Sunday, June 26, 2011

Film: Tree of Life

No film has ever been so evocative of a childhood: walking on cans tied with thick string; torturing small amphibia and reptiles with cherry bombs and firecrackers; running chest forward, arms outstretched, into mosquito-killing DDT clouds. These were the long, languorous days of southern summers before play dates and gated communities and the expectation of kidnappers and child molesters around every corner. Without standard plot or dialogue, the observer, like the analyst, is drawn into memory with Jack (Sean Penn), invited to lean in toward his experience of sprinkler drops on the skin, ligustrum hedge tops on the fingertips, or the jarring, contemptuous shouting of a father at a mother. One immerses oneself, the visual and auditory so penetrating as to be tactile. It is dream-like, hallucinogenic, poetical.

A nipple. An eye socket. A crater on the moon. Mud pots and phosphorescent pools. Molten lava and microbials. A nipple. The protruding umbilicus of a pregnant woman. Jupiter’s moon. What do we make of creation? Of the tree of life? This film intimates the interconnectedness of all creation. But the thread of loss and trauma flies in the face of connectedness, aggravated when one suffers in isolation, disconnecting us from the fabric of life.

Jack as a middle edged man remains connected to his childhood in the drops of water and the drops of sunlight of his glass-and-steel grownup world. His luminous mother (Jessica Chastain) had urged him to “love everything.”

The Tree of Life, written and directed by Terrence Malick (Badlands, Days of Heaven, and The Thin Red Line) is a wonder, visually, and its soundtrack magnificent. That Malick was a philosophy major and a Rhodes scholar is no surprise. But Malick must be a connoisseur of great music as well, with soundtrack by Alexandre Desplat, connecting Mahler, Bach, Smetena’s Die Moldau, Holst’s The Planets, Berlioz’ Requiem, Bach, and Brahms. The mystical ‘Tree of Life’ in religion, philosophy, mythology, connects all things in spirit and evolution. It brings eternal life. Malick ambitiously illustrates this conceptual interconnectedness of the ‘Tree of Life’ in his film thusly named, juxtaposing it with a singular, 1950s, Texas family, the O’Briens. Its eldest son Jack (Hunter McCracken) questions, in whispered voiceover, God or the universe and the meaning of existence. How Malick coaxed such a veridical performance from McCracken and Laramie Eppler as R.L. is a marvel,and the cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki, exquisite. This is the best picture of 2011, or, perhaps,ever.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Michael Poff comments on Hiroshima, Mon Amour

It was not oedipal conflicts that I believed remained unsuccessfully resolved. My observation was that although there were triangular features to the relationship in Hiroshima Mon Amour (see April 4, 2011) that might typically suggest Oedipal-level repetitions (i.e., references to cheated-upon third party/spouse/dead lover; Lui’s thrill at being special to Ella compared to all her past lovers; the recurring subject of lying; the central theme of sleeping with the forbidden/the enemy), much more obvious, in this case, were the effects of the later trauma in early adulthood (the pervasive dissociative affect, the intensity to the repetition compulsion, an inexpressible humiliation and rage isolated behind the glassy “reasonable” defense). In fact, in the absence of other history, it was only the massive quality of that trauma that made more understandable the pervasive regressive and pre-oedipal emotional atmosphere of the affair (i.e., repetitive fantasies of annihilation by being consumed/devoured; borderline psychotic-like confusion of past/present, loss of self/other boundaries, etc.). Elle’s early refrain, “Without a record, there’s only reconstruction”, highlighted for me the parallel between her ‘remembering’, first in action then in words, with Lui and reconstruction in analysis. I see no inherent problem calling this a co-construction (But I was using Elle’s words.) so long as some conceptual principle for the asymmetrical relationship and the ideal of (relative) neutrality on the part of the analyst is preserved for the protection of the patient. It was Lui’s reference to what he will remember of Elle when he is compelled by habit into future affairs, and Elle’s staying ‘reasonable’ for the remainder of their relationship after he slaps her just as she risked expressing her anger, that signaled the unresolved quality of the problems each was attempting some mastery over with the affair. I agree wholeheartedly with you that there was much caring in the ‘play’ and healing (for Elle, most obviously, given her resolution in the end to return home to Nevere) that came of the encounter between the two lovers. Michael Poff MA, MSW

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Psychoanalysis and Compassion: the Death Penalty

With the two recent posts on this blog, one by Tim LaDuca on May 31, 2011 (about the compassion of psychoanalysis), and one by Loren Buckner on June 2, 2011, (describing --regarding the Anthony case-- how even good parents can sometimes harbor hateful, even murderous thoughts, toward their children), I was reminded of an article I had read.

