“Why don’t you take a seat?” the psychiatrist suggested.
But Ana acted like she hadn’t heard him. She turned to him and announced abruptly, “I hate Michael. Last night, I dreamt of killing him.”
Dr. Emmert gazed at her without any show of surprise. “You had this dream after his last visit?”
“Why don’t you tell me about it,” he motioned towards the empty chair.
Ana plopped herself down, tossing her purse on the ground with uncharacteristic carelessness. She forced a smile. “It was funny. In a sad kind of way. It would have been comical, if it weren’t so tragical, as my daughter would say. I feel so angry.”
“Was it his last visit in particular that makes you feel this way?”
Ana paused to think for a moment before answering him. “Not really. It just pushed me over the edge. But I’ve been feeling angry ever since I began to realize I was this close,” she pinched a few millimeters of air between her thumb and index finger, “to destroying my life and compromising my children’s lives for a man who isn’t even worth a second glance. His last visit sealed the deal. Now I definitely hate him.”
There was something feral in Ana’s demeanor that made the psychiatrist believe her statement. It came from the gut, from the spleen. “Passion often turns to hate. Just as love turns to indifference,” he remarked, used to dealing with broken relationships. “What did Michael do in particular to make you feel so angry with him?”
Ana snorted with disdain. “He attacked me. But I wasn’t intimidated,” she said defiantly, almost believing her own words. She had already forgotten the visceral panic she felt when Michael wrapped his hand around her throat. She only recalled the resentment that followed.
“Can you tell me what happened?”
“He came and knocked on my front door two days ago, in the early afternoon,” Ana said, becoming slightly calmer now that she focused on facts rather than feelings. “I didn’t open it, of course, since I’m not that stupid. I just communicated with him through the glass panel next to our door,” she sketched a rectangle into the air. “At first, he was nice, like the old Michael I used to know. Baby this, Baby that, Baby the other. But I’m not his Baby anymore so I refused to open for him.”
“Good for you,” the therapist approved.
“That’s not what bothered him. What really got under his skin was that I no longer believed him. I couldn’t be brainwashed and bamboozled anymore.”
“What was he trying to sell you? I mean, tell you?”
Ana ignored the pun. “Oh, you know, the usual lies. That he loved me. That I’m the woman of his life. And it made me really angry.”
“The fact that Michael was still trying to dupe me even after he’d been so thoroughly unmasked.”
“Perhaps he didn’t think he was unmasked,” the therapist speculated. “Because, in his own mind, he never wore a mask to begin with. In fact, he probably feels betrayed.”
“He feels betrayed? What about Rob? What about Karen? What about me?”
Dr. Emmert shrugged. “When it comes right down to it, Michael doesn’t care about any of you. He only sees things from his own point of view. From his perspective, you wronged him. After all, he was prepared to leave his fiancée for you.”
“How can he feel betrayed when he doesn’t care about anybody but himself?” Ana asked, perplexed.
“Well, it’s not the kind of betrayal you, Rob or Karen feel,” Dr. Emmert explained. “For most people, betrayal means a violation of trust in the context of a close, interpersonal relationship. For psychopaths, however, it means something entirely different. Since they don’t have the ability to form genuine emotional bonds with others, they don’t feel any violation of real trust. To trust someone, you have to be close to them. Psychopaths never get close to anyone to begin with. Instead, they experience betrayal as a violation of their control over certain individuals, especially those who had previously admired them. Since you escaped his control, from his distorted perspective, Michael doesn’t think that he mistreated you. Most likely, he believes that you mistreated him.”
Ana recalled how contemptuously Michael had spoken of his parents when they had dared engage in the slightest criticism of him. He seemed particularly stunned by his mother’s disapproval. After all, she was the one who idolized him most. “But that’s just it. He did mistreat me and everyone close to him,” she replied, arguing against Michael in her own mind.
“Everything about him was a sham. Everything.” She began counting by her fingers: “The fact that he can love. The fact that he can care about another human being. The fact that he can be faithful or honest. The fact that he would have been good to me and my kids. He’s incapable of being good to anyone. He’s a psychopath.”
“Yes, but he doesn’t know it,” Dr. Emmert emphasized. “Just as he has no real connection to others, Michael has only a tenuous rapport with his own self. He lacks the self-awareness to see the workings of his own disorder.”
Ana’s hand trembled upon her lap. “He never loved me.”
