“It is not the last time I shall be writing about this girl and I know that, each time, it will be a different ‘me’ writing about a different ‘girl.’” —Masud Khan, Hidden Selves, (1983)
For a few years in my twenties, back in the mid-Eighties, I was obsessed with the empty-headed girl and her brilliant psychoanalyst, Masud Khan. This unnamed girl, the subject of a case study entitled “The Empty-Headed” in Khan’s Hidden Selves (1983), was brought to Khan’s office in a “disturbed state” one night at 11 p.m., long after his work day was over (“The clinical day had come and been!” he notes). The girl had wrecked her female analyst’s office, precipitating the tumultuous late-night consultation with Khan and the ultimate handing over of her case to him. Twenty-three years old, “highly intelligent, anorectic and episodically very antisocial in conduct,” the girl was “not a promising character,” according to Khan.
I was in psychoanalysis at the time, about the same age as the empty-headed girl when she first met Khan, and her case study gripped me with its testament to an unraveling that mirrored my own. I was a first-year graduate student in religious studies at Columbia University, when, having begun sleeping with a fellow student while still living with my boyfriend, I found myself overcome by confusion and panic. After my three months of free counseling ended, the therapist to whom I was assigned at Columbia Health Services referred me to a young psychoanalyst; I began treatment in the fall of my second year of graduate school, around the same time I encountered Khan’s writings in a class on psychology and religion.
I was fascinated by the outrageous way the empty-headed girl acted (she appeared for her first session dressed in nothing but her nightgown and overcoat), demanding care from Khan in a way that I desired but felt unable to express with my own psychoanalyst, David. Khan made allowances for the girl and responded to her attentively—both in her sessions and in his three case studies of her, two of which appear in Hidden Selves, the third in Khan’s earlier The Privacy of the Self. While I suffered the meager allotments of time doled out to me by David, the girl seemed to be the recipient of Khan’s generous tending. And on those (seemingly rare) occasions when Khan happened to be busy with other patients, or with his famous wife, the prima ballerina Svetlana Beriosova, there was always Khan’s secretary, in whose room the girl could rest, or his houseboy, who could shepherd her to the kitchen for a cup of tea. Khan was, as he reminded his patients, fully staffed.
Central to Khan’s case study is the girl’s dream of the empty birdcage. The dream was recurring; in her dreamscape she sees an empty cage, which provokes in her a sudden terror, because it can only mean that her budgies are dead. But in a dramatic scene in the middle of the girl’s analysis, when she storms into Khan’s consultation room panicking, Khan interprets the dream as an expression of the girl’s “ideal state of being.” He tells her that she is dreaming of what her life will be like after she is finished fulfilling the conventional expectations of her culture: getting married, having children, and caring for them. In fact, he tells the girl, the empty cage symbolizes “a blank state to start from positively,” when the girl will be able to do as she desires; it is a creative space, filled with potential. Khan suggests that the girl longs for “empty-headedness,” and later notes that this interpretation was a turning point in her analysis.
I, too, wanted empty-headedness—fervently. I wished to be already finished with the prime of life, in which one strives ambitiously to ascend to a position of responsibility in a career, marries and rears a family. I accepted that I would live such a life, and that it would ultimately be worthwhile, but I was in an inchoate rebellion against conventionality. I wanted to remain dreamy and unattached—empty-headed—to live in a state of pure potential. And I knew that my recent troubles had been designed unconsciously by me both to paralyze me and also to sanction my desire for help.
Looking back now from my vantage point as a middle-aged English professor, my seven years in analysis, my yearning for a particular psychic state that Khan defined in his case study as empty-headedness, seems rarefied and privileged. But to recognize this is not to deny that empty-headedness still signifies something essential for me, and perhaps for all of us.
My psychology and religion professor had given us only the bare facts about Khan: he was a maverick in the psychoanalytical community in London, a wealthy Pakistani prince who hobnobbed with the elite and was mentored by Anna Freud. His training analyst was D. W. Winnicott. I grew to know Khan from how he represented himself in his case studies: he was a tall, athletic polo player; he inhabited a consultation room near Harrods; and he hung original Braque lithographs in his office.
Empty-headedness was not the only concept that resonated with me. In “On Lying Fallow,” Khan defines lying fallow as a “psychic suspended animation” that allows for “that larval inner experience which distinguishes true psychic creativity from obsessional productiveness.” It is a state in which the subject ceases its frenetic doing in order to allow potential inner experience to hatch into something intelligible and potentially transformative. For Khan, this state is “largely nonverbal,” “transitional and transient,” “nonconflictual,” and “alert” and “wakeful.” It is easiest to sustain when one is well cared for—for instance, people who are starving or lonely, whose cities are being sacked by hostile troops or whose marriages are collapsing, cannot lie fallow.
