Tag Archives: trauma

Cultural and gender appropriation in the film “Downhill”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#servesyouright

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Gaslight

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gaslight

 

 

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The Keeper

 

Last week I saw a film that has won prizes at several film festivals, including the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. I took my father to see the drama The Keeper, about German soccer player Bert Trautmann, because I knew my dad was familiar with the film’s subject, a sportsmen hitherto obscure to most Americans, I think. By the time The Keeper’s end credits were rolling at my local theater, I was equally sure that audience members would be doing what my dad would have found unnecessary: googling Trautmann’s name.

Not that the film was short on bio. In a stirring first hour, the film casts Trautmann as a German soldier captured by British forces towards the end of World War II, and transferred to a POW camp in Lancashire, England, wherein he and his fellow prisoners are made to work menial jobs to repair local damage caused by Luftwaffe bombings. During a sandlot game of soccer (football in England) at the camp, a local tradesman who also manages the local team spots Trautmann playing goalkeeper and is impressed by the German’s skills. Soon this man is bargaining with camp officers, recruiting Trautmann as a ringer for his underperforming, relegation-threatened side. As a return favor, Trautmann works in the manager’s local shop, which spares the goalkeeper the indignity of the POW camp and also places him in the company of the manager’s pretty and spirited daughter, who later becomes Trautmann’s wife. After a series of strong performances, Trautmann is scouted by a major regional club, Manchester City, and a triumphant first act concludes with Trautmann signing a contract and winning the hand of his now former manager’s daughter.

Along the way, the story features residues of the German’s war experience. Among other things, he’s had to endure British soldiers who are vitriolic and bullying in their treatment of Trautmann and his comrades, and while showing newsreel of Nazi atrocities (the footage of liberated concentration camps like Belsen) seems fair and necessary, it stirs in Trautmann memories of events for which he feels guilty. One recurring flashback image or scene features a young Jewish boy whose football has been pilfered by a taunting German officer. In this memory, Trautmann comes to the rescue, man-handling the officer just as he is about to shoot the child. Later, imprisoned in England, his protestations of innocence are muted amid the hostility of the locals, but Trautmann’s patience and change of fortune changes the equation. After the war is ended, he refuses repatriation and a safe passage to his Bremen home, choosing instead to play football in England and wed his new sweetheart. But trouble explodes as he is introduced to the press as a new goalkeeper for Manchester City and local reporters grill him about his Nazi associations. Apparently, history records that his recruitment aroused a protest of nearly 20,000 people (according to—you guessed it—google), largely because it was discovered that Trautmann had previously been awarded the Nazi Iron Cross. In response, he haplessly repeats to reporters what had ultimately won the sympathy of his once distrusting wife: “I was a soldier. I had no choice”.

In time, Trautmann wins the sympathy, the acceptance, and the admiration of sports fans and the wider British public as he proves himself a star performer and a decent, ordinary citizen. A legendary highlight of his career is captured in a sequence about the 1956 FA Cup Final in which Trautmann breaks his neck—yes, breaks his neck—with a quarter hour left in the game, but continues to play until the competition’s end. City won the game and therefore the Cup, and after the crooked-necked Trautmann collects his winner’s medal, x-rays reveal the extent of his injury, which thereafter cements his place in British football folklore. Then something strange occurs, foreshadowing more tragedy. By this time, Trautmann and his wife have kids, one of which is an impish boy who is careless with a football when playing around his father’s hospital bed after that neck injury. This sparks more visions of the Jewish child whom Trautmann had supposedly saved according to the truncated memory shown earlier in the film. Then, as he continues recuperating in hospital, Trautmann’s son later takes his football into the street near their home and is run over and killed by an ice cream truck. Devastated by this loss, Trautmann and his wife sink into depression, with Trautmann now haunted by an intrusively shocking edit to his earlier memory. Later, he confesses the truth of his arresting trauma to his wife: the boy he once “saved” from that cruel Nazi officer was in fact not saved. Trautmann was actually stilled by inaction and simply watched as the officer executed the child. Previously, he had blocked the guilt of that inaction, re-writing the scene so as to maintain the image of an innocent, decent man who simply “had no choice”. Unburdening himself, he reveals the truth of that former moment, explaining to his wife that their son’s death was thus a karmic event. Bitterly, his wife rejects the theory as self-pity, and challenges Trautmann to take fuller responsibility for their shared loss.

