To Be Green and Dying:
Building Sandcastles on the Shore of Relational Psychoanalysis
for Stephen Mitchell 1946-2000
This paper grew out of a tribute I wrote to Stephen Mitchell for a weekend conference on Relational Psychoanalysis sponsored by the New Directions Program of the Washington Psychoanalytic Foundation in February, 2001. The tribute was based on two early papers (1978, 1981) that Mitchell had published challenging the then widely held view in psychoanalysis that homosexuality was inevitably pathological. These papers gave me an unexpected opportunity to feel welcomed, however briefly, into the psychoanalytic world as a lesbian woman. I write about that experience, discussing both the radical position Mitchell took towards homosexuality, and the historical context in which they appeared. I offer some thoughts about what happened between 1978-1981 when Mitchell spoke so authoritatively about psychoanalytic attitudes toward
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homosexuality and 1996 when he described “the plight of the perplexed clinician” with regard to “gender and sexual orientation in the age of postmodernism. “Since his death, I’ve been more aware of his thinking about time, memory, and impermanence. I look at how he relates various possible perceptions of our inevitable extinction to our capacity to play and enjoy our creations, and – to use the metaphor he borrowed from Nietzsche – to take pleasure in buildingtheoretical’and’clinical’ sandcast/es on the shore of relational psychoanalysis knowing full well that the tide is coming in.
When I was a child growing up in rural Michigan, every Sunday my family would visit the cemetery where some of “our people” were buried. As part of the ritual, my Grandma Bess would tell the joke about how “everyone’s just dying to get in,” and, as part of the ritual, we would all giggle. Hanging from the sexton’s house there was a faded sign in handwritten letters that read, PERPETUAL CARE – NO DOGS ALLOWED. “What does ‘perpetual’ mean?” we kids would ask my Grandpa Clyde who had once been the sexton there and who we therefore assumed held the keys to the mysteries of life and death. “It means something that lasts a long time… like forever. “What’s ‘forever’ mean?” we would persist, all the while eyeing our cocker spaniel, Charlie, whose high spirits didn’t seem to be the least diminished by the fact that he wasn’t included. “Forever?” my grandfather would repeat, “that’s something you’ll find out about when you’re dead… you’ll be dead forever.” Then he’d get that mischievous twinkle in his eye which meant he was about to try to scare us with some ghoulish tale of digging up corpses that had to be moved in the middle of the night. I would distract myself with fantasies of perpetual care – like being able to stay home from school everyday and be pampered like I was now, but only occasionally, when I got a cold.
Then one Autumn day when we went to the cemetery, the “perpetual care” sign was gone. “Don’t worry,” said Grandpa Clyde who himself would soon be gone. Sensing my concern, he put his arm around me and said “It’s O.K… look at that maple tree over there, how much the color of the leaves has turned since the last time we were here… have you ever seen anything more beautiful in your
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life?” My grandfather wasn’t known for being affectionate. Taken by surprise, I wasn’t about to miss the opportunity he offered. As I snuggled up against his body, I could feel the fear and sadness melt away into one of those eternal moments where, however briefly it lasted by clock time, I let myself feel totally secure, loved and immersed in the beauty of that tree.
I found this “memory” coming back to me at the memorial service held for Stephen Mitchell after his death in December, 2000. It started when I looked at the program and saw the lines from Fern Hill by Dylan Thomas:
Time held me green and dying Though I sang in my chains like the sea.
It’s a poem I know by heart, and call upon when I need a sense of generation and generativity associating it with those childhood days when, in my idealized recollection, I was “green and carefree, famous among the barns/About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home.” Sitting at that service in an overflow room with a number of people I didn’t know, some of whom were sobbing, I found that early memory evoked by these words from “Fern Hill” taking me back to yet another time when, without knowing anything about it, Stephen Mitchell who I did not know personally or professionally had, like my grandfather, offered me an amazingly unexpected opportunity — this time to feel welcomed into the psychoanalytic world as a lesbian woman, however briefly, at a time when the predominant psychoanalytic view of homosexuality seemed to be based on fear, ignorance, and hate.
Mitchell’s Challenge to the Psychoanalytic Presumption That Homosexuality is Inevitably Pathological and Could and Should be Changed (1978-1981)
In November 1999, in the preface to his last issue as founding editor of
Psychoanalytic Dialogues: A Journal of Relational Perspectives, Stephen Mitchell
remarked that in the ten years that had passed since the journal was conceived,
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“…the term relational has moved from intellectual contraband to almost a buzzword…” spawning “…fascinating new questions and problems…” for “…those of us who love the work.” (pp 717-718) My initial experience of Mitchell occurred before his name would become a “buzzword” as a standard-bearer of relational psychoanalysis. At his memorial service I recalled two early, at the time, relatively unknown papers he wrote on homosexuality.1 Together, these two papers challenged — with the intellectual rigor for which Mitchell would become known — the psychoanalytic presumptions that homosexuality was inevitably pathological, and that, therefore, when it came to working with homosexuals, the analyst should depart from the traditional position of neutrality and take an educative-directive approach.
The first paper, on theory, appearing in 1978 when he was thirty-two was his first published paper. The second, on technique, was published in 1981 two years before the then controversial Object Relations in Psychoanalysis co-authored with jay Greenberg — a book which opposed a relational model to the drive structure model of mind and development emerging from sexual and aggressive impulses. Drive theory might be unified and comprehensive but Mitchell’s view as early as 1978 was that it was outdated. In the 1978 paper “Psychodynamics, Homosexuality, and the Question of Pathology,” Mitchell observes that most psychoanalytic approaches to homosexuality stress early developmental contributions and tend to view homosexuality as a deviation from healthy and fully mature living. He then announces in a highly confident manner that he’s going to demonstrate that this is not true:
The notion that psychodynamic causes and contributions imply pathology is, as I will show, a historical artifact deriving from Freud’s original libidinal fixation theory of neurosis. Such an assumption is no longer necessary,but is also inconsistent with more contemporary psychodynamic understanding of human experience (p.260).
