“‘Ideal Marriage’: a Look Back” by Melissa Knox

Sometime around 1953, my father lay on the couch free-associating, when his analyst of ten years said she was getting a divorce. Dad sat up, turned to the doctor, and said, “Marry me!” (I heard this many years later.)

On the heels of Dad’s proposal, which she declined, Dr. Berkeley threw my future parents together. A handsome dog back in the early fifties, Dad wore white linen suits. Cigarette perched, in photographs, between his long, elegant, pianist’s fingers, he smoked with attitude. At the end of his life, he told me he would never forget his analyst’s “beautiful eyes.” When he proposed, she was a stout, plain fifty-three, nearly nine years older, incidentally the age gap between him and my mother–who came to analysis as a graceful, rosy-cheeked damsel of thirty-one, her thick brown hair gracefully twisted into a coronet.

Mom dedicated a family album page labelled “The House where we met” to May 15, 1954.  On the evening of that fateful day, the doctor invited Harry, who would, two and a half years later, become my father, and Sylvia, my future mother, along with other patients to “a buffet supper” at her brownstone on Thirteenth Street. Berkeley’s placid face illuminates the center of the page, framed by an indoor shot of her mantel, a view of the house from across the street, and a map of the neighborhood where the old brownstone still stands.

That need for a map—to marriage? To love? To sex? To life?—seems to have dominated the lives of my parents, who vied for their analyst’s attentions like children for that of a favorite babysitter. How many memories I have of watching—as a five-year-old, as a ten-year-old—the doorbell ring, my mother and father each pushing the other aside to get there first. As soon as Dr. Berkeley was let in, the fighting stopped for a whole day. The plump figure with her iron-gray bun, string of pearls, patterned silk dresses and sensible shoes beamed at them both, waiting to be worshipped. And worship her they did. Every Christmas, every Easter, many Thanksgivings, she was there—unless she’d invited us to her place. Our social circle largely consisted of Dr. Berkeley, her daughter, who’d been a bridesmaid at my parents’ wedding, and Berkeley’s odd associates—including a married couple who’d been to school with her daughter, and who, tasked with “looking out” for me while my mother was in Europe and I was sixteen, inveigled me into a threesome.

Mom, who praised Berkeley as “the woman who freed me from my childhood,” told me the husband Berkeley divorced, a man deeply involved in the peace movement, used to throw their daughter in closets and lock her in. I thought Berkeley treated Mom—who, I suspect, would have done anything to please her, including stay married for a quarter of a century to man she detested—with similar harshness. It often seemed Mom strove to please her no matter what. “No sympathy!” Berkeley barked on at least one occasion when my mother had been crying. Berkeley borrowed this mantra from her own analyst, Theodor Reik, whose frequent comment, “No Rachmones,” (Yiddish for “no mercy”) developed from his notion that sympathy deepened depression.

As far as I can glean from Mom’s memories and a letter Berkeley sent to my own psychoanalyst about my parents, Berkeley pushed Mom to take an interest in homemaking, cooking, motherhood, and my father, putting Mom down when she failed to do so. Before her wedding, my mother went on a trip to the American West with Berkeley and Berkeley’s daughter, establishing her sense of herself as a member of their family, apparently making up for all that followed. Mom pasted into her album photos of their trip, including the Grand Canyon, candid shots of the doctor biting into an apple, of herself posing with the daughter as “tree-trunk elves” in the shadow of a giant redwood.

For a young woman who thought of herself as too old to marry, who longed to get away from her own family, including a father who had molested her—as she divulged to me only when I was in my thirties and according to her, never to Berkeley—the lure of a new family with a husband and his best friends, the Berkeleys, must have been intoxicating. Dad, a US army reject for psychiatric reasons, had been Berkeley’s very first patient, facts that didn’t deter Mom from marrying him. Nor did Berkeley’s revelations about choosing to take her own honeymoon in Stalinist Russia. On the boat back to the States, the husband from whom Berkeley would eventually seek divorce informed her she’d have to become a doctor, since he thought that profession best for her. She followed orders, signing up for medical school as soon as they got back to New York. Did my mother follow orders too, marrying Dad? I always had the feeling she put Berkeley’s happiness above her own, not wishing to disappoint.

Once when my mother was complaining about Dad, Dr. Berkeley asked, “What do you value about Harry?” Growing up, I regularly witnessed Berkeley valuing Dad. Every Christmas and Easter dinner our family had with the woman we children called, “Aunt” Berkeley, every picnic, every annual pilgrimage to buy Halloween pumpkins and cider at a farm the doctor liked, seemed an occasion for her and my father to bond in a way that obviously excluded my mother.

Dad was born and raised in a small Carolina town, Dr. Berkeley in a Georgia hamlet, their Southern origins cementing a lifelong friendship. Whenever our family got together with the analyst, Dad and Dr. Berkeley cooed like lovebirds over their grits and gravy, their recipes for ham with Coca-Cola sauce. Mom sat withdrawn, eating little and declining seconds.

Mom, the outsider, was born and raised in New York City. Dad and Dr. Berkeley had in common their exile status; in Berkeley’s Greenwich Village consulting room, they missed the South together.

Mom’s route to Berkeley lay through her own mother, who had consulted Berkeley after an affair with her own therapist imploded. Getting a call from Berkeley, supposedly about her mother’s difficulties, Mom realized this was a ploy to get her into treatment, which she correctly perceived as a method to make her marriageable. Although she was gorgeous, well-educated, and sweet—characteristics that seem to have gone unrecognized by, if not become the envy of, Dr. Berkeley—Mom remained, at age thirty-one, single. She was at a worrisome age for a girl coming of age in the early nineteen-fifties: she, her parents, and the redoubtable Berkeley all believed she’d missed a major developmental milestone. A virgin, Mom assured me, she’d never heard the word “shit,” a term Dad explained to her after uttering it at a cocktail party they attended.  When I was fourteen, Mom told me she’d been, while in her early thirties, to a gynecologist about a “funny smell.” When the doctor removed the tampon she’d forgotten, Mom felt astonished.

