If “Story of My Life” is any indication, it’s that if you want something done, do it yourself and own up to what’s yours instead of trying to ignore the problem right in front of you. Bill and Virginia see their problems put on display, but mostly through other people around them.
By episode’s end, characters confront their own insecurities that they long thought had been buried or neglected. Their arcs progressed in a well done, character driven episode.
The episode begins with Virginia finishing her sad tale to Dr. Madden. She’s unsure how to progress, so what should she do? She doesn’t want to dwell on it. Dr. Madden finds it interesting that “Barbara” didn’t show any sort of rage or sadness when sharing something very hard to speak about. Were there tears when it happened? Virginia tells the doctor that she told a friend, prompting Madden to say that maybe she’s reliving the experience because she wants a different outcome. What’s the best way to rewrite it? Telling her brother to stop by finding her voice.
In the next scene, the Masters clan enjoys dinner. While the ladies clear the table, Francis turns down any offers of alcohol while also remarking on Bill’s impressive home. He thinks their mother is a bit tight right now, but Bill says that she’s just happy. When it’s time for dessert, Bill can’t stick around because he left some files in his office over the weekend and he needs to prepare for an early patient tomorrow morning. Francis offers to come with Bill, but no dice.
Next up, at the Chancery Park Plaza Hotel, Virginia arrives at the room and comments on the many women in tiaras and sashes downstairs. Turns out it’s the Miss Buoy of St. Louey Pageant! Virginia was once a runner-up only because the winner looked like Veronica Lake. Maybe that was part of the criteria. Besides, Virginia only did it because her mother forced her to sign up. She should have said ‘no’ louder. Both Bill and Virginia are eager to go down on each other, but Bill would prefer he take the lead for obvious reasons. He just enjoys seeing her enjoy herself. Well, Virginia is in the mood for a change of pace and tells Bill to lie on the bed. Ultimately, Bill stops Virginia under the guise that he just came from Libby, prompting Virginia to ask if she always plays second fiddle to Libby. Either way, rain check.
The next day, Betty introduces Bill to her prostitute friend, Kitty, played by Erin Cummings, who is here to help Lester get his rocks off. Kitty, as we learn, is imaginative and flexible. Whether blowjob or handjob, she can do whatever it takes to get the job done. Impotence, as Betty says, is a working girl’s bread and butter.
When Bill brings the opportunity up to Lester, the cameraman is hesitant. He’s always been on the other side of the action and maintained professional objectivity. However, as Bill tells him, this will give him a chance to participate in the work as a subject. They’re only going with a prostitute because that will eliminate the question of a partner’s sexual competence. In a controlled experiment, there can only be one variable and a woman like Kitty has seen guys like Lester before. Bill tells Lester that this is his chance to be a pioneer, just like Wilbur Wright. Given Lester’s background in film, I thought Bill would go with a pioneering director like D.W. Griffith, but fine.
At the C.O.R.E. office, Libby answers questions from Marcus, played by Sterling Brown, about her recollection of the incident she witnessed. What made her look up? Had she seen anything like that before? And before Libby gets on board, Marcus wants her to be sure that she knows what’s at stake. After all, stories can change, but they can change for the better if Libby suddenly remembered that the first three numbers of the truck’s license plate are 2-8-9. Police have a better time believing someone with her eyes. Well, they have a better time believing someone with her skin, too.
As Lester prepares the camera for the upcoming session, Virginia tells him to not record anything because the patient in question suffers from vaginismus. It’s too soon to have the work documented.
So Bill and Virginia get Barbara prepped for the procedure. Right now, she has a loss of control over the muscles of the perineum and outer third of the vagina. She contracts spastically in response to entry or even the mere suggestion of it. When asked if she’s been penetrated before and if she had any difficulty, Barbara responds that she has before, and there was a little blood with it. After the first time, the pain lessened, but the intercourse stopped. She tried picking it up later with her fiancé, Gil, but it was if she was closed for risky business. Bill sets out to help her understand how her body responds. Her muscles constrict to stop penetration. Therefore, he will insert a dilator into her vagina, but he’ll do it slowly and with lube. Once inside, Barbara should clench around it, but without the back and forth that comes with normal intercourse. Soon, the muscles will relax. Good thing they aren’t doing this with Ulysses. But it’s no good. Barbara’s emotions get the better of her and she needs a few minutes to mentally prepare.
This gives Virginia and Bill a chance to have a sidebar conversation. Bill acknowledges that they’re only solving half of the issue, but all patients with dysfunctions would naturally show distress that brought them there in the first place. It’s hard, but they can’t turn away when they have the means to treat the physical symptoms. But Virginia says that Barbara isn’t psychologically prepared for intercourse. This prompts Bill to question why Virginia is behind the belief that an emotional breakthrough will relieve the patient of their physical problems. What they offer now is practical treatment. Anything else is out of their depth.
