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The Big Hand of Intromission

A man looks down upon a moth that is fluttering above a carpet surface.

I’m thinking of something I don’t know. I’ve heard of enigmatic messages, and more specifically of something called intromission, as there is nothing happening here that can be called a tenderness. It is simply a reference point to an unknowable moment. My feeling is cold, detached, and tender in the broadest sense because of the gap between my life and that of an imminent victim. A notion of anal-sadistic objects comes to me, cut from a slice of film from memory—an hoary Spanish drama featuring cruel children beating upon a legless cripple, captured upon grainy black and white celluloid. Luis Bunuel: what a childhood he must’ve had to think this was worth expressing. Back to the moth. The fluttering, oblivious creature is an already defined, pre-digested figure. It has no meaning beyond its lesser form, its already brokenness, so the impending cruelty lacks meaning. It, the crushing sudden death, will make no sense to it. Its life will be reduced to a supposed nothing, but its life’s meaning only makes sense as part of a multitude. As part of a species, the moth has a purpose. Alone, separate from its group, its pack, it is asking for its own end.

What was the story here? Why did it separate from its familiar others, and is this what moths do? A scientist would know. This is the kind of question, after all, that scientists do know. If not, they’ll at least have a specific name for the kind of scientist that knows things about moths. Well, it seems to have been searching for food. Nothing surprising there. Don’t blame you, pal. Been there, done that. Feeling peckish myself, though you’re not my type, actually. Anyway, I get it. Sometimes, you have to stray from home, from the breast, to find that sticky globule of sugar on the floor, that crusty residue of bread. Everything that lives has gotta eat, even in the face of death. Last supper, and so on. The difference with us humans is that we think we know when death’s coming. Yeah, we know because we’ve noticed our brethren hit the ground and not get up; some of us have seen them close their eyes and not open them again. At times, if unlucky, we’ve seen one another get eviscerated, annihilated—blown or torn to pieces, and disappear, rendered meaningless. That’s how it seemed when I witnessed something like that in my life. In the human world that’s called trauma. It’s called trauma because we’re invested with something called memory.

You’re lucky, I suppose, watching you enjoy your last meal. You don’t have memory, or fear. You can’t. You probably don’t even have pain. You’re virtually broken, a nothing. This will mean nothing to you, what I’m about to do. Above all, you won’t understand what’s happening, even when you perceive the looming threat in that split-second in which you attempt flight. It will be too late because I have been patient in my cruelty. I have hovered my hand over you and slowly descended to the point in which the final, decisive strike can be made. You have not noticed soon enough. You have been enjoying your meal, your short life and all of its pleasures, and your reflexive, signal danger mechanisms that ordinarily served you to this point have let you down. It’s okay. This was meant to be. You are small, insignificant, and a nuisance, and though it seems gratuitous, I must establish my control, my dominion over this space. See, I imagine that your brethren will be watching off to the side, taking note of the warning. Or not, if they’re as stupid as you—if they’re not paying attention, not learning about power, un-sentient and thus unaware of individual life. Alright, enough of this. This has already taken up enough time in my day. Life goes on. Well, mine will, at least. So long, pal. Try to relax when you notice what’s happening. Your short, brutish life was predestined, and maybe its point will make sense to you at some point. It’ll…wait, what’s that falling down towards me. It’s darkening and huge and…getting bigger. What the

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The Who hits back

Went to see The Who again a couple of weeks ago. Last time? Dunno. They seem to keep coming back, “hitting back” according to the slogans of their latest tour, long, so long after I thought they’d retire. Hitting back on what? I mean, when their tour was announced I thought, really? What’s this about? Money? All those stray musicians needing gigs, plus all that equipment languishing in a warehouse in West London? Legacy? Not wanting the pandemic to end your career for you? Well, I’ll say this: it’s not just a sad, aging cabaret act, which is what I’d feared they’d become once upon a time. Pete Townshend is playing at least as well as he did in 16’ and 17’, the last time(s) I saw them. They were about as good on this night as they were in 04’, the previous outing I’d seen before that—backing orchestra or no backing orchestra. He, Townshend, was already sporting a late-middle age demeanor on that prior occasion: a curmudgeonly genius, then reeling from a child-porn viewing scandal that has tainted him with some—and surely blown his chance at get a knighthood—but it seems to have blown over with most fans. Why? Well, for one thing, because he’s everything his eternal advocate, Roger Daltrey, keeps saying of him: he’s brilliant, ageless, and sturdier than most ever thought he was.

Daltrey’s even sturdier, having taken better care of himself than Townshend ever did—perhaps better than any septarian ever did. He always ate right, drank little, exercised well, and has had lots of sex**. Are they as good as ever? Of course not, though at 77 and 78 respectively, Townshend and Daltrey are a model for any aging performer, especially those of the R n R variety. But lest anyone get lost in delusion, they have long since dispensed with the acrobatics, the insane volume, or the anarchic sub-professional habits and attitudes that once brought them fame but also threatened their careers and lives. As any fan of theirs knows, their original drummer, Keith Moon, rode his talent and reckless personality into the ground over forty years ago, succumbing in the late seventies while the band was in its prime. John Entwistle, the prematurely aged yet venerable bassist, passed twenty plus years later after a similarly drug-induced misadventure, and while the Ox (or “quiet one”, as he was affectionately known) was not quite the hellish desperado that Moon was, his demise was also an indictment of The Who’s original image and ways. The twosome that soldier on since then exudes a much cleaned up relinquishing of their halcyon decadence. Brandy and hellraising have been displaced by purely hydrated water and yoga, probably. Hotel violence disappeared not that long after the guitar smashing, around about the time bell-bottoms went out of style. When they first “retired” back in 82’ and performed a so-called farewell tour, one of their opening acts, The Clash, will already have thought them old-fashioned.

Back then, no one thought rock stars had lengthy careers, so stars that were pushing forty (at that time, that only meant them, The Stones, and maybe The Kinks), still touring and recording hits, were a novelty. Rock and professionalism of the kind that sustains careers over decades were not words that went together in the classic rock era. So, as rock critic Dave Marsh wrote as early as 1980, how have they lasted this long, really? Well, they haven’t, really, at least not constantly. They’ve had many spells on the sidelines, nursing tour wounds and pop biz jadedness. But enough of that stuff. I’ve written about or summarized The Who before in this blog. I even wrote a book about them. Check it out if you like; it’s pretty good, I think. It isn’t popular, doesn’t even have a cult following, unlike The Who in their early days, when “I Can’t Explain” would get to, like, #93 on the charts. Or, maybe that was just in Detroit. I forget. I should’ve researched things like that more rigorously; that way, the book would have been better: its moment in the Kirkus sunshine, on the Facebook afterglow, might have been a tad longer.

Now that I think of it, how do I last? I mean, in what I do for a living, not this writing thing on the side, and even in what I assign to this legendary band whose day-to-day life, as I imagine it, now reminds me of my own, which is an absurd thing to write though it may make sense by the end of this entry. I sort of promise this. But I must preface the parallels with an inventory of my fandom, by which I mean the music side of things, not the folklore: I haven’t stopped listening to Live at Leeds, having sampled all four versions of it by now, for not quite the same length of time as they’ve been available. Meanwhile, that album has almost been superseded in my affections by Live at Filmore 68’, which features, among many gems, a sprawling, insanely noisy, indecently long, chaotic and therefore glorious version of “My Generation”, which they don’t appear to play anymore, perhaps because the tired irony of their singing the line, “Hope I die before I get old”, has at last been laid to rest. As I ponder the catalogue of The Who, which I will do at least one more time before I write something of myself, I’ll declare that I listen to Quadrophenia more than I do Who’s Next—clearly, their best two albums, time now decrees; that Tommy has had a revival in my mind, and so has Who Sell Out, and Meaty, Beaty, Big & Bouncy, but…okay, I hardly listen anymore to the unfortunately titled, It’s Hard. It’s hard to listen to, actually, and I can’t believe more fans don’t tell that joke. Face Dances is under-rated, and so is Who By Numbers, but they’re little more than time-capsuled curiosities these days, so is Who Are You. These albums get a few spins from time to time, but ultimately, each are a bit too flaccid to sustain a presence on the playlist.

The truth of what fans want was in the playlist of the concert. The early stuff is out—they played nothing pre-Tommy, I’m sad to report. “Eminence Front” is apparently popular, and does indeed have a seductive riff to it. But I’d rather hear “Substitute” or “Magic Bus”, or…I don’t know…, “A Quick One While He’s Away”, to give a few examples. I know. Where do I come in?  You promised, sort of, you’re thinking. Well, I compare myself. Now that I’m middle-aged, somewhat curmudgeonly, and perhaps stuck with an analogous playlist of my own, I hit pause on my judgements, feeling an uneasy affinity with my once aging and now aged heroes. They have their routines, and so do I. They have their inspirational flourishes, and I suppose I do as well. But as I travel day-to-day from home to office, think of exchanges, bouts of heavy listening interspersed with reflective thought, I think my chops are polished, and my pacing is indeed sturdy, but…what else? Are there any surprises in the mix? There are plenty, actually, and they do sustain me, just about, alongside copious doses of hydrated water. I just can’t tell you much about them. My playlist, as in my repertoire of everything from gimmicks to moments of inspiration, is a private one, this 300 plus-deep catalogue of essays notwithstanding.

Towards the end of a concert, fans start to get a bit tense, I notice. A rumbling tally occurs of what songs have been played and which haven’t. Suspense rises as the music builds to a climax. What will close the set? Will there be an encore? On the night in question, a supposed curfew prevented the band playing on beyond 11pm, so it’s anyone’s guess what they might have done but for that obstacle. They didn’t hit back on the LA county rules. The Who aren’t like that anymore. Who are they? Yes, it’s a cheap and tired joke, but still worthy of a mention. Who are we? Who am I? it’s the corollary they’ve half-seriously spoken back, inviting fans to muse upon life in between songs. Well, they at least have gotten with their times, by which I mean they’re asking for help in their dotage. I mentioned an orchestra before. Yeah, they had one: a fifty-musician deep gathering that provided depth to their sound, filling in the spaces where only guitar solos used to go. At first, I didn’t like the sound of it. They seemed to drown out Pete’s guitar during the Tommy pieces, and only later did he seem to catch up; perhaps he remembered to turn up the volume on his amp.

For a finale, they brought out a ringer: a sleek, sexy violinist dressed in black leather to play the coda bars of “Baba O’Riley”, one the The Who’s undisputed classics. This bit of getting-with-the-times brought out my jaundiced side. I’ve written before (ya know, that aforementioned book) about The Who not employing the same gimmicks that some of their contemporaries have in the past—that of sexing up the show with glamorous women off to the side, swaying and swooning while in song, displaying for the younger set why we should all get down with the good old boys, Pete and Rog. Pink Floyd did that for a while, so did the Stones. Anyway, the violinist was an excellent musician as well as being requisitely hot, so the final run of notes in “Baba” were indeed thrilling. It was good, though it seemed like a moment lifted from a Hans Zimmer performance, not a rock concert. Speaking of obligation, sometime earlier in the show, just before playing a kind-of protest song called “The Seeker”, Pete played elder statesman, soap-boxing to the crowd a few comments about the social order of the day: we should spare a moment of thought for the homeless in all of their tent cities; we should reflect on how lucky we are to be gathered in a stadium, with most of us not wearing masks, having survived the pandemic. We should think about Ukraine. Then, like the old man at the holiday dinner table, he self-effacingly remarked that he was surprised anyone still listened to him. The audience returned a sympathetic moan, not hitting back, and then the rock and roll returned for a few more songs, replete with inclusivity, post-MeTwo sexiness, plus The Who’s enduring appeal to the pop-digital mediasphere: we still belong here, they proclaim.

**consensual sex between adults, of course, not what Townshend was accused of in 2003. The story that broke that year was initially shocking to fans, but I think most suspended judgement when it was revealed that Pete had accessed a child porn website with his credit card and was subsequently arrested and questioned by police. He claimed to be doing research, actually concerned with child porn distribution via Eastern Europe and seeking to expose pornographers, not to consume their product. He was also doing preliminary work on an autobiography that he completed years later, which featured reflections upon his own child abuse victimization. Pete’s accessing a child porn site was at least an act of naivite and probably hubris, though Townshend never downloaded any imagery. That said, he broke the law so ultimately police gave him a formal caution and, more damagingly, placed him on a sex offender registry for five years. For some, that eventuality stamped Townshend as a pedophile. Since my bias towards him and The Who is well known to my friends, but also because my work with sex offenders is known, I have on occasion been asked to give my admittedly biased and blunt opinion on all this: I don’t think Pete Townshend is a pedophile. I think what this and countless other media-inflated episodes have “exposed” is the widespread idiocy and hysteria that social media platforms.

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Where are you from?

The question wasn’t the first thing the woman said. The first thing she said was hello, coupled with an inviting smile. Inviting, not yet leering. Initially, the question struck me as odd given that I hadn’t yet shown my otherness, as some are putting it these days. She sounded foreign, as I do. We are both distinguishable by sound, not by sight in an ever-race conscious and unconscious world. Did she know? Did she care, really, where I was from? That was the next thing she said, her first query: an invite in disguise. A flirtation, I gathered, perhaps one as old as time.

I’d glimpsed the moment ahead of time having gotten about ten seconds of notice. I was walking towards her, studiously, even ploddingly in the moment, feeling an inkling of exchange. “Uh, I’m from around here,” I replied, returning a vacuous gaze. Now I was studiously uninteresting, hoping to passively discourage. I smiled thinly, circled a finger in the air, suggesting at best an ambient residency. As I turned away, I caught a last glimpse of the woman’s smile, now lingering until a last moment of possibility. I half expected her to unleash a trailing appeal, or else to hurl rejection-inflected insults at me. I heard nothing, so in the moments that followed I thought of other moments—moments of horror, joy, and something in between, that come and go, fleetingly and not—interspersed with fateful decisions.

Prior to the encounter, I’d been daydreaming of news stories from South Africa, and another from Indonesia, about two women killed by predators: the first by a shark, the second by—get this—a python! The first one felt especially tragic because the person was on vacation. How cruel, I think, and then darkly riposte: that’s a real spoiler. She’d decided to go for a morning swim near a beach house and was wading through waist-high water when a Great White speared its way through a wave and bit her in half. Her remains were later found nearby on the seabed. Certainly not something anyone would expect as they plod along amid seemingly quiet water, minding one’s own business. I wonder if she’d been daydreaming at the point of impact.

The second incident occurred during the course of a person’s workday, so somehow that equates in my mind to a more readied, bracing state, and therefore somewhat less of a victimization. Work is a derivative of the hunt, so…guilt? No, not quite. How about the thing about being on vacation, as in being at rest, off one’s guard–the fear of going to sleep. Yeah, that feels truer. The bizarreness of thought is perhaps belied or rivaled by that of the actual story, in which the victim walks into a jungle from her village—apparently a daily occurrence (can’t recall what her job was)—only to be met by the hungry serpent, which then consumes her entirely.  The evidence of this grisly event unfolded following her disappearance, which led to a search of the jungle by villagers and the discovery of the now quite-bloated python, which was then killed and soon dissected, revealing the poor woman’s still-intact body. The stupidity of that snake is rivaled by my own asinine imaginings: did it give itself indigestion? What is the escape plan when you’ve killed an eaten something that is so big you can barely move? Anyway, greed is a deadly, punishable sin, after all.

I know what you’re thinking. The woman in the street with the inviting smile/leering come on is not a predator per se. I did think her a seducer, possibly a prostitute. It wasn’t exactly difficult to walk on from what some might call a “trigger” moment. Instead, it stirred a contemplation of desire and how it is communicated. See, I imagined another kind of unfolding: a scenario wherein I pause, indulge a further inquiry or two, and in so doing I encourage further action. In this reverie I pass a threshold, enter a domicile that is shadowy and unkempt, one-half a house of ill-repute, otherwise a disheveled, multiple-occupant space. From that point onwards, the invitations become blunter. Do I want to have some fun? Yes, I might nod, almost obligatorily. The woman would mention a number, omitting the word “dollars”, plus a body part to signify price and specific action; also, the air of flirtation would quickly subside, perhaps disappear abruptly. She absents herself for another protracted moment, leaving me alone with my thoughts, a premature regret. The lights are dimmed, the stage is semi-prepared, but the pants are still on and the doors are not yet locked, and if I dashed through a wave, I could escape from this escape from something, especially as I eat lightly, for the most part.

