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We do it for them

 

A tense moment between a man and a woman: they’re watching a film together—some cutting edge Netflix drama, filled with clever yet vulgar twists and dialogue—and a villainous character gets her comeuppance. The watching man lets out a bray that celebrates the moment and directs a slur at the character. His guest fidgets, discomforted, thinking the outburst rude, and beyond that, deeply offensive. They argue. His remark was demeaning, especially to women, the woman asserts. She should lighten up, he counters. It’s only a show and he doesn’t act like that in real life.

The latter comment intrigues because it appeals for something that some will allow and some won’t: some space that appears on the cusp of privacy versus the public domain wherein an “objectionable idea” as Freud once put it can live and breathe. As I helped the woman think through her options, which consisted of “letting things go” versus “standing up” for principles of decency, I challenged her framework, pointing out that her binary view didn’t represent the intermediary place that art holds in society. Inadvertently, perhaps, her male adversary was speaking to something that many will fiercely protect. He wants art to do its job and act as a container for human impulse. He wants to live vicariously through the actions of others thoughts and feelings that are forbidden. He wants leakage through his repression barrier; some release of pent up tension lest it build up and then burst through that wall, causing a flood.

The woman gazed back at me as if I were speaking of alien needs, not those of average human beings. She had no such desires, she insisted—no aggression, on that level anyway. She didn’t relate to vengefulness, to hateful impulses; to that which degraded people, exhibiting ugliness. Taking my point about art, she asked, what about beauty, or positive ideals? Shouldn’t good art inspire, not destroy? She shook her head, knowing I was merely representing another view, not engaging a polemic, necessarily. But it was a problem because it had caused a divide, this matter of what art, popular or not, should induce. Moments later, she brightened, thinking of another point, this time one that re-posited me as an opponent. It wasn’t so much the show itself, she reminded me. It was her partner’s reaction to it—his inconsiderate outburst—that shook her. Isn’t that a different phenomenon, she inferred? Even if a writer, an actor, a filmmaker, or even a musician expresses something ugly or provocative, isn’t it the audience’s responsibility to stay in reality versus the fantasy realm, for the sake of an ordered, safe and civil society? Isn’t it our (the audience’s) job to not extend what happens on screen or on stage into our daily lives?

Interesting that she mentioned the role of musician. For a few moments, my mind associated—drifted, as I write in my Tommy book—about a certain musician who used to speak of this a lot, albeit obliquely. “We do it for them,” Pete Townshend once said in an interview, regarding violence, and beyond that, the expression of frustration. This was during the The Who’s early days, when they were ubiquitous on the club and concert hall circuits in Britain, playing for mid-sixties Mods, that post-war faction of kids who blended nihilism with neo-consumerist habits. Townshend was speaking of two things: firstly, of the auto-destructive elements of The Who’s then-act, which climaxed with each group member (save John Entwistle, usually) ritually smashing up his instrument; secondly, his comment was about the volume and general ferocity of The Who’s rock and roll, surely unprecedented at the time, yet heralding alternative sub-genres of rock music, including heavy metal and punk rock. The Who’s noise and littered stages were a nightly release for their fans, though for the most part, the damage didn’t leave the stage, much less those clubs and other venues. As far as we know.

There may have been exceptions. Actually, it may have been fortunate that The Who didn’t break through to a wide audience until 1965, after the success of singles like “I Can’t Explain”, and especially “My Generation”—so expressive in its hate, its fear of aging. Had they been a hit a year earlier, their Mod-stirring anger and flamboyance might have been blamed for the riots between gangs of Mods and so-called Rockers on the south coast of England in 1964. Fifteen years later, when The Who were one of if not the biggest rock group in the world, their macho image and violent ambience was partly blamed for what was then one of the worst disasters to strike the world of rock. I’m referring here to the incident in Cincinnati in 1979 wherein 11 fans were trampled to death because of a pre-concert stage-rush by fans. On the one hand, this was not a deliberate act of violence. As far as anyone knows, no one set out that night to harm anyone, to start a riot, for example. In retrospect, that tragedy seems to have revealed something else in the rock and roll audience: states of altered consciousness, the delirium of drunkenness, dissociation, jadedness; not caring about people.

