At the International Psychohistory Association 2017 Conference

The International Psychohistorical Association held its 40th annual conference May 31-June 2 in at New York University, and I attended and presented.  The main theme was “Exploring the Intersection Between History and Psychology,” and the sub-theme was “Psychohistory in the Age of Trump.”  There were more presentations than I could attend, and I wasn’t taking notes all the time, so this isn’t a comprehensive report, just some of my notes.

Wednesday, May 31

Howard Stein:  “Organizational Poetry As a Portal to Understanding 

Organizations, Society and History”

Who would have thought that poetry has anything to do with understanding organizations?  Howard Stein, of the University of Oklahoma, opened with a talk on “Organizational Poetry as a Portal to Understanding Organizations, Society and History.”  Stein, who was honored at this conference for his contributions throughout the years, is both an organizational consultant and a poet; an unusual combination.

Poetry makes it possible to say “the undiscussable, out in the open,” Stein said.  He read a poem of his called “Slash and Burn,” about “downsizing, reengineering, outsourcing” etc., including:  “Falsehood is truth, disagreement is betrayal, fear is victorious, death triumphant, furies rule the night.”  From another poem, also about downsizing, Stein read, “What is happening has not happened, and if it has, we do not want to know.”  From another poem about a hospital system in which 1,000 people had been laid off, he read, “Where is the blood?”

Stein referred to “an enormous literature on what’s called ‘transformational leadership,’ people brought in by shareholders, boards of directors, to rescue an organization that they fear is going downhill.  The ‘transformational leader’ gets rid of the dead wood, gets rid of fat, trims muscle to the bone, gets rid of the old, which is (seen as) the source of what is wrong with the organization.  This happens even when organizations show profit, but not enough.”  Then he read a poem, beginning, “The new CEO arrived like a god on a chariot…”

Stein then invited us to write our own poems about organizations, and several people read theirs.  It certainly provided another avenue to access and express the experience of being in an organization.

Peter Kuznick:  “Trump and Foreign Policy”

Peter Kuznick, of American University, then spoke on “Trump and Foreign Policy,” which, he said, was like trying to hit “a moving target.”  Kuznick was in Russia several times during the 2016 campaign, and “nearly everyone supported Donald Trump there, perceiving Clinton as hostile to Russia.”  Kuznic agreed that Clinton was hostile to Russia, and also a hawk, but saw her as a better choice than Trump, because of his “inconsistency and unpredictability.”  About nuclear weapons, Kuznick quotedTrump as saying, “What’s the use of having these weapons if we can’t use them?”

Despite Trump’s signature narcissism, Kuznick described him as in the tradition of other American presidents, particularly George W. Bush, who started the war in Iraq, and Harry Truman, who dropped the atomic bomb on Japan.  He read a list of American foreign policy transgressions over time to emphasize the point that, while Trump’s style is in some ways unique, his policy positions are consistent with America’s foreign policy history.  As to making up stories, Kuznick said that Trump is comparable to Ronald Reagan, who told Israeli prime minister Yitzak Shamir that he had been in a signal corps during W.W. II that liberated a concentration camp, and had kept the film to prove that the camp existed against Holocaust deniers.  In fact, Reagan had never left the United States.

Robin Stern and Judith Logue:  “Gaslighting:  From the Personal 

to the Political”

Next, Robin Stern, of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, and Judith Logue, in private practice, presented on “Gaslighting—From the Personal to the Political.”

Stern wrote “The Gaslighting Effect” ten years ago, and her part of the presentation was about “the personal function of Gaslighting,” which is when one person makes another person think she’s crazy by lying to her and making her doubt her perceptions of reality.  “Gaslighting is always a co-creation of two people,” Stern said, “the gaslighter, who is more powerful, disqualifying the perceptions, memory and sanity of the gaslightee.”  However, “the gaslightee holds the keys to her personal prison, if she finds the courage to refuse the gaslighter’s influence over her.”  In her therapy practice with couples, Stern often saw one partner gaslighting the other.

Judy Logue then talked about gaslighting going political.  The steep reduction in the middle class creates a situation in politicians can gaslight the electorate about the causes for their economic decline.  “Isolation is the most important tool in the Gaslighter’s kit,” she said.

Elizabeth Lomback, Natasha Zuretsky, and Dagmar Herzog: “The Legacy of Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism.”

Continuing the theme of psychohistory in the age of Trump, the next panel included three speakers discussing Christopher Leach’s 1979 book, “The Culture of Narcissism.”

Elizabeth Lomback, of Harvard, author of “The Americanization of Narcissism,” observed that “the upsides of narcissism have to do with Trump’s success, and the discussions of the downsides of narcissism don’t help us to understand his appeal.  There are paradoxes here; (the narcissist seems) to be caring at some times and ruthless at others…What is at issue is not the narcissist’s personality but the ways he mobilizes that personality to make connections with others…Visionary, charismatic, ambitious, (with) high self-esteem, ruthlessness—“ these are characteristics of skillful narcissistic leaders.

Natasha Zuretsky, of Southern Illinois University, author of “No Direction Home:  The American Family and the Fear of National Decline, 1968-1980,” spoke next.  “The displacement of politics by spectacle” is one of the characteristics Lasch saw in a culture of narcissism.  In the late 1970’s, Lasch “recognized the decline of the American middle class,” which has since progressed to unemployment and underemployment, the opioid epidemic, high rates of diabetes and heart disease, death rates that are increasing after having diminished in the population, “expressing the hopelessness of the middle class.”  “The decline of the middle class was masked to some extent and for some time by the conscription of women into the workforce.”  This “made a culture that was more equal and inclusive, even as economic inequality increased with lower status and wages in available jobs.”

