The Sunday Magazine

After a stroke, the decades-long relationship between a poet and her therapist enters a new chapter

Poet Molly Peacock saw the same therapist on and off for forty years. Then the therapist had a stroke — and Molly the patient became Molly the friend. Alisa Siegel's documentary is called "The Returner."
Molly Peacock (Alisa Siegel)

At 26, Molly Peacock was married and a successful university administrator. She seemed happy and on top of everything. 

But a harrowing childhood haunted her. And, secretly, she wanted to be a poet.

All of the poets I had seen or heard about were crazy, and they were drinkers. The last thing I waned to be was a crazy drinker, because my dad was a drinker. At that point, my sister was shooting heroin. What I wanted was to be normal. That was my deep, deep desire. But my world was breaking up because I realized I wanted to leave my perfectly lovely, nice-guy husband ... and I wanted to strike out and I wanted to write books and I wanted to walk off that cliff. And so I found myself knocking on the door of Joan Stein.- Molly Peacock

It was 1974. And so began a relationship that lasted almost four decades, off and on, across different cities and countries.

Joan Stein in 2004, before her stroke. (Provided by Molly Peacock)

Joan Stein was Molly's therapist and analyst. 

Molly went on to become a successful poet, essayist and biographer. 

Whenever she faced a crisis or felt unsteady, she called Joan, and Joan answered.

But in 2012, Joan had a stroke — and Molly the patient became Molly the friend.

Joan Stein and Molly Peacock in 2012. (Provided by Molly Peacock)

Joan Stein now lives in an assisted living facility in Seattle, Washington, and has returned to her artistic work as a painter. 

A painting by Joan Stein. (Provided by Molly Peacock)

Molly Peacock has just published a new book of poetry about Joan and the change in their decades-long relationship called The Analyst. You can read "Paid Love," a poem from the collection, below. 

Alisa Siegel's documentary is called "The Returner."

Joan Stein looks at The Analyst, a book of poetry Molly Peacock wrote about their decades-long relationship. (Provided by Molly Peacock)

Paid Love

Molly Peacock, from The Analyst, published by Biblioasis, March 2017

"But you paid her, didn't you?"

Certainly, I say. (Isn't love free?)

"But you paid her to listen for…"

One thousand two-hundred and ninety-four hours.

Say you were in an accident, say you

had to begin a series of procedures…

Some years you might feel fixed—

walking and running and swimming

—but if a part of you, your femur

or ulna, your cerebral reaction responses

your pelvis, your seventh facial nerve,

started to weaken or fray,

you'd have to go back to that office again

endure the surgery, then perform


the hours of post-op exercises.

And partly-healed injuries have

their own torque… Bones

(minds have bones) grow even

after they're operated on…

human growth as complicated

as every light-year to Aldebaran,

every hair on every bonobo,

every pistil of every aquilegia…

The analyst and I only understood a minim

of it all, a jot. Together

this became our joint art: my job

to feel my strength—to stretch and hurl

—hers to listen, question, watch things heal.


"But you paid her, didn't you?"

How that question endures.

Yes, because we live in an economy.

Because it didn't start out as love…

it started as watching,

one's sightings in the telescope

the other's findings from the microscope

both with a fascinated reverence

for how we're made. Somewhere, our meshed process

became love. "But it was paid love, wasn't it?"

Where else in life is the necessity for payment so clear?

You could call it making a living,

though now that it's over,

perhaps it's the pure unpaid love you mean.

Click 'play' above to hear the full documentary. 


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