Well, none of this is happening, I think to myself amid the fresh breeze and the light, wholesome day. The flirtation: it came and it went like a pest, albeit one with a certain slatternly allure. Where am I from? Where am I going? That’s a better question. I’m choosing…for now. Always now.

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Little Hans

Had a dream last night that the world was different from the way it is. I mean, in a way that I couldn’t put my finger on, but something was missing. Something big yet abstract, kind of, like a way of being, of thinking. The manifest contest (not sure where that term came from) was plain enough, as in not weird. Dreams are weird sometimes, aren’t they? It’s curious that no one ever came up with an idea to think about dreams and what they mean about our psychology. If they had I’d know because I’ve been a psychologist for twenty-five years: I’ve treated kids in school and hospital settings; talked to parents in family conferences; spoken to couples, using the Gottman method; treated adult individuals with conditions ranging from everyday depression, to addiction problems, to phobias—even some psychotic behaviors. The model has been eclectic, employing a range of behavioral theories, but mostly I’m a traditionalist. I know it sounds corny, and some of my peers don’t like to admit this, but at some point, you have to think back to the founders of the profession. You have to acknowledge that the father of modern psychology, William James, knew what he was talking about. Anyway, back to the dream, which was pretty true to life when it came to the physical aspects: the setting was like a school, all modern with its white or off-grey walls, sleek and tidy architecture; its smooth, uncomplicated design, configured so that people could move easily, funnel in and out of spaces like they might swish into a sink-hole. The only thing, as in physical thing, that was missing, was a defined space for the conversation I was having with this group, as in no room per se. The conversation was about a kid with a phobia. It was about a kid we called Little Hans.

             I’m not saying it wasn’t his real name, but there was a sense that it was a pseudonym. No one explained that he was of German heritage, or why his parents kept referring to him as “little” Hans. We stood around in a circle, my colleagues and I, in the middle of this expanded space I’ve described, trying to figure out what to do about “little” Hans, who had a fear of horses apparently, which some thought not a big deal because…well, can’t you just avoid horses? They asked. It’s not like this is nineteen hundred and we need the damned beasts for everything we do. So, while one or two joked about things like that, myself and one or two others focused on the task at hand and took seriously the treatment plan, which we’d need to complete soon and submit to the county so as to ensure reimbursement for the quarter. There was a stranger in the midst, a short guy with old-fashioned glasses, kinda old-looking, who had an accent—possibly a German accent—who kept saying odd things about Hans’ phobia being a displacement of something, though he wouldn’t say of what exactly, and that little Hans’ life was “uncontained” and compared that “phenomenon” to the manner of the discussion, as if that were relevant. I didn’t know where he came from or who he represented. The kid’s family, maybe? Anyway, we sort of indulged his nuisance comments but managed to focus the discussion soon enough, especially on the matter that this Germanic guy was not talking about: namely, what do we do about the kid’s phobia?

             My main idea had to do with empathy. I’m known for this. I can usually find the angle that facilitates empathy, which has a healing impact for the patient. Let’s have litt—I’m just gonna call him Hans—think about the experience of the horse; the horse’s feelings, not his. Hans is nine years old. He can do this. He can consider that the horse is some other horse’s daughter or son—we don’t know if the gender of the horse matters, or whether horses are gender fluid—or whether the horse is another horse’s mother or father…or uncle…or cousin. That was other people weighing in with those relations—a bit gratuitous I thought. We’d gotten the point. Next, I thought we could have Hans make out a pros and cons list: everything that is good or bad about horses, or he could add a section about things he doesn’t know. Meaning, he might not know all that he likes or dislikes about horses. On this point, the German guy, who had gone quiet for a spell, seemed modestly approving. He was nodding tentatively, muttering something about not knowing. Weird guy—named Samuel Friend, or something—he seems to like not knowing about something. We moved on. Someone thought to add EMDR tapping procedures to the mix. Funny, but anytime someone suggests this, they like to mime the action, as if we wouldn’t get it otherwise. Problem is, no one’s had more than stage 1 training on EMDR on that so we’d have to refer out, I think. Can’t do that. A colleague of mine who was in the dream who has a socially conscious angle to most of what he brings to the table spoke of institutional speciesism and the fact that historically horses have been subject to widespread abuse so they are traumatized. Everyone agreed but wondered what that had to do with Hans since he was afraid of horses, not the other way around. He said that’s true but thought his point built upon mine and therefore Hans could be moved on another level to think about the horse’s experience, not just his own.

             Are you suggesting that horses have memories that they inherit from the experience of the species? Asked the guy who I think was named Samuel Friend, who was also bristling at the notion that he was a fan of “not knowing” and saying that not knowing was more the thing of a guy named bionic or something who would emerge years after him. Friend said he thought Hans’ phobia was about a renunciation of his needs for gratification so he avoids going into the street or near any stable where horses are. Okay, by now this guy was really getting on my nerves. What was he on? Was he a psycho, and was he a patient who had slipped into our conversation, or “swished” in from some other place in the clinic, infiltrating our circle? Strange, but for a moment I was starting to think like he did, like there was a meaning to the lack of walls, a partitioned space for our discussion. I could say more, but my recollection of the dialogue gets murky after this, suggesting the dream had stopped, or that I woke up. I can’t remember. Dreams are like that, I notice. They’re always…I don’t know…unfinished. Also, I get the feeling I might be editing this in a way, like I’m adding something, or missing something. Jesus, there I go again, thinking like that guy. By the way, I think he left the circle at some point, sort of drifted off like he didn’t belong—like he was realizing that finally.

I have to snap out of this. I have to deal with “Little” Hans, about whom his family is calling. He’s letting us down, his parents complain. For some reason, riding horses is really important to them, or to the father anyway. They bought this horse for Hans for his birthday. He’s being ungrateful. The father’s the one who’s leaving me messages, sounding very strident; very harsh. Listening to his messages, I’m having another idea: can’t they just shoot the horse, get rid of the problem. But that’s not helpful, I soon remind myself. I should call the father back, let him know we’ve got a plan, that we know what we’re talking about; that we know what to do about Little Hans.

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Fire in the hole

Recommendations for technique. That’s what Freud called his paper on the matter. A bit plain, don’t you think, rather like ‘psychology in everyday life’—another good one. Took him a while, it seems, to gather his thoughts and give some tips on how to do things his way. Can’t believe he wrote it after Totem and Taboo (1912), or Three Essays (1905), or his first big splash into big, meta-thought, Interpretation of Dreams (1900). That’s where he laid out the big ideas**, suggesting that we all have an unconscious that surreptitiously guides the mind; that children have sexual fantasies; that humankind acquired guilt feelings more or less biologically, from a prehistoric moment in time when an incest occurred and a tribal elder was murdered and then cannibalized.

Oops!

Yeah, back to the present day, to the plainer task of sitting with a troubled person looking for guidance, thinking that an analyst might have answers. Sigmund eventually suggested that his acolytes (meaning his proteges) assume a position of medical authority, with the authority and spirit of a scientist gathering evidence. Worthily, he suggested that analysts keep a relative distant, listen with “evenly hovering attention”, encouraging free association though anticipating resistance, and above all, maintaining a neutral stance. That meant, roughly, not imposing beliefs onto a needy patient. There’s enough of that in religion, Sigmund thought. Others elaborated the idea: don’t gratify, we’re told in training. Don’t assume the expert stance with reassurances, with advice, or even what we might preciously call affirmations. If a patient says, “I went to church and said my prayers” in a cheerful, relieved voice, there’s no need to say, “good for you”, as if they’d otherwise feel guilty about the pronouncement. We’re not behaviorists looking to reinforce what people already think is a sound, healthy way to live. What are they hiding, or even reversing? Freud would have wondered. Sex and aggression. That’s what he was listening for. Of course, people have other needs, but sex and aggression are what people inhibit, or repress, as he termed it. He was right.

