You are in therapy

by Cliff Bostock

This is a talk I gave to the Atlanta Philosophical Society on Sunday, Aug. 22.

Do you, like most Americans, imagine that you are not in therapy? Think again. If you live in America, you are in therapy. Consider your average day.

Perhaps you start the day by reading a newspaper. If so, you are in therapy at breakfast. Maybe the day's lead story is another report of school violence. If so, there will be a sidebar in which psychologists explain how mass murder by teenagers is the consequence of poor parenting. Really good parents know if their children are mass murderers, after all.

Move to another page and read Hillary Clinton's explanation of her husband's compulsive exhibition of his penis. Why, it's the result of spats between his mother and grandmother when he was four years old. Sure it is.

Take another sip of coffee. Turn the page. Perhaps you read Dear Abby or Ann Landers. This morning, Abby has discovered attention deficit disorder. Perhaps ADD causes young men to wear trenchcoats…if not exhibit their penis…if not commit murder… if not become president.

But you can also read John Gray's column. He's the guy who has made millions by reinforcing gender stereotypes as rigid as Freud's with the language of psychobabble in books like Men are From Mars, Women are from Venus. Of course, this school violence, for him, is about the failure of society to provide reasonable outlets for male aggression.

But have you noticed that none of these deeply concerned therapists has ever remarked that the vast majority of victims in these school shootings are female? And although they worriedly explain how such events occur in middle class white schools, they never stop to wonder why they do NOT occur in predominantly African American schools. I wonder if it has anything to do with psychology's classic prejudice against women and minorities, its infamous indifference to social realities.

Later you tune in the radio. Dr. Laura is berating her on-the-air clients with her hybrid of pop psychology and traditional family values. Dr. Laura has an immediate and simple solution for everything. Is it possible that media culture, which demands instantaneous answers in a society that valorizes productivity and action, has completely overcome values like complexity and waiting for time's healing through the revelation of new possibility?

Why is life so simple for Dr. Laura and so complicated for the rest of us?

How is it that more than 50 percent of Americans think gay people should be accorded full civil rights, while Dr. Laura is excoriating gay men and lesbians at every opportunity. I guess Americans need more therapy! Indeed, why are psychologists so OFTEN behind the thinking of the rest of America?

If the radio's not your thing, you can tune in any number of television talk shows. From Oprah to Sallie, you will encounter an endless stream of worried-looking psychologists hawking self-help books on the latest disorder or holding the hands of people whose five minutes of fame are tied to their capacity to weep in public and disclose childhood tragedies that make the psychologists' work and theories seem…valid. For more action-packed psychodrama, tune in Jerry Springer where people enact their domestic insanity onstage. Springer excuses the grotesque exhibition of domestic freaks with - you guessed it -- a daily summary speech packed with psychobabble.

Oh, sure, maybe you see through all this. Maybe YOU don't watch Jerry Springer. Maybe YOU only watch public television. Whose series have been the big fundraisers for artsy, intellectual public television in the last two years? First there was Deepak Chopra, who preaches that we can become prosperous and immortal, by correcting our thoughts. Nowadays, the moneymaker is bitchy Carolyn Myss, who has hybridized everything from the Kabbalah and Carl Jung's archetypal theory with somatic psychology and Dr. Laura's get-over-it message. Undoubtedly, a certain saltiness of disposition goes a long way in repelling anyone who looks too closely at Myss' work, which has all the depth and authenticity of a potted meat sandwich. It's all scraps from whole animals, blended into something palatable for people who can't bear the whole truth.

I could go on. The point is that all of us, if we live inside American culture, are also living inside the culture of psychotherapy. Our lives are drenched in it. What does this mean? It means we still live inside the imagination of Sigmund Freud.

Although I revere Freud for the structure of his thought, many of his insights have been deservedly scrapped. Still, we tend to explain everything we are in terms of his theory of the psychodynamic mind. The theory says that our identities are conditioned by internal unconscious conflicts that did or did not reach resolution in childhood. Although more than 200 schools of therapy have evolved since Freud's publication of The Interpretation of Dreams 100 years ago, they all maintain this belief and they all argue that to resolve the conflicts, you must enter therapy and make the repressed conscious. (The content of the repression in the new therapies can now be spiritual, emotional, moral or rational. But the process remains basically the same.)

