by Neil Skolnick
Beatriz Dujovne begins with “This book is about a woman in grief,” which, to be sure, it is. And yet it is about so very much more. The “more” is what I will attempt to illuminate in this Foreword. Indeed, she asks her readers to accompany her through the torturous, poignant and intimate account of her recovery from the death of her beloved husband Carlos. A death that others who have already endured the shattering demise of a loved one will recognize as having abruptly deposited them on an altered planet, one that appears vaguely familiar but where nothing is the same. Everything, her relationships, her work, the landscape, is now cast in new light, new shadings demanding to be comprehended but which appear hopelessly confusing, frightening, alien and stretching endlessly into a future lacking clear guidelines, if not meaning.
She invites us into the private, intimate psychoanalytically oriented psychotherapy sessions she underwent in Buenos Aires to help with her grief. She sought therapy with a humane and talented psychoanalyst. These sessions have been reconstructed to present the reader with a more linear account than the often circular, loop-de-loop actual process of psychotherapy. They provide the backbone of her narrative and pull the reader through her process of recovery. I stated at the outset that this book is about much more than a woman in grief. The reader will discover it is also an homage to the efficacy of psychoanalysis in addressing a more comprehensive understanding of the human condition.
Included in no small measure in the “much more” that I claim this book offers is that it transcends death and grief and turns out to be equally about life. And ground zero for Beatriz’s life force is where it was originally given birth and form, her native home of Buenos Aires. We follow her to Buenos Aires from her present home in Portland, Oregon, where she journeys to rekindle her life. Sprinkled between her therapy sessions, she proudly shows us the Buenos Aires that long ago took up permanent residence in her blood. She takes us to her favorite eateries, through the dappled light of her favorite gardens with their resplendent bursts of colorful flowers, to the cacophony of architecture, grand and not so grand, boulevards, backstreets and stores that populate her hometown. We witness those special spots where her love affair with Carlos bloomed and took hold. But it is not just these iconic images of her physical landscape, it is equally the connections to the people she meets up with in these nostalgically saturated places, from the waiters, store owners, old friends and family members (hers and Carlos’) that also play a significant role in the resolution of her grief. The verdant flora and human fauna provide a swirl of colorful smoke and fragrant odors and delicious food that weave organically throughout, like the vapors that congealed to form primitive life forms on our planet. They all conspire to give her life renewed substance and value. In the love she cherishes for Buenos Aires and its Porteños she garners the strength to relinquish her anguish and charge intrepidly into a new life. And by the by, being seduced into falling in love with the magical charms of Buenos Aires is a special treat for the reader as well.
Porteños are passionate about their tribal dance, the tango. It would be difficult to underestimate the role that the tango figures in Beatriz’s recovery. In addition to being a psychologist, she is a dancer and has written extensively about the tango, Argentina’s immeasurable cultural contribution to the world. In my opinion the tango is to dance what psychoanalysis is to psychology. It is particularly suited to express the depths and nuances of the human experience. Tango gypsies cover it all—the complexity of our sexual passions, the struggles of competing emotions, the infusion of aggression into our most intimate relationships, blissful surrenders, rapid couplings and ultimate, painful separations. Now listen to Beatriz as she declares:
After Carlos’ passing, tango became my royal road to healing, my way to mourn while in a tango embrace with friends. How would I have coped without the music, the lyrics, the utterly humane embrace? It would have been close to impossible to be where I am today. I know that. Dancing was an integral part of my life and it became part of my way of grieving.
Indeed, the tango becomes a primary venue for her to express not only the phantasmagorical array of feelings which accompany her healing from grief but the dance’s very essence becomes an avatar of her rapidly shifting healing processes. We observe her pulling this way against certain feelings and people and then that way against the same feelings and people. Her attitudes toward past, present and future sway and dip this way and lurch that way. Her relationships with men, now as a single woman, undulate, morph and do angry battle until she accepts and rejects an altered self coming to life in an altered universe. And like psychoanalysis, the tango does not provide answers but immerses her in a process in which she can heal. I was mesmerized, as I assume most readers will be, by the tempestuous tempos of her mutative tango. Furthermore, as a dancer, we witness her joyful assertion:
I am glad to learn that my grief is my own improvised dance, that I am not supposed to follow a choreography.
And the choreography she creates is replete with so many of the normal human responses to a death. She invites us to witness her irrational beliefs and temporary bursts of insanity that most mourners will recognize, like her searching for Carlos, alive and strolling blithely through town. We discover her bouts of anger, both rational and non-sensical, toward certain old friends including lapsed tango partners, and several of the medical systems she wrestled with during Carlos’ illness. Intense guilt descends periodically, as when we observe her struggle with questioning her love for her husband when she is not as miserable as she thinks she should be. Incongruous self-doubt rears its ugly head in this remarkably strong, assertive and sophisticated professional woman. We see her stumble in some relationships, rejecting some and cherishing others, even in chance encounters. But her wise psychoanalyst accepts and pronounces all as normal shadings of grief. And she knows this and she is soothed.
And, as Beatriz so ably gets across, grief is about the vicissitudes, the unexpected twists and turns, of Kairos. During grief our internal world can seem to enter a time machine whose temporal gauges are shattered, as we swing unpredictably from present to past to future to present and so on. And if mourning is to be successful, this experience also needs to be heard, accepted and respected, again, both by the mourner and the person helping the mourner. Eventually, when mourning is successful the mourner will begin dreaming up new templates and new roads to guide their journey into a future emerging with increasing clarity from behind the mist of grief infused oblivion.
In the Epilogue, which takes place a year later, Beatriz ends her book with an anecdote so wickedly delightful that my trying to retell it could not come close to doing it justice. So I will leave you in suspense. You will have to read the book. But I can say her anecdote captures the essence of her recovery and furthermore underlines how this book can be of enormous help to anyone undergoing the excruciating pain of the loss of a loved one.
Neil Skolnick, Ph.D., is a psychologist/psychoanalyst practicing in New York City. He is a clinical associate professor at the New York University Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis. His most recent book, published by Routledge in 2020, is Relational Psychoanalysis and Temporality: Time Out of Mind.
Dujovne, B. (2011). In Strangers’ Arms: The Magic of the Tango. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.
Kubler-Ross, E. (1969). On Death and Dying. New York: Routledge.
Romero, S. “Do Argentinians Need Therapy? Pull Up a Couch.” New York Times (2020, March 25).