In the 1981 paper on “The Psychoanalytic Treatment of Homosexuality: Some Technical Considerations,” Mitchell notes the growing psychoanalytic consensus
1 These papers have since been reprinted and discussed in Studies in Gender and Sexuality (2002 ,#3, pp3-59)
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beginning in the 1950’s that homosexuality was psychodynamically derived, pathological and potentially treatable. In the early 1960’s more “. . .clear, fully detailed approaches to the treatment of homosexuality began to emerge, entailing deviations from traditional analytic technique.” (p. 65) Mitchell denounced the belief propagated most notably by Ovesey, Bieber, Socarides, and Hatterer that the pathological nature of homosexuality necessitated the analyst departing from the traditional position of neutrality. In these approaches, the “totalizing devaluation of homosexual relationships” justified an educative-directive approach including “restraining techniques” and the exploitation of the transference and the patient’s shame in the service of the “dehomosexualization process.”
According to Mitchell, the “greatest toll” of this pathologizing approach was evidenced in the “profound sense of failure, shame, self-hatred and a deep cynicism about the analytic process” experienced by some homosexuals in analysis. Given the language, metaphors, and presumptions in psychoanalytic theorizing on homosexuality, he wrote in 1978,
. . .it would be difficult to deny what must be the considerable discouraging impact of psychoanalytic thought on any knowledgeable homosexual person unconvinced about the desirability for change, but seeking an opportunity for open inquiry (p. 267).
However, Mitchell believed that these analysts “who had a homophobic ax to grind” were a vocal minority. His speculation was that this most visible approach was not representative of analytic work in general with patients (1981, p. 63). For one thing, because it violated fundamental principles of sound psychoanalytic practice, he thought it “therefore highly unlikely that this approach is representative of the broad practice of most psychoanalysts with patients who are homosexual.” (p. 63) Mitchell believed that “many psychoanalysts approach homosexual material produced by their patients as they would any other experiences of their patients — simply as material to be inquired into and analyzed. Such analysts, said Mitchell
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. . .are not likely to write about psychoanalytic approaches to homosexuality, since they would feel that homosexuality does not pose particularly distinctive or unique features in terms of analytic work. Such a point of view would therefore be under represented in the literature (1981, p.63).
It was “disturbing,” he said, that “this misleading impression” contributed to the “extremely negative attitudes toward psychoanalysis found in many sectors of the gay community.” (1978, p. 262)
But reading Mitchell in 1978 it was easy to get the impression that, if he had anything to do with it, this was all going to change. Hearing what he had to say and with what conviction he said it, one could almost believe that once the presumably unrepresentative but visible homophobic analysts understood the significance of contemporary developments concerning interpersonal processes and internal object relations, it would be clear to them and everyone else that homosexuality, like heterosexuality, involves more than libidinal drives, more than a defense against castration or an expression of regressive pre-oedipal yearnings. There could well be “other meanings and motives in behavior,” Mitchell suggested, “including feelings and wishes for intimacy on other levels” (1978, p. 259).
Whether he was operating out of generosity, strategic savvy or ignorance with regard to the attitudes of the silent “neutral” analysts, it still remains true that, as Magee and Miller point out (1997, p. xxii), Mitchell was “one of only a few exceptional analysts” who “were critical of the prevailing psychoanalytic practice of attributing common denominators of etiology and character to homosexual persons.” I share Magee and Miller’s incredulity concerning the idea that most analysts would escape the anxiety-based reactions to homosexuality so prevalent in the general culture (pp. 148-149). They disagree with Mitchell’s view that analysts would probably not discuss patients whose homosexual relationships improve because they would find this so unremarkable. On the contrary, they suggest that such analysts were in the same position as their patients — “ambivalent about whether to reveal or hide, fearing that if they do come out, their work will, at best, not be appreciated and, at worst, be attacked.”
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In response to the tribute I wrote to Mitchell after he died, some heterosexual analysts told me that one of the reasons they thought he was so brave in these early articles was that he could easily have been labeled gay and dismissed on that basis. But for some heterosexual persons, an equal or greater fear may have been that of being labeled an inadequate analyst. In one poignant example, Magee and Miller discuss Masud Khan’s description in 1964 of his anxiety in treating a female college student who was experiencing sexual pleasure with another woman. Khan describes what he called the “ego-enhancing” pleasures of one woman’s sensual exploration of another woman’s body and indicates he was impressed by the depth of her feelings in a lesbian relationship (1964, pp. 247-248). But he worried about how he and his patient would be seen if he described her sexual pleasure.
Khan began to describe the patient’s sexual excitement… and then stopped, interrupting his description of the sexual relationship with an eight-page report of his attempts to prevent the homosexual behavior through interpretation and with a description of his anxiety as the patient, in spite of his interpretations, pursued her course (Magee & Miller, 1997, pp. 149).
Lest the reader think that Khan’s concern in 1964 that his “permitting” a lesbian relationship would be criticized by analytic colleagues was “idiosyncratic, excessive, or dated,” one of the most painful parts of the story occurred almost thirty years later after Khan’s death in 1992. Adam Limentani’s (1992) comments on the case in Khan’s obituary in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis suggest that Khan’s fears were quite valid. “Her acting out of homosexual impulses” says Limentani “… was precipitated by the patient’s incapacity to tolerate frustration, and on reading the report it is easy to form the impression that the analyst did little to prevent it” (p. 158). In suggesting an explanation for Limentani’s behavior, Magee and Miller return to Mitchell’s 1981 paper — where he seems to contradict himself on the average analyst’s anxiety around homosexuality — to cite his view that because anxieties about homosex-
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uality are so great, the analyst may be at risk of just this kind of countertransfer-ence-based policing response.
I doubt if there’s any simple answer as to why Mitchell chose such a controversial topic as homosexuality to begin explicating his ideas. One of my fantasies is that he had a roguish irreverence for any traditions he considered outdated and irrelevant, including his own. When I was looking for my copies of Mitchell’s papers on homosexuality, I ran across another of his early papers (1979) entitled “Twilight of the Idols” after one of Nietzsche’s last books, Twilight of the Idols Or, How One Philosophizes With a Hammer (1888). In this paper, Mitchell charges both Kohut and Kernberg with trying to stretch classical drive theory “to accommodate new clinical data and new conceptual approaches, which are essentially incompatible with it” (p. 17). In the epigram he uses to preface the paper, Mitchell quotes Nietzsche’s claim that the philosophers before him had a dangerous idiosyncrasy:
They place that which comes at the end — to come at all! — namely, the highest concepts, the last smoke of evaporating reality, in the beginning, as the beginning.
