Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The West Wing and History - The Reluctant Psychoanalyst thinks about Executive Functioning



Aaron Sorkin's West Wing is, in my mind, the best TV drama of all time.  TV Guide rates it number 7, and I think that the question of whether it or Hill Street Blues or LA Law or whatever the other six are is best is largely a matter of preference.  I like the content - especially of the first four seasons when Sorkin was still writing it.  I used to wait for it and watch it every Wednesday night - it was my one hour of TV a week.  OK, maybe I watched Seinfeld, too.  Netflix has given me the opportunity to watch it again - this time with the reluctant wife who did not see it then and, thankfully, is enjoying it now as much as I am.  We are bingeing on it - much as we did on Grace and Frankie.  For me, it is partially a trip down memory lane, and that is an interesting and convoluted trip not just through my memory, but through the weird way in which history was presented and lived in watching the series when it was live.

The West Wing and Seinfeld were alike in that watching both - I suppose especially if that was my hour and a half of TV - kept me posted on the news.  Sure, I read the newspaper, but to find out that high flow shower heads had been banned by the federal government, I had to see the goofy hairdos on Seinfeld, and to be educated about women's issues in the Middle East, I had to learn about a mythical country named Qumar on the West Wing.  The West Wing lived in a weird Universe that was part the Clinton Presidency Redux (I must admit to feeling sorry for George W. that he had to compete with Jed Bartlet as President - Jed was a nobel winning scholar, articulate (he had Aaron Sorkin writing for him, remember) and he was passionate, informed and empathically attuned - and a good actor).  No President in living memory could live up to him.  But he had a flaw.  A central and powerful one - an intractable one - he lied during his campaign.  He didn't tell the American People that he had relapsing-remitting Multiple Sclerosis.  This flaw was a touchstone with the past - with the Clinton Presidency.  Which lie was it?  Lies about Whitewater?  I think it was the lies about Monica Lewinski.  And this amalgam of an au courant President fighting through the peccadilloes of his predecessor and model created an idealized executive - an executive that, I think, allowed Clinton's former staffers to realize the dreams that they had - the dreams that they were characterized as having in Primary Colors - the dreams of the true believers.

The series was, apparently, originally conceived as focusing on the staffers of the White House - so much so that the original intent was not to cast a President - I'm guessing the staffers would disappear into the Oval Office and then come out and talk about it.  This may have been the first symptom of the anger.  Bill Clinton's Presidency could have been a great one if only he hadn't been in the Oval Office!  This understandable wish to erase the president who embarrassed the nation and caused incredible debt on the part of staffers who had to hire lawyers to protect them against sharks who wanted to expose the President's lies did not lead to an idealized version of the staff.  They are smart, hardworking, but also smug and almost drunk with the amount of power that they clearly enjoy wielding both to achieve good outcomes for the country, but also to embarrass and harm those who would oppose them.  This arrogance frequently proves to be their undoing, and they have to learn to temper it, to play within themselves.  They also have to learn that the Republican side of the aisle contains people of principle and they have to engage with them in good faith.  We now have the makings of a true fantasy - political adversaries in a two party system working for the good of the country!

We took a break from our bingeing to visit Kent State University - site of the May 4, 1970 shootings where US National Guards shot unarmed protesting students who were running from them: they injured 11 and killed 4.  The site of the gathering and the site of the shootings are marked by educational signs that include photographs of the gathering spot and of the parking lot where most of the students were shot.  They tell the story of Richard Nixon, who had run for President on a platform of bringing a close to the Vietnam war, telling the American People on Thursday April 30 that the US had invaded Cambodia, expanding the scope of the war.  The next day, May 1, protesters gathered at the Victory Bell, in front of a natural amphitheater on campus and buried a copy of the constitution in response; enacting what they believed Nixon had done.  The ROTC building on campus also "caught fire" - presumably it was burned by the protesters.  The following Monday, May 4, there was a gathering to continue the protest.  Store owners had asked the Governor, Jim Rhodes, to send in the National Guard because they were concerned that the students were out of hand.  Rhodes, characterizing the protesters as worse than Nazis, promised to "eradicate the problem."  He ordered that the M-1 Rifles of the soldiers should be loaded with live ammunition to be used in addition to the tear gas they routinely used (those rifles apparently were always carried but without ammunition - I think the bayonets on them were enough to allow the guard to effectively disperse the crowd).

