“You played Madonna?!” My patient Shira is an expressive, wonderfully cocky, and very hip Yale sophomore. This is her opener as she strolls into my office. “Yes,” I say, watching her settle into the black leather recliner across from me. She looks horrified. Shira likes to feel that she’s “in the know” about trends, pop culture, and especially, music. She’s derisive and unimpressed that a Madonna tune has appeared on my radio show. It’s too “average.” It’s “retro.” She’d probably play obscure, indie Brooklyn bands if she were the DJ selecting music.
Shira and I are in uncharted territory. I’m a psychotherapist who hosts a weekly music and interview show on the radio. My musical tastes, the questions I ask guests, what makes me laugh, and what fascinates me—it’s all out there in the ether, for anyone who is listening. My “celebrity” is quite minor, but I work in a provincial, psychoanalytically influenced New England community, and the attention I get seems to induce a frisson of anxiety in some of my colleagues. “So,” they say, eyes widening, “you’re on the radio? Do, um, do your patients know? Do they listen to your show (horror of horrors)? How do you handle that?”
I understand their curiosity. Therapists face new challenges to their privacy these days. Even before most patients have stepped into the office, they’ve consumed unfiltered information about us via the Internet. We’re being googled. This phenomenon has forced more and more therapists to recognize and cope with many aspects of ourselves already being public—privacy no longer really exists. The delicate and important balance of public versus private has preoccupied us since Freud’s notion of the analyst as a blank screen onto which fantasies will be projected (a methodology most useful for psychoanalysis, but not for psychotherapy, which is what most of us practice). Throughout our careers, we calibrate how much to reveal about ourselves (or our own feelings) to each individual. The basic paradigm—for us to reveal less—remains useful. Although we ask for great revelations from the patient, if we contributed all our personal details, associations and vulnerabilities, the therapy process would degenerate into comparisons of experience. There is a concept I learned while taking boxing lessons: “finding your range.” It means that you need to be just the right distance away from your opponents—not so far away that you can’t reach them when you need to and not so close that you will be overly vulnerable and swallowed up.
Clinical techniques have expanded; contemporary theorists studying the uses of therapeutic self-disclosure have gone on to explore ways that authentic, in-the-moment feedback (and in some cases, information about the therapist) can especially benefit patients who struggle in relationships in which no one has provided “mirroring,” or ever questioned their own particularly distorted beliefs. We make careful decisions for each clinical pairing.
For therapists practicing in a small town, things are already claustrophobic. My colleagues talk about running into patients at the local pool, the gym, or around town. (I’d rather a patient hear me on the radio than see me in a bathing suit!)
Sometimes those “collegial” reactions to my radio activities make me feel that I’ve been slapped with a subtext—that I must be doing something wrong. I worry they think I should pack myself back into analysis to examine my own narcissism. So when my peers appear a bit shocked, it helps when I reflexively clarify that it’s not a radio advice show about mental health problems. I’m not immune to bouts of anxiety, so I’m attempting to reassure myself, tooNone of us just live in our office chairs. Patients begin to stitch together their quilted portraits of us as soon as they see our parked cars in the assigned spaces (old Honda Civic? Brand-new Saab?), view our décor (Paul Klee reproductions? Primitive sculptures?), experience our sense of humor (or lack thereof), and learn where on the Cape we’re vacationing or that we don’t like to travel. This information does not have to be considered unfortunate “leakage.” It is inevitable real-world information, and we have a reliable tool for the complexity of this issue. We can explore what each detail or nuance means to someone—and we can accept that we function in a dual capacity—both symbolic and real.
With some patients who do hear me, it can be, as with Shira, an opportunity for them to directly express aggression, envy, or criticism. Shira and I had been working together for seven months, talking about her struggles in relationships. Her offhand comment about Madonna was the first time she had challenged me directly, even just a little. I admire her critique of the Madonna tune. Many college-age patients are such perpetually “good students” that they treat therapy as if it were another class. They’re fearful of making a mistake and want to please any authority figure. Shira’s challenge is a welcome contribution that is a healthy expression of her own tastes and individuation.
