A Somewhat Quirky Guide
I have blogged about blogging (which is partly a description of how psychoanalysis is written about in these posts) before, but the earlier effort focused primarily on the process of blogging - how I go about doing this thing called blogging. In that piece I don't think I emphasized how much my process is a psychoanalytic one - it involves as freely associating as I can about a particular event - a work of art or an experience that has engaged me - and how that event calls up my approach to thinking psychoanalytically about things. As I tried to think about how to help folks who access this blog - many of whom do that, I presume, because of an interest in applied psychoanalysis, I have reread my blogs and looked for the major psychoanalytic themes or concepts that were evoked within the pieces, and I talk both about the themes and the pieces where I write about them below. I have also created an index to the materials sorted by material referenced (books, movies, etc.) so that you can access material without having to wade through an essay. Here I have organized material by the psychoanalytically based headings below. In both places posts are referred to under multiple headings because each of them is so unruly (though that happens more here than in the index).
Part of what I am trying to present here is a contemporary vision of psychoanalysis. That said, I am a reluctant psychoanalyst. My mother was (and still is - see my review the play she wrote and directed on Frank Lloyd Wright and plays we have seen together including School of Rock) a theater person. She looks for a narrative that holds things together - in the theater and in life. My becoming a psychoanalyst - and more particularly going through my own psychoanalysis - was threatening to her. Partly because the mother is always to blame - but also I think because it threatened the narrative that she had spun for our family. The irony is that psychoanalysis is a narrative creating entity itself - and its truths are as helpful, but also as conditional as the truths of my mother's more consciously constructed narrative. A posting on Statistics and Psychoanalysis actually gets at the importance of the narrative to understanding a situation.
Some of the headings listed below are traditional psychoanalytic headings, but some of them are idiosyncratic. I have mixed and matched from a variety of traditions - my mother is one source I suppose, literary and philosophical are additional sources, but I think the sources are centrally psychoanalytic, and I have created them as a means of organizing the themes that emerge in the posts that, at least in my mind, bring a psychoanalytically informed interpretation to various works of art and acts of living. I refer to some posts in more than one topic below as any post frequently looks from multiple perspectives. That said, no post is intended as the definitive psychoanalytic perspective on any work. That is an ever evolving and open issue that varies from person to person and within an individual person from time to time. There are often many additional ways of thinking about a work that are simply beyond my ability or interest to engage in at the time I write any particular post. Feel free to read the rest of page as an essay or to skim through looking for topics of interest.
PSYCHOANALYSIS ITSELF. Put three analysts in a room and ask them to define analysis and you will get four definitions. After blogging about analysis for five or six years, I decided to offer my own definition of what psychoanalysis is and why it is important to understanding the human condition.
INTEGRITY. A central theme of the writing of these blogs is a topic that is rarely talked about by analysts - personal integrity. I think of analysis as a vehicle towards greater personal integrity - and that this happens not by eliminating conflict, but, through the psychoanalytic process, acknowledging that we are complex individuals with conflicting and powerful feelings about one and the same thing. That we are not good or bad, but that we are most definitely both. I think this is deeply rooted in the conflict between our emotional and rational selves and perhaps no character personifies this better than Spock. That said, I don't think this has to be a source of conflict, but can also be a way of bringing ourselves together - internally and communally, something that I saw Hozier do in a musical concert and something that, weirdly, is perhaps epitomized by The Dude in The Big Lebowski. Canada is a funky book about families and murder and that also offers an interesting take on integrity.
Ironically, we can cling to a false sense of integrity through transference, perceiving others to be determined in ways that they, in fact, are not. This. in turn, can lead to Sado-masochistic interactions - and one in my own life is noted in the post cited in the last sentence. James Cone, in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, encourages us to reown our oppression of others as part of becoming fully human.
Eye in the Sky, Alan Rickman's last film, points out that some actions can't be undertaken with integrity. We are sometimes forced into situations in which there is no course of action that has a morally clear available option. The discussion of the film suggests that the film treats this dilemma as a tragic one that we must face using the resources that we have available to us. Mad Men, the series about an advertising agency in the sixties, suggests that our culture as a whole is founded on a lack of personal integrity - indeed that even the best of us are impostors. J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy is a memoir about achieving integrity - or at least striving towards it - perhaps the best that we can do.
FATE. Perhaps related to integrity, fate is something analysts don't talk much about. Alice Munro writes from a fatalistic perspective, and this gives her, perhaps ironically, a kind of analytically related compassionate detachment. The Orphan Master's Son is also about fate and a picture of American Fate in the fun house mirror of North Korea.
INTERPERSONAL CONNECTION/LOVE. As we attain a sense of integrity, we become more open to others. This loving experience is an undercurrent, and sometimes the main current in a therapeutic relationship. I review the novel Lila to a certain extent from the position of the lover - the one who is coming to know the beloved. This, I maintain, is the dominant role of the analyst in the analytic relationship. In an essay on Silver Linings Playbook and a Poetry Slam, I write about how love helps us lurch towards integrity. Kate Atkinson's Life after Life teaches us to find the goodness within a complex and horror filled world, while Elizabeth Strout's My Name Is Lucy Barton teaches about the nature of love and loneliness. In an essay on a movie about marital therapy and a book about a recovering professional torturer (Hope Springs is the movie and The Dew Breaker the book), questions about what make up the bonds of love emerge. Gregory Boyle lives the process of loving those who are hard to love in Tattoos on the Heart, a book about his working with gang members in south LA.
Love is, in fact, a very complicated human thing. Writing about crossing sexual boundaries in psychoanalytic relationships serves as a cautionary tale about the importance of keeping loving therapeutic relationships firmly in the camp of psychological love. I wrote two posts on Lisa Halliday's book Asymmetry - the first one emphasizes the asymmetrical relationship between the author and Philip Roth and called to mind the abuse of a classmate in high school, the second emphasizes the ways in which a paternal love, as complex as that is in a May-December romance, imbues a greater sense of oneself that is both one's own and foreign - something that all loves between parent and child, teacher and student, and treater and patient, to some extent do. The surprisingly good movie Bernie cautions us that hate is an integral part of love. Scott Simon's book, My Cubs, A Love Story, has some profound things to say about the importance of ambivalence in loving. The Swedish book and movie A Man Called Ove is a pleasant tale about how love conquers being a curmudgeon.
