Opinion | My Patient Used an Anti-Semitic Slur With Me

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By Sherry Amatenstein

Forty minutes into my initial consultation with a frail 42-year-old woman wanting psychotherapy to help her cope with being assaulted five months earlier, she looked up from the Kleenex mashed in her left fist and said, “The kike nurse at the hospital that night was very nice.”

My heart spasmed. I thought to myself, Would I be able to wholeheartedly continue treating someone who spewed this venom?

As someone whose grandparents and aunts were gassed at Auschwitz, I grew up with zero tolerance for hate comments.

I remember when my neighbor Rita DiMartino sat in our sparkling white and gold kitchen in Little Neck, Queens, and told my mother, “Bernice, I hope you don’t consider this an insult but most Jews are cheap.” My 11-year-old self longed to throw Rita head first down the stone stairs outside our house.

At 14, my mother had stolen a potato from under the Nazis’ noses to save a fellow prisoner, ill with typhus. In her kitchen a lifetime later she stood up to her full 4-foot-11 and told Rita in Polish-accented English, “How would you like it if I said most Italians love the bottle?”

In a lather of righteous fury I stood by Mom’s chair, ragged fingernails digging into my balled fists. Rita apologized, then took another piece of Mom’s extra-crispy, chocolate-chip-infused mandel bread. Her chewing and the ticking of the clock were the only sounds until Rita laughed uncomfortably, “I don’t think Sherry forgives me.”

Hurt my mother; you are dead to me. I smiled tightly but said nothing.

While this was a rare instance of being confronted by prejudice during my childhood, growing up with an intimate knowledge of what hatred and a thirst for power could drive human beings to inflict on others led to spells of anger and fear. In my dreams Nazis wearing heavy black boots thundered toward me.

Still when my extended family, some with Auschwitz numbers tattooed onto their arms, occasionally let racist comments drop from their lips during Passover Seders and Sunday barbecues, I felt nausea. Shouldn’t one group suffering persecution grant benevolence to another?

Of course my relatives had flaws, but none would ever knowingly harm another being. They were victims of hate-mongering, not perpetrators. Decades later I am still unraveling this cognitive dissonance: Good people sometimes say bad things. My mother and Rita were never bosom buddies but spent time in one another’s kitchens for 30 more years.
Intuitively I have always known that travel is one of the best ways to combat a narrow worldview. I was fortunate to have a few seminal experiences offering exposure to people who utterly mystified (and OK, sometimes repulsed) me.

While at a remote rainforest lodge in Costa Rica, I fell into an hours-long conversation with the lodge’s owner. I knew Frank was German-born but it wasn’t until 45 minutes into a delightful back and forth about music, nature and books that I discovered not only had Frank’s father been a Nazi, but Frank spent his twenties and thirties as a lawyer defending Nazis. He told me, “One day I looked at myself in the mirror and couldn’t stand the person I saw staring at me. I ran away — literally — into the jungle.”

He was eager to hear about my parents, whom I said would likely feel betrayed to see me with him. I added, “Realizing that you are not a monster but someone who grew to realize following your father’s footsteps was unworkable is a gift.”

My journey toward becoming a therapist has involved delving into my own unconscious biases — as everyone has pockets of prejudice. I’ve become fairly comfortable working with people who hold a view or two I detest. But this woman hit too close to home.
I told the woman, “You know, I’m Jewish and my family were Holocaust survivors. You may not be aware that the word ‘kike’ is an ethnic slur, an insult.”

“Oh Sherry, I’m so sorry,” she said. “I’m embarrassed to admit I just heard my folks say it when I was a kid so it seemed natural. I respect you so much. You must think I’m awful.”
I became a therapist from a need to explore the complexities and contradictions in human beings — a need to believe few people are evil incarnate. So, I told her, “No. Thank you for explaining your reasoning and understanding why I was upset.” I smiled. “Now we can move on and help you heal.”

She smiled back, relieved. And we began to work together.l

Sherry Amatenstein, LCSW, is the author of three self-help books and editor of the anthology “How Does That Make You Feel: True Confessions from Both Sides of the Therapy Couch.” A longer version of this was published in Prevention magazine.


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