The Plague. The War. The Bomb. Different eras, different moments in history have their sententious monikers. The plain, definite references denote events that defined times, aimed at common experience and understanding. If one lived it there would be no mistaking the meaning.
I’m trying to find some meaning in our current, soon-to-be era defining crisis, as well as some comedy. Sheltered in place, locked down and distancing socially (what lovely vocab we’ve added to common lexicon), I’m snuggling up to my wife, at times whimpering with angst, but otherwise treading a tender path, taking in the warmth. We can resemble a pair of penguins when we’re quietly touching. Head-to-head, worried yet holding on, we contain each other’s trembling. I recall what I dub ‘The March’, a reference to a favorite nature yarn, March of the Penguins. Death march of the penguins, I once called it, or penguin gulag. That’s my black, if sympathetic humor taking over, making fun out of that which depresses. I quipped to my wife, “Do you think they ever ask, ‘are you bored? Wanna go somewhere?’ when they’re touching heads, just hangin’ out on the glacier flats?” My wife giggled, shook her head softly and then let her laugh slide into a sigh. A common, endearing habit. She had a supposition of her own, having seen some pictures online of deer wandering onto roads in (packs? Whatever the word for groups of deer is) the recent absence of cars. The point: the humans are in retreat, having been taken down by something that doesn’t even live in the ways we understand living. Nature is taking over. Taking revenge?
If you’ve followed this blog for a while you might think I’d turn to Hitchcock at this point and start pontificating about The Birds, with its nature’s mysterious revenge theme, coupled with an Oedipal crisis for its protagonist. But the film that’s most been on my mind in recent months, and even more so during the outbreak of what I’ll now call “The Virus”, is Dr. Strangelove, or How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb. See, I was due to talk about the 1964 comedy classic at a conference in Charleston, South Carolina in May; that is, until “The Virus” intervened, forcing a cancellation of the event. Naturally, I’m disappointed. For a hot-tempered minute, I was bitter, thinking that I’d been waiting for years for a chance to give a presentation like this, and had spent at least six months diligently preparing. Well, in case you wonder, I have managed to get over myself, and in case you further wonder, I’ll not give up on that goal, though it’s not clear if or when I’ll get to present my subject live. Meanwhile, my wife decided that I needn’t wait to see what will happen in the future, instead suggesting that I provide a version of my presentation as a voice-over to my power-point slide show, and then place the whole thing on You Tube.
And so I have. In between client sessions that now take place exclusively by either phone or video connection, and also between efforts to otherwise adjust to the upheaval that “The Virus” has brought everyone, I have found time to salvage my “Dr. Strangelove” project and adapt it in the manner that my wife has suggested. It wasn’t easy. Among other things, I’m not adept with things, including computers, so synchronizing the slides alongside my voice commentary, not to mention incorporating clips from the film that couldn’t simply be inserted via online media, proved to be a painstaking, patience-thwarting task. I became doubly aware of the ironies. Already, Dr. Strangelove exudes a critique of modern technology, man’s obsession with technical minutia, industrial progress; machinery and war. The previous and unchanged subtitle of my talk, “How I learned to stop worrying and love my phone” was of course a reference to yet another aspect of mine and others’ tethered existence.
Now I need them more than ever, those damned phones. I need computers more than ever. Whose idea was this? Of all the conspiracy theories that are being advanced currently, and which I am not listening to because I have better things to do, are there any being aimed at our precious technocracy? It’s not that I think our machinery intrinsically evil. I’m painfully aware that my Luddite predisposition is a result of fumbling inadequacy, and that my protest against that which has its own rules and idiosyncrasies, and which increasingly forces consumers to figure out processes via trial and error (seriously, where did all the manuals go?), is a persecutory fear projected at the inanimate substitutes of an invisible authority. As the applications that promised a transfer of my power-point plus commentary display into a You Tube-compatible video blocked or mocked me at one turn after another, my thoughts began to drift into the kind of psychotic state that would have fitted right in with the Mad Men assembly of Dr. Strangelove. I vaguely thought I should add something about H.G Wells at some point. Then, as the visage of Stanley Kubrick crossed my mind, I had a thought that I should be talking about HAL and 2001 instead.
That prompted more ideas: one was to include one or two lines from 2001, like “Open the pod bay doors, please”, which could be discussed in terms of Wilfred Bion’s ideas about beta elements and psychotic functioning, for example. More importantly, I thought to reference that line a second time, during a passage wherein I am talking about Major Kong’s (Slim Pickens) attempt to fix the short-circuited bomb bay doors moments before the film’s climactic bomb run. Open the pod bay doors, I imagined, would have fit perfectly as a linking piece of psychic function. Alas, topical or not, I chose to not entirely re-do my Strangelove presentation. The focus upon misguided technology, existential threats to the planet, our returning fear of the Russians, plus our observation of Mad Men in positions of power had already made Dr. Strangelove a still-relevant work of art for the 21st century—hence the first clause of my title: “Dr. Strangelove in the 21st century”. But as I watched the last clip of my presentation, feeling more or less satisfied that I have endured all of technology’s glitches so as to offer a worthy product, I noticed one more thing that I might have said but didn’t, and which I will include here instead.
In a clip that features the eponymous Strangelove character (Peter Sellers) wrestling with his wheelchair, the sense of farce and tension mounts with the knowledge that “The bomb” of the plot has been dropped, thus triggering the dreaded doomsday device that, according to Strangelove, will render the surface of the planet uninhabitable for ninety-three years. He then explains that human beings could live in mine shafts while being unemployed and having little to do except copulate and thus repopulate the earth. Now, on the one hand, this hilarious piece of satire furthers the film’s repertoire of themes: sex and death diffused; man and machine intertwined, etc. I could have added something about that, I thought. On the other hand, I was feeling weary. I didn’t want to do another recording. And maybe I’ll get to do a live presentation someday after all, I thought, feeling hopeful for a change. Then another chilly set of thoughts came to me: what about the future? Has life changed? Will I be unemployed in the near future, have little to do. That doesn’t sound very sexy, actually. I’m not one of the Mad Men. I loved Dr. Strangelove as a film with lasting relevance, but I didn’t and don’t love the bomb. And despite whatever silver lining or life lesson emerges from our present crisis, my thinking belies my play-upon-a-title: I don’t think I’ll learn to love the virus.
Not the original, but a variation on a theme
Jogging past an assembly of children one morning I overheard a lesson being directed at them. An energetic, fatherly man was giving a taut lesson in basic soccer skills to a host of playful novices, and prefacing their exercises with a more fundamental, context-traversing appeal: if you have any questions—any at all—don’t be afraid to ask. There are no dumb questions. Everyone got that? He asked, sounding a bit more forceful than necessary given the point of his statement. With numb expressions, the kids gazed up at him, nodding compliantly, with their parents (a few were flanking the group) looking down with prompting influence. Did they get it? I wondered. Did any of them dare ask?
Such encouragements or exhortations tend to presume the following of both adults and children: not so much the possibility of incomprehension, as this coach was implying, but rather the constancy of attention. Everyone got that? He asked, with seeming reference to comprehension. This after implying, despite a contrary intention, that anyone who did not understand was “dumb”. A reaction formation, this would be called. But what of the inattentive? What of those children whose minds will have wandered, onto whatever is more pleasurable, or less onerous. Less onerous than soccer? I ask incredulously, because I’m a fan. The ego says to listen; to listen intently, without interruption, distraction. Comply, and to pay attention is even more important than to understand, so to not listen is to commit the greater sin, and to be consigned to shameful silence, at best hoping the information is repeated, granting a second chance to hear. The ego adds that when the authority figure asks if you understand, you affirm him or her lest that also bring about a problem, despite what the authority promises. For what would it mean if just one of those children—each about four or five years old, I guessed—had raised a hand and with impish innocence said something like, “I don’t understand what we’re doing”.
My reverie. My memory, perhaps? My wish? Had I ever been so brave as to draw attention to my incomprehension, or my implied indifference to an endeavor everyone around me seemed so committed to? I scroll through the tapes: not much, I have to say. Oh, there are moments when I have, with confidence usually, asked something that challenged the premises of an exercise; made a statement or two that drove a fork in a process, compelling someone or everyone to halt momentum, deal with me, my opinions, plus the glitches that difference, indifference, or disagreement produces. Freud taught that the unconscious is ever pushing for expression. It wants what it wants, does what it does, and so it traverses repression barriers, leaking out our bungling, our dreams…our distractions, our pleasures. The symptom of distraction, at times aggregated into diagnoses like ADHD (typically aimed at children who don’t listen), constitute the return of the repressed, in disguise. “Sorry, I forgot” says the person who nodded compliantly when asked if he understood, but then behaved in a manner that betrayed a secret truth: his mind was elsewhere. The ego operates imperfectly. Like the Id, it operates unconsciously (not always), contrary to popular opinion, looking to postpone the seeking of pleasure (the sole purpose of the Id), collecting sense data through the body, but failing to plug all the gaps, blocking those ideas that stir in us. The Ego is responsible for the censorship of truth—that moment of compliance in which the secret of inattention is held close to the chest. But then, so, too, might the moment of disclosure by the “brave” person voicing incomprehension be an act of the ego. It speaks to reality. Repression, that signature defense which is meant to keep our pleasure-seeking drives at bay, exerts a pressure to keep the unconscious hidden. This results in a counter pressure towards the conscious, yielding anxiety. Repression proper, as it is called, manifests in the derivatives of neurosis: our displacing symptoms as well as our inhibitions. Our phobias and other compromises.
What is this compromise of play, and what is a game, anyway, if not one more human activity with rules?
Last week I saw a film that has won prizes at several film festivals, including the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. I took my father to see the drama The Keeper, about German soccer player Bert Trautmann, because I knew my dad was familiar with the film’s subject, a sportsmen hitherto obscure to most Americans, I think. By the time The Keeper’s end credits were rolling at my local theater, I was equally sure that audience members would be doing what my dad would have found unnecessary: googling Trautmann’s name.
Not that the film was short on bio. In a stirring first hour, the film casts Trautmann as a German soldier captured by British forces towards the end of World War II, and transferred to a POW camp in Lancashire, England, wherein he and his fellow prisoners are made to work menial jobs to repair local damage caused by Luftwaffe bombings. During a sandlot game of soccer (football in England) at the camp, a local tradesman who also manages the local team spots Trautmann playing goalkeeper and is impressed by the German’s skills. Soon this man is bargaining with camp officers, recruiting Trautmann as a ringer for his underperforming, relegation-threatened side. As a return favor, Trautmann works in the manager’s local shop, which spares the goalkeeper the indignity of the POW camp and also places him in the company of the manager’s pretty and spirited daughter, who later becomes Trautmann’s wife. After a series of strong performances, Trautmann is scouted by a major regional club, Manchester City, and a triumphant first act concludes with Trautmann signing a contract and winning the hand of his now former manager’s daughter.
Along the way, the story features residues of the German’s war experience. Among other things, he’s had to endure British soldiers who are vitriolic and bullying in their treatment of Trautmann and his comrades, and while showing newsreel of Nazi atrocities (the footage of liberated concentration camps like Belsen) seems fair and necessary, it stirs in Trautmann memories of events for which he feels guilty. One recurring flashback image or scene features a young Jewish boy whose football has been pilfered by a taunting German officer. In this memory, Trautmann comes to the rescue, man-handling the officer just as he is about to shoot the child. Later, imprisoned in England, his protestations of innocence are muted amid the hostility of the locals, but Trautmann’s patience and change of fortune changes the equation. After the war is ended, he refuses repatriation and a safe passage to his Bremen home, choosing instead to play football in England and wed his new sweetheart. But trouble explodes as he is introduced to the press as a new goalkeeper for Manchester City and local reporters grill him about his Nazi associations. Apparently, history records that his recruitment aroused a protest of nearly 20,000 people (according to—you guessed it—google), largely because it was discovered that Trautmann had previously been awarded the Nazi Iron Cross. In response, he haplessly repeats to reporters what had ultimately won the sympathy of his once distrusting wife: “I was a soldier. I had no choice”.
In time, Trautmann wins the sympathy, the acceptance, and the admiration of sports fans and the wider British public as he proves himself a star performer and a decent, ordinary citizen. A legendary highlight of his career is captured in a sequence about the 1956 FA Cup Final in which Trautmann breaks his neck—yes, breaks his neck—with a quarter hour left in the game, but continues to play until the competition’s end. City won the game and therefore the Cup, and after the crooked-necked Trautmann collects his winner’s medal, x-rays reveal the extent of his injury, which thereafter cements his place in British football folklore. Then something strange occurs, foreshadowing more tragedy. By this time, Trautmann and his wife have kids, one of which is an impish boy who is careless with a football when playing around his father’s hospital bed after that neck injury. This sparks more visions of the Jewish child whom Trautmann had supposedly saved according to the truncated memory shown earlier in the film. Then, as he continues recuperating in hospital, Trautmann’s son later takes his football into the street near their home and is run over and killed by an ice cream truck. Devastated by this loss, Trautmann and his wife sink into depression, with Trautmann now haunted by an intrusively shocking edit to his earlier memory. Later, he confesses the truth of his arresting trauma to his wife: the boy he once “saved” from that cruel Nazi officer was in fact not saved. Trautmann was actually stilled by inaction and simply watched as the officer executed the child. Previously, he had blocked the guilt of that inaction, re-writing the scene so as to maintain the image of an innocent, decent man who simply “had no choice”. Unburdening himself, he reveals the truth of that former moment, explaining to his wife that their son’s death was thus a karmic event. Bitterly, his wife rejects the theory as self-pity, and challenges Trautmann to take fuller responsibility for their shared loss.