The memorial is moving and very well designed.  The focus of most of the plaques and of the area of reflection overlook the natural bowl and the victory bell - and what is now and was then a practice football field.  The students were driven from this area - into a parking lot behind the building that dominates it and shot there.  While there are plaques and memorials there - the focus is on where the students stood - not on where they fell.

As a Gen Xer, the events of the 1960s, including the shootings of 1970, which occurred when I was ten, dominated my teenage years.  It was a little like watching the Bartlet Presidency while Bush was in office - locally it was "cool" to be a hippie - grow your hair long and rebel against authority - while nationally - even though Crosby, Stills and Nash were still singing about Ohio, the tide was turning.  Nixon resigned in disgrace, and then we were confronting the energy crisis of the Carter years - little did we know we were on the verge of a second major post war economic expansion that would make the ragged clothes of the hippies who preached living on love look quaint and old fashioned - get over it man and get a Mercedes!  Reagan and his white horse are coming to town!



My grandmother was captivated by the Watergate hearings - even more than I am by the West Wing.  She watched them daily - from beginning to end - they were broadcast live on network TV - this was before CNN.  She had only been able to vote for Nixon twice - the Daly Machine in Chicago prevented her - as a lifelong Republican - from voting in 1960, when Cook County carried Illinois which, in turn, carried Kennedy to the presidency.  I think she was always convinced that if she could have voted in that election, the world would have been a different and probably better place.  This was because she was convinced of the integrity of Nixon.  He, and indeed politicians in general, were venerated as men - they were largely men - of principle and she (and we) trusted them to be doing what was right (except for that Daly guy - whom we all knew to be corrupt).  It was crushing to her that these supposedly virtuous men were exposed as deeply flawed people - who could not be trusted to follow the rules - nor to tell the truth when it was apparent to everyone what had occurred.  I think the Watergate hearings must have predated but foreshadowed her discovery that men in her own family could not be trusted in the ways that she had always thought they could.  In any case, she spent much of the 1970s in a profound funk - that, if I were able to retrospectively diagnose family members, I might call a depression.

The West Wing, then, might be seen as an antidepressant - a way of resurrecting faith in government - by creating men and women of principle who work on our behalf - not without human failings, but with conviction about the importance of their cause to create a world that is a better one.  A world in which people keep their word.  A world where, when they promise to end a war, they do it.  When they say they will protect the people, they work to do that.  A world in which people, when they make a mistake, cop to it.  On the episode we watched tonight, Jeb Bartlet, in January of season three, agrees to accept the censure of the House and Senate.  He heads off a fight that he brought on, one that he might have won because the House would have been exposed as being as unreliable as they are trying to paint him, but the fight would have been ugly and his Chief of Staff and many other staffers would have been impugned.  He chose not to engage in that dog fight not to save his Chief of Staff, but because it was the right thing to do.  He was wrong, and the congress should censure him, and he should accept that.  And we should move on with the business of governing - of doing good for the people - not spending time trying to come up with the definition of what "is" is.  And we should let them decide whether they would re-elect him, warts and all, or whether they would find his sins unforgivable.  This is how it ought to be done.

