The Psychoanalytic Activist - Past Articles
By Gregory J. Williams
A campaign rally at Williamsport Regional Airport, May 20, 2019 in
Montoursville, Pennsylvania. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
I will disappoint you – and this will bring you to life. These articles will leave you wanting and keep you alive. This newsletter will fall short of your hopes, as will your colleagues, this field, your life – and your ache from each of these shortcomings will further enliven you. For this is part of what makes us human – our ability to envision impossibilities that keep us striving and fuel our dreams of the next impossible with every letdown.
Generations of psychoanalytic thinkers, including Freud (1911/1973) and Bion (1962), have theorized that our capacity for thought results from our uniquely extended helplessness as infants. We begin in wombs where most of our needs are preemptively met to the point of having little to no cause for want and as a result, we are near-constantly satiated into a coma of consciousnessless. That is until what is for most of us, our first trauma – birth. Compared to the womb, postnatal life is an eye-opener and therefore a mind-opener. Regardless of whether this trauma starts with an unprecedented squeeze or extraction, cold is experienced for the first time, blankets and clothes serve as coarse substitutes for amniotic fluid and rub our waste against us, and then comes hunger. The literal cutting off of our prenatal food supply leaves a physical hole that will eventually scar into a permanent representation of the experiential hole that expands and contracts inside of us throughout our lives. These external and internal attacks are only an introduction to the discomfort of life and with them introduce the desire for a return to our prenatal satiated bliss. While difficult to compare with other animals, the length of our infantile dependency combines with the impossibility of perfect parenting to require that we grow a mind to think our immediate suffering and longing for the experience of our lost uterine paradise. We get to be as thinking beings because of the inevitable disappointments in life.
Although Freud and Bion viewed disappointment as preceding thought, Lacan saw thinking as having come first. For Lacan (1953/2002), thoughts are our imperfect symbols of experience and retroactively create an idealized past that never existed and never can exist. Imagining this impossible past drives us into being with an undying quest to re-experience what never was. Regardless of where one falls in relation to the Lacanian chicken and Bionian egg dilemma, our thoughts and desires are inextricably linked. Whether our lost paradise was in utero or imagined, our inability for total satisfaction motivates us as thinkers. Herein lies our conflict – if we were ever totally satisfied, we would have no need to think or be. Although we long and strive to satisfy ourselves more, to do so fully would be to nullify our very existence. So, a tolerable level of dissatisfaction actually satisfies us more by validating our experience as necessarily lacking.
In recent years, McGowan (2016) has proposed that the combination of our impossible ideals and need to be bearably dissatisfied in order to exist, largely powers capitalism around the world. Our fantasies of complete satisfaction pull us to chase the next product or experience, as if satisfaction was attainable and present in something that we do not yet have. Being disappointed when this process inevitably falls short of satisfying us affirms the limits of our existence and turns us toward the next product or experience to chase and inevitably let us down. This is the unconscious power of capitalist systems. We look to products to fill the inner emptiness that brings us to life and can never be filled, disappointing us into continued being. We consume to dissatisfy ourselves, haunted by the desire that creates us – and we search well beyond material goods for this aching satisfaction.
Fortunately, life overflows with shortcomings! Limited services, experiences, relationships, professions – these are even part of what makes erotic bondage, submission, and masochism enticing or makes someone a glutton for punishment or have a self-defeating personality. This pursuit of endurable displeasure is backwardly and unavoidably at play in every aspect of our lives and apparent attempt to improve them, including our choosing of elected officials – speaking of bondage and masochism!
Albeit sadly laughable, the state of our political climate has grown rather frightening as of late. Two years ago marked the 50th anniversary since Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered, and America continues to be plagued with White supremacy and the murder of unarmed black men. This recent epidemic involves sicknesses of all sorts and seems to have coincided with the election of our current president. Before Donald Trump was inaugurated, many warned of the woes that his presidency would heap upon us. During his campaign, Trump was branded with a host of personality disorders and as a demagogue who threatened us with fascism. Despite all of this, he won – and since then, many have tried to explain why.
The media portrayed the phenomenon of Trumpism as an anti-establishment revolt by the working class. Psychoanalytic thinkers began to consider Trumpism as a symptom of some cultural problem that had yet to be articulated and otherwise addressed. In this vein, Gentile (2017) connected Alt-Right and Neo-Nazi supporters of Trump as both rising from working class men who have lost jobs, displacing their shame onto minorities. Similarly, Altman (2017) highlighted the parallels between Nazi nationalism having been threatened by Jews as a displaced nation and Trump having campaigned for an America where Muslim immigration is banned. Moreover, Serwer (2017) made two profound observations – the first being that Trump was not elected by the working class, but Whites across every level of income. His second insight was that Trump campaigned for discriminatory policies while outright denying their discrimination. Through this denial, Trump upheld a longstanding American tradition of contradiction in which our country was “founded by slaveholders on the principle that all men are created equal” (Serwer, 2017). Secondly, Trump embodied a rage felt toward feared others that he fueled as entirely acceptable. Such stoking of rage explains the surge in hate crimes that started the day after Trump’s election and has continued since (Mindock, 2017; Williams, 2018). Although one prominent theme spanning these separate writings is that of White-Christian-American nationalism, I do not believe that Trump is conscious enough of his prejudices for him to view them as such.
Two years ago, Trump referred to himself as “a very stable genius” (Diaz, 2018). If Trump is a genius, I see him as an accidental one. What I mean by this is that he seems more impulsive than would be expected of someone who is intentional with their intellect. Any one of Trump’s many tweetstorms is ample evidence of his instability. While his relative successes as a businessperson, celebrity, and presidential candidate seem to have involved engaging others emotionally, this skill appears to operate on a preconscious level. Trump presents as too much id without enough superego – and it is the pleasure principle where he has been most successful. His activation of our desire has perhaps been most evident in the campaign slogan of, “Make America Great Again,” which begs the question of exactly when America was great. Was America great during the invasion, murder, and displacement of Native Americans? What about their enslavement alongside Africans? Was America great when Japanese Americans were imprisoned in American concentration camps, or minorities were not afforded civil rights? Was America great without marriage equality for same-sex couples? With the recent separation and detention of immigrant families, or the countless other American atrocities that I have the privilege of not naming? The truth is that America has never been great, not even for the White men who committed and benefitted from most of these cruelties. If America had been great, it would not require such violence.
By implying that America was once great and no longer is, Trump invoked a paranoid-schizoid split that simultaneously exploited our nature to idealize the past and necessary dissatisfaction with life. This splitting also created an unbridgeable gap between that ideal America and our varying yet ever-present displeasure. Trump’s campaign promises to replace our disappointments with his American dream pulled many Americans to support him. Due to the impossibility of ever filling our sense of emptiness, these promises are empty. Furthermore, his blatant prejudice as a wealthy White man has summoned the ghosts of White supremacists and Nazis that turned his dream into a nightmare – and idealizing a past America as great incites hatred against others who are perceived as responsible for making America un-great. In this paranoid-schizoid split, if wealthy White Trump is the solution, the un-wealthy and un-White are the problem.
The real problem is that there is no solution, or at least no fully satisfying one. If our desire creates us, the answer is not in chasing an unattainable satisfaction, but accepting the limits of our capacity for pleasure and mourning them as needed. Such acceptance offers relief from the pressure to surpass these limitations in ways that make life’s discomfort more tolerable. This also makes us more likely to cooperate with others to compensate for our individual limits. Regardless of how much we accept our limits, they activate us. One difference that our levels of acceptance makes is whether our activation tries to reach the unreachable alone, disappointing us into a vicious cycle of further activation and displeasure, or draws us closer to others.
While acceptance helps us bear life, this does not mean that we need to accept everything. Through working together, we accomplish more. Although America will never be great, this does not mean that America does not have good mixed in with its bad. America can be better and is worth fighting for. Fighting together to make America lack – to accept our longings and work toward more endurable lives with one another. This is the stability that Trump does offer. By reasserting the old order of White nationalism, he has confronted us with what our country still lacks. We have needed Women’s Marches and the Me Too movement and Marches for Our Lives and Families Belong Together protests and Climate Strikes and the other movements that I have the privilege of not listing. Trump did not create these problems. Though, his endorsement of them has seemed to be a tipping point for our need to address them. Together, we are proving that Trump’s White supremacist and Nazi phantoms are as empty as his promises. Trump is the symptom that we need to make America better.
While I expect to disappoint you, I hope that this article still has value and makes you better.
Altman, N. (2017) Nazism, Chaos, and Order. The Psychoanalytic Activist. https://psychoanalyticactivist.com/2017/12/02/nazism-chaos-and-order/, accessed 2 December 2017.
Bion, W. R. (1962) The Psycho-Analytic Study of Thinking. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 43: 306-310.
Diaz, D. (2018, January 6) Trump: I’m a ‘very stable genius.’ CNN Politics. https://www.cnn.com/2018/01/06/politics/donald-trump-white-house-fitness-very-stable-genius/index.html, accessed 23 March 2017.
Freud, S. (1911/1973) Formulations on the Two Principles of Mental Functioning. Standard Edition 12. London: Hogarth Press, pp. 213-226.
Gentile, J. (2017) Trump, Freud, and the Puzzle of Femininity. The Philosophical Salon. http://thephilosophicalsalon.com/trump-freud-and-the-puzzle-of-femininity/, accessed 13 November 2017.
Lacan, J. (2002) The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis. In: Écrits. Translated by B. Fink. New York: Norton, pp. 197-268.
McGowan, T. (2016) Capitalism and desire: The psychic cost of free markets. New York: Columbia University Press.
Mindock, C. (2017, November 14) Number of hate crimes surges in year of Trump’s election. Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/hate-crimes-us-trump-election-surge-rise-latest-figures-police-a8055026.html, accessed 23 March 2018.
Serwer, A. (2017) The Nationalist’s Delusion. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/11/the-nationalists-delusion/546356/, accessed 23 March 2018.
Williams, A. (2018) Hate crimes rose the day after Trump was elected, FBI data show. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2018/03/23/hate-crimes-rose-the-day-after-trump-was-elected-fbi-data-show/?utm_term=.03abf19dc8e9, accessed 23 March 2018.
