Thursday, March 30, 2017

In Therapy: Big Little Lies

Given the nature of the relationship it’s nearly impossible to know what really goes on in most therapy sessions. A shroud of confidentiality prevents therapists from talking about what they really do. Most patients prefer not to discuss what happens in therapy, either. At times they are embarrassed. At times, they would rather not admit that they wasted a lot of money on mental drool.

Therapists also have a vested interest in making themselves look good. It’s good for business.

But, now we have a way of knowing what really goes on in therapy. We discover, via New York Magazine, that Dr. Amanda Reisman, therapist to Celeste and Perry Wright on HBO’s Big Little Lies represents their idea of the perfect therapist. Many therapists see themselves in the person of Dr. Reisman, so we will take them at their word and assume that this is at the least what therapists aspire to become.

One notes in passing that Celeste and Perry are the Wrights. One imagines that this is supposed to tell us that they represent the right wing. I doubt that it is meant to suggest that Perry is a descendant of the Wright brothers.

I note, in passing, that BLL is a very good television show. I understand that it’s all a matter of taste, but the show is compelling and very well acted. I have some doubt about presenting a murder mystery where the murder does not occur until the last episode—coming up on Sunday—but David Kelley is very talented, so he draws us along and into the story. The show revolves around four women, played by four great actresses. Somehow or other, it works. The combination of acting talent and great writing brings it off.

On the other side, the show often feels like a soap opera. The characters and situations are occasionally too clichéd and too stark. This applies most especially to the marriage of Celeste and Perry. While some of the other characters in the show manifest shades of gray, Perry is presented as raw, unadulterated evil—a perpetrator of constant spousal abuse. As drawn, Perry Wright is unreal, almost cartoonish. Any comments about how their therapist handles their problems ought to be seen in that context.

Since anyone can deal effectively with a caricature, especially one where the morality is presented in black-and-white terms, you can count me as less than impressed. Since their marriage is presented through the lens of a simple-minded moralistic therapist, one suspects it is being played for the melodrama, not the technique.

The therapists interviewed by New York Magazine believe that the therapy is perfectly realistic. Perhaps it is. Perhaps many therapists, especially woman therapists, see human life as a battle between female goodness and male evil. If so, they are not acting as professionals, but are inculcating an ideology. They do not want to resolve the conflict, to negotiate the differences and to set the marriage on a better footing. They look to sharpen the conflict, to the point where only the most drastic solutions present themselves.

Dr. Reisman and her fans seem to be incapable of dealing with subtlety. It makes for better drama, but it is not a sign of being professional. Surely, there is something wrong with seeing therapy as not wanting to try to save a marriage, to put it back together. In truth, Dr. Reisman does nothing more than try to destroy the marriage. True enough, some marriages do best to be destroyed, but that should certainly not be the default position. And it should not appear to a coterie of therapists to be the right way to conduct a practice.

One notes that the therapist writes the marriage into a narrative, a cosmic battle between good and evil. The therapists marvel at Dr. Reisman’s ability to get both Celeste and Perry to admit that their marriage—or better, their sex life—is based on violence, what some would call very rough sex.  Celeste has the bruises to prove it. At this time one might mention the extraordinary popularity (among women) of a series of books about shades of grey… but perhaps I do not need to do so.

Given the ideology at play, Celeste comes to one session explaining that she wants to go back to work. She had floated the idea to her husband and he rejected it, sadistically. Another blow against women’s liberation. One notes, because one manages to come across every sort of gossip that the David Kelley’s wife, Michelle Pfeiffer, recently explained that when her children were young she placed their interests ahead of her career ambitions. Now that they are older she wants to return to acting more regularly.

The therapist spins a narrative. She does not consider how Celeste might negotiate her responsibilities to young children and her wish to work… with her husband. Or how the therapist might help to teach her how to do so.

At some level the couple’s sexual activities must have been consensual, but Dr. Reisman wants Celeste to believe that she is the innocent victim while her husband is the evil rapist.  In the 5th episode Dr. Reisman loses control—not a good sign in a therapist—and harangues her patient about how her husband is going to kill her, how she must immediately leave him and find her own apartment. Celeste responds that Dr. Reisman is being anything but professional, but the good therapist is so absolutely, utterly and totally persuaded that Celeste’s life is in danger that she loses it. One suspects that many therapists hold to the same dream. Even though some therapists question this, in the end they still find Dr. Reisman to be a great therapist.

The therapist lacks subtlety and finesse. She does not try to solve problems. She wants to rescue her patient from impending doom. She does not consider how and whether Celeste should explain her departure to her husband.  Since he is evil, any effort at conciliation will lead to her doom.

