Monday, March 30, 2009

Couples: Otto Kernberg on Mature Love Relationships and Carla Leone on Treating Couples Using a Self and Intersubjective Approach

The Tampa Bay community has had a wealth of thought about Couples lately. On February 14, 2009, The Tampa Bay Psychoanalytic Society hosted Otto Kernberg, MD, who gave a descriptive account of nine features he sees as essential to the capacity for a mature love relationship. He described a mature love relationship as one where each partner has achieved sexual freedom with genital primacy as organizer; the ability to tolerate normal ambivalence (love with aggression); a sustained capacity to have interest in and emotional intimacy with/sexual longing for; and to respect the partner as whole object instead of narcissistically gratifying part object.

The nine phenomena elaborated were: 1. an interest in the life project of another (without incapacitating envy); 2. basic trust (a reciprocal ability to be open and honest, even about one’s own faults); 3. a capacity for authentic forgiveness (versus masochistic submission or denial of aggression); 4. humility and gratitude; 5. a common ego ideal as a joint life project; 6. mature dependency (a willingness to receive help without shame, fear, or guilt and to give help; and a fair distribution of tasks and responsibilities; versus power struggles where blaming about who is right, who is wrong leads to mutual frustration); 7. permanence of sexual passion (to love other with changing body and physical imperfections) requiring resolution of the Oedipal conflict; 8. acceptance of loss, jealousy, and boundary protection (accept that the other can not love us in exactly same way as we love them); and 9. love and mourning (when loss by death or disruption of life project allows for full appreciation of whom lost, leading to acceptance of love for new partner without guilt or insecurity.)

On March 21, 2009, the Tampa Bay Psychoanalytic Society featured Carla Leone, PhD, for a full day workshop on treatment of couples from a Self-Intersubjective point of reference. Leone highlighted four goals applicable to both partners in Couples treatment:

1) Strengthening the Self (of both). These include self-esteem and affect regulation, as well as mentalizing (ala Fonagy and Target). Leone does this by equal (easier said than done) empathic immersion. Each partner must hear that the therapist understands her/him from within her/his own perspective/subjectivity. She uses Fossaghy’s subject centered listening.

2) Explicitly illuminating the self-object needs of each. The therapist offers her/his self as a self object for what is needed at the moment, attuned to the self state of each partner. This can be done using heightened affective moments ‘Can you stay there a little longer?’

3) Illuminating the patterns that prevent each from getting needs met. As implicit relational models on how-to-be-with-an-other are learned, and as defenses are self-protective (once the Self is strengthened, defenses are less useful or less necessary), Leone invites a partner to mentalize (think about the mental life of the other) ‘Do you have a theory about why your partner is being aggressive?’ and illuminates organizing principles and their repetitive dimension. She notes how one partner may participate in or co-create these patterns because ‘that is what they know.’

4) Facilitating new relationship experiences (not just words) between partners, and between each partner and the therapist. Leone coaches and directs, without shaming, each partner to ask or tell the other partner what is needed and how the message might optimally be delivered.

S.E. FL Assoc. Psychoanalytic Psychology (SEFAPP) will also provide “Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Couple TherapySaturday, April 18th, 2009 8:30 AM to 12:30 PM in Hollywood, FL at Memorial Regional Hospital, Auditorium A, B, C & D, 3501 Johnson Street, Hollywood, FL 33021. Presenters: Glenn E. Good, Ph.D. Leonard J. Ferrante, Psy.D., NCSP
questions, please call SEFAPP at 954-597-0820 or via email at

Vehicles of Expression

Walking is the predominant method of getting around during the New Orleans festival of “Super Sunday.” The Mardi Gras Indian tribes and a host of Mardi Gras icons such as the Skeletons, the Baby Dolls, the Second Liners, and the Jazz bands, parade through their neighborhood streets until they arrive at Taylor Park where the Indians will be admired by the waiting crowds who have been dancing, drinking, eating, and preening in front of each other for hours.

Psychoanalysts are trained to explore the motivations behind why standard practices are in fact standard, or the norm. Their training also prepares them to inquire about the practices that deviate from the norm.

On Super Sunday, I was enthralled by the opulence of the Indian costumes. But also present for admiration were the men who had turned their cars into automotive theatre. My attention was drawn, first to the flamboyantly decorated automobiles, and then to the general issue of those who were getting around by means other than walking and those at the festival who were signaling their use of vehicles either by riding on them or pulling them. These included bikes, strollers, scooters, horses, motorcycles, trucks, ‘floats,’ and even shopping carts.

By sheer force of numbers, men were far more likely to be associated with the use of alternative methods of moving about the parade route and the Park. There were men displaying their artfully designed cars; men selling Bar-B-Que from the back of their trucks; men unloading Indian headdresses from flatbeds; and men motoring down the parade route in assisted devices.

Everywhere I looked, if there were people engaged in other forms of transportation than walking, it would be men: on horses, on motorcycles, and on bicycles. It is not that women don’t do all these things; it’s that they don’t do them there, at Super Sunday festival.
Each year, The Mardi Gras Indian Council and R.E.A.L. (Recreating The Environmental Ability to Live) sponsor “Super Sunday.” It is ordinarily in March on a Sunday near St. Joseph’s feast day. The festival begins at 11:00 a.m. Taylor Park @ Washington Ave. and S. Derbigny where crowds can be entertained by the Mardi Gras Indian Tribes and artists such as Big Al Carson. The Indians begin their procession @ Washington Ave. and LaSalle St. and walk to Taylor Park.

