The Many Faces of Patricia Highsmith

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As a child, Highsmith considered Dr. Karl Menninger’s “The Human Mind” (1930), which helped introduce psychiatry to the American masses, to be one of her favorite books. The choice was atypical among her peers, to say the least. While other children read stories of witches and dragons, Highsmith marveled at the abnormalities stirring within every individual. She was fascinated by the mind’s shadowy realms, and this fascination no doubt contributed to her decision, in the late 1940s, to pursue therapy.

Highsmith initially sought help to “get myself into a condition to be married,” she wrote. She wanted to marry Marc Brandel, a friend of hers who wouldn’t stop proposing, but she had some obvious aversions to sleeping with him, later describing their attempts at intercourse as feeling like “steel wool in the face, a sensation of being raped in the wrong place.”

In mid-20th-century New York, analysis was the mark of the intellectual elite. It also promised what was thought to be a legitimate path to curing homosexuality, which “The Human Mind” listed as a perversion akin to pedophilia or satanism. In America, homosexuality was not only a psychological disease but a criminal act. It is unsurprising, then, that Highsmith harbored a soft spot for criminals, who comprised a club of which she no doubt felt herself to be a member.

Highsmith’s analyst Eva Klein Lipshutz concluded that most of Highsmith’s neuroses were caused by her mother; Highsmith was thrilled to receive this diagnosis. Like many psychoanalysts of the time, Lipshutz believed homosexuality could be conquered (she told Highsmith that sex with a man was perfectly normal: “Everyone does it”) and suggested Highsmith join a group of three or four married women who were also in therapy as “latent homosexuals.” “Perhaps I shall amuse myself by seducing a couple of them,” Highsmith wrote.

Eventually, Highsmith dropped analysis. “Bloody angry at having to pay this bill before I leave,” she wrote after her final session. Instead, she found other outlets. In her youth, she had begun diligently recording her dreams and fantasies in her journals — visions of ghostly girls waltzing to Tchaikovsky or girls set on fire in their bathtubs; the ghastlier the better — using them as inspirations for new writing. At least one close friend noticed how Highsmith also found equilibrium when painting or drawing, her inner demons quieted by her studies of shape and form and color. “We’ll never know how much she might have refined and enlarged herself as a visual artist had she chosen to follow that particular calling,” Highsmith’s lifelong friend and fellow Barnard classmate Kate Kingsley Skattebol said. “It was art, even more than love, that released her inborn creativity and showered her with torrents of joy.”

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