Wei Wang: “Famous”

Pennina was late. Her arrival would officially commence the beginning of my child psychiatry fellowship at Cornell, which represented a long-held ambition, buried deep, to become an academic star. That’s because in the years after the Cultural Revolution, every intelligent high school girl in China coveted the genius of Madame Curie, a cultural icon we all dutifully worshiped.

Five first- and second-year child psychiatry fellows were waiting in her office. Pennina greeted us, her face tilted down, and she stood leaning forward, her grin stretched. She spoke in a high-pitched, girlish voice. Her short sentences elicited responses as if in play therapy, characteristics of a great child psychiatrist that would take me many years to appreciate. “I see that you have introduced yourself to each other,” she said and then apologized for her delay, as she explained our tiny numbers. With one fellow unable to start when I started, I would be the only full-time first-year. All eyes would be on me. “But all is well. I will wait,” she murmured as if speaking to herself, saying that she would not hire another child fellow.

As she continued, I detected some frazzled energy. Her fine silver hair was unstyled, bluntly cut short, sparse long bangs touching her eyebrows but barely covering her forehead. Pennina’s smile expressed brilliance but also fatigue. Physically, she was the smallest person in her office. Her speech was deliberate and even, but also inviting. Her hands were searching, and her steps were steady and constant. This was my child psychiatry training director.

I just returned to the States on a plane,” she explained. “From my husband’s lecture, of course.” Her husband was considered the mastermind in the psychoanalytic world of adult psychiatry. “It was an amazing conference,” she said with evident pride. “It was worth it.” Even after more than three decades of marriage, she was still her husband’s humble student. The word “husband” was spoken with joy and security.

Beneath her warm demeanor was a commanding presence and a tone that suggested she was here to whip us into mature child psychiatrists. She hurried as she shifted her body through a maze of desks and shelves piled with books and papers, still searching for something. Oh, she found it. She lifted it, turned her face to us and froze unexpectedly. She stood there thinking about our itinerary today, I guessed, the new day of first-year child-fellows; or she forgot something. “I forgot the beepers for the new fellows. It looks like I have to leave again even though I just arrived,” she said with amusement. This was my first exposure to her philosophy that humor was the highest wisdom in human development.

During the 1990s, the beeper was the second most important thing for training physicians—the first, our brain. After a brief phone call, she turned to us. “Everything is ready for me. I just need to go over there and pick them up. It should not take me long,” she said. “Get acquainted while I’m gone.” A few of us volunteered to get the beepers because the office was at least a 10-minute walk away, but she pressed firmly.

I insist.” This was the first “no” I heard from her.

As she maneuvered through the narrow space between our seats, she turned her head back and joked to alleviate the sudden quiet. “These are the new victims amongst you,” she said, motioning to me and Bertha, a part-time first-year fellow. “Maira, Rachel, Greg, show them some survival tips. You will probably not find another conference as easy as today. Be kind to each other.”

‘Famous enough’

The word victim surprised me, and I laughed. A long silence lingered in the room.

Maira settled unwillingly into her disappointment. “Oh, my god, she is so disorganized,” she said, like a critical daughter who had found an intolerable flaw in her beloved mother. Maira was an Indian immigrant, fluent in English, with vowels that sounded British, which may have been accentuated because of her embarrassment. Nervous chuckles followed.

Together, we watched as Pennina’s figure became smaller on this famous campus. In 1998, a woman physician director at an Ivy League institution was rare and extraordinary. We wondered whether she was the only full professor who did her scutwork. Serving as training director meant the liberty to do great things, so why was she doing the fetching? Her silhouette finally vanished into a campus known for its Victorian mansions with shimmering rose bricks and a well-manicured golf course in vibrant greens. Years later, I would wonder if her numerous pauses were the imaginary plays of the real-world demons and saints in her head.

We sat in the midst of dense piles of paperwork, videotapes and books stacked on any available surface. I searched around the room for signs of Dr. Pennina’s greatness and noticed a huge locked glass-door bookshelf filled with rows of videotapes, labeled “divorce group” with dates and times. What was all this for?

Maira interrupted my reverie. “Not a single day was her office presentable.” She delivered this understatement with striking hopelessness. I wanted to ask whether these videotapes were from Pennina’s therapy sessions. Videos offered the most treasured learning tools for new therapists.

But she is famous,” I said. I wanted to restore some dignity to this messy, silver-haired woman, who had just told us to say something kind as if a Mother Goose movie had started to unwind. Twenty years after I left that program, I realized that on this morning, I may have brewed my first cup of toxic juice among my cohort of “victims.” A legalized, ennobled and true-to-life hunger game was unfolding, unbeknownst to me. Competitiveness had gotten us to this Ivy League institution, and it would drive us through.

No, she is not,” Maira retorted, her mezzo-soprano reaching its highest pitch. “Her husband is.”

Were Pennina and her husband competing at home? Much later, I discovered that she had one hundred publications, the same exact number as her husband. Should we not praise and elevate her? Oftentimes, women are the harshest critics of our own kind. In the male-dominated professions, we should be kinder to those few who make it. This understanding sank in regrettably too late. I was too green and too wrapped up in my own lows and highs, but mostly lows. I generally regarded myself as a lost soul, clinging to my long-held latent dreams of finding success in America despite my perceived faults, poor English and inferior knowledge base.

My completion of an American medical residency program before this Ivy League fellowship did not soften my struggles and may have even exacerbated them. At that time, my circle of friends was filled with Chinese Ph.D.s or Ph.D. candidates, who evinced no warmth or fuzziness toward a divorcee like me who had left her Ph.D. spouse. My confusion about navigating privilege in America was about to become messier.

Instinctively I answered, “Her husband is very famous, but she is famous enough.” I accented the “ou” in “enough.” I subconsciously measured Dr. Pennina against my idol, Madame Curie, placing her on such a high pedestal that I was unprepared for any jibes directed at her. I was about to witness the flip side of female privilege. I had been looking forward to being immersed in her glamour. Any close-up revealed vulnerabilities that needed to be dismissed. Her cheerful guidance was so genuine but somehow tainted. Was I comparing her with Jane Lapotaire, whose portrayal of Madame Curie in a 1970s BBC series seemed even more essential to me than this real-world scholar? I can see now that solid publications and professorship after doctorate programs weren’t as empowering as I had envisioned.

