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Across the Psyche’s Terrain

Tue, 03/19/2024 - 14:44
Dr. Irene Cairo

Irene Cairo
IPBooks, $25.95

There is a scholar named Rabbi Benay Lappe whose life's work is making accessible the dense texts that underpin Jewish theology, known as the Talmud. "Be courageous and bold," Rabbi Lappe implores the reader of these works — magic is there, truth, even, if you are brave enough to read deeply. 

The rabbi's admonition to go beyond the surface to where miracles just might be found is what readers of "Inside-Out: Intimate Voices" will find themselves compelled to do. The short stories by Dr. Irene Cairo beckon you in. But reader, don't stop once you reach the back cover. These are stories that reward the reader on the re-read, and even the re-re-read: Cairo's narratives pull the reader into deeper spaces of curiosity. And then contemplation. The reader becomes a traveler. And travel you will. 

Cairo crafts stories that lay bare feelings vibrating with intimacy and marked by unabashed truth. For the most part, her characters on the surface will seem at first recognizable, even familiar; you will likely identify with the sturm und drang that erupt in their varying lives. Love. Betrayal. Loss. Illness. Death. Grief. Loneliness. Terror. Trauma. Sex. Comedy. Divorce. Shame. Secrets. And lies. But in short order on every page you will encounter complexity and depth that imbues each tale with a sharp freshness, even revelation. 

The central characters of these stories are encyclopedias of rumination. Cairo puts the mind of each storyteller entirely on view. Feelings and thoughts are splayed open as if on an anatomist's table. These internal dialogues range from the amusing to the painfully uncomfortable, and as we read, we realize we are listening in on naked intimacies. Some are cringe-worthy, others verge on horror. All are authentic. 

In "Breast Biopsy," the second story in the collection, Marianne is not just anxious about the results of her diagnostic procedure, there is no one holding space for her fear. Her husband is away coping with his own unfolding tragedy, standing watch over his dying mother. Her inner monologue lashes out: "Now they say it's a matter of hours — for seven days already." But like the Talmudic extortion to read more deeply, we learn her rage comes from a more profound wound: Marianne seeks and fumes at her lack of matriarchal acceptance. "But she still does not think her son should have married me."

With great economy, Cairo builds layers of emotions. Marianne's fear, abandonment, insecurity, and snark create a rich human portrait — a Cairo trademark. Her characters talk to themselves out loud, in their own heads, and the author invites us to dwell in these complex landscapes with them. 

That the author is so familiar an explorer of the terrain of the psyche makes sense: Cairo is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst of large acclaim who has served on the faculties of Columbia and Cornell University Medical Schools and the New York Psychoanalytic Institute, to name just a few institutions. She turns the narrative of each story into nonstop free-association.

Her gift is to take the reader along unexpected paths. It is manifest in her fluid and quiet erudition — the text is as thick with references, homages, and allusions as Joyce. You will bump into characters from other works of fiction living new lives, Russian nesting dolls in the text. The technique compels the reader to dip back into a story, even one they have just finished, to sop up delicious morsels they may have missed the first time. 

In "Crystal Room," a father battles with anguish over his young daughter's growing up motherless, and anxieties about her adjusting to his own new life, only to find deep solace in an unguarded moment when she reveals her dreams to him. "She looked more vulnerable to him in a way than she had ever looked before, closer to him in that vulnerability," Cairo writes tenderly, "and yet on her path, a path that would inevitably lead her away." 

Never is Cairo's layering of ideas, tensions, and polarities — often in the same character — a ploy or pretense. As with the study of Talmud, every line in her work demands to be the source of continuous reflection. The daughter's revelation in "Crystal Room," for example, might make another parent (or reader, or author) reel; yet Cairo's father character absorbs it as a moment of deep trust. 

Remarkable stories are difficult to review; the difficulty resides in how special each one is. Every short story in this slim book bursts with richness. From the very first page to the last, there is a depth that pulls the reader in. 

Cairo was born in Buenos Aires and emigrated to New York City. She found deep peace in her home of many decades with her husband, also a psychoanalyst, Rogelio A. Sosnik, in Springs, where I first met her. 

When she revealed she had written this work after decades of knowing her, I was surprised; these stories had long been her precious intimacy, which she is brave enough to now reveal. 

Information included by Cairo in the book's backnotes tells us that these stories "evolved over many years and thus reflect very different moments and moods," she writes. "I invite you to dialogue with me in the imagination." 

Cairo as an author is "courageous and bold," as the rabbi said. She invites readers to be, too. 

Dr. Bonnie Maslin, a psychologist, lives in Springs.

Dr. Irene Cairo will be at the East Hampton Library with "Inside-Out" on April 27 at 3 p.m.

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