Graeme presents Tommy in Santa Fe…at last



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

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

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

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

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

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Tommy the scapegoat


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

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

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

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


How about you? Are you attentive? Tangentially curious?


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Securing a truthful narrative


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

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

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

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

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

Is it enough to discover truth?

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The rock opera Tommy and the human condition, via Winnie The Pooh


In the film Goodbye Christopher Robin, a rather sweet then bitter story of lost innocence, the writer AA Milne is portrayed as a PTSD survivor following his experiences as a soldier in World War I. During the early scenes of the film, prior to his ‘Winnie The Pooh’ celebrity, he is shown reacting irritably, dissociatively, to sudden movements, popping sounds and such. Balloons. Even before the film invokes it, the image of the iconic bear, holding aloft a red balloon while strolling down a bucolic country path, is conjured in the viewer’s mind, juxtaposed against horrific associations of bullets strafing bodies over bleak European fields.

In that era, PTSD as a diagnosis didn’t exist. Milne’s symptoms will have been known as “combat fatigue”, or “war neurosis” by the contemporary likes of Sigmund Freud and his ilk. People seemed to understand the brokenness that war could elicit. They didn’t seem to know how trauma might permeate personality, affect lives over a lifetime. A scene midway through Goodbye Christopher Robin suggests that someone, perhaps apocryphally (I’ll research this later) understood that desensitization techniques might intervene with identifiable phobias. Milne and his son, Christopher, participate in an exercise devised by a fellow veteran in which balloons are spread over a patch of grass so that Milne can make play of his neurosis. As he jumps on a balloon, popping it, he gets to take in the experience, note the lack of calamity, the warm containment implicitly supplied by his smiling son and supportive friend, and step-by-step (literally), popping sound by popping sound, heal this particular pain. What also seems to heal is creativity, nature, and play. Determined to heal war-hungry yet ravaged society with his writing, Milne settles upon children’s stories as a way to instill wholesome values and peaceful ambience. The result was the beloved ‘Pooh’ stories, though the film’s second half depicts the sour turn that fame inflicts upon Milne and his son. This culminates in circularity: grown up Christopher Robin, determined to be a man, or be his own person at least, himself enlists, enters WWII (like everyone else), and proceeds to learn his own lessons.

Over the last year I have been preoccupied again with another popular icon whose links to war history and trauma are thinly known. I say again because my project has been an on-again, off-again affair for just over a decade now. My forthcoming book, The Psychology of Tommy: how a rock icon reveals psychoanalytic, attachment and personality theory, began life as an academic paper that I sporadically wrote and re-wrote over several years until finally publishing it within a SAGE journal in 2016. That was followed by two notable and quite gratifying presentations: a one-hour talk at the Creativity and Madness Conference last year in Santa Fe; then a ninety-minute lecture and slide show at San Francisco’s Mechanic’s Institute in January of this year. Prior to that, I’d had my own brush with fame, meeting Tommy songwriter Pete Townshend (at his invitation) backstage at a Who concert in 2016. That was a lovely, if slightly disappointing moment, because my hero was tired, reticent, and deluged with visitors, not just me. Pete was polite yet brief in our meeting, signing a copy of my paper, and receiving a copy of it from me, though I don’t know if he’s read the piece. I don’t know if he really wants to revisit yet again the nearly fifty year old Tommy via the insights of intellectuals or an obsessed fan. Indeed, the memory of that meeting bears small resemblance to another scene in Goodbye Christopher Robin, one in which Milne and his son are visiting a zoo but distracted by gawking admirers. Seeking privacy, Milne brushes off a ‘Pooh’ smitten child, and as I watched this scene, I was reminded of Townshend’s jaded air that night in 2016.

Separate from its music, the rock opera Tommy is not a children’s story. Nor was it conceived as an allusive antidote for a war weary audience. Tommy was originally aimed at the generation born at the end of WWII, a generation that later started an anti-war movement. It was conceived semi-consciously as an ambient narrative, a tale of a “deaf, dumb, and blind boy” who embodies silence, secrecy, a mind broken by adult hypocrisy and trauma. The setting of Tommy was the post-WWI period, though a post-WWII subtext is obvious. Plot? Subsequent to witnessing a murder, the boy Tommy is instructed to not say anything, so he proceeds, uber-Hamlet-like, to manifest the decree as a somatic syndrome. Soon he is abused by peers who find advantage in his disability, though later, informed by his protracted withdrawal, Tommy discovers a talent for playing pinball, enters competitions contrived around that pastime, and becomes a champion and star—like a rock star. Then, like rock stars of the late sixties, he parlays his fame, finds spirituality (latent within him all along, we’re meant to think), breaks his silence, and begins preaching the word. The latter portion of Tommy exudes arch or ersatz-Buddhist thought, or something like it: relinquish material desires, dissolve oppressive societal roles; speak the truth, and so on. Somewhat contrarily for his followers, not to mention the average Woodstock-bound listener, the character also remonstrates against drug use, and because Tommy appears didactic on matters like this, his followers rebel. Tommy ends on a cautionary note: declaring that what goes around comes around, but that individuals can find freedom, hope, even God, within themselves.