Which he does. The epilogue to the drama features Trautmann resuming the career that stalled upon the family tragedy and playing on with dignity until 1964. He is awarded the Order of the British Empire (known by the shorthand, OBE) for services to the British public, is widely lauded for engaging leaders in the Jewish community, and via his example, improving post-war Anglo-Germanic relations. He indeed prevails as a decent man. But the reason I chose to write about this film has little to do with Trautmann’s celebrated life, and even less to do with his reputation as a decent man, though I don’t begrudge him that legacy. However, what fascinates this psychoanalytic observer is the running theme of traumatic flashbacks overlaid upon a primitive splitting defense. The traumatic memory is that of the Jewish boy victimized by the Nazi officer—the shock of witnessing that horrible incident—plus the experience of haplessly looking on without intervening, either during the incident or following it, by implication. The secondary defense lies in Trautmann’s censored memory of the event, which significantly alters its meaning, depicting Trautmann’s heroism versus his neglect, which in turn spares Trautmann lingering guilt. Ultimately, the fully revealed version of his memory disrupts a false self-image of amiability and innocence, which had been stirring tension amid happiness and fame until his son’s death intruded.
Initially, Trautmann’s gentle and winning personality is endearing. One cheers for him as his mischief frees him from the POW camp. Despite my own British heritage, I wanted him to defeat somehow the embittered officer who hazes him and his comrades. When he joins the local football team, it’s a pleasure to watch him make save after save, winning over his new teammates and a skeptical crowd. And when he casts a covetous glance at his manager’s daughter, and soon endures her cold shoulder because she, too, has feelings of anger and suspicion for anyone or thing German, the audience waits and hopes that soon enough he will win her heart also. When the flashback involving the Jewish boy first appears, it seems consistent with the spirit of the film to that point that Trautmann would be portrayed heroically, but when the scene ends abruptly with Trautmann pushing that Nazi officer’s arm away, I felt a twinge of…I don’t know…something. I didn’t know the history of this man beyond the broken neck in the Cup Final story. Watching the film, I didn’t know what was true and what may have been apocrypha, and had my nagging dislike of the first flashback led to critical scrutiny, I might have called out the faulty logic contained within it. After all, is it plausible that Trautmann would have survived, as in not been shot himself, had he actually intervened to save a Jewish child from execution?
In modern psychoanalysis, what happened to Trautmann that day might be termed the unconscious but not repressed. The retrospective judgment that history casts upon Germany is that its decent, ordinary citizens didn’t do enough to prevent the Holocaust. They didn’t care enough. They didn’t like Jews. As a result, Trautmann was unresponsive in a moment wherein an act of cruelty was first predictable and then imminent. Though it may seem harsh to write, he therefore merits no more or less of the judgment that history metes out to his generation’s countrymen. As for myself, I knew something was wrong with the sanguine portrayal within this film’s otherwise wonderful first half. Though I couldn’t pinpoint the matter, I somehow felt that I was being played. Let’s call that my unconscious but not repressed experience.
The film The Bookshop, upon a second and third viewing, has brought to light some details that I hadn’t noticed before, based on the 1978 novel by Penelope Fitzgerald. Our main character, a widow Mrs. Florence Green, arrives in a nondescript small seaside town in the late-fifties to open a bookshop. In a tug of war with the local banker and solicitor our heroine finds the courage to bunk all the hints to give up on her dream of opening a bookshop in an abandoned home in which she will live and work.
The film gives small clues throughout, like a murder mystery: You might say Hitchcockian, or a family favorite The Wicker Man, (the 1970’s version with Christopher Lee). The locals play a role in aiding the town matriarch (bully) Violet Gamart in order to steer Mrs. Green in a new direction and ultimate failure of the business.
Violet believes the village requires an arts center that will have lectures in the winter and concerts the rest of the year. Violet believes the ideal location should be in the home that will house the bookshop and she uses politics, law, and her wealth in order to control the village whose citizens don’t know any better. She effectively uses the illusory truth effect, a phenomenon in which a listener primarily comes to believe something because it has been repeated so often. Sound familiar? The best example occurs at an exclusive party hosted by Violet in which she and her husband are circulating amongst guests and repetitively suggesting the arts center cause.
Our heroine would like to sell Lolita in her book shop at the height of Lolita’s success and controversy. Mrs. Green seeks the advice of the town recluse and first customer, Edmund Brundish, on whether she should sell the book in her shop. Mrs. Green would like to order 250 copies which seems may either make or break her shop.
Mrs. Green hires a village girl, Christine, who works in her shop as an assistant, who emphasizes the fact that she is not interested in reading. Our heroine maneuvers Christine into reading a book, making a bargain with her that if Christine reads one book in her life, A High Wind in Jamaica, she will receive a black lacquered tray that she admires. Upon my research, the content in the novel A High Wind in Jamaica, which is replete with themes of piracy, murder, and sex, doesn’t seem to be appropriate for a ten year old. Nevertheless, High Wind is on a list of the top one hundred books to read; moreover, it heralds a theme of brave witnessing from unlikely sources.
There are clever references to novels that avid book readers may recognize. Milo North, a prowling ally of Violet Gamart, seems to represent a character from Lolita, and therefore hebephelia, when he encounters Christine while substituting for Mrs. Green as manager of the shop one day. There are hints that Christine has read A High Wind in Jamaica, so she confronts Milo by suggesting that she is aware of the actions the town is taking against Mrs. Green. Milo responds strangely and refers to Christine as a child then as a woman, reflecting the Lolita subtext. Milo even takes on a wolfish persona when he first meets Mrs. Green, in her ” Little Red Riding Hood” dress, in which she stands out at Violet’s party. The granny cottage Milo lives in on the Gamarts property takes on this brothers Grimm quality; Lolita echoing “Little Red Riding Hood”.
There is an overall theme of standing up to authority in response to censorship as well as subtler coercions that often escape notice: this includes repressing the education of a community by denying access to literature–this is also a reference and nod to Ray Bradbury’s novel, Fahrenheit 451. It’s a message that should never be forgotten. Christine takes things into her own hand by setting the bookstore on fire as a protest against the usurping of the shop by the villainous Violet Gamart. Destitute, Mrs. Green is forced to leave the town. In the end, holding the copy of A High Wind in Jamaica, and out of breadth, Christine manages to get to the dock to say goodbye just as Mrs. Green’s boat is pulling away.
“You’re so kind Mrs. Green. You’re so bloody kind.”
“I don’t hear the meat of this. I mean, you’re talking about someone who won’t or can’t read your manuscript, or about a publisher who is unresponsive, but I don’t hear what this book is about, even”
Pause. I’m drawing breath…with a sigh.
“Well, it’s…(another pause) a book that presents a psychoanalytic or psychodynamic perspective on the treatment of sex addiction. Firstly, it takes a look at the definitions of that term, profiling the various attempts to…organize or codify the term as a diagnostic category. Then it casts the concept as useful but also limited, or that it’s been discussed in a limited fashion by hegemonic elements in the field”
“What does that mean?”