And this is an idealized version of our own executive functioning.  The West Wing can become, for a moment, the way that we should be functioning as individuals.  Relying on our manifold subroutines - aids in the West Wing; unconscious processes in our own minds that determine even our most defining acts not as a result purely of rational - nor of irrational activity - but as the result of compromise - of determining what is possible and what is desirable and what is acceptable and what won't compromise us - and trusting that our executive - and at this moment it is worth noting that Jeb Bartlet and Captain Kirk (see a review of Star Trek here) share more commonalities than my earlier encomium would suggest - our executive is, in fact, a complex entity that can be self protective - if we are Bill Clinton (or a host of others), without regard for the consequences to those we care about.  Because our executives are hot headed or anxious or self conscious or bold and therefore somewhat blind or cautious or recalcitrant - and this kaleidoscope of styles - one or more of which may be our most comfortable functional space - characterize not just the presidents of the last hundred or so years, but our own functioning, in different settings and at different moments in our lives.



Wasn't Jim Rhodes once a scared little kid?  Didn't he have an executive function that led him to make sure that he was never bullied again?  Did he construct himself in such a way that he would show the bullies - even if they came in the form of kids at a regional campus in a tiny corner of the state?  Did he not, then, unleash the power of the State to eradicate the problem?  Wasn't this eradication murder?  Didn't he become the thing he most reviled - the thing he accused his enemies - his own citizens - the children of his citizens - of being - a Nazi?

And though accepting Censure helps the West Wing crew, and the imaginary, parallel nation get past the deceit of a President who lies about his health but is otherwise virtuous, don't we still feel disappointed (in the next episode and in real life) that we haven't shot for the moon - the way that man who wasn't really elected - Kennedy - did?  Don't we want to be not just not a liar, not a thief, not a Nazi, but someone great?  Don't we secretly harbor disappointment that this leader - of our country, or our state, of our town, or our work, of our place of worship, of our own ship of state - hasn't accomplished all that he or she might?  Don't we wish to do more than simply not do evil?

I think the strivings of our executive, integrative function - of our narcissism - of our positive selves - perhaps pushed in part by the sublimation of our darker selves - are what fuel us to achieve what we do.  And yet we are also flawed - in big and minor ways - and our accomplishments - no matter the size of the stage - leave something to be desired.  We cry out - whether by burying the constitution or in the middle of the night from the middle of our dreams - against injustice.  We work to remind ourselves that we have not done all that we should or that have done what we should not.  Within ourselves we call that guilt - within the body politic we call that protest.

The memorial at Kent State is ultimately a memorial to the importance of free speech.  And free speech is at the cornerstone of the analytic endeavor.  We need to hear those voices that we would squelch - they carry valuable information.  Do we need to be ruled by them?  Ultimately the politicians have to answer - in a country that is free and has free speech and freedom of the press - to the people.  But not just to a vocal minority.  Just because I protest doesn't mean that I am right - nor that I am the voice of the majority.  Just because I feel guilty doesn't mean that I am not engaged in the best possible course of action.  There will be costs to living.  There will be costs to governing.  Plato urged the governors, in the Republic, to have a well-ordered soul.  Indeed, he used, as I have done, the state as a metaphor for that soul - and proposed that they should be reflective of each other - each being led by a philosopher king.  I believe that we need to organize ourselves to be as well prepared as we can be to meet the challenges that we will encounter with our best possible selves.  And to recognize that even these selves will be flawed.

Jed Bartlet's story is much less sordid than Bill Clinton's.  He entered the race to make a few points - to be part of the national dialogue.  The true philosopher king, he was convinced to run by his friend and future Chief of Staff.  He didn't believe that he had a chance to win, so didn't think that he needed to disclose his illness.  But the future Chief of Staff assembled a campaign staff - who would later staff the White House - who were competent, knowledgeable and savvy and they ran a campaign that introduced Bartlet to the Country.  The country was as impressed with him as the group of staffers had been - despite the fact that Jed did not respond well personally to the staffers - likely, in part, as a reflection of his ambivalence about running.

