Little Hans

Had a dream last night that the world was different from the way it is. I mean, in a way that I couldn’t put my finger on, but something was missing. Something big yet abstract, kind of, like a way of being, of thinking. The manifest contest (not sure where that term came from) was plain enough, as in not weird. Dreams are weird sometimes, aren’t they? It’s curious that no one ever came up with an idea to think about dreams and what they mean about our psychology. If they had I’d know because I’ve been a psychologist for twenty-five years: I’ve treated kids in school and hospital settings; talked to parents in family conferences; spoken to couples, using the Gottman method; treated adult individuals with conditions ranging from everyday depression, to addiction problems, to phobias—even some psychotic behaviors. The model has been eclectic, employing a range of behavioral theories, but mostly I’m a traditionalist. I know it sounds corny, and some of my peers don’t like to admit this, but at some point, you have to think back to the founders of the profession. You have to acknowledge that the father of modern psychology, William James, knew what he was talking about. Anyway, back to the dream, which was pretty true to life when it came to the physical aspects: the setting was like a school, all modern with its white or off-grey walls, sleek and tidy architecture; its smooth, uncomplicated design, configured so that people could move easily, funnel in and out of spaces like they might swish into a sink-hole. The only thing, as in physical thing, that was missing, was a defined space for the conversation I was having with this group, as in no room per se. The conversation was about a kid with a phobia. It was about a kid we called Little Hans.

             I’m not saying it wasn’t his real name, but there was a sense that it was a pseudonym. No one explained that he was of German heritage, or why his parents kept referring to him as “little” Hans. We stood around in a circle, my colleagues and I, in the middle of this expanded space I’ve described, trying to figure out what to do about “little” Hans, who had a fear of horses apparently, which some thought not a big deal because…well, can’t you just avoid horses? They asked. It’s not like this is nineteen hundred and we need the damned beasts for everything we do. So, while one or two joked about things like that, myself and one or two others focused on the task at hand and took seriously the treatment plan, which we’d need to complete soon and submit to the county so as to ensure reimbursement for the quarter. There was a stranger in the midst, a short guy with old-fashioned glasses, kinda old-looking, who had an accent—possibly a German accent—who kept saying odd things about Hans’ phobia being a displacement of something, though he wouldn’t say of what exactly, and that little Hans’ life was “uncontained” and compared that “phenomenon” to the manner of the discussion, as if that were relevant. I didn’t know where he came from or who he represented. The kid’s family, maybe? Anyway, we sort of indulged his nuisance comments but managed to focus the discussion soon enough, especially on the matter that this Germanic guy was not talking about: namely, what do we do about the kid’s phobia?

             My main idea had to do with empathy. I’m known for this. I can usually find the angle that facilitates empathy, which has a healing impact for the patient. Let’s have litt—I’m just gonna call him Hans—think about the experience of the horse; the horse’s feelings, not his. Hans is nine years old. He can do this. He can consider that the horse is some other horse’s daughter or son—we don’t know if the gender of the horse matters, or whether horses are gender fluid—or whether the horse is another horse’s mother or father…or uncle…or cousin. That was other people weighing in with those relations—a bit gratuitous I thought. We’d gotten the point. Next, I thought we could have Hans make out a pros and cons list: everything that is good or bad about horses, or he could add a section about things he doesn’t know. Meaning, he might not know all that he likes or dislikes about horses. On this point, the German guy, who had gone quiet for a spell, seemed modestly approving. He was nodding tentatively, muttering something about not knowing. Weird guy—named Samuel Friend, or something—he seems to like not knowing about something. We moved on. Someone thought to add EMDR tapping procedures to the mix. Funny, but anytime someone suggests this, they like to mime the action, as if we wouldn’t get it otherwise. Problem is, no one’s had more than stage 1 training on EMDR on that so we’d have to refer out, I think. Can’t do that. A colleague of mine who was in the dream who has a socially conscious angle to most of what he brings to the table spoke of institutional speciesism and the fact that historically horses have been subject to widespread abuse so they are traumatized. Everyone agreed but wondered what that had to do with Hans since he was afraid of horses, not the other way around. He said that’s true but thought his point built upon mine and therefore Hans could be moved on another level to think about the horse’s experience, not just his own.

             Are you suggesting that horses have memories that they inherit from the experience of the species? Asked the guy who I think was named Samuel Friend, who was also bristling at the notion that he was a fan of “not knowing” and saying that not knowing was more the thing of a guy named bionic or something who would emerge years after him. Friend said he thought Hans’ phobia was about a renunciation of his needs for gratification so he avoids going into the street or near any stable where horses are. Okay, by now this guy was really getting on my nerves. What was he on? Was he a psycho, and was he a patient who had slipped into our conversation, or “swished” in from some other place in the clinic, infiltrating our circle? Strange, but for a moment I was starting to think like he did, like there was a meaning to the lack of walls, a partitioned space for our discussion. I could say more, but my recollection of the dialogue gets murky after this, suggesting the dream had stopped, or that I woke up. I can’t remember. Dreams are like that, I notice. They’re always…I don’t know…unfinished. Also, I get the feeling I might be editing this in a way, like I’m adding something, or missing something. Jesus, there I go again, thinking like that guy. By the way, I think he left the circle at some point, sort of drifted off like he didn’t belong—like he was realizing that finally.

I have to snap out of this. I have to deal with “Little” Hans, about whom his family is calling. He’s letting us down, his parents complain. For some reason, riding horses is really important to them, or to the father anyway. They bought this horse for Hans for his birthday. He’s being ungrateful. The father’s the one who’s leaving me messages, sounding very strident; very harsh. Listening to his messages, I’m having another idea: can’t they just shoot the horse, get rid of the problem. But that’s not helpful, I soon remind myself. I should call the father back, let him know we’ve got a plan, that we know what we’re talking about; that we know what to do about Little Hans.


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