At 99, psychoanalyst still has a lot on her schedule
Hedda Bolgar, in the garden at her Brentwood home, is a psychologist and psychoanalyst who still sees patients four days a week. (Brian Vander Brug / Los Angeles Times / September 10, 2008)
It's another full day for Hedda Bolgar, who sees patients four days a week, teaches on the fifth day, drives a Prius, is planning a trip to New Zealand, and needs to get through this interview before 5 p.m., when her personal trainer arrives.
"I was put on this Earth to accomplish certain things," says Bolgar, a psychologist and psychoanalyst. "I'm so far behind, I can never die."
Bolgar takes me to the office where she sees her patients. One of them is 88, another 84. Several of them are therapists themselves, and whatever burden they carry into this room -- the loss of a spouse, regret, guilt, fear of death -- Bolgar knows something about the experience.
"I've lived through revolutions, famine, war. Things like that," she tells me.
She delivers her lines as if reading from a great novel that makes poetry of history.
At age 5, for instance, while she was vacationing on the Baltic Sea, the Austrian archduke was assassinated:
"There was a war, and I had vanilla ice cream for lunch."
And later, after completing her PhD in Austria:
"I left Vienna the day Hitler came in."
And then on to Chicago for more training, then New York, where she got married, and finally to Los Angeles, where she has made her home since 1956.
I hadn't visited Bolgar to be analyzed, or at least I didn't think I had. But by the time I left, she'd gotten me to confess that I often feel harried. Maybe a Valium would help, I said. Better yet, she countered, maybe I should examine why I allow myself to get so bunched up. Her couch looked comfortable, but she told me she no longer takes new patients. She's afraid they'd come to rely on her, and, at close to 100, who knows how much longer she'll be in business?
The real reason for the visit was that I've been writing a lot lately about seriously ill members of my family, and others who have been forced to make peace with mortality. Who better to provide insight and uplift than a 99-year-old dynamo who says life has never been better than it is right now?
Bolgar says her parents, who were European journalists, told her that when she was in the womb, they discussed dream interpretations with a Swiss friend by the name of Carl Gustav Jung. They also told her that family tradition obligated her to address society's unmet needs.
"I started a lot of things at 65," says Bolgar. That was just one year after the death of her husband of 33 years, a political scientist.
Los Angeles needed better training for analysts, Bolgar thought, and too many people were unable to get treatment because of the high cost. So in the 1970s she founded the Wright Institute of Los Angeles, a nonprofit mental health training and service center, and co-founded the Los Angeles Institute and Society for Psychoanalytic Studies. In 1974, she started the Hedda Bolgar Psychotherapy Clinic, which still treats people who can't afford help elsewhere.
The secret to a long and healthy life, Bolgar says -- aside from lucky genes -- is to be a citizen of the world. In her case, that has meant things like joining antiwar and anti-nuke marches on Wilshire Boulevard (yes, she was there in the '60s), and hanging a "Let Truth Be the Prejudice" poster just inside her front door for all guests to see.
"You need to be invested. You have to care about what happens," she says, and her delicate fingers reach across a table for a business card from another group she works with: the Soldiers Project, which offers psychological counseling to soldiers and their families.