The Black Stallion

 

If you’ve never seen this film, do so, for it will teach you something plain and not theoretical about the wild or the traumatized, human or not. I saw the film when it first came out, in 1979 when I was a newly emigrated child, feeling like child actor Kelly Reno looked in this film: dumbstruck and wide-eyed, trying to adjust to a new life. It’s not clear in the story where Reno’s character, Alec, and his father are going on their sea cruise, only that the boy is lonely and quiet, the father garrulous yet preoccupied with gambling on a ship that seems less-than-family friendly. A collector, drifter (possibly a grifter), and storyteller, he gives Alec a tiny model of an exotic black horse, foreshadowing the subsequent attachment, but he is implicitly neglectful. He seems less so when a storm hits and the smallish trawler is threatened with a wreck. By this time, Alec has become enamored of the eponymous wild horse, being kept in storage on a lower deck of the ship, cruelly mistreated by its Arab owners. As the ship capsizes Alec is thrown overboard, though not before freeing the animal from its restraints. Meanwhile, his father is missing, having tried but failed to secure a lifeboat. Treading water, Alec sees the horse flailing through the waves but managing to swim, so he latches on to the severed restraint ropes and is thereafter pulled to safety.

Sometime later Alec wakes up on a deserted island beach, apparently safe but also marooned. He sees the horse at a distance, and in spurts over what may have been days, possibly weeks. The animal appears watchful but wary. If Alec approaches, the horse gallops away with impressive speed, seemingly frightened, and distrustful of humanity, naturally, if not from lifetime experience. However, when Alec is threatened by a snake, the horse appears out of nowhere and stomps upon the serpent, killing it. Alec, determined to make a friend of the horse, persists with his approaches, offering leafy snacks and coaxing the beast towards him. Finally, in a quite marvelous scene, the two make contact on the beach. Alec steps forward and then stops, withdraws, then approaches again. The horse, likewise coy, does the same. After a few minutes of this sequence, remarkably filmed, they inch closer and finally touch. The scene feels like an attachment drama played out. It seems fanciful to compare this dance to that which happens between me and a reluctant client, but what can I say. I am reminded.

Soon the boy is riding bare-back on the horse as it gallops across beach-kissing waves. The cinematography that captures this is iconic. Later, Alec is discovered by fisherman and ostensibly rescued, though the fishermen misunderstand about the horse. The bond between boy and animal is conveyed as the horse wades into the water, following the boat which might have left him behind, despite Alec’s beseeching protests. The scene of the horse chasing the fishing boat, determined to follow Alec, is one of the most beautiful in cinema, climaxing the film’s better first half. Back home Alec is welcomed as a Robinson Crusoe-like hero (we learn his father was killed in the wreck). Black, as Alec nicknames or christens the horse, is temporarily kept near his and his mother’s rural home, but he runs away from this strange western domesticity, wild as ever. Incorrigibly so, says Henry, a retired racehorse jockey played by Mickey Rooney, who has found and caught the horse. With Henry’s help, Alec learns to tame the animal, but recalling Black’s speed on the island beach, he convinces the former jockey to train both he and Black for the racetrack. To do this, Henry and Alec must also persuade Alec’s widowed mother that their plan is worthwhile. As the mother, Teri Garr plays a similar role to the one she’d played in Close Encounters two years earlier. Irritable yet sympathetic, unnerved and jaded by masculine risk-taking but ultimately forced to indulge it, she is a bystander witnessing a compulsion. This comparatively predictable second half of the film leads to a climactic match race at a professional event before thousands of spectators.

While the outcome might be foreseeable the execution of this footage is anything but. Without stirring music, and with minimal dialogue, the race recalls the earlier scenes on the beach while the soundtrack re-enters the silent bond between rider and horse, adding only the vivid sounds of hooves thundering against a sandy track. Black initially falters, disturbed by the racing protocols—the entrapment of the “gate”—but once in his stride, instinct and power takes over. As he passes his rivals and victoriously sprints across the line, the exultation of the crowd is finally heard, returning from a dim background. It is as if the director were finally letting them, and the viewer, share in this moment.

Check out The Black Stallion. Be reminded of something.