There. Tommy in a nutshell. My existing manuscript is a further 50,000 words and it might yet extend further to God-knows how many words. Despite its antecedent publication, I’m yet to garner interest from the establishment that would facilitate my book’s dissemination: agents, ‘acquisitions’ editors, and other publishing intake-types have thus far rejected my queries, book proposals, and sample chapters. They say they are ‘compelled’ by my idea, observant of Tommy’s place in pop history. One or two even compliment my writing style. But they also say they’re not interested; that they don’t know how to sell my idea, hybrid that it is; split as it is between the prospective readerships of pop culture and academia. I get the idea, their idea as they imply it: marketing must be targeted in a singular dimension, not diluted by a muddy anticipation of readers with cross-pollenating interests. As you, my current reader can tell, I don’t agree. Or, noting my own resistance, I simply don’t want to agree. But I should agree more than I do, as we’re talking about something—marketing, publishing—that is someone else’s bailiwick, after all. The money that might be invested in production and promotion of a widely published book: it would be someone else’s, after all.

In the last year, ancillary to my percolating ambition, I have been attentive to many-things pertaining to World War II: twice watching the film Dunkirk; reading Thomas Childers’ Soldier From The War Returning, and more recently, Martha Hall Kelly’s Lilac Girls, about the lesser-known stories of ordinary women amid the WWII era. Watching Goodbye Christopher Robin, a more serendipitous happening (it happened to be on TV as I was flicking through channels, I mean), joins the list of influences. It also stokes my rollercoaster hopes, contesting my periodic discouragement. Because the film is a light entertainment, and commercially-presented, I am reminded  that I must engage a readership, be interesting, personable, even fun. Because the film has an earnest, deeper message to impart about war, trauma, what attaches children to not only parents but also nannies, for example, I know there is room amid fun for serious ideas: ideas that require some academic rigor, for they are complex and deserve study, not glibness. These ideas are imparted implicitly via psychotherapy, also, so in my book I do what I suggested I might in my 2016 paper: I place a fictional Tommy in therapy, with me. And building upon the constructs explained throughout the book, I fashion a plainly-delivered intervention.

Sound ambitious? It should. Actually, its intention is grandiose: I think Tommy and my book about it say something important about mental health and the human condition. In the weeks ahead, I’ll give a preview of my book via this blog by introducing some of its ideas. Here are a few terms to take in as a snapshot: insecure narrative, scapegoating, addiction, misogyny, circularity, repetition compulsion, secrecy.

Sound like fun?


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Falling for Vertigo


Went to see one of my favorite old films last night, Hitchcock’s now classic Vertigo. I write “now” because the film’s rise to lasting fame has been gradual, from an original position in the shadow of North By Northwest and Psycho, to its present-day status as one of the greatest films of all time. Actually, according to a critics’ poll recently released by the British film institute, Vertigo has now been voted the greatest film of all time, apparently dislodging Citizen Kane, previously a perennial winner of the accolade. While this is gratifying for the film’s legions of fans, many of whom were on hand at The Castro Theater to watch a restored print and to see a live appearance by Kim Novak, I wonder the following: what is it that changed, gradually or not, over the last sixty years to make this once (relatively) rejected film such an iconic piece of cinema?

It’s surely not the visual style of the film, which is unforgettably dreamy, colorful and strange, but no more so than it will have appeared in 1958. It can’t be the acting, which on the surface, will have seemed typical for the period. There was James Stewart, for example, more or less in his prime, being as expressive and likeable as he ever was, despite the dark complexity of his character. His co-star was the obligatorily beautiful Kim Novak whose acting may have seemed stiff upon the film’s original release, though her vapidity has a certain logic to it given the story’s themes. However, come back Grace Kelly, some may have pined at the time. And it can’t have been the direction, for again, in Alfred Hitchcock audiences were faced with a filmmaker at the height of his career, delivering one suspenseful gem after another. Indeed, it wasn’t until the latter half of the sixties that his commercial magic started to wane.

Only when I consider Vertigo alongside other Hitchcock films, observing its taboo themes, plus the nuances in the acting, or the hypnotic music, that its danger and fantasy shine through, justifying the delayed praise but also explaining a once tentative reaction. The plot features a retired police detective, played by Stewart, who discovers he has vertigo while on the job, which leads to the death of a fellow policeman. In the aftermath, he is approached by an old college friend to do a private job: follow this man’s wife, who is suicidal and probably crazy—possessed by an obscure historical figure in local (San Francisco) folklore named Carlotta Valdes. This friend wants Stewart’s Scottie character to follow his wife Madeleine and gather evidence for a later institutionalization. In Rear Window, Stewart made an injured voyeur a winning character. In Vertigo, he takes his Scottie character to another level.