Dagmar Herzog, of the City University of New York Graduate Center, author of “Cold War Freud,” “Sex in Crisis,” among others, spoke next.  She commented on “the transportation of Lasch’s ideas into the cultures of West Germany and Switzerland  in the 1980s, and also the ideas of psychoanalysts Heinz Kohut and Otto Kernberg, on whose work Lasch relied.  “It was not easy to return psychoanalysis to post W.W. II Germany, which was anti-semitic and anti-psychoanalytic.  Eventually, psychoanalysis received more prestige and welcome in West Germany, in its view of aggression as a basic drive…”  Over time, analysts’ perceptions of their patients changed from one preoccupied with Oedipal issues, as conceived by Freud and his followers, and came to focus on narcissistic issues, as discussed by Kohut and Kernberg.  “Dozens of analysts decided that they had misdiagnosed their patients as neurotic when they were all narcissistically disturbed.” “Kohut was a permission giver to analysts to be warm with patients,” instead of neutral and unresponsive.

Arnold Richards, Arthur Lynch, Bert Seitler:  

”The Politics of Exclusion–Discussion of Dr. Richards’ Selected Papers”

“The Politics of Exclusion and Institute Stagnation,” is about the exclusion of some psychoanalysts by others in psychoanalytic institutes.  Arnold Richards, of the New York Psychoanalytic Society and Institute, Arthur Lynch, of Columbia University, and Burt Seitler, of the Journal JASPER (Journal for the Advancement of Scientific Psychoanalytic Empirical Research), discussed the topic (note:  I didn’t have any notes from Lynch).  Richards said, “Psychoanalysis as an institution needs to come to terms with its history, which includes a legacy of exclusionary politics.”  The way forward, he thought, was not “theoretical restoration”—the search for an inclusive theory—but rather “a politics of inclusion,” an “integrated pluralism.”

Seitler read a paper, “Dissension Within the Sanctum Sanctorum, the Psychoanalytic Institute.”  He began his talk with a sardonic, amusing question:  “Why is it that supposedly well analyzed individuals stimulate the most primitive (emotional reactions) in one another within the Institute, (including) jealousy, narcissistic rage, and sibling rivalry?”  He continued, “To begin with, the notion of being ‘completely analyzed’ is a delightful fiction…The early history of psychoanalysis is marked by bitter excommunication of once-cherished disciples, (including) Jung and Adler…Psychoanalytic institutes were originally founded to support and protect creative thinking, but the dynamics of institutes may mitigate against that.”

Richards then commented that psychoanalysts Sandor Rado and Karen Horney wrote the report for setting of standards for training (under the imprimatur of a better known person), under which the Americans had a franchise for psychoanalytic training.  Later, both Rado and Horney were excluded from being accepted as qualified to offer training in the USA because (if I heard Richards’ comments correctly) one wasn’t a psychiatrist and one wanted to do analysis and training only three times a week, instead of 4!   Richards commented, “The division between the haves and the have-notes, the training analysts and the non-training analysts, persists to this day.”

Thursday, June 1

Paul Elovitz, David Cifelli, and Peter Petschauer:  

“The Psychology of Trump and the 2016 Election”

Paul Elovitz, of Ramapo College, saw Trump as needing “to pick fights and win,” and said,  “One of the great dangers of Trump as president is that he will pick fights with other countries” because of that need.  Elovitz saw Trump as having a “personality characteristic of being left behind and vulnerable,” which “helped him to connect with many people who feel that way.”

David Cifelli, a student formerly at Ramapo College, had spoken with a number of Trump supporters, and found them responsive to Trump’s “shift(ing) the blame to others, provid(ing) ready-made scapegoats.”  One older person said “I would be ashamed if he were my son, but we don’t have to elect a nice guy, we have to elect a president.”

Peter Petschauer, emeritus professor at Appalachian University, observed that “There is a similarity to authoritarian regimes across the world, not only in how they (behave) in power but also in how they got into power.  Getting into power usually involves slogans, and you have to make an impressive figure.”  They need to have “flags everywhere, massive assemblies of troops, even before the person gets into power.  Trump had more flags on the podium” than Petschauer had ever seen.  Petschauer found that authoritarian regimes often come to power supported by “promises to correct a lost war, even centuries earlier,” as had been the case with Milosevic in Yugoslavia.

“Trump talks about America as a loser,” Petschauer said.  Authoritarian leaders make promises to correct past wrongs, attracting the support of those who feel left behind.  They gain the support of conservative religious groups; Hitler had such support, and Putin has the support of the Orthodox Church.  There is also an attack on certain individuals, generally disliked ethnic groups, and women, in some form or other.  “Hatred is such a satisfying quality.”   Authoritarian leaders “export lies,” and lie often—Hitler said the more you repeat a lie the more it will be believed—and “use the latest forms of media effectively; Hitler used the radio.”  They “surround themselves with sycophants.  Have big construction projects.  Start wars.  Pack the judiciary.  Arrest journalists.  Sideline and arrest opposition.  The first people in Germany put into concentration camps were not Jews, they were socialists and communists.”  They “excuse misbehavior of supporters and friends, who have permission to lie, bully, steal,” and engage in “massive personal, financial, political corruption.
The good news is that, “in the long run, these authoritarian leaders fail.  Hitler, Mussolini, Berlusconi.  Putin’s regime is beginning to crumble, (though) Erdogan is on the upswing.  Dictators hear what their sycophants tell them, which is what they want to hear, not what is really happening.” But “Trump is everywhere, everywhere you go, (which) will ultimately turn against him.”

In the Q and A period, I asked Petschauer about the viability of the institutions we have in the era of Trump.  He responded that “There is a lot of professionalism in our institutions, but people value their jobs.”  He referred to Germany, where professional and independent legal and educational systems were undermined from the top, by people that Hitler appointed.  In Turkey, people are being arrested en masse, to undermine institutions.

“One thing about power is that it is so wonderful,” Petschauer continued.  “Power is better than any other human form of expression.  When people get into power, they will do almost anything to stay there.  Congressmen will do almost anything to stay in power,” and this weakens the integrity of institutions.

