By Elisabeth Hanscombe
The Citizen’s Welfare Service was nestled among a row of terraces on Drummond Street in Carlton. My fourth year at university, and I was one of the fortunate ones invited to spend the final months of my social work degree learning to become a counsellor. Most students were keen to take on fieldwork at the Service with its reputation as the leading centre for counselling and therapy in Melbourne. It couldn’t have been my exam results, it must have been luck.
‘Ring first at the entrance,’ my supervisor had said on the phone when I called to make arrangements. ‘Then walk through to the waiting room on your right. Clara will take you to your room.’
My room, the size of a broom cupboard, was on the third floor with a tiny window that overlooked other people’s gardens and the horizon of city buildings. The place reeked of incense and old age. The paint was peeling in places on the ceiling and the door to my office refused to close.
That was okay. I could work with couples down on the second floor in one of the interviewing rooms near to my supervisor. She had plans to go off in two weeks’ time to get married but had agreed to take me through my paces in those first few days and allocate cases.
‘This first one will be tricky,’ my supervisor said as she handed me a thin green file that first day after lunch. ‘I’ve made you an appointment with this couple tomorrow morning at nine. They’ve come because they haven’t been able to consummate their five-year marriage.’
I tried not to let the look of disbelief register on my face. I was not yet married but I had consummated my relationship with a man many times over. What could it mean to be married so long and not yet have sex?
‘They’re Catholic,’ she said, as if that explained it. I did not tell her that I knew all about Catholicism growing up in a Catholic school with a Catholic mother and a converted to Catholicism father. I did not tell her that the thought of talking to a couple, any couple or any person, about something as private as their sexual lives sent shock waves through me.
I looked behind my supervisor to the framed print of the Eiffel Tower and saw my face reflected there. My long hair Judith Durham style. I fancied myself as a folk singer by night and pushed aside a few stray hairs. I worried that my supervisor might see my doubts and crossed my knees under the edge of her desk. My ankles knocked against the thick wedge of my new platform shoes. I had bought them with money from my holiday job, determined to look the part of a sophisticated graduate.
‘You’ll be fine,’ my supervisor said. ‘Just stick to the topic and don’t let them wriggle away without talking to one another.’ I had read about this technique in one of my books on marriage therapy. Get the couple to talk to one another, then sit back and listen. Soon enough you’ll be able to pick up clues as to what’s going on in this relationship and then slowly minute-by-minute, in short snatches, feedback to them what you have heard about the way they treat one another. Do not take sides.
It sounded simple but the next morning when I led Bernadette and Peter O’Sullivan up the rickety stairs from the waiting room, I glanced back and saw two small children who had lost their way. We sat in the triangle of chairs – me in a high-backed chair against the front of my desk, not behind the desk, as I knew was the proper way. ‘Don’t leave a barrier between you and your clients,’ my supervisor had told me. ‘Always be available but keep a professional distance.’ I had no idea what a professional distance meant but the word ‘distance’ appealed.
‘I’d never go to see someone as young as you,’ my mother had said to me earlier that week when I visited and told her about my forthcoming placement. ‘You’re far too young to be doing this work.’
Peter and Bernadette O’Sullivan did not look at me as though I was too young for them, even though from their files I knew they were each at least five years older than me. Age had nothing to do with it, I decided. Still, my mother’s words rankled. I would never catch up to her age wise, but I needed to prove to my supervisor that I could do this work even if I did not have a clue about what I was doing.
‘We’ve been married five years now,’ Peter said. He leaned forward in his chair and his legs seemed to crumple under him as though the chair was not high enough to support his height, but his voice was firm and confident. ‘I’ve tried to be a good husband, but Bernadette has scruples.’
‘Scruples,’ I asked in a Carl Rogers type way reflecting back to Peter and Bernadette my interest in anything they might have to tell me.
‘You know? She feels guilty all the time about things and prefers to keep her body private. I don’t see how we can go on.’ He straightened up then and ran a hand through his dark hair, which was just long enough to be wavy.
Bernadette burst into tears. She could not speak for the noises that were coming from her and again Peter spoke as if on her behalf. Bernadette was a lot shorter than her husband and fitted into her chair as though it was almost too big for her. ‘She’s frightened I’ll leave,’ Peter went on in his solid bass voice. ‘I could never do that. I’ve taken a vow for life. But what about children?’ He looked at me as if he expected me to come up with some answer as to how these two might be able to produce children and Bernadette sobbed even louder.
‘I’ll need to get a bit of a history from you both,’ I said, hoping that Bernadette might recover enough so that I could suggest each talk to one another as the text books had urged, so that I might better understand what was going on between them. Scruples did not seem enough, but Bernadette continued to weep so loud I worried the other counsellor in the next room might knock on my door to check we were okay. Bernadette drew out a clutch of tissues from her handbag instead of using the tissues from a box on the table in front of her, as though she did not dare take anything that wasn’t already hers.
Peter started to tell me something of his childhood, which seemed like safe territory; safe enough for Bernadette to wipe away the last of her tears and then take her turn to tell me about hers. Nothing remarkable in either of their stories as far as I could tell. Childhoods that were not unlike mine, only their families had plenty of money. Not that Peter or Bernadette described it like this. A father who was a doctor, another an accountant, and mothers who stayed at home to raise close families. Peter was one of six children and Bernadette one of four. But Bernadette was the oldest and had felt the pressure of that responsibility from early days.
The interview went on from there, each telling me their story and each digging into the past in a way that left us all comfortable. It seemed much safer than talking about their sexual relationship, though my supervisor’s words were ringing in my head, don’t let them wriggle away.
Wriggle away they did. By the end of that first session Bernadette was laughing at some joke Peter had told us about his time at St Kevin’s and he smiled and patted her hand. That first session remained non-consummated, but they agreed to come back the following week, so I had achieved something: a returning couple who did not think I was too young to help.