It has been mine and most Who fans’ observation that Pete and the boys did indeed care about people, their fans especially. It’s hard to substantiate such a statement, not that this is my responsibility. Perhaps their widely known charitable infrastructure, The Teenage Cancer Trust—not a unique way for artists to demonstrate caring, necessarily—is one exemplar of this impression. As I further write in my book, the rock opera Tommy was a watershed moment for them, dramatizing as it did the consequences of war, everyday violence, lack of truth, and authoritarianism. Otherwise, it has been the implicit qualities of The Who, their various gestures and overall demeanor that has yielded a lingering image that juxtaposes their one-time violence and anger with an enduring sense of love. Young men once smashed guitars and bled the ears of their fans. Those fans shouted back, shoved and pushed one another maybe, while the gentler types stepped away and found other heroes to enjoy. Maybe those different types get together at times, and like The Who, work things out and grow old.

 

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Thoughts on Queen, then The Who

 

In the early eighties I liked the band Queen. I didn’t love Queen but I liked them more than most groups, and before my addiction to The Who took off, Queen were probably my favorite band. However, they weren’t that fashionable at the time, this being 82′ thru 86′, roughly. My sister owned their ‘Greatest Hits’ record, which I borrowed regularly, and remembered the now chestnuts, “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “We Are The Champions”, “We Will Rock You”, and so on, from a few years earlier. But none of my friends listened to Queen. I wasn’t hearing them on the radio anymore. By 84′, when they released The Works (album) and received modest attention for the quirky “Radio-Ga-Ga” plus a comic video where they dressed up in drag, they seemed eclipsed by slightly younger rock heroes. Van Halen and AC/DC, in particular, plus a host of other metal acts, seemed ahead of Queen in the line of popularity. That was with boys, anyway. Girls didn’t seem into Queen either, instead listening to Duran Duran and Depeche Mode, or the soon-to-be feminine icon, Madonna.

I wasn’t sure as an early teen, but I held the vague impression that Queen were deemed uncool in the United States. I didn’t know that Freddie Mercury was gay or bisexual, and I likely would not have cared but for the prospective embarrassment of being told that my musical tastes were “gay” and therefore wrong. It will have been that strange, subtle homophobia that stilled my tongue, preventing me from extolling Queen’s virtues, or blasting one of their songs from a stereo if my friends were around. My male friends seemed to like bands, music, that “kicked ass” in a way that Queen didn’t, I guess. Girls seemed to want sensitive lyrics and some manner of posturing that they might swoon over, but this was an implicitly heterosexual arrangement and Queen didn’t seem to fit that either. Now, thirty years later, long after Mercury’s passing, a revival seemingly kicked off by a clip in the film, Wayne’s World, and a clearly more sympathetic attitude, perhaps even celebratory attitude towards icons who represent sexual minorities, Queen are as in as any act under the Classic Rock umbrella. In fact, I saw an internet poll over the holidays that ranked Queen as the #2 group in rock history, behind only perennial favorite, The Beatles.

I’m not sure that homophobia was the reason for that eighties window of dipped popularity–that’s just my impression, my memory. Music, performers, even sensibilities, go in and out of fashion, it seems. Some might recall that Queen were briefly controversial because they played in South Africa (in 84′) when most other western performers were cooperating with economic sanctions against that once apartheid-practicing state. But who remembers, for example, the vitriolic feeling aimed at Queen by the once hip rock critic, Dave Marsh. In reference to their 1978 album Jazz, Marsh literally called the members of Queen a bunch of creeps, thinking their music pompous, arrogant. Queen, Marsh wrote, were perhaps rock’s first truly “fascist” group. Whoa! I once reacted, thinking that “Bicycle Race” was a just cute, funny song. However, as I read Marsh’s opinion and thought of some of Queen’s songs, not so much the ones on Jazz but rather “We Are The Champions” and “We Will Rock You”, I thought…well, he kinda has a point.

