Hospice is a ten song, 52-minute story of a hospice worker who falls in love with his patient, a victim of terminal bone cancer. Musically and lyrically, it is a work of art. The album, although an allegory for the author Peter Silberman’s abusive relationship, is still ripe with potential for psychoanalysis in the story itself.
In my criticism, I will focus on the character Sylvia rather than a specific song, since the album tells her story. I will not be analyzing the characters in the text, and not their metaphoric purpose, because the characters of the text are more fruitful for this exercise.
We have two main characters in this tragic story: the Hospice Worker–a male nurse who I will call the Singer–and the patient he falls in love with, Sylvia. Sylvia has had cancer since she was a little girl, and the following image (from the album’s digital booklet) is the best preface for her story that I could offer.
Her psychological issues transcend that of a typical cancer patient. Just from this small preface, we can see that she suffers from nightmares and delusions, and an ambiguous darkness that follows her like a shadow. When she “fell crossing that street,” her sense of reality became intertwined with the demons she faced in her head. She saw ghosts, like the bald boy who died in the ward, and for a better part of her life couldn’t escape them. Furthermore, we can conclude that Sylvia’s parents were abusive in one way or another. From track 7, “Two”:
“Daddy was an asshole, and he fucked you up; built the gears inside your head and now he greases them up. And no one paid attention when you just stopped eating.”
Sylvia is physically self-deprecating; in track 3, “Sylvia,” we see that she has tried to kill herself by sticking her head in the oven (certainly an allusion to Sylvia Plath). The Singer stops her, and then implores that she go back to “screaming and cursing,” that she “remind [him] again how everyone betrayed [her].” He would rather take that than her death.
We are not given background information on the Singer, but rather become aware of his character through his narration. He is in love, if you can call it that, for it is no doubt a corrupted form of love. Love implies some sort of reciprocity. Maybe more of a vacuous adoration, one which leaves him wanting more after every wound. The Singer’s professional job, which is to care for Sylvia, becomes his personal job. However, what he does for Sylvia is never enough to satisfy her; she is always left bitter. The two marry, and the rings become a symbol of bondage. From track 4, “Atrophy”:
“With the bite of the teeth of that ring on my finger, I’m bound to your bedside, your eulogy singer.”
Psychoanalytically, what does this mean? Let’s start with Sylvia. The first thing to note is that Sylvia’s childhood development stages were severely impaired. Her father, who she tried to love during the Oedipal stage, was abusive. This could mean that she generally displaces her anger and hate onto other people who attempt to love her, i.e., the Singer. Sylvia also suffers from terrible nightmares, which, according to Freudian psychoanalytic theory, are in some way the results of repressed memories. Track 7, “Two,” indicates where those repressed memories might come from:
“You had another dream, it was more like a nightmare. You were just a little kid and they cut your hair. They stuck you in machines, you came so close to dying. They should have listened, they thought that you were lying.”
In this particular dream, it seems that the latent content and the manifest content are one in the same. She has nightmares that harken back to the days when she was plunged into grand and frightening machines as a young girl. Sylvia’s nightmares are so prevalent that I would say she has trouble disassociating them from reality, and becomes unable to control her repression of these memories. This is what Freud calls the “crisis.”
Finally, Sylvia was also exposed to the concept of death at a young age. A child who becomes aware of their own mortality before the teen years certainly is liable to develop a very potent thanatos, or “death drive.” From sticking her head in the over to other forms of self-deprecation and injury, Sylvia does her fair share of death work. However, this could be a vehicle of repression, which would explain the nightmares full of demons and visions of ghosts that possibly represent her repressed fear of death, which is more imminent and real for her than we can imagine.
This somber tale of impossible love is, although depressing, beautifully written and unbearably cathartic. Sylvia is a tragic character, and a productive case study for psychoanalysis. The Singer could be as well–but that will have to wait for another day.