While I was writing that last post on Dusty Springfield I remembered something I sometimes say to my clients. If you go to see a film, where’s it happening? Some people get straight into this, others remain a little baffled. Thinking about the question clearly and sometimes slowly enough to get to an answer is an exercise in itself – you wade through assumptions, things you haven’t considered, and whatever feels intuitively right or wrong. Then you get to a thought: it’s happening in you. If I watch a film, it’s happening in me. That’s why we can see different things in the same film: whatever I go to watch is seen in the company of me and my whole life, all my thoughts, feelings and unknowns. There’s the rubble of my unconscious and the summit of my achievements. Something that happens may take place outside me – but it happens in me. Something that goes on, that’s something in me.
I’ve been thinking about narcissism lately and ended up watching Now, Voyager yesterday and selected excerpts form the Alien films this morning. None of this ran together in the way I have just written it until I began writing the words ‘narcissistic feed’, but there we go.
Narcissism isn’t necessarily a bad thing: thinking about what you like to eat, wear, say and do; if I didn’t I would, in an awful sense, disappear. There’d be nothing of me on show and no return from that in the world to give me a sense of having a life that’s mine. Of course narcissism can be overdone and, from time to time, most of us overdo it – unless we underdo it, which I might come to at another time: underdo as in written our of life or written over someone else, no doubt a particularly egregious narcissist. We forget that we don’t actually know better than other people, or that we know them half as well as we might imagine. All kinds of narcissism rely on a feed from the outside world, from the kind of ‘that’s a nice hat’ comment to the more disturbing ‘you’re mine’ behaviour which characterises those egregious types I mentioned.
If you want to see what happens when narcissism becomes a difficult thing watch what happens to Charlotte Vale, or the crew of the Nostromo in Alien. Narcissists take a dim view of those around them trying to assert themselves: it interrupts the feed. Charlotte or Kane could have stayed in their cabins, but instead they went looking for adventure.
Differentiation, the move from a ‘we’ to an ‘I’, recognising the other, will always in some way be worrying (not being comfortable as an ‘I’ leaves you feeling anxious). You know you’ve got a problem when someone insists on ‘we’, not necessarily if they get worried about the ‘I’ … we all do that.
The ‘I’ demands a leap into the unknown unless I believe, secretly, we really are always a we, inseparable and conjoined. Wilfred Bion wrote about Experiences in Groups, not ‘experiences of groups’. Groups are an experience rather than an entity – as The Three Musketeers would have done well to remember.
I got worried about something like this yesterday. When I was a boy hooked on watching Sunday afternoon matinee films Now, Voyager had only existed for thirty years … rather like the relationship between now and another film I love: Withnail and I. And so I was reminded that I am 50 again. The ‘we’ of Tom Tomaszewski, me in all of my incarnations, still hasn’t quite become used to this ‘I’, the 50-year old one.
Oedipus is not about a young man who wants to sleep with his mother and kill his father. It’s about someone whose parents’ secrets are always there to threaten him. In the end his blindness destroys him. Oedipus is to blame yourself for your parents’ crimes.
I’m realising, more than ever, that there are things my mother taught me, and left for me to discover, which were not for the time I found them, or she gave them to me. That was confusing. They’re for now, I believe she meant it that way.
People often write about change in psychotherapy. Fewer people seem to write about how changes are noticed and acted upon, especially in clinical teams. This piece is written for people working in teams and tries to suggest a few things about accountability among clinical groups.
When you see something that you believe someone has missed it can feel alarming. (I’ve heard it can also be gratifying.) There’s a kind of noticing which can either be constructive or divisive, depending on how it’s approached, and it goes like this: someone (a therapist, a counsellor, a nurse; let’s not get too hung up on titles right now) is responsible for a client, perhaps something goes wrong or a situation deteriorates, or nothing seems to be happening, and another person is invited in (hopefully by the first person) to take a look at that client as well. I’ve experienced this from both sides.
At worst, the person being called in might see what they call negligence. Negligence happens and is probably as likely as ever to happen now, although I won’t get into that here (if you’re interested, I imagine all would be revealed rather quickly if you watched Ken Loach’s latest film and then read some Adorno on administrative culture). More often I imagine that what might be regarded by the second person as having been ‘missed’ by the first person has actually been subject to one of, broadly speaking, three kinds of process.
The first person may have been aware of what has been ‘missed’ but chosen to approach it in a way that does not seem immediately obvious to the second (process one); or it could have been seen and not considered as important as the second person believes it to be (who may or may not be right in believing this – either way, this is process two); or it could have been become perceptible as a result of the way the first person has worked, but remained undetectable, immediately, to him or her, such are the defences at play (process three).
There’s much I would say about the first two categories of process listed above. It’s the third, however, that I want to say some more about here. If you have some kind of affinity to what’s usually called ‘psychoanalytic’ work then the third category is possibly one that you never let slip out of mind. But I think any experienced clinician, in fact anyone who’s had the regular experience of joining in with work someone else has begun, might recognise that some things will never be immediately perceptible to the people who begin to make them knowable.
