November 2016 – Family Legacies

Catherine Baker-Pitts

Catherine Baker-Pitts

The work of the New Directions program is, on one level, to engage participants in explorations of psychoanalytic perspectives on life, culture, relationships, clinical practice and writing. On another level, for many of us New Directions provides a community of friendship and support, a thoughtful and creative space in which to explore who we are and who we might be, individually and in relation to others. Coming just a week after the presidential election, the November 2016 New Directions weekend, Family Legacies, was one that I and others experienced as particularly poignant. For many of us, the election gave rise to feelings of shock, anger, despair, and fear as well as soul-searching about how it happened, what it might mean, and what might happen next. Coming together for the weekend with others who shared an intensity of response was comforting, but also provided the opportunity to consider the forms of our responses moving forward.

Serendipitously, the topic and the speakers for our weekend created a powerful platform for discussing feelings about and implications of the election and the future of our nation. Organized by Dr. Catherine Baker-Pitts, the weekend focused on the trans-generational transmission of trauma, shame, and secrecy, as well as resilience and hope. As Baker-Pitts said in her introduction,

This weekend conference really isn’t only about our family relationships but our social home and our communal legacy, so apropos this weekend. …We’re in the midst of a collective trauma, a commentary on all of us and our agency as an electorate. Our identity as a country is in tatters, a horror show of not-me parts embodied in the hated other. We are facing misogyny, racism and xenophobia, cowardly states in the looking glass of our country. The lynching of black men, now in its modern form of mass incarceration — it is a racial trauma, one woven into our national legacy. …The writers this weekend have each given voice to disowned traumas of slavery, of immigration, of war. These stories filled with despair and resiliency need to be told.

img_4626While it is usual in this blog that I focus on the talks given by the speakers – and the talks this weekend were exceptional – it seemed more fitting this time to focus on the conversations that took place after the talks, the interactions the speakers had with the audience of New Directions participants. Each conference talk is scheduled for 90 minutes, and speakers are instructed to limit their talks to 28 minutes, leaving us with an hour for discussion. As a group, this weekend we considered on-going expressions of racism and the historical legacy of slavery, income inequality and the alienation of America’s working class, immigration, and misogyny, along with discussions of our own feelings of anger, fear and shame.

41ga8h8u6hl-_sx367_bo1204203200_In Freud and the Non-European, the Palestinian post-colonial theorist Edward Said (2003) argued that Freud’s original project was anti-racist, a struggle to remove “degeneracy” from discourses of race and blood (and 51hzmugevvl-_ac_us200_particularly Jewish blood) and to say that each human struggles with good and evil. In Freud’s Free Clinics, Elizabeth Danto documents the free psychoanalytic clinics opened between 1920 and 1938 in Vienna, Berlin, and eight other cities to serve working class and poor patients. However, as Lew Aron and Karen Starr document in A Psychotherapy for the People,  psychoanalysis has existed in a complicated social and historical context in which its progressive mandate has often been sid61xmscvndcl-_ac_us200_elined and its relevancy for addressing racial, gender, sexual and social class divides is often lost. This weekend, it was a relief to many that we were able, as a group, to have candid discussions of our nation’s wounds and woundings. It was equally a relief to be with a thoughtful and caring group that was struggling together with questions about how to move forward, sharing the img_4571conviction that we each need to find ways to actively work on building and defending the society we wish for.

Our first conversation took place with Marita Golden, author of numerous books exploring the complexities of African American lives. Golden told to us that “racial wounds begin at home” and described how, through her writing, she became reconciled to her parents’ limitations in their historical context. Here, Golden describes the societal crisis that shaped her life journey, “that I came into this world, this society, a black baby born in 1950, a black girl… My crisis was how to be in society that really only had place for me in the margins.” For Golden, her life has been an on-going “inquiry about who I want to be and can be… I’ve spent my life using my writing to discover who the hell I am.”

In our conversation with Golden following her presentation, our talk turned to how to think and write with compassion for those in our lives who we cannot come to see as heroic.