Indifference was another word he used to describe an analyst’s stance. A lot of people don’t like this suggestion. Taking him a bit literally, I think. I think my couples’ therapist is bought into this indifference thing, though not in the way Sigmund recommended. Indifference. Damn right she is. Doesn’t give a shit, I mostly think. Caught her looking at the clock after ten minutes in our last session. Can’t say I blame her. Sometimes, when Liz is bending my ear, I’m gone after a minute and a half—sometimes under thirty seconds. The therapist and her get on like a house on fire, like they could give or take me being there. I half expect them to go out for coffee afterwards—that’s when they’d really sort things out. In the meantime, the therapist has got to play her part, which means pretending that she cares about the two of us and that I have a legitimate point of view. A fair amount of nodding conveys this. Not very neutral, an analyst would say. Sometimes, there’s much effusion in the room: arms wave about, moving the air, performing an illusory expansion of otherwise benign principles. Yes, we should have boundaries. We should come up with a pros and cons list about our relationship. There’s so much to unpack here, this woman exudes with tired eyes and a fiercely contained sigh.

She was fascinated by our first visit, and by the “uncanniness” of the situation that brought us to her. Unpacking is right. Packing too, and packing quickly. Funny also, that thing I said about a house on fire, for it was a literal fire in our quite material home that nearly went up in flames because of nearby wildfires that penetrated our indifferent, ungratifying life and upset the homeostatic deadness. Liz and I: we knew we’d get little familial sympathy should this happen. Sure enough, everyone who had an opinion about our woodsy home on the lake warned us of the danger ages ago. Since the evacuation, they’ve not been so much indifferent as smug, though most don’t the half of it. Right now, I’d take indifference or smugness about our current state of transiency, especially as we can go back soon because the fire actually stopped short of our place, but mainly because the fire’s not the real reason we’re seeing a therapist.

But it is an interesting metaphor for your relationship, that therapist observed. A disaster, or a disaster averted, which means an opportunity. I think that’s what she meant, plus the fact that the approaching threat of fire caused an ironic discovery. See, if it hadn’t been for the fire then Liz wouldn’t have been packing things up in a hurry (packing things in a hurry and Liz are not words that go together) and therefore finding photos and letters from an old relationship that I was keeping from her. Very sentimentalist of me, not to mention careless. But I had my excuses, which cued my counter-complaint, which has to do with her cluttering, not my pre-digital era affair-seeking behavior, which—as the discovered ephemera suggests—is not even an up-to-date thing anymore. In that sense, I’m as dead as our marriage. She doesn’t even think I’m having an affair. It’s that I hold on to things, but not her. So, nothing like a disaster to shake things up, some might say. Damn right, I say for a second time. Liz half thinks that I started the wildfire as an attempt to leverage a clean-up; as a protest against her indifferent, cluttering habit. I didn’t, of course, but it’s not a bad idea, I’ve since quipped. In fact, I’m surprised no one has thought of it, or that it hasn’t been mooted as a common arsonist’s motive. When we get like this the therapist’s eyes glaze over, like she’s had enough of us. Her interest in the uncanny, near cosmic events that bring patients to her office isn’t sufficient to help her endure the prosaic disputes of everyday life. There’s little hope for us, I think she thinks. What’s your plan? She drones wearily.

Or, she’s invigorated by an inspiration, thinks there’s something in these metaphors that keep popping up, especially fire. It happened towards the end of that last session. She reached out her arm, like she was prying her way between us, but also aping a movement Liz assigns to me: that of a football player stiff-arming an opponent while in full flight, like the figure frozen on that famous trophy, the Heizmann. It’s what I do to Liz, I guess: I stiff-arm. Anyway, this therapist’s gesture looks like this, so it drew a burst of sniggers from my beloved. Fire. What had we been talkin’ about? The woman asked. What is the meaning of this crisis? Liz held her hand over her mouth, clearly holding something back. I held mine slightly open, as if tentatively waiting for something to enter me: a fire in the hole, so to speak. Fire in the belly, the woman translated, as though reading my mind. And where is the fire between us? Liz and I glanced at each other, at once knowing where this was going. On that we were on the same page. We got it: fire, as in passion, needed to be rekindled. That’s what the fire was really about. That’s what this disaster really means, and so we have a choice. We’re at a crossroads. Jesus, how many metaphors are we gonna stick in this thing? Do we burn still for each other. Gotta stick in this thing. Speaking of which, should we try that again? Liz and I thought. Better tidy things up first, she said.

** yes, yes, Freud’s first major model of the mind was called Seduction theory, and it was a trauma model grounded in the idea that not everyone had an unconscious—only those suffering from reminiscences, meaning sexual traumas that will have been enigmatic originally, subject to repression because they are impossible to understand, but later activated and understood thru secondary sexuality. Are we all traumatized in childhood in this way, to one degree or another? Do we all get messages in infancy that are eroticized in nature, that we simply can’t take in?  

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Matt, Pedro, Joe, and me

I’m not sure who it was that reminded me of Colonel Buendia but at first it wasn’t me. Buendia, the picaresque character from One Hundred Years Of Solitude, inconsequentially lays down on a hammock and sticks a penknife in his ear to remove the earwax. These plain, careless remedies remind us that some don’t care what the condition’s called or what the protocols are for proper repair. Back in the day of everything, people did what they could with whatever emerged as a problem. They made do, did what made sense; they looked around, picked at the bits and pieces and tried trial and error. Think of Moonwatcher in the book that followed that movie about cavemen staring at a monolithic plinth, and conjure that discovery of bone-as-weapon plus the exultant surge of primordial rage. That earwax was likely gone after a sincere excavation, and if Buendia had damaged his interior with his spiky tool, he’d never know.

I wander through the circumstances, the routines and the change-ups, looking for meaning amid the residue of adventure. Joe walked me through the fall-out of his move, showing me the dusty garage and the folded-out driveway of his new home. It looked like that aftermath of a beach landing; the invasion force was on stand-by, and the sergeant at arms—Joe’s partner, Sue—was ably performing an inspection of supplies. It had been one hell of a month for Joe, it seemed, but he looked grounded and lean, if a touch grizzled, having changed his lifestyle, dropped a few pounds, and dispensed with old ways of working. He was ready to do some talking about some stuff about which we’d been writing. So far, I’d been doing more of the talking. I’d done more of the writing too, come to think of it. Joe, he did stuff, got stuff done that you could look at. He showed me a room wherein he’d fashioned a new office space: a den of retreat from the partners, daughters and grandchildren wherein he could read and maybe write, plus do his job via zoom.

“No more live sessions?” I asked with veiled nervousness. I felt vaguely like a dinosaur, thinking I’d be one of the few holdouts still plying a trade in physical spaces, with the sights, smells, and tactile temptations all nearby, either in my face or else at arm’s length. Joe glanced over to a king-sized bed with ornate posts fit for a king, situated in a corner. We thought the same thing. Maybe not, he suggested, alluding to the “transferential” problems that occur when people glance at suggestive objects.

“You think a couch is that much different. They’re still lying down. You’re not. It’s almost as provocative”

Yeah, but that wasn’t his thing either, he replied. That was my deal, he said as he patted my back. My co-author is proud of me, says I’ve come a long way, surpassed him even. I chuckle. So, why is he the one with the five-thousand square foot compound and the Tesla under the oak tree while I take insurance and will charge less than a hundred dollars per hour if a patient really commits. Still, it’s not all about the money. It’s also about the image: you know, about the books on the shelf; about the artwork above the couch; about the grain of the wood on the door and the kitchenette with the adjoining bathroom with hot lights. About these patients: you wanna show them everything except the bed. Show ‘em what you read, that you have good taste in art; that you will make them comfortable, not make ‘em walk too far if they need a break from their associations and dreams. And if they do need your WC, let ‘em know that your shit doesn’t stink, that you even do that with style.

That wasn’t Joe. Dreams move on, scaffold the residue of what actually happens and build a story for you. That was Pedro showing me what analysis is in his neck of the woods. What he also does right is take a whole month off during August. It’s analytic tradition, he says. Patients go on vacation, so he does too, which leaves his office vacated and dark, revealing an overlong sleep, a hibernated ambience. What will they all share when they get back, I wonder with him. And will you remember what it’s like to listen quietly as you wait for something that grips your imagination, cuz only then will you be happy to be back doing the job, knowing it’s back, like it was waiting for you. Catching whiff of the displacements, the reversals, and slips: this is what the game, the work, is all about. Meaning, it’s what’s fun about the process, not so much the stuff that the couched are aware of—what they’ve come to report. Me, I like listening for what they say but don’t know they’re saying, as that gives me a leg up, with an ear and mind full, and I don’t mean wax now. That gives me some work to do, something to sink my teeth into; to deluge my thought with metaphor.