Appearing in the May 9, 2011 issue of The New Yorker, the article The Mitigator by Jeffrey Toobin reported on the decline of the use of the death penalty, particularly in Texas, where defense attorneys have, in the last decade, finally begun to utilize the opportunity to present mitigating evidence to the prosecutor before the charging decision is made. In addition to medical history, MRIs, and character witnesses, an extensive life history is conducted and used to help explain how “'a beloved brother and husband and father and son can also commit a terrible act.’” This enables the jury to have mercy, both on the defendant and the defendant’s family members.

Scharlette Holdman, an anthropologist and “a pioneer in the field” of providing into evidence a mitigation narrative (e.g. for Ted Kaczynski the Unabomber) said, “'That narrative is not there for the asking…It requires not just knowledge and skill but experience in how you search for, identify, locate, recognize, and preserve the information.’” Having read this article, my first thought as an analyst was: who is better to help identify, recognize, and construct a compassionate life story than a psychoanalyst? Forensic work is not my favorite, but it seems to me that the mitigation narrative screams out for the skill of the psychoanalyst, especially one with experience in childhood traumas, who is an expert in co-constructing a compelling story of a person’s life and is able “to create a complex portrait of a haunted and troubled defendant.”

The article featured Danalynn Recer, a Texas attorney and defense strategist for capital cases, who is quoted as saying, “'I don’t apologize for saying I love my clients in all their complexity. We insist on seeing their humanity despite what they’ve done.'” Now couldn’t that also be said by analysts about their clients/patients?

Thursday, June 2, 2011

ParentWise by Loren Buckner

Tampa psychotherapy colleague Loren Buckner, MSW, is author of ParentWise: The Emotional Challenges of Family Life and How to Deal With Them. ParentWise is a most unusual parenting book in that it does not tell people how to parent but instead explores what it feels like to be a parent. Writing on May 31, 2011 for the Orlando Sentinel as a guest columnist, Buckner shares some thoughts from ParentWise in the article entitled “Lessons from the Anthony trial: Inner reflection can help conflicted parents:

“…There's a risk, though, to pointing our fingers at other so-called "bad" parents. Focusing on their problems can lead to minimizing our own. Most of us admit to a certain amount of everyday anger. But we avoid confronting the deeper feelings, the ones that keep us up at night.

The Anthony case, and others that periodically dominate the news, center on parents who have lost their way. After every tragedy, we wonder: How could something like this possibly happen? This response is problematic, too, because as long as the question remains unfathomable, we can avoid thinking about it seriously.
The truth is we hear about families and children in crisis practically every day. We read about parents who hurt their children and about kids who are violent. To help them deal with their emotions, doctors prescribe antidepressants to kids and parents who are overwhelmed by how they feel and at a loss as to what do about it. Over-eating, under-eating and addictions of varying kinds have become common but unhealthy ways to cope.

This tragic case presents an opportunity to bring to light a painful truth that is hard to admit even in the privacy of our own thoughts, never mind say out loud. Normal, everyday kinds of parents sometimes hate their children.

Hatred feels awful. It fills parents with such unspeakable guilt and shame that hiding this excruciating feeling seems like the only respectable thing to do.

The word "hate," usually believed to be a horrid, immoral emotion, is difficult to use without cringing. Admitting that there are times when we do, in fact, hate being parents or hate our children may seem appalling. However, there's a type of hate that's different from the evil kind.

Like other strong feelings, hate is as much a part of life as any other emotion. Not only is hate a normal feeling, hate and love aren't mutually exclusive. We feel happy and sad, relieved and disappointed, and we feel love and hate, too. Most people have mixed feelings about all sorts of things. Parenthood is no exception. Containing the hate and anger we feel toward the people we love the most — our own children — is one of the most gut-wrenching parts of parenting, making it vital to understand.

Feelings, even disagreeable ones, do not determine our character. How we react and how we interact with others, especially when we're upset, is what's telling. We know in our hearts when something is wrong inside. We need to listen to these feelings instead of drowning them out. Pretending that everything is fine when we're confused and unhappy can lead to serious consequences.

People tend to think they wouldn't feel bad inside if they had stayed married, had a more traditional family, or had more money. Parents believe that somewhere out there are moms and dads who don't suffer with bouts of anger, guilt or self-doubt.

In reality, we all have to learn to manage painful feelings. Individual circumstances vary, but disturbing emotions are an integral part of a family's journey. Feelings, even negative ones, are not character flaws or signs of weakness; they are signs of life.

As parents, we have a responsibility to look into our own personal stories. We need to understand and learn how to cope with the complicated and conflicting feelings we have. Our kids deserve this degree of dedication.

And even if we haven't been committed to a self-reflective parenting style, we can certainly honor Caylee Anthony's memory by developing one now.”

I am grateful to Loren Buckner for sharing her much needed ideas in such an accessible manner for all to read and to the Orlando Sentinel for publishing her work.