Like many inquiries these days, it started with a Google search. It was the fall of 2013 and I had just begun my first semester in the George Washington (GW) University PsyD program. With a career that began in community organizing now taking a clinical and psychodynamic turn, I wanted to know who else was linking these worlds. Google seemed like a good enough place to start and I’m pretty sure the search terms that day were “psychoanalysis” and “activism”— if you’re reading this now, you already know where that search led me.
Emboldened by my awareness of Section IX, I took my search offline and met with Richard Ruth, PhD, a GW Associate Professor, profiled in the April 2013 issue of the Psychoanalytic Activist, who became a supervisor and mentor in my program, and, in 2015, with Lara Sheehi, PsyD, also a GW Associate Professor and Section IX Member at Large, whose close mentorship led me to seek out Section IX at the 2016 Spring meeting in Atlanta. It was Lara who connected me with Nancy Hollander (past president), Lynne Layton, (current president), and Matt LeRoy, Editor of Psychoanalytic Activist.
Below, Matt and I share the stories of how Nancy, Lynne, and Lara came to Section IX and their ideas about future directions, as told to us in a roundtable discussion in July 2016. Throughout our conversation, we were struck by the uniqueness of their experiences, and also the similarity in their story of joining: the importance of the in-person connection, the feeling of having arrived at a place of like-minded professionals, and the frustration of feeling that there remains a resistance to acknowledging the importance of the sociopolitical realm in clients’ psychology within the larger psychoanalytic world.
We hope you enjoy reading our conversation as much as we enjoyed participating in it.
~ Marianna Leavy-Sperounis
Marianna: Matt and I thought it would be really wonderful to talk about what your experiences have been getting involved, and what they were at the time that you did become involved, what were you looking for… both personally and professionally, and once you decided to connect, what was it that kept you in? Then we want to have a discussion in which we start thinking a little bit about what does it mean on a broader level to engage in Psychoanalytic Activism. What does that look like?
Lara: Well I can talk a little bit about what got me involved. So I did my undergraduate studies in the American University of Beirut in Lebanon, and it was so eye-opening to me. I started getting my political education really there. In Lebanon everything is political. There’s nothing that is not political and intertwined with everything that is going on. From grassroots, and the upper echelon, to student government. We had people running for student government, and when the results would come in the Army and the state police would be guarding the University, because that’s how political things got. Everything was really charged and the factions were very present on the University grounds. The national Chapters had an actual stake in their party winning because there was an understanding that if the party who won sort of disseminated the information internally, then they would be able to take the youth. And, understand, youth is, they’re kind of soldiers on the ground. So it was really, that was my experience in undergrad. Everything was politicized around me, let alone being in a part of the world that is already politicized both by the Western world and internally. So coming into graduate school for me it just made so much sense. I had been reading Psychoanalysis by myself, and I was an English literature major, so it was alive and well in comparative literature. And it just made sense to me to bring the two together and have an understanding of both historically, interpersonally, intrapsychically where people were coming from. Not just in Lebanon in terms of a country coming from war, but just how to tolerate the dichotomy that I lived in everyday life. And I came to the United States and I thought, I think I was naïve. I thought that’s that what it would look like in graduate school too, so I came here and I was ready and geared up and ready to go and talk about it, and every time I talked about it I was met with, “Well no, this is not really… we’re not going to go here, this is really not what I found in the file” or “why did you pull this out?”, or “why are you making this personal?”, especially if you went into the racial politics of things. And so it was a rude awakening for me really, about the state of affairs, and of course, I’m anglophone, but I never lived in the United States, so it was really culture shock to me internally to come in and say, “Oh wow, there’s a different register in which this part of the world might function.” The register of, we might see what’s going on, but might not have words to it, or can’t have words to it. There’s a different register entirely, a code, that was sort of unknown to me, and I was learning the hard way how you say things, how you don’t say things, what things are off limits. I won’t pretend to say I did this in a great way at all.
Audience: (Laughter) Trial and error.