By Christine Schmidt, LCSW, CGP
Christine Schmidt and Lynne Layton memorializing Dred and Harriet Scott
whose denial of citizenship contributed to the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments
I owe a debt. My debt was incurred when the English settled in Jamestown in 1619 with 20 people stolen from Africa (Higginbotham & Higginbotham, 1978). A promise towards payment of my debt was made after the Civil War when the government authorized a meager redistribution of wealth – forty acres and a mule – to formerly enslaved black farmers (Foner, 1988, p 70). That promise, approved by President Lincoln, was never honored. Instead, the only monetary compensation granted by my government for the institution of slavery was $300 payouts to former white enslavers to compensate for labor lost due to emancipation (Hunter, 2019). Perversely, they called these payouts reparations. I am white and I embrace Reparations for slavery in America as I accept responsibility for the kidnapping, murder, rape, separation of families, exploitation of labor, terrorism, and deprivation of human rights that my racial group has taken from African-descended people for four hundred years.
There’ve been many demands for my white accountability and reparation to African-descended people. I was in high school in 1969 when James Foreman delivered the Black Manifesto on behalf of the National Black Economic Development Conference. The Manifesto demanded that my predominantly white Christian and Jewish faith institutions fund a half-billion dollar plan for reparations. More recently, Duke University economist William Darity calculated the debt as $2.6 trillion (Cohen, 2019). But The National Coalition for Blacks for Reparations in America, N’COBRA, demanded apology and material reparations from my government and my corporations that have benefited from the Trans-Atlantic Slave “trade”. In 1989, on behalf of N’COBRA, Representative John Conyers introduced HR 40, the Congressional Reparations Study Bill, in every legislative session until he retired in 2017. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee continued to sponsor HR 40. My government refused a hearing on this bill until 2019. Author, scholar, activist Ta-Nehisi Coates (2014) makes a case for reparations that begins in twentieth century with portraits of black families struggling to survive under the burdens of racist residential, educational policies. These policies, designed to control black bodies, extend the moral and material debts of slavery.
Throughout my 28 years of work in NYC public schools, including schools for students incarcerated on Rikers Island, I lived side-by-side with the debt owed to descendants of Africans whose bodies were stolen for their labor. Many of my students whose black and brown bodies were confined, searched and humiliated daily, remained incarcerated because they were too poor to make bail. Only twenty percent had been convicted (Wynn, 2002). The horrors of Rikers Island and separation of children from their families is memorialized in the documentary about Kalief Browder, a youth who was incarcerated there for three years for allegedly stealing a backpack [citation]. I tried to advocate for these youth from within the school system (Schmidt, 2010). I tried to use my position of power as a white special education administrator to offer respite to victims of poverty, mis-education, and racial injustice. At the beginning of each day I turned over my IDs to the guards and was voluntarily incarcerated in the schools. At the end of each day, I exhaled when was released to go home to my children. I had to reconcile that my school system served incarcerated youth torn apart from their families. What is the debt owed to these young people whose ancestors suffered the trauma of forced separation by white enslavers? Both the Trans-Atlantic and Domestic Slave “trades” traumatized generations through forcibly separating children from their parents.
My white America intentionally reproduces structures to exploit black and brown bodies from slavery to mass incarceration (Alexander, 2011). Monetary compensation alone won’t repair emotional and spiritual suffering. In addition to repayment for theft, my white debt for emotional and spiritual trauma begins with acknowledgment of intentional harm. It includes apology and doesn’t require forgiveness. According to the UN’s guidelines, reparations for violations of human rights include compensation that is proportional to the gravity of the suffering for a physical or mental harm; lost opportunities, including employment, education and social benefits; material damages including loss of earnings and earning potential; moral damage, and psychological damage that includes costs required for legal, medical and psychological services; and a guarantee of non-repeat.
The guarantee of non-repeat is especially salient for me as a psychotherapist. Disavowal, a foundational psychoanalytic concept, is an unconscious defensive act employed to evade horrific truth (Layton, 2019). The mental obstacle to white America’s guarantee of non-repeat is disavowal of the truth about slavery and its residual racialized terrorism. Disavowal helps my mind contort the truth rather than deny it (the psychoanalytic concept, repression). This contortion fertilizes the myths of my white goodness, while at the same time knowing that white people enslaved, tortured, and raped African-descended people. My disavowal of the truth about racial injustice relegates slavery to the past and attributes it to other people. Disavowal led a white participant in Ryan Parker’s study (2019, p.88) about Slavery in the White Psyche to anxiously remark, “We learned about pilgrims and Indians and Thanksgiving and slavery … and then in middle school we learned that slavery was a bad thing, but it’s a thing of the past. … I mean, why would you even talk about slavery rather than to say it ended?
Repetition compulsion, another foundational psychoanalytic concept, produces mental and somatic eruptions of anxiety from unconscious efforts to disavow traumatic reality (Freud, 2014). As my white mind unconsciously battles awareness of the ongoing truth about slavery, the myths about my white goodness are unconsciously repeated and repeated, saturating my white body with anxiety. The repetitious disavowal is compulsive and relentless, in an effort to protect my mind from the truth (Bhabha, 1983). It’s a kind of suffering I unwittingly bring upon my white self.
Working through the myths of my whiteness is full of resistance. Besides employing psychological defenses to disavow reality, my desire to avoid racial discomfort is omnipresent. My white fragility (DiAngelo, 2018), a psychological defense against racial discomfort is different from my white guilt – a somewhat timeworn term that contains my capacity for empathy. Psychoanalysis explains guilt as a necessary step towards making reparations. According to Klein (1948, p 119), guilt is “the feeling that the harm done to the loved object is caused by the subject’s aggressive impulses….The reparative tendency can, therefore, be considered as a consequence of the sense of guilt.” The capacity to see the humanity of the other person is an acknowledgement of their complete subjectivity. Fallenbaum (2018, p 186) writes, “The impulse to make reparations, therefore, begins with an experience of anxiety and guilt related to a belief of not having lived up to one’s ideals and of having hurt another person.” When I cease disavowing the human damage committed by my white racial group, my guilt brings me a step closer to reparations.
This year on Juneteenth, the day that commemorates emancipation from slavery, HR 40 received its first full hearing by the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. While this was a historic achievement, it also reflects the enduring power of white resistance to public discourse about reparations. I have no hope that my current government will make reparations. However, I am encouraged that nearly all of the Democratic presidential candidates have discussed reparations for slavery and an increasing number of educational and cultural institutions are exposing their financial foundations rooted in slavery. This is a new kind of institutional accountability.
As a white psychotherapist, I personally and professionally strive to be accountable for historic and on-going harm to African-descended people. I try to know when to use my white self to speak out and when my white self needs to step back. My unconscious white tendency to be in charge can be oppressive in cross-racial work. I become reluctant to draw attention to myself until I feel clear that I’m not enacting racial dominance. In small but conscious ways, I contribute to reparations. A mentor in the Peoples’ Institute for Survival and Beyond reminds me that white people should share what we’re doing to promote racial justice. He and other colleagues have encouraged me to describe my efforts to increase racial equity within another psychotherapy organization and in my private practice. In the following, I describe racial equity work by committee, development of a scholarship for African-descended candidates, contributions to a clinical training program, and fee re-structuring in my racial literacy groups. It is my hope that these efforts will inspire adaptations in other programs and practices.
In addition to these discrete acts to learn the unsanitized history of slavery in the United States and contribute to material, and emotional reparations, I seek opportunities to speak about white responsibility for reparations. Like many white-identified Americans who are troubled by the polarization in this country, New York Times commentator David Brooks (2019) has come to accept that only by an honest reckoning with slavery, “the original sin that hardens the heart, separates Americans from one another and serves as a model and fuel for other injustices” can we heal the divide. White America must offer African-descended people in the United States compensation for stolen labor from slavery to mass incarceration, destroyed ancestral lives, stolen homes, denial of opportunities and emotional repair. In their list of demands, Movement for Black Lives states, “Reparations are owed to the descendants of enslaved Africans, in a manner and form to be determined by them. Reparations must take as many forms as necessary to equitably address the many forms of injury caused by the transatlantic slave trade and chattel slavery.” Adequate restitution needs to be determined by African-descended people. Not by my white self and not by white America.
Please share your thoughts about white responsibility for Reparations. I welcome a public dialogue as well as private comments. My hope is to inspire actions by individual psychotherapists and professional organizations as we continue to pressure for governmental and corporate reparations.
Alexander, M. (2011). The New Jim Crow: mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. The New Press: New York.
Bhabha, H. (1983). The Other Question: the stereotype and colonial discourse. In The Politics of Theory. (Francis Barker, ed. Pp 18-36). Cholchester, England
Brooks, D. (3/7/19). The Case for Reparations: A slow convert to the cause. New York Times.
Coates, T. (2014). The Case for Reparations. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/
Cohen, P. (5/23/19). What Reparations for Slavery Might Look Like in 2019. New York Times.
Di Angelo, R. (2018)White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism. New York: Beacon Press.
Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, Harper and Row, 1988,
Fallenbaum, R. (2018), African American Patients in Psychotherapy. Routledge Press: London.
Freud, S. (1914). Remembering, repeating, and working through. In J. Strachey (ED. & Trans.), The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 12, pp. 145-156). London, UK: Hogarth Press
Higginbotham & Higginbotham (1978). In the matter of color: the colonial period. New York: OxfordUniv Press
Hunter, Tera (4/16/19). When Slaveowners Got Reparations. New York Times
Klein, M. (1948). A Contribution to the Theory of Anxiety and Guilt. Int. J. Psycho- Anal, 29:114-123
Layton, L. (2019). Transgenerational Hauntings. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 29(2).
Movement for Black Lives, Reparations Now Toolkit https://policy.m4bl.org/downloads/
Parker, R. (2019). Slavery in the White Psyche. Psychoanalytic Social Work 26(1).
Schmidt, C, (2010). “Practicing White Anti-racism in Public Schools” in Accountability and white anti-racist organizing: stories from our work.( Cushing, B., ed. Pp44-61). Crandall, Dostie & Douglass Books.