“It means that our book critiques the trend in which sex addiction is exclusively, or near exclusively, treated as a behavioral disorder, with interventions aimed at understanding the consequences of ‘out of control or problems behaviors’ rather than an understanding of what those behaviors are about, or if one prefers, the underlying reasons why the behaviors are happening, or even what’s happening within the dissociative spells which trigger the action that is called addictive behavior. Insight as a modality is rejected by most addiction specialists, as well as, it seems, those who speak on behalf of traumatized partners. People don’t want to think so much about what happened—they want to do something, as if the understanding is a known thing, circumscribed by the labels. You hear of treatment “plans”, or “protocols of intervention” as if these represent standards of intervention, predicated upon a known assessment. We offer the view that short-term interventions lead to short-term positive outcomes, but with narrow understandings such that regression is likely, leading to repeated if episodic entries into mental health care systems. We even illustrate cases, at least two examples, in which patients fled—and I mean fled—our style of treatment because they were afraid of their own minds, didn’t want to think in the manner that our approach called for. So, our book offers an outline of how to intervene initially, as in upon crisis, but also with an in-depth focus such that progress is sustained”
“An outline of what? It’s still not clear what this treatment would entail. Also, you use words like ‘traumatized’ alot without explaining what you mean, as if the meaning were a given”
Hmm, my listener now seems impatient, maybe annoyed. I am too, or am and she’s not, maybe. I entertain a brief reverie: one day I’ll be famous for my oblique way of putting things, not put on the spot and caviled at; reverent readers will strain to understand my prose instead of me straining to make myself understood. One day. One day I will write Bob Dylanesque crypt that credulous readers will make an effort with; work hard to understand.
“Working through transference, for example. The book’s aimed at professionals so not everyone will get what that means, but practitioners should—the idea is not so esoteric. Our book reiterates something that’s been said by many others but again, not in the context of sex addiction treatment: the only real way to learn about patterns of thought, behavior, or feeling is to create the conditions such that these patterns are evoked in the treatment, with the therapist or analyst—then the deep-rooted conflicts can be addressed honestly and be dealt with. That takes time for that to happen organically, which is why in-depth therapy isn’t like a class, or a six-week rehab”
Silence, which I take to mean something like agreement. I breathe normally again, but I don’t learn whether my supposition is wrong. That’s part of the deal. The response of the reader, the listener, the other, isn’t really a known thing. Something subsides. A softening in my chest suggests a retreat, or a relenting. I’m off the spot. Thoughts relax, drift now that my polemical moment is past. Associations take over, back to an earlier theme.
“Maybe I worry about the response to our book, or the lack of it. I feel dependent on the figures that are involved currently. I don’t think there are many who would platform my views, or Joe’s. It’s funny, that’s a word I haven’t used until recently—platform, I mean. Is that a millennial term? Who knows? I don’t care for it. It seems pejorative: intended to de-legitimize dissenting speech, and to indicate by implication the privileged positions of those who hold the microphone…or control the space on the shelves.”
I’m being oblique again, but my listener doesn’t respond. Is she following me? Bored? I change subjects, sort of.
“I don’t know, maybe I’m projecting all this stuff about unimportance—making judgements about the indifference of others when this project has slipped into the background of my own life. I have other priorities also, I guess. (Pause) It reminds me of something I took care of, or tried to anyway, on the weekend. I’d gone back to that train store where I bought the locomotive model that doesn’t work—ya know, that revitalization of my old toy that I’ve been speaking of. I spoke to the guy at the shop who had worked on it and phoned me, saying its motor was dead. He asked, “Tell us what you want to do”, implying the ball was in my court to request a repair. I’ve been reluctant because this model’s been repaired once before already, and I’ve only had it for a month and a half. The first instance was my fault—I’d admitted that—because I’d connected the wires to the wrong terminals on the transformer. But I fail to see how its burnt out motor was a result of anything I did. Anyway, I sort of said that, to which the guy made no response. He’s a pretty stolid guy, like the stereotype I’d previously assigned. He’s a tinkerer, not a thinker, I think (soft laugh). There’s an air between he and I, like he thinks I’m a dilettante: someone who’s into trains for the short-term, just in time for Christmas or something. I won’t stick around, he thinks. I’m not a serious customer; not a real hobbyist. Anyway, so I asked, “ Can I get an estimate on a repair?”, thinking he might agree to meet me halfway, cover the cost of the replacement motor while I pay for the labor—something like that. He didn’t bite on that, however. He just said, “Okay, we’ll get back to you with an estimate,” in a clipped voice”. I was more or less satisfied, I suppose. Not satisfied by the outcome, which hasn’t occurred yet. Don’t know when that will happen. I just mean that I like how this is going so far…how I’m dealing with it, stretching it out because it’s worth it to do so. See, I could make a fuss and a demand, but where would that leave me, with them? Or, I could just slink away, hiding my dissatisfaction, and take my business elsewhere.”
I sensed in my listener’s silence a patient consideration: what is the relevance of this aside? I sighed amidst a lengthy pause.
“To your point, it’s not enough that I want to be read. I want shelf-life. I want to stick around because of an idea: an idea that it’s not so important what sex addiction is or even what we do about it. It’s about how we think and then talk about it.”
The temporal structure is off, which means that it doesn’t matter which thought, which symbol, came first. Still, I shall start, arbitrarily it seems, somewhere in the middle of the act. The first scene was an apt replica of a Star Wars moment—apt because the SW series isn’t exactly known for conventional adherence to chronologies. However, what I’m alluding to is the flinty wall of grey that began my vision, and the like barrage of grim imagery that confronts Rey and company in the recent and supposedly last SW installment. In particular, my scene resembles that in which Rey hijacks some kind of windsurfing boat and heads out amid a raging storm into a sea that envelops a derelict Death Star, there to meet Emperor Palpatine and her transcendent fate. Well, what I’m aboard is not a windsurfing boat, but what I’m faced with may be my fate, transcendent or not. Before me is a surface of concrete, I think, like an abandoned or half-destroyed freeway section that’s being assailed by waves that are lapping at its barriers. I’m positioned feet away from a precipice, dithering as to what direction to take, but apparently inclined to attempt stillness. It’s not working. At some point, I notice the structure beneath my feet moving, as if I were atop a great beast that is awakening from hibernation. The waves, it seems to me, will imminently consumer the structure I’m on and therefore me with it. It’s time for a decision, so I make my move. Next, I’m climbing onto a horizontal stanchion that is the summit of the freeway’s height as it is falling away, and as I steady myself for a leap I feel an exultant rush. A death wish? Not sure. The fear of the previous moment seems gone or at least subdued, replaced by a prideful spike upon making up my mind. The only thing that’s surprising is the sudden recession of the waves. Momentarily at a low ebb, I am convinced they will surge upwards again and wash me aside if I don’t jump soon.
