The Daddy Cure
On the way to Doshin’s for my third therapy session, I got lost. Vertigo overcame me as I navigated the dark, twisting hillside passages and one-way streets of his Silver Lake neighborhood. Panic did not lead to any logical effort to figure out my whereabouts but instead to a series of random and impulsive turns as I searched for landmarks among the bodegas and floodlit taco stands. Everything looked equally familiar and unfamiliar; had I passed this way last week, ten minutes before, or at some point in an indeterminate past?
I wondered if getting lost was my unconscious’s way of keeping me away from Doshin and sabotaging my treatment. Or was it my unconscious’s way of trying to protect me? In those days my unconscious seemed powerful and mysterious, and I could never tell whether it was moving me towards self-destruction or self-preservation.
My feelings about Doshin were equally confusing; sometimes his unorthodox methods and pithy statements made him seem the ultimate guru, and other times when he spoke in riddles, and gave me one of his long, soulful, self-satisfied stares, he seemed the consummate con man. I could never tell about men. All I knew was that they seemed to have the goods I needed and I hated them for it.
Impervious to my late arrival, Doshin sat by the front door in a distressed brown leather armchair. In his late 40s, imposing and tall with the big round body of a Buddha, Doshin had a soft sweet baby face and fat protuberant lips that curved up in a perpetual half-smile. As I sat down on the couch across from him, he looked at me from under such heavily lidded green eyes that it was impossible to tell whether he was really seeing me at all.
Doshin’s hair was just beginning to grow back in. Though he’d left the Zendo, and his former occupation as a Zen priest to become a therapist, Doshin still dressed austerely in black. He sat barefoot with one foot under him in what resembled some sort of Yogic posture.
“So how are you doing tonight? How are you feeling?” Doshin’s voice sounded deep and nasal as if he were forcing the words through some dark passage at the back of his sinuses.
“I got lost again,” I said, peering at him from under the hood of my hand, ashamed of what my words might telegraph about my unconscious.
“Ah,” he said,“In all things the smaller patterns reflect the larger ones.”
I’d come to Doshin out of desperation. At 28, I had rendered myself stuck back in my childhood home in La Crescenta, immersed back in my family’s chaos. Through an extreme act of will, I’d escaped two years previously for the East Coast urban life I’d fantasized about since childhood. In Boston I’d fought for a job as an assistant editor in an esteemed high-WASP publishing house where I was barely surviving on a poverty-level salary. My colleagues had Ivy League educations, trust funds, and grandmothers with houses full of antiques in the Hamptons. Always struggling to pass for normal in business meetings and author events, I was afraid that my family’s neuroses might ooze out of me at any moment like some unsightly bodily secretion.
My Boston living situation was far from ideal: I shared a rundown duplex in North Cambridge with the contentious working class Italian-American family who owned the property. The mother had a tendency to pull her three young children by their hair. The father drained the coffee from his catering truck at night and paced the premises, looking trapped. Mice ran in the walls and lowered ceiling of my apartment. One Saturday night I came home late and the father crept up behind me on the porch. Reeking of alcohol, he whispered one word in my ear, “please, please, please.”
When my mother called to tell me that my father had had a massive stroke, I rushed home to see him before he died. But he did not die. Aided by all the technical advances of modern medicine, he lingered theatrically in the ICU for weeks, and then came home paralyzed on one side, with a terminal diagnosis. He might die tomorrow, he might live a few years. My East Coast life slipped away as I spoon fed my father pureed food and listened to him scream out at the mini-strokes that continued to plague him.
The fact was, my father had long been on a downward trajectory. I’d begun to lose him when I was thirteen and my grandmother died. His refusal to let go and grieve transmogrified into full-blown psychosis. Shock treatments and hospitalization never brought him back. As an adolescent, I’d served as favored audience for his recitation of paranoid delusions. I’d watched his grotesque deterioration into the wild man who patrolled the back end of our house with sorrow, and anger, pity and contempt, and yet somewhere beneath the mangy beard and pocketed eyes, the Thorazine-subdued ravings, the handsome, charismatic hero that I had adored lurked. Now I could not muster the will to leave my father in so precarious a state to return to so tenuous a life in Boston.