Marsh is an old school rock critic, the kind who wrote for Rolling Stone in its heyday. Perhaps best known for writing about Bruce Springsteen, Who fans should know his biography, Before I Get Old, published in 1983, soon after The Who’s first so-called retirement. BIGO is an exhaustive, celebratory yet critical look at The Who, its audience and the historical context that enveloped them. To read it cover to cover and absorb it is to understand what rock n’ roll meant to audiences of the now-dubbed Classic Rock era: it reflects a period wherein R & R was meant to speak for youth, represent democratic ideals (at least implicitly) in a way that it hasn’t done as much since. Bands like The Who were flagbearers of a new way to be famous; a new way to bond with and represent an audience. In Lambert & Stamp (2015), a documentary about The Who’s early talismanic managers, director James D. Cooper makes a similar point, portraying The Who as perhaps the first act in rock history to not have a self-contained identity, as in one that seems separable from an audience that discovers it. The Who were more or less conceived as that which reflected its audience–the Mods of West London in the early-to-mid-sixties–in its tacit as well as not-tacit ways of being. They didn’t so much have an audience as a constituency, one they–especially Townshend–felt answerable to. How this kind of phenomenon recapitulates, or seeks to correct early childhood attachment and personality development is more important, even more profound, than anyone in pop culture realizes. Not sure what I mean? Think of this: an artist chooses to express himself, but more importantly, he chooses to express the other, seeing his audience. That audience experiences this, sees itself in the mind of the artist, and resonates, beginning a back and forth, a cycle; a dynamic. Hopefully growth. Sound familiar?

I think it fair to express that Queen, unlike The Who, or even Queen’s contemporaneous punk rock peers, were not looking to represent anyone but themselves, which is not a criticism, necessarily, though it’s strange to view them, or Freddie Mercury, now being cast as someone who reflected individuality in the face of adverse public tastes. My sense is that he and the band blended in with glam rock extravagance, cocktail hour jazz, rockabilly and disco ambience, thinking they’d simply entertain and ever stay one step ahead of the pigeon-holes. Far from outspoken, opinionated like Pete Townshend, Mercury was a reticent man publicly, yet perhaps garrulous and a fierce social critic behind closeted doors. I’m pleased that time has been kind to Queen, and that windows of relative exile, like what I perceived in the 80s, are closed behind them. But for me, the movie or book, or Ken Burns series, or whatever it is that will truly express what R & R means or meant to its audience in its renaissance period, has yet to materialize. For me, it will star The Who.

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Graeme on the radio

More on Tommy: this time a conversation with fellow therapist and Who enthusiast, Joe Peroni. Enjoy

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Graeme presents Tommy in Santa Fe…at last

From August, 2017, this presentation was part two of a project that culminated in my book, The Psychology of Tommy, published in May.

 

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Repeat

 

One of the subtler Freudian themes in Tommy is that of repetition compulsion. We repeat, Freud wrote in 1914 in “Remembering, repeating, and working through”. Specifically, we repeat instead of remembering, or realizing. We act out that which is repressed, feeling ashamed only when consciousness is brought to bear upon our actions. Prior to modern notions of addiction, which includes behaviors that are repetitive despite negative consequences, we’ve held in mind this underlying template for why human beings behave paradoxically, pledging to never forget…then forgetting anyway.

Tommy Walker witnessed a murder at the age of seven, roughly. Prior to this, his life experience is unknown but is subject to speculation: his father had been away at war, was reported missing. Tommy’s mother, apparently lonesome, had taken another lover, was poised to replace Tommy’s father until the father returns, discovering…oops! It’s unknown what Tommy thought of his world, how he experienced his world, prior to witnessing a crime, but upon that event he is told to not say anything—indeed, he is told that he didn’t see anything, didn’t hear anything; that he will pretend that nothing of importance had even happened.

