Richard D'Ambrosio is a New York psychoanalyst who brings honor to his often-maligned profession by taking the hopeless cases.
In 1970 he wrote "No Language But a Cry," an account of his explorations into the stony silences of a battered and schizophrenic child who was seen by everyone else as being beyond "reach." At 18 months, the child had been burned in a frying pan by alcoholic parents. At 5, she had an IQ of 50. Some Catholic sisters sheltered the girl in an orphanage, where D'Ambrosio came upon her. After years of therapy, his patient was guided back to health.
"No Language But a Cry" went mostly unnoticed; the hot ticket eight years ago was "Love Story," a piece of pretentious trash. A similar fate may await "Lenora." No booming market exists for this kind of love story -- the vexing, slow and exhausting work of restoring a mind to so ordinary a state as normalcy. The transient tastes of the marketplace aside, "Leonora" is a well-written and powerful account of a rescue mission that only a daring analyst would risk.
The dare began in the emergency room of a New York hospital. D'Ambrosio, responding to a call from a home for unwed mothers, learned that the patient, a 16-year-old girl, had tried to kill herself. She was pregnant, had had an earlier abortion and had attempted suicide once before. In the emergency room with an overdose of pills, she was on the critical list.
Leaving the hospital, D'Ambrosio thought about the near-hopelessness of what he had just seen: another beatendown child whose life mattered to no one. In a rural part of America, D'Ambrosio writes, "Leonora might have made a local headline: TEEN-AGE GIRL TAKES PILLS, LIVES. But in the heart of the world's largest metropolis, cynics said it was surprising more did not try to do the same. What was I supposed to do about it all? For years now, I had worked with the poor, the underprivileged, the neglected and underclassed, that part of our population euphemized as 'disadvantaged.' More and more I wondered about my continued involvement with these institutions and shelters. What could one person ever do? The frustration was so wearying. So many needed so much."
At this point, D'Ambrosio had little idea exactly how much his patient really would need. She had been raped at 6 by an uncle, was alone in the room when he died of knife wounds five years later, was pyschically possessed by her dead mother and had done time in a massage parlor as a child prostitute.
D'Ambrosio chose to treat her by hypnotheraphy. "A trance state," he writes, "was the only way I could penetrate deeply into her memories, stimulate her fantasies, encourage her to respond and generally help get her pent-up emotions out into the open. In the process, I hoped Leonora would come to distinguish her fantasies from her actual experiences. I knew my sieve system could never be 100 percent effective. Even toward the end, I would sometimes be guessing which were her fantasies and which were not."
The particular form of therapy was age-regression hypnosis. The patient, in a trance, is taken back to her childhood. The value of this process is to free the person of buried emotions. In Leonora's case, "she had to separate herself from her overwhelming sense of guilt and her incredible need to constantly punish and destroy herself. It was absolutely necessary that (she) see her childhood from the viewpoint of her age now."
The descriptions of hypnotherapy are part of the book's value. The art of hypnosis has the image of quackery, practiced by fakers who have offices next door to palm readers and astrologists. Actually, hypnosis is commonly used in major medical schools in the treatment of pain. With a careful and skilled therapist, it is a means of allowing the patient to step aside and get a clear look at herself. It is a way of getting two interior strangers in touch with each other, and widening the choices of how they might get along.
A reliable psychoanalyst can't offer a patient much more than that. The goal for D'Ambrosio was never to provide a happy ending to Leonora's therapy -- only an open ending, through which she could take herself to sounder feelings and new commitments. He met his goal, and in the process wrote of it movingly and clearly.