Tag Archives: trauma

Freud’s Bar

Okay, not quite. Freud’s Bar is a forum, formerly live, more recently on zoom, sponsored by the San Francisco Center for Psychoanalysis, that brings together members of that body to present and discuss matters relating to contemporary psychoanalysis. This video is a near replicate of a zoom video recorded on 4/28/2022 and subsequently made available for SFCP members but not otherwise made available because of the institute’s policies. Sorry. So, this is an encore, sans the rapturous applause of a 40-deep audience, one or two of which asked questions at the end. The reader may wonder if my oft-indicated co-author, Joe Farley, made an appearance at this event. The answer is yes. Joe appeared, looking fresh and jovial, dressed in a black robe, looking a bit like a Jedi knight, to deliver a superlative take on his case illustration of Dan and Vickie, which he wrote for our book Getting Real About Sex Addiction, which we talked about in the presentation. Sadly, Joe does not feature in this low-tech/budget re-make, but do not despair. Soon we may be podcasting or youtubing our thoughts together, and Joe’s Yeti-like elusiveness will come to an end. In the meantime, give this a listen, perhaps make a mental note or two. Thanks

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The Sex Addiction Personality

Talk about isolation. Aren’t they all in the closet, these so-called sex addicts? What else are we calling them, by the way? Ya know, what’s the underlying sh….stuff? What’s the personality upon which this pattern of miscreant behavior lies? Well, you know what to do. Make a few calls, talk to some people who say they’re trained in sex addiction (SA) because they’ve taken a handful of weekend courses. In one of their certificate-earning workshops an instructor may have covered the topic of personality pathology, or disorder. At this point, a few stats will have been brought out. About 65% of sex addicts will have also met criteria for narcissistic personality disorder, and another 20% will have narcissistic traits if not meeting full diagnostic criteria. And those subjects will likely be male, for the most part. I don’t know if the numbers will be that high—I’m making them up, of course. Anyway, although not studied very well (we must ever be reminded of this point!), female sex addicts are more likely diagnosed in greater numbers with borderline personality disorder, which is increasingly synonymous with PTSD because a lot or most of the former have the latter syndrome also. This means that while men in SA treatment are considered self-centered, objectifying, exploitative, and suffering from much concealed personal and especially sexual inadequacy, women are treated as having abandonment issues, having likely suffered sexual abuse and general societal disregard, and in their addictions they just can’t stop “loving” people to make themselves feel better.

             There. A bit simplistic, perhaps, but then I’m taking my aim at a field that is guilty of a whole lotta simplifying in my opinion so I’m mirroring them, to use a term employed to treat narcissists, actually. But don’t listen to me. Make your calls. Read the books that represent the “gold standard” of sex addiction treatment; the blurbs on the specialist websites; the bullet points within instructive blog essays that are nothing like mine. Tell me after you’ve done all your research that the above impression doesn’t stand as the orthodoxy of this field. It shouldn’t stand, you know, and not just because the orthodoxy relies upon stereotyped profiles borne of rote personality testing, inane questions like, “do you identify with the following: if I ruled the world it would be a better place (?)”, rather than clinical impressions formed over time in intensive relationship with and by someone educated and trained in what, after all, was originally (not mythically) a psychoanalytic concept. I’m referring to narcissism and borderline personality on this point, and the concept of Transference. However, there’s another reason why the typical personality narratives of sex addiction treatment should be challenged: they’re leaving out one important category.