Which he does. The epilogue to the drama features Trautmann resuming the career that stalled upon the family tragedy and playing on with dignity until 1964. He is awarded the Order of the British Empire (known by the shorthand, OBE) for services to the British public, is widely lauded for engaging leaders in the Jewish community, and via his example, improving post-war Anglo-Germanic relations. He indeed prevails as a decent man. But the reason I chose to write about this film has little to do with Trautmann’s celebrated life, and even less to do with his reputation as a decent man, though I don’t begrudge him that legacy. However, what fascinates this psychoanalytic observer is the running theme of traumatic flashbacks overlaid upon a primitive splitting defense. The traumatic memory is that of the Jewish boy victimized by the Nazi officer—the shock of witnessing that horrible incident—plus the experience of haplessly looking on without intervening, either during the incident or following it, by implication. The secondary defense lies in Trautmann’s censored memory of the event, which significantly alters its meaning, depicting Trautmann’s heroism versus his neglect, which in turn spares Trautmann lingering guilt. Ultimately, the fully revealed version of his memory disrupts a false self-image of amiability and innocence, which had been stirring tension amid happiness and fame until his son’s death intruded.

Initially, Trautmann’s gentle and winning personality is endearing. One cheers for him as his mischief frees him from the POW camp. Despite my own British heritage, I wanted him to defeat somehow the embittered officer who hazes him and his comrades. When he joins the local football team, it’s a pleasure to watch him make save after save, winning over his new teammates and a skeptical crowd. And when he casts a covetous glance at his manager’s daughter, and soon endures her cold shoulder because she, too, has feelings of anger and suspicion for anyone or thing German, the audience waits and hopes that soon enough he will win her heart also. When the flashback involving the Jewish boy first appears, it seems consistent with the spirit of the film to that point that Trautmann would be portrayed heroically, but when the scene ends abruptly with Trautmann pushing that Nazi officer’s arm away, I felt a twinge of…I don’t know…something. I didn’t know the history of this man beyond the broken neck in the Cup Final story. Watching the film, I didn’t know what was true and what may have been apocrypha, and had my nagging dislike of the first flashback led to critical scrutiny, I might have called out the faulty logic contained within it. After all, is it plausible that Trautmann would have survived, as in not been shot himself, had he actually intervened to save a Jewish child from execution?

In modern psychoanalysis, what happened to Trautmann that day might be termed the unconscious but not repressed. The retrospective judgment that history casts upon Germany is that its decent, ordinary citizens didn’t do enough to prevent the Holocaust. They didn’t care enough. They didn’t like Jews. As a result, Trautmann was unresponsive in a moment wherein an act of cruelty was first predictable and then imminent. Though it may seem harsh to write, he therefore merits no more or less of the judgment that history metes out to his generation’s countrymen. As for myself, I knew something was wrong with the sanguine portrayal within this film’s otherwise wonderful first half. Though I couldn’t pinpoint the matter, I somehow felt that I was being played. Let’s call that my unconscious but not repressed experience.