The result of this, in modern thinking particularly (for Freud was not nearly as optimistic as today's humanistic therapists), is supposed to be a life of contentment if not outright happiness. In the view of the new therapies, meaning and melancholy are incompatible. The only lives that have meaning are those that are blissful. Biography itself argues against this. The great majority of the world's movers and shakers have histories that modern psychologists would - and do -- call dysfunctional and depressing. Oh well. If only Ghandi's and Churchill's families had had the benefit of Dr. Laura's advice, think how much better off we'd all be.

Most of us are comfortable nowadays listening to someone like Dr. Laura or Carolyn Myss and finding entertainment value in them and an occasional piece of advice we can use. But what I want to emphasize here is how DAMAGING the culture of psychotherapy can be because, as I said earlier, it is often far behind the culture's vanguard. This make sense. Because it is preoccupied with the past, psychology tends to live in the past. Without giving you a full history, I just want to remind you that, since its inception, psychology has pathologized women and subsumed an incredible array of sexist prejudices in its litany of pathology: hysteria, nymphomania and penis envy, right up to John Gray's stereotyping in his books, along with the woo-woo stereotyping by authors in the men's movement like Robert Bly and Michael Meade.

Further: Early psychology called and still often calls homosexuality a disease. It pathologized masturbation. It even created a bizarre disease called "draptomania" to explain the habit of slaves trying to escape from their masters - as if this wasn't natural. All of these disorders have their roots in cultural prejudice. Every one of them may be easily explained as psychology's effort to reinforce conservative values.

This is no less true today. Every few years a new psychological disorder surfaces and it is ALWAYS in service to a cultural prejudice. To name a few: Codependency, multiple personality disorder, borderline disorder, addiction, recovered memory syndrome, post-traumatic-stress disorder, attention deficit disorder, eating disorders, depression, low self esteem (whatever that is).

I do not mean that these labels may not describe legitimate suffering, but they are often linguistic categories that describe symptoms of cultural bias, not of personal biography. And more disturbing, because they are cultural symptoms, they become widely used diagnoses whose function is to enforce cultural norms. There is no place for melancholy and stillness in a society that values productivity, so we pathologize it as depression and instantly medicate it. In other words, psychologists, as a priesthood, now create values as much as enforce them - just as any other marketing pros do.

Now, the question of medicating depression raises an interesting secondary point. Psychiatry and psychology during the first half of this century were almost totally preoccupied with the notion that all mental illness is biographical in origin and could be cured through talk therapy. But the discovery some years ago of lithium as an effective and almost immediate way of managing bipolar disorder, has completely changed the face of psychology.

Fifty years of crackpot theories about, say, the origin of schizophrenia in cold and detached mothers, have had to be abandoned as we find neurological causes for all kinds of mental illness, including bouts of suicidal depression. I am not talking about simple symptom management. I am talking about brain science finding literal causes of disorders that psychology once assured us had to do with poor parenting. We have also found that cognitive therapies have remarkable effects on behavior in short-term treatment of disorders that may be habit-based.

You would think that the almost embarrassingly rapid disclosure of psychology's theories as voodoo would cause the field to be more self-critical. Quite the contrary. It becomes more protectionist. While the treatment of severe mental illness has been almost completely ceded to psychiatry and neurology, psychotherapists have thunk up the idea that the modalities that did NOT work in treating the severely mentally ill must, well most certainly, well surely they work for people like you and me who are floundering as we search for meaning in life but suffer no actual mental illness.

