Review by Ann Fisher-Wirth
DOOR OF THIN SKINS
by Shira Dentz
6 Horizon Road, #2901
Fort Lee, New Jersey 07024
2013, 96 pp., $16.00
My father died slowly of brain cancer when I was fifteen. For years, I was numb to his death; there was much I did not connect with, could barely remember. I had no sense of how great my loss was until one day when I was twenty-two, writing in my journal about someone else entirely, I wrote, “That night, X said, was when the world broke for him.” Then I wrote, “It broke for me the night my father died”—and I could not stop crying for the next eight hours. The catharsis led me to therapy and to a process of mourning and healing that took many, many years.
For a long time, I would have been easy prey for any older man who made me feel cherished and taken care of—who made me feel fathered. It would not have been difficult really to mess me up. Luckily, the therapists and professors I had treated me honorably; they listened to me, evaluated my work, extended respect and friendship to me without laying their own trips on me, without sexual vibes or entanglements.
It is therefore with special rage that I read Shira Dentz’s book of poems Door of Thin Skins, a harrowing account of sexual and psychological abuse by a highly regarded analyst against the young female poet who is his patient. “Dr. Abe,” as he is called, is a whale of a man with a New York penthouse apartment/office, powerful splayed fingers that seem “to cover everything; above and below,” and “brown, jelly bean orthopedic” shoes. He is full of a sense of his own importance, a “60-year-old therapist, President of the psychoanalytic division of the A.P.A., and the Society of clinical psychologists in his home state, and a postdoctoral psychoanalytic program.” At the beginning of her treatment, the patient is 21 and wants “to look androgynous, stuff my femaleness out of sight.” Apparently she has been sexually approached by her father—to which Dr. Abe’s response is:
I’ve had patients whose fathers were very seductive; they’d sit in
their father’s laps and he’d tell them about his affairs; I wonder why you didn’t enjoy your father’s advances
And she has lost a younger brother from disease. Her treatment lasts for years, during which Dr. Abe decides she needs the “personal” approach. He takes her shopping, showers while she washes his dishes, offers her purses his wife and daughter don’t want, and keeps telling her she ought to sleep with one man or another. Just one episode of many:
Evening, and Dr. Abe calls. Says, I’m lonely and thought: Who should I call? I thought, you! do you want to keep me company, maybe watch TV? My head fills like a balloon, at the same time a heavy dock. I dart over (live at the Y just blocks away). Wind up in the usual: Him in his large recliner, me in his lap crying, him fondling my breasts. Afterwards, we ride the elevator down to the underground garage and he drops me at my corner on his drive home.
His excuse for his appalling transgression of boundaries: “You need a boyfriend. If you had a boyfriend, I wouldn’t be doing any of this!”
After years this therapy fails—no surprise—and she transfers to another therapist to whom she tells “thesexualstuffthathappened.” Later still, she gathers the courage to lodge a complaint, and eventually a settlement is reached, a settlement that says everything about the powerlessness of this young, damaged female patient vis-à-vis the medical establishment: Because Dr. Abe might have “another heart attack,” the case is delayed six years, until the prosecutor, who needs to close the case, settles without her consent for Dr. Abe’s admission of “one charge of negligence—in termination” and the withdrawal of “all other charges of professional misconduct.”
The brilliance of Door of Thin Skins lies not only in the narrative, but also in the way Shira Dentz stretches and fractures language, not just to report on damage, but to enact damage, trauma and the mind’s desperate attempt to become, then remain, truthful and clear. Words and sentences are broken, obsessively repeated, morphed, made shadowy, made wispy. Words, like things, stand on their heads. At two points language trails off in a scribble, as if all the poet could do, stymied, tongue-stalled, was draw on the page. “History … is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,” says Stephen Dedalus in Portrait of the Artist. To awake, in Door of Thin Skins, would entail being able to make sense of the tangle of desire, deceit, sincerity, hypocrisy, the pressures of the past and the distortions of memory—and the likelihood of that is trenchantly brought home in a series of pages in the latter half of the book, anatomizing
Or, two pages later,
sSensensensensensensensensensensensensensensensensense sens nse ns ne nse e n ∞
The cover of Door of Thin Skins depicts a spider’s web made of words. Thinking of Dr. Abe and the seductive power he wields, I’m reminded of these cynical lines by the Rolling Stones: “I said my, my, like the spider to the fly/ Jump right ahead in my web.”
Each time, reading the book, I’m left with admiration and anger—but also with great sorrow for the troubled young woman who seeks healing, but gets tangled up instead in the sticky snarl of a therapist’s ego. “Your life will be different now that I’m in it,” Dr. Abe promises his patient early on, and it seems like a promise of nurturance. He surely does make her life different, though not as she might have dreamed. Therein the patient must minister to herself. Shira Dentz repeats Dr. Abe’s line on the book’s final page, and continues,
Always to taste those words.
His voice my wind while I wait for time.
Later, in my report, A dam broke in me.
End while I wait for time.
Ann Fisher-Wirth‘s books include Dream Cabinet, Carta Marina, and the coedited The Ecopoetry Anthology. She teaches at the University of Mississippi and also in the Chatham University Low-Residency Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing.