Anna O.

Ricardo Lísias

Artwork by Ifada Nisa


It’s not entirely fair to say that getting his Ph.D. released him from insomnia. He would still take a long time to fall asleep; occasionally he would spend full nights awake. If he had a serious commitment the next day (university classes, a famous patient, or his son’s birthday), he would close his eyes, pray three times to Our Father, and begin an exercise that he had learned a few years ago to treat a crazy patient. If you suffer from insomnia yourself, try it: close your eyes and imagine that you’re in a lush green field. Order your feet to fall asleep, dumb as it sounds. Then, ask your knees and thighs to go to sleep too, then your hips, your stomach, and finally the rest of your body. If you’re not completely out after half an hour of this pathetic ritual, give up, it’s not going to work. That’s when he got out of bed, walked silently to the kitchen shedding his clothes on the way, picked up a book, tried to read a few pages, closed it out of fear and boredom, admired the subtle blue cover, went back to bed, at which point he would invariably start wondering if his wife was embarrassed to admit that she was married to him.



Bullshit. She could not be more proud of her husband’s distinguished position in medicine. It’s true that his decision to enter psychiatry had scared her a bit. What had changed in the mind of the strong, athletic student who’d spent the first three years of med school hoping to become the doctor for the national volleyball team?

Tired, so tired. Even so, he went to see his former advisor with confidence. M.E. knew well what his best student wanted. When they shook hands, even he couldn’t help but smile, feeling the same quiver that he had felt on the day of his student’s thesis defense (which he passed with distinction and honor, as well as enthusiastic recommendations for publication). The student had argued that the pain that Ms. Elizabeth von R. felt in her legs and the difficulties she had with walking were not necessarily caused by hysteria. The result was a widely discussed book, premature fame in psychiatric circles, and a slew of interviews. But what about Anna O.?

M.E., still smiling, looked at his former student and made it clear that if he needed to cry, they could act as though it were the night before the thesis defense, nothing more.



The former advisor silently registered the different ways in which the hallway of faculty offices had changed since his retirement. He let his eyes pass slowly over the plaques on each door and noticed a fad with recent hires: the word “Doctor” was slapped in front of their names. Finally, the two of them, the old psychiatrist and his best student—at the moment considered one of the most distinguished specialists in the country—walked into the lounge and, still silent, poured coffee from a thermos. Before adding sugar, the former student scanned the room for hidden wires: in the vase, in the trash can, and even inside the thermos. Inside the thermos? Yes, tired people will stop at nothing.

To break the ice, M.E. decided to ask about the profile of Elizabeth von R.’s brother-in-law—after all these years, was he finally done with it? And what about Anna O.? The student shook his head even as he rallied his energies to discuss the old article. Silence is exhaustion’s worst enemy.

And what about shame? The psychiatrist made out someone moving behind his advisor—a student, a spy, Anna O.?—and, jumping up, threw himself on the punk. He must have been dreaming, since it concerned photocopies. Students just love course packets, the spies. Discerning exactly what was going on, M.E. smiled again and placed his right hand on the shoulder of his tired student, telling him to stay calm.

Distinction and honor.



That afternoon, the psychiatrist consulted his schedule for the following day and asked his secretary to cancel the two interviews (he wouldn’t speak to the press). He let her know that he would be staying in to do some research until early evening. He wanted to get home in time for his son’s neighborhood basketball game. Did the boy feel ashamed of his father?

He tried to read a bit, but exhaustion jumbled the sentences and blocked his focus. He ran his eyes over book spines until he found the volume with the deep blue cover, the one discussing the social convenience of the term “insanity.” But he still couldn’t bring himself to reread the article on politics and mental health. When he tried to focus his eyes on a photo of a Chinese asylum, which was really a concentration camp for political dissidents, he thought back to the marches to close down mental hospitals that he had so passionately participated in as a teenager.

He had been twenty years old in May 1968.



Running very late, he got to the court right when one of the boys made an impressive basket. He spotted his son a bit further back. His kid was the point guard, a strategist responsible for coming up with plays and assisting the team’s offense. Waving, his son gestured to where his girlfriend was sitting. The two of them had always gotten along, the three of them.

Just as he was making his way to his seat, the doctor saw a different athlete fall down hard, and he ran onto the court to attend to the injured player. He pressed down on the twisted ankle, keeping it in the correct position and reassuring the boy that it was nothing. Full of pride, his son looked on; the doctor could see the boy gesturing to his girlfriend.

My god, the pain.

He spread ointment on the boy’s leg and recommended that he be benched for two days. That game, no way could he be on the court. There were just over thirty seconds left anyway.

While his son changed in the locker room, the doctor invited the girlfriend to grab a snack with them before going home. Almost the whole team tagged along. The kids loved spending time with the doctor. Back home, they would talk about what he had said and explain that, beyond what he did with his patients, the psychiatrist also treated their scrapes and sprains during basketball games. Kids these days don’t read the paper. The boy with the twisted ankle made it a point to hang out with them. Just for a bit, tio.

This was good: he hadn’t been able to distract himself since the news broke that he would be responsible for the evaluation. Still, he was almost positive that someone in the parking lot was following them. A car flashed its headlights at him and at his son. Sons of bitches. Leave it be, Dad.

What really surprised the son was when his father asked him for his opinions on the world. On the whole world?



When the phone rang, the psychiatrist realized he still hadn’t managed to fall asleep. Still in bed, he squinted to make out the time and swore under his breath. His wife must have heard something, because she grumbled and turned under the comforter. She didn’t feel like holding her husband’s arm. If she had, maybe she would have woken up, worried to find him swearing in the living room at the idiot making weird sounds on the other end of the call. Quiet nights are for the ignorant. After slamming down the phone (and not caring about the noise he made), going to the kitchen, opening the fridge, grabbing a bottle of water that clinked as it bumped against the glass pitcher beside it, he took long gulps without tasting anything. Was water supposed to taste of anything? Hate and fear suddenly displaced his anger—it was fear that drew him finally to his son’s room, where he came upon the girlfriend sleeping beside his son. He did a double take. Hadn’t she gone home after leaving the snack bar?

He rubbed his eyes, unsure if she was really there. The girl startled awake, scared, then turned her beautiful green eyes towards him, the father.

The psychiatrist, the father, closed the door, still unsettled by the girl’s beauty, and sat down on the couch in the living room. In a machista way, he was proud of his son, but because of him, his son, he suddenly began to cry. Because of his son.



When he got to the office, in a rush because he still had to see four patients and teach at the university early that evening, the secretary told him that three journalists (two of them Spanish) had called to request interviews. After repeating his refusal to talk to the press, he almost fainted from fear when the secretary mentioned that three men had stopped by to fix the telephone lines early that morning. But who had called them? Furious, the psychiatrist dug through the entire office, every corner, the bathroom, the little kitchen, the drawers at the frightened secretary’s desk, and beneath the rugs in three rooms. Not even the trash cans—especially those—escaped his inspection. No wiretap was found. He asked his secretary to please cancel, using her cell phone, every single appointment up to the day of the damned consultation. He called home to his wife to see if the punk behind those prank calls was still at it. She said no but ended up making the situation worse by mentioning that a talk-show host had called their son, asking him to describe his father’s personality and political convictions. Did they speak Spanish? She couldn’t say, but added that they’d also received a letter with no return address.

The psychiatrist sprinted to the parking lot and sped home in his car. After two blocks, he crashed into a black car that looked like some kind of official vehicle.



For a split second, he thought about not stopping, ignoring the accident, and driving home anyway. But while he debated whether to place his foot on the gas or the brake, the image of his mother nearly sobbing to death on his graduation day popped into his head. Right when he received his diploma, the moment at which everyone was supposed to stand up, she couldn’t take the excitement and fell back onto her chair. Neither of the two vehicles had suffered much damage. Two girls brazenly stepped out of the other car, which now had a broken taillight. He could immediately tell they were high. The police came quickly, but the psychiatrist showed his state-issued doctor’s license and asked the officer to let the two girls go, too. Neither looked like his son’s girlfriend. Excellent. Maybe one of the officers had recognized him, since the police don’t usually let people involved in a car accident go that quickly. But it was no big deal.

