Phoenix.” “Well,” I said, “if this is constipation, I can see why people on television complain about it. Get me an M.D.! Get me a Harvard M.D.! I want a doctor! A real doctor! ’ ’

Late in his life, Freud began to explicate human existence as the battlefield for two basic and conflicting drives — Eros and Thanatos. Mister in Black, scythe in hand, shadowed me. The chubby little guy with the quiver full of arrows and the ready laugh, on the other hand, had taken a hike.

I needed to lure him back.

I was referred to Dr. Tom Johnson by a friend. He was good for professionals, she said. Several of her friends — federal magistrates, school principals, corporate attorneys — had been to see him. And so I went, to talk to someone who had been through medical school’s rigors, someone who had had the dedication to spend years studying human behavior. Paid-for, unbiased advice. Dollars and complete disclosure. Intimacy without love. I uttered fully clothed that which I was unable to say while naked.

Laura, who had called me with the grim news, had also insisted upon meeting me at the airport in Los Angeles. All of my friends abroad had agreed: the death of one’s psychiatrist is not a hopeful sign. Most visits tend to take on a theme, and it is generally impossible to resist it; I was eager to learn as much about him as I could.

Her hair was still blonde, but her fine eyes and regal nose were blurred by forty brand-new pounds. “I know this must be difficult for you,” she said, hefting my luggage into the trunk. ”I imagine you’re a little confused, a little tired. But the past few weeks have been hell for me.”

We whipped down Interstate 405. I was given a crash course on the last days of Dr. Johnson. The mere mention of his name brought her foot down heavily on the gas pedal. Monologues regarding his therapeutic technique had us clocking seventy. His death brought us to eighty-five.

“The strangest thing is, we had the best session we’d ever had the week before he died. But then again. I’d noticed things. I told him I was really happy with the way he treated me, like the way he didn’t get upset when I told him I dropped a class at Mesa. And he said, ‘Well, I don’t worry about you when you make bad decisions. It’s not like I have to worry about what you’re going to do after I’m gone.’ What do you think?”

“Could we slow down a little?”

“Oh, I’m sorry. But don’t you think that’s strange? It’s almost as if.... Anyway, during our last session, I was able to talk about the death a little. I mean, we talked a little about my not being able to talk about it.” “The death?”

“The first death. Dr. Johnson is the second death.”

The First Death — the death of her father. For almost twenty years, she had been unable to say it: “My father’s death.” She could say the words separately and could scatter them through a paragraph, but never was she able to place them close together. It was impossible to trick her into saying them. I had tried. She could mimic any accent flawlessly, recall pages of poetry, dialogue from movies, remember exactly the names of people in newspaper articles she had read years ago. Her denial was complete.

She had found him there, on the bathroom floor: the First Death. Dr. Johnson: Death Number Two.

“I guess this has sent you spinning like a top.” I offered.

“Oh, no. I’m handling it just fine.” The reactors at San Onofre were a bright orange blur past my window. Laura cursed at cars blocking our path. “Ass. Outta my way!”

She had, she said, seen the doctor twice a week for the past eight months. Since Death Number Two, three weeks prior to my arrival, she had visited his office daily.

“My mom got a call from some nurse the day before I was scheduled to see him again. So, my mom took me out to dinner that night and told me in the parking lot what had happened. I sort of screamed a lot. The next day, I drove to his office to see if he was hiding there.”

She went back to the office every day to peek through the mail slot. She wanted to see if he was inside. She clipped obituaries from the San Diego Union, Tribune, Los Angeles Times. His never appeared. Again and again, she turned to the phone book, just to look at his name. She dialed his number. She played a kind of solitaire with the appointment cards littering her bedroom. And she slept.

"It’s really great you’re back, even though you’re going to leave again. We’ve got a lot to do this week. I want to go to the coroner’s office and get the death certificate. You’ll go with me, won’t you? I’ll give you a call.”

I had other visits to make. The coroner’s office could wait. There was no rush. I was in no rush to see Xeroxed sheets spell it all out.

Psychiatric care is to middle-class intelligentsia what bail bonds are to proletarian scofflaws. The orbits in which members of both groups move are small. San Diego is small. It is entirely understandable, then, that as I began to see Dr. Johnson in early spring several years ago, I also began to meet other of his patients. As it turned out, old friends had seen him or had come in contact with him. A shared confessor.

