Tag Archives: psychoanalysis

A conscience thinly heard

To continue a theme, what I’m suggesting is that this book, this Getting Real thing, unlike most non-fiction perhaps, might actually be read by those who will turn out to be its adversaries, which might be a rare occurrence in our echo chamber 21st century.

The reasons are that my co-author and I are unknown quantities, and secondly, that our book presents ideas that may be objectionable to the vanguard of our profession. No, this won’t pertain to mine and Joe Farley’s supposedly heretical “psychodynamic” take on sex addiction. It won’t even result from our ambiguous adherence to the idea that sex addiction even exists. It might result from our saying little if anything about the LGBTQ community, though at least we use politically correct words like “heteronormative” and “cisgender” to indicate our thinking about such things. And isn’t that enough? says middle America, corporate America, or white America—all quietly hoping that forming committees, re-writing mission statements, re-photo-shopping brochures, and generally paying diligent lip-service is all, ya know…enough.

Anyway, back to why our book, or my chapters at least, might be objectionable to however many therapists and would-be patients read our book. It’s about gender, and by gender I do not mean the zeitgeist gender fluidity/what-does-gender mean discussion. I mean another twist—in subtle, as in here-and-there passages that seek to inject an alternative consciousness about exploitation. Passages about the exploitation of men, I mean, as part of an anti-sex addiction theory.

Here’s the thesis: if men had a consciousness about being used in the ways they are traditionally used, and may still be used if fresh, nationwide infrastructure plans are realized, it might help them not act out sexually, which in turn would probably benefit women if men felt less entitled (consciously or unconsciously) to seek out transient pleasures. I know. Sounds fanciful so far, or unfairly generalized, maybe. I’m also aware that it’s not how things are meant to happen from the point of view of conventional ethics. For example, feminists likely want men to stop acting out sexually—to stop being consumers of porn and prostitutes, for example—because it’s the right thing to do; because it’s compatible with the “do unto others as…” (ya know, that old chestnut) notion that still holds sway as an ethical lever, a fundamental golden rule.

Well, this may not be what motivates people? People vote for a candidate, choose their politics (including their gender politics), make decisions and generally live life because of what’s in it for them (a patient of mine recently put an acronym to this: WIFM—what’s in it for me?). Supporting wage equity, sex freedom, domestic labor equity, non-violence against women, may all be in the interests of men. Yet many women report feeling jaded by what they describe as the apathy of average men, who don’t appear to join women in their causes, at least not in earnest. So, what motivates them? Or, what might motivate them? Well, one of the truisms I observe is that men are exploited in ours and most societies for their violent or physically rigorous capacities. Perennially, we ask men to don various hard-hats, to act as police, firemen, or military men; to walk on roofs or high ledges, crawl into tight spaces underneath properties; to perform the jobs that incur the vast majority of workplace injuries. To be fair, women are entering fire services, the police, and the military in greater numbers over the last generation, but they comprise only 2% of combat deaths during a largely non-wartime era. Despite the efforts being made by the media, in TV and film, to cast women in action or military roles, men still comprise the vast majority of combat roles, and therefore combat injuries. Yet even this buries the lede of our issue, as fire services, police work, and military service aren’t even the most dangerous jobs in America, according to data. Wanna hear an example of what causes more injures? Fishing. That’s right: fishing. I think roofing is on the top-five most-dangerous job-list, too. Regardless, the point is that men comprise over 90% of workplace injuries—a statistic that has remained stable over the last 30 years. Why? Well, it’s not because men are clumsier.

Also, while some are horrified by man’s brutal physicality, evidence suggests that most are entertained by it. Football players, boxers, athletes of various kinds, mostly male, are our modern gladiators, and beyond their physical prime, they don’t live very long lives. Meanwhile, as I write this blog, the not-exactly-woke Fast and Furious franchise keeps motoring on, with sequel ten or whatever of this hypermasculine icon topping the box office earlier this summer—like, by a mile. My developmental editors (of Getting Real) may not have cared for some of my flippancies on this tangential yet intersecting subject (one passage originally began, “In Roman—sorry American society…”), but they allowed commentary that observed the relative obsolescence of man’s militant ego. We are, after all, nearly fifty years clear of America’s last military draft. The end of conscription, plus the recently judicious use of military services has certainly spared my generation and the two or three since from the kind of decimations that have occurred over history. Still, contemporary politics and world events do not erode what is traditionally valued in the much-maligned masculine ego. Therefore, tall, mesomorphic, tattoo-ridden, six-pack abbed, or plain, discipline-seeking young men remain preferable to many women (perhaps not feminists, though I’m not even sure on that) who covet such men, and who further seem to think that losing weight is harder than gaining height.

Think about it.

If upon thinking you believe my last quip is anti-feminist or misogynistic then you might as well stop reading. And you might as well not read Getting Real About Sex Addiction: a psychodynamic approach to treatment (there, it’s full title), for you will likely think it an annoying distraction from the more important foci of progressive agendas. But for what it’s worth, our book is not anti-feminist. Indeed, if anything, it appropriates feminist/class theory, applying concepts of objectification, for example, to men’s traditional roles as cultural gladiators and performers of physically dangerous jobs. It’s not feminists who are insensible to this. Nor is it average traditionalist women, who tacitly respect men who have always risked life and limb to build infrastructure (or otherwise overwork), and only ask that they (women) be respected in return. Actually, it’s a different faction that is that target of my disparaging insight: menu feminists, as I term them; women who are drawn to mesomorphs because they are handy when heavy objects need lifting, or when there’s danger in the neighborhood, but not so much when dishes need cleaning or a family meal needs to be cooked. These myopic women might read the facts from the previous paragraph and be unmoved, as if they’d just learned data about the number of worms eaten by birds each year. Or, they moan about the self-centeredness of their male partners, observing their inattention to domestic or “intimate” matters, disregarding men who are socialized and (according to oxytocin researchers) perhaps biologically disposed to outdoor environmental cues, whose caring attitudes are therefore indirectly expressed—via the benefits of an occupational life, for example. Not that I’m such a fan of the patriarchal chestnut, “who puts a roof over your head and food on the table?”, but neither am I enamored of matriarchal chauvinists who believe that a feminine way should prevail in a village-like, domestically-centered society, with men perhaps better suited to an outdoor world that such women take for granted.

