Recommendations for technique. That’s what Freud called his paper on the matter. A bit plain, don’t you think, rather like ‘psychology in everyday life’—another good one. Took him a while, it seems, to gather his thoughts and give some tips on how to do things his way. Can’t believe he wrote it after Totem and Taboo (1912), or Three Essays (1905), or his first big splash into big, meta-thought, Interpretation of Dreams (1900). That’s where he laid out the big ideas**, suggesting that we all have an unconscious that surreptitiously guides the mind; that children have sexual fantasies; that humankind acquired guilt feelings more or less biologically, from a prehistoric moment in time when an incest occurred and a tribal elder was murdered and then cannibalized.
Yeah, back to the present day, to the plainer task of sitting with a troubled person looking for guidance, thinking that an analyst might have answers. Sigmund eventually suggested that his acolytes (meaning his proteges) assume a position of medical authority, with the authority and spirit of a scientist gathering evidence. Worthily, he suggested that analysts keep a relative distant, listen with “evenly hovering attention”, encouraging free association though anticipating resistance, and above all, maintaining a neutral stance. That meant, roughly, not imposing beliefs onto a needy patient. There’s enough of that in religion, Sigmund thought. Others elaborated the idea: don’t gratify, we’re told in training. Don’t assume the expert stance with reassurances, with advice, or even what we might preciously call affirmations. If a patient says, “I went to church and said my prayers” in a cheerful, relieved voice, there’s no need to say, “good for you”, as if they’d otherwise feel guilty about the pronouncement. We’re not behaviorists looking to reinforce what people already think is a sound, healthy way to live. What are they hiding, or even reversing? Freud would have wondered. Sex and aggression. That’s what he was listening for. Of course, people have other needs, but sex and aggression are what people inhibit, or repress, as he termed it. He was right.
Indifference was another word he used to describe an analyst’s stance. A lot of people don’t like this suggestion. Taking him a bit literally, I think. I think my couples’ therapist is bought into this indifference thing, though not in the way Sigmund recommended. Indifference. Damn right she is. Doesn’t give a shit, I mostly think. Caught her looking at the clock after ten minutes in our last session. Can’t say I blame her. Sometimes, when Liz is bending my ear, I’m gone after a minute and a half—sometimes under thirty seconds. The therapist and her get on like a house on fire, like they could give or take me being there. I half expect them to go out for coffee afterwards—that’s when they’d really sort things out. In the meantime, the therapist has got to play her part, which means pretending that she cares about the two of us and that I have a legitimate point of view. A fair amount of nodding conveys this. Not very neutral, an analyst would say. Sometimes, there’s much effusion in the room: arms wave about, moving the air, performing an illusory expansion of otherwise benign principles. Yes, we should have boundaries. We should come up with a pros and cons list about our relationship. There’s so much to unpack here, this woman exudes with tired eyes and a fiercely contained sigh.
She was fascinated by our first visit, and by the “uncanniness” of the situation that brought us to her. Unpacking is right. Packing too, and packing quickly. Funny also, that thing I said about a house on fire, for it was a literal fire in our quite material home that nearly went up in flames because of nearby wildfires that penetrated our indifferent, ungratifying life and upset the homeostatic deadness. Liz and I: we knew we’d get little familial sympathy should this happen. Sure enough, everyone who had an opinion about our woodsy home on the lake warned us of the danger ages ago. Since the evacuation, they’ve not been so much indifferent as smug, though most don’t the half of it. Right now, I’d take indifference or smugness about our current state of transiency, especially as we can go back soon because the fire actually stopped short of our place, but mainly because the fire’s not the real reason we’re seeing a therapist.
But it is an interesting metaphor for your relationship, that therapist observed. A disaster, or a disaster averted, which means an opportunity. I think that’s what she meant, plus the fact that the approaching threat of fire caused an ironic discovery. See, if it hadn’t been for the fire then Liz wouldn’t have been packing things up in a hurry (packing things in a hurry and Liz are not words that go together) and therefore finding photos and letters from an old relationship that I was keeping from her. Very sentimentalist of me, not to mention careless. But I had my excuses, which cued my counter-complaint, which has to do with her cluttering, not my pre-digital era affair-seeking behavior, which—as the discovered ephemera suggests—is not even an up-to-date thing anymore. In that sense, I’m as dead as our marriage. She doesn’t even think I’m having an affair. It’s that I hold on to things, but not her. So, nothing like a disaster to shake things up, some might say. Damn right, I say for a second time. Liz half thinks that I started the wildfire as an attempt to leverage a clean-up; as a protest against her indifferent, cluttering habit. I didn’t, of course, but it’s not a bad idea, I’ve since quipped. In fact, I’m surprised no one has thought of it, or that it hasn’t been mooted as a common arsonist’s motive. When we get like this the therapist’s eyes glaze over, like she’s had enough of us. Her interest in the uncanny, near cosmic events that bring patients to her office isn’t sufficient to help her endure the prosaic disputes of everyday life. There’s little hope for us, I think she thinks. What’s your plan? She drones wearily.
Or, she’s invigorated by an inspiration, thinks there’s something in these metaphors that keep popping up, especially fire. It happened towards the end of that last session. She reached out her arm, like she was prying her way between us, but also aping a movement Liz assigns to me: that of a football player stiff-arming an opponent while in full flight, like the figure frozen on that famous trophy, the Heizmann. It’s what I do to Liz, I guess: I stiff-arm. Anyway, this therapist’s gesture looks like this, so it drew a burst of sniggers from my beloved. Fire. What had we been talkin’ about? The woman asked. What is the meaning of this crisis? Liz held her hand over her mouth, clearly holding something back. I held mine slightly open, as if tentatively waiting for something to enter me: a fire in the hole, so to speak. Fire in the belly, the woman translated, as though reading my mind. And where is the fire between us? Liz and I glanced at each other, at once knowing where this was going. On that we were on the same page. We got it: fire, as in passion, needed to be rekindled. That’s what the fire was really about. That’s what this disaster really means, and so we have a choice. We’re at a crossroads. Jesus, how many metaphors are we gonna stick in this thing? Do we burn still for each other. Gotta stick in this thing. Speaking of which, should we try that again? Liz and I thought. Better tidy things up first, she said.
** yes, yes, Freud’s first major model of the mind was called Seduction theory, and it was a trauma model grounded in the idea that not everyone had an unconscious—only those suffering from reminiscences, meaning sexual traumas that will have been enigmatic originally, subject to repression because they are impossible to understand, but later activated and understood thru secondary sexuality. Are we all traumatized in childhood in this way, to one degree or another? Do we all get messages in infancy that are eroticized in nature, that we simply can’t take in?