Conversations with Dr Himmelfarb
August Kleinzahler · Poetry as Therapy
Now that Tiger Woods is making ready to pull the sock off the head of his driver once more, and with our concern and warm wishes going out to Sandra Bullock in her moment of heartbreak, who among us can ignore the devastating toll sexual addiction takes, not merely on the celebrities we love and admire, but on the broader society, a society reluctant to even acknowledge this serious mental health issue and the countless lives it affects, inevitably in the most damaging of ways.
It is a subject I took up only very recently with Dr Horst Himmelfarb, the Viennese-trained psychiatrist, sexologist and former pastor, as we strolled the lawns of the Tufted Knolls Behavioral Facility, hidden away amidst a grove of weeping cypresses in Oochichoobi, Mississippi. It was nearing the end of the day and a slight breeze was blowing in from the west, a welcome relief from the heat and humidity of the place, even in early March.
But allow me to backtrack. Dr Himmelfarb, whose 12-step programme Darkness, Away With You, considered by many to be among the most efficacious and enduring treatment guides for sexual addiction, and the title of his book on the subject, now in its 23rd printing, had invited me down to Mississippi to give a weekend of poetry workshops to the current group of sexual addicts under treatment. My work and writings on the subject of poetry-as-therapy were well-known to the doctor and I was pleased that I was able to find a slot to come down and visit the Oochichoobi facility. Dr Himmelfarb had been after me for some time to come ‘work your magic’, as he so flatteringly put it. This is not an inexpensive programme for those who come to here for help, quite the contrary, and I was more than well looked after and remunerated. In fact, as I later learned from my accountant, I had drifted, unwittingly, into another tax bracket.
I met for two consecutive afternoons with the ‘help-seekers’, as they are referred to in the Darkness, Away With You programme, three-hour sessions, that involved my customary ‘bag of tricks’: word games, memory exercises, the imagine-this-or-that routine – basically the sort of thing I’ve developed over the years that works equally well with children, the elderly, hardened criminals, what have you. We met in a large room, magnificently appointed: dark wood paneling, oak and leather-upholstered furniture, plasma TVs, Sony PlayStations, billiard table, Barcaloungers, the works. The only books in evidence were copies of Darkness, Away With You and the Gideon Bible.
There were 14 of us in the room together that weekend, scheduled between their afternoon group therapy and 12-step calisthenics sessions. I had been forewarned but was still taken aback upon recognising all but one or two of those in attendance: sports figures, politicians, show business personalities, all male, none terribly excited by my presence, but none actively resistant or particularly rude – certainly nothing approaching the truly dispiriting experience I endured on a visit not so long ago to a Jewish nursing home in Moonachie, New Jersey. In any event, I tried out a standard breaking-the-ice gambit by asking them one by one to introduce themselves and tell us why they were there. Each responded to the latter question with the same three words: ‘Agent said so.’
The last hour of each of our two sessions was given over to writing poems, on more or less any subject of their choosing, and reciting them aloud to their fellow – what they referred to here as – ‘hope-retrievers’. The results were not exactly what I was expecting, though, in truth, I wasn’t at all sure exactly what that might have been. Let me present two specimens, fairly typical of the group:
Gonga bonga thonga
Wiki tong ga-bing-ga-bong-a
Rip a gong-ga, tickle wickle
I gon’ sing a song to you
Smoke dat bong, unsling that THONG
Or this one, not appreciably more reflective in tone:
Kazz a ditty, wuss so pretty
Ker-chunk, ker chunk
Thunk in the plunk
Whuss I think on, rinky dinkin’
Long at dawn to drunk & dunk,
Ooooh, baby, chink dat chunk
It is not my method to suggest, much less proscribe, subject matter or technique. The thrust of my approach is to enable those participating in these ‘poetry/therapy’ sessions to let it all hang out, as it were: pain, hate, humiliation, ugliness of every sort, the uglier the better, in fact. Actually, one of my exercises, borrowed from a celebrated woman poet colleague of mine, much revered on the American workshop circuit, and no stranger to British poetry audiences, is to encourage the participants to share, in verse, however rough-hewn, the most painful, humiliating experiences of their lives. You would be surprised, really, how readily they rise, like fish to the bait. But, alas, not this group. We did, however, part on friendly enough terms. I wished them all well on their path toward wellness. They, in turn, wished me the very best with the ‘poetry thing’, as they put it. On the surface, given the smirks and rolling of eyes, several of them might have been accused of reacting with scepticism or impatience to our ‘word-healing adventures’, but there’s no telling what was truly going on in their hearts and minds, or how our experience together would play out therapeutically over time.
Later as I walked the grounds with Dr Himmelfarb, I had many questions, regarding both the treatment program and the progress of the various ‘hope-retrievers’ I had come to know, at least through our sharing together the miracle of poetry as a healing tool. Space does not allow me to go into detail here, but our extended conversation is currently being transcribed and due to be published in 2011, in the esteemed journal Wellness Digest. But one question I asked the doctor, and whose response was most thought-provoking indeed, was why there were no women in the programme, unless they were at a separate, gender-restricited facility. The doctor assured me there was no such separate facility and that the Darkness, Be Gone program was not designed for women, only for men. ‘Why is this?’ I asked the doctor. He seemed impatient with the question, as though the answer were obvious, or should have been. ‘Because the human female has not the capacity for sexual remorse. Without this, my Darkness Be Gone 12-step program is useless.’ There followed a long silence. Finally, I asked: ‘Dr Himmelfarb, how did you arrive at the conclusion that women have not the capacity for sexual remorse.’ The doctor turned abruptly in my direction and asked sharply: ‘Are you fruit?’ By which, I gather he meant, given my acquaintance with low speech, was I homosexual. ‘No, doctor,’ I answered politely, but firmly, determined not to show dismay at the suggestion that I might be homosexual, or that my query to his assertion about women and sexual remorse suggested a lack of experience with women. The doctor turned to me and said: ‘Do you know why a dog or cat does not possess a sense of humour?’ I found that premise as bizarre as the other, but seeing the colour rising in the great man’s cheeks offered no challenge, thinking all the while of my generous honorarium. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Because a dog or cat does not possess a soul, and without a soul you cannot possess a sense of humour.’ I nodded gravely, as if the nickel had finally dropped. We walked silently under the weeping cypresses for several minutes until the doctor, now content that he had proved a point, volunteered: ‘You are aware, are you not, that I, too, write poetry.’