Good Money


Dear Colleague,

Dear Person at the Book Publisher Table,

To Whom It May Concern,

I’m standing here at this book publishers table at a psychoanalytic conference with my post cards and I’m wondering—but I should have started differently.

I steal my first book on psychoanalytic theory when I am 14. It is Karen Horney’s “The Neurotic Personality of Our Time” and I steal it from a book store in Worcester. I steal it because I can’t pay good money for it because I don’t have a job yet. I steal it because in its index it has an entry, “Bisexuality, discussion of, 132 ff.” I want to understand. I have never seen me in print that way before. It is so amazing to finally see me in print that way! I may never see a book like this again, so I steal it. (I still have that book. Like most of my books I have from my teens and twenties it has my name on the first page, and page 77. Each book has two signatures, because one of the first things you learn from stealing books is to rip off the first page where the previous owner signed it. But no one looks on page 77.)

That book is the gateway drug for me into psychoanalytic theory. Freshman year I read Freud and others in high school study hall. We don’t have a psychology class, I have gotten a scholarship to a prep school that describes its curriculum as “no frills.” It is an expensive school and I got a scholarship and it’s going to get me into a college and my parents are paying good money to have me go there. So when I finally get caught stealing books I can’t say much, especially about bisexuality, so I get a job as a dishwasher for minimum wage ($3.50 an hour) because if I need to read so much they tell me I am going to have to earn some money.

I go to school and two weeknights and weekends I bus tables and scrape dried egg yolk off plates, which is why I can tell you we hate it when you stack your plates because although you think you are being helpful it means the bottom ring of the plate gets yolk on it from the plate underneath and we have to scrape twice as much then. I know you didn’t know that but now you do. And I start drinking because the nice cook who’s on probation buys me stuff after work from the packy next door. But I know that I need to make more money and that washing dishes doesn’t help me get experience with people’s psyches, so when I get an opportunity to become a nursing attendant my junior year I quit dishwashing. I start washing people, but I get to talk to them too, and I like that. Most of the time. But not the seeing people with dementia part, which is a lot.

It is a lot and we don’t have “processing” back then. I grow up in a small mostly French-Canadian mill town. I never hear of processing. So I don’t process the 70 year old man who punches me in the face when I walk in his room. I don’t process putting restraints on a crying woman who looks like my grandmother. That was just in one day’s work, but I am making $7 an hour now. I am16. I am 16 and I am reading Freud about bisexuality and getting punched in the face and I am in high school. I am in high school.

I start working the 11-7 shift on weekends. No one hits you on the night shift. I like that. People are sleeping and don’t need restraints and everyone gets washed up right before you are done for the day. So I do my homework overnight and maybe take a sitting nap in the middle. My sleep never returns to normal and I get 4 hours on a good night.

I get into college with an almost full scholarship. Almost. But I can take out a loan for the rest, they reassure me. I can go to college! I don’t give another thought about the loan and enroll in a psychology course first semester. College scholarships don’t cover a lot so I get a job writing for the school press office, then another one as a tutor, then a third one working at local pet store on the weekends. Three jobs on top of school is a lot but I can afford a laptop now. I can also afford alcohol. I don’t understand classmates who can hang out and party in the evenings but I do understand that when you come home from a day’s work you deserve to drink. Everyone I ever worked with knows that. I’ve known that since I was a dishwasher and the nice cook who was on probation bought rum for me.

My scholarship, which is donated in the name of a wealthy alum who died, requires me to write a letter to her parents each semester telling them I’m grateful to be at the college and describing how hard I am working. They never write back. The second year I am asked to come back to school early for student orientation. They put me on the Minority Panel to tell the incoming class what it is like to be a student on “financial assistance.” I could tell them they should stack their plates carefully in the cafeteria because of the yolk stains but I don’t. I don’t tell them about signing on page 77 either–I’m sure I’m the only one who has stolen things here.

My senior year I meet with a psychology professor about grad school. She has talked about poverty and architectural design for the urban poor, so I hope it’s okay to ask her what the quickest course of study is so that I could become a therapist. I can’t afford 5 years of clinical psychology, I tell her. I hadn’t known that it would take so long, I tell her. She tells me I can get a social work degree in 27 months! So I go to Smith.

Smith is confusing. I want to understand. The first day I am on campus I stand at the main iron gate and feel nauseous with gratitude. It is so fancy and they have receptions where white people talk about racial justice and when they do my Black classmates are quiet and look uncomfortable. But we are finally talking about psychoanalytic theory and I know people want to be in private practice but they won’t talk about it in class. We are supposed to go into agency work, case management or macro, one of my classmates from a place called the Upper West Side tells me. But that doesn’t pay much, I tell her, you can make good money being in private practice, can’t you? She stares at me and that is when I know that I am supposed to be ashamed about wanting to make good money now.