While women, men, transvestites, queer people, masked people, politicians, social activists, tourists, and locals all mingle with the performers, Super Sunday is an event of masculine prowess, creativity, sexuality, transcendence and dominance. No where is this better illustrated than in the comparison between “men’s wheels” and “women’s wheels.”

In his article "Emotional Aspects of Motoring," psychoanalyst Gerald Grumet (1989) suggests that when we are driving, "obsolete childhood struggles are revived and displaced onto our cars, streets, and highways and can involve the “full range of human interactions and emotions." People transfer their emotions about others unto vehicles because of "symbolic resemblances" and can direct aggression of fear to dominating 'parental' rivals such as trucks and buses. Vehicles he conjectures, enable us to use motoring as a way to address our needs for power, control, dominance, in addition, to defense of our territory, opposition to those who oppose us, and even feelings of escape, freedom and release.

It might be said that the desire to standout through a creative product have propelled mostly men to flamboyantly alter their cars. As they stand by their cars and meet the steady stream of admirers, it is not hard to speculate that some feelings may be derived of having gained "love and admiration," satisfaction of having successfully competed, or relief or momentary release from feelings of inferiority. Pleasure can be derived when we are able to signal that we can "confront high speeds, and danger and in doing so," we feel a sense of being released, or of having escaped and that we are freed; are able to achieve. We can also express our sexual or aggressive urges" (Grumet, 1989).

Recent writings on the psychoanalytic theory of masculine identity development include the role of the mother, in addition to the father as a catalyst for the construction a boy's gender role identity. In the past, it was the boy’s identification with his father and his dis-identification with his mother that analysts believed would put the boy on the path to the development of an acceptable masculinity.

As analysts have turned to feminist theory to widen the scope of their understanding of gender formation, gender expression, gender fluidity and disavowal, they have begun to see that the boy’s relationship to his mother creates a life-long yearning to either be with her or be with what she provides (Grumet, 1989): nurturance, affirmation, and adoration.

On Super Sunday, men are able to express a range of subjectivities and are given carte blanche on what affect, desire, or boundary crossing they display.

Women on the other hand are "walkers" or "strollers." Baby carriages and women’s bodies are literally collapsed into the maternal. Hypersexualized women, following an aesthetic that is strongly regional, push strollers as their voluptuous bodies reek of archetypal fertility and availability.

The women with their strollers are ambulatory memorials to bygone days when the men were babies and moved by what Grumet (1989) has described as "mother-powered transportation." Moving without propelling one's induces a sense of euphoria. The contradiction of the "forward movement without effortless motion releases thrill and excitement."

Boys are coerced throughout their childhoods to separate from their mothers least they be known as "momma’s boys," or as a "pussy, sissy or faggot." Psychoanalyst, Michael Diamond (2006) writes that in acquiescing to social pressure to disindentify with the mother, boys lose "a large part of their dyadic connection and pressured to repudiate what he has loss. So, not only is he forced to cut his ties with his mother and lose access to those emotional and physical ministrations and nurturing she provided, but he must devalue what she offered him" and what he has now lost access to in his quest to become a man who is socially approved of.

Throughout their lives, men mourn the “trauma” of being separated from their mother and the security, protection, and adulation she provided. Diamond writes that “he may feel emotionally abandoned without being aware of it . . ., while experiencing his identification with his mother as shameful. This is often manifested in defensive efforts against neediness . . . . and men come to behave like “impenetrable citadels.”
As men allow themselves to slip back in time and slip across bounded identities to become Indians, Skeletons, drivers of hot rods, masters of horses, conductors of motorized vehicles-- they become creators. They create the world of the mother and infant through an abundance of food, the extravagance of costuming/layering, the communal rituals of having a trusted other help dress them; by producing the soothing rhythms of the music, by facilitating a profusion of entertainment choices, and through a glut of readily available intimacy and sex.

From a consideration of vehicles on display on Super Sunday, I would suggest that it is a male dominated space in which men’s unconscious desires for dominance, freedom, and an expanded sense of self (i.e., to be more than an ordinary man) are given full sway.

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Diamond, M. J. (2006). Masculinity Unraveled: The Roots of Male Gender Identity and Shifting Male Ego Ideals Throughout Life. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 54,1099-1130.

Grumet, G.W. (1989). Emotional Aspects of Motoring. Psychoanalytic Review, 76,19-36.

MacCash, Doug, Art Critique of the Times-Picayune "Art in the Fast Lane".
The copyright of the article Vechicles of Expression in City of Spirits: Psychoanalysis and South Culture on the T-BIPS blog is owned by Kim Vaz. Permission to republish Vechicles of Expression in print or online must be granted by the author in writing. Contact Kim Vaz at

Sunday, March 15, 2009


March, in like a lion and out like a lamb (which could be said sometimes of the human journey), brings me to my favorite phrase of the month: the Ides of March, taught since 44BC to be the date when best friend Brutus (along with 60 other senators) stabs to death Julius Caesar.