Both Kohut and Kernberg, says Mitchell, “appear to be struggling to preserve a system of’higher concepts’ which, we might speculate with Nietzsche, represent the ‘last smoke of evaporating reality'” (p. 189). Pretty nervy for a young man at the beginning of his career. He seemed to have no qualms about taking on the establishment. On the psychoanalytic seashore, the play of ideas was a rough and tumble activity. Because he understood more than most how profoundly psychoanalytic “concepts” can affect people’s lives, nobody’s sandcas-tles, however revered, were off limits.
At The Institute For Human Identity: Daring to Hope (1978)
In 1978 I was in a psychodynamics training program at the Institute for Human Identity (IHI) in New York City, one of the many “affirmative” psychotherapy centers for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people which
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emerged in the 1970’s as part of the gay liberation movement. Most of these centers were staffed by gay therapists and most had the word iclentity’m their titles. This emphasis on identity is important to understanding how the ever-changing terminology that homosexuals have used to describe themselves both reflects and affects social change (Jagose, 1996, pp. 1-29).
Both the Homophile movement in the 1950’s/60’s and the Gay Liberation Movement in the 1970’s were alike in their perception of the psychiatric/psychoanalytic institution as a source of homophobic oppression. However, their approaches to dealing with this situation were different. “Homophiles,” who sought assimilation and acceptance in mainstream society, bravely tried to persuade psychiatrists who they saw as experts on gender and sexuality to adopt more liberal understandings of homosexuality. Sometimes they even invited these “experts” to their meetings and accepted their view that homosexual behavior was a sickness. In contrast, by the 1970’s, “Gay Liberationists” stressed “identity,” “coming out” and speaking out against those who considered homosexual behavior aberrant. The “liberationists” demanded that the personal experience of gay men and lesbian women with regard to gender and sexuality be recognized as authoritative.
In the beginning, IHI was housed in Charles Silverstein’s (1997) former apartment and had a dedicated staff. We felt pretty sure that the psychoanalytic establishment was not our friend and that we had to take care of our own. Mitchell was right when he referred to the “souring” of members of the gay community (1978, p. 262) towards psychoanalysis. Perhaps one of the most chilling statements in this regard came from the French writer Monique Wittig in a paper delivered in New York at the Modern Language Association in 1978. Wittig, who would later become a major influence in the work of Judith Butler, spoke of the political significance of the impossibility that lesbians, feminists, and gay men faced in the attempt to communicate in heterosexual society, “other than with psychoanalysts who exploited their need for communication.” She compared the oppressed person, the psychoanalyzed lesbian, feminist, or gay man to
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. . . one who (in the same way as the witches could, under torture, only repeat the language that the inquisitors wanted to hear) has no other choice, (if s/he does not want to destroy the implicit contract which allows her/him to communicate and which s/he needs), than to attempt to say what s/he is supposed to say. They say this can last for a lifetime — a cruel contract which constrains a human being to display her/his misery to an oppressor who is directly responsible for it, who exploits her/him economically, politically, ideologically, and whose interpretations reduces this misery to a few figures of speech (1980, p. 433).
This anguished expression of suffering meshed with Mitchell’s view that “certain” psychoanalysts by “deliberately encouraging compliance and submission” in their work with homosexuals, were bringing into sharp focus what seemed to be “the necessary contradiction and bad faith inherent in a procedure which both actively exploits and then claims to analyze the transference” (1981, p. 70).
It was in the same historical moment that someone brought a copy of Mitchell’s 1978 article to an IHI staff meeting. I remember someone reading it out loud, someone else sobbing — from apparent relief. We were completely taken by surprise and could hardly believe it. How could this be happening? Here was this young, articulate, courageous, heterosexual psychoanalyst speaking out on our behalf. Not that he knew anything about us of course. But it felt that way. We were still optimistic and willing to run the risk of daring to hope at the time — perhaps not so unlike Stephen Mitchell himself. Somehow we got copies of the 1981 article well before it was published; I still have a tattered copy.
One might think that we wouldn’t have been interested in what a “straight” psychoanalyst who represented the “enemy” had to say. But for me at least, Mitchell, like my grandfather when I was a child, was offering an amazingly unexpected opportunity, this time to feel welcomed into the world of psychoanalysis, and I didn’t hesitate to accept the invitation. It was not only that I felt enlivened by feeling, as Jessica Benjamin would later conceptualize it (1999), that Mitchell recognized me as a “subject” with real and novel experiences of
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my own. It was not only that instead of the deadening shock of difference where you automatically turn to stone in one another’s presence, there was what Michael Eigen would later call the “joyous shock of difference,” the possibility of an “openness to experiencing where wrath can turn, even momentarily, into joyous experiencing of one another’s mystery” (1991, p. 8). Even more than this, I felt that psychoanalytic theory itself had come to life, and that I, with my own idiosyncratic ways of loving and becoming, was quickened to join in the play of ideas — ideas that affected people’s lives.
Unfortunate Circumstances (The 1980’s)
Discussing Winnicott, Eigen reminds us “how precious core aliveness is, and how fragile”(1996, p. xxi). The sense of feeling free and alive, Winnicott said, “comes and goes and even when felt to be well attained, can be lost due to unfortunate circumstances” (1965, p. 142). After the optimism of Gay Liberation, Gay Affirmative Psychotherapy, and then Mitchell’s papers, for many of us in the 1980’s it seemed that all of the entrances to Winnicott’s “transitional area” of freedom and aliveness had been boarded up again.