Lara: Maybe more like just error. You know at times things are very hostile, and at times I really had to learn, and I think my mentor, Dorothy Holmes, one time had said something, “Can you handle what comes out of your mouth?” And that really, really helped me. Okay, if I need to take a stand on something, let me think forward and say, “Can I handle what the outcome of this is?” and that became my barometer about is this important enough for me to take a stand and handle whatever the outcome might be, positive or negative. It was really disheartening though, internally, and I started to think to myself that, “I guess this is what a North American Psychoanalysis looks like.” I guess there is no combination. Yes, there’s talks here and there, obviously when Kimberlyn Leary came to speak at GWU and obviously when you came, Lynne, but you can imagine what a breath of fresh air it was when someone like Lynne Layton or Kimberlyn Leary came and spoke, and I was like, “Wait a second, this does exist, it isn’t just in my head. People do talk about this stuff.” So that was a natural inclination for me when I got into Division 39 as a graduate student. I heard about Section IX and it was probably the closest thing to homecoming that I could think about. It was like this is exactly what I’m looking for. I’m looking for likeminded people where this is not strange or unchartered territory, that there might still be a struggle about how you put words to certain things. I was not looking for a perfect situation where people just would think beyond, were able to talk about these very difficult things in a natural way. But what I was looking for is a precedent and permission, almost, sort of a welcome sign that says, “Let’s just struggle through these things together.” Because that’s what the world looked like to me, as an Arab post 9/11, as a woman, as somebody who is non-muslim, but people were confused by me. I look white, but I’m not white. That’s what the world looked like to me on an everyday basis. So for somebody to tell me, “Actually, no we can’t talk about these things”, was a little strange. So to have a home where I could say, “people thought about these things. People have been thinking about these things for a long time.” And then of course, translating it into social justice was huge to me. That was kind of where I found my place and I wanted to join.
Marianna: Thank you so much Lara, that was great. Would anyone else like to share?
Nancy: Oh okay, I can go. Well I think I became involved with Section IX very early on. I think it had been in existence for a year or two.
Matt: Can you tell us what year that was?
Nancy: Yes, 1894.
Nancy: I think it started somewhere around 2000 or 2001. So it was pretty early on, and I had actually had my first contact in a way that had great significance for me….I was introduced to psychoanalysis in the context of political revolution and terrible repression in Argentina, where I had been living. I was in a situation in which for a very brief period of time, when a radical left regime was in power, but was overturned by a brutal military coup. And then I knew a lot of people who were direct victims of that. I was an historian, Latin American historian; but I realized that my radical, social theory and even my feminism did not help me understand how people could psychologically deal with such extreme social situations. And so I got involved with a group of radical psychoanalysts in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay who paralleled all of my social and political commitments, and also had incredible psychological acumen. They were very involved in human rights movements and committed to radical social change…. So, influenced by that, when I came back to the States, I actually sought psychoanalytic training. But in Los Angeles in the 90s, psychoanalysis was quite removed from any social concerns. I was trained in a Kleinian/Bionian Institute, the first in the country; but it was completely divorced from what was going on in the social surround. So when I went to a Division 39 meeting and I met Rachael Peltz I think it was Rachael and Neil (Altman) who were — I don’t remember their official titles, but they were the…
Lynne: They started it.
Nancy: Yes, at the time I became involved, I don’t remember who was the president of the Section, I just know that I felt like I had died and gone to heaven! Because, suddenly there were these colleagues in this country who were concerned about the interface and the overlap and the convergences between psychic and social reality, you know, one of the ways of putting it at that time. So I really did feel that for the first in my life all of the concerns that had developed for me in another country and another social context could actually be addressed, and with a group of colleagues. With whom, unfortunately, we got together only once a year. But once a year was really so affirming…. And to know there were people throughout the country that had similar, very deep preoccupations and concerns was just incredible. So that’s just briefly how I got involved.
Marianna: I wonder if it may be true for Matt and Lynne as well that for us it was psychoanalytic theory that was crucial in making sense of a political reality. And we all saw it work in that domain, but once we were involved in psychoanalysis, it wasn’t by any means a dominant narrative, so then there was a seeking out of a community in which this reality was really understood and fostered, which then clarified our own thinking.
