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Authors: Ida Hattemer-Higgins

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BOOK: The History of History
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Margaret looked at her. She twitched. “I’m uncomfortable with gynecologists,” she said, having come to the realization only at that moment.

The woman gave a wheeze of satisfaction. “And what might this discomfort be?” she asked sharply, shrugging off her rasping illness. “Young comrade, there are two categories of people who are afraid of visiting the doctor. Their fear may seem at first glance identical, but in fact has neither the same cause nor the same effect. In the first case, the individual never goes to see the doctor at all—he suffers from a generalized atelophobia—fear of imperfection, that is—which masks a dark and disastrous thanatophobia. He thinks if he ducks out of sight of his personal emissary of malignant mortality,” she chuckled, “he might possibly escape the reaper.

“The second type of fear is much more complex,” the doctor went on, “and because it lacerates in waves, rising and abating,” she drew up her hand in a trembling arc, “the sufferer sees the doctor on occasion and can even develop a hippocratophile’s hypochondria which brings him to the doctor regularly. It is not easy to categorize, but seems to be an unhappy conjoining of gymnophobia, algophobia, and myxophobia: the fears of nudity, pain, and slime respectively. May I call you comrade, my child? You’re a grown woman.”

Margaret nodded in surprise, pleased at least to learn the meaning of gymnophobia. The doctor went on, “Comrade, you were willing to see me today. Thus, I deduce your fear is of the latter kind.”

“But—” Margaret hesitated. She looked at the doctor again. She
was still convinced that the woman would recognize her as
Frau Täubner at any moment. But the doctor, her eyes drawn into slits almost closed, seemed self-satisfied as a cat. Margaret tried her hand at a declaration. “I am only uncomfortable with gynecologists,” she said carefully, “not with doctors generally.”

“I do not change my case,” the doctor said without slowing down. “A fear of nudity may only be associated with genital nudity in your case, and a fear of slime only with those moist feminine organs which remain mystical and disgusting to you.” The doctor’s head and eyes were strangely fixed.

The old woman started coughing very violently then, and when she finally stopped, a new light had entered her face. Margaret tried to speak, but the doctor raised her hand and silenced her. She sat down on a little stool between Margaret’s spread legs. She rattled the speculum clamped inside Margaret’s underbody as if she were about to go on with the exam, but her hand stopped and dropped. She breathed deeply in and out, more and more slowly, until, with her rasping breath, she sounded almost as if she were asleep.

Margaret waited. The doctor finally lifted her head. An expression of unbelievable discomfort began to twist the woman’s face, as if she were choking. With difficulty, she asked:

“How is your little boy?”

“What?” Margaret craned her neck up, peering over the hillocks of her body.

“Oh,” the doctor let out. “Oh, dear me,” she said woodenly, and it was as though she were reciting a line in a play. Margaret had a sensation—she had opened a drawer not in her own house, and stumbled onto a treasure not her own, a treasure whose revelation was as awkward for her as it was for its owner. The doctor lifted her head toward the left corner of the room. “Perhaps I was mistaken,” she said. “You don’t have a child?”

“No—” Margaret began.

She should not have come here. A feeling crept up. She was surrounded by barking dogs. She closed her eyes and held still. She had blundered into other people’s lives, and this was a musty place, smelled of bodies not her own. She said: “I am not Margaret Täubner.”

The doctor snapped her hand away from Margaret’s thigh as if she had touched a snake. “You’re not Margaret Täubner?”


“Who are you then?”

“I’m Margaret Taub.”

But at this, the doctor surprised Margaret. She gave an exaggerated snort. She stood up, and there was a twitch around her eyes. “Comrade!” she said. “As for names—you can use Arabscheilis when you speak to me. As address I will accept both ‘doctor’ and ‘comrade.’ This question I leave up to you to decide. But don’t expect me to call you
.” The doctor spoke fluidly, but Margaret could see by her twitching cheeks that she was upset and unsure how to proceed.