Scottie reluctantly takes the college friend’s job but quickly sinks his teeth into the intrigue, following Madeleine from churches to department stores, to museums, and eventually to a private spot beneath the Golden Gate Bridge where she will jump into the bay so that Scottie can dutifully save her. He does save her from drowning and at this point in the story two things ought to be clear: first, that Scottie is falling in love with Madeleine, and secondly, that this will have been expected by Madeleine, and also by the friend that hired Scottie. So far, everything seems a little contrived, a little unrealistic (even for the fifties) and yet, as Martin Scorsese once remarked about this film, it doesn’t matter. This is shaping up as a doomed love story, not just a suspense thriller, though nothing is predictable. A viewer might pick up that the film’s title, a reference to Scottie’s affliction, is a metaphor for the “falling” experience of love and obsession that follows.

After the rescue, Scottie gets closer to Madeleine, who reciprocates his feeling, and becomes embroiled in her obsession, which is to emulate the suicidal mania of her alter ego, the long-deceased Valdes. Though he gets close to analyzing the ghostly elements, discovering the links in Madeleine’s dreams if not understanding her underlying guilt, Scottie fails to prevent his lover’s death, which occurs as she falls from the tower of an old California Mission—a predestined end. Or, that is what appears to happen shortly after the halfway point of the film. Thereafter, Scottie recedes into shame and frozen grief: he is institutionalized, having absorbed Madeleine’s apparent psychosis. Then he wanders SF streets, visiting places Madeleine frequented, and then visiting her grave. In another contrived sequence, he sees a Madeleine look-alike in the street and immediately approaches, asking this woman to dinner. By now, Scottie’s transformation from a zealous detective to a stalker (which seemed like it was coming all along) is complete, and for the remainder of the film, Stewart’s character gets creepier. Much to the film legend’s credit, this doesn’t render Scottie unlikeable, as his perverse pursuit of Judy (Madeleine’s seeming look-alike) is inflected with grief and endearing passion. Even as Scottie seduces the sympathetic Judy, and later controls everything from her clothing to her hairstyle to create a Madeleine facsimile, the audience retains its sympathy for him. As Judy emerges finally into the molded image of Scottie’s lost love, there is a sense of triumph alongside the painful tragedy that is hers and his.

The brilliance of this scene is layered with irony: from a medium that creates falsehood as a matter of habit, and from the mind of a great manipulative director, both a woman and an affair are brought back from the dead and thrust into a man’s fantasy. The film mirrors the actions of the protagonist, yielding a mixed feeling for an audience: one can admire the craft, the controlling of events, while finding reprehensible and sad the domination of the Judy character. And yet, things aren’t as simple as they seem. In the climactic sequence, Scottie learns what the audience already knows: that Madeleine and Judy are the same person, and that Judy was an impersonator, an opportunist paid by the college friend to lure Scottie to be false witness to a murder. Because of his penchant for vertigo, for “falling”, he cannot follow Judy to the top of the tower, so he doesn’t see that the friend has his already murdered wife in his arms, ready to drop her before Scottie’s hapless gaze.

Kim Novak’s Judy character, like Scottie, retains audience sympathy despite colluding with the murderer, partly because she seems like an exploited figure, but also because she is like Scottie: she is also acting out of misguided and reckless love. I think this the essential reason that Vertigo has enduring appeal: despite the perversion, the opportunism, the impulsivity and bad decisions, the fantasy of love remains an intoxicant, and Vertigo, with all of its color and cinematic verve, is like fifties psychedelia—a fantasy of dark love. The problem or not (depending upon one’s point of view) of non-wholesome love is that too many people in society identify with how complicated and twisted love can be. It can make innocent and lovely women like Kim Novak seem traumatized and a bit dull. It can make nice guys like James Stewart seem menacing.

Not everyone will get it, and even those who do might still try to simplify matters. As the end credits ran, I overheard stupid questions like, “what happened to the bad guy?” (Scottie’s murdersome friend), as if the just capture of that figure would have rendered the end satisfactory. Actually, it was irrelevant to the story’s point. During the Castro Q & A with Kim Novak, the now aged actress was troubled with questions about MeToo movement issues and how they related to her character in Vertigo. While praising the manipulative, neurotic genius of Hitchcock, Ms Novak made the worthy point that her Judy character represents women whose personhood is denied or subsumed within male obsessions. But even this perspective seems facile, for her character is not without culpability for having embroiled herself in a plot whose aims will have been clear from the outset. Perhaps one of the secret lessons of films like Vertigo—indeed, of art that takes time to infiltrate minds—is that we need art to tell us things that contemporary politics and topical comment can’t: that things aren’t as simple as they seem.




