I See France

How Do You Say “Freudian” in French?

Between me and my new French teacher the vaguest outlines of a deal are emerging. If I will present her with a clinically interesting catalog of neuroses, she will teach me to speak French like a French person. I intended to honor the deal. When she asked me to describe some traumatic incident from my childhood, I happily complied. Indeed, I’d come prepared.


First grade. The class has been taken to the lower-school library for the first time. The plastic chairs in the library are the sort that have little square gaps in the back, for ventilation. At the end of the class, when it’s time to leave, I decide to exit the chair not by standing up but by climbing through the hole. I become stuck. Really stuck. The first-grade teacher and the librarian spend a few minutes trying to extract me, while the entire class giggles. Finally they give up and the teacher leads the entire class back and leaves me standing in the library wearing the chair. It takes a full hour and the help of several men in green uniforms, much like the famed Parisian garbage collectors, to spring me.


Finishing the story in my moron French I looked up for what I expected would be approval. A little boy seeks to climb through a hole he shouldn’t, becomes stuck, and as a consequence, endures his first great public humiliation. What more could a shrink want? Freud would have paid hard cash for this sort of thing. My teacher, however, failed to be impressed.

“Why did you climb through the hole?” she asked.


Had to think about that one. Or, at any rate, appear to think about it.

“I wanted to see if I could fit through,” I said, in part because it was true and in part because I could say it in French.

Her mouth twitched. I could see her wondering: Could a man who calls himself a writer be THAT shallow? And the answer is: Yes! There have been many times when I have felt I should be wearing a sign around my neck that reads: No Diving!


But it was now her turn to surprise me. She said, “I believe you.”

I cannot begin to describe the relief I felt at that moment. She’d just proved herself willing to cede me the shallow end of the swimming pool in exchange for my sweaty attempts at French. We were going to get along fine.

And for the next two hours we did. French lessons and psychotherapy: The two simply melded together, just as she had said they would. Each time she used the word “therapy” I was able to replace it with “French lessons” without disturbing her meaning. As when, for instance, she said, “People seek therapy in order to relieve suffering.” Moreover, the French language is itself a psychological event; the curious mental predispositions of this nation lie embedded in its dictionary. For instance, there is no French word or phrase for “self-deprecating.” Wonder why. And did you know that the French word for “fishing” is the same as the French word for “sinning”? We could spend hours discussing such perversities without ever coming around to the trapdoors in my own mind.


Yes, we started out so very well. And then something changed. At the end of the session she closed her notebook firmly and stared at me with intense disapproval. The shift in her tone was even more radical than her usual personality transformation when she quit French and returned to English, which is what she does whenever she wants to be certain I understand her.

“I hear you have written something about me,” she said.

This I was not prepared for. Who in Paris reads Slate? All of her patients, that’s who. Three of them had called her to tattle on me about the first article.

“But I never mentioned you by name!” I protested. “How could anyone know it was you?”


“They all know who the best French teacher in Paris is,” she said. “You misquoted me. I did not say that I had just gotten my degree in psychotherapy. I was certified three years ago.”

Misquoting your shrink: not a promising start to a search for inner truth. Quickly, in the manner of a bond salesman, I pointed out that the usual rules of patient-doctor confidentiality apply only to the doctor. If the patient is willing to publicize his neuroses who is the doctor to complain? To which she replied, not unreasonably, that the usual rules are a bunch of crap when the patient is making a mockery of the process. At which point I began to feel anxious and tense all over again. The therapeutic benefits of the previous two hours were washed away by the riptide of her resentment.


“I just want to feel safe here,” she said. “I need to be able to trust you.”

And then, before I could protest, she’d switched back into French. Poof. That was it; she’d spoken her mind. Now she wanted me to understand my homework assignment for the next session. It wasn’t French grammar. No, I was to come prepared with a question for her to ask me.

“What kind of question?”

“The question you would most like someone to ask you,” she said.

This seemed too easy to count as therapy. “A question that I would like to be asked or a question that I would prefer not to have to answer?”

“A question that you would like to be asked,” she said.

This I could do. “To what do you attribute your overpowering personal charm?” I offered.

She stared me with thoughtful distaste.

“OK,” I said, “How about: Why don’t any of your French dinner guests ever call you afterward?”

There was fire in her eyes now. “Gardez les blagues,” she said. Which means, according to my French dictionary, cut the horseshit.

She explained the purpose of the exercise: to explore my “moi profond.” My deep self.

“What if I don’t have a deep self?”

“That’s what I want to know.”