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The Internal Triangle, and the Failure of Psychotherapy

My neighbor upstairs, Lucy Holmes, has written an interesting book called “The Internal Triangle: New Theories of Female Development.” Lucy’s a smart lady and the book crackles with life and intelligence. It’s well-written and absorbing. She’s also set herself an ambitious goal: to use Freud’s drive theory to explain female development. The back cover explains that she’s the first woman to attempt this in over sixty years. I haven’t read a lot of Freud, but didn’t he theorize that women long to have penises, and that’s why women are all so messed up?

This despite the archetypal message of the blind prophet Tiresias, who spent seven years as a woman. He tells the gods unequivocally that a woman experiences greater sexual pleasure.

For me, the most arresting part of the book was the exquisite attention to transference and counter-transference as Holmes relates anecdotes about women patients from her many years as an analyst. Some of her patients idealized her, some hated her, many did both, some wanted to kill her, some wanted to have sex with her. In response, Holmes worries, is tormented and feels inadequate. She wants to help them. Does she?

It threw me back into my years as a hands-on healer, and my years in therapy. When you lay hands on people’s bodies with love and the intention to heal, miracles happen. So does powerful transference. And wicked strong countertransference. A practicing healer has to be on her edge, standing with her toes touching the line every second. I made some big mistakes in my practice when I wandered off that edge.

And because we are all human, mistakes, blunders, errors, and inadequacies happen. A decade of my personal psychotherapy imploded in heartache when I divorced my first husband. My therapist was also my husband’s therapist, and our marital therapist, and it was all too fuzzy and intertwined. And when the negotiations between my ex and me grew contentious, I wrote a letter to the therapist saying it wasn’t right for me that my therapist was counseling someone with whom I might go to court. It was something I had to do to stand up for myself. She didn’t write back but she must have agreed, because she terminated her work with him. Of course, he blamed me. A lot of hurt and pain here, for everyone.

Which brings me to qualms about conventional talk psychotherapy. Does it really work? Can it? Therapists are all too frail and prone to err, even with the best of intentions. And, of course, therapists make their living through people showing up regularly, once or twice or three times a week. They have an investment, acknowledged or not, in their patients’ ongoing mental unhealth. Too many patients feed their therapists’ investment, falling into what Caroline Myss so aptly calls ‘woundology,’ cherishing their suffering. They don’t move on. They start every conversation with, “My therapist says….” Don’t we all know people like that?

And my most serious criticism of psychotherapy is that, largely, it doesn’t turn people into better human beings. Here is a the beginning of an imaginary, all too likely, session:

Therapist: “So, you’re an ax murderer, you lure innocent people into the woods where you chop them into little pieces. How do you feel about that?”

Accountability is anathema to psychotherapy. What modern psychotherapy has contributed to the zeitgeist, the way it is largely practiced, is the demolition of judgment and accountability. What psychotherapy should do is teach people how to hold their feelings without acting on them, and without shattering. If human beings can feel a range of emotions from -10 to +10, and can perform actions on a decency scale from -10 to +10, (-10 is genocide, +10 is risking or giving your own life to save someone else’s), then psychotherapy should help people feel and contain their feelings on the full scale, but limit their actions to, say, -2 to +10. But that’s not what’s happened. People who feel below -2 and over +3 are put on medications. And censoring actions is considered bad form.

We’ve become a culture, thanks partly to modern psychotherapy, that confuses prejudice with judgment. The pendulum has swung that far as we try to dismantle millennia of discrimination on the basis of gender, race, religion, sexual orientation. Discrimination is a great evil that I hope to see largely dissolved in my lifetime–though I probably won’t.

And judgment is still imperative. There are reasons why so many of the great, ancient, spiritual texts say, “Thou shalt not.” We need to be able to say, “That action is not okay!” The higher octave of discrimination is discernment, the wisdom to separate the chaff from the grain. Despite the moral relativism of psychotherapy, there is still chaff, and it differs qualitatively from grain.

kindness | marriage

Inquiry & Redemption

My husband and I went to marriage counseling this morning. Between us, we have four children, his daughter, my two daughters, and the mischievous little minx we have together. We’re a modern blended family, with all the complications that brings, in addition to the usual stresses of married life: finding time for romance, communication, finances, dealing with teenagers. As we shared our stories, the counselor prompted us to turn our statements into questions. “Inquire of the other,” he said. “The more you define the other person, the farther you get from actually knowing them.”