The woman turned around as if to return to the counter, but she was not fated to reach it. She walked head-on into the screen that Margaret had propped up to indulge her alleged gymnophobia. The screen fell with a clatter, and the doctor stumbled heavily, groaned, and bounced into the side of an armchair. From there, she ricocheted into Margaret’s shoulder. At the impact, Margaret felt as if she had been deliberately attacked. The cold clamp of the speculum in her nether regions prevented her from alighting to fight or flee, nor did she know how to remove it. She was certain only that if she would hold still, nothing would hurt her, while any movement would mean certain internal crunching—of what, she knew not.

“Is there a problem, Doctor?” Margaret asked from her spot on the table, losing control of her voice.

“I’ll admit: I’m legally blind,” the doctor said, and Margaret made a sound like a mishandled guinea pig, “and in no position to act as a gynecologist any longer, not to you, and not to anyone else either. But you, my dear—it doesn’t need to matter to you that I am blind. I recognize your voice. Perhaps it was irresponsible of me to try to give you an exam today in light of my eyesight or lack thereof, but let’s be honest, shall we? You have problems of your own.”

“That’s true,” Margaret said involuntarily, “but—”

“I should never have let you out of my sight.” The doctor cried out, almost wailing. “I knew you were distraught.” And the doctor was in fact wringing her knuckly hands, her gigantic head swinging back and forth.

Her voice, when it came, sounded like river rocks knocking together. “Something terrible has happened.” She breathed with difficulty.

“You’ve got the wrong person,” Margaret said.

“Is that so?” the doctor said. “Where do you live?”

“Grunewaldstrasse 88.”

“How many American women by the first name of Margaret live at Grunewaldstrasse 88?”

Margaret’s fingers were cold, her head was beginning to swim. “I don’t know,” she said. “Only me, I suppose.”

“The wrong person.” The doctor gave a dry laugh. “Don’t delude yourself. I
you, Margaret. You’re the girl that left her family behind in America.” The doctor pointed her finger.

“Not exactly,” Margaret said. “My father was a German.”


“I said, my father was a German.”

“That may be. Whoever he was,” the doctor said, contempt in her voice. She was silent. When she spoke again, her voice was even more hoarse, but the contempt was gone. “What have you been doing these last years? I would assume that for some time now you have been pursuing novelty, am I right? Those lost in a fugue seek novelty instinctively; they can do little else.”

It was unaccountable, Margaret thought, that the woman immediately made such insinuations. Margaret wanted to get out of the room, but the contraption was still clamped in her. “Doctor—”

“We must do something.
must do something,” the doctor said. “But what am I to do?” The question was not directed at Margaret. The doctor craned her head upward toward the left window.

“You don’t need to do anything,” Margaret said. “There’s been a mistake. Please explain to me the circumstances of your—your falling-out with this Margaret Täubner.” Margaret thought perhaps this was the best way to clear up the misunderstanding. Find out what had happened, and then explain in a step-by-step manner why none of it could possibly be in accordance with her own identity.

But the doctor would have none of it. “Do not lure me into rekindling the flames of your punishing wrath!”

Let us pause and say that in the very broadest sense, the doctor caught Margaret off guard. Margaret Taub was a young woman who had been living for a very long time without certainties. Trying to establish one now, even in the privacy of her own mind, was almost entirely beyond Margaret’s capabilities, like trying to switch into the tongue of a long-deposed tyrant. Her attempts to counter the woman were sclerotic, if not to say completely lame.

The doctor, meanwhile, was still rising to her full vigor. “Listen to
me,” she was saying. “The role I am going to play is neither that of gynecologist nor actually that of mentor. I will act as memory surgeon. I think that is better than going to the police.”

Margaret’s face went cold. She lay her head back on the table and took several deep breaths. A madwoman. A “memory surgeon” the doctor called herself. Colors swam at Margaret’s eyes. At last she ventured, using her most accent-free German—and it was true that in this moment she did something peculiar: she adopted the problems of someone else, carried the whole situation over onto herself with an aptitude at which she later wondered. “I do not
,” she said, slamming the last word into the room, “that I can’t remember.”

And the doctor pounced. “So it’s true that you can’t remember?”

Margaret was breathing with difficulty. She was going to be “cured,” she thought, just as if she were Margaret Täubner. “I’ve had problems with my memory. I admit that,” Margaret said. “But that—that doesn’t mean I’m Margaret Täubner.”