Once the country embraced him, Jed was faced with a decision - the decision of the character played by Larry Hagman in Primary Colors - "Do I - having made the gesture and now being the frontrunner - acknowledge that I also have a secret?"  In Bartlet's case - that I am sick and may not be able at all moments to perform the duties of the President.  This could lose the Presidency for me.  I didn't know how strongly I wanted it, but now I do.  I have a chance to do the good that I have dreamed of (and to become President - let's not leave that out - something that I have always wanted to do for very selfish reasons), but I might lose that opportunity if I risk letting others know of my condition.

I linger here, as I bring this overly long post to a close, because I think it is at the heart of the dilemma about executive functioning.  No big decision is ever simple.  No big decision is ever pure.  We are complex critters and our actions, when they occur, especially when they are important actions - choosing to run for President and choosing to keep the secret - arming the national guard - are the result of complex psychological processes that we can have, at best, fragmentary information about as we engage in them.  Psychoanalysis has been accused of being a science that can only predict in retrospect - but that may be the only way that we can know important elements of ourselves - and only then if we have the courage to acknowledge the complexity of our character and the baser elements that inform our actions.

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Sunday, September 13, 2015

Freud, Klein, Bion and the intersubjectivists – The Reluctant Psychoanalyst and his Stepdaughter Disagree about whether Relationships are like Planetary Systems


Relationships are like planetary systems  (OK, you know which side I’m on).  We exert influence on and are influenced by those in our interpersonal orbit.  With actual planetary systems, for instance the earth and the sun, the earth doesn’t really revolve around the sun.  If there were no other objects in the Universe, the earth and sun would revolve around a point between the two objects, but much closer to the sun, because it is much larger than the earth.  Similarly, when we are in a relationship with another person, we revolve around a point that is somewhere between us, and much closer to the person who exerts the most emotional gravitational pull.

So, for instance when we are born, developmental psychologists have clarified that we are born into a systemic relationship with our caregivers.  The infant is dependent on the caregiver for food, but even more importantly, perhaps, for comfort.  The caregiver – the parent – is knocked out of whatever orbits they have been in and begin to orbit around this little bit of nothing that is new in their lives.  We might be able to place the point that they revolve around between them – though we might also experience the parent – certainly the one with more physical mass – as revolving around the infant, or a point closer to the infant.  This would be because the emotional mass – the amount of weight the other has for the person – might be huge for the parent.  Of course, for the child, even if the ability to appreciate the emotional mass is limited, the needs for sustenance and nurturance place that infant’s orbital center quite close to the parent.   

Mapping the earth and the sun, in physics, is called a two body problem and it is a relatively simple one to solve.  In the first paragraph, I said that “If there were no other objects in the Universe” because when we introduce even one more object – say another planet – the problem becomes infinitely more complicated.  The relative mass of the three objects creates a dynamic and changing central point around which all three objects are revolving.  So when we have a planetary system with multiple planets, all exerting influence, it becomes really tough to solve these problems; tough enough that Newton invented the calculus to have a go at it.

A few mornings ago, on the way to her first day away at college, the reluctant stepdaughter and I had an extended period of time together in the car.  As the start of college has approached and the end of the social world that has supported her to this point has occurred, it has been a challenging time for her – and thus for the people around her.  We were puzzling about how to understand this, and an interesting conversation broke out (This is not the first time I have reported on a conversation with her – see the posting about The Big Lebowski).  Relationships, we posited, involve two or more people revolving around each other.  Or at least I thought we posited it.  When I showed her a draft of this blog, the reluctant stepdaughter disowned the model I am about to describe – she saw it as coming entirely from me and described it as a cool thing I figured out that didn’t apply to her.

Well, at least she said it was cool, so I will continue…

When you apply the relationship as planets model back to physics, a weird thing happens.  The interpersonal system is dynamic in ways that the physics system is – but in other ways as well.  For instance, while the mass of the various planets and the sun is stable, the emotional masses of the individuals in our lives are dynamic.  When someone we are drawn to (love) becomes sick or imperiled, their mass can become larger – we can be drawn into their orbit.  Of course, this being a science that is much more complex than physics, it is also the case that the other's mass can decrease – we can distance ourselves from them for a whole host of reasons.  Imagine that someone is married to someone with a terminal disease.  He cares for her and she dies.  This is difficult, but he recovers and falls in love within someone else who contracts the same disease.  He may choose to withdraw rather than going through a similar process a second time.

