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Where I’m not supposed to be

I only know I was not supposed to be there. And the scene? It wasn’t supposed to be happening.

Somewhere in the murky night this vision was buried, sandwiched between fragments that will have sped through my mind and then drained away, forever lost to me. This pig in the middle, this runt of a dream, should have gone with them, but it stuck around, there to be picked up in the morning and wiped clean. There was happiness in the scene, but it wasn’t mine. It was hers. Hers. And his. I should have known, despite his being a wild card. I have to say that he deserved her, having cruelly lost his last companion some time back. A good guy, I gotta admit. And he’d been patient—ever lurking, but inconspicuously, modestly, without the slightest hint of expectation. His attempts at humor were always dry and at best supplementary to another’s act. He’s a witness, an onlooker, a smiling member of the crowd. Benign, yet amiable, and ultimately deserving, he’d be a center of attention, finally. Was I jealous? Of course, but not just of him, but of what he was—of the type of man he was. He wasn’t me.

             Me? I’m a derelict, a drifter. Ostensibly, I’m in with the crowd, standing near the front, and sometimes in front. I’m sometimes called up to the stage, and even as my stomach flutters and my mouth goes dry and I’m convinced I don’t belong I manage to utter a few words and command my share of the spotlight. It’s still there, that spotlight. It beckons as it shines upon a space that I could inhabit, that I have always known I could inhabit. It’s just that it might burn, that light. So I turn away and creep off to the side, yielding the floor to anyone who has the resilience, the talent or desire, or that stomach thing—whatever that metaphor’s about—to step into the space. Had I been invited to the scene? I will have looked out of place, at least, having not done my homework. That’s one of my problems: not doing my homework. The problem is that curriculums are ever someone else’s idea. Those are the demands of someone else’s ego, their seizure of the spotlight, and so they don’t merit my attention, I think. That’s not what I think. That’s just an inside truth that my middle-of-night vision is warning me about. It’s warning me with her face, with her smiling, happy, yet unavailable face situated at the center.

             She’s a strong woman, a brilliant woman. She’s a better woman than any woman I’ve known. God, that’s a dangerous idea. Should I be thinking this? Or should the idea be there in my head, deposited by someone or thing else. You put this into me, you…woman. I’m nearly away now, having edged my way to the periphery of the scene. She and the guy—that ordinary yet deserving, stand-up guy—are still in the center of the action, surrounded by the pleased and admiring, and looking at someone else who is the center of attention but giving it back to them, the happy couple. Her gaze is bright and alive, and focused strictly upon a stage that is before her—her eyes settled and fixed upon a compelling speaker. There is no reason for her to scan the room, distracted or bored, and thus find me scurrying, headed for a corner, trying to escape like a wretched rat. I’m wearing an overcoat, I notice at some point. Mine is a hybrid look: with a torn cuff and a rip about my collar, I look like a Dickensian vagrant, or a private dick from an old film noir, only I’ve just gotten out of bed and forgotten the dress code of the genteel and knowing. In this sense, I stand out, and not in a good way, and if she were a troubled perfectionist with an eye or a nose for the inferior, she’d catch me with a glimpse. Then her smile would flatten, her eyes would turn dull and unhappy, and she’d wonder for a moment, about me.

             I know him, she’d think. Have seen him someplace. Where was it? What’s he doing here? It would be a fleeting break from her life, the joy of her moment. Not even an annoyance, but rather a spell of curiosity, because that’s what her mind has room for. Endless room, it has seemed to me. Endless room, it has seemed, for me. And yet, once again, it’s not a room, a space, manifest or not in concrete terms, that I’m meant to inhabit. Any second now I’ll be gone from this scene, awake at last, and while this vision tried to hide amid the files in the mental cabinet, it stayed long enough to get this thought and hearing. Any day now, I’ll get to see her and tell her all about this, and she’ll listen and think, and make some interpretation that positions me in a triangle, with her and another substitutive man, but with a desire to be in her life. Forever bonded, in something drawn from hoary mythology. You know. I don’t know how long it will last, this arrangement. I don’t want to think about her. Next week I won’t even see her, which she thinks is the issue. See, ordinarily I see her four days a week, for an hour at a time. I pay her to know more about me than anyone, even a mother, has ever known about me, and I know hardly anything about her. That’s the way it’s supposed to be at her place, where I’m not supposed to be.

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Othering The Undoing

A response to a blogger’s view of HBO’s The Undoing:

Congratulations on a well written and argued essay about the HBO series The Undoing. Your analysis outlines the ways in which a sophisticated production with a seemingly progressive theme marginalizes its underprivileged characters, exhibiting a racist and sexist underbelly. You point out that Elena Alves, the drama’s murder victim character, is an example of shameless stereotyping: her seductive figure placed on display, sexualized before her grisly death and in flashbacks thereafter, and served up as titillation rather than as someone who has earned the viewer’s sympathy. You observe that in some ways this fits the tradition of murder-suspense in cinema, as murdered bodies are typically the least important characters in this genre. However, you make an intriguing point that this facet should shift as the murder-suspense story that is The Undoing transforms into a domestic drama-suspense, culminating in a courtroom drama, plus a concerned gaze upon class, privilege, and most plainly, evil. Amid the intersections of those themes, you argue that the protagonist, Grace, played by Nicole Kidman, is afforded a more sympathetic portrayal than the murdered Elena, who is at best patronized as an “unfortunate” Latina. And lastly, you assert that supporting characters and institutions depicted in the film view Hugh Grant’s villainous Jonathon Fraser with depth and understanding—a further privilege that is denied the objectified, “bludgeoned”, and therefore dehumanized Elena. Like Grace, we the viewer are seduced into thinking The Undoing a well-meaning, thoughtful and egalitarian narrative.

Now, after that seduction of flattery, here are a few other thoughts:

The comparison you make with Daphne De Maurier’s Rebecca—namely, that its murdered woman is afforded more sympathy than The Undoing’s Latina victim—seems based upon thin evidence. You seem to think that the unfaithful and then revenged upon Rebecca is privileged simply because she is the novel and later film’s titular character. Really? That’s so impactful? Perhaps anti-whaling protesters should take note and heart; be consoled that Melville chose the title Moby Dick rather than, say, The Hunt for a Meaningless Mammal. Anyway, regarding Elena, you also seem to think that because a character is an innocent victim of murder, he or she should necessarily be a sympathetic figure. Well, as you suggest, if The Undoing was a straight-forward murder-suspense, then I’d agree that audiences should identify with the victim as an innocent. But this drama contains elements of social commentary, as you also suggest, and Elena, I’d suggest, is not merely a cardboard, objectified figure, or a convenient stiff, as you put it. Actually, she does exhibit complexity in my opinion, but she isn’t necessarily sympathetic. She is mysterious, which allows for audience projections, which include the following possibilities: that she is a good mother by seeking good care and education for her son; but also that she is opportunistic, passively aggressive, and seductive in a way that I think most viewers will think creepy, not “empowering”, as you seem to think. Her characterization as a not-wholly sympathetic victim of a crime was realistic and therefore good drama; so, too, was the assignment to her of Latin heritage a realistic reflection of setting demographics, and not a facile example of racial profiling.

