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Psyched!

September 27, 2007 By:
Rita Charleston, JE Feature
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For most of her young life she was stressed out, due mainly to trying to meet the wishes and expectations of her father, and never feeling that she measured up.

Years later, Fern Cohen -- now a Ph.D. and New York psychoanalyst -- used her own life story and experiences to create a book she titled From Both Sides of the Couch ... Reflections of a Psychoanalyst, Daughter, Tennis Player and Other Selves, a candid memoir meant to demystify the often-misunderstood process of psychoanalysis, the complex connections between our past and our present, and the power of it to free us from our personal ghosts.

In the book, readers first meet a 6-year-old for whom tennis meant a rare opportunity to spend time with a distant father, the late Judge Edward Weinfeld, who was, Cohen writes, an "extraordinary man whose being was at the center of my mind and at the crux of the major conflicts and anxieties of my life."

One day, the little girl was invited to play a game of tennis with her father; she was thrilled. She writes, "Already struggling with the awesome and distant father whose immersion in his work left him time for little else, by the time I was six, it seemed extraordinary to go off with him alone ... ."

Throughout most of Cohen's adult years, she says she paid scant attention to how little she actually did get to play a game she so loved with her father until her son, Josh, on hearing the particulars, indignantly drove home the fact that all his mother actually received were "crumbs."

In fact, so off-putting and demanding did her father seem -- not only to his family, but to those with whom he worked -- that at his death, one law clerk eulogized him, saying, "He was the jurist for whom good was never good enough, better always the goal."

And because of his manner, there were so many mysteries about the man that his own daughter -- although realizing that her father was not religious in the sense of taking part in ritual, though he very much identified with being Jewish -- "never discovered, until after his death, that for the last 10, 15 years of his life, he read the Bible every morning."

Who Benefits Most?

As Cohen's book progresses, readers come across the Radcliffe sophomore in crisis to whom falling apart was the best thing that ever happened because it introduced her to the universe of the unconscious, and the woman who found herself in that universe -- on both sides of the couch. Today, Cohen is a staunch believer in analysis for most, if not all, of us.

"Many people could benefit greatly from psychoanalysis, but they don't understand how it works, so they don't bother to consider it," says Cohen, who gives her readers an "inside look" at an often-misunderstood world -- a world often joked about and very much maligned, thanks to people like comic/actor/writer Woody Allen, who always seems to be on an analyst's couch trying to sort out his identity.

Cohen, however, insists the process is nothing to be made fun of and, in fact, can help take the fear and mystery out of many life-changing processes.

Of her work, Cohen says, "I didn't start out to be a writer or a psychoanalyst. In fact, it was an evolution that happened rather late in my life, when I decided to go to graduate school after my youngest child turned 3. I had trained as a school psychologist and had been a teacher earlier in my career. But things just kept evolving until I finally decided to go back to school."

This book, too, just sort of happened: It "wrote itself."

As she explains, "I never thought of myself as a writer but, with analysis, I began to come into a period of writing, starting with an essay about my relationship with my father and our connection to tennis."

Later, it was an agent who read her work and suggested she turn it into a book. By using her own experiences with psychoanalysis and "war stories," Cohen now attempts to answer questions and clarify many of the misconceptions regarding analysis, such as: How does psychoanalysis differ from other therapies? Who could benefit the most from it? What should you look for when choosing the best psychoanalyst? What are the costs and time commitment involved?

Her own journey brings past and present, success and failure, patient and doctor, family and self into sharp focus. Through her experiences as both patient and analyst, she invites readers to see how the intricate details of individual lives make up a complete work of art called "self."

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