In psychotherapy no subject is off limits.

We need to be reminded of that sometimes.

Some clients (and some therapists) have been taught medical models of psychotherapeutic care that suggest therapy clients should be focusing on “personal problems” and not “politics.” That talking about their place in the larger world is psychotherapeutic “resistance.”

Well, sometimes it is but sometimes over-focusing on individual problems is the resistance.

I’ve had clients who have talked about nothing other than the latest headline in the Daily News, for years. And clients who are so insulated or overwhelmed that they make no reference whatsoever to 3,000 people dying a mile from their home on September 11th, or a hurricane that floods and incapacitates the very city they live in.

Some are too porous, unable to insulate themselves, buffeted by every news flash, every Op Ed. Some have lost, or never had, the ability to discern between what is their business, their next necessary step, their ultimate work in the world and what lies beyond them, what is a fruitless or even destructive diversion.

Others live as if the larger community has no impact upon them, as if they have no civic or collective responsibilities of any kind.

We all live, embedded, in a particular personal, relational, familial, local, national, international community.

REBECCA: I never told you about that letter Jane Crofut got from her
minister when she was sick. He wrote Jane a letter and on the envelope the address was like this: It said: Jane Crofut; The Crofut Farm; Grover’s Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America.

GEORGE: What’s funny about that?

REBECCA: But listen, it’s not finished: the United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God–that’s what it said on the envelope.           

~ Thorton Wilder, Our Town, Act 1

We are fragile pack animals living in a particular time, in a particular place, at a particular point – embedded most certainly in the March of History and maybe also in the Mind of God.

Our personal patterns of denial, anxiety, despair, action and paralysis can affect the course of history as surely as historical forces shape and build, contort, lift up, oppress or destroy our lives

My grandmother-in-law told us a story over and over (retold here with my husband’s permission) about how she had learned of the concentration camps from a refugee who had escaped the camps by some miracle, to whom she had offered a meal as he fled, passing through her small town in Hungary.  Her assimilated Jewish husband and family didn’t believe her when she told them about what was coming their way. “You are being hysterical. It would never happen here. The Archbishop dines in our home!”

She wanted to flee. No one would listen. She was a canary in a coalmine, smelling the lethal gas long before the others who were focused on the problems and pleasures of everyday living. She could feel the vibration of the giant, pounding, destructive footsteps of a world historical event as it lurched toward her, soon to load her onto a cattle car annihilating her husband, her siblings, her nieces and nephews.

Her primal fear mounted, hysterical or valid, she couldn’t be certain, culminating in a choice between horrors: Two cyanide pills placed on the table. One for herself, one for her thirteen year old daughter.

“When they come they will put us in a terrible place, we will starve, we will be tortured. They may separate us. We will suffer. We will almost surely be killed. Or, we can take these pills now, together, and die peacefully. What do you choose?”

Our lives shape all of history and history shapes our whole lives.

But in each moment, all any of us can do is to assess, for ourselves: Are my fears founded? Are they over-reactive? Is this a cloying worry or a healthy fear? All any of us can do is to question ourselves: Am I too impervious? Am I in denial? Am I ignoring the signs and signals? Will I be on the wrong side of history? Or is this background noise that has nothing to do with me, that would be pointless to get caught up in?

Her daughter chose life. And they stayed together and survived the horrors of two deadly concentration camps – but the horror never left them. It shaped them forever, and their family and my family.

So: Sometimes I will explicitly ask clients how historical/political events are impacting them. I am certainly asking these questions now, at this point in time, in this particular moment in history.

Clients whose identities are marginalized or oppressed don’t assume I am safe to talk to unless I actively invite the content in. Other clients may simply not know that it’s considered legitimate for them to examine their place, their responses and responsibilities inside these events. Some need to be gently nudged awake or even shaken. Some need to be soothed. Some have constructed denial bubbles to insulate themselves but I can feel the anxiety churning underneath. A few know exactly how they are effected, monitoring their tendency to flood or to shut down or both – and actively work to stay calibrated and grounded. The activists I see are exhausted, absorbing so much vicarious and community based trauma they need extra permission to pace themselves. Some struggle so intensely with the pulls of their own internal conflicts – that there is scant energy left to take note of world events swirling around them.

