Theodor Reik left Vienna in the post-war years and moved to Berlin. He built up his practice there, and one day received a request from Vienna for an appointment with a wealthy American. The man described his symptoms, (he had a severe obsessional neurosis, and found himself constantly engaging complex safety measures in order to defend himself against imaginary dangers.) He made Reik an offer he couldn’t refuse: If Reik would come back to Vienna to treat him for just one hour a day, he would pay all his living expenses, plus a salary exceeding his earnings in Berlin. In November 1932, Reik returned to Vienna.
“I felt like a son coming home to his mother. All during the journey I had been happily anticipating the prospect of the life ahead of me. I would be free from financial considerations and would be able to devote most of my time to scientific research. I would be able to see my family and friends as often as I wished. This wonderful opportunity would permit me to see Freud and to attend the weekly meetings of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Association whose secretary I had been in past years. Altogether it seemed like a fairy tale come true.”
No longer spending ten hours a day treating patients, Reik worked on two books, saw family and friends, visited Freud, and attended meetings of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Association. He lived in the Hotel Bristol (where his American patient also lived.) The Hotel Bristol is like the Waldorf-Astoria. Mornings, going down to breakfast humming a Strauss waltz, he discovered that “of course there was no one in the dining room to serve me—it was not yet seven. As I passed the night clerk at his desk, he looked up at me with a startled expression as if I were some ghostly apparition in the middle of the night. It dawned on me that guests in such a place as this would scarcely be expected to appear for breakfast much before eleven o’clock.” He started eating breakfast and lunch at a coffee house in a side street, and got annoyed with himself for being embarrassed about slinking past the night clerk. Hating having to shave and wear a dinner jacket every day, hating the head-waiter and his three helpers who served him dinner, he ended up eating all three meals out.
His patient didn’t always show up. Reik still go paid, and urged himself to be patient enough to adapt to his new and improved life:
“Did I not work hard every day? Had I not written one book and done preliminary work on another? Did I not study all the new literature in psychology and psychiatry? Evidently I considered these activities pleasure rather than work.” A sense of shame filled him to the brim-- although he was earing more than ever before, he did not feel that he was earning his living. “This too easy life without duties and obligations was uncomfortable. I even began to feel a resentment against my patient whom in all reason, I should have considered my benefactor. How often in the past, tired from my ten daily hours of analytic work, had I daydreamed of an easeful life, free from financial burdens, which would permit me to devote myself to the realization of my research plans? And now when kind destiny had made me a gift of just this situation, I could not enjoy it.”
Reik did not give up, he kept trying to shake the bad mood that got worse and worse. He told himself over and over again that he had every reason to be satisfied. He found no reason why he could not just enjoy himself. “My life had every possible amenity and I was home in Vienna where I wanted to be—what the hell was the matter with me?...A cloud darkened the most beautiful holiday. It was mysterious that I was so often restless or sad without reasonable reasons…I had felt moods of this sort before, but none so persistent as this.”
One day he got up, wrote a letter to his patient, and packed his bags. Without giving reasons—for I had none—I asked him to excuse me and then packed my trunks. The next morning as the taxi took me through the streets of Vienna on my way to the station, I felt wonderfully lighthearted, as if I had thrown off a heavy burden. The air of the radiant spring morning was delicious, and I looked with friendliness into the faces of the people in the streets.”
Many weeks later, Reik tried to make sense of what had happened. He recalled one afternoon, soon after his return to Vienna, when he had passed the house in which he was born and raised. “My father, who was in the Civil Service, had often been worried about money and had had difficulties in making ends meet on the meager salary of an Austrian official. As I walked along, childhood memories crept up from shadowy corners and I saw again the worried faces of my parents. A sudden sadness had come over me by the time I reached the Bristol…The childhood memories had brought back to me the poverty in which my parents had spent their lives, the sacrifices they had to make to give us children educational advantages. Here in the same city, only a half-hour’s walk from my childhood home, I had lived in luxury. “
In his memoir, “Listening with the Third Ear,” Reik concludes that he was foolish leaving Vienna and his opportunity there. At the same time, he admits that at that time, he could not have done differently. Visiting the Hotel Bristol many years later, a poem came suddenly to his mind; a poem he had not thought of since he was a boy, seven or eight years old: “The Little Tree That Wished to Have Different Leaves.” The poem “tells the story of a small fir tree that stands among trees of other kinds in the forest and is ashamed because it has only prickly needles. It wishes to have leaves like other trees. It receives such leaves, but a goat comes along and eats them up. The little tree then wishes for leaves of glass, but a storm destroys them. The tree now wishes for itself leaves of gold; a peddler sees them, picks them and carries them off in his bag. The disillusioned little tree now only wants its old needles back.”
Reading this memoir, I felt very close to Reik—almost as though I knew him personally. I felt this closeness from the first to the last line. That thing people talk about when they feel like “the writer is speaking directly and specifically to me” was oddly transformed: I felt like I knew this man, like he was my very close friend, come to share with me the most important experiences, stories, anecdotes.
The idea of “making a choice” is very strange to me. I didn’t choose to be a writer. My mother and my grandmother are painters. They taught me to paint, and took me to painting class. I ended up writing all over the canvas, and all over the walls of my room. With paint. I chose to get married but- I didn’t feel like I had decided anything. One night I went to a concert in the east village and it shook my soul. The concert was Arkady Goldenstein’s—I have rarely seen a performer so “in” his music. There seemed to be no distance between him, his instrument, and the sound he produced. You could feel through him passed so much history, so many stories sang through him. That night, I met his son Naum, who played a few songs beautifully with his father, and six months later we were married. I got married without telling my family. They barely knew my husband- a classical clarinet player who grew up in Israel. I thought of Reik, and asked myself how I could have done such a thing that had so hurt my family. Did I regret it? For the harm I caused- of course. Could I have done it any other way? I don’t think so.
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