More on Tommy: this time a conversation with fellow therapist and Who enthusiast, Joe Peroni. Enjoy
In the film Goodbye Christopher Robin, a rather sweet then bitter story of lost innocence, the writer AA Milne is portrayed as a PTSD survivor following his experiences as a soldier in World War I. During the early scenes of the film, prior to his ‘Winnie The Pooh’ celebrity, he is shown reacting irritably, dissociatively, to sudden movements, popping sounds and such. Balloons. Even before the film invokes it, the image of the iconic bear, holding aloft a red balloon while strolling down a bucolic country path, is conjured in the viewer’s mind, juxtaposed against horrific associations of bullets strafing bodies over bleak European fields.
In that era, PTSD as a diagnosis didn’t exist. Milne’s symptoms will have been known as “combat fatigue”, or “war neurosis” by the contemporary likes of Sigmund Freud and his ilk. People seemed to understand the brokenness that war could elicit. They didn’t seem to know how trauma might permeate personality, affect lives over a lifetime. A scene midway through Goodbye Christopher Robin suggests that someone, perhaps apocryphally (I’ll research this later) understood that desensitization techniques might intervene with identifiable phobias. Milne and his son, Christopher, participate in an exercise devised by a fellow veteran in which balloons are spread over a patch of grass so that Milne can make play of his neurosis. As he jumps on a balloon, popping it, he gets to take in the experience, note the lack of calamity, the warm containment implicitly supplied by his smiling son and supportive friend, and step-by-step (literally), popping sound by popping sound, heal this particular pain. What also seems to heal is creativity, nature, and play. Determined to heal war-hungry yet ravaged society with his writing, Milne settles upon children’s stories as a way to instill wholesome values and peaceful ambience. The result was the beloved ‘Pooh’ stories, though the film’s second half depicts the sour turn that fame inflicts upon Milne and his son. This culminates in circularity: grown up Christopher Robin, determined to be a man, or be his own person at least, himself enlists, enters WWII (like everyone else), and proceeds to learn his own lessons.
Over the last year I have been preoccupied again with another popular icon whose links to war history and trauma are thinly known. I say again because my project has been an on-again, off-again affair for just over a decade now. My forthcoming book, The Psychology of Tommy: how a rock icon reveals psychoanalytic, attachment and personality theory, began life as an academic paper that I sporadically wrote and re-wrote over several years until finally publishing it within a SAGE journal in 2016. That was followed by two notable and quite gratifying presentations: a one-hour talk at the Creativity and Madness Conference last year in Santa Fe; then a ninety-minute lecture and slide show at San Francisco’s Mechanic’s Institute in January of this year. Prior to that, I’d had my own brush with fame, meeting Tommy songwriter Pete Townshend (at his invitation) backstage at a Who concert in 2016. That was a lovely, if slightly disappointing moment, because my hero was tired, reticent, and deluged with visitors, not just me. Pete was polite yet brief in our meeting, signing a copy of my paper, and receiving a copy of it from me, though I don’t know if he’s read the piece. I don’t know if he really wants to revisit yet again the nearly fifty year old Tommy via the insights of intellectuals or an obsessed fan. Indeed, the memory of that meeting bears small resemblance to another scene in Goodbye Christopher Robin, one in which Milne and his son are visiting a zoo but distracted by gawking admirers. Seeking privacy, Milne brushes off a ‘Pooh’ smitten child, and as I watched this scene, I was reminded of Townshend’s jaded air that night in 2016.