I know better than to tell anyone that I am getting my degree to save money and time. I know better than to tell anyone that I’m already in more debt than anyone in my family has made in a year. I know better than to be difficult when my loan check doesn’t arrive on time, or the next week. And I know better than to tell anyone that my credit card is maxed out when we go for coffee. I can never get a higher line than $500 so it is always maxed out, usually because I need cash to buy a car. I am on my third 20 year old used car, a truck I have to start each morning by popping the hood and pulling on an ignition chain.

First year placement I luck out. I get a volunteer job at a food pantry and they let me bring home a bag of groceries each week. Even so, one week I run out. A friend of mine who is also in grad school in Boston comes to visit me and shares her food stamps with me so we can buy groceries. I want to understand. We are in Masters programs. We are using food stamps. I am not supposed to want to make good money.

It all comes to a head my second year. My second placement will be working with adults, and so I need to wear dress clothes at my agency. I don’t know what to do, I tell one of my classmates. She’s a 50 year old radical lesbian former lawyer from CT who has talked about labor in a few of our classes so I think she’ll be ok with me. Can I wear turtlenecks? Will that be ok?  That weekend she drives down to CT where she has a group of friends who are still lawyers. She comes back to campus on Monday and presents me with two bags on the steps of our dormitory. Dress clothes. They bought them. For me. I start to feel ashamed but these women are smart. They have anticipated this. They tell me I can pay it forward someday. I will. I promise. In graduate school I learn that gratitude is always accompanied by nausea.

I apply for jobs. I get interviews and even offers. I ask about salaries and no one will tell me an amount. I want to understand. Where I come from everyone knows what the minimum wage is. And everyone knows what the going rate is. Everyone knows what good money is. I have $60,000 in debt. How can I know if I can afford to take your job? I can’t pay things forward if I don’t make good money.

Good thing I learned Spanish. Good thing I’m a man. Good thing there are a lot of Latino boys in Lowell that scare people. I end up in a new mill town working with people who make sense to me. I can wear sneakers to work because I am going to the projects. My dress clothes still fit. And it’s a union job so I am now making more money than anyone in my family has ever made, more money than my parents and grandparents together. That must be good money!

Time passes. I work in public schools. I open up a part-time practice because I have learned that part-time practices are ok if you have a real job. I get to live in Somerville on the Cambridge line, as opposed to Cambridge where no one ever says on the Somerville line. I can afford to shop at Whole Foods. I develop a taste for expensive stinky cheeses.

I am getting to the post cards I promise.

One day I am at the cheese aisle in Whole Foods, and I see a woman who looks familiar. We start talking about cheeses and I want to understand more about them. Turns out her name is Goldie and she’s a Smith alum. She becomes a friend. I’m sorry Goldie I never told you until now that I’m a thief and stole books but I couldn’t bear it. She gets me a gig supervising at Harvard Medical School. I don’t ask if they pay at the interview. It is Harvard Medical School. I am eating stinky cheese and supervising people at Harvard Medical School which I soon learn to call Harvard Med School or better HMS.

During this time I start having ideas. They are good ideas, I think. I start working with video games in therapy. People start coming to me because they are tired of other therapists pathologizing them for playing video games. I notice things. I disagree with things that people are saying about them in my field. Goldie and other people say I should go get a doctorate. I am now $90,000 in debt. I want to understand. I have good ideas and I work for Harvard Medical School for free and I am $90,000 in debt. I cannot afford to go for a PhD. I cannot afford an institute or I will stop making good money so I can afford to work for Harvard Medical School for free. But I can afford to do some courses and I buy books now. And I can do more, I can afford a website and a blog.

I start blogging about gaming, technology and therapy, I blog sometimes twice a week. Sometimes I even dare to talk about class, ask why the “tech guy” is always in the basement room without windows, assert that when we say we aren’t interested in video games we are also talking about class. Some people read these blogs. They argue with me. They agree with me. I am recognized by peers. I ask to do a workshop in the library of Cambridge Hospital on World of Warcraft. Did I mention that I am part of Harvard Med School? They let me use the space for free. Next year someone asks me to do a session at an HMS conference, and then another. They do not pay me. I want to understand. I can’t pay things forward if I don’t make money. But if I can afford stinky cheese I can afford to volunteer I guess.