Ken Fuchsman and Irene Javors:  

“New Directions in Psychohistory and Psychobiography.”

Ken Fuchsman, of the University of Connecticut, began by observing that “Although psychohistory as such is in disrepute” (among the disciplines of history), historians use psychology and psychotherapeutic concepts.  Psychology and a psychological perspective on leadership personality is an inevitable component in historical writing, and some of the most important issues in history cannot be approached without psychology. “The inevitable intersection of psychology and history sneaks in the back door.”  Fuchsman quoted Peter Gay:  “The historian is an amateur psychologist.”  And, “Self-actualization cannot occur without cultural actualization.”

Irene Javors, of Yeshiva University, presented on: “Do Ask, Do Tell, Contemporary Questions for Psychohistorians and Psychobiographers.”  She said that “The concerns of psychohistory and psychobiography have been too focused on psychopathology, without enough focus on cultural issues” of prejudice and oppression.  She gave the illustration of a client, gay and the survivor of gay-bashing as well as organizing for civil rights in the south, who, putting his hand out to prevent an African American woman, preoccupied with her cell phone, from walking into him on the sidewalk, was shouted at, “Keep your hands off me, you white bastard!”  Javors sees this from a social point of view, institutions and cultural norms impacting individuals.

During the Q and A, a questioner objected to Javors use of the term “intersectionality” to include her white gay client.  The questioner felt that “intersectionality” properly referred only to nonwhite groups.

Molly Castelloe, Appreciation of Howard Stein

The next program was a celebration of Howard Stein, and one of the speakers was Molly Castelloe, of the Metropolitan College of New York.  Appreciating the recognition of complexity which Stein’s poetic approach to understanding organizations affords, Castelloe observed that “Trauma spreads in cultures through many vectors,” including “horizontally (between peers), and vertically (in power relationships).” She continued, “Trauma (meaning, I think, traumatic events in the world we live in) finds (the) unacknowledged grief in groups.”

Janice Gump:  

”We Can’t Know the Present Absent History of the Past:  

The Transmissions of Slavery’s Traumas”

Janice Gump, PhD, of the Institute of Contemporary Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis, gave the afternoon’s keynote address:

Slavery “was the most determining aspect of African-American being” or subjective personal experience in this country, “and also what may have been one of the most determining aspects of the United States, economically and culturally, (including) to slavers and their supporters.  I think it is as important if not more important to understand those who do the victimizing as to understand those who are victimized…The most fundamental aspect of slavery was the belief that blacks were fundamentally inferior to whites, defective, not quite as human.  This made it possible for them to be treated as property,” and left a legacy of trauma transmitted through the generations. “Children who experience unbearable affect in the absence of attunement by attachment figures are likely to feel responsible for their distress and also for the absence of the parent,” whether that absence is physical or emotional.

My presentation:  “The Election Pie Chart:  How Did This Happen?”  

In the summer of 2016 I bet a couple of guys a bottle of wine each that Trump would win–hoping to be mistaken!  After the election, I spoke with them, and several others, about why the election had gone the way it had, and began an informal pie chart of the contributing factors.  That grew into my submission of “Election 2016 WTF:  The Pie Chart,” and the title was gentled while entering the conference brochure.

Of course, Hillary Clinton and the Democrats deserve credit for winning the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes, but still lost the election.  So I wanted to look at what happened with what I called a “ruthlessly realistic” perspective.  Here re the slices, which of course overlap:

•The economic disenfranchisement of the middle class, with corresponding loss of social status and economic control over one’s life, is the largest single slice.  Psychologist Hadley Cantril, in 1941, published “The Psychology of Social Movements” in which he studied, among others, the rise of lynchings of African-Americans in the American South after the Civil War, and the rise of Naziism in Germany after W.W. I.  In both situations there were the dynamics of a disenfranchised former middle class which, in a less extreme way and to a lesser extent, were present in the USA during the 2016 election.  I reviewed some of Cantril’s findings from the post Civil War South and post W.W. I Germany, and compared them with the situation here.  The causes of this economic disenfranchisement–mainly mergers and acquisitions, globalization and the ending of the U.S. unique manufacturing hegemony after W.W. II, and automation of manufacturing–are too complex and long-term to be captured in a simple slogan or amenable to a simple solution, but Trump’s slogan and strategy galvanized support from this large segment of the population.

•Health Care:  Democrats didn’t get how much the public misunderstood about health care, and how much resentment there was about it, allowing Republicans to claim the issue.  Republican intransigence in refusing to collaborate in fine-tuning the inevitable shortcomings of the Affordable Care Act meant that its problems proliferated, and Republicans PR successfully pinned that on Democrats.

•Democratic mismeasurement of the electorate, which I called “Delusion by Mismeasurement.”  The official measure of unemployment, which showed only about 8% unemployment at the time of the election, failed to include the structurally unemployed.  A 2012 CNN report noted that the labor force, as measured, only includes those who are working or who have looked for work in the last four weeks, which includes only about 64% of the population, leaving a whopping 36% structural unemployment category unmeasured.  The GDP, which has been continually rising on average, and which the Democrats presented to voters, similarly doesn’t reflect the disparity of income.

•Democratic misunderstanding of women as mostly sharing certain feminist values.  Journalist and editor Tina Brown commented, in the Guardian, about the Democratic strategists’ misunderstanding of women in “the heartland,” working 2 and 3 jobs, the wives, daughters and mothers of unemployed and underemployed men who cringed at Trump’s coarseness but bought his spiel about being the best job-creator, and who wondered why he was any worse than Bill.

•Democratic failure to have a competitive primary.  A democratic strategist told me, “We didn’t have a primary, we had a coronation.”