“So tell me what’s going on with you,” Doshin said. “What’s going on…inside?” He smiled, full of concern.
“Everything is racing inside but I can’t make a move on the outside. I feel paralyzed.”
Doshin shut his eyes while he listened to me, rocked back and forth in his chair, and then spoke in measured tones.
“Taking no action is action by default. Even refusing to choose is a choice.”
I whimpered a little and wrapped my arms around my body.
“Let’s take some deep breaths so you can get still on the inside. C’mon, breathe with me.”
Doshin proceeded to model deep breathing, his big belly expanding out in front of him without inhibition, seeming to fill up the room. The sound of his breathing calmed me. My breathing fell into pattern with his.
“Okay,” he said, coming out of it. “Where are you now?”
I ignored the injunction to disclose my internal state, and started to rant, “I’m back in LA, breathing the smog, and getting sucked deeper and deeper into my family’s—”
“Mishegos.” Doshin completed my sentence, then laughed his deep throaty laugh. In an earlier lifetime he’d been a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn and was as likely to throw in a Yiddishism as a Zen koan.
“I just don’t know what I’m going to do. I can’t seem to take control of my own life.”
“And you expect me to tell you what to do? Oy vay!”
Doshin laughed again. And then he grew more somber.
“I don’t believe your problem is really a question of not knowing. I think you know what you want to do but you don’t want to go through the pain of doing it. Inertia holds out a false promise of less pain. She who tries to escape all worldly suffering only suffers more.”
“It’s so painful either way,” I said.
“There’s no escaping pain,” Doshin said and sighed with such deep empathy that I imagined him as having absorbed the sorrow of all human suffering throughout history.
Something about Doshin reminded me of my father in his prime, when he was the charismatic lay leader of our tiny La Crescenta synagogue. As he led Shabbat services, I’d sit in the front row below the bimah, loving him most when I could look up at him, yet maintain a comfortable distance from his booming intonations, his larger-than-life performance.
On the night of my return from Boston, I’d gone to visit him in the ICU. He lay on a gurney, naked save for a sheet. Tubes ran into every possible orifice. Every half hour or so, a nurse would come and hold up his urine bag to see what his kidneys were putting out, and as she tugged on his catheter, he’d clutch at his penis. The gesture was familiar: for years I’d watched him lay around at home in a nightshirt and grab his genitals that he believed had been injected with foreign bodies.
As I approached the gurney, uncertain how much of him remained intact, he reached out and grabbed my arm in a vise-like grip. His eyes opened wide, and with a look of horror on his face, he gripped me even harder. His lips moved but he couldn’t speak. With his hand clutching mine, he mimed the action of a gun. Did he want the gun to kill himself or his imagined enemies?
“What’s he trying to tell you?” my mother asked. “You’ve always been able to read his signals better than I can.” I protected her: “I’m not sure,” I said.
I tuned back to hear Doshin rambling on. ”I believe that people can change,” he said, “but the roots of change are unpredictable.”
“I have an idea,” Doshin said, bounding out of his chair and walking over to my side of the room. He turned off the pole lamp beside me and lit incense and a candle instead.
“Just lie back,” he said. “Trust me.”
My mistrust was matched only by the intensity of my longing to throw my complete confidence into Doshin. Ambivalence. Everything in my life was confounded by my own ambivalence. Doshin sat down behind me and put his full soft lips right up to my ear. The rush of soft air felt intimate.
“Pretend there is a long flight of stairs before you, winding and winding, and as you descend, you go down deeper and deeper.”
I shut my eyes; the seduction of Doshin’s voice overcame my resistance. I let it carry me. The staircase’s banisters disappeared before me. At the bottom the ocean opened up before me, crystalline blue. A moment of fear, and then I walked right into it, my reservations turning into bliss at having given up the fight. I felt suspended in time and space, opened up, vulnerable. Just as the waves pounded the shore, the sun beat down on my face, just as I had finally relinquished my defenses and felt on the verge of tears, Doshin seemed to tire of the game. He snapped his fingers, cleared his throat, got up, turned back on the pole lamp and directed its light right into my face.
