Sensitivity session

Issue 2/1978 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

An extract from the novel Ja pesäpuu itki (‘And the nesting-tree wept’). Introduction by Pekka Tarkka

Taito Suutarinen knew quite a bit about Freud. Where Mannerheim’s statue now stands, Taito felt that there ought instead to be an equestrian statue of Sigmund Freud. It would be like truth revealed.

Freud, urging on his trusty stallion Libido, would be clad from head to foot in sexual symbols – hat, trousers, shoes: one hand thrust deep into his pocket, the other grasping a walking-stick. The stick would point eloquently in the direction of the railway tracks, where the red trains slid into the arching womb of the station.

Taito had also attended a couple of seven-day sensitivity training courses, where people expressed their feelings openly, directly and spontaneously. By the end of the first course Taito was so direct and spontaneous that he couldn’t get on with anybody. By the end of the second he was so open that everyone was embarrassed. Every member of the group had cried at least once, except the group leader. Never before had Taito witnessed such power. He could not wait to found a group of his own. Taito’s group met in a basement room, where they reclined on mattresses to assist the liberation process. Everyone was free to have problems, quite openly. You were not regarded as ill: on the contrary, if you realized your problem you were more healthy than a person who still thought he mattered. Moreover, as Taito, fixing you with his piercing gaze, was always careful to emphasize, every problem was ultimately a sexual problem. Taito would spontaneously scratch his crotch as he spoke, making it clear that he himself had virtually no problems left.

On the evening of Paavo’s visit the others attending the group were Tuija and Usko (a married couple), Markku, and Meeri, a middle-aged psychologist who was hoping to learn something about group-work and sort out her own problems at the same time. Other people’s problems held no terrors for Meeri: indeed she was worried if they did not come out with them. But it did puzzle her rather that it should be so difficult to get to sleep at night, even after a whole day spent in understanding everyone she met, and smiling understandingly at all of them.

Usko was the first second-generation analysis-subject in Finnish history. It so happened that at an early stage in his boyhood his mother had had lactation trouble. She bought a book on child psychology to find out why he was crying so much. Holding the book in one hand, she used the other to rock the cradle in which Usko lay howling. She howled too. A district nurse was summoned. ‘The child is hungry,’ she snapped. A feeding-bottle was produced. The manufacturer had hit upon the happy idea of making the aperture in the teat so large that neither Usko nor any other baby would ever bother about taking the breast again, when it was so much easier this way. The teat was a great success commercially. But Usko’s mother had read enough of the psychology book to know that the true cause of the trouble lay deeper: she went to an analyst and took her husband with her. The analyst knew exactly what they needed. He liberated their sex-life. They then went home and liberated Usko’s. Soon the family album was filled with photographs of Usko being sexually uninhibited, and these his mother proudly showed to her more inhibition-ridden visitors.

Usko developed into a lady-killer: only unfortunately his married life with Tuija had made him impotent.

Taito had taken the view that Usko’s background was insuperable, but Tuija, right from the start, had elected to recline next to Taito where she could let her side rub against his. This led Taito to surmise that there was something wrong with Usko’s sex-life, even though they both claimed to have joined the group because of the problems they were having with then four-year-old daughter, who suffered from inhibitions. Whenever Uso and Tuija started to give her any sexual education, she wanted to go into the garden or play with the neighbours’ cat.

Markku had joined the group in search of self-knowledge. He had not succeeded in diagnosing his problem. The symptom charts all pointed unerringly in his direction, leaping to their feet like an accusing jury. Markku had bitten his nails down to the quick. Just recently he had read somewhere that nail-biting was a symptom of anal sadism, and he now attended the group sessions with his hands in his pockets, smiling amiably so as not to look like an anal sadist.

Meeri’s smile wrapped itself round Paavo’s shoulders as he entered and steered him into the circle. Paavo had come prepared with a problem he had thought up in advance.

Everyone gazed candidly at Paavo. Taito was silent: he always remained silent for a. long time at the beginning of a session, so that the silly twits would realize how dependent they were on his authority. At the end of twenty minutes they were all perspiring gently, and hoping that the others could not hear their hearts pounding away like stampeding footsteps. Taito yawned spontaneously. Meeri turned to Paavo.

Meeri: Meeri.

Paavo: Meeri.

Meeri: My name.

Tuija: Are you called Meeri too?

Tuija shrilled with laughter. Paavo stiffened.

Paavo: No, I was just repeating the name.

Meeri: What made you do that?

Everybody stared at Paavo, who was blinking furiously. Taito switched on the tape-recorder, so that the conversation could be played back afterwards and analysed. He crossed his legs at the ankles and propped the mike between his thighs.

Tuija uttered a shriek of spontaneous laughter.

Tuija: You’re nervous! Aren’t I right? You’re nervous of us!

Meeri: Why are you nervous of us?

