Tag Archives: psychoanalysis

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, alongside progressive social movements and the demographic changes in our profession. A hundred years ago psychoanalysis, then clearly a patriarchal institution reflecting the psychology of western men, posited drive theory as a model of how the human mind works: something internal, a libidinal/aggressive energy within a human being strains to express itself, and will do so to one degree or another, despite the ego defenses that work to hold it back. Repression. Latterly, Object Relations theorists like D.W. Winnicott injected that the fate of this drive is contingent upon the variability of a nurturing environment, be that a caregiving dyad, a home, or a broader sociocultural milieu, while analysts like Jean LaPlanche, Jessica Benjamin, Carol Gilligan or the Lacanian Julia Kristeva excoriated this same establishment for reducing women’s sexuality to the maternal/child bond. These views have long since been adopted by feminists and other social justice advocates (who now represent a plurality in our field) who externalize an understanding of psychopathology, at least selectively. Misogyny is therefore a kind of original sin, reflecting an ancient subjugation of women. Misandry, its lesser observed twin, is a social protest against that which is variously conscious or unconscious, but not repressed.

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

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

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

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

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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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On Circularity and Tautology

 

Just before Covid broke out and thereafter shut us in, I’d started going to Peets to prepare notes for this blog. I’d already had in mind to write a few overdue thoughts on the matter of tautology when I saw an anecdotal cue in the corner of my eye. Over the shoulder of a diligent girl with a winning, sympathetic smile who served me coffee was a poster proclaiming that the house brew from Colombia was a hundred percent grown by women—that is, men were not involved, presumably. For a fleeting, half-witted moment I wondered why this was necessary to advertise before thoughts of obligation intruded. Was there a tradition of female exclusion in the Colombian coffee industry? I wondered. Amid the progressively flavored ambience the question seemed foolish, and not because I ought to have known something, anything, about Colombian culture. The poster’s claim/boast will have been deemed acceptable by marketers; been green-lighted by franchise execs, nodded to by employees and duly patronized by a genteel, civic-minded customer base. Why? Because its premise will have been deemed unfalsifiable. No evidence necessary. Circular reasoning, in philosophical and critical thinking circles—not so much the office spaces of advertisers, I’ll venture. Was research into the history of the Colombian coffee trade really necessary? That women had been hitherto excluded was a given, wasn’t it? Would it even matter if the implication wasn’t true?
Unfalsifiable ideas (ideas immune to rebuke) designed for professional and thereafter public consumption are nothing new in modern psychology. An acknowledgement of this dates back to the 1930s at least, when Freud wrote in “Constructions in Analysis” that psychoanalysis employs circular reasoning when considering the accuracy of interpretations. If a patient were to reject an interpretation, it is only a sign of resistance, many analysts thought. Those of the Kleinian school took it a step further, suggesting that a resistant, interpretation-rebuffing patient was one exhibiting a “negative therapeutic reaction”: meaning, an act of aggression, denying the nurturing goodness of the attending analyst. Even those who write with tongue-in-cheek satire of this stance confess guilt when asked if they have ever resisted the resistance of a patient—even claiming that the correctness of an insight was or is confirmed by the denial of the patient. Indeed, the more intense the denial, the more deeply embedded is the truism, was or is often the belief. The matter of real interest becomes the correspondence between the intensity of denial and the level of unconsciousness: the deeper the idea is buried, the more intense the denial of the analyst’s interpretation.