 

 

 

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You must not run away

 

“No one is after you! No one, I say! You all ran away–and now I know why. I sat by the lake, and there came a fly. The fly ran away in fear of the frog, who ran from the cat, who ran from the dog. The dog ran away in fear of the pig, who ran from the cow, she was so big! The cow ran away from the fox, who ran as fast as he could in fear of the man. That man heard a thump, and away he. It was just a sheep, with an old tin can.

I looked at them all, and then I could tell they all had no fear, and now all was well. They all went away. They all waved goodbye. SO…I sat by the lake and looked at the sky.”

–from A Fly Went By, by Mike McClintock

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As dark as it gets

 

“Around ten o’clock, Andrew revealed a surprise: he’d been in therapy before, as in before he’d ever called me. And not even therapy, but analysis: for two years. He left because he didn’t like what he started to feel, a parallel between his drug addiction and emerging sexual compulsion. Though tired, I perked up, sensing something coming. Andrew spoke theoretically, about chasing highs, going back to an original experience. It felt like a prefacing explanation, his talk of addiction, its bedrock principles. Then he told me about his first time, the predictable, clandestine grope with an older girl, when he was eleven, she fourteen. The dreams of that girl, and his lust for teenage girls in general had never gone away, but he wouldn’t tell me more, not while there were legal issues pending, files not yet written. With that stuff looming, I wondered why he’d tell me anything, but then, I am ever struck by the desire to be known, by someone. Andrew’s loneliness gripped my heart, even as he retreated from memory, back to theory. He had an idea about pedophilia, he said, lowering his voice. It related to that original experience, that primal desire to be a child, experience pleasure as a child—natural, he argued. Shortly thereafter, his face broke, as if the pain in his soul had just hit him: that unsolvable clash between ancient fantasy versus the demands of growth.”

— a passage from Venus Looks Down On A Prairie Vole

Several points here, will touch on just a couple for starters. In this chapter, Daniel Pierce, my troubled protagonist and therapist, has serendipitously reunited with a patient he’d A.) thought he’d lost after a bad intake session, and B.) is the man whose privacy he is being pressured to violate by a rogue former prostitute and later, lawyers. Check out my novel and you’ll find out why.

The above conversation happens in the “privacy” of a shared room in a sober living environment–both men’s retreat. What Andrew (alias Derek) reveals here he would likely not have in the structured, orthodox forum of the therapist’s office. The thoughts Andrew shares are of a kind that few, in my opinion, share unless a near-profound alliance has been established. The reference to analysis, as distinguished from therapy, implies the depth divide between models of care, and further suggests what Daniel and Andrew tacitly have in common: they both tend to leave before the going gets tough.

 

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Politics and psychotherapy

 

“Hi all, been thinking about political content on this list-serve recently, especially after a member was recently rebuked for posting a link in support of Bernie Sanders. I asked administrators for the policy pertaining to such posts and saw in the supplied policy an item that asks members to refrain from making political endorsements.

Endorsements of what? I wondered, as the policy didn’t specify endorsement of individual candidates or campaigns, which appears to have been inferred. What about endorsement of political opinions, or of political realities (via presumed consensus), as they are implicitly described sometimes in this forum. For example, when members post articles about single payer/payor systems, or police brutality, or white privilege, the articles don’t so much endorse candidates or specific referendums, but they tend to presume consensus as to what our world is like. So, when clinicians speak of “bringing awareness” about a social condition, they are not inviting debate so much as asserting authority, more or less dispensing what they think are facts about a world situation.

This sets up a tricky situation for mental health professionals and for this list-serve. If we have clients who proclaim a mental health condition that is dominantly attributable to an external reality, such as a social condition or political situation, versus a greater weight of attention to an internal disorder, then the onus is upon us to become educated as to that external reality, (perhaps eschew focus upon internal pathology) to educate colleagues about that external reality, which in effect means we will be endorsing a social/political view, and instructing those who don’t appear to perceive the political reality, such as others on a list-serve.

In light of this, it seems arbitrary to censor endorsements of individuals or their campaigns–merely a rebuke of the unsubtle–when the infiltration of politics into our profession is another kind of reality.”