             In Getting Read About Sex Addiction, I actually give this matter short-shrift, this being a secondary area of interest in mine and Joe Farley’s book—personality disorder, that is. If it weren’t for the offhand assignment of narcissism to so many addicts I might not have bothered, and one view I don’t venture is that high-profile, expensive, short-term treatment programs likely do serve a lot of narcissistic men, perhaps because they have money, lots of free time, and no doubt their powerful selves have rendered them attractive to affair-available women whom we should not profile as being drawn to narcissistic, powerful men because that is a.) not de rigeur, and b.) not very nice, whether it’s true or not. But there’s a lot of people out there, men and some women I figure, who are more porn-addicted than affair-seeking; more privately fantasy-seeking in the digital age; more in the cuts of 21st century society; exhibiting less bravado, if perhaps a similar, if more intellectualized disregard of using people for sex. There’s a word for this lesser spotted bird, this unicorn in the personality mix. It is a schizoid, not to be confused with a schizophrenic, and he (or she) is a thing, believe it or not. He (I guess I’ll go with another stereotype) has been written about for years, though it’s hard to say who was first to scribe on the matter.

             The first to make a labeling stab was Melanie Klein, who offered the term paranoid-schizoid to denote a “position” of development that entailed the defense of splitting (first termed by Freud), which in turn meant the keeping separate of good and bad internal objects (internalized caregivers, or parents), resulting in split object relations, the tendency to employ “mechanisms” that projected parts of self (unwanted) onto others so as to protect the ego and the idealized object. Klein was in fact influenced by W.R.D Fairbairn, an independently-thinking Scotsman whose conceptualizing wrought an “endopsychic structure” comprised of split objects allied to a split ego, yielding a fragile personality that seeks security in an inner world. It’s likely Fairbairn, not Klein, who gives us the idea of a schizoid that is nuanced from a paranoid (Klein), who is fundamentally withdrawn socially, prone to regression and especially isolation. Following Fairbairn, the likes of Wilfried Bion, while focusing upon psychotic processes, also observed the paradoxical contact-seeking need within this isolationist figure, and indeed regarded that such needs are intensified in tension with an aggressive withdrawal. Also, figures like Harry Guntrip in the sixties and beyond supplied clinical vignettes to help us understand the dilemmas of those who experience what Fairbairn termed a “futility” that manifests as apathy yet lies beyond the affective presentations of what we term depressive.

             Why this schizoid personality develops is unknown, or at least unclear. D.W. Winnicott, not talking about schizoid personality, wrote encouragingly of the capacity to be alone, deeming it a kind of developmental achievement. Winnie thought the analytic situation a recreation of this bond, at least potentially so. It is something to learn to tolerate, this being alone thing, and he thought that mothers who weren’t “good enough” (cheesy phrase, much attributed to him whether he liked it or not) impinged upon their children with their own needs. Beatrice Beebe, a contemporary attachment researcher, called something similar the “maternal loom”, referring to mothers who get in their babies faces too much, overstimulating them (hello, future sex addict, maybe?) causing them to avert their gazes, look at…something else. Lacan’s followers, following Freud’s premises regarding infantile sexuality, and speaking of what Lacan termed the imaginary register, called this tense, overexcited state a jouissance. Bowlby’s acolytes, those who assigned attachment styles like the resistant/ambivalent category, will have known what Winnicott was on about and thought less of infantile sexuality. Meanwhile, those observing avoidant styles of attachment might have glanced at the schizoid phenomenon, or else they might have brushed up on their Meier’s Briggs material, thinking it all reminded of introversion or, if neurological tests were called for, perhaps autism. These are some of the analogue ideas. Point being, schizoid personality is something of a unicorn: a rarely seen, oft-dismissed category of human being, preferably called something else.

             And yet, the internal conflicts that the schizoid faces (or doesn’t) are not rare at all. Indeed, it might be that average human travails mirror what psychologists James Masterson and Ralph Klein termed the schizoid dilemma and the schizoid compromise. To explain these terms: the schizoid dilemma is to seek closeness with others while maintaining autonomy, bearing in mind that schizoid personalities tend to privilege the latter over the former, rendering them strange and detached. Their “compromise” is to find that which achieves human connection but doesn’t surrender autonomy, hence fantasy plus a unique affinity for the digital age. Now, there are many in our midst who would argue that species do not evolve or even survive if they don’t confront such dilemmas and discover compromises. Our growth depends upon our capacity and longing for community. At the same time, our sense of humanity, which includes a craving for uniqueness, decrees that fitting in, absorption, dilution of the one by the group leads to another kind of death.