Pennina’s thinning hair made her seem like a malnourished girl with a tarnished reputation, especially after I heard the gossip about how she worked so hard to keep her marriage together. I speculated that the enthusiasm I saw was a teacher fearing her legacy would die before her hard-earned baton could be passed on. The world was not necessarily a ladies-first place. Ironically, girls and boys were taught so: Open doors for the ladies, but only certain doors.

For a scholar like Pennina, people would say her reputation was inextricably tied to the renown of her husband, Dr. Koenigsberg. The truth was that her hundred-plus publications—including ten books—had her husband’s last name on them. It would be hard to sort out how much his fame had boosted hers. Maybe the majority of the editors at academic journals would know these two were related. But only her fans in the field knew that her in-depth insight into children or humans, in general, was filled with astonishing observations, sound clinical reasoning, and her distinct ability to use humor. Her gift translated the absurdity of the mortal mind into hilarity during her lectures. At times, her laughter seemed to border on madness, but in fact, her enthusiasm for play therapy theory and personality disorders in children was contagious, especially to her colleagues, young or old.

In a published obituary eight years later, her staunch arch-rival, Dr. Thomas Schneider, would characterize Pennina’s laughter as a breath of fresh air. Many of us had drawn strength from her humor to survive the harsh training of a physician’s life. For her patients, her wit served as an essential antidote to the theories of the time, which blithely smeared motherhood, blaming mothers for their personality-disordered children.

‘You will witness brilliant minds’

As the months passed, I grew accustomed to Pennina’s blazing, chaotic energy and profound intellect. Often as we walked on campus, she would slow her car down as she approached us. One afternoon, I knew something extraordinary was happening when she invited us to a symposium. “If you have time, please go to the main lecture hall; if you don’t have time, make time. You will witness brilliant minds.” Her half-finished lunch still sat on the passenger seat, surrounded by cookie crumbs.

The symposiums were always compelling, and the fierce debates to protect one’s school of thought were surprisingly brutal. I once witnessed Dr. Schneider dismiss Pennina’s theory of play therapy. Clearly, it was not a scholarly debate, but a showdown: He wanted to demean—and even shame—her in front of the entire department. The image of my mentor’s flushed face as she smiled through her anger still disturbs me today. A couple of us cared enough to stand by her.

I leaned toward her with a tiny comforting whisper that came out all wrong. “Why does he say that?”

Pennina replied with controlled fury, her usual girlish tone replaced by something coarse and baritone as her reply found its prey. “Why don’t you answer your own question?!”

When a woman scientist nears the spotlight, she risks the burn of criticism. In 1911, Madame Curie won her second Nobel prize for work on spontaneous radioactivity, but she was asked not to present herself in Stockholm. Critics called for a boycott because they questioned her morality after she became a widow. Albert Einstein came to her defense, using a convincing lie stating that a high-functioning cortex doomed a woman’s attractiveness, a statement that ignored the stunning physical beauty that was one of Madame Curie’s many attributes. Even when a woman is an elite scientist, she still needs a man to vouch for her.

On that first day, as we waited for her to return, I was fully in Pennina’s thrall.

Did you read any of her publications? I just got her book,” I said with some timidity, hoping not to arouse Maira’s ire.

Rachel was the only one intrigued. Her father was a famous author, and she always loved a good read. Her eyebrows wrinkled in the center, and she was impossibly beautiful. “What is the title of the book?” she asked. Her pronunciation had a breathy nasal emphasis, with a genuine curiosity to amend her oversight. She had an unfamiliar accent, which later I learned was Australian.

“‘Personality Disorder in Children’ is her book,” I said.

Maira turned to me, her voice slightly piercing. “You came here prepared.”

Now I understand her irritation at my la la land perception of the academic world. I was in a scholarly mood while not yet accomplished in scholarly status. My tiny effort to prepare surprised this second-year fellow. And I was shocked that Maira did not know any of our director’s publications. She was already one year ahead of me. Having a hard time accepting her imaginary defeat, she turned on me many times after this, and so did others on campus. Inadvertently, I seemed to provoke a nastiness within all of them. My original intent had been to inform, but that seemed not to matter. I was soon to learn that moving forward together was not an option for others. People craved their own success to the exclusion of their competitors. The win-win concept did not come into play until I first listened to the late Dr. Robert Schubert’s sermon series. I was about to learn that I would be deemed a stumbling block, an annoyance—unwelcome in a competitive academic world.

Becoming Madame Curie

During my first five years in America, everyone around me was either a Ph.D. candidate or married to one. After I lost the freshness of coming to a new country, I carried a shame, often emphasized by my parents, that I wasn’t a Ph.D. student; I was merely married to one. Admission to the UNC-Chapel Hill’s Ph.D. program could have been my saving grace, but I had annulled my childhood dream of becoming Madame Curie to save my troubled marriage. It seemed imperative that I hold onto my Mr. Curie. Marriage gave me a sense of belonging and a warm, nurturing identity.

In the female Ph.D.s I encountered in those five years, I became aware of a newfound harshness that was in contrast to that 1977 TV series on Madame Curie, which had inspired generations of good Chinese girls to be scientists. We perceived Madame Curie as sharp, but never harsh. We girls often imitated one scene in her living room when she advised her husband, “No extra chairs because when guests come to visit, they won’t leave.” That’s how focused she was, no distractions from her ambition. We loved it.

After the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, college entrance exams were reinstated, and the recruiting of college students extended beyond the elite proletariat classes. Forty-five years later I reviewed the TV series; in it, Madame Curie was as succinct, confident, focused, politically uncompromising and organized as any smart woman could be. She was two characters in one—her husband adored all her non-feminine traits as a sign of a great scientist—to be exact, a genius physicist.

