A Fifteen-Minute Sanity Test*
“It’s not every day that I’m asked to see a man alone in his motel room,” I say cheerily, as I walk confidently in and hand the psychologist the list of family.
I expect him to laugh and say something like, “Yeah, it is kind of an unusual setting for a screening.”
But he stares at me, and after a moment of silence, he says, “I don’t know what to say to that.”
“You don’t?” I ask, wondering what he means.
“Well, you come in here and immediately try to seduce me.”
“I do?” I ask. I am afraid to protest too much because I know that line from Shakespeare (“Me thinks the lady doth protest too much.”), and I also know that nobody likes having their insights dismissed, and insights are his livelihood.
This is Peace Corps staging in San Jose, October 1969, and a lot hinges on this interview. Will I get to go to Hawaii for training to be a Peace Corps Volunteer in Tonga?
The FBI has already visited the people we used as references, but now we Peace Corps recruits are being screened for basic skills like sanity because they don’t want to send us all the way to Hawaii for training if we are clearly not going to be a good use of tax dollars.
So in October 1969 I've traveled from Pleasant Hill, a suburb of San Francisco, to San Jose, where we have been asked to fill out a sheet listing everyone in our family—their names, ages, and addresses. Then we are summoned one by one into a motel room for an interview with a psychologist who takes the list of family members and begins the interview, which other trainees regard as an interrogation.
They don’t like the idea of being “psyched out.” They prefer things like encounter groups, where they can spontaneously divulge their deepest, darkest secrets and worst instincts to chance acquaintances who are their peers, their equals. They want nothing of this scrutiny by shrinks with advanced degrees. But I'm not worried—or at least I wasn't. Psychologists are just like any other working people, simply trying to do their jobs. They shouldn't be condemned for being licensed. My own father is a psychologist, and I grew up around him and his psychologist friends.
I felt confident when I entered that room, but when the psychologist responded so solemnly, speaking of seduction, it threw me off balance.
Now he asks me to sit down, and when I do, he says, “Well, look at you! The way you sit. Like a queen on a throne.”
I guess he means the way I'm holding on to both sides of the armchair because I'm starting to fear a rocky ride, and there is no seatbelt.
He explains that our time is limited, and fifteen minutes isn’t really long enough to learn all there is to know about a person.
I hold back my urge to feign a “Really?” look.
He moves his eyes from me on the throne—or is it an electric chair?—to the list of family.
“Well, I guess we’d better get started,” he says. “Describe your father.”
“Well, he’s very intelligent. And politically active. He organizes his life around causes.”
“So he must be pleased that you’re joining the Peace Corps.”
“Uh huh,” I say, grateful that I'm not wired for a polygraph. My father is not pleased that I'm not going to Latin America, where I could help support a meaningful revolution instead of being a pawn for the Peace Corps, which he thinks is a branch of American imperialism.
“So, are you close to your father?”
“Well, it’s a little bit hard to be close to him because he’s very busy and very tense. He’s not happy with the way the world is going, and he has a very hot temper.”
“So what does he do?” the psychologist asks.
“He yells,” I say.
“No,” he says, and this time he laughs. “I mean, what does he do for a living?”
“Oh,” I say, remembering my father’s profession and wondering whether this will help me. “He’s a psychologist.”
The doctor laughs again. “Well, what does he yell about?”
“He yells about American intervention in Vietnam. China not being admitted to the UN. He yells if we put something away and he can’t find it or if we say something stupid.”
“You have a different address for your mother.”
“My parents are separated,” I say.
“How long?” he asks.
“Almost a year,” I say.
“So what’s your mom like?”
“Well, she’s idealistic, too, but not as extremely idealistic. She’s very smart. She was an only child, so it was her duty to skip a lot of grades. She was at UCLA when she was sixteen. That’s where my parents met. He was getting his doctorate, and she typed his dissertation. And then she dropped out of college so they could elope because after Pearl Harbor he had to join the Navy and go overseas. And then she had five children. And then she went back to school through correspondence classes until her last year, when she attended classes on campus. That was my freshman year. We were on the same campus. She graduated with honors.
