Magnetic Partners

What pulled you together maybe pulling you apart.

Studying Under a Master, Part I: My Adventures With Helen Singer Kaplan In The Big Apple

I'm in a New York state of mind

In the fall of 1986 I applied to study sex therapy under one of the greatest sex therapists of our time—Helen Singer Kaplan. I was fresh out of my doctoral program and I was feeling confident enough to tackle training in the "Big Apple." Well...make that semi-confident. There's something about New York City that's quite intimidating—you know what the song says: "If I can make it there I'll make it anywhere." I believed it. I also hadn't been to New York in many years, and the more you stay away from it, the bigger it seems to get. That and I'd heard that Dr. Kaplan could be pretty tough when she wanted to be. But my fascination with the Peter Principle compelled me to continue with the application process. I figured if Dr. Kaplan told me I should give up psychotherapy and sell dental insurance, I probably should. After all, she was Helen Singer Kaplan. But as fate would have it, I received a letter from her summoning me to New York for an interview. The itinerary: Meet one of her esteemed captains on the Upper East Side—a Dr. Kroop—for a grilling at a restaurant (no pun intended), then be whisked away to meet the great one herself, and sit in on one of her famous Wednesday seminars at what was then The Payne Whitney Clinic at The New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center on East 68th Street. The entire process was nerve racking, but I especially deplored the idea of being interviewed while I was trying to digest a meal. I loved my mother dearly, but one very annoying thing she used to do when she was mad at me was to cook me dinner and then start a fight as soon as I sat down to eat. Apparently, her psychic compromise was to make me an obligatory meal, but give me stomach problems as a side dish. Because of this repeated experience I was concerned that a negative transference would blow my cool and ruin my opportunity to study with Kaplan. But with one step left, I was determined to stay in control, good or bad gut notwithstanding.

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It was a crisp September morning when I hopped my first bus to Manhattan—the trip that would change my life forever. And, as with all life-altering experiences, anxiety and calamity played key roles. The bus I was on suffered a flat tire and we had to wait for another one to rescue us. Realizing I'd be late for my interview, I wanted to jump out of my skin. This couldn't be happening! No cell phones back then so I could only wait for the next bus to arrive and fantasize about what life might have been like if... Arriving at the Port Authority in a cold sweat I grabbed the first cab I could to Dr. Kroop's apartment. I was only about 20 minutes late—not too bad, I thought. But when I sheepishly pushed Kroop's intercom button she gave me a New York introduction. "You're late and you've screwed up my schedule," she scolded. I tried to explain the situation through the little talking box on the wall but she cut me off: "Wait there," she said sternly, "I'll be right down. Now we have to rush." No explanations accepted—she was very annoyed.

Dr. Kroop was a very tall, attractive, long-legged woman who could cover a lot of cement very quickly. It took no time for me to fall about ten yards behind her on our way to the restaurant. I could have tried harder to keep up, but while one side of me wanted to stay close, the other side wanted to stay out of the reach of her left hook. At one point she turned around and yelled to me as we crossed over a busy street: "Hey, if you want to be a New Yorker, you'll have to learn to walk faster." A self-respecting existentialist, I'd already given up hope of getting into the program. Only six fellows were admitted annually and while I'm no Turgenev, I found it hard to believe that the other applicants could have screwed up as quickly and elegantly as I did. Armed with the nihilistic confidence that I had nothing to lose, I muttered back to Kroop: "Who says I want to be a New Yorker?" But here's the shocker! Expecting a barrage of slurs about my character and a bus ticket home, Kroop turned back towards me once again but this time with a big smile on her face. A smile that seemed to say: "Hey kid, you might make it here after all." It was a gesture of approval—at the very least...amusement—and I immediately felt relief. I'd passed my first test before we'd even reached the restaurant—the test that one must pass to not only live in New York but to train under the master—the test of toughness!

My attitude towards Dr. Kroop had instantly changed. I felt as if I understood her... and perhaps New York as well. I suddenly felt welcomed...part of the place. The scene in the restaurant (I can't even remember its name) by all suburban standards was chaotic and stressful. Running late only added to the craziness. Kroop's voice level always seemed to border on screaming, but when I took a few seconds to look around the restaurant, I realized that everyone was talking like that...and I liked it. There seemed to be such a high tolerance for darn near everything, especially assertiveness and opinion. Embarrassment didn't seem part of the New York equation the way it was in the suburbs. I thought to myself: "Give me a loud, obsessive compulsive over a passive aggressive any day of the week." Meanwhile, Kroop was cajoling waiters to move faster so that we could make Dr. Kaplan's class on time and as I watched her, I began to like her more and more. I say this even though she told me that if I got into the program I'd have to learn how to eat faster. In between Kroop's demands and complaints, she would pepper me with relatively benign questions: Why do you want to study sex therapy? Are you sure you can handle the commute to New York? Seemingly satisfied with my answers she suddenly jumped up, threw a few dollar bills on the table and commanded, "Let's get out of here." "What about the food?" I said. "It's not that important, we can't be late," she responded. We rushed out of the indoor fray into the outdoor fray—headed towards The New York Hospital—home to many sick celebrities over the years—headed towards Dr. Kaplan's class. Stay tuned for Part II.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stephen J. Betchen, D.S.W., is the author of the book Magnetic Partners.

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