“Okay, you’re going to wake up, fully alert, fully rested, with clarity.”
“Now, here’s your homework. Walk at least a mile a day. Make some decision every day, no matter how small, without wavering. Session over,” he said.
“I just need to sit here a minute,” I said.
“You don’t have to go right now,” he said. “You’re welcome to hang around.” He went into the kitchen and returned with two glasses of wine.
I gulped the cheap rose quickly.
Doshin looked sad, his eyes pulling me from across the room.
“Therapy is a very solitary business,” he said. “The hardest part is seeing people suffer and not being able to offer something more tangible to alleviate their pain, something of what is good in me that I could put directly into them.”
“I better go,” I said, not wanting to leave but also not wanting to drink any more wine and face those vertigo-inducing streets. I put on my coat and walked over to his chair. The impulse to sit on his lap, even if only for a moment, was irresistible. He seemed the picture of succor just then; male in his substantiality and his authority; female in his soft, sweet, effeminate face and body. Father and mother. I needed both. I leaned over him, unsure whether I was offering a child’s embrace of a parent or a sexual overture.
Doshin’s response called the shot. As I slipped onto his lap, his breathing quickened and his weight shifted. He twisted me around so that our body contact was more frontal. I kissed him almost as if to gauge the situation. When he kissed back greedily, I had a simultaneous feeling of sinking disappointment and of triumph. Oh God, I thought, here is another man who cannot just be what he is supposed to be, who cannot just honor the role he’s promised to fulfill.
“You’re in trouble, now, Doshin,” I said, feeling sad but full of power.
“Big trouble.” My mind raced: would I be able to hold onto him with sex? Would we just do nonstop therapy together? Could he love me into calm and happiness, resolve all my conflicts, solve all my dilemmas? I imagined him helping me nurse my father back to health, restoring him to pre-stroke— no, further—pre-psychotic-breakdown status.
“Trouble seems to be my middle name,” Doshin said, laughing.
While I fantasized, Doshin fondled my breasts, groped my ass, steadily pushed for progression to intercourse. But it felt too contaminating to sleep with him on the spot, to let a therapy session extend into a tryst. I pulled back.
“I’m confused,” I said. “What exactly are we doing now, sex or therapy?”
“It’s just us,” Doshin answered dreamily. “Do you have to put a label on it?”
“This can’t be therapy,” I insisted. “If you want to do this, can’t we just go out on a date?”
He sighed with exasperation as if wearied by, but willing to indulge, my immaturity.
“All right, we’ll have a date then,” he said. Our date was to take place at his apartment a few days later, without the pretense of a therapy session.
I wish I could say that in the few days I had to think about it, I came to my senses and called it off. But I went back, I went back with a mission; I went back with a vengeance. I went back feeling as if I were suddenly in love with him, even though I knew that if he hadn’t been my therapist, I would never have considered him remotely attractive; even though I felt nauseous with anxious foreboding as the day of our date approached.
When Doshin opened the door, my nauseous foreboding reached its apex. Still dressed all in black, Doshin wore a leather vest that tugged across the belly. By the way he strutted around his apartment, I could see that he thought it made him look sexy. Sexiness was beside the point. Did he really think this was just about sex? If I knew anything then, it was that having sex with Doshin was symbolically charged in a way that transcended ordinary sex. The problem was I only knew it in the murkiest way. I’d read Freud, I knew all about transference; I understood that at least some of the power I vested in Doshin derived from my transferring onto him feelings I held for my father. But how much was transference and how much was Doshin? Could having sex make it all become clear?
Doshin paced his apartment and then launched into a professional disclaimer. “I’m not about to become your boyfriend,” he said.
“I have no expectations,” I lied, wanting to get on with it, and get into the realm where I could partake of Doshin’s power. With the pull of a string, Doshin transformed the therapy couch into a futon that would now serve as our bed. “Tada,” he said. “Dadaism, one of my favorite forms of art; I am a Dadaist of the spirit.”
“Dada,” I said. “The first words for father.”