At home, he got mad again after opening the envelope without any return address and reading the name Anna O., pasted onto construction paper using newspaper cutouts of the five letters. His wife, who by now was starting to get scared, asked if the prank phone calls had something to do with this and, without waiting for an answer, muttered her doubts that he would be able to carry out the clinical evaluation independently, governmental assurance or no. He replied that they would only know on the day of his visit to the general. In any case, the state hadn’t attempted to contact him up until now. This was just some troll.


Even so, once his son came home from school, they all packed their suitcases and called a taxi to take them to his mother’s house, a few hours away. The couple had made the decision in order to distance their son from the inevitable press storm and, truth be told, to keep him safe. The boy passed his grandmother’s phone number to his girlfriend and the two promised to see each other that weekend. When the taxi driver called up to the apartment, however, the psychiatrist discerned a suspiciously Spanish accent and canceled the ride. He would take his family outside of the city himself.

Were they ashamed of him?

On the way back home in the middle of the night he decided to stop by the residence of M.E., who for decades had never gone to bed before 6:00 a.m. The old man opened his front door, genuinely pleased to see his former student. The two sat down in the kitchen to have a long conversation about the evaluation and, inevitably, about Anna O.

The sun had already risen when they set aside the burnt-pudding conundrum. From past reports, the psychiatrist found out that the general often experienced an intense smell of burnt pudding, sometimes for hours at a time. Neither he nor M.E. wanted to bring up the word “torture.” But what about Anna O.?



When he got home, the psychiatrist became uncomfortable with the silence despite his desperate exhaustion. He tried to make a commotion in the kitchen while heating up the food his wife had left him in the freezer. There was enough for two, but he ate the entire plate alone, thinking that a full stomach might help him fall asleep. No luck.

Looking out the window, he decided to train his sense of direction by trying to figure out which way was North, the direction of the hospital. But at that time of night the city lights caught his attention more than the delicate wind patterns he was trying to map out in his head. The lights alone were enough to intensify his desperation, since after mere seconds of looking out at them he couldn’t tell which ones were coming from lampposts, which were from the strange starry night, and which were the product of the insomnia driving him insane.

Worried, he stepped away from the window only to notice an envelope slid under the back door. This one had a return address: it was from the psychiatric diagnostics department at the Central Hospital, where the Ministry of the Interior was responsible for examinations. When he went to pick it up, moving almost in slow motion because of sleep deprivation, he bashed his leg against the living room coffee table and, since he was totally alone, finally broke down in tears.



Maybe he had actually gotten a bit of sleep on the living room sofa. The envelope, though, would stay sealed until the next day, when the doctor opened it in an unexpected location: the zoo. Before reading the first reports in front of the orangutan enclosure, he took out his cellphone and called his wife, who was apparently just waking up. Exasperated, he explained that he wasn’t using that tone because he was tired, but because two (or more) orangutans were fighting over an unyielding female at the top of a nearby tree. Trivial aside: regardless of the outcome, she would only copulate with her chosen mate.

According to the reports from previous evaluations, the general felt pain as he walked and quickly grew tired. His behavior was calm, almost friendly, but above all he exhibited the “belle indifférence of hysteria.” With some effort, the general was able to remember certain moments from the recent past. But he couldn’t recall anything further back. He could recognize family members after a brief interval (a few minutes). He also experienced periodic episodes of moderate depression. These, however, had disappeared over the last few days. The smell of burnt pudding persisted.

As did the shame.

One of the orangutans climbed up to a tree branch and jumped back to the ground repeatedly, but what scared the psychiatrist at that moment was actually the signature on the report: stamped beneath the scribbled letters was the seal of the military doctor who had conducted the evaluation.



The psychiatrist opened the newspaper for the first time after receiving the assignment to conduct the evaluation. His eyes passed over long articles debating the case, pausing for a second on a story about the diplomatic tensions caused by the general. He soon lost patience and, with a sudden lunge, threw all of the pages into the campus trash can before walking to the main office to check his mail. Surprisingly, he had received a government telegram in which the minister personally informed him of the date and time of the consultation. The psychiatrist would need to write up the evaluation and sign his name on a sheet of paper brought to him by the nurses at the time of the meeting. But why had they sent the message to the university?