There’s a slight hint amid theoretical thinkers that a schizoid isn’t really sexual. Perhaps they’d had too much of the maternal loom once upon a time—like, around the time that giraffes start walking in their corresponding development. Later, they (babies, not giraffes) gazed back, but only on their terms, voyeuristically we think. It’s that gaze…you know, that one. But regarding this diagnostic question, you might wonder who will care. Really, will it matter whether porn or sex addicts are secondarily tagged as narcissistic versus schizoid, or even the largely feminized category of borderline? They’re all pathologies, aren’t they? So, while I wind down my commentary on Getting Real About Sex Addiction in the dawn of its publication, I’m aware of stirring the pot on a lesser controversy.  Seriously, the parts of the book that will truly ruffle feathers are those that diss short-term treatment solutions versus psychoanalytic method; or, it’ll be the thread of dog whistling commentary about the sex addiction field’s anti-male bias. Some won’t care if the text actually contains even-handed commentary on both sexes, plus a tinge upon sexual minorities. For them, if sex addiction treatment is to be pathologizing, then it must only be so in reference to heterosexual men. Anything else is to disobey the latest memos about moral equivalence.

Not that an attention to schizoid process (or cultural messages that simulate the attention) isn’t encoded in the semi-public dialogue anyway. Consider the rhetoric that accompanies identity politics: when a person is talked about as a victim or survivor, at least in part because they belong to a marginalized group, their advocates might still reference a schizoid process by referring to denied aspects of self. These will be the split-off aspects of self, which in the case of a sympathetic figure, will be his or her denied positive or resilient qualities that have been insufficiently nurtured and are therefore insufficiently recognized by the subject, hence what they need is building up, empowerment, etc. Meanwhile, those who are cast as addicts or perpetrators or some other disparagement may be described as having a similar intrapsychic process, only their denied qualities will fall under the umbrellas of guilt and inadequacy, hence what they need is bringing down, deflation, and so on. You could call this justice if you like but you might also notice the employment of psychoanalytic thought to support whatever cause you choose. Anyway, I’ll sign off for now on a relatively benign point of interest. Sex addicts: more schizoid than narcissistic, don’t you think?

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Isolation

Not a good thing, we’re told, especially in the context of addiction. Isolation: has a negative connotation, don’t you think? Not like the word “alone”. In Getting Read About Sex Addiction, Joe Farley and I make several references to aloneness, isolation, or else we spin polemics about the pros and cons of doing things by oneself. Sex addiction seems like a loner’s pastime. Porn addicts do it alone, then keep what they do secret, which furthers the aloneness. Affair-seekers probably boast more about sexual conquests, just as they always have, but they’re even more secretive, or glib about their habits, for they have even more trouble to avert; more to lose, it often seems. Isolation. More than most addictions (excepting that of food, maybe), sex addiction happens in isolation, and is talked about in peer circles the least, hence the solution of groups, and of disparaging isolation, if not quite aloneness, within the milieus that treat this still-mooted condition.

             The ways to be alone, let us count the ways: well, first of all, those who wear labels like sex addiction absorb the pathology of a system. Within a family, and especially a dyad, as in a couple, the addict holds the “badness” of a relational problem. He or she is the problem, which is isolating. Our book critiques the habit of splitting as it manifests in many forms, and offers that sex addiction, while useful as a signifier of phenomena, ought to be carefully, not impulsively assigned. Furthermore, we cast doubt on terms like “perpetrator” and “victim”, which split matters into good and bad, right and wrong, which renders problems facile; histories reduced to recent events, not dense, developmental histories.  Otherwise, we refer to isolation in several other contexts, applying nuanced meanings: referring to the “incipient shame” of the addict, suggesting an early development dimension to their affective leanings; that an addict or “acting out person” isolates his or her affect, which means directing feelings towards action, not thought or feeling, which cues the therapeutic solution: let’s talk. The associated institution of 12 step recovery echoes the ethos that self-expression within a nurturing environment is an antidote to an isolationist pattern.

