Sunday, January 20, 2013

Watch This Movie and See Me in the Morning

Waiting in line for the Jason Reitman Live Read series (actors reading scripts in front a live audience) at LACMA last week, I was chatting with a fellow next to me, the CEO of a web production managing company.  He asked me what I did, and when I told him I was a therapist, he wondered why I had interest in the film event.

He came across as a bright and affable man, so his question shocked me.  Still, I became defensive and began to justify:  I told him I had worked in film for many years before I became a psychotherapist, and that I had a blog devoted largely to film and music.  And that, practicing in Los Angeles, I have had many patients who are in the entertainment industry, and that I sometimes use films in my practice.

Later I thought about how odd the man's question was--yet perhaps how common it is for the lay person to think that a therapist is some kind of alien being.  I recall meeting a man at an art opening who was overtly flirting with me.  Then he asked what I did, and when I told him, his body visibly recoiled, and shortly thereafter, he drifted away. One didn't need a psych degree to get that his body language and behavior revealed someone who had a slew of things that he wanted to stay hidden. I also recall a colleague complaining that, on dating websites, she felt that indicating she was a therapist put her at a disadvantage.

So why is this the case?  Do people presume that therapists will be constantly analyzing and critical of them?  Do they think we have x-ray eyes?  Is it that there is still, except in Argentina (where everyone goes to therapy) and Woody Allen films, a stigma and ignorance surrounding psychotherapy?

In a related vein, I'm often asked how I ended up doing such "diverse" things as going from teaching English to working in film and television to becoming a therapist.  My stock reply is to point out that all of these endeavors are connected.  In studying and teaching literature, my focus was on character and story (well, form and structure as well, but those are integral to everything else).  What's film but narrative and characters and visual structure?  And now, I'm privileged to have patients share their stories, and a large part of my role is to help illuminate their themes and patterns, as well as to understand their characterological or personality structure and their organizing principles.

And so it was with particular interest that I listened to an NPR story about writer-director Neil Jordan the other morning.  Jordan, mainly known here in the U.S. as a filmmaker (The Crying Game) and more recently, cable TV showrunner (The Borgias), has a 1980 novel, The Past, that's been reissued.  He talked with Scott Simon about how hard it is to explain to people " you can work in such a visual medium and how you can also work with words."  Jordan goes on to say, "...I just don't see any real difference in the creative instinct, in the imagining or the dreaming up of the particular piece of work."

Therapists need not only to be able to empathize and analyze, but we also need to be able to imagine deeply--how else are we to be capable of illuminating?  I recall a session of group supervision as an intern in which we watched a videotape of a fellow intern with one of her patients; he was dropping reference after reference about which the young intern had no clue, but she had been afraid to show her ignorance by asking her patient about them--not only what he was referring to, but what they meant to him (aside from the fact that he seemed to have an erotic transference towards the intern and appeared to also be trying to impress her).  Needless to say, the supervisor encouraged the intern never to be afraid to ask, for if we are fearful, how will our patients ever get over the fear of revealing themselves, of speaking the unspeakable?  As David Schnarch posits in Passionate Marriage, unless we can tolerate the anxiety of this constant revelation without any assurance that the other will still love us, there is no possibility of intimacy.

The best advice the supervisor gave that day was to tell the group,"The more you learn about everything, it will make you a better therapist."  Amen.  And that is what makes the liberal arts invaluable.  That, and curiosity.

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