I opened the door of my waiting room. “Hulda Schnakenburg?”
She glared up at me from where she sat huddled in a chair. She looked even younger than her 19 years. Her clothes were disheveled, her hair was uncombed, and her eyes were red and swollen.
“Schnak,” she snapped.
At first I thought she was correcting my pronunciation, but then I realized that she was telling me how she wanted to be addressed.
“Sorry, Schnak,” I said. “Please come in.”
Schnak stomped into my office, kicking at the carpet and glaring down at the floor. I stood back, so she could take a seat.
She glanced up at me. “Where do I have to sit?”
“Wherever you like,” I replied.
This seemed to surprise her. She gave me a suspicious look, then selected the chair which had the most distance between it and the others. Respecting her desire for physical distance, I took a chair farther from her than I usually sit with clients.
“I suppose you want to hear all about my shitty suicide attempt,” she said gloomily.
“Only if you want to tell me about it,” I replied.
She immediately shook her head.
“Then you don’t have to. I would never pressure you to tell me about anything unless you want to, and when you want to.”
Schnak curled up into her chair, in a protective position with her knees up. “But it’s why I had to come here.”
“You had to come here?”
I was using active listening to make sure that Schnak didn’t feel pressured and did feel heard. In only a few minutes together, she had made a number of statements suggesting that she expected to be told what to do, and that she felt as if people were telling her what to do – and that she didn’t like it
“Nilla said I had to,” Schnak said.
“Gunilla Dahl-Soot. My supervisor for my doctorate.”
I noted the name to myself, and the fondness with which Schnak said it. But I decided to ask about Nilla later, and ask about Schnak’s own hopes now.
“But what do you want?” I asked. “What are your hopes for what you’ll get out of our conversations?”
Schnak let out a short, bitter laugh. “Hopes? What hopes? My life is shit.”
As she began to tell me her problem story, I noted that “shit,” which had now come up twice, might be a possible name for the problem.
“Everyone hates me,” said Schnak. “Geraint called me a miserable little runt. Nilla dumped me for the costume designer – of course she did, Dulcy’s beautiful, and I’m a miserable little runt. My parents don’t understand anything about me. They wanted me to get married to some respectable man and have snot-nosed kids and live a boring, shitty little life.”
It was a classic problem-saturated story, full of unhappiness and expectations imposed by outside forces. (Lang, 2012.) I further noted, for future exploration, the dominant social discourse of obligatory heterosexuality, marriage (only to a member of the opposite sex), and procreation. I also noted that Schnak was fighting back against that discourse, by labeling it boring and shitty, and by having a relationship with a woman. Furthermore, the fact that Schnak thought her parents didn’t understand her suggested that she did understand herself, and her own wants and needs. I decided to explore those wants, to begin helping Schnak construct a preferred narrative for herself.
“And what do you want?” I asked.
“Music.” For the first time, Schnak’s expression and voice softened. “Just music.”
“Music?” I asked. I sensed an exception to the problem story, and a source of sparkling moments. (Logan, 2002.)
Schnak became animated as she spoke about music. “I wanted to get a doctorate in music. My parents thought music was worthless unless I was playing the organ in church. Shit! I wanted to compose. So I left home with nothing but what I wearing, and went to the university.”
“You left home with nothing but what you were wearing, for music?” I let my voice and expression show how impressed I was with her courage and resourcefulness, and her dedication to the music that she loved.
Schnak nodded. “Showed the dean some of my compositions. She gave me a scholarship. Then everything went to shit.”
Rather than delve into the shit, I decided to explore Schnak’s resourcefulness. “What would you call the quality you had that enabled you to leave home with nothing but what you were wearing?”
Schnak thought about it, then said, “Love.”
“For composing? Listening? Playing?”
“Everything!” Schnak chuckled, this time with real humor. “Well, my playing’s shit. I can sight-read, but that’s it. But composing, and listening, and reading scores – great scores – that’s where my heart is.”
“Where your heart is,” I repeated thoughtfully.
Schnak edged back into the chair, seeming wary, as if she felt that she had revealed too much. “Well, that’s all the love I’m ever going to get. No person is ever going to love me. I’m unlovable.”
“I wonder where these feelings of unlovableness come from.” I used externalizing language to take the client’s own words and transform them from the adjective “unlovable” – an inherent part of Schnak’s self – to the externalized noun “unlovableness” – something outside of herself, which she could examine and fight. (Lang, 2012.)
Schnak told me that she had proposed completing an unfinished opera about King Arthur for her doctoral thesis, and that a distinguished Swedish composer and musicologist, Dr. Gunilla (“Nilla”) Dahl-Soot, had been assigned as her supervisor. Nilla and Schnak began a romantic relationship. Schnak uncurled from the chair and even smiled a bit as she described her first sexual experience with another woman, her first real relationship, her first orgasm, and her first real happiness. Schnak experienced this relationship not as an abuse of power, but as an outgrowth of a fulfilling and broadening mentor-protégé relationship – a source of many sparkling moments. Though she did not use the word “love,” I took it as a possible exception to her problem story of “unlovableness.”
“Was that a time when you experienced love?” I asked.
Schnak nodded. “Then it all went to shit.”
She explained that when her opera had been given a full production, she had then fallen in love with the male director, Geraint. Schnak and Nilla’s relationship ended amicably, and Nilla began a relationship with the opera’s costume designer, Dulcy. But Geraint did not notice Schnak’s feelings for him, and she overheard him describe her as a “miserable little runt.” She then made an impulsive suicide attempt by swallowing 50 aspirin and a bottle of gin.
Schnak concluded. “So you see. My life is shit.”
