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New York, New York

The Talented Dr. Rosnick

At the New York State Psychiatric Institute, a darkened room of psychologists gaze upon Matt Damon—trying to decide when a bust is really a penis. Watching the analysis unfold.

On a thunderstruck evening in late May, a collection of the brightest lights in psychiatry gathered in a fifth-floor conference room at the New York State Psychiatric Institute on 168th Street to examine a famous psychopath. Of those present, most were psychiatrists in training at the Columbia Psychiatric Residency Program. Also in attendance were Dr. Ron Reider, the director of the residency program, and Dr. Lyle Rosnick, a member of the teaching faculty at the Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research. The psychopath himself was not in attendance, except as a play of light on a pull-down movie-screen.

His name was Tom Ripley, lead character in the 1999 film The Talented Mr. Ripley, based on the book by Patricia Highsmith. The book and film tell the story of a handsome but impoverished young man, Tom Ripley (Matt Damon), dispatched to Italy to retrieve a construction magnate’s wastrel son, Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law). As the film progresses, Tom grows enamored of Dickie’s glamorous lifestyle, murders him, and steals his identity. “Certainly the murderous side is not something we come across all the time,” said Eileen Kavanaugh, who organized the event. “Maybe at the attending level at Bellevue…”

A fourth-year resident, Kavanaugh is days away from completing her psychiatric training, and also, from the looks of it, giving birth. “I’m due on June 11,” she said, “but there’s talk I’ll be induced on Tuesday.” If you could overlook the whole murder thing, she said, Tom’s character type is actually quite common, particularly in a place like New York. “There is an anonymity to a city this size that lends itself a little more to being who you want to be, instead of necessarily who you are,” she explained.

With a hssst! Kavanaugh called the session to order. The film would be shown without interruption, but afterwards Dr. Rosnick, who had come prepared with flagged copies of The Double by Otto Rank and Without Conscience by Robert Hare, would offer a few remarks. Then all the lights but one flickered off, and a snake-like stillness stole over the room as 25 pairs of highly trained eyes fixed themselves to the screen.

Dr. Rosnick sat up front and just to one side, in what is commonly regarded as the worst seat in cinema, but the best in psychiatry—hovering, as it were, right over the patient’s shoulder. Throughout the film, he could be seen scribbling notes at particularly revealing moments, as when Ripley exclaims, “I always thought it would be better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody.” The impulse behind much of his note-taking, however—as when a passing remark about an icebox kept him bent over his notepad for a full minute—remained more obscure. As the film wore on, he seemed to arrive at a diagnosis, reaching less for his pen and more for his popcorn. By the time Tom bludgeoned Freddy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) with a bust of Hadrian, Rosnick could be seen quietly nodding in agreement.

“And ‘Peter Pan’ in Greek means ‘all-penis,’” he pointed out, “which J.M. Barry and his British public school education definitely knew.” A puckish man with a gleam in his eye and another gleam on the top of his head, Rosnick, exudes a squirmy exuberance, like a kid in the back seat. At 59, he’s been teaching at the Center for over 33 years. “Did you notice all the birds, sportsfans?” he said, when the film was done. “It’s no accident that the New York Times review called this the most Hitchcockian movie since Hitchcock. Especially the scene with the robe with the straight razor. Remember, it was a straight razor?” A psychiatrist of the giddily psychoanalytic bent, Rosnick seemed to find this especially telling. Ditto the clobbering of Freddy with the head of Hadrian. “We all know what a head is, right?” A titter from the audience gave the answer. “And the icebox, let’s not forget the icebox! We have to have an icebox in every movie about narcissism. Even though we don’t have an ice queen we have an ice box.” Then, with some relish, he quoted the line in question. “‘I’d like to fuck this ice box!’ Right? In case you missed it? In case you think a box is ever a box? All right? Or a train is ever a train? Oh, Patricia Highsmith liked trains… It had to happen on trains, lots of trains. Strangers on trains.

“For those of you who aren’t analytic,” Rosnick explained at one point, “and for whom this must seem even more perverted than I usually am, in the unconscious of a man it’s impossible to not experience being subjugated as homosexual penetration.”

With this out of the way, he went on to offer a little career advice. “Male psychology is a short story: how far can you pee? Now, it gets disguised subtly—How long is your white coat? How big is your grant? But don’t forget the fantasy underneath. Don’t forget it for a minute if you want that fellowship, okay?”

Following his remarks, Rosnick mingled with the residents, discussing his other favorite films. “I use Jack Nicholson to teach narcissism,” he said. “Carnal Knowledge. That’s a great one. Peter Pan’s good. Hook, Steven Spielberg.” Here he offered an interesting interpretation of the scene where Peter Pan slices off Hook’s hand. “And ‘Peter Pan’ in Greek means ‘all-penis,’“ he pointed out, ”which J.M. Barry and his British public school education definitely knew. Petros is the rock! As in ‘petrify?’”

When the session concluded, three somewhat dazed first-year residents emerged from the conference room and began making their way toward the hospital exit. “He’s great,” said one. “He’s entertaining,” said another, after a pause, “I don’t know if I understand enough to say that he’s great.” They came to a security door, where a third resident raised her badge to satisfy a hungry camera lens. “He definitely has things to say that I wouldn’t think of,” she said, leaning on the stiff release bar. “Like all the penis things?” said the first resident. “I couldn’t believe how much, just, ‘penis’ everything.” The second resident concurred. “It was basically four pages of, like, ‘therefore penis, therefore penis.’“ “Yeah, it was like, well, wasn’t there anything else?” Having arrived at the hospital lobby they pushed through the final door and emerged onto the street. Outside, the thundershower had passed, but the streetlights left hard shadows on the wet asphalt.