The second half of my thesis poses the following questions: will men in general continue to think and act as they seem to, pursuing obsolete masculine ideals because they seem to excite many women still, while simultaneously feeling entitled to a level of sexual freedom that is corollary to a life of physical or economic risk, which in turn influences hypersexual behavior plus reactionary entities like sex addiction treatment and theory? Or, will some men become “woke” to an exploitation narrative that does not saturate the pulpits of media or academic institutions: that the promise of sexual and financial freedom (power) entices all too many to cliff edges, war zones, roof tops, bankruptcy or lottery thresholds, or slippery fishing boats. In the future, will men stop emulating their primitive antecedent, the sperm, who charges ahead through the fluid, ever driven to bond with the coveted egg? At a later stage of development, will this lone survivor of that pre-natal quest re-enact the primal drama, ever preparing his body for physical risk, or playing out the death of a salesman, risking a shortened life, just to win the hearts of women, or to get laid? Will men like these ever choose different roles, less risky jobs, whether women will like them for these choices or not.

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The nubile area of study

I can’t remember the last time I wrote a full entry about mine and Joe Farley’s book, Getting Real About Sex Addiction. If you actually read this blog, you might be thinking that this thing is an elaborate ruse—you know, a pretense of impending publication, designed to…actually, why would we do that? See, the thing is this: this book has been on the cards for two years, and I know—I’ve been writing about it in this forum, or alluding to its impending arrival, for that same stretch of time, roughly. But believe me: the book is—how should I say it—real. We wrote most of it in 2019, then a bit more in 2020; then, upon Covid…well, we had to write some more then, didn’t we? Therapy—all therapy—changed. Ostensibly, we’ve had an interested publisher all this time, a guy (plus a company) who had once published Joe’s mentor, James Masterson. That got us a foot in the door, like a foot in a door to a room with no one in it because everyone’s left the party that’s inside. In “Lost in the rough” (an entry from over a year ago now) I wrote and moaned that this publisher was brushing us off, waning in his interest, wouldn’t give us a contract. Wouldn’t put a ring on it, I quipped.

No matter, it seemed, as of late 2020. In stepped Rowman & Littlefield (who have published books like The Myth of Sex Addiction by David Ley), expressing interest in a book about SA with a psychodynamic or psychoanalytic focus. What followed was a review process which we passed with flying colors and by the end of the year, a contract was in place: the first of mine and Joe’s writing careers so cue applause if you please. Next, the last few months have been taken up with developmental edits plus miscellaneous tidbits, like a quibble about our title, plus the conversational style that I employ for this blog, or the “we” voice that Joe and I needed, thus blurring our literary tenors. About the title, those in charge might have wanted something plainer and less mischievous, though we held out for a title that—I have to admit—sounds a bit like a Bill Maher gag. To cut a long story short, the end of the rainbow is nye. This thing should be out soon…operative word being “soon”. So what? I don’t know. Do you care about sex addiction? Does anyone? Do we, the authors, even care still about this hoary subject; this creepy, nubile corner of the mental health industry?

That reminds me, editors of non-fiction don’t always like metaphors. In our text, I was challenged about using the word “nubile” when there was nary a virginal bride in nearby print. Good job that person left all my war metaphors alone, or else we’d really be fighting. But this touches upon the things I’ve learned I’m supposed to be when writing a psychology book: I’m meant to be more literal, more instructive, more—ya know, helpful. Problem is, we’ve written something different than that—something more interesting than helpful. I know because I kept saying so in the text, in preface to an illustration or an expository passage that was meant to be insightful or interpretative, but not directly instructive. “No shoulds”. That was mine and Joe’s mantra, sort of. It was mine anyway. I didn’t exactly tell Joe what he should write, but he seemed to get with the spirit and not tell readers what to do or what to think either. Good lad, that Joe. He did exactly what he should do: not tell people what they should do.

In the beginning, we had plenty of ideas about what we should do with this book, and from the get-go (strange phrase, that), we knew we’d be saying a lot that was different about this NUBILE area of study: sex addiction treatment. We knew we had things to say about how to treat SA from a novel perspective (the psychoanalytic), which we’d feel free to do because despite what some (too many) claim, there aren’t really standards in this sub-field of mental health. Seriously, if you’ve poked around in a non-sexual way and researched SA treatment, or reconned a few treatment centers or providers, you may have been told that there are gold standards of care in them thar hills where the retreat facilities lie, but it aint so. The condition of sex addiction doesn’t even exist in diagnostic manuals in the U.S., though it sort of exists as far as the World Health Organization is concerned, but even in that globalizing volume it’s being diluted as a concept, being called something else.

Anyway, that’s just the tip of condom on this subject. The bigger elephants in our text and subtext contain all the things that are covered by words like intersectionality and context. Except race. Despite it being at the top of the zeitgeist parade, as in a nearly obligatory subject to talk or write about these days, we are not branding ourselves on the right or wrong side of history with respect to race. Sorry. There was much to write about, and despite seeing a healthy diversity in both our practices, neither Joe nor I thought there was much about race to write about when the subject was already bursting at the seams with…well, that seems like another unfortunate metaphor that an editor might not like. Anyway, sex was the principal matter. Gender was the next most prominent matter: Men and women at war was the matter, because that’s the matter we’ve seen in our practices.

And that’s where we’ve aimed our bombing raids, especially me. Why? Partly because this element of the text would render it unique, that’s why? You’ll see, especially if you’ve seen already how psychology books are generally written and pitched. Actually, I shouldn’t act like I have the ideal vantage point from which to gauge these things. I really shouldn’t. It’s just that I did do a lot of reading, and not just of psychoanalytic literature, but also of sex addiction books, treatment workbooks or journal articles, etc. That was harder, as those books and articles are harder to read because…nevermind, they just are. Still, what I believe and presented to the reader in our book is the view that most authors in our field write for a readership with presumed sensibilities comprised of progressive, egalitarian, social justice values. We’re not opposed to this trend necessarily, but the point of writing about Nabokov a couple of blogs ago was to signal my own stab at ironic detachment, plus a secondary stab at the sociological assumptions that seem to pervade our profession. This will surprise many readers, especially the professional factions to whom the book will likely be promoted, because they’ll likely peruse “Getting Real” thinking it will be politically correct—that is, largely patronizing of orthodox progressive thought.

But it’s not. And yet, neither is it the opposite, which is why the book might be unique. It won’t be easily pigeon-holed, even by its soon-to-be detractors. We’re here to comment and suggest, not advocate. It’s about thinking, and suspending answers, like diagnoses, because…well, among others things, because we don’t have them.

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Put on your stage face and keep the show rolling

Well, the talk happened. Some said it was good. The ‘talk’—it was good. The video slide presentation: not so much.

I felt comfortable the morning of, waiting in the wings of the stage to the “Creativity and Madness Conference” (that’s right—not the Bat Guano jamboree), chatting with a woman who would soon talk at length, detailing her life, her family, her recovery from addiction, name-dropping all the people who had saved her life. Sounded like she owed a lot to a lot of people. Me, not so much. We took a selfie. I thought that would do it. I’d wanted a few moments to myself. No matter, I soon thought, thinking I was alright, that I’d prepared well enough for my “Dr Strangelove” presentation; that I deserved to relax, indulge a garrulous conference attendee and wait patiently for my moment under the spotlight.

