Tuesday, October 6, 2009

In His Site, We Are All Precious: Intersubjectivity, Unconscious Fantasy and Tyler Perry's Disclosure of His Childhood Abuse

"People are suffering unspeakable, horrific horrors and they live with those secrets that tear them up inside." Terrie Williams author of "Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We're Not Hurting," applauding Perry for publicizing his childhood history of abuse.

Yesterday, Tyler Perry revealed that as a child he had been seduced by a male church member and also by the mother of a playmate. He was randomly and viciously beatened by his father who also berated him for his love of reading as well as his skin color which was perceived to be too dark. His paternal grandmother washed him in ammonia to cure him of his ‘germs’ in her protest over his treatment by a physician for allergies.

His revelations are part of a media campaign to publicize the film Precious, based on the novel, Push by New York poet Sapphire, herself a victim of childhood abuse. The story is about a pregnant teen who suffers unspeakable and protracted verbal, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse by her mother and her mother's boyfriend. She is barely literate and full of self-hate. But it is a story meant to inspire and like all Perry's undertakings, she is a woman who is rescued from descending into the abyss.

Raised by a seemingly sadistic adoptive mother, Perry’s father was an alcoholic and child molester in addition to being a brutal husband and father. Perry’s mother emerges as a shadow of a person in this first person narrative, appearing to blithely return to and remain with a husband who hounded her at every relentlessly.

Perry and his mother sought protection and solace from an aunt who he recalled threatening his father with a pistol after a particularly fierce beating. It is this aunt who seems to be the woman who fueled his imagination of the gun-toting, wise-cracking, matriarch, Madea. Madea rescues fallen women and children in peril in Perry's wildly successful plays and top grossing movies (e.g., Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Madea's Family Reunion, Madea Goes to Jail, and I Can Do Bad By Myself). Madea is short in New Orleans' lingo for ‘Mother Dear.’

My interest in Perry's character, Madea, lies in the area of his unconscious fantasies. He credits his childhood coping strategy of dissociation with saving him. ". . . in my mind, I left. I didn't feel it anymore, just like in PRECIOUS. How this girl would leave in her mind. I learned to use my gift, as it was my imagination that let me escape."

Where did Tyler go when he left his abuser? Did he go to his aunt's or did he image becoming his aunt? One approach to understanding an artist is to consider their creative works, products of their internal world.

In his movies, mothers are weak, evil, or absent. It is the hardy Madea who must step in to save the day for all involved.

Her ways are far from conventional and give free reign to what Kohut would have called, the archaic grandiose-exhibitionistic self. While Madea can break the laws of gender and heteronomativity, she does so to corral the wayward young women back into the law of the father--to a life free of drugs, prostitution, selfishness, and ultimately to an acceptance of Christ and heterosexuality.

"I owe the little boy that I was in my life." Tyler Perry

The intersubjective approach developed by Robert Stolorow and George Atwood proposes that psychological development takes place in the interactive space of two or more subjectivities. Out of these interfaces grows the psychological structures of the unconscious: the prereflective, the dynamic, and the unvalidated.

The prereflective unconscious contains the organizing principles that form and provide a narrative theme of our experiences. The dynamic unconscious contains all those experiences that are not permitted expression in any form since they would be perceived as damaging the necessary ties between the child and the caretakers. With great difficulty, the contents of the dynamic unconscious can be made conscious.
The unvalidated unconscious, on the other hand, is the repository of the unarticulated aspects of the self because they fell prey to the experience of never having evoked affirming responses from the environment and caretakers.

The unvalidated unconscious fantasies in an intersubjective context arise when according to Stolorow and Atwood, “powerful affective experiences fail to evoke adequate validating responses from the surround. In such instances, the concrete sensorimotor images of the fantasy serve to dramatize and reify the person's emotional experience, conferring upon it a sense of validity and reality that otherwise would be absent. An analogous function may be served by certain types of enactment through which a person attempts to articulate experiences that could never be encoded symbolically.”

This is the role that Madea plays in the creative life of Tyler Perry. He has an endless stream of plays and movies that in the intersubjective frame is an archaic grandiose-exhibitionistic fantasy. I think this because as a person with a background of childhood trauma, it would be reasonable to conclude that when he strove for “excitement, expansiveness, pride, efficacy, and pleasure in himself” these were rebuffed and did not generate validating responses from the environment.
Madea can be seen as an introject, rather than a true self articulation. Madea is an incorporation of his aunt’s qualities out of a need to maintain a connection to his idealized protector. It is an effort, the intersubjectivists wouldsay, that the constant recreation of the Madea character is an attempt to sure up a weak ability for sustaining self-affirmation.

"The artist is the daydreamer for the community...." Jacob Arlow

Thousands of African Americans have stood in long lines to see Tyler Perry's morality tales. His plays easily draw tens of thousands in a single weekend. In heavily African American communities such as Detroit, his films would be shown on 12 screens in a single multiplex.

What accounts for this appeal, when journalists lambast his stereotypes and lack of depth?

Jacob Arolow's thoughts hold sway, "Out of his own daydreams and conflicts, the artist creates a work capable of evoking unconscious fantasy in members of the audience." Tyler's story evoked through Madea is a collective story of loss love, betrayal, abandonment, homeless, hopelessness, exploitation but also of imagined community, salvation, redemption and a better tomorrow.

Stolorow, R.D. and Atwood, G.E. (1989). The Unconscious and Unconscious Fantasy: An Intersubjective-Developmental Perspective. Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 9:364-374.

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