Monthly Archives: February 2014

Gloria’s on the run now

Director Sebastian Lello’s Gloria is receiving well-deserved applause for being a tender, courageous look at the much maligned sexuality of aging women, but commentary is still missing the mark of this lovely film as far as I’m concerned. It may take a therapist to fill in the gaps.

Pauline Garcia plays a fifty something woman a few pounds above her best, but still possessing an abundance of charm, not to mention a quietly seductive streak. As the film opens, she appears alone at a bar of the kind of disco that doesn’t seem to exist in the youth-centered world in which I live. Meaning, she’s not exactly out of her element, as nearly everyone seems over fifty, soft around the middle and looking for love. Her character, Gloria, is not really a cougar, as some critics have suggested. There’s no evidence in the film that she is drawn to younger men, as that term implies. She lives alone, works in a sterile office in Santiago, Chile, and leads a lonely and, most importantly, a somewhat unrealized life. Among other things, she drinks too much, smokes marijuana, and seems to lack insight. She meets Rodolfo, a seemingly warm, gentlemanly fellow who diffidently courts Gloria on the dance floor. She gives him winsome looks that tread a line between demur and eager posturing, but in the bedroom, the truth of her hungry desire is unleashed amid carelessly dropped clothes; hers and Rodolfo’s fleshy groping.

All is good for a spell, though it isn’t long before Rodolfo’s feckless nature creates problems. Evasive about an ex-wife, a pair of dependent-adult daugthers, he unnerves Gloria with his reluctance to unveil her to his family. She appears to press the issue by instead introducing him to her family, so within a gathering that dovetails a birthday celebration with a family reunion, subtle points are made about her character. Firstly, the party also introduces Rodolfo to her daughter, who we learn is pregnant, and Gloria’s ex-husband, who was hitherto unaware of his daughter’s condition. The daughter’s truculence towards her father, as depicted in these scenes, is compelling, as it suggest two things: that the daughter, not Gloria, carries the ongoing protest against the once neglectful father, and by extension, absent men in general; secondly, given what we’re soon to learn about Rodolfo, it seems that Gloria is pathologically drawn to unavailable partners, and it is telling that no one appears to notice this. A moment of drama occurs as Rodolfo inexplicably abandons the party, which humiliates Gloria in front of her kids and the ex-husband. Rodolfo appears days later, complaining that he felt mistreated at the party, ignored by Gloria when feeling unwell, and more generally by the intoxicated, family-centered event. His account is thinly credible, but just about good enough for Gloria, who grants him a second chance.    

The affair continues towards disaster with grim inevitability. In the theater, I could hear the murmuring “uh-ohs” of fellow audience members, especially women, who saw where this was going. The pair visit Rodolfo’s place of business, a theme park centered around paintball which he either owns or manages. Among other things, the scene of Gloria playing with a paintball gun foreshadows the end of hers and Rodolfo’s affair, and the style of revenge she will likely seek. Meanwhile, a comic subplot about a stray, hairless cat that keeps infiltrating Gloria’s apartment takes shape for anyone looking for underlying themes. The cat belongs to an upstairs neighbor, a disturbed man who keeps Gloria awake at night with unexplained screaming fits. The cat escapes abuse and seeks bonding with Gloria, but at first she is uninterested, which is significant. She’s too attached to abuse to notice the clues that surround her.

Of course, Rodolfo abandons Gloria a second time. It happens during a romantic getaway to a stylish hotel resort. During dinner, after Gloria has playfully dropped his phone into a plate of soup, which prevents him from taking calls from his clinging daughters, he rises from his seat, kisses Gloria in a manner that seems eerily violent, and walks away, declaring he will be back soon. The audience knows better. He has disappeared, and soon we watch as Gloria pulls an all-nighter: she gambles in a casino, picks up a few friends, an oversexed date who leaves her blacked out on a beach (maybe she’s been assaulted–it’s not clear). Eventually, she wanders back to her hotel, where she learns that Rodolfo has stuck her with the bill. She is humiliated again, defeated.