Separate from its music, the rock opera Tommy is not a children’s story. Nor was it conceived as an allusive antidote for a war weary audience. Tommy was originally aimed at the generation born at the end of WWII, a generation that later started an anti-war movement. It was conceived semi-consciously as an ambient narrative, a tale of a “deaf, dumb, and blind boy” who embodies silence, secrecy, a mind broken by adult hypocrisy and trauma. The setting of Tommy was the post-WWI period, though a post-WWII subtext is obvious. Plot? Subsequent to witnessing a murder, the boy Tommy is instructed to not say anything, so he proceeds, uber-Hamlet-like, to manifest the decree as a somatic syndrome. Soon he is abused by peers who find advantage in his disability, though later, informed by his protracted withdrawal, Tommy discovers a talent for playing pinball, enters competitions contrived around that pastime, and becomes a champion and star—like a rock star. Then, like rock stars of the late sixties, he parlays his fame, finds spirituality (latent within him all along, we’re meant to think), breaks his silence, and begins preaching the word. The latter portion of Tommy exudes arch or ersatz-Buddhist thought, or something like it: relinquish material desires, dissolve oppressive societal roles; speak the truth, and so on. Somewhat contrarily for his followers, not to mention the average Woodstock-bound listener, the character also remonstrates against drug use, and because Tommy appears didactic on matters like this, his followers rebel. Tommy ends on a cautionary note: declaring that what goes around comes around, but that individuals can find freedom, hope, even God, within themselves.
There. Tommy in a nutshell. My existing manuscript is a further 50,000 words and it might yet extend further to God-knows how many words. Despite its antecedent publication, I’m yet to garner interest from the establishment that would facilitate my book’s dissemination: agents, ‘acquisitions’ editors, and other publishing intake-types have thus far rejected my queries, book proposals, and sample chapters. They say they are ‘compelled’ by my idea, observant of Tommy’s place in pop history. One or two even compliment my writing style. But they also say they’re not interested; that they don’t know how to sell my idea, hybrid that it is; split as it is between the prospective readerships of pop culture and academia. I get the idea, their idea as they imply it: marketing must be targeted in a singular dimension, not diluted by a muddy anticipation of readers with cross-pollenating interests. As you, my current reader can tell, I don’t agree. Or, noting my own resistance, I simply don’t want to agree. But I should agree more than I do, as we’re talking about something—marketing, publishing—that is someone else’s bailiwick, after all. The money that might be invested in production and promotion of a widely published book: it would be someone else’s, after all.
In the last year, ancillary to my percolating ambition, I have been attentive to many-things pertaining to World War II: twice watching the film Dunkirk; reading Thomas Childers’ Soldier From The War Returning, and more recently, Martha Hall Kelly’s Lilac Girls, about the lesser-known stories of ordinary women amid the WWII era. Watching Goodbye Christopher Robin, a more serendipitous happening (it happened to be on TV as I was flicking through channels, I mean), joins the list of influences. It also stokes my rollercoaster hopes, contesting my periodic discouragement. Because the film is a light entertainment, and commercially-presented, I am reminded that I must engage a readership, be interesting, personable, even fun. Because the film has an earnest, deeper message to impart about war, trauma, what attaches children to not only parents but also nannies, for example, I know there is room amid fun for serious ideas: ideas that require some academic rigor, for they are complex and deserve study, not glibness. These ideas are imparted implicitly via psychotherapy, also, so in my book I do what I suggested I might in my 2016 paper: I place a fictional Tommy in therapy, with me. And building upon the constructs explained throughout the book, I fashion a plainly-delivered intervention.
Sound ambitious? It should. Actually, its intention is grandiose: I think Tommy and my book about it say something important about mental health and the human condition. In the weeks ahead, I’ll give a preview of my book via this blog by introducing some of its ideas. Here are a few terms to take in as a snapshot: insecure narrative, scapegoating, addiction, misogyny, circularity, repetition compulsion, secrecy.
Sound like fun?
I want to blame someone. James Masterson did also, I think. He will have argued with many over what comprises a real versus a false self, or a personality disorder—whether such a thing exists with some. Were he alive today I think he’d argue with proponents of trauma model, and possibly with authors of novels like The Woman in Cabin 10. Not that these people don’t think that personality disorders exist. They simply call them something else, because mental health services, like any commodity, ultimately, is not just something to be validated by research, or—sorry—evidence-based research. It is something to be sold to the public.
For the average consumer of psychotherapy, a diagnosis of trauma, whether that trauma is episodic, chronic, the result of fatefully aberrant events or an aggregate of quaintly termed little ts that shape development (the theorized etiology of personality disorders) is simply more palatable. The word connotes victimization by an external agent, and thus a diminished responsibility for the sufferer. Treatment encourages a present identity of a survivor (very popular), with a possible future of healing. It’s a meet-them-where-they’re-at-thing. Regarding etiology, the accent is upon recent, precipitating events, with an intellectualized nod towards distant antecedents, that complex internalization of others which blurs a simplified reality.
Trauma model practitioners pay lip service to the antecedents of trauma. Prominent authors even co-opt object relations theories without crediting them, and repackage (reframe in the jargon of the field) personality disorder as something like developmental or relational trauma. A good example is featured in Barbara Steffens’ Your Sexually Addicted Spouse, whose target readership is evident by the title. In her text, Steffens describes PTSD as “something that can last a lifetime”, and that relationship trauma entails “painful coping mechanisms ingrained in personalities” Study the work of Klein, Fairbairn, Mahler, Winnicott, Masterson or Kohut and you’d hear the echo of their theories in such pop psychology literature: that psychic pain is integrated into personality over time, generating a disordered self in which such pain is habitually defended against in relationship.
But again, while trauma model educators pay lip service to old patterns, they mostly ignore it in treatment. The reasons are two-fold: A.) Treatment doesn’t last very long in this model. It’s a two week stay in a group home of some kind, or an eight-week course at your nearby hospital. B.) Discussion of problems is intellectual, academic—therapy as education. You’re given homework, even, to solidify the association with school. This is organizing, some say. Stabilizing for the unsafe person who cannot, it is presumed, manage complexity, the uncertainty of not knowing more deeply why something is happening. They are unable to weigh or contemplate their own mind alongside those of others, which are similarly complex, and implicitly dangerous. This danger is cast as objective reality, and anyone who says otherwise is “gaslighting”. Thus, treatment prioritizes affect regulation techniques and procedures, not the contemplation of self and other; it advises the practice of coping skills, self-care activities—all of which is worthy, actually, as adjuncts to growth. Meanwhile, the model’s adherents suggest that the afflicted let go of the actions, opinions, even the feelings of difficult others, while attaching labels. Fuller contemplation is put off until some ambiguously later time, when the person may be deemed ready. I think that readiness is seldom achieved. Time passes. It doesn’t so much heal as fossilize thoughts about self and other. What’s difficult to let go of are the pat understandings imparted by practitioners who recycle the same lessons in one short-term treatment episode after another.
In a longer-term therapy model, individuals inhabit their adult roles and live their lives as opposed to dropping out of society and going to school. They are challenged to do more than learn how to self-soothe or calm down, or take time-outs when mad, or to leave that bad relationship that your friends all think is wrong, only to start another one that’s similar because you haven’t learned what you got from that bad relationship. Instead, some learn (or are challenged to learn) to hang out with confusion, the grey areas of day-to-day life; to tolerate discomfort, stay with the difficult, as Masterson was once quoted as saying. Reality is learning about one’s own mind and being open to those of others, especially those that are not so easy to detach from: bosses, spouses, children; the memory of those absent but still profoundly influential.
What’s your pain today? Who or what do you want to blame, talk about instead of understand; focus on instead of yourself? Do you really know what your pain is about, what it’s backstory is—it’s underpinning? Do you think you really know the story of others? I know. It’s not what you (I’m) thinking.
What’s your pleasure, asks your average service provider? How can I help, or rather, what would you like to consume? What’s your pain asks a therapist or a doctor. There are many symptoms, feelings to choose from: guilt and shame are the big ones…if you’re thinking long-term
Not that fear doesn’t get a look-in. Trauma casts a wide net, is part of everyone’s experience it seems, present and past. Some have it more than others, we think. Do we? To discriminate in that way is a matter of politics, and maybe economics. It depends on who is paying for the listening. On the whole therapists don’t have to decide who is the most traumatized; that is, unless you’re one of those people who thinks we ought to be making those calls, prioritizing a presumably limited, emotional resource. BTW, on the mind-economics front: I don’t agree with those who imply that if we over diagnose trauma we’ll dilute the meaning of the term, and somehow do disservice to the most acutely affected. Thankfully, whatever you think of this society, there are a lot of helping professionals in this interdependent world: roughly 30K practitioners of my discipline alone, in this state alone.
So back to shame and guilt: When shame works it’s not so bad. It breeds humility, a sense of limitation, mortality, and equality, for we are all small. We all die. When guilt works it’s not so bad. It reminds us we can be strong, and in being strong we can be generous, and charitable—giving back to the less fortunate. Guilt precedes redemption.
what’s your pain? Do you feel bad because you hurt someone, because you are hurting someone, and you can’t seem to stop? Does that push you into shame, wherein you decide the future is hopeless, that you don’t deserve to be loved because you are so bad. Will you withdraw as a result: refuse a gift, a more banal token of support, like someone giving you a hand with something you’re not good at, a break on a bill that’s overdue? Will you beg off, saying “I’m good” because in your mind you’re not. Will you try to not need ever again so you don’t have to ask? Will you disappear because you are a monster, that man/monster Mary Shelley wrote about, and will we find you one day shivering in the North Pole?
Do you feel bad because you’re on the other side? Is someone ignoring you, not understanding, or actively pressing a heel to your nose while saying, “what?” in nonplussed self-defense, or shrugging their shoulders, saying “sorry’, though not with remorse—more with sullen helplessness. Do you feel alone, abandoned, your utter unimportance exposed? And is everyone playing the support cast of Hamlet, saying this thing is not happening? Hope. What hope do you have? Do you keep having to ask for what you want or need, everyday? Or will you retreat to your room, to your bed, to gaze at the pet or child that won’t abandon you, and who needs you also. Will you thrash about in that room, or in the streets, screaming but not speaking, hoping the guilty will get something from the noise?
During a local talk on sex addiction to an earnest group of Saturday morning listeners, my two female colleagues, Joanne and Gina, and I gave a modest introduction to the demographics of our business. As we sat listening to one another, we gave supportive nods, affirming all of our thoughts, though in truth, a couple of my one colleague’s ideas had me bristling. One of her chestnuts concerns the under-researched area of female sex addiction: “as shameful as this condition is for the men, it is especially stigmatizing for the women.” She also said something about men being raised with a ‘John Wayne’ model of emotional expression, and were thus constricted, suffering from intimacy disorders, which in turn impacts their partners. Everyone nodded, including me, only more faintly. I didn’t say anything contrary, partly because of time constraints, partly because of the agreeable ambience in the room, and also, frankly…I’m not sure how important this issue is.
It seems worth writing about, anyway. And arguing about, I guess. As Joanne made one or two other similarly-themed remarks, I recalled the comments of her junior colleague, Gina, from a day earlier, during a staff meeting at our shared agency. At that time the context was our much maligned room schedule board, admittedly outdated, but still in use because no one wants to take time to devise a new system, or tear down our old but beloved white board, streaked as it is with cheesy black demarcation strips and years’ worth of dry erase pen smudges. An online calendar would be best, chirped our newest colleague, proclaiming it is 2016, after all, not 1972.
Not 1972. My mind turned back to the present context and Joanne’s assertions. Frozen in time, I think. Afterwards, over coffee, I told her that I thought some of her pronouncements tired and superannuated, though I didn’t quite put it like that. How so? She queried, comfortably unoffended.
“Well, let’s take the one about women and sexual stigma. You say that women feel an extra layer of stigma in society about sex addiction, and therefore shy away from treatment or recovery, which is why we have less research about them.”
“Okay, but the point seems moot, because men aren’t seeking treatment either.” Her head sort of went crooked at this point, indicating surprise and perhaps something else; a playful rebuke, maybe. I was nit-picking, or something. Anyway, I continued. “You said later in the talk that many if not most of the men in our program are mandated: there because of a court order, or a demand from a disgruntled partner. So in my opinion the more pertinent question is this: if there are scores of untreated female sex addicts out there, why aren’t their disgruntled partners mandating treatment?”