Wynn, J. (2002). Inside Rikers: stories from the world’s largest penal colony. St. Martin’s Press: New York.
By Selma Zaki
A recent In Fluency Event.
Three years ago, I moved to New York City to pursue my master’s degree in Mental Health Counseling at Teachers College, Columbia University. I had moved from Lebanon after graduating with a BA from the American University of Beirut. Most of my education in Lebanon had been through Western and American institutions. Thus, I did not expect my educational experience in the U.S. to be vastly different; I was not completely wrong. That being said, one noticeable difference between both educational experiences is that there appeared to be more room at Teachers College for students to express their thoughts and feelings around sensitive topics such as gender, race and class. Hence, through class dialogues and discussions, TC offered students an opportunity to exchange ideas and thoughts with one another, and also encouraged them to look within and examine their own identities and narratives.
One concept that consistently floated around at TC was “safe space”. At that time, I did not think critically of what that word meant. It just seemed like something that was said by professors to remind students that educational institutions are safe spaces. As in, one can express and exist without being exposed to discrimination, harassment, or any form of harm. A safe space in an academic sense is typically a space in which people who have less power feel comfortable enough to express. The idea that sensitive and controversial topics, such as race, gender, culture, class and politics, could be discussed constructively in a welcoming and protected space without being met with a harmful backlash appeared to be extremely appealing to me. I was excited to discuss these topics and for the most part, they were. However, it didn’t take me long to recognize that, as with many things, there was a schism between the idea and the reality. It appeared to me that though the intention of safe spaces was to foster enriching and challenging dialogue, the function of the spaces often did not always fulfill that role.
Over time, the word “safe space” started to seem more like a buzz word, a trendy familiar word that was loosely used, akin to “vegan” or “meditation” .The more I existed in these “safe” spaces, the more they embodied a descriptive and decorative characteristic. Conversations felt performative and scripted, and were largely guarded and censored. What was said and left unsaid was guided by the fear of offending the other. It became clear to me that in order to have productive and inclusive conversations, there needed to be a shift away from the mere idea of a safe space.
I remember a vivid example in my multicultural counseling class, we were speaking about abuse and mental health, and I shared how there is no system in Lebanon that advocates for and ensures child protection, which is why I was curious as to what could be done in such situations. I remember my professor responding with: “well, we’re talking about the U.S.”. In that moment, I didn’t feel “unsafe” for speaking up, but I did feel unheard. In another class role play, I was playing the patient and had to answer the question: “what is on your mind today?” That day, tragic events happening in Syria, Palestine, and across the Middle East were on my mind. And so, I spoke, only to be met with dead silence. None of my classmates responded, probably because they did not know how to. Because somehow, the reality of Middle East seemed so far removed from their reality, despite the U.S. playing such a significant role. Hence, despite the spaces being “safe”, the conversation remained sterile. For me, safety was not a necessary pre-requisite for expression, but I felt that my openness and honesty was unheard and unreturned. In a similar way, Laila, my friend and fellow student shared my frustration as she once expressed to me that as an Arab, what stands out the most to her is the non-existence of conversation around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when discussing social justice. This was a feeling experienced not just by Arabs, but by other international students too. Charlotte, another friend and classmate from Germany, often felt that the conversations at university lacked variability and always centered around the U.S. She described the conversations as an echo-chamber, as in the same topics come up, in the same manner, with little controversy or inclusion of other narratives.
In 2017, Laila Abdel Salam, Charlotte Hamm, Nour Salem and myself, Selma Zaki, founded In Fluency in response to the frustration we experienced as international students. I met my fellow In Fluency friends and founders at Teachers College, through different classes and research labs. We all felt that the conversations we were having in the academic settings were limited. Moreover, we were all interested in examining the relationship between the macro and the micro; as in, how do larger systems affect the individual and vice-versa? Our past experiences were reflective of this interest of ours. Charlotte worked with refugees in Germany and took courses in conflict resolution and mediation to address the way in which political decisions influence mental health. Laila facilitated Participatory Action Research (PAR) with teenagers in Harlem. PAR is a non-traditional program in which facilitators work with marginalized communities and encourage them to research topics that are salient to their communities, without imposing their own narrative and privilege on to theirs. As for myself, I had an initiative in Lebanon in which I used the arts as a tool to raise awareness about the ways in which the social and political issues in Lebanon affect community members and civilians.
In Fluency was born out of a desire to expand the conversation of mental health and social justice to different countries around the world, specifically those that often get sidelined or overlooked. Our aim is to explore the ways in which socio-political injustice influences mental health disparities in different countries. Through yearly academic and culture events in college settings, In Fluency invited mental health practitioners, change agents, and artists from the international community to discuss systemic oppression from a local, insider perspective. Our first event “Psychology Beyond Borders: Lessons from Kashmir, Sudan, Palestine and Mynamar/Burma was a panel discussion at Teachers College, Columbia University that included a brief overview of the political situation of the country as well as its mental health status. This was then followed by a discussion between mental health experts and local activists. Despite some constraints such as distance and poor internet, we were still able to welcome and honor mental health experts such as Dr. San San Oo from Myanmar, Dr. Arshad Hussain from Kashmir and Dr. Yasser Abu Jamei from Gaza through video recordings.
Through the panel, we explored how different constructs such as mental health, resilience, treatment and resources look differently in different cultures. For example, the Western world speaks positively of resilience. But isn’t the focus on resilience another way to depoliticize the oppression? We also discussed the role of mental health experts in response to these large forms of political oppression. Should mental health be “political” and are the efforts of mental health experts enough in the face of large scale oppression? Despite asking such questions in the panel, we struggled to arrive at a conclusion as all 4 countries include a complex history and political and social reality. Hence, most of the panel was spent understanding the context of each country and forming a conceptualization of the history, traumas and oppressions. Thus, forming a response as to what can be done proved to be difficult. In a therapy session, a therapist can work with an individual to identify and possibly dismantle barriers that arise in the face of treatment. However, on a larger scale, there are more factors and barriers at play that it is difficult to facilitate the conversation of: what could be done. Such conversations shed light on both the helplessness locals feel in relation to their country’s narrative but also the hope that arises as a defense to the helplessness.
Our second event in 2018 was a cultural night food, poetry and music at Teachers College that included artists, musicians, poets from different corners of the world such as Brazil, Nigeria, Kosovo…A musician from Lebanon and a singer from Gaza played and sang traditional music. A poet from Kashmir spoke about his mother’s loss of sanity during and after 1947 Partition of India. A Ghanaian-American poet read the story of how her mother and father migrated from Ghana to America. A Mexican-American and Korean-American poet spoke about their experience as minorities in the U.S. While mental health and social justice were not the direct focus in a lot, art was utilized as a powerful tool to reveal one’s unique and complex narrative. Understanding “the other” starts with an invitation to express one’s own story, and an openness to listen to those that exist around them.
We, the founders of In Fluency are currently in the process of slowly expanding our scope and figuring out a way to make it sustainable. Charlotte, Nour and I graduated from TC while Laila is pursuing her PhD in Counseling Psychology. Charlotte is moving back to Germany and will be based in Berlin, as for myself, I plan to stay put in the U.S. until I collect my hours towards my Mental Health Counseling licensure. Despite having different paths, we still share a collective vision. We envision a world in which we can have conversations about global mental health and social justice in 1) more accessible settings, beyond the academic and secluded spaces, for example in community spaces, artistic and cultural spaces and salons, through podcasts and social media and 2) a more inclusive and equal manner in which different narratives, countries and layers of realities are included.
Our intention is not to talk about people but with them. We envision our world more frequently discussing politics and current events while considering the mental health perspective of the narrative. We would like to address a wide range of topics and talk about the intersection of mental health and trauma, displacement, modern day slavery, famine, architectural violence, radicalization, climate change trauma, foreign interventions, prison system and so on.
Our vision begs the question, which we all struggle with: how do we expand these spaces and introduce these conversation in the public sphere, especially when these spheres are entrenched in an ignorant resistance to the realities of the daily world outside of their direct environment? So far, we believe that our events added value to this idea of safe spaces because they were more inclusive in terms of people of color and individuals of different nationalities. We existed in spaces in which different accents were celebrated and we encouraged a culture of curiosity: a willingness to listen and ask about one’s narrative. We also focused on having locals speak of their own narratives. That being said, we are still exploring ways in which we can expand such spaces to different settings. We also often wonder whether cultivating a space in which everyone feels safe is the “right approach”. Can safe spaces sometimes be a facade that leaves little room for true difficult conversations to be cultivated? If our primary intention is to make everyone feel safe, then it is very unlikely that we will be able to stand in our truth and confront our oftentimes unsafe reality. As John Lewis once said: “you have a moral obligation, a mission and a mandate, to speak up, speak out and get in good trouble.”
By Lynne Layton
I haven’t yet had much time to settle into the role of past-president of Section IX, in part because it’s only been a week from the end of my term to the beginning of writing this column, but perhaps even more so because I don’t feel any diminishment in my commitment to the Section. There is SO much work to be done. But how to contribute to that work in this different role? I’ll begin to try to figure that out by talking about what these past two years of working with all of you have brought to me personally and politically.
Often, I get involved in activist projects before I know a whole lot about the roots of the issue I’m protesting – this was true both in regard to our protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline as well as the ensuing letter of apology to native populations. At the same time that we were mobilizing for those actions as a Section, Donald Trump was elected President. I had just begun to write a paper for the Austin Division 39 affiliate on psychoanalysis and ethics. For a couple of years, I had been teaching Freud’s paper, “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death” (1915), alongside Jacqueline Rose’s (2004) post-Abu Ghraib commentary on Freud’s paper, titled “Our Present Dis-Illusionment.” I became committed to the idea that ethical behavior demands confronting our illusions both about ourselves and about our collective and intertwined histories (what Davoine and Gaudillière (2004) call the Big History). I sought out psychoanalytic teachers who had spoken about what I began to think of as an ethic of dis-illusionment, chief among them Freud, Fromm, and Erikson. I also had gotten involved with the national organization, Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), a group of white allies to Black Lives Matter and to documented and undocumented immigrant groups. And I got involved in an activist project focused on making my very white liberal town, Brookline, MA, more racially equitable. The first phase of that project was to get the town to adopt a program in which they commit to looking at all town policies and divisions through the lens of racial equity. This passed town meeting almost unanimously. The second phase has been much harder both to conceptualize and to carry through: it involves getting the townspeople to look honestly at the psychic and material effects of white advantage, to look honestly at past and present history. Meanwhile Trump’s policies and his blatant racism were making all this activist work feel increasingly urgent.
Even as I got involved in these movements requiring spot actions, showing up at rallies, and lots of meetings, I was aware of the big gaps that exist in my understanding of U.S. history. About a year ago, I had to come up with a title for my Division 39 2018 keynote address, and I decided to elaborate on the theme of an ethic of dis-illusionment. I wanted to contrast such an ethic with an ethic of adaptation to the cultural status quo. The conference theme, Generations: Ghosts and Guardians, provided a good frame for thinking about intergenerational transmission and the Big History. So, to prepare for writing and, quite honestly, to do what I’d been “meaning” to do for years, I decided that it was crucial for me to confront the real history of the U.S. After spending the summer reading about our history, I experienced my own sense of radical dis-illusionment. You may say: as a long-time leftist, didn’t you KNOW? Well, yes and no (I first wrote “yes and know”). Born in 1950, I, like most white students of my era, was of course, throughout my childhood, indoctrinated with what one can only call fake news posing as U.S. history. Nothing about Native American genocide, little to nothing about slavery, nothing about the Civil Rights movement that was unfolding at the very time I was in school. But I protested the Vietnam War in my late teens and early twenties, so I did know about government lying. And then there was Watergate and Nixon.
I have always had enormous respect for what I consider the most powerful finding of psychoanalysis, the ubiquity of the repetition compulsion when what is too painful or too unpleasurable to be remembered is acted out again and again. Since reading works like Suzy Hansen’s Notes on a Foreign Country, Roxane Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, and Carol Anderson’s White Rage, however, I now have equal respect for the power of disavowal, perhaps the primary motor of the repetition compulsion. We know that illusions about ourselves die hard; illusions about our history seem to die even harder, and usually they don’t die at all. They become the undead in two contradictory ways: like vampires that need to keep repeating the kill over and over, or, more hopefully, like ghosts that demand that something be done to unmask illusion and demand justice.
Dis-illusionment must proceed on multiple fronts. We can bring our psychoanalytic knowledge to bear on contemporary political issues. I took a try at this in a recent article that appeared in the January 2018 issue of Psychoanalytic Perspectives, an issue devoted to psychoanalysis and contemporary politics (other Section IX members have articles in that issue as well). In my article, titled On Lying and Disillusionment, I contended with the debate going on in our circles regarding whether or not it’s useful to understand Donald Trump as mentally ill or rather to focus on calling him and his policies out as evil. I argued for a both/and, understanding Trump’s character as sadly not aberrant in our neoliberal culture. And I tried to look at how illusion and lying to oneself takes shape in different segments of the U.S. population, including among liberals.
People in the section like Oksana Yakushko, Stephen Soldz, Steven Reisner, Ghislaine Boulanger, Ruth Fallenbaum, and others, have focused our attention on the illusions we hold about our field and our professional organizations. Oksana has written about how deeply entwined our field has been with eugenics movements. Stephen, Steven, Ghislaine, and Ruth led our Section and our Division in contesting APA’s ethics code that allowed psychologists to participate in enhanced interrogations.
Finally, on the topic of dis-illusionment, while I was preparing to write the Austin paper on ethics, I allowed myself to get immersed in the writings of people critical of what they call, variously and dismissively, therapy culture, therapy discourse, psychologization, and the professional psychology project of governing the soul (e.g., Eva Illouz, Frank Furedi, Nikolas Rose). I say “allowed myself” because it wouldn’t be accurate to say that I didn’t know for years that this literature existed. But it was only when I stopped practicing that I could bear to read what these critics had to say about, for example, how our field has constantly increased the range of what officially comes to be seen as a mental health problem. They strongly contest the way that we in our profession consent, knowingly and unknowingly, to treat social problems as psychological ones.
So, given all of this “new” knowledge, which has not accidentally accompanied life in our current elected regime of ignorance and cruelty, I am often a nervous wreck and sometimes a yelling maniac. Nonetheless, during these two years of being president of Section IX, I have felt a strong sense of responsibility to offer containment to our members; I know that all of you have been reeling from the country’s willful and unconscionable turn to ignorance and illusion (under the guise of Making America Great Again). Over the two years, I felt that before I could send out any email to the Section, I had to think carefully about every word that I wrote, had to keep asking myself: what is my project?, what is psychoanalytic activism right now? do I care about the “rules” of APA listservs (as Howard Zinn (1994) said, You can’t be neutral on a moving train)? What I didn’t really realize until becoming Past-President, though, is how much containment you all have offered me. And I am very grateful for that!
My project, I have concluded, has been “connecting the dots,” and there is no better place in Division 39 than in Section IX to pursue that project. We must continue with the work many of our members have undertaken to connect psychoanalysis with community, to understand better the nature and effects of group unconscious process, to think and practice intersectionally and with as full awareness as possible of the Big History and of how we are all implicated in each other’s psychic fates. Finally, we need to continue to fight oppression wherever we see it damaging the mental health of all our fellow human beings, and to understand how oppression differently operates for victims, perpetrators, and bystanders. We must continue to question the politics of our professional organizations and continue to insist that the psychic and the social are not separable, that to ban discussion of “politics” from our discussions of practice, from our listservs and professional conversations IS in fact a politics, one that supports an individualistic and elite status quo.
Outside of my Section activities, it has become clearer to me that what I want to do in these coming years is work in electoral politics, to write postcards, to textbank and phonebank in order to elect people who respect what we know about environmental damage, who respect the human and voting rights of all of our people, who fight xenophobic and racist action and language. Some of the people I’ve been supporting are as full of illusion about some aspects of the U.S. and about neoliberalism as the next guy, but I feel that, at this moment in history, I have to be strategic and not indulge myself in what too often has seemed to me to be the disastrous purism of the left. As a member of the Section and the Division, I will continue to press for commitment to an ethic of dis-illusionment, a psychosocial praxis that deconstructs collective and individual illusions and that stands firmly on the side of the oppressed. Thanks to all of you for your support, containment, and your comradeship. I look forward to more years of working by your side.
By Stephen J. Ducat
The Problem of Diagnosis
Debates rage in the increasingly politicized world of mental health clinicians about how to name and understand Trump’s evident psychopathology. Is he a narcissistic psychopath, a psychopathic narcissist, or simply a ruthless con man who managed to grift his way into business and then into the White House?
There are those cautious souls that still abide by the “Goldwater Rule” a proscription against clinicians diagnosing politicians and others in public life who haven’t been interviewed directly. This was an attempt by the American Psychiatric Association to prevent the kind of reductive and politically motivated pathologizing that was directed against Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential campaign. As it turns out, the rule was an overreaching corrective for an overreaching use of diagnosis. We have a wealth of data on what those in public life do and say in the world, something we don’t have access to with our patients. Although patients behave in certain ways in the context of treatment, we can only speculate how that translates to other relational contexts.
Even though we cannot know Trump through a personal analytic transference, we have seen and heard him engaging in a multiplicity of transference-like enactments, and we have witnessed the many countertransference-like responses he has invoked in others (such as aggressive retaliation and submission, often in the same person). He has shown a particular talent for getting those under him to abandon any moral constraint when those morals interfere with serving his interests. In October of 2017, we witnessed the supposed “adult in the room,” presidential Chief of Staff General John Kelly devolve into a more persuasive and articulate but no less mendacious Trumpian mini-me. A Florida Congresswoman, Rep. Frederica Wilson, had overheard on speakerphone Trump’s callous and thoughtless attempt to console the newly widowed wife of a slain soldier, and dared to criticize the President for his stunning lack of emotional intelligence. Leaping to his boss’s defense at a press conference, Kelly attacked Wilson’s character and fabricated a story about her supposed outrageous behavior at a public event, in spite of readily available news footage of that event that shows Kelly’s assertion to be an elaborate lie.
Furthermore, assessing Trump’s psychology requires little speculation as we have available to us a life-long history of personal, romantic, business, and political relationships. With the exception of some of his predatory and criminal behavior, he has led his entire life in public. We know what he says and how he says it. Through his own words Trump has even let us in on what provokes him to act – primarily vengeance, vainglory, lust, greed, and an obsession with domination. It has been on this public stage, not behind closed doors, where we have witnessed him reward anyone who flatters him and punish those who fail to do so. His daily Twitter tantrums have constituted a kind of ongoing characterological EEG reading, as if the vicissitudes of his personality disorder produced brain waves that could be converted into a text form readable by all.
To discuss and explore his obvious psychopathology – a malignant narcissism and psychopathy that threatens us all – is not to adopt the Soviet-style use of psychiatric diagnosis in the service of political repression. Rather, as I will argue, it is understanding that can be put to emancipatory purposes. This is because knowing his psychology is central to the project of resisting his policies, and to the task of understanding his appeal to a significant plurality of Americans. If the central thesis of this essay is correct, that Trump’s pathology is isomorphic with his brand, then what may look to some of us as signs and symptoms of profound impairment is precisely what makes him the object of near delirious veneration on the part of his base. As he well understands, to them he can do no wrong. Or, rather, every wrong he commits is righteous. This will be unpacked in the next section.
Allen Frances, a former editor of the DSM, argues against the tendency of some inside and outside the mental health field to apply diagnostic categories to an understanding of Trump. He insists that because Trump’s personality traits do not seem to bring him suffering and have made him quite successful, this militates against evaluating him in terms of psychopathology. However, in taking this position, Frances illustrates one of the many weaknesses of the DSM, a pseudo-empirical insurance coding guidebook of little clinical utility.