It’s a point well taken. I think back to all the times my former husband told me who I was: “You’re crazy!” was probably his favorite definition of me. And every time he made like Webster’s this way, I would look at him and wonder if we inhabited the same planet, and what mirror he was trying to look through to see me. Of course, I did, and do, the same thing. I’ve been known to tell my current husband that he lacks the compassion gene.
“But turn that into a question,” said the counselor.
“So are you feeling cold and uncaring in that moment?” I managed to ask, with only a little bit of squirming. It really didn’t kill me to ask.
“I’m feeling scared,” my husband admitted, “that I don’t know how to fix this for you, and you’ll get angry with me. I’m trying to protect myself.”
Inquiry has broader implications than promoting understanding between wife and husband. At the end of the session, the counselor shared an observation. “I travel a lot. I’m in the Muslim world for a few weeks every year. I listen to them talk about Americans. They don’t know diddly about Americans. They think they do, but they don’t. Then I come home and listen to Americans talk about Muslims. They don’t now diddly about Muslims. I keep wondering, when will we all sit down and inquire of each other? Inquire and discover?
“But we won’t do that. And so we’ll go to war. A hundred years war, devastating, all because we won’t inquire.”
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New Hampshire, messages and King George

I am a registered Democrat. That said, I have been, like so many people, disillusioned with the Democratic party. It used to stand for fair labor practices, civil and gender and racial equality, funding education, and progressive thought in general. Now what does it signify? The Democratic party is a muddled, message-less mess, which has only strengthened the Republican party. Republicans know what they’re about and what they want.

Which is why I’ve liked Barack Obama. He’s had something shiny to say, and his very wet-behind-the-ears affect has been a strength, because it makes him believable. I believe that he could be as idealistic as he sounds, because I haven’t watched him compromise himself–and poll himself–into mediocrity for the last decade. I have hope that a naive Washington outsider could effect changes that an experienced insider wouldn’t even attempt. Obama lost the New Hampshire primary last night, but he could still come out as the people’s Democratic presidential candidate. If so, and if he were elected, would he be able to get us out of the war in Iraq? How would he do that without leaving a gigantic blighted mess there? Can he repair the damaged US reputation? Would he try to turn the US into a welfare state? Would his inexperience ripen into an asset, or an obstacle? Can he live up to the bright message he’s delivering?
I also like Hilary Clinton, even while having doubts about her. She’s smart, tough and competent. She has an ace up the sleeve: charming, rascally Bill Clinton. She’s been around. But has she turned into an irredeemable bureaucrat? My husband says she’s rigid, that she wouldn’t be capable of creative thought, that she couldn’t galvanize people around her into concrete change. She’s infected with Washington inertia and we’d get more of the same, only a little less so. I’m not sure I agree. I think Hilary’s ‘rigidity’ could be the same quality that we call ‘determination’ in a man, and that she wants better things for the American people.
Kucinich intrigues me, too, but that’s another posting. For now, whether Obama or Clinton is the candidate, Democrats would benefit. They bring different strengths to the table, but they both want change and improvement. But is this all moot, anyway? Someone in the government told a friend of mine that Bush will invade Iran in the fall and use that as an excuse to suspend elections.
It seems fantastical that even Bush–who claimed the Oval Office after not being elected to it–would go this far. In general I am a big fan of conspiracy theories; I like creative imagination and I think Americans are too willing to buy whatever’s spoon-fed to us by a media that’s largely controlled by a few very biased, very wealthy individuals. So when my friend told me what he’d been told, I laughed it off. The problem is, it has the queasy ring of plausibility to it.
dystopian | I am | mind-body connection | missing people | real friends | redemption | self-reliance | transference

Smelling Different from the Tribe

Yesterday I had a conversation with a friend about outcasts. This question of those people who are not automatically accepted into the group has always fascinated me, probably because I have continually experienced myself as unlike the other members of every collective in which I have ever found myself. As a Navy brat, I was ambitious and intent on climbing up the world of books and ideas; at Yale, I was the oddball from the lower middle class, the first person of my family ever to go to college, who had never heard of a Trust Fund, and who had trouble understanding the concept of people receiving money for just being born; in my first marriage, I was the schicksa who converted, who was never quite fluent in the unspoken dialect and assumptions of born Jewry. Failure to fit in comfortably gave me the belief that The Lord of the Flies is an apt sociological description. That is, flocks of people thrust pointy weapons at outsiders.

But my friend astrologer Lynn Bell had insights into this archetype that I’d never considered. Lynn’s mind is rich, fertile, and playful–which is one reason I love speaking with her. She always has a mythic twist I hadn’t considered. It’s important to surround ourselves with those people who intrigue us into questioning our axioms, don’t you think? And Lynn’s point was that once the outsider, the outcast, brings something new and valuable to the tribe–he or she then becomes Prometheus. The light bringer. I guess that’s when you get to keep your scent and like it, too.
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Welcome

Hello, Dear Readers:

This is the inaugural entry of my blog, In the mouth of the serpent. This blog will consist of my ramblings, rantings, observations, opinions, suggestions, and hopes for the future. My interests are passionate and diverse: books, pop and literary; art, especially of the Renaissance; spirituality and healing; politics; relationships; children and child-rearing; movies and TV shows and travel and yoga and any other topic that seizes my imagination. I hope this blog stimulates and intrigues you. Feel free to email me with questions and comments; if I’m intrigued, I’ll post your email and respond.
In Vedic astrology, I have entered a particular cycle of my life ruled by Rahu, the north node of the moon, the iconic head of the serpent. Rahu in general is considered malefic but in my horoscope, it’s unusually well placed by sign and house. So, for the next 17 years, I am standing in the serpent’s mouth: this is the view.
Very truly yours,
Traci L. Slatton
tracilslatton723@mac.com
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