•Republican strategy reflecting a long term and short term determination to win, which itself had several ingredients.  They include:  a long term (over a generation) strategic effort to mobilize Republican political presence at every level, from the school board to the town council to state government, as well as federal government, with gerrymandering to support repeated elections (Democrats gerrymander as well, but Republicans seem to have been more successful nationally); congressional intransigence to prevent the government from operating effectively, and then winning the PR fight to blame the ineffectiveness on the Obama administration and the Democrats; having a real primary, in which the winner, though not really “one of them,” was embraced.  I proposed that there is a difference in party culture, such that Republicans want to win, and Democrats want to be confirmed in their values and worldview.

•Republican strategy in keeping investigations of the Benghazi tragedy and Clinton’s emails going and succeeding in sticking her with negative public perceptions about that (Clinton has her own negatives too, of course, but Republicans appeared to strategically tar her in public perception with these investigations, which appeared to have been mainly politically motivated).

•The October Surprise, when FBI Director Comey announced that the FBI investigation of Clinton’s emails, which had been declared over, was re-opened.  That happened because Clinton trusted Huma Abedin who was married to Anthony Wiener, who was under separate investigation for improper sexual communications online, in the course of which potentially restricted emails appeared on his laptop.  (My slide of this is my favorite one!)

•Republican superiority in political messaging, as observed by linguist George Lakoff:  Republicans speak of values, Democrats talk about percentages (which, as I’d mentioned, were often based on mismeasurement).

•Mysogyny, pure and simple, played some role.

•The misperception that feminism can’t include femininity, which produced a backlash against Clinton, separate from mysogyny as such.

•Electorate misinformation amounting to self-selective brainwashing, over years, on the part of listeners and viewers who get their news from media outlets that galvanize, monetize and politically weaponize grievance.

•Russian intervention, which continues a tradition going back at least into the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire.  We still don’t know the extent of the Russian intervention, and we may never.

The Q and A was lively, and one person made the point that some Trump voters were disappointed former Obama voters.

Friday, June 2

Ken Fuchsman and Inna Rozentsvit: 

“Love Before First Sight, Attachment, and What it Means to be Human.”

Ken Fuchsman said that “Our understanding of attachment is being expanded to include infant temperament, selectivity of a primary attachment figure, culture, and the tendency of the human infant to select both a primary attachment figure as an infant and, later, a primary mate figure.”

Inna Rozentsvit, of the Object Relations Institute for Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis, referred to the English analyst Winnicott, who said, approximately,  “The baby only knows about herself by looking in the mother’s eyes and, like a mirror, finding his reflection there.”  And the English analyst Bowlby’s attachment theory was “a new type of instinct theory, (of) relational bonds as a primary human instinct.”

Susan Kevaler-Adler:  

“The Psychohistorical Impact of D.W. Winnicott’s Mother.”

Susan Keveler-Adler is the Founder/Executive Director of the Object Relations Institute for Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis, a co-sponsor (with the NYU Silver School of Social Work) of this conference.  She spoke of the relationship and conflict between analysts Melanie Klein and D.W. Winnicott, both of whom have had a significant impact on how psychoanalysis is understood and practiced, and discussed their relationships with their respective mothers and how that contributed to their views of human nature and of method in psychotherapy; “Contrasting mothers, contrasting theories.”

Keveler-Adler advocated combining Winnicottian and Kleinian theory, combined with ideas of her own, into “an organic theory, like Argentine Tango.  When we face our split-off parts and contain those of our own patients,” we can “intuit the truth,” which involves “the movement to health through heartache.”

Lunch was on our own, and I smelled my way to a wonderfully seasoned Havana pork sandwich, which I ate in Washington Park, across from the NYU building we met in.

Krystina Sanderson:  

“The Concepts of True Self and False Self as Exemplified by Jews Who Survived on “Aryan Papers” in Nazi-Occupied Poland:  

A Historical and Psychoanalytic Perspective.”

Krystina Sanderson, of the Psychoanalytic Training Program at the Blanton-Peale Graduate Institute, told the story of two girlfriends, Sima and Apolonia (“Pola”), one Jewish and one Polish, in which Pola and her family saved Sima’s life during W.W. II by having her live with them under a false Aryan identity, something which could have gotten them all killed.  The handout included pictures of both women during W.W. II, and also in 1989.  The Jewish woman’s daughter was present at our meeting, and said that she wouldn’t be alive were it not for the generosity of the Polish woman and her family.  After the war, the Jewish girl, now a young woman, emigrated to Israel, where the Polish woman sent her food packages—conditions being even harder in Israel then in Poland after the war.  Then the Jewish woman moved to Florida, and from there she sent care packages to the Polish woman, and brought her over to the U.S.A. for a visit.  Sanderson wrote the story and sent it to Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel, where the Pola was named “Righteous Among the Nations.” This story was hugely touching, and is written at the United States Holocaust Museum:

Jack Schwartz:  

“The Dance Between the Latent and the Manifest While Interpreting Dreams:  A Practitioners Guide”

Jack Schwartz, of the Object Relations Institute for Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis, discussed dreams as “multifunctional events,” and the telling of a dream as part of the relationship in therapy.  “Trauma kind of fixates, programs, your consciousness,” he said, and dreams have an adaptive function.  “So what need is served to a repetitive dream?  It must be to learn something that is not yet being learned.”

end of notes

“Yunus Emre:” A Review of a Turkish Television Series

“Lovers yearn for You, but Your love slays them”  —line of poetry by Yunus Emre

Yunus Emre was a Turkish Sufi saint and poet of the 13th-14th century, and “Yunus Emre” is a Turkish television drama series, in 45 episodes over two seasons, based on his life (on Netflix, in Turkish with English subtitles).  I’ve been binge-watching it, because it seems to me to reach for, and often to succeed in capturing, romantic and dramatic themes of the spiritual life in a way that I haven’t seen portrayed.  It’s been a time travel portal into medieval Turkey that’s both entertaining television tourism and a welcome respite from contemporary American politics.  And the music is wonderful; reed flute, oud, and drums, enhanced with strings and voices, and well aligned with the action.

