Monday, October 25, 2010

Borderlands, Present and Past

I recently wrote this piece for Rutgers Today about dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), known to be the most effective treatment for borderline personality disorder (BPD). I was groomed to see the world (and myself) through a Freudian lens, so when I embarked on my MA in Counseling Psychology the realm of acronym diagnoses was new to me. Like many beginning therapists, I found working with BPD clients disorienting; the connection I felt would move in and out of focus. (On one unnerving occasion that I write about in the book, I was so thrown off I actually had a panic attack.)

Writing about BPD reminded me of one inspiration for the novel I’m working on. (A novel is so grueling I believe multiple lines of inspiration are needed in order to write the thing.) In grad school I read that borderline personality disorder was regarded as a “modern” phenomenon; the sense of “emptiness” that dominated someone’s inner experience was seen as the consequence of an individualistic culture in which people expect to be “filled” with consumer goods and seek wellbeing in a social/spiritual/identity marketplace. This is in contrast to Freud’s prototype, the late Victorian “hysteric”, whose maladies evolved in a sexually repressed, socially constricted culture. Here's an article from back then. Can’t believe I remembered it so clearly after all this time!

So this is how it all connects: A few years ago I was reading about my grandmother’s psychoanalyst, Fritz Wittels, and grew fascinated with a love triangle that proved pivotal in his life. Fritz and his buddy Karl Kraus (see last post) claimed to have found the “ideal woman”, since she was free with her body and lacked the usual neuroses about sexuality. The young woman in question, a would-be actress named Irma, seemed to me a very modern figure, and from the way she moved through the world—impulsively, erratically, with alternating swagger and dread—put me in mind of someone with BPD. I posed the question: what would happen to a BPD character stranded in Freud’s Vienna with a bunch of neurotics? That’s one thread woven into the novel.Tony has been photographing doors in Old Jaffa. He pointed me to a quote from the artist/creator of this door, Ran Morin: “I am dealing with earth and olive trees and actual places where there are borders. A Palestinian once told me, ‘Okay we don’t have to fight over the land; we can grow the trees in the sky’.”

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Psychoanalysis: Quotes and Critics

Of all the comments I get about The Therapist’s New Clothes, no one has mentioned the quotes that appear before the text:

“We may have thought there was bad stuff in there, but we didn’t know how bad. But since it was in the name of healing, we accept it.” D.H. Lawrence

“Psychoanalysis is that mental illness of which it believes itself to be the cure.” Karl Kraus

I thought those were such nifty quotes! And how many people know that D.H. Lawrence wrote two books on psychoanalysis? Though I do remember that Sons and Lovers was required reading in a college course called “Psychoanalysis and Literature”. What a great class that was – I remember writing a paper in which I applied concepts from The Interpretation of Dreams (displacement, condensation, portmanteau words) to Alice in Wonderland. Those were the days...

I’ve seen variations of the Kraus quote around (though I don’t remember seeing it during my heyday as an analysand/training therapist, when I could have used a clever jolt like that.) Beyond that, Kraus is a character I’ve come to know quite well as he is one corner of the love triangle that drives the novel I’m working on. Such a brilliant, brittle character, a master of the aphorism and the aphoristic insult, arguably the first critic of the mass media. His magazine, Die Fackel (The Torch), was written in the spirit of today’s best political blogs. He nailed the hypocrisy of public figures. He loved pointing out errors in The Neue Freie Presse, which was 1900 Vienna’s equivalent of The New York Times. And he took every opportunity to diss psychoanalysis, to the extent that he has been called the “anti-Freud”. For example: “Psychoanalysts pick our dreams as if they were our pockets”; “Psychology is the last resort of incompetence”; and "Psychology is as useful as are directions for how to take poison." You get the idea.

A few years ago I went to Vienna with my brother, Fred, who is an art historian and German scholar—based in London and Scotland, so I rarely get to see him. It was an amazing trip, just the two of us moving through this spectacular city, steeping ourselves in its present and past. Between his knowledge of language, art and architecture and my knowledge of psychoanalytic history and cafe culture, the place was an intellectual playground for us--but one with really good food and wine. In one used bookstore (District 8, Josefstadt, it would have been) we found several copies of Die Fackel. Fred bought an issue, I’m not sure which one.Die Fackel was known for its modest size and its bright red cover. Resemble any book you know?