Personality Disorder: the other way (part two)

 

I want to blame someone. James Masterson did also, I think. He will have argued with many over what comprises a real versus a false self, or a personality disorder—whether such a thing exists with some. Were he alive today I think he’d argue with proponents of trauma model, and possibly with authors of novels like The Woman in Cabin 10. Not that these people don’t think that personality disorders exist. They simply call them something else, because mental health services, like any commodity, ultimately, is not just something to be validated by research, or—sorry—evidence-based research. It is something to be sold to the public.

For the average consumer of psychotherapy, a diagnosis of trauma, whether that trauma is episodic, chronic, the result of fatefully aberrant events or an aggregate of quaintly termed little ts that shape development (the theorized etiology of personality disorders) is simply more palatable. The word connotes victimization by an external agent, and thus a diminished responsibility for the sufferer. Treatment encourages a present identity of a survivor (very popular), with a possible future of healing. It’s a meet-them-where-they’re-at-thing. Regarding etiology, the accent is upon recent, precipitating events, with an intellectualized nod towards distant antecedents, that complex internalization of others which blurs a simplified reality.

Trauma model practitioners pay lip service to the antecedents of trauma. Prominent authors even co-opt object relations theories without crediting them, and repackage (reframe in the jargon of the field) personality disorder as something like developmental or relational trauma. A good example is featured in Barbara Steffens’ Your Sexually Addicted Spouse, whose target readership is evident by the title. In her text, Steffens describes PTSD as “something that can last a lifetime”, and that relationship trauma entails “painful coping mechanisms ingrained in personalities” Study the work of Klein, Fairbairn, Mahler, Winnicott, Masterson or Kohut and you’d hear the echo of their theories in such pop psychology literature: that psychic pain is integrated into personality over time, generating a disordered self in which such pain is habitually defended against in relationship.

But again, while trauma model educators pay lip service to old patterns, they mostly ignore it in treatment. The reasons are two-fold: A.) Treatment doesn’t last very long in this model. It’s a two week stay in a group home of some kind, or an eight-week course at your nearby hospital. B.) Discussion of problems is intellectual, academic—therapy as education. You’re given homework, even, to solidify the association with school. This is organizing, some say. Stabilizing for the unsafe person who cannot, it is presumed, manage complexity, the uncertainty of not knowing more deeply why something is happening. They are unable to weigh or contemplate their own mind alongside those of others, which are similarly complex, and implicitly dangerous. This danger is cast as objective reality, and anyone who says otherwise is “gaslighting”. Thus, treatment prioritizes affect regulation techniques and procedures, not the contemplation of self and other; it advises the practice of coping skills, self-care activities—all of which is worthy, actually, as adjuncts to growth. Meanwhile, the model’s adherents suggest that the afflicted let go of the actions, opinions, even the feelings of difficult others, while attaching labels. Fuller contemplation is put off until some ambiguously later time, when the person may be deemed ready. I think that readiness is seldom achieved. Time passes. It doesn’t so much heal as fossilize thoughts about self and other. What’s difficult to let go of are the pat understandings imparted by practitioners who recycle the same lessons in one short-term treatment episode after another.

In a longer-term therapy model, individuals inhabit their adult roles and live their lives as opposed to dropping out of society and going to school. They are challenged to do more than learn how to self-soothe or calm down, or take time-outs when mad, or to leave that bad relationship that your friends all think is wrong, only to start another one that’s similar because you haven’t learned what you got from that bad relationship. Instead, some learn (or are challenged to learn) to hang out with confusion, the grey areas of day-to-day life; to tolerate discomfort, stay with the difficult, as Masterson was once quoted as saying. Reality is learning about one’s own mind and being open to those of others, especially those that are not so easy to detach from: bosses, spouses, children; the memory of those absent but still profoundly influential.

What’s your pain today? Who or what do you want to blame, talk about instead of understand; focus on instead of yourself? Do you really know what your pain is about, what it’s backstory is—it’s underpinning? Do you think you really know the story of others? I know. It’s not what you (I’m) thinking.

 

Graeme Daniels, MFT

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Personality Disorder: the other way (part one)

 

Musing on a recent concatenation: my annual trip to San Rafael to teach intern therapists something about the late James Masterson and his Disorder of Self model; a reading of a novel that reminds me the zeitgeist is elsewhere, teaching a more palatable lesson. A student in the training, an intern in a private practice model, asked me about the fame of JM, or more specifically, about his lingering relevance. Though she’d heard of him before, she’d only known about him from others at this particular agency, she stated. The comment was a muted, polite critique, suggesting an eclipsed influence of a one-time star in the psychoanalytic pantheon.