The arms that had once been strong enough to heave a potted palm through the windshield of her ex-husband’s vintage car now occupied themselves with a pair of canes. I had dreaded seeing this.

The scene: Esther’s vast living room, the vaulted ceiling, enormous bookcases stacked with books, the wall of paintings, walk-in fireplace. I suppose many lazy young men, in the course of a sentimental education, find their way to similar rooms. A kind of graduate seminar in the vagaries of adult living is conducted in them. In this room I began to realize there was such a thing as a wider world. She had seen and lived through it. The Second World War. Fleeing from the Baltic, hiding in the convent in Austria. The barbed wire. Escape. Arriving in America at fourteen. Learning to speak English. The disastrous first marriage; the divorce (now a Point Loma legend) in which Dr. Johnson, her former husband's psychiatrist, had testified against her during the child-custody hearings. The living room. Its parade of friends from Argentina, Japan, Yugoslavia, France, Lithuania.

But the only one who’d been visiting lately was the thin man with the winnowing gear. He’d walked off with half of the bones in her back and both breasts. Since his departure, her garden has run wild. The lavender obscures the roses. Pineapple sage has elbowed its way far above the basil. Fire lit, she sits in the great room and watches confusion grow. “While I was lying in the hospital in a body cast, the dog contracted cancer of the hip and had to be put to sleep. But not before the nurse placed the phone to my ear one morning. It was my ex-husband screaming. He’d heard about the dog and was threatening me with a court injunction. I said, ‘Listen, Ed, I can understand your concern over Coco. The first stage is always denial — believe me, I know. I’d be concerned too, if I didn’t have other things on my mind, like being paralyzed from the neck down. Give me a break. Cut the histrionics. Eat something sweet and go lie down. It’ll pass.’ ” When I told her Dr. Johnson was dead, she laughed so hard I thought she might choke.

The doctor proved to be a dandy icebreaker. An introductory statement sans pareil. His death brushed aside years of separation. Love affairs, squandered careers, divorces — wallflowers by comparison. It was such an intangible loss. People could, and they did, speculate for hours.

It was difficult to be seen publicly with Sophie. Our entrances to restaurants or parties brought stunning silence. She was beautiful. People were moved. Admirers trooped up and mouthed off. “My God, you’re so lovely.”

The waitress set our coffee on the table. Cream empty? No. Beauty knows no privacy: “I was just talking with my friend, that other waitress over there, and, I mean, you’re so pretty, you really are, and you’re so tall. Do have have trouble finding partners?’’

Sophie stared at her cigarette.

“Thank you.”

“Huh?”

"Thank you,” she said. She fixed her eyes at the Star of India, the passing traffic, started to hum.

“Oh, okay. If you need anything, just let me know.”

"We will.”

We didn’t. We listened to the two PSA pilots at the table next to ours discuss that day’s downing of a commuter flight.

"One of the guys at LAX said he’d heard that some nut brought a gun on board. Nothing left of the passengers or crew. Looks like a suicide.”

Serpents, white and black horses, birds flying into rooms at night, ravens, bone-tired pilots share a grisly powwow. Jung was correct. It’s midnight twenty-four hours a day. Symbols of destruction run rife even in the lowliest coffee shops.

"So, how did he die?” she asked.

“We don’t know yet.”

"It’s hard for me to even remember what he looked like. A small man. A slight man. He was blond, wasn’t he? I can’t remember. I was embarrassed at the time. I doubt that I even looked at his face.”

Who would want to remember? Parents divorced. A girl, thirteen years old. stared into the bathroom mirror on a bleak after-school afternoon. Blue nightgown. She sat in front of the TV. The credits of The Young and the Restless rolled by. The horrible, horrible theme music. She alternated chocolate chips and Seconal. Cold milk. Back to the mirror, she stared at herself dying.

Neighbors found her on their welcome mat.

Her mother, a therapist, took her to Dr. Johnson. "Sophie, this is your mother," he said at their final session, placing her hand in her mother’s. The banality of the gesture astounded her.