I came back from my not quite a month absence not expecting much more than a quiet rapprochement. I wondered who would return, and who wouldn’t, plus who would return. Some people change, you see, when you leave them. They turn around and leave you too. Or else they turn around and say they didn’t notice you were gone, just to be assholes—just to show they don’t need you. Anyway, enough about family. Enough about patients, even. What about the people who rarely see me, who won’t have even known I was gone? Matt was a near miss after a three-quarter year absence following that serendipitous high school reunion of last year. He didn’t know how lucky he was, calling me out of the blue. Ha, inside joke. I’d thought about him a day or so before my trip. Where was he? I wondered of my only fan—the only person in I-can’t-remember-how-long who has had the guts, the self-esteem, the sheer confidence to say that I was better at something important, only to then leave, go back to his life on the East Coast. He’d really wanted this meeting. It wasn’t like he’d missed me, like we were long-separated friends re-connecting–more that he’d missed something that I’d happened to write about. I was a good listener already in high school, but back then no one was talking—everyone was too busy being cool, concealing who they were, not sharing themselves. Nowadays, high schools regularly employ counselors: adults, of course, whose opinions mean the world except in the tinder box of teen interaction. It seems Matt had discovered something about me that he hadn’t previously known and it would also seem that his opinion still means something to me. It’s still etched in my mind, his fellow writer’s feedback: you’re miles ahead of me. Maybe I’m doing the wrong thing for a living, I’ve pondered at times. But then, I should pause on that thought. Matt was only saying that I’d produced a masterpiece, that my style (of writing) was brilliant. Style. No big deal. But he wasn’t saying I’d do better than he. With his self-assured air, generous, at-peace, Earl Tea-sipping gentility, he was comfortably admiring upon his return, and eminently settled in a life that he was already looking back on as if he’d long-since plateaued. Maybe none of that’s true. Maybe it’s all a dream. But he did pay for all the food and drinks.

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Female Sex Addicts: the protected species

“In the books, they say, rather wistfully, that men want to put their faces there. Return to mother, Keith. But I don’t agree. I don’t think men want to put their faces there.”

“Let me tell you what women want. They all want to be in it. Whatever it is. Among themselves they all want to be bigger-breasted, browner, better in bed—all that. But they want a piece of everything. They want in. They all want to be in it. They all want to be the bitch in the book.”

                                                                 —from London Fields, by Martin Amis

So we come to the topic of female sex addicts and the social/political undercurrents that shape the treatment of them. Nowhere in the realm of sex addiction treatment is the specter of gender bias more apparent than in this supposedly lesser studied area. As we might say in our book (and we don’t typically, to avoid cheesiness), let’s get real about something: the average therapist in this country, and certainly in California, is not a patriarchy-imposing old white male with a bow tie dispensing turgid interpretations with an air of aloofness. It (or, excuse me, she) is a white female, educated at varying points over the last 50 years, who talks a lot about “systems”, aims words like boundaries, empowerment at women especially, which is code for go for that position on that soccer team, go for that job or promotion, make sure you’re making as much money as men, and only have sex when you really want to. With male patients that tactical stance shifts. With men the tendentious terms are vulnerability, intimacy, comprising a code that says go home, help with the domestic chores, cook a meal or two, pick up that daughter from soccer practice, and with respect to sex, “hey, have you thought about what she thinks is sexy?”

See, the problem mainstream society has with Freud is not just that he told women they have penis envy, or that men are superior to women (actually, he thought the reverse in some ways), or that he told some women that their sexual victimizations were all in their heads, reflecting their desirous fantasies, not the revulsion contained in their symptoms (we only know that because he copped to this, in a famous case called Dora). It’s that he and his followers continued to follow Superego guidelines which instruct boys to identify with fathers, separate from mothers, and more or less adapt to and follow a traditionalist path versus the noble trail of social revolution. Therefore, latter day progressives, if they are inclined towards psychoanalysis or the exploration of the unconscious, tend to prefer the likes of Jung or Winnicott, or modern inter-subjectivists who instruct men to fem up, support the levelling of fields, do the equality thing, which means surrendering to inequality in some contexts, which is what the field leveling alludes to. Well, as mine and Joe Farley’s book and this blog often imply, it’s problematic if understandable to treat individuals not as individuals but rather as group representatives. Our book is more about helping individuals, not systems, which paradoxically meant devoting considerable print to how sex addiction treatment programs subtly background individuals within a systemic framework. The stories of individuals are richer, if diluted by generalities, the intrusions of groupthink. As for helping, as I consider that task in itself, our book isn’t necessarily “helpful” in the conventional sense of healing anyone or anything, much less a non-leveled system, with anything except thought. As much as anything, we just wanna say how things are.

Years before writing Getting Real About Sex Addiction, I’d talk with female therapists who either specialized in sex addiction or else worked with individuals and couples whose lives were impacted by this much-debated, is-this-a-thing condition. If a patient in question was a partner of an identified sex addict, they’d be called an impacted partner, or sometimes a betrayed partner; once they were called co-addicts—not so much anymore. Female sex addicts were and are another breed of client, lesser spotted in treatment circles, or lesser identified as such, anyway. Called Love addicts, maybe, which sounds nicer: you love, not so much lust. As for their partners, they’d be called…well, I’m not sure what they’d be called, actually, especially if they are male. Angry, unforgiving, abusive or potentially abusive men, if the decrees of my female colleagues were to be accepted—not “betrayed” partners. See, female sex addiction is a relatively rare bird. Not much has been written on the subject. Supposedly not much research has been done, and our text only references one book that is entirely devoted to it: Marnie Ferree’s edited 2013 volume, Making Advances: a comprehensive guide for treating female sex and love addicts. Therefore, despite the widespread understanding that sex addiction is a “pathologizing” label, the paucity of study about female sex addicts is cast as systemic neglect of women. As a system we are denying help borne of stigmatizing labels. Reminds me of the reductio ad absurdum from Dr. Strangelove: “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here, this is the war room!”

Humor. My deflection, my coping with absurdity, revealing yet also distancing, because humor reveals what is out of synch—that I am out of synch with the times. Like Italian cinema of the early sixties (yeah, I know—not exactly trending), I leave the surfaces of earnest realism (*my bicycle has been stolen!), and spend time with interior lives, the contemplation of what’s happening on the inside. Humor draws attention to the contradictions, presenting a surprise, which shames, embarrasses, causes us to cover our mouths, our eyes. We laugh. We laugh it off. I have tried to laugh off contradiction and absurdity, being out of synch with the times, the zeitgeist that psychotherapists like to think they’re in front of. Stigma. That’s the reason women don’t enter therapy for the treatment of sex addiction. That’s an opinion I’ve heard numerous times from my fellow therapists—women mostly. The likelihood that most SAs enter treatment under duress having been “discovered” (thus rendering the prospect of “choosing treatment” moot) is ignored by the former argument. Anyway, the argument persists: to identify as a female sex addict is to risk hearing epithets like “slut” or “nymphomaniac”. From whom would they hear this in sex addiction treatment? Scores of slut-shaming, patriarchy-imposing male therapists who dominate our field in 2022 while feminist-leaning women struggle to achieve a foothold in the profession? Hmm…regardless, I’m sure men have it way easier: they only have to put up with terms like “pig”, “dog”, “pervert”, “gender violence perpetrator” or “asshole” from their relatively forgiving, not-as-angry, traumatized and sympathetic partners, and maybe the labels sex addict and narcissistic personality disorder from therapists who have so worked through their countertransference issues and wouldn’t dream of using clinical language to disguise ad hominem attacks.

Sarcasm. Yes I know. Very declasse of me. Anyway, back to the narratives: female sex addicts are continuously neglected by a pathologizing sex addiction treatment industry, and—let’s not forget—also by impacted male partners who somehow neglect to employ that mythical plurality of patriarchy-imposing male clinicians. Or, unlike girlfriends and wives, they simply overlook the option of mandating their female partners into treatment with relational ultimatums, or polygraph exams or uber-dignified “full disclosure” exercises to elicit honesty, hold accountable the assh—sorry, the empathy-deserving afflicted. When will women be granted the kind of celebratory, loving attention that Tiger Woods publicly received, or that Anthony Weiner once enjoyed to the benefit of his political career, or that jettisoned Pee Wee Herman into a career strato…wait, what happened to him?