A more modern idea has revisited this historical icon of betrayal. Modern historians wonder if an aging Caesar, approaching infirmity and incontinence, but still able to recognize on the horizon his increasingly waning cognition and vigor, enlisted his best friend to help him go out like a lion and thereby ensure he be remembered as a vigorous leader cut down in his prime.

I like the idea of revisiting history. Certainly, we do that as psychoanalysts and psychotherapists when we reconfigure and co-create biographies of those with whom we work (and as we are so doing for ourselves.) But as scholars we must also revisit the history of our theories. For example, analysis, the once one-person psychology which privileged intrapsychic workings alone, has come to be recognized as a two-person endeavor where relationship and subjectivity play an important part in understanding what is happening in the consultation room. Likewise, libidinal and aggressive drives have been supplemented, perhaps adumbrated, by the drives: to be attached, recognized, known as an agent amongst others.

Someone to Watch Over Me*: The Practice of Altar-Making in the Mississippi Gulfcoast: The Koerner Family's 40 year Tradition

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It is was 1968 and Pasty and Clyde Koerner watched as their only son, Clyde Jr. set off to fight in Vietnam as a new Marine. Patsy prayed for his protection and turned to that protector of families, St. Joseph, the stepfather of Jesus and husband of Mary. The Koerners are an Italian-German family residing in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi and have constructed altars to the Catholic saint, St. Joseph, annually since 1968. Patsy’s granddaughter Renee, jokingly told me that in the Bay, the Koerner family is known for two things: its’ “bad boys” and their annual altars!

Each year, the family begins its extensive food preparations in February and then opens the altar for public viewing on the annual feast day of St. Joseph which is March 19. By advertising in the local newspaper, they invite the public to submit petitions, view the altar, give a donation to charity, and leave with the important fava (i.e., “lucky”) bean that symbolizes protection against bare cupboards. Attendees also receive a piece of blessed bread which was used in the past by Gulf Coast families for protection from storms.

Situated in Hancock County, in the Gulfport-Biloxi, Mississippi Metropolitan Statistical Area, Bay St. Louis, a city on the Gulf coast, was at the epi-center of Hurricane Katrina in August, 2005. In 2000, the population of the city approximated 8000. Katrina destroyed the majority of the town’s homes and the city infrastructure, resulting in the displacement of over 3000 residents.

For centuries, the city’s residents, like the Koerner’s depended on the sea for their livelihood. Catholic residents mediated the annual threats from the terrible storms through their religious practices. For the Italian Catholics of Sicilian descent, appealing to St. Joseph stems from the legend that their ancestors were delivered from famine through his intervention. In gratitude their Italian ancestors began setting the “table” or “altar” to St. Joseph, consisting of “food,” their ancestors’ most important possession. Overtime, the table setting ritual in churches and in private homes continued and expanded to include thanksgiving for deliverance from job loss, health crises, survival and recovery from natural disasters, and for the granting of various favors.

The field of trauma research supports the use of ritual for healing and recovery from disaster-situations that can lead to posttraumatic stress disorder by creating a separate space away from normal everyday life to mark the traumatic event; by providing an experiential opportunity to elicit memories and feelings that may be inaccessible to consciousness, and by assisting the process through which personal and collective relationships to the changed life-conditions after the disaster are transformed and normalized.

Though conducted within the homes or specific Churches, the public is invited to attend the altar viewings and meals through advertisements in the local newspapers. The occasion then is shared with the extant community, and as such provides a means to experience the presence of some “shared communal protection” from harm.
Tell me where's the shepherd for this lost lamb

There's a somebody I'm longing to see
I hope that he turns out to be
Someone to watch over me

I'm a little lamb who's lost in a wood
I know I could always be good

To one who'll watch over me

*George Gershwin - Someone To Watch Over Me Lyrics Album: Gershwin Jazz 'Round Midnight



Click on the image below to see one of the most beautiful altars imaginable!

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The copyright of the article Someone to Watch Over Me: The Practice of Altar-Making in the Mississippi Gulfcoast: The Koerner Family's 40 year Tradition in “City of Spirits:” Psychoanalysis and South Culture on the T-BIPS blog is owned by Kim Vaz. Permission to republish Someone to Watch Over Me: The Practice of Altar-Making in the Mississippi Gulfcoast: The Koerner Family's 40 year Tradition in print or online must be granted by the author in writing. Contact Kim Vaz at

FEMA: We All Ask'd For You!* Mardi Gras Revelers vs. FEMA: Public Protest During Carnival after Hurricane Katrina

The act of transgression upon which humour is based, casts doubt upon every preconceived and sacred idea. Moreover, it challenges every idea, and thus brings in a new point of view which debunks and gives the situation a more human dimension. Gabriele Pasquali

Michael Parsons, speaking broadly of the definition of the role of levity in analysis, believes that humor, jokes, games, and ‘play’ allow us to explore our hostile impulses to eradicate wrongs we experience and to mediate our desire to simultaneously ‘know’ and ‘not know’ our painful and traumatic reality. He conjectures that this mediation process occurs through the mechanisms of the comic, the romantic, the tragic, and the ironic.