Next, regarding some support characters and the villain, Jonathan Fraser: You might have made note of the series’ allusion to confirmation bias, as your essay exhibits the same construct of psychology. You believe The Undoing masquerades as a socially conscious drama while exhibiting the same white privilege or institutionalized racism it purports to expose. You skip over that the murder investigation’s lead detective, who is clearly a decent, as in not corrupt, and capable figure, is more than a “dogged” Latino, and is clearly placed in charge of a white male subordinate. Also, the high-priced lawyer whom Grace’s father hires to defend Jonathan is a black woman and clearly portrayed as a super-intelligent, redoubtable, if not entirely ethical person. I suppose that these anomalous elements didn’t fit your thesis so you didn’t explore them. And what quota of positive role models would the filmmakers have to display to satisfy your litmus test of enlightened creativity? Imagine the Rubix Cube of options that producers might consider to make scripts acceptable in the current zeitgeist: could they have had a blonde Hitchcock-like cliché instead of the Elena figure, thus objectifying a woman, but at least not a woman of color? Perhaps they could’ve added a white maid, or another white guy to the slew of hotel doormen we see in the series? Or maybe Jonathan should have been a man of color so that when he is portrayed with “sympathy and complexity” he, too, could be perceived as privileged, or at least rendered equal to other characters. No? Somehow, it seems that Jonathan would be deemed a privileged, sympathized-with figure regardless of his negative attributes—because he is white. Talk about confirmation bias. According to you, he is privileged in the eyes of the filmmakers (not just in the fiction they depict) when he is portrayed as having cheated on his wife, when he has run away from a crime scene and abandoned his wife and child, and even upon the story’s climax wherein he is clearly portrayed as a narcissistic sociopath—an opinion actually voiced half-way through the series by a minor character, Fraser’s erstwhile medical colleague, who attempts to penetrate Grace’s denial about Jonathan.

Your notions of victimization and privilege are tautological and circularly reasoned, so your conception of the Fraser villain is absurd.

What would be your prescription for today’s Hollywood producers and writers? In order to strip the advantaged of their privileged complexity, or the potential for audiences to sympathize with those who don’t merit sympathy, should villains be not only evil, but also uninteresting? Should Hannibal Lechter be a scrawny, witless nerd? Incidentally, I wouldn’t begrudge a re-make with, say, Denzel Washington given a shot at the delicious (sorry) cannibal/psychiatrist. Back to Undoing: Would it have leveled the playing field to make Jonathan Fraser a young, athletic man of color, not a middle-aged, do-gooding doctor whose “healer” persona and charm renders him a credible love interest for a young, beautiful woman? I presume the answer is no, as this change would still involve a socially advantaged figure (a male) in the villain role, plus then the problem would be the negative stereotyping of a racial minority as dangerous. Maybe you could write that thorny script and submit it to a studio, and maybe that script will be good because you are intelligent and you write well. However, I will stop short of saying good luck. I don’t know if you are creative, but I hope that artless social engineers don’t overtake the entertainment industry with their contrivances, though I will thank you for the following: I wasn’t aware that “ass accentuation”, as a concept, is a thing, or that “kiss my ass” or “show my ass” derives from primitive gestures of defiance that Freud will have written about back in nineteen whatever. I’m sure that Colombia professor wrote a fine paper on the subject and that it’s an invaluable contribution to academic literature.

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You are a terrible mother

On the cracked volleyball court of his grandfather’s back yard, near the bark-filled patch that gets replaced once a year, Ryan and his band were limbering up, getting ready to pay tribute to his mother. Ryan was a good kid. That was his reputation; his identity even. Good kid. Nice kid. Bit of a nerd, maybe, but nothing that wouldn’t make a single mom proud. And laugh. Ryan had the kind of mug, the demeanor, and general air that stirred preparatory chortles on sight. Part of it was the elasticity of his face, plus a wide and gleeful pair of eyes. Make him smile and his jaw would stretch, forcing a bug-eyed cartoon to the surface. At dusk, he stepped towards a microphone and flicked an organizing gesture at his bandmates. As he coughed, a cheering “whoop whoop” sounded out from a small but devoted gathering on the nearby lawn. Ginny, forty-something and now celebrating one more of those forty-something birthdays, jumped up and clapped, ready to dance or pump a fist with awkward musicality. Cool mom. Not embarrassing mom, despite bad, hopelessly out-of-date dance moves. Best friend mom. Psychoanalyst-but-not-with-her-son mom. Ryan’s biggest fan mom.

             “Thanks mom. Thanks everyone”, Ryan duly announced. He extended a hand, signifying her as the guest of honor. “So, as you all know this is her latest birthday—not saying which one, of course. But lets’ hear it”

             (more whooping, clapping, an odd calling out of something pleasantly snarky from the back)

             “Anyway, I wanna’ thank you, mom, in front of all our friends, plus grandpa and nana—thanks for letting us use your home again…(another round of whooping, plus clapping, but no heckling this time. Ryan gulped)

             “So…there’s a lot I want to say, but I’ll keep it simple. Or not (another chuckle). Here we go: thankyou, mom. I mean, thank you for teaching me that while desire, or orality as you sometimes put it, is human nature, we are not wholly selfish beings. Justice, peace, and equality are the ideals to shoot for in this world. So, here we are together, in honor of your day. Thank you all for wearing masks and staying six feet apart. I’d wear one too but for the fact that I can’t really sing with it on. Anyway, here is my ode to you, mom—my expression of a well-adjusted, integrated mind for your ever tolerant ears. I know you’ll get it, hope the rest of you will, too.”

             With that, Ryan turned to his right and motioned to a guitar player flanking him, one of his friends—one of his crew, as he put it, with tongue firmly in cheek. Ryan’s cheek plus the rest of his face turned serious; then, amid another flurry of clapping, it turned into a grimace. He counted in and jerked his head forward, cueing a jarring chord backed by a furious drum beat. The D, G, F, A chord sequence, sounding a bit like the Velvet Underground’s “Waiting for the man”, rumbled for just a few seconds before Ryan stepped again to the microphone, this time to shout the following:

You are a terrible mother

D,G,F,A chords

You are a terrible mother

D,G,F,A chords

Because you suck

D,G,F,A chord

Because you wouldn’t let me suck

(then, upon a bridge)

You are a terrible mother

(and on and on, with a D,G,F,A chord sequence)

You are a terrible mother…

             The snarling refrain was no surprise to anyone. Though not amused necessarily, some of the assembled stood or sat with blank expressions, listening reverently, as if Ryan and his crew were a chamber music quartet. A half a dozen or so others, including Ginny, got up and bopped—that is, they jumped, flailed arms, moved in sloppy circles like toddlers stirred by music but un-moved by its form. One or two girls, ambiguously platonic yet possibly more than friends of Ryan or another band-mate, affected a distinctive move from the punk rock repertoire. Green and purple hair flopped before their eyes, obscuring mock-anger, an expression of style for those who have known exclusion and now dance for the abolition of standard. Ginny, holding a half-drunk glass of white wine in her hand—an almost ubiquitous accessory for her—bopped with alternative purpose. For everyone looking on, she danced like she spoke in social circles: not quite seriously but ever with a bristling edge, perpetually waiting upon a critique of her life. Otherwise, she exuded resilience; fun in the face of trouble; stay at-home Friday nights, waiting up for her teenage son, but only to chat, to bond; not to regulate or nosily inquire. Between themselves, they shared most things, but privately, while she recognized the echo of the Velvet Underground song, she’d let pass the implications—Ryan’s unconscious message that there was someone missing. She’d gotten it; seen it in the grimace that cued the performance and departed from the nice. Some still wait for the man.