So, as I indicated earlier, they generate new diagnoses, new disorders, and then, incredibly, expect the insurance companies to pay for treatment by pseudo-scientific practitioners. "You aren't 40 and having a crisis of meaning in your life. You are suffering a character disorder, you have low self-esteem, you are depressed. I mean if you get more depressed you might kill yourself. You need years of therapy." This is not a joke. This is what happens now. And just to make sure it all looks kosher and scientific, the state - which is demanding normatively adapted citizens -- now totally regulates the education and licensure of therapists, so that nobody can legally practice within the priesthood if they deviate from this soul-killing praxis that, I repeat, literally pathologizes the search for meaning in life.

Psychologists of course sometimes respond by admitting that the treatment of mental illness has appropriately been ceded to medicine. Our discipline is an art, they sometimes claim. But why should an artist be reimbursed by an insurance company?

I should insert here that I most definitely include myself among those who have participated in psychology's fictions, as victim and perpetrator. I am a veteran of more than 25 years of personal psychotherapy and 18 years of twelve-step work. Ten years ago I decided, at midlife after a career in magazine writing and editing, to return to school to become a therapist myself. I earned a master's degree in a very liberal program and underwent extensive if unorthodox training - far beyond what is even required for a doctoral student.

Unfortunately for me, all the laws governing practice were changed just as I finished my schoolwork and training. Still, I worked under supervision for a few years. But the more conventional therapy I did with people - the vast majority of whom came in with a self-diagnosis courtesy of the latest fad book - the more discouraged I became. When I decided to undertake a doctoral degree over three years ago, I decided not to get a clinical degree but one with a historical and philosophical orientation in depth psychology, the psychology of the unconscious.

Now, coincident to this - as I was reading about the sources of psychology and trying to practice conventionally even as the state questioned my right to - I began to experiment with some new ideas. I created a workshop called "Greeting the Muse." It is an 11-week nekyia, to use Dante's word, a journey to the underworld of the imagination. Participants become actively engaged with the image-making function of what I call, for lack of a better word, the soul. In effect, it is an experience of the poetic imagination. Originally this workshop was directed only to blocked writers and artists.

To my great surprise, the first participants in my workshop seemed to make strides far beyond what I was seeing in my work with regular therapy clients. I watched them become unblocked and often become less anxious, not because they changed in their fundamental nature but because they began to give themselves permission to be just as wacky and pathological as their natures called them to be. I think what I want to say is that I discovered what the French phenomenologist of the imagination, Gaston Bachelard, described. Bachelard, whose influence on James Hillman is enormous, wrote that everything in the world yearns to speak and that when you discover this, by actively listening to the spontaneously arising images of the psyche, writing occurs spontaneously.

I know this to be true. I have seen so many people who have never written anything seriously produce beautiful essays when they began listening to the images that are yearning to speak in their own consciousness. (That's why, I'm guessing, the Bible tells us that in the beginning was the word: the imagination given flesh.)

Now, in the last few years I have opened my work with the imagination to a broader population with varying success. Because it is radical and because it really does require a willingness to stand outside the conventions of psychological culture, to forget everything -- including the need to feel safe, in the teddy-bear-hugging way that word has come to be used in contemporary counseling -- it is certainly not for everyone. I have done a great deal of thinking about what this work accomplishes (and doesn't) and I have come to realize that it returns people to an experience of the poetic - which has been truly abandoned in postmodernity. (If you go see a movie like Shakespeare in Love or Gods and Monsters you will see this idea better articulated than I am doing right now.)

The Greeks, the Sufis, the indigenous cultures, the people of the Renaissance, the early Christian sects, even the early depth psychologists and all functioning poets and artists in our own time all understood and understand that we make meaning out of our lives through our imagination. Thus the Greeks required everyone to attend the theater and even opened their mystery cults and oracles, where sacred images were revealed, to slaves. (Please note that depth therapy has never been really made available to the poor in our time. The poor do not suffer sufficiently at depth, apparently.) In the neo-platonic academy of the Renaissance, Ficino taught the marvelous power of the image to the great artists of his time. The romantic poets a few centuries later reacted to the Age of Enlightenment by restoring the image to primacy.