Gradually most of us in that little protected room on West End Avenue would scatter into the “real” world. In the 1980’s, the memory and feeling of support that came from those early Mitchell papers on homosexuality would, like the tide, recede and return again in different forms at different times for different people. For example, in another tribute to Stephen Mitchell after his death entitled “Not On a Couch But On a Page,” Suzanne lasenza writes:
Gays and lesbians have an uneasy relationship with psychoanalysis and rightfully so… My own struggle to find a safe analytic space within which to understand my psychic development as a lesbian woman was found not on a couch but on a page. I remember in the late 1970’s as a graduate student clutching an article by Stephen Mitchell entitled “Psychodynamics, Homosexuality, and the Question of Pathology,” as a drowning woman clutches a life preserver. I carried this article, dogeared and covered with yellow highlighter, for years as evidence that I deserved to exist (2000, p. 1).
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Several of us went for training at psychoanalytic institutes where, ironically, we would experience for the first time what Mitchell had deplored and which we naively hoped, perhaps like Mitchell, was quickly “evaporating.” The institute where I trained from 1981 to 1984 had an American ego psychological approach crowned by the work of Rubin and Gertrude Blanck in their book, Ego Psychology: Theory and Practice (1974). It turned out that the Blancks were yet another example of what Mitchell identified as the vocal few who saw all homosexuals as those who “more than any other sexual pathology suffer from having to go against their biological destiny” (1974, p. 300).
Mitchell takes on the Blanck’s approach in his chapter on “Clinical Implications of the Developmental Tilt” in 1988 in his first book Relational Concepts in Psychoanalysis: An Integration. He uses a clinical vignette from their book as an example of “developmental tilt” — when relational issues are introduced “as pertaining to the earliest developmental phase so that their appearance later in life is always a sign of pathology.” The patient in the case, Mrs. Fletcher, has separated from her husband “supposedly because he failed to gratify her symbiotic needs to be held other than when they were having sex” (p. 305). Mitchell’s purpose here is to point out “whether or not relational issues are tilted toward infancy has important implications in the handling of clinical material.” Here is the vignette:
Mrs. Fletcher: I always feel unwanted. My husband only wanted me for
sex, but he never held me just because he liked me.
Therapist: Everyone needs to be held at times, but when do we need it
Mrs. Fletcher: You mean when we were babies? You seem to be telling
me that when I think of a woman, even if sexually, that it really reflects
the way I yearned to be held, cuddled, and loved by my mother.
Therapist: Do you see now why you asked me whether I am a “butch?”
Mrs. Fletcher: Oh, it upsets me. I want a woman.
Therapist: But do you understand why?
Mrs. Fletcher: I need mothering.
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Thus the patient arrives at the realization that her homosexual wishes contain the intense yearning for mothering that was unfulfilled in the age-appropriate symbiotic phase, (p. 306, quoted in Mitchell, p.156).
Mitchell observes that the therapist in the case pays lip service to the need for tenderness throughout life, then immediately collapses such a need into the infant’s need for tenderness from the mother.
Relational needs which might be regarded as aspects of all adult relationships, the longing to be held and cherished, are depicted as regressive, symbiotic yearnings, unresolved residues from earliest childhood (1988, pp. 155-157).
Even now when I read that vignette and Mitchell’s critique, I cringe remembering my experience of psychoanalysis during that period. In some ways, it seems more devastating now because I’m not in the same state of dissociation I needed to get through the program. When I “came out” in an interview for assignment to a supervisor in 1982, the interviewer seemed surprised that I didn’t know that the institute believed that homosexuals shouldn’t be allowed to be therapists. It was the first time I’d ever heard this, but unfortunately, not the last. (The last time was a decade later in 1993 at a panel on anti-homosexual bias at a meeting of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis. After jack Drescher, one of the panel members, shared his anxiety about coming out as a gay analyst, another panel member who identified herself as heterosexual said that perhaps it wasn’t politically correct but she wondered why there wasn’t someone on the panel representing the orthodox view that homosexuals shouldn’t be allowed to be analysts.)
My interviewer said she was glad to actually meet one of us (homosexuals). I couldn’t tell her she’d already trained a few. I spaced out and wondered if I might be hearing extraterrestrial news. Imagine yourself as “E.T” landing in the playroom of the wrong family. I was advised to read the psychoanalytic literature on homosexuality. Mitchell wasn’t on the list. No one had heard of him, which makes perfect sense now. But I wasn’t asked to leave. I stayed and finished the
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program. I’ve been asked if I didn’t think I was being masochistic for coming out, and then, being told what I was told, staying. Probably, especially if we think of masochism as in the question Adrienne Harris would ask in 1995 when discussing the long-standing concerns of gay and lesbian analysts around training and questions of treatment — “How to love a practice, a body of thought, theories, or institutions which do not appear to offer love and respect in return” (p. xiii)?
Fielding Grounders With Dad (Mom): Creating and Destroying Memory In the Service of Shaping and Protecting an Identity
My reaction to rediscovering the clinical vignette from the Blancks in Mitchell’s 1988 book was also unsettling. It’s a quote that I used in a paper I wrote in 1995. I was using it to show how the Blancks infantilized homosexuals. By then I would have had seven years to read Mitchell’s use of the case. What’s odd is that when I went back to his book more recently, I was shocked to find this quote and his discussion of it as if I’d never seen it there before. How could that be? If I had found it there, it seems that given my experience of his writing at I HI, I would have used it as an occasion to talk about that time and say how much he had touched my life. But I didn’t mention it, and later, I didn’t even remember reading that part of the book.
This sense of memorial confusion reminds me of a story Mitchell told in 1996. He tells of driving around his childhood suburban neighborhood as an adult and having “vivid memories” of the “many, many mornings” he and his father had gone to a particular park where his father had taught him a wonderful device for fielding grounders when he was a kid in Little League — “Keep your eye on the ball; don’t flinch.” He felt so moved by this memory and of how this lesson had helped him in confronting other challenges of life, he decided to express his gratitude towards his father the next time he saw him. “It was something of a shock,” therefore when his father told him that they “had, in fact, only played ball at that, or any other park, once or twice” (p. 46).