KNOWING THE OTHER/DIVERSITY/INDIVIDUAL DIFFERENCES/UNIVERSALITY. In addition to being known by ourselves, which is a fertile and necessary ground for integrity, and whether was can know/love another, I frequently explore whether and how we can be known by the other - what it means to be the beloved. The analytic process involves both self-knowledge - following our own associations to better know how our mind works, but also puzzling out, as we are talking about ourselves, whether the one listening can come to know us. The arts are very much about this as well. The Help is a post that asks whether we can be known by another - when that person is essentially different from us - in this case whether a member of the racial majority in the south can know someone's subjective experience who is African American. This becomes a theme in Between the World and Me, Dorothy Holmes, Black Lives Matter, Mrs. Bridge and Selma and, to a lesser extent, in Go Set a Watchman. In all of these books (and the movie), being known across racial lines is extremely limited. The author of Lila is more willing to imagine the mind of someone very different from herself, something that I admire but also think is risky. The essay about Escape From Alcatraz lends some support to the possibility that this effort may be on target. I take the author of The Serpent King, a compelling and well written young adult novel, to task for not appreciating how different the other may be - in this case, the son of a snake handling Pentecostal.
In the documentary film, RBG, Ruth Bader Ginsburg's fight to have the rights of her gender supported by the Supreme Court, whose bench she eventually joined, is based on her patiently helping those justices understand the experience of women, including herself.
In a more personal essay, I talk about the ways in which, despite the pleas that I have made above to hear about the subjective experience of others - particularly African Americans - when given an opportunity to do that, I failed. Dr, Dorothy Holmes presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychoanalytic Association about her experience as a black person and analyst - and I was not open to what she had to say. Ta-Nehisi Coates and James Cone, from two very different perspectives, offered perspectives on how to value - economically and spiritually - the contributions of minorities to the shared place we call the United States. Charles Johnson's book of short stories, Night Hawks, works to articulate the voices of a variety of marginalized people (and a dog). The movie Caché provides a cautionary tale about the ability of the dominant culture to accept the value of people that they feel guilty about having harmed while J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy meditates on what it takes for the exploited class to become empowered.
Phil Terman is a friend of mine who is a poet, and my essay on his book Our Portion explores the ways that we can know people through friendship and then through their writing - which is analogous, I believe, to the different ways that we know people in therapy versus the rest of their lives. I suppose you will have to evaluate whether I "got" him or not. In an essay about a novel about another professor in Pennsylvania, Richard Russo's Straight Man, there is more room to wonder about whether others know us better than we know ourselves. Andre Agassi's Open let's us wonder about question of how open someone can be who is known to all of us.
MOOCs and SMOCs and moldy socks is about addressing, and diminishing, diversity between people through teaching - helping students learn to think abstractly, to work towards being able to share the ability to articulate important things, and it is looking at how this can be one in first generation college students - the essay does not address the question of whether something is lost in doing this - I would refer you back to Lila for an artist's answer to that. Edward de vere as Shakespeare both defends education and asks about the ways in which the artist portrays himself. The topic of knowing the other is touched on in a superficial way in the book The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.
PRIVILEGE. Many of the posts in the preceding topic implicitly talk about privilege. Often that is seen as bad thing. In discussing Shakespeare in Love, privilege is seen as something that we are conflicted about, but that it may afford us opportunities to do things that otherwise we never could. Edward de Vere as Shakespeare purports that Shakespeare himself was a peer of the realm - tremendously privileged - and not the poor kid from Stratford. Psychoanalysis itself, of course, is something that is generally available to those of tremendous privilege, so it makes sense that it might not be a common psychoanalytic topic, but might be woven into much of our psychoanalytic discourse.
The Queen of Versailles is an example of privilege run amok, and clarifies that just having stuff is not enough to bring happiness. Angle of Repose is a much more nuanced look at the ways that privilege afforded a woman of the 1800s opportunities and challenges that her less privileged peers did not have. In posts about Transparent and The Sun Also Rises there is a commentary on how privilege is both a boon and an obligation. School of Rock is juxtaposed with a discussion about The Cross and the Lynching Tree to help clarify that even the most privileged are also oppressed, though if we don't recognize how we are not just privileged but oppressors we may miss something important in life.
Katherine Boo wrote about Indians with all but no privilege in Beyond the Beautiful Forevers and found that they have a moral center despite having to all but work against the system to achieve it. Shilpi Somaya Gowda wrote Golden Son about Indians with much higher privilege confronting similar dilemmas as they consider the upheaval of change within their own culture and the contrast between their culture and the west. Privilege here becomes a double edged sword as it allows them (and us) to become more destabilized as we confront head-on changes in our world.
POWER. Interpersonal power is inherent to the practice of psychoanalysis - but it is also something that we are conflicted about exercising. Perhaps one of the reasons for this is illustrated in the eighth Star Wars episode The Last Jedi when Luke Skywalker, who has taken his ball and gone home from the galactic battle, is approached about training a novice Jedi. He is, I surmise, frustrated with having a lot of power - but not absolute power - he cannot prevent terribly bad things from happening and he is not without failings. In a weird companion piece, Paterson, Adam Driver, who plays the bad guy in The Last Jedi plays a bus driving poet in Paterson - and the power of the poet is related to the power of the analyst. Incorporating power into one's character in a way that enhances it rather than destroys it, and involves much more inhibition that exercise of power, is exemplified by Elizabeth in The Crown.
On a more personal level, Captain Fantastic is an indie film that explores absolute power in the hands of a parent.
