Folie à Dieu

A new short story

Joseph Bottum

It was the senator who made him, who brought him his first real success, even if it didn’t come till he was forty. Oh, Christopher Manach had done well enough before, with a psychiatric office up on Pill Hill and a nice old house out in Hyde Park, all orange brick and that pushy kind of Victorian austerity, like a dowager determined to show she is somebody without the gingerbread frills that lower the tone of her neighbours. 

But Dr Manach’s Cincinnati practice took off for good the day he treated the senator — the young one with the springs in his heels, the Rust Belt Kid who was being boomed on the Sunday morning talk shows for the keynote at the next convention. The trouble was that the senator had started smoking in high school, become a chain smoker by his early twenties, and couldn’t stop no matter what he tried: patches and gums and nicotine lozenges and those electronic sticks with the angry red light that glowed when you sucked on them and smelled like dung — the whole American industry of tobacco prohibition. Cigarettes weren’t just bad for your health; they were bad for your image: a visible class marker. And if Ohio liked its politicians to have working-class backgrounds, it didn’t like them with working-class foregrounds. Only the poor smoked any more — the poor and a few rich eccentrics, neither of whom voted much. The nation’s middle class had decided cigarettes were an outward and visible sign of failure, a sacrament of evil, and the middle class got to say which candidates won elections. 

So into Chris Manach’s office the senator walked, desperate for a way to quit. Recommended by a friend of a friend, he said, although Chris didn’t think he actually knew anyone who knew any senators’ friends. Not in those days. Still, the man insisted he needed help, and Chris had done the brief hypnosis round required in his medical residencies. He’d even read more recently an article in one of the research journals about combining in hypnotic subjects a set of negative images (these things taste like dog vomit) with a set of positive ones (I’m happy I don’t smoke). And thinking, what the hell, it’s worth a try, he put the senator under with a silver pen, a graduation present he never used, snatched up from a display stand on a side table. 

A few sessions later and the young politician was off the couch and off the tobacco, singing Chris’s praises to everyone he met. The local Ohio papers picked up the story, which led to a mention in the New York Times‘s profile of the senator, which led to a semi-regular mental-health gig on one of the national morning-television gabfests. The least watched one, he had to admit, but still, television is television, and with every rich person in five states trying to schedule an appointment, Dr Christopher Manach could afford to be humble. 

Smiling at his recollection of the senator’s sessions, Chris rested his elbows on his desk for a moment, his fingers steepled, to look around at the large and recently renovated office. The tufted upholstery of the broad-arm chairs and sofas, the book-lined shelves of dark wood, the antique library table with the soft-light lamps, the big oriental rug-just the right tone for the patients, he thought with satisfaction: elegant, but in an understated, reassuring way. A temple of healing.

His reverie was broken by the two-tone blare of the intercom. “Your last patient is still waiting, Dr Manach,” the disembodied voice of his receptionist announced.

Chris fumbled for the phone, nearly dropping it before he got the receiver between his ear and shoulder. “What do you mean, Angela, my last patient?” he demanded, pawing on his desk for the day’s schedule. “We always finish with the med check-ups” — twenty lucrative patients on medication, passed through like an assembly line in two hours at the day’s end — “and I’ve seen all of them.”

Angela Shepherd sighed loudly and clacked her chewing gum at him in disapproval. “You told me to look into offering a final full session on Tuesdays and Thursdays, at double the usual fees, to test how much new patients would pay. So I did. The first one is here.”

She clacked at him again. “He’s on your printed schedule. And your electronic calendar. Benjamin Levy. I sent over to his internist for his medical file, like always. It’s in your drawer. Like always.”

“Can’t Susan—” began Chris, then stopped. No, he couldn’t push this off on the overflow doctor he’d hired. Not at double the fee. “All right,” he said, submitting as he usually did to Angela’s arrangements for his life, “give me five minutes to look over his file and then send him in.” 

What came through the door five minutes later was a dark-haired man with a blue sports coat over his yellow tennis shirt and tan slacks, striding confidently forward to shake Chris’s hand. A little short, maybe, but trim the way the rich have the money to be-although the thickening chest and thinning hair suggested he had reached his fifties, much as he and his physical trainer had struggled against it.

“Sit wherever you feel comfortable, Mr Levy,” said Chris, gesturing at the room, “and tell me what brought you here. I see from your medical report that you have a little heart trouble, which we should keep an eye on, but otherwise you seem in good health, physically. So let’s chat about what else might be wrong.”

