Sunday, October 18, 2020

“God Said to Abraham, Kill Me A Son.” - Bob Dylan, Highway 61

Hosted by the Tampa Bay Psychoanalytic Society (TBPS) on Saturday, October 17, 2020, John Auerbach elaborated, in a most delightful presentation, the Old Testament story of Abraham and Isaac, and linked it with Bob Dylan’s [Dylan ne Zimmerman received Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, despite being a known assaulter of women] relationship to his own father [Abraham Zimmerman], as well as with the relationship in general of parents and children. [Thanks to Covid-19, all TBPS Speaker Program meetings are now virtual and so now almost anyone with wifi can attend presentations.] 

One very interesting part of the discussion was introduced by Peter Rudnytsky’s noting of the existentialist Kierkegaard’s ‘teleological suspension of the ethical’ [never acceptable, not even in 'the ends justify the means'] had the group examining Abraham’s dilemma-- unconditional obedience to God’s request to kill Isaac or ethical attention to God’s ‘Thou shalt not kill’ commandment. Recalling [Erich] Fromm, Rudnytsky found “profoundly troubling” any religion that teaches the acceptance of an ideology of authoritarianism and that values obedience to authority above all else. [I was reminded of the evangelical support of an unethical Donald Trump to the ends of a more conservative Supreme Court.]

Auerbach recounted that, after Isaac is spared, there exist no further Bible passages to indicate that Abraham and Isaac  ever spoke again. Imagine, said Jessica Rausch, the trauma to Isaac [ironically, ‘laughter’ in Hebrew] knowing his own father might have killed him. And what if ‘raise him up’ was not raise Isaac up as a sacrificial offering, but rather to raise him up as 'to honor 'him? Abraham’s failure (of character) to protect his son is compared to God’s character in asking Abraham to make such a sacrifice. 

While infanticide/filicide is much more prevalent than parricide, Freud chose the Greek myth of Oedipus to explain the mainstay of sexual development [recall that it is Oedipus’ father Laius who wanted to kill him first]. Auerbach mentions that Freud, in another indication of Freud’s ambivalence about Judaism -- an ambivalence shared by Dylan-- did not choose a Hebraic myth, but a Hellenic one. Anti-semitism in fin de sicle Austria put Freud, despite his success, in a marginalized group; Such groups struggle with self-love over self loathing.

Lastly, in thinking of an authoritarian and powerful God or a loving and just God, Auerbach contrasted the Freudian tripod anonymity, abstinence, and neutrality with the Rogerian triad of empathy, genuineness, and unconditional positive regard. Joseph Assouline wondered if God were not giving Abraham the opportunity to think for himself, or perhaps God had planned to stop Abraham all along, only checking to see how obedient Abraham might be? Is God seeking faith or asking Abraham to ‘wake up?’ The Judaic tradition, Linda Berkowitz reminded us, is continued discussion, a plethora of opinions [think Aron and Henik, Answering a Question with a Question].

TBPS’ next program: November 7, 2020 on Decolonizing the Mind and Anti-Racism literature.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous: Immigration, Trauma, Recognition: "Happy Birthday, Ocean!"

Ocean Vuong, an emigrant at age two from war, is a Vietnamese American poet and novelist who debuted his first novel
On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous (2019, Penguin Press). Voung discusses his book and his experience on Amanpour and Company (aired 10-31-19). Amanpour found it “compelling” and “a poignant ode to marginalized immigrants.” Voung’s novel is written in the form of a letter to his illiterate mother. 

Vuong’s mother cautioned him as an immigrant “to be invisible,””to go out and disappear,”  “to hide yourself in order to protect yourself,” but Vuong “wanted to be known.” He hoped “to honor [his] journey.” On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is semi autobiographical and a coming of age story about a gay man whose family is working its way out of poverty, Vuong was inspired and empowered by Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain

Vuong recalls being put in timeout by his elementary school teacher and being so invisible that she forgot about him. The other students had gone to lunch when she discovers him still seated in the corner. “It is so easy for a small yellow child to vanish. The hard work, the real work that requires innovation, is to be known,” says Vuong. He found that being an artist is a powerful way to be known.