“No, he didn’t,” Dr. Emmert agreed. “He temporarily saw in you the fulfillment of his sexual fantasies. What psychologists call the fantasy of the ‘omniavailable woman’. A woman who’s always aroused, always available to fulfill a man’s desires, always pliable to his will.”
“I was just being myself,” Ana responded, feeling far from a fantasy woman. “I was always real with him.”
“Sure,” the therapist agreed. “But once you told your partners about the affair, you showed him another part of you. One that was just as real, but that he didn’t like quite as much. You reacted normally to the trauma you were causing yourself and your family. You became difficult and depressed. And once you became a real woman, Michael’s interest in you diminished. Because a cranky and depressed woman is much less fun. And if a woman’s going to be less fun, then he might as well get his supply of pleasure elsewhere.”
“During the last few weeks together,” Ana recounted, “Michael started behaving really bossy with me. When he cooed and cajoled and gave me gifts, I didn’t realize just how controlling he could be.”
Dr. Emmert smiled. “It’s funny that you didn’t see him as bossy during our first session together. When your husband described him that way, you became defensive and took Michael’s side. What changed your mind?”
Ana looked at him with frankness: “I stopped defending him to others only once I stopped defending him to myself. Then I started to see Michael for what he is. A bully, a control freak and a pervert,” she added. “Once our relationship started to unravel under pressure, it struck me how much Michael talked about sex. Everything revolved around sex for him. And I took that as a bad sign.”
“Good. Because it was,” the therapist confirmed. “It meant that he was oblivious to other dimensions of life. That wouldn’t have been a solid foundation for marriage or any real life partnership. More importantly, it meant that the person,” he gestured towards Ana, “was far less important than the act. Because the act, you can do it with anybody.”
Ana absentmindedly twirled her wedding ring, which she had placed back upon her finger a few days earlier. “You know,” she said very quietly, as if speaking mostly to herself, “being lovers masked Michael’s sexual addiction. Because it’s normal for lovers to focus upon sex, romance and pleasure. It goes with the territory, so to speak. But once we began planning our future together, I expected to see other sides of him.”
“Well, like concern for my children, for instance. And concern for me, in both the practical and emotional aspects of life. But I didn’t see any of that. In new and more complex circumstances, I saw the same sex-obsessed Michael, minus some of his best attributes, such as his charm, good humor, generosity and patience, all of which pretty much went out the window.”
“That’s perfectly normal,” Dr. Emmert remarked, then qualified, “for someone so abnormal, that is. Michael lives exclusively for his self-gratification. Nothing else matters to him.”
“Yes, but I didn’t see that at first.”
“You didn’t want to see it,” the psychiatrist corrected her statement. “Your blindness, in fact, was part of initially drew him to you.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, early on in your relationship, you indicated to Michael that you were vulnerable and that you lacked clearly defined boundaries. You confided in him about your marital problems right away. You agreed to divorce Rob despite your serious misgivings. This behavior, in which you gave in to him bit by bit, inch by inch, gave Michael the impression that you’d be a perfect target.”
Ana couldn’t help but smile as she imagined herself with the word “target” imprinted on her forehead.
“You were reticent enough to present a challenge to him, yet, ultimately, he was the one in charge of the relationship,” the therapist pursued. “With minimal effort and finessing, he could do with you as he pleased. That’s why, for as long as you put up just enough resistance to stimulate in him the thrill of the chase but not enough to frustrate his desires, he saw you as the fulfillment of his fantasies,” Dr. Emmert encapsulated the dynamics of the affair.
There was something about Michael’s behavior that, in hindsight, was even more disturbing to Ana than the fact that he preferred fantasy to reality. “You know, I believe that even if I weren’t married with kids, and even if I were his ‘omniavailable woman’ as you put it, he’d still cheat on me and eventually leave me, like he did Karen. Honestly,” she blinked, as if trying to convince the psychiatrist of her earnestness. “Even if I could magically become a different nationality of Miss Universe every day, he’d still get bored with me. Because, as I’ve come to realize, Michael needs the cheating, the lying, the variety and the risk to get really turned on. Just like he prefers the taboo of sex right outside the hotel room rather than inside, even after he’s already paid for the room. He thrives on transgression.”
“It’s never a good sign in a relationship when the excitement is provided mostly by the circumstances, not the person,” Dr. Emmert commented.
“But I didn’t see it this way until he cooled off towards me, after he told Karen about us. Overall, he was pretty patient with me during our debates over the divorce issue while he was still in the process of winning me over. But once we told our partners about our affair, it’s as if his incentive to remain patient with me instantly evaporated. Then I began to see the real Michael: a man who’s selfish, calculated, deceptive, manipulative and ice cold.”