Since she is emotionally overwrought and righteously moralistic, Dr. Reisman does not consider that abandoning Perry might not bring out his best. And that it might put Celeste in even more danger.

One notes that after Perry confesses to being violent in his first session with Dr. Reisman, he never returns. If Perry has a problem, Dr. Reisman is not the therapist he needs. She got him to admit to his violent behaviors but at the cost of losing him as a patient. One understands that a profession that has increasingly become feminized will not be able to deal with very many male patients—most especially those with a more sadistic bent.

From Dr. Reisman’s perspective Perry is evil. Period. End of story. He is irredeemable and untreatable. Perhaps he is untreatable by her, but is he really untreatable by any therapist? The possibility does not seem to cross her mind.

In truth, the good therapist is playing out a rescue narrative. Perhaps it’s a narrative of her own making. Perhaps it’s a narrative she learned in grad school. But she sees her role as rescuing abused women from evil men. Thus, of breaking up marriages and homes.

She is trapped in the narrative and cannot see reality. As one of the therapists noted in the New York Magazine article, Dr. Reisman shows no concern for Celeste and Perry’s two children. It’s nice to think that Celeste must save herself from the evil within her home, but don’t you think that Celeste would consider what was best for her children? Is it conceivable that Celeste would abandon her children to such a man in order to hide in a new apartment by herself? If she takes them along, it will be impossible for him not to find out where they are.

Of course, men like Perry do exist. Some men are so abusive that a woman has no other choice but to pack up and leave. Mercifully the number is extremely small, but, to be fair, any woman who is dealing with such a man should seek legal counsel, an order of protection and even personal security. And, why not try to have him indicted for assault?

Admittedly, that sounds naïve, but if Perry is really that bad the best place to deal with the problem is with the police and the court system, not with a therapist. One understands that they are woefully inadequate in dealing with such problems, but still it is better than to run off and hide. Dr. Reisman is telling Celeste to play it for the drama, to pack up and leave, the better to save her life.

If a therapist were dealing with Perry directly—evidently Dr. Reisman is too afraid to do so— he might tell this domestic abuser that if his little secret gets out, his professional reputation will be destroyed… as well it should be. Not so much because Celeste should do so, but because this is an option. It might very well cause him to come to his senses. Since Perry is presumably a successful businessman, one suspects that he values his reputation. Of course, a lawyer might tell him the same thing. Given that a lawyer can file charges or request an order of protection, his words might have some weight.

The drama tells us that the good therapist sees herself as fighting the good fight for innocent women against evil men. Presumably she sees many men as irredeemably evil, unworthy of the least effort to try to help them to overcome their sadistic sides.

When she insists that Celeste leave her husband immediately, she seems to come into her own… as emotionally overwrought and out of control.

We do not know the outcome yet, but we suspect that this is not going to end well. We happily counsel therapists to be more objective in evaluating the fictional therapist.


Ares Olympus said...

Stuart: In truth, the good therapist is playing out a rescue narrative. Perhaps it’s a narrative of her own making. Perhaps it’s a narrative she learned in grad school. But she sees her role as rescuing abused women from evil men. Thus, of breaking up marriages and homes.

I can't tell if such speculations are accurate or not, but as best I can tell 99% of relationship advice you get anywhere is to push people to divorce, or not just marriage but any relationship that isn't working.

The war between good and evil, maybe not, but the modern language talks of "toxic relationships" and "toxic people", and if the toxicity is always assumed to be in the person not present, you can be sure there's some projection involved. People rarekly ask "Am I evil?" or "Am I a toxic person?" It's only useful label if you need rationalization blame the other whether a parent, a sibling, a boss, a friend, a coworker, or a husband. In all cases people may be looking for a way out, and if you can help them believe the grass is always greener on the other side, they can have fun burning bridges as they finally defend themselves against a controlling, manipulative, evil, mean, selfish person, who is holding you back.

Transactional Analysis has its Drama Triangle with Victim, Rescuer, and Perpetrator, so it does seem useful if therapists have some understanding of these things. And you'd think they would, but perhaps we're all naïve in may ways, and perhaps many therapists fail to see their own motives. I can't guess if Life Coaches are any better, but maybe at least they promise faster results?

Anonymous said...

It's easy to be offended. If being offended is toxicity, then you as the offended person are intoxicated and total control. This is extremely dangerous, as it rewards the least courageous and/or emotionally stable among us. And let's be honest: these are the kinds of persons who rule the roost in our supposedly intellectual environments today. It's not intellectual. It's indoctrination. It's programming. That's what our universities are today: preparing for The Matrix.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...
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