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The Hummingbird, The Sheep, and The Whale

I’m hearing many people extol nature these days, perhaps worried that it will go away. Been worried about that for some time now, haven’t we? Still hasn’t happened. In case you’re wondering, I’m not a denier of climate change, much less an unsympathetic observer of wildfires, floods, or melting icebergs; nor am I gifted with an insight into the resilience or not of the hummingbird, the sheep, or the whale, to name just three creatures that pique my interest, fancifully if not with scientific rigor. But this much I do know: their most difficult or curious challenges have been with them for ages, long before we started tampering with air quality or the state of oceans.

Take the hummingbird: beats its wings I-don’t-know-how-many-times a second just to maintain its flight. Had its reasons for evolving this way, I’m sure. Funny, but this singular thought stirs two semi-relevant others: first, an association to a Monty Python film clip in which bored knights atop a castle debate the “air speed velocity” of a native Mercia swallow; second, and for a split-second, that it might have seemed necessary for me to research precisely how fast a hummingbird beats its wings, just to prove that I have done some homework. I have scientific friends. I know pedantic people who—were I to read this out loud—would immediately poke their fingers in the air because they know the answer to my oh-so-important question. But this is a blog essay, not an academic thesis, so on I go with fanciful wonderings, because like the hummingbird I have no time to lose: how do hummingbirds mate? Assuming they must be still, or relatively un-frenetic in their amorous movements, how long can they be this way before they must get going, go eat something, and then resume their tenacious flight? Doesn’t sound romantic, does it? Wouldn’t make for a tender poem of love. Anyway, the hummingbird’s relentless vigor is surely admired by many, though we seem to overlook what’s surely annoying about them. Keep still! Someone must be saying…sometimes. But their feverish ways fit the inclinations of some I could mention: hello, is anyone there? Are we going to start? Come on? Hello?

Patience?

Next, what do other animals teach us with their seeming habits; their apparent limitations or skills? What do they illustrate about patience, or about trust? About intelligence. And how have we incorporated our attitudes into the language that represents them? Regarding sheep: we don’t seem to give them much credit. No, they’re not at the top of the esteem chart, these gentle, furry, yet dim, uninteresting creatures. It isn’t nice what we project onto sheep, especially what they’ve given us, passively or not, in terms of clothing, and at times on the dinner table. Given the disregard we aim at the wild, and the distance we keep from its most uncooperative of natives (you know, sharks, bears, or hawks), you’d think we’d be a little forebearing towards those who have been useful, at least. But it says something about us that we can’t help holding in contempt the too-easily defeated, the too-cooperative. The compliant. The non-individualist. The stupid. Yes, we observe that they can’t govern themselves; that they require an actual breed of dog to coral them in groups lest they wander from home or off a cliff. Wait…do we need anything like that? Seems like the sheep metaphor is more prominently applied to ourselves than that of the hummingbird. Our language mechanics betray this attitude, for we don’t bother distinguishing between sheep in the singular (a sheep), versus sheep in the plural. They’re just sheep.

And what of whales? Well, talk about metaphors, whales go way back in our mythology. Think of Jonah and the Whale, in which the creature (once deemed a fish) is a psychic black hole; a deep well of suffering from which the human being later emerges, redemptive—grown up from trauma, and promising to do God’s bidding. In nineteenth century literature, the sperm whale was the Frankenstein of the oceans, as immortalized in Melville’s Moby Dick. In that classic, the whale is a man-eating, man-hating monster who inspires obsessive revenge-seeking. Did the great beasts of the sea really hate us? Did they resent us hunting them for things like—what was it?—lamp oil? In the twentieth century, we stopped hunting whales, thinking them more endangered than endangering, on the whole. Well, some stopped hunting them. Not the Japanese, I guess. We transferred our need to fear and hate something in the ocean to the dreaded great white shark. This ancient fear of Leviathan appeared to peak in 1975 with the release of Jaws, a cinematic rip-off of Moby Dick, even if it is a great movie. Meanwhile, the whale, even of the killer variety, became the gentle giant of the ocean, stirring awe, not so much fear. Whales have an aesthetic streak, so we like their ambient songs, how they swim gracefully; their mammalian need for the surface so they can blow air. We might even think them efficient, intelligent diners. Conjure, for example, the way a whale plows into a school of fish, aiming at a dense center so as to gulp as much feed as possible. A whale is not like an average predator. The beast does not lurk on the perimeter, waiting for a weakened runt to fall behind, get separated from a pack. The whale might be like some of us. Disdainful of the compliant, of the mainstream center, the whale strikes at the heart of community.

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Cultural and gender appropriation in the film “Downhill”

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Cultural and gender appropriation in the film “Downhill”

Watched the same film twice over the weekend, sort of. The first was Force Majeure, a French-Swedish film from 2014 that was acclaimed upon its release and won the jury prize at the Cannes film festival. I’d not heard of it, but that didn’t matter. I’m open to foreign films that sometimes sneak into our theaters and festivals, and now onto my cable subscription, so I was game for the viewing. What I also didn’t know was that this film was the basis for the Will Farrell/Julie Louise Dreyfus comedy, Downhill, released earlier this year. And what most don’t seem to understand, including sympathetic critics and especially the producers of the remake, is that Force Majeure is not the singular critique of masculine ego they think it is.

First, the question of comedy. The opening sequences of FM, slow as they are, don’t suggest that. The plot follows an ordinary family of four vacationing at a ski resort, and appearing to have a nice, if underwhelming time at first. Drama begins when a “controlled” avalanche plows into a restaurant wherein the family is dining, sending them all scurrying for cover. The horror, as the wife and mother later calls it, is over in seconds, though the trauma persists and the avalanche becomes a symbol of something else that disturbs them. The real trauma proceeds as the husband appears to deny what the wife, his kids, and we, the audience, clearly observe in the earlier scene: that he “runs away” from the oncoming avalanche, abandoning his family because of terrified feelings that he spends much of the film denying. Gaslighting, and so on. When he finally accepts the truth of his fear and paternal failure, he collapses into sobbing shame, but a repair with his wife and kids becomes possible thereafter. As the film moves towards its climax, it’s not clear whether he will redeem himself. But he does, ultimately, rescuing his wife in a later scene after she has fallen when skiing. Then, in an epilogue scene that depicts her continued sensitivity to ambiguous dangers, the husband takes center stage, shepherding his kids along a country road alongside his wife and walking proudly towards a sympathetic camera.   

