Sunday, July 29, 2012

Eugenides' The Marriage Plot - The Reluctant Psychoanalyst Reads About First Love

First Love. Like a parental relationship, it can haunt the rest of our lives. There is nothing so sweet as loving and/or being loved - deeply appreciating and/or appreciating another perhaps for the first time, but certainly for the first time with someone who does not "have" to love you - a parent, a sibling - but someone who chooses to do so - not because you're their's but because they want you to be their own. Jeffrey Eugenides' Novel is about such a love - but with the advantage of hindsight - and, I think, as an attempt, and I hope a satisfying one, to put that first love to bed. It seemed helpful to me, as a reader, in any case.

The novel focuses on a triangle, but really a conga line, of lovers - all students at Brown in the late seventies and early 80s. Leonard is the brilliant but unstable bipolar child of absent parents who evokes sympathy and care from a string of women but ultimately from Madeleine. Maddy is a good girl from a solid home who is smart but not brilliant - a romantic who loves Austen, Eliot and James and others who write in the marriage plot genre - a genre that requires society to be structured in a rigid, traditional manner and for women to be in subservient, chattel based roles where their marriages will define them. Maddy dabbles in semiotics and through that rediscovers her favorite authors from a feminist perspective. Mitchell, the author's alter ego, a child of Greek immigrants from Detroit, deeply interested in religion and spirituality, is a person who has trouble hearing God's voice - and sparking Maddy's interest. He pines for her - she knows and enjoys him, but he is not wild and unpredictable the way that Leonard is.

The tale is told, alternately, in the three voices of each of the main characters in overlapping chronology, so that, Rashomon fashion, many events are told from two or three perspectives. More broadly, this book gets, pitch perfect, the stumbling, inchoate voices of the cohort that makes up the tail end of the boomer generation. The cohort that watched the 60s from the sidelines - as younger siblings - or saw the events on TV. The cohort that romanticized the idealism of free love, racial equality, and power to the people without living through the grit and grime of the lived reality of fighting for those ideals, including against the internal enemies. This cohort inherited, relatively unscathed, the haven of liberal arts colleges and Universities as a place to explore who they were in relation to each other without the mores and tropes of the 50s, and without some of the authority that the University wielded before the 60s but also without a clear new vision of how to navigate the new sexual and relational landscape. From Madeleine's perspective: "Madeleine...realized that her [older] sister's iconoclasm and liberationist commitments had just been part of a trend. Alwyn had done things she had done and voiced the political opinions she'd voiced because all her friends were acting and talking the same way. You were supposed to feel bad about missing the sixties, but Madeleine didn't. She felt as if she'd been spared a lot of nonsense, that her generation, while inheriting much that was good from that decade, had a healthy distance from it as well, saving them from the whiplash that resulted from being a Maoist one minute and a suburban mother, in Beverly, Massachusetts, the next."

So this coming of age novel is of a particular age - the post Aquarian age - when the Graduate's message - don't marry him - had been delivered - but the new marriage, the new society with its new norms was not yet developed. This group, this generation, would have to figure out its own marriage plot, its own way of engaging in the dance, and they would have to do that while the rules of the dance were evolving around them. This generation could fashion their own identity, but they would have to do that, seemingly, out of whole cloth.

The role of parents in this novel, then, is interesting, if for no other reason than that the children in this novel will become the helicopter parents of the present generation. The parents in this novel have provided and continue to provide a base - solid or shaky - but they are - even when present - peripheral players. They do not guide so much as turn a blind eye or, when they look, offer advice or attempts at control that are completely out of step with what the children need. Leonard's parents fail to provide him with adequate nourishment - his mother all but abandoning he and his sister after his father runs off with another woman to England. They show up for graduations and weddings but are not engaged. Madeleine's parents, much more involved, warn her to get a prenup, fly to her aid when she is stranded, and ultimately board all three of the protagonists (two at a time) when they are not capable of taking care of themselves. About Mitchell's parents we know very little. Traditional lines of initiation and passing on of wisdom have been severed, and the sense that there is wisdom to be had is in question.

