Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Crucible – The Reluctant Psychoanalyst Goes Back to High School




            The Reluctant Son is taking an interdisciplinary course in High School – his US History Course is coordinated with his American Literature Course so that while he is studying the pre-Revolutionary period in History he is reading the Scarlet Letter and the Crucible (which will also be relevant for the post Second War period) in Lit. There are two sections of Lit and two of History, and they dosey doe during second and third bell. In order to facilitate the students meeting with both teachers at once, and to allow all of the students to interact, the teachers are hosting a weekend film series, inviting parents to participate in order to facilitate family discussion of the material and yesterday was the first of those.  As the title of this blog suggests, they showed the Crucible with Daniel Day Lewis starring as John Proctor, Winona Ryder as Abigail Williams and Joan Allen as Elizabeth Proctor, a 1996 production that I don’t remember coming out (it was not a box office hit), but one that is an excellent film. 

               Either the other parents didn’t get the memo, or their kids strongly encouraged them to stay home, but the reluctant ex-wife and I were the only parents there.  The film was shown in the High School auditorium, the kids watched from the balcony, and we watched from the main floor with one of the teachers, thus not embarrassing the Reluctant Son too much (he left the auditorium with the other kids after the post movie discussion and we discreetly hooked back up with him at our cars – he only acknowledged us with the slightest of nods in the auditorium).   The sound in the auditorium was not good, and we sat far enough away from the group during the discussion afterwards to avoid embarrassing our boy, but the students all had their backs to us, so we did not get all of the film or the discussion, and so I apologize ahead of time if I missed an important detail from either.

               This play, written as a commentary on McCarthyism and Puritanism by one of our great playwrights, was appropriately discussed primarily from the vantage point of the cultural and historical significance that it has.  From this vantage point it is, as told, the story of hysterical contagion – of a group of girls caught being naughty – dancing in the woods and dabbling in a slave’s spiritualist practices something that the Puritans perceived to be witchcraft and a sin – and the ways in which they transform their naughtiness, which puts them at risk of censure – into pointing their fingers at the rest of the community – using the community’s beliefs and rigidity against them in ways that create a tragedy – the tragic fulcrum being the rigid laws and mores of the community.  The high school group discussed the girls’ strategy or tactic of first implicating the most marginalized in the community – the beggar and the slave – before moving onto respected members of the community and eventually crossing a line when they accuse a pillar of the community – the minister’s wife – that finally strains and breaks their credibility.  This was compared to McCarthy’s first fingering writers and actors and the intelligentsia –people who are marginalized in the governmental system and the social system more generally - and it was only when McCarthy tried to take on military figures that  his indecent tactics were seen for what they really were.

               The group also discussed the potential corruption of a system that married the church and the state so that a legal trial, which physically took place in the church with the authority of the religious government behind it, was able to produce “evidence” that was based in belief systems rather than in consensually observable phenomena, producing a tyranny in which a well-meaning judge (Paul Scofield) was corrupted without knowing it, and one in which that judge fell more and more into the trap of having to stick with his method after it should have been apparent that things were terribly awry because, in part, to change in midcourse would be to acknowledge the fatal errors that he had made to that point.  This, in turn, became a discussion of the foundational importance of separating church and state in the US constitution. 

               The movie was also discussed as a movie.  The literature teacher also teaches film and encouraged the students to consider the director’s choices in framing particular shots and choosing to bring some characters to the fore at certain moments and how this helped move the story along and underlined important themes.  They discussed how shooting from below made some characters and moments larger – how shooting the dining room table to emphasize the distance between John and Elizabeth when they were eating represented the psychological distance between them at that point in the movie.  There was also a very interesting discussion of the use of music and how it influenced the viewer’s experience of the film.