What made me opt for saving my marriage over the rigor and prestige of earning a Ph.D.? Was it the self-doubt that had snowballed since my first cry on this earth? Or was it my confusion over the proper role for a woman? Even now, many of us assume that a Ph.D. makes single women spinsters and married women spinster-like. At the time, I could not know how many women paid expensive tuition to institutions that would inevitably look down on them, seeking their alleged flaws to devalue their intellect and accomplishment. Women in academia are often spuriously labeled as boring, bitchy, abrupt or uninteresting. I could deal with that, though. I could not accept being perceived as uncaring, unable to love, and therefore undeserving of love. That’s inhumane!

It would take me a half-century to catch on to one of the most sinister expectations for women. Marriage is supposed to provide warmth to couples and soften a talented woman’s persona. But the hidden agenda is that she will be the warmth. The heavy lifting of nurturing was hers to do in a marriage, and at some point, having to do all the nurturing can harden her to the core, until death does she part from it. Most women buy into that myth, including every mentor I encountered in life and in school. Unless a feminist Mr. Curie comes along—that is once every hundred years in Western culture, once every million years in Asian culture.

Upon my various milestones of accomplishments, a brief sense often arose—I would be big one day. It would be like the first day I made it to college in China, after many rounds of fierce competition that only gave 2 percent of high school graduates the honor. But it was a comet arriving and a comet going; as if unkind reality rendered my lofty dreams into barely recognizable debris. I was haunted by the question: Who the hell am I now? My dream seemed to have landed in the wrong body—an imposter had slithered in. Instead of cheering for my success, family and friends, especially those from Wuhan, the heartland of Chinese Han culture, were concerned, asking, “Are you sure you wanted that kind of hard life?”

Had they forgotten they had been the ones pushing me forward to climb the ladder of academic prestige, get married to the right man, all the things required to show utmost loyalty to the elders—a firstborn daughter’s duty?

Another abominable moral dilemma I could never reconcile was that the firstborn daughter also was expected to achieve all this while assuming the responsibilities of eldercare. For years, their letters and calls repeatedly reminded me that I had abandoned them, sick and aged. While I was married to my Ph.D. husband, I had been an American housewife, a profession that never existed in our family circle. During the second year after I arrived in the United States, my parents would send me portraits they had selected for their funerals, making a point that their health was declining, urging me to prepare for the unavoidable. One time, I got my visa expedited so I could make a dutiful return to Wuhan, China, only for them to tell me not to come. “We don’t know what profession we shall inform our relatives,” they said. They stated they preferred for their close friends and relatives to maintain the original image of me, their excellent daughter abroad in America. The glory stopped there.

Inclusive authorship

I had no idea she published books.” This was an unwilling acknowledgment from Maira. By now, I was overwhelmed by their ignorance. I let my indignation pass. I assumed we all shared the same ambition to pursue a position in the academic world. On that bright fall day, I wanted to be inspired. I wanted to be the best student. I brushed away the discontent about Maira’s competitiveness because I did not know what was ahead of me.

Dr. Pennina will love you very much.” Maira drove the message home one more time.

Dr. Pennina’s book was a treatment manual, and I had ordered it the moment I received her acceptance letter. The book had a stirring stone-blue cover, with a prominent black bold title and busy small red and black ink letters, acknowledging various contributors, a lot of them. I admired her act of acknowledging contributors on the front cover. Names crowded half of the space. Taking credit for other people’s work was an unwritten rule in the academic world—really, the male world. One infamous case was the publication of research on the DNA double helix, a story well-known in Chinese and English academia, in which one woman developed the model, but two men took credit, winning the Nobel prize. Since I had come to the U.S., I encountered more stories like this.

I adored Pennina’s authorship, which was kinder and more inclusive. The reality was that writing a single research paper or even an abstract for publication was never a one-person endeavor. Recently, I discovered her generosity to share credit placed her at odds with her own fame. In his eulogy, which was published in The Journal of American Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the famous child psychiatry director, Dr. Schneider, diminished Dr. Pennina’s achievement as an expert in child psychiatry, saying “she co-authored 10 books.” That is a word seldom used in academic settings because the so-called accomplished author was usually male, to whom the word co-authorship doesn’t apply. In psychiatric science, males have been the dominant scholars for the past 500 years, or maybe 5,000. My eventual understanding of this would validate my decision to leave academic medicine before long. Looking back now, I realize that this insight may have saved my life. To my knowledge, none of the female fellows who were my peers remained in academia.

My mother had always told me to forge ahead professionally as much as I could—but always try to get married. Whatever I must do, it would be to become more marriageable. One of my earliest memories was in first grade when she made my new stepfather, a famous cardiologist in Wuhan, accelerate me one grade higher. The reason was that my age would make me the youngest and most marriageable among the potential mates in the future class.

By the end of Pennina’s orientation on that first day, the enthusiasm in the room wore me out. I’m not sure if it was hers or mine. Was her imposing attitude too much like my mother’s? Was it Pennina’s praise for the great things she had accomplished through her marriage, such as her green card? About 80 percent of us were immigrants and living on our own at the time. I had a déjà vu moment of a mother pushing her daughters to get married soon, regardless of whether the men were husband-caliber. My Chinese mother had so much in common with this Jewish one. “Find a life outside the campus!” Pennina said. Clearly, a life meant a married life. The reminders were not coming just from anyone’s mother, but from the entire world, East and West, especially when a certain age was reached. I never observed an unmarried woman on a distinguished committee in an academic institution. Many times, we would set our schedules for group supervisions, only to learn they were canceled because Pennina had traveled at the last minute to tend to her husband and attend his conference. Pennina also continued to emphasize that having a rich life outside of campus would set us up to be good child psychiatrists. But still, I wasn’t getting it.

The wrong slice of cake

One month into the training, all child psychiatry fellows were invited to Pennina’s house for her weekly divorce group, a seminar for physicians, therapists and family lawyers. We were there to learn from Pennina how to treat children from divorced families. The focus was almost always on straightening out the relationship between the children and the father, establishing the mother as the contaminant of the father’s loving relationship toward the children. In those oft-repeated scenarios, the woman could not stand that the husband had initiated the divorce; therefore, she projected her hatred toward the father onto their children.

