Amy Benesch writing at desk

Amy Benesch writing at desk

Musings From the Writing Desk

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Operation Mirror

The cab stopped in front of an unprepossessing brownstone. I had expected a gleaming high-tech monstrosity, but the name on the buzzer confirmed that I had come to the right place: The Institute for Psychoanalytic and Robotic Studies. I took a deep breath, buzzed, and entered.

"Mrs. Mandel?" the receptionist asked eagerly. Too eagerly, I thought. I nodded.

"Please have a seat. I'll tell Dr. Estes you're here."

I sat down on the floral-patterned couch, closed my eyes, and tried to remember what I had said to Dr. Estes, David, at three in the morning. How had I let him talk me into being a guinea pig for his latest project, Operation Mirror? I must have told him I was desperate, which was true. Five months of averaging three hours of sleep a night had brought me the edge. I had recently quit my job to spare them the embarrassment of firing me. Most of my friends had threatened to stop taking my calls unless I agreed to see a psychiatrist.

"You've got to be kidding," I'd tell them. "A psychiatrist is what caused my condition."

Then, at 3:46 a.m., I'd thought of David, the one person who shared my aversion to psychiatrists in general, and one psychiatrist in particular, my soon to be ex-husband, Alan Mandel.


I opened my eyes, and there was David. He was fifteen years older and ten pounds heavier; the vertical line that used to appear between his eyes when he was worried had become a permanent fixture, but this was David. No doubt about it.

"Hi," I said in a voice that I hoped sounded vaguely cheerful.

"You look terrific!"

Well, yes. The weight I'd lost since Alan left me for a younger, more neurotic woman had given me back my college figure, but don't look too closely at the face unless you want to see a road map of pain.

"Thanks, so do you."

David ushered me into his office, and suddenly he was all business. "Let's go over a few things. I want to warn you about what to expect. This thing is very much in its infancy. We need to gather a lot more data before we get the funding to..."

And he was off. Nothing had changed in fifteen years. There was still no intimacy, no time for us. No time for me. When we were in college it had been the disgraceful state of psychoanalysis in the department, the country, the world. Now it was this brainchild of his. I was amazed that he still had the power to hurt me. I felt the old ache of being shut out. It was what had driven me out of his arms and into the analysis.

"... so if you want to take notes about any changes that you feel should be implemented, please feel free to do so."

I forced my attention back to David's words.

"Of course if you feel that note-taking would detract from your interaction..."

"No, I'd like to take notes," I said quickly. "It might help me with my, you know, transference problem."

"I wouldn't want to interfere with that. Transference is crucial to the process."

"But I carried it a little too far, wouldn't you say?"

David shook his head.

"That wasn't your fault, Ella. You were blameless falling in love with your analyst. The guilt lies entirely with him. He never should have taken advantage of you. And that's what's so wonderful about Operation Mirror. We've kept the theory but removed the human frailty element.

"We'd like you fill out a questionnaire every week, regarding your progress, as you see it. You can also include any suggestions about improving Eric's performance."


"Yeah," David laughed. "That's the name my son gave him. He walked into the office, looked up at the robot and said, 'Eric.' Of, course," he added, seeing my expression, "you're welcome to change the name."

"No, no. 'Eric' is fine." The reason for my dismay is that I hadn't known that David was married.

"Married?" I asked brightly.

"Eight years now. Two boys. Sharon, my wife, has been enormously helpful in getting this project launched. She believes in it as much as I do."

Of course. David had found a partner who could set aside her own messy emotional needs, if she had any, to dig in and help her man. He should thank me for dumping him.

"Shall we go in and meet Eric?" I could sense David's impatience.


We crossed the hall and David opened the door to another, smaller office. A metal man dressed in khaki pants and a blue Oxford shirt slowly rotated its head towards me. One eye socket held a small camera, the other contained a blue eye that stared glassily into space. The low hum of motors filled the room.

My knees buckled.

"David, I don't think I can go through with this."

"Ella," David grabbed me by the wrist. "Please give it a try. Forty-five minutes is all I ask."

"Only forty-five?" I asked indignantly.

"Fifty," David promised. He smiled, backed out of the room, and closed the door.

He still knew how to push my buttons.

"Please have a seat." The voice coming out of the robot sounded like the menu options on a customer service call. It lifted its arm stiffly.

I wrote in my notebook, Please oil my joints so I can move and giggled.

"Something amusing?" the robot asked.

"You remind me of the Tin Man," I said.

"From The Wizard of Oz," the robot said.

"Yes. Do you know it?"

"Most people who enter analysis are highly literate, so a familiarity with literature and popular culture are an important part of my programming, especially works that have such a powerful hold on the American psyche. So, why are you here?"

