Friday, April 17, 2009

Wide Sargasso Sea: The Ghosts Between Them

Wide Sargasso Sea was written by Jean Rhys (a pen name) and published in 1966 winning wide acclaim. It is a story of the life of Antoinette Cosway, a Creole, who came of age six years after the slaves were emancipated in the West Indies. It was a time when the old planter class was being displaced with new English settlers. Antoinette and her family lived in the shadow of the splendor they once enjoyed. Rhys’s novel is an effort to tell a story about the mad wife of Edward Rochester in Charlotte Bronte's novel Jane Eyre, but centering it around the issue of race and imperialism in the 19th century.

Dr. Kersuze Simeon-Jones and Michael Poff, MSW facilitated the film discussion. Dr. Kersuze Simeon-Jones is an Assistant Professor of Francophone Literature and Africana Studies at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Michael Poff, LCSW is in private practice and specializes in child, adolescent, adult and family psychoanalytic psychotherapy, and adult psychoanalysis.

Dr. Simeon-Jones focused the discussion on the concept of the “outsider;” specifically the “crazy Creole woman” locked in the attic of her home. She interrogated the idea of sanity and who gets to judge it. In the film, the “crazy Creole woman,” Antoinette is taken to a cold and frigid place where she can not be herself and where she is belittled and observed as an oddity in another culture. The film can be seen as a commentary on the marriage between the Caribbean and Europe in which Europe has a certain image based on stereotypes and prejudices about the Caribbean people from the beginning of the relation, but it was never based on reality. Assuming much about Antoinette, but not really knowing who Antoinette is, Edward grows angry when he begins to learn about her family and past life from those who are bent on undermining her happiness. Unable to reconcile his image of a wife, from the real wife, he becomes cruel to her.

According to Dr. Simeon-Jones, Antoinette is “mad” not because of heredity, but because of a series of unfortunate circumstances that conspire against her. Her mother was plagued with problems and tragedies, poverty, loss of her son, and social ostracism; she was not available to offer a stable, affirming environment to Antoinette. She ends up locked in a room, drugged by her black warden and made to have sex with him. Antoinette witnesses this scene and it is the last she sees of her mother. Antoinette ends up in a loveless marriage in which she is poised to repeat her mother’s life. From the beginning of their relationships, her husband Edward never really loved her but was more interested in impressing his father and gaining access to her wealth.

Michael Poff discussed the internal world of the characters as a manifestation of the unconscious of the author, Jean Rhys, who lived in isolation in England and suffered from alcohol addiction and probably depression. The novel is an expression of her imagination.

If she were a patient in therapy, the analyst would ask for her associations, thoughts and feelings. Poff relied on his own emotional reaction to the entire story as additional information about what the inner life of the author might be. Her subjectivity could be characterized as pain-filled, helpless, and a regression far away from loving relationships toward a more paranoid stance. The characters in the film occupy a paranoid position because they are lacking in empathy and trust; as a result they have a need to control others and can not see any good in the other person.

This paranoid position begins with an idealization, a stance in which the beloved is seen as having no faults. Antoinette and Edward hope to find in their union, a perfect relationship. But as their togetherness brings them in touch with their own humanity, each suffers narcissistic injuries in which shame comes to predominant. Antoinette’s self-esteem is strained because she is considered a “white cockroach.” Edward’s self-esteem is challenged because he does not feel validated by his own family. His rigid thinking about femininity and masculinity, only serves to wound and enrage him when he begins to learn that Antoinette not only might not be a virgin, but that she may also be “mad.”

The couple’s problems explode because Edward begins to devalue Antoinette’s attributes that endeared her to the audience: her joy, playfulness, strong sexuality, and her eccentricities. Edward is so repulsed by these traits not only in Antoinette, but in him too – (that he might be a little crazy or a little boyish) that to acknowledge them as part of him is unthinkable and therefore he projects his unwanted traits onto Antoinette turning her into an object of revulsion.

The abundance of lower-level defenses: paranoia, splitting, magical thinking, and denial, spells doom for their marriage because both are regressed to the pre-Oedipal developmental level. In the pre-Oedipal mindset, people feel an abundance of shame. They fear people are going to ridicule and laugh at them. Edward is caught up in maintaining his image and is enraged by learning that others know things he does not. The abundance of themes of capturing, containing, cruelty, control and not letting something out points to the problem of anality;--what’s inside can’t come out because it is too dangerous. It must be controlled. Antoinette digs in the dirt looking for gold, not finding it, in the end, her shame and rage ignite and she kills both Edward and herself.