After a year I take all my blog posts and edit them. Here, I say, I liked thinking and talking about gaming and psychodynamic theory so much that I wrote a book about it. Here, I do not have a doctorate but I have these good ideas. And then I publish the book myself. Yes, I write a book on Psychotherapy and Video Games and publish it myself. You can buy it or even read it free on Amazon.

Which brings me to the post cards. I spent $200 on postcards when I knew I was going to be presenting at this conference, and I come over to the table and tell you that I have a book, an e-book and wondered since I am presenting today if I could leave a stack of these post cards next to the other presenters’ books. And you say, unfortunately you can’t. For the next several presentations, for the next decade, you say I can’t put my postcards there. I keep them in a bag in my basement.

I get reminded of the book table when I am at a conference in NYC. My supervisor has encouraged me to attend. She is an amazing woman. I met her at one of those courses I took for my continuing education. I pay good money to work with her and she is worth every cent. I sit next to her during a session on class and fees. I am very nervous because I’m worried that she feels obligated to invite me to sit there. Something comes up about debt. My heart is beating. I take the hotel pen and scribble $126,000 on it and show it to her. I immediately feel regret that I did. My supervisor accepts my invitation to have lunch at the conference the next day and I start off by telling her I think I need to talk to her about my class history our next appointment, but of course not now. Of course not now.

But then we are talking about using comparisons as an attempt to minimize to defend and I am telling her how I suddenly realized in the last workshop that I have been doing it for a long time in terms of class and not saying. And then I am crying and realizing that shit I am “processing” things. I am in Le Pain Quotidien in Midtown Manhattan and I am processing things and I’m probably going to write about it. And this woman who supports my writing, read my book, she’s going to probably read this blog post and then she is going to know that I am a thief who stole books.

And I am apologizing for crying not to her but because you all, capital P psychoanalysts are always going to think of me that way: As a clumsy thief who needs more education and help getting dressed up. Up. Even though I am the first person in my family ever to go to grad school. Up. Even though I am a faculty member at Harvard Medical School. Up. And I know, I know, I know enough about projective identification to know that some of this is all me. But I know you know, or, I want to believe you know, that some of this is all you.

And so that brings me to you, to this book table, to the sales rep and those of you browsing colleagues. I wasn’t going to say anything at first, because I know it is just your job. And I know you’re not in charge. I don’t know if any of us is in charge. But I keep seeing you year after year at these tables, at these conferences, and I still have these postcards. I still have these post cards. And I have paid. I have paid to be a member of a psychoanalytic association which this year finally voted that I can vote now. I have paid to join another psychoanalytic association, even paid extra for the section membership for Psychoanalysis for Social Responsibility. But I still have these postcards. I paid good money for these postcards.

Now you see, right? I have some ideas. I may have paid for some of them, stolen others, but some of these ideas are mine. I have been told I own them. APA says so at the start of every workshop now when they talk about intellectual property. I have some ideas and I think they are worth something–to me, to you, to us. I was a book thief but I wrote one to pay you back. I’ve read my Dimen, I know that my good money isn’t really good, that it doesn’t entitle me to anything. Except maybe it entitles us to some uncertainty?

As a collective can we get less certain about who owns things? I am not certain I am grateful any more, but I know I’m not nauseous. I am not certain that there isn’t room for my postcards on your table or your post cards for that matter. We want to be careful once we start parceling out the real estate of ideas given our history. Are you certain there is no room for me there? Are you sure?


  1. Grateful. I am grateful for your courage, your heart, your skills, and most of all for your voice in our field. We all have stories but we don’t all tell.

    Smith and HMS are lucky to have had you as student, alumni and/or faculty.

    I tell myself surely you know that.

    But, if you forget, I’m happy to remind you, Mike.

    I think you and I started blogging about the same time and I’ve followed your work ever since.

    I remember when you you hit some of these career milestones and have seen you touching lives and influencing our field all along the way.

    I didn’t know about the stolen book (and I hope one day to get to see that first one) in person; but, I do remember “sneaking” into our public library when I was in junior high school just to understand what was going on in mine and my friends’ lives.

    The texts I found there (there were only 3) described only men, two were Freudian and the other was sending us all to Hell.

    Too many of us carried our stories around like dirty little secrets for far too long.

    I appreciate you sharing a piece of your story . . . Your precious and important story with all of us here, today.

    It matters . . . And not just in the private walls of therapists’ offices.

    Each one matters, has value, and has the power to save lives, improve others, and change the world.

    Your story did that.

    I imagine it changed you, too, the minute you hit “send.”

    I hope you feel even stronger and braver than before.

    And, in case you didn’t notice, I am grateful.

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