I don’t recall looking down. I barely remember the leap. But I did experience the fall—the continued thought that I was joining an adventure rather than dying—and then especially the scything dive into the water. It’s cold but not too cold; certainly not biting, cruel, freezing cold. It’s cold like the previous several days had been cold: it’s a clammy, hard but tolerable cold beneath a warming layer of clothing. It’s a piece from reality intruding upon my scene, hitching a ride on the trip and making things seem better than they really are. But how things are is scary, actually. The momentum of the dive is taking me too deep, I am next thinking. As my descent reaches a natural end, I turn upwards, instinctively looking to the surface, hoping suddenly that I’m not too far down. There is no light, shaft-like or otherwise, and this signifies not only a blanketing darkness, but the absence of a divine beckoning. An indeterminate passage of time follows, after which I am somehow back upon that previous concrete surface, or some semblance of it, and glancing about again at the stormy scene around me. It is a composite world, made up of images familiar and not; a geography that I’ve discovered, that I’ve longed to discover having barely known that it existed. Nonetheless, it is recognizable. Amongst the images that draw me is the shape of a three-to-four story hotel or apartment complex. It is slightly sunken, as if pulled into the ground by an earthquake, but its integrity has held, making it seem whole and surviving. It is a bit like psychoanalysis, I speculate: an aged edifice being slowly pulled underground but hanging on; an institution seated at the end of a mythical river, or at the far reaches of the globe, and I have arrived at its door. It’s a different kind of home. This structure is similarly blackened by the surroundings, rather like the violent waves that are causing all the damage, and contrary to what my listener will soon suggest, I think this dark greyness is not an indictment of absent color, but instead a sharp, almost film noir-like affirmation.
“I think this is your first analytic dream,” says my listener. My analyst. Welcome to my world. Really? I thought, both pleased and disconcerted simultaneously. I’m glad to have reached this apparent landmark, but I’d rather thought that I’d gotten past this bit already, having been in analysis for over a year. My first analytic dream, as in the first recounted dream that seemed to say something about the analysis itself? Was I slow learner? Am I on course in my learning? Anyway, I bit down on the plaintive observation and traded associations. I followed my analyst’s thought trail quickly enough and noted the crucial parallel. The dive was the thing: the deep dive into the unconscious. Of course, couldn’t miss that one. Then, due to the nature of the scene—the violent storm and so on—I mooted that the surface of the water might also represent death, which would make sense of my fear upon descending too far below the surface, plus the whole dream would link back to the recent reveries I’d been having with respect to that near fall from a ledge memory when I was two or three, and about which I journaled in the last entry. My analyst persisted, understandably enough, with the notion that I was poised upon another precipice, not one of imminent death but rather one of growth and understanding given the prospect of deepening work in psychoanalysis. We agreed upon one point only: it seemed important that my fears upon my watery descent were of being crushed or lost in darkness, not of drowning per se. We disagreed on the meaning of color versus black and white, as I’m not yet ready to cast my life so far as dull, or colorless. Or, we sort of agreed that the dark building that appears on the surface, plus the broken freeway that gets assaulted by the waves are…meaning, they seem to be recalling something like…
Nope. Lost it. That’s the nature of dreams, I’m afraid. My dreams, anyway. They exist in disorganized form and then die on the vine; a strangulated, inchoate death. Just as well, perhaps, because thoughts move on in daytime, on the couch, leaving some thoughts behind, abandoned, while traces of previously unfinished business are instead picked up. So I turned back the clock. I nearly died that day, I said, reiterating the link between the dream and death. I was about to revisit the scene or that script that I’d written about the aftermath of my rescue from the ledge: that imagined decompression of my mother’s terror juxtaposed against my cries of oblivious complaint. What did my toddler self imagine I was about to do, I wonder? What did I think she was stopping me from doing? Then something strange happened, in my process of recall, I mean. It was another temporal shift, this time one that picked up the story of my preverbal fall where I’d left off.
“Where were they that I was alone in the house like that?” I asked. As the question had trailed some version of the memory’s recap, my analyst followed along, mostly unconfused by my shift. Oh, I see, I heard the woman thinking: a prequel. I continued: “I mean, if she was outside in the back garden, and—as she insists to this day—my dad was nowhere to be seen…Karen, my sister, aged six at the time, doesn’t remember this…why was I left alone to wander about the house and be upstairs in a bedroom whose window is wide open?” I paused and listened to the blank space, as in the silence of a shared unknowing until that pre-thought also withered and died on the vine. I don’t know if I shrugged to punctuate the moment of deadening thought. It’s pointless to shrug when lying on the couch because the gesture is obscured. Mother blaming. My thoughts had stalled upon the point of mother blaming, I’m interested to note. Well, we don’t do that, do we? Yes, I know. I’ve been here before on a couple of recent entries. I went there in mine and Joe Farley’s forthcoming book, Getting Real About Sex Addiction. There I was following echoes, in a way. Not echoes of Esther Perel, as I’ve previously written, but rather psychoanalysts like Jean LaPlanche, or Robert Bly, the somewhat eclipsed men’s movement icon, whose book Iron John was a refuge for men like myself in the nineties.
Well, Bly had something to say about sympathetic mother blaming. His was more of a critical poke at the split-off self, like much my writing is, I believe. See, in his chapter, “The Pillow And The Key”, Bly revives a pre-Christian myth, later transformed into a Grimm fairy tale, about a boy who plays with a golden ball that unbeknownst to him represents his wholeness, but he loses it when the ball roles into a cage inhabited by the “Wild Man”, who has been imprisoned by the boy’s father, the King. This man says to the boy that he can have the ball back if the boy releases him from the cage. When the boy complains that he doesn’t have the key, the Wild Man replies, “the key is under your mother’s pillow”, and that pillow, with all of its Freudian sexual connotations, is where the mother stores all of her expectations for her son. From there, a tale unfolds in which the boy steals the key, frees the Wild Man but runs away from his family, to be mentored in the forest by the now indebted Wild Man. The remainder of the story entails the boy’s return from exile, which is less consequential as it pertains to Bly’s interest, which is to point out the mother’s implied role in civilizing the boy. What Bly and others of his ilk protest is the loss of healthy wildness in modern man, which is not to be confused with machismo, submission to corporate or industrialist slavery, or misogyny, but rather a mysterious realm wherein fathers are strong, decisive, and wise. It is he that is needed, for young men in particular, not a submission to a substitute and idealized feminine. But the taboo encoded in the “pillow” metaphor is in the way, suggested Bly, echoing Freud in his modern times. Women don’t want to hear this, Bly wrote in his preface to the last edition of Iron John: “We know that fathers have an erotic power over their daughters that they often don’t want to have named or exposed, and perhaps mothers are not eager to have their power named either.”
Did I want to know what it was like to go fast in my friend’s new Tesla Model Three? Not really, I thought yet didn’t quite say. Not that it would have made any difference. Within a split-second of the question he hit the gas, or drove up the voltage, or did whatever it is you do to a Tesla to make it nearly lift from the ground and speed forward like something launched from a catapult. My hair stood on end and my ass rose from my seat, reminding me that it was a ride—just a ride, my internalized soothing voice opined. “That felt like flight,” I said as we slowed down just seconds later, the result of heavy traffic in a busy part of town. Fleetingly, I considered that the Tesla Model Three from 2018 seemed designed for the salt flats of Utah, not the civilized grids of an overpopulated California. Frustratingly for my friend yet thankfully for myself, this meant that bursts of speed would be brief, and if I am going to fly or take flight on matters and sustain the air speed, it will need to be in contexts of my own choosing.
