Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Worst of Human Nature from one of the Best Filmmakers

Nominated for Best PictureThe Wolf of Wall Street, based on the autobiography of Jordan Belfort, a stockbroker who capitalized on money laundering and fraud, stars Leonardo DiCaprio in a manic performance as Belfort, and is directed by Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas, The Departed for which this oft nominated director won the Oscar).  The scene where DiCaprio, almost decerebrate from excess quaaludes, is hysterical (Jerry Lewis couldn’t have done it better), and at the same time we are sickened by Belfort’s relentlessly heinous debauchery.

Were it not so hilariously farcical, the film would be too painful to watch. It is like a car wreck from which one cannot avert one’s eyes. What is mangled here is the better angels of our nature. This wolf is ravenous, rapacious. Additionally, there is the sickening awareness behind the humor of what is going on outside the movie theatre: the growing gap between haves and have nots widening, ever widening. This country’s new robber barons are on Wall Street and Belfort narrates for you how they do it. This movie is not about transformation. There is no real redemption, for Belfort or for the country. Deregulation and SEC’s failure to enforce allows human avarice to run amuck, and this true story disheartens. Likewise, the commodities traded here include women and I think ‘woe to the republic.’

The lure of drugs and sex and the power of money all too easily make us lose our bearings. I would like to imagine that  perhaps people who fall off the edge into the abyss of avarice and gluttony never had any (bearings) to begin with, never knew fulfillment of any magnitude inside themselves and so sought it outside themselves, the bigger the inner hole, the bigger the need for external highs. But who among us would not be seduced?

I have this theory about drug addictions: In infancy and toddlerhood the brain is developing rapidly. Experiences of recognition and effectiveness and mutuality develop the parts of our brain that produce feel good chemicals like dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, and endogenous opioids. Lack of such experiences leaves our brain deficient in the capacity to produce such chemicals. Then one day we stumble across alcohol or cocaine or marijuana and suddenly we feel something we’ve missed, normal, good. Who wouldn’t want to feel that way as often as possible?

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Ethical, Compassion, and Complexity in Psychoanalysis

With a sense of social responsibility members of the Tampa area psychoanalytic community have developed and maintain initiatives that respond to the need of the other, supporting veterans’ families, for example. These colleagues serve without fanfare and invite us all to contribute. They may not experience it this way, but I believe their work in this regard belongs to the ethical, and suggest also that this personal inclination to the good informs and supports their psychoanalytic work.

In the larger psychoanalytic community as well, the turn to the ethical seems increasingly well established. Psychoanalysts and others, many inspired by Neil Altman’ pioneering work, are involving themselves and their writing with Palestinian-Israeli troubles, with transgender, with the undocumented, with whiteness and gross inequality, with class differences understood from below. Important voices in American relational psychoanalysis (Adrienne Harris, Eyal Rozmarin, Melanie Suchet) are now seriously engaging with the work of Emmanuel Lévinas. Likewise, in 2011 Donna Orange formally incorporated into psychoanalysis an “ethics beyond ethics”as an inherent dimension of her Hermeneutics of Trust. And the discourse of asymmetrical responsibility has appeared also in the psychoanalytic literature in the work of Adrienne Harris and Warren Poland. Also in 2011 two interdisciplinary conferences, including many psychoanalysts, took place: Psychology for the Other in Cambridge, MA, and Bystanders No More in New York City.

I have always understood Jessica Benjamin’s work, psychoanalytic and otherwise, as belonging to the ethical with her efforts to help liberate us from domination-submission forms of relatedness so we can flourish. Extending Benjamin’s and Judith Butler’s work, relational psychoanalyst, philosopher, and feminist theoretician Lisa Baraitser in London suggests that in Lévinas’ ethics, responsibility redefines recognition. After the birth of her first child, Baraitser began to ask “How do we take responsibility for the other (the infant) prior to the possibility of recognition by that other?”, and to point out that in maternal encounters (the
title of her book) the maternal subject tends to collapse in the face of the need of the fragile and developing child. As therapists we may experience something similar in the face of the need of the devastated child in our adult traumatized patients, like the ones Lauren Levine presented.

Respect for the asymmetrical responsibility to respond to the need of the other is, in part, what places our psychoanalytic work in the realm of the ethical. The clinical accounts Levine shared with us brilliantly illustrate what this looks like in practical terms.

I have suggested already that in these cases, she conducted a minimally theoretical psychoanalysis, a therapy by understanding, especially emotional understanding, that seeks to promote comprehension and to heal by participation in the emotional life of her patients. Levine is able and willing to enter the patient’s suffering and share the painful history, willing and able to “undergo the situation”with the other.

In so doing Levine’s work highlights another dimension of what makes psychoanalysis an ethical undertaking: compassion. Not pity, condescension, or mindless or inauthentic “making nice,” compassion may be experienced by the analyst as a relentless desire to accompany and to understand.

An emergent property of well-attuned relational systems just as hostility and contempt seem as if naturally to characterize others, compassion is both process and attitude. Etymologically compassion means ‘to suffer with.’ Our traumatized patients often feel crushed by a sense of futility. When we suffer with them, and struggle together to make sense of it, their suffering can begin to acquire meaning. Lévinas argues, moreover, that responding to the need of the other is precisely what brings us into subjectivity, into being.

Attention to complexity and its attendant fallibilistic attitude are other components of what one might term Levine’s compassionate psychoanalysis. “I don’t care what you think is only my opinion that counts...!”, or words to that effect roared the patient in response Levine’s spontaneous joy about the painting the patient had selected to buy. Knowing that patient and analyst are so intricately, so complexly related, even though stunned and hurt by her patient’s rebuff, in a fallibilistic spirit Levine reached out to her patient for contact. These matters are usually more complex than we have ever realized and there was more work to be
done to find out what happened.

Respectful of her patient’s suffering, Levine accompanied her patiently and without too much knowing, managing to stay engaged in dialogue with her, to good ends: in the process of transacting this rupture in the following session, perhaps in dawning recognition of Levine’s hurt, the patient said something like– “I don’t know why I feel like crying”!

A compassionate attitude may enable hitherto unknown and impossible ways of experiencing. As process, psychoanalytic compassion perhaps can be understood as a form of emotional understanding.

As emotional availability, psychoanalytic compassion may be what empowers our willingness to accompany patients to the deepest circles of their experiential hell. Not moral masochism on the part of the analyst, nor to be contrasted properly with psychoanalytic work, psychoanalytic compassion is the implicit interpretive gesture of reaching out to embrace our patient in a sustained, even relentless, struggle to find an understanding.

To state it briefly: a compassionate response to the suffering of others is an ethical imperative, and, as it brings us into subjectivity, it adds meaning to our lives; a humble life in the service of the other is our ethical vocation; psychoanalysis becomes an ethical pursuit when we learn to notice and to care for psychological fragility; the primary and fundamental task of psychoanalysis is relief of suffering; commitment to relief of suffering is our fundamental therapeutic vocation; we are called, summoned, addressed, and responsible even
when we are unsure what this address means; our work belongs to the ethical, to the vocational. For me all this is implied in the work Levine shared with us.

In her post of February 9th appended, Lycia Alexander-Guerra cogently writes: “I have read a few papers in my time, but none quite like Levine’s. Her voice is unique; it transcends theory. In a feat of lived, not
theorized, relationality and intersubjectivity, Levine’s papers are as much about her experience as about her patient’s.” Indeed. I believe Lauren Levine was as emotionally available to us, her audience, and will be to her readers later on, as she is to her patients. Such emotional availability may be what makes it possible for her to so powerfully convey her work. It may also be the reason why we established indeed a shared humanness enriching one another!

Ernesto Vasquez, M.D.