Circular thinking is habitual; that is, it happens unconsciously and repeatedly, so they lodge in the mind. I recall one example from an academic setting, during a somewhat delicate discussion about touch in therapy, as in the prospect or practice of physical touching between clinicians and patients. The sensitivity in the air concerned the matter of sexuality, of course, and more specifically, the legacy of sexual abuse by male practitioners upon female patients. Amid this background, however, the view remains that some manner or degree of touch between patient and provider may be appropriate. Hugging, for example, or shaking hands. Fair enough? Not so fast, complained one student—a woman—who pointed out that most of the literature on the subject of touch between patient and analysts/therapists has been written by men. She needn’t have substantiated her point, it seemed. Still, what she then pointed out, without comment on the contradiction, was that an analyst named Judith Butler has “written more on the subject of touch in the clinical setting than anyone”.
????
As in more than anyone since men stopped writing on the subject, assuming that’s still allowed? The data point supplied had not perturbed the previously declared premise. My not-quite-as-provocative-as-that query didn’t yield an answer on this occasion. My fellow student didn’t identify the men of yesteryear who had previously dominated the topic. Neither did the instructor. They simply thought it a refreshing change, not an irony, that the most prominent commentator upon touch in therapy was a woman. By the way, I’m sure there has been plenty of “research” into this question, utilizing hidden cameras no doubt, to determine how often, and by what proportions of each gender, that physical touch is occurring in therapists’ offices. I know. I’m not taking this seriously, am I? Well, not quite. It’s more that I don’t take seriously the thinking or methodology that’s being applied to this subject. I can’t be bothered to review beyond what I already have what’s being written on this subject, as if it could be studied objectively. And it hasn’t. I imagine (borderline assume) that the fewer male therapists that remain in this field are as conservative as I am. I shake hands. I will give a hug to a male patient, usually without concern. I will give a hug to a female patient at the end of an intermediate-to-long-term therapy, assuming she initiates. I will never initiate. Never. The day that changes is the day it becomes acceptable to have hidden cameras in my office. And that’s the day I retire, frankly. Actually, that’s bravado. I’d check my bank account first. So, who knows about what’s under the surface, or behind closed doors upon which “In session” still interdict? Should we know?

Circling back to my main topic: circularity. In the crossover realm of addictions and addiction treatment, which I attempt to describe in the forthcoming book, Getting Real About Sex Addiction, there are analogous tautologies, which are redundant expressions indicating unfalsifiable logic. The term “male sex addict” may be one example; the phrase “objectification of women” may be another: terms that may seem redundant because of prejudicial beliefs. Do we assign the term sex addiction to women in an era sensitive to “slut shaming”? Would the term “objectification of men” be deemed a thing by an average observer not prone to ontological (nature of being) insight? There are chestnut beliefs taken for granted by many, professionals as well as consumers of psychotherapy.

One that exists on the periphery of mental health care emanates from Alcoholics Anonymous, still the most prominent sobriety movement in the United States after a near century of existence. Absent a painstaking assessment of a drinking history, and sometimes even in spite of said data collection, a person who presents for help, either within a 12-step milieu or within a 12-step-based treatment program, is often thought to be in denial of a problem simply if he or she denies a problem. The presentation for assessment, for care—whether at the behest of others or not—signifies the conclusion a priori. Hence a circularity: if an individual presenting for care admits that he is an addict/alcoholic, then he is an addict/alcoholic. If he equivocates or else denies that he is an addict/alcoholic, he is still an addict/alcoholic. It’s just that friends, family and professional helpers will all now have some work to do upon the resistant mind.