Mitchell seeks wisdom in books and in mysticism. He reads Salinger's Franny and Zooey and takes up the Jesus prayer as Franny did. He goes to India to volunteer for Mother Theresa and to get the lay of the land. And throughout this, almost against his will, he is held in the orbit of Madeleine. She is his ideal. The basis for this is pretty slender: there is something about her handwriting - small and cramped - that reveals her inner life to be more complicated than her external, conventional demeanor would lead him to believe. He constructs her, then, not based on who she is but on who he needs her to be - she is his Beatrice, his imagined spiritual guide - not an actual, living breathing partner.

Madeleine, for her part, cannot imagine the interiority of Mitchell, and finds his exterior to be plain and therefore of little interest. Mitchell, himself, is searching for his own interior, imagining it in Madeleine, and, despite not finding it, is able to have the fortitude to resolve his relationship with Madeleine. My guess is that this is revisionist history. I think that Eugenides, an incredibly successful author - he won the Pulitzer Prize for Middlesex (a much more ambitious, sweeping book) may have returned later in life to the unrequited love - and achieved resolution. And, after having struggled with Madeleine throughout his life, I think he may finally have been able to own - not her - not the old marriage plot chattel ending - but the part of himself that he imagined she could provide him.

This novel then, as humble as it is when compared to the complex, ambitiousness that Middlesex provided, speaks to something very true and satisfying. It is about the ability of the post-60s generation to own themselves; to become that which they had hoped they could be, even though they were a lost generation, stripped of direction by the questioning that the 60s provided, deluded into romanticism but without a roadmap of how to get from here to there, Eugenides maintains (and perhaps proves?) that there is hope of integrating a cogent sense of one's self. Do we need to earn a Pulitzer to do it? God, I hope not.

I think that Eugenides has been able to come to a psychological resolve about this period of his life as a result of writing about it. Part of the telling of this tale that is off putting is that the characters have, what is to me, an unrealistic level of self awareness. They are cognizant of their intentions and of the likely impact of their actions that is well beyond their years. I believe this to be an anachronism borne of the author's having imagined these events - having let them ripen and become real in his belly over time. And as that happens, he knows the characters better than they could have known themselves - and he writes from the perspective of who they are beyond what they could reasonably have been conscious of being- he writes from the perspective of the integrated, whole person that they are working to become rather than the fragmented, developing person that they are at the moment that is being described. The maturation that has taken place is the processing, the coming of age, that ripening, of the author, and it is a maturation that each of us can engage in as we ruminate about the past.

Perhaps the most poignant example of this ripening, of this imagining, is the explicit sexual interactions between Leonard and Madeleine - wonderful, glorious, mania fired interactions that Mitchell (Eugenides) will never be able to compete with. Eugenides engages in this - what appears like a masochistic exercise - as part, I believe, of the process of knowing the enemy. Knowing that he cannot provide his lover what she wants and fears, at the time of the interaction nor now, in the present - he will never be the lover his competitor was, but also of knowing, perhaps through allowing himself to imagine it in all of its detail, that this is not what determines that he is not Madeleine's lover. What will allow Mitchell to become who he is is the process of hearing the voice within him - the spiritual voice he has been pursuing. This voice, imagined in the book as coming at the perfect moment in the relationship with Madeleine, but perhaps coming later in life, allows the marriage plot to have a new twist- one that Austen didn't have available - that the eligible young person might move towards becoming who they are not through a marital relationship alone - but along a variety of paths with a variety of people - the right people at the right moments - and not with a person who is forced to fit because of the urgency of the need of the lover.

My friend Dan, who spent the first year of his second marriage writing a book about the end of his first marriage, and my own experience, of dreaming about my first love and talking about that with my current lover, are both examples of being haunted by former loves. It has taken both Dan and I, and I believe Eugenides, considerable work to put these earlier lovers to bed. And, at least for me, she sleeps uneasily - she can re-emerge, particularly during moments when I am questioning myself and longing for something that I cannot provide at the moment.