A lonely boy in Hartford, CT, Vuong wrote his own poems. His teacher thought Vuong had plagiarized them. “It was terrifying to be in trouble for your imagination.” But he also had never felt so respected and feared [for] being “unfathomable.” He notes the two stereotypes of Asian Americans: the math whiz (genetic) and the musical prodigy (from “the unjust (and inhumane) parenting of tiger moms” as if not the musician’s own agency), [see Eng and Han's 2000 paper A Dialogue on Racial Melancholy on the 'model minority'] “and always in service of … European music”  To be an Asian American artist creating original works is “inconceivable” to other.

His mother and grandmother suffered with PTSD and Vuong grew up surrounded by the pervasive violence found in his mostly black and brown neighborhood, with its police brutality, and violence in his home, even toward him. He saw “that anger was the death of creativity and innovation...Anger is a force that extinguishers the wielder as well as the world....As a writer, as a thinker I am most useful to myself and my world when I ask ‘Now, what?...How do we change what happened to us into how we live better?’“

Friday, August 28, 2020

The Power of Voices

I wanted to mark the 57th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

On August 28th, 1963, African Americans, and others, voted with their feet when 250,000 strong participated in the March. Civil rights leaders protested racial discrimination and demonstarted support for the civil rights legislation in Congress at the time. [The Civil Rights Act was signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964.] Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech was given on this date from the Lincoln Memorial. 

This week, in support of protestors marching for Black Lives Matter following the shooting (seven times in the back) of 29 year old Jacob Blake by a police officer in Wisconsin and the subsequent death of two and the wounding of another protestor (allegedly by a ‘Blue Lives Matter’ seventeen year old), professional athletes in soccer, football, baseball, and hockey used their voices in massive protest, unlike any heretofore, by refusing to play or by postponing games and cancelling practices. Ray Allen, former NBA player for the Milwaukee Bucks and Basketball Hall of Famer, told PBS Newshour’s John Yang yesterday August 27, “[N]ow we understand the power we possess.”

I might add from Corinthians 13:1 (Good News translation) I may be able to speak the languages of human beings and even of angels, but if I have not love, my speech is no more than a noisy gong or a clanging bell.

Monday, August 24, 2020

About the Voice

On August 18, 2020 I posted, on the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, about women having fought to obtain the voice of the vote. This led me to thinking about the voice in a more concrete way, in particular, when a patient’s voice is very loud, or productive, or seemingly pressured, patients who seem not to expect a dialogue with us or to let up ‘get a word in edgewise.’ A colleague complained to me about his patient’s very loud voice, shouting in the session such that she gave him a headache. He and I talked about the possibility that she had a great longing to be heard, having had a mother who would never listen to her. My colleague chose to ‘lean into’ her need to be heard, and even sometimes to muse aloud about this need of hers.

Another colleague of mine became annoyed with her patient with whom she had to struggle to get a word in, and to struggle to go from the patient’s complaints about external events to the patient’s internal longings. My colleague was tempted to interpret the patient’s seeming incapacity to be in dialogue with another and to let the patient know how left out from a dialogue she, the therapist, felt. Instead, my colleague decided to speak to the possible longings this behavior of the patient’s might be communicating. Perhaps the patient, like a loud patient, might have a great longing to get her story out, that is, to be heard, and had, in addition, the fear and expectation (learned from childhood experience) that a listener’s attention could not really be held for long and so the speaker better get in as much as possible before the listener 'disappeared.’ 

Childhood may teach us (and become a relational paradigm) that listeners disappear: A mother who is starting to give us attention, but then is distracted away by her other children, her own worries, or by her dissociated unresolved trauma. Caregivers may tell us to go away, that they don’t have time for us. They may teach us we are not really deserving of being listened to, or that we are boring, by pretending to listen while not really giving their full attention (e.g. while on the phone). Perhaps worse is to have had our parents dismiss our feelings and points of view such that we feel misrecognized and misunderstood, never heard.