The comic is expressed by a wish for a happy ending. The romantic involves a quest like journey that ends in the achievement of some objective. Harder to metabolize are the tragic and the ironic. The tragic, says Parsons addresses the trauma, frightening realities of life. The ironic highlights life's paradoxes, ambiguities, and contradictions, offering us some objectivity from the traumatic. Whereas, the tragic shocks us into the recognition of the seriousness of life with its stark deprivations and suffering; the ironic enables us to bear the tragic, not by denying it, but by ‘playing’ with it imaginatively.

Gabriele Pasquali writes that humor “lowers the anxiety to a bearable level” through facing our pain and suffering and working out its causes. Humor transforms us from the sense that we are being devoured “by an unmanageable panic" into a feeling capability and mastery.

Nowhere cane we find a better example of the use of comedy, tragedy and irony than in the expression of disapproval and discontent with public officials and public policy in Carnival spectacles in New Orleans. With its endless ability to adapt to changing conditions, New Orleans Mardi Gras celebrants used Carnival season after Hurricane Katrina struck to mount a collective expression of outrage at failed leaders, failed leadership, corporate greed, and the massive betrayal of public trust targeted directly at the mishandling of Katrina relief efforts.

In the Mardi Gras periods after Hurricane Katrina, floats, tee-shirts, costumes, placards and signs have emerged with characteristic ostentatiousness of past Carnivals protesting the relief efforts.
Leigh C. wrote in her blog about the Krewe of Chaos’s 2006 parade that ‘Hades - A Dream of Chaos,’ was a “masterpiece of spoofs on everything from failed leadership to nasty refrigerators to a ‘Chocolate Divinity’ float whose riders tossed out special cups with the float drawn on them.” She continues, “homemade Carnival costumes included some more blue tarp suits, folks wearing large 45s of the top ten Katrina hits (among them "Up On the Roof" and "When the Levee Breaks"), …, people dressed as MREs (Meals Ready to Eat, given out by the federal authorities to the earliest returning residents), and people in cleanup gear with small graffitied refrigerators, pushing a Katrina Deli cart serving up some nasty treats.”

The Krew of Levee-te, appeared in 2006 steering a faux food cart called “Katrina Deli” which offered a ‘limited menu’ with starters such as ‘Levee Leak Soup’ or ‘Oysters Hepatitis-B ienville,’ entrees such as ‘Bush Baloney Sandwhiches,’ and concluded with selections such as ‘Furniture Upside Down Cake.’

New Orleans Times Picayune reporter, Steve Ritea, commented on the “hurricane humor” from the French Quarters to the suburbs. In the Quarters he interviewed “Mitchell Gaudet, whose costume not-so-subtly suggested the city's getting screwed." Quoting Gaudet, Ritea noted, ‘Look at me. I'm in a giant . . . foam fleur-de-lis with a screw through it, and people are embracing me.’ In the suburbs, during the “the Covington Lions Club and Mystic Krewe of Covington parades, a couple parading vehicles included banners reading ‘1-800-4NO Help’ and ‘Got Insurance -- Sorry That Ain't Covered.’”

PrariePundit, Merv Benson, explained that the Krewe du Vieux “has used its parade to mock corporations and politicians every year for the last two decades.” “The 2006 parade, theme ‘C’est Levee,’ is a pun on the French phrase ‘C’est la vie,’ meaning ‘that’s life.’ He reported that “floats and props built for the Saturday evening parade in the French Quarter included hand-pulled carts elaborately decorated with blue tarps, fake broken levees, cardboard travel trailers and effigies of Mayor Ray Nagin and Gov. Kathleen Blanco. One display asked France to buy Louisiana back, suggesting the state might get better treatment than it has from the American government. And in place of a parade map, the Krewe du Vieux had a ‘projected path’ adorned with a swirly hurricane symbol.”

From a psychoanalytic perspective, humor can be said to have enabled parade goers to become aware that they were surviving the sadistic attacks by government and corporate authorities that came to be experienced as controlling, dominating, and humiliating them. Humorous spectacles were used to subvert authority and to point out its’ absurdities, its’ capriciousness; its’ deviousness; its’self-interestedness; its’ indifference and ultimately, its’ inhumanity.

In turbulent times, humor helps us contain contradictory emotions of the desire for revenge, the desire for justice with the feelings of helplessness and uncertainty that can threaten to overwhelm the psyche. Ribald parody offers revelers the satisfaction of a communal affirmation of their reality and experiential validation of the absurdity of the shared material burdens imposed on them by the officials who have broken the public trust.

*“They All Ask'd For You,”
popular carnival song by The Meters

I wennon down to dee Audubon Zoo

An day all axt fuh you
day all axt fuh you, (fuh who?)
Well day even inquired about chuh'
I wennon down to dee Audubon Zoo

And day all axt fuh you
Duh mounkeys ast,
duh tiguhs ast
And duh elephant axt me too


Benson, M. Saturday, February 11, 2006, C'este Levee Marid Grau parade,

liprap. Tuesday, February 28, 2006
P.j. Huffstutter (March 01, 2006). The Joke is on Katrina, Los Angeles Times

Pasquali, G. (1987). Some Notes on Humour in Psychoanalysis. International Review of Psycho-Analysis, 14:231-236.

