Walking on Glass: From Invulnerability to Vulnerability – – Encountering Shame and Desire

Joyce Block, Ph.D.

The story that I am about to relate, is of encounters with shame and desire (and the shamefulness of desire), after one man’s illusion of his own invulnerability shatters, and what remains are fragments of his life.

Aspirations towards invulnerability and unhappy entanglements between desire and shame are not uncommon experiences, and thus, invariably, they are elements in every psychotherapy process, welcome or not.  Who doesn’t struggle over questions of how much to want, how much to reveal about wanting, and how much to detach altogether from problems inherent in revealing and wanting?

Yet the story that I tell, in which figure a black middle-aged man and me, his white middle-aged psychotherapist, presents further complications on what are, perhaps, universal conundrums.  I cannot do justice to the disparate experiences that we share within the safety of my office, without acknowledging the surrounding world outside, as well as the different worlds within that larger world, that he and I inhabit: worlds that speak different languages, that are haunted by different ghosts, and that dream different dreams of salvation, damnation and transformation.

The headline news this year across the country, from Ferguson to South Carolina to Staten Island to Texas and to Cincinnati, is not irrelevant to what we feel with each other, though the news comes up only infrequently in conversation with my patient, which, in itself, is significant, as any absence is bound to be.  These news stories reveal, with photographic evidence, the extent to which black men, women and children are vulnerable to violence and systemic racism at the hands of those in authority, the ones they are “supposed” to trust.   Thus, the legacy of slavery, disenfranchisement, and psychological degradation that was transmitted consciously and unconsciously to my patient through his family, is mirrored in his and his people’s present day social, economic and political realities. While the world of psychotherapy is designed to accommodate various shadings of feelings, wishes, and meanings, to promote freedom of expression, mutuality and respect for otherness, the news describes a world that often operates literally and figuratively in terms of black and white. The contrast between life within the office, between my black patient and me, and life for him and me outside, is glaring.  Can we bridge the gulf?

As a psychotherapist, the intermingling of dangers coming from without (that is, from the so called real world) and dangers coming from within (from the individual’s memories and fantasies) is always a confusing mix that is impossible to tease apart. However, given the backdrop of our contrasting social and political histories, and present day experiences, the imbalance of authority, love, and dependency implicit and explicit in the psychotherapy relationship is especially saturated with suspicion, pain, and uncertainty as this man and I explore his vulnerabilities and his accompanying desires to transcend vulnerability and desire entirely.   Now, let’s zoom in more closely…

“My boy can walk on glass and not get hurt,” Julius’s mother used to brag to her friends, or so the story goes, and though for me, his therapist, the luminous figure of Christ miraculously walking on water hovers in the shadows. Julius feels no glow of pride at repeating his mother’s  proud testimony.   Rather, his tone is bitter and his tears are infused with anger and shame.  My eyes meet his and my vision darkens.  Though his mother claimed that the shards of shattered glass she strew in his path – – the sharp words and constant beatings – – never punctured his skin and were never painful to him, he insists that the pain was always there even though nobody was willing to acknowledge it including him.  “I denied it,” he tells me, admittedly guilty for having colluded with his mother in enacting the myth of his invulnerability. Furthermore, his mother insisted that he had her to thank for having become the family’s black knight in shining armor,

Julius asks himself, “What if I hadn’t been complicit?  What if I had instead cried out in protest?”   Would that have been better?  Which choice would have spared him more shame and more pain? Who is to say?  As a child, Julius had vowed to himself to remain impervious to the extension cord his mother swung across his back and face, and resolved to bend but not to break when she put her foot on his neck to secure her hold.

The shared myth of transcendence between Julius and his mother, composed of clotted feelings and a twisted logic that ultimately unraveled, is agonizing to hear recounted.  I have heard its variations innumerable times throughout the sixteen years I have seen Julius in psychotherapy.    Still, despite the pain inscribed within the myth, Julius’ childhood ideal continues to be alluring, maybe because it justifies and valorizes his mother’s intransigence and cruelty as well as his own.  Indeed, Julius wishes, if only half-heartedly, that he could, once again, turn that switch and seal off the flood of emotions that are now threateningly unmanageable.  Debilitating conflicts, tender nerves exposed, loss of faith and courage to move on, all make him and me nostalgic for that powerful figure who could walk on glass, with confidence and hope, generous and staunchly colorblind.

“Move your feet! Why are you running?  What are you trying so desperately to hide?”  The inner cop, with a white face and a black voice, shoots out his commands relentlessly to this day, demanding that Julius get out of the house, get back to work, and back in line.   I cannot be a neutral bystander to what resembles the language of racial profiling, the dynamics of master and slave, the cruel and contemptuous tone of his mother, and yet, I am not certain of my powers to intervene.  Vigilance, punishing self-discipline, assimilation, a winning smile, and precisely targeted duplicity had served Julius well, until they didn’t, and now the very memory of his homespun antidotes to prejudice and pain, leaves a bitter aftertaste.  Yet, what are his alternatives?