Like many a recently married couple in the 1950s, Mom and Dad had a copy of Dr. Theodoor Henrik van de Velde’s Ideal Marriage: Its Physiology and Technique. Their copy contained the insert that came with the 1926 edition, “The sale of this book is strictly limited to members of the medical profession, Psychoanalysts, Scholars, and to such adults as may have a definite position in the field of Physiological, Psychological, or Social Research.” Mom and Dad had no definite position—except as Berkeley’s patients. This leads me to believe they acquired their copy from her—I dimly recall Mom saying Berkeley liked and recommended the book.

This road map to marital sex, van de Velde’s manual, speaks to a past in which, routinely, many a young couple couldn’t find the right orifice. His guidebook offered practical advice peppered with fantasy; the book’s charts, illustrations and  (not infrequently crackpot and racist) opinions, like the notion that Western European semen smells better than . . . most peoples’, were taken as scientific wisdom. So jam-packed with jargon is this tome that without a doctor-translator, ordinary people sometimes couldn’t determine which position or act van de Velde was describing.

The term van de Velde uses to indicate kissing, namely “bucco-lingual” contact, probably didn’t enlighten my parents, whom I never once saw kissing. For those who might want to imagine a full body kiss, van de Velde says it “resembles an irregular intermittent pneumatic massage.” Teeth, he reminds us, can be erotic, but only up to a point. He does say that the “genital kiss” overcomes fear in “inexperienced” women.

If only it had overcome Mom’s fear. But how could it? Who knew about her own father’s fumbling caresses of her pre-adolescent body? I was in my thirties when I wondered if my grandfather might have been gay.  She’d just shown me his oil portrait of himself as a woman, a pompadour atop his lantern-jawed face. Mom said “no, not gay,” and told me where he’d put his hands.

“But I never felt threatened!” she said, her voice high. Even Dr. Berkeley might have sympathized, but I doubt Mom told her.

When Mom showed me the painting, she was wearing her usual outfit: an oversized man’s shirt, thrift-shop baggy jeans and a newsboy’s cap. She concealed her body in public. At home, she lay naked with her legs splayed, once calling my teenaged brother and his girlfriend into her room to talk to them about dinner. The girlfriend, whose body was hidden by a hundred and fifty extra pounds, looked away; she told my brother to protect himself. To look the other way.

“Readers who do not exactly comprehend any of these words can ask a doctor to explain their precise meaning,” Van de Velde remarks. What about readers who did not exactly comprehend what had happened to them, especially as children? Where would such readers find words—or the resolve—to describe their experiences, especially when the world was telling them to pretend such things never happened? Van de Velde wasn’t writing about the effects of child sexual abuse on marriage. Nobody was. Decades earlier, Freud, who admitted that his own father was “a pervert,” evolved a “seduction theory” that messed-up women had been sexually touched by their fathers. Then he retracted his theory, because it couldn’t possibly be the case that so many women in Vienna had fathers who touched them. Could it? Freud’s own grandson, Sir Clement Freud, eminent British politician and broadcaster, raped children. In the early 2000s he had a villa in Portugal near the McCann family just two months after three-year-old Madeleine McCann disappeared. Clement Freud’s own crimes weren’t discovered until after his death. 

Van de Velde writes, “I deal throughout this book only with such emotions and sensations as lie within the limits of normal sexuality: limits which are wide and various enough in all conscience.” He’ll mention a problem, but not in detail: “Morbid deflections, twisted and abnormal desires have no place in the physiology of marriage, in spite of their primitive ramifications, mani-fold diversity, and extraordinary frequency in the whole field of sexual life.” He seems to think a person could just wave her hand and get rid of that stuff. Forget. It was literally unthinkable that “morbid deflections” experienced in childhood could have their influence on a marriage.

Mom proudly showed teenaged me photos her father had taken at her mother’s request: she was fifteen, dancing naked on a beach.

“Da took these?”

 “I was dancing with seaweed in my hands!” Mom smiled.

The seaweed, raised high above her head, a banner, fluttered in the breeze. Ballet-trained Mom looked graceful posing on half toe, one knee drawn up, peekaboo style. Handing me the photo, she looked right into my eyes, and I looked down. She wanted admiration. Of her body. From me. I tried hard not to see that naked longing in her eyes. I put the photo on the table and stepped back, as if both might spontaneously ignite.

When I was fourteen, she sent me to a psychoanalyst recommended by Dr. Berkeley. To him and to me she complained that I lacked affection. My brother used to crawl into her lap and cuddle, she said. But I, from toddlerhood on, always—always!—pushed her away when she tried to put me in her lap. The psychoanalyst agreed I was cold. To a mother who I grabbed me the way a lonely child grabs a doll for comfort, I probably seemed that way.

What if Mom had met a man who understood her loneliness and wanted to make her less lonely? What if Dad had found a way to settle down with the love of his life, Dr. Berkeley?

I would never have known. Anything.

The resort to a handbook was something its author tried to warn was a useless move when both parties lacked love. My parents, not loving each other, fumbling in the dark in so many ways, poor lovelorn Dr. Berkeley, were all desperately seeking an escape from feelings so powerful that often only death quenches them.


Melissa Knox‘s recent writing appears in *82 Review. Her book Divorcing Mom: A Memoir of Psychoanalysis was published by Cynren Press. She wrote previously for ACM about protecting herself from COVID in Essen, Germany, by wearing a Siemens vacuum cleaner bag and other items.