May 2017 – Isms, Phobias and Invisibilities: Bigotry on the Couch

 Antigone and Mimi Blasiak:

And What of Their Ghosts and Ours?

Elissa Vinnik

In late July, I sat in the front row of a colleague’s directorial summer project: Antigone. With a cast dominated by women, an oracle in the throes of pregnancy, and Haemon cast as a black man speaking the voice of impassioned reason to his father and king Creon, Sophocles’s words were saturated with the urgency of this political moment. The notes of contemporary misogyny, authoritarian refusal to admit wrongdoing until lives are lost, and fidelity to power and fear instead of compassion bring Sophocles’s 2,500-year-old questions about the role of law and acts of dissent into even sharper focus.

Here’s the gist: two brothers fight in battle; one defends his city, the other seeks to conquer it. Both die and Creon, the new king, gives the former a hero’s burial, while leaving the other brother’s body to wild birds and dogs. He decrees that no one shall bury this body; the punishment for honoring the anarchist’s body is death. Distraught by her brothers’ deaths, Antigone, buries her brother in spite of the Creon’s edict. When caught, Antigone admits her act openly and although she is both betrothed to his son and sibling to the dead, Creon stands ready to enforce his law. Like the laws in which he believes, Creon trusts his voice – that of ruler and arbiter – alone. No entreaty from Antigone, no public opinion from the populace, no judgements and threats from his beloved son Haemon, guidance from trusted advisor, nor foreboding reminders from the chorus can make him pivot. Creon’s refusal to bend not only condemns Antigone to death for covering her dead brother’s body with dirt, but also casts Creon’s own life into tragedy. The audience knows what’s to come—it is a tragedy after all—but it’s hard to watch this and not yearn for a humane approach to justice, especially when Creon absolves himself of wrongdoing by confining Antigone to a vault, saying her fate is “her affair, not ours: our hands are clean” (line 713). It is only after his son and wife are dead by suicide that he rages in grief, “the guilt is all mine” (line 4041).

Although Sophocles’s play does not directly tackle all the phobias (homophobia, Islamophobia, xenophobia) or invisibilities (like heteronormativity, micro-agressions and class privilege) that dominate today’s language of power relations, points of searing dialogue make it nearly impossible to miss Creon’s patriarchal conception of power, sexism and ageism. In fact, a recent production of Antigone staged in Brooklyn’s East New York and using Ferguson, Missouri and Michael Brown’s murder as its premise, shows the adaptability of the play to address many of the kinds of racialized and bigoted violence and language that pervades in today’s world.

Marc Nemiroff

I was surprised by how powerfully Sophocles’s Kingdom of Thebes reverberated with the themes of the New Directions Spring Weekend: Isms, Phobias and Invisibilities:  Bigotry on the Couch coordinated by Marc Nemiroff, Ph.D. Like Antigone, our weekend themes addressed some “isms,” a useful (though perhaps limited) abbreviation for sexism, heterosexism, ableism, classism, ageism, and anti-Semitism. Among our weekend speakers, Amy Carattini investigated intersubjectivity and its role in cultivating otherness while Richard Ruth examined the interplay between his own and a patient’s gay identity.  Maurice Apprey interrogated the role of intergenerational trauma in his patients’ treatments.

Mimi Blasiak

It was Antigone that brought me viscerally sailing back to Mimi Blasiak’s talk. Sophocles’s questions — “How does Antigone’s birth follow her? How do her forefathers’ crimes ‘infect…a family?’” (696, 699) — echo Mimi’s own wondering: how does trauma, and particular traumas related to racism, diaspora, and genocide, impact the next generation, she asks. How does a patient enact the trauma of a parent’s life?

In poet Anne Carson’s Antigonik, a reinvention and retelling of Antigone, the author likens the Greek chorus to lawyers:

They’re both in the business of searching for a precedent … so as to be able to say this terrible thing we’re witnessing now is / not unique you know it happened before / or something much like it.

With similar eloquence and candor, Mimi Blasiak explained how she spent much of her analysis doing the work of a Sophocles’s Greek chorus “searching for a precedent,” trying to name “this terrible thing” in her life that had “happened before/or something much like it.”

For Mimi, that searching began with a deeply loving description of her father: the hero who at fourteen defied the odds and thwarted murder again and again as a Polish Jew in Nazi-occupied Poland. She recalled the touchstone stories of her childhood, those that she’d heard countless times: a harrowing escape from a death march, an epic escape out the window of a train that was bound for Sobibor, a smuggling of gold coins to buy survival. With the a sparkle in her eyes reminiscent of any child’s love for a parent, Mimi recalled how amazing her father was: How smart! How daring! How brave! she told us. She saw him through the single lens through which he represented himself; his bravado, well earned, his optimism, unending. To her younger self, he was no ordinary man. She had a doer of a dad, an awe-inspiring father; he was no ordinary man, no ordinary father.

Her own fears, in comparison, were mundane: bicycling, heights, and people. In spite of an upbringing largely devoid of trauma, a family, and a successful career, her inner life was tortured by a need to clean away filth and haunting vivid dreams. “I recognized that my background as a child of survivor was important,” she told us, “but I didn’t understand how it was related to my dark internal world.” This inexplicable contrast between her life and this inner darkness, she came to understand, “was not unique,” as Carson’s chorus suggests, precisely because it “happened before/or something much like it,” not in her immediate conscious experience, but rather in father’s past as a Holocaust survivor. They were the same feelings her hero father’s stories never named: the guilt and pain of leaving his mother and siblings in the train car bound for Sobibor; the terror that surely accompanied carrying gold coins straight into a concentration camp; and the unspeakable horror of marching past the over the dead and dying to survive a death march. Those ghosts, Mimi says, found a home in her unconscious inner world. “I have come to see the inheritance of my unconscious fears as my own story,” she explains. “I unknowingly took on the questions in [my father’s] narrative that remained unasked and unanswered.”

Thus, the vignette she shares later in her talk paints a less idealized hero; she sees her father’s optimism and his identity as a proud businessman evidenced by the gold watch he wore on his wrist, but also that of the unerasable tattoo from his imprisonment in a concentration camp underneath: a constant reminder etched in skin of pain and loss.

As the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, Mimi finds herself, like Antigone, born into a lineage torn by trauma that predates her very existence.  She is compelled to right the legacy of historic wrongs that haunt her inner life. Because of her analysis and introspection about her own and her father’s experiences, Mimi is able to recast and reconsider her father’s legacy in a way that is liberatory and even redemptive. By understanding  the weight of her father’s trauma in her life, she has liberatory permission not to carry its weight or be consumed by its crushing power. Indeed, her talk ends: “I have only realized that they are not my burdens.”  