In Freud and Jung there are two threads. One was the new positivistic scientific one, but the other was this romantic one that knows the life of the image is where our lives BEGIN. It is worth remarking, I think, that you can read the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud or the essays of Oscar Wilde, both of whom preceded Freud by a few years, and see virtually all of Freud's ideas elucidated in poetic form. Freud himself confessed late in life that his case histories were fictions, in the grander sense of the word, and that artists and poets, more than anyone else, understood his ideas -- all of which he confessed were drawn in the first place from poets and other writers like Goethe, Mallarme and Zola.

Now, you may raise the very authentic question if I'm not just doing a new form of therapy. Perhaps. But I'd like to demonstrate, with a recent case, how radical a departure my work is in some ways -- and how difficult it often is for me to even stay obedient to my own vision, how often I tend to be seduced back into the historicizing imagination of Freud.

Recently, in a dream group, a participant brought in a dream or reverie of seeing her shadow on the wall as a wolf. Now, if you were given to a New Agey, Carolyn Myss way of thinking, you'd, probably immediately call this some kind of spirit guide. If, and this is closer to me, if you were into ecopsychology, you might say this was wolf itself, an endangered species attempting to speak through the dream of this person.

If you were Freud, you would certainly say that this wolf is, as he put it, a coating of a repressed instinct related to biography, the instinct to devour, to hunt, to destroy, perhaps to get revenge on a parent - aggression, in disguise, in short. Because this individual had earlier dreams of shattering and violence, I tended reflexively, as one who has lived deeply in Freud's imagination, to think of the image in this way. In other words, in the Freudian, classical psychological way, the image was an expression of something pre-existent in the biography of the individual. I caught myself, but barely. No, I began to think, this could be, in the Jungian sense, the archetypal wolf. In the Jungian view, the image is not a coating for a personal instinct, but the personification of a collective one, one given with birth. So I considered all the things that wolves represent mythologically. You see, still the wolf was appearing to me not as a BEGINNING but as a consequence of personal experience or mythological and archetypal inheritance.

Meanwhile, the participant was saying, no, no, no. I had her dialogue with the wolf for a few weeks. (Yes, images really do speak clear as a bell, as Bachelard argues.) Then, I was reminded, as my client's intuition told her, that the image is a BEGINNING. The image is always a beginning, a birth. If it is authentic (and that's an entirely separate subject) it is always fresh.. The wolf invites her into a change, and that change - as a new artist - is to split off from the pack, to become a lone wolf. This was her intuition from the beginning but my own training, my own absorption in Freud and his heirs, made it impossible for me to see this at first as other than a symbol, a product, of repressed anger. It may well be that she needs to become more predatory, more assertive, but that is very different from seeing her as primarily carrying repressed anger.

So, the poetic image is a beginning, an invitation, a message to step into a new world where it is RIGHT to be a lone wolf, slightly whacked, in all your craziness and otherness. How odd that St. Augustine condemned and Husserl and the phenomenologists praised the same observation. Each said the imagination makes everything radically other. The imagination, because it makes everything other, always causes a shattering of identity when it is given free reign. So, if I am just a new kind of therapist, I am a therapist standing against the idea of integration and unity and for the necessity of shattering.

That is why the poet Rilke says that every angel is terrible. Like the angel of the Annunciation, every image that visits us in our interior and in the world can impregnate us, can be an invitation to shatter and change, to produce, like the Virgin, something impossible - something unthinkable -- out of ourselves and our erotic relationship with the body of the image. The capacity of the image to arrest us and change us is, I'd argue, the quality of beauty (not as something pretty but as something awe-inspiring, something that fully arrests our attention.) Thus, for the poet and for me, the goal of the soul's life is beauty. That is where meaning lies. And, believe me, that is not part of psychology.

I close with some lines from Rilke, the first stanza of the first of the Duino Elegies:

"Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels'
hiearchies? And even if one of them pressed me
suddenly against his heart: I would be consumed
in that overwhelming existence. For beauty is nothing
but the beginning of terror, which we still are just able to endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains
to annihilate us. Every angel is terrifying…"

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