 

 

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Objects don’t return

 

In Getting Real About Sex Addiction, there are several areas of ontological speculation, areas whose nature, existence, and organization are identified by the following terms: addiction, the mind, trauma, misogyny, misandry, and objectification. These abstractions, all made concrete to one extent or another by various pundits across intellectual disciplines, are discussed in mine and Joe Farley’s book within the intersecting frameworks of intrapsychic (one-body or instinctual), interpsychic (relational), or collectivist (broader social or systemic) models of thought. There. Take a moment to digest that mouthful of words before you move on, else you might get psychic indigestion. The terms presented for our offhand yet meaningful scrutiny—these things about which we ask, “is that a thing?”—are listed in no particular order of importance. And it’s not just their importance that seems arbitrary, so too do their meanings. Take, for instance, the term objectification, placed above in a fashion that is fittingly unfitting: a random sixth amongst a list of variably meaningful abstractions.

My passages in the book on objectification don’t so much present an etiology of this term as comment on recent research on the subject. In my reading of studies about porn use, for example, I found that some researchers are revisiting the question of objectification, especially as it pertains to gender. It seems that trends are shifting and that porn use is becoming more, shall we say, egalitarian. Meaning, women are quietly using porn in rates that are starting to rival those of men, according to numerous self report studies. This has led researchers in Amsterdam in the Netherlands to question whether the porn industry has adapted its depiction of men and women in porn scenarios to reflect this shift in viewer demographics. Specifically, they sought to determine whether contemporary porn objectifies men as much as it does women (or approximately so), which would be contrary to accepted social narratives. I’d suggest that what prevails currently is a tautological, as in circular polemic wherein men who use porn or prostitutes are said to be objectifying women, while women who use porn or act as prostitutes are said to be objectifying women. This latter phenomenon is explained by the concept of internalization, an object relations and psychoanalytic theory. The popular rhetoric suggests an underlying ontological issue relating to both porn and addiction and so I canvassed literature to see how the concept of objectification was being defined. Though I found some variance, the most common meanings attached to objectification indicated a reducing of a person to a thing; an implicit demeaning, at least. In Getting Real I don’t contest this meaning though I question its selective application. With respect to the aforementioned study, the researchers designated numerous criteria for objectification and found in several categories equitable instances of objectification from women to men as from men to women. This was especially true with respect to what is often dubbed performative sex.

My own critique extends beyond this kind of forensic examination of porn, though I shall use as a springboard to my idea a convention that I have observed more than once within the porn medium. With apologies, I ask the reader to conjure the following: a man standing, or lying flat, erect in every sense, and appearing soldierly. Physically, he is at attention, but he is not gripped by ecstasy; rather he is gruntingly stoical, or blasé, or—one might consider—dissociative. For the viewer, he may be faceless, as in off camera from the waist up. Whether this is to protect the performer’s identity (especially in amateur porn) or results from his irrelevance to the pleasure of a presumably heterosexual male viewer is debatable, but regardless, he is not exactly personalized. The soldierly pose of the male performer is further apt because it presents a subliminal link to the role that has traditionally (and still does) “objectify” men of this type. In this militant role, they put their bodies on the line, sacrificing themselves, becoming objects of violence or symbols of civilization’s defense. Now then, patriarchs and feminists might ally with one another on this point, bristling against my comparison and the implied moral equivalence between this historical subjugation of men versus the sexual humiliation of women. Firstly, feminists in particular might point out that today many women are also soldiers, thus sharing that sacrificial burden, though on the whole the military remains dominantly masculine. Secondly, they might argue that soldiers, or even their symbolic gladiatorial substitutes, athletes, are treated as heroes, not mere objects to be used by a lustful society.