Creon and Antigone

Unlike Mimi, in Antigone’s protagonist and antagonist are denied that freedom of possibility, and the punishment cuts deeply. Creon earns the audience’s reproach by refusing culpability for Antigone’s murder until it’s too late. Antigone, too, might have chosen to budge or hedge, but she doesn’t. “You went too far,” the chorus exhorts, beyond “the last limits of daring—smashing against the high throne of Justice!”  

In all likelihood, she too is compelled to right a wrong in no small part because she carries the heavy load of her father’s sins: marrying and mating with his own mother.

Yet, in spite of all her daring, she does not, and perhaps cannot, examine the role of  her family’s demons as Mimi does, and so her end is self-destructive and tragic.  It is the way in which they delve into and explore their family’s legacy that define their differences and allows Mimi to envision a less haunting, and therefore more hopeful future.

Thus, in different ways, Mimi and Sophocles’s characters pose a powerful question: how far is each of us daring to go–and to name and consider–the legacies of phobias and isms we live out in our own conscious and unconscious daily lives? Can we, for example consider and act on

  • the failure to name whiteness and the role it plays in the lives of white people like me again and again;
  • the failure to consider that a patient or student does not identify as straight until she suggests otherwise;
  • the possibility that even our heroes and heroic leaders, perhaps a parent or a grandparent or the leadership of a school or institute have demons of their own and knowingly and unknowingly make choices motivated by some of the very isms and phobias they and we profess to challenge; and
  • the indisputable reality that our country’s founding on racialized violence and abuse has gone largely uninterrogated and continues to haunt some and literally kill others.

These are merely a few.

Spanish philosopher Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás, more commonly referred to by his (shortened and likely colonized) English name as George Santayana,  famously wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (It is perhaps not coincidental to the questions we were challenged to ask during our weekend that this familiar quote is often mistakenly attributed to a white, European orator, Edmund Burke.) Often, Santayana’s thinking is confined to conversations about world events in history classes. I believe that we must be brave like Mimi, to look to our own pasts, those of our ancestors, and those of the institutions and theoretical frameworks in which we work. We must ask the questions that may destabilize our own senses of ourselves and the selves of our colleagues, friends, families and institutions. We must move beyond seeing that exploration as destructive and threatening, but rather, as Mimi discovered, to embrace its possibility to uplift and humanize. By following Mimi’s vulnerable and brave example, we can better know the outlines of long ago violence and trauma enough that they can no longer condemn us. Instead, we can write more liberated narratives of our own lives and those we care for.

February New Directions Weekend: Friendship

Elissa Vinnik

For this post, I’m pleased to introduce my new blogging collaborator, Elissa Vinnik. Elissa began attending the summer writing retreat two years ago and this year joined the New Directions community for our weekend program. 

Elissa is a proud public school 11th grade English teacher who lives in Brooklyn, NY and writes poems and pursues activism when she’s not busy learning from her students or giving feedback on their their work. She’s a member of the New York Collective of Radical Educators (NYCORE) and she can often be found talking, thinking, or reading about how to make public education more anti-racist, feminist, and queer; making art, reading books; and thinking about what to eat or cook next.  

I’m very happy that Elissa agreed to work with me on the New Directions blog; what follows is her first post. I am sure you’ll be as impressed with Elissa’s reflections on our most recent weekend as I am.  – Gail

On Friendship and Radical Imagination: Reflections on Towing a Cow by a String

– by Elissa Vinnick

Weeks after Donald J. Trump assumed the position as the 45th president of the United States, analysts, therapists, and others gathered at New Directions to consider the role of friendships in our lives. In a weekend organized fittingly by a pair of friends, Anne Adelman and Christie Platt, participants heard from Steve Tuber, Ph.D. about the friendship and play; Lisa Gornick, clincal psychologist and writer about how examinations of friendship in therapy and fiction offers opportunities for change an growth; storyteller Judith Stone about the surprising friendship that was born only moments after an analysis was terminated; and Erica S. Perl, a former attorney turned children’s and young adult novelist about friendship in children’s literature.

I watched, listened and learned as these speakers made observations, constructed narratives, and distilled with precision the roles friendships have played in the undercurrents and shifting tides of their lives. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that I was particularly drawn to the children’s author, Erica Perl, given my daily proximity to young people in my work as a teacher.

Ida and Dotty, Illustrator Julia Denos, Publisher Harry Abrams

Perl described the messages she hopes her characters convey to her young and young adult readers. In her book Dotty, an elementary school aged Ida brings Dotty, an imaginary polka dotted cow, to school by way of a blue string that she carries in her fist. Initially, the other children have strings and imagined creatures of their own; however, when they give up their menagerie of creatures and discard their strings, they tease Ida for holding onto Dotty.

Erica Perl

It is the reader’s job, Perl noted, to assign words like “imaginary,” “bullying” or “teasing” to the narrative; they never appear in Perl’s work. Her readers, she asserts, make meaning through images and dialogue without the aid of such signature words. Not only are young people attuned to her characters’ emotions, but when asked how the character Ida feels in the moments when she is teased, Perl describes how her young readers identify five or six emotions: frustrated, sad, lonely, embarrassed, hurt and angry. Children, she reminds us in her talk, have the ability to make as much meaning from the absent words as they do from those presented, and they have the capacity to identify multiple emotions at once. We underestimate younger people’s ability to tap into the nuances in moments of tension, loss, or joy.

I wonder if we adults overestimate our abilities to assess our own varied emotional landscapes and see what lies in the negative space even as we know this is the ongoing task of the adult, the teacher, the writer, the friend, the analyst, or any combination thereof. Just hours after learning from Perl and Dotty, New Directions participants presented their own work at the Saturday evening Open Mic. Like the children working to make sense of Ida’s teasing, many who read at Open Mic were trying to make sense of their rock-filled emotional landscape during these political times, the dogged hilarity and triumph of a group of analyst writers in search of the impossible: a port-a-pottie at the Women’s March on Washington; the memory of a years ago date who casually dropped the word “pussy” prompted by the wearer’s very own pink pussy hat; the passionate disgust shouted in silence on behalf of a Muslim family being searched at an airport; and the excruciating and gruesome specificity of a nurse’s notes taken years ago when abortion wasn’t legal and the writer’s patient had tried to perform her own. The writing was powerful and emotions ran high for many of us. True to its strength and spirit, the New Directions community provided  a collective for announcing, exploring, and holding of the anger, joy, fear, sadness, hope, despair and many other feelings these political times have set in motion.

