Of Shapes and Shocks by Sarah White

Dr. Z.P., the distinguished psychologist, likes adages. He cites them in Latin, French, English, and his native Polish. He quotes them from ancient authors and from himself. AFFECT LEADS, INTELLECT FOLLOWS is the motto I find spelled out under the image of a Rorschach inkblot, rendered in needlepoint, and hung on his stairway.

It is November 1978. I’ve come to Z.P.’s Philadelphia brownstone to mend broken threads that snapped two months ago on the day I arrived in the city for my weekly appointment with Dr. A.B. I found his office locked and learned from the doorman that my kind, bald psychiatrist had died. Reeling, I made my way back to the train station and returned to my home in Lancaster where I mourned and remembered Dr. B.’s occasional references to a brilliant, Polish polyglot colleague of his. When I wrote Dr. Z.P. to ask if he could take over my treatment, he called to say he was glad to hear from me but had retired from clinical work for the sake of his research and writing. He must revise the book on dreams he and Dr. A.B. wrote together. He couldn’t be my therapist. However, why didn’t I stop by his house and discuss the possibility of some other form of collaboration?

We are an unlikely team: he, a well-known specialist in the psychology of perception; I, a would-be poet and halfhearted Medieval scholar. Still, I am seizing the first opportunity to call at his Spruce Street home. A grey-haired elf in a trim European suit greets me at the door with a smile, a warm handshake, and an invitation to join him in his study. On the way to the third floor, he calls my attention to AFFECT LEADS, INTELLECT FOLLOWS, explaining that the picture is a handmade gift from one of his students. I am too addled and excited to make much sense of it, but more than once in the course of our time together, my host will repeat the saying. For now, he leaves it where it is and heads nimbly up the last flight of stairs. I follow.

Today, Z.P., the world-famous Rorschach interpreter, is giving me The Test. I am honored and want to do well on it, whatever that means. He turns over Plate VI and holds it out to me. “What do you see?”

What I see I don’t want to tell him. Haltingly, I try to formulate a response that will carry as little Affect as possible. If I’m hoping to avoid self-revelation (but why?), I’d be better off exclaiming “That’s a cock!” rather than letting seconds pass while I come up with “I see male genitalia.”

I am equally disconcerted by Plate IX and a shaggy space gaping between patches of dark ink. I hate saying “cunt.” “Vagina” is a beautiful word but to pronounce it here in the study feels risky.

Meanwhile, the Test-giver has discreetly timed my hesitations with a stopwatch. I have racked up high scores for what will appear in the Test results as “SEX SHOCK, male and female.” Not too damning a diagnosis, it seems. According to Z.P.’s writings on Rorschach, Sex shocks are the most benign. And maybe he takes my flustered state as a compliment.

I have the impression that the Wizard is pleased with my Test results overall. He gives me lots of M’s for Movement. In the equivocal blots, created decades ago by an allegedly random flow of ink, I have found elephants dancing, cave-girls lifting buckets from a well, Ubangi maidens stirring soup while their suitors drum and duel. Found them? Can I swear that I didn’t put them there to entertain the Wizard?

He says I’m strong in W’s, Wholes, reporting a scenario that involves the entire Plate, not breaking it up into picky details. Picky details are “little d’s,” and I have hardly any. This surely indicates something admirable about my quality of mind.

The Test has been our project for the day. This is the second time we’ve met. We haven’t yet declared our love –

It is a love as inconvenient as most loves. A distance of 60 miles yawns between Philadelphia and Lancaster, and it’s not the only gap that separates us. I am braving a new job at the base of the academic ladder. He is enjoying the fruits of his professional renown. I am a wounded divorcée whose two sons will soon depart for their own lives. He is safe in a bubble of family devotion – a husband, father, and grandfather. His statuesque Polish wife and ancient mother-in-law rule every room in the house except the one we fill, every so often, with erotic patter about poetry, dreams, psychoanalysis, Zen Buddhism (he calls it Ch’an), and the music of his beloved Chopin. I am 42 years old; he is 32 years older. Sex, when we try it, doesn’t quite work, which is just as well.

We write letters. His first one maintains the fiction that we will do research together, using dreams of mine as our material. He admits to having seen me from the first day as a sister he’d never had. “I am looking forward to a new relationship,” he writes, “to be quite an elderly brother. What is of great importance is that we both want to write. Non omnis moriar said old Horace.” He always assumes my Latin is better than it is, but I know he’s quoting a phrase about the writer’s immortality: I will not die completely. Z.P. speaks with bravura about formulating hypotheses in his field: “If they prove wanting, use them anyway … until a new and better hypothesis jumps out of our heads like Aphrodite did North of Cyprus.” What’s the Goddess of Love doing here? It was Athena not Aphrodite that sprang out of Zeus’s head.

Later, he comes clean about our original meeting: “When I first saw you, my impression – immediate – was one of déjà vécu. I had to control myself.” So, I wasn’t his sister or his muse, but someone from long ago, perhaps a girl at the University of Posnàn who knew more Latin than I and suffered from less Sex Shock.