She was unperturbed by this challenge, but still waffled with unconvincing polemics. Husbands and boyfriends are less forgiving, she opined, and also—many of those women’s partners are also sex addicts; that women are more judgmental of each other’s sexuality than men are. She spoke with authority on these points, as if she had volumes of data at her disposal. We don’t know these things, I contested, though I sort of agreed with the middle assertion, while thinking the first and the third contradicted each other. We danced around items of research for a bit, eventually dissolving the ‘evidence-based’ part of the discussion and finally dropping into what’s left: what people actually think, which is what matters. I countered her first idea: “While there may be something to your first point—the humiliated male being an especially unforgiving figure—I’m not sure that history or tradition shows that the cuckolded man is a fiercer image than the ‘hell hath no fury’ woman. But regardless, as Gina would say, this is not 1272, or 1972, and by the way, millennials don’t even know who John Wayne was.”
“What’s your point?”
“My point is this: over the last generation, possibly two, most of the scarlet-lettering that happens in society—at least that which gets media attention—has been aimed at men. Or maybe you can tell me: who would be the female equivalents of Tiger Woods, Anthony Wiener, Elliot Spitzer…Bill Clinton?”
“That’s different,” she said, a bit sharply. It was on.
It’s not as though suspension of disbelief isn’t a thing. In Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden, the reader has to believe that three children, whose parents have both died of separate illnesses in quick succession, can live undetected by neighbors, schools, police or social services, for several weeks, even as corpses rot in their home’s basement. In Jaws, that trauma-inducing film of my youth, the viewer must accept (or not think too much about) if wanting an optimal thrill, that sharks might leap across boat decks or swallow gas tanks.
In my novel, Venus Looks Down On A Praise Vole, there are numerous events, plot points and situations that stagger credulity to one degree or another, though none are fantastical in nature. Somewhat mundanely, the reader is meant to believe that my protagonist, Dr. Daniel Pierce, a psychologist, can pursue a career while regularly drinking in between sessions; that he could spend several hours in the company of a transgendered individual (admittedly in a pre-op stage) and not notice the person’s transformation; that he could forget names and patient details, not maintain adequate records, stop listening to people, actively dislike some of his patients, and still be a practicing clinician.
Well, that’s why he’s taking a break from his practice. Daniel Pierce goes on hiatus. That’s the opening plot point: his recognition of his falling apart, his need to stop working and deal with issues, some bad habits, and some losses: the estrangement of his son, the recent passing of his wife. But before he’s even fashioned a plan of restful inaction, his working life pushes back, or rather pulls him back into a working stance, only it will be a much different day on the job, what happens next. It will suspend his disbelief, make him think before the adventure’s done that he’s being seduced, patronized, rescued, recruited, chased…scapegoated.
Perhaps the most difficult event to accept is Pierce’s meeting of a former client in a sober living home. Kirkus reviews made this complaint, thinking it unrealistic that a psychologist would drop out of society, drop into a rehab-like environment, and meet one of his former patients, and even have the man as a roommate. Even if I hadn’t given cursory hints that this might happen—indicating that my unnamed setting is a small town; a hackneyed statement that the world is small—I’d grumble about this critique. After all, what’s so hard to accept? That a mental health professional would have a drug or drinking problem, need treatment or a retreat? That he wouldn’t take special care to avoid contact with his client base? Perhaps my reviewer isn’t aware that certain professionals—doctors and airline pilots, for example—do require or demand segregated, occupation-specific services, precisely because of this concern. It’s actually quite strange that the accommodations that are afforded these professional groups aren’t made for psychologists and other professional counselors.
But for me, this rather ordinary discussion misses an important point: namely, that a strict adherence to what is orthodox or realistic isn’t the most important aspect of a fiction; hence the term fiction. I had Daniel Pierce leave the structure he was in, or the rut he was in, because in order to regain his vitality and sense of mission, he has to leave not only his comfort zone, but almost his entire frame of reference. That’s an equally important axiom of drama, surely. Therefore, he has to perform an impromptu therapy in the most unlikely of circumstances; he has to not conform, challenge authority in ways he never has before. He has to observe ugliness that he’d previously been sheltered from; rethink gender, justice, his oldest notions of fitting in. In being responsible, being anything close to a heroic figure, he must consider that he may be right or wrong about the judgments he ultimately makes, but make his decision anyway.