Monthly Archives: August 2016

The Black Stallion

 

If you’ve never seen this film, do so, for it will teach you something plain 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 story-opening 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 life 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 an intimate 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 as it does 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, and above all, safe. As the mother, Teri Garr plays a similar role to the one she’d played in Close Encounters two years earlier. Irritable yet sympathetic, jaded by masculine risk-taking but ultimately forced to indulge it, she is a bystander witnessing a compulsion. This comparatively predictable second half 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 finale 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. And this is what sententious art has to say about trauma: our native selves will prevail. Over several laps Black bridges the gap between himself and his rivals. As he passes them 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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