Doshin threw his mass onto the futon with boyish enthusiasm. For a moment, he just sat beside me and gently stroked my face. Then he reached across to a side table drawer where he kept his stash of marijuana. He rolled a joint deftly. I looked around the room. Sandalwood incense burned in front of an impromptu alter. A bronze statue of a goddess reached out her arms in invitation, though her face was rigid. The statue might have been some genuine religious artifact or something Doshin picked up in a secondhand store; he had a propensity for mixing the sacred and the profane. On the walls of Doshin’s living room hung Rousseau prints of the jungle, attesting to his apparent belief in the nobility and romance of the primitive. A smell of something strong but unrecognizable wafted in from the kitchen—was Doshin cooking dirt?
Doshin took a long hit off the joint, then handed it to me. I tried to take it in, but I had my father’s asthma and sensitive lungs. As I choked, my eyes went to the baby doll displayed proudly on the bookcase. Her hair was matted from excessive play and her face smudged with grease. Someone had painted blood red stripes across her forehead and cheeks, war paint. The doll had shed one arm and the other was stuck through the hole where her leg belonged. She had no legs. She had no clothes. She was mutilated and could not run away.
“What’s with the doll?” I said.
“Found art,” Doshin laughed. She clearly pleased him, her odd and haphazard arrangement of limbs a kind of visual pun. “She is a dolly the Dadaists would love, or maybe she’s a dolly by Dali,” he said.
The marijuana only amped up Doshin’s inveterate propensity for punning. His wordplay was making me more and more nervous. Doshin seemed intent on blurring all categories of meaning, even the linguistic ones. When the edges of the futon curled up around us, he hugged me tight and said, “Oh, we’re a danish, a Doshin and Deborah danish, with two nuts at its center.”
I threw myself into the scheduled event, stripping off Doshin’s clothes. I pushed him down on the futon. If we were going to do this, I wanted to do it quickly, to outrun my growing ambivalence with the strongest possible sensation.
“Wait,” he said. “This calls for Classical music.” He got up and changed the CD. “Okay, proceed,” he said.
I put my head down and started to kiss Doshin’s chest which was covered by a mass of black fur. The skin underneath the hair was white and smelled sweeter than I expected. Baby sweet. Full of conflicting feelings, of fear and hostility and a sense of having been simultaneously indulged and betrayed, I would channel all my feelings into a fierce act of oral sex.
I stripped off Doshin’s pants. I had expected his penis to be elegant and professorial; instead it was squashed and ill-shaped. No wonder he had to drop out of the Zendo, I thought, he has the penis of a truck driver, not a priest.
As I carried on, Doshin basked in the attention, inviting me to worship at the temple of his penis. He arched his back and pushed his snub-nosed member deeper and deeper into my throat.
“Look what I can do,” he said. “My penis is throbbing in time to the music. “Ah, Debussy’s Prelude a l’apres midi d’un faune performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the Erection, I mean, Direction of Doshin.” He laughed uproariously.
“Maybe I have baton envy,” I said.
I put Doshin’s penis back into my mouth and felt the soft flesh swell against my cheeks. As I sucked harder and he achieved a fuller erection, my jaw started to ache. I ran my tongue up and down the shaft; I made circles around the circular band of flesh that marked the site where his foreskin had been removed. I sucked harder and harder, sucking for all I was worth. I sucked for strength and power. I sucked for self-transformation. I sucked for oblivion. I sucked to overwhelm him and to succumb myself. After a while, I needed a rest.
Doshin’s mood shifted again. He grew tender, taking my face between his hands. “At this angle, you look like a Japanese woman whose picture I’ve seen on a card.” I imagined the playing cards my father kept in his top dresser drawer, with pictures of nude women. He had memorized the suits by their bodies; the buxom streaked blonde was the eight of hearts; the petite Japanese with the pixie cut the queen of spades.
Now Doshin pulled me up so that I was balanced on top of his rotund stomach and we were face to face. He began kissing my mouth, enclosing it completely in his fat lips and sucking. I felt like I might drown in orality.