That’s from a message I posted last week on an EBCAMFT list-serve. About the same time I fielded a compelling suggestion from a client who hadn’t read my post, to the effect that politics were a part of people’s lives and are therefore a valid topic for psychotherapy. Didn’t I agree? she more or less challenged. Sort of, I more or less replied, intrigued by her argument, but not wanting to study up on each political topic she seemed to want my interest in.
What’s most compelling is the idea that a person’s external reality, the community (or polis) in which people live, is inextricable from a person’s psychology, no less so than a person’s intimate relationships, or their unconscious functioning. I am reminded of a discussion some years back with a Mastersonian consultant, to whom I asked about the cultural lens within the Masterson model. It’s not there, she said, though I’m paraphrasing her. Indeed, it’s not explicit or otherwise clear, unless you comb through libraries worth of material, that the discipline of psychoanalysis has ever been influenced by cultural relativism, though it surely has by politics (think influence of two world wars on notions of death instinct and repetition compulsion).
However, I think the reverse is true. Take the concept of internalized oppression, for example. This idea, derived firstly from Sigmund Freud’s writings, latterly from object relations theory, holds that individuals formulate representations of self based upon what is introjected from caregivers. Thus, if a child is demeaned, he or she will formulate a negative experience of self and act accordingly. Cultural relativists simply take this principle and apply it to peoples, especially those marginalized. And so this is part of the individual’s experience, this attachment to a community, a system. Well, that’s a lot to fit in the room, at least.

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The problem of listening

 

“Thanks,” said the man in the bad shirt to his group. He kept a peripheral eye upon me, picking up my distaste in the air, my discrepant air. The process moved on, with my journeyman skills keeping things in order, neutral—not taking sides, not standing up for anything yet; not saying much of anything, even though talking’s easier than listening. Talking’s way easier, believe me. Storytelling: now that’s a cinch. Neutral is how I am, professionally and, now that I’m alone, also personally. Wanna know what listening looks like? It’s a stifled yawn pinching oxygen; a blank stare held together with tautened facial muscles, and a soft, metronomic nod providing faint reinforcement, possibly a tease, because maybe it’s a nothing, this service I give. Some really want it, and I’ve been like this for years: a cipher into which people deposit their brokenness, and then leave. Not much of a story here, you might think. If you’re a film producer, you’d say, “I’m not touching this, it can’t be done”, thinking this dull: unwatchable, or unreadable. Pornified eyes wouldn’t like it. But in the unlikely event that it hits big, is binge-read and wins awards I’ll gladly take the stage, drunk, saying “For twenty years people tried to write this script but everyone said it couldn’t be done. So and so tried it and failed. So did whatsisname, that other really famous guy.” That’s when I’d punch stuffy air; thank doting mom and rival dad, the wife and kid for their support, God for doing whatever he does, and say goodnight.

In group I became restless, started saying some things I shouldn’t have said, slipping from the listening stance: fighting with men as well as women. It’s what happens when people stop listening.

— a passage from Venus Looks Down On A Prairie Vole

Part of a polemic that runs through the novel: I set up a binary between notions of listening versus doing. Therapists don’t do anything. That’s the sometimes comic refrain that Daniel Pierce expresses, at times to punctuate a dramatic event. It’s not a popular image, this one of therapist neutrality, this sense that we sit back in our cozy offices, smugly observing pathology, remarking on it but not acting as agents of change. Not really. See, the task is to render it invisible…the change…so you won’t notice.

Not good enough, of course. For the general public, I mean: this traditional stance of not doing is not good enough.”I’M A DOER”. Isn’t someone scoring political points with this currently? When parents bring oppositional teens into therapy (as in Working Through Rehab), when wives call up and make appointments for their depressed husbands, when a couple presents for therapy needing help with a ‘crisis of communication’, and when people get out of line with respect to drugs, violence, and especially sex, people from officialdom call, asking for therapists to do something.