SEXUAL EXPLOITATION. Lisa Halliday's luminous and multifaceted novel Asymmetry is about many things, but in my post, I emphasize the way she explores power asymmetries in personal relationships and political ones - and the ways that she comes to grips with what could be viewed as an exploitative between she and Philip Roth, which is thinly disguised in the first part of the novel. The second part clarifies that these things exist on continua - and I use that as a means to explore the issue of what to do with a hero who has feet of clay in an experience that is near to my heart.
TRANSFERENCE. In On Transference Love, Freud explained that transference is the phenomenon of applying a "stereotype plate" to a current situation from a past situation. This facilitates regular human interactions, while interfering with really getting to know the particulars of another person - and, in the psychoanalytic interaction, becomes a key to understanding how we have structured our own internal lives. In Gender and Sexual Object, there is a discussion of the importance of the analyst bearing the transference experience of the patient. Her, a film about an operating system that comes alive, allows the viewer to watch a "person" being built out of transference. In Battle of the Sexes, the movie about Billie Jean King's match with the "chauvinist" Bobby Riggs, I am able to explore my own transference and revisit to learn more about it, as one does in an analysis.
I reread The Hobbit, Tolkien's prelude to his Lord of the Rings trilogy, and discovered that the warmth that I found in this book (especially in comparison to the Lord of the Rings) has to do with the paternal relationship between the writer and the reader - expressed in the author's conversational style with the reader and in a transferentially based relationship between Gandalf (as the paternal figure) and Bilbo Baggins (as the reader/child). In this case, Tolkien is presenting an idealized version of his desired relationship with his children (and probably a version of the relationship he wished he had with his father, who died young, and the real relationship he had with the priest his mother entrusted him to when she, herself, died.
COUNTERTRANSFERENCE. Countertransference is, broadly, the feelings that the analyst has for his or her patients. Freud condemned any feelings for patients as a sign of the psychoanalyst being "incompletely analyzed." Fortunately we have come to see the folly of this position and to recognize and use the broad range of feelings that get evoked in us. Lin-Manual Miranda, the author and star of Hamilton, evoked quite a few feelings in me as he performed.
SUPEREGO OR THE ROLE OF ETHICS AND MORALITY IN OUR MENTAL FUNCTIONING. Writing about integrity also leads me to note when we don't act with integrity. A set of posts has revolved around ethics and morals. This is related to at least three things. First, I am driven by guilt and obligation. My own superego is overactive - but I'm not sure I would have it any other way. I don't understand others who seem not to worry about their obligations. That said, I know that I can fool myself into thinking that I am acting morally when I am not. Contrasting Mrs. Bridge, a novel about the oblivious racism of the 1930s, with Selma, the movie about the voting rights march of Martin Luther King in one post, looking at the functioning of Harper Lee's morality in Go Set a Watchman is another, and the issue is implicit in the post on The Help. Of course all of these are related, in one way or another to the issues of racism and white privilege, issues that have haunted and still haunt the US and me. The Crucible discusses the issue of guilt from another perspective - the puritan sin of pride and, ironically, the failure to have enough pride. It is interesting to me that a horror film, Psycho, seems to revolve centrally around issues of guilt and punishment. Edward de Vere as Shakespeare weighs in with the morality of being MacBeth.
The second thing that has raised the issue of ethics is the apparent complicity of psychology in the US torture of detainees under the Bush/Cheney presidency. There are two posts here and here laying out the results of two investigations and then one looking at a Freudian interpretation of the ethical issues involved. I also wrote about interpreting a dream that pointed to my ambivalence about writing about these subjects. The centrality of ethics to personal integrity is a theme running through all of these posts that I think articulates the ways in which superego function is an important check on human behavior - something that actually enhances the humanness and humaneness of our functioning - in contrast to Freud's more dour view of humans - where the superego just suppresses our most desirable wishes - as I discuss in a post about Civilization and Its Discontents. I hope that my view expresses an evolutionary movement in psychoanalysis that has led us to move away from Freud's more limited and pessimistic view of human nature and our potential. That said, it is the case that psychoanalysts and therapists engage in heinous behavior - and Andrea Celenza has helped us think about what drives therapists to have sex with their patients. In this last piece, I am hesitant to recommend incarceration. For a look at an extreme experience of Menninger's "Crime of Punishment", see my essay on the Clint Eastwood film Escape From Alcatraz
For a view from Philosophy of ethics and morality, I report on Jonathan Lear's observations to analysts about the difference between ethics and morality - empathy versus rules. Gregory Boyle's Tattoos on the Heart could be thought of as an application of this principle - both in terms of the work that Boyle does with gang members in South L.A., but also in terms of how he humanizes us by appealing to our better/empathic selves - rather than by pointing out the ways in which we fail to live up to a higher standard. Seinfeld is weirdly considered to be, in part, a morality play...
EXECUTIVE FUNCTION. One of the most disturbing things that Freud maintained was that the majority of our behavior - especially the behavior that we think of as most consciously controlled - is unconsciously determined. The post on The West Wing indirectly supports this position - including describing some of the functioning of the superego when we engage in executive functions. Das Boot, a film about a German U-Boat, argues, at least in my interpretation, for the importance of high quality executive functioning - and the perils of entrusting ourselves to less than our best self and national government. A post on Donald Trump and the American Hustle proposes that we should be better at vetting who we put in our executive office.
AGGRESSION. The need to have a conscience and to assert executive control is, in Freud's structural model of the mind, necessitated in large part by the need to control aggression. The Life of Pi is a marvelous allegory about the impact of aggression on our functioning. The movie Spotlight becomes an opportunity to reflect not just on the aggression that the priests perpetrated on children in Boston and elsewhere, but Donald Trump and the aggression that he displayed in the midst of his campaign and the ways in which that becomes a mirror for our own aggressive wishes.
