Monthly Archives: July 2016

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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Sexual Narcissism

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“I’m in porn.” He’d said it quickly, in a clipped voice, while looking away, like he’d wanted the words off him, shooed away. I gave him a stilled look at which he grinned teasingly, masking unease. “Well, alright. I’m getting into porn, I should say. I’ve been in one clip so far.”

“Uh-huh. What film? What’s its title?” Rick laughed again, and shook his head. I felt like an idiot, stalling with questions to conceal my blushes.

“What film? I don’t know, man. Who cares…what film? Big dicks. It’s called ‘Big dicks’. There. I just gave it a title.”

“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to—”

“Nah, it’s cool. I don’t know why I’m giving attitude, actually. I’ve got a name, if that means anything. Kane—Kane Able. How do you like it?”

“A play on…I suppose.”

“Sure.”

“That’s good,” I lied.

So I asked about plot. About the film with no name: I asked if his clip contained any plot, or acting, or even theme. Surprisingly, Rick, or Kane—was pretty sure I’d not make the shift on this one—said there was. Firefighting, he said, not surprisingly. His part, as in his role, was that of a firefighter who has entered a burning building to rescue a trapped woman, who is feebly crying out (I imagined the acting) until the hero arrives, ready to spare her. The room is very hot, about which the performers comment wittily, and then the room gets hotter, and soon they don’t care so much about the fire and…well, you get the picture.

“Any dialogue?” I asked. Rick looked at me as if I were reading from a book of stupid questions.

“I ad-libbed this one line as I came: ‘fire in the hole, baby’, I said.” This time I said nothing. “I know, don’t tell me,” Rick lamented. “Pretty dumb, huh?”

“Did she say anything, have any lines, ad lib or scripted?”

Rick shook his head, uttered a dismissive noise, like I’d asked whether the props spoke on set. I blew air through my teeth, and thought of Lira.

“That’s typical. It goes to show there just aren’t enough good roles for women these days.”

— a passage from Venus Looks Down On A Prairie Vole

An example of parody in my mischief novel: the name Kane Abel is a play on words, of course, common to porn actors. My favorite from the real world of porn? Peter North. Subtle, right? Anyway, Kane is otherwise Rick, a young man whom Daniel Pierce meets while living at a sober living house, wherein he’s in retreat from a fraught personal and professional life. Rick’s day job is in a seafood restaurant, as a chef. There he causes trouble, disturbing his boss and Daniel’s temp boss, Jimbo, by stirring unrest, harassing female staff, flirting with nubile customers, doing very little cooking, it seems, while strutting his sex like a farmyard stud. Rick likely thinks his place in the service industry has layered meaning. He’s the kind of man who feels entitled to promiscuity, who feels offended, let down by another man’s diffidence, thinking that humankind benefits from the indiscriminate sharing of seed. He’ll try to re-ignite something in Daniel, provoke a libidinal return in the grieving, wilted psychologist. That last line, Daniel’s teasing of a feminist complaint, glides over Rick’s head, not so much because of stupidity, but rather self-absorption.

The role of women. What indeed is the role of women?

**image by Philip Lawson

 

 

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Have you ever been with…?

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She rolled her head slightly, like she was lining me up in her crosshairs. “You are shitting me”, she began hotly. “I know what you’re saying, but it’s not even the same. Man, I’d like to see you walk in a prostitute’s shoes. Only then would you know how lonely and scary it can be. Tell me you know what it’s like to work knowing your life is at risk: that you could be killed, jumped at any time because you carry cash; jumped in your own home if that’s where you do business; that no one will protect you unless you pay them; that no one would even care what happens to you cuz they think you’re nothing. Tell me you know what it’s like to give up your body everyday, to men who barely think of you as human, knowing that you’re giving away that part of yourself, every night.”

I gazed upwards, studiously contemplating sky and stars, life on Venus and Mars, alien yet pure of love and hate. “Well, I don’t know about the getting killed part. But the rest I can compare with, roughly.”

“Uh-huh?” she scoffed. “So you think you relate to prostitutes. How many have you been with?”

“Wait, I never said I’d been with a prostitute. I mean—”

She laughed back. “Yeah, I bet you haven’t.”

“I haven’t,” I replied adamantly. She relented.

“Alright. I’ll believe that, I guess, but it shows you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Well I’ve listened to quite a few—had them as patients.”

“Uh-huh.” She sat quietly for another few moments, letting her amusement subside. Then her voice turned somber, almost reverent.

“You ever cheat on your wife?”

“No,” I said flatly. She nodded inertly. “You believe me?” I followed up.

“I guess.” I uttered a noise which she took as a rebuke. “What do you want, a medal?”

I paused upon feeling aggrieved. “Sort of,” I replied.

“What?” she asked laughing.

“I should get a medal, actually. Any man who manages to avoid temptation should get a medal.”

“Any man? How about women?”

“Okay, women too, but it’s not the same for them.”

It got better. Soon I was expounding upon all the disadvantages men feel in the realm of sex.

–a passage from Venus Looks Down On A Prairie Vole

So a character poses a question, “have you ever been with a prostitute?” In doing so, the female antagonist is half-shaming the everymale of my story, and half-challenging his social critic credentials. Because he claims to know something. Daniel Pierce, my jaded psychologist, alcoholic widower, has a few thoughts on the subject of prostitution: like the chestnut leftist argument that all occupations in the western world entail prostitution. Therefore he doesn’t wring his hands on behalf of women, especially not women like Lira, who hardly seem like victims. Objectified? As in treated as, or thought of as an object? Sure, he concedes. But so is everyone to one degree or another, he retorts. Has she been subjectified, as in abused, or discarded. Not really, she admits, though she’s had close calls, and felt a constant risk. But she’s also profited considerably from her illicit business, spared herself the financial uphill that many of her same-age peers, male and female, face in today’s world. Above all, like any natural survivor or leader, this alpha prostitute has been nobody’s waif, but rather a cool, even dominant figure in the quasi intimate transactions of her past. In those dark, clammy pairings who has been more vulnerable, more ashamed, more consistently?

Her? Daniel Pierce writes a different script

** rendering by Philip Lawson

 

 

 

 

 

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