The exterior of Pennina’s colonial house was off-white, covered with dust. Chipped paint revealed its age. Its two-door garage made me think of a rooted family. That felt like heaven to someone who had already lived in four states and moved five times since coming to America. To my eyes, as a poor trainee physician, the house felt gigantic. It possessed a slight crumbling grace. Surrounded in luscious dark greens with ancient oaks and elms, the house provided quiet for writing, publishing and seeing patients. It had just the right ambiance for practicing psychiatrists, who would need respite from a day of counseling patients. The landscape was massive. Walking in with immense reverence, I noticed the house’s interior was a pleasant contrast—immaculate, modern and classy. It was as if a MoMA exhibit had dropped into The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I was early, at least the first time. Pennina was inviting as usual, a competent hostess in action. Matching plates, forks, tablecloths, dishes, napkins were all in the same dark color with rims of silver and gold. Passing the long dining table, I walked down to the far end of the living room, where people were already seated. I soon found out they were lawyers, psychiatrists and a few social workers with doctorates.

A case discussion began. It seemed a familiar one, a prototype. The husband married into the rich girl’s family; the poor boy became the distinguished CEO of her father’s company. Pretty girl, now ugly wife, inevitably became overweight, turning her obsession to food and children; however, she maintained a pea-sized brain, which then exploded into a quasi-psychotic state, no trace of even a pea left in her head[U3] . He initiated a divorce with a possible attractive new girlfriend on the side. But the wife could not find any proof and spent what was left of her youthfulness to look for evidence, even staging evidence, as our director quoted, to smear the God-forsaken husband. “$8,000 a month is not enough for her. She wanted more,” Pennina said. “But the children still had the love for their father, in secret.” The major teaching point from the master!

You can find out by letting them draw in therapy sessions,” Pennina instructed, holding up a circle drawn on white paper. “Let them label how they feel about their father on one side, then flip the paper and ask them to draw, ‘what about inside?’ Inevitably, the first side said, ‘I don’t want to see him,’ but, ‘Inside, I miss him.’” To drive this message home without inciting further resistance from us, she added that this was the technique of the female Cornell Ph.D. psychologist whom we all knew, which bolstered her point.

Oohs and aahs followed. Her conviction impressed the entire audience, just as it always did. Her scientific clues were available for us to utilize in our future psychotherapy sessions, to further emphasize the lunacy of discarded wives and adjust our countertransference towards the mothers.

Thank God for the snack time and sweet-tooth therapy. A serious and gloomy seminar turned into a house party. I sneaked quickly around the table toward an oil painting that had caught my attention earlier. From my first sighting of it, I felt a sweeping calling to be in the picture. It shook my being with such a huge awakening that only now do I understand its twisted seduction.

As I stood in front of the bright red and black thematic colors, I felt profoundly trapped and lost. All around me, people shared greetings and compliments about the array of desserts. Something about this painting felt daunting, yet on the surface, it was heartwarming. This painting depicted an exclusive club, powerful men in nicely tailored dark suits gathered together. Their disproportionately enlarged arms and backs made their heads almost invisible. But they were undoubtedly the heads of society. The background was crimson. Even the wall behind it was red, and a spotlight on the ceiling illuminated the dramatic scene. Fathers and young grandfathers had gathered in a solemn ceremony in response to a tragic event. Maybe the Holocaust? I knew Dr. Pennina was a Chilean Jew, and her husband, who was from Argentina, was also Jewish. In the world outside this circle and this painting, intimacy between men was often shunned, but here it was glorified. It seemed to be a tribute to the unusual masterful man who headed this household. Without words, it seemed to convey that it would be the men who would quell any chaotic disorder. I should be thankful to the true master of the household, and so was everybody else, including Dr. Pennina.

A woman tied to any of the men in the painting would be fortunate, indeed.

Help yourself, since you really can afford the calories,” Dr. Pennina said to the slim Caucasian woman taking a bite of dark chocolate cake. The woman, in the deep tone of a kind grandmotherly voice, stunned all of us by asking, “Did you make this?” She spoke with the perfect American accent that was her birthright. I wasn’t sure she was for real. Dr. Pennina’s answer was baffling but spontaneous, in a speech style I would learn later was legendary on campus. Pennina said, “Oh, no, I would have owned my own bakery in a five-star hotel and traveled the world.” I couldn’t tell if she was describing a profession she had dreamed about or she was being sarcastic. Later, she dropped the name of a sought-after chef who had baked the cake. Pennina knew the chef of her cake? Could I ever attain her style of living?

By now, more women therapists joined the party. They were Pennina’s volunteers, mostly master-degree social workers who helped us, the child psychiatry fellows, lead divorce-group therapy while Pennina was conducting the divorce-group therapy for their parents (teaching is often unpaid in higher education, especially in medicine—seeing patients and getting grants are the primary means to obtain money.) It seemed that for a woman to be in social work, she would have to have a rich husband, as most of these master-degree women I encountered on this campus did—no need to make a substantial income.

The black forest cake now became the center of our attention. Fine lines of white chocolate limned the frosting in an artistic design. I chose the thinnest slice, though the slices were cut almost identical. I went to the corner to join the fellows. When I looked back across the room, I saw Dr. Pennina greeting guests. She picked up a plate and took a forkful of cake. I leaned in to whisper to Maira. “She is eating another person’s cake. She took the wrong slice.”

Maira’s milk chocolate complexion seemed to pale my tannish skin, the two of us hiding in the corner from all the fair-colored people. Maira giggled. “Oh, my God,” she said. “She does it all the time.”

All I could think about was the germs. My mother was always sick in the stomach. Because she had irritable bowel syndrome, her food had to be clean, homemade and healthy. Even though she was diligent in her habits, nothing would stop her diarrhea. She was emaciated during the majority of her second marriage to my stepfather, and this never failed to sadden me. I was busy tending my own childhood wounds then—no time to take on hers. Now I was watching my academic mother mindlessly consuming germs that could harm her. It distressed me not for scientific and medical reasons but because of deep emotional ties. It is commonly known that microcytes can cause up to 20 percent of cancers when stress compromises the immune system, resulting in unchecked cell growth in the infected cells. Lamentably, this ancient wisdom has only recently been accepted into mainstream Western medicine.