Tragedy, she had thought, produced catharsis.

"I was so humiliated by that. He said I blamed myself for my parents’ divorce, which I doubted then. Now that I’m older, I think that it might be true. I bet he killed himself, though.”

A psychiatrist’s death is fraught with peril. No etiquette books. Not a single guiding rule.

"He was a psychiatrist,” she continued. "Psychiatrists don’t recognize any power greater than the power of man. He probably felt it within his rights. It’s not unheard of.”

Everywhere I turned, I was being handed portraits of this man. There was no place to hang them.

I thought of him simply as someone who provided a service — much in the same way that many young men think of their mothers: she’s the one who cooks my meals. And I had a set routine. I would begin fretting and fuming during the drive to his office. When I reached the waiting room, I usually had four questions I wanted him to answer. I explained them for thirty minutes and let him have fifteen to offer his response. I wasn’t interested in the meaning behind things. I wanted to know if he thought I was crazy. I wasn't a threat to myself or to others; I was simply unsure.

At the final session, I walked in and launched a great summary of my life. I had a hunch that I had orchestrated many events, over a period of several years, so as to arrive at this juncture. “But are we that complex?” I asked.

He was big on analogies. "It’s as though you and I were standing along the coast, and out on the water, on the horizon, you see bumps,” he said. “And you say to me, ‘Dr. Johnson, I think those bumps out there are islands.' And you would be correct. They are islands. But actually what you’re seeing is really a submerged mountain range. So, yes. Not only are we that complex, but we are more so.”

My last memory of him. The end of our last session. The final session. He walked me to the door and shook my hand. "You’re a fine young man. You have a good mind,” he said, patting the top of my head. “You’ve got a lot of the answers right in here.”

A fine farewell.

We careened through North Park. Swearing, gesturing. Laura yanked the steering wheel. Every car a potential enemy, especially the sluggards in front of us. We were on our way to the county coroner’s office.

“Look at this,” she yelled, clawing open the glove compartment.

Maps tumbled onto my knees. Arizona. New Mexico. Texas.* Oklahoma. She snatched up and waved the Sooner State at my face.

"I can’t take anything anymore! This, this is where I'm going!”

"You seem upset.”

"I’m not upset about anything! Either I’m going to Oklahoma or I’m going to commit suicide!”

A familiar Trail of Tears.

“I have a friend. He has a gun,” she continued.

“Why Oklahoma?”

"It’s as good a place as any.”

“Have you talked with your new shrink about this?”

“No. We haven't talked about anything yet. He’s nice, but he’s no Dr. Johnson.”

We screeched into the parking lot. Parked. She jumped out and jogged ahead of me, stopping at the door.

“You go in.”

“Are you nervous about this? We don’t have to do this.”

“Nervous? Why? Should I be nervous?”

I filled out the form while Laura paced back and forth, swinging her purse.

Date of death? October 13.

“Were you related to the deceased?” the clerk asked.

“Sort of. He was our psychiatrist. We were his patients!” Laura stated with sad pride.

“Oh”

The clerk eyed us. Psychiatrist. Patients: shock therapy, gnashing teeth, random violence. She hurried off to find the file.

“God, this is horrible,” Laura said, tapping her nails on the counter.

The clerk slid the certificate toward us. Laura grabbed it. Scanned it.

“Miss! Miss! Will you explain this to us?”

“It’s pretty straightforward, isn’t it?”

“Please?” Laura asked, her voice polite but definitely with an edge.

“Looks to me like his wife found him in the bathtub at six in the morning. Cause of death is undetermined — probably decomposed. She called the police.” “Bathtub? Police? Decomposed?” “Yeah. The autopsy report’s still in Sacramento. It’ll take about six weeks to amend it to the certificate, depending on how much paperwork we have.”

“Jesus Christ...”

“Yes. Well... "

“Do you think he was murdered?”

The clerk paled. “I really couldn’t say.” While away at college in the Midwest, Laura had seen a number of other professionals, one of whom had prescribed mood-stabilizers. He handed her a shopping bag filled with samples. She spent that evening with friends, drinking beer and popping the pills like salted peanuts. The next day, she found herself in a facility. She referred to it as "the snake pit” and claimed that each morning she and the other patients were awakened by a 1970 recording of country-western vocalist Lynn Anderson singing “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden.” She said she didn’t hate the time she spent in the snake pit, but she vowed never to return.