He goes on to say that although “as we know, retrospective reconstruction of both historical events and developmental processes is a hazardous business,”
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his reflections on this incident had led him to a deeper understanding of how he was finding a way to use aspects of his own temperament, together with contributions from both his parents, by shaping and protecting an identity for himself. It was really the strength of his mother’s approaches to challenges and adversity that he admired and identified with so intensely. “That identification,” he said, “was both precious and threatening” since his mother, like so many women of her generation, “seemed to me to have a somewhat degraded status within my family.”
I must have taken the content of my identification with my mother and reworked it into something stereotypically masculine, drawing on my father’s analytic ability to conceptualize important principles, so that the whole package could appear to me as coming from my father ( p. 47).
Inspired by Mitchell’s reflections on creating memory in the service of “shaping and protecting an identity” for himself, I have come to the following understanding of my excluding my early experience of him from my sense of identity in the 80’s.
Here was a heterosexual man who I had idealized in 1978 for his taking on the anti-homosexual psychoanalytic establishment on my behalf.
When I was stripped of my illusions of change, I wasn’t strong enough to keep my experience of Mitchell integrated into my self-concept. I filed his papers away and didn’t go back to them until recently. I couldn’t deal at the time with my feelings of fear and shame, of betrayal (by him and of him) so I kept him in a protected place like an object where I couldn’t consciously either lose him or draw directly on his support. When I wrote in 1995 about this period of my life, I denied Mitchell’s influence in my life. I said “not psychoanalytic writing” but, rather, the words of lesbian writers like Audre Lorde, Joan Nestle, and Muriel Rukeyser gave me the fortitude to get through those days (Decker, p. 77).
Reflecting on this now, I would in no way deny the inspiration these lesbian writers gave me. But I would add that Mitchell, perhaps not so unlike his mother for him, had, like so many analysts of his generation, taken on a degraded status
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in my lesbian family; my admiration for and identification with him, as his for and with his mother now seemed “as threatening as it was precious.” Would it be too farfetched to speculate that I took the content of my identification with this gutsy heterosexual man and reworked it into something stereotypically “butch,” that is, aggressive, protective, outspoken, ready to take on controversy — so that the whole package could appear to me as coming from lesbians? Lesbians who at that point seemed more validating to my sense of what was illusion and what was real.
To Be Green and Dying: Building Sandcastles On the Shore of Relational Psychoanalysis
In his 1988 book, Mitchell published another paper called “The Wings of Icarus.” Here he draws on Nietzsche’s theory of tragedy (1872/1956) and “play” as the prototypical tragic activity to discuss the various ways we negotiate illusion and reality. The epigram he uses for this paper is Nietzsche’s metaphor of the building of “towers of sand like a child at the seashore piles up and tramples down… the ever self-renewing impulses to play call(ing) new worlds into being” (1988, p. 170). But it isn’t just that one gleefully destroys one’s own sandcastles. As players, we can also tear down each other’s constructions, or join in co-construction. Also, at the seashore, we build our castles when the tide is out. When the passage of time brings the tide in, it washes away all signs of our individual creations. Some people, says Nietzsche, confronted with this reminder that we live in time and, in time we die, deny the fragility of their constructions and then are devastated when their sandcastles disappear. Others aware of the impermanence and mortality implicit in the situation, refuse to build anything. But in the third option that Nietzsche proposed, the “tragic man” is “aware of the tide and the transitory nature of his productions,” yet builds his sandcastles nevertheless. As Mitchell paraphrases Nietzsche, “The inevitable limitations of the human condition do not dim the passion with which he builds his castles; in fact, the inexorable realities add a poignancy and sweetness to our passion.”
I drew on this metaphor of building sandcastles on the seashore for the title of this paper on Mitchell not only because he seemed to find it such a rich
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model for living a full life, but also because I find the metaphor so compelling in its ability to “spawn” fascinating relational questions. One question spawned by this approach is how, in theory and practice, the way we relate to the awareness of our brief engagement on earth affects our capacity to surrender to the process of becoming and to the recognition of Otherness not only in others but in ourselves as well. The metaphor of building sandcastles lends itself to questions of how the interplay of existential and social contingencies get played out in different contexts, to the multiple views of social constructionism — e.g. Hoffman later questioning Mitchell’s delineation of illusion and reality, asking if Mitchell’s “more realistic appraisals of the worth of self are not themselves constructions that should be taken as narcissistic illusions” (1998, p. 154), to the attacks and counter-attacks on the universal narrative approach to history which disavows the existence of marginal/invisible selves and groups, to the postmodern turn which draws our attention to how power and “knowledge” are related in any theoretical construction. In Mitchell’s view, the self is in process, is becoming, and, thus, is diffracting the normative narrative over and over so that new meanings of life can be liberated (Zornberg, 2001, p. 5). The “self-as-becoming” is alive, “is separate, dies” (Cole, 2001, p. 151). The self who surrenders to the process of becoming, to recognizing and being recognized, is the self that in grieving celebration knows itself to be both “green and dying.”
Illusion and Reality: Which is Which? And Who Gets to Decide Whose Sandcastles Count as “Real?”
When I first read the “Icarus” paper in 1988 I was preoccupied with the question of who gets to decide what is illusion and what is reality, and on what basis. Even if one agrees with Hoffman that “All social realities are ‘sandcastles’ jeopardized by the awareness of mortality and the potential meaninglessness of existence” (p. 154), there’s still the question of whose lives get to count as lives (Butler, 2001) and whose sandcastles get to count as social realities even for the briefest moment we can imagine.
With regard to sexual orientation, in the “real” world of the 1980’s, one of the most popular psychoanalytic authorities on sexual realities was Joyce McDougall
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who cast lesbian sexuality as “a fictitious identity,” questioning how it was “possible to maintain the illusion of being the true sexual partner to another woman” (1980, p. 88). Even though McDougall has attributed these earlier beliefs to inexperience and a limited sample of patients (1995, p. 38), her research and conclusions went largely uncontested by the psychoanalytic establishment until the 1990’s when lesbian analysts began speaking publicly about how damaged they had felt by her work. You don’t have to be particularly swift to realize that such attitudes might have a different effect on a patient confused about the legitimacy of her sexual desires, or on all of the closeted lesbian therapists/analysts who read and heard McDougall than, say, the view that Sandra Kiersky would express a decade later in her article, “Exiled Desires: The Problem of Reality in Psychoanalysis and Lesbian Experience” — that “we feel real because our experience is responded to as real and we are not left alone with our feelings” (1996, p. 132).
