Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Sotomayor, Empathy, and Perspectival Realism

U.S. President Barack Obama has nominated Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. Her confirmation seems inevitable, and she will be the third woman and the first Hispanic to serve on this highest Court. Pundits report that she is the most experienced nominee in a century. Certainly her nomination is also a nod to diversity: female, Latina. But, while some might think diversity would have been better served by, say, a lesbian nominee, there is significance in Sotomayor’s postmodern view that it is “important to acknowledge the influence that personal experience could have on decisions.”

Psychoanalysis, too, is entering an era where there is no longer an objective authority, where individual subjectivity can no longer be ignored as if it does not have influence. Who each of us is, including all our experiences, influences every thought, every action, every relationship, even as we strive as analysts to be with our patients.

And if Sotomayor’s breadth of experiences, including those with loss, poverty, and illness, as well as motherhood, Ivy League education, and as a judge, allow for more of the “empathy factor” (empathy: the ability to put yourself in another’s shoes) then I am with Chris Kelly when he jokes in his “Empathy for the Devil: …I can’t imagine how it feels to be against empathy.” Empathy is not only a mainstay in our therapeutic work, but it is a too pervasively absent quality on the world’s political stage. Should it not also pervade the judicial system where both fairness and mercy must be held in balance?

Sotomayor, who quipped that a "wise Latina" could reach a better decision than a man, admits she “fell flat” when trying to play off Sandra Day O’Connor’s comment that a wise old woman would probably arrive at the same decision as a wise old man. Much has been made of Sotomayor’s injudicious comment. Though poorly expressed, Sotomayor makes a valid point about the value of differing perspectives in applying the law.

On NPR this morning, the host said it differently, “Lots of different people can have lots of valuable experience.” This is what we might call perspectival realism: that no one has a god’s-eye view, instead each of us brings only a tiny slice of reality of experience from a vast array of possibilities in experiencing of an idea or an event. I might hope that an old woman might arrive, not at the same decision as an old man, but at a different one, equally valuable, offering yet another slice. If Sotomayor fell flat, it was in her temporary lapse of empathy when one privileges one sex, one ethnicity, or one subjectivity over another. All of us have lapses. If we are to remain connected to one another, particularly in the consulting room, then we must allow lapses in the other, negotiate our way through, and keep with the work of relationship.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Should Psychoanalysis be Taught?

In The New Yorker last month (June 8 & 15, 2009), Louis Menand, a professor of English at Harvard, in A Critic At Large, asked the question “Should creative writing be taught?” He quoted The University of Iowa Writers Workshop website which explained that
“…writing cannot be taught but writers can be encouraged.” This, naturally, got me to thinking about psychoanalytic education. Can one teach others how to be an analyst? or do we only encourage gifted clinicians to broaden their skills, by, for example, encouraging them to trust themselves, to include themselves, to look beyond themselves?

Because, among other things, an analytic attitude is both a way of thinking and a way of being in relationship, I have often wondered how instructors convey how to be an analyst. Do the therapists who cross the training door thresholds need only to learn theories and techniques, or do we as instructors need to model a way of being which also conveys not only what we do in the consulting room, but how we are? Having had the pleasure of participating as an instructor in courses, workshops, and seminars with mental health professionals interested in psychoanalytic thought, I am always in a quandary about how much right brain/ implicit learning to balance with how much left brain/didactic and explicit information to convey.

In observing colleagues I have sometimes not understood the answers in their models of instruction. [I have, for example, seen some instructors behave as classical analysts (anonymous, abstinent), saying little, encouraging little, as the candidates or attendees ‘free associate’ to the assigned reading material. Some have utilized bubba meisahs, regaling students with their own experiences. Some tolerate not only no other opinion, but no space is created in which others might speak. On occasion, if more than two instructors teach, I have seen them argue with one another about their ideas, sometimes getting uncomfortably personal, and seemingly oblivious to inviting student participation. None are behaviors that instructors may have explicitly wished to encourage in the consulting room.]

I try to imagine how varying theories might influence modeling how to be. As an instructor, can I encourage and co-create curiosity, enthusiasm, respect, and a space for mutuality, all ways of being in the consulting room? And how does one do this? When I think of my professional life I think of the many changes in analytic attitude which have evolved in my work. And I have great regret for analysands in my early training who I deprived of mutual recognition and relationship; where I took the stance of being the one who knows; and with whom I took pains to hide my love for them, stingy in my abstinence. In recent years, a number of my patients have found love for the first time. I like to imagine I had some small part in this, that is, having found my patients loveable, they reconfigured their convictions about their unlovability, and voila.

But how are we to reconfigure ourselves as instructors so that trainees reconfigure any old ideas about passively taking in what is spouted or printed? How do institutes allow for such alternative understandings in the classroom as to encourage therapists to allow for them in the consulting room? How do we model perspectival realism?

Ironically, here, in the psychoanalytic outpost of west central Florida, there are three or four psychoanalytic training institutions, but only a handful more of analysts. Here we have a few members of the American Psychoanalytic Association, and a few more who are members of the International Psychoanalytic Association, and a bit more who have had various training experiences and also go by the name ‘psychoanalyst.’ These training programs exist, not because of an interest in, nor a demand for, more training from local clinicians, though we all hope to cultivate the interest and demand (Build it and they will come), but because analysts in this area have found it exceedingly difficult to hold the tension between differences: differences of personalities, styles, power, and ideologies. I often wonder what implicit communication this sad fact models for potential trainees.

It is very hard to think independently in an institute and stay connected. For women in our local analytic community this may be even more difficult. One female colleague poignantly asked at a national workshop how one can hold on to one self while affiliating with an institute. Some find the only alternative is to align oneself with a powerful man of the hour. Another female colleague asked if, in Tampa with its tendency to empower machismo in male analytic leadership, perhaps the local analytic community cannot bear to brook ‘uppity’ women. She remained herself and was shunned by some, despite gracefully using her different voice.

In private practice, we strive to co-construct bridges between differences with clients/ patients, and they have some motivation to be in relationship with us. Where groups differ dramatically, it takes more than analytic being to be a skillful engineer.