Redemption occurs (partly) in the aforementioned revenge with paintball guns that Rodolfo has previously (and unwisely) gifted her. Otherwise, she later rejects his predictable appeal for a third chance, but concurrently accepts the cat’s presence, at least until her upstairs neighbor drops by to claim it. Finally, Gloria attends yet another social event, becomes as drunk if not drunker than she had ever been before, and once again makes her way onto a dance floor, which recalls the film’s opening. The difference is that she’s not looking for a partner this time. Dancing to the eighties party favorite, “Gloria”, a seemingly vapid tune whose lyrics are actually something of a cautionary tale, she dances with herself.

It will be tempting for some theater-goers to see the film as an anti-male statement, but I don’t think it is. Such interpretations are for those who tend to externalize problems; who think Gloria is simply a victim of bad men. It’ll take something else for audiences to learn something real from this work of art. It requires a mature sense to experience Gloria as a marvelous film about conflict avoidance, and the need to learn about oneself before committing to others.     


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A Meeting of Trauma and Character

In a crude way, I think I have been caught within the divide that Candace Orcutt describes very well in Trauma In Personality Disorder.  For many years, while working in the field of substance abuse, I was assimilated into a clinical milieu that prioritized character work, more or less, while ignoring trauma work. Then, during the early part of the last decade, I was awkwardly moved to take the level I training for EMDR, the first third of which resembled a late-night infomercial. It was a heady atmosphere, with therapists and social workers enthusing over the prospect of diminishing symptoms in five sessions or less.

            Orcutt’s wonderful book is helping me melt the uneasy feeling that these two realms—character and trauma work—are mutually exclusive goals. No one ever said so directly, nor have I ever put that belief into words. But it’s been in the dialectics, somehow: the discussions between professionals working in teams, or voices heard at conferences, case presentations. Someone will speak of the need for boundaries, limit-setting with a patient, and on cue, someone else will counter with reminders about past traumas, the need for empathy and patience, as if these concepts were all at odds with one another.

I think it’s the same for readers of my novel, Crystal From The Hills. My protagonist, Chris Leavitt, doesn’t readily inspire empathy, largely because his characterlogical defenses (drug abuse, acting out, denial and regression) dovetail with dissociation, creating an aloof, if intriguing figure; a man who is difficult to reach, feel into.  

            I appreciate the breakdown of technique into the five steps: functioning, containment, strengthening, Cognitive and behavioral change, and insightful and dynamic change. There’s a common sense approach here, above all: the patient’s functioning, their surrounding circumstances, provides the “holding environment” for the work. An assessment of such circumstances is where the work starts. Secondly, containment: therapy draws attention to acting out, denying, blaming, substance abuse and other addictions, and the destructive consequences. In strengthening, a consciousness awakes, an afflicted individual starts to take responsibility; a therapist informs that setbacks may happen as a matter of the therapeutic process, or teaches relaxation techniques. The therapist doesn’t rush to provide insight ahead of the patient’s readiness. The patient realizes that the process of individuation occasions anxiety and sadness. Orcutt appears to paraphrase abandonment depression as part of trauma work.

            I appreciated Orcutt’s examples of confrontation of particular defenses. Most are readily understandable. It is even helpful to have each defense assigned a distinctive look and sound. The art of writing is to make ideas seem simple; the technique effortless. I know it isn’t. In the technique that is outlined here, the palette of interventions is widened. Therapeutic neutrality is flexed, and supportive comments and confrontations seem to live together in a therapeutic style. The case of Mrs. X called for many skillful interventions: confronting avoidance (p. 53, 55) and sustaining the thought as she defended against insight. Excellent. Integration is followed by a supportive comment from the therapist, a reminder that trauma distorts time, but that threats are no longer in the moment. Nicely illustrated. The case gets more vivid as Mrs. X becomes more anxious, starts calling the therapist in off hours, with panic about paralysis in her wrists, the fear that she is being held down. She abreacts. The therapist does some reality testing, followed by reassurance, encouragement. Reading this made me nervous, I have to say: this sounds draining.

            Yet the acting out isn’t done. Upon calling for hypnosis, Mrs. X “learns” of her father’s sexual molestation of her, and considers legal action, which would be undermined by the hypnosis, actually. In anger, she turns upon the therapist, who becomes a stand-in for a negligent mother. Like Chris Leavitt, perhaps, she is fascinating and disturbing all at once.

