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?

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Humor Me (Family Cameo Version)

A few years back we spent the academic year in Iowa City, while Tony taught at the renowned Writers Workshop. It was an amazing year for all of us, on many levels. Our son, Brendan, loved being in a neighborhood (as opposed to living on a mountain) and made something of a name for himself as a musician. After just a few weeks in town, he took the stage at Peacefest Iowa and performed two original songs, including the unforgettable "Bush S*cks". Here's the Daily Iowan's report on the event. (I love the lede: "Brendan Eprile may be only eleven years old, but...") This led to his being asked to appear on university radio and, eventually, to his forming a band (The Keepers of Peace) which placed second in the Emma Rocks! Battle of the Bands fundraiser for the Emma Goldman Women's Health Clinic. It was quite a ride. As for me I enjoyed hobnobbing with the literati, but was also reminded of how rewarding it is to create a life for oneself in a new place, a kind of risk-free self-invention.

In his spare time Tony was most drawn to U of Iowa's International Writing Program, and loved the chance to engage with writers from all over the world. At the end of the year he joined a group of writers on a trip through the Middle East, meeting students and leaders in Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Greece, Israel, and East Jerusalem. He was recently asked to contribute to the IWP's 100 Word Project, a series of brief stories on the topic of war and peace. See what Tony is able to do with 100 words.

Here is a sneak preview for Tony's soon-to-be website. It's an image he drew based on South African folk art. He calls this one "Dancing Man".

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Therapy, Meditation, and Medication

Having written such a personal book as The Therapist’s New Clothes, I'm always fascinated to hear the different perspectives readers bring to it—and thus what they take from it. One who contacted me read the book from the standpoint of a mother, and related deeply to the struggle to keep my depression “separate” from my relationship with my young son. A friend who’s a painter said it gave him insight about perception and reality, and that he’s sharing this with his students. Such comments often help me expand my understanding of the story I tell. So I was thrilled to have a chat with fellow writer Stephanie Golden, who has written about psychology, including her fabulous book about women and self-sacrifice, Slaying the Mermaid, and is a practitioner of Buddhist insight meditation. She also has a blog, Writing Craft and Practice. I recommend a visit!

Many years ago, she says, she underwent Jungian analysis. We talked about how meditation and therapy interact and intersect:

“For me analysis only went so far. Once I learned all the stuff about myself through analysis I still had to learn how to let go of it so it wasn't any longer affecting how I lived. That's what insight meditation did for me—or I should say, is still doing. The key is that the meditation practice is not intellectual, it's experiential. The insights are intuitive, not conceptual. It takes time and effort to develop the skills to have these experiential insights.

“One basic difference is that in insight practice you learn not to identify with thoughts or emotions (as in, "I'm such an anxious person") so that they don't define you. The conceptual structure behind this--which has to do with the question of what is the self or ego--is too complicated to go into here, but I do feel that one problematic effect of therapy is that when people learn they have some specific issue, they identify with it and turn it into who they are.

“Another point is that the goal of meditation isn't the same as the goal of therapy. It's not to get rid of psychological problems, although that's often a side benefit. It's to clear away the veils in the mind that prevent you from perceiving a more ultimate, transcendent, or absolute level of reality. Though I know people who got into it because they were looking for calming, stress reduction and so on, but then got hooked and stayed. And meditators also turn to therapy to develop more understanding of themselves. So bottom line, Buddhism and western psychology attach different meanings to the concept of 'self' but meditation and therapy can be complementary. Depends on what each person is drawn to.”

At different points when I was, shall we say, less than well, I tried meditation; I was game for anything that promised inner peace. It never worked. I either got horribly restless or felt my discomfort magnified a zillion times. I recently came across a quote from Mark Epstein, a psychiatrist who has explored the nexus of Buddhism and therapy, in an article in Tricycle:

“When depressed people try to meditate, a major part of their meditative energy is going into fighting depression. Instead of letting it take them forward, they are using their meditation as an attempt to self-medicate. The bulk of their energy may go into obsessive ruminations or attempts to process emotional pain that feels stuck. They are facing a gradient that is too steep.”

This so precisely articulated exactly what it was like. In the Buddhist spirit, I can retrospectively feel compassion for that pain-wracked soul who could sit (if barely) but never be still. Maybe I’ll give it another go sometime. But right now I don’t feel the pull.If you look carefully at this photo, you'll see not just our Thai peppers, but also a walking stick.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


Busy with summer reading (and writing). Be back soon...

Monday, July 19, 2010

The "Free" Model: Concord Free Press

I learned of the Concord Free Press when my husband, Tony Eprile, placed a story in their latest book IOU: New Writing on Money. (Tony's story, Entrepreneurs, tells a tale of money, work and witchcraft in an emerging South Africa.) The press's "business" model is giving books away. In lieu of buying a book, the reader gives to charity. So far they've steered more than $140,000 to good causes. I thought, hey, I write about new ways of looking at money and new ways of looking at publishing -- I need to talk to these guys! So I caught up with Founder/Editor-in-Chief, Stona Fitch, author of several books, most recently Give + Take.

JDS: Given your publishing model, doing “IOU”, an anthology about money, seems, well, almost inevitable. Were you hoping to spark more discussion about the role of money in our lives? How have people responded?

SF: Yes, IOU is a great fit with our renegade approach to publishing, which makes readers reconsider the value and core purpose of books. Instead of just charging $12.95 for a trade paperback like everyone else, we ask that they give away money to a cause they care about or someone in need. The reader is empowered to figure out the value of the project, book, and overall experience of being part of our experiment in reading and giving. Similarly, the writers in IOU are all rethinking money and its role, and coming up with new insights in their poems, stories, and essays—some dark, some hilarious.

We’ve had an overwhelming reaction to the book—thousands of requests and ongoing donations from all over the world. I think people tend to savor IOU slowly. The editor of IOU, poet/critic Ron Slate, rounded up a remarkably diverse collection. But IOU definitely gets people thinking about money—good, bad, and beyond.


JDS: To what extent is your publishing model a critique of the current publishing industry?

SF: Good question. It’s important to point out that we’re a band of writers, not publishers. The Concord Free Press is about writers taking control and creating a new way to engage with readers. Our writers see their work triggering generosity throughout the world. And they find that extremely rewarding. Plus, our books can (and do) go on to second, commercial lives that make money.

We’re reminding the industry that books have incredible power beyond their ability to generate profits, which most books fail to do anyway. We’re pointing out how a radical rethinking of publishing can work (just a look at our home page confirms that). And we’re sending a positive message about books in a time of doom, gloom, and hand-wringing.


JDS: Do you think some good can come out of the turmoil in the publishing business — the concern that there’s no longer enough money in it? If so, what might that look like?

SF: Publishing has this desperate end-time quality to it now, like fishing with dynamite. I’m hopeful that the turmoil and change will leave the industry stronger, though smaller. There will probably be fewer books, but better published. They’ll be available via multiple channels, in different formats, and at varying price points. Publishers will be leaner, taking advantage of every efficiency-enhancing breakthrough available. And they’ll have to use social networking and other great online resources for establishing real connections with readers vs. simply generating hype. Making money on shorter press runs is a big challenge. But smart publishers can do it.

That said, more and more writers are going to leave the mothership of traditional publishing entirely and simply create and distribute their own books directly to readers. There will be online communities that aggregate fiction writers linked by genre, style, and other common traits. If these writers can continue to provide compelling, original work that attracts fans—without the infrastructure of traditional publishing—they’ll thrive. A fair number of name-brand non-fiction writers are already leading the charge. Fiction writers will follow.

No matter how a book is published, it all comes down to one question—is the work compelling, original, and necessary? Ideally, by asking that question vs. “Can I move 20,000 units at WalMart?” books can become more culturally relevant and important again. 

JDS: From scrolling around your website, I get the sense you’re having fun with this. Do you think having fun is important to the creation of good books?

SF: Publishing is fun, from collaborating with writers to designing and packaging the book to sending it out into the world. But making money at publishing is hard. At the Concord Free Press, we’re thankful to be free of the burden of profitability. We don’t envy the editors and publishers who have to struggle with this challenge every day, every book. So yes, we have a lot more fun. And a certain punk-inflected, subversive humor shows through in all aspects of the Concord Free Press—from our website to our books to our media coverage. We’re Billy Bragg to the mainstream publishing industry’s Electric Light Orchestra. We’re the Diggers to their Democratic National Committee. We’re the gentle thumb to their anxious eye.

JDS: The notion of giving away books for free challenges many of our assumptions about “value” and the nature of transactions. Would you say that people are rethinking their approach to material goods? If so, do you attribute this to the recession? Environmentalism?

SF: Yes. While the motivations vary, I sense a lot of people are giving up on conspicuous consumption, probably because it just isn’t that rewarding. Giving away something beautiful and original—for free, to someone who appreciates it—has an incredible power to it. Seeing our books out in the world, inspiring generosity in so many different ways, is really exciting to us. And much more rewarding than any paycheck we could be taking home at the end of the week by selling our books.

Friday, July 2, 2010

More On My Double Life: E-Book Sale! Version

Sometimes I amuse myself by the extent to which I go back and forth. I talk about Slow Money, but what I’d really like is to sell a zillion books for some fast money right now. One minute I’m reading about ways that soil can absorb more CO2, and then I’ll pop over to the Northshire website to see how many copies I’ve sold.

So, I interrupt my note-taking on matters of great ecological and economic significance to announce that the e-book version (any format) of The Therapist’s New Clothes is on sale at Smashwords—26% off! (How’d they figure on 26%? There must be a reason...) This special offer only runs through July 31, so make sure you’ve got your reading for August when your shrink goes on vacation! (Or, if you are a shrink, you need some beach reading for your Kindle, iPad, whatever—and you’ve really gotta read this!)

I'm still going through my Israel photos, and found this one of my son squinting in the bright Mediterranean light. If he had read what I've written above (or, for that matter, anything else I've ever written or said) he would be rolling his eyes!