No surprise that similar phenomena contaminates the sub-field of sex addiction treatment, which is otherwise largely preoccupied with medical, ontological, and phenomenological (study of experience) questions regarding diagnoses and criteria: questions like, what is this thing we call addiction? Or, for those still debating the details, what are the events or behaviors that actually happened? Hence, the field ignores its other assumptions. But tautologies and circular reasoning are apparent, and not just amongst practitioners and patients, but especially amongst the non-acting out, “betrayed” partners of designated sex addicts who, in the aftermath of a discovered acting out pattern, are hypervigilant to clues of wayward behavior, including instances of denials or argumentativeness. I’ve known more than one partner of an addict declare with studied conviction that she knew that her partner had slipped or relapsed in his behavior, not so much because of some undeniable evidence pointing to this conclusion, but rather because the intensity of his denials implied the unconscious defense of negation—negation of that which is necessarily deemed true. So, don’t tell me that analytic ideas have no place in the modern conversation of addictions just because people don’t know the theoretical derivatives of their assumptions. Next, this issue of whether an addict is an addict based upon whether he self-identifies or else because he’s in denial is just the tip of the iceberg on this matter of tautology and sex addiction. As my opening anecdote suggests, the muddying of water (or coffee) extends to gender biases intersecting with notions of what is trauma, or what constitutes objectification as these concepts pertain to an already loaded subject—sex. Okay, I got called out recently (you might have read) for using words like ‘trauma’ without explaining what it means. As if I know what it means! That doesn’t mean that I don’t have ideas, or even experiences that would inform, but I think the term’s meaning has become diluted in our culture. For once, I’ll be brief and orienting, for I think the debate congeals around a triangular phenomenon: firstly, there is the notion that trauma is the crazy-making event. Second and third, the question (broadly) is whether the crazy began in the self or within some un-locateable pre-verbal memory, or further, whether crazy stems from a later (even contemporary) crazy-making event. Platitudinous wisdom suggests that some combination of each phenomena is true.
Thanks
If the subject of trauma across contexts has been contaminated, can you imagine what I think has happened when the context is sex? Well, without the background specter of sex and gender politics, it’s hard to imagine that sex addiction would have gathered steam as a concept, displacing as it has (almost) in recent years the relatively benign if not old-fashioned construct of infidelity.
In Getting Real, I argue that sex addiction treatment is a subsidiary front in a zeitgeist war against male sexuality. The evidence for systemic tautological fallacies lie in the far higher rates of men being admitted to sex addiction treatment versus women, coupled with the absurdist view that such admission rates constitute a privileging of care for men instead of the neo-Scarlet lettering that it obviously is. Now, I know there are some who would reject my appropriation. Cue again the concern with matters of moral equivalence, or asymmetry. So, once again, I accept that the plight of modern sex addicts doesn’t match the experience of ostracized women in 17th century New England, but also (once again), metaphors and allegory don’t imply equivalence or symmetry. They serve as reference points, and are inherently imprecise, as all meaningful things are. Incidentally, few would argue that the trauma of sex addicts’ partners matches that of combat veterans, but does that render the term sex addiction induced trauma invalid? I don’t know if the people who promulgate this hegemonic opinion also believe that sex addiction is an unnecessarily pathologizing label, but it wouldn’t surprise me if such concurrences of semi-thought, which compound absurdity, exist in our professional field. Beyond the statistical surfaces, the ethical complaints that accompany the sex addiction concept—that pornography and prostitution exploits and objectifies, or that extramarital affairs betray partners—largely target a heterosexual male population whilst shielding would-be female sex addicts from a similar excoriation. In my view, a now dominantly female proletariat in mental health care is wary of attaching pathologizing labels to female sexuality, which results in circular, apologist formulations. Therefore, a woman who acts out sexually with pornography or prostitution or serial affairs does not exploit or objectify others, especially men, but rather internalizes a demeaning state of mind such that what she does she invariably does to herself.
Uh-huh. Again, note the Cliff Notes co-opting of a psychoanalytic concept, which is common within frameworks that comprise the sex addiction field. More importantly, note the assertion of ideas across mental health/sociological spectrum that are presented credulously; that is, immune to falsification.

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1160 Just Desserts

 

1160

That’s how many views I have. Or, that’s how many I had the last time I checked so I might have a few more by now. I have seven ‘likes’, I write mock-excitedly. And one thumbs down, I’ll report with a frown.