The conversation went in other directions, all directly relevant to the course and the task at hand and, in so far as I could hear it, an informed, intelligent and lively discussion of an important work of art and two periods in history that interweave in interesting ways.  And a discussion that was diametrically opposed to how I would have approached interpreting the movie.  From the perspective of this psychoanalyst, the story is about the tension between three people – John and Elizabeth Proctor and the orphaned girl – Abigail Williams – whom they hire to help them around the house and on the farm.  John, a rigid and upright man, has an illicit affair with Abigail – he characterizes it as engaging in the sin of lechery – during a time when his wife, due to illness, is sexually unavailable to him.  He characterizes this affair as a bestial failing, though it is clear that Abigail became attached to the qualities he displays as a doting father and husband and fell in love with him – in addition to being powerfully sexually attracted to him.  She also became aware of her power as a sexual creature - as the person who caused him to fall from the perch that he had established for himself as an upright and perfectly righteous man - to sin - to become human.  Perhaps she became cynical – especially when he spurned her after his wife discovered them and fired her and he disavowed their love – and she may have decided that the entire society was corrupt and deserved whatever came to it.  Though it also seemed that she felt she could continue to use her power to make him love her and to bring them back together - believing, in effect, that they were star crossed lovers.  In any case, she began to act from a position of power, if corrupt power, calling herself high and mighty and throwing the town into turmoil, and murdering 18 or so members of it along the way.

This, then, from the perspective of the individuals involved is a tragedy; one that is based on John’s pride, his adultery and the rigidity of the moral code of the Puritans.  But it becomes clear in an achingly beautiful scene between him and his wife, when she owns her own part in it, that there is room for multiple tragic heroes here.  Elizabeth Proctor is as upright a woman as there is.  She would, for instance, never tell a lie, and John relies on this to stem the craziness.  Her loyalty to him overrides her aversion to lying, but this is but a road bump on the way to her true revelation.  While Elizabeth did withhold her love for seven months, about which she feels guilty, her true crime – or sin in this context – is a somewhat ironic one.  She, believing herself to be too plain to be loved, never engaged with John in ways that would have allowed his love to sustain them across the inevitable dry spells that enter into relationships.  This sin is ironic because it is a lack of pride – not an overabundance of it – that, from Elizabeth’s position, sets the whole tragedy in motion; and pride, as we know, is a sin that the puritans were vigilantly guarding against.

In this poignant scene, after Elizabeth has been asked by the judge to help John confess to cavorting with the devil in order to avoid being hung, John asks her to forgive him.  She clarifies to him that neither she nor anyone else can deliver absolution – the judge that he must satisfy is the one that lives within himself.  But in the very next scene it is clear that this psychoanalytic solution – the one that involves the relationship between John Proctor and himself – is not an adequate one.  In fact, what others think of him is important to him and simply being OK with God and Elizabeth is not enough.  John wants to retain his good name.

So, the literary, the historical and the psychoanalytic each bring something important to the understanding of this play.  In the ultimate moment, when John Proctor and the two women of integrity (as the reluctant ex-wife pointed out) are being executed (no spoiler alert necessary for that; I already told you it was a tragedy), the three say the Lord’s Prayer together to the assembled townspeople, including the request to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  In the context of the moment, those who are being hung poignantly forgive those hanging them, but we also see the integration of the perspectives that are socially derived (the literary and historical) and those that are psychologically derived (especially in the sense of the psyche as the soul).  The martyrs, for – in addition to being tragic heroes they are, indeed, martyrs (and this is another layer of the social/psychological dichotomy) – are forgiving those who have wrongly condemned them – and they, as tragic heroes, are asking for the forgiveness of the ultimate objective/subjective judge, God.   


One of the revolutionary and powerful tools that Freud afforded us was using the subjective perspective as the defining perspective from which to understand the ways in which the events in an individual’s life unfold.  As powerful as this perspective is it is not the only perspective that matters.  Certainly Freud’s case of Dora proved this, but so does a high school history and literature class. 

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Sunday, October 12, 2014

Silver Linings Playbook and a Poetry Slam – The Reluctant Psychoanalyst Reflects on Female Sexuality as a Powerful Healing Force