In watching the Downhill remake, I was first struck by the reduced running time, which is about a half hour less. Initially, I figured this was about picking up the pace: European films, I notice, are often slower in their depiction of action or character. They set scenes with more stillness, and more visuals than dialogue to build context, relying upon levels of patience that American audiences (mainstream anyway) likely don’t have. Next, the most notable feature is the absence of comedy. Actually, it’s not fair to say that either version is lacking in “dark” laughs, but in FM, in particular, they are few and far between, though they are more subtle. Best example: after the husband’s friend tries to intervene with the family trauma, engaging the tense couple in an impromptu therapy session, he later wars with his own girlfriend about all of the themes implied in the earlier conflict. Hilarious. Anyway, in Downhill, the corresponding scenes are flat (seems like they got cut), and Farrell and Dreyfus’ usual charm is wasted—though I thought both did well with the dramatic material. However, additional or changed elements seem either gratuitous or inconsequential. Dreyfus’ wife character picks up an oversexed friend at the resort, a character that is ridiculous and, frankly, unfunny, unlike the reserved, confident and thus intriguing character this is based upon from FM. Also, Dreyfus is more irascible and prudish than the wife from the earlier film, which sets up a “You go-girl” flirtation and casual sex scene with a predictably hunkish ski instructor. Meanwhile, the filmmakers exploit Farrell’s man-child persona, at one point having him plod about drunkenly like his more entertaining characters do in other films. Some think Farrell was miscast, thinking the husband is meant to be an alpha-male. But this reflects either a facile understanding of FM, or a deliberate revision of its more even-handed themes. In Downhill, Farrell is meant to be an average Joe, perhaps what Robert Bly once termed a “soft male”, quietly grieving a deceased father; timid with his angry spouse—not a wayward stud who merits a take-down. Admittedly, this renders Farrell a bit stiff: a docile, phone-fixated man who likes to use and speak of hashtags.  

But the biggest difference between these two films lies in the ending, and it’s an ending that illustrates where Hollywood is going wrong these days, pandering to its zeitgeist, anti-male politics, plus its insistence upon the explicit. In Downhill’s climactic ending, the scene in which the husband is alone with his kids on a ski slope, waiting for their mother to appear after having trailed behind them, begins more or less as the scene from the source material does. As in Force Majeure, the wife becomes separated from her family, is nowhere to be seen, and remains so for several moments, unheard until she issues a dimly audible distress call. Feeling emboldened—his chance for redemption arriving—Farrell’s character says, “stay right here” to his boys, and runs back (not away), ostensibly to rescue his wife, as in the earlier film. But here there’s a switch. In Downhill, the husband finds the wife, who has feigned a fall and cried out because she’s decided upon a ruse: “this is for the boys”, she says, directing her husband to cooperate and carry her to safety, therefore pretending to rescue her. Now, something similar might have occurred in FM—meaning, the wife in that story might have contrived the climactic rescue also—but the audience can only wonder about this when watching that film. Well, mainstream American cinema doesn’t do that. American cinema explains. Therefore, by Dreyfus’ character’s action and speech, she gets to be the hero, not him, by clearly taking what is now a psychological versus literal fall: protecting the ego and the good father image, however false that is. And she lets him know it. Oh, the things women have to do to sacrifice themselves to help men feel better, blah, blah, blah. Wives of the world unite, etc. The scene also makes sense of a previously inscrutable change: the casting of two boys in the child roles versus the brother/sister pairing of FM. So, this is about modeling proper male behavior for the 21st century—a theme that might have been blunted, producers likely thought, if one of the children had been female.

Those same producers, or someone at the top, further ignored the layered meaning of FM’s epilogue scene, or they missed its final subtlety. I did too, actually, until my wife pointed it out, which led to a second viewing of this epilogue. See, in this scene, the family is heading back home on a coach that is traveling along a treacherous road, only the driver seems incompetent, steering perilously close to mountainside precipices. As the scene unfolds, the camera focuses upon the neurotic wife, who first complains to the driver, and then demands that he stop the coach and let all the passengers off. When he complies, the wife cries “let me off!” and dashes out, at first leaving her husband and children behind, which mirrors the “run away” moment when the avalanche hit the restaurant. Within moments, the wife is back in the company of her family, but not before the subliminal message has been sent: namely, that she has acted with as much fear as her husband had earlier in the film. The question is, will this get noticed? Will the husband, or the kids, remonstrate against her “running away” as she did against his cowardice? And will she be as defensive, as gaslighting, as he was? Will anyone, including the filmgoer, even notice? Anyway, this bookending of near disasters, overlooked by observers of either film, it seems, balances the scales of gender comment.

It might even be a rebuke of post-modern double standards: a trick played upon viewers, reverse-gaslighting with what the filmmaker says is happening, whether we notice it or not. The trick is that masculine cowardice is highlighted, which might stir the feathers of both progressive and conservative contempt (albeit for different reasons), while feminine flight is either unnoticed or else cast in a sympathetic light, as “trauma”, not cowardice. If this is the case then the French/Swedish film may in time be regarded as a masterpiece of social satire: an astute insight into the obtuse hypocrisy of our times. In the meantime, for the sensibilities that do reign today, especially in the United States, FM’s ending is a mysterious canvas, one that likely flew over the heads of Downhill’s producer’s (pun intended); that is, unless they had observant wives also. Anyway, FM’s final images are of the husband smoking a cigarette as he walks, exercising a rediscovered free will, one might think, while the wife asks that his friend, a man who has shown a level head in tense moments, carry their tired daughter along that cold mountain road. Another symbolic rebuke of the husband, despite having made the fuss that placed them on that road. Downhill ignores these meanings, substituting for this scene an equally oblique if duller ending in which a mini-avalanche from a hotel roof-top drops a pile of snow between the Farrell and Dreyfus characters. Divided still, we’re meant to notice. Careful or caretaking of each other? Unknown. But this epilogue does nothing to nuance Downhill’s more tendentious climax, whose gynocentric message is directed at a short-attention span, post Me-Too constituency that wants women to be heroes, not for men to redeem themselves in traditional fashion.

So what? Not for the first time, Hollywood bastardizes a foreign original and plays to its own base. Or the base it thinks it knows, or seeks to manipulate. Of course, mutation (or mutilation) of an original source isn’t exclusively a Hollywood vice, nor are adaptations typically this offensive. Indeed, some have suggested that Force Majeure itself bears a distinct resemblance to a Hemingway story, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomba”, from 1936. But the alterations within Downhill betray either an unconscious bias or a deliberately crafted agenda for 2020. Were Downhill an original script, one could argue that its filmmakers simply wished a positive message for average Joe and Jane: to empower women and nudge men with a rightful smote upon their much-publicized egotism. Not a hard pitch post-2018, one would think. But the fact that filmmakers did ignore, willfully or not, the more evenly depicted gender themes of FM, including its (upon second glance) unmistakably judgement-altering finale, exposes their disingenuous quasi-feminist position: that fairness or equality-seeking ethos that supposedly governs their art. Who knows how important the script and character changes are or will be for a mainstream American audience, or how popular they may be for viewers who share the social engineering agendas of Hollywood’s nouveau brass, but from what I gather and have read, Downhill has not been acclaimed so far, is not likely to win awards, and is a relative flop at the box office. Its vapidity, among other faults, has been laid bare. This may be what happens when a good story is intruded upon with what someone in power thinks ought to happen.

#servesyouright

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Where there are no saturated meanings

Read a paper recently by an analyst who referred to an aesthetic experience between patient and analyst. He was at pains to indicate that by using the word aesthetic he was not referring to an experience that pertained to beauty, rather something created between two people; something struggled for. At pains. Some might wonder why he’d bother, in either forum: the clinical or the literary. After all, isn’t the purpose of the written or spoken word to make oneself understood? Why use esoteric language, or use known language but change its meaning to something idiosyncratic?