Levy narrowed his eyes to weigh the arrangement of chairs and sofas as though it were some kind of test, a Rorschach blot of furniture, before he finally chose an overstuffed armchair that proved, in the event, a fraction too big for him, only the balls of his feet reaching the floor as he settled back awkwardly into its embrace.

“Nice place you’ve got here, Dr Manach,” Levy offered as Chris lowered himself into a matching chair, turned — he could swear Angela measured it each morning with a protractor — at a fifteen-degree angle away from directly facing the seat the patient had chosen.

“We like it,” Chris answered, covertly studying his new patient for a moment while pretending to glance once more at the file of unremarkable doctor’s examinations. It wasn’t just the casual declarations of wealth in the clothes and the haircut, he decided. This Benjamin Levy had the air of someone active and successful, someone who was uncomfortable in the encounter with a psychiatrist because he was used to being in charge. Used to taking charge. Made money, Chris decided, not inherited. He didn’t seem twitchy enough for a high-finance type or careful enough for a lawyer. Something energetic and forceful, though. Real estate, maybe. A man who tended to get his way.

“I’m . . . well, I’m not really sure where I should begin,” Levy said, when Chris raised his eyes to look at him expectantly. “I thought about it on the way over here, but now it just sounds strange.”

“Nothing in the human mind is strange or unimportant,” Chris intoned piously. “Not here. That is the great lesson of psychiatry, the great law with which we undertake the talking cure.”

“If you say so. I mean . . . well, hell, let me just ask it this way: Do you believe in God?”

Oh, Christ, thought Chris, one of those. The man didn’t look it. They were usually more obviously Evangelicals, dressing poor even when they had money, and half convinced that psychotherapy was witchcraft and the devil’s brew. “What we do in a psychiatric setting can never be considered against the teachings of the Bible,” he offered — all the practised and cynical boilerplate a doctor learns early in his career, especially out in middle America. “I can direct you to many preachers who are also trained medical professionals, and they would explain that the tools of a psychiatrist are exactly like the tools of a surgeon, used for the good of health. Even hypnosis. In 1956, Pope Pius XII announced . . . “

“Listen, doctor,” Levy interrupted, “I don’t give a rat’s ass what the pope announced, or the Dalai Lama, or the chief rabbi of Timbuktu, as far as that goes.” He hesitated and then made a face, a grimace that twisted his mouth and made him look years older. “No, maybe I do. I don’t know — I’m new to this stuff, and I’m probably getting it wrong. But my question wasn’t whether God allows psychiatry. It’s whether a psychiatrist like you believes in God.”

But even that ploy Chris was adept at dodging. “Our sessions must not be about your doctor’s beliefs, Mr Levy,” he answered. “They concern only you — your thoughts, your feelings.”

“Yeah, well, that’s the problem, isn’t it?” the patient snapped, then pushed out his hands in a gesture oddly both placating and imperious. As though he were trying to turn away an oncoming train, Chris thought: the practised device of a man who often needed to sidetrack his temper. Levy leaned back in his chair — another temper-controlling technique of the unconscious — only to rock for a moment like a bobble doll as his feet came off the floor. 

He squiggled forward in irritation and opened his mouth to snarl — but then he paused, took a deep breath, and tried again. “Look,” he continued slowly, “I don’t care what you believe. I mean, I don’t care personally. Believe what you like. But for what I have in mind I need somebody who knows about faith, who understands these things. If it’s not you, then it’s not you.”

“Ah,” said Chris, not certain where this was going but increasingly convinced he didn’t want it in his office. “Well, then, sure, I suppose. I’m a Catholic, kind of, and” — hitting his stride — “many profoundly intelligent and psychologically healthy people have acknowledged some form of the divine as . . . “

“All right, then,” Levy overrode him again. “We’re set. I’ve read about you, Dr Manach, and a man I do business with swears by you. Or his wife does, anyway. And the kid senator, of course.” He leaned toward Chris. “Everyone says you’re the best at this hypnosis stuff,” he confided. “And that’s what I’m willing to pay for. The best. I want . . . “

The pause lasted for several seconds before Levy finally swallowed, glanced around the room as though to make sure no one was eavesdropping, and finished in a low voice, “I want you to hypnotise me to believe in God.”