Been thinking a lot about flight recently. It keeps showing up in my memory and therefore as appendages to thought and reverie. The themes are polarized around positive and negative connotations, with one meaning suggesting fear and disappearance, the other ambition and drive. I want to fly, says the ambition. I want to take flight, says the fearful cousin. Anyway, the antecedent memory is from the preverbal era of my life and contains narrative that is disputed by the principals, myself excluded. I was merely the center of attention—of horrified attention. See, I was two and a half when it happened. No, that’s not right, says a dissenting voice: I was closer to the age of three. The resolution of this lies in a discussion of chronology, plus a backwards itinerary of where my family lived in the years 1969 to 1971, roughly. These were years of mobility for our family, and years of my taking flight, apparently. They were the years of stepping away, of sneaking away, or running away from containing or leash-holding adults. A beloved aunt and later Godmother got more than she bargained for when she successfully corralled me at an amusement park and fixed me into a rickshaw that would carry me home. I may have been restrained physically but not emotionally, and at age two, I could wail with the best of them. My aunt’s ears rang for another thirty years. That’s how long she kept alive the tale of my oppositional or determined separatism until she and her opinions were muted by age.
Once, she may have been a prominent voice of criticism in my parents’ ear, given how “willful” I will have seemed at the time. Or fearless. The most striking anecdote of these early years of mine centered about this aforementioned tendency to climb upon ledges and flirt with the danger of falling, poised to fly. I recall some later episodes, instances from my latency years of ages 6-10 when such precipice-approaching behavior jangled nerves, eliciting shrill complaints and punitive aftermaths. But there was no punishment after the earliest of these known events, as far as I know. At the outset of this chronologically ambiguous event, I was standing upon a window sill, hanging outside an opening that looked out from a second floor onto a back garden. As I picture it now, I conjure thick deciduous vegetation and a verdant lawn, the result of plentiful rain across seasons in Britain. Our family garden will have been about twenty yards deep, but the well-cut grass, moist and somewhat soft, will have stopped several feet short of a back door, yielding to a stretch of hard pavement, unforgiving to a falling body. My mother recalls hearing my voice. “Hello Mummy,” I called out cheerfully, she says. It’s funny, but the “mummy” bit is the one that makes me cringe, with embarrassment, I mean. Others think it cute or charming, this distinctively British term. I find it precious. Not me. Regardless, in this context, not even my mother found my expression charming. “STAY RIGHT THERE AND DON’T MOVE”, she recalls calling out. Next, she dashed into the house and ran upstairs, and within seconds she had gathered me in her arms and thus rescued me from falling to my death.
That’s the end of the anecdote as it is recalled by her. Recently, my aged father added that he was as scared as my mother at the time, for he was at the bottom of that garden also, only less quick to move. While my mother ran to grab me, he positioned himself at the base of our house, looking to gauge the trajectory of my imminent fall and hoping to catch me. My mother disputes this piece, claiming with a hint of bitterness that my father wasn’t even there—like he often wasn’t there, she seems to imply. To be fair, I haven’t done or thought much in the intervening near-fifty years to add anything to this memory. But recently it’s been coming back, this memory, though not quite in a haunting fashion; rather, again, as a fragment attached to the end of a thought-train, as if the image of myself upon a window ledge, looking out, has something to say to a thought unfinished. I have finished the anecdote recently for my mother’s benefit. Meaning, I have speculatively recounted the missing pieces, adding a script to the thirty second yarn as it has previously existed. In this re-boot, I wail, just like I did to my Godmother once, when my mother pulls me away from the ledge. I conjure for her the moments of terror as she rushes into the house and dashes upstairs, wondering if she’ll get to me in time. Can you imagine? I also suppose the recalibration that occurred as she sat me down on her lap, upon a bed or some other piece of furniture, just feet away from that ledge. Her nerves will have been on overload but in decompression mode—her heart and head thumping with slowly ebbing alarm. She may have shut out my cries of protest, instead gripping me with longing, determined to not let me go as she rocked me in her arms, soothing herself more than she was me.
Modern psychology casts a skeptical eye upon such moments, thinking there is a sting in the tail of clinging motherhood, the context notwithstanding. I likely didn’t like it either at the time, I have supposed. Upon my re-enacting description, my mother confirmed that theory, quietly saying, “That’s right” with a stirred-up air about her, like she was reliving a hitherto censored moment through my imagination. I wanted to fly then, I think. I wanted to do things I wasn’t ready or meant to do, and I often stepped out of line, not thinking that others would pull me back to either compliance or safety, but I experienced that good luck anyway, of course. I’ve done my own pulling back as an adult–to a fault, some would say. I should do this or go for that. Latter day conservatism has blocked me. Minor frustrations on paths of mooted improvements can feel like punishments for getting away from a more carefully prescribed course. More recently, it’s been, you should have done that years ago. You’re getting a late start now. That’s me thinking—thinking instead that I got a too-early start, followed by a gradual retreat from precipices, the good and the bad. Now they beckon again, the risks, the impending losses, the opportunities and the defeats. It’s a selective critique, however, one that picks and chooses still what seems like worthwhile play, adventures that fit me versus those that feel like gratuitous indulgence or danger. No, Joe. No Tesla for me, thank you very much.
