Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Memoirs, Confessions, and Therapy

Daniel Mendelsohn opens his excellent essay about memoir with Sigmund Freud's exclamation that he could never write an autobiography. Link here.

Considering that memoir-writing is endemic to our therapy culture, Mendelsohn is correct to begin his review of Ben Yagoda's book: "Memoir: A History" with Freud's statement.

Freud had been offered a $5,000 advance to write a memoir. He refused because he felt that he could not do it without indulging in an unacceptable level of indiscretion.

Since Freud believed that a truthful account of one's mental life would reveal intemperate, sordid, and criminal wishes, he chose to demur.

He added, as a note, that the genre invited, even encouraged, self-deception and mendacity. According the his theory, the ego would never allow the level of truth-telling entailed in complete and honest self-exposure.

Then, Freud mentioned, that for $500,000 he would feel tempted to write an autobiography. Thereby he proved his own point, revealing one of his own sordid desire.

It reminds me of an old joke. There are several versions. Here's one: A man asks a woman whether she would sell her body for $1,000,000. She replies that she would certainly be tempted. He then asks whether she would sell her body for $10. Indignantly, she refuses: "What do you think I am?"

To that the man replies: "We already know what you are. We are just negotiating the price."

Surely, many people write memoirs to make money.Some others, Yagoda says, feel compelled to exhibit themselves. Given our cultural values we see these tendencies played out every day in memoirs, on talk shows, and in so-called reality shows.

And yet, it was not always thus. The first, and probably still the greatest memoir, was the "Confessions" of Saint Augustine.

Hopefully, you will grant me that Augustine was not an exhibitionist and was not in it for the money.

If we have suffered Freud's influence we will have difficulty granting him a more savory motive. If we have gotten beyond Freud, then we might say that Augustine was sacrificing part of his dignity for a greater cause, the Christian faith. For Augustine the memoir served to proselytize his faith and Church that embodied it.

Augustine was writing of his own journey from "utter abjection to improbable redemption." But he was doing so from within a social organization.

Most people overlook this most important and rather obvious point. For a member of the Christian Church confession is a sacred duty; it is an essential part of the sacrament of penance.

Usually our therapy-addled minds cause us to question the motives of people who write memoirs. I am suggesting that we try thinking of their rhetorical force, that is, the effect they are producing on other people.

Clearly, Augustine was not revealing sins to gain fame or fortune; he was setting an example, showing others how to confess. Since the privacy of the confessional is inviolate, how else would Christians know what was expected of them?

I have often said that the therapy culture and much psychotherapy derives from religion, not from science or medicine.

As Michiko Kakutani described our culture: we are acting according to: "the belief that confession is therapeutic and therapy is redemptive and redemption somehow equals art."

Where Augustine wanted people to confess in private to a minister of the Church, the therapy culture induces people to confess in private to someone who pretends to represent science. And it declares that psychotherapy will grant them the kind of redemption that can only be demonstrated by writing a memoir.

People confessed to priests in order to redeem their sins. People write memoirs to show that they have been redeemed, that is, cured.

Like confession, psychotherapy is strictly private; its secrets are fundamentally inviolate. And, like confession, psychotherapy lures people into what Mendelsohn describes as: "unseemly self-exposures, unpalatable betrayals, unavoidable mendacity, a soupcon of meretriciousness."

But how then did this pseudo-scientific process give rise to a blizzard of memoirs? Why are so many people willing to embarrass themselves, reveal family secrets, and betray friends?

Perhaps there is an element of sophistry here. The therapist, like the priest is enjoined not to reveal what takes place in therapy or confession, but that does not mean that the patient is burdened by the same constraints.

But why is it that penitents have never showed the shamelessness that seems endemic to our therapy-laden culture?

Ask the question that way and you can see the difference between the Church and the therapy culture. The Church must grant its members a dignified public face because it constitutes a community. As a community it is organized by principles of respectability. Had it insisted on public confession it would have undermined its cohesiveness as a community.

True believing members of the therapy culture might feel like they are part of a virtual community, but they are not, by virtue of their participation in therapy, members of any real community. In fact, therapy tends to weaken if not sever social connections.

Like the Church the therapy culture traffics in sin and guilt. But where the Church grants some validity to shame, the therapy culture dismisses it as inimical to individual human self-actualization.

This means that the therapy culture has its roots in an anarchic impulse; the Church has one of its roots in an organizational impulse.

According to the therapy culture the hallmark of mental health is overcoming shame. If that is true, then the best way that you can show the world how healthy you are is to reveal your most sordid secrets, regardless of the effects this will have on others, and regardless of the damage you will do to your social ties.

When Augustine confessed in public, he wanted people to flock to the Church to confess in private. When the therapy culture promoted shamelessness in the form of public exhibitionism, it induced many people to do the same.

Why should this be so? When your friend embarrasses himself in public, you might feel compelled to run over and cover him up. If it is too late to cover him up, you might have recourse to the second best solution: exposing yourself. If you do so, he will not feel alone and awkward; he will feel more normal.

When you respond to a public memoir by writing your own or by going on television to confess your sins you are not doing God's work, you are doing Freud's work. You are striking a blow against society's repression of the glory of the naked human body and of raw human emotion.


drtceline@gmail.com said...

While you surely have much or some of your story correct, it seems to me that good psychoanalytic clinician's know of their own wretchedness, have understood it in the context of human nature and their experiences and perceptions of their unique environment , but attempt to neutralize "it" or transform "it" for the greater good of self or other.

drtceline@gmail.com said...

I believe that Catholic's have a process of " faternal correction" that may be something like the psychoanalysts or psychoanalytic psycholgist's requirement to have been "faternal ly corrected" in their own treatment.