Dr. Kersuze Simeon-Jones is an Assistant Professor of Francophone Literature and Africana Studies at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Dr. Simeon-Jones received a PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies, focusing on the Comparative History and Literature of the Black Diaspora, from the University of Miami, Coral Gables, Florida. She received an M.A. in French Literature and Francophone Literature: Africa and the Caribbean, from Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey; she received a B.A. in French Literature and Spanish Language & Literature, also from Rutgers University, New Brunswick. Dr. Simeon-Jones’s primary teaching and research interests include Francophone Studies: history, literature and culture, Comparative Literature of the Black Diaspora, Black Internationalism: Literary and Socio-Political Movements,Women History within the Diaspora. Her forth coming book is 19th-20th Century Literary and Socio-Political Writings of the Black Diaspora (Lexington Books; forthcoming).

Michael Poff, LCSW is in private practice, Tampa and specializes in child, adolescent, adult and family psychoanalytic psychotherapy, adult psychoanalysis. He completed training as a psychoanalyst at the Carter-Jenkins Center, Tampa in 2005. He is a supervisor to clinicians in psychoanalytic psychotherapy practice and is a psychoanalytic staff member, The Carter-Jenkins Center, Tampa. He is currently co-authoring a chapter on health and relationships, in nursing textbook: Comprehensive Women’s Health Care, edtied by Alexander, Hood, and Mallard-Johnson. For over twenty years, Mike Poff has been coordinating local annual psychoanalytic society film series and has been a field instructor, supervisor for MSW students in training, USF School of Social Work, a guest lecturer USF Department of Psychiatry and the USF School of Nursing, an outpatient psychotherapist with the Menninger/St. Joseph’s Psychiatry Center, Tampa and a Child and family psychotherapist, The Children’s Home, Tampa.

Raphaël Fauveau's photostream -- picture of waterfall
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Friday, April 10, 2009

Women in Crisis Film Series -- The Piano Teacher with Dr. Margit Grieb and Dr. Kim Vaz

The Piano Teacher, written by Elfriede Jelinek, was adapted for film and directed by Michael Haneke. Elfriede Jelinek was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2004 for her “musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that, with extraordinary linguistic zeal, reveal the absurdity of society's clichés and their subjugating power.” Violence, abuse, and subjugation permeate the work of both the writer and the director. Together, they produced a masterful display of destructive bonds in the domestic arena: terrorism in the home that escapes to become terrorism to the public sphere.

The University of South Florida’s, Margit Grieb, Ph.D., an Assistant Professor of German in the Department of World Languages facilitated the most recent film discussion in the Women and Crisis series along with Tampa Bay Psychoanalytic Society board member, Kim Vaz, Ph.D. Dr. Grieb noted that the film was aptly set in Vienna, Austria given its’ focus on sexuality and violence, particularly, sadomasochism.

Dr. Grieb noted that Austria gave rise to early thinking about sexual perversion with work of the Austro-German sexologist, Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing and later in the work Sigmund Freud. For Dr. Grieb, the main character’s (Erika Kohut) sexual practices are an outward expression of her state of mind with respect to her overbearing mother and her young lover.

According to Dr. Grieb, Jelinek’s work critiques Vienna’s “high-culture’s” male-dominated, capitalist social structure that author says exploits and subjugates women. This is the world of this repressed, oppressed, and oppressive piano teacher. Erika Kohut found the perfect world for her icy exterior in the tyrannical world of the piano conservatory. Just as Erika’s mother commands, demands and controls her; Erika reigns over her students like a despot.

Dr. Grieb oriented the audience to pay attention to the way the director created distance between the audience and Erika by not using close-up or ‘point of view shots.’ She asked the audience to decide if the use of distance helped viewers cope with the disturbing scenes. Did the director’s technique make us less emotionally invested in Erika and more able to view her with a critical eye?

Drawing on Jelinek’s own discussion of her novel, Dr. Grieb interpreted Erika as a ‘phallic woman’ who appropriated the masculine perogative of watching female bodies and couples having intercourse. As a voueyer, Erika transgressed masculine norms and in the end paid a price with her life.

After viewing the film, audience members had the following questions: "What causes people to victimize others?" "What makes them turn out that way?" "Was Erika sadistic to her students to 'save' them from her fate?" "How is it that a person can go to work and seem ‘normal,’ yet have so many problems at home and emotionally?" "Can a woman really be considered a “phallic” mother in a patriarchal society?"