And so I chat the other day with an amiable lawyer, a good guy looking to represent his client and mine, someone who did something he shouldn’t have done, with a girl who was younger than she should be if doing what she was doing. But it was his fault. No argument there.It’s just that this lawyer wanted to know…what I was going to do. He knows what therapists do. He knows that we listen; that we don’t judge. But could I give him something, anything, live or in a letter, that he could share with a court and sound, ya know, convincing. He even voiced his suppositions, as if he’d hacked my association’s list-serve and scrolled through the typical ways therapists market themselves. Would I offer coping skills, he asked tentatively?  Teach ‘tools’ for affect regulation (actually, he didn’t ask that).

Empathy. Victim empathy.That’s what I offered. That plus the hope that what my client did he would not do again.

 

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The bourgeois hypocrisy

 

Lira hissed through her teeth—a disappointing, face-contorting habit, I wanted to say but didn’t.  “That’s irrelevant. Men are the ones that buy porn. The consumer is the oppressor.”

I paused, studied her face for a credulous moment, and thought politics, the global order. “Do you own a cell phone?” I asked. I knew she did having watched her scroll through it several times, but she didn’t answer, instead giving me an I’m-thinking-of-your-next-move look. “Ever think about who assembles those things and what wages they make?”

She rolled her eyes, said, “Here we go,” as if knowing my path.

“What would you say if I said that all your electronics purchases are made on the back of unfair labor practices in the developing world; that your cosmetics are made possible because of animal cruelty?”

She gave me a lazy-eyed stare. “Apples and oranges,” she replied.

I paused. “Really? That’s your rebuttal, a tired fruit metaphor?”

“You’re changing the subject.”

“It’s not a subject. It’s called context.”

“Context my ass. It’s a specious argument, Dr. Pierce, You’re saying the average consumer has as much culpability as a sex offender. That’s bullshit. No one would buy that argument.”

“Not in this society, maybe, but only because people here are hypocrites. The consumer is the oppressor, you said.”

It’s a shame that talk moves quickly sometimes, because I wanted to patronize her saying ‘specious’, which sounded impressive, like something a law professor would say—maybe that guy from the bar, I considered. Actually, I didn’t want to patronize Lira. I just wanted to argue some more.

–passage from  Venus Looks Down On A Prairie Vole

Maybe it’s the rhetoric of certain politicians currently reminding me of the polity’s gullibility, but I can’t let this go: one of the reasons AB1775 passed so easily through the California legislature was the notion that users of child porn enable child pornographers. Assuming you haven’t read my twenty or so other blog essays on that subject, let me remind that AB1775 is a 2015 law that re-writes the California civil code relating to child abuse reporting, apparently for the first time in 35 years, after the original Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act overlooked the issue of child porn, I guess. The new law allows–no, compels–mental health professionals to report to police clients/patients who view child pornography. Specifically, it mandates reporting with respect to that which depicts the sexual conduct of a minor (as in anyone under the age 18) over an electronic or digital medium. Genius. Now we have to violate confidentiality when teens sext one another.

The other pretext for this law was/is the unsubstantiated claim that such a measure will “crack down on child porn”. In other words, it will crack down on child porn to report to police individuals who, in the context of a psychotherapy session, talk about their child porn use, or e-mail pictures of their junk to their partners. For some this law will lead to humiliating discussions with unctuous adults who will educate about how to respect self and others. Boys will be schooled on how to respect girls’ bodies. Girls will be schooled on how to respect girls’ bodies. Some might criticize the tautological nature of decision-makers’ interventions. Decision-makers will blink in confusion because they won’t know what a tautology is.

For others (men, basically), the law will lead to their arrests, their job losses, their ostracism from society, the sudden loss of custodial rights with respect to their children; the convenient awarding of full custody to another likely informant, the other parent. In case you think these are good things (and you probably do), one other likely outcome is that such individuals, following the adjudication of their cases, will be mandated into mental health treatment (this is hilarious!) wherein–it is presumed–they will honestly disclose further their history of child porn affinity and commit themselves to healing, trusting fully the confidentiality of the psychotherapeutic space.

This law will have no effect on the sociopaths who produce and distribute child pornography, any more than a generation of arresting pot smokers has won the drug war. People like me won’t be reporting such people to police because…how should I say this…THEY DON’T GO INTO THERAPY, IDIOTS!