“And your sister Dana? What does she do?”
“She does beautiful,” I say, although I know that he means job-wise. But I can't say a housewife. Dana is no housewife although she doesn’t work outside the home. She doesn’t work in the home either. She calls in committees to do her work for her. She doesn’t work at all except at being beautiful, which is a cushy job for her.
“I’m not surprised she’s beautiful,” he says, looking at me.
What did he say about seduction?
“She’s married to a psychiatrist," I say. "They live in Chicago.”
“And your brother David, I see, lives in Napa. What does he do?”
Laundry, I think. He wants to be a brain surgeon, but they're giving him a job doing laundry on his ward.
“At Napa,” I say. “At Napa State Hospital. He’s a patient there.” I begin to cry—quietly but convulsively.
The next thing I hear him say is, “There isn’t any Kleenex.” Then he adds, “You must love your brother very much.”
I nod, but I know this isn't complete disclosure. My brother and I have always been close, but I’ve been able to talk about his psychological and neurological problems since I was seven and he was four and first began having "bad dreams" and "screamers" that morphed into seizures that were sometimes continuous--status epilepticus--and I always talk about him and them with total self-control. I cry only when I'm alone, so I know I'm not crying for my brother. I'm crying because I am going to be de-selected on the grounds of “family.” The psychologist hasn’t even gotten to my sister Missy yet. That will do it.
Parents recently separated. Brother newly self-admitted to a mental hospital. A younger sister unmarried and pregnant and living three-thousand miles away from the father of her unborn child. We won’t get to my twelve-year-old sister, the only one who seems to be a good model of mental health and stability among us.
I am so good at not crying except when I am alone. It is a talent. And now, of all times, I’ve broken down in front of the Peace Corps psychologist screening out the ones who are likely to break down. I haven’t even gotten out of Peace Corps staging! I haven’t even left the mainland.
He looks around and opens a drawer. “Could I offer you a Gideon Bible?” he asks, rummaging through the drawer. “I’m really sorry. I wish there were something I could do to comfort you,” he says, reaching into his pocket. “Would you like a piece of gum?”
He unwraps me a piece, which I take even though I don’t like chewing gum. I know it's the best that he can do.
I have dreamed of joining the Peace Corps since Kennedy first spoke of it in a 1960 campaign speech, and now it is not to be. I'm not going to Tonga to work. I'm not going to Hawaii to train. I'm going to be sent back, damaged goods, to Pleasant Hill. Not even to San Francisco. I’ve given up my apartment there. I’ll be sent back to my mother’s home in Pleasant Hill. I have been tried and convicted, and I can’t use the insanity defense to get off, to get off to Peace Corps Tonga.
I stifle or strangle a sob and get hold of myself.
“I’m afraid,” the psychologist says, sounding genuinely sorry, “that our time is up.”
I stand up, no longer crying, and wait to be dismissed, dishonorably discharged before I ever take the oath of service, before I even get into training.
He walks me to the door.
“Here,” he says, handing me his card. “I hope you’ll look me up in two years, when you get out of the Peace Corps. I feel sure you’ll make a good volunteer.”
My eyes tear up again from the joy of seeing myself cleared and permitted to move on.
*Excerpt from Everything I Should Have Learned I Could Have Learned in Tonga, an unpublished memoir
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Before Tina Martin retired in 2014 from City College of San Francisco, where she taught for thirty-two years, she taught and/or trained teachers on five continents: Tonga (Oceana), Spain (Europe), Algeria (Africa), Mexico (North America), and Japan (Asia). She has a son, Jonathan, soon to turn forty, with whom she founded the JoMama Book Club in 2007. They have a written chat once a month for three hours on the book they've chosen to read and discuss together. She is writing a memoir, Everything I Should Have Learned I Could Have Learned in Tonga. Three nonfiction pieces she wrote appear in anthologies and two others are online.
Other works in this issue:
“Dates” I Know by Heart