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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