His mother stripped him naked before she beat him, but Julius’ vulnerability and humiliation inspired him to dream of a radically different future, to turn his back on his past, and to become a figure larger than life, whose very integrity lay in his ability to not care, to turn the other cheek, and to steadfastly endure. To this day, everyone loves and admires Julius’ extraordinary strength and apparent equanimity, including me, his therapist.

The kid, whom his mother called “Bastard,” had indeed become the neighborhood hero:  articulate, unflappable, the exceptional black man. Julius is a man who moves me with his insights, impresses me by his perseverance, and embarrasses me by his embarrassment, as he nervously exposes his vulnerabilities in my office.   If to this day he struggles secretly to disguise his feelings of illegitimacy, love, shame, and insatiable hunger, he has to acknowledge that his mother deserves some of the credit as well as the blame for who he has and has not become.   That little boy who was also called “Jun the Bum” by the kids on his block, because he had holes in his shoes and rifled through the garbage cans in search of returnable bottles, transformed himself into “Jun the Bomb,”  who got out of the ghetto and out from under his mother’s foot on his neck.

The transformation might have appeared miraculous, as nobody but Julius saw the ghost of the child lurking behind the scenes, “hiding in blind sight.”  But that was only until the repressed returned with a vengeance, smelling blood and staking a claim on his life.  How did this reversal happen and did it have to? How could a beautiful butterfly turn back into a creeping caterpillar thirty-five years later?   There are reasons we can point to:  His closeted gay half-brother suddenly died of AIDS, and his gentle soft-spoken father became delusional and had to be hospitalized as a consequence.  Additionally, shortly thereafter, Julius was unfairly denied a promotion as regional manager in the multi-national corporation within which he had worked for over seventeen years.  His white boss, who had mentored him and whom he had trusted like a father, betrayed him, and used him as a cover for his own failures and misdoings.  Insidious racism, the loss of two fathers, one biological and one adoptive, and the intractability of corporate politics, all added up, and Pain was no longer empowering or deniable. The ticking bomb finally went off, and Julius fell under friendly and unfriendly fire.  Shaken by uncontrollable anxiety, contemplating revenge, and ruminating about death, Julius received a cash settlement after filing a law suit, but he had never returned to paid work again.

In Julius’ last conversation with his mother, when she was in the hospital dying of breast cancer, she expanded on the theme of her son’s extraordinary toughness, that  mythic quality of invincibility that she probably wished to appropriate as she encountered the fragility of her own life: “Bastard you owe me.  I made you strong.”  To which he replied: “I owe you shit. I owe you a whupping.”   In the face of Death, vulnerability writ large, he delivered what was to be a belated act of vengeance for his mother’s paradoxical blessing.

By mimicking her language of power, and speaking monstrous words in response to the monstrousness of the occasion, I wonder if his stinging remark did not also strengthen their shared bond of violence, a bond he had labored to deny.   There’s an addendum to his story:  “May she burn in peace.”   Julius tacked on this conclusion to their bitter dialogue after her death, and has repeated it to me, as he has repeated it to himself, like an ironic mantra, a protection against the usual deathbed sentiments.  The conversation between them continues, though now only within his own mind.   Because the harshness of his words inadvertently proves her argument, as it denies his pain, his love, his loss, and his indebtedness, he looks at me uneasily, more sad than angry.   He cannot avoid feeling the stabbing sharpness of his retaliatory blessing and neither can I.  The glassy surface shatters under the weight of life and the fragments hurt, whether he hurls them or steps upon them.

“Fear and anger was all I knew before I came into this office,” Julius often repeats when on the verge of tears, that is, when he is sad for what he had known but wished he had not known, and even sadder for what he had not known and does not dare to wish for now.  If I dare to name his wishes: “Freedom,” “Equality,” “The Pursuit of Happiness,” and of course, “Love,” or rather, a gentler form of it, what then?  They are not so exorbitant I say, and though he agrees with me in theory, for him, they feel like impossible dreams.

Julius has lost his magic, and without it he feels disoriented, damaged and he wants to be fixed. He wrestles constantly with what it really means to repair himself, or take good care of himself, now that he no longer single-mindedly aspires to live incognito, without feelings, as a perfectly calibrated machine.   I too am uncertain about the nature of fixes, and am very conscious not to assume that my idiosyncratic amalgam of white middle class, New York Jewish psychoanalytic perspectives on human flourishing would be relevant, appealing, or digestible to him.   Can I compete with Julius’ memories of his ferociously opinionated mother who raised six children, worked in a factory, and “ran numbers,” or his wise but deferential father, who stuttered and never got his driver’s license?  Can I offer a credible alternative version of masculinity in juxtaposition to the masculinity of the Street, where he fled from gangs, and from cops, or  to the experience of the corporation where he was prodded to fudge the numbers?  Should I presume to?   Can I be an instrument of change without minimizing Julius’ attachment to his disparaged origins and the pain he associates with them, without intensifying his loyalty to his homebred remedies for unjustifiable degradation?