51idsm4kvzl-_ac_us200_Audience member: You brought up Hillbilly Elegy and it made me think about the difficulty of writing memoir when your people are not the heroic people, when your people are those other people and the difficulty of doing that with compassion and with care and with finding a transcendence …of being able to learn out of that and that’s a challenge. …I identified [with J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy] and he does talk about being the one that got away. And you love those people and they love you and they would do anything for you but they are those people too. And you have to find a way to not separate yourself from them as you are separate from them.

51uygkcko3l-_sx321_bo1204203200_Golden: One of my favorite memoirs, and I think this guy does it beautifully, is Rick Bragg’s All Over but the Shoutin’. And I think he beautifully writes about having gotten out by the skin of his teeth and being what he calls a poor white, okay, and being called that by other whites and then the whole racial thing and he writes with such compassion about that. And I think the harder something is, the the more necessary it is.

img_4587Audience member: Simultaneously, we just have been talking about continued people’s empathy with and connection to the people we came from, but simultaneously, we are swimming in the society and the culture in the present day. History is like a river and the source is of the river hundreds of years ago… …And we are all swimming in this river of history, so simultaneously we are trying to maintain compassion and objectivity and reaching out to one another while we are also swimming against currents where it seems like… the legacy of historic trauma accumulated and accrued is projected onto, let’s say, color, and people unconsciously and consciously can’t resist… symbolically it has a kind of grip on us…. My question is, in writing, can we simultaneously while speaking in the present about maintaining empathy with the people we’ve escaped or the people we are reaching out to, also encompass the historical perspectives?

img_4600Golden: Oh yes, and that’s one of the things that happens in a really powerful narrative. For example, in Bragg’s book, there is a beautiful section where he talks about his father going off to fight the war in Korea. And his father was just basically this poor white boy who had never been on an airplane until he went off to war, who never had been out of his state until he went off to war. And so what he does is he uses his father’s life as a metaphor for sociological and economic big issues that had kept his father marginalized as a poor white in the South until he was needed for cannon fodder. And so what a good narrative can do and does do is bring that big picture in by making it micro.

Sue Grand

Sue Grand

The conversation with Golden set a tone for grappling with the difficulties and necessities to speak compassionately yet with authority across difference. The difficulties of talking across difference were present in the talk given by psychoanalyst Sue Grand, whose published work explores the link between traumatic and multigenerational memory and the perpetuation of violence, othering and evil. Grand drew from her paper about her own analysis with an African American psychoanalyst to, in part, describe some of the complexities of working through conscious and unconscious racism. Addressing the fear of our love or desire for connection across racial divides as potentially destructive, Grand said,

I lost my grandmother, I wanted to attach to my therapist but the racial complexities were full of things like who was going to abandon who, how am I going to lose the person, how is hatred going to come in and destroy this, and the whole issue in our culture that if you are black you can’t have a white mother, if you are white you can’t have a black mother. You can’t belong to that person, really. There is such a profound splitting that we internalize that is all threaded through an experience like that.

In response, an audience member described her struggle with shame and fear about the destructiveness of whiteness:

img_4628-1Audience member: I was thinking as you were speaking about that fear of doing damage and how present that has been in the last few days [since the election]. My son is multiracial and he has said to me things about how hard it is to even look at white people, which I assume includes his mother, in the last few days. He says that walking across campus, he finds it difficult to even look at people because he doesn’t know who is going to look at him like “Screw you. I got you.” And the shame and hatred that he feels. And some of it in relation to my students or him or whoever, people I meet on the elevator or the Metro, I become filled with fear and anxiety that my very presence [as a white person] is doing harm, is hurting them in some way. There’s a way in which I imagine, like in talking with my son, that I can take a kind of therapeutic stance, like “I can take that, you can give it to me, I can take it, I can hold it.” But there’s a way that takes a distance [from our own racism] as well because one of the things I heard you say is, in the dream you were talking about, there was some unconscious identification with racism, and that’s the part that I find disheartening, and I don’t want to take a distance from that part.

img_4636Grand: I just want to say that one of the things that is important to communicate from this paper is that [my analyst] gave me the opportunity to communicate that I could have a destructive part in a loving and lovable personality, and to make reparation. The biggest quandary when we experience our own destructiveness is if you feel that there is no way to make reparation for that part and if there is no way to be received in your basic loving goodness, if you are only that [destructive] part, then we’re going to be more terrified and uncomfortable about recognizing that part and recognizing that somebody could see that part of us. This is very important and its going to be very important now.

