Tag Archives: trauma

Fire in the hole

Recommendations for technique. That’s what Freud called his paper on the matter. A bit plain, don’t you think, rather like ‘psychology in everyday life’—another good one. Took him a while, it seems, to gather his thoughts and give some tips on how to do things his way. Can’t believe he wrote it after Totem and Taboo (1912), or Three Essays (1905), or his first big splash into big, meta-thought, Interpretation of Dreams (1900). That’s where he laid out the big ideas**, suggesting that we all have an unconscious that surreptitiously guides the mind; that children have sexual fantasies; that humankind acquired guilt feelings more or less biologically, from a prehistoric moment in time when an incest occurred and a tribal elder was murdered and then cannibalized.

Oops!

Yeah, back to the present day, to the plainer task of sitting with a troubled person looking for guidance, thinking that an analyst might have answers. Sigmund eventually suggested that his acolytes (meaning his proteges) assume a position of medical authority, with the authority and spirit of a scientist gathering evidence. Worthily, he suggested that analysts keep a relative distant, listen with “evenly hovering attention”, encouraging free association though anticipating resistance, and above all, maintaining a neutral stance. That meant, roughly, not imposing beliefs onto a needy patient. There’s enough of that in religion, Sigmund thought. Others elaborated the idea: don’t gratify, we’re told in training. Don’t assume the expert stance with reassurances, with advice, or even what we might preciously call affirmations. If a patient says, “I went to church and said my prayers” in a cheerful, relieved voice, there’s no need to say, “good for you”, as if they’d otherwise feel guilty about the pronouncement. We’re not behaviorists looking to reinforce what people already think is a sound, healthy way to live. What are they hiding, or even reversing? Freud would have wondered. Sex and aggression. That’s what he was listening for. Of course, people have other needs, but sex and aggression are what people inhibit, or repress, as he termed it. He was right.

Indifference was another word he used to describe an analyst’s stance. A lot of people don’t like this suggestion. Taking him a bit literally, I think. I think my couples’ therapist is bought into this indifference thing, though not in the way Sigmund recommended. Indifference. Damn right she is. Doesn’t give a shit, I mostly think. Caught her looking at the clock after ten minutes in our last session. Can’t say I blame her. Sometimes, when Liz is bending my ear, I’m gone after a minute and a half—sometimes under thirty seconds. The therapist and her get on like a house on fire, like they could give or take me being there. I half expect them to go out for coffee afterwards—that’s when they’d really sort things out. In the meantime, the therapist has got to play her part, which means pretending that she cares about the two of us and that I have a legitimate point of view. A fair amount of nodding conveys this. Not very neutral, an analyst would say. Sometimes, there’s much effusion in the room: arms wave about, moving the air, performing an illusory expansion of otherwise benign principles. Yes, we should have boundaries. We should come up with a pros and cons list about our relationship. There’s so much to unpack here, this woman exudes with tired eyes and a fiercely contained sigh.

She was fascinated by our first visit, and by the “uncanniness” of the situation that brought us to her. Unpacking is right. Packing too, and packing quickly. Funny also, that thing I said about a house on fire, for it was a literal fire in our quite material home that nearly went up in flames because of nearby wildfires that penetrated our indifferent, ungratifying life and upset the homeostatic deadness. Liz and I: we knew we’d get little familial sympathy should this happen. Sure enough, everyone who had an opinion about our woodsy home on the lake warned us of the danger ages ago. Since the evacuation, they’ve not been so much indifferent as smug, though most don’t the half of it. Right now, I’d take indifference or smugness about our current state of transiency, especially as we can go back soon because the fire actually stopped short of our place, but mainly because the fire’s not the real reason we’re seeing a therapist.

But it is an interesting metaphor for your relationship, that therapist observed. A disaster, or a disaster averted, which means an opportunity. I think that’s what she meant, plus the fact that the approaching threat of fire caused an ironic discovery. See, if it hadn’t been for the fire then Liz wouldn’t have been packing things up in a hurry (packing things in a hurry and Liz are not words that go together) and therefore finding photos and letters from an old relationship that I was keeping from her. Very sentimentalist of me, not to mention careless. But I had my excuses, which cued my counter-complaint, which has to do with her cluttering, not my pre-digital era affair-seeking behavior, which—as the discovered ephemera suggests—is not even an up-to-date thing anymore. In that sense, I’m as dead as our marriage. She doesn’t even think I’m having an affair. It’s that I hold on to things, but not her. So, nothing like a disaster to shake things up, some might say. Damn right, I say for a second time. Liz half thinks that I started the wildfire as an attempt to leverage a clean-up; as a protest against her indifferent, cluttering habit. I didn’t, of course, but it’s not a bad idea, I’ve since quipped. In fact, I’m surprised no one has thought of it, or that it hasn’t been mooted as a common arsonist’s motive. When we get like this the therapist’s eyes glaze over, like she’s had enough of us. Her interest in the uncanny, near cosmic events that bring patients to her office isn’t sufficient to help her endure the prosaic disputes of everyday life. There’s little hope for us, I think she thinks. What’s your plan? She drones wearily.

Or, she’s invigorated by an inspiration, thinks there’s something in these metaphors that keep popping up, especially fire. It happened towards the end of that last session. She reached out her arm, like she was prying her way between us, but also aping a movement Liz assigns to me: that of a football player stiff-arming an opponent while in full flight, like the figure frozen on that famous trophy, the Heizmann. It’s what I do to Liz, I guess: I stiff-arm. Anyway, this therapist’s gesture looks like this, so it drew a burst of sniggers from my beloved. Fire. What had we been talkin’ about? The woman asked. What is the meaning of this crisis? Liz held her hand over her mouth, clearly holding something back. I held mine slightly open, as if tentatively waiting for something to enter me: a fire in the hole, so to speak. Fire in the belly, the woman translated, as though reading my mind. And where is the fire between us? Liz and I glanced at each other, at once knowing where this was going. On that we were on the same page. We got it: fire, as in passion, needed to be rekindled. That’s what the fire was really about. That’s what this disaster really means, and so we have a choice. We’re at a crossroads. Jesus, how many metaphors are we gonna stick in this thing? Do we burn still for each other. Gotta stick in this thing. Speaking of which, should we try that again? Liz and I thought. Better tidy things up first, she said.

** yes, yes, Freud’s first major model of the mind was called Seduction theory, and it was a trauma model grounded in the idea that not everyone had an unconscious—only those suffering from reminiscences, meaning sexual traumas that will have been enigmatic originally, subject to repression because they are impossible to understand, but later activated and understood thru secondary sexuality. Are we all traumatized in childhood in this way, to one degree or another? Do we all get messages in infancy that are eroticized in nature, that we simply can’t take in?  

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Female Sex Addicts: the protected species

“In the books, they say, rather wistfully, that men want to put their faces there. Return to mother, Keith. But I don’t agree. I don’t think men want to put their faces there.”

“Let me tell you what women want. They all want to be in it. Whatever it is. Among themselves they all want to be bigger-breasted, browner, better in bed—all that. But they want a piece of everything. They want in. They all want to be in it. They all want to be the bitch in the book.”

                                                                 —from London Fields, by Martin Amis

So we come to the topic of female sex addicts and the social/political undercurrents that shape the treatment of them. Nowhere in the realm of sex addiction treatment is the specter of gender bias more apparent than in this supposedly lesser studied area. As we might say in our book (and we don’t typically, to avoid cheesiness), let’s get real about something: the average therapist in this country, and certainly in California, is not a patriarchy-imposing old white male with a bow tie dispensing turgid interpretations with an air of aloofness. It (or, excuse me, she) is a white female, educated at varying points over the last 50 years, who talks a lot about “systems”, aims words like boundaries, empowerment at women especially, which is code for go for that position on that soccer team, go for that job or promotion, make sure you’re making as much money as men, and only have sex when you really want to. With male patients that tactical stance shifts. With men the tendentious terms are vulnerability, intimacy, comprising a code that says go home, help with the domestic chores, cook a meal or two, pick up that daughter from soccer practice, and with respect to sex, “hey, have you thought about what she thinks is sexy?”

See, the problem mainstream society has with Freud is not just that he told women they have penis envy, or that men are superior to women (actually, he thought the reverse in some ways), or that he told some women that their sexual victimizations were all in their heads, reflecting their desirous fantasies, not the revulsion contained in their symptoms (we only know that because he copped to this, in a famous case called Dora). It’s that he and his followers continued to follow Superego guidelines which instruct boys to identify with fathers, separate from mothers, and more or less adapt to and follow a traditionalist path versus the noble trail of social revolution. Therefore, latter day progressives, if they are inclined towards psychoanalysis or the exploration of the unconscious, tend to prefer the likes of Jung or Winnicott, or modern inter-subjectivists who instruct men to fem up, support the levelling of fields, do the equality thing, which means surrendering to inequality in some contexts, which is what the field leveling alludes to. Well, as mine and Joe Farley’s book and this blog often imply, it’s problematic if understandable to treat individuals not as individuals but rather as group representatives. Our book is more about helping individuals, not systems, which paradoxically meant devoting considerable print to how sex addiction treatment programs subtly background individuals within a systemic framework. The stories of individuals are richer, if diluted by generalities, the intrusions of groupthink. As for helping, as I consider that task in itself, our book isn’t necessarily “helpful” in the conventional sense of healing anyone or anything, much less a non-leveled system, with anything except thought. As much as anything, we just wanna say how things are.

Years before writing Getting Real About Sex Addiction, I’d talk with female therapists who either specialized in sex addiction or else worked with individuals and couples whose lives were impacted by this much-debated, is-this-a-thing condition. If a patient in question was a partner of an identified sex addict, they’d be called an impacted partner, or sometimes a betrayed partner; once they were called co-addicts—not so much anymore. Female sex addicts were and are another breed of client, lesser spotted in treatment circles, or lesser identified as such, anyway. Called Love addicts, maybe, which sounds nicer: you love, not so much lust. As for their partners, they’d be called…well, I’m not sure what they’d be called, actually, especially if they are male. Angry, unforgiving, abusive or potentially abusive men, if the decrees of my female colleagues were to be accepted—not “betrayed” partners. See, female sex addiction is a relatively rare bird. Not much has been written on the subject. Supposedly not much research has been done, and our text only references one book that is entirely devoted to it: Marnie Ferree’s edited 2013 volume, Making Advances: a comprehensive guide for treating female sex and love addicts. Therefore, despite the widespread understanding that sex addiction is a “pathologizing” label, the paucity of study about female sex addicts is cast as systemic neglect of women. As a system we are denying help borne of stigmatizing labels. Reminds me of the reductio ad absurdum from Dr. Strangelove: “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here, this is the war room!”

Humor. My deflection, my coping with absurdity, revealing yet also distancing, because humor reveals what is out of synch—that I am out of synch with the times. Like Italian cinema of the early sixties (yeah, I know—not exactly trending), I leave the surfaces of earnest realism (*my bicycle has been stolen!), and spend time with interior lives, the contemplation of what’s happening on the inside. Humor draws attention to the contradictions, presenting a surprise, which shames, embarrasses, causes us to cover our mouths, our eyes. We laugh. We laugh it off. I have tried to laugh off contradiction and absurdity, being out of synch with the times, the zeitgeist that psychotherapists like to think they’re in front of. Stigma. That’s the reason women don’t enter therapy for the treatment of sex addiction. That’s an opinion I’ve heard numerous times from my fellow therapists—women mostly. The likelihood that most SAs enter treatment under duress having been “discovered” (thus rendering the prospect of “choosing treatment” moot) is ignored by the former argument. Anyway, the argument persists: to identify as a female sex addict is to risk hearing epithets like “slut” or “nymphomaniac”. From whom would they hear this in sex addiction treatment? Scores of slut-shaming, patriarchy-imposing male therapists who dominate our field in 2022 while feminist-leaning women struggle to achieve a foothold in the profession? Hmm…regardless, I’m sure men have it way easier: they only have to put up with terms like “pig”, “dog”, “pervert”, “gender violence perpetrator” or “asshole” from their relatively forgiving, not-as-angry, traumatized and sympathetic partners, and maybe the labels sex addict and narcissistic personality disorder from therapists who have so worked through their countertransference issues and wouldn’t dream of using clinical language to disguise ad hominem attacks.