             In a book that may be published before the coming of the apocalypse, I use numerous words that I know will be upon the margins of readers’ vocabularies. Some will read these words, annoyed, and bristle at my showing off, forcing them to use a dictionary. They will question my purpose, wonder why I don’t speak or write plainly, as others might if the text is meant to be expository, not artful in nature. Within the manuscript of Getting Real About Sex Addiction, a title that suggests a certain plainspoken directness, there are words like ontological, Saturnian, Copernican, anodyne, unctuous, and…I don’t know…a few others that may wrinkle a brow or two and make readers wonder, what does that mean? Once or even if they know the meanings of these words, or more popular synonyms, they might then ask, well, why didn’t he just write that? As the book in question is not a fiction, and is aimed at professionals primarily, and features the odd passage wherein bullet-points are called for, then pragmatism over, uh, aesthetics, will be expected. I mean, by everyone. I can tell already that scrutinizing editors and would-be publishers will bristle (see, there’s one—used it twice here already—why not write “object”, not that “bristle” is incomprehensible…just sayin’) at the use of terms not widely known or digestible. They won’t like that I might compel gratuitous effort versus unblinking recognition of a loaded term or phrase. Unconcerned by prose, they’ll care less, I think, about the flow of sound—that rough estimation of how many syllables might tax a reading mind, for example. See, check that last sentence out: pithy and sweet, wasn’t it? A bit cryptic, but satisfying? The word count on this will be economical, which adds to the effect. There’s an illusion afoot. A reader feels that the script is taut, in order.

             But I have something else in mind, actually. And it has little to do with aesthetics or order, though it does concern an experience with both reader and patient, for sometimes they are one in the same. This something has to do with well-known words: loaded words, saturated words; words that everyone knows but knows with too much prejudice, for these words get used too damn much. You know these words, and given the title of mine and Joe Farley’s book, you might guess what words are coming. Addiction. Trauma. Misogyny. This is to name just three. That’s enough, maybe, to stir in the reader thoughts that are already linked or fast linking, for these are the kinds of words that are used so often that people needn’t use a dictionary to determine their meanings, even though definitions that exist for them are either loose, variable, or dubious. Take the first two: the word addiction conjures many definitions—more opinions than facts, actually—such that delineating pathology, as in the case of sex addiction, has become a Gordion Knot (yes, I know: google it, I guess. Sorry, don’t mean to seem insulting—it’s just that some will moan and say…). Then there’s the word trauma, a favorite of therapists, for it renders everyone’s past sympathetic, which we like, even though it complicates matters: how to be responsible, basically. Trauma means…well, it doesn’t really matter what it means precisely, or comprehensively, which is what some attempt. It means the intrusion of the environment, Freud thought with uncharacteristic brevity. Beyond that, it denotes the power of the past; that we find it hard to “get over” things, to learn and not repeat.

             The word misogyny is simple enough: it means hatred of women. Everyone knows that. It’s the extra connotation that bears explanation, signaling as it does a pervasive phenomenon, plus a tacit context, not an aberrant state of mind. In modernity, it both reflects and assigns hate, and is a cudgel in either sense, weaponized on both sides of a hate divide. There. That’s an example of a cryptic thought. Reader: tease that one out, make of it what you will, or else wait patiently for our book, wherein I shall expand on the subject. Misogyny is one of the few concepts I explore in a repeated fashion, though I don’t research the concept’s intellectual pedigree. What I have to say on it squeezed out others’ thoughts. Sorry. You’ll find that I’m studious on most subjects, I promise. Anyway, phenomenology (to simplify: what is observed) is what misogyny has in common with addiction and trauma: whether we know the precise meanings of these terms or not, we know the ubiquity of impact. One problem is that this engenders prejudice, and lazy thinking, alongside legitimate social concern. In one sense, we don’t have to research these words. We don’t have to use a dictionary. We just need to have listened, and not even listened well, to what gets talked about incessantly in media and film. Well, I guess I’m less interested in the incessant. I guess I want to be different, and so I want to use words that some will know but many will not: again, philosophical words like ontological, but also diagnostic categories—schizoid personality, for example—or social constructs like misandry (misogyny’s lesser heard and therefore less saturated analogue); the odd anachronistic charm like lickspittle, and weathercock; allusions like Bovarism, or Gordian Knot, come to think of it. By the way, some of these words will be properties for some, and this “some” will be even lesser impressed by my glancing use of their precious esoterica. So much for effort. See, I’m straddling worlds with this writing project, this book/blog bridge: between the learned academic and the lumpen proletariat; between the journeyed professionals and studious consumers of mental health care. Aiming for the in-between reflects my uncertainty, my not fitting in, which is my story. And publishers won’t like that either, because fitting in means knowing the reader.

             So, my purpose is a re-direction, though a subtle one, in keeping with—how is it phrased—an analytic frame? Will I irritate with the unfamiliar, the abstract? Or the abstruse? Can I be understood? Perhaps the reader/patient will take responsibility, want more.

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Still praying with the same guitar

Summertime Blues, 2020 style. A barren, incendiary spell upon writing incendiary things. Back to a familiar topic. For me, they never go away, The Who, despite their own barren and then incendiary spells. Nor should they go away, whether they are taking us back in time, as in the recent release (recent? Maybe two years ago) of Live at the Fillmore 68’ album, featuring a half hour version of “My Generation”, or else releasing a brand new collection of songs via a new album, eponymously titled for the first time in their storied, fifty-plus year career. For most of the last year, the former release had gripped my attention, backward as I am (like atavistic, practically) in my tastes and still pining for the inchoate noise about which I wrote in my last book, The Psychology of Tommy (buy it. You’ll learn stuff, damnit!). See, back in the day, as in when I first became aware of The Who in, like, the mid-eighties, and when they weren’t even a band anymore because they’d supposedly retired after a “farewell” tour of 1982, I read an essay about them in a book entitled The History of Rock & Roll, which was a collection of essays by rock critics, assembled by Rolling Stone magazine. Even then, this book was a guilty pleasure. At the time, I was supposed to be reading either engineering or architecture (before psychology, my incipient vocational choices) books, or else novelists like…actually, I can’t even remember who was de rigeur in 1986, other than Stephen King, maybe.

Anyway, I latched onto an essay by a rock critic named Dave Marsh that was about The Who—who had earlier written a biography about The Who entitled Before I Get Old, though I didn’t know about that at the time. BTW: great book. Read it in college, when I was supposed to be reading books about psychology. Back to the essay: in it, Marsh characterized the essence of the legendary Who, about whom I had thin knowledge in the 80s, and that which I did know was either confusing or pejorative. For example, as I wrote in my book, one of the first things I’d ever heard about them was a curt dismissal from my Beatles’ loving older sister: “Oh them, they just make noise”, she’d once scoffed. That was in the seventies when I only heard pop or rock groups on television (conservative radio in Britain, I think), and The Who weren’t on television in this period; nor did they have many hit, radio-friendly singles in those years. I later heard one of their songs, “You Better You Bet” via television—specifically MTV—only it confused me because the song was tuneful and light, not noisy and brash as I was expecting and vaguely longing for. Much later I bought The Who’s greatest hits collection, a modest single album that introduced songs like “My Generation” and “Substitute”, which I’d not heard before, while recalling for me songs like “Pinball Wizard” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again”—songs I actually had heard before, if only in fragments.