What does it mean? What does it say of my presentation, “Dr. Strangelove in the 21st century: or how I learned to stopped worrying and love my phone (Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love the virus—it’s alternative title since mid-March, for obvious reasons), that no one has, uh…commented? What do I expect? That people will have an opinion, and express it? Firstly, I quibble, it’s not clear what the number represents. A ‘view’ could mean that someone clicked on the video, intrigued by the subject and heading, and watched the slideshow plus clips and commentary in its entirety. A view could also mean that someone clicked on the video, watched and listened for a few seconds, decided that it was dull and therefore clicked away, perhaps to watch a clip from the film with no commentary instead. What did the viewer expect? Just clips from the film, justifying justifiable tributes–“one of the greatest films ever”, is a typical response–with little interest in the commentary? The title (of my talk) portends a satire that—as the informed viewer might think—parallels the satire of the film. Perhaps that’s a pretentious aim, to suggest parallel, which is a kissing cousin to the notion that my presentation and Stanley Kubrick’s great film belong in the same breath. But again, if that thought represents a sample of reaction, why was it not expressed? The internet population is not exactly well known for holding back. Isn’t it the great bastion of uncensored thought, after all? But perhaps that supposition supposes something else: that viewers will care. To write a comment is to make an effort. And if a viewer is known to me, a comment exposes, risks my displeasure if the first displeasure was theirs.

I could drive myself bat-shit crazy with all of these flitting theories. I haven’t, for I am bat-shit crazy for other reasons, yet this thought segues to the early substance of my talk (or perhaps the lack of substance, as my analyst suggests), which focuses upon the silly names of Dr. Strangelove’s characters. I don’t start with the eponymous ex-Nazi scientist played by Peter Sellers, but instead a minor character named Bat Guano, played by veteran character actor Keenan Wyn. See, I thought it wryly amusing that I didn’t know the meaning of Bat Guano for many years, despite being enamored of the name from the film. I simply thought it a silly-sounding pair of words, which betrays that I will sometimes settle for aesthetics and forsake meaning in my patronage of the arts. Still, I was open enough to meaning to notice the term in a James Bond novel, Dr. No; to make the link with the character from Dr. Strangelove, find it funny that I’d been unknowingly amused by the term for at least two decades, and then say to myself something like, oh right…bat shit crazy!

Internal dialogue. That reminds me of a critique I once received of a novel I wrote ten years ago. It was a comment from someone who cared. Too much internal dialogue, they said, without explaining why this was a problem necessarily. Oh well. Anyway, here’s my critique of my bat-shit aside: perhaps too much time was spent in the early part of my talk musing anecdotally upon funny-sounding words. It’s not as if I am famous and can therefore indulge myself knowing that an audience or readership will “bear with me”. I should have gripped the listener with something more directly substantive about the film, about its relevance to 21st century concerns, as I had promised. Had I prepared this talk about two months later than I had, I might have included a bit about so-called Chinese “wet” markets being, uh, bat shit crazy. I’d like to write that concerns about bad taste intervened, but in truth it was hindsight, the arrival of a late-arriving consciousness that had me saying to myself something like, oh right…I could have said that thing about bat shit crazy. In my video’s box of description, I’d promised more than cute personal anecdotes. The listener would get psychoanalytic commentary, a comic impersonation of two (my deep-voiced impression of toxically masculine Jack Ripper, most notably), a few comic asides, plus a musical ending to—again—parallel the film, its sentimentalized climax.

By the time the dense section of my talk begins, which is about ten minutes into it, I might have already lost most of those 1160 viewers. Is dense the same as substantive, you may wonder? Now that you are a few minutes into this blog entry, and have sort of  demonstrated that you care, I will bother to recap a thought or two. Firstly (deep breath), I review the psychopathy and underlying neurosis of the film’s Ripper character. I offer that he plus a few others may remind us of some who roam the corridors of power today. Secondly, I suggest that we are as concerned with man-made threats to the planet as we were in 1964, though with more emphasis upon slowly-moving climate change than the quick flashes of nuclear annihilation. I remind that we seem as nervous about the Russians as ever (though again, for slightly different reasons), and lastly—and wearingly for some, maybe—that we are as enslaved to technocracy as ever. This is Kubrick’s most indelible message, I suggest: that we’ve left HAL in charge. However, the Ripper material is somewhat esoteric, focusing upon his defensive rants about fluoridation, which have justified his wanton launch of a nuclear attack, and which conceals an underlying sexual inadequacy, which he sort of confesses to his confidant, the amiable Lionel Mandrake. That he is unable to act upon his remorse and accept Mandrake’s path of redemption (“give me the recall code, Jack!) reveals what Kleinian theory describes as a “negative therapeutic reaction”: an important analytic idea denoting that person who has too much hate, too much persecutory anxiety, that they cannot accept the possibilities of redemption, or of reparative love. They can only seek destruction, firstly of persecutors, and then, finally, of themselves. Hence, Ripper commits suicide.