“I dream about you Dr. Block.  And, in my dreams I am drawing you close to me. (He demonstrates with his arms.)  “It’s intimate; I love you. I wouldn’t have ever been able to say that before I came into this office fifteen years ago, and even now it is a struggle to meet your eyes.”  I am also uneasy with his uncertain yearnings, but purposefully do not unlock my eyes from his gaze, and am deeply moved that he has said what in the past he was unable to. I also struggle to find a level of intensity and intimacy that feels manageable for both of us.  Ironically, just as Julius expresses his desire, albeit in his dreams, to draw me closer to him, he is careful to maintain his distance, addressing me as he customarily does as Dr. Block, (even though I never identify myself as such with him).  Apparently, we are both tentative as we face a hunger that feels possibly cannibalistic and insatiable, a hunger that, were it to be unleashed, may be too much for our circumscribed relationship, if not too much for any relationship between two separate and equal subjects.

“Get out of the kitchen you Bully Headed Bastard,” his mother warned him when as a child he wanted to get closer and cook with her and his sisters.  “Don’t get above your raising” was her reflexive response to any question he asked. And when his sisters discovered he listened to rock-and-roll music on the radio, they taunted him about being an Oreo –– black on the outside but white inside.

Still, Julius returns twice a week to his usual corner of my couch where he surrounds himself with pillows, and clutches one.  I, in my chair directly opposite him, am also cushioned by my favorite pillows, while together we ponder the comforts and dangers of exposure and softness, the blurry shades of sepia and gray between the hard edges of blacks and whites.  What happened to “hiding in blind sight,” to self-transcendence, to wanting and needing nobody?

“Your clock is wrong,” Julius jokes as he walks into my office his customary three to ten minutes late.  I smile at what has now become his routine one liner, but I am unwilling to glide over the ambiguous and contradictory elements in this repetition.  Sometimes, by way of explanation, he tells me that he doesn’t want to put the kind of pressure on himself that he used to impose when he was an aspiring superhero:  In that Golden Age when he was at the height of his career, he was meticulously organized, over-booked and over-prepared, and always available to colleagues, friends, family, and strangers alike without ever having to be asked.   “I used to say to the people I managed, ‘If you’re just on time you’re fifteen minutes late.’  I was always early and wanted to be a good model.   Now, however, a word I never used to use, I want to be okay not being so precise.”

Consequently, against that backdrop of compulsion, striving, and self-discipline, I am inclined to support, maybe even indulge Julius’ rebellious inclinations.  He wishes to be as free as anyone else to mess up in little ways, once in a while, and I certainly wish for him to enjoy that freedom and equality.  So, if his purposeful lateness means that he is not being the perfect patient, and refusing to please his mother by “walking on glass,” I figure that this could be a fruitful and empowering sort of resistance.  Indeed, I have a sense that we are both being put to a test:  Will I accept him even if he messes up?  Will he accept himself?  Will I give him back the minutes he has lost when he lingers at the door, frustrated, mid-sentence, with so much more to say but no more time left in which to say it?  Sometimes I do give him some extra time, but sometimes I don’t and in my gestures bid him on his way.  Whatever happens between us during those concluding moments, the giving and the receiving of Time is fraught with meaning, as it can appear that I am the one who has the power to give and he is the one in the more vulnerable position, wanting and only maybe receiving.      Julius describes the Solitary  (‘Jun” the Bomb, who by all accounts could walk on water) as a sad figure, but the famished baby grabbing for an elusive breast is humiliating.   “Longing” for Dr. Block, and that is the word he has used when he is not feeling unbearably desperate, is a secret pleasure, as well as an aching wound.  When the balance tips between pleasure and ache, appetite and insatiability, the resulting feelings are potentially overwhelming.   Thus, when Julius pre-emptively cuts short our sessions, introduces irony by referring with a grin to his “tardiness,” I hear not only intimations of growth and the toppling of tyranny, but also echoes from his past, a new reign of terror following a bloody revolution.  This raises the question, where’s Julius wrapped up within his multi-colored cloak of invincibility?

In Julius’ world, agency and invulnerability have always gone hand in hand, and being open to the Other, which includes having a desire for the Other, (in this case for me), bears too close a resemblance to submitting to the White Man.   So, we are in the midst of an experiment in combining agency and vulnerability, freedom and attachment, my needs and desires and his.  Are they antagonistic, or complementary, elements in caring and being cared for?   Can we both be strong and both be vulnerable? How can we extricate ourselves from those stultifying binaries?