In the early 1970’s, (ill Johnston, a journalist for The Village Voice and a self-proclaimed lesbian-feminist activist had formulated the issue of who gets to decide what reality is in the identity-politics language of that time: “Everybody understood identity,” she said. When you filled out application blanks for schools or jobs, you found out who you could and couldn’t be, and, in that context, “lesbian identity was a non-identity” (1973, p. 58). Twenty years later, Judith Butler, a scholar of rhetoric, taking up this theme in “post-identity,” “postmodern,” “queer” language, would have us ask by what norm are we constrained with regard to what we can become (1990)? Writing about the uncertainty with which homosexual love and loss are regarded, she asks, “Is this regarded as a ‘true’ love, a ‘true’ loss, a love worthy of or capable of being grieved and, in that sense, worthy or capable of ever having been lived? Or is this a love and a loss haunted by the specter of a certain unreality, a certain unthinkability, the double disavowal of’I never loved her, and I never lost her,’ uttered by the woman; the ‘I never loved him, I never lost him,’ uttered by the man” (1995, pp. 170-171).
Butler might say that to be called “unreal” is one way to be oppressed but that if you’re oppressed, you’re already “real” in a certain kind of way even
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though you might not have access to what is “human” (2001). Following this line of thinking, we could say that if by the 1980’s, homosexual patients had appeared in the psychoanalytic lens as “real,” albeit, as Mitchell points out, in a distorted and grotesque manner, homosexual analysts, having not appeared there at all, were “unreal” until the 1990’s. When in 1989, Richard Isay introduced a proposal to the American Psychoanalytic Association that they go on record as being against the use of homosexuality as a reason to reject applicants for its affiliated training institutes, I recall thinking for the first time that Mitchell had not mentioned the analytic training situation with regard to homosexuals in 1978 and 1981; he was talking about homosexual patients in treatment. Then I thought how “neutral analysts” who thought there was nothing unremarkable about their approach to homosexual patients must have also thought it was unremarkable that there were no homosexual analysts. How could that be? Maybe they thought homosexuals weren’t interested in getting analytic training. Or maybe the idea of homosexual analysts was so “unreal” that it just never entered their minds. I can imagine this could have very well been true. I remember many years ago when I first heard about the idea of allowing gays to marry that I was completely unable to wrap my mind around this idea. I can actually recall thinking that that would be like allowing cats and dogs to marry. Maybe it was like that for heterosexual analysts. If psychoanalytic “reality” was structured in a way that didn’t allow for this conceptual possibility, then the idea of homosexuals as analysts as well as patients might have been literally unthinkable.
Something “Queer” Happened in Psychoanalysis (the 1990’s)
In the mid-90’s lesbian and gay analysts began to appear in psychoanalytic discourse. In her forward to Disorienting Sexuality: Psychoanalytic Reappraisals of Sexual identities (1995), Adrienne Harris remarks on the strange situation that had existed in Psychoanalysis in relation to homosexuals. “It is striking,” she notes, “that gay and lesbian intellectuals and scholars have developed among the robust and creative intellectual projects in contemporary scholarship, many of them making powerful use of psychoanalysis” (p. xiii) while psychoanalysis itself “has been recalcitrant and impenetrable to internal criticism in regard to homosexuality.”
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In his 1996 article, “Gender and Sexual Orientation in the Age of Postmodernism: The Plight of the Perplexed Clinician,” Mitchell considered the period encompassing his early papers on homosexuality as “one of the dark episodes in psychoanalysis,” acknowledging that issues around sexual orientation were “much more complex” than he had once thought” (p. 68). In contrast with Harris, he focuses on internal change and attributes the major change in psychoanalytic thinking about sexual orientation from the mid-80’s on to growing sophistication about countertransference and interaction within psychoanalytic theory and practice. That’s certainly part of the story. But it is also true that gay and lesbian theorists and clinicians, as one possible signifier of who can be consigned to the domain of the unlivable — the way I consigned Mitchell to a file cabinet — have made an important contribution to the question of which human relationships in relational psychoanalysis get to count as “real.”
Much of the shift during this period came within the gay community’s questioning of identity politics. The rising influence of postmodern and Queer Theory in gay and lesbian studies programs in academia and in other cultural domains challenged the notion of identity as being natural, stable, and coherent. One major influence was AIDS activism in the 1980’s. In emphasizing that sexuality is a not a “natural” but a cultural category, the French social theorist, Michael Foucault, an openly gay man, served as an inspiration for many AIDS activists. By returning to an emphasis on sexual activity rather than identity, by stressing that AIDS is not a gay disease — it’s what you do, not who you are — AIDS activism contributed to the emergence of Queer Theory. (While there are diverse definitions of “Queer,” I adopt here Jagose’s (1996) notion that its principal goal is to “draw attention to the assumptions that — intentional or otherwise — inhere in the mobilization of any category, including itself (p. 126).
In the 1990’s Judith Butler charged that identities act as regulatory constraints that privilege some kinds of sexuality and punish others. One of Butler’s feats was to connect gender issues with issues of sexuality, heterosexism, and sexual orientation. Up until then, feminists in both psychoanalysis and academia had concerned themselves mainly with issues of gender. Sexuality and sexual orientation, on the other hand, seemed to be left to lesbian/gay and Queer studies
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programs (Gayle Rubin with Judith Butler, 1997, pp. 96-98) with no counterpart in psychoanalysis where gay and lesbian practitioners were not yet recognized as speaking subjects. The enormous interest in Butler’s book helped support analysts, straight and gay, to bring controversial issues of sexuality to the psychoanalytic table.
