In recognition of Dan’s presenting sponsorship of the East Hampton Artists & Writers Charity Softball Game on August 21, we are giving local artists and writers a free rein to write whatever they want in this space for the summer.
Magda Lets Loose
Sometimes a person with dementia gets sweeter. But Magda did not get sweeter; she got meaner. One day, she said to Sandra, “Don’t you ever get tired of being a fat slob?”
To hear someone say that out loud is shocking. And to hear it from your therapist is, well, beyond belief. But there we were, in group therapy, completely unaware of the fact that the woman with whom we entrusted our innermost secrets for years, was sinking into senility.
Sometimes Magda would fall asleep during the session and we’d just go ahead and manage on our own. At first, we tried to wake her up. Then we realized it was safer when she was asleep. Her comments were downright nasty.
“Where did you get that top?” she said to Vera. “At a yard sale in the city dump?” To Linda, who was just thrown over by her married lover, she said, “Well, if you insist on screwing another woman’s husband, you get what you deserve.”
What was coming next? The fear in the room was palpable. Who was the next target? It was Rhonda. Rhonda, who always sat with one arm over her head clinging to the wall, was now holding onto that wall for dear life. “Why are you so dull?” Magda asked her. ”Don’t you ever have anything interesting to say?”
It was all very confusing because, in fact, Sandra was obese, and Linda was sleeping with someone’s husband, and God knows, everyone was silently aghast at Vera’s “Halloween-esque” outfits. No one suspected the truth. We just knew Magda was right, as usual. In fact, to add to the confusion, she really was just a nastier version of her earlier self. It was not that much of a stretch to hear her telling everyone exactly what she thought. That was her M.O.
“Are you on drugs?” she asked me, early in my therapy. “What a witch,” I thought. I took a Nexium this morning. How did she know?
Magda took copious notes during the sessions, and I often wondered what the hell she was writing, but I was too scared to ask. She had an imposing demeanor like some kind of Germanic policewoman, and I just let things slide. One time I told her that my husband would send her a check and she rose from her chair and hovered over me like a giant bat and said, “Don’t be coy with me, miss. You will pay for your own therapy.” After that, you can rest assured that I wrote every check.
The thing I liked about Magda and what kept me there was that she was the opposite of my family. I was raised in an undisciplined environment by a big, affectionate family. My mother was the queen of unconditional love and as a result, I had no boundaries and didn’t know which way to turn half the time. This one, Magda, was strict. No gray areas for her. She knew the answer. Should I drop the idea of being a TV producer and go to law school? Absolutely not. “You don’t have the attention span for that.” Check. What about this guy I’m dating? Should I see him again? “No. He’s not for you. Too stupid.” Check. She probably prevented a disaster.
She even involved herself in real estate decisions. Should I buy the apartment when the building goes co-op? “Of course, you should. You will double your investment.” And so on and so forth. Who could resist that?
In a way, she was right out of the authoritarian’s playbook. Just march to this tune and everything will be OK. I figured out how to get the most out of this treatment: Whenever I had a decision to make or when I came to a fork in the road, I just asked myself, “What would Magda do?” She actually helped me a lot.
One day she confused me for someone else in the group. Vera was always talking about her mother, who was dead at least 30 years. Every week, we’d have to hear about Vera’s nasty mother who ruined her life. Whenever it was her turn to tell us about her week, she’d “drag” her dead mother into the room. Blah blah blah. My mother did this. My mother did that. So then, when my own mother actually did die, and I informed the group of her passing, Magda said to me, “Oh, you’re always talking about your mother.” You’d think I would have figured out that she was not all there that day. But I wasn’t ready to acknowledge it yet. And at that point, she had me so bamboozled, I wasn’t sure if I was always talking about my mother.
As time went on, Magda’s behavior got worse. She forgot everything. She even forgot to charge us for the sessions. It was bad. But no one left the group. She had us hypnotized. We even admired her ability to fall asleep so easily, thinking “Look at that, so free of anxiety that she can nod off as if she just got a 90 minute massage.” But, it did make me wonder if she wasn’t fast asleep during the private sessions as she was silent most of the time while I was yammering on the couch about some Oedipal thing. Is that what they call Freudian analysis? The shrink says nothing while you blab away trying to unravel the tedious puzzle of your life. Or is Freudian analysis just another way of shrinks saying, “Hey, I need a nap and there’s no time like the present.”
One day, Rhonda, the wall hugger, walked in late to the session. Rhonda was never, ever late in all the years in this group. This was a woman who alphabetized her bookshelf and organized her sock drawer, and planned a dinner a month ahead. Magda looked at her and said, “Why are you always late?” This was a coup de grace. No. No. No. Rhonda is never late. Never, never, never. This is the first time. Not always! Once! Rhonda started to cry. It’s one thing to be told you’re boring and have nothing interesting to say. It’s another thing for a girl with OCD to be told she’s always late. She started to hyperventilate. We turned to Magda to do something, anything, but at that moment, she was fast asleep.
“That did it,” I said. “Let’s go.” We each got up, silently put our coats on and left the room for the last time.
I think of Magda from time to time, and as I write this, I even miss her. After all, very few people will actually tell you the truth.
Joy Behar is a comedian, author and Emmy-winning co-host of ABC’s The View. A staged reading of her play Crisis in Queens—starring Annabella Sciorra, Steven Weber and Brenda Vaccaro—will be presented at Guild Hall September 3–4. For tickets, visit guildhall.org.