The doctor was barely listening. “My dear, a patient of your type—the type, that is, I’m assuming you are, since it seems you are clinging to your illness invidiously—is infatuated with the nonexistence of the past. Recovery is like falling out of love.”

“No,” Margaret said, shaking her head. “That’s not right.”

“Does this not frighten you,” the doctor said, “to think of your life passing and leaving you with nothing in exchange for the years you’ve forfeited toward death?”

Margaret breathed in and out through her nose. She tried to calm herself.

A tall clock ticked in the corner. The doctor seemed to gaze at Margaret sadly from behind her blind eyes. She had managed to set herself up behind the desk again.

“Let us begin your therapy,” the doctor said, and Margaret saw that she was to be held captive. A blind woman was not going to release her until she had done everything for the recovery of a collection of memories that belonged to someone else. Margaret could feel the now warm stainless steel of the speculum; its temperature had risen to match her body’s.

Something occurred to Margaret with which she might make one final effort.

“How is it that you suppose an American like myself has the last name Täubner?” she asked. “We don’t even have the letter
in my country.”

“Of course, comrade, your father is German, just as you say.
as you say. Or at least, the man who gave you his name—Täubner.”

Margaret did not know what to reply. She thought: another American at Grunewaldstrasse 88, also Margaret T., whose father was also German? It did in fact seem very unlikely, and she felt alone.

“My dear,” the doctor said gently, as if having sensed this, “I am not a blind woman passing as a doctor. I am a doctor who has passed into blindness.” The doctor swiveled about in her chair.

She opened two cabinet doors that climbed the length of the wall behind her. She began feeling about in the darkness. Margaret looked into the grotto where the doctor’s hands played and saw what appeared to be, if she was not mistaken, a film projector. The doctor held her head at an odd angle. She was performing all her intricacies by feel. “It has been many years since I’ve treated a case of your type,” she said. “Immediately after the war, I saw violations against memory more egregious than yours. Sometimes I had success with a cure—not always, but when, then mostly through what we would today call guided imagery therapy, although at the time it had no name, it was merely something I thought up spontaneously, thanks to my practical genius.” The doctor smiled.

She went on. “Let’s begin, shall we? You seem to be highly lucid, I will assume for the time being that yours is a case of psychogenic amnesia. If it is organic, there is little I can do in any case, so let us assume it is psychogenic.”

Margaret did not try to understand. She was thinking of other things.

“It happens there is a film I have right here in the office,” the doctor went on. Her fingers were busy, and her voice caught for a moment in distraction. “If this film has the effect it occasionally has had on others, we might see—
changes in you.” The doctor fumbled with the projector. Finally it began to tick. It started and it stopped. Once it was responding without fail, the doctor turned it off again and sat facing Margaret.

She began to speak slowly, the stresses of her words falling like a clock’s hands. “As you watch this film,” she said, “here is what I would like you to consider, my girl,” and the doctor’s voice glided up, becoming ever more incantatory and commanding. “In its entire history,” she said, “the Western world has produced nothing more meaningful than what you are about to see. Nothing has ever surpassed it
for density of significance. Can you believe that?” the doctor asked, with real curiosity.

Margaret looked at the woman. “Not really,” she said. The speculum was not painful, but the denatured steel in the bottom of her was worse than pain.

“A work of perfect meaning, that is, of perfect pregnancy,” the doctor went on, “is the opposite of oblivion. It is the linking node between fantasy and reason, at which point all is remembered and correlated. If you imbibe an expression—whether it be symphony, poem, or skyscraper—whose creator has endowed it by intention or accident with perfect pregnancy, you will attain perfect consciousness.”

“But—” Margaret began.

“Wait,” the doctor said. “You
understand. After experiencing a work of perfect pregnancy, or, otherwise put: an artwork of perfect meaningfulness, the mind will enjoy a season of pulchritude, finding the grace to read all metaphors as they ride in: the symbols hidden in the clouds, the analogical proxies buried in the faces of dogs and clocks, the eyes and ears of subway trains will open, the slightest corner of a footprint will summarize the Avesta, the threading of an oak stump will tell whence came Jupiter, and every poor crescent fingernail will be a prophecy of the future history of the human earth. You will admit—this sort of miracle has the capacity to become the greatest therapeutic tool of all, my darling.”

BOOK: The History of History
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