All was good as I started. I didn’t even need the videos for the first twenty minutes or so of my presentation, so I was free to orate about Sigmund Freud, give an overview of his career and theories, then spin a funny bit about a would-be You-Tube channel devoted to Freud and psychoanalysis. It was the opening gimmick of my presentation-wide motif: “Dr Strangelove in the 21st century”. I remarked that the 1964 black comedy had once asked its audience to laugh at the horror of nuclear war, but added that this was neither unique nor the ultimate in unthinkable laughs necessarily. Alluding to Freud’s Totem and Taboo, I offered that a great comedy about cannibalism or incest has yet to be realized. Showing off my knowledge of cinematic history, I suggested that Chaplin had done something similar to Stanley Kubrick with The Great Dictator; that Robert Altman had contributed black comedy with his thinly-veiled Vietnam protest-pic, MASH.

I brought up pictures of the main cast, made fun of General Jack Ripper, Buck Turgidson, Major King Kong, President Merkin Muffley, and the eponymous Dr Strangelove. I spared the character of Mandrake from ridicule, describing him as an everyman, a hero, or at least a kind of therapist, trying to penetrate Ripper’s disturbed mind. I roasted the minor character of Bat Guano, then added that for years I hadn’t known what bat guano is—just thought it a funny pairing of words. Then I was schooled: oh yeah…bat shit crazy, I finally learned. Little did I know that I was foreshadowing my foolishness in these moments. I indulged the “women of resilience” theme of the conference, pointing out the sexually objectified role of Miss Scott, plus observing her denial—her internalized misogyny, apologists might argue. I transitioned to a brief discourse on master Kubrick, celebrating his surrealist genius, and reflecting upon his Freudian bent: that his films observe man’s obsession with order, the pretenses of civilization, but tell stories in which that order invariably collapses. Think of HAL from 2001 as an example.

All was well in my life of order. Noting Mandrake’s holding of “temporal reality” I noticed that I was about twenty minutes into my talk, and about to detail Mandrake’s drama with a portable radio—his displacement of anxiety onto a thing, when I had my own drama with a thing. The video. The first video, of Ripper schooling Mandrake about fluoridation and then implying that it caused his impotence, was frozen in neutral, unmoving, and therefore failing to entertain. Have you ever turned an ignition to start a car only to feel its deadness? Nothing was happening with the video. It wouldn’t start, and this not starting thing was happening in front of two hundred people!

I don’t remember what I felt, for I think feeling was deferred. “I need some help, I think”, I uttered haplessly, gesturing to the AV man, a confident and casual twenty-something who quickly stepped onto the stage to assess my problem. The conference organizer, a genial patriarch, also stepped up to oversee matters and direct, Kubrick-like, the correction of disorder. The moments blurred, especially as the techie stepped offstage again to replace my laptop, only to reveal a minute or so later that no internet connection could be found by his device either. I skipped past denial, somehow taking in the news that my videos—all ten-to-fifteen minutes worth of film clips—would not be shown, and that my presentation of “Dr Strangelove in the 21st century” had been undone by this century’s signature technology, and that the crowd would be at the mercy of my oratory, not the great acting from the film itself.

For several more moments I was struck dumb, but I found my voice soon enough when the conference organizer took to the mic and seized time to make program announcements. No way! I thought. I had an impulse to kick him offstage, like Pete Townshend once did to Abbie Hoffman at Woodstock. Fortunately, another impulse took over. Serendipitously, I recalled a skit-in-progress about Mandrake and Ripper that I thought I wouldn’t have time for, and instead of collapsing in shame due to the cataclysmic glitches, I took out my prop cigar, stuck it between my lips, and told the audience that I’d give ‘em a real “live” show. I might have interrupted the organizer, but at that point I didn’t care. I had nothing to lose as I launched into a bit that mocks the Ripper thought process and transfers the drama to an imagined hijacking of vaccine-shipping aircraft in a modern scenario. Hilarious, several said later. The audience laughed and applauded when I was done with that and, buoyed for the remainder of my time-slot, I simply took my time with the remainder of the material, ad-libbing here and there.

Somehow, I made it to the finish line without falling short of my allotted time to an embarrassingly significant degree. Initially, as I hopped offstage, I was something in between numb, satisfied, and cynical. Technology had let me down, or I had failed to manage it. Regardless, either truism had at least diminished my presentation about a film that is arguably cinema’s greatest satire about the failures of technology. How apt, the organizer quipped, beating me to the trite joke. I was too embarrassed to laugh at my own misfortune or foolishness. Anyway, the rest of the conference transpired with flat yet modest interest. With the energy of anti-climax, I sat through the last presentation, an impressive non-malfunctioning, video-filled profile of jazz singer Nina Simone, who was let down in her life by racism, by men (another motif of the conference), by society as a whole but by Mississippi in particular, but not by her own instruments of music or any other technology, I thought enviously.

Perspective. I sighed, knowing I lacked perspective. I sighed, knowing I was still in a public space, inhibited from expressing my true emotion, which may have been hard to pinpoint anyway. Did I want to cry? I should have. This opportunity to talk about a pet love in the context of my work, psychoanalysis, had been long-awaited and sought after—my day on stage had been a dream come true, to invoke another trite saying. Therefore, I had reason to desire perfection, even if fate, irony or its analogue, aptness, were to prevail. Perhaps someone would, or will, delight in the connections, see the glory in the failure; the shining truth amid the glitches.

The woman who bent my ear prior to the talk hung around afterwards and kept popping up to offer support and more solicitation. Later that day, she was at the airport, getting on the same flight as my wife and I, heading to the first hub of our two-part journey. Regarding my presentation, she was kind, complimentary, and self-effacing, observing that I’d managed something (the improv) that she couldn’t have pulled off had the same problems befallen her. She affected astonishment, was hyping me to onlookers, even TSA agents who stolidly heard our conversation as they poked at our bodies and belongings. The woman was a character, I’ll give her that. She knew how to mingle, to engage, and amid the patronage of my efforts, she knew how to self promote. Before our flight, we continued to chat, speaking mostly about her, I noticed. She wanted to show her art—acrylic paintwork mostly—that was abstractly expressive about trauma and recovery from addictions. She was verbose, as many “in recovery” are, but she was earnest, and despite the feint air of manipulation, she seemed authentic.

However, things got messy as we prepared to board. She was in pre-boarding, which meant she’d be getting on first, about a hundred people ahead of us. She’d save us a pair of seats, she declared, which seemed unlikely given how full and “first come first serve” the flight seemed, but she was willful and persuasive, so the prospect at least seemed plausible. As my wife and I reflected upon our comparative passivity, we also mulled over the offer. We tentatively accepted the plan, despite our tacit recognition of fatigue and the shared desire to withdraw, perhaps nap for a portion of our journey. That unsaid plan was indeed realized, partly due to another glitch—a glitch in a system at least, if not of a thing. When we got on the plane, we saw that the woman had managed to save two seats for us. Her leg was aggressively stretched over a row of three, and as I stood next to her, poised to set down, she looked like an ardent protester who had staged a sit-in.