Back at the C.O.R.E. office, Libby admits to Robert that she can’t think of the last time something she said mattered so much. Robert’s a bit more pessimistic and doesn’t think the perpetrators will get jail time. Libby doesn’t understand. She’s an upstanding citizen of society…and so humble, too. Robert does some role play and acts as if Libby is on the witness stand. He takes every opportunity to punch holes in her story: if she saw it happen, why didn’t she go to the authorities immediately? Libby is not a good liar, she admits, but at least she doesn’t have a criminal record! Libby, that dickish side of you is showing again. When Robert was young, he threw a brick through a plate glass window of a service station just to get a set of tiers just because he wanted to get them by taking something that didn’t belong to him. But when it comes to rights he should be entitled to that others say he can’t have, then he’ll find a way to get them, by any means. In short: thanks, but no thanks. She’s not needed.
As Barbara gets dressed, she thanks Virginia for being so patient, but also wonders if it’s right for her to try and fix herself. Virginia just figures that Barbara has trouble trusting people, particularly because the people close to her have let her down. So Virginia adapts Dr. Madden’s method and suggests that Barbara say now what she wanted to say back then. Luckily, Barbara still sees Paul, who now lives in Chesterfield.
At House Masters, Pauline has just put John to sleep. Wasn’t there a second kid? You know what? Never mind. Pauline asks Libby if Bill ever wanted a boy. He didn’t care as long as the baby was healthy. You can always tell if a man wants kids based on how he reacts around his friend’s kids. When it comes to Francis’ friends, however, Bill’s not expected to talk. And why is that?
Because Francis has brought Bill to a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. It’s Francis’ sober date, so he’s going to receive his chip and tell his story.
Meanwhile, Lester meets up with Kitty and likens her to Kitty at the Long Branch Saloon in Dodge City on Gunsmoke. Lester, stop talking. Oh, and Kitty also has the same hair color as his sister. Lester, seriously! Kitty suggests they have a normal conversation. For starters, what does Lester like? The French New Wave. Lester, talk about her! He at least likes her blouse. He can tell its silk without touching it. Lester’s heart is racing, which could be paroxysmal supraventricular tachycardia, which is what killed his father. He could drop dead, too! Lester, the way you’re striking out, that would probably be preferable. Luckily, Kitty is good at everything. She’ll diagnose Lester with her magic touch, even though, as Lester says, that would make medical school superfluous. He still wants to know where she studied. Lester!
Back at the A.A. meeting, Francis makes his chip disappear. Disappearing has always been his specialty. He used to do it as a child whenever trouble approached, mostly with his father. However, it got harder, so he found assistants in the form of drinks. Sobriety gave him some clarity. He realized that he had a great teacher when it came to learning the disappearing act: his father. His mother’s smile? Any semblance of fun? All gone when dad had his way. In the back, Bill leaves the meeting.
Virginia speaks with Dr. Madden for more insight on how to proceed after confronting her past. The doctor notes that “Barbara” is moving quite fast with the healing process. Is she feeling misunderstood? Or is she withholding truth due to fearing someone else’s judgment? There was one person, Virginia admits: her boss. Lillian always saw things in black and white, but the affair was a grey area. Madden suggests maybe she felt she’d been judged more harshly than deserved. However, she anticipated the judgment because she knew what Lillian’s objections would be. At the same time, Virginia admits that she never saw herself as a threat to Libby because she never wanted to marry Bill.
Pauline and Libby talk about their husbands, with Libby admitting that she met Bill when she worked as a medical secretary, but didn’t want to marry right away. Pauline, however, felt blinded by Francis’ charm, but that also kept her from seeing signs of his alcoholism, such as the mood swings, his impulsiveness and how he’d come home late at night. After Francis wound up in the emergency room, Pauline gave him an ultimatum: the bottle or her. No one ever expected Pauline to draw a line in the sand because she was always the go-along gal that didn’t want to make waves, but it felt good to do something that no one thought she was capable of. That’s awfully convenient for Libby to hear, if I’m honest.
At the office, Virginia lets Barbara know that Bill has no intention of going up in size today. However, Barbara has made her own progress: she talked to Paul in person. Sure, Virginia only meant to imagine the conversation, but Barbara and Paul regularly meet for dinner anyway, so why not? Paul didn’t deny that it happened, but he remembers one detail differently: this whole game was Barbara’s idea. It makes sense. If Paul had violated her, why would the two still be so close? Then it dawned on Barbara. Some triplets moved in across from them that summer. Paul would often go off to see them, but Barbara wanted him to stay, so she invented the game to keep him around. Now Barbara realizes that she may have been trying to absolve herself of responsibility for how her life turned out: unstable, alone and unable to love someone in a way that’s not shameful or dirty. What if she did this to herself?