But what about this noise business? In reading Marsh, I was intrigued to read the following: “Their sound was anarchy, chaos, pure noise—a definition of one kind of Sixties rock. No room for ballads. The Who’s half-life in that era’s volatile world of pop should have been about the length of one of their singles. Instead, they somehow outlasted every other band of their generation” (Marsh, 1980, p. 285, in…f-it, look it up if you’re interested). Well, that’s one helluva claim, I thought. Written in 1980, the author may have been jumping the gun, especially as he was referring specifically to bands lasting with original membership in-tact (lots of groups breaking up or firing people in the 70s, I guess). But it was the “noise” comment that gripped me most. It gripped me because—for whatever reason—noise was what I wanted in that era. I still want dissonance. At the time, however, I was half-mystified, half hooked by the description: I might have conjured blaring white noise and thought it a Who song, even. But listening to Who’s Greatest, I wasn’t hearing that. Again, I was hearing good songs—great songs, unusual songs—but hardly “pure noise”.

Later, I found the noise in live albums, notably Live at Leeds from 1970, but still not the cacophony I’d once imagined when reading that Marsh essay. Meanwhile, other Who virtues took my attention away from this, uh, quiet (private, I guess) obsession: intelligent lyrics and driving, eloquent sounds, wrapped in a rich, near-Pythonesque or not-quite Spinal Tappy sense of humor. The four-headed monster/personality that was Townshend, Daltrey, Entwistle, and Moon recalled the sides of a self that I wished to emulate.  They were playful, sensual; even primal. Pete’s way of being seemed the most cerebral, if not always the most accessible: from him I got the music, got excitement at his feet. By this time, when I was eighteen, roughly, he was an industry giant, a kind of rock & roll/spiritual muse, treating the music as a medium of spirit, and commenting upon his and later generations’ concerns, sometimes with an oblique if caustic turn of phrase. I still liked and sought the noise, but over time the juxtaposition of chaos and sound, coherent thought became, for me, the essence of not only The Who, but of what rock and roll or even art in general should be. Hyperbole? Maybe, but that manic ethos carried my fandom over the decades. Even as I hit fifty in 2018, I was still a lover of their music, the lyrics—the noise—even though it was all repetition compulsion by that point. It was the same stuff, over and over again, as I was still listening to the same songs, the same sounds, yet still listening for something not yet heard.

The Live at Fillmore 68’ album is a revelation, especially its climactic track, a half-hour, whirling dervish version of “My Generation” that realizes all that The Who were onstage in the late sixties, and certainly what Marsh had written about them in 1980. Had he been at that concert, I wondered. Finally! I thought: the music that captures that special elixir that he’d written about. The track begins ordinarily enough, with the familiar words about death before aging sung by Daltrey as he’s sung them thousands of times. Then, after the last spiraling chorus, the song takes off on a journey that soars and ebbs, rising to crescendos, resting in false endings, then plunging into a doom-laden cacophony. This, the listener is meant to think, is rock and roll from the end of time, performed on the eve of apocalypse. At certain moments, it seems like the song will never end; that rock and roll will truly not die. And there will be nothing wrong with that, the right-thinking listener will decide. There are no new words in this improv from the closet. Not that I need them. I no longer expect new lyrics from Pete Townshend. Glad to have this almost literal blast from the past, this secret garden, this gift from the crypt, I’ve been happy to let the mythopoeic noise wash over me. Satisfied, or perhaps satiated at last, I have felt ready to watch The Who retire.

Hold on. Who am I to decide that? Who am I to write a blog, never mind a book, about The Who, without their permission? Turns out The Who are not ready to retire. They haven’t stopped playing. They haven’t even stopped making albums, hence last year’s plainly entitled effort, The Who. Well, aren’t they full of surprises, not to mention good songs still? Didn’t like the new album at first—felt oddly resistant to it, as if I’d felt lied to again, teased into thinking they’d retired, like they had done like a half-dozen times since the 80s. My truculence was specific on some tracks: thought the first song was like an outtake from Who Are You, the group’s 1978 album (Moon’s last) that featured several rather self-conscious not-quite anthems about…I don’t know…something about how The Who write songs that others copy, or that they copy from others, reflecting a turnstile of influence and fame—your turn, my turn, passing the baton of greatness—something like that. Anyway, I’ve warmed to that song since. I’ve also thought the rest of the album wonderful: smart, tough, passionate, enjoyable. Several songs are even catchy. My favorite track is “Ball and Chain”, a political song that alludes to Guantanamo Bay, fascistic judges, the downtrodden, nameless poor. Its recurrent motif, Waiting for the big cigar, might sit nicely alongside Townshend’s most iconic one-liners, the refrains that audiences will sing out loud, whether Pete and Rog still hit the right notes or not.

And yet, I have a criticism. Nay, a complaint. I know. Who am I? And no, it’s not that there isn’t sufficient “noise” upon this relatively poppy, possibly last album by The Who. Actually, it’s about the words, plus my tendency to co-opt things I love and treat them as my own, modify them. Finally, this complaint is about history, as in the need to circle back and integrate history, plus reiterate a perennial Who theme that I will not tease in this next thought: that all music and art comes from something before. See, there’s something missing in that one song—that terrific song, “Ball and Chain”. And that something missing is a blast from the past, or at least a reference to the past, to one of The Who’s most famous songs for the ages. It’s in a motif from “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, The Who’s perennial set-closer and still their most overtly political song. Think of that one line again, whose final refrain goes, Still waiting for the big cigar, from “Ball and Chain”. An opportunity was missed here, I think. Imagine an alteration, a drop-in edit that might go, Still praying with the same guitar, to follow that previous line. Think about it. An idea for an ad-lib during a post-Covid tour, maybe?

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The biggest elephants slip out of sight

So, let’s take a step back, get some perspective and understand some things, or alternative opinion, at least. Sex addiction, a concept dominantly aimed at men over the last thirty years, exacerbates a divide already created by the narrative of feminine virtue. To be fair, the sex addiction field (movement?) isn’t responsible for generalizing undercurrents that collapse upon closer inspection. Take the following scenario, for example: a couple are in therapy, speaking of a sexual episode that serves as an interlude between contentious arguments. After lovemaking, one partner asks, “Are we good now?” thinking that sex has saved the day. The partner responds coolly, “We haven’t solved anything here. What makes you think our issues have gone away?” So, at this point I have not revealed who is who in this arrangement, as in who the man is and who the woman is (sorry PC monitors, my client base is dominantly heteronormative). What if I offer a couple of interpretations? Let’s see where the biases land, shall we? So, I suggest that the first person asks “Are we good?” with the assumption that sex will re-establish a bond; the episode was “relational” and intended as an affirmation of the couple’s togetherness. The second partner remained irritated by the first partner throughout the lovemaking but was sufficiently aroused to put aside, for the most part, feelings that may have interfered with performance. This person thus satisfied desire but later asserted a moral high ground with respect to the couple’s conflict: talk about having it both ways.

