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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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