This is the opening drama of Tommy: well known, or known enough by Classic Rock fans, or by most over the age of forty who made passing glances at pop culture, I think. I aim to make its meaning further known in my 2016 Tommy paper, as well as in my forthcoming non-fiction. In response to the crime and, by implication, his parents’ censoring message (BTW: it’s the father who’s returned and killed the lover), Tommy dissociates in the extreme. The libretto and myself now, even, play along with the secrecy by not quite naming the event, so a style of response pervades characters and listeners, and it all makes sense, somehow. Somehow it makes sense that Tommy’s over-the-top reaction—his psychosomatic deaf, dumb, and blind reaction—is the perfect over-reaction. It splits reality between a shameful, dangerous disclosure of truth versus a deadening, self-denying silence. It is a schizoid withdrawal, a monk’s solution: at once a pathology and an eloquent, logical act. Tommy’s symptoms are extreme yet prescriptive, and who hasn’t thought at one time or another, that the best thing to say or do in response to injustice, is nothing.

We imagine as Tommy proceeds with his life that he retains memory, as in biographical memory, of the events that compel his silent protest. We assume, even, that his condition is a protest and not merely a detachment, for that would sever hope, lead to an unhappy ending, which breaks the rules of popular art, never mind rock and roll. Through twists and turns, Tommy’s life improves because he has talents which defy his withdrawal, which draws admirers, even followers, which in turn further messes with the isolationist plan. Tommy re-engages, but does so in a didactic, overbearing manner, forgetting himself, forgetting why he isolated in the first place. Out of habit, he forgets how to relate. The followers revolt and unwittingly emulate Tommy’s past adversaries: they find they want to abuse him, reject him. They stop listening.

Circularity. Tommy’s end is not so much happy as sober. He, The Who, myself, many others: people try to learn from their past, try to help others, and not repeat the mistakes of the past. Maybe that seems easy when observing an outcome, that behavior or act that we could never imagine ourselves doing. The thing is that we don’t know the many repetitions that culminate in those acted out, unforgivable atrocities. We judge, or other ourselves, as social justice warriors term it. Our psyche holds onto our mistakes but obscures memory, helping us avoid pain. So we don’t notice the repetitions, and we don’t how we get somewhere until we’re there.

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Tommy the scapegoat

 

As I traverse this process of soliciting editors to read my Tommy manuscript, I am forced (it’s only a minor hardship) to conjure the would-be reader of my decade-and-counting project. He or she is a hybrid figure, I imagine: half-interested in rock and roll or sixties counterculture; the other half a student of modern psychology, perhaps a clinician. When I presented a version of my 2016 Tommy paper, most notably at the “Creativity and Madness” conference in Santa Fe last year, and again at the Mechanic’s Institute in January of this year, I took fleeting moments before, during, and after my talk to notice the crowd, see what kind of people had shown up to listen. In Santa Fe, they were doctors and psychiatrists, mostly, there to see a variety of presenters, but were nonetheless sympathetic to my subject. They were indeed appreciative. At the Mechanic’s Institute, it was a bit more of a rock and roll crowd, dotted with the tangentially curious: people who asked questions about Tommy and religion, Tommy and feminism; Narcissism in the arts. Listen to agents and publishers who reject manuscripts and you’d hear a lot about the need to categorize tightly. This seeking of a reader with cross-pollenating interests will not do. It’s far too whole object relations for people who don’t know what whole object relations are. For the clinician or psychology student, who also lives in a split-object world, the script of the rock opera does not sufficiently apply to clinical material.