Unfortunately, there was a problem. An equally officious flight attendant was directing me elsewhere to store our bags, and wouldn’t let me set my valuable (if malfunctioning) laptop down by my feet as the seats next to the woman were in the first row. Quickly, I made a decision, and with apologies I said to our would-be companion that our plan wasn’t to be. She stretched out her hand with a grim look of blessing. She was letting us go, though not without a smidgen of attitude. She might have thought ill of me in that moment—that I just don’t fight enough, or something, for what I want. That might be true, though I fashioned a different meaning, one that reinforced the values of passive acceptance. Just like me, I thought, of her and of the situation. Best laid plans, and so on. Roll with it. Put on your face. Let it slide. Move on. Let us inventory the cliches, and if nuclear war, climate change, pandemics or racial war all beckon, as my talk was meant to convey, or if friends lose homes in wildfires, and if an old colleague can lose her life in a car accident, let me learn to live with imperfection.

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Strangelove is back on

It was about three months ago that I heard from the organizers of the Bat Guano jamboree. Previously, I’d been informed that the latest event, set for August in San Jose, was again on hold—the result of an uncertain road back from restrictions, lockdowns, etc. Now it’s back on, as life with all of its so-called normalcy, is back on. Therefore, my talk on Dr. Strangelove is back on, only it must be updated once again, this time with more nuances than I could have imagined previously.

Yeah—hyperbole. Not my thing, except when I’m stuck for a line that will catch the pithy truth. I’d almost said forget it. Did I want to resurrect a now three-year old presentation, squeeze it in between seminar schedules of my analytic training program? Have it interrupt the head-long (slight sarcasm here) path of Getting Real About Sex Addiction towards publication?

Of course I did.

Firstly, my ego wants me on stage talking to an audience, not just writing a book or essaying on this blog thing. Secondly, I’d presented at this conference before—in 2017, on the subject of Tommy, the rock opera—so I was familiar with its genteel and professional atmosphere, the boomer demographic that would welcome a treatise on sixties icons. Thirdly, this was a chance, finally, to talk about one of my favorite movies of all time, and to do so through the lens of psychoanalytic theory. I’d done that with my Tommy talk also, but less effectively, I think, having not quite integrated my Masterson/Klein material into the mix of Who biography. I further cluttered that presentation by trying to say too much in a single hour, which rendered me pressured, my “performance” at times stilted. That is, all except for the bit where I swung my arms windmill style, aping Pete Townsend as I played a recorded track of “Pinball Wizard” for the crowd. After the talk, some said they wanted to hear more music (and less of me, perhaps), so this time I’m determined to not make the same (kind of) mistake. Therefore, I got clips—film clips—set to illustrate what I have to say about Strangelove’s message.

Much of the focus will be on General Jack Ripper, the character who launches a nuclear attack on the old Soviet Union, believing the communists responsible for worldwide water contamination (fluoridation), which Ripper blames for his sexual impotence. Don’t all wars begin this way? Anyway, I present a scene or two depicting Ripper’s pathology, alongside a Peter Sellers Stan Laurel-like character who attempts to dissuade general nutjob from realizing his vengeful plan. The plot point is a spring-board for a mini lecture upon death instinct ala Sigmund Freud, followed by a slide or two about Object Relations Theory, and in particular the theories of Melanie Klein as they pertain to infantile neurosis, and the process of splitting as a psychic defense that keeps separate the internalized good and bad objects of our minds.

I reference these ideas to explain why Ripper can’t take in the empathetic presence of Sellers’ Captain Mandrake character, or why he can’t bring himself to take corrective action after he appears to express remorse for having launched the attack. He’s at war with his internal objects, I offer, and like many others, before and since, he can’t really bring himself to admit wrongdoing or seek redemption. Instead, lost in a split between good and evil, and feeling defeated at the hands of an ambiguous enemy, he commits suicide. In my talk, I imply that this characteristic is the corrupted core of many political or socially prominent figures, as well as more famous characters from literature (I’m thinking of Javert also from Les Miserables), which partly explains the lingering relevance of Strangelove.

There are other enduring features of the film, of course. I also touch upon themes of obsession: sexual and technological obsession; the delusion of characters who live in an enclosed and solipsistic world, oblivious as to how their actions will affect humanity, and juxtaposing their unconscious wishes about time (we will live forever, and our machines and systems will never fail!) with odd, time-bound concerns. Examples include General Turgidson’s promise that he’ll marry his secretary while he’s busy at the war room; or, Major Kong’s speech to his crew ahead of the bomb mission, which promises promotions for each and every one of them—as if that will matter in a post-holocaust world.

What I proclaim, and what I’ve been set to proclaim for two or three years, is that Strangelove was uniquely audacious to ask its audience to laugh at the present-day horrors of 1964. Two months after the assassination of JFK, and just two years after the Cuban missile crisis, it was surely a sensitive time to be laughing at what was most ominous about the cold war. In preparing this talk, and indeed, in suggesting that Strangelove was “as relevant as ever”, I was barely conscious that this was not quite true of our time…at the time. After all, despite the ubiquity of real-life Rippers and Turgidson’s in our mad men world, I couldn’t quite say (climate change notwithstanding) that we were staring down the barrel of an imminent, world-impacting danger.

Then Covid came along and literally halted my talk. I mean that its previously projected debut, in Charleston last year, was cancelled. Instead, like everyone else, I scrambled to buy toilet paper, come to grips with concepts like social distancing and lockdown, and prepared to use Telehealth tools (my I-phone, Zoom technology) to see patients for…how long was it gonna be originally? A month or two?

Denial

I now get to weave into my talk that as much as Strangelove’s characters are in denial of their horror, we have likewise been in denial of ours. The analyst Glen Gabbard, writing in a recent issue of The Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, observes that the world is in the grip of another plague. Death is everywhere, but many citizens have continued to open their shops as usual, go on vacations, and insist that they are free to do as they like. For many others, life is on hold. The passage of time is crushingly slow. One feels stuck. Diets are forgotten. Alcohol intake increases. Hugs disappear. As we collectively wait for Godot, perhaps wondering what our part in all this has been and may continue to be, we return to a semblance of normal, and so among other things, my “talk” is back on.

Wildfires will soon be back on. Hurricanes will be happening. That climate change thing, destined to have our present-day Strangeloves re-thinking that absurd mine-shaft plan, is on the horizon. And as we quietly register the passing of 4 million across the globe from Covid, we may even find ourselves quoting the Turgidson character: we’ve had our hair mussed.

