“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.
What we do know is her pain. Khan is a master at evoking psychic moods and realities. He sketches the girl’s helplessness, her panic, her sensitivity—her need to be seen and understood, caught and corralled. Khan delineates the girl’s madness—not mental illness per se, but rather a spinning out of control that afflicts young adults. At the center of her case is her terror over the dream of the empty cage: her budgie cage “is totally empty,” he writes. “No bird, or bird-seed, or bird-droppings in it—just a clean and empty cage.” Khan interprets:
In your dream, in fact, you jump time. You have already finished with the examinations, you have had two children. There are no more baby messes and no more maternal choring. You are free, at last, to do what you wish. The empty-headedness, for you, is an ideal state of being. … It is devoutly sought after by you and equally dreaded.
Although the dream frightens the girl so much that she arrives at her appointment hysterically anxious, Khan interprets it in a positive light, as something that expresses the girl’s desire for creative freedom. Suggesting that the empty cage is standing in for an empty head, Khan further implies that the “blank” character of his treatment space will be curative rather than stressful. And, of course, it is: after becoming a good student and a mostly compliant patient, the girl is finally able to leave Khan, to go out into the world without making a mess.
Most early mornings I walked down Broadway to 91st and Central Park West from my apartment on 112th to my nine o’clock appointment. I recall the ritual of lying down on David’s plush purple couch and looking up at the etching of a bridge above me on the wall to my left, or the abstract painting across from me with its beige shape like a camel. This invariable routine sheathed the fiery core of the experience of analysis: the transference, which baked me like a kiln.
My particular transference to David can best be described as a reprisal of the excruciating need I had felt for my mother as a young child. When I was two-and-a-half, she went to the hospital for a few days to give birth to my sister, and I began pulling away from her, rejecting her when she offered to play with me. By the time I was eight, I had established a life separate from my mother, going out into New York City and creating a new world of friends and adventure. Nothing extraordinary had happened between us, yet, unbeknownst to me, a cave of loss was just waiting to swallow me up once I began my analysis.
Each day when David came to fetch me in the waiting room, when I heard his office door open and listened to his footsteps coming down the carpeted hall, then saw him standing at the mouth of the waiting room, his eyes lifting into smiling crescents, I experienced a sensation of perfect relief. I felt desolate on Friday afternoons when I knew I wouldn’t see him for two days, and sometimes, to comfort myself, I would write him postcards. I thought about him, wanting him, all the time.
One morning in May 1992, David informed me that he would be staying home with his wife for two weeks the next month, after their baby was born. It was a balmy spring day and I had walked down to my session in a state of vague hope, wearing my favorite blue dress with tiny white flowers from the Gap, a blue jean jacket, and white Keds sneakers. Now I lay on the couch trying to swallow David’s excruciating disclosure—literally—for I found that something had suddenly gone wrong with my throat and I could not swallow properly. The world in which I had been living, a world whose premise, although largely unconscious to me, was that I was David’s only, most treasured child, was suddenly shown to be illusory.
Over the next weeks I railed against this recognition, grieving it; and given my limited number of minutes per week, I made David’s life as hellish as I could. For the first time since I had begun my analysis, I grew impervious to him and his interpretations. No matter how we tried to understand how David’s circumstance reactivated the old trauma of my mother going off to the hospital to have a baby, I remained entrenched in my anger and pain. For a few sessions I might attempt to return to my customary compliance, but then something would trigger my rage and hurt and I would relapse into a tantrum, refusing to speak for entire sessions, sitting up on the couch and glaring at David, or spending fifty minutes sobbing. During this time, I often compared David unfavorably to Khan, lambasting him for his boring interpretations and lack of flair. Why didn’t David drive a Karmann Ghia, attend gala functions at the ballet and get written up in the society pages? And why couldn’t he remain childless, like Khan, who devoted himself to his patients?
But around the time that David’s baby arrived , a Swiss friend of my mother’s gave me a watch, which I began to wear. Time had started for me. My boyfriend of many years (the fellow student with whom I had gotten back together) got his first job—a one-year teaching position—and we discussed marriage. I quit my job at the Reformed Church office and began applying to graduate school. In sessions with David, my tempestuous rage subsided. I found myself thinking about him less frequently outside the consultation room, dwelling instead on the classes in creative writing I had signed up for at NYU.
It was some years after first reading Khan’s work that I discovered more about him than what I had gleaned from his self-representations. In 1989, the last volume of Khan’s case studies, When Spring Comes, was published (after being heralded by a scathing review in the New York Times). The revelations about Khan were shocking: by all accounts, including his own, he was brutal and sadistic to his patients, transgressing the boundaries of good psychoanalytic practice so flagrantly and so often that he was ousted from the British Psychoanalytical Society. As testimonies from Khan’s former patients poured forth in print, followed by a detailed biography by Linda Hopkins, there was no way to avoid the fact that Khan, as a person, was an appalling, diabolical catastrophe. He fell down drunk in front of his patients; he played cards with them and then cheated; he said offensive things to them and slept with them. He often fabricated or embellished his case studies. And so, I reluctantly put his books away on a high (but still special) section of my bookshelf and allowed them to grow dusty. I no longer compared David to Khan unfavorably. I digested every bit of degrading information about Khan, shivering with the horror and thrill of it, just as everyone else did.
Khan’s downfall occurred around the same time that Prozac hit the market in the late Eighties, and it is tempting to read his demise symbolically, aligned with the growing cultural suspicion that psychoanalysis might be a spurious practice, ridden with quacks. In the wake of Prozac’s success, an army of psychoactive drugs has ensured that more and more people pop pills instead of lying on the couch. In June 2015, the New York Times announced that the “very project of psychoanalysis—to cure through self-awareness, through an exhaustive exploration of the patient’s unconscious mind—is increasingly at odds with what most people seem to want: to fix their problems as quickly and painlessly as possible.” Here the adjective “exhaustive” evokes the idea of fatiguing heaviness, rather than liberating completeness. Which would you rather? A drawn-out trek through the sludge and overgrown foliage of your psyche, or a breezy ride through the drive-in window of the nearest pharmacy?
The era in which both the empty-headed girl and I came of age is over. Psychoanalysis has fallen into disrepute, at least to some degree, and most of the students with whom I now work feel overwhelmed and rushed, ticking off the mandatory internships and extracurricular activities that will fill their resumes. I occasionally feel shamefaced about the seven-year gap in my own resume, yet now, with Khan himself ignominiously dead, part of me retains a “good Khan,” shaped solely by his writings and the role they played in my psychic life as a young adult. This “good Khan” authorized my need to lie fallow for seven years in David’s office—a space like an eggshell with its glossy albumen walls, out of which I hatched, able to love and work.