“I don’t . . . “ 

“C’mon, Dr Manach,” said Levy, more confident now that the secret was out. He scooted forward in his chair to get his feet solidly on the ground. “This is what you do, and you’re good at it. So do it for me. Hypnotise me to have faith. Put me under, work your magic, and make me believe in God. That’s all I’m asking. A session or two, and we’re done.” 

Chris spent the rest of their time trying to say no, but every explanation for why he was saying no sounded to his patient like wavering, and Levy pushed and pushed, as though it were a straightforward and obvious proposition. Pushed until he suddenly looked at his watch, bounced up, and announced on his way out the door, “We got started late, and I have a business meeting I can’t miss. Think about how to do it, Dr Manach, and we’ll fix it up next week. Thursday, right? The same time? See you then. Be well.”

By itself, that was almost enough to make Chris tell Angela to refuse any future appointments; declaring the completion of a session was his prerogative, not some patient’s. Still, he had to admit, the idea of theo-hypnosis was an intriguing one. Impossible, of course, but intriguing, and this Benjamin Levy clearly had some deep-seated problem nagging at him, to attempt such a peculiar displacement.

Chris thought about calling Dr Neumann for advice, the stern Dr Gertrude Neumann who had been his mandated psychotherapist after medical school and directed much of his residency. But, then, there might be a paper — a classic journal article, maybe even a book — in his treatment of a patient like this, and he’d hate to see someone else horn in on it. 

Besides, Neumann had been trained up in Freudianism, the real, old-school stuff, however much even her older generation pretended they had outgrown their Viennese founder. And she thought, just as the Freudians had taught her, that belief in the divine was itself a disease that psychiatrists were supposed to cure — especially belief in the “compensatory device of the Judaeo-Christian sky-father,” for which Neumann seemed to hold a particular scorn. Chris had barely gotten out of his sessions with his own faith, such as it was, intact. 

Still, he considered with a smile, it might be worth putting Neumann and Benjamin Levy together, just to watch them smash into each other. Chris had asked his patient what God he wanted to believe in — only to have the man snap back, “What do you mean, what God? God God, for God’s sake. Elohim, Adonai, the Lord God Almighty. The one whose name gets used in cursing — the one with the capital ‘G’.”

Once he had finished a few more sessions with the patient, Chris decided as he closed the file with his notes on the session, he would consult with McKay and Krauss, maybe Ander-sen-some of the more thoughtful senior doctors he’d met, the ones interested in both mental health and religion. “Patient B”. No, “God Man”, that’s what he’d call him, when the time came to write it all up. Like Freud’s “Rat Man”, only better. Meanwhile, he told himself, all he had to do was not let things get out of hand next time he met with him. All he had to do was be a little more prepared.

Just a few sessions into the God Man’s treatment, and Christopher Manach knew that preparation wasn’t going to be a problem. At least not lack of preparation. Hours and hours out of his week were being consumed in getting ready for the onslaught that was Benjamin Levy. The second session, in particular, had gone south so fast that Chris was starting to burn before he even noticed how he far he’d wandered. 

In retrospect, he realised, he probably shouldn’t have started with the Bible. As an abstract strategy, the idea maybe wasn’t so bad. Not impossible, at any rate. Thanks to the senator, nearly everyone who came to him for treatment these days wanted to be hypnotised. What they typically didn’t understand is that, at its best, hypnosis can only activate a kind of sharpness and heightened particularity. Even when it works, which it often doesn’t, hypnosis merely focuses the mind’s attention on a single thought: I don’t need to smoke or I want to avoid sugary foods

Or I believe in God, Chris supposed, although he doubted that the idea could be hypnotically developed as anything more than I want to believe in God. Didn’t William James once write a note on the topic? About getting himself high on laughing gas, maybe — trying to use some mechanical trick, anyway, to induce a vision of the numinous realm. “The only difference is the difference between difference and no difference”, or something like that, Chris vaguely recalled James mocking as the supposedly deep insight of the loopy experience. He sighed and made a note. Yet more references to look up for the Benjamin Levy case. It was like being back in school again.

In any event, at least with smokers and the morbidly obese, you knew the problem that hypnosis was supposed to address. But Levy seemed to imagine the treatment as a kind of magic, the stuff that stage performers do to make people squawk like chickens or take off their blouses, and Chris decided to start there — to get the patient to see that being hypnotised into having faith contradicted the whole idea of faith. Only that way, he decided, could he get Levy to reveal his underlying anxiety.