There were the graduates from New Directions, too, who shared with deep senses of gratitude, joy, and triumph in their reflections about their New Directions experiences. After reading an article than had been deemed too political, one graduate told her audience with awe what “a help [it was] to read what other people were writing about what it’s like to be working and thinking in a time when everything is against thinking.” I watched a writer admit at the microphone her own hesitation to name herself as such and then continue only to describe the process of launching a journal in which her own essay is featured beside poems and essays written by people she “never would have thought were writers.” She told the audience,

I realized that this is New Directions. This capacity that I’ve…developed here to have confidence to feel… The competence to write something myself… To really be able to express what is really important to me now and bring other people into that.

Another graduate told the audience,

Little did I know I would find a type of family here with warm supportive analytic writers who would gently and boldly help me discover, develop and understand my own inner home as a writer. With each weekend, I found myself looking forward to it with excitement and dread…

There was the staying power and juxtaposition: the joy and the dread, just like the aforementioned hesitance and competence, and earlier in the evening, the humor and the darkness, the beauty in the seeing of the pain. It reminded me of the children Perl described naming so many conflicting or complementary emotions.  When asked about bringing Dotty to life on the page, Perl said:

I wanted to write or say what I wanted to hear as a child. You don’t need to outgrow your imagination. It can be a friend to you. It can be a friend to you just like a teacher can be a friend to you or an imaginary friend can be a teacher to you.

Perhaps this is the radical imagination we need in these times to be worthy friends to one another: to see in ourselves and our friends imaginary bespeckled Dottys so that we might nurture the identities and inner homes we don’t yet inhabit. This carrying of our imaginations with a mixture of “excitement and dread” can be our balm, our refusal to outgrow what we might become or create if we are willing to let ourselves be buoyed by the same confidence and pride with which Ida tows her Dotty.

Memory, Memoir and Meaning

Kerry Malawista

Kerry Malawista

Our February 2016 weekend, organized by Kerrie Malawista, focused on memoir writing. Participants were engaged by four speakers, all memoirists: the poet Mark Doty; author and psychoanalyst Deborah Luepnitz; Janna Malamud Smith, a psychotherapist and essayist also known for her memoir of her father, the writer Bernard Malamud; and non-fiction writer and commentator Marion Roach Smith.

Those of us who have paid scant attention to either the reading or the writing of memoir quickly learned that our ignorance is indicative of a larger disregard for the genre. Memoir, it turns out, shares in common with psychotherapy the accusation that it caters to self-absorption. And yet, as Malawista’s opening comments suggested, as psychotherapists we should know better. Describing good memoir writing as drawing from the same tools as a good therapy, Malawista described both the memoirist and the therapist as “observers of nuances of voices, dialogue, and tone.” She stated,

Ogden, in Reverie and Metaphor, describes how the patient has to transform her experiences from I-ness — unselfconscious subjectivity — to me-ness, the self as object of scrutiny. A therapy that is nothing more than a confession or a complaining about the same problems over and over or a search for a revenge and blame doesn’t make anyone better. Nor is it a recipe for good writing. Catharsis is only the drafting stage. The initial purge of raw material must lead to mulling it over, revising and polishing, resulting in new ways of seeing old problem, and hopefully leading to a positive resolution.

Both a therapy and a memoir, she told us, are based on facts of life transformed to be literary, artistically true, and aesthetically pleasing.

Mark Doty

Mark Doty

Mark Doty, through his weaving of story and reflection, illustrated just such a transformation of personal narrative into an artful talk. Doty paralleled Malawista’s comparison of therapy and memoir, describing what he constructed in his therapy as “a serviceable narrative, not simplified, not over-determined by a singular focus, not straining for a comprehensive perfection, but a shape held together by many strands, even those that couldn’t be freely woven into the form, the kind of story we could live with.” Doty provided a series of stories which, in recounting them, proved to be misrememberings that allowed him to think that which he could not previously bear to recognize.

“To write memoir,” Doty said, “is to participate in an on-going project of examining the past, something we can never finish, bringing more of the done into the light, examining why we forget what we do, allowing our memories to shift as we move into different relations with them over time.”

But how is this not self-aborption? How does it contribute something to the larger world? Doty responded to this concern, saying, “It vexes me that people think of memoir as an expression of self-absorption when it is, at its best, a disciplined practice of intention, and unexpectedly, a practice of humility. What is this uncertain thing called my life? What is its shape? How can I know it? How can I say it better? What lovely, humane work that is.”

Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault

Doty’s conclusion, considering memory as “a disciplined practice of intention,” reminded me of the writing of the French philosopher, Michel Foucault, no doubt because I am currently teaching a Ph.D. seminar on his work. Foucault was concerned with the potential for subjectivity under contemporary neo-liberalism, which draws us all into banal forms of self-absorption that promote the constant consumption of goods and the conforming of our selves to normalized version of what we “should” be like. How, he asked, under such a regime, can we can undertake forms of ethical self-fashioning? For Foucault, much as Doty suggested, this involved a disciplined, critical self-reflection which aims at taking responsibility for one’s own acts. Ultimately for Foucault, our self-fashioning is an on-going set of practices that propel movement toward what else we might be, and it is intimately connected to the ethical ways we are with other people.

Janna Malamud Smith

Janna Malamud Smith

Janna Malamud Smith took up this question of how we are with others in considering how memoir shares with psychotherapy a potential failing, insofar as it involves disclosures that may serve the needs of the therapist or the writer but not necessarily the patient or those written about: “I have to be counted in on the memoir writer’s failing of causing pain and anger, the child’s carrying into adulthood of valuing a limited perspective, as well as the therapist’s failing of calling attention to my own life and own subjectivity.”

Smith nevertheless finds importance in engaging in memoir as one of the practices of art that provide a safe space for uncertainty. “Why does that matter?” she asks. Her response is that the practice of at provides a practice of critical reflection such as Foucault suggests:

Watching a performance, I can briefly set aside my vigilance, my public posture. I can reflect, associate, wool gather, remember, discover, feel moved, and then return refreshed or depleted but nicely shaken up so I can bubble over. It’s a space where I can question the received order, the social condition, the nature of lives.

Returning to the question of memoir writing as a relationship to important others, Smith concluded her talk by saying that the question of how to reconcile the memoirist’s need to tell the story with the wish to do justice to one’s loved ones has served to “undercut any sense I had of my own virtue and my certainty.”

Perhaps to undertake either therapy or memoir writing provides a practice that demands depth and care of thought in order to understand one’s own failings of virtue and uncertainty. Perhaps this is the shape of the humane work undertaken by the ethical memoirist and therapist.


Listening to the Unsayable, Part 2

The following is the second guest blog entry from the October 2015 weekend, Listening to the Unsayable. The weekend was organized by Karen Earle, with the goal of “examin[ing] the complexity of the movement out of silence toward symbolization in our work with clients and in our work as writers.” Below, Elizabeth Trawick, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst in Birmingham, Alabama and long-time New Directions participant, reports on her experience two of the weekend speakers.