What a start, I thought. It was the beginning of a six-hour training, so I’d be up against it, hoping to disabuse this woman and others of some chestnut assumptions, biases reinforced by institutions, medical and cultural, as well as academia to some extent. The pressure wasn’t great–mostly self-imposed, I think–but subtle. What is my obligation or prerogative to instruct about the Masterson model? To advocate for an outmoded, if (in my opinion) far more thoughtful take on the concept of personality disorder? Not much, actually. And six hours is a lot, you might think, to shed light on a few things, offer a different way of thinking about an old problem.

Anyway, Disorder of Self is a term Masterson coined towards the end of his career, to provide an alternative to the embattled Personality Disorder label, which is described via a medical lens in the diagnostic standards manual (DSM-V) of the American Psychiatric Association. The term references a syndrome of characteristics, ‘pervasive’ in nature, cutting across contexts and time. For many, it’s not a popular term. It pathologizes, stereotypes, and reduces, mostly because of the way these terms are used, which indeed pathologizes, stereotypes and reduces. The most commonly used terms, Borderline and Narcissist, have seeped into commonspeak like rain spilling over a dam. It wasn’t meant to be, but it’s not surprising  given the flood of opinion. I remember when I was in graduate school, when I was first introduced to the nomenclature. The word Borderline was a byword for difficult client; it denoted (and still does) someone who is volatile in mood, and therefore in relationship; it means someone who is often suicidal, or otherwise self-destructive. They make demands, flood the boundaries of novice therapists. They overwhelm. Narcissists do something similar, only with more self-importance, so-called grandiosity, and conceit.

James Masterson followed the psychoanalytic tradition, cast PDs not so much as a syndrome of behaviors or glibly-described personal styles as a complex map of self and other representations–a dynamic between self and other, not self versus environment per se, as DW Winnicott opined. Following the lead of Melanie Klein, WRD Fairbairn, and Margaret Mahler, Masterson cast Borderline and Narcissistic disorders as derived from intrapsychic structures comprised of interactions between projections and introjections, those experiences of self and others. He mapped out these experiences in object relations units, states of mind activated by splitting defenses, representing false ways of being, strategies of how to operate in relationship, on an unconscious level. My task in these introductory trainings was to read passages from cases, snippets of exchanges between myself and clients, illustrating these states of mind. The utility? To show how a mind works in commonplace ways, basically.

The students were struck by how familiar the exchanges seemed, and by how apt the conceptualizations ultimately seemed as they were described and then depicted in case scenarios.

Someone asked about trauma, a word often used to combat the notion of PDs in some circles, and subtly join with the paradigm in others. We note the ubiquity of the word trauma to denote victimization, the externalization of problems, attributable to fate or social forces and not so much an aggregation of developmental phenomena. It suits us to connect dots, but to do so expeditiously, to indicate identifiable, as in consciously understood and remembered events. And it is a familiar, almost comforting idea, especially for those who don’t know what projections are—who might find it maddening to ever wonder whether thoughts and feelings come from the self versus another, or between an elusive self and other.

Fiction, not so strange fiction, can reinforce this facile prejudice. Ruth Ware’s latest thriller, The Woman in Cabin 10, for example, features a main character who has suffered a home break-in at the outset of the story. This event serves as a backdrop for the subsequent misadventure, in which she sees and hears evidence of a murder, but is gaslighted by a pernicious crew of a luxury cruise-liner, who are protecting a villain in power, and discredit her because she is shaken, prone to depression–on medication, it is discovered. For some portion of the book, the reader is teased by the possibility that the protagonist is an unreliable reporter, filtering her drama through both recent events and a plethora of self and other representations, accumulated over time, and manifest in a reactive personal style.

Alas, the story abandons the tension of such an unknown and quite readily sides with its designated heroine, linking her terror to her recent misfortune, and only thinly to anything pre-existing. Disappointing, I thought, though the story was still gripping. Oh well, I’m back at work tomorrow, and thankfully not dealing with anything as serious as murder, but still following stories with protagonists that will grip my interest beyond a taut 75,000 words. I just have to figure out who the people are that I’m sitting with. That’s their job, ultimately.