“All that sounds very painful,” I said. “So, given all that shit… what are your hopes for our conversation?” I was using her language, acknowledging her pain, and also returning to the hope question, which she had never answered.
She shrugged. “Not make any more selfish, shitty suicide attempts?”
“If you could give that a name… that decision not to attempt suicide again… what would you call it?”
She rolled her eyes at me sarcastically. “I’d call it ‘not attempting suicide.’”
“Could you phrase it as a positive, without using the word ‘not?’ I find that when you phrase the project as a negative, it tends to be harder to talk about.” (Lang, 2012.)
She rolled her eyes again. But when I didn’t jump in to fill the silence, she seemed to think about it.
“Life?” she finally suggested.
Schnak had given her project its first name: Life. I discussed the narrative concept of naming problems and projects, in order to separate them from people. I was unsurprised to hear her immediately suggest “Shit” as the name of her problem. Though initially doubtful of the idea that her problem really was separate from her, Schnak agreed to give the concepts a try when I asked her if she was okay with having Shit have such a big influence on her life. (Lang, 2012.)
Before the end of the first session, we discussed doing some field work to increase the influence of Life and decrease the influence of Shit and its companion, Unlovableness. Schnak had been spending all her time either alone, or with people associated with the opera, or with undergraduates with whom she had nothing in common, but associated with out of social pressure to have a “normal social life.” I briefly deconstructed the “normal social life” discourse, which had led to her having several unsatisfying, unlovableness-laden sexual experiences with male undergraduates.
I asked her what sort of people she liked. As a result of this discussion, she vaguely said that she might go to a concert. We then discussed the specifics of this until Schnak had set her field work as attending a concert by the university orchestra at 7:00 PM on Thursday. The specificity and length of the discussion about that made it more likely that Schnak would actually show up. (Lang, 2012.) By the time she left, she seemed certain that she would go, and perhaps meet other students who also loved music.
“If they hate that shit Rachmaninoff prelude, I know I’ll like them,” Schnak said drily. She left in noticeably better spirits than she had arrived in.
Over the course of many subsequent conversations, Schnak and I continued to explore the influence of Shit on her life, and the moments when she had resisted its influence. We identified different facets of Shit, and deconstructed its associated dominant discourses. (Lang, 2012.)
One dominant discourse was heterocentricity, though I did not use that name; Schnak bristled at any word that might put her and the way she loved “in a cozy little box.” She never gave her own sexual orientation a label, so I was careful not to label it either. Schnak’s parents had assumed her to be straight, and had even met and approved of her supervisor and lover Nilla without realizing the nature of their relationship. Their insistence that Schnak marry a man and have children was part of why she left. But as we explored Schnak’s resistance to her parents and their expectations, I learned that to Schnak, their insistence on heteronormativity, their lack of appreciation for arts and music, and their stolid contentment with their “boring little lives” was all part of the same larger force, a dominant discourse which Schnak called “Kater Murr.”
Kater Murr, Schnak explained, was a character in a book written by E. T. A. Hoffmann, who had also begun the opera which Schnak had completed after his death. Kater Murr embodied the values held by her parents, which Schnak called “wanting a shitty, cozy, quiet life.”
“Quiet?” I asked.
“No music,” said Schnak, wrinkling her nose. “No excitement. Nothing big. Nothing important. Cozy and quiet.”
“You’re not going to have a quiet life,” I said.
“No,” said Schnak, grinning. “Not quiet at all.”
“Kater Murr” replaced “Shit” as the name of her problem. This was easy for the nonconformist Schnak to externalize. When she called herself “rat-faced” and “unlovable,” I helped her deconstruct the underlying Kater Murr values that told her that women’s only value lay in conventional concepts of beauty, and that romantic love was necessary at all times and the most important thing in a woman’s life. In one breakthrough session, we explored what Kater Murr had to say about love. Schnak realized that both the people she’d fallen in love with had attracted her in part because they rejected Kater Murr values: Nilla, who dressed in custom-made men’s clothes and was absolutely open about her bisexuality, and Geraint, the opera director, who had spoken honestly to Schnak after her suicide attempt and, while refusing to have a romantic relationship with her, called her a true artist. We discussed the Kater Murr idea that only beautiful people could have love, and that love had to last forever or it was worthless.
Schnak dropped Life as a name for her project.
“Too cozy,” she said. “Too nice. Besides, I only wanted to kill myself that one time. Not committing suicide is a stupid life goal.”
“Is there another name that’s coming to you?” I asked.
“Music,” she said.
“What does Music mean to you?”
“Everything,” Schnak replied. “My art. My life. My heart.”
“Has there been any time since the last time we met when you had a moment that was all about Music?”
“Yeah,” Schnak said. “There’ve been lots. Let me pick…”
“There’ve been lots?” I repeated. “Just in this last week?”
“Yeah,” said Schnak. Then she realized what she’d said. “Huh. There have been lots…”
“What have you been doing differently this week, that’s allowed you to have so much time with Music?”
She shrugged. “Dunno. Been listening to Kater Murr less.”
“And listening to Music more?”
Our time together was far from over, but we both knew we were on the right track.
Davies, R. (1988.) The Lyre of Orpheus. New York: Viking Penguin Inc.
Lang, C., and Cotter, L. (2010). There are no resistant clients… only inflexible therapists. NarrativeCouplesCenter.com.
Lang, C. (2012). Queer Counseling and Narrative Therapy. Antioch University, Los Angeles.
Logan, B. (2002). Weaving New Stories Over the Phone: a narrative approach to a Gay Switchboard. In Denborough, D (Ed.), Queer Counseling and Narrative Practice (138-160). Adelaide: Dulwich Centre Publications.