“So, did I tell you I had this higher power moment? No? Oh man, I gotta tell you this. So, I’ve been doin’ well, right—I’ve got something like ninety days since I’ve done anything like inner circle, or middle circle behavior. Then I get this thing I gotta do mid-week for my job. I’m going down to this storage place, got my documents in order, gotta secure some space for our lab. It’s a semi-regular part of my job, and I’ve been to this place before, and it’s a fairly easy errand to run, only I need to carry some equipment so I say to this intern in our office, ‘hey you—and I’m pointing to him like this—let’s go, I got a job for you. Anyway, we head down there, get inside this place which is in the middle of this industrial park where there’s hardly anyone around and…behind the counter there is this totally cute girl who walks up to the front desk and…I can just tell—I’m not tryin’ to be a dick—that something’s happening. I mean, she’s smilin’ and being totally helpful right from the get-go, and being talkative, which makes me feel talkative and I can feel right away a surge of confidence. So, we do some business. There are these forms to fill out for the securing of the space we need. Meanwhile, the intern’s just standing there, waiting to be told something but not saying anything. The conversation is totally between me and this girl, right! I can’t remember exactly what we’re talking about—I make some cute remarks about what it’s like to work in storage or something—I mean, whatever, I’m just being funny, or she’s responding like I’m funny, giggling and everything. But she’s not stupid. She’s being sweet and kinda’ funny herself and she’s lookin’ at me like she’s into me. She’s fixing me with these eyes that are just, like, shining into me. Plus, the order starts taking a long time, as in longer than it should do, and eventually one or two other people are coming into the office and she’s gotta attend to them, only when she does she gives me this disappointed look, saying she’ll be right back, like she wants me to stick around. She does this two or three times and I can tell it’s a way to stall, only at some point it becomes awkward because my goddamn intern is still standing around saying nothing and acting like a third wheel. So, eventually we’ve gotta leave because we’ve completed what we need to do and she’s saying things like, ‘well, there you are…’ with a trailing, unsure sound in her voice, like she’s waiting for me to do something to keep this thing going. Actually, one thing I did do while she was helping another customer was grab a business card that might have been hers and I wrote on the back of it my phone number while she was away, thinking I’d come upon some reason to give it to her, only no logical reasons emerged, so…Anyway, we leave the store with me feeling frustrated because that all felt good, ya’ know—I mean, it’s been I don’t know how long since I just let myself flirt like that with someone, and I didn’t wanna’ stop. At the same time I didn’t wanna’ continue this thing because I had this voice in my head which was saying, ‘you know this is only gonna’ end up in a bad place. Nothing good can come of this. I don’t wanna’ keep being that guy’. But minutes later I’m outside my car after we’ve dropped off some equipment and it’s time to go back to the office, and I have an idea. The intern had come in a second car and I tell him that there’s something I forgot but he doesn’t need to stick around so he can just go back without me. Then I can go back inside and say something similar, like, ‘hey, I just forgot this one thing, apologize for inconvenience’—except that was bullshit, of course—and we’d continue the conversation and…I don’t know…I just didn’t want that feeling to end, ya’ know? So, moments later I’m back in the store and feeling like the coast is clear because it’ll just be me and the girl. No one else around. And when I walk back in and she sees me she smiles and she laughs, like she knows what’s happening, only what she says is a joke about the forms being a pain in the ass or something. Then something weird happened. Actually, two weird things happened. First, while I’m filling out some other form that I totally don’t need but whatever, she starts talking about her life and telling me about her problems—something to do with her kid and her mom. That’s all she mentions, so I don’t know if she was married—she didn’t have a ring on. And it was strange, though it soon became this really cool and intimate conversation, even though it wasn’t as much fun as it was earlier. Also, the whole time we’re talking, I’m aware of the card that’s in my pocket that has my number on it and at any moment I could take it out and give it to her, because now she was trusting me with intimate details of her life. But I didn’t. Then this older woman comes in—another customer—who is also talkative, so the girl starts having to deal with her like she did the other previous customers, like she’d get rid of this lady soon enough so we could resume our thing. Only the woman won’t leave. This woman is way chatty and is a regular or something, and starts talking about something in her life that she thinks the girl is interested in or knows something about. And this goes on for like another ten minutes…so long that at some point I can’t keep up the pretense that there’s anything left for me to do. I mean, I’ve totally exhausted whatever pretext I could possibly come up with for sticking around. I know it, and the girl knows it too as she finally comes over, does this inspection-like thing with my form and says—again—‘yeah, so…looks good. So, you’re all set’ in this voice that’s trying not to sound disappointed but wishing she could tell this other lady to get lost. And I smile and shrug—something lame because I didn’t know what else to do. Anyway, I leave, right? And as I’m walking out, part of me is feeling like I did before—frustrated and everything, missing that good feeling and wanting it back—but another part of me is feeling this relief coming on, like this was all predestined, as if that old woman had been an angel that had been sent down to be this nuisance, but a nuisance that would rescue me from a bad decision, plus the feeling of a high that I’d later be disgusted with. It was like someone or thing was looking out for me”
The ontology of addiction has been the central controversy in the sex addiction treatment industry for quite some time, alongside the quieter issue of whether upward interpretations (those that pre-suppose capacity) are appropriately directed at the habitually acting out. But neither of these should be the most controversial topics in this field anymore. What should be? Well, the clues are in the demographics of who presents for treatment; who typically presents as the impacted others, and thirdly, who are the treating professionals holding the protean sexual ethics that gird the treatment process. In communities with a diverse client base, those ethics reflect progressive values that obviate the casual pathologizing of sex, but in my suburban neck of the woods, a curious blend of traditional biases and menu-feminism continues to dominate discussions. More often than not, women presenting as betrayed partners exhibit authority with respect to intimate relationships; they are the standard bearers of what constitutes emotional maturity. This is a real problem in our profession: women who enter individual therapy, or couples therapy, or who direct their hapless male partners into therapy having read pop psychology literature that teaches that they have more empathy; that they have bigger limbic systems or thicker Corpus Callosums connecting their right and left hemispheres, thus enabling greater sensitivity to blah, blah, blah…ya know, that BS. Read feminist author Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender, one of several books profiled in mine and Joe Farley’s forthcoming book, Getting Real About Sex Addiction, plus one or two recent studies we quote, to obtain a proper debunking of such femicentric myths.
And the myths extend to sex addiction treatment, skewing conceptions of male and female sex addiction, leading to diagnoses as well as intervention strategies with essentialist biases. I wouldn’t suggest that practitioners do not hold their male patients in high regard—that they do not sympathize with their lives or wish them well. I don’t mean anything as caviling or facile as that. However, I do suggest that our professional models of care, with their catalogues of nomenclature, jargon and assumptions now privileges feminine perspectives in psychotherapy because A) that’s now the dominant consumer base for psychotherapy in The United States, and B) Women represent the majority of practitioners in mental health care. I know it’s not like this from the female perspective. I’m sure my female colleagues would report that many domineering men enter therapy, including couples therapy, making their wives’ lack of sexual appetite the identified problem of treatment; overbearing fathers who assert that “lack of discipline” is the prevailing problem of all systems. But at least such clients are publicly and professionally decried, whereas the analogous excesses of our feminine client population are not. It’s becoming more common, for example, to read articles or hear of workshops that draw attention to negative patriarchal attitudes, masculine narcissism; the problem of “difficult men”. Do we read about or hear of ways to combat the problem of matriarchal attitudes? Female narcissism? Would our profession’s proletariat tolerate a workshop—especially one taught by a male therapist—entitled, “How to work with difficult women?”
The word is out upon patriarchy: heavyhanded parenting, sexual entitlement, and while many men do bring their passive Stepford wives to female therapists for a corrective talking-to, I think the example of women directing men to a redeemer class of men is more common these days. Thus, the worst offenders on this matter of skewed approaches may be male therapists. I’m speaking of a certain type of male therapist: he’s a rock star type—knows how to patronize feminine needs, advocate for them; be that man who will show other men how to be men in the 21st century. Ugh! I can conjure this hero in a couples’ session: he sits forward, talks straight, emphasizes action over words, patronizing the bias that thinking or the expression of it is overrated, and stares “man-to-man” into the eyes of his adversary, that “narcissistic” guy who won’t show his vulnerability, but instead terrorizes the women in his life, plus his kids, with his bad temper, his selfish entitlement. This rock star therapist will set him straight, and some women will love this guy, privately wishing he could replace the dinosaur that’s the subject of intervention. And can you imagine how this scenario is exacerbated when the context of treatment is that dinosaur’s sexual acting out? His mooted sex addiction?