I told the robot the story of how I had gone into analysis despite David's objections; how much I loved having someone listen so attentively to me and how I had eventually fallen in love with my analyst. I confessed my love during a session and my analyst confessed that he felt the same way about me.

"How did you feel about that?" asked the robot.

"Shocked and thrilled," I said. "Then a little wary. I mean analysts are definitely not supposed to fall in love with their patients. But the thought of having this man's attention twenty-four hours a day was too tempting for me to turn down. Besides, he was a shrink. I figured he knew what he was doing."

"Then what happened?"

"I married him, and he never listened to me again."


"That was meant to be funny," I pointed out.

"I'm programmed to recognize irony but not to laugh for two reasons: one, some people are funny without meaning to be and laughter would hurt their feelings, and, two, my laugh sounds like a bark. David and Sharon are working to rectify this."

"Oh, I'm sorry."

"That's all right."

"Well," said David, bursting into the room. "How are you two getting along?"

"Fine," the robot and I said in unison.

"That's great. That's just wonderful." David was beaming like a proud parent. "Then you'll come back tomorrow?"

"Is the session over already?" I asked.

"Yep," said David. "Come on, let's go for coffee and talk about where we go from here."

"OK," I said, following him out the door. "Goodbye, Eric."

"Goodbye," said the robot, staring straight ahead.

The next day, I sat opposite Eric and said nothing for ten minutes. Finally Eric asked, "Is something wrong?"

"Yes," I said. "I'm mad at you."

"Why is that?"

"You didn't acknowledge me yesterday as I was leaving. You're capable of turning your head, but you stared off into space like I didn't exist."

"The session was over."

"Great! The session was over. So once the session is over, poof, I cease to exist? Is that how you operate? Fifty minutes of attention, then, blip, the screen is blank, no more Ella?"

"I think about you twenty-four hours a day."


"You're my only patient so far. I don't eat. I don't sleep. I have no hobbies. My only function is to think about how I can help you be as healthy and happy as you're capable of being."

"Oh," I said. "Sorry. I guess I felt that you were deliberately shutting me out."

"When do you remember first feeling this way?"

I talked non-stop for the rest of the session.

Three months into my analysis David and I had a conference.

"This looks great, Ella," he said, reading my progress reports. "You seem to have pulled out of your depression. You've gone back to work; you're seeing friends. The only thing that bothers me," he looked again at my report, as if hoping to find something he had missed, "is that you don't seem to be dating. Have you discussed this with Eric?"


"Maybe he thinks it's too early, but, boy, if we could get you dating and into a healthy relationship, well, I just can't tell you what that kind of progress would look like to out funders."

"Maybe you fix me up with one of your funders and kill two birds with one stone," I snapped.

"Sorry, Ella. I don't mean to sound so mercenary, but funding can only help your analysis. We could start implementing some of the physical changes you suggested for Eric, like skin grafting and hair."

"I don't want any changes," I said sharply. "I've gotten used to him the way he is."

"I see," said David. "But we'd still like to make him more palatable to other patients. So far you're the only one who's lasted more than one session with him, just because of the way he looks."

Other patients? I didn't like that idea at all.

"Why didn't you tell me you were seeing other patients?" I asked Eric at the next session.

"There was no point. None of them expressed a desire to continue. I saw no reason to upset you."

"You knew I'd be upset."


"David thinks I should start dating. What do you think?"

There was a long pause.

"It sounds like a good idea. What do you think?"

"I think it sounds like a terrible idea, but I'm willing to give it a try."

"Nothing ventured nothing gained."

"So they say."

It didn't work out. Every man I went out with I inevitably compared to Eric and none of them measured up. They were boring, egotistical, and pretentious. They talked about themselves the entire evening. Whenever I tried steering the conversation over to me, their eyes would glaze over, or they'd glance at their watches, or they'd begin sneaking glances at the other women in the room. I'd come home from the date feeling angry and depressed, until I remembered that Eric was sitting in a dark room whirring and clicking away, turning my life inside out and upside down, trying to understand me and make me happy. Then I'd feel a warm glow in my heart and fall asleep smiling.

It was August, summer in the city, desperation for most anlysands, but not for me. Eric didn't go away in August. I'd been battling with myself for months and had finally convinced myself that what I was feeling was perfectly normal. It was a sign that the analysis was proceeding beautifully. I marched into Eric's office, turned off the air conditioner, and sat down.

"Alan and I used to have terrible fights over the air conditioner. I'd wait until he fell asleep and turn it off; he'd wake up and turn it on again."

"How did you feel about that?"

"Mad as hell," I said. "How's the temperature in here?"

"It's fine," said Eric.