Lynne: Yeah, it’s certainly true for me. Like Nancy I started out in Academia, in comparative, the aforementioned comparative literature and pretty much centered around feminist work. Actually, as I was becoming a psychologist I was teaching in woman’s studies at Harvard. But, all of my earlier training was connected with the theory of the Frankfurt school; it was all a synthesis of psychoanalysis and left-wing thought. So I did have the same shock that all of you are talking about: it was only once I started teaching at a psychoanalytic institute that the shock came, because before I started teaching at an institute I was part of an academic faculty that studied psychoanalysis, gender and sexuality. There was a group of left feminist psychoanalytic thinkers in the late 80s, early 90s like Jessica Benjamin and Virginia Goldner with whom I began working (on a journal), but then I started teaching in my Institute while I was simultaneously teaching at Harvard. The students at Harvard are really eating it up, really interested in the connections between psychoanalysis and race and gender and ideology, and my students at the Institute are just like glaze-eyed and, “Why do we have to read this stuff.” And nonetheless, I did training after that. Perhaps I should have been warned. I just want to add something I was thinking about when Lara and Nancy were talking: JAPA, the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, recently put together a whole issue on psychoanalytic education, built around an article by Kernberg and Michels as well as commentaries on that article. I wrote about the kind of things we’re talking about, that you can’t really understand what’s going on in psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic education without understanding our current social context. Their main and almost only comment on my entry was that I was politicizing and bringing ideology into a place where it should not be, and this would be a bad direction for psychoanalysis to go. So, I totally relate to what you’re saying about how few spaces there are to bring our thoughts about the psychic and the social together. And so on now to Section IX: my specific history was that Neil Altman and Rachael Peltz invited me to come in, although I also don’t remember who was president at the time, to come join the Education and Training Committee, and I don’t remember how it evolved, but I then became the Chair of that committee. I had the same feelings that Lara and Nancy spoke about, about finding a home and just feeling like, “Thank God there are people who I can talk to about this who aren’t telling me ‘I’m bringing politics where it doesn’t belong.’”
Nancy: And Lynne, I remember because I was already active at that point. This was really an incredibly important thing that you did because you and whoever else was on the committee (I know you were a few) developed that wonderful syllabus. Have you talked about that yet?
Lynne: No, so I mean that moves us into your question, “How do you conceptualize psychoanalytic activism?” For me it felt like there’s been two different movements in Section IX, both of which I think are really important and hopefully we’re continuing. One is more educative; it gives people a space to think about these connections between the psychic and the social with our patients in a clinical context. And the other involves being out in the streets fighting APA. So I hope that Section IX will continue to be able to hold both kinds of activism.
Marianna: I think that what you’re describing is sort of parallel tracks, which are intersecting a lot of the time as well, working clinically and working outside. Is that sort of how you also conceptualize that kind of path that we’re on in Section IX and what it looks like in the future? Maybe with a specific eye to the continuation of work with APA, is there a broadening of the agenda politically, like when you say out in the street? Are there issues that feel more salient right now for the section to focus on?
Nancy: You know, the way I read things, I think that Section IX was extremely important, especially in the early period of the struggles in the APA against the complicity of psychologists with torture And I think that was a very galvanizing struggle that really mobilized people’s passions. I think at this particular point for many reasons that we’ve all lived through, there is tremendous disillusionment because of the latest disastrous experiences around class and racial inequities and the unresponsiveness, to a large extent, by the organization. My read is the Division has been responsive to much of what in Section IX we’ve talked about. You can see in the programs of the meetings that a lot of what only Section IX was about in the beginning has proliferated with newly established committees, etc. Our concerns have expanded beyond the Section…. So I think the activism, given the multiple crises in this society, of Section IX members is probably naturally getting redirected and is external to the Section. And I think our big challenge is “How do we think through this to activate our membership,” and I think Lynne has been incredibly helpful in generating possible ways that we may be able to develop some organizational efforts to provide people with a home to think about what they’re already doing in communities in different ways, and how psychoanalytic interests and skills can be perhaps put to use in already existing progressive organizations Or maybe there are various models that we can think about together of how we, as psychoanalytic activists, can feel like we’re competently able to have opportunities to use our skills in those larger social surrounds. So I think that’s where we’re going and it’s kind of like a dialectic; the need is increasingly in so many facets of community life, and I think the need for us to feel useful is also pushing us to think more about how we can do that out there beyond Section IX activism within Division 39….
Matt: Lara I know you have to go soon, but I think you wanted to say something before you have to leave us?