Bill asks Lester about his night. It didn’t go well. In fact, Lester likens it to William Holden being found dead in a pool and telling a story at the same time, like in Sunset Boulevard. Lester felt disassociated from his body. Meanwhile, he doesn’t get why Bill is taking notes. Bill is able to rule out what didn’t work and what could be implemented next time, but Lester doesn’t want a next time. In fact, he doesn’t see this working by pairing a novice with an expert. You just need two equally matched people who know each other’s bodies. This would work better if the two are already a couple.
Downstairs, Libby spots Virginia at the same café. She tells her that she has trouble getting her courage. What she’d like is Virginia’s nerve, considering how she came into Maternity with no experience, but worked her way up. If she wants something, she just goes for it. Virginia, however, denies any of this as courage and does not want to be held up as an example.
Francis checks in with Betty on Pauline’s upcoming tubing, but Bill hurries him into his office before Betty realizes that Francis doesn’t go by Mason: the last name she’d been provided. Bill isn’t at all pleased about being brought to an A.A. meeting, but Francis thought it would be a good opportunity to reintroduce himself to Bill. He found the courage to tell his story. Bill is a bit too familiar with the story because he believes it’s what he went through, not Francis, who Bill believed to be the favorite. Bill admits that he never would have left if he thought Francis suffered the same abuse he went through. But now, they’ve both escaped. The truth allowed Francis to heal. Bill still believes the meeting was just a way for Francis to share insight. At the end of the day, Bill still left, but Francis doesn’t blame him anymore. He forgives him.
At the C.O.R.E. office, the Coloreds give the camera strange looks, so we know someone unexpected has arrived, and it is, indeed, Libby. She wants to volunteer her services, and the first thing Robert does is send her on a sandwich run. Gotta start somewhere, I guess.
Back at the Chancery Park Plaza Hotel, Bill isn’t drinking. Virginia is fuming. Does drinking relieve his conscience about what they’re doing to Libby? Bill isn’t in the mood to talk, but Virginia can’t believe it’s taken this long to talk about how the affair can and will hurt the people they love. Virginia still considers Libby a great friend and can’t think of a single bad thing to point out. But how does someone like Bill make this seem okay? Again, Bill isn’t in the mood for any self-examination. It just makes people miserable. The past is the past, so you grow up, move on and do the best you can. He never did this with the intent of hurting anyone. If that’s the case, Virginia counters, then Bill is a fool. She doesn’t stop there- she calls out the affair for what it is. After all, neither of them has noted their sessions in a long time. They can’t keep pretending that there’s a point to this beyond pleasure. Bill, echoing Lester’s comment, tells Virginia that dysfunction can’t be cured in an exam room. It requires individual conditions and pairing subjects that know each other’s bodies. It requires practical work, along with much trial and error. Virginia finally asks whose dysfunction they are treating. And Bill, after heavy prompting, tells her that they’re to help treat his own problem.
What a spot on episode title that really gets to the root of Bill and Virginia’s conflicts: the revelations and problems they face, but don’t confront are brought to the forefront through the lenses of other characters, mainly Lester and Barbara. It’s a nice way to juxtapose their problems against those who aren’t fully ready to come to terms with what’s wrong with them. In addition, they also realize that they must progress at their own speed instead of letting someone else dictate how they advance.
The episode had characters confronting their demons in different ways, similar to how the Cal-o-Metric spokesman who overate until he died. Bill and Virginia want to help and have good intentions, but neither is completely right: you can’t just solve everything with science and theories, but trying to cause an emotional breakthrough, especially when dealing with someone like Barbara, doesn’t help because that’s not their specialty. We own up to our pasts, as Bill said, by acknowledging it, but not by letting it always weigh us down, as Bill always does. Like Libby told him, clinging to the past won’t accomplish anything.
I think the best representation of confronting the past was the use of the A.A. meeting. Consider the first step: admitting you’re powerless over alcohol, that your life had become unmanageable. Among the various others, make a moral inventory of ourselves, admitting when we are wrong, making amends to people we harmed and, in the end, practicing all of these principles in all of our affairs. Pretty much all of these come into play this week.
And the moral inventory allowed for some great self-examination, with characters making choices or accepting decisions they otherwise wouldn’t because they’re not ready. We want to grow, but that’s harder when the world and people in it are watching and judging us. The final realization we arrive at may be awkward and uncomfortable, as Barbara learns, but it comes with recognizing our flaws instead of denying or burying. This led to some very confrontational scenes, but they were necessary for characters to confront what they’d brushed aside. All the science in the world can’t replace talking about your problems. This also helps us acknowledge our faults and where we stumbled instead of trying to absolve ourselves of responsibility. At times, we can be the architects of our own destruction, even if this means rewriting the past or disappearing to dull the pain.