“‘There shall not be found among you . . . a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead’,” Chris read to his patient from Deuteronomy. “The root of the Hebrew is chabar, which means ‘spell’ or ‘fascination’ or even ‘binding’, a kind of joining of things with spells. The whole Hebrew phrase being translated as ‘charmer’ actually means a ‘binder of binding’.”

Chris was rather proud of that; it had taken him half an hour with Strong’s Concordance and another hour online to come up with it, and his attempt to sound a little mournful about this complete condemnation of his profession couldn’t obscure, really, the relish with which he served it up. 

“And that’s what you’re asking for, isn’t it?” he added. “To have someone bind you, a spell-caster to come along and charm you into believing? But in the Bible, God entirely rejects all that — even for those trying to use it for good, like Saul and the Witch of Endor summoning the ghost of Samuel for advice. And Isaiah warns the Daughter of Babylon that the punishment is clear: ‘But these two things shall come to thee in a moment in one day, the loss of children, and widowhood: they shall come upon thee in their perfection for the multitude of thy sorceries, and for the great abundance of thine enchantments.'”

It didn’t go over as well as Chris hoped. 

“Don’t give me that crap, doctor,” Levy answered, leaning forward to seize the conversational opening that Chris’s dramatic pause had created. “Last week you’re telling me the Bible and psychiatry are like best friends, all hand and glove together. And now you’re trying to say that everything you do is hexes and witchcraft? A good little Catholic boy like you became a shrink even though you were going to burn in Hell for it?” He raised his hands, palms up, in a mime of wonder. “For what I’m paying you, I could buy an office park, and this is what you give me?”

Levy leaned forward, driving his doctor back into the depths of his own chair. “Look, Chris — do you mind if I call you Chris?”

“Whatever makes you feel comfortable,” he answered automatically, the pieties of his training arriving in his mouth without conscious thought. “The psychiatric experience is all about trust.”

“Uh-huh,” Levy grunted dubiously. “Well, anyway, Chris, what I mean is this. I could see you weren’t happy with the idea, last week, so I did a little poking around of my own. God knows why. I mean, I got the deal of my life cooking, a big shopping centre out in Summerside, that needs every minute of my time, and here I am spending my nights on the internet, looking up religion. Looking up how to convince my goy doctor to make me believe in the God of my Jewish great-grandfather.” He laughed, a surprisingly deep sound from his small body. “What?” he asked. “You didn’t think a dumb businessman like me could handle a little research?” 

Levy reached into the side pocket of his jacket and pulled out a yellow file card of scribbled notes. “Still, I found it,” he continued. “There in the Book of Acts: a pretty straightforward story of hypnosis. Chapter 20, Verses 9 to 12. A kid named Eutychus — is that how you say it, You-ti-cuss? Anyway, he’s sitting in a third-story window while Paul is preaching, and he’s so mesmerised by the man’s voice that he goes under, loses his balance, and falls out the window like a limp rag. Everybody thinks he’s dead, but Paul understands what’s happened, and he wakes the kid up. Tells everybody he’s not dead.”

He put away the card and smiled at his doctor. “Now, that ought to be enough for you, right? Hypnosis by a saint, straight out of the Christian New Testament, just like you need.” 

Dr Manach had never mastered changing gear; in the year and half since his then-girlfriend Maud had convinced him to buy the ridiculously bright red sports car, he’d never failed to grind the poor Mazda’s gears on that awkward, hilly curve where Martin Luther King Drive merges into Madison, midway through his evening commute back to Hyde Park. It was there, in fact, a few days after second session with the God Man-cursing at the transmission’s pained squeal as he tried once again to find third gear-that he realised how close he’d come to missing the patient’s slip. 

In truth, he had missed it, at the time. Most of the people he treated wouldn’t shut up about their families: sisters, brothers, spouses, parents, children. The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat — half the psychiatric trouble in the history of the world seemed to come from families, and the other half from the blame heaped back on those families. But Levy had never mentioned the wife after his initial interview. Never mentioned his mother and father, or his children, for that matter. No one except his great-grandfather-in a strange, passing reference that was a signal, maybe, of someone important to him. 