An analytic attitude listens with heartfelt attention, allowing the patient the experience of being ‘a child of the universe [with] ... a right to be here.’ Another colleague told me how a particular patient would not stop talking at the end of a session, as if to “grab” the therapist, sometimes running over twenty minutes! I was reminded of children I have seen in play therapy who, when the parent calls for them at the end of a session, throw their arms around my legs and not want to leave. I notice aloud their attachment, let them know I will hold them in my mind, and that I will be here next time. Sometimes, because of our experience together, they know that to be true.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

100 year anniversary of 19th Amendment’s ratification

There is no democracy without enfranchisement of all its citizens, and without the vote, there is no voice. [The voiceless are made helpless, vulnerable to depression and dissociation, and/or resentment and revenge.] The 19th Amendment enfranchised women, the right to vote giving voice to the speechless. [Psychotherapy strives to give voice, to enfranchise the speechless, empower the voiceless, to bring to fruition an individual’s potential.] This 100th anniversary is bittersweet; joy for the hard fought victory, anger that disenfranchisement lasted so long. [Our patients, too, may lament that it took so long to arrive at our offices where they work together with us to arrive at a stronger sense of themselves.] 

Woodrow Wilson had declared, “Liberty is the fundamental demand of the human spirit.” The suffragists he initially opposed replied-- with their daily picketing outside the White House,

led by Alice Paul--, “How long must women wait for liberty?” These women, demonstrating in nonviolent civil disobedience through the winter and into the fall of 1917, were jeered, called Bolsheviks by journalists, physically assaulted, attacked, arrested, jailed and beaten, [much like Black Lives Matter demonstrators are today]. When it became politically expedient, and after years of persuasion (the carrot) from the then president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association Carrie Chapman Catt, along with many months of embarrassment (the stick) by Paul and her sister demonstrators about his hypocrisy of America’s so called democracy with half its citizens unable vote, Wilson supported in November 1917 New York’s amendment to its state constitution for women’s full suffrage.

The Resolution for Amendment 19 came before the U.S. House of Representatives, gaining the required two thirds majority, and passing on May 21, 1919. One Representative left his wife’s death bed to, at her behest, vote ‘aye’ and then returned home to her funeral. The U.S. Senate passed it on June 4, 1919 by one vote over the needed two-thirds majority. Three-quarters of the states were needed to pass an amendment to the U.S. Constitution (in 1920, that was 36 out of the then 48 states).  All the southern states failed to pass, some would not even consider, the 19th amendment--black women voting would lessen their hold on white supremacy-- making ratification impossible, all except for Tennessee (its governor was a friend of Wilson’s). Tennessee was the necessary 36th state to approve, by one vote over the needed two-thirds majority, the 19th Amendment. After over 70 years* of activism, twenty million women finally won the vote, thanks, in part, to a mother who told her Tennessee State Representative son he’d better vote for women’s suffrage. The ratification of the 19th Amendment was a huge step toward realizing the United States’ potential.

*First Convention for Woman’s Rights held in 1848, in Seneca Falls, NY -- with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott and Frederick Douglas in attendance. Black women’s suffrage groups had the motto “Lifting as we climb.

The 19th amendment reads, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Psychoanalysis as Education -Adam Phillips

In his 2004 essay Psychoanalysis As Education Adam Phillips draws fascinating parallels between Lenin and Freud. He writes that Lenin, through education of the proletariat about Marxism, hoped to make conscious their exploitation by the bourgeoisie, while Freud hoped to make conscious unconscious desire. Both the working masses and the psychoanalytic patient were apparently leading lives dictated by things outside their conscious awareness. Both needed to be educated by an omniscient, if somewhat inflexible, other to pay attention to their particular blindspots. Phillips writes, “Education, like psychoanalysis and politics, is the art of attention seeking.” 

Lenin believed in education and pedagogy as a force of change -- for revolution -- despite the irony that education was also considered bourgeois. To benefit, people would then need to be malleable. While it is true that we can have a powerful effect on one another, Lenin did not seem to consider the idiosyncrasies of human desire. Freud, however, was very interested in desire. Freud’s understanding of the peculiar desires of individuals may have been the outcome from and the development of free association. Unlike traditional Leninist education (inform and get outcome), psychoanalysis’ “Free association is at once a new kind of information about the self, and a new way of learning about the self…[with] no preformed content [and] no predictable outcome.”