Really? I would think that even a casual glance at that last sentence would cause dissenters to pause. After all, on the sports front, not all or even a majority of participants become celebrated, or even achieve a lasting or lucrative career (even if they did, does one become less objectified if making lots of money?). Some of them, especially football players, experience chronic health and even mental health problems relating to their playing careers. How much do we really care? Meanwhile, history and even contemporary reality shows that while society and media pay regular lip service to the heroism of veterans, a darker truth lies in the legacy of neglect that survivors of combat have long known. The legendary British analyst, Wilfred Bion, a World War I veteran, felt invisible and used by the military command that recruited him and thrust him and his comrades into no man’s land. My grandfather, a veteran of both Dunkirk and D-day, never acted like—nor was he treated as—a hero. Thomas Childer’s book, Soldier from the War Returning, likewise debunks the myth that WWII soldiers were revered as much as our sentimentalized histories suggest they were. Instead, they endured long-standing economic and psychological struggles, misunderstood episodes of PTSD, and even social backlash from a misunderstanding public. And what about today? How many stories of unattended veterans’ disabilities, or of veterans’ struggles to find jobs or housing do we have to hear before we drop the pretense that we have privileged their lives and service? I don’t begrudge feminist scholars for having drawn attention to the ways in which the sisterhood has been and still is being demeaned. Furthermore, I’m not sure how much any movement is responsible for its menu-minded consumers. But the myopic, femicentric bias invested in the objectification concept merits the critique and satire that I bring to mine and Joe Farley’s book. So there. The reader has been warned, and consumers should be reminded of what they habitually do and what our surviving soldiers weren’t prepared for—that ancient warrior’s tacit sacrificial bargain with his original commanders. We throw our things, our objects, away. They were never meant to return.

Graeme Daniels

 

 

 

 

 

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Graeme on the radio

More on Tommy: this time a conversation with fellow therapist and Who enthusiast, Joe Peroni. Enjoy

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sound like fun?

[O1]

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The ultimate risk of addiction treatment

 

In the field of addictions work, so-called, it is common for practitioners and later patients who integrate ideas to cast addiction as a problem of emotion.

The addictive personality is one who is pleasure and novelty seeking, and risk taking, it is said. Risk-taking except in the area of intimacy, wherein he/she is likely avoidant. Psychoanalytic theory, attachment theory, and a host of techniques derived from either, are supported by neurobiological research, which affirms that unconscious process, communication that occurs implicitly, via eye contact, body language, and voice prosody, is mediated via the prefrontal orbital areas of the brain, and nurtured (or not) in human beings during early childhood development. The role of the therapist in our society, not unlike that of the early caregiver in some respects, is to serve as an auxiliary ego, using words, reflection, tone and physicality: to connect.

Addicts and trauma survivors would appear to have something in common: a penchant for disconnection, or dissociation, as trauma researchers indicate. John Bowlby, the founder of attachment theory in the latter half of the twentieth century, offered that psychoneurosis derives from protracted separation anxiety: that children deprived of maternal care first protest, then despair, and then finally exhibit detachment, which is characterized by dissociation, a state of disembodied escapism. What latter day research indicates is that infants and toddlers’ levels of the steroid hormone cortisol maintain elevated levels when a caregiver is either absent or insensitive. If such a child is deprived of all caregiving, cortisol levels stay chronically high and therefore children will develop passive parasympathetic strategies of dissociation. Habituation of the brain to the opioid-releasing state of dissociation thus becomes a “default mode” of affect regulation. The result: a predisposition to addictive behaviors, and insecure attachment in the form of an unresponsive, intimacy-avoidant personality.

This perspective is a paradigm shift for many seeking treatment for problems of substance abuse, sexual acting out, food addiction, and such, because society’s inclination is to externalize the problem of addiction: it is the substances that are addictive, for example—not so much that a predisposition within an individual exists. Meanwhile, sex addiction is a term used by some to exert an alternative, moralistic argument against sexual promiscuity, or alternative sexual lifestyles, rather than an assessment term that draws attention to a mood or mind-altering use of behavior. Food addiction is a label that is likewise criticized for being a thinly veiled attack upon the obese, especially obese women. The problem with labels is that they elicit persecutory anxiety, especially in those prone to what Melanie Klein once termed the paranoid-schizoid position, a primitive stage of childhood development. The benefit is that labels, like any succinct form of communication, draws quick and urgent attention to problems that merit just that.