See other comments posted to the blog of the Tampa Bay Institute for Psychoanalytic Studies, Inc by this author under the February 9, 2014 post titled ‘Mutual Vulnerability’

Sunday, February 9, 2014


In April 2008 at the American Psychological Association, Division 39 (psychoanalytic division) meeting I first heard Lauren Levine, PhD, who was a candidate at the time, present a paper weaving her experience as a mom with that of her analysand’s. There was something so moving and so singular about her presentation that I immediately invited her to Tampa to speak to our local psychoanalytic society. And in 2010 she presented two papers in Tampa, both papers subsequently published. She is guest faculty at the Tampa Bay Institute for Psychoanalytic Studies, Inc and when I found out she had written another paper, I asked her to share it with us. On February 8, 2014 she presented her latest works to the Tampa Bay Psychoanalytic Society, Inc.

I have read a few papers in my time, but none quite like Levine’s. Her voice is unique; it transcends theory.  In a feat of lived, not theorized, relationality and intersubjectivity, Levine’s papers are as much about her experience as about her patient’s.  In her mindful disclosures to her patients, she reflects to them, in her eyes, themselves, deepening connection and expanding the space for creativity, for herself and her patient, and opens the possibility for desire and greater aliveness. There is reparation and resilience, and transformation ensues. In "A mutual survival of destructiveness and its creative potential for agency and desire," Levine demonstrates how destruction became an agent of change.

I have often stated to supervisees that I feel myself with certain patients holding on to the rim of the abyss, dangling there by one hand, holding the patient, whose weight threatens to pull me down, with the other. I am torn to breaking. I know I must join the patient in the abyss and I know to do so will be the end of us both. Levine, too, describes standing on the edge, trying to pull the patient out of the abyss, feeling too frightened to join him there. There is great shame for us, the therapist, to have doubts about our competency so triggered. It collides with our past vulnerabilities of childhood helplessness and ineffectualness. But, as Levine notes, no matter how difficult it is to find a shared humanity we reach out nonetheless to the disparaging other, knowing that it is in the fidelity to the shared process that hope lies.  

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Humor and Affiliation: Nebraska

Nebraska, directed by Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendents) is a refreshing surprise. It is my favorite pick. Unassuming, shot in black and white (cinematographer Phedon Papamichael), with luscious views of the plains states, or plain states to some: cows, rolled hay bales, small towns and lonesome barns, it made me laugh! even more than the absurdity of American Hustle or the eerie quirkiness of Her. But its unexpected humor, like Garrison Keiller’s Lake Wobegon, grabs us at our most human, and we nod with the knowingness of lost tenderness.

Original screenplay by Bob Nelson, Nebraska is a road trip rich in characters, compassion and raw humor. An aging Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), with declining cognitive function who is no longer allowed to drive, so fervently believes himself to be the million dollar winner of a magazine marketing sweepstakes that he is willing to walk to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his winnings even as his harridan wife Kate (June Squibb) and his two sons try to convince him the letter is a scam. On their journey there is a stop in Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska, where avaricious family and former friends, a felon nephew, and  the truth according to Kate-- whose forthright and funny commentary is Oscar worthy— do not dissuade but initially embolden Woody on his quixotic quest.

We like Woody’s younger son David (Will Forte) right off. It is not just his nuanced ‘porcelain prince’ face, or that his former live-in girlfriend does not look like a Barbie, or even that, like Judge Reinhold’s character in Ruthless People (no one had more ruth), he sells stereo equipment. David carries within him a compassion for his flawed father, and his earnest search for answers from a father who has none, his unflagging willingness to forgive his father’s previous failings and bring Woody a little happiness in his last years cinch for us David’s understated heroism. We wonder from where did David receive his bounty of compassion.

Even this graceless age of economic hard times and ruthless every-man-for-himself mentality cannot obscure the understanding of kinship by a son for his undeserving father. It is not from Woody that David receives any answers. David nonetheless learns things about Woody from those who knew him back when – there is a glance between Woody and his former girlfriend (Angela McEwan), and what might have been, that is hauntingly wistful. The film score by the reunited Tin Hat adds well to the mood of the film. David protecting the dignity of his father is a peerless grace in an age devoid of it. If all the other Best Pic nominations echo contemporary alienation, selfishness, and indifference, Nebraska reminds us of our communal and filial bonds.

Nebraska is nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actress, Cinematography and Original Screenplay.