              So, who is who? Well, if one absorbs the platitudes published under the umbrella of sex addiction treatment, one would be inclined to believe that the partner motivated by “relational” goals would be female and the person intent on getting laid but still maintaining a superior attitude is male. I’ve read numerous articles or books that dispense such generalities, anticipating the nodding heads of a Greek chorus while failing to address or even imagine nuance. That chorus seems increasingly homogenized, speaking with transparent rhetoric. To encourage protest, it affirms assertiveness: “stand up for your rights”, etc. When it disapproves of speech, we hear critiques like “divisive”, and “hate speech”. To decry unpopular opinion, one simply needs to cast it as hateful in the modern zeitgeist. Approved speech that is suppressed is called silence—an imputation of cowardice. One is encouraged to “show up”. However, if you show up with the wrong opinion, then you are self-serving: it is a “photo op”. Back to private, microcosmic scenarios, my warring couple and a pair of interpretations: The first person—the “Are we good?” partner—thinks that sex is an effective circumvention of conflict. It is the answer to all problems, a kind of all you need is love approach. Now here’s a twist. The second partner agreed to have sex thinking (falsely) that the conflict had actually been resolved beforehand. This person had been hoodwinked by the partner’s seeming contrition, only to feel increasingly foolish during the lovemaking episode, which felt familiarly cold and unloving.

             Again, who is who now? Same scenario, different interpretations, but I think each would elicit biases as to which gender is being represented based upon stereotypes promulgated by self-help and sex addiction literature. I could evoke further scenarios, leave these relatively lightweight scenes behind and address what I believe are the biggest elephants confronting our field. The issues therein conflate matters of sexual addiction, post-modern sexual mores, progressive and conservative politics, and congeal thought upon the darkest behaviors on the sex addiction fringe: acts of abuse, and of sexual assault. Would these issues elicit further biases? Of course they would. The baseline assumption is that women comprise the dominant faction of sexual abuse victims while men are vastly over-represented as perpetrators. With respect to violent sexual assault, there is surely little to contest this particular assumption. But amidst an era wherein definitions of coercive sex are broadening to include instances of pressured sex, or compliant but later regretted sex, then notions of perpetration begin to blur. Mine and Joe Farley’s forthcoming book, Getting Real About Sex Addiction, cites research of the last decade that increasingly implicates female victimization of male partners, employing a construct, “Made to penetrate”, that has gained traction in research circles in recent years. It was so important I stuck it in the footnotes. Anyway, my skepticism: the idea has yet to gain traction with mainstream culture, and likely not with credulous readers of self-help literature. The problem, as I see it, is two-fold: firstly, boys or men may be even less likely than women to admit being coerced into sexual activity, fearing an emasculating response, especially if the alleged perpetrators are female. I can imagine reactionary society openly mocking their accompanying accusations as cowardly, unmanly. I imagine a corollary of women’s experience, which on the whole means something that’s been observed all along: sexual abuse desexualizes its victims, it seems. Meanwhile, a progressive rebuke might focus upon a moral equivalence argument, a point of symmetry that is not desexualizing, but rather de-individualizing: something vaguely territorial, perhaps; something along the lines of, yes we suppose this happens, but does it really compare to the rates or levels of abuse that have been meted out by men against women?              

Back to the standard pretexts of sex addiction treatment, which is all about treating people, men and women, equally. Right? Well, take a glance. Take more than a glance at literature—books, blogs, you tube videos, whatever—that purport to represent men’s sex addiction versus that of women. Notice that women are more likely tagged with the label love addiction, which, in comparison with the salacious concept of sex addiction, enobles women’s sexual acting out behaviors, and therefore turns on its head society’s task of mailing out scarlet letters. Meanwhile, instead of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, female sex or love addicts have “complex trauma”, which is an ambiguous contrivance, suggesting experience grounded in external phenomena, and then internalized as personality-altering characteristics—a more palatable, stigma-free assessment category whose plainspoken synonyms are words like victim or survivor, not creep, jerk, or pervert. I have other bullet points on this theme, but you get the gist. So, here’s the thing: in general, the biases of our profession reflect the progression of psychodynamic thought as it has moved into the 21st century, alongside progressive social movements and the demographic changes in our profession. A hundred years ago psychoanalysis, then clearly a patriarchal institution reflecting the psychology of western men, posited drive theory as a model of how the human mind works: something internal, a libidinal/aggressive energy within a human being strains to express itself, and will do so to one degree or another, despite the ego defenses that work to hold it back. Repression. Latterly, Object Relations theorists like D.W. Winnicott injected that the fate of this drive is contingent upon the variability of a nurturing environment, be that a caregiving dyad, a home, or a broader sociocultural milieu, while analysts like Jean LaPlanche, Jessica Benjamin, Carol Gilligan or the Lacanian Julia Kristeva excoriated this same establishment for reducing women’s sexuality to the maternal/child bond. These views have long since been adopted by feminists and other social justice advocates (who now represent a plurality in our field) who externalize an understanding of psychopathology, at least selectively. Misogyny is therefore a kind of original sin, reflecting an ancient subjugation of women. Misandry, its lesser observed twin, is a social protest against that which is variously conscious or unconscious, but not repressed.

              This has in turn been picked up by the sex addiction field, yielding watered down versions of Object Relations theory with substitute jargon so that its principals can pretend originality. It means that female sex or love addiction is understood primarily as a reaction to either repressive sexual mores that disadvantage women, or else it constitutes an identification with an aggressor phenomenon. This is a theory first advanced by one-time psychoanalytic outcast Sandor Ferenczi in the early 1930s. It offers that sexual acting out behavior is a re-enactment of a sexually traumatic (as in victimizing) past. There. Now here’s the next thing. Assuming that OR theory also applies to men, you may wonder how that plays out. How do we graft the theory onto what we think happens to them? Well, firstly, it would mean that male sex addiction is not simply a matter of excessive drive, contrary to the essentialist beliefs of many. It would mean that males act out sexually either because the nurturing (or not) environment is permitting/expecting them to be promiscuous, or else because they have also been developmentally traumatized in some way. As indicated in the last entry, the most popular theory with respect to this category of trauma is the abusive, alcoholic father story, with second place going to disillusioning mentors: molesting priests or sports team coaches, for example. The first chestnut, which smacks of Oedipus Complex derivatives, offers that passive boys, symbolically castrated by overbearing fathers, struggle to make it with the women they admire, instead pursuing vulnerable women who substitute for their abused mothers. But to identify with the adult male sex role as it once was is to symbolically re-traumatize women, or even commit incest with them if partners and mothers are psychically linked. Thus, sexual desire must be split-off, directed at women who cannot be hurt because they are transiently involved or not psychologically real—hence prostitutes, strippers, and porn stars.