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Why Yelp?


Time out from another writing project, an absorbing piece my handful of readers will learn about soon enough, to address something that feels ripe: no, it’s not a political or social movement, though I suppose I could announce and hereafter hashtag one, just for the heck of it. A good friend said to me yesterday—tritely I thought—that the best way to promote something was to make it forbidden fruit. So, I should ban my own books, then, I biliously replied.

I was solicited a few weeks ago by an earnest young man representing a company that thinks itself a Titan of marketing and promotion –Yelp. Who am I to argue, I might say, though I did argue with the worthy young man, whose quick-delivery salesmanship hit most of the right notes, save for those that pertain most specifically to my business. On that I claimed to have insider knowledge—ideas that threw water on his—though our discussion stirred associations, made me think about the assumptions that live in my little world, which pervade the world around me, but which might be changeable, after all.

I have to say I was impressed with the amount of time this salesman gave me. One hour of unpaid time would be unthinkable in my position, though as I write that I remind myself that some do give free consultations, unwisely I argue in another blog (See “Why I don’t…” – ya know). For my salesman and good-buddy-for-an-hour I must have meant $s in terms of a commission he thought imminent, as I was encouraging of his product for the most part. In fact, had my then soon-to-be-crashing (as in permanently) phone not thwarted connection by dropping the call, I might have given him my credit card info, thinking it time to do my own bit of salesmanship with respect to my practice.

However, aspects of the plan, as it was naively presented me, didn’t feel right. My sales guy thought that with the investment we were contemplating, I’d add two clients per week, upon generating scores of inquiring calls or e-mails to my website. He seemed to think that generating volume was my primary need; he seemed to have an idea (perhaps after talking to one or two other therapist/social worker types) of the turnover of customers in my niche market, and of the value of customer feedback in generating further business. I had to say that his paradigm (now there’s a word in fashion) was an awkward fit with the model I was practicing. In a minute, I schooled him on the basics: taking on a new client isn’t just about filling an available time-slot. It’s about finding the right person: does the prospective client’s problem fit my scope of practice? Are that person or persons’ needs a fit with my experience and qualifications? Are they committed to a process that entails continuity, or are they looking for some quick advice, or to “get things of their chest”? More privately, do I have the mental space and energy to absorb in my mind the life (with all of its cast of extras) of this person?

“Got it,” said my guy. I think he did get it, actually, just before our connection disappeared. I was about to add that educated consumers don’t scroll or troll through Yelp to find good reviews of therapists. We’re not like restaurants, I’d have haughtily declared. In fairness, he’d sort of anticipated this response, having made a point about visibility being as or more important than the reviews themselves. Yelping, I might have added, seems to connote negative reviews, complaints, for “yelp” is onomatopoeia for pain, isn’t it? Furthermore, it’s not as though therapists can speak back to bad reviews, offering rebuttals, the way that other businesses might—because of confidentiality limitations. In that way, therapists, like lawyers and doctors, I suppose, are vulnerable in a one-way customer service dialogue. Marshall Field, the groundbreaking retailer of a century ago, gave the western world a now chestnut phrase to describe this unequal arrangement: “The customer is always right”. Not only did he seem to think this just, he offered it as a paradigm for good business.

I understand that businesses like Uber and Lyft are challenging this paradigm by providing a way for drivers to rate passengers just as passengers can rate drivers. This isn’t the first time these two precocious businesses have upset the apple carts. Think about it: think about the businesses, like mine, that rely upon or demand standards as codified by an overseeing authority. Uber and Lyft are bucking that system, implying that what they offer doesn’t need standards, doesn’t need training. And who’s to complain? Taxi-drivers? If this were happening in my business—if “life coaches”, for example, were taking over (via Yelp, no doubt) the therapy game—I’d dust off my protesting/marching shoes and say something. My forbidden-fruit friend seemed to bristle at Uber and Lyft’s latest game-changer. He seemed to think this a problem, saying it compromised privacy, this capacity to post a review of the consumer—that too much in our world is compromising privacy. Didn’t I agree, he asked, thinking me an indiscriminating advocate of this all-important value? I surprised him. Turn around is fair play, I said, thinking that customers have enjoyed an advantage for too long. After all, a consumer can do a lot of things to hurt a provider of services, with impunity: boycott (also de rigeur), spread a negative word, “yelp” in pain a bad review. What’s that thing a defensive retailer might say? “If you don’t like it, no one’s forcing you to buy it”. But until Uber and Lyft’s revisions, no one had truly altered the rules of dialogue between consumer and service provider. It’s been a while, I think, since “We have the right to refuse service” has taken center stage in a public debate (I guess I think the issue of gay people and wedding cakes a side-skirmish). Now I think that tact is pointing the way to something big.

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