We meet Yunus Emre as he graduates as a Cadi, a judge of the Sharia law, at the preeminent Madrassa in Konya, Turkey, in the year 1268 (CE), and takes up his position in the city of Nalihan.  The new judge, dedicated to restoring and establishing justice, makes the wrong call in case after case, confusing his decisions with justice.  In the process he meets the Sheikh, the spiritual teacher of the local dervish lodge—while raiding it, self-righteously, in search of a dervish whom he mistakenly believes to be a murderer—and discovers that the Sheikh is the illiterate and visually impaired old timer and storyteller who had been his traveling companion on the road between Konya and Nalihan.  The Sheikh challenges Yunus’ judgement in sentencing an innocent dervish to death, which outrages Yunus but eventually prompts him to begin to review his judicial decisions.  Eventually, Yunus corrects his mistaken judgments, case by case, and resigns his high-status judicial position to become a lowly student of the Sheikh.

Aspects of Yunus’ personality emerge in his relationship with the Sheikh; his greed for respect admixed with his desire for justice, and different qualities of ambition, personal and spiritual.  Even as he is angry at the Sheikh for challenging his “justice” as Cadi, Yunus begins to listen.  The old man’s manner in talking with Yunus, personally open but firm on the issue, creates the opportunity for Yunus to enter into the spiritual friendship that has already begun to transform him.

The series seems to me to divide into three parts.  Part 1, episodes 1-6, involves Yunus’ coming to Nalihan, becoming the Cadi, making and repairing his judicial mistakes, and deciding to relinquish his official position to become a dervish.  Part 2, lasting the rest of season one and well into season two, involves his initial and transitional studies under the Sheikh, in which he struggles with himself to establish a psychological foundation for spiritual experience, through such assignments as cleaning the dervish cells and the toilets in the dervish lodge, while attending the Sheikh’s assemblies.  Part 3 involves Yunus’ spiritual unfolding as he becomes a Sufi saint and poet.  I thought the first two parts were more completely realized than the third, but that’s no criticism; spiritual experience can’t really be shown, and the portrayal of Yunus’ transition from scholar-jurist to dervish to God-inspired poet is credible.  As a psychologist interested in spirituality, I found the portrayal of the psychological issues involved in Yunus’ arriving at the decision to embark on a spiritual path, then struggling with himself at various stages along it, presents the process of achievement, renunciation, new achievement, consolidation, repeated again at each next stage, in a way that I haven’t seen in any other drama.

As Yunus’ personality transforms, so do his attitudes.   As the series begins, in his graduation examination at the Madrasa, Yunus is scornful and dismissive of poets and poetry; “They lie!”, yet by the end he has become a divinely inspired poet.  Early in the first season, he is contemptuous of dervishes as uneducated and misguided slackers, yet he becomes one as a spiritual student of the Sheikh.  All along, the Sheikh both recognizes Yunus’ potential and thwarts his superficial understanding and ambitions, setting him tasks that provide contexts to struggle with himself again and again.

The pace, I should say, is glacial, especially in the first season, which I welcomed as a respite from the the frenetic political environment of the new American presidency; one can only take so much of that intense emotional roller-coaster without losing one’s balance, and the long view of looking back from here to 13th century Turkey reminds us that “this too will pass.”  The second season seemed to have been written with more made-for-tv drama than the first; it moved faster and had somewhat more violence and sex, though very little by American standards.  The English subtitles were often just indications of what was really being said—a Turkish friend says the translation is “atrocious”—but that pulled this viewer in to guess what they were really saying.  I found it amusing when the translation differed between a scene happening in one episode and then its being featured in the extensive recap at the beginning of the next episode.  It suggested that the budget was spent on the production and there wasn’t much left over for English subtitles, or maybe they were an afterthought.  I couldn’t have watched it without them, so, thanks.

The acting is very good.  The cast established the characters believably; so much so that when one cast member—the Sheikh’s daughter—changed from season 1 to season 2, the change in how the part was played—not better or worse, but different—remained jarring well into the second season.  The mayor, in season two, is worthy of Lear, and Molla Kasim, the dervish who can never get beyond the rules of conduct to the meaning of conduct, is a perfect contrast to Yunus.  Yunus and the Sheikh, whose relationship is at the core of the series, kept me wondering what was going to happen next.  And the Sheikh, responding to each situation with stories and unexpected instructions and actions, portrays a spiritual teacher in the world—the world of that time—in a way that feels valid and true.  Of course, this implies that the screenplay is well written, and the directing also true to its intent; otherwise it could not have been accomplished.  Even the seeming miracles, such as the Sheikh’s occasionally knowing what others are thinking or what is happening at a distance, are integrated into the action so seamlessly that one could miss them.

The devotional context of Yunus’ studies in the dervish lodge is impossible to replicate today; there is no sense trying to train ourselves to live in medieval Turkey.  Yet “Yunus Emre” highlights issues that are part of the spiritual life wherever we live it, and in a most entertaining way.  And, at a time in American political history when the question of what is true often seems to mean whatever the speaker or writer wants it to, “Yunus Emre” refreshingly reminds us that truth exists as such.  When Yunus is adjudicating crimes, somebody committed them and somebody didn’t.  And spiritual truth exists beyond the rules and formats which are there to help us approach it.

Tahir Shah’s Talk at Boing, February, 2017

Tahir Shah is an author, traveler, and storyteller who gave the keynote talk at a recent gathering of leaders at Boing, in Seattle.  Here he talks about stories and how they support different ways of looking at life, including what he calls “zig-zag thinking,” which can help us to see deeper below the surface appearance of things, recognize opportunities, solve problems, and live more deeply.


Personality Disorder: Borderline

Personality disorders are diagnoses made from clusters of behaviors, so it’s a different sort of diagnostic category compared to, for example, affective disorders like depression or anxiety.  People with personality disorders can be depressed and anxious, but those states tend to come and go pretty quickly, and the overall behavior becomes more salient than the moods.