Paavo: I – couldn’t say, really: strange place, perhaps, people I haven’t met before…

Tuija: You’re afraid of people?

Meeri: Why are you afraid of us?

Taito: I used to be nervous too. Just the way you are.

Taito’s words were followed by an awed silence. Paavo raised himself on one arm and twisted his head to look back over his shoulder.

Paavo: Yes, I –. H’m.

Tuija: Are you frightened of me?

Paavo: I – it could very well be so.

Tuija: You’re trying to wriggle out of it. Come on, say straight out.

Paavo: Well, yes, perhaps I am a bit.

Tuija: There you are! You see? Men, they’re always the same. Look at this one, as soon as I try to make contact he shits in his pants!

Tuija pointed accusingly at Paavo, who was looking at his hands as though they were exotic creatures of some kind. And indeed they did resemble a couple of squids locked in mortal combat. How Tuija could have been adored and worshipped, if only men had any spunk in them. Taito had, perhaps.

Usko: I’d be frightened myself, the way you go on.

Tuija: You are anyway.

Taito winked boldly at Tuija. Tuija inwardly shrugged her shoulders.

The rest were embarrassed. Tuija and Taito smiled. Meeri said sweetly to Tuija, as one woman to another:

Meeri: I do envy you your spontaneity.

Taito: Hear that, Tuija?

Meeri: So fantastically open.

It seemed to Tuija, as Meeri came out with her little compliments, that she had caught Paavo’s fear neurosis: with each polite acknowledgement her hands went down closer to her ankles. Tuija shifted her knee into contact with Taito’s. Everyone pretended not to notice. Little reddish­ brown blotches burst out on Meeri’s neck. She concentrated on smiling at Paavo.

Meeri: We haven’t even introduced ourselves.

Paavo: Paavo.

Tuija: I’m a feeling type! I was more interested in his being frightened of me than in what his name was! Just call me Tuija.

Tuija smiled at him so sweetly that her eyes nearly popped out of their sockets. ‘Are you still…’ she began, but Markku, introducing himself, got in between them. Every now and again Markku succeeded so well in repressing his consciousness of Tuija that he didn’t hear her voice at all. Tuija’s mouth remained open, as though she had just missed a train. As the introductions continued she was prevented even from sitting up.

A silence followed. Taito allowed it to prolong itself, so that the group could realize their lack of independence, as they waited for him to give a lead.

Taito: Well, what’s the problem that’s brought you along to the group?

Paavo: Well, I don’t know that I personally have any particular…

Tuija: In other words, you’re OK?

The group looked at Paavo as it to signify that a joke was a joke, but there were limits. ‘No, I wouldn’t say that,’ Paavo corrected: ‘I don’t rightly know whether I’m mad or sane.’

The group fell silent. One wasn’t supposed to say a person was mad, but one didn’t particularly care to admit the possibility of his actually being sane. Not that the perspiring Paavo looked all that sane in any case. A wave of tactful sympathy ran through the group. Paavo was evidently in a bad way, compared with the way each of them would be, were it not for their problems.

Meeri: You don’t know whether you’re…?

Paavo: I think I may have a neurosis.

Markku: A phobia or an obsessional neurosis? Or conversion symptoms?

Meeri: Have you any idea what’s caused it?

Taito: Sexual in origin, you can be quite sure.

The group winced. Taito nudged Tuija’s knee with his own. Tuija nudged back. She had a triumphant gleam in her eye. The mike was sticking up between Taito’s thighs like a black tool.

‘If I only knew…’ Paavo offered thoughtfully, but the subject failed to catch on. The group’s attention was focussed on the microphone, which held their eyes like a magnet. Taito scratched his armpit, ever so naturally.

Taito: I was just the same when I first went on a course: didn’t think I had any particular problems. But they came out in the group sessions.

Tuija: Other people can spot them more easily.

Usko: Then you can recognize them in yourself.

Meeri: That’s how we can help each other.

Taito: Once you’ve said openly and directly what you feel about each other.

Markku: Why don’t you take everyone in turn and give us your first impressions?

This was what Taito had just been about to say, but Markku had jumped the gun. Taito gave him an acid smile. ‘Well done, Markku, you’re beginning to come out of your shell at last.’

Markku at once shrank back into his shell again.

‘OK then, quite frankly, your first impressions of each,: Taito corroborated, improving his posture by raising a hip and jerking the microphone into a more vertical position. ‘Come right out with it, even if someone arouses aggressive feelings in you,’ urged the group in chorus, and settled back on their mattresses again.

‘Arouses aggressive feelings my foot,’ bellowed Taito spontaneously. ‘If someone gives you a pain in the bollocks, say straight out that they give you a pain in the bollocks.’

