“Suddenly I See You Don’t Have a Penis!”: The Firing of Jill Abramson at The New York Times

We love to write about The New York Times here at Walking Through Life Holding Freud’s Hand, but this time we are not going to complain about their coverage of the impossible profession/psychoanalysis.  Instead, we are going to analyze the firing of a woman, that would be the now former executive editor of the paper, Jill Abramson, from a psychoanalytic point of view.

It ends up that our breaking news about this harrowing story of men and women at the paper of record is being brought to you from, of all people, Sigmund Freud.  Yes indeed.

You remember him, right?

Even though the Times has told you for years that he is irrelevant, well, it ends up that he totally called this story way, way, way in advance.  Qu’elle surpris!

Men have a hard time with women who show their lack!  While we (hello ladies!) like to think that men have a bad time with female power, the reverse ends up being what runs (and ruins) our show.  Freud says it is so so pay close and closer attention.

In his key 1925 essay, “Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction Between the Sexes”, (SPCotADBtS) Freud pretty much lays out the unconscious mise en scene, (if not also the unconscious of Arthur Sulzburger), that led to the firing of Jill Abramson, the first female executive editor in the history of the New York Times.  In this pivotal essay, written just 79 years ago, Freud elucidates the dynamics that made possible last week’s chilling institutional beheading.  This act of violence, so swift and sudden and perhaps unexpected, is revealed by Freud to have been rather inevitable.  Maddeningly, psychoanalysis reminds us there is no such thing as a mistake.

Freud works through three heavy hitting conceptual problems in this essay.  First up is penis envy.  Second on deck is the female oedipal mashup.  The piece de resistance however, albeit third (!) in the pecking order, pertains to this little conundrum: why does the recognition of sexual difference pose such a problem for the little boy?  And we learn that it begins around the age of three (!) and intensifies when the boy develops an awareness that his beloved and needed mother is not a replica of himself.  She doesn’t have it!

Women in power revealed as not being truly powerful need to watch their step–especially around year three of their tutelage.  (As any mother of a son knows, three is a knock-down drag-out year.)

Always ahead of his time, omniscient perhaps, the father of psychoanalysis tells us why discovering that girls and women are penis-less is such a source of trouble for the-little-man-to-be:

“when a little boy first catches sight of a girls’ genital region, he begins by showing irresolution or lack of interest; he sees nothing or disavows what he has seen … It is not until later, when some threat of castration has obtained hold upon him,” (we might say when it all becomes real, around the age of three, our oh-so-magic number), “that the observation becomes important to him: if he then recollects or repeats it, it arouses a terrible storm of emotion in him and forces him to believe in the reality of the threat which he has hitherto laughed at. This combination of circumstances leads to two reactions: … horror of the mutilated creature or triumphant contempt for her.”

The implications for women who show their lack, as Abramson did, are noteworthy.  Ladies, get out your notepads for what follows is the reverse of common logic.

What massive bad timing on the part of Jill Abramson’s unconscious led her to inquire about her salary/package being much less than her predecessor, Bill Keller, as she approached her third year (THREE!) as executive editor at the Times?

Jill Abramson, where was your analyst? To be frank, any garden variety trafficker in the field of the unconscious could have told you to wait until after the crisis of sexual difference had died down to negotiate a win.  Men, Freud reminds us, are especially hard on women in charge of them at age three.  Abramson had been running the paper for exactly that long.  Kid you not.  (Studies should be done.)  But listen, when a man is realizing you don’t have a penis is not the time to talk about a raise!  Now we must read tales of your being “brusque” and “abrasive”.  I haven’t seen the word “cutting” bandied about in Abramson’s direction, but it would be apropos given that we are talking about castration fear, full-on and right here.

As the shock of sexual difference takes some time to metabolize, and given that a man’s fear that, snip-snip, “it could happen to me” may be prominent, the moral of the story is that women in power should watch their steps 36 months in.  Also, to reveal that one is lacking financial power, and that as a woman one did not come in protecting herself during negotiations, as Abramson apparently did not, is basically to show them what you lack when they are still struggling to not be terrified of you for what you are missing.  It is recommended that you reread the previous sentence so as to wrap your head around it.  And to always ask for more than you think you should.

That said, serendipitously, three or so days ago, as this beheading was being made public, an editor I know (we will refer to him as Mr. Journalism forthwith) at another NY daily mentioned in passing that “penis jokes” remain de rigeur among reporters.  I believe his words were, “Oh my God.  It’s all day long!”  While this was not surprising it was, also, SO surprising. Alas alack, the world of journalism still remains a masculinized haunt. Hence the advent of Abramson, a veteran, crackerjack girl reporter, (without a penis), to such dizzying heights, was perhaps, for her and for her female staff, one part thrill, one part danger and, one part trepidation; quite the potent triangle.  They were right to be scared.  And this may be why Abramson did not ask “please sir, can I have some more” on her way into the place.  She let her just desserts lie fallow.  If you don’t ask for more, whatever more is, you don’t get no respect.  And an executive editor needs to be respected.  And if you don’t feel respected, all you can do is attempt to be compensated by being a bit, what is the word again?  Oh, yes, brusque!!