The place where your identity makes contact with your community, your nation, and the historical moment is you too, and is absolutely as legitimate to discuss in psychotherapy as an argument with your partner or conflicts from childhood.

We can suppose we are insulated. But we aren’t really. It’s an illusion. We live in community. Our communities affect us like the water we drink, the air we breathe.

Almost everyone is feeling of powerless, worried, afraid of the deep polarizations taking place all around. Many are in active conflict, debate, estrangement with family and friends. Some feel that they are asphyxiating in avoidant silence. Some have drawn battle lines. Almost everyone expresses feeling simultaneously activated, and concerned that any action they may take will be impotent or destructive to themselves or others.

This tension of this particular place in time and history is a real psychological force that needs to be tended to and observed. We don’t know whether the tension will dissipate or constellate, and we don’t know how our choices will affect the outcome or how the outcomes will affect us.

Psychotherapy, at its best must make space for all of this too.

But listen, it’s not finished: the United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God.


In Memorium

Update: The Astraea Ellie Conant Fund closed on June 30th after six months of fundraising and after an amazing glorious float in her honor rode down the middle of the NYC Pride Parade. At the time of its closing just over $18,000 had been raised in her memory to support LGBTQ youth in Korea. 

I know many people who read this blog made contributions and I thank you for your kindness, and support and for helping to change the world in Ellie’s memory. 

Recently I wrote a post entitled “Death Ed.” for a dear friend,  a chosen sister who was facing a terminal illness.

She died early New Year’s Day, peacefully, in the arms of her amazing partner. We received the call as we were eating ttok mandoo guk, the traditional Korean New Year soup that she had taught us to make.

It is nearly impossible to describe Ellie to those who have not met her. It is also nearly impossible to explain to those who do not know us how it is that we became a family. Her own words are more effective than any of my own.

She helped to raise my children. She helped me care for my sick and dying mother.

She fed my Korean children the food her Korean mother fed her as a child and taught them to cook it for themselves.

She was there on our worst and best days as a family.

She understood my children in places that I will never comprehend, but will always respect.

She made me laugh my ass off even in the darkest times. She stepped up for me, and permitted me to do the same for her.

She changed people’s lives who met her one time, for ten minutes and never ever forgot her.

It has always been easier for both of us to give help and harder  for us both to receive it. But somehow we learned to ask and accept and receive help from each other.

And because Ellie was such a supportive soul, and so encouraging about this blog:


 I will take what we learned together and ask my What a Shrink Thinks community to help us make sure that this loss generates care and consolation for others:

Before her death, Ellie spent time thinking about her legacy, the causes and the people on this planet that she most wanted to support – projects that would serve as extension of her core values and passions. She decided that her memory would be most honored by caring for LGBTQ youth in Korea. With the help of Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice we are able to direct donations made in her memory toward a shelter in Korea for LGBTQ youth, as well as other projects.

Please help her extraordinary and nurturing spirit continue to work for change, compassion and liberation in this world.

Please share this post and follow this link to the Astraea donations page, and be sure to indicate that your donation is in memory of Ellie Conant. 

Donations will be accepted through June, 2016–both the month of Ellie’s birth and the annual Pride celebration she loved so much. How fitting that we support her in spreading Pride into the world.

To my beloved adoption community:

So many people have reached out to us to ask how they can support  our children through the loss of their dear dear Imo.

This is how:

Please click and share this link and help us raise up and support multiracial and LGBTQ voices annually at the KAAN conference.

Our bonds as a family were forged & solidified there, it is an annual community/family reunion for us  and we hope you will all help us to keep Ellie’s generous spirit present at the conference so the kids can see that she is not forgotten. 

She left us with so much , and I hope that we can extend that abundance to others.

With a full and grateful heart,


Looking Back

Death will not part us again, nearer to heaven than ten thousand ancestors who dream of me… ~ Rickie Lee Jones
The ancestors possess this in-between quality of the flown soul and the hovering presence ~ The Book of Symbols

Until a short time ago if you googled my name, without initials, credentials or qualifiers you would find only text and images of my most infamous and tragic relative. My name would summon a black and white photograph of a lovely blonde woman, posed formally, in a light-colored taffeta gown, with stiff bows and many strands of pearls. To me, she resembled my father, and how beautiful he might have been in drag. I never knew her, and although she lived in a perpetual vegetative state since my early adolescence – since before the internet existed – her life, her story, preempted my digital footprint until I reached the half century mark of my own life.