Personality disorders can be seen as exaggerations or crystallizations of tendencies which can be quite useful in moderation.  For example, a little obsessiveness makes us careful and thorough; too much and we have to wash our hands 50 times because there might be a germ we missed.  A little suspiciousness helps to protect us from being taken advantage of; too much makes us paranoid.  A little narcissism gives us self-confidence; too much and we are all about self-importance.  A little flexibility and reactivity can support spontaneity, adaptiveness and creativity; too much and we can have borderline personality disorder.

Here’s the list of characteristics of borderline personality disorder from the DSM-V:

“A pervasive pattern of instability of interpersonal relationships, self-image, and affects, and marked impulsivity, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:

•Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment.

•A pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation.

•Identity disturbance:  markedly and persistently unstable self-image or sense of self.

•Impulsivity in at least two areas that are potentially self-damaging (e.g., spending, sex, substance abuse, reckless driving, binge eating).

•Recurrent suicidal behavior, gestures, or threats, or self-mutilating behavior.

•Affective instability due to a marked reactivity of mood (e.g., intense episodic dysphoria [distress, unease], irritability, or anxiety usually lasting a few hours and only rarely more than a few days).

•Chronic feelings of emptiness.

•Inappropriate, intense anger or difficulty controlling anger.

•Transient, stress-related paranoid ideation or severe dissociative symptoms.”

Personality disorders, like most mental disorders, occur along a spectrum of intensity and severity.   Some people have a “borderline style,” are borderline-ish or have borderline tendencies, while others may have the full-blown disorder; and of course stress can push a tendency or style into a disorder.

People with borderline personality styles or disorder often improve from the late 20s through the 30s and into their 40s, which is when the prefrontal cortex undergoes adult maturation.  That tends to be the time when therapy can be most useful, probably because the person is more able to do self-observation, and exercise inhibition of impulsivity, two executive functions associated with the prefrontal cortex.  It seems likely that there’s some relationship between an immature prefrontal cortex and other parts of the brain involved in borderline personality; although we can only speculate, for the time being, about what that might be.

Just because people have the same diagnosis doesn’t mean that they are the same kinds of people.  There can be variations in how likable and personable, generous or mean-spirited, humorous or dour, and even wise, people with borderline personality disorder can be.  This is true of any mental illness; for example, everyone with depression isn’t alike.

Because of the tendency to see others in a black-and-white, caring/helpful or hating/destructive way, people with more extreme borderline personality disorder tend to split people in organizations into supporters and opponents.  Inpatient or residential mental health programs typically will inform staff if a borderline patient is admitted so that staff will use extra care to check on all communications that might have the effect of pitting one staff member against another.  The ability, on the part of the person with borderline personality style or disorder, to see other people in their human complexity rather than in black-and-white, good-and-bad terms, is a sign that the person is healing or maturing.

On Real Maple Syrup, and My Interest in the Sufi Writing of Idries Shah

Someone asked me about how I became interested in the Sufi writing of Idries Shah, back in the 1970s.  Here’s what I wrote:

I don’t have a comprehensive, or even coherent, narrative about my interest in Sufism (as presented by Idries Shah), but here are some parts.

First, a metaphor from life.  I grew up in a home in New Haven in which the “maple syrup” on the table for pancakes was actually mostly corn syrup with a small percentage of maple syrup or flavoring, sometimes with butter flavoring.  When I went to Vermont for college, I had real maple syrup.  It was then that I realized what real maple syrup was, and that what I had been introduced to as “maple syrup” was an imitation; and also how to tell, by taste, the difference between the imitation and the real thing.  Thus with Shah’s Sufi writings and activities, and what I had formerly been introduced to as “religion” and “spirituality.”

Second, as I read Shah’s books, along with books by other authors in various traditions, the situations and behavior described in Shah’s writings made more sense to me.  They described human behavior as I experienced it better than other sources.  The foibles and mistakes that they described in people seeking knowledge or claiming to represent knowledge traditions and authority seemed to describe the academic and professional psychologists and mental health specialists I was reading and studying among better than their own materials.  Stupid psychologist and “expert” behavior was well described in the Sufi materials, albeit in the religious/spiritual context, rather than in the psychological materials I was reading, but the application was often obvious.  And the characteristics of people who attained some access to deeper/higher perception/perspective were also better described in the Sufi materials than in psychological ones.

Third, the teaching stories provided access to insight like no other tool or method I experienced.  Sometimes I would find a person or situation exactly described in a story.  At other times, meanings in stories would unfold, sometimes at considerable length after reading them, when prompted by experience, and I began to see my own behavior in them, as well as that of others.  Reading and listening to teaching stories with the attitude that I would find what I could in them now, and more later, was a method that worked for me, and tended to confirm the validity of the materials.

I saw Shah only once, I think in 1975, when he came to New York for a conference, where Bob Ornstein, Peter Brent, and  Rene Dubos also presented.  Shah made sense; was informative, ironic, occasionally wryly funny, not trying to recruit; challenging, not for its own sake but to point out our culture’s foibles when it came to seeking and trying to understand spirituality, and inviting us to be more knowledgable in our approach; and every presenter was informative and impressive, each in his own way.  Reading the materials, listening to Shah at the time and then to the lectures on cassette, there was a sense of widening of horizons of information about human nature, pitfalls on the path of life, ways to avoid them by being aware of them, attitudes from which we could reach higher; and, just as importantly, not fall lower.

Over the years, the materials have continued to be a kind of touchstone and lifeline, a collection of windows and doorways (to mix metaphors!) into wider perceptions, which have helped to support and sustain my aspirations; and also provided some needed balance and ballast in life.  Among the perceptions which the stories support is the recognition that society is much more primitive than we are taught to believe as we come up in it, and recognizing that disillusionment is a necessary part of the learning.