From Elizabeth:

In my eight years of New Direction’s participation, I have learned so much, certainly enough to write up a meeting. I am a psychoanalyst. I know what I think of the presentations, generally stimulating, informative. Especially because I have not published, Gail’s request for a volunteer blogger was really an opportunity. Time I showed appreciation for all I have taken from this program and learn more at the same time!  Add to that, the topic for the weekend, “Listening to the Unsayable,” and I am in my psychoanalytic heaven of hearing what leaps from the unconscious into life, of understanding how to transform that which springs into symbolized thought rather than raw emotional states, actions, somatizations.

Annie Rogers

Annie Rogers

Perfect.  And, I would have a ‘co-blogger,’ Mary Carpenter to share the weekend.  Without thinking much of who the speakers would be, we divided the weekend. She got Saturday; I got Friday and two speakers: Annie Rogers and Deborah Blessing. Blessing, a long-time New Directions participant, I know. But who is this Annie Rogers, the opening speaker of the weekend? I open the readings that are on the website before each meeting and, frankly, I am appalled. Rogers is a Lacanian.  Not just references to Lacan but copies of his writings. What have I done? I do not do Lacan. I am conservative. I live with Freud, Klein, Bion, some Meltzer. Signifiers tantalize then befuddle me with their promise of meaning that always seems beyond my intellectual capacity. Oh, holy shit, not Lacan, but I have volunteered.

Going through the circulated papers, I find hope. Annie Rogers sent us a piece of her own writing, “Ghosts of the Ineluctable: Psychosis and the Enigma of Language,” a title that is daunting to me, a clinician, not an academic. This paper, however, is a deeply personal account of Rogers’ experience of severe psychosis in her adolescence, an account of that time and her life following psychoanalysis.  In her Saturday morning presentation, I found that the frank truths  from this paper continued into her talk and my ‘holy shit’ of disgust was transformed to a ‘holy shit’ of awe. A person who has lived in psychosis with symptoms as severe as hearing voices, convictions that various beings inhabited her body, loss of ability to speak, keep track of time, suicide attempt; a person with symptoms severe enough to require hospitalizations; a person who through psychoanalysis and language became able to consider this experience and then speak it. To me, this is simply awesome.

Annie Rogers wrote, “I use this experience from the depths to consider how language transformations create ghosts of the Real that are, in fact, truths from psychosis.”  Her voice of respect for what we call psychosis (that may in fact be the deepest of realities) filled her talk and filtered into the discussion.  I am reminded that many years ago, forty actually, as a resident in psychiatry, we thought about the meanings of psychotic experience.  What was a person saying, when she yelled, “Get out of my face?”  or claimed I was the devil come to taunt?  I mourn the loss of that level of consideration, gone now to check lists and deadening medications.  Though I still do not understand Lacan, I sigh with relief that truly serious thought can greet this realm of being. And, I say, “Hurrah to New Directions” for reminding me of that.

ND October 2015-1040025 (1)

Incandescent Alphabet

In her talk, Annie Rogers presented material from her new book, Incandescent Alphabet, a study of art made by psychotic persons which she travelled the world to see and study.  Slides of this art gave us a pathway through the psychotic experience and mode of representation. Here, I am not going to try to write what she said. I do not understand it well enough to write accurately, but I am stimulated to read this book and to consider anew a level of experience that is so often pushed away from my rational mind.

Often when I hear someone whose knowledge is so far from mine, I feel stupid.  Not with Annie Rogers. Her serious, personal communication came across as a humble struggle to use language as “a symbolic system, a metaphor that assigns the subject a place inside the social order.” Led by  this attitude, we engaged in an exhilarating discussion that continued the struggle to voice what is often left speechless. We roamed from art in institutions to the current culture of re-sculpturing the body with tattoos, surgery, and gender reassignment, to relations to higher powers and autism.

Links to the writing experience came forth with comments that as writers, we are often trying to say the unsayable and write without knowing what we are saying. Rogers suggested that we try “to write into a space where the next thing that comes baffles you and you write into that.” Asked about how she works, Rogers said that it depends on her pocket of time. Small pocket and she edits. A larger piece of time and she sets up a desk, a table, lays out items that inspire her, walks around, finds a dream space, writes, scratches out. She keeps a sketch book.  “If a line knocks on me, I write it,” and she draws it too. And, finally, she has come to love revision.

Deborah Blessing

Deborah Blessing

From this morning, we moved to an afternoon talk by Deborah Blessing, a long-time, quiet presence in the New Directions community. It was indeed good for me to hear the voice that goes with that presence. In her presentation, “Howling at the Moon,” Blessing linked the eerie experience of hearing wolves howl to the experience of  patients who seem impervious to contact, as if they are howling at a non-responsive moon, a lone wolf looking for a pack. Such patients may have language to describe intellectual pre-occupations but are troubled by the ‘unsayable,‘ indeed, the unknowable. Through deep listening to her own experience, Blessing can find room to hold the persecutory sense of a void of unreachable distance to another often experienced by such patients, a sense of another who can’t be reached that seems to emerge from an early experience of not reaching one’s objects.

Most impressive about this presentation was the way in which Deborah Blessing contains the experience of alienation communicated by such patients, resisting the urge to herself become either alienated or a source of alienation.  All the skill that we think of as ‘containing’ was amply presented. She then carried the experience with her without knowing what she carried or, perhaps that she carried it, until the hearing a resonant sound from the wilderness– the wolves howling.  It seemed her unconscious had continued processing, waiting for what Bion might call  ‘the selected fact’  that pulled pieces together. Clink, the arch stone was in place.

Blessing’s presentation was of patients who seemed more organized than those presented by Rogers. This appearance of organization came from the ability of Blessings patients to use language, even while such verbal communications were not interactive. Blessing experienced them more like deposits made into her. Reflecting on this kind of verbal interaction,  it seems to me that Blessing could be considered as a canvas, patients’ words as brush strokes leaving marks just as the artists left marks of their unconscious on canvas or in clay. These verbal brush strokes found a human canvas in the form of a therapist skilled enough to ‘hold the frame’ and later consider them.

Perhaps Deborah Blessing’s skill grows in part from her ample experience in infant observation. She studied at the Tavistock in London and continues to work with infant observation in Washington. It seems that this training has formed a base for her deep respect for non-verbal communication and for her understanding of the way in which listening to her innerness gives life to to the patient’s innerness.

Again, a lively discussion after Blessing’s talk.  Her  presentation resonated with experience of therapists in the room.  Those of us who have struggled to sit with eerie feelings, to find words for them, to move through our barriers to hear, welcomed this paper.  More language for our world.