   The Reluctant Wife recommended that we watch Silver Linings Playbook on date night and I somewhat reluctantly agreed.  Her description of an award winning film that depicted the trials and tribulations of a guy who is bipolar, out of the hospital AMA and falling in love with someone who helps him get better frankly sounded like going to work.  And I was concerned about how accurate the portrayal of mental illness would be and how much time I would spend evaluating that and so on and so forth.  Well…  This is a delightful little film.  And one that I think says something very interesting – not so much about mental illness, but about the function that sex can serve in relationships between men and women. 
     The film is set in Philadelphia and Bradley Cooper plays Pat Solatano, Jr., the character who is hospitalized after he discovers his wife Nikki having a tryst in their shower with a history teacher from the high school where she works.   Pat beats her lover so severely that they are both hospitalized, the teacher for injuries and Pat for a mental disorder by the judge.  Pat comes by his violent streak honestly – his Dad (played by Robert De Niro) is no longer allowed to go to Eagles games because he was in too many fights in the stands.  Released from the hospital into the care of his mother (Jacki Weaver) and father, Pat meets his buddy’s sister-in-law Tiffany (played by Jennifer Lawrence the star of the the hunger games movies), who is recently widowed, at a dinner party thrown by his buddy and his buddy’s wife, who is still in contact with Pat’s wife Nikki– who, in turn, has a restraining order against Pat, which he resents and bridles against as he is still madly in love with his wife despite her affair.
     The party is where things get interesting.  Tiffany is a slightly gothy, completely wacky woman who apparently sleeps with anything that walks.  She leaves the dinner early, Pat walks her home, she invites him to have sex, and you’d think Pat, who hasn’t had sex in a long while, would bed her in heartbeat, but his devotion to Nikki prevents it.  Tiffany promises to deliver a letter to Nikki for Pat if Pat will practice dancing and enter a dance contest with her.  OK, now the spoilers begin.  Tiffany, as wacky as she is, is in league with Pat’s Mom.  Pat’s Mom let’s her know when Pat is going out jogging so that she can stalk him, which she does as she tries to get him to commit to practicing for the dance contest and competing.  Pat’s Mom, who sprung Pat from the hospital prematurely, is trying to fix Pat up with Tiffany because she believes Tiffany is better for him than Nikki was or ever could be.  Neither Pat nor we know about his mother’s machinations.  When he finally commits to the dance routine in exchange for Tiffany sending his letters to Nikki (and returning letters from Nikki to him), he becomes quite fond of Tiffany and fends off one of the many men that she has bedded and keeps on strings since her husband’s death.
     Tiffany’s explanation for her apparently indiscriminate interest in sex is tied up with her husband’s death.  He died when they had been having a slow spell in their sexual relationship; he had driven to Victoria’s Secret to get something to spice up their relationship and on the way home, he had a flat tire and, while changing it, was hit by a car.  What she doesn’t say is that to deny sex to a man is to kill him, but it isn’t hard to connect the dots.  She became set on a path of preventing the deaths of men (and women) in her life – and also assuaging her guilt for killing her husband – by having sex with all of them.  Of course, this introduced interesting complications, including getting fired when she slept with everyone in her office, but I think one of the complications is that she attracted men (and women) who really did need her to keep them from falling apart.  And Pat stands out because he is able to use his ex-wife - a woman he is NOT sleeping with – to organize himself – to keep himself from falling apart (though just barely – and Tiffany helps – a lot – and it is, I think, important that her help, too, does not involve having sex with him).
     What truth is there to this?  Will a man fall apart without sex?  Men talk about exploding when they don’t have sex (Blue balls is the myth that men pass around about what will happen if they become aroused and don’t orgasm – as if they didn’t get erections 4 or 5 times every night when they dream; and very rarely do they wake up the next morning with missing or damaged parts).  And sexual intercourse was privileged by none other than Freud himself, who credited masturbation as causing mental illness and intercourse as the route to mental health.  The irony is that while Freud was doing this, at least initially, he was denying the importance of the relationship between people as a curative factor – or certainly giving relationally based cures a snide dismissal (he was also likely having sex infrequently - we don't have good data about his masturbatory habits).  In any case, Kohut is the analyst who talks about individuals becoming shattered because they don’t have an internal sense of integrity, and he ties this to the need to have another person to, quite literally, hold them together – something that, across time, in normal development (and presumably in treatment), we internalize, so that we are able to hold ourselves together because we have an internal version of the people who have held us together.  For Kohut, unlike for Freud, this isn’t explicitly tied to sex; but Tiffany makes that connection.  She senses the vulnerabilities of the men (and women) that she approaches, and serves as an organizing entity through her sexuality – though she seems to be equal parts stabilizing and chaos inducing.