Phillips sees psychoanalysis as a contribution to the debate on education (more than to medicine) for it is “an opportunity to explore the ways in which people inform each other.” Why, for example, do patients not make use of the new knowledge presented to them? Phillips says it is because annoying interpretations may be experienced as impositions or ‘impingements’ (Winnicott) or, worse, as trauma. He also notes, as Freud did, that the object of desire, along with suffering and stasis, is the past and its forbidden objects of desire. [I prefer to think that people do not seek suffering but connection, and they have learned through experience that suffering is the price paid for connection. I also think of Bromberg’s ‘staying the same while changing,’ that is, that patients, while expanding and acquiring new parts of themselves, do not wish to lose the former parts of themselves, even the sad and dysfunctional parts. Thus, we need the old and the new in conversation with one another, held in tension.]  

Phillips [questions] whether psychoanalysis is free from persuasion and suggestion, yet sees the analyst as a new, different kind of teacher, “A teacher who does something that lets the patient let himself know about himself.” Phillips also questions Freud’s analogy of the psychoanalyst as teacher, superior, a lover of truth, and, thus, exempt from sham and deceit. Freud saw psychoanalysis as an education meant to overcome resistance. Freud said psychoanalysis was an “after-education,” unlearning (resistances) and relearning (satisfactions). Respectively, life is risks evaded and risks courted, says Phillips.

Phillips remains loyal to traditional psychoanalysis when he writes, “If there is a subject of psychoanalysis it is whatever obstructs speaking and listening.” [Traditionally, the obstructions were ‘resistances’ and the purview of defense analysis by ego psychologists. But perhaps Phillips intends a broader array of obstructions: the dissociation of the analyst? the lack of developing a ‘secure base’ from which to explore the inner world?] Contemporary and elegant, he adds, “Listening to speak and listen...experiments with wanting and being wanted, because wanting and being wanted are always an experiment. But unlike scientific experiments they can never be replicated.”

Phillips does note, as he says Freud noted, that “love is the greatest educator” -- even forbidden incestuous love has something to teach -- and this love as teacher is in keeping with parenting, and with research in education which shows that students learn better when they like their teachers and when their teachers like and believe them to be educable.

Monday, June 22, 2020


Artist Tucker Nichols of San Raphael, California appeared on the PBSNewshour  Arts and Culture series CANVAS on 5-8-20. He spoke of how the experience of being sick is isolating so he sends flowers, paintings of flowers, that is, from loved ones of sick people. In this time of Corona, he has had so many requests, he now has to post pictures of his paintings of flowers on line:

  He writes:    
  Flowers for the ventilator operators
        Flowers for the hospital janitors
        Flowers for the bare handed mail carrier      
        Flowers for the neighbor who sits in her window on patrol
        Flowers for elastic waistbands
        Flowers for the dishwasher
        Flowers for for you if you are the dishwasher
        Flowers for someone who left in an ambulance but still no update
        Flowers for the kids who are realizing none of the grown ups know how this is going to play out
        Flowers for the frazzled woman at the post office directing the other customers to maintain their six foot perimeters while trying to keep her place in line
        Flowers for New York City
        Flowers for anyone in any hospital for any reason
        Flowers for your mother
        Flowers for anyone stuck at home without flowers today

Monday, June 8, 2020

Letter to Colleagues on recent events

Dear members of TBPS,

Writing this, I notice it is difficult to find the right words, a sound interpretation for the events that have recently taken place. Perhaps it is not about having the right words or interpretation but listening and bearing witness that is of importance. As psychoanalysts and psychoanalytic psychotherapists, we seek to understand. We seek to hold, contain, and transmute what is brought to the therapy session so that others may grow. It is our duty to bear witness to the pain, suffering, feelings of betrayal and rage following the recent killings of members of the black community and the intergenerational trauma the black community has faced. It is our duty to look within ourselves, at our privilege, our preconceived notions, our biases, at our countertransference and transference, in the face of such tragedy. Lastly, it is our duty to bring what is in darkness into the light (“where id was there ego shall be”), despite the difficult conversations it may create. Through these difficult conversations we can affect our community. If ever there was a time, this is the time to do what we do best: listen, empathize, and support to create change.

