Ironically, one of the questions a writer of fiction hears most often is, How much of the story is true? It is a slightly annoying question. One is prompted to ask whether the story does not stand on its own. Yet it is an understandable query. What is being asked is, How did you do it? Where does it come from? These are questions we all wish to ask but can rarely answer. Behind them lies all the mystery of art.
Sometimes, though, the answer is straightforward. In the case of a story I wrote some years ago, “The Transitional Object,” fiction enabled me to reverse what had happened in reality, with impunity, to make my protagonist active—always more satisfying in fiction—when I had actually been passive. It was my passivity, my inability to defend myself, that galled particularly over the years.
In order to do this, I made my protagonist younger than I was, a psychology student at the Institut Catholique, in Paris, who goes to her professor to discuss the paper she is writing. When the student rejects her professor’s sexual advances, he gives her a low grade so that she’ll lose her scholarship. Having no other means of support or protection, she goes hungry. All of this prepares for and makes possible a dramatic act of revenge.
In reality, in the early seventies, married with three small children, I decided to consult a psychiatrist who lived near our apartment on rue de Pomereu and who came recommended by the American Hospital in Paris.
The doctor’s consulting rooms were on the ground floor, not the first, the piano nobile (nothing noble about him, the heroine will think, rather conveniently, in the story). I rang the bell and a secretary or nurse, a young woman in a pink uniform, ushered me along a dimly lit corridor, swaying her slim hips seductively, clicking her high heels as she went along.
I did not change much in the description of the doctor, perhaps because his physical appearance was so important to me afterward. (He is no longer living, I discovered when I looked him up recently.) Plump, with cherubic cheeks, he had a mysterious Buddha-like smile. He wore a shiny gray suit, probably silk, which rustled as he ushered me into his consulting room with small, fast steps in his black, shiny shoes. His office in both the story and reality was dim, with a green lamp on his desk casting a mysterious light.
In his expensive suit, Dr. B. sat behind a Louis Quinze desk covered in gold filigree. On either side of the window were bookcases filled with bound volumes: Freud, naturally, but I noticed, as I sat before him, several volumes by Durkheim, one with the word suicide spelled out down the spine of its red-leather cover. I wondered how many of his patients had done it, committed suicide. I remembered my own image in the mirror over the basin, my husband’s razor poised purposefully on the artery in my wrist. It was the reason I was there.
Dr. B. listened to my halting words. I spoke of my feelings of abandonment, my sudden plunge into sadness, finding myself bereft of my young husband’s presence and his exclusive love.
The truth was that I felt I had committed a heinous crime. I had not loved my husband as I should have. I had destroyed myself. “How can I face life alone?” I asked Dr. B., who pursed his lips and said then, or perhaps some later visit, for I returned to him several times, “Your problem is not one of a middle-aged woman who cannot find a man.”
Yet I felt old, ugly, and grief-stricken, as one can when a beloved man falls in love with a younger woman (no matter that I was just thirty myself). Somehow my husband had come to seem my only conduit into life.
One afternoon, at the end of our session, as Dr. B. gravely shook my hand, he suddenly grabbed me around the waist and pulled me with authority to his plump, soft body. For a second, I wondered if this was part of the treatment. For a man of his size, he was remarkably agile and strong. He managed my skirt and underwear with expert hands.
This is not happening. It is not possible that this respectable doctor, with all his degrees, his secretary still in the office, his large desk, his learned volumes, is doing this to me. This is another man, and it must be another young woman who stands there stunned, silent, immobile, while the man pushes down her panties and thrusts his little pink penis inside her flesh.
“Standing up like a stallion!” he whispered triumphantly and then almost immediately: “A Kleenex?” A box of which lay conveniently on the table by the door.
I left his office shamed and trembling with rage. As I rushed home under the chestnut trees, with their pink flowers held aloft like candelabras to the blue sky, I repeated, to no one and too late, No! No! No!
What seemed so appalling was that I had allowed this repulsive man to do this to me. I called him on the telephone and shouted, “Itʼs like committing incest!”
“Well, my dear,” he said suavely, “there are worse things. Make an appointment in a few days when you have thought things over calmly.”
When I did go back, he said smoothly, “I knew you would come. The telephone has a tendency to distort.”
He explained he was substituting reality for a fantasy, and that reality was never as satisfactory.
For years, I carried this secret around with me, feeling only shame and guilt, until, many years and books later, I wrote “The Transitional Object.” It was my attempt to turn reality back into fantasy: at the end of the story, the young student, having extracted from her professor a written promise to raise her grade and renew her scholarship—and sufficient cash to pay for her stay in Paris—hunts in her handbag for what the reader may take for a knife.
Sheila Kohler is the author of fourteen books, among them Becoming Jane Eyre, Dreaming for Freud, and Cracks. Her most recent is a memoir, Once we were sisters published by Penguin. She teaches at Princeton.