Confessions of a Wanton Theory-Wonk

Commonly, at the beach, at the playground, in waiting rooms, on the subway people notice whatever paperback I 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

18 responses

  1. Hurrah for theoretical eclecticism and literary omnivorousness!

    I think that consuming everything in sight has done wonders both for your world view, your (highly enjoyable!) writing style and no doubt for your clients too 🙂

    Another lovely, insightful post as always.


  2. I like that! And I’m noting down all those names you dropped, for my own reading list…. (having just finished Henry Dicks’s magnum opus)

  3. I adore this entry — I was smiling in recognition and identification the whole time. I am often holding a pretty obscure psychoanalytical text in public and cannot truthfully answer that I’m reading it “for” something (a course, a program), but have to confess to reading it simply because I want to.

    I also really enjoy reading your internal responses to both the psychoanalysts’ and the social workers’ conversations; you say so clearly why both are valid doorways AND why each one can be limiting if adhered to too narrowly.

  4. Thank you. I absolutely love this entry. I am in a lovely gestalt training program, learning and yet feel out of place as not a devotee who lives, breathes and sleeps gestalt. Books are scattered all around and constantly with me. Reading multiple volumes at the same time, even conflicting theories in the hopes of gaining a twinkle of insight. Longing for interdisciplinary, unconventional solutions that take far longer than the firefighter method of social policy creation that is historical. Learning that in the captured moments before a child’s concert when a parent asks what I am reading and then fumbles to find an appropriate response is a reflection of their discomfort with the subject, no longer willing to only take socially acceptable books along. Cheers to being confortable with being unique and self accepting.

  5. How funny that there are socially acceptable books at all, but I think you are right – that there is something threatening about the subject – would they be as threatened by a nuclear physicist reading a a publication on quantum theory? Maybe, but I’m not sure.

    Glad there are others out there!

    thanks for reading, and commenting


  6. Hi Martha,

    Another wonderful post… And in this one, you cite many theorists that I am adding to my “to read” list.

    I love your eclectic approach and the fact that you are continually looking to see which theory may work best for what type of issue.
    By you being familiar with different techniques, you have the flexibility to adapt according to what feels best for your particular client as opposed to insisting upon the client working with one specific approach.

    It’s truly meeting the client where he/she is and providing therapy in the way that best meets the client’s needs.

    P.S. Keep on reading as you desire! It’s one of our basic freedoms 🙂

  7. On those days that I start to think again that I should look into analytic training, despite knowing that I really don’t want to sit in a class again, I need to remember how exciting it is to follow the trail from one book to another that I have followed for the last 35 years, a trail that has taken me through Winnicott, Guntrip, Ogden, Jung, Freud and so many more. I’m not sure any program could have given me that.

  8. Every once in a while a have a fantasy about getting an MDiv after my kid leave the house… But again, I think its more about the library access and the texts! There is alway more than one route up the mountain!


  9. I love this post Martha and join with you and the other commenter’s in following our own inner academic guide. If I sat next to you (or the other commenter’s) in a public place and saw what you were reading, I would feel like I hit the one in a million mega million jackpot! I heard that Jung once said that he was glad he was Jung and not a Jungian. When I was working as an abstract collage artist, I loved creating, collecting, and arranging contrasting and congruent bits and pieces to create something new. I feel the same collecting insights. I read multiple books at one time too (and love bibliographies). The most fun is discovering some vital meaning embedded within different voices, or even different subject areas, or when some new idea pops out. I love that! Amen to “being comfortable with being unique and self accepting.” Thanks Martha for your post and thanks to the other commenter’s! Here’s to you gaining “library access” to the library of your dreams and climbing the mountain in your own unique way! 🙂 Sandy

  10. “The most fun is discovering some vital meaning embedded within different voices, or even different subject areas”

    Yes – exploring the universalities, and throughlines – is very exciting -and the divergences and disparities can be important – as as meaningful as well – (but not as exciting to uncover!)

    Sadly, the Great library of Alexandria burned down a few thousand years ago – but the internet does ok in lieu of the ideal.

    Thanks for reading and your comments!


  11. Pingback: Weekly Psych Rounds 01-06-12 « Shrink Things

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