The asymmetry in our therapeutic relationship allows for Julius to unbind his forbidden and unformulated desires and fears without worrying too much about me and my needs.  Indeed, a transitional space, wherein the imbalance of power is temporary and jointly agreed upon, is necessary for all the fragments of his life to be re-collected and then included, one way or another, in the creation of a new order.   That being said, however, this same asymmetry is also a potential staging ground for the repetition of the old order, as it can re-evoke the imbalance of power that once branded Julius as a helpless supplicant, an uncared-for child, and that he now encounters in his daily life as an unemployed black man––guilty until proven innocent.    If Julius is ever to love and desire without feeling weak and ashamed, crazy and illegitimate, an interloper in the white world or a scam artist from the black ghetto, I am convinced that I need to get myself off the pedestal upon which he has placed me, and bring “Joyce,” not just Dr. Block into our conversations.  In other words, I need to introduce and practice a measure of symmetry, not just as a technique, but in the spirit of mutual recognition, the breaking of false idols, and the “spontaneous gesture” that acknowledges rather than homogenizes our real and fantasized differences and similarities.

In this spirit, one morning when Julius asked me if I ever heard of the Sam Cooke song “A Change is Going to Come” (a song he watched his mother dance to in her bedroom when she thought that nobody was looking), I replied eagerly, with all sincerity, “Yes, I love Sam Cooke, I know the song.“  Julius’ mood was uncharacteristically wistful, and I noted to him how this was a very different kind of memory than his usual memories of his mother’s brutality.  Indeed, as he was revealing tender feelings for his mother that he was not inclined to admit, let alone reveal,  I knew that I should reveal some of my own tender feelings as well.

And so then the next session, I came in with my CD in hand, and reached out to Julius, physically moving in closer and said “I had this in my car and now I think of you whenever I listen to it and the song.”  I was brimming over with emotion and I did not try to hide it.  Julius had shown me what he could not show his mother, and what she could not show him: the music of dreams not of violence.  I wanted to expose some of the feelings and dreams I had for him, so that he would not have to hide his any longer.  If he were to imagine that I can “walk on glass,” “without memory or desire,” which is a fantasy that our asymmetrical relationship encourages, how would he be able to live with himself or me when clearly, he no longer can?

Stunned less by the fact that I listen to Sam Cooke, and more by the fact that I think of him and care about him even when he is not in the office, Julius described himself as “ferklempt,”  “choked up” with feelings.  Ironically, “ferklempt” is a Yiddish word he came upon a couple of years before, he knew not how, and one that seems to best capture these experiences he has had with me of being filled up with gratitude, love, regret, and yearning.  In that instance, the word had become our form of sharing––sharing his musical and my cultural heritages, but also our love and desire to connect with one another despite our obvious differences.

“I think of you when I hear anything Jewish or anything about New York. But also I think of you throughout the day. I hope it doesn’t sound like I am a stalker.” Love can be dangerous when it becomes obsessive, all consuming, or submissive; we both know that intuitively.  But without love, Julius will continue to live as a Solitary, an evil alchemist, a false messiah; he will pretend to walk on glass and pretend to be above all personal desire and pain.  “I think of you too,” I replied, and then, bringing life to my words the next week I brought in an editorial that I had read, about being black and growing up with violence in a white culture in which black lives often do not matter.  The writer was a famous black sociologist, and his sensitive analysis of the conflicts that Julius experiences, could have easily been written by Julius. “You feel like you are alone,” I told him, when I saw the stunned expression on his face, “but actually you aren’t.”

Explicitly, that bold statement of fact referred to the author of the article, and to all the other black men for whom the article was speaking.  Implicitly, however, it referred to me and to our connection.  “I can’t tell you how much that meant to me,” Julius told me at the end of the next session, teary eyed, one foot out the door.  “I don’t know where to put the article, so for now I have it in my special drawer that no one knows about.  But I will keep it just as I keep all the things that certain people have given me over the years.  I am embarrassed to tell you. Is that normal?”

There actually is such a drawer in Julius’ bedroom, but I know that this keeping safe, and holding onto, is what he does with me, and what I do with him.  I too am ferklempt.   I try to let him know that we share this holding onto, this choking up, this mixture of pleasure and ache, but I haven’t yet put that into words. Besides, am not sure if he would want to hear it, after all, I am Dr. Block, and even Joyce’s experiences with shame and vulnerability are, by no means, identical to his, either in magnitude or kind.  Undeniably we are different.   I suspect, however, that like Julius, I too am wary of too much dependency, and of being swept away by my tender feelings rather than flying above them or secreting them away in a safe nest––where they will not be misunderstood, exploited or become engulfing.  I have reason to fear, and reason to wrestle down my fears.  Physician, heal thyself.


Joyce Block can be contacted at: joyceblock1951@yahoo.com

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