THE SHRINK CONVENTION
WORDS & PHOTO BY SUSANNAH BRESLIN
Dolores Mandboot leaned against the white wall and sighed loudly. No one heard: not one of the who-knows-how-many psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, and psychologists who had descended upon this Holiday Inn just outside of Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin. She could see the front doors of the convention hall from here. Outside, the snow had blanketed everything a noncommittal white, turning this nowhere place into the most boring, most Midwest version of The White Album ever created. She rued her decision to come. It had seemed like a good idea at the time. Stuck in her second-story office of a pleasantly rehabbed Victorian in the Lower Haight, she had realized that if she spent one more day listening to the inane troubles of one more patient, she would go mad. She had tried getting rid of them; really, she had. She had raised her rates to $250 an hour -- then, preposterously, $575 an hour. It had not deterred them, only siphoned into her waiting room a wealthier group of unhappily married men and overly unoccupied women who believed the amount they paid her entitled them to her unrelenting sympathy, a thing she no longer had. Once upon a time, she had loved treating patients. Their problems had consumed her problems like a big fish eating a smaller fish eating a tinier fish and so on. Now, she had had enough. What were problems, anyway? Life’s little misdirections. Excuse me. A lithe, fifty-something woman in a hippie skirt and a T-shirt that read BF Skinner Is My Homeboy pushed past. Three days she had been in this place. She didn’t want to go to another Jungian seminar that invariably ended in fisticuffs. She didn’t want to survey another booth offering porcelain busts of Freud’s disembodied head meant to be placed on windowsills. She didn’t want to consider another fainting couch that facilitated the unlocking of a patient’s subconscious for $8,799. Dolores wanted to give up altogether, on everything, the whole lot of it. Instead, she sighed loudly again, which no one noticed again, pushed herself off the wall, stepped forward, and allowed herself to be overtaken by the river of humanity running before her. Perhaps an hour had passed when she found herself standing in front of a booth she hadn’t seen before. A man with a gray-flecked beard was sitting on a folding chair and wearing what looked like a colander on his head. A series of different colored wires ran from the colander to a wooden box nearby on the floor. She had no idea what the contraption did, but, she had to admit, the man looked … content. Hello? The man’s eyes opened and focused on her. Dolores watched the man unfold the complex origami of his thin frame, remove the headpiece, and place it on the box. I see you’ve arrived, the man said, his expression indicating he had been waiting for her to appear. In her stomach, Dolores felt very excited and like vomiting at the same time. What does it do? She pointed at the equipment. The man beckoned. Without thinking, she stepped into the booth and sat in the chair. The man picked up the colander and placed it on her head. Under the colander, she could hear a low humming that seemed to be coming from the box. Her skull began tingling with what felt like electric shocks. Her eyelids lowered; her hands relaxed on her thighs. From this perspective, she could see the totality of her life: her at 1, in a highchair, hitting a wooden spoon into a saucepan; her at 14, in a parking lot, a half-smoked cigarette clutched awkwardly in her hand; her at 33, leaning over a toilet, too much alcohol from a wedding reception the night before spewing into the bowl; her at 47, the time she had cancer, holding open her shirt so the nurse could stick the needle into the implant in her chest that would distribute the toxic fluid throughout her system and cure her; her at 53, in the vegetable aisle last week, gently squeezing the long, curved middle of a deep purple eggplant from Japan. Faintly, she could hear the man saying something, explaining that with this device, patients didn’t need you. It’s a mind reader, the man said, except I made it in my basement. As Dolores watched the scenes of her life kaleidoscope across her cerebellum, it occurred to her that none of it mattered: not the shrink convention, not the therapy she had been administering for three decades, not the colander on her head. Life was a story that wasn’t a story at all. There was no narrative to be reconstructed; there was no plot to be had. From birth to death, it made no sense; it was all reasonlessness and coincidence, strangers on trains bumping into each other who ended up getting married and mothers who beat their children for no good reason. Inside the safety of the colander, she could see there was only the fleeting, profound, ecstatic joy of unexpected revelation washing over her in this forgotten corner of some musty meeting hall smack dab in the middle of a dark midwestern winter.