Saturday, August 20, 2011

Kathryn Stockett's The Help - The Reluctant Psychoanalyst Reads a Book and Contemplates the Limits of Understanding the Other




The Help, a debut novel by Kathryn Stockett, is one of those books that I became engrossed in.  In the middle of reading it, the reluctant wife complained about my disappearance into the book and, when I said it must be like trying to compete with another lover, she responded, “No, I’m not competing, I’ve lost.”  Unfortunately, this occurs with every other book or so that I read, but, thankfully, she generally welcomes me back after my dalliance with a good humored, but pointed, description of my inconsiderate behavior.

This book is told from four vantage points: the first person narration of the three central protagonists and, in one chapter describing a party where they are all present, the third person.  It is a book about Jackson, Mississippi in 1962 and a white woman’s discovery of the experience of the African American women domestics who lived there. 

The white woman, Skeeter, has just graduated from college and wants to become a writer.   She returns home to live with her parents.  She gets a job at the newspaper writing an advice column about keeping house, something about which she knows nothing, and she turns to the domestic, Aibeleen, who serves one of her friends, to find out how to get the ring out of a bathtub and stains out of a shirt.   As they work together on this, Skeeter becomes curious about Aibeleen's life, and she partners with Aibeleen and 11 other domestics to write a book of stories told from their vantage point about being a domestic in the time leading up to and including the birth of the civil rights movement in the south.

The story, then, is told by Skeeter, a tall, gawky woman who lives on her parent's plantation but is part of Jackson society, Aibeleen, who is a spiritually gifted and very grounded domestic who looks after families when they have young children and moves on to new families when the children mature, and Minny, a domestic who loses positions because of her smart mouth, and who is able to keep those positions she does only because her cooking is extraordinary.

Suffice it to say that a very fine, gripping tale is told.  The consequences for each of these women of articulating their experience, even in “anonymous” form, are severe.  They reexamine, and fear for, their lives as they conspire to give voice to a perspective that is apparently ignored, but that is actually – and as becomes apparent when the white women use their power to demand that the domestics mouth support for racist positions - actively suppressed. 

From a psychoanalytic viewpoint, I was most interested in the voices of the narrators because that relates to a central question of psychoanalysis: Can we know the subjectivity of another person?  In this particular case: Can a white woman who grew up in Jackson and lives in Atlanta accurately portray the subjective experience of southern domestics who lived before she was born?

The author, wisely and consciously, chooses not to do this.  Aibeleen’s and Minny’s voices are written in southern black dialect.  This has the effect of giving us access to their spoken words, not to their inner experience.  It is as if they are telling us their stories – as if we are sitting on the porch listening to them talk.  Skeeter’s voice, on the other hand, is written in plain English.  And her story is told through her eyes as she experiences it.  We have access to her visceral reactions when she hears the stories of the domestics.  We know how she feels about the injustices that she hears about from the domestics and witnesses directly in her friends' behavior.  We get to know her internal reaction to the racism of her peers.

This distinction is subtle but critical.  It is perhaps most obvious in the difference between Skeeter’s description of her reactions to her disappointing lover and Minny’s reactions to her abusive husband.  Skeeter longs to be touched, but then can’t stand to be.  Minny thinks (or talks) very strategically about her husband and her reactions to his actions.  She knows – in the way that we do when we talk – about her own motivations and those of others (including being puzzled by some of her reactions)– but her subjective experience – the raw data of her experience – the building blocks of her knowledge - is not available to us.

In her afterward, the author explicitly states that the ability to know the subjective experience of another across racial lines in the segregated South was impossible because of the essential dishonesty that was the cornerstone of interracial relationships.  While genuine love and hate existed, and are portrayed both in this book and in the “book within the book”; to put one’s self in the shoes of someone across that great divide is, to her way of thinking, impossible.

The bigger question then becomes whether we can ever know the subjective experience of another person.  Is the divide too wide between all of us?  Certainly it is much more difficult for me to connect with the subjective experience of my patients who have been overtly and severely traumatized.  I am always, to a certain extent, a potential or actual harmful other, and for them to reveal their inner workings to me would be stupid because I can and will use that knowledge against them. 

But haven’t we all been traumatized?  Isn’t our trust in those we love tempered by the knowledge that they could at any time (and frequently do) disappear – in my case into a book, a TV show, or God forbid, into a relationship with someone else (even though in a small and necessary way I do that every day when I go to work and engage with my peers, students and clients, or when I turn my attention from my wife to my children)?  And despite my efforts to empathize with the reluctant wife’s experience when I abandon her, I don’t really know what it feels like.  I can imagine what it feels like.  But that has a very different quality than what it actually feels like when she turns away from me.  And I’m not sure that what I feel when she turns away from me in similar ways is the same – do I need her attention in the same ways that she needs mine?  Do I depend on her more, less, or in qualitatively different ways than she depends on me?

So, this book is, ultimately, disappointing.  It promises, at the beginning, a glimpse into a world that I cannot know.  The book within the book promises it as well.  It, wisely and consciously, does not deliver on that promise.  The author understands the limits of our ability to cross certain divides.  This book can’t integrate the experience of white and black, employer and domestic, and that may be a big part of its sad but accurate truth.  The author, on the other hand, appears to confidently portray the subjectivity of Skeeter.  In her acknowledgments, though, she notes her intentional inclusion of some anachronistic references - to songs that weren't sung until 1964, and appreciates that her copy editors weeded out many other anachronisms.  Despite their weeding, I found myself being bothered by what I perceived to be many subtle but critical references to the future - as if really being in that time and place is too much to bear if you don't know how the story turns out..  And I wonder if these betray the author's reluctance, or even inability, to leave her own subjectivity to inhabit Skeeter's world - a world that is, of necessity, filled with stereotypes that are uncomfortable to articulate and dishonest to avoid.

Post script:  It is now years later and I am remembering this book and noting that I did not talk about the ultimate communication of the black experience to the whites - when the infuriated best cook in town literally makes the most poisonously racist woman eat her sh*t.  I think that I did not reference that moment (one that was highlighted in the movie) for the reasons outlined above - I experienced Stockett as distancing herself from the subjectivity of the cook and of the racist woman so much that the potential impact - the projective identification (described in a post on 9/11) - does not register.  Instead, especially in the movie, I remember experiencing this as a moment of triumph, which I don't think it was for anyone involved - I think it was a moment of deeply and powerfully felt communication of feelings that are incredibly difficult to contain and to communicate verbally.  

Mrs. Bridge, reviewed here, and the companion piece, Mr. Bridge - which I have not reviewed, are intriguing meditations on the consciousness of a relatively benign bigot (Mrs.) and a somewhat more malevolent, but still very middle of the road one (Mr.) in Kansas City in the 1930s.  I have also reviewed the movie Selma in the same post, which, I think, interestingly protects the African American psychological experience in the time of the civil rights movement in ways that are similar to, but that may have different motivations than does The Help, as does The Butler, which I have not reviewed.  A post on an African American psychoanalyst describing her subjective experience, and my failure to appreciate it, is described here.  Another post about the series Transparent, which details a psychoanalytic description of why bathrooms seem to be so central to issues of civil rights - something that is a central plot in the help, but not one I articulate above.

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