by James Rahn
Alumni Voices, The Pennsylvania Gazette, Nov/Dec 2010
“I sell love.”
You don’t know Bobby Billio, but he became a star at my schoolyard back in 1968. It wasn’t because of his ability at basketball and football. It wasn’t because he was so good-looking and smart. He wasn’t the toughest guy in our crowd. He was good at telling mother jokes, and he did have a compelling wire-brush uni-brow, but that wasn’t it either. It was all because he got into Bones.
Bones was the baddest high school fraternity in Atlantic City. To get in you had to endure weeks and weeks of physical abuse: paddles and beatings, cigarettes snuffed out on your arms, Heet swabbed over your crotch. Almost any sadistic idea the brothers could invent, they’d apply. And who were the brothers? Half the football team was in Bones; the rest of the membership comprised maniacs, hipsters, and one or two white-bread honor students—who were as nuts as everyone else but managed to give the frat a necessary front.
Bobby, through his guts, his ability to endure pain, and his quick repartee, was initiated into this notorious order. He became immediately separate, and above us.
A bunch of us were playing basketball one warm blustery day in late spring when Bobby came sauntering by the schoolyard. He was wearing the widest, most electric blue-and-white-striped bellbottoms anyone had ever seen, an iridescent blue shirt, and a leather vest branded with an omega sign. Yet his garb was not the most impressive thing. Accompanying him was a huge all-white Afghan hound. The dog pranced beside him on a rhinestone-studded leash. Its fur looked like pieces of lace hanging down. We were dazzled—and aghast. You couldn’t just walk by the schoolyard in this ensemble. Most anyone else would’ve gotten his ass beat. But not Bobby, now. Bobby had become cool.
I knew him perhaps a little better than the guys I was with, and maybe I wanted to add to my own cachet, so I peeled away from the court and walked over to say yo.
Bobby stopped. The animal snuffled on its leash and whined.
“Nice dog,” I said, upbeat. “What’s happenin’?”
“Not much.” He shrugged. “You hear about the shop?”
“On Pacific Avenue.”
“No, I didn’t hear.”
I felt dumb. I was more peripheral than I’d thought.
“It’s a unisex store,” he went on.
“That’s outasight,” I said. “You sell clothes, right?” I pointed to his bells.
“Clothes?” He wore a disdainful look. The uni-brow flexed into a scary V. He shook his head, then finger-combed his long brown hair. “Not clothes. Some people sell clothes. Some people sell shoes. I sell … love.”
The dog jerked the leash, and Bobby strolled.
Forty years later I’m still thinking about that line.
It’s Thursday night at the psychoanalytic study group.
Fifteen analysts and therapists are seated in the grand room at the Philadelphia Center of Psychoanalysis discussing a paper by the French analyst Sacha Nacht, “The Curative Factors in Psycho-analysis.” Nacht writes about the attitude an analyst must convey to the analysand—one of sincerity, trust, a genuine desire to help. But the essential thing that the analyst must put forth, Nacht believes, is love. The patient must feel the analyst cares for him, doesn’t judge him, takes him seriously. This attitude is fundamental to set the patient “on the road to recovery.” Not everybody finds this paper engaging. Some feel it’s un-analytical, a little too New Age-y. But I buy it.
I sell love. Bobby’s words resound. I think now about how his line courses through my own work. I sell love too.
I’m a teacher. For the past 22 years I’ve taught the Rittenhouse Writers’ Group, a private fiction-writing workshop that I started. Often people enroll in this quarterly workshop several times in a row, then take a hiatus, then come back. One reason I think people return is that I make it a point to create a feeling of safety, a holding environment where people can submit their most honest, imaginative stories.
Writing workshops, like analytic sessions, are intimate. They require great courage from students—the courage to be known, the courage to be vulnerable. People can’t reveal themselves unless they feel safe.
Before each class I try to put my self-importance aside. During critiques I try to exist in the moment, “without memory or desire,” as the pioneering analyst Wilfred Bion put it. I try to listen, then carefully unstopper my most thoughtful criticism—tempered by kindness, occasional toughness, and an awareness of my own fallibility—to help strengthen each person and his or her writing. I try to consider how best to help each person according to his or her particular vision. I’m careful not to impart my own preferences. And I sincerely respect—maybe love?—everyone there. This attitude is what I think all good teachers, writers, and therapists bring to their effort: an appreciation for each person’s vision and uniqueness.
We all sell love, I believe. And we don’t just sell love; we promote it, or we should. Love of one’s self, of others, of the world and its mysteries. We also recognize that we want love in return. At our best we understand this and reassert this in each session.
I thank Bobby Billio for his remark, Sacha Nacht and the Thursday night study group for re-triggering it in my mind, and the muse for inspiring me to reflect upon it.