Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Psychoanalysis as Overpriced Storytelling

Those who have read my book, The Last Psychoanalyst might recall that I called psychoanalysis “overpriced storytelling.”

Thus, I am naturally intrigued by the story of Jay Neugeboren’s psychoanalysis, as he recounted in The New York Times. You see, Neugeboren is a writer. If nothing else, he was in psychoanalysis for the story.

For the record, Neugeboren does not call his therapy psychoanalysis, but since his therapist, Dr. Jean Franklin was sitting behind him and not saying much of anything, I believe I am labeling it correctly.

As Neugeboren describes her technique and tells us what he learned from it:

Dr. Franklin rarely commented on the stream of stories, memories and feelings that poured from me, instead guiding me to understand feelings, present and past, largely on my own. In my last month on the couch, pleased to realize I’d actually come to like myself, and thinking of ways I’d changed — my ability to be sad and to sit inside my sadness; feeling capable of loving and being loved; trusting, increasingly, my feelings and my imagination, however strange, mad and mysterious they seemed — I said that I thought I had, in the rooms of my mind, succeeded in opening a few doors and windows, in making some small changes.

Of course, Franklin was giving her patient the silent treatment. She helped him to manufacture a ton of stories, and even convinced him that those stories had been hidden in his mind.

This continued, off and on, for more than fourteen years.

Neugeboren had first consulted a therapist when he had a frightening experience.

He explained:

On the day, some decades ago, that I sent off the manuscript of what would become my sixth published book, I was suddenly possessed — there is no other word — by the desire to leave this world, and to do so by stepping in front of an oncoming bus. I walked to the edge of the sidewalk, stepped down, hesitated, let the bus go by, and decided to go home, where, if one of my children, then ages 4, 2 and 1, defied me in any way, I imagined picking that child up and throwing the child against a wall or through a window.

One understands why he sought help. As it happened, he was able to solve the problem in a matter of weeks. He did so well that Dr. Franklin prescribed psychoanalysis.

At the moment he started thinking of throwing himself under a bus, his life was going well:

... at the age of 37, I had a life better than any I’d ever believed possible. I had published five books (after having written, by the age of 27, eight unpublished books); I was married; and I had three delightful, healthy children. I had not, like my father, been a failure, and had not, like my younger brother, Robert, gone mad and been institutionalized.

After a few weeks of therapy, Neugeboren undertook six years of analysis, three times a week. He got completely into his mind and produced reams of material for his silent analyst. And he seems to have been happy with the experience.

And yet, we are within our rights to ask about the outcome of his adventure.

Unfortunately, a couple of years after his first six year foray, his life fell apart:

But I stayed on, three times a week, for the next six years. And when, two years after that, my family fell apart and I became single parent to my three children, I returned and stayed on, twice a week, for eight years. 

It would perhaps have been more accurate to say that his marriage fell apart. He would have done better to mention his wife. His account erases her from the story.

You might believe that Neugeboren got so completely lost in his mind that he checked out of his marriage. Then again, the reasons his marriage failed might have had nothing to do with his years of psychoanalytic self-involvement or with his transference relationship with his analyst.

One notes, in reading his account, that he had developed a very good, albeit apparently unanalyzed transference to Dr. Franklin.

Witness his remark about his relationship with her:

I approached therapy sessions with the same energy, intensity and sheer playfulness I brought to my writing: I brought in journal entries, letters, books, photographs, my typewriter, my baseball glove and drafts of works in progress. So large was my desire for my doctor to know me that I once appeared at her door with that day’s show-and-tell piled high in one of my children’s toy wheelbarrows.

Anyway, as happens in psychoanalysis, and as I explained clearly in my book, Neugeboren dealt with his failed marriage and his failed psychoanalysis by signing up for eight more years of psychoanalysis.

Naturally, he wants us to believe that he gained extraordinary insights from treatment. When you have invested as much as he did, you had better think that the insights are mind-altering.

Insight notwithstanding, Neugeboren was, by his testimony, making himself into a fictional character.

In his words:

I gave myself up to my own life and feelings in the same way that, when inventing characters, I gave myself up to what my characters felt and experienced. By imagining an experience back into existence I came closer not only to what had happened and what I’d felt, but to what I’d forgotten, or had not felt, or not seen, or might have felt. I became lost and frightened the way characters in my novels became lost and frightened, and I found ways of surviving in ways my characters did. Like my writing, psychotherapy enabled me to make sense of a world that often seemed senseless.

Making yourself into a fictional character does provide something like a meaning to your life. But it is a fabrication, something that will alienate you from other people and their real world problems.

While you are getting lost in your mind, they are living their lives. And they are expecting that you will be there for them and will uphold your responsibilities as a member of the family.

Thus, I note that Neugeboren manifests a tendency that I identified as central to the Freudian project: to make you into a fictional character living in a fictional world.

By his own account, Neugeboren’s treatment helped him to open up of a few small windows in his mind. When he called them “small changes,” his ever-helpful analyst corrected him and declared that they seemed “pretty large” to her.

He seems to think this was momentous, but in the world of storytelling, this is not a very good ending.

One notes that when your analyst remains silent for the greater part of your time the few words that she deigns to offer you will sound oracular.

1 comment:

Ares Olympus said...

Overpriced is a key word. I've often wondered how a therapist can make a living, unable to offer any guarantees of outcomes, and as this story shows, it can go on for years and create a dependence even if it is deemed successful.

So it seems indulgent at best, to those who can afford it.

re: Making yourself into a fictional character does provide something like a meaning to your life. But it is a fabrication, something that will alienate you from other people and their real world problems.

I can see this, but it is confusing. People have different ideas about "their real world problems." Writing and reading blogs about people you never met and don't care about might be a different sort of fiction, of zero personal risk, and yet also temporary meaning?

Anyway, stories would seem important for all "meaning". Now we can watch 12 hours of NetFlix per day for $8/month, and that's a lot cheaper than any therapy.

No wait, I forgot Eliza!