Paavo eyed the group warily like a court jester surveying the court. The tension mounted. Everyone was dreading his own turn: It was like waiting for a death-sentence. As long as you are labelling and classifying some other fellow, he remains a character in your play: but once let the other fellow start labelling you, and who knows what part you are going to be cast for? Each of them dreaded to hear some particular word or phrase: for Meeri it was “old maid”, for Tuija “whore”, for .Taito “fraud”, for Usko “impotent”, and for Markku “anal sadistic nut-case”.

Paavo began with Markku, who looked the most harmless and, apart from himself, the maddest. ‘Matter-of-fact – precise – certainly don’t waste words – intelligent I would say,’ Paavo ladled the words on to Markku’s plate.

Meeri he described as friendly and understanding, Tuija as colourful and strong, Taito as relaxed and open, Usko as calm and reliable.

The group licked their platters clean, but still felt vaguely disappointed. The descriptions were exactly the ones they had given of each other when the group was first started. Everyone in turn thanked Paavo and said how lenient he was and what acute powers of observation he had. At this, Markku became tense. At home, whenever his father had started talking about his psychological eye, one had to expect fighting if any visitors came. For a unique person Markku’s father had the unusual quality of seeming to be a quite ordinary person. Stupid people didn’t always realize this before it was too late. His father’s powers of observation had been so acute that he had seen at once that Markku would become a nobody. Well, he became a madman.

Meeri added that Paavo’s broad regional accent made him sound comfortingly good-natured. Everyone nodded, for his accent gave them a comforting sense of his inferiority, and this made them feel good-natured.

A bored silence ensued. ‘Blast their inhibitions,’ thought Taito: they would prevent him from making the session into a really powerful affair like the knock-down course. He got up and went to the lavatory, leaving the door open so that the group would realize how unashamed he was of his natural functions and how creative, how full of the joy of life, were his strainings and gruntings.

Markku gnawed at his fingernails. Basically, he told himself he was more attractive to women than Taito, and his farts rang out much fuller of the joy of life. Besides, he was intelligent. He heard voices. You had to be either mad or exceptionally intelligent to hear voices. Markku’s voices emanated from a classful of little girls. Whenever Markku was just about to make a cleverer remark than Taito, the little girls called out ‘Screwy!’ – ‘I’m not screwy, I’m quite intelligent. I must be, because I can hear you.’ – ‘Screwy, screwy!’ – ‘All right, then, perhaps I am screwy,’ Markku would concede cunningly, and open his mouth to make the clever remark. But the little girls were not deceived. – ‘Oh, no, you’re not screwy. You’re screwy!’

Paavo’s neurosis whispered to him that Tuija was a whore and that Taito was a fraud. Taito was concealing his inadequacy by flirting with another man’s wife. No need to go too far, though. Paavo’s Super-ego listened to the neurosis like a doctor with a stethoscope, counting the wheezes – envy, covert hatred, rancour: the Super-ego’s other hand was resting firmly on Paavo’s shoulder. Paavo sat and smiled affably, like the good fellow he would have been if he hadn’t had a neurosis.

From the lavatory came the sound of rushing water. Taito returned, beaming.

Meeri asked Paavo if he would care to tell them a bit more about his neurosis. ‘It can’t be a very bad one,’ she hastened to reassure him, for Paavo’s fixed smile was developing a tired twitch at the corners. Meeri shuddered. She herself always rested her chin in her hand when she felt an attack of smile-cramp coming on.

‘Yes, out with it!’ Taito closed his eyes passively. The group leaned forward with conscientious attention.

Dejectedly Paavo told his tale, and explained that his neurosis had given him a negative attitude towards his colleagues. Super-ego reproached him first of all for the neurosis and then for cowardice, for Paavo was not daring to tell even the lies that his neurosis had cooked up for him. The group raised themselves up on their elbows when they heard what Paavo’s field of study was and where he worked. Paavo’s practised eye could see the little wisp of madness that lurked beneath each one’s clothes. Everyone assured Paavo that they were just as much afraid of mental nurses as he was. And of mental patients too, although Paavo had not said anything about being afraid of these.

Tuija: They treat their patients like shit!

Taito: Goes to show what shits they are themselves.

Markku: They’re afraid of the patients. They only pretend to be tough. Taito swallowed, tried to catch Tuija’s eye, and pressed his knee against hers. But in vain. From the moment Tuija had heard that Paavo was a theologian, she had been waiting for him to discover in her the signs of a whore. At home these had been sought for with great diligence by the united efforts of a pious family, and something had always come out on the comb. Taito abandoned the effort and burst out: ‘You can’t talk sense to those blockheads. They haven’t the sense to understand it.’

Paavo: That’s just the way my neurosis has lied to me, too.

Markku: It’s true.

Paavo: No, I mean the neurosis.

Markku: You’re absolutely right.

Paavo: But it’s the neurosis saying so.

Meeri: The negative one.

Paavo: Yes.

Meeri: Markku didn’t quite get your meaning.

