In the 70s, when I was in high school, people used the word gay to denote something being odd, strange, out-of-step or uncool. For instance, when suggesting to a friend that we go running, she might say, “That’s gay. No thanks.” Or to the teenager who did volunteer work at a nursing home, some kids might say, “That’s gay” too.
The other nite I was speaking to some candidates and analysts at an institute in NYC about the The Time to Treat the Times Campaign and it was there, among analysts, that I started to get the feeling that psychoanalysis has entered the realm of the “that’s gay”. As I discussed this blog whose first entry title is, “To Preserve and Protect the Unconscious,” I suggested that perhaps an attack on the unconscious could be thought of as a human rights violation. I also suggested that an attack on psychoanalysis is an attack on a humane way of perceiving the world and its people. I then read some of the letters written to the NYTimes (housed on this blog, “When the Analyst Intervenes”) and the floor opened for comments and discussion.
With some hesitation and yet great conviction, a senior analyst expressed the following (and this is a paraphrase) sentiments: “I take some issue with the language you are using I suppose. There is something about hearing the words psychoanalysis and the unconscious over and over again that I think is offputting. There is a history of psychoanalysis being seen as elite, and the unconscious is just not something people can relate to. ” She referenced her training and how relieved she was to meet with others who were reading the work of Stephen Mitchell, rather than Freud. It was as if Freudian ideas had harmed her, and perhaps, of course, in their Hartmann Era, New York Psychoanalytic Institute ego psychological melange, they had. But she was not critiquing ego psychology and I was talking about the unconscious–not the adaptation to reality or some other conservative formulation.
We sat with her words for a bit when another analyst piped up and said something about how we should be stressing attachment and meaning in lieu of the unconscious. It was becoming a hot potato. While of course not everyone in the room was on the same page, there was something in what the senior analyst had articulated that felt familiar to me. All I know is that as I listened, I found that my mood plummeted, and I felt filled with shame. I wondered if I was in the midst of an induction? The cry to make psychoanalysis more easily digestible is perhaps an understandable yet defensive response to its being lambasted as worthless, ridiculous, and laughable, but I think it is a move that should be analyzed and resisted. It can lead us only into the closet.
I remember many gay men at the beginning of the AIDS crisis being horrified by drag queens who they feared would delegitimize their efforts to capture the attention of Ronald Reagan. They were what we called at the time, “good gays.” They died anyway. The cleaning up of homosexuality will never work: the rectum, as Leo Bersani writes, remains a grave, and to gain rights and responsiveness, it had to be embraced for all it encompasses actually and symbolically.
The wish to water down something that I believe is best left untouched precisely because its potency makes some people uneasy, smacks of an oppressed and frightened mind set. The work of Frantz Fanon and Albert Memmi came to mind–particularly the ideas from The Colonizer and The Colonized. Is this hegemony at work I wondered? How is it that intelligent clinicians are internalizing shame about their psychoanalytically informed work? As I began to wonder about shame and the position of the analyst in America an image came to mind from the early 80s where at the Gay Pride Parade, women with paper bags on their heads walked down the street. In the midst of all the celebration and openness, they remained frozen in fear of being seen. Some held signs explaining that if they removed the bag, it would cost them their jobs. It was horrifying.
As I thought over reactions to the use of the words unconscious and psychoanalysis, I had the thought that psychoanalysis is just the most queer profession of all. We can never deny that Freud’s work practically began with a focus on the sexual lives of children. What could be more outre or threatening? And the American attempt to sanitize this psychoanalytic sexual morass has been extreme. In fact, perhaps the focus on trauma and sexual abuse largely championed by the American school of Relational Psychoanalysis can be seen as a defensive attempt to move us away from the frightening thoughts that arise in response to infantile sexuality? So here is a thought: is it possible that psychoanalysis stands in the last space left of that which is sexual yet unacceptable in the culture? Should analysts denude psychoanalysis of its power so as to fit into the world of the life coach? Or should psychoanalysts never back off of our sexual origins, which seem to make people a lot more uncomfortable than gay marriage? Should we accept our new designation in a long line of people who have proudly worn the mantle we now call queer?