The skewed approaches are grounded in a plethora of orthodoxy about how men and women are raised and therefore what shapes their development; and though careful women therapists may leave to those rock stars the harder foot work of confronting angry, hypersexualized men, the marching orders they carry out still reflect a feminine hegemony. Even popular figures like Esther Perel, admired perhaps for her paradoxically challenging neutrality, betray bias in how case illustrations are conceptualized. For example, in State of Affairs: rethinking infidelity, she rightly challenges, in my opinion, the common supposition that women’s sex drive is inherently weaker, only to then imply that the feminine drive is imbued with more imagination and relational intensity. Now, in keeping with the spirit of my last entry, I’m not one to pull the science card and say, where is the evidence for that theory? At the same time I think, where’s that opinion coming from? Who decided that it was a given, that it needn’t be substantiated? Next, in comparing (I think anecdotal) accounts of men and women’s regrets upon having affairs, she reports that women say things like, “I lost myself”, while men are more prone to say, “I lost my woman”. In descriptions like these, Perel accentuates the theme of self-determination in the meaning of women’s affairs, and while a traditional interpretation of the “I lost (her)” expression may assign romantic longing to the grief-ridden man, I think Perel is attaching a proprietorial connotation to the male figure’s experience. By doing so she suggests a lesser sympathy for him, instead joining the progressive critique of masculine possessiveness that is so fashionable in contemporary psychotherapy.
There are other subtle examples of bias in Perel’s largely admirable text, but the most egregious case of epater le patriarchie lies in her equally subtle adherence to an Oedipal Complex-derived theory of male infidelity, plus a diatribe about how female adulterers are treated worse by society than male infidels. Intrigued by a commonly-observed figure that is a decent, genteel man who nonetheless engages in affair-seeking or compulsive porn use, she paraphrases collegial psychologists who profile for such men a background of abuse at the hands of alcoholic fathers. The result is a hapless, codependent figure caught in the middle between a castrating patriarch and a downtrodden wife and mother. Subsequently, these boys become men who protect vulnerable women who are blurred in their minds with their mothers; hence, they deny their own feelings, including their libidinal impulses, which they believe are intrinsically harmful to these women—such is the distorted identification with the bad father. Sex with the mother/partner blur becomes a taboo—incest, even. The affair-seeking behavior is therefore a splitting defense: the man must keep separate his libidinal self, protecting the good, as in his image and her delicate feelings. Now, on the one hand, this is a fair interpretation of an Oedipal triangle, but one that relies upon the conscious memory of the abusive father and a bias towards blaming pathology upon that phenomenon. Robert Bly, in his then-zeitgeist writing of the nineties, observed a similar triangle between “nice” men and their enmeshed mothers and distant, angry fathers. But while also observing that such men fear their own feelings, Bly’s men’s movement slant afforded more sympathy to the exiled father, and more blame, I think, to the emotionally incestuous mother.
For the most part, Perel is not hamstrung by the need to appear “evidence-based”. Her book is riddled with pronouncements that she doesn’t feel compelled to substantiate, alongside an arbitrary few that she does feel obliged to support. For example, when asserting that infidelity is the worst thing that can happen to a marriage, according to Americans—even worse than incest of domestic violence—she cites Gallup polls indicating that people condemn cheating more than they do reckless gambling, divorce, or even suicide. Strangely, in a passage that’s only a few sentences long, she fails to give numbers supporting the claim that infidelity is deemed worse than incest or DV. That’s because that claim is unlikely, I say. Next, there’s a passage claiming that society judges more harshly “other women” than it does cheating husbands. Honestly, this complaint makes me laugh. It never seems to occur to plaintive women, whether they are feminist in sensibility or traditionalist, that this bias, which I agree does exist, is actually grounded in feminine chauvinist beliefs. This is like men complaining that they are “expected” to make more money than women. Yes, you’re expected to make more money because you do make more money. Correspondingly, the flip side of women’s relative lack of sexual freedom is an assertion of either moral superiority, superior self-control as it relates to sexual urges, or in general, a belief that women are the more mature gender, both emotionally and sexually. There. That’s my unsubstantiated, non-evidence-based pronouncement. After all, it’s women who covet and lay claim to the white dress, as there is nothing in a groom’s sartorial splendor that affords him a virtuous, as in virginal air. So yeah, I guess Beyonce was more pissed at that “other woman” than she was at her “errant” husband, as Perel asserts. But that’s a result of traditionalist assumptions. The woman lapsed to the man’s standard. That Jay-Z is a dirty dog is deemed a given. Duh!
Most subtle, however, and likely unintended, except on an unconscious level maybe, is the echo of the ancient feminine voice in the lament, “I lost myself”, that Perel attributes to women who have sought affairs. Yes, I know that thought—mine or hers—may sound a little precious, but my thought pertains to a series of passages in Getting Real About Sex Addiction that cite feminist historians’ theories of prehistorical societies. One such theory asserts that society was once matriarchal in its power structure and only became the opposite when men discovered the significance of their role in procreation and proceeded thereafter to usurp social authority. After this, the story goes that women were subjugated, their mythical images consigned to the sea, hence the ubiquity of metaphors that link womankind with water, and man with the later emerging dry land. Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, said biologists in the nineteenth century, to indicate that an embryo’s development mirrors that of a species. Freud subscribed to this principle, also. So, for each individual man, one woman, the mother, was once in charge of everything. For man as a collective, women were once in charge of everything. Then came the battle. Women lost. The battle continues, and man’s love/hate of woman manifests partially in his sexual liberty, taken to excess says one of several polemical movements taking aim at masculine privilege: sex addiction treatment.
It’s funny, but I’ve known a lot of people, clients mostly, who identify as addicts. Wait, that’s not the funny bit. What’s funny, as in strange, is that most of the addicts I’ve known will lie, blame, deflect, self-pity, act out, lie, blame, deflect, self-pity, all in a perpetual cycle, over and over again, until they die in some cases. Some of them stop. Seriously, in a manner that only addicts seem to manifest, some stop their behaviors and become hardcore acolytes of a “recovery” lifestyle: assiduous participants in treatment, therapy, 12-step meetings and general fellowship; dogmatic proselytizers of religiously inflected principles; somewhat closed-minded yet reliable stalwarts of rectified living, complete with rigorous diet plans, exercise regimes and otherwise clean habits that would put the average person to shame. In the aftermath of their active days of excess, the lying, blaming, deflecting and self-pity are not so much extinguished as muted—a stoical nod of acknowledgement and regret hides a repressed hatred of something, subdued under a remainder-of-life gag order. Of the heterosexual male sex addicts I’ve known, some betray residual resentment towards the officious women in their lives—wives and girlfriends, mostly (there’s that phrase again). Others, those “decent” men that Esther Perel writes about, have picked up the narrative of abusive fathers, sinister uncles, cousins and violating mentors, implying with ambiguous, half-formulated though not wholly misguided logic that such abuses are the root causes of both low self-esteem and the addictive behaviors that soothe. The one thing they won’t do is blame mothers. The one thing men will rarely do—not with words, because it breaks the world—is blame mothers for the bad that comes from sex.
*a play on the term epater le bourgeoisie, a rallying cry of the French decadent poets of the 19th century. The term epater means “to shock”.