Magnetic Partners

What pulled you together may be pulling you apart.

Studying Under a Master, Part II: More Adventures With Helen Singer Kaplan in the Big Apple

Meeting the Great One

Miraculously, Dr. Kroop delivered me to Cornell Medical's Payne Whitney Clinic just a minute or so before class started—enough time for her to introduce me to Helen Singer Kaplan. As I shook Dr. Kaplan's hand I noticed Dr. Kroop fade. It was as if Kroop had just handed off a football. We rarely spoke again. The pace of the New York experience had begun to take its toll on me. Upon meeting Kaplan I gleefully blurted out, with dilated pupils, I'm sure: "You're more popular in Philadelphia than the Beatles!" Can you believe it? I was like a cheerleader on a heavy dose of amphetamines. Post-comment remorse quickly set in and I was overwhelmed with embarrassment. "A rock! A rock! My Kingdom for a rock to crawl under!" Kaplan shot back an annoyed look, and I thought: "Oh No!"

The classroom was in the basement of the Whitney clinic. The basement! You'd think Cornell could have shown the great Kaplan a little more respect. Nevertheless, the room did have a New York feel to it: dark and dingy with a heavy scent of sophistication in the air—I soon saw it as apropos. The class size was surprisingly small—about 20 clinicians of all rank and file—mostly psychiatrists and clinical psychologists. They all seemed to know Helen well and I soon realized that I was attempting to gain entrance into an exclusive family. What fostered this loyalty? Helen seemed to have a maternal way about her. She could be tough on her flock, but she would not hesitate to ferociously protect them from outsiders. Helen also had a policy that cemented the core of her family: once you trained under her you could attend her Wednesday seminars for life at no charge. She reminded me of this when I graduated in the summer of 1988.

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Dr. Kaplan wore a white medical coat over her daily garb. She was a thin brunette of average height. Her ever-present dark plastic framed glasses always seemed a bit too large for her face. She had a respectable New York accent and she moved quickly as many wiry people do. As she began her lecture it was clear that she was supremely confident in her knowledge base and opinions, but she also respected her followers. That is, unless they disagreed with her too emphatically. At this point Kaplan would shoot back something like: "Do it my way because I said to." Later I was actually stunned at the amount of nerves she displayed before a Grand Rounds. She worried what Michaels, Kernberg, and other Cornell luminaries would think of her presentation. It was a sign of something her personal analysis had failed to mend.

Helen's seminars were patterned. She would usually lead off with a brief lecture about a specific sexually-related topic such as Vaginismus, ED, or HIV. She would then take questions from the class, followed by a review of the clinic's cases. To me, case review was the most valuable part of the program because you received direct feedback on your clinical work from Kaplan. You also witnessed how she dissected cases and applied interventions. Trust me, the speed and accuracy with which she did this amazed even the most experienced clinicians. On occasion, videos were presented, especially if Helen had randomly ordered you to make one. As you might expect this could be a bit scary. The seminars usually lasted about 2 hours but because they were usually so informative, I left them wanting more.

When my introductory seminar had come to an end, Dr. Kroop told me I would receive a decision on my admittance within three weeks. She wished me luck and once again handed me off, only this time to the streets of Manhattan. Do you know how difficult it is to get a cab between 5:00 PM and 6:00 PM in the big apple? Stay tuned for Part III.

 

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

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