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Fictions from memory

At the outset of a psychotherapy episode, a man referred to me by a trusted colleague outlines goals drawn from a course of group therapy: “I’d like to get to the root of my anger,” he says. I nod, affirming that this seems a worthy goal, though in truth I’m not sure what he means. I mean, I know what a root is, and I know roughly what is meant by the phrase he uses. But I feel uneasy, because I don’t know how to get to the roots of this man’s problem. I don’t think we’ll decide upon something; at least, not in the tidy, package way that treatment plans and opening discourses on therapeutic goals suggest. I don’t think that anyone would find roots to a problem in the sense of finding a definitive answer.

In the first five chapters of Paul Renn’s Silent Past and Invisible Present, the reader gets a review of neuroscientific thought relating to trauma, the formulation of memory; the history of psychoanalysis and its treatment of trauma; how it conceives of childhood memories as either the product of fantasy or else real life events. I am reminded that Sigmund Freud once attributed fantasy wish-fulfillment to patient who reported seduction by a friend of her father. While acknowledging the real-life event, the focus turns to the intrapsychic as far as treatment is concerned, and the case study appears to predict the later disputes between the likes of Klein, Fairbairn, and researcher John Bowlby.

We have declarative memory, autobiographical information that speaks to who we are, or who we think we are. Emotional memory, including thoughts and feelings operating in a relational context, shapes memory and fosters experience of reality. Trauma, the readings propose, distorts or inhibits play, wounds consciousness, and generates false equations, the psychic equivalence between internal reality and external reality. “I know for a fact that she hates me,” said a teenage client once to me. I could not have convinced him otherwise—not that I tried. This problem likely stemmed from the aggregate of events that could not be remembered in detail, or symbolized by verbal description. They were rooted in affect dysregulations, the creation of a false self as trained through misattunements. The amygdala of the limbic system will have been developed to interpret cues coming from early caregivers, process the fight/flight emotional response and provide emotional meaning, and activate memories such that they are experienced thereafter in the moment, as if time stands still. The Hippocampus, that evaluative organizer of information, is inhibited in times of trauma, suggesting a triage of tasks that strikes us as—what?—short-sighted? I suppose I could reflect on experiences of cold feet and sudden holes in my stomach to relate instances of my enteric nervous system influencing my own reactions—memories in my body.

In reading chapters four and five, which seem to recapitulate post Freudian psychoanalytic theory and the debates of its adherents, I note the familiar divides between the likes of Fairbairn and Bowlby, versus Freud and Klein. I continue to wonder if the disagreements were overstated, and that a difference in accent, as in the weight of focus, was most apparent. For example, could not an emotional attachment to a caregiver (Fairbairn, Bowlby) be thought of as a subset of drive theory, in so far as a libidinal gratification is derived from an attachment to a caregiver? After three years of intermittent exposure to this chapter of psychoanalytic history, my philistine curiosity laments, what was the fuss all about? I appreciate the author’s reminder about Winnicott’s notion of the “capacity to be alone”. It seems to me an eloquent statement of the value of silence, as experienced by two people sitting in a room together, experiencing a feeling. It’s not a shared experience per se, because the autobiographies are different, and because each person’s experience of emotion is different. But there are therapeutic values present: empathy, attunement, a witnessing. I think I have these experiences. Finally, I am introduced to the term hermeneutic: the understanding of subjective inner reality, with a distinction drawn between historical truth and narrative truth, between real events that might not have occurred, but are nonetheless “true”. This notion is a tantalizing one. It lets me off the hook from knowing, and I’ve always liked that aspect of my chosen business. The problem is: it lets me off the hook from knowing.

In my novel, Crystal From The Hills, Chris Leavitt copes with his traumas, recent and past, with distortions, and through play: it is play gone wrong for an adult male with responsibilities and a supposed bright future ahead of him. What he really wants is to go back in time, pretend nothing happened, both on an intellectual and emotional level, and start life over again. The problem, solution, and the hope, lies in the witnesses: the impromptu, reluctant therapists that are the people around him. He believes what has happened to him, whether it has or not, because it fits his narrative truth, and his courage–his happy, yet unsentimental ending–is in facing his distortions.

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February 2, 2014 · 8:39 am