Pennina was walking from one guest to another, laughing soundlessly, her head swiftly tipping down as her fork scooped more dark, soft cake from someone else’s plate. Eating and greeting, eating and greeting, she was partly instructing the guests, partly thinking and planning. Intermittently, she mumbled under her breath, maybe repeating some intrigue from a previous conversation or mentally drafting her next book to further her theory about children’s personality formation.

Some said she was attention-deficit disordered; others were not so sure. She switched topics so quickly, trying hard to maintain her social graces, successfully most of the time. “Oh, how are you?” she spoke quickly, not really waiting for an answer. “I am glad you made it.” To those in her inner circle, she would ask, “How is your husband?” She never asked after their children.

Holding the wrong slice of cake, she remained heedless of her error as she spoke in her Chilean accent with a French twist, which made her entire demeanor elegant, suitable for this room. She was the authority and the ultimate cheerleader, and people responded to her jokes with unrestrained cackles. Somehow, her pixie-cut silver hair lent her a contagious joy. Yet at the same time, the sparseness of the bangs on her forehead seemed to wither her allure. Her busy bee movements made me dizzy. She was asking about what had kept her guests so occupied. She drew them out about their health, private practices, insurance audits, Medicaid and Medicare, writing and joint writing, research and professional progress, tenure track or tenured professorship, on and on. “Insurance audits,” one woman moaned. “The worst audit is always from Medicaid, you know it.” The words literally zapped my heart. “To top it all, we are going to electronic records,” she added.

The likeability bias

A slight digression: Audits and electronic records were nightmares that lay ahead of me as a teacher and a physician, only I didn’t know the half of it. The details are repulsive, consuming any modern physician’s life, and peaked for me during the 2020 COVID pandemic. The rule of audit always assumes human sinfulness, and the few less sinful ones would expect to gain financially from the presumed more serious sinners. Racism and misogyny were rampant but covertly embedded in a noble code. In the end, most good physicians describe an audit as a reign of terror.

It’s not lost on me that the worst audit I ever received came during the COVID pandemic, amid events that showed the rise of Asian hate. This is when the likability bias came into my understanding. That comes from Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In and founder of Leanin.org, who defines five social biases that hold back professional women. The likability bias and its intersectionality started with a simple study, which revealed a systemic bias embedded in all cultures. In the study, when an accomplished woman’s resume was changed to a man’s name, the man was automatically considered a better and more decent boss; the woman, the true candidate, would be considered mean, cunning and fraudulent.

Understanding the systemic bias saved me from a pity party, even kept me far away from committing suicide or ending up like some of my colleagues who were discovered in random car-accident deaths. Death sounded so sweet to me in my deepest despair, offering permanent relief from the shaming game. Who would know? These two random ways to die always succeeded to negate any shame. Nobody wanted us to live to tell the tale. I considered a complete career pivot into practicing cosmetic medicine. It is distressingly common, especially among Asians. The pervading sense of guilt smeared those once youthful and hopeful visions to save the world or pursue scientific Nobel prizes. I watched many give up the profession completely. All across the nation were burned-out physicians like me.

As dark as black forest cake

A familiar despair seeped in as I watched Pennina take another bite. I could not bear the thought of her ingesting germs. My brutal act of omission—not seizing the cake and throwing it away— has pained me until today. Eight years later, Pennina died of bladder cancer. I believe germs and stress killed her. The news shocked me as much as my own mother’s death had. Both died around age 70.

I wondered how Pennina accepted her diagnosis. I knew my mother had collapsed in a panic, but in the end she welcomed her own death with peace. It took Pennina one year to die, despite the best efforts of New York’s most prestigious cancer treatment center. Many of my friends who made it to this treatment center ended up living into old age. For a long time, I had imagined returning to Cornell many times, Pennina opening her arms to welcome a married me with two children to finish my second year. It wasn’t fair. Had Pennina ignored the early signs? Was she labeling herself psychosomatic? When she learned it was true cancer, was she at first relieved that it was not, after all, a hysteria-induced disease? My mother’s dizziness for decades was labeled hysteria. Only after she fell in the kitchen, half of her body paralyzed, did my stepfather, her lifetime cardiologist, discover that her right carotid artery was completely blocked. “Well, 95 percent to be exact,” he told me over the phone, adding that she was in intensive care. Still today, I can hear his words resounding in his dramatic Chinese dialect. My heavy throat could not vomit my disgust.

The dark chocolate forest cake was surely easier to swallow. No sugar-coating would fix my real life, though. Nothing was as dark as what was happening in my immediate family. Mom was tired of living. She prayed for her death. “There is no good man,” she told me. I learned she had started sleeping in a small bed, separate from my stepfather’s. I secretly cheered her on. I wanted to tell her, yes! I never did. “Your younger sister is married, and you are established. Nothing left on this earth for me to do,” she repeated weakly as I rushed to call her in a rare moment of spare time. I had intended to tell her she must sleep in her own bed and declare that her marriage had been a sham, but I didn’t. Three years before this, she had learned that thirty years of her marriage had been a fraud.

I knew the cake was out-of-this-world delicious as I tasted its rich premium chocolate-y flavor and watched the jovial scene around me. Pennina’s laugh was surreal to me as she savored the cake. Yet I could only think of my mother. Her faint voice haunted me and haunts me still. Her apologetic laugh scratches my heart even now. She was a mother who had already lost everything dear to her. She wore a weeping face with no tears. Her talents, genius and beauty had been stolen. My mother felt so betrayed by my stepfather that she couldn’t bear it. My sister refused to see it. She chose the occasion of her one-month wedding anniversary to vociferously object to my mother’s decision to regain some dignity. As a passionate follower of Dr. Brian Weiss’ Many Lives, Many Masters, my sister had come to believe that my mother had been reincarnated in this life to be my stepfather’s slave. This was her fate. My sister had become an amateur psychiatry practitioner. She sent a Chinese version of that book to Mom and urged her to continue to serve my perverted stepfather. The vileness stacked against a devoted mother and wife shook me, especially after the tremendous losses she had already borne. It sent me into terror. My sister, only thirty days into matrimony, felt entitled to straighten out any woman wishing for a better marriage, a habitual practice of many newlyweds. Many years after my mother’s death, I loathed my failure to encourage her when she asserted herself for the first and final time in her second marriage.