When Chris brought up family with the patient, however, Levy tried to wave it aside: “I’ve got two ex-wives, alimony payments like you wouldn’t believe, a current wife who’s . . . no, I don’t know that, not for sure. Anyway, we’re not doing well, right now. I’ve got three children and four stepchildren, none of them living in my house but all of them looking to me for college tuition and birthday presents. For food on their table, as far as that goes.”

He leaned forward. “I don’t know why we’re talking about this, doctor. It’s not why I’m here. But okay, for a minute. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not complaining. I’ve done all right. My father had moved us all out to the suburbs, but when my grandparents passed, they left me their old house up in the north end of Avondale — you know that part of Cincinnati, in what used to be the Jewish section? Run down as hell by the time it got to me, but that’s what I started with, and over the next thirty years I managed to leverage it into a pretty good real-estate and development business. I saw the property bust coming in 2008 and cashed out as much as I could, so I didn’t get hurt as much as some.”

“All in all, I’m fine,” Levy added, opening his hands expansively. “I’ve got money, anyway, to spend on nonsense like this. I mean . . . you know what I mean. Not nonsense, but incidentals. I’ve got everything a man could want except . . . I don’t know. Something.”

The pause extended into uncomfortableness before Chris finally asked, “And the great-grandfather you mentioned last time? Did you know him?”

“I guess. A little, when I was very young. Solomon Ginsberg. Zayde Sol, we called him, may his memory be for a blessing. May his memory be for a blessing, huh. You know, I hadn’t thought of that in years. That’s what he always used to say when he named someone dead, and then he’d reach down and rub my head. Sitting there next to him at one of the tables in the park while he talked with his friends. Arguing, always arguing with them about the Talmud or what the rabbi had said the week before. But in a good way, if you know what I mean. A happy way, like it was the most natural thing in the world. Poor as a church mouse” — Levy grinned at the incongruity, a sideways tilt of his head that took a decade off his face — “or a shul mouse, I guess, but happy, all the time.

“Anyway, he isn’t what we were talking about.” He flipped to a new file card in the small stack he’d taken from his pocket. “I don’t know where he said it, what book it’s in, but on one of those websites about hypnosis, I found this line from Thomas Aquinas: ‘If the act that deprives a man of his use of reason is licit in itself and is done for a just cause, there is no sin.’ St Thomas Aquinas, that’s one of your main guys, right? And it sure sounds like he’s saying that it doesn’t matter what happens in hypnosis, as long as the motive is a good one.” 

By the tenth week of treatment, Chris was paying a pair of rabbinical students from Cincinnati’s nearby Hebrew Union College to help him with research. By the fifteenth week, he had them both, along with their teacher, in his office when the patient arrived-waiting to explain why the idea of hypnotised belief was a straightforward theological self-contradiction. It was an intrusion into the psychiatric relationship, Chris knew, but he had to make something move in the God Man case. 

“And how did the patient respond to this intervention?” asked Gertrude Neumann, when he’d finally broken down enough to ask her for advice. A tiny, elderly woman almost lost in her consulting chair — a rough tweed jacket draped over her shoulders, the unused arms dangling down — she eyed him speculatively, as though he were once again her patient. As though, Chris realised, he and not Benjamin Levy had become the really interesting subject for a case study.

“Not well,” he had to confess. Levy had retaliated the next week by showing up with a senior theologian from Cincinnati’s equally nearby Xavier University and a priest from the Athenaeum, the local seminary-both of them hired to persuade the doctor that hypnosis was a potential road to faith, a theologically allowable device for someone with the desire to believe.

“I am disappointed in you, Christopher,” Dr Neumann declared, directing at him that unwavering grey-eyed stare that was his clearest and least favourite memory of his training with her. “The patient’s escalating response to your own escalation — how could you not have predicted this?” She sighed and removed her glasses, rubbing the ancient calluses on the bridge of her nose. “You were never one of my best students, we must admit, yes? But I expected better from you than simple catastrophe.”

She replaced her glasses, glanced back through the notes she had taken during Chris’s stumbling account of the case, and briskly announced, “So. Let us recapitulate. A patient comes to you with a mania. You are a doctor, this is good — he understands he needs help.” 

She turned a page in her notebook. “The help he requests, however, is curious. We will leave aside our old disagreement about whether the god-figure he seeks is itself a psychosis; for now it is enough that he seeks it in a psychotic way. You tell him this, which is also good: hypnosis will not achieve what he desires, and his god-mania is a mask that overlays a deeper disturbance in his mind — else he would see the illogic and improbability of the means he has chosen to achieve his end.”