Members of the audience described other feelings of destructiveness following the election.

img_4591-1Audience Member: This whole week I find myself trying to find smidgens of grace in my heart for people who …don’t see things as I do and I keep finding myself thinking about reconciliation fatigue and I think that can go back generations too, whether it is within the most intimate situations within families or across cultural lines. …I have to work – simply out of fatigue for the whole thing– to have a little understanding and grace in my heart for people who act the way they do; some of them go as far as to rewrite history, like the holocaust never happened and slavery wasn’t so bad. …I’d like to have some discussion about how we might understand the fatigue of trying to reconcile all these complexities over the generations and what we might do. In those moments it is very easy to call others “the other”.

Grand: One of the things we are called upon for now for is that we must have a clear line in the sand about hatred, about persecution, about protecting people. This is, for me, non-negotiable. How do you do that without just hating the people that voted this way? Certainly, I have trouble because even if I don’t think that these voters were all motivated by misogyny and racism, they certainly were willing to overlook it, like it was okay. I have people in my life who voted Trump, good people who I’ve known forever. What do I do? I’m struggling.  Part of me just wants to go find people who voted for Hillary or not, and okay. But I can’t live like that. That’s just another kind of alienation. That’s not going to work. So what do I do with actual people in my life? Do I ignore it? Do I say something? How do I work with this? So we’re going to be challenged, because we can’t just live in our own bubbles and that’s not a good idea anyway.


Stephen O’Connor

512wov0wa6l-_sx328_bo1204203200_This question of how to move forward is one we continued to discuss with author Stephen O’Connor, whose book Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemmings imaginatively explores how Jefferson could be so profoundly committed to democratic ideals in his public philosophy while rationalizing his own slaveholding and coercive, non-consensual relationship with Hemmings. O’Connor’s talk highlighted how easily we deceive ourselves about who we are, and he extended this worry to responses to the election and how easy it could be to let the momentum generated for the left at this political moment slip away. O’Connor described his considerations about where to put his efforts following the election and his conviction that it is essential that we keep talking to others across the hateful divides that seem more and more to be taking over the country.

On the question of where to find hope, Marita Golden offered a powerful conclusion to the discussion with O’Connor:

goldenAs an activist myself, as I witnessed and thought about everything that happened I thought, “Okay, let me channel my inner Fredrick Douglas. Let me channel my inner Ida B. Wells.” And when I think about them as lifelong activists who are living at a time when black people were lynched, black people were enslaved,  facing all the ebb and flow, rights given, rights rescinded. Woodrow Wilson comes in the office and he put up curtains in government office buildings to separate black and white people. So African-Americans, we have a long history of dealing with Trumps in various guises. I think that this is a really important moment, a moment where those of us who claim moral authority will be tested.  I think that out of this, we can do some amazing, amazing things, as long as we don’t get distracted and keep channeling our inner Ida, our inner Frederick Douglass, because there’s so much work to be done. It’s like a sculpture; you have to burn it up before the beautiful thing is made. And I really think that Trump, if we play this thing right, he’s going to take us so deep, we can be beautiful on the other side of this.

51dvbeymnl-_ac_us200_Throughout the weekend, I reflected on the thought that the shock of the election was the shock of being faced with the harsh fact that the wishes and hopes that represent our best selves can so easily be rejected. I thought about Sylvan Tompkins’ definition of shame as rejected love or the thwarting of our good intentions and of Franz Fanon’s 1952 writing in “The Fact of Blackness” in Black Skins/White Masks: “I shouted a greeting to the world and the world slashed away my joy. I was told to go back to where I belonged (pp. 114-15).” The sense of shock and surprise is surely greater among those of us who are used to the privilege of being able to imagine that the world more or less supports us in our basic being; it is a fresh wound. For others of us who have experienced ourselves as regularly marginalized, this election once again gives rise to fear and anger, but of the sort that is an old wound that is opened again and again.

