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From The Riddles of the Sphinx, which was published this month by HarperOne.

I was sixteen years old when a family friend gave me a copy of Dora, the case study of a teenage hysteric as diagnosed and described by her analyst, Sigmund Freud. At the time, I had been fasting for more than a year, and my eating disorder was something we spoke about freely, even as it went unspoken that I wouldn’t be having milk or sugar in my tea. As I understood it, he was giving me Dora as a gateway to self-understanding, if not exactly self-help. He was offering me a key to all self-mythologies, letting me in on the open secret of the unconscious—its enigma and its clues. Was my eating disorder just latter-day hysteria? Was I meant to identify with Dora, whose chronic cough, lethargy, and loss of speech were, as Freud analyzed them, evidence of her displaced sexual desire?

I wanted to believe that I could solve the riddle of my own illness—that I could be both patient and analyst—discovering its root causes and thinking my way to a cure. I thought I had a relevant skill set, which I was cross-training by solving and writing crossword puzzles every day. Like crosswords, Freudian psychoanalysis runs on word association and linguistic substitutions. Freud’s analysis of Dora’s second dream, in which she compared a darkened forest to a Secessionist painting of woodland nymphs, is instructive. The dream allowed Freud to draw out the double meaning of nymphae, signifying both mythological sprites and also, evidently, the labia minora. From Dora’s dream, Freud correctly deduced that she had been covertly reading an encyclopedia—perhaps especially its entries on sex and the body—and that she therefore knew the term’s taboo second meaning, however buried in her unconscious. From this he concluded that Dora wished to be vaginally penetrated, much as she had entered the forest in her dream.

Freud was inventing a new language—the language of the unconscious—but it operated according to the logic of the “old” one, as it was being elaborated in the field of modern linguistics during the same period. This new science established a general truth of usage: words don’t serve as proxies for real objects in the world, but as proxies for other words, gaining meaning only through these substitutions.The symbolic value of the word forest, then, is determined as much by its antonyms (not desert, not ocean), as it is by its synonyms (woods, thicket, jungle), all of which conjure figurative associations that inhere in the word’s meaning. Freud saw the unconscious as the realm of the unspeakable, and so the sexual fantasies it guarded could only be articulated by way of figurative proxies.

Crossword clues also play on such substitutions. A clue can be straightforward: three letters for “consume” (answer: EAT); or it can play on linguistic misdirection: three letters for “not fast” (answer: EAT). Although crossword clues may provide insight into the mechanisms of the unconscious, they are not, ultimately, written in its language. The average solver wouldn’t know what to make of six letters for “forest” (answer: VAGINA), but the potential for words to mean so much with so little context remains the puzzler’s—and the Freudian’s—great pleasure.

Histories of eating disorders often begin with anorexia mirabilis (the holy loss of appetite), a medieval phenomenon of fasting saints who subsisted on little more than the Eucharist. The medical term anorexia nervosa (starvation by the mind) was only identified much later, by the British physician William Gull in 1873. It was, however, a misnomer. Anorexia means “loss of appetite,” and despite what they report, anorexics are always hungry.

It wasn’t until early in the twentieth century that, following Freud’s discovery of the unconscious, anorexia began to be studied as a psychological mystery, not a religious miracle or somatic deficit. The “key” to solving the starving woman’s puzzle usually lay in the equation of food and sexuality. Two common solutions were the fear of pregnancy and the repressed desire for fellatio. The symbolic proxy wars of the unconscious play themselves out: “eating = being fertilized = pregnant = getting fat” (as Ellen West, an anorexic patient of Ludwig Binswanger, described her pattern of thought in 1919); needing to be force-fed = wanting to be orally penetrated (as the psychiatrist Ruth Moulton posited in 1942). At once too frigid and too promiscuous within the terms of early psychoanalysis, the anorexic woman’s appetites (or lack thereof) were a threat to the cultural order.

Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that the crossword puzzle became an object of cultural hysteria during the same period that anorexic women became a source of medical suspicion—and that crosswords came to invite a similar distrust as they stood in more broadly for women deemed inscrutable and ungovernable. After the first “word-cross” was published in 1913, newspapers and magazines in the Twenties and Thirties warned of a “crossword craze” afflicting the country’s minds. Hotels considered placing a dictionary next to the Bible in every room; baseball teams feared that America’s pastime would be usurped, the grid to replace the diamond.

In books, comics, and postcards from the time, the New Woman and the crossword puzzler were linked as flouters of Victorian gender conventions. Between 1924 and 1925, Judge magazine, a humor weekly, ran four covers illustrated with “Crossword Mamas,” stylish women puzzling over puzzles or seated coquettishly with a grid overlaying their image. the greatest puzzle of them all, reads the caption on the earliest of these illustrations. Like the analyst’s couch, the crossword became an unexpected site for disclosing and disciplining the drives of libido. “You naughty boy—it couldn’t be that word!” says a woman clutching her breast to a blushing man in a cartoon from 1925. By the twinned logics of the crossword craze and Freudian analysis, the woman is the puzzle, and the puzzle brings solvers closer to their desire.

What was the desire driving my anorexia? I wish I had written down my feelings at the time, but instead of journaling, I drafted little theories, gleaned from my copy of Penguin’s Freud Reader and my own mental gymnastics. Instead, I wrote crossword puzzles. I tried to understand my eating disorder as a physical manifestation of some latent desire, but I ultimately couldn’t find its source through wordplay and willpower alone. My body had become a walking sign of misery and righteousness, slow death and supremacy, self-erasure and self-display. I felt a melancholic disappointment in my inability to produce the key (some repressed trauma, some psychosexual dilemma) that I could use to solve, and presumably cure, myself. But this melancholy was offset by my suspicion—floating somewhere between consciousness and unconsciousness—that I didn’t want to be cured at all.

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March 2024

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