Commonly, at the beach, at the playground, in waiting rooms, on the subway people notice whatever paperback have my nose stuck in. “A little light reading?” they say, with just a little Seinfeldian snark in their tone. Or “Catchy title!”
I never know how I am supposed to respond.
I think the satisfying answer would be to say that I am being forced to read whatever theoretical, psychoanalytic, philosophical or mythological esoterica I am currently dog-earing the corners of – as required reading for something or other. I suspect that the friendly commenter is actually asking me to betray the theory that I am devouring, (that I in fact find more delicious than any small talk or chit chat with a distant, if pleasant, acquaintance) by saying something derogatory about it. Maybe they want me to confess that I find it dry, or incomprehensible, or a bunch of nonsense and that I would prefer to read a detective novel. They want me to tell them that its not for pleasure. Its for work.
I just can’t ever bring myself do it.
In this I am loyal.
“Heh, heh, yeah, well… This is just the stuff I always read. I’m guess I’m weird that way”
It always seems to put them off, although I don’t mean to.
Its as if I’d just insisted that I think myself very fancy for reading it.
Listen, I have plenty of room in my heart and mind for both you and the book. I’ll happily close it to chit-chat if I sense that you have a strong need, and I think it would be relieving or occupying for you in someway.
But, please don’t make me choose between you and the book.
Or I will choose the book.
Although I might refuse to break faith with the book on my lap for a chatty interloper, I will show the theorist who wrote it little fidelity. I’ve admitted to myself that I am incapable of theoretical monogamy – and have never been able to bring myself to accept one body of thought as enough to keep me interested for life.
Commitment issues? Problems with authority? Introversion? Self-sabotage? Fear of engulfment?
I’ve committed to many many people for the long term, but I remain steadfastly polyamorous when it comes to those I study. Any attempt I’ve made, and I’ve made several, to approach one therapeutic path always seems to reach a crossroad, where I am asked to promise my whole brain, to forswear, at least for a significant amount of time, all other contradictory theories. The thought of it makes my breathing constrict. The freedom to follow my nose from book to bibliography to book, to wander the spaces between the tribes is like oxygen to me.
Many years ago, after I’d completed a post-graduate advanced certificate program in clinical social work at NYU, it seemed natural that I would apply to psychoanalytic institute. I was flooded with a low-grade panic as I looked around the room and listened to the aspirations of other candidates during the group interview. They all seemed to be so hungry for things that I wasn’t: They were excited about taking on identities as analysts, and being initiated as devotees to specific psychoanalytic camps. They looked forward to building networks and study groups, belonging to a professional community, doing committee work together, committing to a set of beliefs and a process. They were apparently gung-ho to give class and group presentations, expose and defend their treatments choices among competitive peers, and earn certificates and titles that had little or no appeal to me.
I’d had a long-term analytically informed, therapeutic process that was rich and satisfying to me and that I had no wish to disrupt. Access to supervisors, and peer supervision that I trusted and admired. A private practice that was building nicely. What was it that had motivated my application to post-graduate analytic institute?
I realized that I really just wanted to get my hands on the bibliographies to every single seminar. And the designated time and quiet to read through it all.
I respectfully declined my acceptance to the institute.
And just kept reading.
When my son was in second grade he said to me: “I like reading non-fiction better than fiction- because who wants to think about other peoples Central Problems all of the time?”
I almost never read fiction. I hear enough stories. I don’t need any more direct exposure to central problems in my off-hours.
I’d much rather read the words of someone else who also spends all day immersed in other people’s central problems and see how they make sense of it all. Preferably someone really smart, who can tell me something new, inspiring and useful.
Freud, Klein, Winnicott, Fairbairn, Rogers, Mahler, Kohut, Bion, Lacan, Sullivan, Searles and their interpreters and followers and apostates. Ego psychology, object-relations, self-psychology. The modern group analysis theorists (ie: Ormont and Rosenthal) the existentialists and logotherapists, the contemporary relational analysts, the inter-subjectivists. Buddhist psychotherapists, and depth theorists, Jung and the Jungians. Narrative therapy, feminist therapy and queer theory.
(I won’t bother to list the moral, existential, spiritual and religious philosophers and theologians. That would just get ridiculous.)