Kim Vaz discussed the film from the perspective of a clinician and from the viewpoint that it was a story about malignant trauma. Drawing on the work of Stefanie Teitelbaum, Sue Grand, Harriet Kimble Wyre and Rayan LaMothe, Dr. Vaz explained that malignant trauma occurs at the hands of people and is unlike traumas derived from natural disasters. Malignant trauma is so difficult to recover from and to treat because the betrayal involved leaves surviors with an inability to symbolize or put into words their experience of victimization. What is so shocking to their psyches is that their abuse happens in the context of their abuser’s unwillingness to see their humanity.

Erika’s pervasive feelings and acts of envy, rage, sadomasochism, aggression, and despair arose from her chronic abuse inflicted by her mother’s insistence that she become a successful pianist and her disappointment in Erika's job as a piano teacher. Erika is in bondage to her mother, who never recognizes her daughter’s separate subjectivity.

There is no one else around in Erika’s life that could intervene. Her father is absent and he dies in a mental hospital. Erika’s mother scolds her when she arrives home one day to discover that her father has died. This scene reveals her mother’s complete dependence on Erika. While telling Erika that her father has died, mother slaps the daughter's face. In a reversal of roles, mother is panicked without her daughter beside her. Instead of being set free to go out into the world, Erica has been forced to take her father’s place, literally sleeping in the bed with her mother and serving as the breadwinner for them.

Erika’s inability to escape her mother’s control gives rise to many bizzare behaviors. As Rayan LaMothe notes, "families and cultures transform victims of malignant trauma into perpetrators of these very traumas on others." Sue Grand’s idea is that "to escape the catastrophic loneliness" 'victims-turned-perpetrators' like Erika, become the perpetrator using violence and sadism to inscribe their loneliness on their victims." This Erika does expertly. Picture: "Tatto Girl" by Nina Frasier

Margit Grieb teaches courses on German film, literature, language and culture and directs the USF Film Studies Certificate Program. She has published articles on videogames, German cinema and television, Avant Garde Feminist new media productions, and the films of Wim Wenders. Her book German Film in the Wake of New Media is in publication. Currently, she is working on another book project, an edited anthology of essays dealing with depiction of Native Americans in German films, books, and amusement parks. (Pictured: Dr. Grieb's students at USF. )
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Sunday, April 5, 2009

OLD SCHOOL ACCENT ON THE NEW: Tampa Bay Psychoanalytic Society Hosts Robert Michels, MD

In an early morning conversation with Tampa colleagues, Robert Michels, MD described transference as an accent. Like a language learned early in life that will always color future learned languages, transference will color all interpersonal relationships. Current relationships are always influenced by early relationships. While accents enrich experience, hopefully there will be enough learned phonemes for there to be flexibility.

Both in early conversation and in his morning presentation, Michels gave an historical approach to the competition of orthodoxies. He noted how difficult it was last century for analysts to liberate themselves from Freudian ideas and Freud's mythos. He noted, as well, the major shift from attention to (unconcious and repressed) content, managing both the transference and the resistance, to attention to process and the way one chooses not to reveal content; a shift from defense analysis to character analysis.

In the 21st century, with the popularity of the Relational approach and with the recognition of the negative effects (such as narcissistic injury), of austerity, clinicians now think of themselves, not as 'expert,' but as collaborative colleagues with patients. Today, clinicians are less committed to one theory, and, instead, pluralism (in theory) exists. Analysts are less authoritarian, and less able to sit comfortably assured that their theory or technique or shibbolith is the one. Michels advocated having as many tools as possible, and then skillfully using the one applicable to the moment.

Michels is a brilliant mind, facile enough to have his finger on the pulse of changing theory and technique. Ironically (or maybe not), the presentation, as one attendee noted, was an enactment of the difficulty in giving up what was learned early in career (ego psychology) in order to flexibly apply or adapt to the new. Michels thick 'accent' on contempoary theory was noticeable, but the morning was none the less accessible and enjoyable.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Volver: Against Idealization of Mother-Daughter Relationships in Pedro Almodovar's Films

Volver, a film by Pedro Almodovar, starring Penelope Cruz is a tale of a family of women and their intergenerational experience of sexual abuse and the murders of the fathers/perpetrators.