Graeme Daniels, MFT

 

 

 

 

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Mary and her followers

Because I lost a friend to cancer recently, I’m in a eulogizing mood. Sticking with the theme of social/cultural commentary, I return to my favorite arena—the arts—to pay tribute to a television icon, Mary Tyler Moore. We lost so many icons in 2016 (Bowie, Prince, Muhammed Ali, the heartbreaking back-to-back blow of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds) that it seems unusual to me that I’d choose Moore’s passing to remark on. She was neither the most or the least influential figure on the aforementioned list, but her life is relevant to the themes of privilege and prejudice that are on many of my clients’ minds these days.

As I wrote in my last entry, American television exported many symbols in my seventies youth, but few of them were comic. Britain of the 70s seemed to have enough of its own comedy, so its public had little use for contemporary American stars like Carol O’Connor, who played Archie Bunker (who was actually based on a British character), or Carol Burnett, or Mary Tyler Moore. Following immigration, I watched her on sick days from school, or on indolent summer vacations, when reruns of The Dick Van Dyke Show were part of a daily TV diet. Watching Laura Petry, I was vaguely aware that she was modeled upon an early sixties ideal: beautiful, graceful, lightly comic (ala Lucille Ball); aspiring a pre-tragic Jackie Kennedy. Her later transformation into Mary Richards, a character fronting Moore’s eponymous 70s sitcom, reminded me more of my mother: she was still beautiful, still gracious, but now she was unmarried (that part’s not like my mom), dating (though carefully falling short of promiscuity, it seemed), and solidly career-focused. She put the men in their place (“put a sock in it, Ted”), but she was never mean about it. Like all of our favorite social revolutionaries, she smiled a lot.

At one time, I may have thought her a poor woman’s Jane Fonda or Sally Field, two of my favorite female movie stars of that era. Ordinary People changed that. Playing a middle-aged woman grieving the loss of a favored son, she dropped the winning persona, lost her smile, and delivered a performance of such complexity that Ordinary People (for a while, anyway) became a staple of graduate school counseling programs, as a teaching tool illustrating dysfunctional families coping with loss. Tyler Moore’s character, in particular, seemed to absorb so many viewers’ projections. She was cold and unsympathetic, yet compelling. Easy to dislike, her manner of coping was too familiar, too relatable, to be dismissed. After OP, her career seemed to wane, as she drifted into mediocre TV movies. Her focus turned to charity, being active in animal rights issues; was sadly beset with alcoholism and diabetes.

I sort of waited for a worthy heir apparent, and thought Julie Roberts and Sandra Bullock fit the bill—Jennifer Aniston, too. These stars were wonderful, but something had changed. I had changed. By the nineties I was noticing Hollywood’s lazy feminism. Murphy Brown, a late eighties sitcom, seemed to keep alive the semi-tradition of lauding independent women, with the implication that social equality in all areas was being promoted. But at this point something else was being suggested of male figures who were career-focused, unmarried, and sexually liberated. Represented by the likes of Jerry Seinfeid, the male cast of Friends, the various roles Charlie Sheen has inhabited, the “independent” men of TV were usually roguish, or at best inoffensively feckless (as in the case of Seinfeld). Their independence was spun as emotional detachment, became a source of parody. They were relationship-phobic. The phrase, “afraid to commit” became a chestnut feminine critique.

The feminists of my mother’s generation seemed to yield to a generation of tiresome male-bashers, largely oblivious to their reversed double standards. This seems to have influenced a number of backlashes: right-wing social movements, reactionary politics; uber-sexist male celebrities. Remember Andrew Dice Clay? He was so obnoxious I once thought him a leftist plant: a kind of pop media Manchurian Candidate, sent by principals of a progressive movement to illustrate the wrongness of an arch-conservative demographic. There have been plenty other provocateurs since, each increasingly provocative, representing new waves of established thought, with fresh, distinctive voices, perhaps, but with ever more ugliness, on both sides of the social/political divide, if I’m honest. If light comedy with a social comment still exists, I’m struggling to find it.