The reason why the paradigm shift is important is so that preventive measures can flourish. Education is of course important, but education in the cognitive, Socratic sense is only the beginning, not the end of the intervention. We can, as we have for decades as a mental health community, provide appropriate medical care for those whose dependencies (to opioids and alcohol, for example) merit such monitoring and focus; we can concurrently and thereafter dogmatize that the consequences of addiction (jails, institutions, and death, to quote 12-step programs) are prohibitive; we can gingerly (or not) shame addicts into realizing that their behaviors are self-centered and immature, and we can impose various consequences based upon the premise that imposing limits will alter behavior (actually, limits are a good idea, but are mostly beneficial for friends and family—not as an agent of change in treating addiction). But for real change, the following is necessary.

Consciousness. Structure. Honesty. Time. Consciousness comes first. Not consciousness of the problems outlined in the last paragraph. There’s plenty of consciousness-raising about that already. Consciousness of feeling states, beginning perhaps with bodily sensations, as mirrored, amplified, and sometimes spoken to by an observant other, perhaps a therapist: someone who will monitor the moment-to-moment reactions of the patient; modulate closeness, sensitive to the fears that may manifest as withdrawal, whether the person is aware of their defenses or not. Structure comes in the form of routines: go to therapy, 12-step meetings, work and family obligations, etcetera—those necessary things to do to support growth and recovery. Time: the re-building of this afflicted self takes time, patience, and ongoing consciousness, about things like bodily sensations, feeling states that are felt and not—about that which has been driven underground, into the unconscious, and otherwise discharged via behavior.

This recovery process is another kind of risk. The biggest risk of all: to re-attach.

 

Graeme Daniels, MFT

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Personality Disorder: the other way (part two)

 

I want to blame someone. James Masterson did also, I think. He will have argued with many over what comprises a real versus a false self, or a personality disorder—whether such a thing exists with some. Were he alive today I think he’d argue with proponents of trauma model, and possibly with authors of novels like The Woman in Cabin 10. Not that these people don’t think that personality disorders exist. They simply call them something else, because mental health services, like any commodity, ultimately, is not just something to be validated by research, or—sorry—evidence-based research. It is something to be sold to the public.

For the average consumer of psychotherapy, a diagnosis of trauma, whether that trauma is episodic, chronic, the result of fatefully aberrant events or an aggregate of quaintly termed little ts that shape development (the theorized etiology of personality disorders) is simply more palatable. The word connotes victimization by an external agent, and thus a diminished responsibility for the sufferer. Treatment encourages a present identity of a survivor (very popular), with a possible future of healing. It’s a meet-them-where-they’re-at-thing. Regarding etiology, the accent is upon recent, precipitating events, with an intellectualized nod towards distant antecedents, that complex internalization of others which blurs a simplified reality.

Trauma model practitioners pay lip service to the antecedents of trauma. Prominent authors even co-opt object relations theories without crediting them, and repackage (reframe in the jargon of the field) personality disorder as something like developmental or relational trauma. A good example is featured in Barbara Steffens’ Your Sexually Addicted Spouse, whose target readership is evident by the title. In her text, Steffens describes PTSD as “something that can last a lifetime”, and that relationship trauma entails “painful coping mechanisms ingrained in personalities” Study the work of Klein, Fairbairn, Mahler, Winnicott, Masterson or Kohut and you’d hear the echo of their theories in such pop psychology literature: that psychic pain is integrated into personality over time, generating a disordered self in which such pain is habitually defended against in relationship.