Even looking down at his feet, Chris could feel his teacher’s eyes, piercing him like nails. “Alas,” she continued, “that is the end of good. The patient wishes to argue with his psychotherapist, as patients do. He resists his treatment. He insists hypnosis does not contradict faith. He produces proof texts — Thomas Aquinas, St Augustine, the Catholic philosophers, because his psychotherapist has foolishly revealed that he is a member of that Roman Church.”

She turned another page. “All is not necessarily lost, at this point. The psychotherapist, however, does not return the treatment to its proper path. The patient is an intelligent man, and he catches the ill-prepared doctor in an inconsistency. Stung, the doctor begins to collect his own proof texts in defense-Gershom, Maimonides, the Jewish teachers, because the patient is of Hebrew descent and wishes to believe as his ancestors did. Sessions disappear in     theological argument: Gamaliel says, St Bonaventure argues, the Bible reveals. Back and forth, and back and forth, like a ship, yes? A ship of fools that never comes to port. The patient’s mania remains unaddressed. Worse, the patient’s mania is confirmed, for his doctor-this serious man, we suppose, to whom he has come for help-has joined him. Yes, even his doctor casts aside his training and embarks with the patient on this hopeless journey.”

With a snap, Dr Neumann closed her leather notebook and set it carefully on a side table. “We are beyond the not good, Christopher. You are not merely failing to help the patient; you are actively hurting him. Hurting yourself also, it may be. You have entered into your patient’s fantasy, joining him in a folie à deux: a shared psychosis, a contagion, that must be halted. You will cease your sessions with him immediately. This is my advice. This is my demand. You will send him to another doctor immediately — to me, perhaps? Yes, that would be best. And you also. You will resume your sessions here, just as you did when you were my student. Together we will seek again the root of this god-delusion that has led you so astray.”

The City of Seven Hills, American’s Rome, Cincinnati liked to call itself: an enduring bit of eighteenth-century bombast, in supposed keeping with the town’s Latin name. But medical tradition or the failure of civic imagination-or whatever that weird economic force is that causes similar businesses to clump together-had somehow piled seven hospitals on a single one of those hills. 

Good Samaritan, Deaconess, and Christ. The Veterans Administration and the Shriners. University Hospital and Cincinnati Children’s. They dominated the neighborhood of Mount Auburn. The old Jewish hospital had finally given up, moving out to Kenwood when there wasn’t any room left to expand. But the other hospitals had stayed on Pill Hill, stacking their crazy new steel and glass constructions on top of the staid old brick establishments till the crenellated jumble rose like an impossible fantasy — a Tomorrowland vision of a children’s sandcastle — above the city. 

I wish that I’d never met the senator, thought Chris as he trudged to his own office from Dr Neumann’s, eight blocks around the shoulder of the hill. Or that the idiot had never started smoking, or something. Something different. It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way. The most famous hypnotist in Ohio, maybe the whole country, and he hadn’t even liked hypnosis or taken it seriously as a psychiatric technique.

He paused to look up at the hospitalised    skyline, then back down at the old houses      flowing down the slope until Mount Auburn emptied out into the urban delta below, where the illuminated business signs glowed in the late afternoon of spring. He’d done all right, back in his thirties, hadn’t he? Treating patients, doing some good, making a little money. Now he was an unmarried forty-four-handsome enough for his age although a little pudgy, he might want to do something about that, the morning show’s producers had casually remarked when they offered him the part-time television spot. 

Yes, he was better off professionally than he ever had been. Better known and better paid. Even so, it wasn’t enough to keep Maud from moving to Portland in October, giving up on him after a decade of dating. And it wasn’t enough to keep his old teacher from taking him to pieces, slapping him six ways from Sunday.

Maybe he should start going to church again, meet a nice Catholic girl, like his mother wanted. Settle down, finally have some kids. He hadn’t been to Mass in months, not since he had visited his parents over Christmas, and he wasn’t sure why. Sweet Jesus, he was a mess. If psychiatry meant anything, it meant trying to see motives clearly, and Chris was unable to account for almost any of his actions these days.

Anyway, none of this was getting him closer to deciding what to do about Benjamin Levy. All he wants is to be happy, the poor rich snook, and somewhere along the line he got the goofball notion that God would do it for him. It worked for his great-grandfather, after all, maybe the only genuinely happy family he remembers, so why not for him?

