A Review of Intercourse

A few weeks ago, at the high point of the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, when it seemed like the whole world was fighting the war of the sexes, I decided to read a book that had been on my shelf a long time. Was this book some kind of feel-good escapist fare? Not a chance. I decided to read an influential, but much derided feminist classic, Intercourse, by Andrea Dworkin. By intercourse, did she mean having a pleasant conversation? Yeah, right. She meant heterosexual sex. For her, there is nothing pleasant about it. Continue reading

Reading for the Plot

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What do the flashbacks and nightmares of trauma victims have to do with the way we experience pleasure? Peter Brooks makes these unexpected connections in his essay, Freud’s Master Plot, within his book, Reading for the Plot.

A professor of literature at Yale, Brooks wanted to know why stories are a certain length. Why don’t we go directly from the beginning to the end and skip all the twists and turns along the way? Why is it necessary to have a plot? Brooks believes that he can explain with some help from Freud.

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Freud noted that, in their dreams, flashbacks, and patterns of behavior, trauma victims compulsively repeated their horrible experiences as if they were happening in the present, rather than remembering them as events of the past. If you believe in the pleasure principle, namely that people do whatever is pleasurable, you would not expect this. Freud developed his idea of the death drive in an effort to explain.

This is how the death drive works. Death, you see, awaits you. You prefer not to think about it, but it forces itself into your consciousness when you have a close call; a trauma, in other words. Your trauma made you experience something close to death, before you have had a chance to live life fully. You wish you had the sufficient vigilance to ward it off.

Having a death drive doesn’t mean that you want to die. Far from it. You know that you will die, but you want to do so on your terms. You attempt to master the inevitability of death by compulsively repeating the event that brought it to your awareness. This compulsion to repeat the trauma is to keep up the kind of vigilance which you think you failed to have in the past. You can’t take your eyes off of it, no matter how much you’d like, because of the threat it poses and the significance it has to your story. Flashbacks, then, are rehearsals.

Here’s where Brooks advances Freud and further develops the death drive. The moment you have a desire, you seek to extinguish the desire. When you crave chocolate, you mentally rehearse the eating of chocolate in the same way that trauma victims rehearse, or “remember forward”, their death. All desire, says Brooks, naturally heads towards quiescence, and all life heads towards death.

Turning to Brooks’ interest in reading: when you pick up a book, you soon find that the hero in the story has a desire. The boy desires the girl, the detective desires to solve the crime, the vampire desires blood. If the book hooks you, you soon have a desire, too: to keep reading until the book is done. A good ending achieves a sense of boundedness when all desires are resolved and all the loose ends tied up.

But there’s more, and this is why novels are long: not too long, not too short, but of a certain length. When you crave chocolate, you know it’s not that enjoyable to just cram it into your mouth at once. The craving can be enjoyable, too. If you look forward to the chocolate, delay your gratification; if you lick it, savor it before consuming it, then you enjoy it more.

This process is what Freud calls binding. The more you tease yourself with the desire, the more you rehearse its satisfaction, the more you tightly bind yourself to it. In addition to its original importance, the desire, once it’s bound, becomes invested with all the energies generated by delay.

When you read, you want the hero to be successful, but only after having adventures, suffering setbacks, and acquiring helpers. First, there’s the hero’s desire that drives the plot forward. Then, there’s the delay, the detour, the arabesque, the refusal of closure, the making of bad choices. This is what fills the pages in the middles of literary plots. Subplots, with their own system of desires, setbacks, and resolutions, contribute to the delay. A satisfying story, by teasing you with the ending, binds all of these elements together. In a good book, everything is there for a reason.

In summary, in real life, just as in fiction, whether there has been trauma in it, or not; life moves toward death. You know you’re going to die, but you want to die on your own terms, after having had a full life. A full life consists of the very same desires, setbacks, adventures, and delay we find in fiction. It is enriched by the subplots provided by our associates. An awareness of death adds a great deal to the story by bringing to mind what’s at stake. Trauma adds drama. The pleasure principle and the death drive coexist and cooperate in the developing and enriching of the good life, as it does in the developing and enriching of the good plot.

Stages of Faith

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Whenever I meet a new client, after they’ve told me about the problem that brings them to see me, I’ll ask if the problem has a spiritual dimension. Often, this gets us to the heart of the matter.

Most people answer by telling me the name of their religion, or lack thereof. I’m more interested in how they talk about it than what they say. How they talk about spiritual matters reveals the stage of development of their faith; and faith, broadly speaking, affects everything.

Faith changes and matures, just like everything else. If your understanding of God is the same now as you had in Sunday school, when He may have been presented in a cartoonish, oversimplified way, then you’re arrested in your development, whether you believe in that cartoonish, oversimplified god, or not. The old, bearded man in a cloud, strictly enforcing rules, and punishing your enemies may be a meaningful image for first graders, but it’s a problematic one for adults. Continue reading

The Uses of Uncertainty

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In 1900, for eleven weeks, Sigmund Freud met with a teenage girl stricken by hysterical mutism. We know this woman by the name Freud gave her, Dora. It wasn’t her real name. Precipitating the symptoms, she had accused an older family friend of making sexual advances to her. The family friend denied it and her father didn’t believe her. Continue reading

How The Art of War Can Help Your Marriage

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The Art of War, that classic work of Chinese literature, written in from the 5th century BC and attributed to the ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu, is packed with good advice on marriage, although marriage is never once mentioned.

It is only one who is thoroughly acquainted with the evils of war that can thoroughly understand the cost of carrying it out.

Before you go to war with your spouse over a trivial thing, you should thoroughly consider the cost of doing so. Sun Tzu makes it very clear that war, even if successful, is costly.

In war, then, let your great object be victory, not lengthy campaigns.

Maintaining bitterness and bad blood, holding grudges and grievances are like long sieges that deplete your resources. Even if you do win, what you win is no longer worth having.

In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy’s country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good. So, too, it is better to capture an army entire than to destroy it, to capture a regiment, a detachment or a company entire than to destroy them.

Taking whole keeps as much intact as possible. It gives you something worth having. Destruction only leaves devastation, not only for the defeated, but also for the conqueror.

Authentic victory is victory over aggression, a victory that respects the enemy and makes further conflict unnecessary.

Therefore, one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the most skillful. Subduing the other’s military without battle is the most skillful.

The sage spouse doesn’t attain victory by defeating her partner, but by creating the conditions that make further conflict unnecessary.

Anger may in time change to gladness; vexation may be succeeded by content. If it accords with advantage, then employ troops. If it does not, then stop. A kingdom that has once been destroyed can never come again into being; nor can the dead ever be brought back to life.

A marriage destroyed can be brought back into being, but it’s hard. Love that has died can be brought back to life, but it seldom happens. Therefore, don’t put your marriage at risk just because you are angry or annoyed. Feelings will pass. But, if you have something worth fighting about and fighting will solve the problem; then fight only to the extent that it’s advantageous.

He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot, will be victorious.

If your partner loses her shit, don’t lose yours.

Use order to await chaos. Use stillness to await clamor. This is ordering the heart-mind.

Instead, keep your wits about you and she will regain hers.

A leader leads by example, not by force.

Fighting does not end fighting. Fighting is ended by making up. Show an example of making up.

Confront them with annihilation, and they will then survive; plunge them into a deadly situation, and they will then live. When people fall into danger, they are then able to strive for victory.

When you attack your partner, she will dig in and defend herself at all costs. Then you’ll have a battle.

Build your opponent a golden bridge to retreat across.

Give your partner an opportunity to stop fighting.

Above all, says Sun Tzu, know yourself and know the other.

Knowing the other and knowing oneself, in one hundred battles no danger. Not knowing the other and knowing oneself, one victory for one loss. Not knowing the other and not knowing oneself, in every battle certain defeat.

Click here to read the Art of War.

TELL

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What can you do if your therapist turns out to be abusive? Who can you tell? You can tell TELL, the Therapy Exploitation Link Line. Here’s the link to the link line, so you can tell TELL.

TELL is a resource, referral, and networking organization that seeks to help victims and survivors of exploitation by psychotherapists and other healthcare providers find the support and resources they will need to understand what has happened to them, take action, and heal.

I wouldn’t have known to tell you about TELL had I not been asked to review a book by one woman who turned to that organization for help in recovering from a psychotherapist gone bad. The book is Mending the Shattered Mirror: A Journey of Recovery from Abuse in Therapy by Analie Shepherd. Continue reading