But again, while trauma model educators pay lip service to old patterns, they mostly ignore it in treatment. The reasons are two-fold: A.) Treatment doesn’t last very long in this model. It’s a two week stay in a group home of some kind, or an eight-week course at your nearby hospital. B.) Discussion of problems is intellectual, academic—therapy as education. You’re given homework, even, to solidify the association with school. This is organizing, some say. Stabilizing for the unsafe person who cannot, it is presumed, manage complexity, the uncertainty of not knowing more deeply why something is happening. They are unable to weigh or contemplate their own mind alongside those of others, which are similarly complex, and implicitly dangerous. This danger is cast as objective reality, and anyone who says otherwise is “gaslighting”. Thus, treatment prioritizes affect regulation techniques and procedures, not the contemplation of self and other; it advises the practice of coping skills, self-care activities—all of which is worthy, actually, as adjuncts to growth. Meanwhile, the model’s adherents suggest that the afflicted let go of the actions, opinions, even the feelings of difficult others, while attaching labels. Fuller contemplation is put off until some ambiguously later time, when the person may be deemed ready. I think that readiness is seldom achieved. Time passes. It doesn’t so much heal as fossilize thoughts about self and other. What’s difficult to let go of are the pat understandings imparted by practitioners who recycle the same lessons in one short-term treatment episode after another.

In a longer-term therapy model, individuals inhabit their adult roles and live their lives as opposed to dropping out of society and going to school. They are challenged to do more than learn how to self-soothe or calm down, or take time-outs when mad, or to leave that bad relationship that your friends all think is wrong, only to start another one that’s similar because you haven’t learned what you got from that bad relationship. Instead, some learn (or are challenged to learn) to hang out with confusion, the grey areas of day-to-day life; to tolerate discomfort, stay with the difficult, as Masterson was once quoted as saying. Reality is learning about one’s own mind and being open to those of others, especially those that are not so easy to detach from: bosses, spouses, children; the memory of those absent but still profoundly influential.

What’s your pain today? Who or what do you want to blame, talk about instead of understand; focus on instead of yourself? Do you really know what your pain is about, what it’s backstory is—it’s underpinning? Do you think you really know the story of others? I know. It’s not what you (I’m) thinking.

 

Graeme Daniels, MFT

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The big feelings

 

What’s your pleasure, asks your average service provider? How can I help, or rather, what would you like to consume? What’s your pain asks a therapist or a doctor. There are many symptoms, feelings to choose from: guilt and shame are the big ones…if you’re thinking long-term

Not that fear doesn’t get a look-in. Trauma casts a wide net, is part of everyone’s experience it seems, present and past. Some have it more than others, we think. Do we? To discriminate in that way is a matter of politics, and maybe economics. It depends on who is paying for the listening. On the whole therapists don’t have to decide who is the most traumatized; that is, unless you’re one of those people who thinks we ought to be making those calls, prioritizing a presumably limited, emotional resource. BTW, on the mind-economics front: I don’t agree with those who imply that if we over diagnose trauma we’ll dilute the meaning of the term, and somehow do disservice to the most acutely affected. Thankfully, whatever you think of this society, there are a lot of helping professionals in this interdependent world: roughly 30K practitioners of my discipline alone, in this state alone.

So back to shame and guilt: When shame works it’s not so bad. It breeds humility, a sense of limitation, mortality, and equality, for we are all small. We all die. When guilt works it’s not so bad. It reminds us we can be strong, and in being strong we can be generous, and charitable—giving back to the less fortunate. Guilt precedes redemption.

what’s your pain? Do you feel bad because you hurt someone, because you are hurting someone, and you can’t seem to stop? Does that push you into shame, wherein you decide the future is hopeless, that you don’t deserve to be loved because you are so bad. Will you withdraw as a result: refuse a gift, a more banal token of support, like someone giving you a hand with something you’re not good at, a break on a bill that’s overdue? Will you beg off, saying “I’m good” because in your mind you’re not. Will you try to not need ever again so you don’t have to ask? Will you disappear because you are a monster, that man/monster Mary Shelley wrote about, and will we find you one day shivering in the North Pole?

Do you feel bad because you’re on the other side? Is someone ignoring you, not understanding, or actively pressing a heel to your nose while saying, “what?” in nonplussed self-defense, or shrugging their shoulders, saying “sorry’, though not with remorse—more with sullen helplessness. Do you feel alone, abandoned, your utter unimportance exposed? And is everyone playing the support cast of Hamlet, saying this thing is not happening? Hope. What hope do you have? Do you keep having to ask for what you want or need, everyday? Or will you retreat to your room, to your bed, to gaze at the pet or child that won’t abandon you, and who needs you also. Will you thrash about in that room, or in the streets, screaming but not speaking, hoping the guilty will get something from the noise?