Sarcasm. Yes I know. Very declasse of me. Anyway, back to the narratives: female sex addicts are continuously neglected by a pathologizing sex addiction treatment industry, and—let’s not forget—also by impacted male partners who somehow neglect to employ that mythical plurality of patriarchy-imposing male clinicians. Or, unlike girlfriends and wives, they simply overlook the option of mandating their female partners into treatment with relational ultimatums, or polygraph exams or uber-dignified “full disclosure” exercises to elicit honesty, hold accountable the assh—sorry, the empathy-deserving afflicted. When will women be granted the kind of celebratory, loving attention that Tiger Woods publicly received, or that Anthony Weiner once enjoyed to the benefit of his political career, or that jettisoned Pee Wee Herman into a career strato…wait, what happened to him?

Okay, stop it now

The men who take part in my therapy groups have gotten the updated memos. They’ve been told they are privileged so their sexually addictive behaviors will be excused by a society that simultaneously deems their behavior objectifying and indecent, unlike female sex addiction which is more relational, part of a misguided yet somehow less abusive repertoire of self-discovery. Well, they’re not paying for it, you see. Notwithstanding virtue-signaling terms like “self-discovery”, which attaches so-called problem behaviors to the cause of sexual freedom, or capitalist hypocrisy (some things we shouldn’t pay for. Really? I can think of worse things than sex that we contentedly pay for, regularly), or the thin tissue of horseshit that our profession pathologizes female sexuality more than it does that of men, those who proclaim that sex addiction is an excuse think that what constitutes an “excuse” is any response to sexually deviant or acting out behavior that is anything less than punitive action—ostracism, incarceration, castration, etc.—and is tantamount to an unjust act of clemency towards those who act with exploitative and objectifying intent, especially towards women. Given how disproportionately the term sex addiction is aimed at men versus women, it’s transparent that the concept of sex addiction lends women a 21st century narrative via which they can derogate male sexuality: in particular, male partners whose frequency of desire outstrips their own, or whose non-monogamist thinking, at least, may be religiously or irreligiously impugned.  

Which prompts a return to female sex addicts, whom we still neglect with our helpful-if-pathologizing sex addict labels, even in an essay that was meant to be about them: in Making Advances, the authors argue, “women are different than men. Their brains are different, socialization is different”. Further, they assert that women do best when a therapist is sensitive to their attachment histories, injuries and attachment needs. Now, do they mean to imply that men’s needs are not governed by trauma and attachment needs, or less so? Perhaps not, but given that these recommendations were delivered in the same passage as the “women are different” platitudes, one would think an inference along those lines could be made. Imagine if books, pundits, podcast-pontificators started calling out misandry the way they call out the misogyny of male sex addicts. Imagine if they knew the word misandry. Imagine if they started calling what female sex addicts do hate, not trauma; misandry instead of the tendentiously circular “internalized misogyny”; “toxic femininity” instead of sexual empowerment; sex addiction instead of its ennobling synonym, love addiction. Would their treatment still be condemned as “slut-shaming”? Recently, I’ve been hearing of men and women leaving marriages, seeking divorce because a partner won’t accept transition to a polyamorous lifestyle. Is that not a betrayal of a contract? is it a form of sexual entitlement, of “gender-based violence”? I’d bet that a woman leaving a marriage under that pretext is hearing from a progressively-minded therapist, someone who otherwise espouses betrayal trauma something like, “well, you’re exploring different sides of yourself for the first time”—said with airs of sympathy.   