I listen for any feelings or fantasies about my “other dimensions,” if and when they come up, giving room and space for anything someone needs to express. If I bring it up (“So on my radio show I interviewed so-and-so”), there’s usually a dynamic in the relationship that causes me to go there, some way in which the patient makes me (and often others) feel invisible or unimportant. Occasionally I’m thinking that there needs to be some idealization of me for the therapy to work, and that hosting a radio show gives me some gravitas. I could swear that recently, after I casually mentioned an author interview I did on the air, a patient who had not known about my radio life began to listen to me more closely, as if my wisdom suddenly deepened. And sometimes it just slips out because I want to be . . . more real, as multidimensional as my patients, or because my own countertransference compels me to say, “Hey, I’m cool.” The gratification of occasional admiration is like a cool drink of water to a parched throat.
I give so much to my patients—I am laser-focused on every word they say, attentive, warm, compassionate, and hard working. I quietly tune myself to patients’ melodies, and each hour begins with someone else’s song. As clinicians we are trained to suppress automatic reactions, modulate our responses, wait for the best moment to speak, assess potential effects and timing of interpretations, and listen. We restrain the impulse to shift the focus to us; that goes with the job. I’m not alone in sometimes wanting to burst through the confines of the psychic-midwife role, and say “Hey, over here! On the diving board! Look at me! I have some special things going on outside the office!”
Sometimes patients want to impress us with their creative efforts, and maybe this occurs with me a bit more often because of the radio show. Recently a new patient, an artist and musician, placed a CD of his original music on my desk as he was leaving the office. He mumbled, “Heard you like avant-garde music . . . and maybe you did radio once?” The CD, forlorn and unprotected without a sleeve or a clear reason for being there, sat unheard on my desk for the next week.
“Yes,” I said at the next session. “I do radio.”
“Actually, I know that. I listened to a few of your interviews. I am your biggest fan now!! I tried to find the music shows, but the computer archive of past shows wasn’t working right.”
A wish to help him find the shows flared briefly, like a firefly in the darkness. I suspected he would enjoy them and imagined how nice it would be to get that ego gratification. But that was not the point.
“The CD you brought in . . . I think I should give it back to you . . . because I . . . we don’t know yet . . . what exactly does giving this to me mean to you?”
He thought for a moment and, with spontaneous honesty, said, “I want you to, um, like me, I think. I want to impress you.”
I’ve worked with this issue of having a public life outside therapy for multiple decades and decided long ago that radio was too important a part of my creative life to give up—whatever the lingering biases about a therapist not having too big a personality. It stretches back to my childhood in the early 1960s, to a field trip to WGBO’s studios in Newark, New Jersey. Seeing the creativity involved in producing a radio show, watching the DJ establish an on-air intimacy and using multiple aspects of the “Self” to do so, I was immediately smitten with the idea of being an on-air host.
For me, like for many kids, radio was a soundtrack to my emotional and social life. In grade school, I followed AM radio, with its Top 40 hits and fast-talking disc jockeys. My best friend and I would lie in bed, talking to each other on our princess phones, writing down the Top 10 being counted down. The Righteous Brothers, Petula Clark, and the Temptations eventually gave way to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the more intimate and intense experience of FM and public radio, with its non-commercial zeitgeist. From Newark, I heard radio hosts on the New York stations WBAI and WNEW and found comfort and solace in their late-night voices. They talked. They talked a lot. And if Allison Steele, the “Nightbird” of WNEW, chose to play an entire album side of a Procol Harum record—so be it. Their voices were comforting. So I understood when a patient said, “Last week, when I wasn’t able to come in for my session, I knew I could hear your voice on the radio, and it was very soothing.”
As a wild child of the 1960s, I didn’t get my career trajectory in shape until I was thirty. I had a long moratorium in my twenties after dropping out of college. In other words, I was floundering. At twenty-five, I became involved with a non-commercial radio station in Bridgeport, Connecticut. I was also back in school, doing some writing, and alternately working as a typist, editor, secretary, or whatever I could find. Hosting a show became the centerpiece of my week. This was the pre-CD era, so like a Sherpa I schlepped some of my own vinyl collection up the three flights of stairs. I always wanted something new to play, some spoken-word oddity that might create the perfect prelude to a piece of music; thus I always needed a range of choices on hand. William Butler Yeats seemed to go with Patti Smith. The French poets wanted to be punctuated by punk rock. On this station, we could be as experimental as we liked. When a segue worked, I felt powerful, excited, fulfilled! I studied hard and passed the Federal Communications Commission licensing test, which involved computations of wattage and power output and the memorization of obscure regulations I would never need. That was a happy day. I started out with shows on Tuesday and Thursday nights, from 11 p.m. until 3 a.m.
