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The Nightgown

The Nightgown

In search of the answerman

By Bruce Jay Friedman

Stranded in Manhattan on a holiday weekend, Nat Solomon, a visiting academic from Detroit, decided to treat himself to an off-Broadway play. The production had received tepid reviews, but he was intrigued by the theme: a Catholic priest had begun to doubt his faith. Rather than speak to his bishop—he'd been there before—the priest decided to reach beyond the church and consult a psychiatrist.

Solomon had lost three of them; that is to say, a trio of psychiatrists had died on him. They were old men; he'd sought them out for their wisdom. It had never occurred to him that, one by one, they'd expire, which they did just as he was getting somewhere. Undeterred, he tried again—this time a Jungian. She was clearly a compassionate woman. Still, when she learned of the three dead shrinks, she turned color and refused to take him on as a patient.

At the moment, Solomon had no one. When it came to his mental health, he was flying solo, barely holding his life together—a distant wife, a rudderless daughter, shrinking income, and crumbling knees. It was quite a package.

He lucked out and got an aisle seat in the tiny theater—the better to stretch out his left knee, the one that gave him the most trouble. Both performers in the two-character play were accomplished, but Solomon couldn't take his eyes off the actor who played the psychiatrist. Never before had he seen such compassion in a therapist's face. Each time the priest cried out in anguish, the therapist cried out with him, though silently (if such a thing was possible). The few times the therapist spoke, his words trembled with humility and quiet strength—a difficult combination to pull off. Solomon waited for him to stroke his chin, an unbearable cliche. Stroke it he did, although the stroke was closer to the ear than the chin, which made a world of difference. When the therapist drummed his fingers on his desk, Solomon did some drumming of his own—on the armrest. The priest had been waffling. The drumming was a gentle nudge: get to the heart of what's eating you.

There was a slight trace of cockney in the psychiatrist's voice, which was appealing. There was a puckish grin in the mix. All of it was irresistible.

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