Referring to the mythos of the ages, I refer in mine and Joe’s book to the legends of Uranus and Orpheus to represent the images that men hold in feminist society as rapists, seducers, opportunists…gazers. Elsewhere, I expound upon the Madonna-Whore complex, a mythopoeic term coined by Freud to denote the dichotomizing (splitting) of women by men into irreconcilable images: the ideal of the nurturing, wholesome woman versus the demeaned, sexualized “whore”, reflecting a struggle to overcome unconscious, Oedipal taboos against that which stirs sexual feelings towards anything resembling the maternal. In deference to the modern zeitgeist, I could have pointed to the Minotaur, the half-man, half Taurus who rapes and cannibalizes a hapless female virgin in The Labyrinth—the sculpted image of which caused a stir when presented by modern artist Damien Hirst. What a fuss, but also what a capturing of man’s present-day image. This conjuring precedes the man, not the woman who enters sex addiction treatment in contemporary culture, for there is little in trending or mythopoeic thought that draws attention to the ways women dichotomize men. What? You don’t even know what I’m talking about? Well, does the term Saint-Brute mean anything to you? Don’t you love a man in uniform, the guy with the snarl and the six-pack abs, and not so much that “nice guy” whom you later (like, when it’s time to “settle down”) declare is sexy because of his “acts of service”? The guy who is the “right” choice even though he’s a bit dull for you? Getting warmer? Anyway, that’s sidelined, cryptic thought, and things will remain this way until unctuous yet well-positioned thought-shapers decide that fields have been sufficiently leveled, human beings can go back to being individuals instead of group representatives, and gender commentary in our media and academic circles achieves a state of genuine parity.

             So, what am I saying of my female colleagues, most of whom I don’t know closely, with respect to how they treat male versus female sex addicts? And have I truly examined my own biases when I treat men versus women? I’ll certainly admit that more men come to me with the term sex addict poised upon their lips, at least in part because the term has been directed at them. Women? Not so much. They utter the term nervously, querulously, as if performing a reconnaissance of themselves, the concept, of me as a would-be listener, and possible judge. They’ve talked to women before, you see, and they’ve felt something odd: a mix of pious adherence to the zeitgeist values of the day—that you go, girl ethos that would protect women from slut-shaming society, blended with a sense of a familiar disdain. The modern ethos can’t quite block it out, it seems, and the women I talk to still perceive it, still feel the sting of the old Superego within the post-modern “be accountable” verbiage. Me, I’ll reference the buzz words, the subscriptive jargon, but usually with an air of otherness—I’ll observe it, detach myself from advocacy, and remain credulous of something undiscovered. I’ll ask the same questions of women that I’ll ask of men. I won’t point fingers with moralistic intent, figuratively or not. I’ll ask what is the impact upon significant others rather than instruct, or educate. I’ll ask patients to think, not to substitute my thinking for an absence of it. But I won’t collude with reversed, neo-double standards that my profession pretends don’t exist**. If you’re a first-time reader of this blog, you may not know what I’m getting at. Or maybe you will. Think of it this way: it’s 2022, not 1989. Take a look around, have a listen. Note the jargon that prevails in the Psychology Today articles, the latest books by Rebecca Solnit or Terrance Real; what the bumper stickers say; what tweets get re-tweeted versus ignored or excoriated.   

*an allusion to Vitorio De Sica’s 1948 film, The Bicycle Thief

**Ask an average SA specialist why fewer women than men are assessed and treated as sex addicts and they’ll likely say that there are fewer resources for women than men for the treatment of SA: this is BS in my opinion as it ignores the fact that 70% of licensed psychotherapists are women; or else it implies that practitioners must have the relatively slight Certified Sex Addiction Therapist (CSAT) credential (a referral base which may be lesser comprised of women) in order to treat SA. I think the plurality of women in the field of psychotherapy are more than capable, qualified (and certainly willing) to speak to women about their sexual behavior, whether it’s addictive or not, a problem behavior or not. BTW: SA specialists might also imply that SA is primarily a men’s issue, hence the disparity in care, though this sets up yet another circular argument within this field.

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Betrayal Trauma

Someone asks me, “does betrayal trauma exist?”. Sounds like an analogy to, “does sex addiction exist?”. Okay, let’s nip the first one in the bud: of course, it exists. It’s like asking do wounds exist (trauma meaning wound)? The question is what does the fuller term mean? What does it mean in the context of sex addiction treatment? And most importantly, what are the implications of the term for a clinical process, especially one framed in systemic language?