“I like your lips,” he said, “because I can have cross-sensory experiences with them. I can touch them and taste them at the same time.” Our mouths together kissing seemed limitless. His tongue, which was massive, and mobile, became a part of my mouth that I could not control.
I was losing my bearings altogether.
“What was in that joint?” I asked.
“You’re Doshintoxicated.” he said. “Don’t you know that other people are always the most powerful drugs?”
Okay, there was transference and then there was this; this was impossible. This felt like an acid trip.
“This relationship is starting to feel very incestuous to me, very father-daughter. It’s taking on some kind of mythic dimension and I’m having trouble holding on to the here and now,” I said, still hoping that Doshin would feel a sense of responsibility and reassume the therapist’s mantle. It wasn’t too late; he could still get up, say it was all a mistake, put on his clothes, and take the chair across the room.
“Oh, it’s hardly father-daughter,” Doshin was quick to dispute, pulling me back down and throwing his weight over me. “It’s only brother-sister. I never had a sister and always wanted one.”
“You’re nothing like my brothers,” I said. “And would you have wanted to sleep with your own sister?” I asked.
“Oh, sis, the incest taboo is highly overrated,” he said.
I tore Doshin’s glasses off his face. They were throwing reflections, creating further distortions. With his glasses removed, I felt as if I could see more clearly, be more in charge. I touched every inch of his face. I kissed, I bit, I put the life in, I sucked the life out. I was an infant again, sinking into the infantile life of the mouth. My mouth remembered more than I knew, and it suckled.
Try as I did to keep Doshin in focus, in the here and now, he kept shifting shape. With my eyes shut kissing him, he was a bear, a gargoyle, the Buddha. He was enticing, grotesque, revolting. He was my father. Like Doshin, my father didn’t know the meaning of boundaries, always treating me as if my body were an annex of his own. He indulged me, doted on me, claimed to adore me. He also projected his hypochondria onto me, keeping me home from school for days for the most minor illness, subjected me to unnecessary medical tests and procedures, doused my every small cut with massive swaths of merthiolate. He taught me to fear every bodily process, to worry that I might stop breathing in the night when I’d often wake up to find him standing over me in his underwear, asking, “Baby, baby, are you still breathing?” He also shared with me his every adult anxiety and sexual fantasy. Though no incest had occurred, what had passed between my father and me felt like a contagion. Whatever he could not contain in himself, could not accept like an adult, he put into me and I had absorbed his guilt for doing it. My relationships with men felt trauma-tinged: like car wrecks with moments of intense impact followed by lingering pain.
If I had suspected that I could resolve my relationship with my father by sleeping with Doshin, as his stand-in, I realized I had been wrong. Not only was this turning out not to be therapeutic, it was feeling like the ultimate violation of order and decency in the world.
Sex appeared to be having an altogether different effect on Doshin. He rolled over and pulled off my shirt, then buried his face in my chest and stomach, roving and kissing and laughing. Dashin was giddy, seemed to be feeling above the law, capable of forms of communion through sexual means unavailable to lesser therapists. He took each of my nipples between his teeth and pulled on it till it was hard. Then he was ready.
At the moment of Doshin’s intended entry, I felt the blood drain from my face. I sat up on the futon, hyperventilating and Doshin backed off. I didn’t think that Doshin’s penis could fit in me; every time I took my eye off it, it expanded to super human dimensions. I expected it to expand further if I put it inside where I could not see it, to sprout barnacles perhaps. This was no ordinary flesh and blood penis but a magic-mythic penis capable of who-knows-what transformations.
“What is it?” he asked.
I’m not sure,” I said. “I feel like I’m coming apart.”
“The self is an illusion. You don’t need to work so hard to hold it together. Let’s disassemble together.”
Dissemble, I thought but didn’t say. Dissemble. There was no turning back now. I lay back down, held my breath, and advised Doshin to proceed. I was shocked and brought back to the physical world when he successfully entered me and I realized that his penis was only flesh, like any other. The body was just the body. It offered no escape, no redemption.
You are just a man, I recited in my head. You cannot save me. And you are not my father. Not every man is my father.
