No Couch Is Safe

Sexual harassment extends far beyond Hollywood and the workplace

Tearfully, I telephoned Ben, my therapist, on a Friday afternoon decades ago. He'd always encouraged me to call him by his first name. I was 25 and had just found out my first major magazine assignment was being "killed"—the euphemism in the publishing world when an editor decides your hard work is for naught.

"It'll be all right," Ben soothed. "Come to my house."

"Now?" I sobbed. I needed someone to listen but felt apprehensive about seeing Ben outside of his uptown office.

Living in a tiny fifth-floor walk-up, I was in awe of anyone who could afford an entire West Village townhouse. Crying into tissues he offered me, I traded the awkwardness of sobbing in his living room for the soothing voice of the one person I depended on to be forever earnest, empathetic, caring.

"You're not a failure," he reassured me. "This is just a bump in your road to success."

My panic and insecurities went into temporary remission. As Ben saw me out, he put his arm on my shoulder in an older brother kind of way. Then he gave me a slight hug, so subtle I barely noticed it. I was naïve and too worn out to think it was inappropriate.

"Call me anytime you need," he said, still touching my shoulder.

I'd been referred to Ben by a classmate. We'd been grad students together in educational psychology. Finding a therapist was tricky. Many had excellent résumés but bonding required establishing a deep sense of trust unique to other doctor-patient relationships. A therapist knows more about your intimate thoughts, fantasies and desires than even your own spouse.

I was struggling with a lifelong issue (my troubled relationship with my mother) and the rather pressing issue of leaving my profession to become a writer. These two issues were intertwined. When I wanted to major in journalism in college, my mother refused to pay my tuition for what she considered a "foolish pursuit."

"You can't make money as a writer," she said. "Besides, you're not talented."

Crushed, I wasn't sure I'd ever forgive her; so, as a default, I majored in psychology. Although my mother seemed cruel at the time, she eventually revealed a secret: Born in the Great Depression, she was placed in an orphanage from the age of 2 until her teens, when her widowed mother couldn't afford to take care of her. Once, an orphanage administrator exposed himself to her. She didn't want me to ever experience that kind of poverty or abuse, so she'd pushed me into what she thought was a more secure career.

Ben helped me feel less angry at my mother, while supporting my bravery to leave a steady paycheck for an uncertain future. He was a psychiatrist at a renowned teaching hospital, graduating from medical school before I was born. Corpulent, with jowly cheeks, he sat across from me in his small office in a building filled with therapist's offices. Patiently, he listened to my insecurities, linking them to my mother's criticisms.

"I must not be talented," I insisted. "I can't even find a literary agent. Nothing but rejections. Will I always feel like a failure?"

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"I know someone," Ben said, and began scribbling contact information on a pad.

It was out of his professional role, yet I felt desperate. Was this literary agent one of his patients? Seemed creepy, crossing an ethical line. Yet I eagerly accepted the paper—Ben beaming, our fingers nearly touching.

The agent signed me on as a client. I felt happier and more confident than I had in years. I couldn't wait to tell Ben. At my weekly appointment, I gushed hopefully about this opportunity and thanked him for his generosity.

When our 50 minutes was up, I stood to leave. I always saw myself out. This time, he blocked my route to the door.

"Congratulations again!" he said. And kissed me on the lips.

I was too stunned to gasp. Not to mention disgusted and repelled. Did he really think I was attracted to him? He knew I was happily married. He was also married. Was this supposed to be payback for introducing me to my agent?

"What are you doing?" I heard myself demand.

"Congratulating you," he said, inching toward me again.

I sideswiped him and rushed for the door like a soccer player dodging a defense guard. I vowed never to enter his office again. And I didn't.

Years later, I ran into my grad school colleague, now a school psychologist. She too had left Ben after a short time in therapy.

"He tried to convince me that sleeping with a patient wasn't out of bounds," she recalled. "Justified it by confessing he didn't love his wife."

"Unconscionable," I said, wondering how many of his patients had been unable to refuse his advances.

It was true that Ben had helped me in many ways—even fueling the inner strength I didn't realize I had to run from him and never return. Yet, he robbed me of my trust. And flooded me with such guilt and shame, I never told my husband of the encounter.

It took years before I could trust another therapist. Finally, I returned to cope when my older brother was dying of cancer. This time, I chose a woman practitioner.

I still shudder whenever I pass Ben's townhouse. He was setting it all up: inviting me into his home when I was most vulnerable, starting with a friendly supportive hug, furthering my career with a contact, then zooming in on the kiss that he hoped would lead to … sex on his couch? Where so many of us had sat and trusted him with our inner thoughts to which no one else was privy.

Sexual harassment extends far beyond Hollywood and the workplace, into dimly lit treatment rooms that are supposed to be immune from this kind of heinous behavior. As the Harvey Weinstein story keeps exploding, I'm forced to relive how revolting, insulting and invasive Ben's kiss had been.

Impulsively, I recently googled Ben, discovering his obituary from 20 years ago. Dead of heart failure. The obit listed his luminary professional credits and, of course, mentioned that he was survived by his wife, mother, children and grandchildren. On paper, he sounded respectful and admirable but, in reality, he was hurtful and heartless. I'm grateful I had the strength to walk away. And grieve for the ones who didn't.

Tags: sex

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