Lara: Yes, I think I was really struck by how the conversation continues to be about how being a psychoanalyst or an activist are split. And I think ideologically, in this country at least, when people hear “activist” I think there are certain red flags that go off, because there’s this sort of connection to left wing politics or whatever might be the internal narrative that gets kicked up by this idea of activism, where really ontologically psychoanalysis is activism in and of itself. And I think we need to be able to tolerate as a field, let alone, as a division, the fact that the act of psychoanalysis, particularly now in today’s world, is an intervention of activism, in and of itself. That for me is what’s so important. And part of what drew me in is that psychoanalysis, by default, I feel, and this is what brought me into Section IX, is that it’s a political stance and it’s an activist stance, and that’s where psychologically we come from. Whether it’s Freud, coming out at a time when this was radically different than anything that was happening, and did start to have these conversations that otherwise were not talked about or not mentioned, or later on the very act of us doing so, particularly in a managed care world. So by virtue of existing, you are an activist. Unfortunately it’s a little dark right now, but I think it’s really important because it sort of demystifies this idea of activism; it centralizes it to who we are as people. It’s not placing psychoanalysis as an us versus them, but it really theoretically comes from those roots, which is what brought me theoretically into it. When someone says you’re politicizing psychoanalysis, a part of me wants to, kind of tongue-in-cheek say, “You need to read your history book.” Even Elizabeth Danto’s book about Freud’s free clinics—it’s political. Now I don’t know any act that we take that’s not political, quite honestly, but that’s a different ideological viewpoint.
Lynne: Yes, exactly. That’s what I always want to say to these people, “And you don’t think you’re bringing a particular political viewpoint?”
Lara: Exactly, it’s political. So I think that’s part of it. I think we’re in the middle of an ontological crisis in some ways in psychoanalysis, but this idea of separating activism from psychoanalysis is an inherent fallacy I think.
Lynne: I heard from a few people in the last week. People are really desperately looking for a way to speak out as a profession about what’s happening in the country right now. A member of Section IX read something on the Division 39 Forum listserv and wrote to say, “Are psychologists doing anything about what’s happening now in the United States?” I don’t know what more to say about that, but people are clearly feeling, like in Susie Orbach’s article after Brexit, that the political is crashing into our lives.
Marianna: Section IX for a long time has been saying that everything is inherently political and it only now is becoming more obvious, perhaps?
Nancy: Like what Lara was saying about her growing up. Like where you grew up, everything is political. Where we grew up everything is pretended to not be political.
Lara: I didn’t have the luxury of disavowal of what is political and what is not. Now of course I also grew up in a very politicized home. There’s different levels of that I think. But this idea that we live in a political world and our actions are political and our decisions are political—that was a given. There was no luxury to have that not be the case. And that was I think the sort of “cold water” that was thrown in my face when I came here is that there’s still that larger organizing metaphor or operational standard of disavowing the political, such that things become shocking when they happen. This idea of “it happens over there.” That’s kind of your idea Lynne, right? The social responsibilities; “It’s over there.” You know, “this doesn’t happen to us,” and I think that that is also happening on the level of defining what political activism is, what politics aren’t..
Nancy: Howard Zinn wrote an incredibly important piece called “On Objectivity”, which I used to use in every Latin American History class I ever taught, and we might want to, in light of this discussion, even though it’s not written by a psychoanalyst, think about introducing some of this idea about how one of the main things that people learn in this culture is that one has to be objective. And for most people, being objective means having a view that is consistent with everything you were ever taught about the world (which is inherently political); anything that challenges or is slightly off that norm is considered to be political and is therefore non-objective and therefore diminished. And I do think it’s a very important issue for us all to think about, even people who haven’t read radical social theory..
Matt: Nancy, I like the parallels you’re drawing here. It reminds me of the study of history. Certain people think history is just facts, that it is not slanted in any certain way, and that obviously comes from this incredibly privileged place of “you get to decide what the facts are.” And that to me is what it sounds like is happening when someone says, “You’re perverting what this is about.” That this is not psychoanalysis. This is inserting politics. It’s just such a defensive and privileged thing that it just feels so ironically unpsychoanalytic.
Lynne: It reminds me of what Roland Barthes said about bourgeois ideology. It normalizes itself as ahistorical and universal, true for all time and all people. To go back to the way the Division has changed, there’s something wonderful about the fact that many of the Sections and Committees have become social justice oriented, but it’s also made us have to rethink our Section IX mission and what we’re offering that other Sections and Committees aren’t offering. And I think we’re doing that now. It just sort of happened spontaneously and it probably relates to what we’re all talking about, about the horror of contemporary politics that several people started developing projects and sending them our way. So Section IX feels like it can be a clearinghouse for these social justice projects. Supporting projects and advertising projects. For example, there’s Jane Hassinger’s and Billie Pivnick’s project on psychoanalysis and community work. Someone just advertised a racial justice consulting group on the list-serv. I think there are a lot of exciting opportunities we can foster and disseminate.
Marianna: Unfortunately we have run out of time, we want to thank you all again!
Transcription completed by Valerie Smith (firstname.lastname@example.org)