In this case, he ignores a central feature of personality disorders – their ego-syntonic nature. In other words, the behavior of such patients is untroublingly congruent with how they want to see themselves. This is especially the case with narcissism. Furthermore, it is not that “successful” narcissists, like Trump do not suffer distress. Rather, it is that their psychic pain is hidden behind the central preoccupations that mark their character: a ceaseless obsession with zero-sum status competition, a desperate Sisyphean pursuit of admiration that is never satisfied, and an unrelenting series of vendettas against those who have questioned his greatness. Like most narcissists, Trump would never seek treatment for his character – not because he doesn’t suffer, but because he locates that suffering in the failures of others to affirm his most grandiose self-image.
Fortunately for Trump, he is wealthy and privileged enough to get others to accommodate his pathology rather than challenge it. In fact, a December 2017 New York Times profile of Trump, drawn from 60 sources, advisors, aides, and political allies, fills in the details of a picture many can see from a distance: a petulant, brittle, and impulsive baby-man, a mad king who must be managed by a large team of courtiers and sycophants whose main task is to protect him from his own actions. Functioning as a kind of fun house mirror in reverse, they render his deficits and dysfunctions as admirable virtues. For example, to counter the accusation that Trump is a perpetrator of fake news and a relentless fount of confabulation and conspiracy mongering, those who serve him affirm the notion that he is instead the long-suffering victim of and noble crusader against the “fake media” and lies of liberals. His loyal coterie of buffers and fluffers, seem to operate as a kind of auxiliary component of his personality disorder, ensuring that his impulses and actions remain ego-syntonic and his sense of self-importance remains sufficiently inflated.
From Personality Disorder to Brand to Political Order
One of the remarkable features of Trump’s personality is the way it has come to saturate, in fact, define his brand as a businessman and now as a politician. As Naomi Klein has pointed out in her new book, the essence of the Trump brand is not simply wealth and power but impunity, which is what that wealth and power have bought him. Such impunity becomes an even more useful currency when congealed in his brand, which becomes the semiotic carrier of the fantasy of being able to “do anything,” as he bragged in the infamous Access Hollywood tape. During the campaign Trump expressed a more murderous vision of his moral if not legal indemnity when he said he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” and “not lose voters.”
For him, of course, it has not been just a fantasy. While impunity is deeply felt by Trump, it is also realized in the external world. Ms. Klein has detailed how his administration has been able to function as an unapologetic kleptocracy and a heretofore unconstrained one. As I see it, he has transformed a personality disorder into a brand and from there into a form of rule, an entire regime of psychopathy.
The fact that Trump and his family have enriched themselves by outsourcing the production of their products and real estate development projects to manufacturers and builders that use sweatshop and slave labor has not stopped him from being able to depict himself as an America Firster and a working-class hero. And frank treason has not impeded his efforts to portray himself as an uber-patriot.
His life of salacious debauchery, greed, and marital infidelity has not diminished the gushing enthusiasm with which he is greeted by the Christian Right. In the case of Trump, these good Christians do not merely defer to Caesar; they worship him. Some evangelical leaders compared him to Churchill, arguing that Trump “may be profane but ordained.” The mantle of God’s imperfect vessel was passed to former Alabama judge Roy Moore during his 2017 Senatorial race. He, like Trump, faced numerous sexual assault allegations. (In Moore’s case, some involved underage girls.) And like Trump, Moore denied everything and attacked his accusers. As with many Trump clones on the Right, the Moore scandal illustrates the extent to which impunity, at least among pious Republicans, is conferred upon those who disclaim any accountability for their actions. While Moore lost the Senatorial race against Doug Jones, it was by a narrow margin. And, he enjoyed the enthusiastic support from the President who made robocalls on Moore’s behalf. In addition, the Republican National Committee, the executive arm of the “family values” party, resolved their earlier ambivalence about backing an accused pedophile, and gave him a full-throated endorsement prior to the election.
In the case of Trump, his Teflon exoskeleton is even slipperier than the one attributed to Ronald Reagan. One could argue that the Trump “T” emblazoned across the top of his phallic buildings fundamentally stands for Teflon. He is the spokesmodel for impunity – impunity for sexual assault, for stiffing contractors, for wage theft, for providing investment safe havens to laundered Russian mob money, for proudly embracing murderous autocrats around the world, and for alternately denying and celebrating Putin’s corruption of our elections. In addition, at least among his supporters, Trump evinces impunity for praising the virtues of Nazis and white supremacists, for blaming Puerto Rican hurricane victims for their suffering and mocking their plight with Marie Antoinette-like “gifts” of paper towels tossed into desperate crowds, for exalting sadism and belligerence into noble virtues, and for compulsively and ceaselessly lying about both trivial and profound matters. In some ways, the latter, the normalization and acceptance of his lying, may be the most impactful and defining aspect of impunity in the present era.
“How Many Fingers, Winston?”
In the reign of Trump, we have witnessed the emergence of a paradoxical species of disinformation, the open cover-up. It is a lie about something we can all see. It is an attack on our capacity to know what is true, to apprehend reality outside the assertions of the autocracy. It can be about trivial matters, such as inaugural crowd sizes. Or, it can involve more substantive concerns, such as the popular vote or Don Jr.’s well-published glee over getting the dirt on Hillary Clinton from Putin surrogates.
“Orwellian” is an appellation easily thrown around these days. But in the current moment, the descriptor seems especially apt. In the famous scene in 1984, O’Brien, the interrogator, confronts the prisoner, Winston, “Whatever the Party holds to be the truth, is truth. It is impossible to see reality except by looking through the eyes of the Party.” What follows is the nightmare exchange burned into all of our memories in which O’Brien holds up four fingers and insists under the threat of escalating torture that Winston must not only say that he sees five fingers but believe he does. We are now in a world where our masters not only demand obedience but also hysterical blindness. Fortunately for Trump, he has had and continues to have an eager team of well-paid liars, such as Sean Spicer, Kelley Anne Conway, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and the entire rogue’s gallery of Fox News fantasists to share the labor of rewriting reality.
Astonishingly, in an episode that could have been scripted by Orwell, Trump even tried to assert, once elected, that the aforementioned Access Hollywood tape, in which he gloated over his special ability to get away with sexual assault, was fake. This was in spite of his prior video-taped campaign admission and perfunctory apology.
There is an important prehistory to the current administration’s attack on the possibility of a consensual reality. For many decades, right-wing pundits and politicians have not only lied whenever it suited their purposes but elevated lying itself to a kind of political sacrament and an admirable sign of Machiavellian mastery. Many may recall author Ron Suskind’s interview with a senior presidential advisor employed by the GW Bush administration that derided journalists as anachronistic members of the “reality-based community.” He had insisted that the only necessary function of reporters was to be stenographers of those in power – the movers and shakers whose stories were the only ones worth telling. This was the soil from which a thousand “alternative facts” would later bloom. There is no greater impunity than the ability to repudiate reality, and to suffer no consequences for that repudiation.
The Meaning of the Trump Brand
Every brand makes a promise: that the qualities projected onto it, as with totem animals, can be bestowed upon those who purchase the associated products. In fact, the brand functions as a kind of meta-product. Just as a product used to be and still is marketed as a currency that can confer qualities and experiences you might never be able to get on your own – power, sexiness, glamour, admiration and envy of others, freedom from moral or legal sanction – the brand can perform this magical transfer without the need for an actual object. The label or logo now embodies the same spiritual essence as the material thing once did – a fetish that has been liberated from the fetish object itself. The impunity that animates Trump’s character and life can, in the wishful imagination, be licensed like his brand and inhabit his customers and fans. He is the permissive super-ego who says, “Since I can do it, so can you.” His brand thus offers a kind of preemptive pardon (anticipating the legal one he has openly considered for those loyal to him), not just for his cabinet members, his consiglieri and official explainers, but also for his base. The grace of normalization is not just conferred on those white supremacist groups filled with “good people,” but also ordinary Americans who no longer have to sublimate their ethnic hatred and misogyny.
Since the beginning of Trump’s campaign, incidents of racist verbal and physical assaults and vandalism have not only dramatically escalated but have involved the use of his name in the text of those attacks. As one businessman said to a Kennedy Airport worker in a hijab, “Trump is here now. He will get rid of all of you.” In Connecticut, fans of an all-white high school basketball team hurled racist taunts at the opposing team comprised largely of black and Latino players, and yelled “Trump! Trump! Trump!” This incident is one of many similar examples in which the President’s name has joined the swastika and the Confederate flag as brands signifying unapologetic exterminationist white supremacy.
At this point, some of my strenuously tolerant liberal readers might assert that not all Trump supporters are racist or contemptuous of various Others. And yet, they voted for someone who was, and cheered rapturously at his rallies. What does it mean to say you are not a bigot but are happy to support someone who is?
Forgive me for moving to the rhetorical third rail but occasionally Hitler analogies can be clarifying. How might we have regarded “good Germans” in the post-Weimar era who looked upon the brash Austrian rabble rouser and his party as simply the sort of nationalist disruptors the country needed? “Well,” they might say, “I don’t really think Jews are vermin, the principal vectors for all our economic and social maladies, but that Treaty of Versailles was a really bad deal. The Nazis promise to make Germany great again, create jobs, and build that beautiful autobahn. So, I want them in the Reichstag. And, you’ve got to love that idea of Lebensraum. Who doesn’t want to stretch out?”
Whether you are a bigot or can overlook bigotry in your leaders, the distinction doesn’t seem to constitute a meaningful difference, especially when it comes to policies those elected leaders get to enact. (For a fuller account of racism, in particular its role in eclipsing class as a driver of political identity, see my essay, “Tribe vs. Class in the Age of Post-Reality Politics,” which appeared in the anthology River of Fire: Commons, Crisis, and the Imagination.)
Absolute Power, Absolute Impunity
Impunity preempts any need to even imitate, let alone feel, empathy and other emotions common to the rest of the species. For Trump, regret and remorse are affective kryptonite to his singular superpower, untrammeled entitlement. He seems to live by his version of the medieval dictum of le droit du seigneur, the right of the lord. Originally, this referred to the master’s prerogative to rape any woman living on the land over which he ruled. For Trump, it is a more inclusive privilege and applies to anything and anybody he covets. So, unlike other politicians and CEOs, he cannot allow himself to even insincerely apologize, regardless of whatever short-term political or economic utility it might offer. The long-term damage to his brand would be too great.