I often wondered what clients who googled me would make of it, when my name emerged on their screens attached to her story. Would they glean our association, guess that I was/am her namesake? Probably not. I never met her and my relation is distant enough, and further obscured by an adoption – that it is in no way obvious. It is an inconsequential, silly, tangential anecdote, a piece of Martha trivia shared sometimes at dinner parties when I’ve had a glass of wine or two.

Yet, when I realized that I had dethroned the preceding and deceased Martha Crawford in the digital archives, I found myself examining the psychological legacy I had inherited from our common ancestors and my peripheral relationship to her.

The ancestors are those who have “gone before” (from the Latin ‘antecedere’) all the life that has ever been, leaving behind the traces of kinship ~ The Book of Symbols

When clients first come to therapy, the first thing that a responsible psychotherapist does is to “take a history” enquiring about the biopyschosocial events, achievements, traumas, and milestones that compose a clients history from birth to the present:

“When did you first have these symptoms? Who are the people in your family of origin? How old were you when your brother was born? When your parents divorced? When your mother died? What was school like for you?”

Many clients resist, annoyed, wondering why I am asking about stuff from long ago that “obviously” has nothing to do with what is going on in the present.

Others are protective: “Look, I’m not interested in blaming my parents for my problems. My parents were great.”

Blame is not the point – I am scanning for patterns, for repeating themes, for unfinished business, for unexamined loyalties to the way things used to be, that have grown into present day obstacles, or, at least, are no longer useful.

Thorough clinicians often try to reach back before birth: “Do you know the story of how your parents met? What do you know about your mother’s childhood? What was your father’s relationship with his grandfather like?”

Family systemic therapies look back as many generations as possible, creating complex genograms, family trees graphed out, dotted with triangles, circles, and squares.

I remember in social work school family systems class, as we were all asked to chart out our own multi-generational family histories – the students’ gasps of surprise as patterns suddenly seemed to pop off of the page – recurring generation after generation.

I had my own realizations: My paternal great-grandfather had died when my grandfather was nine years old, my grandfather had divorced and abandoned my father when my father was nine years old, and my parents divorced, my own father seemingly incapable of fathering any longer when I turned nine years old.

Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation. ~ Exodus 34:7 King James Version

Working at a day treatment program early in my career, I sat with the aunt of an African-American client who had severe limitations in his ability to communicate about his own history. Together we sketched out a genogram on a legal pad as I asked her about who had married whom, how many children they had. Suddenly she asked me a question, gesturing to my name plaque on my door.

“Your middle name, is that a family name?”

“Yes” I answered, “why?”

“I just wondered…” she drifted off, her brow furrowing. She tapped her pen on my page as she then wrote in the same uncommon family name, my middle name, into her family tree. Surprised, I couldn’t wrap my head around her question.

“What do you wonder?”
“Any of your ancestors live in the South?” she enquired.

My heart froze, as I realized what she was wondering. I suddenly noticed that the naming patterns in her family and in mine were shockingly similar: the client’s mother (aunt’s sister) was named Martha, and their maiden name was the same as my unusual middle name. There were uncles and brothers who had my brothers’ names, and my own aunt had the same first name as the woman sitting in front of me. As I looked over the page I saw grandparents and great grandparents with similar (or exact) and fairly uncommon first names. My mind scrambled, my heart pounded as I rapidly flipped through that branch of my family tree as I knew it:

“No. Midwestern Quakers, Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota – many many generations… Its funny, I see not only my name, but lots of my old Quaker relatives names, here, and here, and here, in your family tree.”

“Oh, Quaker names…” she smiled warmly, obviously relieved and took my hand “I suppose that its just some sign that you are the right person to help our sweet boy.”

It was the beginning of one of the sweetest, warmest, most touching relationships I have ever known with a cherished client and his family.

Yet, this exchange about the historical, cultural realities of our lives – of who our people might have been to each other – of an abomination that my ancestors would have been legally empowered to inflict upon their greats and great-greats – served as a reminder of what had, in fact, been inflicted, of what had been survived, of the strengths and losses of previous generations and what had unfolded for this family in its wake. What could have been between us, and what was, and the attending irreconcilable divergences were as alive in our relationship as the synchronicity of our mirror-names.