Our time together at New Directions gave us an opportunity to talk and offer consolation across the commitments and concerns we share, without ignoring differences. It allowed us to think about the considerable contributions that writing makes to our “continuing journey to be human,” as Golden said, but also allowed us to collectively support one another in what else might be needed moving forward. I was both comforted and energized to be with this remarkable group of intelligent, articulate, reflective and compassionate people during our November weekend.  I am grateful to Catherine Baker-Pitts for bringing this weekend to us and to the speakers who so generously shared their minds and hearts with us.


May 2016, The Winnicotts: Writing and Speaking Plainly


Joel Kanter opens the weekend

The May 2016 New Directions weekend was entitled The Winnicotts: Writing and Speaking Plainly. Organized by Joel Kanter, the weekend involved considerations of the work of both Donald Winnicott and Clare Britton Winnicott. Kanter, a clinical social worker, is on the faculty of the Institute for Clinical Social Work in Chicago, and is the author (among other works) of Face to Face with Children: The Life and Work of Clare Winnicott. In his opening comments, Kanter described the focus of the weekend as including a reflection on the willingness of both Donald and Clare to work, learn and communicate within and also beyond the clinic and the psychoanalytic world. Their involvement in social services and interactions with the public through Donald’s BBC talks to parents, their on-going work with caregivers and their influence on public policy, instantiated what Kanter described as a commitment “to create dialogue among psychoanalysis, the helping professions and the general public.” He noted that their work was not only written but was also spoken to a variety of audiences, leading to an understanding that communicating effectively with an audience involves writing plainly, in a voice that evocatively conveys one’s thoughts.

IMG_4178The weekend featured three speakers in addition to Kanter. Lesley Caldwell is a trustee of the Winnicott Trust and the co-editor, along with Angela Joyce, of Reading Winnicott and with Helen Taylor Robinson, of the forthcoming 12-volume The Collected Works of Donald Winnicott. A training analyst for the London Child and Adolescent programs, Caldwell is also an Honorary Professor in the Psychoanalysis Unit at University College London. Anne Karpf is a columnist for the Guardian, a writer (most recently of How to Age) and a sociologist. She is Reader in Professional Writing and Cultural Inquiry at London Metropolitan University. Her research on Winnicott’s BBC radio broadcasts to parents was presented in a 2014 BBC4 program, From Donald Winnicott to the Naughty Step. Jim Anderson is Professor of Clinical Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Northwestern University, a faculty member at the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis, and Editor of the Annual of Psychoanalysis.  In his writing, he specializes in psychological biography and has published papers on the lives of William and Henry James, Woodrow Wilson, Edith Wharton, Sigmund Freud, D. W. Winnicott, and Frank Lloyd Wright.

Leslie, ND (1)

Leslie Caldwell

Lesley Caldwell provided the first talk for the weekend. She began by introducing Winnicott as making a psychoanalytically informed approach available to a much wider audience.  She described one strength of his writing as its function as a kind of initial communication with himself and then as a reaching out to others. This notion of writing to learn what it is that we think provides an counterpoint to those who imagine the writer as knowing what is to be said in advance. Caldwell reviewed some of Winnicott’s core beliefs about the interrelation between caregiving and therapeutic work: that the therapeutic space is a re-presentation of holding in caretaker’s arms and is a shared space; that the continuing presence of therapist is guarantor how an ordinary location — the consulting room — becomes an affective, psychic location wherein whatever is brought finds a place; and that the therapeutic space is shaped by the psychoanalytic conventions of hospitality – consistency and continuity — and structured by the regularities time, reliability, payment and potentiality. Caldwell described Winnicott’s understanding of the creation of the professional setting of trust as expanding and exceeding definitions of interpretation and asking the question, “What is therapeutic about communication?”