What’s apparent is that the term betrayal trauma has clinical as well as moral/ethical implications. The clinical pertains to the syndrome of symptomology linked to trauma, as well as the strategies of intervention that are directed at trauma patients. In the context of sex addiction, it’s not clear whether most or even a significant number of impacted or betrayed partners meet full criteria for a PTSD diagnosis. As the reader may know, that designation requires meeting symptom criteria over several categories, and features phenomena like dissociation, avoiding stressors, being exposed to stressors, having nightmares and flashbacks, experiencing variable (and contradictory) states of hyper and hypoarousal. But in treatment trauma phenomena might be observed as therapists and patients discuss trauma as a subjectively-defined phenomenon. More generally, trauma pertains to a wounding event or pattern, but then also the attempt to adapt to that trauma, plus how that trauma impacts memory, perception, and reactivity to stressors. More specifically, the term betrayal trauma is grounded in a theory about developmental history. The term refers to situations wherein the subject has relied upon another for support and therefore must dissociate (deny/forget for the purposes of this context) awareness of betrayal in order to preserve the relationship, however abusive the relationship is. The concept is therefore also about dependency between people, and the theory’s pedigree lies in observations of a parent-child dynamic, echoing the theories of Freudians like Sandor Ferenczi, who famously taught concepts of “identification with the aggressor”, which informed awareness of the mooted Stockholm Syndrome, and his “confusion of tongues” concept, which refers to the over-stimulation of children via an adult/child seduction.

Principals of the sex addiction model haven’t ignored betrayal trauma. Patrick Carnes—he of the sex-addiction coining, Don’t Call It Love fame—wrote in his book The Betrayal Bond that trauma repetition is characterized by doing something over and over again, usually something that took place in childhood and started with a trauma; that it “relives” a story from the past, inclines sufferers to engage in abusive relationships repeatedly, repeating painful experiences, people, places, and things. Yes, I know. That last turn of phrase sounded familiar, didn’t it? That “doing something over and over again” bit—that sounded familiar too. You think it’s that phrase that’s quoted in 12-step meetings? Think it was something Albert Einstein said? Well, think again. It was Sigmund Freud. Repetition compulsion, it was called. He wrote about it while World War I played out and consolidated the idea around the time the so-called Spanish flu (you know, the Covid of his day) took the life of his daughter. Freud wrote of repetition that it brings mastery over trauma, unconsciously. The aspect that Freud didn’t cover was the piece about becoming like the abuser—that we credit to Ferenczi. Anyway, I’m not saying the latter-day derivative concepts are wrong, just derivative. Also, something else Carnes suggests about sex addicts likewise applies to trauma repetition. The behaviors/symptoms of trauma survivors: don’t call it love.

The concept of betrayal trauma is not difficult to accept in itself any more than the concept of addiction is hard to accept. But after we’ve duly acknowledged that betrayals are painful, and then wrung our hands dry from sympathy, it’s still necessary to think about phenomena so that platitudes or hyperbole don’t prevail. So, here’s the unusual and therefore lesser-spoken of thing: what’s difficult to digest—and this pertains to both concepts—is the back and forth between consciousness and unconsciousness that both trauma survivors and addicts tend to proclaim, at least by implication. An addict often proclaims that he/she is acting out of habit, unaware, saying things like, “I don’t know why I do this,” or “I don’t know what I was thinking”. And with respect to concrete activity (versus, says, insight into deeper reasons), we know this is BS because addicts also obsess over details, calculate their activities, and consciously lie about their behaviors, before and after their fruition. As for trauma survivors, well, we hear that they avoid painful stimuli; that they deny or dissociate awareness of betrayal because of their relational needs; that they are in shock, caught off guard by the “discovery” of the addictive pattern. Conversely, at times they are not only aware of the trauma-stirring behaviors of others, they are “hyperaroused”—that is hyper-vigilant, anything but avoidant; rather, they seem compulsively drawn to that which upsets them. Paradox? Probably. The back and forth suggests a reaction to trauma, and therefore a post (not pre) stressor response pattern. We obsess over something so as to prepare for the worst—if you like, a backwards or preemptive form of avoidance.