And the fact that, notwithstanding that Sufi materials hold the most discerning mirror up to human shortcomings, they come from, represent, and call something in us toward a higher level of being, from which such perceptions emanate; so they are both a hopeful message and part of the path toward that perception.  I have had occasion to remind myself that it was Bahaudin Naqshband, no less, who said that someday everyone would have the perceptive capacities of Sufis.  That has been something to hold onto, at times.

Shah advised people who were interested in Sufi materials to learn about conditioning, indoctrination and brainwashing, in order not to approach Sufi learning as if it were a cult.  And I savored the economy, precision and fluidity of language in Shah’s writings, the way he expresses complex ideas simply, and the humor, the bite, and the insistence that humor and bite are necessary in this learning process.

Seeking Agency in The World Beyond Your Head

Matthew B. Crawford, in “The World Beyond Your Head,” writes:

“As the world becomes more confusing, seemingly controlled by vast impersonal forces (e.g., “globalization” or “collateralized debt obligations”) that no single individual can fully bring within view; as the normative expectation becomes to land a cubicle job, in which the chain of cause and effect can be quite dispersed and opaque; as home life becomes deskilled (we outsource our cooking to corporations, our house repairs to immigrant guest workers); as the material basis of modern life becomes ever more obscured, and the occasions for skillful action are removed to sites overseas, where things are made; to sites nearby but socially invisible, where things are tended and repaired; and to sites unknown, where elites orchestrate commercial and political forces—when all of this is the case, the experience of individual agency becomes somewhat elusive.  The very possibility of seeing a direct effect of your actions in the world, and knowing that these actions are genuinely your own, may come to seem illusory.”

In this passage, Matthew Crawford identifies a fundamental issue underlying much mental disorientation and emotional turbulence in our lives.  You won’t find it in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) or the ICD-10, the main sources of mental diagnosis in the Western world, but the lack of individual agency is a huge source of what becomes mental illness and emotional disorder, and also of susceptibility to the messages of cults and terrorist organizations.  We all need feel that we matter, to ourselves and others, that our decisions and actions can make a difference.

In psychotherapy, clients often feel helpless to be agents in their lives; in their personal and family lives, in their careers, and in the economic and political currents that sweep through communities and nations.  For psychotherapists, the experience of agency in helping others, one by one, is often part of what motivates our choice of profession.

For clients, the lack of the experience of agency can contribute to depression, anxiety, and passivity, on the more withdrawn side of the spectrum of temperament, or to impulsivity, intoxication, addiction, and seeking intense experiences as ends in themselves, on the more active side.  For psychotherapists, mistaking prompting clients into emotional experiences, provoking changes in how they think or feel with various techniques, or getting them to agree with how we think they should see themselves, can likewise be mistaken responses to the need to feel that we matter.

For psychotherapists, helping clients to find their own ways of mattering, of becoming agents in their own lives, is a longer, slower, less exciting, but ultimately truer and more rewarding, way to really matter.  But we are swimming against the current of modern life in this endeavor.  Most of us, including clients and therapists, live in a world that increasingly undermines and neutralizes our natural motivation to be agents in our lives, to matter in the lives of others.


David and Goliath, and “The David”


Michelangelo’s statue of David was on the cover of the August 21 New York Times Magazine, whose feature story was “David’s Ankles,” by Sam Anderson.  Subtitled, “My obsession with the world’s most famous sculpture—its imperfections, its infinite reproductions, and its potential collapse,” it was the kind of story we turn to the NYT for:  long form, in depth journalism; in this case informed by the writer’s particular interest in this statue.

Anderson’s story emphasizes the popularity of “the David,” how people flock to see it, all the knockoffs of it, it’s “most famous sculpture” status.  Yet it seems to me that the teaching of the story of David and Goliath has been lost sight of in the preoccupation with Michelangelo’s statue.

Michelangelo’s David is beautiful, strong, eye-catching for sure, a riveting hero, but this is not the David of the biblical story; whose meaning is all about David’s apparent insignificance until he defeated Goliath.  So one level of the teaching is that appearances, and expectations and judgements based on them, can be deceptive.  From this point of view, Michelangelo’s sculpture should have been of an ordinary kind of person we wouldn’t look twice at if we passed him in the street.  David’s own brothers, camped among the soldiers of Israel, dismissed him, even derided him as not belonging among warriors and shirking his work as a shepherd.  Only David knew his own capacity.

This recalls a proverb, given in Idries Shah’s “The Dermis Probe:”  “None meets harm who knows his capacity” (p22).  One of the levels of this saying is that we have depths of capacity that we have not yet discovered, and by discovering and engaging our hidden capacity we can become considerably more competent than we look, to those without perception.

David’s strength and skill in battle came partly from his experience protecting the flock against lions and bears.  But he was also inspired by, connected with, divine purpose.  How do we discover and align ourselves with divine purpose?  How can the skills that we have learned in our livelihoods–“protecting the flock against lions and bears”–apply to other, greater challenges and purposes?

The story of David and Goliath highlights another dynamic:  David wins, in part, because he brings a wider perspective to the situation, pointing a way forward through superior technology and strategy.  Goliath’s armor and weaponry, his strength and his mastery of combat with the tools he knows, deters all challengers except David, with his slingshot.

A Psychological Metaphor for the 2016 Presidential Election

This is adapted from a post that was shared with psychoanalytic colleagues who were distressed about, and trying to come to psychological grips with, the alarming presidential campaign:

Here is a psychological metaphor on the election:  What if we viewed the USA as undergoing a national dissociative crisis, characterized by self-undermining, if not self-destructive, behavior?  And if, among the dynamics energizing that crisis, we privilege psychoeconomics, the psychological relationships with money among individuals and groups, in the context of an emerging planetary culture?

If we viewed the USA as undergoing a national dissociative crisis, instantiated in our politics, particularly during this presidential election, we would view conflicting parts of the polity as dissociated but dynamically interrelated parts of a whole.  We would see the dissociated parts as struggling for control, each experiencing the brunt of disavowed aspects of the other, and each having its own trauma history, supported by narratives incorporating fantasy and reality.

