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Woman Around Town: Josie Oppenheim—Like Chekhov

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When Josie Oppenheim was a little girl she never wanted to go to sleep. Young Josie wanted to stay up and listen to her family talk. Her great aunt was Stella Adler, a daughter of the Adler Yiddish Theater family, the actress and acting teacher who founded the Stella Adler Studio of Acting. “To be good in my family meant that you had to be good at telling a story, that was the most important thing,” she says. “A large part of my drive and ambition in life was subsumed by the drive to be wanted, enjoyed and listened to by my family, as well as having the great pleasure of listening to them.” Josie remembers them as extraordinary and magical. (The photo above shows Josie in front of a portrait of her aunt Stella Adler and uncle Harold Clurman, the renowned director and theater critic. The photograph, taken at Oppenheim’s wedding now hangs in the Stella Adler School of Acting).

josie-awardThese days Josie Oppenheim, who is a psychoanalyst, still loves to listen, and continues to listen to people’s stories—her patients’—while telling her own stories as she presents in various conferences, leads workshops and offers talks. Oppenheim has led workshops on relationships and creativity; one of her more unique workshops is titled “Art and the Mother’s Face.” She is a founding member of the Adoption Circle, a group of psychoanalysts, dedicated to writing, lecturing and leading workshops based on their personal and professional experience with adoption. Inspired by the work of this group, Josie wrote her award winning article “The Magic of Adoption,” to be published in the journal Modern Psychoanalysis this winter. (“It takes a village to write a paper,” Oppenheim said when accepting the award in photo at left).

Last month Oppenheim presented her paper “The Analyst Dreams: Joan of Arc Meets Andre Gregory” at the Center for Modern Psychoanalytic Studies, a psychoanalytic institute in Greenwich Village, as part of a series of lectures on psychoanalysis and the arts open to the general public (www.cmps.edu). Oppenheim tells of a dream she had in which Andre Gregory, the avant-garde theater director, directs Joan of Arc who is unhappy with her costume. Gregory, infinitely sensitive, allows Joan to discard her costume. Oppenheim’s approach to her dream is the crux of the presentation: instead of interpreting it as a psychoanalyst would, she adventures into action—she delves into intense research about Joan of Arc (a psychotic or a visionary? Are they mutually exclusive?), associates from Mark Twain to Native American rituals, psychoanalysis, the unconscious, and the arts, and ultimately ends up sharing a cab with Gregory on her way downtown from one of his plays. Oppenheim’s presentation is a lot like a psychoanalytic hour: at times gripping, at others meandering, following associations and intense feeling, always richly layered in meaning, all along fueled by the force of the unconscious.

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Having been a painter, an actress, a theater director and a writer, her journey is one of finding one’s voice and striking the right balance between intellect and creativity. Born in Hollywood, Oppenheim’s mother was an actress and her father an entertainment lawyer. After a few years in Paris, the family moved to New York City’s Upper West Side where Oppenheim lived throughout her childhood until she left home as a young adult and moved downtown. The strong creative tradition of her family inspired the life of an artist, her art of choice painting. “I worked very seriously for a very long time,” she says.

Eventually Oppenheim found the non-verbal aspect of painting frustrating. She studied in her aunt’s school and fell in love with acting. “I was too intellectual for acting, but directing suited me.” Oppenheim became the director of her aunt Stella’s school theater and later became interested in writing. She worked in the media department of Bank Street and became the editor for the collaboration between Bank Street and the magazine Good Housekeeping on the topic of child development.

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Eventually she tired of writing other people’s words—as a journalist her job was to interview the expert and write his or her idea—and wished to express her own thoughts and ideas. During that period there was a particular wish in the forefront of her mind: “My fantasy was to be like Chekhov, an artist and a scientist.” Someone told her about the Center for Modern Psychoanalysis. Within days she attended an open house and shortly thereafter embarked on her psychoanalytic studies. “I immediately felt that it was a place where I would be understood,” she recalls.

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“Psychoanalysis gave me a lens by which to filter my ideas, with an infinitely fluid context,” Oppenheim says. Throughout her many years in the arts the idea of the unconscious always fascinated her. “Being close to the unconscious is a life preserving act, it keeps one’s vitality.” She likens the unconscious to an iceberg, so much of life is hidden, but the important thing is to be aware and connected with those hidden parts; it is a momentous part of life for reasons we cannot fully understand, and art keeps that connection. It is connection to those parts in other people that Oppenheim loves about her work with patients, the experience of feeling joined with another person. “I am really fascinated by people’s lives and I love the opportunity to be in someone’s primary process, the process of the unconscious,” she says. “I feel this is always what happens when people connect.”

Woman Around Town’s Six Questions

Favorite Place to Eat: On the couch.
Favorite Place to Shop: Below 14th street
Favorite New York Sight: Any view from inside a taxi
Favorite New York Moment: Getting business cards at Stevedan, my longtime neighborhood stationers on Sixth Avenue. After bringing in my tentative layout, it took me three years to consider their suggestions and make a final decision about the design. When the cards came back there were a lot of hilarious jibes back and forth about why it took so long. The twenty minutes of fun was well worth the three-year’s wait.
What You Love About New York: Being in New York is like traveling all the time. You are always exposed to different ways of life and different philosophical views. And there is a kind of openness to everyone you meet, a slight, intoxicating disinhibition which one usually experiences only when traveling but which seems to be always operative in native New Yorkers.
What You Hate About New York: Neighborhoods compromised by corporate expansion.

Josie Oppenheim can be reached at josiop@earthlink.net. For upcoming presentations visit her website at www.josieoppenheim.com

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