Okay, stop it now

The men who take part in my therapy groups have gotten the updated memos. They’ve been told they are privileged so their sexually addictive behaviors will be excused by a society that simultaneously deems their behavior objectifying and indecent, unlike female sex addiction which is more relational, part of a misguided yet somehow less abusive repertoire of self-discovery. Well, they’re not paying for it, you see. Notwithstanding virtue-signaling terms like “self-discovery”, which attaches so-called problem behaviors to the cause of sexual freedom, or capitalist hypocrisy (some things we shouldn’t pay for. Really? I can think of worse things than sex that we contentedly pay for, regularly), or the thin tissue of horseshit that our profession pathologizes female sexuality more than it does that of men, those who proclaim that sex addiction is an excuse think that what constitutes an “excuse” is any response to sexually deviant or acting out behavior that is anything less than punitive action—ostracism, incarceration, castration, etc.—and is tantamount to an unjust act of clemency towards those who act with exploitative and objectifying intent, especially towards women. Given how disproportionately the term sex addiction is aimed at men versus women, it’s transparent that the concept of sex addiction lends women a 21st century narrative via which they can derogate male sexuality: in particular, male partners whose frequency of desire outstrips their own, or whose non-monogamist thinking, at least, may be religiously or irreligiously impugned.  

Which prompts a return to female sex addicts, whom we still neglect with our helpful-if-pathologizing sex addict labels, even in an essay that was meant to be about them: in Making Advances, the authors argue, “women are different than men. Their brains are different, socialization is different”. Further, they assert that women do best when a therapist is sensitive to their attachment histories, injuries and attachment needs. Now, do they mean to imply that men’s needs are not governed by trauma and attachment needs, or less so? Perhaps not, but given that these recommendations were delivered in the same passage as the “women are different” platitudes, one would think an inference along those lines could be made. Imagine if books, pundits, podcast-pontificators started calling out misandry the way they call out the misogyny of male sex addicts. Imagine if they knew the word misandry. Imagine if they started calling what female sex addicts do hate, not trauma; misandry instead of the tendentiously circular “internalized misogyny”; “toxic femininity” instead of sexual empowerment; sex addiction instead of its ennobling synonym, love addiction. Would their treatment still be condemned as “slut-shaming”? Recently, I’ve been hearing of men and women leaving marriages, seeking divorce because a partner won’t accept transition to a polyamorous lifestyle. Is that not a betrayal of a contract? is it a form of sexual entitlement, of “gender-based violence”? I’d bet that a woman leaving a marriage under that pretext is hearing from a progressively-minded therapist, someone who otherwise espouses betrayal trauma something like, “well, you’re exploring different sides of yourself for the first time”—said with airs of sympathy.   

Referring to the mythos of the ages, I refer in mine and Joe’s book to the legends of Uranus and Orpheus to represent the images that men hold in feminist society as rapists, seducers, opportunists…gazers. Elsewhere, I expound upon the Madonna-Whore complex, a mythopoeic term coined by Freud to denote the dichotomizing (splitting) of women by men into irreconcilable images: the ideal of the nurturing, wholesome woman versus the demeaned, sexualized “whore”, reflecting a struggle to overcome unconscious, Oedipal taboos against that which stirs sexual feelings towards anything resembling the maternal. In deference to the modern zeitgeist, I could have pointed to the Minotaur, the half-man, half Taurus who rapes and cannibalizes a hapless female virgin in The Labyrinth—the sculpted image of which caused a stir when presented by modern artist Damien Hirst. What a fuss, but also what a capturing of man’s present-day image. This conjuring precedes the man, not the woman who enters sex addiction treatment in contemporary culture, for there is little in trending or mythopoeic thought that draws attention to the ways women dichotomize men. What? You don’t even know what I’m talking about? Well, does the term Saint-Brute mean anything to you? Don’t you love a man in uniform, the guy with the snarl and the six-pack abs, and not so much that “nice guy” whom you later (like, when it’s time to “settle down”) declare is sexy because of his “acts of service”? The guy who is the “right” choice even though he’s a bit dull for you? Getting warmer? Anyway, that’s sidelined, cryptic thought, and things will remain this way until unctuous yet well-positioned thought-shapers decide that fields have been sufficiently leveled, human beings can go back to being individuals instead of group representatives, and gender commentary in our media and academic circles achieves a state of genuine parity.

             So, what am I saying of my female colleagues, most of whom I don’t know closely, with respect to how they treat male versus female sex addicts? And have I truly examined my own biases when I treat men versus women? I’ll certainly admit that more men come to me with the term sex addict poised upon their lips, at least in part because the term has been directed at them. Women? Not so much. They utter the term nervously, querulously, as if performing a reconnaissance of themselves, the concept, of me as a would-be listener, and possible judge. They’ve talked to women before, you see, and they’ve felt something odd: a mix of pious adherence to the zeitgeist values of the day—that you go, girl ethos that would protect women from slut-shaming society, blended with a sense of a familiar disdain. The modern ethos can’t quite block it out, it seems, and the women I talk to still perceive it, still feel the sting of the old Superego within the post-modern “be accountable” verbiage. Me, I’ll reference the buzz words, the subscriptive jargon, but usually with an air of otherness—I’ll observe it, detach myself from advocacy, and remain credulous of something undiscovered. I’ll ask the same questions of women that I’ll ask of men. I won’t point fingers with moralistic intent, figuratively or not. I’ll ask what is the impact upon significant others rather than instruct, or educate. I’ll ask patients to think, not to substitute my thinking for an absence of it. But I won’t collude with reversed, neo-double standards that my profession pretends don’t exist**. If you’re a first-time reader of this blog, you may not know what I’m getting at. Or maybe you will. Think of it this way: it’s 2022, not 1989. Take a look around, have a listen. Note the jargon that prevails in the Psychology Today articles, the latest books by Rebecca Solnit or Terrance Real; what the bumper stickers say; what tweets get re-tweeted versus ignored or excoriated.   

*an allusion to Vitorio De Sica’s 1948 film, The Bicycle Thief

**Ask an average SA specialist why fewer women than men are assessed and treated as sex addicts and they’ll likely say that there are fewer resources for women than men for the treatment of SA: this is BS in my opinion as it ignores the fact that 70% of licensed psychotherapists are women; or else it implies that practitioners must have the relatively slight Certified Sex Addiction Therapist (CSAT) credential (a referral base which may be lesser comprised of women) in order to treat SA. I think the plurality of women in the field of psychotherapy are more than capable, qualified (and certainly willing) to speak to women about their sexual behavior, whether it’s addictive or not, a problem behavior or not. BTW: SA specialists might also imply that SA is primarily a men’s issue, hence the disparity in care, though this sets up yet another circular argument within this field.

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Betrayal Trauma

Someone asks me, “does betrayal trauma exist?”. Sounds like an analogy to, “does sex addiction exist?”. Okay, let’s nip the first one in the bud: of course, it exists. It’s like asking do wounds exist (trauma meaning wound)? The question is what does the fuller term mean? What does it mean in the context of sex addiction treatment? And most importantly, what are the implications of the term for a clinical process, especially one framed in systemic language?

What’s apparent is that the term betrayal trauma has clinical as well as moral/ethical implications. The clinical pertains to the syndrome of symptomology linked to trauma, as well as the strategies of intervention that are directed at trauma patients. In the context of sex addiction, it’s not clear whether most or even a significant number of impacted or betrayed partners meet full criteria for a PTSD diagnosis. As the reader may know, that designation requires meeting symptom criteria over several categories, and features phenomena like dissociation, avoiding stressors, being exposed to stressors, having nightmares and flashbacks, experiencing variable (and contradictory) states of hyper and hypoarousal. But in treatment trauma phenomena might be observed as therapists and patients discuss trauma as a subjectively-defined phenomenon. More generally, trauma pertains to a wounding event or pattern, but then also the attempt to adapt to that trauma, plus how that trauma impacts memory, perception, and reactivity to stressors. More specifically, the term betrayal trauma is grounded in a theory about developmental history. The term refers to situations wherein the subject has relied upon another for support and therefore must dissociate (deny/forget for the purposes of this context) awareness of betrayal in order to preserve the relationship, however abusive the relationship is. The concept is therefore also about dependency between people, and the theory’s pedigree lies in observations of a parent-child dynamic, echoing the theories of Freudians like Sandor Ferenczi, who famously taught concepts of “identification with the aggressor”, which informed awareness of the mooted Stockholm Syndrome, and his “confusion of tongues” concept, which refers to the over-stimulation of children via an adult/child seduction.