Sitting at the Hungarian Pastry Shop across from the St. John the Divine Cathedral, writing in my journal, reading, cutting my delicious croissant into bits and painting each with a sheen of apricot jam, occasionally writing papers—I thought that this was my default mode of being, lying fallow. And I wanted all of life to be this way; I didn’t see why it couldn’t be. My paternal grandfather, who taught philosophy at the National University of Mexico, often emphasized to me that the foremost moral task of any person was simply “to be.” When in Cuernavaca, my sister and I spent hours at the glass table on the patio with its terracotta tiles and bushes of orange tubular Mexican honeysuckle, half-listening to him and our father discussing existence. “To be is probably the most difficult and, at the same time, the most important task of our moral lives,” my grandfather wrote (somewhat portentously) in his autobiography, Freedom to Live. Validated by his call simply “to be,” I modeled myself on my childhood literary hero Ferdinand the Bull, who spent his time sitting under a tree and smelling flowers rather than earning glory in the bullring.
Some months into my first year at grad school, I broke up with both my live-in boyfriend and the fellow student, and moved into a dorm room at Union Theological Seminary. Low on funds, I was compelled to take an emergency job as a secretary in the denominational office of the Reformed Church in America. The well-meaning secretaries, all at least a decade older than I, liked me, but worried that because I was Jewish they would not see me in heaven. Then one afternoon I found myself sitting on the steps facing Butler Library, crying. It was time to walk across the quad to Columbia Counseling Services. Within months, I found myself in my first session with David.
The encounter could not have been less like the empty-headed girl’s first meeting with Khan. Sick with nerves, I sat in David’s leather chair in his office on Central Park West, searching for words to express my sense of disconnection from life. I was keenly aware that I did not make a likable first impression. Pale and thin, wearing faded black jeans, a red t-shirt and red flats, I spoke to him in measured tones about my predicaments—the two ex-boyfriends, my useless degree in religious studies, the fact that I didn’t particularly wish to do anything besides sitting in cafes and reading. While I yearned for catharsis, I found, to my dismay, that my conversation with David left me feeling dumb. What I wanted, and what I couldn’t articulate, even to myself, was to be the empty-headed girl, exploding in a cataclysm of agony. In her first meeting with Khan she crumples to the floor when he shakes her hand too firmly, shouting, “Let go! Let go! You are hurting me!” I, by contrast, mediated every word I said through the sieve of my internal censor, shaking David’s hand tremulously with my freezing and clammy little claw.
David proposed that we meet a few times before determining whether or not to proceed with psychoanalysis proper. I remember him saying that we could decide together whether he was the right person for me to work with, or at least “good enough.” From my class on psychology and religion, I recognized the phrase as the one Winnicott had coined to describe the “good enough mother.” I wrote in my journal afterwards: “Perhaps I am soon to gain a new mother, a new father and a new birth.”
What exactly ailed the empty-headed girl? It is hard to say. Khan provides few biographical details about the girl in The Privacy of the Self and Hidden Selves. He tells us that the girl was raised outside of England, in an undisclosed foreign country until she was eight, at which time her family moved to London in order for the children to be educated. Her family was wealthy and cultured; they lived in a mansion until her father died suddenly, and they had to move to an apartment. Eleven at the time, the girl had not “react[ed] overtly” to her father’s death. She remained an ordinary girl until she turned fifteen, when her period was delayed and she became ill and refused school. She would starve and then stuff herself by turns. Her mother gave in to the girl’s demands, letting her off school and putting her into analysis because of the girl’s “delinquent” and “outrageously aggressive” behavior.
Khan describes the girl as tall, “hefty,” and “rather Indian in looks.” The qualifier “rather” suggests that she was Anglo-Indian. Although she was “almost beautiful,” he writes, she “looked messy, wearing her expensive clothes vengefully, like a tramp’s rags.” While I could easily visualize the girl (as an unmade bed), I could not conjure the specifics of her behavior. Although Khan makes it clear that she was a chaotic and sporadically violent person, he does not give examples, referring only to her “wild social acting out.” He reports that she came for her first session with him “enraged and crying,” refusing to “sit down and talk.” Yet he concedes that at bottom she was “a very gentle, sensitive and frightened girl who dared not be in her own person.” Because Khan’s main concern is for the girl’s inner life, we do not get physical details or dialogue the way a novelist might choreograph scenes. Rather, we must imagine for ourselves: Did the girl throw things? Did she shout and slam her fist against the wall? Did she stuff herself with bland English Walls vanilla ice cream in the kitchen of her “modern flat” at midnight? We are never told.