             Not everything that happens alone is pathologized in our writing. To be that rigid in our thinking would exhibit splitting; it would suggest a paucity of thinking. Thinking. We tend to think it happens alone, away from the noise of a crowd, but we extol its practice in collaboration. Collaboration: now there’s a loaded word, another term that casts a shadow upon aloneness. Be a team player. Don’t go it alone. Well, okay, but this paragraph is meant to represent another view, the virtues of being alone. In our first chapter, I refer to the “mischief” of breaking rules, of testing boundaries that represent authority, the group, society—all because…well, because there’s something good, something irresistible and actually worthy about going it alone. So, we thumb our noses, do our own thing at times, practice what I term (not unique to me) anodyne sexuality, like flirting, which hangs perilously close to an abyss of verboten sex, depending upon who is doing the flirting and in what context. We might agree about the new rules, or as society extols paradoxically, we might think for ourselves, do our thinking alone.

             The habit of going alone while stepping on others’ toes (Freudians take note) has been given another pathologizing label: narcissism. In sex addiction treatment, this aged construct has been co-opted by practitioners and lay observers alike, and now has the status of corollary to a sex addiction assessment. Pity, for its another saturated concept that has been reduced in the service of splitting arguments, the outrage of the betrayed or the plainly envious. It’s not that the condition doesn’t exist. Yes, narcissism is a thing. But its offhand attribution, the shoot-from-the-hip assignment to patients in sex addiction treatment bristles against conscience. I suppose Freud pathologized the condition also, by implication. Originally, as in 1914, he wrote that infants exhibit primary narcissism, a state of auto-erotic being before cathecting their sexuality to caregivers (dubbed objects, hence object relations theory), and upon resolution of Oedipal taboos, towards genital sexuality and the selection of post-pubertal partners. From this notion of auto-eroticism, many presume immaturity and pathology to the alone state, thinking it a slippery slope towards inflatedness, arrogance, and lack of empathy for others—the familiar catalogue of narcissistic traits.

             While Heinz Kohut gets much credit for having carved out a space for so-called “healthy” narcissism since the 1970s, the term has hardly left the closet of weaponized terms, thus narcissist and sex addict have become virtual synonyms in the 21st century. And remember, in the sex addiction lexicon you’re a narcissist whether you’re a habitual masturbator (being alone) or exploiting others, using others’ bodies as masturbation tools instead of practicing sexuality with an air of presence, consideration for the other, with generous attention to foreplay, emotional nurturing, passionate interplay, play of a sexual kind—all the virtues that someone has decided represents non-addictive, non-isolationist, sexual health. In this model, masturbation generally gets a bad rap, being the pastime of the anti-social if, perhaps, the socially undesirable. But not all famous theorists have denigrated the masturbatory, go-it-alone tradition. By implication, at least, psychoanalytic hero D.W. Winnicott was perhaps a champion of what he won’t have called self-abuse. Read “The capacity to be alone” from 1958. Yes, that’s right: the fifties. Not exactly the era of sexual revolution. In this paper, Winnicott writes of the capacity be alone as a developmental triumph, not a pathology. It is a signal of maturity, of what others might term secure attachment, to accept being alone, even in the presence of the other. And he was writing of a child’s experience. What’s a later version? Think for yourself while listening to others. That’s one example. Do some things by yourself. Have fantasies, even those of the so-called primal scene, by yourself, because to share on that is TMI. Even do it by yourself.

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A conscience thinly heard

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

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

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

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

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

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

Think about it.

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

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

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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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