Very, very early the next morning, I heard a voice in the dark. “I talked with Dr. Johnson last night. It was fantastic.” Laura stood at my bedroom door holding a package of sweet rolls and a large Styrofoam cup of coffee. “Let’s talk.” Full of smiles, she headed to the kitchen.

Getting her to the snake pit was going to be problematic. The sun had just risen, though. We did have all day.

Smartly dressed. Fresh faced. Sweet. She had divided the rolls and the coffee and sat waiting in the breakfast nook.

In my pajamas, I watched as the world came slowly into focus. Middle-aged joggers fled Mister in Black on the dim street outside. The morning paper lay in its dewy sack on the lawn. Laura had lost her mind.

“First of all, I want to tell you that I’ve decided not to go to Oklahoma. I’m feeling much better. Today, I’m going out to look for a job. I’ve already been through the paper.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t take on so much at once.”

“No, no, things are much better.”

“Dr. Johnson. How’s he?”

“I had a dream about him. Last night.

I went to bed real early and dreamt I was back at his office and we were talking on his couch. It was great. I was so happy to see he really wasn’t dead. We talked about my father’s death.”

“Your father’s death.”

“Yes, my father’s death. We didn’t talk about it much because some men were coming to install vertical blinds in his office. I had to leave.”

“Vertical blinds?”

She left, off to job interviews, to an appointment with her new shrink. He asked her about the vertical blinds. He was very interested in them. Symbolically.

I waited until I was good and awake before I called Mr. David J. Stark, Coroner of San Diego. Laura may have been off to a good start, but I wasn’t. My conversations about the doctor haunted me. I needed to be absolutely sure. Mr. Stark would have the answers.

"The cause of death is undetermined." He was very patient. “We found no signs of foul play. No suicide note. No traces of drugs in the organs. He was cremated."

Undetermined. The way a psychiatrist’s death should be. The ball frozen forever in the patient’s court. “Therapy itself is an act of dying," I had read. As in his office, in the larger world I would be forced to come to my own conclusions. If any were there to be made.

Before I had returned to San Diego for my visit, I stood on a crowded street on the other side of the world, asking a lady, for the fourth and final time, to marry me. I was having difficulty understanding that no, she did not want to — not now. not any time in the next four million years. I was trying my best to be adult, which often as not means accepting things with an infant's mute resolve. Still, I couldn't understand why she wouldn’t spend the next fifty years at my side.

“Well, if you can’t understand that,” she said, eyes beginning to fill, “then you can't understand me. and if you can’t understand me, then don’t ask me to be your wife!" We were starting to draw a crowd.

We parted. As one might expect, it had begun to rain.

To the office where I worked, a bottle of the cathartic method of choice under my arm. I tossed back a few shots and listened to the rain drum on the roof while my ears grew warm. When the rain let up, I made my way to the bathroom outside. On the way back, sitting directly in my path, was a rabbit. Tabby stood, in complement, not ten feet away. My task was to chase the cat away. I did. “That’s why we have the word ‘coincidence,’ ” a friend told me the following morning. I had hoped to ask Dr. Johnson about the cat and its habitual cohort, the rabbit.

If the coroner was correct, he was already dead by the time I was running through round two of my animal act. I would like to believe that it coincided with his death.

It must mean something.

I was brought up in California. People don’t die. They relocate.

Step out into that broad, flat California light. It drains the color from everything it touches. Look at that clear vista. Imagine what it means to have been born and raised in San Diego. There is nothing that reminds you that you are going to die. To have been born and to have reached adulthood here is to be older than most of the buildings now standing. There is little visual evidence of human mortality. In other places, the landscape is filled with buildings, monuments, landscapes pockmarked by war. altered by victory and defeat. Structures visibly sink into layer after layer of existence. To live in an older part of the world is to live with the constant knowledge that millions, literally millions, have passed into the ranks of a vast and silent horde.

Death here comes as a little bit more of a surprise. Time and eternity. We carry our innocence of these things with us wherever we go.

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