Is that relevant to our world today? Interesting? Worthy of comment? Who knows? It’s too early, maybe, to determine if my thoughts bridge time and place with popular art, adding anything of note. Perhaps scores of those 1160 viewers are taking in what I’ve said and not so much moved on but…see, I can’t finish the sentence. I just don’t know what they think, so I’m left in a field of my own projections, wondering, fantasizing. Indulging? For one thing, this is no more than what I get for privileging Facebook as my vehicle of promotion. Further, no more than scores of patients who sit with people like me, speaking of their neuroses, which often congeal around the mysteries of others’ thoughts: what do other people think? Do they care? Are they dangerous, and where does that leave me in the equation? And what does he think of me, because he won’t tell me. Not really. There are 1160 people who have clicked on to my Dr. Strangelove talk and slideshow. As far as I know, that’s far more than the number of people who have read any of my self-published books. A handful have indicated that they like my talk, but said nothing more. That’s how it is at the end of a talk that was scheduled for a live presentation in May. For that now cancelled event I’d anticipated applause, some of it enthusiastic, some of it merely polite. The technocratic medium robs me of that lovely ambiguity. Now silence and absence is the end of the talk, and of my story.

 

 

 

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What is always there

 

But seriously, the “project” that was once psychoanalysis, or now psychotherapy or whatever, has been disrupted by Covid-19. Telemedicine, Telehealth, Telepresence, is here to stay, according to some. This is a watershed moment, a bump or a shove into the next paradigm. No going back? Well, I won’t be the only one kicking and not quite screaming, but rather only moaning and possibly sulking. I’ve lost one or two from the caseload: people who perhaps think the virus scare is not what it’s negatively cracked up to be. Or—here’s a thought—maybe they think I’m not all I am positively cracked up to be, and therefore the crisis that’s upon us is a pretext for a separation. Neurosis aside, this situation is not what I trained for. Something’s missing, and something else has been mobilized in response. Temporally appropriate feedback. That’s a term I heard yesterday, used to explain why the phone, the latest video technology, the e-mail, and even the text message might be used for a psychotherapeutic exchange and why the fax machine never was. It wasn’t quick enough, basically. That’s what temporally appropriate feedback means, by the way. Yes, I know. Talk about unnecessary verbiage, someone’s dissertation nomenclature. Anyway, whatever’s happened overnight, it seems tailor-made for opportunists, entrepreneurs; futurist thinkers with a survivalist edge and a nose for the front of a line. I’ve thought about my peers, even some of my colleagues in all of this. Some of them belong in the jungle, I think, pulling at the bamboo, or squeezed into a tight gap beneath a fallen hut or an all-terrain jeep. They have grease on their hands, an ample toilet paper stash, and numbers dancing across their mirrored pupils, for they have versatile, fix-it aptitudes, which means they navigate well all the toys that mediate contact with the material world and which are derivatives of the childhood games they played better than anyone else.

