Friday, January 9, 2015

Nurse Kathryn

By Peggy O’More, ©1965
Psychiatric nurse Kathryn Kilburn could read most people like a book. An emotional problem in someone else was something she could heal. But when her fiancé constantly avoided marriage, she had to face the hidden truth about herself. And brilliant Dr. Lamont reached out to help her …
“She had come to Jensen to establish herself as a patient. She had complained of various physical ailments related to psychosomatic causes. Jensen had prescribed immediate marriage.”

When I read the back cover blurb, past experience made me shudder in horror. Peggy O’More, aka Jeanne Bowman, never met a crackpot pop psychology theory that she didn’t love or feel obliged to pound relentlessly into every other page. With this book all about a psychiatric nurse, I knew it was going to be a brutal slog, and indeed, it was. Indeed, it was. Starting strong out of the gate, Nurse Kathryn Kilburn declares that in her town, “practically everyone with some type of anxiety neurosis. Middle class fathers were anxiously trying to cross the boulevard to upper middle class. Upper middle class was anxiously fighting to maintain a strong toe-hold at their status level. Wives were seeking anxiously to aid and abet husbands and children of all ages caught in tensions.” Sigh.
Into this fray of mental anguish skulks psychiatrist Dr. John Lamont, who immediately begins to cure everyone in sight, including his first patient, a woman who weighs in at more than 200 pounds. He decides, with Kathryn’s sharp insights, that this woman really fears TB and believes that a huge BMI will protect her from germs. A little browse through a medical textbook, and she’s cured! As an added bonus, “he says my husband must love me dearly, or he’d never have put up with me as I’ve been,” warbles the blissful patient.
Despite her supernatural insights into everyone else’s personality defects, Kathryn cannot heal herself, though the clues come fast and furious: Her fiancé, Dr. Jack Benson, is a literal rock, demonstrating neither anger nor joy, but he does have “that particular quality she had to have in the man of her choice: a single-minded devotion.” Which is chiefly to his family, for whom no errand is too small to blow off a date with Kathryn without even calling to let her know. They would marry, except that Jack keeps getting passed over for promotion at the hospital and all his current income has to go to support his family, and his mother won’t hear of Kathryn working after Jack marries her. So three years later there’s nary a tinkle of a wedding bell to be heard.
Into the navel-gazing fray wade Kathryn’s parents: Her father, a small-town GP with a temperament much like Jack Benson’s, suffers a breakdown and is ordered to take a month-long vacation. Her mother, also her father’s nurse, brooks no shilly-shallying and has been cracking the whip over Dr. Kilburn for the past three decades, so she’s sent on a vacation, too, apart from her no doubt grateful husband. The obvious conclusion is hammered in: “For one illuminating and horrifying moment she saw herself and Jack transposed. She was her mother and Jack her father, and what she had sought from Jack and defined as undeviating devotion was to him deep resignation.” Got it?
Well, it’s still a bit murky, because even as “she realized now her attitude toward Jack had been wrong,” she’s nonetheless upset when Jack explodes at the chairman of the board of the hospital—who we suddenly learn is his Uncle Carl—saying that his uncle has been purposely withholding the top job from him so Jack will keep taking care of the family, and he quits. “Oh, but you can’t,” Kathryn wails; “this ‘new Jack,’ as Dr. Lamont called him, had a rakish devil-may-care attitude she abhorred. How could she marry such a man and have any feeling of security?”
Depressed over this change in Jack, Kathryn is lying on the chaise longue in her back yard when her take-charge roommate stops home long enough to tell Kathryn that she and Jack have just been married. She tells off Kathryn for allowing Jack to continue in the “dependable” life that subjected him to lifelong servitude to his family, for not supporting him when he refused to continue to be taken for granted at work and at home and quit his job, and for calmly congratulating her instead of attempting to strangle the new bride. Somehow, though, Kathryn’s flat affect is meant to indicate a breakthrough. She tells John, who has heard about the marriage and rushed over, that she is relieved that she is “no longer indebted to Jack for having been true to me, after his fashion, for so long.”
John, sensing an opening in the midst of this crisis, proposes. “ ‘Oh,’ she murmured, ‘so that’s what has been the matter with me.’ ” Meaning that she’s been in love with her boss and didn’t realize it, and now she’s magically cured. And somehow that “heartsick” look in John Lamont’s eyes, the one that everyone has commented on from the moment he walked through the clinic door, is gone, but apparently not for long: “The heartsickness would return. Because even has her father worried over his small town until it became a sickness, so did Dr. Lamont, with his wider experience in the world, worry over the sickness of nations.”
What the hell? Though the ending acts like Kathryn is now healed, there is absolutely no evidence of this whatsoever, and we’re also left with a less-than-flattering picture of Dr. Lamont’s mental health. Can two people who aid and abet each other’s delusions be happy together? Had the author intentionally made this the book’s central question, it would have made for a far more interesting story; as it is, I am unimpressed, irritated, and exasperated, feelings that O’More’s books usually engender in me. The fact that I continue to read them suggests I may be as nutty as psychiatric nurse Kathryn Kilburn.

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