Consequently, in the last decade of the twentieth century, something “queer” happened in psychoanalysis. Given the growing critique of psychoanalytic views on gender and sexuality by visible and vocal Queer theorists outside of psychoanalysis proper, the exclusion of lesbian and gay clinicians from the psychoanalytic discourse on gender and sexuality began to look “queer” — as in odd, inap-propriate,strange. One of the areas of psychoanalysis given a boost by the postmodern/Queer Theory interrogation of influence and authority had to do with the idea of neutrality. In 1996 Mitchell observed that we could no longer rely on any simple notion of neutrality as the guardian of the integrity of the patient’s autonomy. When it comes to sexual orientation, for example, “neutrality,” he said, “is still crucial in terms of programmatic intent,” (p. 69) but he continues, citing Mark Blechner (1993) and David Schwartz (1993), “it is questionable whether it is possible for any analyst to be neutral about something so deeply personal as sexual orientation” where the analyst’s biases and preferences “are bound to be at work in a subtle fashion in countertransference” (1996, p.69).
What’s remarkable here is that Mitchell is citing from two articles that, along with one by Ronnie Lesser (1993), he published as part of an historic moment for gay and lesbian analysts critically discussing the clinical work of Jeffrey Trop and Robert Stolorow with regard to issues of sexual orientation. It’s remarkable in two ways: 1) that it took so long after Mitchell’s early papers on homosexuality for gay and lesbians in psychoanalysis to be able to come out of “the publishing and presenting closet” (McGee & Miller, 1997, p. 148) and 2) that Mitchell now in his powerful position as editor, was contributing to a major shift in the discourse on homosexuality and psychoanalysis in a way that he hadn’t been able to do some fifteen years earlier in his 1978/82 papers when he was just beginning his career.
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In this same 1996 article, as Mitchell commented on the challenges of postmodernism, he returned to Nietzche’s metaphor to respond to a critical commentary that David Schwartz had made on his views of sexual orientation:
Nietzsche’s (1972) metaphor of building sandcastles on the shore has always held great wisdom for me concerning the appropriate use of theory vis-a-vis clinical process. Some builders of sandcastles (the essen-tialists) think they will last forever. Critics of sandcastles (Schwartz’s constructivists) remind us that castles are made of sand and that the tide is approaching. This is in itself not likely to inspire much theory building. I would cast my lot with Nietzsche’s third approach, the “tragic,” in which one builds sandcastles in full awareness of the approaching tide (p. 268).
Again, from an historical point of view, it is amazing that in 1996 Stephen Mitchell and an “out” homosexual, “queer” identified analyst, David Schwartz, were engaging in rough and tumble play in a public forum, even though neither discussant remarks on the implications of this sea change with regard to the visibility of homosexual analysts.
Having said that, I’m immediately aware of how many people might now get upset by someone presuming in print that anyone is “gay” or “lesbian” or “queer” or “anything” that smacks of labels indicating stable identity categories. I bring this up because it seems crucial to appreciate how difficult it is to find a language to discuss and understand the contributions of homosexuals within psychoanalysis in light of the change of attitudes toward homosexuality in psychoanalysis. Ironically, because the coming out process within psychoanalysis was late relative to what was already happening in the academy and elsewhere, many gay and lesbian analysts claimed and then challenged identity categories almost in the same breath.
Ronnie Lesser (1996) grapples with the awkwardness of this situation; having committed herself to write a paper on lesbians, she is immediately aware of her
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“aversion to speaking about ‘lesbians’ as a group as if they were all the same in some foundational as opposed to socially constructed way” (pp. 154-155).
At the same time, after being speechless for a hundred years, beginning in the 1990’s, homosexual clinicians with many different voices have been coming out of the “publication and presentation closet” in large numbers. With the opening of a space in psychoanalysis for homosexual subjectivities, gay and lesbian analysts, not surprisingly, have disagreed about what this would mean for theory and practice in psychoanalysis as well as the usual questions of whose sandcas-tles would be recognized as “real” and of value and on what basis.
When the first book by lesbian practitioners to critically examine the psychoanalytic on lesbianism appeared in 1993, the British authors, Noreen O’Conner and Joanne Ryan, acknowledged their debt to postmodern queer theorists. Two years later, Ryan called the book Disorienting Sexualities a “dispatch from the front lines,” in itself an invaluable historical document and indeed itself an instrument of change ” (1995, pp. 181-182). At the same time, however, like Harris, she is also concerned that the understanding of the history of psychoanalytic attitudes towards homosexuality may be ignored or distorted, and she wonders about what the editors “describe as the reshaping of psychoanalytic discourse in a new image (1995, pp. 181-182).” This “new image,” says Ryan, seems to draw mainly from influences outside psychoanalysis, especially the work of Butler and Foucault. While she largely agrees that “this position is entirely necessary in understanding the mess that psychoanalysis has gotten itself in over homosexuality,” she is concerned that it dismisses too readily other gay and lesbian voices that don’t fit into that approach. “We might,” Ryan exclaims, “hope for more diversity here!” Certainly Lesser would agree with this in her expression of hope “that we can learn to withstand the uncertainty that would ensue if we were to stop believing that out theories are ‘true’ and should be applied to everyone” (pp. 158-159). I believe this is a hope that Mitchell would share.
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Conclusion: Building Sandcastles For Two Or More
Appreciation of the love and need of building sandcastles and of tearing them down, as well as watching the tide carry them away — the perfectly ruthless and precious play of impermanence — was a running theme in Mitchell’s views on psychoanalysis from the beginning. He believed that “we all need castle making to give shape and meaning to our lives.” He took delight in “the work” and encouraged others to approach their endeavors with the same enthusiasm. Nietzsche, who lived and died almost exactly a hundred years (1942-1900) before Mitchell, wrote: “Not the intensity but the duration of high feelings make a high man.” If so, then surely Mitchell was a “high man.” Until the end of his life, he was passionately thinking and writing about questions of authenticity, autonomy, attachment, in ways that might be applied to clinical work with a sense of hope and humility. He took delight in “the work” and encouraged others to approach their endeavors with the same enthusiasm.