Then there are other seemingly contradictory presentations, like that of the so-called gaslighted partner which, if said to exist in tandem with betrayal trauma (which I often hear of), would seem to render at least one of the phenomena unlikely, at least concurrently. Why? Well, gaslighting is about persuading someone that the thing they suspect is happening is not happening, and that they are crazy for insisting that it is happening. The term comes from a 1938 play and later film about a…it doesn’t matter. It’s about lying and then pretending that the person who doesn’t believe the lie is nuts*. But the term also implies a vigilance that predates the discovery that has rendered the problem behavior undeniable, which is contrary to a pattern of avoidance of clues, including dissociative symptoms, that implicitly precede though they might not always proceed from the trauma of discovery. As observers, we can grasp how a trauma sufferer may be alternately over and under-stimulated following a crisis, just as an addict is at times deadened, unstimulated, in withdrawal or guilt-ridden following a binge, for example. But can you claim to have repeatedly not noticed problem behaviors because of dependency needs but also insist that persistent inquiries into suspect behaviors are repeatedly, and concurrently, brushed off? Again, this would only make sense if the chronology of presentations is blurred but then clarified: that a partner’s scrutiny of an acting out figure is tentative prior to discovery–in other words, primarily trusting if skeptical of the denying reports of the depended-upon figure–and then intensified into hyperaroused indignation after a discovery event.

Meanwhile, an underlying element of this issue is not clinical, much less medical. The ethical/moral dimension of the betrayal trauma concept is both subtle and not. For providers and patients, the matter of trauma is not just one of clinical presentation (i.e.: symptoms of anxiety), or of etiological (origin) theory, but also one of justice. In betrayal trauma, there is a victim and there is a perpetrator, meaning someone who has done harm. See, in our contemporary society, it’s not enough to say that a behavior is immoral or wrong. Today, we must either demonstrate or declare that we’ve been wounded, hence the necessity of attaching the word trauma to the moral construct of betrayal. In this way, sex addiction treatment, and betrayal trauma models in particular, borrow the ethos of the civil court: no harm no foul. Less subtle, however, are the concrete implications of the victim/perpetrator divide. As the identified miscreant, a perpetrator is often guilted into surrendering habitation rights, money, sometimes time spent with children or even custodial rights, or most conspicuously, the prerogative to initiate sex. The euphemisms that leverage these concessions—terms like “boundaries”—are meant to be subtle, as in genteel or discreet. They’re not. Only the words are genteel and discreet.

Further, this blending of sex addiction treatment with notions of justice has a gendered inflection, one that plays (and trades) upon our most basic suppositions about male versus female sexuality. The reason betrayal trauma models focus on betrayal is partly about monogamistic values, but it more prominently concerns feminine vulnerability. And this is true only because of the demographics of sex addiction treatment: far more men, and specifically heterosexual men, are assessed as sex addicts than are women—again, so much for the chestnut that modern psychotherapy/psychiatry stigmatizes female sexuality more than that of men (unless you’re one of those who thinks that sex addiction is a compliment, or a leniency-affording “excuse”). Anyway, female vulnerability: here I’m referring to the submission that women experience in the act of heteronormative sex; of their need to trust in the reliability of their male partner, who may also be vulnerable, but only in emotional terms, not so much physically. This point is a bullet item of so-called moral equivalency politics. Basically, the vulnerability of men does not match the vulnerability of women, therefore male sexual acting out is more oppressive, more abusive, threatening, etc., than anything women might perpetrate. In theory, men are treated as impacted or betrayed partners also when their partners have perpetrated infidelities and such, but if you read or listen carefully to most of the unctuous pundits on these matters, you might detect the whiff of bias in their jargon: the “betrayed” male is likely an abusive or possessive figure, “narcissistically wounded” by the betrayal (versus the more sympathetic “traumatized”) of his female partner, which then triggers an underlying misogyny within his subsequent anger. You get the script. From SA specialists, he might receive a subtle re-conditioning effort: a sort of half-hearted patronizing of his betrayal, coupled with a discreet shepherding from attitudes of patriarchal privilege to a woke recognition of female sexual freedom.