Parsons, M. (1999). The Logic of Play in Psychoanalysis. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 80:871-884.

Ritea, S. March 1, 2006 Rolling with the punches: Battered and bruised, New Orleans puts on a show for the world, Times Picayune


Photos of Menu People

Skooksie Photostream

Photos of Katrina Deli were taken by me at the Southern Museum of Food and Culture, New Orleans, LA 3/17/09
The copyright of the article FEMA: We All Ask'd For You!* Mardi Gras Revelers vs. FEMA: Public Protest During Carnival after Hurricane Katrina in “City of Spirits:” Psychoanalysis and South Culture on the T-BIPS blog is owned by Kim Vaz. Permission to republish FEMA: We All Ask'd For You!* Mardi Gras Revelers vs. FEMA: Public Protest During Carnival after Hurricane Katrina in print or online must be granted by the author in writing. Contact Kim Vaz at

The Trope of Revealation: The little Black Girl as Truth-teller in Black Women’s Fiction about Family Sexual Secrets

Eve: Mama keeps stabbing herself in the kitchen! Show her your hands, Mama. Roz Batiste: I think you'd better hush...
Eve: And where Daddy? He's never home. He's supposed to be home sometimes!
Roz Batiste: Listen, you little ingrate. Your father works hard so we can have a house with four bathrooms!
Eve: Not every night he's working, I know he's not!

From Kissi Lemons' film Eve's Bayou

Black women writers have used with great effect, the trope of the little black girl as truth teller of family sexual secrets. In her book, Longing to Tell, Tricia Rose of Brown University’s Africana Studies Department, writes that “black women's distinctive sexual concerns are often obscured under a feminism that defines the experiences of middle-class white women as those of all women. Even heartfelt white feminist narratives about the strength and resilience of black women praise them for their superwoman-like capacity to carry overwhelming burdens.”

Black women have a decidedly different sexual experience than white women in the United States. Dating back from the time of slavery, black women were stripped naked and rapped not only during the middle passage and on the auction block, but also at the whim of their male masters and male overseers. Both black men and black women were forced to have intercourse with one another to produce children that would be sold for profit by their white owners. At the same time, stereotypes of black female desire as hypersexual would serve to justify their sexual exploitation by white men for those who worked in the fields as laborers and in their homes as domestics. The American legal system did not recognize that it was possible to rape black women so; white men could exploit black women’s sexuality with impunity.

As late as 1971, Tricia Rose notes that a judge admonished a jury to not apply the ordinary presumption of chastity to black women. In 1998 a Black female US custom’s official blew the whistle on the unjustifiable and excessive search and detention of black women female travelers at US airports. Black women were nine times more likely than white women to be x-rayed after already having undergone pat-downs and strip searches.

Due to the stereotypes of black women’s sexuality and the blatant inequality in treatment of black women in comparison to white women, White supremacist patriarchal culture has resulted in a silencing of black women around speaking out about the truth of their sexual lives. The cost for any individual woman is just too high. Rose notes that it is black women writers who stepped in to disclose and map out the landscape and subjectivities of sexually exploited black women. Kissi Lemons continues this tradition in her first film, Eve’s Bayou, through her character, Eve, a girl who defies her father, sister, mother, and community moreways to make visible the deleterious effects of the father’s philandering on the family and the price of the family’s denial, i.e. their pathological accommodation to soul murdering social customs.

Psychoanalyst, Bernard Brandschaft writes that “our adaptation to the world is dependent on both the learning acquired in the transmission of culture from one generation to the next, and our ability to challenge the limits of accepted wisdom….In order to self-correct and grow, we must oppose pathological accommodations to retrograde social systems in which some truths remain absolute.” By ensuring pathological accommodation, he asserts, “entrenched systems, preserve their own interests by imprisoning us in archaic bonds.”

Black feminist thinkers such as Alice Walker, gave us an academic way to bring in black theoretical notions of womanism. Womanism stems from the black colloquialism of womanish, which means to act like a woman, to act like an agent, to claim a subjectivity, to tell their own truths, to risk the consequences and weather rejection. The goal of womanish behavior is to create access for others to tell their own stories of marganizaltion and challenge social institutions to move away from its hegemonic regressive trendings. The womanish girl is often an outcast in her own community. No where is there more true of than of Eve, who is the favorite child of either her mother, who prefers her brother or her father whose preference is for his eldest daughter.

Who really want to risk being censure, gossiped about, retaliated against and ostracized which is the
normal fate of anyone standing on the margins of society: any ‘othered’ person who dares to make the simple observation that “the emperor is naked.”* It is not every black girl child who can contain the explosive mix of thoughts and feelings that involve getting clear and confident about what she sees happening right before her eyes and then developing the capacity for boldness through weathering the effects of social disapproval for her womanish vocalizations.