This book was embarrassing to read. It aptly describes how awkward and clumsy I felt during the time he is describing. For all the erudition, for all the reading, for all the knowledge of love and self actualization that the world has produced, it remains for each age, and each member of each age, to grope through what is new - both to the individual but also to the species - how to navigate this particular coming of age. If we accomplish that in a lifetime, as Eugenides appears to have done, or even make significant progress on that process, I think we should count it a life well lived.

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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Nat Johnson's Pym - The Reluctant Psychoanalyst Reads About Race

Last year there was no Pulitzer Prize for fiction awarded. This award, usually given annually, recognizes the best writing published during the year that captures some central aspect of the American experience. Over the years, the Pulitzer Prize has been awarded to exceptional books that have become part of our shared experience - To Kill a Mockingbird is an example of this category - and they have been awarded to authors who should have had a Pulitzer for their earlier work and the current book is good and somewhat related to the American experience - Ernest Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea falls in this category. But the committee could not come to a consensus about either. The New York Times asked authors to nominate books, and Maud Newton nominated Nat Johnson's Pym as a modern look at race with a Vonnegut-like wry humor.

As a fan of the Pulitzer, Vonnegut, and a person who is curious about race, especially about the subjectivity of cross racial experiences, I bit. Initially I was quite disappointed. This book is NOT about the subjectivity of cross racial experience. It is marginally about subjectivity at all - except in a very broad, very romanticized sense of subjectivity - which is to say, to my mind, not a very accurate articulation of subjectivity, though one that can be compelling. On reflection, Vonnegut's rather arch and wry renditions of consciousness can be quite glib and romantic and therefore were quite appealing to my adolescent and idealistic self, but might be less satisfying were I to chew on them today. Like Vonnegut, Johnson takes on a big topic and approaches it with humor and more than a little irreverence.

The original Pym is Edgar Allen Poe's sole novel. Written in serial form to make a buck when Poe was dying of advanced alcoholism and out of money, it is the story of a trip to Antarctica in the company of an African American that includes a stop at an island with people who are blacker than black on the way to arriving on the shores of Antarctica to be greeted by white yeti like creatures in a weird, unclear ending. Nat Johnson retells this tale from a modern perspective - apparently something that others have done. In Johnson's tale, Chris Jaynes, an African American Poe scholar is denied tenure at his small, white liberal arts college, purchases the memoirs of Dirk Peters, Poe's African American sidekick on his Antarctic adventure, and Jaynes assembles a crew of African Americans with a variety of interests to sail to Antarctica. There they improbably discover the yeti-like creatures and the two hundred year old Pym, preserved by the Yetis' alcoholic beverage which Pym drinks in copious quantities. The African Americans briefly enslave and then are enslaved by the Yetis - or snow monkeys as they refer to them in a reverse stereotypical manner.

The plot of the book is preposterous, and the characters amusing but two dimensional - the central and striking images are of ice caves on the one hand - carved out of the glaciers, they are austere but beautiful spaces with thin ice roofs that let in the 24 hour sun of summer - and a bio sphere constructed by a painter named Karvel, who is clearly a representation of Thomas Kinkade - the kitschy painter who created imaginary cottages and landscapes that people many American's homes. The biodome becomes a haven of sorts two of the escaped slaves.

The biodome is not just a device, but something that exists, as in the link, in the world, as well as in movies . Dependent on massive quantities of petrochemicals to maintain its temperature, Johnson's Biodome's exhaust is melting the ice caves; and it is the home of Karvel and his wife, and their entire enterprise is to make the internal landscape reflect one of Karvel's paintings exactly. Jaynes's sidekick, a bloated Little Debbie loving African American, is a huge fan of Karvel/Kinkade. And, if I understand the intent, he symbolizes the African American community's investment in acculturation. The American dream that is painted across the ceiling and included in the palm trees and blue tinted water running through streams in a dome in Antarctica is a picture of the delusional quality of the desired goal. It is not real, organic or true in its own right, much less as a vision to be aspired to by a people that were enslaved in order to bring it to fruition (Marvel/Kinkade's wife serves the slave function in the dome, as do, briefly, the two escaped African Americans).

From Johnson's perspective, then, the process of acculturation - from eating Little Debbie's, to enslaving others, to being enslaved - perhaps at one's job - is a false dream. The real dream that he ends his version of Pym with is sailing, as the racist Pym dies in his boat, to an island peopled not by the blackest blacks of Poe's work, but by brown people, people who are the color of most people on the planet.

As I reflected on this work, I was reminded of the two Jesuit visions of God - as a God of Affection or one of Disaffection. The God of Affection creates a world that is filled with elements that are in tension with each other, and he loves the whole creation - and is pulling for us to work to make it a little less messy. The God of Disaffection creates a perfect world - a Kinkadian world - that is corrupted by evil forces that should be vanquished. The latter God supports banishing those who are corrupted/corrupting and bonding with those who, like us, are good.

From a more analytic perspective, the person worshipping a God of Affection is interested in the entire range of her or his reactions to the world - good, bad, and indifferent. The person worshipping the God of disaffection banishes from consciousness thoughts that are unacceptable; bad thoughts that they shouldn't have. Oedipal thoughts, for instance, can be viewed as dangerous, incestuous thoughts that should be banished at all costs, or they can be treated as thoughts - and approached with curiosity about why they are emerging at this moment and what it is that they might signify. I think it is easier to worship a God of Affection, to entertain forbidden thoughts, when the intensity of those thoughts, significant though it may be, has not been realized in actions that overwhelm the ability to get psychological distance from them. Slavery - and having enslaved others - makes it very hard for us to dispassionately entertain thoughts about slavery, just as having been an incest survivor or perpetrator makes it hard for us to dispassionately entertain thoughts about incest.

This book, Pym, is disappointing then, not because it is not entertaining but because it, like the movie The Graduate, points to the problems of the generations before, but both works end on the cusp of whatever new thing it is that would be created. But neither presents a new template, and, without a new template, I fear that the new will end up taking on the mantle of the old very quickly. We will slide back into the sado masochistic relational patterns and the idealistic romantic vision of a perfect world and be totally unaware that the byproducts of our visions are toxic to the world's organic inhabitants.

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Thursday, July 12, 2012

Anne Sexton - The Reluctant Psychoanalyst Reads about Poetry and Psychotherapy

Dawn Skorczewski has written a marvelous book, An Accident of Hope, about Anne Sexton's poetry and her psychotherapy with Milton Orne in the late 1950's and early 1960's. Skorczewski listened to all of the extant tapes of the psychotherapy sessions Sexton had with Orne and chose to focus on the recorded sessions that have survived from the last nine months or so of Sexton's treatment. Dawn is a friend of mine, and I must admit that I was not looking forward to reading the book. I thought,"Oh, OK, I'll propose it to the analytic book club and, if they are interested, that will give me a chance to say that I have read it." Dawn is a vibrant person, a good writer and editor who has taught me a lot about writing - and teaching, but I'm not a big fan of poetry, it's just not my genre, and visiting a poet I did not know from around the time of my (and Dawn's) birth and thinking about the antiquated therapy she had undergone just didn't sound exciting.

Well, surprise, surprise. This is a lively and very current book. I was moved and frustrated by the treatment and enjoyed the poetry. Anne Sexton is a woman who had published no poetry before her therapy; she essentially started a poetry genre of self revelation that was a significant cultural step towards the Oprah openness we experience today; and she ultimately won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. She was also a woman who was seriously ill, was treated by Orne for seven years before being treated by another psychiatrist. The second psychiatrist had a sexual affair with her and Sexton subsequently committed suicide. Dawn elucidates how Anne's engagement in the treatment anticipated the developments that psychoanalytic theory was to discover over the next thirty or forty years. On the other hand, she is a bit critical of Orne who was from her perspective, slow on the uptake and didn't always appreciate what Sexton was laying out for him. This case, for Dawn, illustrated Freud's remark that "Every time I make a great discovery, I find that the artists have been there before me," though in this case the artist got there in the context of therapy as well as in her art.

From my perspective, the interplay of a modern feminist listening to and commenting on the therapeutic interaction between two people engaged in a dialogue that was very much of their moment in history- on the cusp of a feminist revolution - was fascinating. I also appreciated, as a guy with a bit of a poetic tin ear, Dawn's careful but evocative reading of the poetry, and her laying out the therapeutic and personal context of the poems, which brought them to life for me. Delightful. But I also found myself entering the dyad of Sexton and Orne from a very different perspective than Skorczewski. While I empathized with and appreciated Skorczewski's reading of Sexton's subjectivity, I found myself wondering about Orne's. More than Dawn reported herself feeling, I found myself identifying with Orne and feeling that, despite a familiarity with the modern literature that Dawn was citing as a corrective to Orne's technical failings and shortcomings; I might not have been able to make as good use of them as Dawn seemed to imply that I might, and I feared that I might fail in ways, and have failed with my patients, in ways that mirror Orne's failings. That is, I think that some - perhaps not all - of Orne's blind spots might have existed - and the dilemmas he faced might still exist, even though we have a much better understanding of what he was confronting than he did.

Skorczewski, I think rightly, takes Orne to task for two major blunders. Each comes to the fore in a specific period in this last part of the treatment and each is related to a particular part of Sexton's psychology. The first of these blunders, I will call it the error of paralysis, occurs when Orne is first becoming aware that he may leave town (ultimately he does) some nine months hence. Orne becomes particularly inept in his interactions with Sexton, and they talk together about a parallel period of time when Orne withdrew from her during the time when he was afraid to tell Sexton, a woman who had been desperately and at times erotically (in her fantasy life) close to him, that he was going to be marrying. On that occasion, he cut down the number of times that they met per week, quit holding Sexton's hand when she was having difficulty, and asked her to set a termination date, essentially wishing that she would get better so that his news would not upset her.

This time, Martin, a smart, driven man, drawn by his research and ambition to move to another city, refuses to acknowledge how important he has been to Anne - and she to him - and how difficult it is going to be to say goodbye. When she notes that it was he who encouraged her to write, and that the writing has often been directed at him and their work together, he demurs, and rather clumsily - if with apparent good intention - insists that it is she - not her poetry - that is of value. Imagining myself into Orne's experience, I wonder whether he is frightened by how important he has become to her. More than that, he fears, in this woman who has survived multiple traumas at the hands of family members, including her father, mother, and favorite aunt, that he is now becoming a perpetrator himself. By marrying - by leaving - by withdrawing from her, he will injure her, taking away the person she depends on to hold herself together. While we know, as observers, that talking about his leaving, processing the impending ending, is what is most desperately needed, he may fear that to discuss this is to reify it, to make it true and to instigate the very thing that he is desperately trying to stave off - Anne's descent into madness at the hands of a caregiver who withdraws. Because his paralysis creates the very withdrawal he is trying to stave off, an impasse in the treatment develops.

I think part of the problem is that there is a developmental lag for Orne. Sexton is healthier than she was earlier in the treatment (when he tried too quickly to force her to get well). Now that she is better, he still has in mind the danger of pushing her too quickly - and thus does not trust her to be able to tolerate more material now than she, in fact, can.  I think another part of the problem is that Sexton is a trauma survivor and the transference/countertransference interaction is sadomasochistic - and Orne, well intentioned, well meaning Orne, has trouble recognizing himself (and Sexton may too) as the instigator of potentially unmanageable distress. This leads him to become defensive - to demonstrate how the treatment has been useful - without casting himself as the hero - trying to avoid overinflating himself, but in the process frustrating Sexton because she can neither love nor hate him - and she wants desperately to do both, and to be able to do both.

I do think that trauma challenges our ability to love and hate the same person. We are called, especially through trauma with caregivers, to try to strain to hold together a positive and a negative view of them, and we end up splitting - seeing others as all good or all bad - rather than integrating them. This is partially, I think, because the psychological space in ourselves that we inhabit to hold our ambivalent feelings together gets pulled apart repeatedly, and we end up with scar tissue there - so we have real trouble standing on that spot and getting purchase, and it is easier to slide to one side or the other. Orne, I am imagining, feels uncomfortable being idealized and devalued and so he tries to make himself into nothing to Sexton, which he most definitely is not, and things crawl to a stop.

The second difficulty for Skorczewski is Orne's reaction to Sexton's narcissism. Skorczewski would have Orne embrace and support it - and she sees evidence of Sexton begging him to do this. She cites theories that Orne does not yet have access to that would help him be able to appreciate the importance of Sexton's narcissism to her maintenance of her self and to her functioning as an artist. I think, though, that Skorczewski loses track of Orne's role as a treater in this moment. Later in the book, Skorczewski is critical of the impact of Sexton's mother's narcissism on Sexton's functioning. Even though Orne overemphasizes Sexton's role as a mother, her maternal role is one that is important to her, and as a treater he may have felt an obligation to her children to try to help her be more considerate - less focused on herself and, without a theory that supports increasing the regard of the treater towards her as a way through the thicket of narcissism, Orne is indeed loathe to follow that route. To further complicate things, Orne's mother, a psychiatrist, originally treated Sexton and Skorczewski provides evidence that she - Orne's mother - is quite narcissistic. Poor Orne - he is treating a woman who has the issues that are unresolved in his relationship with his own mother. This complicates the task tremendously.

I offer the criticisms above not as a critique of the book, but to broaden the perspectives that the reader might take in regard to this unique, powerful therapeutic relationship that we are lucky to have access to via the tapes, but even more through Skorczewski's close and empathic reading of Sexton's experience. The tapes exist because Orne made them to help Sexton have access to the sessions - she would frequently forget material they had talked about and she was tasked with transcribing them as a means of better understanding and remembering them. Apparently Orne used this technique with at least some of his other patients. Unfortunately the tapes between the sessions where an impasse is apparent and later work that is more spontaneous and that demonstrates the real affection that each of these participants had for the other is missing - it would be really helpful to have a roadmap out of the morass of an impasse and back onto the highway of collaborative work.

I also must admit that there were moments when I questioned along with Skorczewski, Orne's treatment, especially when Sexton's husband is choking her and Orne does not intervene more directly. Further, Orne functions as a co-therapist during the time that Sexton is primarily seeing Duhl, her subsequent therapist, and Orne is aware of the sexual affair they have and the difficulties that it poses for Sexton.  Even if we didn't know then how disruptive this can be (see a post about Andrea Celenza's work on this); even if our ethical principles and laws did not yet condemn this behavior, it is hard to believe that Orne could not anticipate the difficulties this would cause Sexton and, again, more actively intervene.  There is a tragedy here - that someone who could be so helpful ultimately could not provide the kind of help that Sexton really did need.

Despite my misgivings, the book ends up being a very interesting entrance into history, but also, surprisingly, brings up issues about contemporary treatment that are well worth considering. While Orne did not hear Sexton as we can, others were hearing other patients so that we can now hear her, just as we can now hear one of Freud's failed treatments, his treatment of Dora, in ways that his work ultimately helps us achieve, but that were not yet available to him. That said, and despite the tragic conclusion to Sexton's treatment and life, it is also apparent that a less than optimal - perhaps good enough? - treatment helped this woman articulate her experience both in the consulting room and on the page in ways that enriched all of our lives.  Tragically, it did not save her life,

To access a narrative description of other posts on this site, link here.   For a subject based index, link here.

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What is Porn? A Psychoanalytic Reaction.

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["...