As case illustrations go, my protracted Tommy analysis is more fun than most, I’m inclined to think, but therefore more fanciful. However, it is not frivolous, nor does it dilute theory. If anything, I attempt to restore erudition to some ideas that have already been dropped into the psyche-literature sieve, resulting in reductionist meaning. Take the derivative concept of scapegoating, for example. In systems theory, a scapegoat is an individual who absorbs the blame for a family’s dysfunction. Stereotypically, he or she is the acting out teen whose delinquent behaviors draw attention to a systemic problem. Of course, this interpretation is that of a clinician, as it reverses the interpretation of actors within the system. Therefore, the intervening therapist is one who holds that a paradoxical purpose exists within an individual’s pathology: to highlight the bad object influence. Consciously, this conclusion is avoided, even fought against. The teen who acts out continues to engage in their behavior, but upon scrutiny (or cross-examination, as they might experience it), this person shrugs, begs off explanations, insight. They don’t know why they do what they do. Or, they proclaim that their negative behaviors are stupid, inexplicable. They simply have to stop doing it, they suggest in resignation.

What is the unconscious waiting for? What does it want? The antecedent theory belongs to drive and later object relations theory, and perhaps most specifically, the observations of W.R.D Fairbairn, who wrote in the 1940s of psychological development in which children internalize “bad” objects, repressing them but allowing for their return as a result of their nature. Fairbairn pointed out that Freud’s model of repression and “good” objects was represented by his structural theory of Id, Ego, and SuperEgo. These agencies of the psyche contain human nature—the nature of the repressed, if you will—both good and bad, with a SuperEgo representing a codified structure of “good” objects, societal values and such. It begs the following consideration: if the container of “bad” objects is the Id, or if it doesn’t exist, it stands to reason that one’s bad objects become lost, dissociated; hence, “I don’t know what happened”. Fairbairn suggested that children internalize parents, repressing not so much what is intrinsically “bad” but rather the bad memories, which are associated with negative feelings, like guilt. Therefore, repression pertains more to what is forbidden, and what must therefore be discharged.

In writing about Tommy Walker, the famous deaf, dumb and blind boy of The Who’s rock opera, I cite Fairbairn’s writings so as to characterize the deeply somaticized child as one who has internalized his “bad” objects: his parents, who are at once traumatized by war, chaotic in their handling of jealousy; secretive in their pervasive cover-up of a shameful killing. Fairbairn’s notion of internalization extends to a redemption of bad objects, for it is the child who absorbs the pathology—in Tommy’s case, manifesting the lifeless, deadened way of being via his psychosomatic disability. In a confused and double-bound condition, Tommy does what Fairbairn’s child does: he protests and denies simultaneously. For the astute observer, he compels notice of his own silence, which speaks volumes about that which cannot be said. His silence is archetypal: a symbol of shame, but also of eloquent expression, of spiritual touch. His symptoms obscure the relatively unnoticeable neurosis and character pathology of his mother and father. They preserve a compromise stability, perhaps a false ideal, because a need for God, even a false God, is necessary in the world governed by the devil. At the same time the mysterious illness stirs imagination, has nonplussed observers wondering, what’s happening in this private, if allusive world? Tommy’s listeners, or Tommy’s viewers, if one thinks of the various plays or the film, are not so much nonplussed by the rock opera’s message as casually attentive, tangentially curious.

 

How about you? Are you attentive? Tangentially curious?

 

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Securing a truthful narrative

 

Psychology professor Jude Cassidy wrote an important paper on the subjects of secrecy and attachment theory in 2001. Providing an overview of others’ research, she analyzed features of secure and insecure attachments as derived from narrative recollections within the Adult Attachment Inventory (AAI). Narratives drawn from the AAI interviews are classified as either reflecting a secure/autonomous state of mind or they reflect the three insecure states of mind: dismissing, preoccupied, and disorganized. In her paper entitled “Truth, Lies, and Intimacy”, Cassidy highlights a criterion put forth by the designers of the AAI: a defining feature of a secure narrative is that it is truthful, although this criterion is not based upon content of recollections, but rather on the way experiences are organized in an interviewee’s mind. An interviewee can describe either a good or bad childhood, but what is required for a secure classification is the matching of global descriptions with specific examples. On the messages of parents, Cassidy further writes, “parents can be untruthful about the reality of the child’s experiences in a variety of ways”. They can ignore, withdraw from, or become angry in response to the child’s behaviors and feelings, and thereby convey that those behaviors and feelings are unacceptable. She cites examples, like a mother who fails to hear her baby’s cries because they trigger painful memories of her own once unanswered cries. In another case, a mother denies the pain of a child after a perceived minor injury: saying “that doesn’t hurt” when the pain does, in fact, hurt. An attempt at reassurance, perhaps, betraying that anti-hard truth bias, plus a disowning of painful memory.