Below you will find a link to the American Psychoanalytic Association’s statement regarding racism and recent events:

Warm regards,

Joseph Assouline, Psy.D.
Tampa Bay Psychoanalytic Society, President-Elect

Friday, May 8, 2020

Identification with father is not 'penis envy'

Benjamin brings feminist and gender theories to traditional psychoanalytic theory by tackling the problematic concept  of penis envy. She reinterprets the Freudian concept of "penis envy” by noting that a little girl bulwarks her striving for agency and subjectivity by identifying with the father -- classically thought of as the ‘wish to be masculine.’ She posits that the female (and male) child identifies with the preoedipal father as the idealized subject who possesses agency and desire separate from the mother’s.  Identification with the father and the otherness he represents is a normal developmental step for children of both sexes. [Freud’s idea that penis envy is the sine qua non of female sexual development is a gross error in his attempts to understand female development. Note that terms such as penis envy or phallus are androcentric.]   

Possession of otherness by the father has been conflated with the possession of the penis, phallic power. The penis  becomes a symbol for the girl’s wish to be like the father in subjectivity and the wish that the father recognize the child as a like subject. It is the failure of the preoedipal father to recognize and welcome the girl’s (and boy’s) normatively developmental need to identify with the father --and not the little girl's realization of anatomical difference--that leads to penis envy. This failure by father risks later impairment of the girl’s subjectivity and agency and may lead to later masochistic submission to an idealized male. This disallowal of identification is also a disallowal of cross sex identifications and, as such, limits the richness available from multiply gendered identifications and expressions.

In the TBIPS Gender course there is much coming to terms with gender fluidity and being comfortable with the unfamiliar. Euripides Gravas noted that identification denied leads to envy. Jennifer Schafer mused about the possible multiple configurations of genders available as parental figures. Stamatina Kaidantzi explained that it is not the sex or gender identification of the non-caregiver parent but it is the otherness, the separateness from the caregiver, with all the comings and goings from home, that propels the preoedipal child’s wish --akin to the ‘love affair with the world' -- to identify with that other parent. Even in the absence of a second parent, that otherness exists. In addition to the caregiver/mother’s ability to ‘survive’ -- which, according to Winnicott, places her outside the fantasized omnipotent control of the infant and makes her external and a subject in her own right, and thus worthy also of identification -- the father may well be a solidifying identification for the child’s agency and desire, that is, for her subjectivity. Little girls do not feel inferior and certainly not because they are different from father; they just want to be different from mother while still retaining likeness.

Benjamin, J. (1991). Father and Daughter: Identification with Difference — A Contribution to Gender Heterodoxy. Psychoanal. Dial., 1(3):277-299.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Quarantimes and the After Times

In these ‘Quarantimes’ we long for the ‘Before Times’ and anxiously wonder what the ‘After Times’ hold for us. One author, Kelly Corrigan, on the PBSNewsHour April 29, 2020 in the feature “IMHO,” said about our future: 

    Sometimes, when I feel outmatched by the thing in front of me, … I tell myself the story of what happened as if it’ s over and I nailed it. … I told myself the story of the pandemic of 2020...: At first it was awful, nothing but bad news on top of bad news. But, then, we rose up. We made soups and stews for old people, and dropped them off so they felt included and secure and nourished. We read books to children over the internet. We stepped outside at the end of the day and played music and clapped so that each of us knew we were not alone. We sent pizzas and Chinese food to E.R.s to sustain both our hospitals and our restaurants. We called old friends and told them things we’d forgotten to say. ‘I miss you;’ ‘ I still think of you;’ ‘ Remember that time?’ 
    We turned up, allof us, on our screens to keep businesses afloat and, in so doing, were exposed to the more tender elements of our colleagues’ lives. Pets and children were now, to our mutual benefit, in the frame. People figured out they didn’t need fancy equipment to exercise. We stopped flying around and jumping in cars for no reason. Everyone planted things they could eat. We played cards with our families. We had long conversations. We identified what kind of learning can be delivered on line. We discovered that teaching is the most complex, high impact profession known to man, and we started compensating our teachers fairly for their irreplaceable work.* Everyone voted after Corona virus. Kids who lived through the virus valued science above all. They became researchers and doctors, kicking off the greatest period of world positive discovery and innovation the planet has ever seen. We came, finally and forever, to appreciate the profound fact of our shared humanity and relish the full force of our love for one another. 

*[I would add that not only teachers, but other essential workers, such as food workers and suppliers, first responders and frontliners, sanitation workers and many more--most who are among the lowest paid-- will also be compensated fairly at the level they really deserve.]