 

Graeme Daniels, MFT

 

 

 

 

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Sex addiction stigma debate (part one)

 

During a local talk on sex addiction to an earnest group of Saturday morning listeners, my two female colleagues, Joanne and Gina, and I gave a modest introduction to the demographics of our business. As we sat listening to one another, we gave supportive nods, affirming all of our thoughts, though in truth, a couple of my one colleague’s ideas had me bristling. One of her chestnuts concerns the under-researched area of female sex addiction: “as shameful as this condition is for the men, it is especially stigmatizing for the women.” She also said something about men being raised with a ‘John Wayne’ model of emotional expression, and were thus constricted, suffering from intimacy disorders, which in turn impacts their partners. Everyone nodded, including me, only more faintly. I didn’t say anything contrary, partly because of time constraints, partly because of the agreeable ambience in the room, and also, frankly…I’m not sure how important this issue is.

It seems worth writing about, anyway. And arguing about, I guess. As Joanne made one or two other similarly-themed remarks, I recalled the comments of her junior colleague, Gina, from a day earlier, during a staff meeting at our shared agency. At that time the context was our much maligned room schedule board, admittedly outdated, but still in use because no one wants to take time to devise a new system, or tear down our old but beloved white board, streaked as it is with cheesy black demarcation strips and years’ worth of dry erase pen smudges. An online calendar would be best, chirped our newest colleague, proclaiming it is 2016, after all, not 1972.

Not 1972. My mind turned back to the present context and Joanne’s assertions. Frozen in time, I think. Afterwards, over coffee, I told her that I thought some of her pronouncements tired and superannuated, though I didn’t quite put it like that. How so? She queried, comfortably unoffended.

“Well, let’s take the one about women and sexual stigma. You say that women feel an extra layer of stigma in society about sex addiction, and therefore shy away from treatment or recovery, which is why we have less research about them.”

“That’s right.”

“Okay, but the point seems moot, because men aren’t seeking treatment either.” Her head sort of went crooked at this point, indicating surprise and perhaps something else; a playful rebuke, maybe. I was nit-picking, or something. Anyway, I continued. “You said later in the talk that many if not most of the men in our program are mandated: there because of a court order, or a demand from a disgruntled partner. So in my opinion the more pertinent question is this: if there are scores of untreated female sex addicts out there, why aren’t their disgruntled partners mandating treatment?”

She was unperturbed by this challenge, but still waffled with unconvincing polemics. Husbands and boyfriends are less forgiving, she opined, and also—many of those women’s partners are also sex addicts; that women are more judgmental of each other’s sexuality than men are. She spoke with authority on these points, as if she had volumes of data at her disposal. We don’t know these things, I contested, though I sort of agreed with the middle assertion, while thinking the first and the third contradicted each other. We danced around items of research for a bit, eventually dissolving the ‘evidence-based’ part of the discussion and finally dropping into what’s left: what people actually think, which is what matters. I countered her first idea: “While there may be something to your first point—the humiliated male being an especially unforgiving figure—I’m not sure that history or tradition shows that the cuckolded man is a fiercer image than the ‘hell hath no fury’ woman. But regardless, as Gina would say, this is not 1272, or 1972, and by the way, millennials don’t even know who John Wayne was.”

“What’s your point?”

“My point is this: over the last generation, possibly two, most of the scarlet-lettering that happens in society—at least that which gets media attention—has been aimed at men. Or maybe you can tell me: who would be the female equivalents of Tiger Woods, Anthony Wiener, Elliot Spitzer…Bill Clinton?”

“That’s different,” she said, a bit sharply. It was on.

 

Graeme Daniels, MFT

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