A week later, the stairs leading up to the second-floor consulting room creaked under my feet. Three sets of creaks in all, two from below as Peter and Bernadette dutifully followed, their heads bowed as if keeping an eye on the steps below, which to me at that moment seemed as treacherous as a rocky cliff. Something in the climb settled my stomach. I was taking myself higher in my head away from all thoughts of my body, which was easier still to do once we sat down in our triangle of chairs in the now familiar-to-me room. Thick curtains across the window. The window, which faced out to the spindly tops of trees on Drummond Street and on either side of the room a couple of tired prints flanked the walls. A busy Breughel scene and on the other wall a 1930s print advertising some event in France in bold letters with a black cat in a top hat in one corner. These prints seemed of no relevance whatsoever to the room we were in.
‘I went to talk to our parish priest,’ Peter said. ‘I told him about our situation.’ Bernadette looked up from her lap and her eyes scanned his face in surprise.
‘In confession?’ she asked.
‘No, I went after work to ask his advice. I had nothing to confess. I want only what’s best for the two of us, but a marriage is not meant to be like this.’ He shot her a withering look and waited for her response.
That first time we three had met, we travelled over the safe territory of their childhoods, but now we were lurching into unsafe territory.
‘It’s not right,’ Peter said and sat up straight. ‘It’s not right that a woman does not want intercourse with her husband. That a woman turns her back on him every night as soon as they get into bed and the lights are out. It’s not right that a woman winces every time her husband goes to stroke her thigh.’
‘I don’t wince,’ Bernadette said. ‘It’s only that I can’t get my mind past the idea there will be pain. I can’t get myself past the idea that the nuns at school told us our bodies were our temples and that we should honour them and keep them chaste for God alone.
‘But that’s only if you want to be a nun,’ Peter said, and although their conversation frightened me with the dreaded sense of not knowing where we were going, I thrilled inside at the thought that here they were, my marital couple, talking to one another as though I was not in the room. Now I was a proper therapist and I could listen to their words and assess their thoughts and interactions and soon I would need to say something meaningful to them that might steer them off in other directions where they might get a deeper understanding of their issues.
I heard a plane overhead, or was it the police helicopter in search of some criminal, someone doing the wrong thing out there in the world? The noise seemed almost too close to us and the fantasy ran through my head of a plane crashing into nearby buildings, never our building, but buildings nearby and I could see myself rushing downstairs out of the building and onto the street where the fire trucks would be gathering, ambulances screeching, bells ringing and people screaming and smoke everywhere and Peter and Bernadette would forget all about their sexual disappointments and worry more about the other people stuck in kitchens or bedrooms under the rubble of houses that had imploded beneath the weight of the smashed up aeroplane and all those dead bodies everywhere.
‘I can’t keep doing this,’ Peter said, and his words shook the room. ‘Either you go somewhere for sex therapy. Say to Doctor Schneider, the one we talked about, the one in East Melbourne who helps women who are frigid.’ He clenched his jaw. ‘Either that, or I break my vows. We can have this marriage annulled. Father O’Driscoll told me as much. Non-consummation is a legitimate reason for divorce.’
Bernadette looked across at me as if she had just remembered I was there in the room with them and then back to Peter. I thought it was time I spoke but had no idea what to say. Nothing reflective came to mind and although I toyed with the idea of trying one of Eric Berne’s gestalt techniques with them, it felt out of place at that moment. Bernadette looked back at me and seemed lost for words.
‘Ok then,’ I said with all the confidence of a master therapist. ‘I think it’d be a good idea if you two swapped chairs.’ They looked at me puzzled. ‘You two swap chairs and you Peter, try to put yourself into Bernadette’s shoes right now. Try to imagine what it’s like for her to be in her head and body. And you, Bernadette, try to get inside the mind and body of your husband.’ Bernadette’s eyes glowed but Peter hesitated as if he disliked the idea of this shift in position.
‘What?’ he emphasised the word. ‘Party games?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘Not party games but a genuine attempt to help each of you understand one another better. Role-playing, we call it. It might feel a little awkward at first but once you sink into your new role, you’ll begin to understand more about the other person and more about yourself.’
‘This is not for me,’ Peter said. ‘I never went to acting school. I’m only interested in facts.’
As Bernadette stood to change chairs, Peter held fast to his. His cheeks were red and his knuckles white.
‘No,’ he said. ‘I’m not doing it. I spoke to Father O’Driscoll and Father O’Driscoll told me he understood perfectly why I was unhappy. Father O’Driscoll told me I would do well to get help for my wife or get out of this marriage. Father O’Driscoll reckons a man like me, a man in his prime, ought to be able to be with a woman who can give him babies. I told you both before, I want children.’ He glared at Bernadette and she lowered her eyes as if to protect them from radiant heat. ‘Bernadette, you say you want children, too, but the way you carry on, there’ll be none for you. That doesn’t mean I have to go through the rest of my life without them. Without sex. I think I’ve made myself clear.’
Bernadette sat back down silent. She wrung her hands in her lap and then as if reclaiming some sort of territory, spoke. ‘If that’s how you feel, there’s no point continuing here. I’m leaving.’ And without even saying goodbye to me, she picked up her handbag from beside her chair and walked towards the door. She turned then, took one look at Peter and hesitated for a moment as if she wanted to include him in her departure. ‘You do as you please,’ she said, opened the door and was gone down the stairs with a series of loud thuds on the carpet. I heard the front door slam and the clip clop of stilettos out on the pavement. Peter’s face had lost all of its colour.
‘I’d better go after her,’ he said and tore through the door and down the stairs. I did not even have a chance to make a follow up appointment.
My first foray into couple work had failed.