Principals of the sex addiction model haven’t ignored betrayal trauma. Patrick Carnes—he of the sex-addiction coining, Don’t Call It Love fame—wrote in his book The Betrayal Bond that trauma repetition is characterized by doing something over and over again, usually something that took place in childhood and started with a trauma; that it “relives” a story from the past, inclines sufferers to engage in abusive relationships repeatedly, repeating painful experiences, people, places, and things. Yes, I know. That last turn of phrase sounded familiar, didn’t it? That “doing something over and over again” bit—that sounded familiar too. You think it’s that phrase that’s quoted in 12-step meetings? Think it was something Albert Einstein said? Well, think again. It was Sigmund Freud. Repetition compulsion, it was called. He wrote about it while World War I played out and consolidated the idea around the time the so-called Spanish flu (you know, the Covid of his day) took the life of his daughter. Freud wrote of repetition that it brings mastery over trauma, unconsciously. The aspect that Freud didn’t cover was the piece about becoming like the abuser—that we credit to Ferenczi. Anyway, I’m not saying the latter-day derivative concepts are wrong, just derivative. Also, something else Carnes suggests about sex addicts likewise applies to trauma repetition. The behaviors/symptoms of trauma survivors: don’t call it love.

The concept of betrayal trauma is not difficult to accept in itself any more than the concept of addiction is hard to accept. But after we’ve duly acknowledged that betrayals are painful, and then wrung our hands dry from sympathy, it’s still necessary to think about phenomena so that platitudes or hyperbole don’t prevail. So, here’s the unusual and therefore lesser-spoken of thing: what’s difficult to digest—and this pertains to both concepts—is the back and forth between consciousness and unconsciousness that both trauma survivors and addicts tend to proclaim, at least by implication. An addict often proclaims that he/she is acting out of habit, unaware, saying things like, “I don’t know why I do this,” or “I don’t know what I was thinking”. And with respect to concrete activity (versus, says, insight into deeper reasons), we know this is BS because addicts also obsess over details, calculate their activities, and consciously lie about their behaviors, before and after their fruition. As for trauma survivors, well, we hear that they avoid painful stimuli; that they deny or dissociate awareness of betrayal because of their relational needs; that they are in shock, caught off guard by the “discovery” of the addictive pattern. Conversely, at times they are not only aware of the trauma-stirring behaviors of others, they are “hyperaroused”—that is hyper-vigilant, anything but avoidant; rather, they seem compulsively drawn to that which upsets them. Paradox? Probably. The back and forth suggests a reaction to trauma, and therefore a post (not pre) stressor response pattern. We obsess over something so as to prepare for the worst—if you like, a backwards or preemptive form of avoidance.

Then there are other seemingly contradictory presentations, like that of the so-called gaslighted partner which, if said to exist in tandem with betrayal trauma (which I often hear of), would seem to render at least one of the phenomena unlikely, at least concurrently. Why? Well, gaslighting is about persuading someone that the thing they suspect is happening is not happening, and that they are crazy for insisting that it is happening. The term comes from a 1938 play and later film about a…it doesn’t matter. It’s about lying and then pretending that the person who doesn’t believe the lie is nuts*. But the term also implies a vigilance that predates the discovery that has rendered the problem behavior undeniable, which is contrary to a pattern of avoidance of clues, including dissociative symptoms, that implicitly precede though they might not always proceed from the trauma of discovery. As observers, we can grasp how a trauma sufferer may be alternately over and under-stimulated following a crisis, just as an addict is at times deadened, unstimulated, in withdrawal or guilt-ridden following a binge, for example. But can you claim to have repeatedly not noticed problem behaviors because of dependency needs but also insist that persistent inquiries into suspect behaviors are repeatedly, and concurrently, brushed off? Again, this would only make sense if the chronology of presentations is blurred but then clarified: that a partner’s scrutiny of an acting out figure is tentative prior to discovery–in other words, primarily trusting if skeptical of the denying reports of the depended-upon figure–and then intensified into hyperaroused indignation after a discovery event.

Meanwhile, an underlying element of this issue is not clinical, much less medical. The ethical/moral dimension of the betrayal trauma concept is both subtle and not. For providers and patients, the matter of trauma is not just one of clinical presentation (i.e.: symptoms of anxiety), or of etiological (origin) theory, but also one of justice. In betrayal trauma, there is a victim and there is a perpetrator, meaning someone who has done harm. See, in our contemporary society, it’s not enough to say that a behavior is immoral or wrong. Today, we must either demonstrate or declare that we’ve been wounded, hence the necessity of attaching the word trauma to the moral construct of betrayal. In this way, sex addiction treatment, and betrayal trauma models in particular, borrow the ethos of the civil court: no harm no foul. Less subtle, however, are the concrete implications of the victim/perpetrator divide. As the identified miscreant, a perpetrator is often guilted into surrendering habitation rights, money, sometimes time spent with children or even custodial rights, or most conspicuously, the prerogative to initiate sex. The euphemisms that leverage these concessions—terms like “boundaries”—are meant to be subtle, as in genteel or discreet. They’re not. Only the words are genteel and discreet.

Further, this blending of sex addiction treatment with notions of justice has a gendered inflection, one that plays (and trades) upon our most basic suppositions about male versus female sexuality. The reason betrayal trauma models focus on betrayal is partly about monogamistic values, but it more prominently concerns feminine vulnerability. And this is true only because of the demographics of sex addiction treatment: far more men, and specifically heterosexual men, are assessed as sex addicts than are women—again, so much for the chestnut that modern psychotherapy/psychiatry stigmatizes female sexuality more than that of men (unless you’re one of those who thinks that sex addiction is a compliment, or a leniency-affording “excuse”). Anyway, female vulnerability: here I’m referring to the submission that women experience in the act of heteronormative sex; of their need to trust in the reliability of their male partner, who may also be vulnerable, but only in emotional terms, not so much physically. This point is a bullet item of so-called moral equivalency politics. Basically, the vulnerability of men does not match the vulnerability of women, therefore male sexual acting out is more oppressive, more abusive, threatening, etc., than anything women might perpetrate. In theory, men are treated as impacted or betrayed partners also when their partners have perpetrated infidelities and such, but if you read or listen carefully to most of the unctuous pundits on these matters, you might detect the whiff of bias in their jargon: the “betrayed” male is likely an abusive or possessive figure, “narcissistically wounded” by the betrayal (versus the more sympathetic “traumatized”) of his female partner, which then triggers an underlying misogyny within his subsequent anger. You get the script. From SA specialists, he might receive a subtle re-conditioning effort: a sort of half-hearted patronizing of his betrayal, coupled with a discreet shepherding from attitudes of patriarchal privilege to a woke recognition of female sexual freedom.

Interestingly, despite the possibly inadvertent influence of civil court discourse upon therapeutic interventions, the converse influence is not apparent. The impetus to punish—sorry, “hold accountable”—the wayward sexually acting out figure does not extend to the legal arena. For some time now, divorce courts have stopped punishing infidelity (whether they think it addictive, gendered, or not), instead issuing “no fault” decrees on such matters. That places the matter of crime and punishment back in privately figurative courtrooms. Mental health providers, the sex addiction specialists who in effect preside over these private disputes likely tread a line that straddles tradition and latter-day social justice principles. They “validate” the betrayal suffered by impacted partners of a sex addiction, and “educate” victim and perpetrator as to the impact of auxiliary misbehaviors like gaslighting. But they must also avoid being mere advocates of monogamy, for that might place them in alliance with the unfashionably religious, plus that dreaded system of girl-power thwarting patriarchy. This is why the progressive-leaning SA specialist speaks of violated consent rather than monogamy. In the modern zeitgeist, to consent and be honest are the moral imperatives, not the values of exclusivity.