When my kids were babies, until my youngest about 6 or so, I was too exhausted to digest such a fibrous literary diet – and lived instead on a daily intake of myth, fairy tale, and sacred literature. (I lapped-up the hidden parental guidance I found there too, from the parents and defacto adoptive parents that support heroic journeys, and the angry, competitive, devouring, oblivious and narcissistic evil “step” parents who thwart the hero’s way.) Adding a little Von Franz, or Bettelheim, or Joseph Campbell on the side when I needed to think a little more, and my intuition was occupied elsewhere.
As the children became more independent – and I got more of myself back – Jung became the main course in my private studies.
Though I am certain no true Jungian would claim me as one of their own.
And in New York City, the psychoanalysts I encounter just want to know what institute I am affiliated with.
The social workers usually think I’m too psychoanalytic to represent my profession.
And frankly, when I am sitting, off to the side, listening to a bunch of analysts discussing the hostility expressed by the strong, unpleasant odor of a newly paraplegic, depressed, post-traumatic client my unexpressed impatience mounts: Do you even know if his shower is accessible yet? But I don’t throw my impatient wrench into the conversation because I know that when I am sitting with a group of social workers who are over-focusing on getting the necessary accommodations and accessibility in place – I am just as likely to squirm in my seat and groan internally : Do you think perhaps he smells of urine to tell you how pissed off he is?
And certainly both camps are entering into the same empathic contact through different doorways.
I am particularly drawn to those who write from in-between the therapeutic tribes, the disloyalists, the contrarians, the ecumenicists, the synthesizers: Mitchell, Eigen, Barbara Stevens Sullivan, Guggenbuhl-Craig, Bromberg and many others – those who have let their clients lead them off the grid to attempt find the threads between theorists who may have even explicitly rejected each other.
With a long a personal self-psycholgical/intersubjective analysis, individual and peer supervision drawing from modern/group psychoanalytical models, a belly full of mythology, a contrarian and introverted nature, and my hunger for undisturbed reading I claim identifications with many therapeutic tribes and belong to none.
I feel real love and gratitude toward my favorite theorists, although that doesn’t mean I will be faithful to them, or agree with them categorically. Reading their works feels extremely personal: I hear their words and their tone, I sense when they are defending themselves against anticipated or real criticism, I follow them as they take great intellectual leaps, and sometimes crash before they reach solid ground. I’ll flip quickly through the paragraphs where they have buried their thoughts alive with professional jargon until they return to straight-talk.
But I do love them all. And I hate them too. I wrestle with all of them – and pit them against each other. I disrespect their words with snotty, snarky marginalia: shocked and rejecting exclamation points, (really!) multiple question-marks (but how do you account for ?????) and scribble out the ways their enemies would counter their arguments – especially the passages I disagree with.
Their ideas and schemas negate, debate, enhance, expand and argue with each other: many of my dearest theoretical guides would loathe each other. (Anyone else want to see a Klein – Kohut cage match? Melanie might take him down in the first round with all that biting, and poisoning and destructive aggression but Heinz could still win on sheer endurance…)
And I ruthlessly batter every book, with dog-eared pages – random dreams and tangents scrawled on the inside covers. I underline and asterisk everything that speaks to me. Everything. Paperbacks in pen. Hardbacks in pencil, if one is handy, pen if not. Kindle? Highlights everywhere – but a tablet can’t offer as much opportunity for spontaneous insubordinate back-talk. Theory is my football. Half the fun is yelling at the screen.
Their words and word-paintings float through my mind in session: bad breasts, tantalizing-bad-objects, oedipal triangles, unconditional positive regard, distorted mirroring, split archetypes, alchemy, O, therapeutic play, joining the resistance, hatching, security operations, enactment, empathy. Different clients call us to different self-states, and each aspect of my professional identity wants its own mentor. I can’t imagine practicing without every one them
In Quaker process – the Truth is not seen as something that one person can posses. We must struggle together, with our little crystal clear partial truths – committed to the sliver of clarity that we posses, and search for ways to incorporate it with the truth that others hold.
And although I deeply respect those who have found one teacher to follow -
I know that I need all these voices whispering in my ear, to supervise and guide me.
copyright © 2012
All rights reserved Martha Crawford