Before I close my first blog, I have to thank Karen Earle, a poet and psychotherapist, who organized this weekend.  In this world of evaluations, she definitely gets a ten for meeting the goal for the weekend that she expressed in her introduction, to organize a weekend to focus on

…the language of the deep image poets, language that seems to leap unbidden from somewhere – leaps which the poet Robert Bly describes as “psychic leaps,” donated to the poem by the imagination. This type of language always excites me – whether I come across it in poetry that I’m reading, whether it’s given to me as I am trying to write, or whether it arises in the therapy room inviting me to listen more deeply.

Karen Earle

Karen Earle

The Steering Committee

The Steering Committee

Thank you, Karen.  Thank you, Bob Winer and the Steering Committee.  Thank you all who work to give new directions to our minds.

New Directions April 2015 Weekend: Betrayal

Elizabeth Thomas

Elizabeth Thomas

Elizabeth Thomas organized this weekend’s conference. The theme was an exploration of an experience that is both utterly familiar and deeply unsettling – that of betrayal. Thomas described the weekend by saying that betrayal is something that therapists know “all too well, because we encounter it regularly in our work and because we live it – as the one who has been betrayed, or as the betrayer – every day. Betrayal is inescapable.”

Dr. NANCY SHERMAN  gave us the opportunity to consider betrayal in the lives of American military personnel. A distinguished University Professor and Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University, this spring she published Afterwar: Healing the Moral Wounds of our Soldiers. Her other publications include The Untold War: Inside the Hearts, Minds, and Souls of our Soldiers (2010), as well as numerous books and papers related to topics of ethics, history of moral philosophy, ancient philosophy, military ethics, moral psychology, and the emotions. Sherman is a research graduate of the Washington Psychoanalytic Institute.

Nancy Sherman

Sherman described the feeling of troops returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan of being betrayed by commanders and unit members, by civilians who have “been at the mall while we were at war”, and by politicians who have failed to take responsibility for the wars. Taking issue with the diagnosis of PTSD as too narrow to address what troubles many troops, Sherman described “moral injury” as a wound that is occasioned by injustice and contempt. She noted that it gives rise to an anguish and resentment that both demands a dignified response and that binds society by holding us to moral account.

Sherman explained moral injury as being perpetrated by others against the self, by the self against others, by others toward others, and by the self toward the self. She stated that the perpetrator, the victim and the witness are all players in moral conscience. If one experiences moral injury at the hands of another, it incurs moral anger. If we take it up on behalf of another, taking the role of the witness, it gives rise to moral indignation. When it is based in self-accusation, it is guilt. Sherman described the extreme guilt felt by many soldiers who have fallen short of their ego ideals, often organized by the military code. The fact that the code itself is idealized and often impossible to meet doesn’t always register and failing at it often leads to intense shame, including suicidal shame. Sherman illustrated this in stark terms, by citing 23 – 26 veteran suicides per day.

Sherman coverDrawing from case studies with two veterans, Sherman argued that while PTSD and its treatment assumes a fear-based response that can be treated through desensitization, moral injury involves guilt and shame and requires a different kind of response. One cannot become desensitized to moral injury; rather, it has to be worked through to build self-empathy, self-trust and self–hope. That is moral healing in which the patient rebuilds a sense of his/her own moral goodness and a clearer picture of the goodness and badness of others. This latter piece requires the opportunity to develop greater clarity about the moral injuries involved, including moral morass of war, the politics of war, and the ethical dilemmas and reality of impersonal good and bad luck.

A lot of this healing, Sherman argued, takes place for veterans inside the clinic with a therapist. But it also occurs outside the clinic, insofar as the veteran is able to build trusting and supportive relationships with others including loved ones, teachers and mentors who help the veteran grow intellectually, psychologically, and morally so they may flourish. Importantly, Sherman argues that veterans also need a nation to return to that holds itself accountable, that talks about why it goes to war and whether the war and its partners are just.

Linda Hopkins with Masud Khan

Another speaker for the weekend, LINDA HOPKINS, drew on her 13-year research into the life of Masud Khan and his relationship to D.W. Winnicott to describe a betrayal within the psychoanalytic community itself. Hopkins is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst in Washington DC.  Her book False Self: The Life of Masud Khan won the Gradiva Award in 2007 and the Goethe Award for Psychoanalytic Scholarship in 2008.

Announcing that her talk might be upsetting to those who idealize Winnicott, she described her talk as a story of how Winnicott consciously betrayed Khan and caused him great harm. Khan was an Indian-born psychoanalyst who had a training analysis with Winnicott and went on to became Winnicott’s editor and close collaborator. In fact, several informants including Charles Rycroft claim that Khan wrote much that is credited to Winnicott and that Khan’s love of Winnicott was so great that he did not ask for credit. However, upon his death, Winnicott’s will did not name Khan as his literary executor, a role that defaulted to Claire Britton Winnicott, who disliked Khan intensely. At this point, Khan’s precipitous decline began – alcoholism, sleeping with patients, committing acts of professional suicide, and ultimately, drinking himself to death.

Hopkins’ talk brought out the complicated, intertwined and often fraught realities of that era of psychoanalysis. I have been aware of Khan for some time, having interviewed Adam Philips several years ago for a project on the relationship among Donald Winnicott, Claire Britton Winnicott, and her brother, Jimmie Britton, who is an enormously important figure in my field of English and literacy education. I was glad to see Khan getting some recognition. He is a brilliant and tragic figure and his near obscurity, especially in the U.S., may be its own form of betrayal. As Harold Bourne, writing a review of the book for The British Journal of Psychiatry, suggests, Hopkins’ biography

…should be obligatory reading for psychiatrists under 50 and psychoanalysts of any age…. This is not just the story of one man but a work of scholarship concerning the psychoanalytic community in post-1945 Britain and France, and dominating North American psychiatry until the century ended, yet now outside the experience of most psychiatrists under 50. They are not only deprived of a fascinating epoch recently in their field but more limited in vision by that than they may realise.

One fascinating and troubling omission I experienced in our discussion of Khan was what role, if any, racial, religious and colonial/post-colonial politics might have played in Khan’s reception and subsequent demise. I’m looking forward to finishing Hopkins’ book (which I started last night) to see how she deals with these complicated and painful issues.