Doshin was an opportunist of the senses, a man who wanted to believe that the momentary sensation of transcendence was equivalent to the real thing—or as close as a Jewish boy from Brooklyn was likely to get. I was looking for instant therapy, for the dramatic catharsis I’d seen in movies where the heroine viscerally relives a childhood trauma and is freed of it forever. But it was not that easy. Reenactment did not necessarily bring resolution.
“I’m giving it all to you,” Doshin said, thrusting inside me. He held me down by the shoulders so that he could jam away without my moving. Doshin arched his back and pushed himself so hard into me that I saw the truth; he was as desperate to find some passageway out of the self as I was. We would never get out through each other.
“Are you trying to dig your way to China?” I asked.
He was lost in his own reverie. “I’m giving it all to you,” he said again. “Not just all of my penis, ALL. I want you to take in all of me.”
All what? I said to myself. Don’t give it to me, I thought, and then whispered the words to Doshin, the words I should have said to my father years before,”Don’t give it to me,” I said. “I don’t have anywhere to put it.”
But Doshin was too far gone to respond. “Look at me, I’m coming,” he screamed. “I want to come into your eyes.” He shook me awake and I was one of those dolls whose eyes stick so that only a shake can force them open. My eyes were as blind as a doll’s; if I looked into his I would be turned into stone.
“Come where?” I said, but thought I am not your orifice. At that moment I wanted to seal all of my orifices, starting with the eyes. I wanted to encase my vagina in steel. I wanted to stop everything from going through me. I imagined being shut tight against further incursion; I wanted to get every bit of my father out of me at once and forever, but for the love.
Doshin’s eyes were wide open as he came. It reminded me of looking into a dead fish’s eye in the case of the Jewish deli we’d frequented when I was a child. Doshin refused to abide by even the most basic rules of propriety; for god’s sake, people were supposed to come with their eyes closed. There was no limit, it seemed, to what people could have in their mouths, inside their pants, in store for me. Doshin’s open eyes held no secrets, told me nothing, just kept asking.
I pushed Doshin off me.
“What about you?” he said.
“What about ME?” I said.
“Ah, my soup,” Doshin said, suddenly remembering the pot on the stove in his kitchen. I stood up and took some perverse pleasure in dripping Doshin’s own cum onto his Persian rug. Then I walked over to the bookcase and took the doll’s leg out of her arm socket. I rested it where her leg ought to be, then patted it gently. That was the best I could do for now.
“It’s been cooking for 24 hours,” Doshin said proudly, emerging from the kitchen with a big bowl of soup that he was eating with an oversized wooden spoon.
“What’s in it?” I asked, afraid of his propensity for hidden meanings.
“Black beans, meats, sausages, spices,” he answered. “Taste it,” he urged, coming over and putting the spoon too far back in my mouth. The soup was black, smoky and deep, with a bitter aftertaste. It was as polymorphously perverse as he was.
“It tastes dark,” I said.
“You taste the way I do,” he said. “That’s exactly how I would describe it.”
“I don’t know about you,” he said, “but I thought that was some extraordinarily mind-blowing sex.”
“That was something,” I said.
Doshin rose abruptly. “Time for my evening meditation,” he said, stretching.
When I got outside, I tried to take a deep breath, but the LA smog stung my lungs. A while later, Doshin called me and said, “I fucked up, please come back to therapy.” Of course, I should never have gone, but I did. I went back and sat across the room from him, and pretended we could still do therapy. I loved him, I hated him, I love-hated him. He had betrayed me; he had tried to save me; it was my fault, I had sat on his lap, I had seduced him. Eventually, when I realized that he did not have whatever it was I still wished I could get from him, I stopped our sessions.
I was still living in California, out of my parents’ house, and in a rundown, by the week motel in Santa Monica when my father finally died, two years later. I trembled for weeks. A friend convinced me to see another more legitimate therapist. I downplayed my account to him of what had happened with Doshin, but every time he made a sudden move or cleared his throat or looked at me with urgency, I half-expected him to unzip his pants and have sex with me. I both dreaded and desired it. Talking was so much harder.