We watched this film as part of the Tampa Bay Institute for Psychoanalytic Studies (T-BIPS), The Tampa Bay Psychoanalytic Society (TBPS), and the Department of Women’s Studies at the University of South Florida film series, “Women in Crisis: Scholarly and Clinical Perspectives.” Adriana Novoa, Ph.D. USF’s Humanities and Cultural Studies and Horacio Arias, M.D. facilitated the discussion with the audience. [Pictured left to right: Adriana Novoa, Ph.D.; Kim Vaz, Ph.D.; Horacio Arias, M.D.; and USF student David Astril.]

Dr. Novoa noted that Volver is just one in a series of Almodavar’s films (Talk to Her, Bad Education, All about My Mother) that continues his focus on the impossibility of the unity between men and women and the romanticizing of all female family and friendship groups that provide unconditional support, renewal, and protection.

She interprets Volver against the backdrop of a contemporary Spanish society in transition between village and city life. In the region of the country in which the film is set, the idealization of the mother as matriarch is particularly strong. The mythology and fantasy is that the mother allows for the adult to have a woman to return home to who will offer a perfect asylum.

In the film, Irene the mother of Raimunda and Sole pretends to the girls that her marriage to their father was a perfect love in which he died in her arms. The truth turns out to be that he was a womanizer and a child molester, a truth Irene ignored for years, casting her daughter Raimunda out of the family to keep from having to face it.

The movie is replete with splits: male vs. females; men are dangerous women are safe; the dead vs. the living; ghosts vs. real people. Irene exists in a dissociated state. She is both dead and alive, a ghost and a real person. She arrives to her daughters lives in the city in the trunk of a car; she has a stench from her constant flatulence and she sleeps under the bed.

It is only in her dissociated state that Irene can “not notice” that her daughter is being abused. The daughters are themselves confused. They ask and wonder if their mother is alive and does the forgiveness the mother says she has returned to give coming from the mother who is alive, or the one who is dead.

Novoa sees Alamodavar’s views as retrograde and sexist. He is playing into the values of an authoritarian state that says that the mother is responsible for holding the nation together. He provides a romanticized vision of the return of the mother to a terrorized and torn society, ripped apart by the unchecked destructiveness of the father who rapes, violates and disunites the family/nation. Once the man is dead, reconciliation can occur and women can help heal the fractures.

This essentializing of the female characters minimizes the negative qualities that are a natural part of mother/daughter relationships that are steeped in a history of betrayal. Irene feels rage against her husband and a lack of remorse for murdering those who have betrayed her. Irene burns the people who cause her pain (her husband and his lover) and or casts them out of her house (e.g. her daughter).

Dr. Novoa noted that in Almodavar’s hands, Irene is a terrible mother imposing her will on her children dominating them and celebrating their failures at love because it makes room for her. For Irene, single women need not be alone she tells Sole, implying that her mother can fill the romantic void. Mother and daughter can share the same bed. Irene demoralizes her daughters through critiques of their bodies (in a way that leads the audience to wonders if Irene blames Raimunda for her own molestation).

Dr. Arias pointed out that the film uses comedy to ease our anxiety about sexual abuse. But but joking about our problems does not eliminate the need to actually process them – to learn new ways of handling our ambivalent feelings for the people we love. In his analysis, Dr. Arias said that the Irene (Raimunda’s mother) was unable to have a loving relationship with her husband and was incapable of emotionally connecting with her daughter. Because Irene did not have the ability to relate, she could not teach her daughter how to resolve the problems in her own intimate relationships with her male partner for whom Raimunda had both loving and hateful feelings.

Raimunda was unable to resolve her contradictory feelings about the hate that she felt for her father because of his abuse and the rage she felt toward her mother for “not noticing” the abuse. Her rage against her mother was coupled with the longing and need for her her. Because Raimunda was unable to handle her complex feelings generated by her husband’s masturbation and sexual inappropriateness with her daughter and to assertively protect her daughter – i.e., repeating the failure of her mother, the abusive man ends up dead. The goal of therapy for people with this type of ambivalence would aim to help them integrate these disparate emotions and tolerate and make sense of the contradictory affect in order to have relationships that neither devalue or idealize the other person.

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To cite “Volver: Against Idealization of Mother-Daughter Relationships in Pedro Almodovar's Films,” you should refer to the particular title and that it comes from “Contemporary Psychoanalytic Musings,” a blog of the Tampa Bay Psychoanalytic Society, and the web address