February, 2015 – The Writer’s Voice

Kate Daniels

Kate Daniels

The question of the writer’s voice framed a series of remarkable talks by a group of poets and therapists assembled by Kate Daniels for the February, 2015 New Directions weekend. A poet, director of creative writing at Vanderbilt University, and New Directions graduate and writing instructor, Kate framed the theme of the weekend in her opening talk:

Writers, but particularly creative writers, are obsessed with the question of voice in writing… voices we admire and might like to emulate. …We long to hoist ourselves above the scribbling hoards by creating our own remarkable, unique voice in our writing, something that is as identifiable and natural to us as our own fingerprint or the smell of our own sweat. …What exactly we mean by writer’s voice, however is not so apparent. There is certainly something distinctive about a writer’s actual words on a page, a writer’s ability to create a convincing facsimile of an identifiable speaking voice… But writer’s voice is not just about this … not just style. A fundamental aspect of writer’s voice precedes the words on the page, for writer’s voice also has something to do with the permission that we give ourselves to write and to lay claim to our own experience. To find one’s voice as a writer is to come into relationship with oneself and the world… That’s our topic, as mysterious, ineffable, and inarticulatable as it is.

The weekend’s first guest speaker was Jim Gorney, a psychoanalyst in practice in Knoxville, Tennessee with a graduate degree in creative writing. In his talk, which can be seen in its entirety here,

Gorney drew from literature, case material, personal history, popular history, and music. In its composition, the paper was a powerful demonstration of writing as a practice of carefully developed skills brought to life by the author laying claim to his unique experiences. The talk explored the critical importance for adolescents of having access to a creative process of playfully projecting themselves into a potential space. It is a space into which they can project the dreams that allow them to lay claim to their adult lives.

Delmore Schwartz

Delmore Schwartz

Gorney demonstrated his thesis by mapping two journeys into potential space – a literary text and a clinical encounter. He read to us from Delmore Schwartz’s short story, In Dreams Begin Responsibilities. Gorney described how Schwartz attempted to use the short story as potential space. In framing his clinical example, Gorney drew from Masud Khan’s argument that clients use the analytic space as a potential space to sustain moods and play with potential psychic experiences that their ego capacities cannot yet actualize. To demonstrate the promise of this view, Gorney provided a case example of a patient, Ann, who was finally able to use Gorney as a transitional object and the consulting room as “a potential place of play and field of illusion” (Gorney quoting from Andre Green, On Private Madness). In his exciting and altogether unexpected conclusion, Gorney took us back to Delmore Schwartz. Describing Schwarz as ultimately unable to free himself from persecutory parent introjects and therefore unable to fulfill his early great potential as a writer or to assume adult responsibility, Gorney nevertheless redeemed Schwartz through a description of the dream space he was able to provide as a teacher for his students, including the musical great Lou Reed and Jim Gorney himself.

Jim Gorney

Jim Gorney

Jim Gorney also provided Friday night’s talk, this one entitled, “The Psychosis of Everyday Life”, in which he once again demonstrated the importance of creating a transitional space of play in the analytic office, this time in the treatment of clients who are exhibiting what he characterized as “transitory psychosis.” Drawing from Levine, Reed and Scarfone’s Unrepresented States and the Construction of Meaning, Gorney described clinical work in which the patient’s capacity for narrative story telling has collapsed, leaving the analyst reliant on the use of spontaneous, counter-transference responses that may strengthen the presence of weak or potential representations and make them more legible. This, he stated, requires feeling or imagining what the patient may not yet feel or know. Citing object relations, he named this work as “creating an imaginative transitional space in order to put some play into the false certainties of emerging madness.” Gorney illustrated this principle through a case example in which Gorney’s own unpremeditated eruption into narrating the plot of a movie – made up on the spot – served to illustrate the chaotic emotional state which the patient had been unable to symbolize. Providing us with the same impassioned narration he made to the patient, Gorney’s demonstrated the power of immediacy and urgency, not only in clinical treatment but also in captivating an audience through writing.

Owen Lewis and Cynthia Ezell

Owen Lewis and Cynthia Ezell

Cynthia Ezell and Owen Lewis shared the stage for our first Saturday talk. They both took up the theme of voice in writing as related to finding some resonance with a feeling of authenticity in one’s life. Ezell, a graduate of the New Directions program and psychotherapist in Knoxville, described finding some of that sense of authenticity as having to do with “a sense of place as a somatic experience, sensation in the body, a deep kind of knowing,” which she described as “a kind of midwife to the writer.” Here is Ezell describing her writing practice as it resides in her 50 acre farm:

Doubtless drawing from the Southern writing traditions of Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty and so many more, Ezell describes “mercy” as a part of her experience of writing, both exercising mercy toward herself and experiencing mercy through the act of writing:

I keep returning to writing like a woman returning to a lover, a lover to whom I can’t quite commit but neither can I give up. Each time I reengage my writing practice, there’s passion and purpose. I can’t believe I ever stopped. It feels so good and so gratifying. ‘This time,’ I tell myself, ‘I’m going to see the project through. I’m going to finish the book.’ And then those niggling bits of doubt and fear nudge themselves between me and the beloved and the writing waits. I abandon my writing practice for one main reason. It’s not that I don’t have time. I think we all have time to write if we really want to. It’s that I’m afraid. For starters I’m afraid of calling myself a writer, claiming the activity and the identity. …I’m afraid of criticism. …Do I write what I want to write? Do I tell the story I want to tell? Or do I play it safe? Should I be more cautious and guarded? Should I make an effort to impress? All of that feels too familiar. It felt too much like a regression into the straight jacket of fundamentalism. So I just keep on writing about things that I know, things that I experience in the small, rural community in which I live. Things like goat farming, field dressing wild turkeys, castrating lambs, burials, baptisms. In order to have a writing life I would have to live the life I wanted to live and write what I wanted to write.

Owen Lewis

Owen Lewis

Owen Lewis, professor in the Narrative Medicine program at Columbia University, picked up on Jim Gorney’s Friday theme of the adolescent using potential space to imagine her/himself into adult responsibility to make a slightly different point. As a physician and psychoanalyst who wrote as a young adult but then gave it up as he moved into the responsibilities of adult life, Lewis began writing poetry again after a 25-year hiatus. In the wake of a difficult divorce, he described taking up poetry again as being something that could be his own, that he didn’t have to lose. In a musing that I imagine many of us could appreciate, Lewis said,

If we think about transition, like an adolescent, who thinks that time is going to go on forever, what would end time at this stage for me, having three kids who are well launched, career, lots of opportunities through my career…? The end game is of course dying, but since I, like most of us, am in denial that we’re actually ever going to die, I’m in this time that can go on forever, where I’m not encumbered by real life. Being a responsible person is easy once you’ve done it for a few years, so my daily hours at my desk are cultivating irresponsibility in a certain way.

Elizabeth Spires — poet, children’s author, and Professor of English at Goucher College, took up the challenge of defining voice prior to her analysis of voice in poetry. Here, she describes what she means by voice.

