KR Conversations

Hanna Halperin Goldstein

Hanna Halperin GoldsteinHanna Halperin Goldstein’s stories have appeared in New Ohio Review, Joyland, and Adirondack Review. She earned her MFA in fiction from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and is currently living in Somerville, MA. She is at work on her first novel. An excerpt from her story “Experts on Pain” can be found here. It appears in the Jan/Feb 2019 issue of the Kenyon Review.

Having grown up as an only child of two psychotherapists for parents, I wanted to address how rarely it’s mentioned or thought that therapists also go to therapy themselves. This has been a normalcy for me, but an anomaly in fiction and discussion, and it’s something your story details and unpacks. Your narrator Sharon is a therapist and sees a therapist, noting during a session: “My therapist told me I had my own dependency issues to work out, and that I had better dig deep, especially now that I was going to be the one sitting opposite the couch.” This acknowledged fluidity of patient and social worker demands both authority and vulnerability. Would you mind expanding on this phenomenon and telling us how you see these two roles at play in Sharon’s character?

I think it’s normal for therapists to be in therapy themselves—in fact, I think it would be a little frightening if a therapist had never been in therapy. In my experience though, there is something hush-hush about it, like if you’re in that role you’re not supposed to have feelings, too. And if you do have feelings, they’re supposed to be quiet; contained. I am also the daughter of two therapists and seem to have a dizzying number of them in my life. I’ve always been interested in the way it’s possible to talk candidly and insightfully about others’ feelings, but freeze when acknowledging or expressing your own.

I got a lot of pleasure from writing this character, because of that mix of authority and vulnerability. In a way, Sharon is falling apart at the seams. She’s been in denial about her husband for the better part of her marriage. She can’t sleep so she’s taking too many of his sleeping pills, and her night with Larry and running through Central Park is a bit out of control—in a way, her judgment is all off. On the other hand, she’s smart and observant and empathic—the type of woman I’d like to have as my therapist. Well, maybe not when she’s falling asleep on the job. She’s really vulnerable at this moment in her life, but I don’t think that takes away from her strength—as a therapist, or as a person.

Your narrator is able to achieve some intimacy with Larry, a man she’s set up with at a friend’s dinner party, but their hook-up feels more like an event than a beginning of a long-term conventional relationship. These characters seem to connect through grief, mutual feelings of unbelonging at a party, and shared professions, but as Sharon is offered ice cream from Larry after sex, she feels that: “the intimacy of such a thing felt contrived, and we both sensed it, the sadness of mutually not wanting to eat ice cream together in bed.” Is it okay for their intimacy to be contrived, to not organically arrive at ice cream and still be valuable? Did you want your reader to experience them, in this moment, as people in grief?

I do think Sharon and Larry genuinely connected, mostly talking in the kitchen, and even having sex, though I think you’re right, that it will be a one-time thing between them. I imagine they are both left feeling alienated afterward, each missing their respective spouses. I very much see these characters as people in grief, and I also think they are both angry. I don’t think they did anything wrong by sleeping together and hoping to feel a connection—hoping to feel something better than what they’ve been feeling. And probably, for a moment, they did feel that—or at least the glimmer of something close. I think that’s valuable, for them.

Before going to sleep on the last night in this story, Sharon cancels her credit cards after giving her wallet to a homeless man who approaches her at night. She is greeted by a worker over the phone whom she ends up talking to about more than her credit cards. After revealing her husband’s death to the bank worker, she’s told she will be prayed for, and feels she loves the bank worker for “using the present tense” when she asks for Sharon’s husband’s name. Though prayer isn’t precisely what she wants, this short phone call also gives Sharon some intimacy, connection, and validation from an outside expression of empathy. This juxtaposition must have been a delicate balance—can you share a little bit about writing the intimacy of this phone call and the hook-up Sharon has just left?

I wanted this phone call to give Sharon something she’s been craving the entire story and hasn’t found—and that is warmth, and someone who is really taking care of her. Ironically, she found that during a phone call with the bank worker, rather than in a room full of shrinks. She looked for it with Larry, too, but left the hook-up feeling empty. I know, for me, it’s sometimes the people I least expect who will surprise me with their kindness and willingness to listen—the pharmacist at CVS or the man at the computer repair shop to whom I spilled my guts when my computer crashed (poor guy). There’s something about the woman’s voice over the phone—her genuine empathy—that moves Sharon. It’s so different than the more calculated, clinical responses she’s used to getting from her therapist friends. This genuine warmth—it’s what she craved in her relationship with Frank, as well. I think she may have gotten it from him at times, especially at the beginning. The sad part is, and what Sharon is coming to terms with over the course of the story, is that when somebody is that high most of the time, they can’t really be warm; they can’t take care of you.

How has your writing or writing process changed since you started out?

I’m less superstitious now about the process. I try to write every day. It doesn’t always happen, but I feel like a healthier, happier person when I’m doing that. My writing and writing process changed when I got my MFA. I developed good writing habits and was part of an incredible community of writers. I also learned what my own habits were. I work best in the mornings, for example. Since graduating I’ve found jobs that have allowed me to write at the same time, and I write on weekends. So when I have time to write, even if I’m not feeling inspired, I do it.  I also learned what it is that I love to write; the things that obsess me. I used to worry that I was writing the same story over and over. I don’t think that anymore. But I find myself drawn to certain questions and dynamics. Now I let myself go there; wherever it is that is pulling me. And I know that if it’s feeling kind of weird or scary or vulnerable, I should probably keep going.

What project(s) are you working on now, or next? 

I’ve been working on a novel for the past few years. It’s about two sisters who experience something traumatic together when they’re young, but never talk about it. It’s about how this event has shaped their lives, their sense of selves, their sexualities, and their relationship with each other. It explores the ways in which everything from micro-aggressions to frank violence affects and challenges our most intimate relationships.