• Bert Pepper

Purple Lips

Lessons in Folie à Deux

Posted Oct 03, 2020 on Psychology Today


It pleases me that my son has a portrait of me hanging in his home. It is a fair likeness, except for the fact that in the portrait, my lips are a brilliant purple. There’s a mental health story behind that shocking shade.


Many years ago, when my friend David and I were medical students at New York University, we were overworked, stressed and feeling down.  David wished that he, too, had studied the violin, as I had. He had listened to me play chamber music with friends, stress-free for that gifted hour.


One day David was crossing 8th Avenue when a middle-aged man on a bicycle stopped for the traffic light. There was a violin strapped to his bike rack. On impulse, David asked if he gave violin lessons. The man said yes, and David arranged to be his student in the man’s Upper West Side Manhattan apartment. A month later I, too, became his student. I had not had a good teacher in years. We serious amateur musicians, like professionals, are always happy to find a new teacher who can add something more to our playing.


The man turned out to be the most talented, skillful violinist I had ever heard. He played in the first violin section of New York City’s most prestigious symphony orchestras. As impressive as that was, his talent was so great that I wondered why he was not a concert artist, a symphonic soloist, a recitalist. His tone was magnificent. His interpretations of the classics were brilliant, innovative, daring, and delightful. His technique was astonishing. For example, he once handed me a book of the Paganini Caprices, some of the most difficult works ever written for the violin. Following his instructions, I opened it at random and handed it back. He proceeded to turn the book upside down, placed it on the music stand, and sight-read the page, at full speed, without a stumble!


The reason for his relatively limited success turned out to be his wife. She was an artist who painted in oil but had never sold a painting. She rarely left their apartment; to her, the world was a very dangerous place. She never traveled by bus, subway, taxi, airplane, or any other form of public transportation. She sometimes rode a bicycle around Manhattan, and occasionally might ride in a friend’s car. That was it. She applied the same restrictions to her husband when he was in New York City, which was why he was riding a bike to a rehearsal when David met him. But there was an exception.


The violinist supported his wife and himself by his job in the orchestra, and the orchestra traveled. That meant that he must fly to Japan for a tour or fly to London for a week of concerts—none of this was by bicycle. But when he was in New York City he would not board a bus. I wondered if that was his decision or his wife’s decision.


In the course of my studies with the violinist it became clear that he and his wife shared a folie à deux; a “madness of two.” They had married young. He had studied violin in Europe, was an outstanding student, and came to America to seek his fortune as a virtuoso soloist. His brilliant playing quickly won him his orchestra job, which was intended to be temporary, while he honed his skills, acquired an agent, and traveled the world as a marvelous soloist. But none of those things ever happened.


His wife did not do well in New York City. French was her native language and she did not speak English easily. She made no friends, feared people, places, and things, and only felt safe in her apartment. Even there, she worried about people breaking in. There were many locks on the door. People were dangerous. Many foods could be dangerous; that’s why they could not eat in a restaurant or in anyone else’s home.


Her fears were so beyond normal that I considered her paranoid and delusional. She had detached herself and her husband from everyone else’s reality. She saw no problem in my taking public transportation, but she feared that if she or her husband got into a taxi they would very likely be abducted and then … who knew what? The violinist shared her fears, and thus the marriage was maintained.


She spoke readily about the dangers on the other side of her door, and often asked her husband to confirm them. He did so, but never added more than his agreement. That convinced that she was mentally ill, and he had entered into, or at least accepted her delusional system. She could only function in the confines of their apartment, and her total social network was their marriage. It seemed to me that he went along with her in order to maintain the marriage. When he was away from her, he functioned very well in the orchestra, and had no problem traveling by whatever means of transportation was necessary. My curiosity was never fully satisfied: as a student, and a young man half his age, I did not feel comfortable asking him probing questions.


The longer I knew them, the friendlier the wife became toward me. David and I were her husband’s only students, and no one else came to the apartment. I listened to the two of them politely and enjoyed my lessons, which often went on for two hours. Part of that time I acted as a home handyman, since the violinist avoided using tools, for fear of hurting his hands.

The violinist was also an artist. Like his wife, he painted in oils. One day he announced that the orchestra had invited submissions for their annual show, “Art by Musicians.” He wanted to paint me and submit my portrait to the show. I agreed. He turned out to be a quick, deft painter. His style was realistic, with a touch of impressionism. As he worked, his wife painted by his side, working on a vase of flowers, silently watching his every stroke.


After an hour and a half my portrait was 70% done. The violinist paused to refresh his palette.  He squeezed out two or three appropriate colors, and then a glob of violent purple paint. His wife went ballistic. She screamed at him for being wasteful: “That purple is my most expensive paint. It has no place in the portrait you are doing. You never think ahead before you do things. How could you do such a thing! What are you going to do now?”


The verbal attack caught the violinist by surprise, but he made a quick recovery. Using a palette knife, he picked up the purple paint and turned it into my mouth.


David and the violinist did not make a good student-teacher combination. David was a beginner who needed someone with great patience: it takes a long time and much practice to learn to draw the bow across the string without making a painful scraping sound. But the violinist was eager to teach advanced technique. David also found the atmosphere of the apartment oppressive. After several months he left.


I had a lesson every month, which was as often as medical studies allowed. They continued for a little more than two years, by which time the violinist had taught me a great deal. The lessons ended amicably when I noticed that I was spending more time doing home repairs than perfecting my violin skills. Thus concluded my first-hand study of folie à deux.


But, back to the painting. It was exhibited at the symphony art show, and afterward given to me as a gift. Some years later my son made the mistake of admiring it, so it now hangs in his home.

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