With this concept of insecure narrative in mind, I might observe Tommy Walker seeking to piece together his recent and distant past. Presuming (in contrast to the film) that Tommy’s parents are still alive, I might support the young man’s pursuit of them so as to organize and understand his autobiography, pose investigative questions about his past and theirs. The idea would be that of therapeutic truth-seeking. Hamlet didn’t obtain this, but literature sometimes offers this kind of denouement, with contexts extending from the parent-child dyad to broader perpetrator-victim narratives. In a recent novel, Lilac Girls (2016), a story of American, Polish, and German women whose lives intersect during and after World War II, author Martha Hall Kelly spins a tale based upon true events, blending real-life heroines and villains with composite fictional characters. Caroline Ferriday, a one-time Broadway actress and socialite, is one such heroine plucked from historical obscurity by Kelly’s novel. Concerned about the plight of French orphans, primarily, Ferriday also learns about women victimized by Nazi medical experiments and arranges to bring them to the United States for proper, if overdue medical treatment. Later, Ferriday turns investigator and advocate and helps locate the whereabouts of Nazi doctors still living and practicing in Germany.

One of the composite figures is a once Polish underground soldier and later prisoner of the infamous Ravensbruck (all-female) concentration camp. With Ferriday’s information, Kasia, who was a teen during the war, hunts down a former Nazi doctor who conducted inhuman experiments on herself, her sister and her now deceased mother, and discovers the doctor freely practicing medicine in a small German town years after the war—a one-time prison sentence having been commuted for political reasons. Dr. Hertha Oberheuser, the only woman tried and convicted at the Nuremburg trials, according to history, is portrayed in Lilac Girls as an ambitious, yet naïve character, more indifferent towards anti-Semitism than an ardent perpetrator of cruelty. When initially instructed to euthanize sickly prisoners versus treating them, she is initially repulsed, if ultimately cooperative. Later, when subjecting individuals to dreaded Sulfa experiments, she becomes increasingly detached, and as the story progresses, her character seems to embody the loss of German feeling.

A tragic figure in this respect, Oberheuser elicits the slightest of sympathy when confronted by Kasia in the novel’s climactic passage. Until cornering her in her office, Kasia is dogged and fearless in tracking down the guilty doctor. Shaking, fearful that other hiding, former Nazis may yet persecute or destroy her, Kasia manifests her trauma while on the cusp of revenge. Still, she calms down enough to blackmail Oberheuser, threatening media exposure unless the former Nazi explains, in painful detail, the circumstances of the prisoner’s experience at Ravensbruck. Specifically, she demands that Oberheuser review the scene of Kasia’s mother’s execution, which previously had been shrouded in mystery. The somewhat apocryphal passage portrays the Polish survivor not so much finding revenge (though she does expose Oberheuser) as peace as she conjures her mother’s final moments. Contrary to the doctor’s expectation, she does not play the vigilante role. Instead, upon hearing the doctor’s confessional, she quietly returns home, seeks succor in the arms of her husband, and goes to bed, exhausted. Thus, the woman secures a coherent if not so consoling narrative, and upon that note, the novel ends.

Recently, I watched a film that ended on a compelling, ambiguous note, with a main character undecided over a future path. A fellow viewer, seemingly frustrated by the lack of clarity, posed an interesting question: would the resolution, or lack of it, chosen by the character at the end of the story be enough for you?

Is it enough to discover truth?

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