So we have a system in which not only are there many important objects revolving around each other creating a dynamic and changing point of revolutionary center – these objects are all changing their weights at varying rates.  Wow!  What kind of math will we have to invent to figure that out?  Especially when there are seven billion objects involved?

Once you grant the metaphor  substance, some interesting things follow: being in a relationship creates a kind of dynamic stability as you and the other revolve around each other, creating a centrifugal/centripetal system – not unlike the wheel of a bike that, the faster it spins, the more stability it provides.  So riding at a high rate of speed is relatively easy (“look Ma, no hands”) vs. riding at slow speeds where the vehicle becomes very wobbly and hard to control.  This creates a sense of stability to the self – but in the context of having that system fall apart – it becomes apparent that the stability resides, at least partly, outside the self and, without others to anchor us, we can fly out of orbit.

I experienced this metaphor as being built in the conversation between the reluctant stepdaughter and me on the way to college.  In retrospect, the bricks come from me.  The reluctant stepdaughter is very bright – and while she certainly helped me apply some of the mortar, her email clarified that she experienced this as a less collaborative conversation than imagined.  I experienced us as using the metaphor to explore the details of the perturbations that have taken place during this time of transition, and I (consciously) was trying to help her think through how she might go about re-establishing a sense of equilibrium as she enters a new field filled with other objects ready to mingle and create new and complex relational systems. 

Lawrence (Larry) Brown, who visited our institute this past winter and whose book, Instersubjective Processes and the Unconscious I have been wading through, would have a lot to say about the conversation – though he would have to translate some of his terms because Brown is interested in the relationships between analysts and their analysands – a powerful dyadic pair – and he does not talk much about the relationships between regular folks (unless we count parents and infants as regular folks).  In the following I will try to apply what he says to a more ordinary, run of the mill, but also complex relationship – that between a parental figure and child on the cusp of adulthood, but I think the ideas apply to all kinds of relationships – relationships between spouses, lovers, and friends.  There has to be some intensity in the relationship for the components to come into play, but once the intensity is there, I think the intersubjective field opens up.

Brown does a nice job of articulating the psychologies of Freud, Melanie Klein, and Wilfred Bion.  Melanie Klein was a German psychoanalyst who, along with many others, emigrated to England while Hitler was gaining power.  There she and Sigmund Freud’s daughter Anna led two opposing camps that fought for the soul of psychoanalysis.  Klein was an object relational psychoanalyst – she believed not only that we are dependent on each other but that we internalize our relationships with each other – and these internalized relationships form the core of our characteristic ways of interacting with each other.  Wilfred Bion, a student of Klein who applied her ideas early on to the functioning of groups, ultimately emigrated to the United States and wrote in a dense style that Brown works to translate in his book. 

Both Klein and Bion have ideas that are a bit crazy sounding at first.  For instance, when working from a Kleinian/Bionian perspective, I was taught to offer an interpretation to a psychotherapeutic group along the lines of “the group seems to be feeling x today,” as if a group could have a shared mind.  And yet, in T groups (named after the Tavistock Clinic where Bion Practiced when he lived in London), when a group is left intentionally leaderless, the intensity of shared feelings is quite remarkable.  As a member of such a group, I have felt tossed and turned and have experienced powerful feeling states that did, indeed, seem to be shared – and have had sensory and perceptual alterations that were, despite being quite transitory, arresting in their power.