Graeme Daniels, MFT

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What it means to be white…and English

 

Got a reading assignment recently, from a loving man and friend who brings me fruit from his garden. Note the word ‘assignment’. You might glean that I was feeling resistant, a bit prickly about what happens next. The book in question is Robin DiAngelo’s What Does It Mean To Be White, a semi-academic, somewhat incendiary text whose subtitle, Developing White Racial Literacy, previews the author’s attitude. My friend had asked me to read this book leading up to and in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, believing a crisis was afoot, and that white people, in particular, need to change the way they think and talk, about race.

I pronounced myself interested, if not zealous like him. In truth, I am cautious about being recruited to something, though I am drawn by the premise. Indeed, some topics need to be addressed, and after 169 entries to date, I figured it was time I addressed this one*. Anyway, I’ve finished my reading so I’m ready for a good chat. I’ll likely start by acknowledging certain points. That our “dominant” culture views racism as a binary—you are or you are not ‘a racist’—thus blocking a meaningful discussion because this bias elicits defense, seems correct. I also agree that our collective privileging of philosophies like individualism, meritocracy, and universalism (platitudes like, “under the skin we’re all the same”) similarly deflect from realistic discussion. On the negative side, I don’t care for the application of terms like ‘literacy’ (implying the corollary, illiteracy) to preemptively derrogate dissenters. It seems not only pedantic, but superior in tone, fanatical. A turn off. Lesser offensive is the book’s ignoring of nationality as an aspect of diversity; further, the notion that racism is a white problem because that term indicates a pervasive, institutionalized phenomenon, while terms like prejudice or stereotype are more appropriately applied to individual situations, seems correct on the one hand. At this point in the text, DiAngelo had already outlined the economic, legal, and social disadvantages largely experienced by people of color. However, if one is subject to an individual act of prejudice, be it dangerous or otherwise harmful, it will seem merely academic what term is applied, which lends an element of so what to this portion of her book.

With that preface, I will next ask my friend if we might sideline the intellectual part to focus on the personal. This is what I thought might be explored at length in What Does It Mean To White, and what I hope to make room for.

When I was a kid (age 0-10), there were few peers or adults of color in my community. I lived in semi-rural areas of Britain, within outskirts (British term for suburb) of UK second cities, Manchester and Birmingham. I recall small populations of Indians, people from the Middle East, but no one of what we now call Asian heritage, and hardly anyone Black or of Hispanic heritage. To me, Black meant someone of African background, and some lived in the inner cities, I somehow learned. I discerned much from TV. I will have learned about slavery from Roots, the celebrated Alex Haley book that became a miniseries, and something of a media sensation. Slavery was horrible, I observed, and was told. It doesn’t exist anymore, adults added.

I learned what ‘Americans’ were from cop shows. Americans, to my 7-10 year-old self were white, spoke in canned voices and said words or terms like ‘wow!’ or ‘holy cow!’ a lot. The ‘other’ Indians, or Native Americans, were…well, I didn’t know where they came from, and I won’t have thought about it. Those cop and/or action shows delineated the stereotypes and hierarchies: white guys were in charge—were the heroes, but also, mostly, the villains. Black guys were bad, as in thugs, generally, but also, sometimes, the hip, as in more knowing partners of the white guys in charge. Asian people were clearly subordinate, the people in charge of the computers and other machines, whether fixing them or else declaring their failures in critical moments. An exception, it seemed, was Star Trek, with its weird Scotsman whining, “Cap’n, I canna git ni pewer!”.

Emigration to the US didn’t change much. There were more Latinos (as in Latin America versus Spain, I inferred), more people of mixed race. Still not many Black people, as I still lived a middle-class life, now in suburbs, not ‘outskirts’, and the socioeconomic segregations seemed largely similar to what they were in the UK. I experienced largely benign, if irritating prejudice in middle school and (somewhat) into H.S. Peers teased my accent, stock British phrases which I didn’t use but had crossed the ocean via media (I blame PBS, Jane Austen, Benny Hill, The Royal Family, The Beatles. Thank God I got through school before Harry Potter!). I was unhatefully called a ‘limey’ sometimes—a reference, apparently, to Elizabethan era English sailors who, lacking vitamins when crossing oceans to conquer foreign lands, contracted scurvy and thus needed fruits like limes as a remedy.

“Okay,” I would say without interest when this was explained.