Several years after becoming a radio host, I went off to Smith College to study clinical social work. Making radio a career didn’t seem feasible—I wasn’t a commercial type of host, and I was clueless about how to negotiate my way toward National Public Radio. I had no mentors, which is not a complaint, more of an explanation and a disclosure—I often felt I had to blaze my own way, to my disadvantage. In contrast, life as a therapist made a remarkable amount of sense. I’d always been fascinated by psychology and human behavior. I’d had my own experiences in the patient chair. I’d been reading Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, and I very much wanted to do meaningful work.
During my time at Smith, I took a break from radio to focus on my studies. My internships at Clifford Beers Child Guidance Clinic and Yale University Department of Mental Hygiene were intensive. After a second fellowship year at Yale, I started a private practice. The early years were extremely stressful. In an effort to anchor myself, I carried a collection of meaningful totems—a book by a beloved author, a special rock in my pocket, my favorite mug—as I went back and forth to the shared office I rented by the hour. I typed up my notes from the clinical sessions religiously—patient said/I said—as if they were epic novels.
I’d been in practice for around five years when I realized I missed radio. I returned to the station and pre-produced a weekly segment about the AIDS epidemic that another DJ aired on his show. It was a gentle way back in. Then I took on a weekly four-hour Saturday night music show.
Decades later, in that sly way in which how we spend our time determines the shape of our lives, I am still doing radio, and I am still in private practice. And I’m still struck by how often I evoke that curious or puzzled reaction from colleagues. Does assuming the role of a therapist mean you give up your passions? Die a slow death of the spirit?
Over the years, my on-air persona has developed. Around five years ago I began interviewing authors, celebrities, musicians, and activists. The book I published in 2010 (Blows to the Head: How Boxing Changed My Mind) connected me to many other writers who wanted to talk about their work. The book itself is a memoir about my midlife involvement with the world of boxing and the history of Jewish boxers. During my on-air conversations with boxing writers and famous trainers I became freer about revealing aspects of my own history. I used humor, I was self-deprecating, I could often be silly. I spoke with emotion about the music I chose and what it meant to me. I talked about films I’d seen that week and books I was reading.
I am always a bit self-conscious on the air because of my profession. A patient might be listening, so I hold back on sharing what I do on the weekends, where I walk my dog, or very personal things that have happened in my life—I try to focus on pop culture and information. I feel embarrassed if I make a mistake and a bit of profanity in music goes out over the air. If patients are listening, I want to do a good job and not be a sloppy DJ. When I do wander into a personal anecdote, I withhold anything that I imagine might be too wildly disturbing or disruptive to a listening patient. Of course, it’s impossible to completely control what might be disruptive to different individuals!
Being a psychotherapist and radio host does involve keeping a close eye on all the balls in the air. I’m sure I drop one now and then, but most of the time the juggling does not pose unmanageable complications. I believe as therapists we can work successfully in the postmodern age with new theory-bases and approaches to the increasingly more public aspects of our identities. So I continue to lug my bag of tricks up the stairs to the studio each week and present new Icelandic rock, electronica, or poignant tunes by singer-songwriters. I can promote the works of brilliant authors, which I love to do.
Coming to the end of a music show recently, I recall Shira’s dismissive reaction to my playing Madonna. This particular morning (I’m now doing two hours every Thursday), I’m not playing Madonna—I’m ending with Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill.” What would Shira think of that choice? I wonder, as I start packing up my radio bag full of CDs. My bag is lighter now that there are more alternatives to vinyl. I’ll just have time for lunch before I go to my office and spend the afternoon seeing patients. I remember the first time Kate Bush’s debut album arrived in the studio, how thrilled I was by her strange, ethereal voice and complex musical arrangements. I put down my bag and leap out of my chair just as I did then, and find myself twirling around the studio. Her five-octave vocal range is transporting. I raise my arms.
At least one of the virtues of radio is that no one can see me dancing.
This essay appeared in the anthology How Does That Make You Feel:
Confessions from Both Sides of the Therapy Couch,
ed, Sherry Amatenstein, Seal Press, 2016.
Binnie Klein maintains a private psychotherapy practice in New Haven, CT, and is a Lecturer in the Department of Psychiatry at Yale University. Her memoir, Blows to the Head: How Boxing Changed My Mind (SUNY Press) came out in 2010. She has a weekly show at WPKN-FM (and wpkn.org), Thursdays, 10 am until Noon called A Miniature World