In his last book, Can Love Last? The Fate of Romance Over Time, published posthumously (2002), Mitchell speaks of “romance in relationships as a sand-castle built for two” (p. 200). Because of the “delicate paradoxes of romance” — the longing for permanence and certainty that emerge from desire along side of the “inevitability of perpetual change overtime, Nietzsche’s incoming tide,” exposing all aspirations of permanence — “the sandcastles of romance demand, by their shifting nature, continual rebuilding.” He draws once more on his view of what he preferred to call the “enriching tragic” (p. 54):
“Time held me green and dying, said Dylan Thomas in Fern Hill: green and dying, alive but changing, growing yet disappearing, caught by the constraints of flux and temporality, but singing” (p. 201).
It strikes me that much of what Mitchell says about romantic relationships can be helpful to us at this time as we discuss how our sexual orientations and identifications affect our analytic work:
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But romance in relationships is not cultivated through a resolving of tensions…. The cultivation of romance in relationships requires two people who are fascinated by the ways in which, individually and together, they generate forms of life they hope they can count on. It entails a tolerance of the fragility of those hopes, woven together from realities and fantasies, and an appreciation of the ways in which, in the rich density of contemporary life, realities often become fantasy and fantasies often become reality (p. 201).
We now struggle with various mixes of relational, postmodern, feminist, and Queer approaches to find creative ways to realize our conviction that, as Mitchell put it, “good analytic clinical work (and good analytic theorizing) in our time must both inspire meaning-making and passion and make possible the critical reflection on meaning-making and passion” (1996, p. 269). As we continue to build and rebuild sandcastles of hope for two or more, may we remain aware of the fragility of that hope. The fate of our romance with psychoanalysis over time depends on it.
I am grateful for the experiences that Stephen Mitchell has offered me over the past two decades. He observed that “narrative, like music, like the flow of rivers and selves, takes time to happen in” (1993, p. 102). He quoted Leowald as suggesting that not only is it true that “the present is influenced by the past,” but, “also that the past — as a living force within the patient — is influenced by the present” (2000, p. 49; Leowald, 1974, p. 360). I believe that Mitchell would agree that the same process goes on with psychoanalytic writing as a living force in the reader. I still have the memory of him welcoming me into the world of psychoanalysis. It remains one of the most beautiful sandcastles I’ve ever seen.
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PAPERS FROM THE WEEKEND,
“THE STUFF THAT DREAMS ARE MADE OF”
WHAT FOLLOWS? THE DREAM WORK
– Bronce J. Rice –
In our second session, Ms. P related that she had had a vivid dream the night before. She mentioned that she, “rarely, if ever”, remembers her dreams and that what surprised her most was the dream’s vibrant intensity. She declared, almost in passing, that she was in a foreign country, Afghanistan she believed and that there is no fighting going on and that she is standing in a crowd of people with her first ex-girlfriend. I notice that she has moved from the passive-past tense to the present where there is an auctioneer selling a small baby, who after closer inspection is revealed to be cranky and sun burnt with a worn-looking old man’s face. The patient’s ex-girlfriend whispers to her to buy the baby but she remembers feeling queasy and unsettled by the baby’s appearance and does not want to buy the baby. Suddenly, Ms. P stops, looks down at the floor and remains silent. I remember initially being struck, and even more so as our worked progressed, with the dispassionate, disconnected way in which she related important information about herself.
Ms.P, a thirty-six year old single, gay, female, with no prior psychotherapy experience, came to therapy due to relationship difficulties after her second girlfriend broke up with her. Both girlfriends were chronic alcoholics. After the most recent breakup, she quit her job as an administrator in a hospital and moved back in with her parents. She described herself as passive and feeling like she needed to please others while denying her own needs. Her mother, also described as a passive woman, never worked and spent her time “doing what my father wanted”. Her father, a minister, was described as a critical, rigid, con-
The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of 31
trolling man who purported to exemplify positive religious traits but denied or did not deal with others’ less “holy” traits.
When questioned about her thoughts regarding this dream, she replied that she had none and had ”absolutely no idea’‘what it could mean keeping her eyes glued to the floor. After another enquiry she shrugged her shoulders and murmured that it was weird that she was in Afghanistan. While exploring her thoughts regarding Afghanistan, it became apparent that she associated Afghanistan as a hostile place and with September 11th and its potential for war. When I commented on her associations to Afghanistan as a hostile place but that she did not represent it that way in the dream, she smiled, seemingly understanding the connection I had in mind about her need to deny hostile feelings. She remained silent for a few minutes and then said she always tries to make peace even if she feels angry doing so. She went on to discuss her need in current relationships to deny her hostile feelings, especially with her father and that she had been finding herself wanting to argue with him a great deal recently. Her father, described as “a hypocritical righteous man,” seemed to be represented in the dream as the baby and she being asked to “buy” his demand for passivity, represented in the dream by her struggle with complicity to her girlfriend’s request. This girlfriend, like her father, reportedly often flew into vitriolic rages when the patient tried to stand up for herself in heated discussions. In further associations to what she was being asked to buy, she associated to the word “buy” itself and mentioned that since her two lesbian relationships had not worked out she wondered if she would have more luck dating a man. Combined, her style of presenting intense material in a dispassionate lackluster manner and her thoughts regarding dating a man, with a baby in the dream, revealed transferential feelings regarding me and the question of what might develop between us and inside her. Further, I was likely represented as the auctioneer leading me to question her concern with what she might be asked to buy in our work. Thus, her use of the word “buy” alerted me to its multiple functions and how the patient used it to express her unconscious and conscious conflicts.
32 The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of
Through successive work on the dream it became apparent that this patient had a difficult time speaking her mind when she felt in disagreement with others in even minor ways. Thus, through the dream work and the detached manner in which the dream was told, I realized she was telling me about herself in a way she could not do in a conscious manner. What she “bought” was a picture of herself, needing to be passive and taking care of the other while disowning her own feelings for fear that the other would abandon her. We came to understand this style of interacting as a compromise between denying or defending against her own rage and against aspects of herself that she felt she, and others, did not approve of. By way of disavowing aspects of herself she expressed them in a passive-aggressive manner within relationships, thereby unconsciously causing the dissolution of the very relationships she consciously feared would dissolve. Our work, foreshadowed by the dream, thus began to focus on how the patient could express less “pure” aspects of herself without having to completely ameliorate or deny them, thereby leading to a wider range of compromise formations.