              Alternatively, if trauma theory were to analogize the male and female childhood experience, or even offer what Freud originally suggested with his latterly withdrawn Seduction Theory, then practitioners would offer what they typically suggest when the subject is the sexual traumas of women: a once sexual victimization at the hands of a male perpetrator. And some men report such victimizations, and usually they indicate a male perpetrator which, if then linked to a later heterosexual pattern of addictive behavior, would make about as much sense as the Electra Complex makes to critics of Freud’s Oedipal theories. See, if a repetition compulsion or aggressor identification were in effect, then otherwise heterosexual boys and later men would therefore manifest ego dystonic same sex attractions, which in turn might lead to homophobic reactions, manifesting as a reaction formation, or perhaps the reputedly defunct Conversion disorder. And how frequent are these phenomena, the reader might wonder? With respect to heterosexual men, OR theory filtered through modern assumptions and quasi empiricism suggests that hypersexualized boys “model” (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy’s term for internalization) the example of their sexually incontinent fathers, in this way remaining bonded with their bad male objects later in adulthood, which in turn elicits guilt when this identifying behavior conflicts with consciously-held goals, like those “how to respect women” ideals incessantly imparted by their disgruntled, single mothers.

              There you have it: father blaming. Lucifer the angel expelled-from-the mountain-of-God stuff (remember that one?). Not God blaming, or Eve blaming. Certainly not slut shaming. Mother blaming?

              Actually, it’s been suggested…with euphemisms, mostly, or ambiguity. Think Jean LaPlanche. Otherwise, Excess gratification, enabling a Narcissistic development—the failure to say “no” early enough, often enough, to that omnipotent, more often male (we think) than female child, who clings, protrudes with fingers, embraces and scratches with equal ferocity to an object that may respond in kind. Think Object Relations theory. It’s another chestnut, actually. Made its rounds, got covered in psychopathology 101 if you ever took such a class; if you were ever listening. But wait. Saying “no” to what, the reader might further wonder? Does this mean a child that isn’t sufficiently weaned from the breast? Is that a sexualized child, so repressed until later, until after puberty—when all the parts and fluids are simply working more fully, having arrived online, so to speak? Careful, the medical field thus argues. You’re entering the taboo zone now, so let science come to the rescue and say what facts and fate have decreed. Besides, nobody is reporting such childhood abuse as you are implying. Why don’t more of our clients/patients report on this? Gee, d’ya think it might have something to do with implicit, preverbal memory not being available for autobiographical recall? And even if it was, who would go there, at least plainly? I touched on this touchy subject in my earlier blog, “Life Weans The Giraffe”, and here I’ll “touch” on it, this final word, this ancient and original horror once again, with or without scare quotes. And so, to those who think the answers lay in a forensic grasp of an actual past, versus the phantasies of infantile experience, here is my climactic provocation on this multi-layered subject of sex addiction etiology: …no, can’t write it. Sorry.

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Gaslight

 

Have you heard of this word? It’s quite popular these days in…what do I keep calling it? Mental health circles? Psychotherapy circles? Circles? Not even offices, “these days”. The milieu is the online cyber-sphere, the realm of Zoom, the I-phone; possibly the socially distanced consultation. But not conferences, networking lunches, or live “treatment team” discussions. Literature? Maybe. The editors I’m conversing (exchanging e-mails) with say they’ve been furloughed, or otherwise detained. So they won’t read me and they won’t read or publish anything new for a while. Our profession: it’s being podcasted, you-tubed, perhaps, but its edifices are being ghost-towned. Ghosting. That’s…well, that’s for another entry. Today’s subject is another staple of sex addiction treatment, Gaslighting. It’s an important concept, actually—perhaps more relevant to people’s daily lives than any other communication problem—though it’s an appropriated property, with a pedigree in drama, modern and classical. Here’s my footnote on it from Getting Real About Sex Addiction:

“Gaslight is a 1938 play and later a film about a man who torments his wife, searching for jewels to steal in her attic (the lights in which dim the lights elsewhere in the house—hence the title) and lying about his behavior and disappearances. The term has come to mean someone who deliberately seeks to induce anxiety, even psychosis in another through deception. Interestingly, the play recalls Sandor Ferenczi’s famous concepts of “identification with the aggressor” and “confusion of tongues” (1933): a sign of trauma is the subject’s identification with and induction into patriarchy—an internalization of its demands—exploiting a child’s dependence, need for love.”

Have you heard of Sandor Ferenczi? You should have. He’d be a darling of social justice warriors, Me-Too crusaders looking to history for evidence of good men. Ferenczi was a psychoanalytic dissident of the 30s; a once acolyte of Freud who thought the project’s original Seduction Theory—which would have implicated scores of Viennese men in the practice of sexual abuse—should have been restored to the center of psychoanalysis, in place of Freud’s subsequent theory of infantile sexuality. The latter became the model for the human mind, not the belief that external events—trauma—is the original sin besetting humankind. Modern psychoanalysis sings a different tune, humming the bars Ferenczi sang, citing the Gaslight example. I prefer its dramatic antecedent, Hamlet, but I get the point, what the stories are trying to say about what really drives us nuts. But even the zeitgeist ethos doesn’t capture the common hold that Gaslighting has upon everyday interaction. See, it’s not just about events that occur that are later denied. More intricately, it’s about thoughts conveyed that are soon denied, to be met by knowing yet beguiled and censored responses. Here’s my play. It’s from 2020:

A man invites another out for a drink, wanting company. He is rejected, but he will jettison—that is, split-off—that feeling. His stoical other and soon-to-be nemesis seems indifferent, elusive. He says no. Twice. The homoerotic current is subsumed beneath a hetero front: the first man provokes, asks if the other even likes parties…women. In the cold moment, the other man keeps a surface calm, but he looks away, knowing that eye contact in this instance would be aggression. It would betray hate. He gets up, stifles a reply but moves to leave. The first man delivers Gaslight comment number one: “what’s your problem?” Does it sound familiar, this chestnut of denial; this projection of offense? “Nothing”, the other says, not wanting a conflict—not finding the words, it has to be added. “Seriously”, presses the first man. He presses his luck. He acts like he doesn’t know what he’s said, and in some protean sense he is telling the truth, for he is on automatic, unaware. Still, he presses. Is he asking for something? Is he asking to learn?

The second man gives finally. Heaving a breathy sigh, as if it’s all an effort to explain himself, he declares, “You’re disrespecting me. You know you are.”

The first man shrugs, affecting indifference. Now he’s rejecting—rejecting truth, rejecting feeling, and altering the script. This is now about a guy who over-reacts to a simple question. Sensitivity. The second man juts his chin, utters a disgusted noise. Will he press his case, declare further what is happening in this banal, everyday moment? Given the stilled tongue of the adversary, further words might not be necessary. The escalation: it likely won’t happen; but what is the verdict? What will the narrative be if and when the stories are spun beyond this testy dyad? He–the second man–could state what is happening. He just about knows and understands the phenomenon. Everyone does, he thinks briefly. His family, his friends, himself at times; anyone: they’ve all done this thing. They all deny what happens and then fumble for words. Only one sums it up.

Another example, better perhaps, concerns a man who gets quietly drunk, is sternly obnoxious, and asks rude questions in the guise of being interested in others’ lives: “How’s your…” followed by “Well, sounds like he hasn’t got long to go…” –that sort of thing. Never mind why others put up with it. That’s a long story. And it’s not likely to change because if one raises an objection in the moment the man becomes confused. Talk to him about it later and he simply won’t remember. Either way, he’d pay minor lip service to the question of offense, chuckle it away, insinuate that the offense is in the complaint (“I was merely…”), and otherwise ridicule the protest. What do we now call this protest?

Gaslight

 

 

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