Five days after her death and approximately a year after I left Cornell, I returned to my childhood resting place, the tiny hemp bed that was my mother’s safe haven for only a few years.

At the time, I was grateful to my famous cardiologist stepfather who I believed had cared for my mother for three decades. I felt relieved that the torrent of her lifetime of tears had finally ceased. A false sense of elation helped me through the funeral.

That year, I was in deep despair about everything. Twice, I nearly burned down my one-bedroom campus apartment because I was so exhausted that I would fall asleep while soup burned on the stove. Pennina comforted me by saying in confidence, “I’ve nearly burned my house down quite a few times.” Despite her sympathy for my lapses, Pennina could not head off an eviction notice, which came from the on-campus housing director, the same administrator who should have made sure Pennina had beepers on the first day of my orientation.

After the eviction notice was taken care of, I continued on other paperwork piled on my office desk. My heart rate remained steady until my eyes moved to another memo threatening to remove my hospital privileges if I did not sign a medication order now, then a clinical note five pages long that needed to be completely rewritten. Another…

A funeral notice[U7] .

The final straw

Matthew. What? I called Rachel right away. On a recent Thursday, Matthew, one of the graduating child-fellows from the Cornell campus in Manhattan, had helped us to present research papers in a weekly seminar directed by Dr. Schneider. The only one of twelve trainees who had received a coveted Ivy League faculty appointment, he had come to the rescue when several of us hadn’t thoroughly read the papers. “He was self-medicating to keep up with his studies and moonlighting. Then he needed other medicine to fall asleep,” Rachel explained. “You missed the funeral. I am walking out of it now.” She told me that he had left a suicide note on a recording. Everyone who heard it found his words scared, apologetic and fragmented.

I let out a loud cry. “Why?”

At that moment, time seemed frozen. I could imagine a broken video replaying in my head: The ghostly and disheveled Matthew, smeared with tears, bowed before his director, Dr. Schneider, while the suicide recording played again and again. As the other trainees watch, I plead, “No, Matthew, no! You pleased him, but it killed you. We owe you an apology. You should not have presented for us.”

This nightmarish reverie still resurfaces in my memory, as I envision Dr. Schneider’s dignified poker face. He had always scorned female researchers and faculty; now, his disdain had killed one of his own, no remorse for sure.

Matthew was a handsome, kind and humble Tennessee gentleman whose plaid shirts were always impeccably ironed. He had not yet set foot in the real world to use his scholarly skills. Was the expense of his medical school paid in full? Regardless, I could not fathom the sorrow of his parents, who appeared to be a stable, well-established family. He was vintage Ivy League, through and through, undergrad to medical specialty training. He had already graduated from the more prestigious Cornell campus in Manhattan. Unlike many of the immigrant fellows, he was a Caucasian American who had never experienced a visa problem.

I[U8] did not know how to process my grief, so naturally I hoped to find my way through my mentor. Pennina was a seasoned psychiatrist who could always speak the inexpressable. Suicide was what we psychiatrists dealt with every day. Instead, the following day my profound sadness flipped into fury. In our group supervision, she made a casual remark. “I am not surprised,” she said. “These kinds of people are full of pride. They cannot stand the slightest narcissistic injury.” She had mumbled this under her breath. How cruel! Bertha, the part-time first-year fellow, and I cringed, staring at each other and delving into each other’s consolation. We had all heard her. “These kinds of people” was her reference to his homosexuality. My professor seemed to be saying he deserved to die. Rachel was stone-faced, bottling God-knows-what. The year 1973 was when homosexuality was removed as a disorder from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual in psychiatry. Perhaps sensing our horror, she quickly apologized for not updating her knowledge and nursing a personal prejudice. “Sorry, I was trained almost three decades earlier than you,” Pennina said.

The one of us who chose to speak up, oddly, was Rachel, a second-year fellow and a native English speaker. From what I could tell, she adored Pennina from head to toe. Rachel had spearheaded a best teacher award for Pennina. She urged two child psychiatry fellows[U9] to sign the petitions when I nominated another woman. Rachel fought me and gathered Maira to swing my vote. “We are gonna vote for her. Your one vote means we are all gonna lose.” I was never prepared for Pennina’s elation when she received this insignificant award. For once, her laugh became a natural expression of her joy, reminding me of my mother’s passionate happiness, after receiving her students’ praises. When the award ceremony was over, a reception with cookies and soda followed. Pennina came to the gang of fellows to thank all of us.

Congratulations!” Rachel said with total pleasure.

With no malice I could detect, Pennina spoke with her jokester’s voice, “Dr. Rachel Anderson’s deep, breathy, raspy voice is truly sexy.”

Rachel shot back, “Would you suggest another 10 years of psychoanalysis to figure out the origin of the sexiness?”

Pennina’s face flushed. I heard my heart stop beating. Something had touched all of our inner demons.

Too sexy meant too seductive. As women psychiatrists we heard it too often. In my mind, I composed my thoughts about coming to Rachel’s defense. Her voice was peculiar, but it wasn’t a pathology. Would these people pathologize anything or everything in women? So that we would stay in psychoanalysis with distinguished male analysts for life, end up becoming their mistresses and making them leave their wives for the sake of true love? Should I even stay here in this program? Just then, Pennina turned toward me and said, “It’s so good to see you here. You are a strong woman.” Something to rescue the moment. All of us could see I was spiraling down[U10] .

