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Associaste Editor Pamelyn Casto

A Close Reading of Lydia Davis’s “Therapists”

Read the story (the third story).
Puppet Master by Reshad Mehdiyevs

This tiny 300-word story is about several nameless characters and their involvement in family therapy.

In the first paragraph a nameless narrator tells about her friend, the friend’s 3-year-old daughter, and their family therapist. In the second paragraph, the narrator tells about another friend, that friend’s husband, the friend’s husband’s therapist, the friend’s therapist, and the couple’s son.

That’s a lot of people for a two-paragraph story. But Davis makes it work. Beautifully. The story is a model of compression, a desirable feature of memorable flash fiction.

Davis’ story presents a narrator who tells about her two friends, their families, and their relationships with their family therapists. Davis’s narrator tells us specific things—there’s no dialogue and no names used because neither are needed. To name the characters would have made the story much more confusing, and much less surprising. Besides, the people involved exist as relationships rather than as individuals so don’t really need to be named. Further, they exist as members of a certain socio-economic status—not everyone can afford this lifestyle.  The way Davis presents these nameless people is highly effective.

About the first friend, we are told the mother and her three-year-old are both nervous and that the mother feels in need of help in solving common problems of babyhood—bedwetting, fear of the dark, dependence on the bottle—and they’ve all been solved, with her therapist’s help, one problem at a time.  The therapist-patient relationship has gone on for a while since it takes time to solve the various problems, one by one. But the child is described as “unhappy and nervous” and holds her body “in a cramped position, as if protecting herself.” We’re told that the mother has fluttering hands and flighty eyebrows and the only color to her face is her dark brown mole. Davis uses minimal description, but just enough to give readers a good sense of how these people look and act.

The first therapist is introduced as helping this mother and child.  But the reader begins to feel uneasy—why is that child holding her body cramped, as if protecting herself? What is she afraid of? Why is the mother’s face devoid of color? Why is she so nervous? Why does she think she is incapable of understanding and attending to her baby’s basic needs? Why must she seek professional help for the common, relatively minor problems of babyhood? The little that the narrator tells us is enough to guess that the mother feels hopelessly inadequate, afraid she won’t do it right, and feels that must seek experts to teach her how to live with her own baby.  Mother and child are both still tense and unhappy after spending a good deal of time with their therapist.

With the second paragraph, the narrator tells about another friend, and two more family therapists are introduced (the friend’s therapist and the friend’s husband’s therapist).  The friend, at the urging of her therapist, calls her husband’s therapist to tell him she’s going to ask her husband to move out.  The husband’s therapist tells the husband what the wife’s therapist urged her to do.  The friend’s therapist has a strong opinion on how to solve or dissolve the couples’ marital problems. These people aren’t really talking to each other but are instead taking on the therapists’ voices, the therapists’ desires and goals.  They are no longer acting on behalf of themselves.

The wife’s therapist encouraged her to get her husband to leave.  The husband, upset and insulted over being told to leave, is now separated from his wife. He tries to restrict his complaints to his therapist (as his therapist advises) but he can’t help complaining or “sharing his feelings” with everyone—with his therapist, with friends, his attorney, his wife, and even with his children.  At this point the reader recalls the frightened woman and child who began the story. This man is hurt and frightened too.

Then the couple’s older son arrives home and is angry with his mother.  We’re not told where he’s been, but it’s a safe enough assumption that this takes place after a weekend visit with his talkative, hurt, and complaining father. The son can no longer find the truth and in his confusion and rage, he breaks two dining room chairs. In therapeutic terms, he is “acting out.”

His small and frail mother, sits on him for several hours, waiting for him to be calm enough to tell her his “feelings.”  Mother is now playing therapist—the mother is applying pressure to the son, the patient, so he can get in touch with and talk about his strong emotions. It’s as if the weight of the family therapists and all the therapy sessions sit on top of the son’s angry and confused body. Once more the reader recalls the unhappy mother and three-year-old daughter, the hurt, baffled, and talkative father, and now we’re shown the intense pain felt by the couple’s unhappy son.

Davis takes her readers on quite a journey with all these characters, all busy with family therapists and all busy affecting each other’s lives in major ways. Davis doesn’t tell us what to think about the family therapists but through her narrator tells us what’s taking place and readers can then decide for themselves. In this story, as in many other Lydia Davis stories, Davis displays her skill and expertise in compression and the result is a highly memorable story.


About the writer:
Pamelyn Casto
twice a Pushcart Prize nominee, has published feature-length articles on flash fiction in Writer’s Digest (and in their other publications), Fiction Southeast, and Writing World (and elsewhere). Her essay on flash fiction and myth appears in Rose Metal Press’s Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips from Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field and her 8,000-word essay on flash fiction is included in Books and Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of New American Reading (4 volumes). She also has a 5,000-word article on flash fiction as the lead article in the new book Critical Insights: Flash Fiction. Subscribe to her free online monthly FlashFictionFlash newsletter (first issue published in 2001) for markets, contests, and publishing news for flash literature writers. Casto is an Associate Editor at O:JA&L.

About Lydia Davis: Lydia Davis (1947- ) is an American writer and translator (from French) known for her extremely brief stories.

Image: Puppet Master by Reshad Mehdiyevs (1968- ). No medium specified. No size specified. 2015. By free license.

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