If we were working with a trauma patient, even if the patient had become unrealistic, delusional, or self-harming, we would still validate the experience of trauma as we tried to support an extension of awareness leading to healthier integration.  We would see self-undermining and self-destructive behavior as attempts at adaptation.  And we would try to understand, together with the patient, where the trauma actually came from; although we may not be able to get to all of it.

If we viewed the nation from that perspective, how would that help us contribute to the national discourse?  To begin with, we might help to start one.  In treating dissociation we invite the patient to join with us in co-creating a therapeutic conversation and relationship in which we allow credibility for all aspects of the self; and especially for the underlying feelings, and the experiences that gave rise to those feelings.

Of course, if we were treating a dissociated patient, the person would have come to us in the first place, needing help, and we don’t have that here.  Yet the fact that there is so much anger, fear, sense of disenfranchisement, and lack of a sense of direction and hope for actually facing and getting on the better side of the complex problems that face the nation, indicates that something real is going on, even if we may find the attributions and imagined remedies for those problems, to a lessor or greater extent, unrealistic and even delusional.

What if we viewed the dissociative conflict as primarily driven by psychoeconomics, the psychological relationships with money, and with others through money?  Money, having no intrinsic value, is itself a metaphor; a form of stored social energy whose value is whatever society agrees it is.  In the psychoeconomic dimensions of life, there are winners and losers, and among the losers are those who have lost, or are threatened with the loss, of their identities, including their visions and expectations of their futures.  Even the meaning of the past is at risk when, for example, the pension and healthcare benefits earned over a career can vanish in a company or civic bankruptcy, or a professional can no longer find viable work.

We can observe trends that contribute to widespread economic and psychosocial disenfranchisement, dislocation and disorientation, even as they also contribute to widespread opportunities and potential for liberation, going back to the founding of psychoanalysis.  It was in pre-WW I Vienna, capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, at a time when the great empires of Europe, the middle east, and to a lesser extent central Asia, were increasingly impinging on one another, and science and technology were overturning systems of belief, social hierarchy, and how people made their livings and related economically with one another, that psychotherapy took the form of two people meeting together to talk about the problems of one of them, for an hour at a time, over a series of meetings.  The intensively reflective space of psychoanalysis, with its privileging of unconscious and non-rational processes affecting thought, perception, and behavior, was criticized as irrational by authorities of the same cultures that, believing themselves rational, stumbled blindly into the worst war ever up to that point, resulting in the ending of the Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman empires, redrawing the political map of the planet, and leading to repercussions which are still playing out today; including in the current election.

If we viewed the nation, metaphorically, as a dissociating patient within the context of a planetary culture emerging in fits and starts and with much conflict, would that help to shed light on the current situation, and indicate ways of thinking and talking about it that might be useful?


Psychological Reflection on the 2016 Presidential Campaign

As President of the Chicago Association for Psychoanalytic Psychology, I send occasional e-letters to the membership.  Here is May’s:


At its best, psychodynamic therapy supports high stakes metacognition—reflection on how we are thinking, feeling, and responding, when making sense of what’s happening matters a lot.  The national presidential campaign makes me wish that there was a similar process on a national scale.


The rules under which APA operates prohibit partisan politics on APA listserves, but we are not prohibited from applying psychological concepts and insights to current events, including presidential campaigns.  “Ethical intelligence,” the term Kenneth Pope and Melba Vasquez use in their “Ethics in Psychotherapy and Counseling, 5th Edition,” applies here.  It is one thing to advocate for or against a candidate, another to reflect on the psychological implications of campaign tactics, media coverage, and public response.


Psychologist Hadley Cantril, in his “Psychology of Social Movements,” found common dynamics in the rise of Nazism in Germany after World War I, and the lynchings of African Americans in the South after the Civil War.  In both cases, substantial parts of large disenfranchised middle classes, in societies devastated by lost wars, turned toward authoritarian leadership and terrorized scapegoat groups in order to vent their rage and restore or protect their socioeconomic position.  The U.S.A. is not so devastated, but the insecurity of the middle class is widely observed, deeply felt, and increasing.  All three presidential candidates still standing have made protecting and restoring the middle class a major theme of their campaigns, although they have different narratives about why the middle class is threatened and how to restore its viability.


The Trump campaign has employed the tactics of scapegoating immigrants, recruiting belief in the candidate, and validating the feeling of wanting to express anger in violence.  Trump also uses gossip as a weapon:  “I didn’t say it, but I heard…,” the structure of statements with which he attacks opponents, uses gossip as a tactic while disavowing it.  Last Saturday, I co-presented in the CAPP Conversation on “Gossip:  Telling Lies, Telling Truth, Telling the Difference,” and my co-presenters, psychologist, analyst, and former CAPP President Christine Kieffer, and Indiana University sociologist Timothy Hallett, spoke about how gossip can take on an insidious life of its own in a social group or organization—sociologists call it a “gossip cascade”—unless it is effectively challenged early on.


When news media report gossip without fact-checking it, they become vehicles for candidates’ tactical gossip, which supports gossip cascades.  Gossip cascades, in turn, support what Peter Fonagy and colleagues call “psychic equivalence:”  “I think, feel, and/or believe it, so it must be true.” Fact-checking is available, for example, from sources such as, with it’s “truth meter,” but the voter has to be motivated enough to look for it.  Even then, the work of being an informed citizen is not done; we have to think about what the candidates’ tactical statements, how they are covered in the media, and how the electorate responds to them, might mean.


We learn metacognition in therapy from necessity; as patients we come to therapy with a painful impasse in our lives, as therapists we strive to facilitate a co-created reflective space for our patients.  I wonder what might prompt a national awareness of the need for metacognition about how we learn about candidates for leadership?