What is always there is never noticed until it is missing, said Jose Bleger. That’s another of those psychoanalytic aphorisms that are meant to stir thought if not practical solutions. What is it that was always there? I have wondered aimlessly instead of, say, moving to use Venmo, or signing up for What’s App, or whatever, as if those were the clues. I don’t skip along a trail of newfangled ideas the way that others who…don’t use words like newfangled and therefore don’t have issues with planned obsolescence, come to think of it. I thought I had an idea, dull as it may seem, of what was and is always there: the analytic frame, manifest as the office space, with a door leading to a waiting area wherein a would-be patient sits and waits for me to open my door and beckon them towards me. It sounds more authoritarian than it is. And it seemed like it still had a few years left in it, too, as paradigmatic frameworks go. Now it isn’t there. Or, it is there but it seems like an abandoned warehouse with a faintly stale air about it. Recently, I’ve not been getting my money’s worth out of my office. It collects mail, a bit more dust than usual. I can go there once a week and make a phone call from it if I like, but it’s not the same. The nice view from the window’s not the same. There’s no collegial hum across the walls that connect to other suites. There’s nothing charming anymore about the rickety elevator that takes me to my floor, or pleasing about the sudden abundance of parking spaces in the adjoining lot. And after the first week of lockdown—not even the consolation of a few toilet rolls to steal from the bathrooms. What was always there? I haven’t figured that out yet, but like a good would-be analyst, I am thinking, still wondering.

Meanwhile, I am thinking of bigger things, philosophical, mindful ideas. Phenomenology, I think. I’m reminiscing, at least, if not deepening. Back in 2001, I thought 9-11 was a fine how-do-you-do to the 21st century. Now I think that episode less an introduction to doomsday than the residue of the last century, with all of its terrorizing, authoritarian ghosts. Not that we don’t have plenty of nutjobs these days, but you don’t beat the 20th century for tyrants and martial horror: two world wars, a couple of nuclear explosions (not counting the tests in the Pacific and the deserts of the American Southwest); Hitler, Stalin, a few other genocides, assassinations all over the place, at least one war that America lost. Seriously, a total s—tshow. But 9-ll, which made household names of Al Queda and a guy named Bin Laden, seems today like a distant memory of airport inconvenience and yesteryear jingoism: a tough deal for anyone sniffing at a military life, but for the rest of us, not the economic and civil collapse that stares at us now. Images of twin towers burning didn’t make the cut of my recent Dr. Strangelove video, with its “We’ll Meet Again” montage of zeitgeist existential threats, 2020-style. Not topical. Scenes of floods, wildfires, stranded polar bears and penguins on thinning ice were the visual accompaniment, not the cold war terror of mushroom clouds or the once Arab stereotype of airplane hijackings. Covid-19 snuck into the slide show with the odd picture of a solitary figure wearing a hospital mask amid empty landscapes, signifying for me, anyway, the ubiquity of the virus’ impact: the live presentation I was meant to give on Strangelove was canceled, after all.

The ‘live’ has always been there. Nature has always been there, and the notion that it won’t be has long felt like an abstraction, despite the slide show of evidence to the contrary. It’s trite to point out that nature is unforgiving, getting its revenge upon us now or else teaching us a lesson, perhaps in the nick of time, depending on what climate change scientists actually think and wonder. It’s further trite to distill the Bleger reverie and consider that what is always there is a warning to not ignore the signs of danger; to notice the impact of phenomena upon others, environments, even things. Indeed, it stirs shame to consider that Covid-19 has aroused more fear, more loss, or more determination than any other modern calamity simply because, unlike any other world event one might remember, this has truly impacted everyone to one degree or another. I conjure the grim-faced, somewhat unsympathetic gaze of those who have known and felt war, environmental catastrophe, unspeakable man-made atrocities or the constant slaps of racism and other oppressions. They may be quietly saying, Oh, so we’re all in this together now, are we? Maybe some of them got a head start. They’re like California, or North Korea or Singapore, or whomever else might have done this thing right. They were and are good with the things, and technology, that which mediates and distances us from nature, enables, intrudes, obstructs, complicates, and yet may save us. It helps…sort of.

 

 

 

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