The westbound trains leave Philly’s 30th Street Station, make two or three stops on the Main Line and one in Lancaster before proceeding to Harrisburg, the state capitol, situated on a wide river with a beautiful Native American name. One island in the river is dominated by three menacing shapes – titanic salt shakers, each with a little cap of rising vapor. They contain not salt but uranium piles housed in vast tanks of water. One evening in March 1979, a sleepy employee of the Metropolitan Edison Company turns a switch in the wrong direction, overheating the thick water around the piles, setting off a train of events that spills thousands of gallons of radioactive water into the base of one of the salt shakers. From the outside all three towers still look the same but now the innocent-looking puffs from the middle one contain deadly hydrogen blowing wherever it wants to. TV screens all over the country light up with diagrams that demonstrate the possibility of something called a “meltdown,” which has never occurred on Earth (seven years later it will, in Ukraine). Students at the college where I teach are sent home. Dormitories might be needed to house evacuees from the area near the center of the pustule. I am green with fear of finding myself in the midst of a panicked exodus, not knowing which way to go to escape the colorless, odorless sickness. Of all the people I know in the world, only one calls to ask how I am:

“I have been thinking about you.”

“Thank you.”

“How are you?”

“Scared. Maybe I don’t need to be. They keep saying the radioactivity has all been released, but they are probably lying.”

“You must take very good care of yourself.”

“I’ll try, especially if it matters to you.”

“Of course it matters.” Pause. “I love you.”

“I love you too.”

Then I ask a question I would never ask unless today were the end of the world.

“Can I come to your house?”


The world doesn’t end, but one day in January 1980, he calls to cancel our appointment. He is in the hospital, though his voice is strong and he’s eager to tell me a prophetic dream. He was lying in a bed and couldn’t get up. A woman appeared in the doorway wearing a plain dress that might have been a uniform. He was calling Help!

“In the morning, the toilet bowl was full of blood so they brought me in. The surgeon removed a large tumor from my colon. It’s a good thing I had that dream. I don’t usually ask people for help, but unconsciously I was preparing for what I’d have to do while I was ill. They say it went well. I should be home next week and will call you.”

When we hang up, I decide nothing has really happened. I just wish I’d remembered to ask him one question: in which of his languages did he call for help?

He is not home in a week. He develops phlebitis and they keep him until it clears up. Once he’s released, his long incision hurts and he tires easily. We will only meet twice more in our lives.

The day he calls about his liver, I weep in unconcealed despair, furious at him for having cancer. “Everything will be lost,” I say. “Nothing will remain of the work you and I have done. I’ll have nothing.” “Listen. Everything is right here in my office: your dreams, your poems, your test. I love you.” “I love you too.” It’s the last conversation we have. From this point on, others take over. The tender web that forms around him in his illness is impenetrable.

During our separation, I think back on an afternoon when the hours together in the study were over and he went downstairs while I stopped in a third floor bathroom. On my way out of the house, I passed my elfin lover on the sofa. A blond tot in an embroidered pinafore was bouncing for joy in his lap. “This is Janka,” he said, and I hurried away, telling myself: “That child has a perfect life. I must not disturb it.”
I wish I could have retrieved my papers, which he would have destroyed before abandoning the study for the last time. In 1985, I hear thirdhand that he is dead.

Dreams: the Key to Self-Knowledge comes out a year later without a trace of me or the dreams on which we focused our so-called research. Z. names my old therapist, Dr. A.B., as his co-author, and dedicates the book to Halina P., the wife “without whose presence this book, etc.” Although he had tried to make me feel useful by giving me chapters for commentary and proofreading, his Acknowledgements page thanks a woman with a Polish name for her work as his editor. In his oeuvre, Omnis moriar, I die completely.

If only I had been around when he prepared the final copy, I wouldn’t have let him attribute my favorite maxim to the wrong author. It isn’t La Rochefoucauld but Pascal who wrote:

“The Heart has its reasons which Reason doesn’t know.”

Today, I am older than he was when we met.

I don’t sleep well at night, and, during the day, have narcoleptic moments, nodding off with my fingers on the keyboard, jerking awake a few seconds later to see unintended lines across the screen.

They look like this dddddddddddddddddddddddddddd

Little d’s, picky details that distract the Intellect from greater Wholes. At times, they swarm over me like Gulliver’s Lilliputians.

I’ve been looking at the shapes again. I now think the strangest thing about them is not their randomness but their symmetry. Nearly every flap, fringe, mass, edge, gap and protrusion has its twin. I see some of the same old elements – pairs of rabbits, bison, drums, buckets, boots – but I don’t find the same lush African landscape, and there is no amorous elf waiting for me to describe it to him.

It occurs to me that he would have been the ideal reader for a recent poem of mine about Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude:

… a music all along composing him,

that dropped … whole …

not a prelude to anything,

If only I could follow him up the stairs again, recite the poem, and give him a little shock.

Sarah White
Sarah_White-P1010382 (1)_optSarah White lives, writes, and paints in New York City. Her most recent books, two poetry collections, are The Unknowing Muse (Dos Madres, 2014) and Wars Don’t Happen Anymore (Deerbrook Editions, 2015).