“You didn’t frame it quite this way during our last two sessions. It seems like the more you think about your past with Michael, the harsher your assessment of him becomes.”
“That’s because now I have the benefit--if you can call it that--of 20/20 hindsight.”
“And you didn’t before, when you came here with your husband a few weeks ago?”
Ana was obliged to amend her statement. “I guess it took me awhile to come to terms with what happened. Because for the longest time, up to the last few weeks we spent together, Michael had me convinced that he loved me,” she said with renewed bitterness. “Part of me still can’t believe who Michael turned out to be. I mean, did he fake it all? The sensuality, the passion, the interest in art and literature?”
Dr. Emmert shrugged. “I don’t really know, but somehow I doubt it. I’ve never met a psychopath who didn’t do exactly what he wanted. I suspect he probably wanted to inspire your art and whatever else he did with you. But whether or not Michael’s interest in you was genuine at the time doesn’t really matter. The bottom line is that he was in the relationship only for his own advantage.”
Ana thought for a moment. “But what could he have possibly wanted from me? I’m neither rich nor famous, as Rob so kindly pointed out.”
“That’s very likely part of why he targeted you. You’re an aspiring artist. Psychopaths generally look for people with vulnerabilities that they can exploit.”
This explanation made only partial sense to Ana. “But I don’t have low self-esteem, at least not the way Karen does. If anything, Rob tells me I’m too wrapped up in my own artistic ambitions.”
“Sure,” the therapist agreed. “But being wrapped up in your art doesn’t exclude the fact that you needed external validation. In fact, that’s exactly what you were looking for, right? Someone to encourage you to paint the way you wanted to and tell you that you’re going to make it.”
Ana nodded, recognizing Michael’s lure. “Above all,” she pursued the thread of the psychiatrist’s narrative, “I wanted someone to tell me that it didn’t really matter if I made it. At least not in the conventional sense of the term, of getting money and fame, which seems so important to Rob and just about everyone else. I wanted a man who loved me for myself.”
“Isn’t that what you told Michael that your husband wasn’t willing to do?” Dr. Emmert asked. “You showed him your soft spot from the start. He knew that for as long as he pretended to support you the way no other person ever had, he could ask anything of you in exchange.”
“But what exactly did he want from me?”
“He wanted power. You said so yourself. He wanted to control how you dressed, when you saw him, how you made love, where you did it and even what you painted. Psychopaths never do anything for anyone for free. They conduct deals, not relationships.”
“And what did I get from this whole transaction?”
“That’s something only you can say.”
Ana looked down at her hand and mimed the gesture of someone trying to grab a fistful of sand and hold on to it as it slowly trickled between her fingers. “I got nothing. Because everything I thought he gave me—true love and friendship—was an illusion, at least on his side. Which made it false on my side too. I never loved the real Michael. I fell in love only with the phony image he projected.”
Dr. Emmert cocked his head to the side, appearing skeptical. “On some level, that’s no doubt true. But are you sure you didn’t get anything out of this experience?”
Ana thought for a moment before she replied. “I got burned, if that’s what you mean. Now I know not to put my hand into the hot oven anymore.”
“You probably learned something about yourself in the process too,” the therapist attempted to lead her to a more positive conclusion.
“You tell me.”
After a few seconds, Ana’s face lit up. “I suppose I learned that I don’t really need him. I don’t need Michael or anyone else to tell me that I’m ‘hot’ in order to feel attractive. I don’t need him to tell me that I’m a good artist in order to paint. Above all, I don’t need him to know who I am and to find meaning in my life,” she repeated what she had told Michael on the day when they were fighting over Karen, believing these statements were now more true than ever.
Dr. Emmert smiled. “Those are important lessons, don’t you think? I mean, as you’ve come to realize, this whole episode could have ruined your life. It could have ruined your relationship with Rob and even with your kids. It could have made you weaker and more insecure. But it didn’t. You may still be suffering right now, but on the whole, this whole fiasco has made you stronger. So Michael didn’t end up getting what he wanted either. Because, ultimately, he wanted to destroy you.”