A journalist stood in the doorway to his classroom and tried to insist that he make a statement. It could be just one sentence. Inspired by a burst of good humor, he set his things on the table, looked out at the full room of students before finally turning to the journalist and saying:

But what about Anna O.?

The class burst into laughter and began to applaud. Meanwhile, the psychiatrist treated the whole thing like a joke until he saw M.E. sitting by the window at the back of the room. His former advisor was also clapping, dying with laughter from it all.



But seeing M.E. made the professor emotional and he started to cry again, this time in front of everyone. The students fell silent, and it was actually the class clown who offered to go get him a glass of water. Before the professor could answer, confusion broke out in the hallway because two students had gone to expel the journalist from the room, convinced that he was the cause of their professor’s discomfort. Who could work like that? Soon, security came to control the situation, and class finally began.

The psychiatrist started by announcing that he wouldn’t be able to teach the next class and gestured to M.E., who had generously offered to substitute. Seconds later, the department chair opened the door and, calling the psychiatrist over, explained that he urgently needed to speak with him. Taking advantage of the interruption, the students openly booed the intruder.

Outside the classroom, the colleague (an idiot who looked like a codfish fresh from the ocean) told the professor that various journalists were asking about his professional life and areas of research, the classes he had taught, and his possible affiliations. The colleague wanted to know if he could pass along the information. What the department chair really wanted was his name in the paper.



The psychiatrist said no, stating once again that he didn’t want to get involved with the press. Since the students were already impatient to leave, he canceled class. As they walked out, some approached the professor. Two of them, a nice couple, wished him luck, and another, nearly dying of embarrassment, mustered up the courage to say that she was very proud to be in his class. They weren’t ashamed, evidently. M.E. waited at the back of the classroom and, when his former student came up to him, he said, yes, now might be the time to consider taking something to help you sleep.

The psychiatrist resisted using sleeping pills for two more nights, roaming the house instead, drinking liters of water and cursing the freak who would call and stay silent on the other end of the line. On the third night, he tore the phone off of the wall. The clang echoed through his head and he almost fainted from exhaustion. Even still, he couldn’t get to sleep. He sealed off the doors with newspaper, locked all of the windows, and told his secretary (by cell phone, as always), that he wouldn’t treat any patients the following week: after signing the evaluation, he would go directly to see his wife and son.

Then, he took out a pill, carefully split it in two, and swallowed one of the halves. As he lay down, he recited the prayer that he used to say every night as a child: Jesus, as I lay me down to sleep, please no dreams or nightmares keep.



In the hallway, before entering the room to carry out and sign the evaluation, he ran into the military doctor who had signed the earlier report. The psychiatrist pretended he was listening to what the other was saying as they walked to the door and, when he saw the colleague’s hand stretched out to shake his in front of the guards, he felt the urge to break the idiot’s nose. But he didn’t. Upon entering the room, he opened the curtains a bit and asked the general to sit up. But the old man alleged that he couldn’t and arrogantly said that he would prefer to talk lying down. The psychiatrist was too tired to argue and noted that the general liked to give orders. Some people never learn, not even when they’re down. He firmly examined the general’s arms and legs and heard a yelp of pain. More than anything, he found the general’s voice irritating. Calmly, he listened to the same complaints that had been recorded in the military report and, as he put pressure on the general’s forehead, said he would need him to try to remember something from the past. The old man didn’t like that, but he allowed it and repeated that he couldn’t remember anything, even after the intense pressure. The psychiatrist asked him to describe the images that appeared in his vision right after the pressure lifted, but the patient let out a strange noise and said he hadn’t been able to see well for a while. He was actually afraid of going blind. How embarrassing.

It was time to finish this. The psychiatrist had the general keep talking while he nodded along to his prattle, opened the envelope, pulled out the blank sheet of paper, and wrote the following evaluation in very legible, rounded letters:

Augusto Pinochet Ugarte does not present a sound mental state.

That being said, General Pinochet is also a son of a bitch.

translated from the Portuguese by Lara Norgaard