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What the man thinks

Had this weird thing as a kid when I watched movies, often with my dad, who only watched action or western movies then, less so today: I mixed up films and actors, would get halfway through a story thinking it was something it wasn’t, or that the lead actor wasn’t who I thought he was. Specifically, in the mid-seventies, I had a spell of thinking that Paul Newman and Steve McQueen were the same person. I think it was because they were both in The Towering Inferno, acting in alternating scenes. They seemed like two versions of the same hero, so my latency aged mind conjoined them. My dad enthused about their filmographies, would reference films like Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid or The Great Escape. I thought I was watching the latter when I came upon a film about a guy who keeps breaking out of prison and smirking at “bosses” every time he does so.

At some point I learned through my father that the film we were watching together wasn’t The Great Escape with Steve McQueen, but rather Cool Hand Luke, starring McQueen’s less blond doppelganger, Paul Newman. No, neither I nor my father used words like doppelganger back then (he still doesn’t), but here’s an example of temporal revision, which this essay, and not any of the films mentioned so far, were providing at the time I first viewed them. In some ways, CHL will have been an early and influential introduction to all things linked to the American South, which would become distinct in my mind from the American West. Set in I-don’t-know-exactly-where, the film is richly inflected with twangy, Appalachian accents, backgrounded with stretches of mountainless plains bathed in scorching humidity; an air of good-ole-boy jocularity underlined with the cruelty, racism, and misogyny of uneducated men. Into this mix, the story thrusts Lucas Jackson, an impish, youthful (though Newman will have been in his forties when filming) post-adolescent who has lost his way. Apparently a war hero (WWII?) and therefore a once-establishment lackey (or so we’re meant to infer), ole Lukey boy is caught one night performing the relatively inoffensive act of tearing the heads off parking meters while drinking whiskey (probably—another southern cliché I will have noted), and is then sentenced to a couple of years in a rural penitentiary for damaging municipal property. Listless, indifferent, yet clearly disdainful of rules and “the man”, he seems like the kind of figure who ought to have caught a greyhound and headed west, to somewhere like San Francisco to hang out with hippies; to “drop out” with the likes of Timothy Leary.

But it seems that Luke is less committed to freedom as he is to rebellion, and the difference is crucial, as one path leads individuals towards escapism and the open road while the other keeps someone ever in touch of authority, often with a thumb perched on the tip of one’s nose.  At first, Luke plays it cool in one sense, merely observing all the rules he will later break on both sides of the prison divide. The “bosses” or the “Cap’n” (the chief warden) aren’t his principal antagonists at the outset of his incarceration. Initially, his problem is his peer group, and most notably, a top-dog illiterate named “Drag” played by George Kennedy, who seemed like a poor man’s John Wayne in most of the films I saw him in. Anyway, Luke first pokes this bear with his attitude, incurring a predictable slap-down in the form of a mismatched round of boxing. However, Drag is impressed with Luke’s plucky never-say-die resilience, and later by his sneaking poise as Luke schools everyone at poker, hence earning his nickname. At some point, Luke comes to represent something other than crude thumb-on-the-nose impertinence, but instead something closer to inspired mischief. He embodies a new hope, a new way of beating the man, and before long, what we got here is not just a failure of communication (yes, I remembered the line), but an allegory of messianic purpose and dilemma in the fraught, disparate sixties, set in America’s most wounded underbelly.

As Luke slyly wins over his mates, he gets under the nose of authority by playing with rather than breaking its rules and hierarchical norms. Wicked smart, he observes that he can win his peers a 2-hour break from laying sand over tar by exhorting them to work harder. With his freakish, non-weighting gaining appetite, he can win for some a bounty of cash by consuming fifty eggs in an hour. In moments like this, he is a rock star, accepting all manful dares, bringing everyone together, aroused by the drama of the one pleasure prison allows them: gambling. Before long, Luke is the coolest kid in class/camp, but like countless other heroes (especially sixties anti-heroes), he soon gets bored with his followers and the false auspicious luster they bestow. At a mid-point of the film, during a scene wherein the heavens have opened, interrupting another prison work day, the ordinarily laconic Luke breaks into a soliloquy that rails against the injustice of God. He’s not complaining about the rain. Come and get me, Luke says, as if bored by life.

His blasphemy arouses the ire of the prison staff if not so much his fellow inmates, so the remainder of the film shifts the action to Luke’s battle with guards and the warden. Here is where his real gamble begins, though amidst the action, we learn about the source of his weak-spot: his mother. Revealed as a crusty, chain-smoking, dying figure, Luke’s mom visits him in prison, sat in the back of a truck, clearly disabled, informing her son that she’s not long for this world. At this point, amid allusions to a once absent, drunken and now-deceased father, plus an upbringing of abuse that now seems hackneyed in such stories, Luke is shruggingly offhand, steeped in the mischievous persona he is busy cultivating in the present. That all changes when he learns of her death and slumps off to play the banjo on his bunk, weeping. Thereafter, he stops being a mischievous rule-breaker and more the escape artist, though he retains his prankish talent. His best example is the “shake the tree” ruse he pulls over a guard’s eyes as he walks away to urinate, only to then abscond. Twice Luke is brought back to the camp, handcuffed and beaten, or sent to an isolation box to cool off what the Cap’n dubs his “rabbit” feet. He’s actually sent to this penalty box prior to his first escape, ostensibly to deter an escapist temptation following his mother’s death. Luke takes off anyway, not so must in protest of the Cap’n’s injustice but in his determination to always do the unexpected.

After the second escape and return, Luke is sternly warned that his next escape will be his last. Cementing their need to “make his mind right”, the Cap’n and guards turn the screws, forcing Luke to perform impossible chores, follow absurdist rules, looking to break him. Inevitably, this tactic succeeds, and as Luke lies in a ditch he’s been forced to dig, appealing to God to save him from his torment, the guards, themselves pious despite their repertoire of evil (God simply means authority here), mock Luke’s desperate longing, which culminates in his abasement. With his fellow inmates looking on, Luke clutches at the feet of the most bullying of guards, and as he sobs, his peers drop their heads, demoralized by the defeat and indignity of their hero. Jesus has fallen. When Luke is finally brought back to them and his relatively comfortable bunk, they abandon him, disgusted by his surrender. “Where are you now?” he cries and flails, as if calling for some lost object. This is his primal, unconscious appeal for an absent father or mother. But there’s nary a nurturing woman, or man, in sight. During the film’s waning scenes, Luke is seen to be servile with the guards, performing errands at their command; adhering to their rightful authority; being right in his mind. This, however, is his climactic ruse, as Luke then turns the tables once more, cleverly stealing a guard’s truck, as well as pilfering the keys to those that might chase him.