Impunity is linked to another central feature of the Trumplandian universe – its authoritarianism and admiration of dictatorship. This may be why the Right is not just unperturbed by the Russian electoral espionage scandal, but even sees it as a good thing. To them, Putin is no villain but an icon of “manly” dominance whose central virtue is his ruthless proficiency at crushing those who impede his pursuit of empire. From this perspective, it makes sense why Trump and his base would want him to follow in Putin’s goose steps. And should the Mueller investigation present evidence of collusion with the Russians, Trump World will likely reframe it as one more affirmation that the President is a virtuoso at the “art of the deal.” If treason leads to a win, it is an unalloyed good. And, should there be a charge of obstruction of justice, there is no reason to worry because, according to Trump’s lawyer, John Dowd, the president has impunity when it comes to that crime as well.
For his supporters in particular, the fantasy of domination without limits, consequences, or regret can be an effective if short-lived antidote to feelings of impotence. So, while those outside the Trumpian universe may be filled with bilious revulsion, his base cheers every act of destruction: every attack on an Obama era achievement, every display of arrogant swagger on the global stage, every assault on public health, every puerile insult directed at the enemy of the day, every thinly veiled racist incantation, and every ludicrous denial of science. All his actions say, “I’m here to fuck things up and burn it down. And I can get away with it.” And for those who feel powerless and enjoy little impunity in their own lives, his brand is burnished further.
Truth and Consequences
What can challenge this impunity? It will not be the invertebrate “mainstream” Republicans whose individual and collective Faustian bargains feel to them like offers they can’t refuse. Trump promises to give them what they want, a world safe for unregulated corporate predation, if they give him their loyalty. If they keep the praise coming and block any effort to impeach him for his crimes or to invoke the 25th amendment for his manifest incompetence to govern, he won’t invite Bannonite deplorables with pitchforks to primary them. The few exceptions to GOP moral cowardice have been those whose belated courage has been born of impending retirement.
When it comes to enabling Trump and his team to evade any consequences for their potential crimes, there is now a plurality of Republican members of Congress that are going well beyond looking the other way or uttering low-risk overdue protests as they exit public life. There is now a well-organized and resolute effort underway among GOP politicians, the editorial board of Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal, and FOX News (what is now essentially Trump State TV) to subvert and delegitimate the Mueller investigation, discredit the Justice Department, and slander the FBI. Perhaps this anticipates their slogan for the 2018 mid-term elections – Impunity: It Takes a Village.
While some Democratic politicians may have finally developed a modicum of spinal integrity since the devastating losses of 2016, it has come too late to do anything beyond handwringing or cheering on the resistance from the sidelines. They are largely without sufficient political power to stop the nihilistic Trump juggernaut.
For a solution, among the many that can be employed, we must return to Naomi Klein’s book and its compelling call to arms. She makes the case that, in addition to local grass roots efforts at organized resistance, one of the most effective forms of opposition to the destructive ambitions of the current regime would be to undermine the Trump brand itself. This should be a two-pronged strategy: 1) reframing his brand and 2) boycotting its associated products.
First, there needs to be an unrelenting campaign of semiotic guerilla warfare against his brand in which it becomes infused with meanings that displace its current salutary symbolic freight. The Trump T must bring to mind treasonous loser instead of tough guy winner. Every effort must be made to recast his putative strengths as the weaknesses they are. As many have already done, we need to redefine his impulsivity. Instead of allowing his spokespeople and brand managers to present his thoughtless acting out as bold frankness, it must be portrayed as the infantile psychological incontinence that it is. Then there are the “luxury” attributions carried by his brand. We must bring to the surface the unconscious lexicography of the Trump name itself. In other words, few may know that the actual meaning of trumpery is something that is “showy but worthless” (according to the America Heritage Dictionary) – an accurate description of everything Trump. Poetic justice will be done.
As polls indicate, our numbers are growing. If the resistance can unite across its many differences, and if we are creative, focused, and steadfast in our efforts, even his Success deodorant (a real Trump product) will not be able to cover up the stink.
Once the patina of the brand is tarnished and the products licensed to bear the ignominious T come to signify all that is vile and cheesy, a global effort must be undertaken to subvert its monetary power – its ability to generate a profit for those who license it. Once a world-wide boycott turns a marker of pride and impunity into a symbol of shame and liability, the stigmatization of Trump’s brand could be one bankruptcy from which Russian mob money will not be able to rescue him.
By Neil Altman
It took me a long time to recognize the psychological significance of national identity. I remember staring at the title of Vamik Volkan’s Killing in the Name of Identity and, while recognizing the phenomenon of identity, wondering why it was such a big deal, so big as to prompt murder. At the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, I remember thinking, with wonder, that a few miles at the border between Alberta or Saskatchewan and North Dakota or Montana would make the difference between fierce support of, or indifference to, or skepticism about, the invasion. The election of Donald Trump has brought home to
Electoral College Map 2016
me the significance of national identity, and not only because his election was concrete evidence of nationalism, or rather white nationalism, in the United States. As my illusions about the virtue of the United States, about which I had been intellectually skeptical for many years, melted away, I experienced a depression that showed me how much my own sense of goodness depended on my identification with an imaginary national group inspired by virtuous values.
This realization facilitated my understanding of Andrew Samuels’ (2015) discussion of Nazism. According to Samuels, at the core of Nazi ideology is the notion of the nation, a defined people inextricably tied to a particular land and a particular national character. Jews constituted a threat to the way the Nazis organized the world because they were seen as not having a homeland. Instead, they, along with international communism and international capitalism, were seen as an insidious force undermining the national identity of each country in which they lived. In Samuels’ words the Jews were seen as a “strange so-called nation without a land” (2015, p. 156), thus to be eliminated in the service of the purity of the Aryan nation.1 With these points in mind, one can better understand the importance of Israel, the Jewish “national homeland,” to Jews in the wake of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. Israel is not only land meant to be safe for Jews, but also is the means by which Jews can claim a place as a nation at all, like other nations. 2
In 2016, Donald Trump rode to power in the United States on a wave of nationalism, linked to anti-elitist populism. Instead of Jews or international capitalism, globalization and Islam are portrayed as the forces undermining “American” national identity3. Under the Trump administration, some troubling new elements have now been added to the brew of nationalism and hatred identified by Samuels as core elements of Nazi ideology.
Trump’s way of speaking is a kind of performance marked by bluster and braggadocio. He intimidates like a schoolyard bully. He takes no responsibility for what he says, its truth or lack of same, its effect on his audience. He does a kind of negative containing; instead of being a leader who tries to help people cope with and channel constructively their anxiety and rage, he incites, he stokes the flames, evoking uncontained fantasies and acts of violence, especially the latent rage of the displaced and disenfranchised white working class. Anthony Scaramucci believed that, riding on Trump’s coat-tails, his own narcissism and arrogance could have free reign. Scaramucci appeared to model himself after the crude, bullying, volatile Trump, who stirred up and exploited the resentment, hatred, and contempt felt for Muslims and “illegal” immigrants and the elites that brought on such plagues to enrich themselves. But even though he had millions of dollars to fuel the particular omnipotence that U.S. capitalism makes possible, he was not President; he overstepped and was put back in his place by John Kelly.
Immediately after being appointed communications director, Scaramucci attacked Reince Priebus, Trump’s Chief of Staff, in vulgar, demeaning, and pathologizing terms. Priebus was soon dismissed. He had been brought on to the Trump team as the former head of the Republican National Committee, representing the old-school Republican establishment that Trump courted to secure a major party nomination. Scaramucci having served his purpose to get rid of the Republican establishment in the form of Priebus, the country was ready to accept and welcome the military order, discipline, and hierarchy represented by Kelly.
In the wake of Scaramucci’s vulgar and arrogant attack on Priebus, Scaramucci’s abrupt dismissal, coupled with the elevation to power of John Kelly, might have seemed a stabilizing turn from chaos to order. For me, a moment of relief as Scaramucci was so abruptly humbled, quickly faded into the frightening sense that Scaramucci and Kelly represented two sides of the same coin. How was this so?
At first glance, it might have seemed that the order and hierarchy imposed by Kelly were at odds with the vitriol spewed by Scaramucci, unrelated to any authorized job description. On further reflection, however, it began to appear that Scaramucci’s loose canon and Kelly’s more tightly controlled military canon balls may, as the metaphor suggests, be linked at a deeper level. Leo Bersani’s (2001) introduction to the Penguin Freud’s volume entitled “Civilization and its Discontents”, comes to mind in this connection. Bersani pointed out that civilization’s repression of sexuality and other impulses generates the very aggression that it then tries to control via the superego, which generates further aggression, in a destructive spiral. This analysis tends to undermine the opposition of id and superego in Freud’s structural theory. The energy of the superego with which it opposes and represses id impulses can only be derived from the libidinal/destructive energies of the id itself. Civilization, via the superego, thus advances the aims of the id by appropriating id energy in the service of repression of the id.
Likewise, the libidinal/destructive energy mobilized by Trump, leavened by arrogance and omnipotence, found one outlet in Scaramucci’s vulgar outbursts against the establishment, and another in the repressive regime instituted by Kelly. This latter regime, coupled with white nationalistic anti-globalization leanings brings us perilously close to the Nazi configuration identified by Samuels, along with the orderly, militaristic element so prominent under the Nazis in Germany.
As I write in the aftermath of the violence of Charlottesville, it is apparent that Trump is testing the waters for the degree to which his fanning of neo-Nazi flames will be tolerated in the contemporary United States. A charismatic and demagogic leader, a violent and hate-filled minority, a complacent and cowed majority in denial: all this has been shown many times throughout history to be a recipe for catastrophe.
Bersani, L. (2001) Introduction to Civilization and its Discontents Adam Phillips (ed.) Penguin International.
Samuels, A. (2015) A New Therapy for Politics. London: Karnac.
 Ironically, the Nazis took the idea of an “Aryan” people, with its symbol, the swastika (a Sanskrit word meaning “well being”), from India.