A genuinely upsetting experience happened in 9th grade, when I frequented a friend’s home that also attracted his sister’s friends, one of whom was a friendly, same-aged Black girl who went to a local school, not mine. She was pretty—had a lovely smile and her hair was curly, with Shirley Temple ringlets down about the base of her neck. Mostly she was charming, and as she hung around me and my friend a bit more than his sister, we bantered easily. I was careless, I think. Awkward as a teen for reasons that are beyond the scope of this entry, I’d say the wrong thing at times. I don’t believe that what I said to her was prejudiced, or racist. On the surface, at least, race didn’t seem relevant to the offense. Anyway, I’d said something, and thus on the third, or maybe fourth—and sadly, last—occasion this girl was in our company, she was morose and distant. I asked my friend what was up with her. According to him, she’d said one or two things to me that he deemed flirtatious, and I’d brushed her off.

I didn’t know what to do—what I wanted to do. Dealing with the feelings of girls, women was…hmm? Long story short: never saw her again. I’d like to share this memory with my friend, tell him that I’ve been thinking of this story as I read the DiAngelo book. It was and is relevant to our important subject, because among other things, what was somewhere in my mind the time that girl was in my company were the following assumptions: you (I) don’t have relationships with Black people. They live elsewhere, have different lives. They don’t like you, wouldn’t like you, much less want to be close to you. Was any of this conscious to my teenage mind? No. Robin DiAngelo, paraphrasing psychoanalysis, would likely argue that this doesn’t matter in so far as we have a responsibility to search our minds and upon that endeavor, to be honest. Fair enough.

By the way, I have a teasing question for my friend when we get together, about that fruit he’d given me the last time we saw each other: why was he giving me limes?

  • Actually, the entry “Don’t look at me” (August 2014) is centrally about race

 

Graeme Daniels, MFT

 

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Memory of skittles

 

Do you remember going to movies as a kid, expecting colorful, fun adventures; a gripping, if not especially meaningful story? And do you recall those films whose lulls in exciting action, featuring longwinded dialogue (by my youngest standards, that meant all dialogue besides the phrases “look out!” or “we’re running out of time”) that left you confused, or bored, or possibly disturbed? Some stories, books or films, deposited ideas that I failed to grasp when I was young, but they left residues that my mind later absorbed, reorganized, and therefore put to different uses. Like…

I’ll eschew a Jungian pretense, a scholarly attempt to know the cross-cultural and time immemorial derivatives of modern storytelling. If Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, the first ever film my parents took me to see (that I recall) is based upon, or is meant to parallel some Biblical or otherwise mythical antecedent, I was and still am ignorant of such information. When I saw the film when I was four, or maybe five, circa 1972 or 73’, I came away from the experience, like many other children I think, delighted by the color and mischief of the story. The rainbow images were childlike psychedelia, and an apt reflection of the candy ephemera I and most kids seem to fall in love with. The characters and story of Willy Wonka seemed fun and mildly comic; I was inclined to smile, laugh or even squeal at the playful action. At the same time, however, I recall feeling oddly disoriented by the menacing character that was Willy Wonka, and vaguely concerned for the sympathetic hero, the “honest” Charlie Bucket.

The morality aspect was not lost on me, even as a four or five-year-old. I was, after all, supposed to be downloading guilt around about this time, so a timeless cautionary tale about honesty or greed was actually, uh, well-timed, developmentally speaking. I recall the theme of gluttony being most impactful at the time. This may have been because I was at a movie theater, where candy snacks will have been (as they are still), with no sense of irony, sold in oversized portions to parents and children. I may have been more conscious, via experience, of greed and gluttony issues. Lying or treachery versus faith and honesty were likely not yet my cutting edge concerns. Maybe for me life was more about what I could do, when I could do it; when it was time to play, to stop playing; when is it time to notice too much of a good thing. The theme of patrimony, of passing down a legacy—notions of continuity and mortality—to a worthy heir, was lost on me.

It isn’t today, of course, but as I watched Willy Wonka recently over the holidays (it somehow seems an appropriate Holiday feature), I considered that the themes that resonated with my five-year-old self, that were implicitly deposited then, and which lingered thereafter, are still the ones that resonate most today. An addict is someone who is drawn by a figurative candy store; is seduced by an anticipation of pleasures: if not color or adventure, then of joyful affiliation, like-mindedness and play. The consequences of eating too much, of being self-centered, entitled or arrogant, are observable, but more so by onlookers, not the actors, save for a hero, the one survivor who will be redeemed, and rewarded with a happy ending. As a kid, I didn’t fully understand Charlie Bucket’s happy ending—that piece about inheriting the kingdom, whatever that was about. I just thought he’d been rewarded for not being too greedy. I might have looked at my mother to see if she were directing my attention, hoping I’d get this message, and thus I’d pick up my empty wrappers and not ask for more.