Paavo: No.

Paavo felt that he had had all the therapy he needed. He didn’t think he would come to the group again. Markku thumped his knee with his fist and began to spray him with some more therapy.

‘I’ve seen nurses! Do you know what they say to patients who have tried to cut an artery? You should always sterilize the knife first! Otherwise you might get blood-poisoning and die. I know them. The women are all old maids, and randy as hell. Having it off with the male nurses on the night shift… The male nurses flaunt themselves like cocks on a dunghill. But what are they? They’re all round the bend themselves, and impotent too, every one of them. They won’t get away with it for much longer! The close season won’t last for ever!’

Markku broke off. Paavo was listening with approval. The rest of the group was silent. The group had slammed shut on Markku the way his father’s door used to do, after his father had finished proving to him that he would become a nobody.

‘But who am I to criticize?’ said Markku, collapsing in a heap on the stairs.

This drew a glance or two from the group.

‘I was a patient myself.’ Markku scratched at the bottom of the door.

The group began whispering together. Headed by Meeri, they trooped to the stairway and began to lead the poor fellow back inside.

Meeri: Why didn’t you tell us?

Taito: We understand.

Usko: Everyone needs hospital care at some time or other.

Paavo: What did they put you inside for?

Markku: I’m divorced. My wife left me. I tried to cut an artery.

Tuija: It could happen to anybody.

A fire was lit in the grate, Markku was installed in an armchair and given a hot drink.

Usko: Why did your wife – leave you?

Markku: She said – oh bloody hell – no, it’s silly to swear.

Taito: Go on, swear away.

Meeri: Don’t mind us: it’ll help.

Markku: We weren’t allowed to swear at home. Sod it! Shitting hell!

Taito: Bravo Markku.

Usko: That’s the way.

Meeri: Get it off your chest.

Markku: She said – Bloody hell, she said I didn’t satisfy her.

The group was shocked. ‘Yes,’ Markku shouted, hurling himself towards its collective bosom, but colliding with the door. He was back on the stairs again. Usko suddenly got up and went to the lavatory. Tuija instantly burst into tears. Her fate was to be a shit, such a shit that in the end men left her, left her and turned their backs, and pulled up their trousers again without waiting to wipe themselves on anything bigger than a twopenny stamp.

‘I’d kill myself if someone left me like that, Tuija howled as Usko flushed the toilet. Taito turned pale, despite his triumph in the fact that crying was now going on in his group, already. Taito believed that Tuija was in love with him, and wondered how he could extricate himself from the vampire’s clutches. He squeezed Tuija’s toe.

Taito: Listen, Tuija, I’m fond of you, at any rate.

Tuija: Nothing doing, old thing.

Taito recoiled, and pulled at his lower lip with his thumb and forefinger. Meeri rested her chin in her hand.

Meeri: We all like you.

‘You’re just saying that,’ Tuija wailed, but when Usko returned to his place she tapped Taito’s knee. ‘Thanks, Taito.’ The rest pretended not to have noticed anything. Everyone became listless again. Markku tried to prompt them, as though through a sheet of plate glass.

Markku: That suicide of mine.

Meeri: What’s the time, I wonder?

Taito: I nearly attempted suicide myself once.

Tuija: O how brave you are!

Meeri: To be able to talk about it so calmly.

Markku: What could be braver?

Markku was glaring at Taito as one would glare at a thief. Nobody took any notice of Markku’s question except Paavo, who had become increasingly tranquil as things became more complicated. ‘Not to talk about it’, said Paavo with a quite spontaneous shudder. Taito jumped like a poacher caught in the act.

Tuija: Eh?

Paavo: Would be braver.

Meeri: What exactly do you mean?

Paavo: Not to. Just to go on being oneself.

Tuija: Just being oneself.

Meeri: Why? What are you trying to tell us?

Tuija: Yes, what is your problem?

Meeri: He’s told us nothing about himself.

Tuija: Only about his colleagues. I know what it is, he’s envious of Taito because he doesn’t dare to be equally open.

Taito: There’s not much in me to be envious of.

Tuija: Oh Taito, there is!

Taito: But Paavo himself has admitted, it came out right at the begining, that he’s afraid of people.

Tuija: Inferiority complex!

Paavo blinked as though on the point of losing his sight. Just what he thought he had been saying all along. The group sniffed. Nothing to fear from a mere inferiority complex! Like a revolving stage the group swept past Paavo leaving him to get on with It, and surrounded their saviour Taito. Taito peered round them at Paavo, to see whether there were any lingering signs of life. He had drawn the highest card but he had an uneasy suspicion that it was the lowest that won.

There as the germ of something here, Paavo thought, his brain pounding. Even his neurosis was stronger than Taito’s pretended health. It was his own.


Extract translated by David Barrett


No comments for this entry yet

Leave a comment