IMG_4174Caldwell then moved us into a consideration of Winnicott’s communication with children in the consultations he did. She walked us through a consultation with a young boy and Winnicott’s use of the squiggle game.  (For those who would like to read accounts of Winnicott’s consultations, his Therapeutic Consultations in Child Psychiatry provides seventeen examples of his first, fruitful interviews with children.) In particular, Caldwell pointed to Winnicott’s restraint in the case example, his understanding of the limits of therapeutic zeal and his maintenance of silence as he and the boy worked out the pace of their exchange. She argued that in his work, Winnicott quotedemonstrated that the desire, form and purpose of communication changes as the status of the object changes for the patient. Acknowledging that silence can be significant communication, she pointed to Winnicott’s skill at asking what the silence may mean for each patient in each meeting, acknowledging that being known and recognized may not always be appreciated. Caldwell suggested that the same questions are significant in the decisions we make as writers.

Anne Karpf

Anne Karpf

Anne Karpf spoke with us about Winnicott’s more than 50 scripted talks and discussions on BBC from 1943 – 1962. Aimed at mothers and other child caretakers, Winnicott laid out in plain, accessible and relatable language the fundamentals of his theories – that the baby is a person from start and has to have a good enough relationship with a caregiver who can be loved, hated and depended upon. Winnicott, like many of his peers in the years during and after the war, was deeply concerned about the the origin of compliant and even fascistic states of mind (for more on this concern, see my 2010 chapter with Paula Salvio, Who let the dogs out?  Unleashing an uncanny sense of audience in the writing workshop, in Michael O’Loughlin’s, Imagining children otherwise: Theoretical and critical perspectives on childhood subjectivity). Karp stated that Winnicott’s talk reflected his concern that mothers might lose touch with their own ability to act if they are dependent upon books or experts but also shouldn’t be working blind when things go wrong. In his broadcasts, Winnicott worked to create the kind of space he hoped for in the clinic, a space of non-impingement in which the audience’s development of understanding could take place at its own pace. This was, he hoped, a space that engendered not compliance but thinking. Karpf likewise described Winnicott’s two producers, Janet Quigley and Isa Benzie, as “formative midwifes in subject matter and approach,” especially making sure Winnicott did not use specialized psychoanalytic language and did not make listeners feel inadequate or guilty (for more, see Karpf’s 2014 article, “Constructing and Addressing the ‘Ordinary Devoted Mother.’”

IMG_0138Karpf noted that while these talks formed the basis for Winnicott’s best-seller, The Child, the Family and the Outside World, as well as Talking to Parents and Winnicott on the Childfew people attend to the fact that these books started as broadcasts. Echoing Kanter’s observation about the connection between writing and speaking, Karpf stated that Winnicott regarded writing that would be broadcast to an audience then revised for formal publication as developed through single process, each part feeding and shaping the other in a way that makes Winnicott’s writing so engaging and readerly. Karpf closed by asking why psychoanalysis does not have a public voice akin to Winnicott’s today to counter the quick fix culture of contemporary psychotherapy.

Kantor (1)

Joel Kanter

Our third talk was provided by Joel Kanter, who focused on the collaboration between Clare Britton Winnicott and Donald Winnicott. Attending especially to Clare’s efforts as a social worker with evacuated children living in group settings during World War II, Kanter explained that after the war, Clare was put in charge of child social work training at the London School of Economics, eventually being honored by the Order of the British Empire. Claire began psychoanalytic training at age fifty, had an analytic practice for the last ten years of her life, and established The Winnicott Trust following Donald’s death. Kanter played audio recordings from his interviews with Clare in which she described her moving efforts to maintain connections between some of the children and their parents.



Kanter also discussed Clare’s efforts to help her staff, who worked with the children unable to be placed in homes due to a variety of problems, to work without fear in response to the many difficult situations they faced. In addition to the numerous deprivations caused by the war, many of the children presented behavioral challenges, including running away, stealing, fighting and starting fires. Consistent with Donald’s broadcast message to parents, Clare described Donald, who consulted weekly with Clare and her staff, as helping them to trust their instincts and to survive the many crises and challenges they faced.