Ana shifted uncomfortably in her seat. Everything her therapist said rang true. Michael wanted to destroy her. He was a social predator. Someone who targets and devours those who trust him. And for such a man she had risked everyone and everything that mattered to her. “I’m angry, above all, with myself,” she finally admitted. “I have a wonderful family. A husband who cares about me. Even if he doesn’t always know how to show it, at least Rob’s a decent human being. And he sincerely loves me. I have two children who need and love me as well. I have so much artistic drive. And I almost ruined our lives for a predator. I just can’t believe it...” She covered her face with both hands and let herself go, releasing her pent-up frustrations.
The therapist allowed her to get the current of emotion out of her system before attempting to comfort her. “You made a monumental error. There’s no question that you’ve hurt your family. But try to look at the positive side as well. Because, fortunately, there’s a silver lining in all this. The fact that you left Michael and stayed with your family was not the product of sheer chance. It reflected your deeper love for your family. And if Michael showed his true colors before you moved in with him, it’s partly because of your qualms. They spoiled his fantasy of you. So, in a way, your own conscience helped save you,” he concluded.
Ana would have liked to believe this nobler account of her actions. But, in point of fact, her lover’s behavior had a lot to do with her decision to leave him. “Michael’s sudden transformation helped open my eyes,” she pointed out. “I mean, think about it. On the one hand I had the family who loves me and on the other a heartless psychopath.” She laughed out loud, humorlessly. “Gee, let’s see… Which one should I pick?”
Dr. Emmert looked at her in disbelief. He was always amazed by how quickly his patients forgot the slowness of healing. The process of emerging from denial was like a litmus paper changing color gradually, over time, to identify the presence of a given substance: in this case, the truth about a dangerous relationship. It seemed as if Ana had already forgotten all the shades of ambivalence, doubt and ambiguity that she went through before arriving at her current conclusion. “Really, Ana?” he asked her. “Was it really that easy for you to see Michael for who he was?”
“No, it wasn’t,” she quietly admitted.
“Everything that seems obvious to you now wasn’t at the time when you were agonizing over these decisions. Because back then, you were still under Michael’s spell.”
“Well, he broke it,” she said with vehemence. “Boy, his behavior yesterday couldn’t have opened my eyes more!”
“Alright,” Dr. Emmert took that as his cue to return to the facts of the case. “So at what point did your conversation with Michael the other day turn sour?”
“Once I told him the truth.”
“That I saw through his lies and don’t love him anymore.”
“Did you let him in?” the therapist asked, with a note of alarm.
Ana shook her head. “He kicked in the side glass panel next to the door with his foot,” she replied mechanically, like someone recalling events from a state of hypnosis. “He put his hand through and unlocked the door himself. Within a few seconds he was inside and…” Ana touched her left arm with her right hand. “…then he grabbed my arm and twisted it behind my back, which really hurt. He held my hands together with one hand, and then with the other reached around my neck like this,” she touched her own neck in the spot Michael had grasped. “That’s when they came and saved me. It was so absurd!”
“It was Dolly Maid Service of all things! The ladies who clean our house saved my life. Once they showed up at the door, Michael acted as if nothing happened. He greeted them, apologized for the broken glass, said goodbye to me and left.”
Dr. Emmert gave her a serious look. “You do realize that this guy’s dangerous, don’t you?”
Ana adopted the same air of defiance that she had assumed at the beginning of the session. “I’m not scared of him.”
“You should be,” the psychiatrist countered. “You’re provoking him, even though you know by now that such a man knows no limits. If you had asked me before, I’d have counseled you not to communicate with him at all. In my opinion, you made a mistake in engaging him in conversation.”
Ana shook her head. “If you only knew how much I hate him…”
“So what? How can your hatred protect you?” Dr. Emmert demanded.
As before, a glimmer of feral emotion was reflected in her dark eyes. “Hatred gives me strength,” she replied. “Last night, I dreamt I was given a ballot. The question was: should Michael live or die, and there were these two little squares. I checked the one that said death.”
“Well, given that you almost threw your life away for a psychopath, it’s normal that you should experience a lot of anger,” the therapist conceded, not wishing to invalidate Ana’s feelings. “But make no mistake about it. Anger can’t protect you from anyone. Not even from yourself.”
“From myself?” she repeated.
“Sure. Because the hatred you feel now is the obverse of your former passion. What you should be moving towards, in the process of healing, is total indifference. Michael should cease to exist for you.” Dr. Emmert folded his hands on his lap, to indicate that he had made his main point, the intended focus of the session.
“But that’s exactly the message of my dream!” Ana declared excitedly, glad to point out that her unwieldy unconscious was finally falling into line with the psychiatrist’s reasonable advice. “Choosing death on that ballot is the same as him ceasing to exist for me.”