For all the politicians who voted for this bill; for the lawyers who wrote it having consulted with maybe two therapists in San Diego County who also believe in conversion therapy for gay people; for the right wing politician who fronted (“authored”) the bill, declaring it would “crack down on porn”, scoring cheap points with an illiterate constituency determined to scapegoat society’s sexual miscreants because it doesn’t understand real social issues; and for all of you who enable poverty and economic exploitation in developing economies everyday of your lives with your electronics hoarding, drooling consumerist habits, I have the following message:

YOU ARE ALL…

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Sexual Schizoid

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“They say in SAA that you get to define your own bottom line,” offered another man. He licked his chops, tilling the ground of groupspeak as he had an equally dubious claim involving a late teenager (so he said). A hyper-masculine, balding figure, he personified a certain faction of my group: conventionally unattractive, sired in conjugal visits, wired towards the visual; overflowing with discharge, living just this side of incontinence. These guys tend to not open up much: they speak in code, use phrases like “I crossed the line” to briefly reference why they’re in treatment. Then it’s back to the persecution litany: about their hearings, upcoming or past; about the unfairness of courts, probation officers, the unforgiving nature of wives. I think of women and what they think. What do they expect from these men if not porn addiction? Come to think of it, do those women even look at porn? Have they watched the films, studied scores of images? You see, in some respects they have it backwards. Objectification—that’s the right word, isn’t it? That’s what’s happening to women. But hold on. Do they realize how many porn clips don’t even show men’s faces? Often, all you see are these girthy, circumcised peters sticking out between splayed pairs of legs. Talk about objects. In porn, the penis is the star, make no mistake about it. It is center stage, in the camera’s face, and literally in women’s. But at least their participation makes use of eyes.

— A passage from <em>Venus Looks Down On A Prairie Vole

The above passage describes the population of sex offenders that Daniel Pierce treats in his weekly group therapy. They’re a motley (as opposed to diverse) crossection of underdogs, typically unsophisticated, unlike predators who don’t get caught. Initial contacts with these guys are not just haunting, they’re an all-around humiliation, plus descent into a dark cave. Gruff, terse like their fathers and grandfathers were, they answer questions from counselors like they’ve just come from their lawyers’ offices, and are therefore still following the dictum, say as little as possible, which echoes their characters. Besides their illegal behaviors, the non-violent or non-direct contact offenders are socially withdrawn figures more so than anti-social; diffident more so than brutal. They shy away from intimacy, though more so out of bewilderment than contempt. Their relationships are with machines, computers–that which seems less impinging. To the average observer, they might seem like they’re on the spectrum of autistic disorders, and they might seem as self-absorbed or un-empathetic as any Narcissist. But the accent of their fears is less upon rejection as it is upon safety, and to remain safe this need must remain invisible. Difficult patients, they do not crave understanding, but rather a calculated space between themselves and others. It might sound a bit like this:

Therapist: So, what happened? What’s led you to make an appointment?
Client: (staring at therapist with concealed hate, as if the question is stupid) Got arrested. Crossed the line. (shrugs, pauses. The statement is done)
Therapist: I see, what exactly did you do that led to the arrest? (no more open-ended questions for a while, looking to avoid stonewalling)
Client: (ever externalizing) The charge was lewd and lascivious…with a minor…while intoxicated…something like that
* To get an actual narrative one will need a police report. Imagine what the more blunt truisms might sound like…
Client: Got caught with my dick in a hole
Therapist: By hole, you mean a female?
Client: Yup, one of them…

Most of the men I’ve worked with don’t betray thoughts like these, not so much out of shame, rather because they have little incentive to be honest, or to understand their disordered selves. Their situations mirror their fears, resulting in a self fulfilling prophecy: they are under someone’s control. See, sex offender treatment isn’t looking for honesty in its subjects. It’s looking for compliance, and in no other area of mental health treatment is this misguided objective more pronounced. Therefore, if sex offender treatment doesn’t work (an ambiguous conclusion) it’s because the systems that govern the treatment are misinformed, under-educated, and catering to public opinion rather than the recommendations of research. I write as a former provider under the California Sex Offender Management Board (CASOMB), and now operating privately and sometimes working with men who seek treatment BEFORE they get caught…BEFORE they hurt someone.

Treatment with them is not about compliance. It is about understanding. Imagine that.

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