REVENGE. Verdi's Opera Il Trovatore is about revenge, though the posting about it is more about music's ability to convey feeling - and how being able to do that may have made the composer feel a bit crazy. That said, the consequences, if not so much the internal experience of revenge are described within the plot of this opera.
DIAGNOSIS. Jane Hall (and others) advocate for using psychoanalysis to treat a "widening scope" of presenting issues and people with a wide range of underlying defensive capacities, including those with more limited ego strength. Peter Goldberg, from San Francisco, offered a deceptively simple way of understand people, including the difficulties that we face at a conference in my local institute. Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteredge, discussed in a post on her book My Name is Lucy Barton, cautions us to be generous in our thinking about others. The Rorschach is a post that describes an important assessment technique that is undervalued, including by my own profession. The book and movie A Man Called Ove occasioned a post about how diagnosis is not as important as we might think because treatment is not of an illness, but of a person, and it is an organic process intended to heal the person, not to treat the illness.
SEVERE MENTAL ILLNESS. The first blog post that I wrote was about a movie, Shine, about a musician whose career was interrupted by severe mental illness. My most popular blog is about the book and movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and in it I talk about how complicated it can be to work with the severely mentally ill. The Movie The English Patient is about a very remote person - who has been characterized as being schizoid by another reviewer. I look at the issue of necrophilia as an example of trying to revivify lost love (it sounds grosser than I hope it is).
NARCISSISM. Narcissism - the glue that holds us all together in the form of self-esteem and that can bind us so tightly that others are only allowed to regard us with awe (and silently with disdain) - is discussed in relationship to a variety of heroes - posts about The Avengers, Frank Lloyd Wright, Birdman - a washed up film actor trying to make a come back on broadway, and An Acting Coach played by Alan Rickman highlight different aspects of the concept. The post on Eragon is less about narcissism and more about a psychoanalytic understanding of what it means to be a hero, but that includes narcissistic elements. Each of the reviewed works emphasizes the charms and usefulness of narcissism, especially in talented individuals. I acknowledge and elaborate on this, including talking about the essential role of narcissism in development, but I also point out that it is, in real life, more insidious than how it is portrayed here and talk about how our works of art shy away from noting the toxic side of narcissism - perhaps because our artists need a healthy dose of it to do what they do and they aren't about to knock what brings home the bacon. It is interesting, in this context, that Blue Jasmine, a Woody Allen film - is one that both describes more accurately the negative aspects of narcissism - and that Allen denies that it is a depiction of an aspect of himself. Steve Jobs, Aaron Sorkin's movie, describes narcissistic vulnerability, and Victor Strecher helps me understand how Jobs is portrayed as being broken open by his daughter. While being broken open may sound romantic, my reflections on my own narcissistic vulnerability on the basketball court is elicited by seeing Florence Foster Jenkins on the big screen.
Edward the VIII's narcissism is seen as the antithesis of what makes Elizabeth a Great Queen in the The Crown and it is, therefore, a piece about the toxic aspects of narcissism. The Founder, a movie about Ray Kroc who turned McDonald's into the corporation we know it to be, shows a different - more every-man, side to toxic narcissism - a kind that I propose in an integral thread in the fabric of the American Dream.
The Black Panther, another Marvel film, offers a different kind of superhero - one who is narcissistically health. Though I never label is this way in the post, I discuss this version of narcissistic health from the perspective of Kohut's vision, at least as I understand it, of narcissistic integrity as an dynamic and ongoing state rather than something that we achieve and are done with.
PSYCHOPATHY/ANTISOCIAL PERSONALITY DISORDER. The psychopath - a person who has no true investment in the well being of others but is only interested in his or her own well being - is a mode of being that has fascinated us. Psychopathic traits help us achieve much in this world - and House of Cards posits that they might drive us all the way to the White House.
SENSE OF SELF. All the Light We Cannot See describes the development of two children before and during the Second World War, and about the role of stuff and relationships in building their sense of who they are. The Queen of Versailles is a movie about people whose sense of self is based on stuff and thus built around a hollow core. Appalachians are portrayed in Hillbilly Elegy as doing a similar thing. The Newsroom is a post that highlights the struggle of the old media against the new media - and while I didn't explicitly frame it in this way, I think it is clear that I identify with the characters who are trying to protect the old ways - for them it is reporting, for me it is learning the craft of being a psychologist and a psychoanalyst - and this is central to my sense of self, so this post becomes an analyzable articulation of how our professional selves inform our broader sense of self. Transparent, a television series about the impact on the family of the father becoming a woman in his seventies affords an opportunity to think about the centrality of gender to identity. Olive Kitteridge, a series of short stories that are woven into a novel, help us appreciate how much of our identity lies outside of ourselves - in the impact that we end up having on others.
IDENTITY AND IDENTITY FORMATION: The sense of self is, of course, an important component of identify formation - and that and more are on display in the sobering coming of age film Moonlight. ORLAN, a French performance artist, has carved her identity into her body and I report on a variety of reactions from analysts to this form of art. Megan Gogerty offers her own adventures in articulating her identity in a comic take in Lady Macbeth and Her Pal Megan.
MODELLING: Generally thought of as a behavioral term, I think modelling actually plays a huge role in both identity formation and sustaining us through life. Wonder Woman provides great models for all of us - but especially for the reluctant stepdaughters. Elizabeth Strout serves a model for me in her writing generally, but specifically in Anything is Possible where she explores the importance, but also the consequences of writing truthful sentences.
MEANING. How we create meaning in our lives is a huge existential question. I take a stab at describing how numbers get in the way of meaning making in a light piece title The Tyranny of Quantification. Florence Foster Jenkins devoted her life to music - and deluded herself into thinking she could sing - how do we manage the delusions that are so important to maintaining a sense of meaning in our lives? Mad Men proposes that we try to find in meaning in things, but that this is ultimately an empty promise.
FREEDOM. Another huge existential issue is freedom and the accompanying responsibility - something that we can withdraw from. Ursula K. LeGuin's Lathe of Heaven explores this issue in the context of dreams and how dreaming can change reality.