In this last escape, he is joined by Drag, who perceives the trick just as Luke is playing it, so he grabs onto the fleeing truck, happy to cede his once top-dog persona, now fully enamored of the true king of the prison camp. With a final flourish, Luke exhibits his mischievous air once more, though in its last bow this act of Luke seems weary and foreboding. He knows he’s in for it: he’s made his choice to recapture his “cool” persona; to enact the hypermasculine, I-don’t-need-anyone-way, so as to give his lonely, hero-worshiping peers something to hang onto and hope for. A sacrifice. Not wanting to drag Drag down with him, he orders the once top dog and now puppyship fellow to get lost, essentially. Thus, feeling doomed, Luke wanders away from his admirer towards a church, for a final soliloquy and conversation with the one authority towards whom he retains some curiosity, if not reverence. Now, with a tired smirk once again replacing former sobs of desperation, he somewhat humbly yet calmly asks for some guidance and love from the Lord. But none is forthcoming. Minutes later, the Cap’n and guards show up and surround the church, having just captured Drag, whom they send into the church so as to guide Luke out peacefully. However, Luke is not buying the cynical overture, the latest ruse of the man, so he steps towards a window, opens it and calls out into the wind and rain, “what we got here is a failure to communicate”.

Bang. As Luke speaks his last mocking word he is shot in the neck, and is soon pictured smiling as he dies in the back seat of a police car. His shooter is a man known as “the man with no eyes”, because he always sports sunglasses—an element which contains an interestingly subliminal theme. This silent as in no-dialogue-but-always looming figure is the one who takes revenge upon the willful, mischievous Luke—perhaps at the behest of the virulent Cap’n—but just as likely because of his own hateful impulse, which itself disguises a guilt-ridden past, we may consider. I must research the source material of Cool Hand Luke, and perhaps give it a read, for what I imagine here is an Oedipal play transported to the white surface of the Jim Crow South. A silent, absent, blind, and abusive father figure gazes suspiciously, enviously at the desire of the other, at the freedom-seeking life of the young man; at the way that young man has become the favorite of others, and of the shared wife/mother in particular. He, the son, will get his someday, thinks the man.

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Discovery

There’s a case to be made that Stanley Kubrick was a psychoanalytic filmmaker. It was Werner Herzog who said that out of something still or boring something else eventually emerges. You slow something down, making it less and less stimulating, but something comes out of the other side, like a reward for evenly suspended attention. Until then we repeat before we remember and work through—another analytic notion. In 2001: A Space Odyssey we watch astronaut Frank Poole jog in a circle upon the spaceship Discovery, performing his daily routine. He is running within a centrifuge, looking like a rat in a cage. This entry to the second half of the film, its adult existence following a primal beginning, begins with this sense of boredom; of life slowed down and mired in tedium. Poole and his colleague, David Bowman, go about their maintenance tasks, overseen by the real leader of Discovery’s mission, the psychotic computer HAL, with numb efficiency. We watch Frank jogging in circles and wonder what is in his mind. The film in which he is in is saying something about man’s place in time while its individuals lack temporal sense, acting as if life is linear, but where is he going? Does Frank have a sense of history, of his own or that of man? Are we to glean something from one of 2001’s motifs: that he, as well as other characters in the film, seem to be moving in circles without knowing it?

You move forward and you move backwards, sometimes at once; remembering, re-remembering; editing that which seems incomplete; re-integrating the previously forgotten that is suddenly and shockingly recalled. Apres coup, Freud called this experience. A trauma. David Bowman has his shot at time and psychological travel in the film’s climactic scene. Having disconnected the paranoid, homicidal HAL from the ship’s control, Bowman arrives at journey’s end, informed by a taped message that the time has come to make contact with alien intelligence. Progress. It is time for man to move forward, and its emissary in this moment is a blank slate: a demur, cool and capable unit in the form of David Bowman—a man who has just been awakened from a complacent state by his bout with the formidable HAL. Having endured the trauma of being locked out of Discovery, of then cleverly finding his way back in and then infiltrating HAL’s interior so as to sever the machine’s command, Bowman is set for a real adventure. After a spell of mundane existence, if not an individual lifetime of bland conformity, his brush with death has enlivened him. Amid the dissonant soundtrack of Gyorgy Ligeti’s “atmospheres”, Bowman leaves the Discovery in a space-pod and steers towards the epochal slab that has beckoned man to this moon of Jupiter.

What follows next is one of the most famous sequences in film history: a cosmological journey through a tunnel of outer and inner space, fizzing with colorful imagery interspersed with black hole suggestion. There is no returning from where David Bowman is going, so his circular, repetitious life is over, to be replaced by something the filmmaker cannot describe, but he can show it with imagination. In moments, we observe the terror in Bowman’s eyes as he seems frozen in some manner of drop. The intensity of his flight through this stargate is such that he leaves consciousness at some point, and enters a dream. In it, he wades into a neo-classical or baroque scene as an old man, dressed in the uniform of an astronaut, but now glancing at the ages of art and invention. The space he is in blends past, present, and future as he regards his aged and then dying self in a scene of civilization and whitewashed time. The movement slows, dulling the film’s narrative in the conventional sense and bringing the “action” to a halt. The thrill of the ride is over, replaced by an inner sojourn amid a curated image of memory. The white spaces in between the artful décor loom over Bowman as he sits at a table, genteelly dining, only to drop a fork and glass and then stare at them, stilled and curious. Something has broken. Next, he is in bed and further aged, dying and looking up at the ubiquitous slab, which is now calling him to heaven like a cosmic god, the great psychoanalyst. A glowing fetus appears in a spectral bubble, resembling our serendipitous pilot/hero, and hovering above or aside the black slab, suggesting an imminent rebirth.

Our protagonist and now space-child has remembered something that he and his kind have lost, and will now discover just before passing over to the other side.

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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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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. A hundred years ago psychoanalysis 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, but analysts like Jean LaPlanche, Jessica Benjamin, Carol Gilligan or the Lacanian Julia Kristeva excoriated this reduction of 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 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, and plenty others, actually. 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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The Fire

 

Elsa had prepared for this evening all afternoon. For several days, actually. Laid out upon her bed, her gossamer satin dress, the base of which needed a slight hemming, she thought, posed for her admiration all afternoon long. Around six, as she applied a light facial cover and delicately attached a pair of earrings she’d bought for herself shortly after Christmas, she gazed into her bathroom mirror, prodding at her brunette bun, examining her color combinations, her symmetry and style. Once, the accessories would have been gifts. Earrings were a typical offering from her ex-husband, gone six years now, geographically anyway. He’d been gone emotionally for at least twice that long. The gifts, like the near-annual jewels, were like stand-ins, substituting shiny objects for a void.