As a result, sex addiction specialists tend to speak of betrayal while dodging the m word. Again, this is so that seemingly value-neutral concepts like honesty, or the analogy of contractual agreements (apparently an ethos that traditionalists and social justice types can both agree upon), can be invoked without provoking older Superego specters. The new Superego also prefers the term spiritual to connote a departure from the oppressive inflections of the word religion, which tends to suggest rules and dogma, things known (spiritual seems to indicate that which is unknown), not so much a connection to the divine, which is ambiguous, un-dogmatic and refreshingly new agey. The new S-ego prefers to invoke consent as the issue to supplant the concept of monogamy, but still to indicate the ethic of contracts. This, for example, features in Braun-Harvey & Vigorito’s 2016 list of ethical guidelines for sexual health, as indicated in their book Treating Out of Control Sexual Behaviors. See, then the matter is that a partner didn’t “consent” to the addictive pattern, and thus a perpetration of harm has occurred. A sound argument in itself, however much phenomena occurs in intimate relationships that would fall under the “I didn’t bargain for…” category. But most societies don’t craft marriage vows pertaining to excess shopping, hoarding, or video-game playing. And so, there’s no escaping the impression that moral tradition and developmental histories are what really drive the concept of betrayal trauma—not commonly upsetting behaviors or naturally occurring phenomena like threats to life and limb—what the PTSD diagnosis was originally meant to observe. Suggesting equivalences between traumas calls for a lot of reframing, or re-branding, designed to soothe the passage of words into the mind or down into that oft-decision-making gut. I’m not sure it’s convincing, actually, this rhetorical massage. I think we might as well add a term to the inventory of traumas. A psychiatrist and classics scholar named Jonathan Shay has termed this moral injury. How about moral trauma?

*If the reader is interested in a more artful and certainly less co-opted depiction of trauma, try Andrey Tarkovsky’s cult classic film, The Stalker. In it, characters are drawn to a mysterious zone, an area supposedly destroyed by a wayward meteor, leaving behind debris of a ruined civilization. A guide (dubbed “stalker”) leads interested soul-seekers into the forbidden area, taking them to a mythical room within the zone wherein all of the seekers’ personal needs, hopes, desires will be met. It seems a metaphor for an analytic or spiritual journey, and it is not without obstacles, including rules that the stalker appears to impose with neurotic impulsivity. This room: it cannot be approached too directly, too penetratively, he warns. Worldly goods, such as one character’s knapsack of presumedly invaluable items—an expression of his rational control—must be left behind. The filmmaker is saying something about an everyman or woman’s journey. He’s also saying something about how we must tenderly approach a scorched yet still beautiful earth.

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The lost hour

I remember the first time Nadja and I talked about loss. Actually, I think it’s fair to say we talked around that aspect. I mean, she talked around it. I let her talk around it in so far as I did not call her out on talking around the matter. The matter, as I call it, was her drinking, plus the fact that it brought negative consequences, like loss. Nadja thought the Board of Behavioral Science was being unfair in denying her an intern registration because of a DUI she’d picked up a year before. That was the event that had led her to me originally, though she didn’t come clean, so to speak, about that until six months into treatment. Anyway, the matter of loss was initially—perhaps originally and perennially—swamped under a defense of rage whose pedigree felt primal. See, the board was like her mother: an aloof, terse and judgmental object, denying validation, withholding approval, love. Why can’t she/they forgive, she might as well have been saying. Why can’t she look past imperfection, say that everything—that she—is okay.

The elephant in the room was her expectation that I’d be the same. After all, why else would she wait six months to stop burying the lede. It’s a good job that I’m nothing like aloof, terse, and judgmental such that projections like these would stick to me. I sort of recall the first time she coped with loss in the transference by dissociating, which in plainspeak meant that she’d go quiet, sport a look of dazed intoxication, and then begin swaying ever so slightly. “I can’t hear you right now”, she’d say, alerting me to a phenomenon that I’d simultaneously observe. At least, I think I recognized it on about the 3rd or 4th occasion, mostly because it looked roughly the same each time. Ah, you’re doing that thing, I will have thought—that thing you do when I’ve constructed an insight that hits on something, speaks some truth. What a waste of time it will have seemed as she tuned me out, making me feel what it’s like to be not listened to.

Over time I learned more about Nadja’s loss experiences: about her numerous losses in the realm of romantic love—oh how I paid the price for being a heterosexual male during those sessions; about the near loss of her toddler child in a swimming misadventure ten years ago. That incident brought accusations of parental neglect against her. Mortifying. Then there was the dual loss of her parents: first, her dad, to a medical misadventure, a botched cancer surgery. Then her mother: suicide. A year later. Nadja has reason to be mad. She’s known loss, I guess I’d say. Three years ago, I invited her to lay on the couch, be my first analytic case, though I never called it—her—that. She’d cut down on the dissociative gazing, I thought, was ready to deepen upon tolerating the critical transference in our sessions. Eventually, she took responsibility for her drinking, stopped blaming the board for holding her back. At some point, they stopped holding her back: they gave her a registration; more recently—finally—her therapist license. A big achievement, of course. I’d had her back all the way, she declared gratefully. I’d believed in her, implicitly. Good job, she thought. But she never became a control case. My loss, I think, and hers. I tried. She tried, sort of, but wouldn’t commit to coming more than two times per week. Now we’re terminating. Now that she doesn’t dissociate as much as she used to, she wants to replace me with a somatic therapist, a woman—not me. Only it’s taking a long time. I don’t know. Is nine months a long time to say goodbye? Seems this thing about losing, especially losing that which has been good and truthful, is really hard.

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The Fog

The fog. A roadblock. The boat—as in don’t rock it. The can of worms—as in don’t open it. These are some of my—well, not my favorite metaphors, necessarily. Metaphors can be tritely employed, become unnoticed parts of verbal furniture. Don’t forget ships: they sail, and by doing so they suggest something else that’s slipped away, a calamity not prevented. Oh, and that reminds me of boulders. They block. Or they roll and crush. Don’t overthink them, said a friend once. He meant metaphors in general, not just boulders. Don’t overthink them? Don’t read into them, he clarified, forgetting himself. His favorite book was Catcher in the Rye. His second favorite was One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

I suppose I started with fog because it’s the freshest metaphor I can bring to mind. It’s an oldie but goodie, but it showed up in my office the other day, reminding me first of a patient’s depression, then shortly thereafter of a writing assignment I hadn’t gotten to yet. J. was describing his state of mind the week he first heard of his now late-wife’s cancer. These days, he may have other apt metaphors for the stuck place he’s been in since her death, but fog is what came to mind as a signifier of confusion and comfort. The wife had been in a fog also: “I feel fine,” she said, following the appointment that first spoke of the tumor. Neither of them really took in the words. A year later she wasn’t fine at all. She was in another kind of fog, having lost a third of her body weight; roughly a third of her memory, by my patient’s estimation. Almost the entirety of her will in her last days. In the end the bond between had been foggy also—the apparent result of an affair the wife had been caught having a year before the illness was discovered. J. was stuck between resentment, guilt, and a layered coming together of loss.

He doesn’t dwell much upon the elements of fog. In that respect, he’s like my friend, incuriously using words, then moving on. For J., the metaphor of fog denotes a hateful condition that thwarts efficiency or focused energy. It’s something that keeps coming back. It’s unwelcome, something he and I should be working on, or something he should get medication for, not learn something from. Therefore, the reverie on foggy details is mine: I think of creeping white air of the type that hovers about my valley home on wintry days. Where I live fog is a rarity. It appears as if on schedule, heralding the height of a season, and a stilled, ritual presence. Its texture is moist but not sticky; its temperature is cool, which enables feeling cool; one can wade through it, seeing just a few feet ahead, which is all you need really if you move through life carefully, at a slow and sensible pace. You don’t have to get lost in a fog, not if you relax. I got lost in a fog—in the word fog, and with my indulgent conjuring. And as I waded sightless through the hour I lost touch with my patient, who had moved on to other words, but not moved on from his state of mind. But I think he saw me looking away, past his shoulder to some indefinite spot on a wall. His eyes seemed glazed, half registering my distraction but not speaking to it; not really noticing something important, that I was not paying attention. I looked back at him, seeking to recapture something, hide the sin of my disappearance. I’m sorry, I wanted to say. I’m sorry for your loss. I’m sorry I went away, but I’m back now. And I’m not going anywhere.

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