The main problem was that I needed too much sleep, nine hours per night. Insomnia never favored me like many of my colleagues who could put in more hours of work. Instead, I would fall into deep dreams instantly if I allowed myself to rest. In extremely rare circumstances when a sleep attack came, I would rush into a carpeted auditorium or empty office to collapse lying down on the carpet or cupping my head into my folded arms on a desk. The diagnosis of narcolepsy, which was deadly mixed with ADHD, would be established during my early 50s. No wonder I had loved to tell the story of my unending dreams since my teens. Spending years in psychotherapy to analyze those dreams did not help much; those dark secrets, however, made me obsessed with storytelling. Pennina never heard my dreams but guided me toward stimulants and antidepressants, which never helped, though the former kept me awake for midnight emergency calls.

During my internship, a car accident left me with an obnoxious headache that would later impair my daily life, eventually leading to more psychoanalysis and psychotherapy at Cornell. Many future treating psychiatrists questioned whether I actually had ADHD, but when they learned that Dr. Pennina had made this diagnosis, no expert dared to differ. Too often, the dots take years to be connected before someone can find the true cause of the damaged self.

While continued overwhelming distress kept me in psychotherapy until even now, I found salvation by joining the Westchester Chorale, which desperately needed a soprano. Singing is practically diaphragmatic breathing; I was hooked but did not know why. Two performances of Daniël de Lange’s and Brahms’ Requiem put my Cornell sufferings in perspective, but there was more to it. Over the years, I instinctively found my way to this relaxing and centering technique. Singing in the choir was affirming for me, saving my life more than psychotherapy ever could.

I also set up a college-level English tutor at the nearby SUNY Purchase campus to improve my “poor“ English. Pennina did not see that I was late for pretty much everything and assigned me two individual supervisors in addition to the three I already had. That would just make me late for more meetings. She once snapped, “Dr. Wu is the busiest person here,” when I was tardy for her divorce group. I also had several group-supervisions, which I stupidly skipped. That turned out to be a major strategic disaster when they wrote formal complaints to Pennina about my alleged lack of respect and unwillingness to learn. When I dared to bargain with Pennina, I asked, “Do I have to go every week?”

She said with her stern voice, coaxing, “Get yourself pampered.” As if one of them would massage my neck and the other would sing me a lullaby. She wanted me to learn how to mingle into the culture here or marry into it.

One of those new supervisors, Dr. Masroor, and the English professor from SUNY Purchase puzzled me by saying, “Your English is excellent.” I was stunned when Dr. Masroor told me, “With an Oxford English literature degree, I got the same ‘poor English’ comments while in Cornell.” She continued, saying, “Many of your full professors’ English is poor, don’t you notice that?” I laughed at her statement that their English was poor. “Ignore them. Finish your training,” she said. Then she named a few major textbooks published by various prominent psychiatrists. “What do you think of their English?” Despite my “inadequate” English level, I was able to tell that those textbooks used a lot of sloppy grammar and run-on sentences.

Holding on to my perfect Mr. Herb

Whatever[U11] confidence I gained here didn’t last in the face of Pennina’s draining commandment to find a lifetime partner. My therapist, Dr. Benjamin, was thrilled when I showed up with an engagement ring. My perfect Shanghai-made fiancé was a businessman who sold Chinese herbs. I would sacrifice my days off to help him with his travel shows, a chore that was as dreadful as it sounded but took me away from the even more hideous life on Cornell campus. My fiance enjoyed correcting every single careless grammatical error in my conversation. “Your director said your English is poor,” he reminded me. “You should practice Mavis Beacon typing more than the 20 minutes as she requires.” Here I was, a walking zombie, trying to be my best. But I seemed to have a talent for attracting trouble.

One day during an intellectual debate, my fiance raised both of his hands while smiling adoringly. I thought initially he would caress my face as his warm hands landed on my throat, eventually clenching tightly. I could not breathe. He said, “When can you shut up your smart mouth?” My valid argument had not amused or impressed but offended him. I thought I might die. I came to my senses, called the police, and left for good. Only later did more gruesome details come out. Mr. Herb had previously visited my stepfather in China. “Where is her money?” Mr. Herb demanded, his hands waving in front of my father’s face. My stepfather was demoralized, and my mother was terrified. My stepfather later told me that during that awful conversation, Mr. Herb implied that I was poor. I was only a trainee physician, something my parents were so proud of. He made my mother walk away, and my stepfather agreed with his words: “She is worth nothing.”

Undeterred, I went on more dates. A genteel, soft-spoken Bruce Lee look-alike Filipino-Chinese-American appeared in my life. His fair-skinned good looks threatened to disrupt my plans at Cornell.

The final days before I handed in my resignation were a drama on their own. Per Pennina’s request, I sang at the annual staff meeting. The lyrics, “people who love people are the luckiest people in the world,” seemed an odd choice for this audience, from whom I felt no love at all. Barbra Streisand’s sappy song made me feel alone, but not lonely. Their thunderous applause did not sway me.

“You Are Not an Asperger!”

That[U12] was my 11th year in America, though it felt like the first year. Whatever I had accomplished felt invalidated. When the second semester started, twice, I walked off the campus, missing my scheduled clinic. I knew I had to leave. Maybe I could start over.

I had to break the news. It just so happened that was a week when Pennina once again was called unexpectedly on a trip. Dr. Garrett, the clinical director who generally covered for her, asked me, “Why are you quitting now?” He was incredulous because I was already halfway through the ordeal. “You are graduating this year.”

I sense that whatever I say is completely rubbing everybody the wrong way, an experience my Asperger’s patients share,” I explained. I did not tell him that I missed my clinic while dating my Mr. Bruce Lee and watching a Broadway show.

Dr. Garrett picked up only half of what I was saying and spat out, “You are not an Asperger!”

A cultural minefield had just exploded.

Missing the point totally—that I was using an analogy—he repeated harshly, “You are not an Asperger!”

Flabbergasted, I argued with him. “No. I never said that I was an Asperger—just that I feel what they are going through. It just seemed to me for the last entire year here, whatever I said or did was considered an offense.”

One time in supervised clinical training, I had suggested a lonely soul go to church to seek a childhood experience he had cherished. One of the senior attendings publicly reprimanded me, saying, “That is an empathy failure in psychotherapy.” Still, years later I don’t get it. In my work now, more and more I emphasize spirituality in recovery from mental illness. Much of that approach is validated by a book I read in 2014. Carlton Cornett’s “The Soul of Psychotherapy: Recapturing the Spiritual Dimension in the Therapeutic Encounter” inspired me as I moved away from Freudian-dominated practices for good. His persuasive arguments restore centuries of good spirituality such as logotherapy—long deliberately omitted from major institutions—back to psychiatry.

The next day, it seemed like everyone on campus approached me one after another, saying, “You are not an Asperger!”

To every single one, I answered, “I never said it. I just feel their isolation.”

As if my answer had zero value, they all gave me the same reply, “But Dr. Garrett said you diagnosed yourself.”

Oh, my God, they are torturing you,” Bertha said during a somewhat supportive farewell gathering of three of the on-campus child psychiatry fellows[U13] . This would be the only “clinical empathic success” I experienced at Cornell. Bertha was Jewish and had married a prominent cardiologist husband and produced two children. In Pennina’s eyes, Bertha possessed the fertile mind and the right womanhood for growing into a perfect child psychiatrist. “I will come back,” I swore to myself. “When I am married with children.”

Part of me really just wanted to finish my training. Yes, it was less than a year away. But my body started to act otherwise. By then, with no trace of Mr. and Mrs. Curie left in me, I could not wait to complete my own life with Mr. Bruce Lee so that I would be as qualified a trainee as Bertha. Eventually, I would have two talented children with Mr. Bruce Lee, only to rediscover my Madame Curie aspiration when I returned to my thirty-year high school reunion in 2011, nine years after leaving Cornell. A once-best friend had mentioned it, and my reaction was, “Really, I wanted to be Madame Curie?”

She responded, “Oh, you were determined to be Madame Curie.”

I was in shock that a cultural idol drilled into my mind but was in total oblivion. In order to keep going in life, the mind forgets.

This hilarious vignette left me feeling lost and ultimately sad. When I shared this with my female friends in Germany and America, they said, “Oh, that’s right, I wanted to be Madame Curie too.” It was every good girl’s dream. We laughed at our setbacks and detours, the naivete of believing what the adults used to trick us into studying hard even though they never meant for us to actually become that oddball successful woman. My stepfather secretly bonded with my first husband by decreeing, “Woman’s ultimate destiny is the kitchen.” Of course, the parents of the good girls would only tell half the truth in front of us. “First of all, winning a Nobel Prize is very rare,” my stepfather said, adding, “Girls need to get married, and that would keep you busy for a while.”

I would go on to fulfill the prophecy of the good girl stories. I studied hard, got married, again, and went down further on the glorious path of rearing children, only to be left with more horrid stories to tell.

To help us achieve a good girl status, a society filled us with confusing messages. I now recall Pennina’s controversial advice in the first orientation, “Don’t listen to your supervisors.” Shocked, we burst out laughing with her. Only months later into the training would I understand she meant that I should rely on my own good judgment as well. But I may have taken this advice too far. Eventually, she told me I was too feisty.

When was the last time I heard Pennina’s girlish voice? It dawned on me that it was in Dr. Garrett’s office when I was resigning from Cornell. Pennina was on the speakerphone, saying, “Really?”

Dr. Garrett said, “Yes, Wen is sitting right in front of me.”

Hello, Dr. Pennina,” I said. For the first time, I did not apologize.

Pennina said slowly, “Why don’t you put it in writing?”

I did,” I said. “It’s right here.”

After a long pause, she said, “Dr. Garrett, why don’t you wait for me to rearrange the call schedules and take Dr. Wen Wu off.” Her weariness mixed with enlightenment I could detect in her voice as she said, “Obviously you know what’s best for you.”

Sitting across from the speakerphone, I noticed I felt centered, which had happened rarely since I had come to America or even when I was back in China. I already had a job lined up as an attending physician. During the Cornell training, I got my New York medical license and applied for work near the World Trade Center in an underserved area. I planned the move to Mr. Bruce Lee’s place in New Jersey and hoped to get married soon. I never worried about anybody I left behind, even though I should have. I truly planned to go back for my second year after I prepared myself more. My new Asian therapist was a full professor at NYU, an M.D., and a psychoanalyst. I admired her and hoped to emulate her. She vehemently discouraged me from returning to Cornell. “You were tortured enough,” she would say. “Why would you want to go back?”

For 22 years, I still fantasized about where I would be if I had finished the program. I definitely would not have Mr. Bruce Lee and our two children. I might have been still running around like a zombie. I would never wake up from the nightmares of becoming Madame Curie that my culture instilled in me. Could I have survived?

Only when I heard Pennina died did I understand that I was never going back. What I can see now, most clearly, was that Pennina was poisoned by the culture, too. But she chose to embrace it, to find a way to survive. As much as I admired her work and had aspired to be like her, this would not be my path. Instead, I chose a different life, one that I could live with passion and confidence. Untying the invisible leash of expectations that had constrained me since high school was freeing.

Recently I remembered one cold winter afternoon when Pennina walked into my second-floor office in a grand Victorian building. She corrected me for the third time that day, reminding me that I should always call her Dr. Pennina, not Dr. Koenigsberg[U14] , because her first name made her feel like a younger American. A few days earlier, I had broken down sobbing in my supervision, and it was clear that someone had told her. She encouraged me to finish the program, but she also let me know it would be my decision. Pennina stayed for just five minutes until she could be sure that my hopelessness would not lead to suicide. After a few steps out of the door, she remembered something and asked, “Would you sing in the annual meeting coming up?”

I agreed. Then I watched her amble down the steep stairs as her long, dark wool coat dragged along the carpet. I feared she would trip and fall.





Born in Wuhan, China, Wei Wang has been a practicing physician in the USA for 27 years. Currently, her full-time private practice supports her passion for writing. Her two adolescents keep her busy, too. She practices meditation in the form of gardening, singing, dancing, working out, yoga or a quiet read at Jersey Shore. She writes poetry and prose in English and Chinese. She is writing Foreign Language, a collection of essays and stories about the lost voices of mothers and daughters.