Nevertheless, the womanish girl child is one who is sensitive to and identifies with the powerful person in her immediate surroundings. It could be the outspoken, pillar of the community, librarian or organizer or the father who is a preacher who models forthrightness and courage in standing up for his beliefs. She is the one who then imitates her idealized role model and practices speaking to adults in her community. Because of her charm, resoluteness, and intelligence, she is usually given the floor and the affirmation for what she says. That reinforcement leads her to become more informed about topics of interest to the adults in her world and thus she engages them more. Unlike her sister who shies away from making trouble, who takes the abuse on herself to in an often failed attempt to protect her other siblings, who internalizes her own anger rather than talk about it, the little girl who reveals is also willingly to risk the consequences of speaking and disrupting the family and community status-quo.


This is a synopsis of a paper I presented as part of a A Faculty Panel at the EGSA Conference, “Anything But Safe” at USF on March 8, 2009 along with Adriana Novoa, Ph.D. USF Humanities and Cultural Studies Department who presented, “Are We Truly Enchanted? The Representation of Women in Crisis in Recent Film” and Lycia Alexander-Guerra, MD, Tampa Bay Psychoanalytic Society who presented “Film Portrayals, Psychoanalysis, and Girls into Women: the Role of Mothers."


Brandchaft, B. (2007). Systems of Pathological Accommodation and Change in Analysis. Psychoanal. Psychol., 24:667-687.

Rose, T. (2004). Longing to Tell: Black Women Talk about Sexuality and Intimacy, McMillian.

The copyright of the article The Trope of Revealation: The little Black Girl as Truth-teller in Black Women’s Fiction about Family Sexual Secrets in “City of Spirits:” Psychoanalysis and South Culture on the T-BIPS blog is owned by Kim Vaz. Permission to republish The Trope of Revealation: The little Black Girl as Truth-teller in Black Women’s Fiction about Family Sexual Secrets in print or online must be granted by the author in writing. Contact Kim Vaz at

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Girls to Women and a Film Series

Girls to Women: The Role of Mothers including the role of mothers in the sexual development of daughters is one aspect discussed at the Film Series "Women in Crisis" which is cosponsored by the USF Dept of Women’s Studies and the Tampa Bay Institute for Psychoanalytic Studies. It is currently running Feb 2009-Apr 2009 select Thursdays at 6:00p.m. in Room 104 of the Behavioral Sciences Building on the Tampa campus of USF.

There are three oft-neglected general developmental achievements I would like to highlight: The capacity to cope: 1. with frustration 2. with a growing sense of separateness and with Otherness, and 3. with loss. Then I will address these more specifically re: female children and their mothers. Lastly, I will refer to a few points of the films in the Film Series "Women in Crisis." Self psychologists might describe these capacities as seeking to constitute a cohesive or stable Self and to maintain self esteem. Included in the consolidation of Self is the ‘who I am,’ including sexual and gendered Self.

Coping with frustration includes self and mutual regulation. The infant and mother respond to and influence one another’s responses. Attunement to the other is variable, but a good enough mother (Winnicott) must first be a container of overwhelming affect, handling an infant’s screaming and flailing without becoming anxious, angry, avoidant, or retaliatory. Her soothing of the infant is a capacity that becomes internalized for the infant in self soothing behaviors, where thumbsucking e.g. temporality abates the need to be fed or held, particularly when an infant has already had the experience that needs-will-be-met in a timely enough fashion. Containing affects, impulses, drives without having to split into e.g. all good or all bad, is a developmental achievement. Later, the ability to contain contradictory tension without splitting (e.g. into male and female) fosters empathy, creativity, and relationship.

The relationship between mother and child is inevitably fraught with frustration and, therefore, contentious. Women as primary caretakers are the infant’s first love, first witness, and first boss (Dinnerstein). Mother prohibits, frustrates, refuses, and excludes. When there is contention between mother and child, what is sought is RECONCILLIATION (relationship and connectedness) not union! A child’s fear is not of merger or of being engulfed as much as it is dread of mother’s power, especially her wrath/aggression, and of the child’s own aggression, particularly when anger is so intense as to be experienced by the infant or small child as painful or disorganizing.

Coping with Separateness and Otherness (and the flip side with Connectedness) include the developmental achievements of Intersubjectivity and of developing a moral compass, a Golden Rule, conscience, superego, morality. Recognition of separateness also requires coping with loss, because to recognize the Other as separate means the Other is no longer under the infant’s magical omnipotent control.

The developmental achievement of recognition of Otherness, of the mother as a subject in her own right and not merely as an object of needs fulfillment --the beginnings of intersubjectivity-- is facilitated in part when, in this culture, the child is excluded from the parental bedroom and when the child recognizes that mother has other dyadic relationships which do not include the child as the center of her universe.

More importantly, though, this recognition now creates triadic experience in which there are 2 who participate, one who observes. This experience as both participant and observer can be utilized later for self reflection. An INTERNAL TRIANGULAR SPACE (Aron) comes to be, such that one can begin to integrate the idea of self as both a subject and an object. This achievement is useful for relationship, eventually facilitating both empathy, and the ability to integrate Other as both subject and object, creating a bridge of identification such that splitting --e.g. gender polarities: only girls do this or boys that-- is not necessary. Either/or eventually develops into more complexity, more integration; both in identity and multiplicity, which cushions loss.

