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Remembering Jeremy

The Dedication of the Safran Reading Room at NSSR

Below are reflections on the dedication ceremony held last week in honor of Jeremy D. Safran and the The Safran Reading Room created in his memory. Click here to read the introductory comments of Howard Steele

One week ago, on Wednesday December 5th, the Safran Reading Room was dedicated in honor of the prolific life and legacy of Jeremy D. Safran. Housed on the 6th floor of 80 Fifth Avenue amid the clinical psychology offices and labs, the Safran Reading Room was made possible by the tremendous donation by Jenny Hunter of much of Jeremy’s extensive library, and by the efforts of students and faculty who saw this project from concept to completion.

Howard Steele, co-chair of the clinical psychology faculty and co-founder with Miriam Steele of the New School Center for Attachment Research, as well as cousin to Jeremy, opened the ceremony with comments celebrating Jeremy’s commitments, quirks, and era-defining impact on the clinical psychology department. Howard toasted to Jeremy’s voracious appetite for books and learning; his love of family, friends, and conversation over wine; and the indelible stamp Jeremy has made on the journey of so many clinical psychology trainees. Most touching for me personally was Howard’s suggestion that we are in a period of ‘post traumatic growth.’ Those words, and the unwavering voice in which he delivered them, reminded me of the Steeles’ unique challenge in the wake of Jeremy’s death.

As both colleagues and close family to Jeremy, as well as leaders in our department, the Steeles have held, in word and deed, the poles of pain and possibility over which the tenderness of grief is stretched. They, in concert with other faculty and the NSSR Dean’s Office, orchestrated a beautiful memorial in June this year just 6 weeks after Jeremy’s passing. Additionally, NSSR has initiated the Jeremy D. Safran Fellowship to provide improved funding to graduate students, while the clinical faculty are working to rename the New School Psychotherapy Research Program the Safran Center for Psychological Services. A number of other projects are in development to honor Jeremy’s memory, including the inaugural annual Safran Memorial Lecture planned for May 2019. While the efforts have been department- and university-wide, the Steeles in particular have been drivers of meaning-making for the community in these months since Jeremy’s passing, and a source of healing momentum in the midst of our shared suffering.

In fact, each member of our department has found ways to transmute traumatic grief into meaning for the good of our community; each has offered us their time, their hearts, and their energies, while they themselves were in the thick of loss. Trisha Toelstedt, who worked so closely with Jeremy to make our department ‘tick’, did so by offering her talents in interior design to the composition of the Reading Room. She spoke after Howard, sharing the aspects of Jeremy’s personality that drew her to each of the elements of the room. She invoked Jeremy’s warmth, remembered in hue of the acacia and cherry wood bookcases; his openness, represented by their style, allowing the books to be seen all the way down the hall; and his humor, in the image of him smiling widely with puppets of Sigmund Freud on one hand and the Buddha on the other, invoking the twain strands of his intellectual legacy.

She gestured next to the soft but deep blue chosen for the walls, a compromise of sorts, a hue selected because the navy that everyone agreed was most suitable (per Jeremy’s daily “ensemble”) simply would not suit the bright avocado of our hallways. She honored the incredible gift of the full 24 volumes of the Complete Standard Edition of the Psychological Works of Freud, lofted at the highest point in the room, on top of which now sits a single candle to be lit each day in Jeremy’s memory, glowing a warm and gentle presence as was his. She pointed to the chairs, deep and comfortable, selected in homage to those we knew so well in Jeremy’s office — inviting but oh-so-difficult to hoist oneself out of — and explained her choice to position them toward the center of the room, harkening community and shared space. In the middle of the room, she located a two-person desk to create a centerpiece of student work, much as Jeremy placed students at the center of his many commitments.

Trisha’s closeness with Jeremy was palpable, as was the devotion with which she approached the task of rendering a special space in his memory. She spoke with gratitude of the many people who made the room come to life, notably Jerzy Kaufman, a first-year doctoral student, who dedicated hours upon hours of his summer to meticulously cataloguing books, title by title, and transferring them to the reading room in the precise order Jeremy had kept them on his own bookshelves. Jerzy, along with Joshua Maserow and Greg Weil, also organized groups of students to schlep boxes of books – fifty to be exact – from Jeremy’s home collection to their new home in the reading room.

For those of us moved by grief to distance ourselves from the department and from reminders of Jeremy in the early months – and I was one such person — there is a special sense of indebtedness to those who courageously remained absorbed in the artefacts of his life to perform this labor of love. It seems to me an act of steadfastness and generosity, and I could not have done it.

Next, students of Jeremy’s came forward with reflections. Madeleine Miller-Bottome, who had worked with Jeremy at the Brief Psychotherapy Research Project since the day she completed her undergraduate studies in 2012, remembered with humor and tenderness Jeremy’ ease and humility, the openness with which he shared his own experience in order to calm the anxieties of young trainees. She reminded us that what Jeremy wanted most was to liberate budding clinicians to use the fullness of their experience in clinical work, and he did this by being free in sharing himself with us.

Alexandra Shaker, another student of Jeremy’s who dedicated many years to administering his research program, spoke of his broadmindedness, recalling how he never forgot the context of the work we were doing and always called on students to stay aware of the world beyond the consulting room. Though he had a great many commitments, he was especially keyed in to how socioeconomic realities constrained graduate student work, and he was tireless in advocating for improved funding for students in our department. Jeremy never pretended to know what he didn’t, but he knew what mattered, so he fought tooth and nail (“insisted,” in the words of Bill Hirst) to bring scholars to our department who engaged critical research agendas that he felt were pressing for creating a changed world, as Lisa Rubin, critical feminist psychologist and co-chair of Gender and Sexuality Studies, wrote in a letter to our department after Jeremy’s passing.

And it was Bill Hirst – recalling his recruitment interview with Jeremy in the early days of the ‘90s — who spoke of the fire that ran through all of Jeremy’s pursuits, from the way he burned through books of all disciplines to the way his sprawling intellect and curiosity made conversations dance to the way he re-built the psychology department from a struggling, slouching, hardly-accredited program to a well-defined, highly-regarded clinical training center. Bill endearingly acknowledged his long-standing habit of intellectual sparring with Jeremy, belying an admiration for Jeremy’s grit and tenacity in moving all he wished to see moved, and refusing to budge or back down in the face of challenge when he had something in mind that he thought was good for the department.

And doubtless Jeremy had so much more in mind for the future of our program and indeed for the profession. In smaller conversations, as we shared anecdotes of our time with Jeremy, traded the idiosyncrasies of our grief, and stood witness to each other’s tears, conversation turned to what to make of his legacy in our own work. I think all of us, no matter where we stood in relation to Jeremy, are inspired to be more open, to be more truthful, to be more gentle and yet no less fierce, and to welcome the challenges of relationships — especially, to be bold in the face of what they call forth from us that we had not yet encountered in ourselves. I think this is something of what Howard evoked with the notion of ‘post traumatic growth.’

And finally, in true Jeremy fashion, let us not forget to always respond immediately to emails, with gusto, gratitude, and a happyface emoji.

To donate to the Jeremy D. Safran Fellowship, please click here.

Ali Shames-Dawson is a former student of Jeremy Safran, a contributing editor at Public Seminar, and a 3rd year doctoral student in clinical psychology.

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