Spires suggested that when a poet or writer comes into her/his own voice, one of two things can happen. She provided examples of one path, in which poets developed voices that are immediately definable. She also argued, using Eudora Welty’s short story “Where is the Voice Coming From?”, that a writer can be inhabited or taken unawares by “a voice not our own,” a voice that can take us with no planning or conscious choice of our own.

Stevem Cramer

Stevem Cramer

Steven Cramer, poet and director of the MFA program in creative writing at Lesley University, also offered a perspective on multiple writer voices, stating,

Often when we use the word “voice”, we mean the writer’s signature style, that which allows us to distinguish one writer from another. But a writer’s style comes from constant trial and error. And we often recognize that style precisely from the unique way it orchestrates many different voices or tones. Inexperienced writers often strive for a consistent tone in their voice, which they confuse for authenticity or honesty, but all too often translates to a monotone, an absence of adventure in diction and syntax and finally, very little in the way of aesthetic discoveries that lead to psychological discovery. And when we think more deeply about it, consistency of tone on the page doesn’t make a very plausible claim for realism. The voices we employ in life constantly vary and sometimes conflict.

In his newest book of poetry, Clangings, Cramer provides a dramatic example of striving for a voice that is anything but monotone. He draws on the phenomenon of “clang association”, defined as speech that is composed of “mental connections made between dissociated ideas through rhymes, puns, neologisms and other non-linear speech”, which sometime occurs in the speech of psychotics. Cramer described the impact of his discovery of this speech on his poetry by saying, “The resourcefulness, energy and wit enacted in the examples acted as shots of adrenalin to my imagination which had been casting about for something new. At that point I should say ‘desperate for something new.’”

Cramer took on the persona of a person who manifested clanging in the writing of his latest book of poems, drawing from actual speech examples and his own free associations to allow the sounds and juxtapositions of language and flights of unexpected association to guide his writing:

I’ve never been so indifferent to what a poem might mean. I cared about what it did, what discoveries it would make on its own and how it sounded. …If the reader could believe in this persona, then he could say things that don’t make sense, but still cohere emotionally.

Cramer concluded by reading several poems to us, including this, the first poem in the collection:


Kate Wechsler

Kate Wechsler

What was it that made for such an energizing and inspiring weekend? Perhaps it was that every talk was beautifully crafted. Maybe it was the presence of so many poets and writers whose deep love of beautiful writing was on constant display. Perhaps most compelling for me was what Kate Wechsler made clear in the audience discussion with Jim Gorney – that the energy of the weekend had a great deal to do with what Jim invited us to the very first day: to use our time, space, and community as a transitional space, a playground in which we could project dreams and imagine desired potentials.

An Interview with Deirdre Callanan

Deirdre is an amazing cook

Deirdre is an amazing cook!

This past July saw the third summer retreat at the beautiful home of Deirdre Callanan and Jack Harrison in West Harwich on Cape Cod. (The photos below are all from Deirdre and Jack’s amazing yard, taken by Don Chiapinelli, Sheila Felberbaum and me.) Deirdre has taught many of us in New Directions across the years, as a Saturday group leader, a Sunday group leader, the leader of the Alumni Group and the leader of 2-pager groups. For the many of you who have had the great pleasure of working with Deirdre Callanan in one venue or another, I am happy to present as the latest New Directions blog this interview with Deirdre.


Deirdre's Cape Cod home

Deirdre’s Cape Cod home

Gail: How long have you been with ND and in what capacities?  How did you get involved?

Deirdre: I’ve been involved with New Directions since February 2007. My friend Tom Goldman chaired that weekend on Memory. He’d asked my input with the short paper prompts then invited me to co-facilitate a small discussion group with Rick Waugaman. I said, “Are you kidding me?” Not only had I never been to any sort of therapist, I’d never even taken a psychology course. How could I possibly say anything useful? Tom reminded me I am a writer and a writing teacher. He also assured me that Rick was the ideal co-facilitator for me. He was right. Rick was the first of many gifts I’ve received from New Directions. That initial weekend, I was so nervous. I wore suits, sat up straight, took notes in the talks, mostly so later back at the Goldmans I could ask Tom what the heck the speakers were talking about. My favorite speaker was Dan Schacter whose topic was The Seven Sins of Memory. I’ve been working on a poem based on his presentation for seven years now. The only thing remaining from my first drafts is the title.

The beautiful back patio

The beautiful backyard

I co-led my first Sunday group with Shelly Rockwell that fall. Shelly was another remarkable leader. What a listener! Anne Adelman was in that group. We were in the hotel downtown then, just east of Foggy Bottom. I searched M Street for the perfect ND journal. I bought a Travel Notebook whose cover depicts a hot air balloon gliding above a forested mountain. In its woven basket is a turtle with a telescope, a rabbit with an open book, and an elephant consulting a map. Now, if that isn’t a metaphor for the ND program, what is? I’ve been using that book to record ND sessions ever since. When Anne introduced herself that November 4 of 2007, she told us, “My parents owned a typewriter store in New York. At age 6, I got my first Remington. I sat on the porch and wrote fairy tales.”

During the blizzard in 2010, when we were either trapped in Pentagon City or never made it there, I covered the Saturday morning poetry workshop, and it occurred to me I might be able to offer something for Saturday mornings, so I’ve done three different workshops, each of which I’ve loved. Bob Winer’s organizational patterns are just like his shirts: so wild they seem air-lifted from a Hendrix riff, but then if you wander around in the experience long enough, you have a revelation, like an acid trip without the drug. Think about it: there are nearly as many segments to the program as there are combinations in a Rubric’s cube, but snapped together, it’s beautiful magic.

The marsh

The marsh

In 2008 & 2009, I facilitated small groups at the Stowe summer retreat. And lo, another fantastic teacher, Tessa Conlin, who led our full-group sessions on the Stowehof Inn’s patio with such verve and humor. Joanie Lieberman, another exceptional listener and respondent, and I have been co-leading an alumni group since October, 2010. That December, I also had the pleasure of working at the winter retreat at the Tabard Inn: once more, an intense experience in a gorgeous setting. Finally, my husband Jack and I have hosted the summer retreat on Cape Cod for the past three Julys. Getting to exchange five emails a day for three months of planning with Don Chiappinelli would be reward enough. The writers and fellow instructors are a supreme bonus.

Also, in April 2012, I chaired the weekend on Writing: Our Heroines & Heroes.

Late afternoon sun

Late afternoon sun

Gail: What do you like about working with New Directions writers?  What is similar to and different from other writers with whom you have worked?

Deirdre: Frankly, at first I used to write down comments from the writing response sessions to share with my long-term writing group at home. Frequently, the comments made at ND I had never heard in all my decades of workshop participation. Ever. Not once. Part of this relates to the ND focus. As the brochure states, it’s “writing and critical thinking from a psychoanalytic perspective.”