Dr Neumann was probably right, Chris reflected: the patient needed to take a mile’s worth of miserable steps backward before he could move forward. But, Jesus Christ, to hand him over to that meat-grinder. Gertrude Neumann would eat him alive — and all in the name of curing him of his psychoses. Including, Chris knew, the idea of God. 

Maybe that was the problem, the reason that, whatever was best for Benjamin Levy, Chris just didn’t want to give him up. He’d always believed in God, he supposed, but it hadn’t ever mattered. Not really. His psychiatric practice, his success since the senator, even his sense of himself — Chris couldn’t see how any of them would have gone another way, even if he’d been a raging atheist. 

And it was supposed to make a difference, wasn’t it? A difference in how you worked and how you lived. In how the world is, for that matter. O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended thee, he remembered from the old Act of Contrition, prayers mumbled in a pew after childhood confessions. I firmly resolve, with the help of thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life. But what if you didn’t know what your penance should be? Or even what your sins were? How were you supposed to amend your life then?

Ah, well, Chris decided, this wasn’t getting him anywhere, and it was interfering with his other work. “I’ll send him away,” he said aloud as he pulled open the street door to his office building — startling the thin woman standing nearby, clutching her handbag while she tried to nerve herself up to visit one of the offices in the medical building. “No, I won’t. I don’t know. What should I do with him?”

“Um . . . , ” she faltered, refusing to meet the eyes of the plump doctor in the expensive jacket. “I . . .”

“Oh, in or out, lady,” Chris snapped, waggling the door he was holding open for her. “It’s one or the other. You can’t have them both.”

“I . . . ah . . . I have to go,” she whimpered and fluttered down the steps like a frightened bird, her bag held tight against her bony chest.

Great, thought Chris as he rode the elevator up to his penthouse offices. Now I’m terrorising innocent neurotics on the street. A few more weeks, and I can work my way up to agitating psychopaths and psychotics. Come see Cincinnati’s famous Dr Manach! He’ll make you sicker, and he’ll do it quicker, than anyone else around!

His receptionist held up a finger to stop him as he entered his office suite, the multiple white plastic bangles she was wearing this week falling with a clatter down her arm. “Oh, hon, with him, the real question is what you hope for,” she confided loudly into the phone. “You can’t ignore the things you see, but you have to think about the things you don’t see, too. You know? You’re walking in the dark, sure, but anything’s possible if you just have a little trust.”

Angela covered the mouthpiece and announced to her employer, “Your patient’s waiting in your office.”

“What patient?” Chris snarled. “I asked you to cancel my appointments this afternoon.”

“Benjamin Levy,” she told him, with a glare. “And I did cancel your afternoon appointments. He’s your evening appointment, and he needed to see you. It’s on your calendar.” 

“And why did you tell him to wait in my office?”

“He was early and you’re running late. He’s waiting, so go in and do what you’re supposed to,” she added with a clack of her chewing gum and turned her attention back to the phone.

The long sun slanted in through the windows of his inner office, his sanctum-flowing over the tufted upholstery of the chairs and sofas, the library table, the oriental rug, to paint a nimbus over the back of the head of the short and slightly balding Benjamin Levy. 

“Ah, there you are,” the patient said, looking up from the yellow file cards in his lap. “From what your receptionist told me, I was afraid you weren’t going to make it.”

“No,” said Chris. “I’m here.”

“Well, good,” Levy nodded at the doctor. “You’re . . . no” — he added, glancing at his watch — “you’re exactly on time, down to the second. Anyway, listen, I’ve been thinking about how Augustine says the Bible is teaching in a kind of divine language of allegories, like metaphors, and we need to change, or, maybe, I don’t know, refine the way we read those allegories when science changes. I mean” — and he tilted his head with a crooked grin — “I don’t want to say that those student rabbis you brought in were wrong, but if hypnosis counts as an advance in medical science, then Augustine sure seems . . . “

For a moment, Dr Christopher Manach stared at his patient, the man happily trying to convince him to accept hypnosis as an instrument of faith. And then, with a sigh, he lowered himself down, into the chair at a fifteen-degree angle from Benjamin Levy, to talk about God. To argue for a fifty-minute hour, to do a little amateur theology — as though it were just what people did, what they had always done. As though it were the most natural thing in the world. 

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"