Ostensibly, Elsa was venturing alone to the dinner gathering, though one of her colleagues was bringing along a male friend to the party of six. This was the kind of online-ignited get together that Elsa had patronized before. About a half a dozen people, maybe a few more, converging upon a social scene, usually a fashionable restaurant in a lively district, with casual if tacitly intent purpose. About two-thirds of the group would be unattached and similarly-situated: thirty-something, single though experienced, maybe too experienced; professional and therefore financially independent, though not wealthy necessarily; implicitly egalitarian, progressive in their beliefs. Elsa thought her friend Judy a little gratuitous in this last category. Ever eager to exhibit her knowing, socially just credentials, she used words like “cisgender” to indicate the profiles of heterosexual others, or “woke” to signify a near-requisite sensibility. Ever careful to include and not assume inclusion, she crafted her thoughts to cover all bases, to not reduce or restrict to any particular way of being.

For an hour, Elsa’s thoughts drifted lightly over a surface of chatter and dry congeniality. Work was a predictable subject of conversation since at least two within the party were colleagues from Elsa’s magazine; one, a junior editor, was technically her subordinate, which added to a somewhat formal air. Elsa rarely got drunk, but she might have wanted to let the hair out of the bun, so to speak; to tease Judy out of her studied sociability. She might have wanted more than one drink to soften the creeping anxiety that settled in around eight o’clock. Joe, her mooted quasi-date for the evening, had started well with alert interest in Elsa’s literary career, but soon betrayed a dismaying distractibility. He timed his comments well, not interrupting necessarily, but within moments of Elsa’s speaking, he at least twice spoke in tangents, conflating his interests with hers, leaving Elsa confused, and quickly bored, which taxed the abilities she employed in the daytime, like the maintenance of polite, smiling contact. Over Joe’s shoulder, she observed a congestion of dinner guests around a tight front entry. A troubled hostess was struggling to manage the numbers, it seemed, and a fussy manager bounced back and forth between the restaurant’s kitchen and the glitchy elevator that brought group after group, packing the space. That singular path to the dining area was the one feature of the restaurant that Elsa disliked. The curiously small elevator, built to fit an earthy, Terra Cotta ambience, seemed inadequate for the restaurant’s physical needs—a sacrifice to someone’s notion of an aesthetic, Elsa thought.

The explosion that occurred around eight-thirty blew past the ornamental shaft, not destroying it necessarily, but certainly obscuring it from vision. Within seconds, smoke filled the room, with sparks of flame spitting out from the sides. Sounds of glass shattering shot out from side to side, with feminine screams and angry male barks hitting the noiseless gaps. Elsa staggered, reached out for someone’s touch, possibly Joe’s or that of Judy, straining to stand. She wasn’t injured, not physically anyway, and her investigatory mind was just about functional. The fire, or explosion, had come from the kitchen, she thought, as if divining the cause was the paramount task of the moment. Everyone else had other priorities. From within the haze of their shock, they fell over chairs and past broken tables. Splintered wood and shards of glass were minor obstacles as bodies scrambled like desperate rats to a presumed escape, that space wherein that tight and glitchy elevator once stood, pretty and inviolate. The cluster of panicked diners were in for a rude awakening, and by the looks of the crowded back-up, evident even amid the thick and blackening smoke, the prospect of escape had hit a wall.

Elsa stood as though frozen, not sure how to act, to think, or to be. Twitchily, she flicked glances at frightened faces, those of colleagues, of strangers, of people to whom she cared how she appeared no matter what they represented. She heard fragments of thoughts, of frantic inquiries. What floor were we on? Where is there an emergency stairwell? Elsa thought, am I the only one still thinking about what happened? The advancing blanket of smoke pushed back groups, the dinner party to which Else was now tenuously attached. The fluttering limbs and stop-and-start motions suggested a thin solidarity that was doomed to collapse: every man, woman, or whatever Judy might remind was in between or beyond was for themselves, said the body language. To Elsa, it seemed that within moments that could not be measured temporally, all social conventions would dissolve. Not only would the barely-invested concern between individuals disappear, so too would the inhibitions that illustrated the fixed limits of caring. As flames ignited curtains on either side of the dining hall, portending an entrapment of heat and breathlessness, the crowd rushed back, pushing Elsa, now separated and amongst utter strangers, towards a back wall. Fire escape. Someone called out the words with a blend of fright and inspiration, and suddenly heads turned, searching for the recognizable fixture that would signal hope.

Soon the coughing started, followed by smoke-induced tears, which forced temporary blindness. Choking, and hearing the din of others’ like-suffering, Elsa’s body spun away, bumping off others’ bodies like a ball in a pinball machine. What lay before her felt like a hallucination: an orange line of fire, advancing upon a wall that flanked the kitchen, melted away an ornate wallpaper pattern as though it was an ice-cube quickly thinning into a puddle. As the flame tore away at the fabric of brick and mortar, it revealed behind it a grey space that beckoned like freedom. Cool and clear: that was the impression Elsa held of the space that had opened up, promising room to breathe. Glancing around her, she saw that few were at the gap so she dashed towards it, pushing past an object that might have been a chair but was possibly flesh and bone—someone else’s already-slumped, defeated body. Within another indeterminate moment she was at an edge, contemplating a dream. Is this a dream, she wondered, feeling a pressing heat at her back and an urge to leap? This is a dream, she next decided, regarding a mobius strip of fire all around her. Whatever this is, it will soon be over. The dream—or this something unthinkable—will soon be over, yielding relief. Elsa gasped. Dizzy, her head spinning, she knew there was one more decision to make. Instinctively, she looked over her shoulder, like she was saying goodbye to the assembly of faces. Who did she really know? Who cared about her? As something like a hot spear struck her, she let out a shriek and stumbled backward. Falling, she felt the weightless sensation of a terrorizing drop and conjured its hard and bloody end. Finally, the eyes of an unknown woman met hers, perhaps drawn by the sound of Elsa’s cry. It was an appraising gaze, at once sympathetic yet judging of another’s indignity, and as the eyes of that woman disappeared above the floor upon which she remained standing, Elsa wondered her final thought before the great dream: does it matter still what anyone thinks?

 

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Fishing for narratives

 

There’s a fair amount of gender stuff in this blog recently. That’s because there’s a lot of gender stuff in my forthcoming book, Getting Real About Sex Addiction. Inevitable, I think, when the dominant context in the field of treatment is heteronormative—meaning, aimed at heterosexual men. It gets tiresome reiterating this, given the zeitgeist demand for diversity. Even barely interested publishers want to know if mine and Joe Farley’s efforts would attend to the needs of sexual minorities. But sex addiction (SA) treatment’s dominant attention to the “needs” of heterosexual men is a fact in this country—one of not many facts, actually, in the field of SA treatment, but a fact nonetheless.