Our historical context matters. It lives in our names, in our bones, in our privileges, in our genes, in our family stories, and in our strengths, scars, wounds and failures.

How would we have survived had we not been carried on the shoulders of the ancestors? How would we have found our way had we not been guided by the psychic deposits they have left us as signs….They haunt us if neglected. The bother and disturb us if we do not honor their living presence. ~ The Book of Symbols

I’ve had many clients who saw their parents behavior as mystifying, intolerable, oppressive, unjustifiable. And when we looked into their deeper historical/cultural/generational histories – of curtailed freedom, poverty, oppression, famine, war, genocide – “bad” parental behaviors suddenly became acts love from another time, another circumstance. A crying child – while a family hides from a murderous army – must have its emotional vulnerability suppressed in order for future generations to exist and survive. Parsimony appears withholding and unloving until a family history, a generation or two prior, of extreme poverty is understood and acknowledged. Cloying anxiety about a child’s diet can look merely pathological if a deep family history – of not knowing when they might next eat unconsciously conveyed forward into the present – has been overlooked.

Sometimes awareness of the personal aspects of our deeper histories fade away due to simple disinterest, disrespect for what came before, from passivity, or lack of curiosity and empathy.

And we all know what happens to those who forget history.

The unconscious compulsion to repeat can extend well beyond the scope of an individual life.

The dead may be malevolent or benevolent, feared or admired, given bribes to keep them from mischief or gifts to make them happy. ~ Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend

And there are lost and stolen stories, the broken narratives of disrupted bloodlines: Adoption. Death. Family severance.
There are unspeakable, silent legacies: Trauma. Torture. Abuse.
There are intentionally suppressed histories: Secrets. Shame. Lies.

And certainly the stories and mysteries that surround both the Other Martha, and my grandfather, the events that bound them to each other, have been a hovering presence in my life: legacies which could not ever have been predicted, inheritances painful, joyous, and surprising. And that are also in some form, being passed on to my children for good and for ill.

According to traditional Korean beliefs, when people die, their spirits do not immediately depart; they stay with their descendants for four generations. During this period the deceased are still regarded as family members, and Koreans reaffirm the relationship between ancestors and descendants…

But, I have seen too much to believe that anything is ever really lost, even when we do not have conscious access to our inheritance – our bodies speak, the ancestors whisper in our ears, live in our cells, in our genes and come to us in our dreaming.

They cannot ever be taken away from us completely, nor can we escape them.

They are with us always and everywhere,
whether we like it or not.

copyright © 2013
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

Queries Concerning Psychotherapy and Privilege

Every time we ask a question, we are generating a possible version of life. (~ David Epston in Cowley and Springen, 1995 , p. 74)

Friends (Quakers) approach queries as a guide to self-examination, using them not as an outward set of rules, but as a framework within which we assess our convictions and examine, clarify and consider the direction of our life and the life of the community. (~ Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice, page 205)

Does psychoanalytic psychotherapy as a profession make sufficient assessments of conscious and unconscious, explicit and implicit racism, sexism, heteronormativity and bias in all its forms in ourselves and others, and the destructive consequences to all parties?

Do we believe that healthy relatedness demands well-developed empathy, mutuality, and parity? Do we recognize bias in all forms, personal and institutional, implicit and explicit, acknowledged and unacknowledged as a failure of empathy, an objectification of others and as an obstacle to healthy relatedness and psychological well-being?

Do we accept that the conscious and unconscious empathic failures surrounding bias and oppression are certainly a more profound loss for the oppressed, but a loss to all parties nonetheless?

Do we consider Lacan’s and Foucault’s idea of the privileged “Gaze” of the therapist? Do we see ourselves as people who gaze out from inside a dominant narrative, a “regular” story requiring categorization or explanation from all who we see as “different”?

Do we understand the differences between individual prejudice, institutional racism, and unexamined privilege?

Do we examine the narratives of success, of health, of family, of connection, of development that are viewed as “normal” regular, ordinary, usual, and taken for granted as universal by the dominant culture?

How do we take this made-up story about who is “regular” for granted, and wittingly or unwittingly put these narratives forth as better, more important, more normal than others?