     Lawrence’s portrayal of Tiffany, for which she earned an Oscar, shimmers.  She steals every scene that she is in.  We cannot take our eyes off her (OK, maybe it’s just me as a man, that can’t, but I think there is more to it than that).  Tiffany hovers between offering this tremendous salve – this healing binding force which will cure what ails you – and being desperately hungry for something herself – something that only the other, only this one, can provide.  As in all good romantic comedies, the tension between Tiffany and Pat builds, but her apparent nonchalance – she is the one who has all the goodies – precariously balances against the need to have Pat love her, a need she tries to hide from him, but one that we can see all too clearly – a need for him to transfer his allegiance from Nikki – who surely does not deserve it – to her.  She not only deserves, but needs someone who can love her as firmly and resolutely as Pat loves Nikki – not someone who needs the salve of a temporary fix that comes from a sexual encounter that momentarily helps them believe that they are worthy, but someone who can use her presence to anchor themselves and, because they are capable of doing that, they can serve as the kind of anchor that she needs – someone who can be deeply, intimately and constantly connected to her and help her rebuild the sense of herself that she had – or hoped to achieve – in the relationship with her husband.
     Last night we went to a spoken word event.  This is poetry, sometimes set to music, frequently written by African Americans and, at least in our local rendition, is frequently written to heal the wounds that the poets have, but they are wounds that, at least in the experience of the authors talking, are not just their own, but shared by the community.  I happened to have gone to an African American funeral earlier in the day – one of the brothers of one of my co-workers died – and to a wedding reception for two women who had celebrated the twentieth anniversary of their original, illegal wedding by getting married with the imprimatur of the state.  At each of these events the congregants were together, supporting each other, helping each other to bear – to be – constant to each other.  Trying to help each other rise above the difficulties of being able to be constant because of the ways that trauma – death, exclusion by society, the inconstancy of a fragmented culture’s caretaking – had deeply and powerfully impacted individuals.  The hope – a hope that was exemplified by both Nikki and Pat – in each of the three gatherings – was that, in spite of the odds against it – this group, these individuals could be constant for each other – could provide what is needed to help keep themselves and each other stitched together, whole and filled with integrity.
All four then; the movie, the funeral, the wedding and the poetry slam, were dreams.  Dreams that point towards an integrity not yet achieved.  The movie – as dreams that are of things that are not yet quite possible in the mind of the dreamer – lurches towards its conclusion.  The plot is far-fetched and threatens to fall apart.  Our credulity is strained.  Things don’t fit together seamlessly and threaten to spin out of control.  And the conclusion is not quite the fairy tale ending – which is much more satisfying than a pure fairy tale ending would be (that said, there is an unrealistic amount of cotton candy at the very end– it is, after all, a Hollywood product…).
     William Raspberry, an African American Columnist, wrote in a column twenty years ago that he felt little hope for the African American Community because he did not see that African Americans were able to help themselves.  I think that a culture whose shared roots lie in inhumane trauma – trauma that is institutionalized as well as woven into the transgenerational transmission of trauma through the family and individual relationships - will be incredibly hard pressed to achieve the healing that the spoken word performers were seeking through their work.  It will be long, slow work – the work of generations.  But it is incredibly important work – and as we lurch towards achieving the goals of that work, I think that it is no accident that soul and R&B music – with its references to sexual healing and love – including especially decidedly physical expressions of love – is an expression of a powerful balm that those who have been traumatized can be drawn towards (see an essay on Hozier, an Irish r&B performer, here).  And while the ending of Silver Linings (it is a RomCom) suggests that this is an achievable end; Tiffany’s unbalanced lurching towards that goal – Pat’s belief that enough exercise will win Nikki back - the importance of Pat’s parents being willing to endure the tension of working without a net, all of these clearly characterize just how chancy and risky it is to try to bootstrap our way to happiness. 

     But honestly, what other option do we have?  Won’t we necessarily be inconstant in our efforts to provide each other with the foundation that we need to move forward?  Won’t this be incredibly destabilizing – how can we learn to trust when we keep getting disappointed by those we rely on most closely and intimately?  But won’t we, in the process, learn the value of constancy?  Won’t we become that which we are lurching towards – not the Kardashian’s, who use money and things to prop themselves up, but people whose love for each other creates a base that they can use to spread that love to others – not just through sex – but through caring for our children and for each other – being able to love more broadly than just sexually because we have a foundation – a base to work from – a base in our relationships with our parents and other caregivers where the sexual is peripheral – not central – that allows us to build ourselves into adults who are comfortably sexual – in whatever way that may be, including being asexual – and we can work from this adult, loving base to spread the love that will develop us and those around us further?  Perhaps not in this or the next generation; but we will only achieve our destination if we keep working towards it.   


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


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