CHARACTER. Extreme Narcissism and Self Disruptions are examples of Character Disorders. Art is frequently, though, about character. Angle of Repose is post about a book that looks at character the old fashioned way - as something that we have because we have personal integrity - integrity that gets tried by fate - and this becomes the stuff of tragedy. Amy Schumer, perhaps surprisingly, seems to demonstrate some good old fashioned character. Writing about the movie Arrival allows me to muse about the importance of character. Katherine Faw Norris, on the other hand, portrays a thirteen year old, Nikki, who is so primitive that she essentially has no character. Though I never characterize his in this way in the post, Olive Kitteridge might be thought of as a person functioning at the borderline level - somewhere between Amy Schumer's character and Nikki - and I have used her in class to help students understand how personality functions, but also to engage empathically with someone that can challenge our ability to do that. I think that Jeff Zentner, in the novel The Serpent King portrays the adolescent child of an abusive Pentecostal father as having a character more like the author's own than one that would reflect the life that his protagonist has led.
HYSTERIA. Blue Jasmine is, among other things, a modern reworking of themes from A Streetcar named desire, and the post, in addition to describing narcissism, discusses hysteria, and the difference between the two character styles.
OEDIPAL CONSTELLATION. The movie Casablanca was presented in a meeting of our local psychoanalytic institute some years ago as the quintessential Oedipal movie - Rick ends up allowing his "parents" Ilsa, whom he loves, and Victor, to whom Ilsa is married, to go. This was characterized as a healthy resolution of the Oedipus complex. After seeing a play that my Mom wrote and directed about Casablanca, I was reminded of seeing this through a different lens, which seems relevant to the current difficulties we are facing with American exceptionalism and isolationism.
AUTISM. A debilitating disorder where the person disavows the existence of others, Autism does not at first glance appear to be an area of interest for the psychoanalyst, but the deeply human experiences of some with the disorder are quite moving. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night - Time, both the book and the play, present an attempt to understand the psychology of a particular person with this diagnosis.
DEVELOPMENT. Lots of my posts address themes of development. Partially this is because many books and movies talk about an aspect of coming of age. Go Set a Watchman, for instance is about moral coming of age, Amy Schumer's trainwreck is about sexual and romantic coming of age in a post sexually inhibited world, and a collection of coming of age movies involving sexual development is reviewed here. That said, psychoanalytic theory is more centrally related to early childhood development and how that predicts adult functioning. I refer to that a bit in describing The Avengers, A more direct discussion of adolescence, particularly male adolescence as a precarious and difficult stage of development, is addressed by Kirsten Dahl as she discusses The Glass Menagerie. Daniel Stern's The Interpersonal World of the Infant is a classic and seminal book using empirical observation to inform psychoanalytic theory.
PARENTING. Is there anything harder than being a father? About Grace, Anthony Doerr's novel written before All the Light We Cannot See, suggests both in the narrative and in what I see as the allegory that Doerr appears to be painting, that becoming a father is not for the faint of heart.
TRAUMA. From an analytic perspective, trauma is an integral part of development and growth. An overwhelming traumatic moment is integral to Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, though the book also seems relevant to the everyday traumas - the moments when we are overwhelmed by experiences that we can't comprehend - that shape us. Noah, a modern Midrash, posits trauma as a determinant of Noah's character. Life after Life posits that trauma is inevitable, but that we can integrate it into our experience rather than ignore or be solely determined by it.
SUBJECTIVE AND OBJECTIVE VANTAGE POINTS. One of Freud's truly revolutionary positions - one that helped move us into the modern world - is that our subjectivity is worthy of study - and is a powerful (he claimed the most powerful - even, at times, the only) determinant of our behavior. Euphoria, a novel focused on Margaret Mead's efforts to understand the subjective world of the Samoans, allows me to talk about the contrast between an objective and a subjective perspective. I also defend the power of the subjective, and attribute our fascination with it to the work of Freud in reviewing a book about Freud's treatment of his patient he pseudonymously referred to as Dora. Philomena is a film that I view from the "objective" position of it being about relationships between people rather than from the vantage point of understanding something about the author.
NARRATIVE AND FREE ASSOCIATION. Our patients construct themselves in a certain way on the couch. They reflect on their experience and make sense of it in the more or less judgment free atmosphere where free association occurs. This private sense of themselves is referred to in an essay on the work of a poet who is a good friend of mine - in his book Our Portion. Knowing the artist is akin to knowing the analysand in private life, something that is ethically questionable in the world of the analyst. Elizabeth Strout's freely associative writing process is described in an essay about her book Anything is Possible.
UNCONSCIOUS COMMUNICATION. Donald Trump, in the midst of his campaign, is communicating with a broad range of people by functioning as a living, breathing Rorschach card - being non specific enough that we can see ourselves in his positions.
CONVERSATION. An essay about a vacation stop in Ottawa, O Canada! highlights how conversation, something that is at the heart of psychoanalysis, is also at the heart of the Canadian cultured, something that is contrasted with the pontificating style of US politics and culture.
MODELS OF THE MIND. One of Freud's most useful and convoluted contributions to understanding human functioning are the various models of the mind that he proposed. Originally a neurologist, he never stopped thinking of the mind as resident in the brain. I review a paper by a modern neurologist who finds much to learn from Freud, and, in a much less dense and scholarly way, play with the ideas of the mind that Pixar presents in the movie Inside Out.
THE UNCONSCIOUS. In some sense, every post should be - and I think probably is - referencing unconscious functioning. To an analyst, even a reluctant one, the unconscious is ubiquitous. Each of the other topics referenced in this post is, in some sense, related to the unconscious as the bedrock of human psychological functioning. Adam Phillips' biography of Freud is a review of the importance of the unconscious, particularly Freud's early unconscious, before he invented the Ego and the Id. In the review of Mark Solms' paper on the conscious id, the question of what is unconscious gets raised in a different way. The post on Lucy, an action film with little useful psychological content despite the promise of the trailer, falls back on more directly articulating some concepts related to unconscious functioning - as much in opposition to the film as to explicate it.