“No, it isn’t,” Dr. Emmert disagreed. “The dream is the symptom of your deep-seated anger. With him and also with yourself for having exercised such poor judgment. It reveals that you’re still investing an enormous amount of emotional energy into Michael and into your past relationship with him.” He paused for a moment and leaned forward, with concern. “Ana, you’ve almost gotten this guy out of your heart. It’s now time to get him out of your life.”
“How do I do that?”
Although ordinarily so matter-of-fact and objective, this time Dr. Emmert spoke with pathos. “I think, in this case, no contact is the only way to go. Any contact with a psychopath will keep you emotionally tied to him, enchained to a fantasy, a life of illusion. Don’t encourage or provoke Michael any further. If he shows up again at your house, call the police or Rob. If he calls, hang up. If he writes, ignore him. Give him the chance to forget you, to become distracted by other women. Because he will. Give him that chance,” the psychiatrist repeated, with a sense of urgency that she hadn’t heard in his calm and soothing voice before.
“It’s difficult to ignore him completely,” Ana said quietly.
“Because sometimes, though much more rarely now, I still feel torn. Not because I'm in love with the new Michael I discovered. It’s because I still miss the old Michael I knew and loved. I miss how he treated me in the beginning. I miss the excitement and the pleasure. I miss his advice, his affection and the constant attention. I miss his jokes and his quirks. I miss the sound of his voice.”
“You miss the mask, not the man,” Dr. Emmert commented dryly, disappointed to see Ana backpedal to her original stance. Her state of mind was as changeable as mountain climates, shifting constantly between sunshine and clouds, between lucidity and denial. There’s only one logical explanation for this, he thought. “You’re in mourning,” he said. “In fact, you’ve been in mourning ever since we started therapy together.”
Ana looked at him with sadness. “Mourning what? Michael’s still very much alive. Even in my own mind.”
“You’re mourning the death of your own fantasy of the perfect passion. The man you loved never existed. You’re grieving the loss of the man you wish he could have been.”
Ana nodded in agreement. “I feel that in falling in love with Michael and agreeing to be his partner, I made a pact with the devil. I got everything I ever dreamed of for a few months, but only at the cost of perpetual suffering ever after.” She paused before adding, “I want him to feel at least half the pain he caused me and my family.”
“Come on! You know full well by now that you’re not hurting him through your rejection. He can’t feel loss since he doesn’t feel love in the first place.”
She noticed the psychiatrist’s disapproving expression and thought to herself: he understands me intellectually, but from the gut, he still doesn’t get it. He doesn’t know how intoxicating it can be to be swept away by one of these great seducers; how devastating it is once the curtain goes up to expose the tricks behind it. It makes you want to close your eyes again and pretend that the illusion was real.
“I understand that any intimate encounter with a psychopath is bound to be an alien and devastating experience,” Dr. Emmert said more sympathetically, seeing reproach in Ana’s gaze. “But you can’t control his actions or change him in any way. You can only control your own actions and attitude. Stop playing his game. Disengage completely and for good.”
“I have,” Ana looked at her therapist with the unblinking gaze of a convert to a new religion, of a true believer. “I just hope that he’ll leave me alone.”
“I think he will,” Dr. Emmert predicted. “Psychopaths view everything as a game, but they’re not genuinely competitive. They prefer to take the path of least resistance. If you consistently refuse to engage with them, they delete you from their memory and move on to a new obsession.”
“I guess they don’t waste their time on a match they don’t think they can win,” Ana speculated.
“They don’t really care,” Dr. Emmert commented. “They have nothing to lose, since people are interchangeable to them. You, on the other hand, have a lot to lose. He’s dangerous.”
I can defend myself, Ana would have liked to respond, moved by the sense of invulnerability which was fueled by the heat of her growing resentment.
It’s as if the psychiatrist read her mind. “You’ve already let go of the love. Why do you want to hold on to the anger?”
Ana was somewhat taken aback by the formulation of his question. She wasn’t aware that she had a choice in experiencing a given emotion. “I don’t know.”
“You think your feelings of anger will protect you from him. But you won’t act upon them. Like most human beings, you have internal restraints. Michael doesn’t. He made that quite obvious when he showed up at your door the other day. He feels no real hatred or love, yet he’s capable of doing anything whatsoever out of momentary frustration or even mild annoyance. Stop playing with fire. Stay away from him,” Dr. Emmert cautioned again.
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