Ballad of the Black and Blue Mind By Anne Roiphe
Critic Sally Eckoff describes Anne Roiphe as “a free-thinking welter of contradictions, a never-say-die feminist who’s absolutely nuts about children.” Roiphe published her first novel, Digging Out, in 1967 and contributes essays and reviews to The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, New York Magazine and others.
Ballad of the Black and Blue Mind by Anne Roiphe is a novel about the inner workings of New York City psychoanalysts. Dr. Estelle Berman is a distinguished analyst whose health is beginning to decline. She is observed clinically by her colleagues, Dr. H and Dr. Z. The two psychoanalysts sit on the sidelines observing Berman’s follies, but they do not intervene. They treat her as they would a patient, but she isn’t their patient.
Dr. Berman continues to treat patients, and what a cast they are! First, there is the movie star, daughter of Dr. Gordon, a colleague. Justine, neé Betty, is a shoplifter. She stole a fur coat because she really didn’t approve of buying one. That would support the killing of innocent animals. She gave Dr. Berman a headache.
As her therapy continues, Justine misses appointments, calls Dr. Berman at two a.m. to recount a trivial childhood memory about sex, and gifts Dr. Berman a necklace that she probably stole from Cartier’s. Justine weaves in and out of Dr. Berman’s life as Justine’s boyfriend does hers. Justine’s shoplifting seems to become more intense when her boyfriend isn’t around.
Anna is another patient. Her parents are respected academics. Anna goes away to college but shortly into the second semester she returns home to stay. Her parents are at a loss to understand their daughter. Dr. Berman believes Anna is depressed, but she doesn’t know what is causing the depression. Anna doesn’t talk. Soon, however, Dr. Berman discovers that Anna is a cutter, and she wonders if she has the energy to take on this long treatment.
Mike Wilson is a new, elderly patient of Dr. H’s. Mike is mourning the loss of his wife a year earlier. He has given up, content with his life and ready to die, but not just yet. As Dr. H probes he finds that Mike is more upset about the loss of his son, Ivan, than his wife’s death. Ivan was the perfect son; he made good grades, played tennis and went to his second choice of colleges. The problem was Ivan also did something “ungodly” and fled the country.
The stories with the patients are woven into the narrative of the lives of the psychoanalysts. As Dr. Berman struggles with her declining memory, she forgets patients’ names, she struggles to remember the reason patients are coming to her, and she drifts off into sleep or daydreams in meetings with her colleagues. As she continues to decline in her professional duties and her personal life, Dr. Berman sees fewer and fewer patients. Eventually, there are no patients and her son, Gerald, comes home to live with her again.
The novel oscillates between the story of the lives of the practicing psychoanalysts and the therapy sessions they conduct with their patients, an interesting juxtaposition through which the reader becomes involved in the mysteries of life as it plays out on two different levels. The reader roots for the patients whose lives you only see in brief, unresolved glimpses. Their stories are short and incomplete.
On a different level, the reader can see how psychoanalysts work, what their failings are, what their family lives are like and how they are trained. You worry about Dr. Berman as Alzheimer’s slowly takes control of her brilliant mind. While the illness is always present, Roiphe doesn’t dwell on Alzheimer’s.
The climax comes as a surprise, and it is horrific. The novel leaves many issues unresolved. The patients drift in and out of the novel just as they would in the real world where analysts see them only once, twice or perhaps three times a week. Sometimes, they quit and don’t return for their sessions. But always, they worry about their children. Did we train her correctly so she can enter the best school? How did we go wrong? Why is he or she acting like this? Does she resent us, hate us?
And the analysts try to find out what hidden issues are causing the parents’ worry and the children’s grief. All too often, there is no correct answer. There are no certainties in life. Tornadoes happen, planes crash, and children who don’t have spectacular scores on their entrance exams are not admitted to exclusive pre-schools.
Anne Roiphe is an accomplished novelist with 18 fiction and nonfiction books to her credit. She is a feminist who argues that women should be able to enjoy motherhood and work at the same time. However, she does not advocate daycare as a solution. Nor does she believe that women should do what men have always done–enjoy their children only on weekends. Rather, she argues that women should consider the entire life span with the early years being devoted to children and family and the later years devoted to career. Her novel, Up the Sandbox, was made into a highly acclaimed movie with Barbra Streisand. HLM