When people taste freedom for the first time, or for the first time in a while (going off to college, life after a separation), there is a sense of loss, one that may be felt palpably or tacitly, like the original losses. Buried. Not Buried. This is when the candy store opens its doors.

 

Graeme Daniels, MFT

 

 

 

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Holden Caulfield would understand

 

Final day of 2016. Possibly the last time I will focus on my most recent novel, the one featuring my most cryptic of titles, Venus Looks Down On A Prairie Vole.

“What the hell is a prairie vole?”, complained one reader, who further implied that he didn’t like obscure metaphors in popular art–that is, until I pointed out that his favorite book was Catcher In The Rye, and that his favorite film was To Kill A Mockingbird, and that his second favorite was One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

“Fine, you’ve made your point,” he conceded, only to add, “But pretty please, so I don’t have to bother Wikipedia—what the fuck is a prairie vole?”

“Fine,” I replied. Fine, I think finally: I will explain more pointedly, more comprehensively than I have before, my oh-so-obscure metaphors. I guess I’ll start with the second one: a prairie vole is a monogamous rodent. I’ve written that before and left it at that, feeling cheekily evasive. But there’s more, of course. I learned about prairie voles a couple of years ago, from the book The Compass of Pleasure, a non-fiction about addictions, whose author, David Linden, wrote with similar cheek about creatures that didn’t fit the masculine stereotype of wanton promiscuity—hence a passage about prairie voles, who not only put a ring on it and devote themselves to one partner, they behave aggressively towards other females who impinge. How romantic. What real men prairie voles are.

The latter trait doesn’t necessarily pertain to psychologist Daniel Pierce, my recently widowed and ever faithful protagonist—at least, not until he meets Lira, a former prostitute antagonist, with whom he engages with tense debate, contesting her careless feminism, which underlies her effort to expose one of Daniel’s patients, who is accused of child abuse, among other things. Because of Daniel’s resistance to her, Lira presumes his solidarity with masculine license, and is only mildly convinced by his grief-stricken diffidence, and much less by his ethical stance on privacy. Still, over the course of the story his reluctant attraction to Lira becomes evident, adding to the air of sacrifice in his character.

Which leads me to the other metaphor, the less obscure term, Venus. No one has asked me about the meaning of this one, which is disappointing on the one hand, and mildly gratifying on the other. I guess that readers get the idea. I think. Anyway, though I believe most readers are aware that Venus is Roman mythology’s answer to Aphrodite, and means goddess of beauty and love, what may not be entirely clear is the term’s relevance to the story.

Well, firstly, and most sentimentally, Venus is a reference to Mary, Daniel’s recently deceased (from cancer) wife, who is “looking down” upon her ever faithful husband, lovingly. You’d think this alone might render Daniel likable, or at least sympathetic, and thus gird him from the wrath of readers who might (like Lira) upbraid him for not later doing the right thing, from an average point of view. Because the average view is that therapists and other mandated reporters can and should, if they have the information, violate their patients’ privacy if said information might help the investigation of child abuse and thus yield the protection of children.

Daniel rejects the simplicity of this argument and therefore represents, as my hero/anti-hero, what I imagine to be one of, if not the most unpopular position that any responsible adult might take in today’s society: the protection of a possible sex offender’s privacy. I was acutely aware when I was writing Venus of how this might affect a reader’s sympathy for my central character.

And as a male writer with a male protagonist, I position center stage the opinion of women, especially. What does Venus, the symbolic everywoman, think of Daniel? Would she think him a hero? Probably not. Merely decent? Maybe. Look down on him, so to speak? Would it be enough for Daniel, to be considered decent? Is being decent enough for men? For Women? It seems to me that many in our culture are reappraising heroism: what counts as heroism—who gets to be a hero. Women seem to feature in more traditionally heroic roles in cinema these days (note the deliberate effort in the Star Wars series, for example), so a millennial, unlike a traditionalist, might chide Daniel for being cowardly, but not rely upon him, necessarily. Lira, for instance, will pursue her cause with or without Daniel’s help. She might not need men anymore, though—and here’s my truly final (not to mention obscure) spoiler—she might join them.

