I left New York somewhat confused about my chances of getting into Dr. Kaplan's program but as luck would have it I received a letter of admittance from the great one herself. I guess Dr. Kroop gave me the thumbs up; God bless her. I was both scared and ecstatic. Rumor had it that the clinical training part of the program was pretty tough. That was an understatement! I had no idea what I was in for. Have you ever heard of "live supervision?" Usually this consists of viewing a student's work with a client through a one-way-mirror. As they say in Jersey, "forget about it." Kaplan spilt the Fellows into teams of three or four and assigned each team one of her crack supervisors-usually someone she trained, was close with, and had been in her inner circle for years. People like Michael Perelman, Richard Kogan, Sharon Nathan, Elaine Kleinbart and Ellen Hollander.
Cases entered the program via the Payne Whitney Clinic and were assigned to one of the teams. Fellows on the team would then take turns being the "lead therapist," but the entire team, including the supervisor, would be in the room. Can you envision this? Can you imagine the power and control struggles? Can you imagine the stress of having your supervisor sit next to you while you're treating a client? This was Kaplan's idea of live supervision. The bad news is that it took several months for my colon to settle down. The good news is that any other form of supervision after that was a walk in the park. I'm reminded of a line from the Oliver Stone movie Platoon in which the veteran (King) tells rookie Charlie Sheen's character (Chris Taylor) about Vietnam: "All you got to do is make it out of here. It's all gravy, everyday the rest of your life, gravy." That's the way I felt. If I could survive this program, it's all gravy.
Seminars with Kaplan on Wednesdays and the clinical practicum on Thursdays-that was the program. Not too bad, especially if you lived in New York. But I was commuting from the Southern New Jersey area-about a two hour drive by vehicle-and it soon began to wear on me. I tried to stay over another Fellow's place every now and then, but nothing regular developed. With each trip I took a bus from Jersey, got off at the New York Port Authority, caught the Number 7 Train, then the S Shuttle, then the Number 6 Train-Uptown, got off at Hunter College at Lexington Avenue, and walked to Payne Whitney. It was about a three hour commute each way.
To graduate with a coveted diploma signed by Kaplan you needed to successfully complete two years of training. At the end of each year you had to pass an exam which consisted of showing a video tape of your work in front of the entire program- with Kaplan directing the process. She, and she alone, decided whether you passed or failed. In watching her evaluate several tapes I never actually heard her use the word "fail." But after one weak showing she told a second-year Fellow: Don't worry; you'll get it next year." Three years...ugh!
After several months I settled down and began to enjoy the program. The cases covered a wide range of sexual dysfunctions: low sexual desire, vaginismus, orgasmic disorders, erectile dysfunction and premature ejaculation, to name a few. The supervision was incredible and Kaplan was a master in the truest sense of the word having been trained in almost every facet of psychotherapy...except one: systems therapy. Previously indoctrinated in an integrative, systemic model of couple's and sex therapy at the University of Penn's famed Marriage Council of Philadelphia, I was disappointed to find an individually-oriented model that focused primarily on the symptomatic partner rather than the couple as a whole. To this day I believe that had our group looked at the entire couple system we would have achieved greater success. Consider the young executive who "dropped" his anorgasmic wife off to be treated. I warned my supervisor that we should treat both partners rather than risk unbalancing the treatment. My belief was that the wife saw us as joining with her husband to label her the "identified patient." But I was told to get with the program and focus on the symptom-bearer. This may be one of the few times I can say this: I was right. The wife terminated after two sessions. She hated us.
Philosophical differences notwithstanding, my experiences were powerful ones, and ones that enabled me to forge great friendships. I've always wondered why in all my years of graduate work and employment at Penn I made only one or two long-lasting friendships-and these are somewhat distant. Yet from a brief two-year program in New York I've made many friends who I still remain very close with. Maybe it's because there's something romantically bonding about going through hell together. Maybe we all feel special having studied under the great one-as if we are in an exclusive club that no one else can enter now that Helen has passed. I'm not sure. But I'll never forget the day she returned to class after mysteriously disappearing for two weeks (Sharon Nathan took over in her place). Standing in front of the room she apologized for abandoning us and then went on to say that she had developed breast cancer and quickly decided to have the surgery. She told us she spent the second week of her hiatus recuperating on a beach in the Caribbean, all the while, working on her next book. It was at this point that Elaine Kleinbart, Helen's long-time friend and my immediate supervisor, leaned over and whispered in my ear: "It's a shame. She's so tortured. She never feels good enough." I remember these words because I was afraid of losing Helen. I knew she was irreplaceable; and I knew she was good enough for me. And so she lives on in my memory, and in my work, and in the friendships that I forged in those incredibly scary and adventurous times in the big apple.
Following graduation in 1988 I returned only once to Helen's seminar. With her permission I brought a friend and colleague who sat wide-eyed watching her work her magic. Following class she was kind enough to autograph one of her books for him-something he still talks about twenty three years later.
I hear that the program has died along with Helen, but that a group of her followers still hold seminars in some dingy classroom, or possibly in someone's home somewhere in the city. I could find out exactly when and where, but it just wouldn't be the same. Nevertheless, I can envision these diehards going over cases and telling stories of Helen and how she would've have handled them. I find myself quoting her often to my supervisees who seem amazed that I even knew her. I'm still amazed myself.