The demographics of treatment, plus the typical split-formats of group therapy in particular, enables a predictable positioning of men and women. These positions are girded by chestnut beliefs that permeate society, dominate pop psychology literature (at least), and thus infiltrate the offices of psychotherapists. I sometimes think that all one needs to be a therapist in the present dystopia is to have a sociology degree from university coupled with an accurate take upon what social and political beliefs reign in the community in which one practices. Thereafter, treatment models and theory is what you have to filter those beliefs, employing jargon so as to affirm whatever narrative is most palatable. Facts? Yes, there are facts, plenty of which are relevant to treatment, and depending upon the context, they may determine whether society invests money in mental health care. But make no mistake: in the absence of research that actually proves that one method, intervention, or “style” is most effective over time, our field of practice, following the dictates of consumerism, will pursue that which is quickest and cheapest, and with respect to gender issues—those narratives that are most familiar.

So, do I have specific examples of treatment-distorting narratives? Indeed I do. Take, for example, the commonly expressed view that the sex addiction construct “excuses” the behavior of afflicted individuals, in effect privileging heterosexual men unfairly. This view fits a prejudice of both progressive society and, in this context, also traditionalist observers, and so the narrative sticks. Only it’s BS. That’s right. I think wordpress allows the contraction. I’ve been treating individuals, couples, men and women who present on both sides of the acting out/non-acting out divide for nearly twenty years, and in my opinion, the opposite of the “excuse” narrative is more prevalent. The SA assessment (it’s still not a diagnostic category in this country) does not yield clemency for someone who cheats on his or her partner. Divorce or separation rates do not diminish because the specter of sex addiction has rendered conflictual couples more flexible in their mores. And as far as illegal activities are concerned, I find that courts and sex offender treatment “protocols” are largely unmoved when individuals claim that a progressive addiction is the cause of an unacceptable behavior. Crossing the line of moral horror is as much a criteria of addiction as frequency of behavior or states of craving, and the horrified—meaning the righteous onlookers—do not excuse.

Nor should they, I think, by which I simply mean that self-identified addicts shouldn’t be exempted from legal consequences that result from behaviors known to be illegal. The addict made a choice, I say, disagreeing with what some recovering addicts think. Nor do I think that impacted partners are obliged to forgive their addicted partners, especially if “forgiving” entails remaining in a relationship with a habitually slipping or relapsing addict. Still, the truer reductionism with respect to the term addict is one of scapegoating. Addiction, a concept borne as much via ontology as medical science, is often blamed for a crossection of habits that straddle behavioral, psychological, even spiritual manifestations. This is largely the influence of the 12-step community, which seeks to support individuals afflicted with what it thinks is a disease, though in personifying the problem of addiction (“my addict is telling me…”), it enables shorthand explanations that circumvent complexity, yielding facile and false narratives. As a result, potentially dynamic problems between couples are cast as the unilateral fault of “the addict”: “Typical addict. I ask him to pick up the kids after soccer practice, and of course he forgets…”

Therein lies a bridge to gender issues, which are also subject to reductionism and stereotype. Combined with the prejudices aimed at male sexuality, broader assumptions about male versus female traits deliver a hammer blow to heterosexual men in sex addiction treatment. In drawing attention to the circular logic that pervades my field, I wrote in Getting Real about the assumptions of masculine privilege that underlay interventions and imagined what eating disorder treatment might be like if corresponding biases prevailed in that context. Are women privileged in representing the majority of admissions to eating disorder treatment? Do men, by implication, find it more difficult, more stigmatizing, to admit problems related to losing or gaining weight, and does the construct of “eating disorder” shield or excuse women (mostly) from moral judgements that might otherwise be aimed at them: the imputation of greed, for example. Well, excessive eating (or the reverse, self-starvation) does induce moral judgements, but not as much as sex does, and feminists and traditionalists ally in the belief that pornography and prostitution are immoral entities, either because they promote exploitation or promiscuity.

More skewed narratives, I write in Getting Real. I don’t dispute the progressive premise, which observes exploitation of women’s sexuality, ignoring promiscuity unless there are power differentials, like someone paying or being in charge—plus someone getting paid, behaving subserviently. Unlike social conservatives, progressives object to power differentials that they deem institutionalized, though like conservatives, they are selective as to what they think exploitative, and like conservatives, they appear to sanctify sex more than any other human behavior. Ostensibly, the exploitation of violence is likewise objectionable, but close inspection suggests not. For example, in response to January’s SuperBowl event, I’ve heard numerous women—menu feminists, I call them—complain that the game’s vaunted halftime show, featuring scantily-clad Jennifer Lopez and Shakira, was yet another example of patriarchal culture objectifying women (it didn’t seem to matter that the female performers in question clearly chose their roles and likely earned a lot of money). None of these women remarked on the main event, which featured similarly well-paid gladiators, many of whom will be crippled if not brain-damaged by middle age, all for the entertainment of our Pax Romana—sorry, American—dream. They chose their roles as well, of course. Or, does anyone really choose, I hear some asking?

The professions of fisherman, electricians, roofers, and landscapers have two things in common. Firstly, they are all male-dominated professions. This fact alone would reinforce for many a belief that masculine privilege reigns in our present-day society: the term “male dominance” linked psychically with male advantage. Fact number two might muddy the waters of what is known versus what is presumed. Those same four professions are above firefighters, policemen, and apparently military personnel in a Bureau of Labor report indicating the most dangerous jobs in the United States, based upon an aggregate of workplace injuries and time off work. How privileged am I as a psychotherapist to not worry about electrocuting myself, or slipping off a roof or a high tree, or—I guess—a fishing boat? Who knew: that’s the most dangerous job of all, apparently. The French analyst Jacques Lacan wrote that mental processes issue from an intertwining—what he termed a Borromean knot—comprised of three realms: the imaginary, the symbolic, and the real. The imaginary contains proto-concepts born of imagery, our intrinsic narcissism; our earliest split-recognitions of self and other. The symbolic represents such representations via language, via laws and social structures—the unconscious organization of society. The realm of the “real” exists beyond what is known—beyond the not-quite language that brings us “addiction”, and reality-approximating words like “standards”, “protocols”—to the imperceptible. The blockage of the real exists in our repetitions, which represent our beating-our-heads-against attempts to contrive. Lacan called this our automaton behavior. The imperative of moral equivalence (a lingua favorite of progressives, I notice) gets employed to reduce discussion, cast opinion as fact, to dismiss narratives that don’t fit with an orthodox message.

Alright then, let’s compare an iconic women’s movement moment with an unrecognized as such yet contemporaneous watershed in the cause of men: the burning of the bra was about sexual and economic freedom, the former proceeding from the latter. The burning of the draft card was about not dying at the behest of authority.

We get that it is true, what Lacan taught. We get it and we don’t.

 

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