Interestingly, despite the possibly inadvertent influence of civil court discourse upon therapeutic interventions, the converse influence is not apparent. The impetus to punish—sorry, “hold accountable”—the wayward sexually acting out figure does not extend to the legal arena. For some time now, divorce courts have stopped punishing infidelity (whether they think it addictive, gendered, or not), instead issuing “no fault” decrees on such matters. That places the matter of crime and punishment back in privately figurative courtrooms. Mental health providers, the sex addiction specialists who in effect preside over these private disputes likely tread a line that straddles tradition and latter-day social justice principles. They “validate” the betrayal suffered by impacted partners of a sex addiction, and “educate” victim and perpetrator as to the impact of auxiliary misbehaviors like gaslighting. But they must also avoid being mere advocates of monogamy, for that might place them in alliance with the unfashionably religious, plus that dreaded system of girl-power thwarting patriarchy. This is why the progressive-leaning SA specialist speaks of violated consent rather than monogamy. In the modern zeitgeist, to consent and be honest are the moral imperatives, not the values of exclusivity.

As a result, sex addiction specialists tend to speak of betrayal while dodging the m word. Again, this is so that seemingly value-neutral concepts like honesty, or the analogy of contractual agreements (apparently an ethos that traditionalists and social justice types can both agree upon), can be invoked without provoking older Superego specters. The new Superego also prefers the term spiritual to connote a departure from the oppressive inflections of the word religion, which tends to suggest rules and dogma, things known (spiritual seems to indicate that which is unknown), not so much a connection to the divine, which is ambiguous, un-dogmatic and refreshingly new agey. The new S-ego prefers to invoke consent as the issue to supplant the concept of monogamy, but still to indicate the ethic of contracts. This, for example, features in Braun-Harvey & Vigorito’s 2016 list of ethical guidelines for sexual health, as indicated in their book Treating Out of Control Sexual Behaviors. See, then the matter is that a partner didn’t “consent” to the addictive pattern, and thus a perpetration of harm has occurred. A sound argument in itself, however much phenomena occurs in intimate relationships that would fall under the “I didn’t bargain for…” category. But most societies don’t craft marriage vows pertaining to excess shopping, hoarding, or video-game playing. And so, there’s no escaping the impression that moral tradition and developmental histories are what really drive the concept of betrayal trauma—not commonly upsetting behaviors or naturally occurring phenomena like threats to life and limb—what the PTSD diagnosis was originally meant to observe. Suggesting equivalences between traumas calls for a lot of reframing, or re-branding, designed to soothe the passage of words into the mind or down into that oft-decision-making gut. I’m not sure it’s convincing, actually, this rhetorical massage. I think we might as well add a term to the inventory of traumas. A psychiatrist and classics scholar named Jonathan Shay has termed this moral injury. How about moral trauma?

*If the reader is interested in a more artful and certainly less co-opted depiction of trauma, try Andrey Tarkovsky’s cult classic film, The Stalker. In it, characters are drawn to a mysterious zone, an area supposedly destroyed by a wayward meteor, leaving behind debris of a ruined civilization. A guide (dubbed “stalker”) leads interested soul-seekers into the forbidden area, taking them to a mythical room within the zone wherein all of the seekers’ personal needs, hopes, desires will be met. It seems a metaphor for an analytic or spiritual journey, and it is not without obstacles, including rules that the stalker appears to impose with neurotic impulsivity. This room: it cannot be approached too directly, too penetratively, he warns. Worldly goods, such as one character’s knapsack of presumedly invaluable items—an expression of his rational control—must be left behind. The filmmaker is saying something about an everyman or woman’s journey. He’s also saying something about how we must tenderly approach a scorched yet still beautiful earth.

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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

Graeme Daniels, MFT

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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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