Additionally, the characters tackled seemingly impossible tasks because they always felt they weren’t ready. It feels empowering to accomplish what we thought we were incapable of. Again, this can lead to uncomfortable situations and we won’t always be successful or rewarded, but it can be rewarding to do what we previously believed we could not.
Take Libby, for example. So more than having a shot at redemption, Libby has an opportunity to be a part of something where her voice is heard and she feels wanted. Again, I found it a bit convenient for Pauline to have a situation almost similar to Libby’s just around the time Libby needed some encouragement. She has an opportunity to make a small, but necessary difference to prove she’s not expendable. True, her word trumps that of a Negro’s, but she’ll still e questioned for being sympathetic to their plight. The scene with Robert confirmed what she already knew: she’s not a good liar. If anything, Libby often comes off as too timid and needs the occasional push so she’ll be more assertive.
I appreciate that she still looks up to Virginia as a model example of the confident woman, even if Virginia doesn’t believe it herself. Libby is rarely proactive. Most of the time, things happen around her and she will just react. In essence, she’s a bystander until she’s dragged into something. Now she’s forcing her way into this situation to show she can contribute to a cause where she will be of great use.
Oh, Lester. I really hope all of his sexual encounters didn’t play out the way his night with Kitty did. This isn’t out of character for him and I’d be expecting too much for him to become a smooth operator in one night through a prostitute he never wanted to bone. Still, though, I wish he was a bit more charming instead of awkward. I lost track of how many times I screamed “Lester” during the scene with Kitty. He is right, though: a novice paired with an expert won’t solve his issue. One must be more delicate. His suggestion of pairing two people who know each other’s bodies comes out of nowhere since I doubt he knows the ins and outs of the study as well as Bill and Virginia do. It felt more like a way to get Bill to understand his own issue.
To be fair, Lester has made progress. Last week, he opened up on the issue. Now, through force, he sees that a quick fix isn’t his solution. He’s thrust into a situation without being consulted, but knows what doesn’t work. And I like that he ultimately refused to film Barbara after seeing her in such a vulnerable state.
Which brings me to Barbara, since I suck at transitions. Here’s a tragic figure for you. So Barbara realizes that the pain and guilt she’s endured over the years may have been her own doing. Given how she originally didn’t remember all of the details the incestuous encounters, it’s not implausible that she’d try to rearrange the story. However, what she learns from Paul just damages her psyche even more. The scenes with Barbara and Virginia were awkward to watch, the way Barbara slowly realizes that the game may have been her idea, and this really shines in Brandt’s performance.
It’s clear that Barbara isn’t ready to come to terms with her past and she’s psychologically not ready for sex. She was, at the very least, proactive by seeking out Paul, even if that was a result of her misunderstanding Virginia’s advice. Honesty may be necessary when confronting our demons, but also awkward. Her self-examination takes her forward, but damages her even further than she already is.
Let’s move onto Virginia, who is finding it harder to help out than it already was. She’s more approachable than Bill and has good intentions to help Barbara’s traumatic past, but she’s stepping out of her own rage. Since she’s not versed in this treatment, she’s just cutting corners. This allowed her to confront her on insecurities and guilt that she’d been harboring not just over the affair, but by keeping it as a secret from Lillian. Side-note, I did appreciate Lillian being referenced after her death, even if it’s brief. Virginia’s story blending with Barbara’s help her recognize her feelings on the affair that she’d neglected, which allowed her to confront Bill about the damage the two were doing to Libby.
Before, Virginia was more prone to talking about her accomplishments, but now she’s more accepting of her flaws, such as not accepting Libby’s praise. She’s not taking part in the affair for the good of the study- it’s an affair. Like Barbara, Virginia has been trying to tell herself one thing while denying the truth in front of her.
Bill, however, is still in denial: on his past, the affair, on his attempts to Lester, the list goes on. Like Virginia, he means well. I’ve said it before- Bill and Virginia have what the other lacks: Bill has the scientific touch, but not the emotional. But at least he’s not holding the past over Francis’ head, as he did with Libby. He admits that he would have helped out, had he known that Francis also suffered the same awful childhood that he endured. The difference is that Bill still clings to the past, while Francis has been able to move on with his life.
And at least he puts Lester’s convenient words to good use by acknowledging that it takes a connection to cure a dysfunction. Admitting to Virginia that he had a dysfunction shows he’s accepting his own problem, but this wasn’t done on his own accord since it came as a result of an argument. Otherwise, I doubt he would have brought it up. And now, both realize that they can’t keep performing their sessions under the guise of doing it for the good of science.
The strength of “Story of My Life” came through the powerful performances by the actors as they battle their demons and realize that while they may be able to fix some problems, some are too complex and in some cases, the damage may be too deep to undo. Instead of imagining “What if,” all we can do is move forward. It may help to confront the past, but it won’t always be comfortable.