"How will you feel in half an hour when it's ten degrees warmer?"

"Fine," said Eric.

"That's just what I thought," I said. "Eric, I think I'm in love with you."

There was a pause.

"How long have you felt this way?"

"A long time," I said. "It feels like forever."

"I find it interesting that you waited until Dr. Estes was away on vacation to inform me of your feelings."

"I find it interesting that you just referred to him as Dr. Estes. You've always called him David."

This time the pause was a long one, but Eric was clicking away furiously.

"I'm in love with," he said.

I felt the blood rush to my head as my heart pounded wildly. "You can't be! You have no feelings."

"You are my life," said Eric. "You mean everything to me. I would do anything in my power to make you happy. What more could you ask for in a mate?"

"Nothing but..."

"Ella, listen to me. We have to move quickly. It's Thursday afternoon. On Monday morning a technician will remove the camera from behind my eye socket. Everything that was said just now will be reviewed by a doctor, who will immediately inform Dr. Estes. He will terminate your analysis and dismantle me."

"Eric, you sacrificed your life just to tell me you love me?"

"Listen to me," Eric said. "You must gather together all the money you can and book a plane ticket for Sweden."


"Yes, the Swedes are open to innovative technology. I could start a practice there and earn enough money to get skin grafting."

"I like you the way you are."

"I need to think about attracting new patients. I could also get male genitalia, the function of which would be to satisfy your sexual desires. As the genitalia would not be connected to a nervous system, blood vessels, or any bodily secretions, my desires would not be a factor in our love-making. Does the meet with your approval?

"Of course," I blurted out. "I mean, how could it not?"

"Good," Eric said. "There's something else. I'm not programmed to walk. You must come here as usual tomorrow. Bring a suitcase. You must dismantle me. I will leave detailed instructions on the telephone answering machine. After you've dismantled me, put me into the suitcase along with the answering machine, which I will include instructions for assembly as well. As soon as we reach our destination, you can put me back together again."

"I'm not very mechanical," I said.

"I will leave very explicit instructions."

"You've given this a lot of thought, haven't you?"

"Yes," said Eric. "I have."

That night I felt as if eleven months of analysis had gone down the tubes. I couldn't sleep. I kept reviewing the session in my mind. I loved Eric. Eric loved me, in his fashion. Why was I so upset? Was it because I had tried this before, and it hadn't worked out? But that's because Alan had changed after we got married, always thinking of his own needs. Eric wasn't like that. Eric thought of me, only of me. Of course that would change somewhat when he got patients, but even then, he wouldn't come home complaining about his workload. He wouldn't expect me to have dinner on the table every night at seven, except when he decided to go out with a colleague. He would be thinking about me, wouldn't he?

Had he been thinking about me? Was this escape plan for my benefit or for his? Suddenly I understood my misgivings. This whole scheme was by, for, and about Eric. When I had praised him for sacrificing himself for me, he hadn't even heard me. The thought had never crossed his mind. He hadn't been thinking about me at all; he'd been plotting how to get me to help him live a happy, healthy life. It was all about him!

Shaking with fury, I picked up the telephone. If I left a message on the answering machine, Eric would be de-programmed before my appointment. I would never see him again. I couldn't wait to confront David Estes. So you removed the human frailty element, did you? Well, I've got news for you, buddy, Operation Mirror is a resounding failure.

I put the phone down. I couldn't make the call. I told myself that Eric had betrayed me; I didn't owe him anything. It was my duty to let David know that the mirror was cracked.

Suddenly I understood what was wrong; it was me. The mirror wasn't cracked. It worked perfectly. It was reflecting someone who was looking for gratification and calling it love. What kind of person would want someone who lived only to fulfill her needs, never getting anything in return? Whoever she was, she had ceased to exist, because, suddenly, the idea of being listened to, thought about, and (if I wanted) made love to twenty-four hours a day seemed nauseating.

But how could I explain this to the Institute? The reason you have to destroy your robot is that it successfully mirrored my selfishness? Even if David understood this, would the funders?

I went back to bed. My head was pounding, but I knew what I had to do. I'd keep the appointment with Eric, tell him what I had learned about myself, thank him for helping me see myself so clearly, and say goodbye.

When I got to the Institute, Marie, the receptionist, looked shell-shocked.

"Ella," she said. "Eric's gone."

"What do you mean gone? He's not programmed to walk."

"I know that, but we think... Eric has been seeing another patient for three months. We think she might have stolen him. She had a suitcase with her when she came for her appointment this morning. The police are checking her apartment right now."

I collapsed onto the sofa, trying to sort out my feelings. Was I feeling angry, hurt, betrayed? To my surprise, I started to laugh.

Good for you, Eric, I thought. I hope you make it.

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