Children must learn to be in mutual relationship, that is, recognize that two subjects having their own desires, must learn to negotiate both their needs being met. While the child may require that mother allow the child to do it ‘all by myself’ or that mother admire and share the joy of the child’s first steps or finger paintings, it is also required of the child that the child recognize --learned through gradually increasing doses of frustration-- that mother too has her own needs which require her to be sometimes unavailable to the child. A child must eventually learn to wait, to share, and to find compensation in the joy of self competence when mother is unavailable.

Both female and male children cope with separation from mother by imitating mother --or by imitating characteristics assigned to the feminine-- to master separation anxiety, where ‘being’ mother = ‘having’ mother (Coates).

Being in relationship well with an Other requires empathy and mutual recognition of subjectivity, in which a moral conscience plays a role. Moral choices and dilemmas are negotiated as early as 18 months. Morality, in part, begins with impulse control, and this achievement requires aid from the outside Other /mother. A toddler is capable of empathy , as well as can struggle with a moral dilemma. One conflict to be negotiated is self versus other and self with other.
Dependency and connectedness to others are no longer seen as regressive and infantile; we now recognize that connection helps develop a superego and a sense of autonomy and mastery. These depend on the capacity to regulate the self and one’s impulses, learned early in life through containment by and guidance of the good enough mother.

Aron says something about the primal scene and its imagined ‘combined parent figure’ (Klein), the latter which privileges neither heterosexuality nor genitality, but from which the infant is excluded/deprived while it seems to the infant that the parents share everything. This exclusion is both narcissistic injury and relational deprivation. This ‘combined parental figure’ is a metaphor for whole and part, separate and conflated. Aron writes that the polymorphous sensualities of the ‘combined parental figure’ and the primal scene are metaphors that pave the way for an experience of multiplicity and to development of bisexual awareness. Again, it is a developmental achievement: to contain excitement without splitting into male and female, and to be able to hold 2 contradictory ideas in mind at once without splitting. This allows us to regulate our feminine and masculine selves, again, compensating for the loss of possibility that one can be and have everything.

Early development is replete with losses, not the least of which is coming to terms with not being able to be all and have all. Children must be able to tolerate grandiose omnipotence (needed to foster creativity) without getting carried away by the conviction of such beliefs, e.g. that one can control everybody. Likewise, one cannot be everything. There is not limitless possibility (Blos). One must learn to tolerate self-limitations (Kubie) by symbolic transcendence , e.g. of gender differentiation, through a range of integrated identifications used imaginatively, for when one employs a “unitary” gender identity (Dimen and Goldner) it necessitates splitting off, and repression of, opposing tendencies which insist upon a pathological accommodation or compliance with the rules of a 2 gender system. (ala Foucault, where 'normal' ideal of gender is socially instituted and reified).

Post modern and post structuralist deconstruction/destabilization of the human subject, including that gender is socially and culturally determined, insist that there exists a multiplicity of genders and to claim one gender identity obscures what is within and between individuals (Benjamin). Aron advocates a tension or balance between the two, that is, instead of abandoning identity for multiplicity, he advocates the need for both. While a unitary cohesion is necessary to stave off fragmentation and the fear of going crazy, it should not be so inflexible as to silence different voices of the self. What is called for instead is the need to accept, tolerate and enjoy the confusion, contradiction, flux, even chaos, of multiplicity of gender while maintaining identity.

Benjamin notes that gender splitting requires one part of the self to disavow another part, and, moreover, requires the suppression of similarities, leading to the construction of polarities. Gender is the coming to terms with difference. Goldner notes that these polarities make for a traumatically compliant false self, while Gallop (1982) says gender is the failure to reach the Other. Theoretical –nominal and cultural--gender must be held in tension with psychological—subjective-- gender and not fall to gender polarity, for this culturally constructed dichotomy further constrains possibility.

Children, then, must negotiate the wish to be both anatomical sexes, as well as the wish to possess attributes culturally polarized as EITHER/OR, either feminine or masculine. Stephen Mitchell notes that sexuality is a central organizer of a child’s experience for a number of reasons: Early on, body sensations serve to organize experience. Bodily contact, as well as body openings and boundaries, are well-suited to represent human longings, conflicts, and compromises. Bodily sensations, when too intense and are not sufficiently contained, can come to represent affect, conflict, and confusion. And what is accessible or inaccessible comes to represent privacy, exclusion, and secrecy, such that sexuality may become a vehicle to overcome isolation. Sexual desire then becomes configured in the context of the losses of early childhood, including those of relationship.

Specific to mother and daughter, Freud formulated that the little girl was angry at mother for not gifting to her a penis. Now we know conflict with mother is not about anatomy but about love and hate toward a much needed other, as well as conflict about dependence and its frustrations. One both loves/depends on and resents/is frustrated by mother, so ambivalence toward mother is inevitable, creating conflict e.g. 'The child feels bad for hating the mother she also loves and depends on.' But Mother is also admired, emulated, and idealized, and when daughter can see herself as like mother, this identification bolsters her self esteem and her sense of competence. This is true as well for her sense of bodily agency and sexuality. The girl must internalize an identification with her mother having sexual agency in her own right, an identification which includes managing the conflict with her own aggression and with mother’s feared aggression. Ambivalence toward mother as the loved and feared bearer of sexual privilege is evident in literature and fairy tales (Jane Eyre, Rebecca, Snow White).