“In a way, this is a story about an enactment– you’re drawn into another’s pathology.”

“A wonderful example of rupture and repair.”

“An attempt to represent the enigmatic.”

“That possible meaning would have transference meaning. It had the quality of her entering an ID-Ego state.”

Marsh grass

Speaking of states, eventually I was able to confess at New Directions that my journey there had introduced the term transference as something other than taking a bus from Boston to Chicago then transferring to the Omaha-bound bus.

What I like about working with ND writers is their range of topics and their ability to listen deeply to others. There is nothing superficial about this group. There is also nothing simplistic. Overall, the writers here seem more sensitive to responses. Therapists tend to receive, absorb; their job is to help others, yes? Here, they’re exposing themselves.

In other words: they’re similar in that they write in many genres and with varying levels of ability. Unlike others, they’re more sensitive and seasoned listeners.

Gail: Tell me about your writing. 

After a swim

After a swim

Deirdre: I’ve been writing since I was six. On days I don’t write, I feel disassociated and dreary. Many poems as well as some essays and short stories have appeared in literary journals such as Beloit Poetry Journal and Poet Lore. I’ve three poems in an anthology, World of Water, World of Sand. Chapters from my non-fiction manuscript, Beer, Bait, & Raggedy Hearts– A People’s History of the North Jetty Fish Camp, were serialized in a newspaper, The Venice Gondolier, over the past three years. A book I wrote as a result of my year as Christa McAuliffe fellow from Massachusetts, Windows & Mirrors: Writing’s Power for Illumination & Reflection, is housed at Fitchburg State’s library.

Gail: What is your professional background?

Deirdre at work

Deirdre at work

Deirdre: My BA in journalism is from Marquette University, my MA in Fiction is from Colorado State University. I’ve taken dozens of week-long poetry workshops from, among others, Galway Kinnell, Sharon Olds, Dorianne Lux, Nancy Willard, Kim Addonizio, Tony Hoagland, Nick Flynn, and Mark Doty. Journalism was my first passion, including photojournalism, and I still freelance. I became a high school English teacher quite by accident with no credentials or aspirations to teach. I loved teaching and taught several subjects at various levels for 30 years. The most memorable of my jobs, however, was the year I was a construction worker in Colorado. I still try to write and read a few hours each day, still attend workshops by writers I admire. I’m in two writing groups, one meets weekly, the other monthly. My sole teaching now occurs at New Directions, but that’s as rich and rewarding as anything

Winter 2014 Panel Discussion

Writing the Difficult Character 

IMG_2532The February 2014 weekend was organized by Hemda Arad and Anne AdelmanGuest speakers included Don Moss, author of Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Man: Psychoanalysis and Masculinity and Hating in the First Person Plural, and professor of psychology, psychoanalyst and prolific psychoanalytic writer Joyce Slochower. MayKay Zuravleff read portions of her novel, Man Alive and playwright Ari Roth read selections to us from Goodnight Irene and other pieces of his plays. Author and psychoanalyst Lynn Zeavin joined the faculty in the role of hosting a panel discussion

screenshot_67Entitled “Writing the Difficult Character,” discussions across the weekend explored what could be learned from comparing the relationship between the writer and the audience, particularly in the writing of difficult characters, with tIMG_1842he relationship of the therapist to patient.  In what senses might the writer be said, through their ability to hold the difficult character with genuine respect and compassion, to likewise be holding the audience?

On Saturday afternoon, a panel discussion with MaryKay, Ari, Lynne, Anne and Hemda explored this question, paying attention to how it is that the writer achieves characters that are both difficult and alive for the audience.

Ari Roth

Click to watch Ari Roth defines “alive writing”.

Defining dead writing as writing that inures us in our reactions, that fails to elicit a kinetic response, Ari Roth explored the question of what defines alive writing.  Comparing it to the risky stories therapists are able to tell when they break outside the confines of professional writing, Roth describes alive writing as being liberating in our risk-taking in word choice and specificity, in going further than professional dictates propose.  “It’s being naked when you are usually clothed. It’s exposing when you are usually clothed.  It’s being inappropriate in shrewd ways to attract attention.” Going on to speak of the role of character likeability for keeping an audience, Roth commented, “You can like difficult people … because of the artistry involved in the portrait. But the author is generally in control of that portraiture.  They know how to love the difficult person.  …to be invested in the character; to have invested heart, sweat, intellect in trying to decode, understand, get to the marrow of the person – you can bet if you don’t have that investment, neither will your reader.”

screenshot_66Here, Lynne suggested an overlap between being a writer and being an analyst in a live analysis. Positing that holding characters in a way that is open to their difficulty means being open to the difficulties that character may arouse in the writer, she described the necessity of encountering and tolerating what is hateful in a patient as finding its necessary parallel as the analyst being able to sit with what is hateful in ourselves.  This, she stated, allows us if not to find what is lovable in that patient, to at least be willing to make sense of them and to appreciate their vulnerability.


Click to see MaryKay Zuravleff and Ari Roth speak about characters in conflict

Another area of explored overlap arose around the question of neutrality, of being neutral toward the difficult characters or patients as a way to make mental space for being open to what the character or patient might bring and to be able to think about the character or patient apart from the impulse to jump to judgment.  This exploration became more complicated as Ari and MaryKay described the importance of raw conflict in their work.  For both writers and therapists, it can be a struggle to remain open when characters or patients are locked in intense struggles that expose their vulnerability or ugliness.  MaryKay, referring to the extreme pain that writer Andre Debuse III imposes on his characters, stated, “That’s the dramatic moment, that they must recover or not.  Trauma does many people in.  So putting yourself in that moment of peril and sitting with that character, not preaching, not pushing, but to sit with them.”

Ari’s response took the discussion to thoughts about the value of the risks that both writers and therapists take in posing these moments of peril: “Mary Kay’s vision and ..MaryKay’s gift to create characters who are infused with love and who evoke joy in the reader is such a gift and such the thing that I believe we are all striving for. And so for me to break people down and …you know, you enter into that sort of fierce cauldron is to emerge with a redemption on the other end.  That you go through the crucible and when all is said and done with it you come to a post-cathartic place where you can just sit with each other, where you can be, and that there is something joyful in the settling.”

screenshot_70“When I say ‘sit with them or get to some compassion or to some empathy,” MaryKay replied, “I’m not talking happy endings.”  Ari agreed. In many ways, this discussion echoed ideas explored throughout the weekend.  To sit with difficulty, whether as a writer or a therapist, does not mean happy endings.  It does mean recognition of a shared humanity, of the relational nature of that which is difficult, and it does seem to mean something about finding that which is joyful or hopeful or poignant in the shared settling.

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