As Kanter notes in his book, Clare was not much inclined to gain the limelight through writing and publication. Her ideas and experiences were influential and evident in Donald’s post-war publications, in concepts such as the transitional object, which Clare called “the first treasured possession” after observing the attachment of evacuated children to stuffed animals, scraps of fabric, photos and toys and then realizing that children use objects in the world in the same way that they used their primary caregiver. Clare’s influence was also clear, Kanter told us, in an increase in confidence and a heightened personal voice that resulted from their personal and intellectual collaboration.


Jim Anderson

Jim Anderson provided the final talk of the weekend. Anderson’s work on Winnicott began in the 1980s, when he received a fellowship from National Endowment for the Humanities that allowed him to spend 6 weeks in London interviewing everyone he could find who had known Winnicott. This research led to a 2003 article entitled “Recent Psychoanalytic Theorists and Their Relevance to Psychobiography: Winnicott, Kernberg, and Kohut.”  Anderson provided us a psychobiographical sketch of Winnicott and particularly his concept of the true and false self. Describing Winnicott’s disappointments in his own analysis, Anderson suggested that it has often been the case that when great psychoanalytic innovators didn’t get what they needed in their own analyses, they went on to create a way those needs could be provided for in analysis with their own patients.

RudnystskyIn his 1993 book on Literary Uses of Winnicott, Peter Rudnytsky writes that Winnicott and those in the Independent Object Relations School were the first to offer “a satisfactory psychoanalytic account of aesthetics” (xii). Rudnytsky states that in most previous psychoanalytic writing about art, art was viewed as derivative or regressive; these perspectives did not offer “a comprehensive metapsychology of art” (xii).  Rudnytsky goes on to say,

Uniquely among psychoanalytic approaches to art, Winnicott respects art’s integrity as an autonomous human activity, while continuing to insist on its infantile origin. He derives art from play…  Art provides a lifelong refuge to which we can turn as we negotiate our perilous oscillations between illusion and reality (p. xiii).

Anderson illustrated this aspect of Winnicott in a way that offers much for us as writers to think about. Anderson told us:

winnicottWinnicott wrote, “the artist has an ability and the courage to be in touch with primitive processes which the psycho-neurotic cannot bear to reach, and which healthy people may miss to their own impoverishment.” He was referring to people like himself. His life-long struggle to realize his true self resulted in his being in contact with his deeper impulses, conflicts, appetites, and feelings and to have a vital experience energized by the forces within him.

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.

October 2014 – Therapeutic Passages: Midlife and Beyond

Linda and Sheila 2

Linda Sherby and Sheila Felberbaum

One of the many strengths of the New Directions program is the opportunities it provides to alumni not only to participate in on-going alumni groups, but to potentially participate in the program post-graduation as small group leaders or even weekend organizers. Such was the case with our October 24 – 26th weekend, organized by New Directions alumni Sheila Felberbaum and Linda Sherby.

The weekend, themed “Therapeutic Passages: Midlife and Beyond” offered an opportunity to consider how writers and analysts may be able to use mid- and late-life passages — children leaving home; later career opportunities and challenges; the arrival of grandchildren; facing health crises, caretaking and mortality with our parents, partners and other loved ones; and experiencing our own declining health and stamina — to advance our creativity and growth.

Ann Burack-Weiss

Ann Burack-Weiss

The weekend’s speakers included Ann Burack-Weiss, a clinical social worker with a private practice and a faculty member in the Masters program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University. Dr. Burarck-Weiss is the author of four books, including The Caregiver’s Tale: Loss and Renewal in Memoirs of Family Life. She discussed this text, an examination of the narratives of caregivers, as an example of passionate research.

Joyce Edwards

Joyce Edwards

Joyce Edwards, a social worker and psychoanalyst with three co-edited books, spoke on the critical importance of friendship in one’s later years and provided a clinical example in which her relationship with a patient fostered the patient’s capacity to have friends.