Will this internalized mother, whose predecessor is the external mother, support and enhance the girl’s development? If mother is condemning or rejecting of the daughter, her sexuality, or of the girl’s choice of love object, e.g. as in homosexuality, then the necessary internalization of needed parts of mother is hindered or made more complicated. Will the girl be able to tolerate the internalized aggression of the mother? Will she be able to develop sexual agency in her own right? Does the girl see mother as a vital agent with her own sexual desire with whom the girl can identify -- ie does mother have pride and pleasure, and passion, in her sexual and procreative functions? Are body and bodily functions experienced as a source of pride and pleasure, especially the uniquely female functions such as menses, sexual gratification, or pregnancy? Sexual development in daughter, in part, depends upon the external mother’s affirmation of the daughter’s body and the internalization of mother and the mother-daughter relationship. These internalizations affect body image, valuation of self as a woman, representation of her own genitals and their functions, as well as affect her experience of her own sexuality. If mother is hated, then the girl child hates herself or her femininity. The more a mother imposes her will and causes frustration without compensatory gratification --e.g. fostering a joy in autonomy and in connectedness-- the more conflict and ambivalence.

Coping with Separateness and otherness: While learning that one is not the center of one’s mother’s universe is a blow to a child’s narcissism and grandiosity, a child has some compensatory restoration to her self esteem: developing e.g. pride early on in competencies, such as language and toilet training, and about ‘I can do it myself.’ As most primary caretakers are women, the first person/ Other with whom a child identifies is a woman. Mother is usually the first Other with whom a child has a sensual experience and loves, the first person the child contests, and first person recognized as Other. The daughter both learns to be like an other --an other who is a woman-- and be her own person.

Daughters, like all infants, first love/desire a woman, regardless if object choice is one day to be heterosexual. Mother, through gentle ministrations of hygiene on infant’s genitals, is, to children, the first seducer. Even heterosexual girls wish to be close to/possess Mother. The sensual memory of mother’s body must be integrated with her own pleasure such that women can feel simultaneously both the subject and object of desire. But mothers can be ambivalent about their own bodies and those of their daughters. Girls need mothers approval /permission/ encouragement / support to become fully sexual women. Many young women, on first sexual experience, expect or fear the internalized mother’s disapproval. Mothers need to both protect their daughters, keeping premature sexual experience and overstimulation at bay, and inform their daughters about their genitals and their capacities.

Women need to integrate sexuality and aggression into their identities as women. Person and Ovesey state that gender is used as a SYMBOLIC RESOURCE AND RELATIONAL STRATEGY. Gender is not an entity, but, instead, is protean, a vehicle to aid coping. Gender does NOT unfold along its own developmental pathway but is created by relationships, conflicts, desires, and losses. (Goldner:) Gender is constructed as a mechanism to establish, maintain, or deny crucial attachments.

The loss of the possibility to be both sexes is confirmed for the girl by menarche, the onset of menstruation. But while omni-potentiality is lost, menarche can bring closer connection to mother by confirming earlier information provided by mother and by enhancing identification with mother. Women may again turn to mothers for support when they marry, are pregnant, during childbirth, or raise children.

Film Series "Women in Crisis"
Discomfort or anxiety about aggression toward mother and about sexual desire is noted in fairy tales, mythology, literature, and film. e.g. Snow White can disavow her own sexual agency, be pure as the driven, white, snow, and she can denounce her own aggression toward mother, and her dread, by projecting it instead into the Queen witch goddess step mother whose innocent victim Snow White becomes. Persephone, kidnapped to the underworld of sexuality does not have to acknowledge her own desire; Hades can have all the sexual agency. And Athena can remain a virgin, denouncing sexuality, while still dispensing of all her female rivals, like Arachne, or even Medusa.

Wide Sargasso Sea, on April 16, 2009 is a kind of prequel to Jane Eyre. Jane Eyre, a story like Snow White, about a young woman who cannot find happiness ie take her place as sexual partner until the witch mother, that is the mad, -- mad because she is powerfully sexual,-- first wife is vanquished. The same dynamic exists in Rebecca where the unnamed narrator must compete with the memory of the powerfully sexual first wife Rebecca before she can take her place as partner to her husband.

In Eve’s Bayou, which kicked off the film series on Feb 12, included a mother who was not seen as sexual agent by the older daughter Cicely, and Cicely had a confused time of negotiating her own desire. Eve, viewing the primal scene of father with mistress, comes to confuse the power of her own aggression with magic –voodoo.

On Mar 5, Maria Full Of Grace showed Maria’s mother, constrained by poverty and culture, as unable to recognize her daughter’s subjectivity. Consequently, pregnant Maria, at great risk to herself, leaves all family connection for a foreign country that offers a better opportunity for Maria to effect her dreams/desires.

On March 26,2009 Notes on a Scandal shows Cate Blanchett as an art teacher struggling to sort out her own desire, in part, perhaps, due to her cold and rejecting Mother.

Volver on April 2, 2009 shows a Mother who leaves her grown children through a death of sorts, and a grown daughter Penelope Cruz, blind to the molestation of her own daughter, remedies this through murder.