Do we examine our own participation in how “othering” or “normaling” stories get disseminated or disrupted? Do we critically examine how the institutions in our culture – media, government, schools, religious institutions, and graduate and post-graduate psychotherapeutic training institutions – inform us as to what is “regular”?

Do we advocate for inclusivity in our psychotherapeutic practice and training institutions? Do we feel an institutional environment, or our own caseloads are sufficiently diverse when in actuality very few of people of color, differently abled, or LGBT people are represented?

Do we recognize that we speak through our inaction as well as our action? ~ Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice

Do we participate in panels, conferences and workshops, peer groups led entirely or predominantly by those in the dominant culture?

How have the dominant stories about race, gender, homosexuality, disability, and class determined and shaped our psychotherapeutic practices and training institutions, fee setting, size and composition of our caseloads, choice of colleagues, and our preferred psychotherapeutic models?

Do we, as psychotherapists ever place ourselves in professional, or social circumstances where we are not in the majority? How might such experiences help us to better empathize with those who carry narrative burdens, who are regularly challenged to explain, defend, or advocate for themselves within the dominant culture, and those who are on the receiving end of bias and oppressive circumstances more often than we are ourselves?

Do we cultivate relationships with adults with whom we have racial, ethnic, cultural, or religious differences outside of the psychotherapeutic setting?

Do we cultivate therapeutic relationships with clients who differ from us in identifiable ways?

What life experiences or personal characteristics, if any, have made you feel “gazed at”: forced to explain, alienated, ignored, misunderstood, distorted, or excluded by most people or by institutions? What circumstances, if any, have you found yourself in where you were instantly and visibly identified as an outsider in someway?

How might these experiences be useful in practicing psychotherapy with a concern for social justice? How might these transitory experiences offer only limited insight into what it is like for a client who lives with more chronic or different forms of oppressive or unjust circumstances?

Do we listen deeply without becoming defensive or competitive when clients friends, or colleagues or people online share experiences of oppression, even if we feel implicated, guilty or uncomfortable?

Are avenues for exploring differences kept open? To what extent do we ignore differences in order to avoid possible conflicts?
~ Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice

Do we allow ourselves and our worldview to be changed by hearing stories of other people’s discomfort, anger, grief and pain from experiences of oppression, exclusion, bias, and prejudice?

Do we monitor ourselves for defensiveness, minimizing over-identification, excessive or non-generative forms of guilt, hopelessness and indifference?

How can racial, gender, sexual/gender identity and/or class differences between therapeutic partners affect the way they tell and hear each others story?

Do we proactively and thoughtfully confront, explore and examine biased narratives when we experience them in our office, with friends and colleagues, and in ourselves?

Do I treat conflict as an opportunity for growth, and address it with careful attention? ~ Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice

What do you worry people will assume about you?

What do you hope people will assume about you?

What do we understand about our clients’ hopes and fears about the assumptions of others?

What assumptions have we made about clients that were inaccurate, injurious, or unrecognized (by us)?

How do we respond when confronted with the inaccuracy or injuriousness of our assumptions?

Am I careful to speak truth as I know it and am I open to truth spoken to me? ~ Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice

Do we consider that there are parts of our client’s stories that are never given words, are essentially deleted, or never even noticed by themselves, by us, or by others because they just don’t fit in with the dominant story, or with our assumptions as psychotherapists?

How can we learn from clients and colleagues who are different from us without making them feel unduly burdened or pressured into teaching and explaining?

Are we mindful that those with experiences of oppression and narrative burden need to protect themselves from scrutiny and the unempathic Gaze of individuals, institutions and environments that are distorting, enraging or exhausting?

Do we condone or assume that narratives of privilege are healthy for privileged people? Do we remind ourselves that none of us are free unless all of us are free?

Do I examine myself for aspects of prejudice that may be buried including beliefs that seem to justify biases based on race, gender, sexual (and gender) identity, disability, class, and feelings of inferiority or superiority? ~ Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice

What is my psychotherapeutic practice doing to help overcome the contemporary psychologically wounding effects of past and present oppression?

Questions, and more questions, and questions as yet unformulated.

No answers please.

Deeper questions.

copyright © 2013
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

%d bloggers like this: