The Third Table


Cancer. The “C” word. The bombshell that makes our hearts pound.

For me, the word also triggers an association with my mother’s death and with fear of my own- a fear that morphed into an obsession after she died when I was 14. After years of misdiagnosis, my own cancer was discovered in 1991 when doctors found a carcinoid tumor. My daughter was five years old and I panicked as I thought about abandoning her as I had been abandoned. My mother was 45 when she died; I was 45. Was I so connected to her and  her disease that it would become a part of my identity and take me over?

After my operation I found myself obsessing about the misdiagnoses of the preceding three years. I would wake up enraged at the way I had been brushed aside by the doctors and began to suspect that in order to find my own voice I would need to look hard at why I let people, particularly doctors, define my experience and why I accepted their diagnoses even though I knew something was very wrong. As a young girl I believed doctors might have saved my mother. Were I to face death, I hoped they would save me too. I gave extraordinary power to those professionals; it was no surprise that when I was 19 and near psychosis, I turned to doctors – to psychiatrists – to save me.

The Austen Riggs Center Medical Office Building

In the fall of 1964, after a dreadful summer replete with betrayal, rape, and indifference, I went to the Austen Riggs Center, a small, open psychiatric hospital in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. My decision was life saving, though there were many days – years even – when I had little faith that the Riggs program would work. During those dark years I clung to my friends, other patients. They became my Riggs family and we forged bonds around our shared experiences that stayed with us for the rest of our lives.

But in 1991, after my first operation, I was ambiguous about Riggs. Were the doctors as wise as I always thought they had been or had there been a Freudian double standard that lead them to treat me dismissively, assuming they knew more about me than I did? In other words, was there a shadow side to Riggs which I had missed? Was this Freudian institution a trustworthy, unique program, or a bastion of misogyny? What, in fact, had really happened at Riggs and what part of the story did I need to revisit and let go of? Awareness, it seemed,would entail going back and looking closely at those years.

My Jungian therapist , Ray  Walker, encouraged me to interview any staff who were still at Riggs. Real connections, he insisted, were usually the antidote to obsessions. It turned out that the only doctor still in residence was Dr. Ess White who agreed enthusiastically to meet with me. That didn’t surprise me; I never thought Dr. White would have forgotten me. I had been a patient for four years starting in 1964. Those years had been a time of great upheaval at Riggs, including the death of the beloved Medical Director, Dr. Robert Knight. His leadership had unified the staff and his death left the Medical Office Building (MOB) in a state of chaos and uncertainty. As an interim step, Dr. White became the acting director as well as the liaison between staff and patients. Of course we patients didn’t know how Dr. Knight’s death affected the staff since they didn’t share their feelings with us, but we intuited the affect and acted out wwith wild abandonment assuming that was how the staff felt. On top of that drugs, sex, and rock’n’roll were blowing the whole culture, as well as Riggs, apart– not a time to forget easily.

The Famous Third Table

The Famous Third Table

More importantly, Dr. White and I had another bond. During my first two years at Riggs my roommate and best friend, Bea, had been Dr. White’s patient. As Dr. White said, “Bea was a force to be reckoned with.” Her energy and high spirits made her the queen of the third table where the irreverent and “bad” patients sat, dominating the rest of the dining room.  This group, headed by Bea,  was not only known for its wild drinking and late night performances, it was also known as the strongest support of  the dynamic theater group headed by Jayne Mooney Brookes.  The shared  involvement with the Riggs theater, as well as its reckless behavior, reinforced the group’s place in the spotlight and initiated a great deal of competition and anger from the rest of the community. Through it all, it was Bea’s story that made my attachment to Dr. White as real as I knew his was to me.

I’m going to start this blog with the story of my interview with Ess White and then tell the story of how the interview turned into an idea for a collaboration and a book, and why Riggs eventually rejected the project and told Ess White not to participate. Wherever I can , I will include the work of patients who wrote their stories for our planned book. I’ll also include the interviews I had with the staff. It’s a kind of “family” history, full of the drama and ambiguity that is part of most families.


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