 

Graeme Daniels, MFT

 

 

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Longing to matter

 

End of the year. These are the shortest days as time tumbles towards the new year, and in that compressed space it seems time to add a parting note or two about my last novel, Venus Looks Down On A Prairie Vole. Written mostly in 2015, published in the shortest days of last year, I now feel it slipping from my mind, no longer living a constant, parallel life in my head. I imagine many writers, the successful and the (like me) unsuccessful, are like this. We are fickle. We skipped well upon rocks over water when kids, and are prone to moving on in certain areas of our lives, losing interest before others do, assuming that interest is there in the first place.

For myself, of the various intermingling themes in Venus, freedom and loneliness linger with the most purpose. From the outset of the novel, the freedom of therapist Daniel Pierce is not a happy one. Estranged from his son, and grieving over the death of his wife, he plods through a daily task which reflects a more mundane aspect of his isolation: he struggles to communicate with a representative of an insurance company, seeking to get paid for his services. Intended to satirize the managed care industry, this exchange is bookended at story’s end, and lives in light juxtaposition with the novel’s more serious plot. Yet it highlights an unpleasant side of Pierce’s outsider role, one in which complaints go unheard; acknowledgement, and sometimes reward, is delayed, or withheld indefinitely. The result is helplessness: a sense that he is alone, vulnerable, and—treated as dispensable by a governing machine—fated to lose.

The idea was to set him up (and the reader) for a winning comeback. Daniel Pierce, a stand-in for mental health professionals who are underpaid, who are poorly represented by their associations; for whom laws (like AB1775) are written without their proper consultation, gets to be difficult. He gets to show an arrogant if well-meaning interventionist that he won’t enact hers or mainstream society’s notions of heroism. He gets to show lawyers, even a judge, that he won’t be at their beckon call, and further, that he won’t betray the principles of his profession just because they think there is a greater cause. For anyone who might listen, he (like myself), will expose hypocrisy, tautologies, and—despite the will of a legal and professional system—fashion his own ending.

It’s a fantasy, of course. Side note: I enjoyed a documentary about Alfred Hitchcock recently in which Martin Scorsese enthused about Vertigo, one of my favorite films. He loved the way the film indulged fantasy, dodging that which is plausible for the sake of compelling drama. Amen, I say. And so, Venus is a statement of my fantasy: a longing to matter when isolated and (at least sometimes) unheard. The story is ironic for me in so far as I am largely happy in my relatively isolated, private practice. Yes, I have the occasional problem with managed care, but in Venus I put a little on it for the sake of compelling drama. And yes, I have been subpoenaed and otherwise called upon to break the confidentiality of clients by an importuning authority, but I have not grandstanded as Daniel Pierce does.

The story is ironic for Daniel Pierce in so far as he isn’t necessarily sympathetic to his wrongdoing client. His default advocacy for a man accused of molesting his child is a serendipitous event, and Pierce defends the privacy of their session (the professional one, plus those which symbolically take place away from the confines of an acceptable setting) not because he thinks the man innocent, but rather because he’s concerned with principle: preserving the confidentiality of the therapeutic space, for everyone. If you think that a precious or overreaching cause, especially in the context of child abuse, then consider what I’ve previously written in entries like “Why child abuse isn’t as important as you think”. Why are psychotherapists mandated reporters of child abuse while lawyers and clergy (in effect) are not? Is it because our service isn’t dovetailing with legal rights? Is it because we are secular in our mission?

To address a secondary theme, Pierce isn’t necessarily sympathetic to his misbehaving client base. Though not nearly as hateful as Lira, his women and children’s advocate antagonist, Pierce is often jaded by the sex offending or sexually addictive men that he sits with. Many of them are indeed entitled, or misogynistic, or plainly self-centered, while others are less offensively lost—underdogs of another kind. In some respects, Daniel is like most therapists: trying to be neutral, but nonetheless stumbling into an advocate’s role at times, holding different sides of individuals, including that which is objectionable. As weary with them as he is any oppressive system, Daniel weighs his dedication to those wayward men against a sometimes-I-wonder-why-I-bother-with-you attitude.

I have bothered considerably with the ideas contained with Venus Looks Down On A Prairie Vole. I have, I think, one more aspect, or pair of ideas, to explain. Then it will be time to move on to another story, and perhaps another cause. On to lengthier days.

Graeme Daniels, MFT

 

 

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