 Zionists may have identified with the Nazi aggressor in so concluding that there needed to be a Jewish homeland in order for the Jews to be entitled to exist. This identification with the victim in a doer-done to framework so that non-Jewish Palestinians could be deprived of their homeland.
It could be replied that what is in question for Zionists is not the Jewish entitlement to exist but rather possession of the resources necessary to defend their existence precisely because Jews do have a right to exist. However, if one added to this last sentence “like any other people” the entitlement to displace other people would come into question. If one does not add these last words, then Jews move toward the historic European feeling of entitlement to displace others (e.g. Jews, but also many others) that eventuate in Nazi ideology and untold number of wars.
 Actually an international term, encompassing all the Americas, but appropriated by a single nation, the “United” States, including red and blue and the would-be former nation, the Confederacy.
By Karen Maroda
Frank Maroda, the author's father
I am a liberal, as were both my parents. In fact, my father, forced to leave high school after the Depression and work in a factory to help support his family, organized the first union in that factory. On the verge of being fired or beaten, he was happily drafted into the Army. He never overtly subscribed to any particular ideology, but made it clear that laws of common decency were not often followed when it came to business and the distribution of wealth. (He became self-employed when the war ended.)
Coming from this background, I have always been interested in critiques of our materialistic society, even though I admittedly succumb to some of the guilty pleasures of middle class suburban life. I try to limit my purchases and encourage my patients to look at what they are feeling when they experience the sudden need to buy something. Yet I cannot honestly say that anything I have read about capitalism has informed my clinical work beyond encouraging some measure of self-awareness regarding the urge to buy.
Reading Todd McGowan’s book, Capitalism and Desire: The Psychic Cost of Free Markets, provided one of those rare moments where I not only was captivated and intellectually stimulated, but also discovered new insights and tools for helping both my patients and myself. I came away with a deeper understanding of what motivates the seemingly endless cycle of all manner of consumption, and how we are manipulated at the deepest social and psychological levels.
McGowan’s main points are as follows:
First, we all have within us a basic sense of loss. I found myself readily agreeing with this concept, though it is not truly a psychoanalytic one. Psychoanalysis focuses heavily on early loss and its lifelong impact, but does not go so as far as to say that we share a collective universal sense of loss as well as any individual losses we may have experienced. (However, the new emphasis on the intergenerational transmission of loss, e.g. Holocaust survivors and their families, support this thesis.)
McGowan says we seek relief from these painful feelings of loss by making purchases, as well as indulging in other forms of conspicuous consumption because we are naturally drawn to the temporary relief they provide. This is not news to psychoanalysts, of course. However, he adds a new twist in emphasizing not only the universality of loss, but more importantly, how we need to return to that sense of loss because it is part of our core identity. Often we are not really looking for long-lasting satisfaction when we buy something because that would work against the restoration of loss.
The role of capitalism in this scenario is that corporations not only know we have been trained in our capitalistic society to want things we don’t need, but that we are actually disappointed if they last too long. Built-in obsolescence is partly a response to the consumer’s desire to continue to make purchases endlessly. McGowan illustrates this with the iPhone, saying it epitomizes the cycle of longing for the next big thing, acquiring it, becoming inured to its benefits, then waiting for the next iPhone, which is barely distinguishable from its predecessor. Though this might seem too sophisticated for some to believe, McGowan says that businesses are well aware of what they are doing and know that the market for their goods is fueled not only by desire, but also by the inevitable disappointment and return to intrapsychic pain. An advocate for psychoanalysis, he points out that one must pursue the “public space” of psychoanalysis to gain insight on one’s sense of loss because it is necessarily unconscious and cannot be tapped through conscious attempts at awareness.
I was really excited by McGowan’s overall thesis and his many cultural examples, e.g. he quotes Don Draper from the Mad Men series, who said. “What is happiness? It’s the moment before you need more happiness.” This is great stuff, I thought. And McGowan is helping me to understand not only capitalism, but also the universal theme of the relationship between desire and loss. I thought to myself, “I should be able to use this clinically.” As you can see in the example that follows, I was particularly interested in McGowan’s hypotheses that went beyond the usual topic of making purchases and spoke more deeply to how capitalism essentially perverts the experiences of desire and loss in a myriad of ways.
Tom, a middle-aged man who has had long term relationships, but never married, came to mind immediately. He spoke of his negative experiences with dating services, but was being pressured by family and peers to try them again. Cringing at the thought of signing up for an interpersonal service that seemed “processed” and unnatural to him, he also feared being seen by others as not willing to help himself out of his loneliness. His desire for an intimate partner was palpable, yet he seemed helpless to alter his social situation. Moderately successful, highly intelligent and knowledgeable across a wide array of subjects, decent-looking and an excellent conversationalist, Tom’s inability to find a partner was a bit of a mystery to all who knew him.
I have treated him for several years with moderate success. Tom is one of those people who takes two steps forward and one step (or two) backward. Just when you think he’s on his way, he becomes profoundly depressed and regresses. During these times he comes to his sessions and spends the entire hour in helpless despair. He makes it clear to me that he does not want me to say much of anything during these sessions unless it is in the service of understanding and accepting his helplessness. Even then, he prefers that I say as little as possible. I think many of my colleagues can relate to the difficulty in treating patients like Tom, as we must join them in the abyss on a regular basis.
Lately I had been wondering if he would ever just maintain his gains and also establish a relationship (which would mean the end of his treatment). Or is he one those people who can never let himself be freed from the endless Promethean struggle with his demons? Is my witnessing truly therapeutic or merely an indulgence?
Reading McGowan’s book allowed me to understand Tom’s suffering in a whole new light. Interestingly, Tom appears to be very unmaterialistic, although upon closer examination he does spend a great deal of money, which he inherited. His primary desires, however, relate mainly to finding a person to be with and to his varied intellectual interests. I always knew Tom needed to grieve his traumatic childhood and tumultuous relationship with his alcoholic father. What I didn’t understand was how the cycle of Tom’s improvement, followed by his periods of regression, fit exactly with McGowan’s discussion of loss and desire.
Since reading his book I have been more at peace when Tom comes to his sessions in despair. I no longer feel depressed by his overwhelming angst and see it simply as a necessary part of the process for him, no matter how long it goes on. Tom can sense the change in me and bounces back from his despair more quickly these days. After more than a few sessions in a row where Tom is in despair he typically “recovers.” When this happens he apologizes to me for his fall into the abyss. The last time this occurred I had read Capitalism and Desire. Instead of simply telling him no apology was necessary, as I typically would, I added that I understood how integral his lifelong despair was to his sense of self and that he needed to revisit it in order to preserve his identity. He was blown away by this interpretation and said. “Yes, that’s exactly right.”
I also was able to help him be free of guilt over not wanting to sign up for a dating service by telling him about what McGowan said about these services and encouraging him instead to go out in the world and find someone who “disrupts” him. I added that Freud referred to falling in love as “temporary psychosis” and that was what he needed rather than being set up with someone who appears as much like him as possible. I don’t know if he will ever be able to let himself find a companion, but I feel that we are on the right track.
Psychoanalysis has in recent years made great efforts to demonstrate its application to politics, culture and the world in general outside of the consulting room. McGowan’s book has done the opposite in that he has taken the essential workings of capitalism and demonstrated how they manipulate individuals in a way that speaks to longstanding psychoanalytic notions about loss and the need for grieving and self-observation.
Clearly there is much to be said about how capitalism affects us both individually and collectively. But Professor McGowan’s thesis has helped me as a clinician both to identify psychological phenomena that are formed by growing up in a capitalist society and to address them at a deeper level within the psychoanalytic dyad. It is not easy to help patients to face their own feelings of helplessness and loss, nor is it easy to feel our own.
By Jan Haaken
Years ago I was invited to speak at the University of Pittsburgh Repertory Theatre after a performance of Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind. The play invites reflection on remembering and forgetting, and human complicity in the varies lies of history—topics at the center of my own work as a psychoanalytic psychologist and feminist scholar. After Sam Shepard’s death on July 30th, I thought again about this wonderful man and the enormity of his contribution to the world. And in returning to some of the ideas in that talk in Pittsburgh, I hope to pay tribute to Shepard by showing his deep affinity with feminist critiques of manhood—and with psychoanalytic ways of thinking about human memory. My alliterative title—memory, mourning and manhood— serves as a structuring device in working through key motifs in the play. I also speculate on how our responses to the play are shaped by the historical moment, having lived through a period of heightened American nationalism. It may be useful to enlist Shepard’s work to reflect on current national failures to remember the violence in our political past and how this failure to remember is related to a refusal to mourn.
This reading of A Lie of the Mind places these twin problems in the context of an American culture of manhood. By a culture of manhood, I do not mean to imply a singular or static masculine identity, nor a masculine identity singularly possessed or perpetuated by males. I use the term manhood here to signify a view of human development that idealizes autonomy, control, and freedom from dependency. Many contemporary women, particularly white, middle class women emancipated from an older domesticated version of womanhood, have in a sense become “men” in this cultural sense. A Lie of the Mind invites critical engagement with the destructive and regressive aspects of American ideals of manhood. For if we take the position that the United States is a country suffering from chronic amnesias, and these amnesias contribute to its incapacity to mourn the violence that pervades its own political past, we might also question how these pathologies are transmitted through various psychological paths of identity.
A Lie of the Mind opens as a place of broken connections, of displaced people, and of chronic lapses of memory. Family members—presumed intimates—are unable to hold in mind knowledge of one another. Against this social landscape of unstable and frayed kinship ties, the sibling relation emerges as the one reliable human bond. Yet the sibling bond also is cast as precarious, strained by the emotional load of family grievances and bitter rivalries. The play opens with a bad phone connection. A younger brother is frantically holding onto his older brother who is reeling out of control. Jake calls from a forlorn phone booth on the highway, confessing to his brother Frankie that he has killed his wife. “I didn’t see it coming,” Jake explains in telling the fragmented story of his violent outburst, “I have been good for so long.” We learn that Beth is not dead. She is brain-damaged by the blows suffered through this assault by her jealous husband, but the damage also is rooted in a pernicious line of family pathology. “How can you love a man who tried to kill you,” Mike later asks his sister in frustration. “He’s my HEART,” Beth responds emphatically. The seeming masochism of Beth’s position yields to a more complex picture of her constraints. Breaking out of suffocating and controlling familial bonds, Beth strives to grow up. “I’m not a baby!” she insists, as her brother steadies her efforts to walk and talk. The sibling pair offers some possibility for restoring life—for regaining memory. Each sibling serves as the unconscious of the other—the one who holds the discarded memories of the other. Jake remembers his sister’s sexual abuse at the hands of the father and she recalls the violence where Jake brought about the death of the father. These siblings cling to one another like orphans.