Brown takes the ideas of Klein and Bion and suggests that part of what is transpiring in what he calls the
“dynamic field” goes beyond the conscious communication between two people – it is an intersubjective communication – meaning one where – in addition to the conscious communication – and the communication of one unconscious with another (and with one’s self as well – “oops, I called you my Mom” would be a flat footed example where both the analyst and the analysand might together realize an unconscious wish had become conscious), he is proposing an ongoing intercommunication between the two unconscious minds of the interlocutors – the intersubjectivity is a shared but unconscious communication.  Brown points to an Argentinian couple, Wally and Madeleine Baranger, who, in 1962 took Kleinian ideas and moved them into the intersubjective realm by positing a dynamic field in which “neither member of the couple can be understood without the other.”  Further, the couple together constructs the shared fantasy of what will take place between them – what their interaction will produce.

The conversation with my stepdaughter was a charged one.  She was setting off for college.  Things had been difficult between us as that time had approached.  While she intermittently maintained good communications with her mother (who was also in the car with us) during this time, she and I had not talked much.  This is not unusual in many ways, but I, at least, was feeling dissatisfied with the ability of the conversations that she was having with her mother and that her mother reports to me to help me manage the feelings that were being stirred in me by her leaving.  And those feelings were intense, complicated, internally contradictory, and far from known by me.  What did I want from the conversation?  A lot.  How well could I articulate that?  Not so well.

The reluctant stepdaughter was a willing participant in the conversation, but it was not one she sought out.  I ambushed her a bit by driving and inviting her to sit in the passenger seat rather than her mother.  What did she want from the conversation?  There was likely a big part of her that wanted out of it.  But she was also willing – and I think even eager to figure out some of the stuff that had been bothering not just me but her.  And the metaphor that we created (or I imposed) was one that allowed us to have a language to talk about what had happened and to work towards acknowledging some of the anxieties that we each felt as she took this big step forward.  The astronomical metaphor that arose as a means of articulating the elements of her current situation – while it relied in large part on information that I provided – was fleshed out by both of our conscious minds, but Brown, Bion, Klein, and the Barangers, would further posit that our unconscious minds were hard at work – on the problem – and with each other.  I think Brown would add that this was also an expression of a shared though not articulated fantasy of what the conversation could produce.

To return to the metaphor for a moment, this conversation is one that takes place in the context of a myriad of relationships – and while there is an expression of wishes between us, I think the wishes between the reluctant stepdaughter and her mother, her father, and all of the people that we were talking about as planets in her personal solar system would come into play.  Similarly, my relationship with her mother, but also with my own solar system would have at least a residual influence, if only through the ways in which they had been internalized in my unconscious processing at the moment.

Brown proposes that Bion posits a special kind of relationship between people involved in an intimate relationship.  In this relationship, one person entrusts powerful feelings to the other – in the hopes that the other can “contain” them.  This containment idea is one that has been expanded to describe the entire process of treatment or analysis, but also the process of parenting.  The idea is that a child entrusts a feeling that is too powerful to contain to another, one who is able to hold on to it, and to metabolize it, and then to be able to return it in a form that is more manageable – perhaps as something that can be, for instance, articulated in language.


In the interaction with my stepdaughter, I think this was somewhat reversed.  I had powerful feelings that I wanted to express but was afraid to – I was angry with her, I was scared for her well-being, and I wanted to let her know that I would miss her.  But I was also afraid that expressing some of those feelings would destroy our ability to relate, at least in the moment.  The metaphor created a means for me to organize my thoughts and to communicate some of those feelings – and Brown/Bion would say, to introject – to deposit them inside her – for her to contain them and to metabolize them.  Her email was polite – she, I think, appreciated the effort on my part.  She also felt that I had missed the mark.  The model described something important, maybe about the way that I relate to people, but it was not relevant to the way that she relates to people.  She experiences relationships as much more chaotic and exerting less influence, at least on her, than the model, with all its gravity would suggest. That said, as we were leaving the dorm that night, she called out a very lovely “love you”, to which I was able to respond, “love you, too.”  Conscious or unconscious, intersubjective or just as a result of two bull headed people engaging with each other over time, we have created a connection, one that, I hope, in the constellation of other connections, exerts some pull as she heads off in new directions.

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