Madelon Sprengnether

Madelon Sprengnether

Madelon Sprengnether, a poet, memoirist, and Regents Professor of English at the University of Minnesota, is also New Direction alumni as well as the organizer of the Spring 2008 weekend Writer/Analyst. In the prelude to her talk, Madelon said of her time at ND: “I was a member of this community for ten years. I couldn’t let go. I loved every minute of it and I’ve never found anything like it anywhere else or any group to replace it.” In her talk, she drew on her life-long love of the play A Trip to Bountiful to explore the function of memory across the lifespan – both her own life and in the late life of the play’s protagonist, Carrie Watts.

Finally, we had the pleasure of hearing from Linda and Sheila themselves. Linda began with the story of her affiliation to New Directions and of her growth in confidence as a writer, culminating with the 2013 Routledge publication of her book, Love and Loss in Life and Treatment. Drawing on both personal memoir and clinical case material, this book tells the story of Linda’s loss of her beloved husband, George, and illustrates how the life of the analyst necessarily affects both the patient and the treatment. Since the publication of the book, Linda has applied some of her passion for writing to a weekly blog, Inside/Outsidein which she illustrates and explores issues that arise in therapeutic treatment. Describing her passage into becoming a disciplined writer, Linda concluded her talk by telling us, “You can write. You have to hone your craft. You have to believe in yourself. You have to carry more than a hostile audience in your head and you have to know your time to write.”

Sheila, with her wry and wonderful sense of humor, took us on her journey from a 2008 New Directions weekend that featured playwrights Jessica Blank and Eric Jenson who helped Sheila begin to see her writing as spoken dialogue in her head. Inspired by their work and words, Sheila then enrolled in Mind the Gap, an intergenerational workshop taught by playwrights that brought high school students together with writers over the age of sixty. Each participant wrote a play based on interviews with her/his partner; the plays were then read on stage by professional actors. From this, Sheila’s play Trauma Ties emerged. The richness of intergenerational collaboration continued for Sheila as she later faced a group of mostly 20-year-old students in a course  on death and dying. Dealing with seven recent deaths of her own family members and friends, Sheila began the first night of class by reading a poem about her mother’s death. The poem, written when a student in New Directions, drew her students into their own deeply felt experiences of death and its losses, setting into motion a journey to be shared across the semester.

It was gratifying during this New Directions weekend to see people who began as students making their own passages within the program, taking the platform and delivering carefully and thoughtfully written papers. Sheila, Linda and Madelon are inspiring representatives of the kind of personal and professional growth that can occur in midlife and beyond, especially with the support and structure offered by the New Directions community.

Group shot 2

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.

Summer 2013 Writing Retreat

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Wonderful news!
Deirdre Callanan and Lauren Wolk have agreed to once again host the New Directions Summer Writing Retreat on beautiful Cape Cod.
Dates: July 13 – 19
Where: Deirdre and Jack’s house, West Harwich MA
If you are interested in participating, contact Don Chiapinelli at
FYI:  July is high season on the Cape and accommodations get booked early, so if you are considering attending, you’ll want to make reservations for your housing now. 

Summer 2012 Cape Cod Writing Retreat

cape.jpgIt didn’t take long for most of us to realize how smart we had been in having responded to Deirdre Callanan, Don Chiapinelli, and Lauren Wolk’s offer that we might come to Cape Cod for the summer writing retreat. And by “smart”, I mean “incredibly lucky.” Those of us who had the chance to hear Lauren, Don or Deirdre speak at the April weekend, Inspiration in our writing: Who are our heroes? already knew that we would be working with extraordinary teachers of writing. What we didn’t know beforehand was how beautiful our setting would be, how hard Don had worked all summer to prepare all of the details of our time on the Cape, or how generous and gracious Deirdre and Jack Harrison would be in welcoming us to their home.

The retreat started on Saturday evening with a reception on Deirdre and Jack’s back deck, a nice opportunity to reconnect with friends from pervious New Directions events and to meet those new to us, including partners who had also made the trip.

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The writing began Sunday morning, as we gathered in Deirdre’s dining room around her expansive table – actually a reclaimed worktable from a local high school library.  Each morning, Deirdre or Lauren began by reading a poem or an excerpt from a novel or short story, a work of non-fiction or even, to my delight, a picture book.  They led us in discussions of particular features of the writing, followed by exercises that alternated between devious and delightful, that produced groans and laughs and surprising writing. 

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Take Lauren’s requirement that we write using only four letter words. I suspect that I am not the only one who came to the secret conclusion that surely she did not count “the” or “and”: 


Day’s work done
Wild boys trod the hard path, tall corn left and right.
July heat.
Cows look over, chew sour oats, sigh, move away.
Pants, socks, tees rank, cast off.
Boys dash then, hurl from dank pond bank,
soar, arms and legs skew.
Fast, cold pain,
Yelp, gasp.
Swim into life.


Lauren pushed us to think: Is this the right word or the easy word? 

Sleek and elegant in its Upper East Side certainty, the computer refused to notice the pencil.

How does everything in the scene tell the story?

Hunkered down in the most comfortable chair, which wasn’t saying much, her concentration all on that new phone, sending and reading texts, stifling chuckles. Glancing up only occasionally, sliding her eyes across the scene then back down.  Her brother leaning into the door frame, decidedly not in the room.  Her sister at the side of the bed, quiet then loud.  The scorned second wife, assigned to a corner, ignored.  It was late, and the coroner was slow to come.

But it was Deirdre’s questions that took me by surprise:

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What were your childhood’s buried treasures?
What were your childhood gems?
What was precious to you?
What were your rules and what rules did you break?
What fights, play or real, do you remember?
What from your childhood would you never forget?
What did you keep in your first important place?


I had come certain I knew what I wanted to write about, until Deirdre asked, “What did you build, create or imagine as a child?” and something completely unexpected took flight in me. 

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Wheeling and swooping, three flocks of cousins glide in from different parts of the old farmhouse and somehow, inexplicably, converge in the kitchen, heading for the front door. 
Earthbound, their grandmother bellows out to them as they pass, voice thick with irritation:
“You kids stay out of that barn!  You wreck those hay bales.  That hay is for cows, not for kids!”
To the flock, her words are no more than distant cries.  They pause, hover for a moment, puzzled by the sound, then answering a different call, they pivot in midair and plunge through the porch and out into the freedom of the yard.  Soaring across the wide gravel driveway and around the tractor not yet cleaned and stored for the night, bounding over the metal fence that separates people territory from cow yard, they flit across the mud and manure, still deep and thick from the morning’s rain, and land in the hardpack dirt of the barn floor.
IMG_0578.jpgLater each morning, we broke into four smaller writing groups.  Besides working with Deirdre and Lauren, we now had the chance to work with Don and with Catherine.  In these groups, we began the work on the pieces we had each brought to the retreat as our primary focus for the week, although some participants worked on new pieces created at the retreat in these groups.

Cape Cod_0688.jpgI was assigned to Catherine’s group, which was put together for those of us who wanted support for professional writing. This gave me the chance to work closely with Anne Adelman, Billie Pivnick, Sheila Felberbaum, and Mary Davis, who provided an outstanding audience for a book chapter I was revising.  These groups met for four of the six days, and on the other two days we were split up and had the opportunity to work with other teachers and participants.

Cape Cod_0595.jpgIn the afternoons and evenings, we had the option of writing or of enjoying the many tourism opportunities the Cape has to offer. For me, this meant trips to the beach, to Provincetown and to art galleries, and a nearly constant consumption of seafood.  If lobster could somehow be incorporated into a dish, I’m sure I ate it.  Early mornings likewise offered opportunities to enjoy the Cape. Several participants gathered regularly for morning walks through the Harwich Conservation Trust. For Billie, Don and I, early mornings meant unforgettably beautiful swims across Sand Pond.    


Our final night was spent as it should have been – celebrating with photos and toasts and with a wonderful potluck, followed by a reading in which each of us had the opportunity to present a portion of what we had been working on during the week. I think Deirdre and Lauren must have been asked more than a few times whether we could come back to the Cape for the Summer 2013 New Directions Retreat. 
Photos by Don Chiapinelli and Gail Boldt
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