The parents are useless and the knowledge they hold is obsolete. Beth’s parents abandon her in the hospital, unable to understand her medical situation. They are ghosts inhabiting a world that no longer exists. Jake’s mother holds onto the ashes of her dead husband, along with the war medals and flag that draped his military coffin. He was no hero, she announces bitterly, positioning the son as the bearer of this failed legacy of manhood.
Like many of Shepard’s plays, A Lie of the Mind centers on the relationship between manhood and America and the illusions that bind national and gender identity. And like many of the other plays, this drama conveys a pronounced sympathy with the dilemmas of women. Shepard creates richly drawn female protagonists—women who are complex agents of cultural history as well as victims of forces that hold them in check. The moral distribution of responsibility for violence falls more heavily on men, although women are not simply passive observers of their fate.
Two versions of hell shape the intersecting fates of men and women in this lonely landscape. A suffocating domestic sphere tended by women anchors men who also perpetually escape its influence. The men hunt, but they do not like meat. The socialized violence of hunting, bound in earlier eras to modes of subsistence, now gives way to the mere pleasure of the hunt. Men hit the road but the road to the bigger highway is risky. Lorraine warns her fleeing son Jake that he, much like his dad, may find himself “busted open on the road.” Caught between the call of the wild and the pull back to the maternal fold, men wander uneasily in search of a place of mooring. Women wander off as well but into an interior world of fantasy and absentmindedness.
Some readings of Lie of the Mind might draw out the relationship between the history of trauma in the lives of the lead protagonists and their blunted emotional capacities and memory lapses. Violence, abandonment, and emotional abuse dominate the histories of the two families trapped between futile efforts at exogamy—at attachments beyond the original family—and a regressive pull back to a hothouse of incestuous familial ties. The men hit the road, in a reckless bid for freedom, as the women wander into an interior dream world. The trauma of violence, loss, and abandonment gives rise to a numbing incapacity to connect with others. The mother’s incapacity to remember her daughter-in-law’s name, Jake’s repeated invoking of the absent Beth as an effort to recollect her—all of these dramatic devices foreground the blunted capacities of the protagonists, their incapacity to hold relationships or to preserve memory of others.
The failure to remember may also be framed as a form of melancholia—a self-absorption that follows from a disturbed process of mourning. Drawing on Freud’s Mourning and Melancholia we might begin with the idea that loss of a valued object—whether a person, a homeland, or an ideal—often confronts us with intense ambivalence. This monograph by Freud places memory at the center of the problem of mourning, and describes the condition of melancholia as a failed process of grieving. Freud’s concept of grieving cannot be summed up, as Judith Butler notes, through a version of the Protestant ethic, with its fixation on dutiful completion of tasks. Rather, Freud’s concept of mourning emphasizes the elusive search for the part of the other that must be found and preserved internally in reviving libidinal engagement with the external world. Preserving the internal object—the representation of the lost other, whether one’s country, a loved one, or a beloved ideal—confronts a series of forces that perpetually place the mourner at risk of melancholia. Idealizing the lost object—whether in nostalgia or memorials—serves as a means of preserving the good object against the unconscious anxiety that one has somehow been part of its destruction.
The centrality of ambivalence in intimate human bonds—of shifting currents of love and hate—is at the center of the Freudian paradigm. To varying degrees, we do not fully recover from the discovery that those we hate and those we love are often one and the same persons. What we come to dread and fear, those in the Freudian tradition would suggest, are unwelcome parts of ourselves. Although there are many potential readings of the play, Shepard seems to make central the problem of guilt. With the exception of the brain-damaged Beth, who remains childlike and unchanged throughout the play, the protagonists inhabit a world of shared torment.
Shepard draws us into a web of conflicted motivations behind the various screens of amnesia. While we recognize Jake as a prototypical wife beater, the play refuses to grant us such an easy way of classifying this violent man. In explaining his violence, Jake initially adopts the classic defense of the batterer: he blames the victim. “She got me in trouble more than once,” Jake insists in explaining how he beat his wife. Much like a good psychoanalyst, Frankie confronts Jake with how he habitually attacks the things he loves. Remember that goat you had as a child, Frankie recalls, how you “kicked the shit out of that goat.” This farm animal that Jake had loved so dearly had stepped on his foot, unleashing a torrent of violent rage. Beth, too, had stepped on him by moving out into the world and beyond her husband’s control. His paranoia was nursed by his deep sense of deprivation, but also by his equally deep sense of entitlement as a man.
In returning to his mother and assuming the position of infant, spoon-fed by the mother, Jake’s character regresses and this infantile dynamic is exposed. We recognize how the form of manhood Jake embodies is precariously held together, teetering on violence, on the one hand, and regression into madness on the other. Lorraine is a monstrous mother but we learn that her bitterness grows from the betrayals of the husband, the “stuff he put into me that’ll never go away” (67). Men in her world are like snarling dogs, and she has been bitten. But Lorraine retreats from recognizing her own guilt, her own part in perpetuating a pathological manhood. For to acknowledge her disappointment in her deranged son, his destructiveness and failed manhood, would require that Lorraine confront more than she can bear. To preserve the fantasy of the good son, Lorraine transfers moral responsibility to her dutiful daughter.
If Shepard would have us mourn the losses of both real and imagined pasts, of patriarchs and other sovereign powers, we also are left to wonder where there is potential consolation or hope for reparation. If the process of grief and mourning requires that we confront how we are each morally implicated in human destructiveness, we are still left with uncertainty as to how to intervene in the destructive cycles of history.
As Americans, perhaps we are invited by the play to identify with the pious Mike, the protective big brother who thinks he knows best, who insists on a confession from a compliant evildoer. Rather than an act of violence against his sister, an act that reenacted a violent history most brutally felt by women, Mike insists on a story that casts the violence as an assault on family honor. In the demand for submission over a weakened foe, in his humiliation over his defeated enemy, Mike refuses to acknowledge his own guilt and vulnerability. This desire to torture the object of threat grows out of a desperate effort to externalize the state of vulnerability, to put it someplace else, outside of the self, and to bring it under control. The American military response to 9/11 has been described as this form of pathological defense—both in the sense of a closing off of some disturbing part of the reality of a situation and as having the consequence, like many pathological defenses, of generating the very threat against which it initially serves to defend. Like a repetition compulsion, the war against terrorism allows the sovereign state a perpetual replay of engagement with a dreaded threat to its sovereignty—a perpetual struggle with the elusive dangers that can never be mastered.
Shepard introduces the flag as a fetish object for the parents who have abandoned their children. As the elder couple ritually fold the flag (the father recalls the correct military regulations), oblivious to the injuries of their children, the play seems to answer the question of what people remember. The failures in memory are the result of failures in love. The flag operates as a fetish in the sense that the object protects from human connection. As a memory fetish, the flag also signifies an imagined past that unites America as a people—an America with roots in small towns, small farms and roads that lead to larger places. If the stark emotional landscape of this play registers the difficulties in memorializing this imagined past, we would want to acknowledge Shepard’s personal roots in these same Western landscapes. This familiarity provides him with a capacity to give dramatic power to the costs of the various lies we endorse to keep the fantasy alive. But the radical counter-culture that gave Shepard a foothold beyond the ghost towns and car culture of Americana offers intimations of alternative communities beyond the roads that lead nowhere.
The family structure of the play registers tribal bonds of kinship, families torn loose from a way of life that bound men, women, and children within a hierarchical social order—a way of life that was oppressive yet secure. Many of Shepard’s plays are concerned with the place of the Western and Midwestern small town in the American imaginary—places that occupy an important social symbolic space in collective memory. But Shepard refuses any nostalgic return to this imagined American heartland. He reminds us of the costs of refusing to remember the destructive side of our collective past, the deadening effects of various refusals to mourn.
The play would have us recognize that there are both real and imagined pasts that we must mourn as Americans, as men and women both overly bound to limited spheres of attachments in the nuclear family, with its ideal of the self-sufficient dyad as its core fantasy. And it warns of the unbounded terrain that lies outside of the stifling sanctuary of the nuclear family. The play also acknowledges ambivalence through its characters: a woman who still loves a man who is trying to kill her, a man who wants to return to the fold of his mama while also breaking free of her, a father who loves the objects that represent people—the American flag—more than the people themselves. And I think the play invites us to acknowledge the power men still hold (over women and other men) and to mourn and relinquish old ways of life.
At the conclusion of the play, Frankie, the gentler of the two protective brother figures, survives the wounds inflicted by the patriarch and regains through assuming a feminine position of vulnerability his humanity. Beth does get the “woman-man” she desires in Frankie, although Beth seems permanently broken, unable to recover the man-side of herself. Sally, dutiful daughter and sister, also undergoes a transformation in that she is able to emancipate herself from the patriarchal family. She and her mother set the house on fire, signifying the violent ruptures accompanying acts of rebellion. The mother looks to the future as the daughter looks back, searching through piles of photos for a picture of her mother she can hold onto. The play seems to tilt toward the matrilineal line for the transmission of cultural memory, but here, too, the ties that bind are fragile. In returning to Ireland, in search of her matrilineal past, the mother becomes an unexpected source of consolation to her daughter. Someone will be there to recognize us, the mother assures the daughter. There always will be a straggler who remembers. But the play also casts this mother/daughter pair as perpetual wanderers, having burned their bridges behind them. There is no going back.
In the current political fog in America and as reactionaries call for revival of the old patriarchal order, we need all of the resources we can gather to find a path forward—and all of the beautiful spirits to guide us. Viva Sam Shepard!