Good clinical work is work from which something emerges over time. This calls for a kind of continuity in which accountability is isolated, as far as possible, from blame – where it’s sought after by the person accepting it, rather thrust upon them as part of a move to account for what apparently hasn’t happened, with no acknowledgement of ‘yet’.
The idea that clinical work can predictably happen in the time we would like to allocate to it is of course most seductive. Given the ways in which clients live their lives, how treatment is paid for, and how therapists work it’s almost too much to bear, to think that the most useful thing in someone’s treatment may be happening only unrecognisably so. But holding onto the idea that perhaps something hasn’t happened yet, and that some clinicians are going to complete what they see as their work without perhaps feeling with their client the greater sense of achievement that comes with a life ‘turning around’ calls for a rare and special kind of collaborative work.
Supervision and cooperation must hold strong without starting to become steely. Experience needs to be contained without being restricted or constricted; growth needs to happen while being shaped as little as possible by containing forces (directive work needs at some point to give way to a client finding his or her own direction).
Plato (the Timaeus), Heidegger (Was heißt Denken?, 1954 [What is Called Thinking?, trans. 1968]), Bion (Container and Contained, 1962) and Derrida (Sauf le Nom, 1993 [On the Name, trans. 1995]) wrote about this. Still, it seems somehow to so often become forgotten.
And of course I am not suggesting that certain other important things be forgotten, like looking closely at what is evident to everyone involved and making sure certain parameters are not exceeded: the ones written into the ethical codes we subscribe to and the bottom lines relating to the forms of treatment or engagement we begin. It would be a mistake, however, to believe these things are always decided beforehand, in another place, such as a room inhabited by a UKCP ethics committee. Things begun in those places have a life of their own, too.
Today this begins:
‘Wilfred Bion will deliver a paper on the effects of our aggressive tendencies, dreams as resistance to overwhelming odds, and dreams as a source of the future.
‘Reports of Mr Bion’s death have in fact been premature. He has been alive and living well, very well, for the last few decades, contemplating a virus analogous to a computer virus which would infect oil (Dreams, he says, are the new oil). His preoccupation with intense darkness has led him to follow with trepidation the fate of the Labour Party, the popularity of Donald Trump and falling sales of the iPhone (the newsworthiness of which signifies, as much as anything else, a crashing lack of reverie).
‘Reverie. I shall pick up on this in the future as much as anything else.
‘Reverie. We don’t dream the same and when we do dream our dreams are not taken seriously. Even a dream book (my father’s was one of the few things he left to me) would do better than the National Curriculum, Internships and what I hear about best practice in psychotherapy. All of the institutions, people, places I look to to help dreams become thoughts, become actions, become something in the world … what are they? Distracted? Disinterested? I think about schools and I don’t even get the teacher from The Wall, more a hazy picture of rows of women and men standing in front of children with an iPhone in their hand. Distracted. Texting without realising they are in the middle of children’s dreams and their job is to help carry dreams forward.
‘Teachers, bosses, psychotherapists need to be Dream Positive. There is an aggressive attempt underway to take away the night, to have us never ending working, or unable to sleep in our anxiety, to stop dreams happening, and for anyone who dreams to be left on their own with their dreams … to ensure nobody is there to hold dreams together with reality, so it all goes mad.
‘Mr Bion will present his paper in the future.
‘Mr Bion reports that dreams are taken seriously as a serious threat to the future. He notes certain repetitions in this piece with interest (for example in seriously and serious in the previous sentence) and wonders what that’s about).
I have a thought that the act of reading is detraumatising. The most current forms of trauma treatment involve bilateral movement, where someone is anchored in the present moment while they consider memories. When I read the focus of my eyes moves across a page, left to right. I turn pages, right to left. even when I’m lost in a story, and I notice this. Sometimes I find reading unaccountably difficult, but if I move through that difficulty I often feel exhilarated. What’s the trauma? There’s all kinds of trauma, all of the time. Life’s traumatic even if it isn’t dramatic.
I see the symptoms as far as I can, and sometimes other people see them for me. The way I touch my face before speaking sometimes, I could tell you where that comes from. Other things, you’ll notice them if you’re around me long enough as much as I’d notice things in you, and their effects. Hopefully I know enough of these things and what they create to make my life less chaotic than it could be. Many things I discovered in writing, after reading. The effect of a book on me.
Screens worry me: TV screens where eyes don’t move and flat screens where pages don’t turn. Where’s the anchor in the now? If you can’t get into therapy then read something on paper. Read some stories by Colette. She’s amazing and they’re wonderfully short. Just don’t let the difficulty of a book stop you. Addicts: read books. Find a way to read a whole novel, every page without skipping, and then talk about it with someone. Talk about what happened.