ARTIFICIAL MINDS. I am a big fan of the human mind - and of it being essentially different from computer based "minds". In a post on Rhythm and Blues, I maintain that the organic, human process of translation will not be replaced by the powerful computer translators. In that post and in reviewing the movie Her, I talk about the limits of machines to function as humans and part of why I think that is. I'm not sure that I actually state it directly, but I think it is because the human brain is organic, feral, and torn between self preservation - something I don't think a machine can viscerally experience, and the limiting power of society - all the stuff that creates an unconscious and makes us human.
PSYCHOTHERAPEUTIC PROCESS. Many books and movies are about healing, and I am interested in the ways that these mirror and contrast with psychoanalytic models of healing. The Boys in the Boat is about sports - both the physical activity and the relationship with a coach - as an analog of psychotherapy. Inside out, Birdman, Lila, Silver Linings Playbook, Her, Life after Life all referenced in other topics, each has something to say about therapy. Saving Mr. Banks explicitly proposes that Walt Disney's storytelling is a form of therapy - and the reluctant psychoanalyst has some issues with his brand of therapy. Don Juan DeMarco is also explicitly a parable about psychotherapy. Gregory Boyle engages in what psychoanalyst's would refer to as a very supportive therapeutic process in Tattoos on the Heart, and I compare the analytic goals with those of Yoga. Bernie cautions therapists that untempered love is not a good thing. I have also written about therapeutic process from the perspective of what research has to say about the process, but also the outcomes of psychoanalysis. Despite Freud's hostility towards formal research, which many psychoanalyst's have bought into, I think it helps us learn a lot about therapy.
Perhaps the best description of what a psychoanalysis looks like comes from a novel that is presented as the confession that a prisoner writes while being tortured: The Sympathizer is a Pulitzer Prize winning book about the Vietnamese experience from the perspective of the Vietnamese.
The post on Gender and Sexual Object directly addresses the issue of self disclosure in psychotherapy through the back door, by talking about the importance of NOT disclosing, at least at moments, so that patients can experience us as they need to.
THERAPEUTIC EFFECT. Brad Pitt's movie War Machine intends to change our minds about the efficacy of counterinsurgency but fails. The post implicitly compares that failure to a failed therapeutic interaction. Philomena, a movie about an interaction between an aggrieved woman and an angry man, articulates how she is able to help him (rather than the other way around) as they work together to understand her past.
PROFESSIONAL ETHICS. The foundation of good clinical practice is ethical practice; in fact, one could say that they are one and the same thing. The primary cornerstone of ethical practice is the principle of confidentiality - what is said in analysis stays in analysis. The importance of this cornerstone, but also the tension with the necessity of telling, is articulated in a post about the movie Carol, a movie that describes a lesbian couple being threatened with being "outed" in the 1950s. Another ethical boundary that is crossed is the sexual boundary, the context for and the impact of which Andrea Celenza described in a workshop. The importance of the ethical boundaries for a profession being defined by that profession are described a series of three essays about the unthinkable involvement of psychologists in torture: Psychology and Torture I Rumblings and a preliminary report, Psychology and Torture II The Hoffman Report and Psychology and Torture III The Hoffman Report Continued. In terms of ethics as a whole, I think that nuclear weapons are dangerous - because we are vulnerable to people acquiring access to them who could use them nefariously - no matter who has the key.
EMPATHY. Empathy is an essential therapeutic skill/experience. The Low Land, a novel about Indian immigrants to the US who live lonely isolated lives evoked experiences from my own life, which in turn, led to reflections on the empathic process - the sources and limits of it. Her, the movie about computer intelligence and relationships, promises, but does not deliver on a true empathic connection. Get Out, a horror film, helps us empathize through a weird lens with the African American experience.
FREE ASSOCIATION. Free association is what Freud instructs us to do in psychoanalysis. Since it is the basic rule, you would think we would engage in it. In fact, it is much harder to freely associate than it would appear. The Big Lebowski becomes an opportunity to talk about this phenomenon - and the relationship between freely associating and mental health.
SEX, SEXUALITY AND LOVE. Psychoanalysis has a decidedly mixed history with regard to sex, sexuality and love. Freud's theory of sexuality included believing that we are all essentially bisexual, something that Freud used to better understand his patient Dora and that Margaret Mead, as portrayed in Euphoria, profoundly resonated with. That said, he also reduced love to sex, seeing us a driven by a desire to procreate rather than to love - see Civilization and Its Discontents. Psychoanalysts after Freud, building on aspects of his theory, have pathologized homosexuality, discussed in Gender and Sexuality. As psychoanalysis has evolved we have become much more convinced that people are built to love than just to have sex, so much so that some worry we have lost touch with the importance of sex as a driver of our behavior. A review of the film Love Actually is a celebration of love. Modern depictions of sexuality are discussed based on Carol, Grace and Frankie and Euphoria. In Silver Linings Playbook, sex is portrayed as promising salvation, but love, it seems, is what delivers it. Sex and Coming of Age looks at three films, The Birdcage, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and Dirty Dancing that celebrate owning sexuality. On the darker side, Andrea Celenza discusses therapists crossing sexual boundaries. The Shape of Water explores interspecies sex - and I think this gives us a look at how "other" those around us appear to us to be - when perhaps those things that we think are monstrous might just be the most human things about us.
Y Tu Mama Tambien, a Mexican film released in 2001 that is a celebration of adolescent sexuality that turns what might be something tawdry into something deeply human as it explores the ways that erotic ties - and losses - are essential to our engagement with each other. Freud would, I think, have been proud and felt somewhat vindicated by the frank depiction of sex in this film - sex is portrayed as both a driving force and a door to deeper mysteries. After thinking about the movie for a while, I began to wonder What is Porn? based on the fact that this movie, with clear depictions of sex, is not that. In the post on porn, I conclude that it is a product of fear of true intimacy and wonder what a world that held all intimacy, including sexual intimacy, as sacred would do to the porn industry.
GENDER. Transparent is a television show about a trans father in his seventies. The show was used at a convention to demonstrate the ways in which psychoanalysts have relied on a binary system of gender to stay oriented in the midst of reorganizing the world - and to call for us to let loose of this organizational system. The Taming of the Shrew which I reviewed along with a contemporary RomCom version - 10 things I hate about You- is outwardly about the war between the sexes, but I believe it is actually about the internal battles that we wage with gender tagged aspects of ourselves.
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF MEN. The Magnificent Seven (Old School) and Shadow Divers serve as examples of the ways that men use heroes both to emulate, but also - as they become heroes - to deny critical very human aspects of themselves. Henderson Smith's Fourth of July Creek includes antiheroes who offset the idealized characters in Magnificent Seven and Shadow Divers. These guys tragic flaws include their readiness to attach - to flawed people in a flawed world with predictably difficult consequences. I originally intended the review of The English Patient to fill out a trilogy on the psychology of men - though I think it is a bit more universal - it is about the risks of loving and the ways that we try to keep ourselves safe.
FEMINISM AND SEXISM. None of us would be sexist by choice. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel articulates how the comedienne is a psychoanalytically informed voice for change, exposing the unconscious ways in which sexism occurs, just as the documentary movie RBG about the legal success of Ruth Bader Ginsberg to change the status of women in the eyes of the law is seen as a psychoanalytic success.
RACISM. Racism is a rich area for the discovery of the unconscious processes - including first and foremost in myself when I was listening to fellow analyst Dorothy Holmes. James Cone and Ta-Nehisi Coates helped educate me both about the unconscious roots of racism, but also about the consequences of unfettering those unconscious bonds. I hope I was able to channel them usefully when writing about how Black Lives Matter.
DEFENSIVE FUNCTIONING/HUMOR. Richard Russo's Straight Man has a protagonist who finds everything funny, but this is a mean's of keeping his passion for life at bay. The Magic Flute is a comic opera that, in the production I saw, had very dark undertones. This is a different way of thinking about humor - or comedy - as a kind of defense against tragedy, but, at least in this instance, I take the position that having too simple a solution - a comic one - inevitably leads to the tragedy of marrying ourselves to a vision of the world that is to flimsy.
DEFENSIVE FUNCTIONING/PROJECTIVE IDENTIFICATION. Projective Identification is a specific defense mechanism where powerful feelings are communicated to someone else by making them feel the way you do - or actually making them feel the way you would if you could tolerate the intensity of that feeling - but you can't - so you make them feel it for you. I believe that is what happened on 9/11/01 - and through the use of terror in general - is a good example of projective identification. I think that distancing ourselves from black lives - while also engaging in aggressive actions towards them - embody both projection and projective identification - neither of which I label but both of which I describe in a post on Black Lives Matter.
DEFENSIVE FUNCTIONING/REPRESSION. Repression was the first defense mechanism that Freud proposed and it gets overlooked a lot by the newer, more complicated defenses that have been described. Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer is trying to confront American Exceptionalism - and I think we can think about this as something that is the result of repression, as is the privileged position that Ta Nehisi Coates points out whites take towards blacks.
SPIRITUALITY AND RELIGION. Freud was no fan of Religion. A largely secular Jew (Taken to Catholic Services by a family servant when he was a young boy), he wrote in Moses and Monotheism (The link is to a web version of the book - I have not yet reviewed it), about religion as a defense - particularly against our fear of death. C.S. Lewis is portrayed as trying to confront this in the imaginative play Freud's Last Session. James Cone's discussion with Bill Moyers about his The Cross and the Lynching Tree offers an alternative vision of religion as a means of engaging in life - not escaping from it. Working at a Jesuit Institution, I have had more opportunity than many analysts, I suppose, to engage with religion and spirituality - for good and ill. Gregory Boyle writes about implementing his religious beliefs to help the gang members of South L.A. in Tattoos on the Heart.
MOURNING AND GRIEF. I talk in various posts about personal losses. Freud's essay on Mourning and Melancholia - which I have not yet reviewed (the link is to text of that great paper) is a wonderful but also difficult read. Thomas Odgen has written a book, Creative Readings (also this link is to a description of the book - I should review it some day as I hope my writing will, at its best, bear some resemblance to what Tom would have us do) that nicely elucidates Mourning and Melancholia, both in the book's introduction and in the chapter specifically on the book. It is rough sledding, but this is complicated stuff. I take it up in a discussion of the movie Interstellar. An Essay on a Harry Hole novel by Jo Nesbo turns into an essay on the loss of a dear friend - about whom I had some of those powerfully conflicting feelings mentioned in the section on integrity above. I refer to him again as I think about Ivy Pochoda's Visitation Street a beautiful book about the Red Hook district of Brooklyn. The loss of my father is something that I talk about in various places including an essay on the complexity of Atticus Finch in Go Set a Watchman. Psi is a Brazilian television series on HBO that has an episode on loss that I also review. The English Patient is a post about the English Patient's grief, but also my own and finding a favorite place gone, but then refinding it in my heart.
In one post, I focus on the loss of Robin Williams - a public figure rather than a "real" person and speculate about our attachment to Williams, but also, I suppose, about his attachment to himself and the ways in which that might have contributed to his choice to take his life.
DEATH. Our own mortality is one of the central anxieties, according to Freud, with which we have to wrestle. Don DeLillo's Zero K, about the mortality of billionaires, serves as a spring board to a conversation with my son about the dawning of the awareness of each of our mortality.
TRAGEDY. My posts tend to look at life in a rosy light - sometimes I think unrealistically. Maybe I am trying to counterbalance Freud's decidedly pessimistic vision of the human condition. Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome affords an opportunity to describe an aspect of life that is decidedly tragic - the ways in which love and freedom can help us become acutely aware of just how imprisoned we really are. Don't read this if you are feeling bad about life already... Other uplifting posts include one on Elizabeth Strout's vision of what it means to be truthful, in Anything is Possible and Edward Abbey's The Last Cowboy, where the limits of our American Dream, especially about the west, are explored. Fences is August Wilson's more traditional tragedy about African American mid twentieth century life that nicely mixes the classical sense of tragedy - something that we ourselves cause - with the more modern view - that something is tragic when we are the victim of circumstance. If we only view things through the latter lens, we may never create societal change, but if we only use that lens, we will end up as despots and as lonely and isolated as the hero of this play.
ATTACHMENT. Attachment is tough to distinguish from love - it is certainly an important component of it. Love Actually portrays a wide range of loving experiences and explores the similarities and differences between them. We really know that we have become attached through the experience of grief, so the two ideas are closely related. We frequently talk about attachment for the child's side, but the attachments of parenting - and my attachment to my son - is discussed in a post about a shared pilgrimage to Wrigley Field.
IDENTIFICATION. Fan's identification and de-identification with professional athletes is discussed in a post about Steve Bartman, ESPN, and the Cubs. I propose that issues of identification are at the heart of the plea inherent in the movement Black Lives Matter. In the film, Moonlight, the hero identifies with a childhood mentor in ways that both hide and protect his true identity. The book The Worst Hard Time is about the process of creating a shared identity in the face of the calamity of the dust bow.
DREAMS. My own dreams get analyzed a lot in these posts. Freud's On Transference Love serves as the jumping off point for one such analysis. On Being Cool and Uncool jumps more directly into a dream. The movie Her evoked an interpretable nightmare for me. Noah's dreams are interpreted in the eponymous film.
Movies and, to a lesser extent, books are often equated with dreams. The Avengers - Age of Ultron is considered from the point of view of a cultural dream because of its popularity.
I also posted about how dreams work and teaching students how to interpret dreams.
WORKS OF ART AS DREAMS. I assume that novels and movies, but also poems and even fact based narratives are constructed in essentially the same way that dreams are. Almost any post, then, will include a way in which psychoanalytic interpretation of dreams is being applied to the work of art. I spell this process out perhaps most clearly in an early post about a bad movie, Bottle Shock. I point out that the anachronistic aspects of the comedy series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is a clue that the series is not about a specific time in history (just as dreams are not just about the distant past) but about our current dilemmas, as dreams are.
ART. Edward de Vere as Shakespeare raises the question of how the person of the artist influences the work they create - as if the work were the product of the dreamer and we could know the artist's psyche from their finger print on the work. Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine raises a similar question, despite Allen's objections. Discussing Seinfeld includes an approach to understanding some of the pleasure that good are brings to the viewer.
SIGMUND FREUD. Freud is written about a lot here. Directly, for instance in reviewing his biography by Adam Phillips, and in reviews of his writings including Civilization and Its Discontents, and his brief essay On Transference Love, but he is referenced in most other pieces. While Freud is the founder of psychoanalysis and a genius, he is far from the be all and end all. I refer to other, more contemporary analysts in many posts, and am frequently calling Freud to task for getting important things wrong, while also being a product of his time - for instance in writing about his treatment of the patient he referred to as Dora. There is a review of an imaginative play about a possible interaction between Freud and C.S.Lewis, with Lewis attempting to convince Freud of the existence of God - titled Freud's Last Session - that portrays Freud at the end of his days. In an essay on Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I take the position that Freud was far from infallible and that even such psychoanalytic tropes as the Oedipus complex are not, in fact, universal, but something that describes a skeleton that we use to better understand ourselves - much as we use the symbols in a dream to do that.
POLITICS. I really haven't paid much attention to politics until recently. I thought that we had professionals taking care of things and wasn't particularly worried. I trusted them to do their jobs. But then we thought about hiring and now have elected an amateur to engage in one of the most complex jobs on the planet. I am more tuned in. Trump's Inauguration caused a flood of associations while at the annual psychoanalytic convention. Earlier, the transgressions of the church led me to think about Trump as a candidate. Hillbilly Elegy and The Worst Hard Time are both books that talk in very different ways about the psychology of a group of people that are characteristically Trump supporters. It seems like no conversation these does can not include Trump. The conclusion of the post on Fences is a pretty transparent condemnation of despots - though I feel uncomfortable seeing Trump as a tragic hero - that elevates his status in a way that is problematic to me.
COMMUNITY. Psychoanalysts are an interesting bunch. They spend a lot of time connecting intimately with one other individual and are concerned about the subjectivity of that individual, but a lot of their best work has been done in the context of working with trusted friends. Tom Friedman's book Thank You for Being Late talks about an ever more connected world that can connect us with virtually anyone. What kind of community will we build with that ability? The Death of Stalin is a cautionary tale about this on a global level, but my brief experience with Psychoanalyst Jeremy Safran suggests that we will be working on ways to improve our ability to connect.
PSYCHOANALYSIS AND RESEARCH. Jeremy Safran was a psychologist who died senselessly at the hands of an intruder in his Brooklyn home. Before he did, I had a chance to interview him about how he came to become the psychoanalyst that he did. Interestingly, as well respected researcher, he believed that it was the clinician who was the source of what is most valuable in psychoanalysis (or any treatment, really). I make a case for psychoanalysis as a science in a post about a history of psychoanalysis by Eli Zaretsky - Secrets of the Soul.
WHY I AM A PSYCHOANALYST DESPITE BEING RELUCTANT. There are a few vantage points on that. One is the already mentioned was when I blogged about blogging, but it is also the case that I want analysis to be current and vibrant - not an antiquated theory that was applicable to our parents generation (which, of course, it also is), and my post on The History of Psychology (and Rock and Roll) gets at that.