Let our readers at this point be reminded that the only reason for penis jokes being prevalent is to make sure “it” is not lost in the shuffle.  Anything that needs to be constantly spoken of smacks of a fear that it could up and disappear.  (I know that there can be an all-in-good-fun element.  I ain’t no killjoy.  But some men make their penis jokes in the same way some men sit with their legs spread wide on a crowded subway–to remind themselves that no one has absconded with it.  And my guess is that my Mr. Journalism knows he has it and his jokes are also on himself, leaving room for women to be included.)  But indeed, having a penis is a totally risky business as every man knows.  The discovery that Abramson had no penis was a source of disturbance to many.  That she did not negotiate well?  Off with her head!

Calming myself down, I can say that I watched the paper under Abramson because I watch the paper anyhow but I believe there were fewer attacks on psychoanalysis (excepting the insane piece that led to the creation of this blog in April 2012) during her tenure (hence this blog has been rather quiet of late).  As I watched the last three years, I also marvelled: I will never forget Dasani, the five part series about the life of a girl growing up in the shelter system of NYC . It was an exceptional piece of reporting that had people talking to each other on the train.  Somehow, in the midst of this series, it was apparent to me that the newspaper of record had lost its mind in a great way:  a woman was at the helm, the one who said go a-fucking-head with this story of a poor, black girl, and I want it on the front page, above the fold.  Most people I know were enthralled by this story.  Bloomberg, in his final hours, found himself roundly discredited by this reporting and discredited in extremis.  I know it sounds sentimental to think that this story had something to do with a woman being in charge.  Perhaps it did not.  But on Abramson’s watch, (this we know from Slate and reality) many more women were moved into editorial positions over there than ever before.  Ominously, the Dasani tale was a story about female vulnerability/castration in a most precarious environment.

Nevertheless, though I’m a psychoanalyst, I see I had my blindspot.  Maybe I was so focused on the treatment of the unconscious by the Times that I gave short shrift to the treatment of female reporters there.  I swear I could not imagine that journalism could remain a male preserve (call me naive) but those penis jokes Mr. Journalism spoke of that sounded as ubiquitous as oxygen in the newsroom, they gave me cause to pause.  I can joke about penises and still maintain my femininity. That is the privilege of the analyst.  I wonder if my privilege is also afforded the female journalist?

Few know what analysts do, but let me say that my days are filled with things phallic so I took his casual comment about penis jokes in stride.  I did not think about the kind of workplace environment such penile joking might foment, for it is the right and privilege of my patients to tell all in my office. Hearing about the penis of a man that works but only with prostitutes, of a man whose penis fails him just as he is about to take his pleasure, and then there is the penis that cheats, that is unhappy, that wants me?  All of this penis talk?  Totally my bread and butter.

So, before I had fully thought through Abramson’s demise, (it was just emerging in the news), I asked Mr. Journalism to send me the best of the next day’s penis jokes.  Hours later, the Abramson news began to snowball.  By mid-day it was like an avalanche.  The Post regaled us with a cover of Abramson looking like Linda Blair in The Exorcist: “An-Grey Lady”.  But you wanna know what?  I found myself waiting on Mr. Journalism’s bevy of penis jokes ALL day.

Mr. Journalism? He is witty guy.  Quick on his feet is my guess but by 5 pm, I was starting to feel a little disappointed, as women are wont to do when we are waiting for a man to show us his wares.  Where were the goddam penis jokes I was promised?

Now things get crazy so hold tight.

The day after Abramson’s firing the penis jokers were not joking about the penis!  Drumroll please right here: the jokers, they took a day off the penis.  I feel like Maureen Dowd  as I proceed, and who wouldn’t, but what I was told was that there was a phallic flaccidity in the newsroom the day after a female newspaper editor who did not get her job through her husband–and you know who I mean–was, I have to say it, tossed off.  What happened I wondered to “Oh my god!  All day long”?

After phallic victory, detumescence is inevitable.

What did these reporters do with their need to joke, their need to blow off steam, creatively?  Mr. Journalism told me that their attention that day turned towards kidding around about a famous magician.  I was also told by him that a lot of “your mother” banter was in the air.  So, shortly thereafter I had this little thought, and it is little, so don’t get your hopes up, but what I thought is that unconsciously, a female power in the profession, and she was that Ms. Abramson, having been felled, made the profession nervous too.  Let’s use magic to bring (magic) mommy back.  And as Freud would say, in the boy’s mind, “it is only unworthy female persons that have lost their genitals–females who, in all probability, were guilty of inadmissible impulses similar to his own.” (Freud, 1925)  When we kill off a woman for what we are guilty of, (lack), we find ourselves caught in a trap of our own making.  And it has no end.  No end at all.


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