“Why do you want to be a psychotherapist?” This was one question that left Chester Fullest in a protracted silence. While he seemed to fumble around for an answer, he was always able to come up with a simple truth. “It’s always been easy for me. I’m good at it. I’m a people person. Discovering what’s beyond the façade is what I live for!” He was a natural, but there was one case, however, that left an indelible impression, a case that forever humbled his passion for “getting beyond the façade.”
His interest was piqued when he saw her name, “Mary Jane Smith,” penciled in his appointment book. “With a name like that, she could be anybody or nobody. It’s probably an alias.”
Something about her struck him odd from the get-go, but he couldn’t put his finger on what it was. When he greeted her with an introductory handshake and received the paperwork she had filled out in the waiting room, he was struck by her appearance – so childlike, yet an adult. Dressed in a flannel shirt and overalls, her hair in pigtails, big brown eyes, her face dotted with large freckles, wore no make-up or lipstick, had no handbag, nothing, she looked as though she had just come from a farm, in a world of her own.
The first thing he did was check to see what she wrote down for her age, 27. She had filled in the demographics, but left almost the rest virtually blank. When he brought this to her attention, she just looked at him blankly. He pointed to the form. “What’s this say?” Realizing that she must have had her reasons for not answering those questions and not wanting to discuss them in the waiting room, he proceeded, “Let’s talk in my office.”
Extending her hand, she got up with a huge smile, “Thank you so much for seeing me.”
“Could you tell me about why you’re here?” he asked her. Her eyes scanned the room as if she hadn’t heard the question, finally settling on him. He couldn’t tell whether she didn’t want to answer, was suspicious, overwhelmed or what she was feeling. It seemed a bit out of context, almost cryptic when she blurted out, with an incongruous smirk, “You never saw anyone like me before, did you?” The thought crossed his mind, “Is this some kind of seduction?”
Undaunted by her strangeness, Fullest remained on track. “Could you tell me what brought you here?”
“Yes. It was hard. My whole life.”
“Could you be more specific? What happened?”
She began whispering. “I’m not allowed to leave the house. Ever.”
Adrenaline began surging with curiosity as a mystery was unfolding before his eyes. It took quite a bit of effort to not push the conversation, but rather let her be and come out in her own way and at her own pace.
As he was wondering to himself, he had no idea how old she was, forgetting that he had checked the paperwork only five minutes earlier, he nervously made sure he knew her exact age, “How old are you?”
He believed her, but had his doubts because she was so childlike. He had, up to this point, taken her seriously, given her the benefit of the doubt. He was trained to validate the client’s experience, “whether real or imagined, it was real to her.” At the same time, he had a professional responsibility to make sure she was safe, wasn’t being held against her will, not in some kind of danger.
Just so he could hear her answer the question, he asked, “Who is holding you prisoner?” She sounded so bizarre, yet so matter of fact.
“If I leave the house, she’ll do bad things to me.”
“I’m not supposed to tell.”
While Fullest’s curiosity was further piqued, Mary’s fragility was becoming increasingly more evident. His instincts were telling him not to run the risk of her opening up too much too fast and scare her off. He felt satisfied enough at that point to conclude that she was not at imminent risk.
“Who do you live with?”
“Your name is Mary too?”
“That’s what she named me.”
“You don’t call her ‘Mother’?”
“We don’t have that kind of relationship.”
This was the first time in young career he was stumped. He wasn’t sure what was happening, what he was dealing with, so he just kept asking her questions and tried to join with her, until he got a better handle on what to do with her. “You’re right about one thing, I never did meet anyone like you.”
“I do have more questions and concerns, but we’re running out of time. How do you feel about coming back next week same time?”
Mary’s face collapsed like a popped balloon. “But we just started.”
“Filling out the paperwork took more time than I would have liked. We’ll just pick up from where we left off next session. Next week, same time?”
“But I have this secret I shouldn’t tell you.”
Taken by her coy abruptness, he felt compelled to ask, “Are you going to tell me what it is?” but he refrained and waited for her to respond.
“You won’t see me.”
Fullest was more than curious, and possibly got hooked by her dare. Incredulously, “What could you possibly tell me that would make me not see you?”
“I’m not sure what the secret is. But I can tell you this. Unless you’re a threat to yourself or someone else, you could tell me anything and I will continue seeing you.”
“No matter what?”
With some trepidation, he continued in his efforts to assure her, “No matter what.”
“You will…stop seeing me. They all do.”
“There is nothing you could say that would make me stop seeing you.”
“It’s about my name.”
He was again dumbfounded. “Your name?”
“It’s a secret.”
“Are you going to tell me?”
“Nobody is your name?
Fullest stopped dead in his tracks, and felt pressured with a patient in the waiting room. He thought better of asking her whether she was serious, again, giving her the benefit of the doubt that she was serious. “Okay. If that’s your name, I’m still going to see you. But I can’t call you Nobody. I just couldn’t do it. It wouldn’t be therapeutic.
“It’s my name.”
He reminded himself that he was the therapist and she the patient, and it was up to him to take charge, “Look. I’m going to see you next week and need to call you by the name you signed on your paperwork.”
Acquiescing, in a soft submissive tone, she said, “Okay.”
“You think you’ll be able to get here okay next week?”
Taking a moment to think about it, she responded, “Yeah. Mary is doing an aerobics class. She’s not going to be home.”
“Is that a good thing?” Despite her disclosure, Fullest remained skeptical. His instincts were telling him that things were still not adding up.
Mary was there the following week, right on schedule. Same childlike appearance—pigtails, freckles, big brown eyes, flannel shirt and overalls, eagerly awaiting the start of the session.
Fullest picked up from where they left off.
“Tell me about your relationship with your mother.”
“She’s mean and I don’t like her.”
“Why doesn’t she want you to leave the house?”
“She tells me I’m bad and that she doesn’t want anyone to ever know about me.”
“You never leave the house?”
“I’m afraid to. One time when I thought she wasn’t going to be there, she saw me outside of the house. Then she chained me to the bed.”
“When was this?” “At different times. I try so hard to be good. No matter what I do, it’s never enough. I’m afraid of what she’d do to me if she found out I was here.”
Fullest was growing increasingly uncomfortable as her story and presentation were simply incomprehensible. She didn’t appear to be psychotic. He thought that she could be in an abusive situation. But she was an adult. While her dependency, fragility, naiveté and innocence were so clearly apparent, he wasn’t close to a diagnosis.
“What would she do to you?”
“Try to teach me a lesson.”
“What’d she do?”
“I can’t say. Please. I don’t want to think about it.”
“Take a moment. It’s important that you tell me.”
“She’s burned me with cigarettes…in places you can’t see. I have
“She burns you with cigarettes?”
“How does she treat you when you’re good?”