By Jan Haaken
This piece originally appeared in Subversive Storytelling
Years ago I was invited to speak at the University of Pittsburgh Repertory Theatre after a performance of Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind. The play invites reflection on remembering and forgetting, and human complicity in the varies lies of history—topics at the center of my own work as a psychoanalytic psychologist and feminist scholar. After Sam Shepard’s death on July 30th, I thought again about this wonderful man and the enormity of his contribution to the world. And in returning to some of the ideas in that talk in Pittsburgh, I hope to pay tribute to Shepard by showing his deep affinity with feminist critiques of manhood—and with psychoanalytic ways of thinking about human memory. My alliterative title—memory, mourning and manhood— serves as a structuring device in working through key motifs in the play. I also speculate on how our responses to the play are shaped by the historical moment, having lived through a period of heightened American nationalism. It may be useful to enlist Shepard’s work to reflect on current national failures to remember the violence in our political past and how this failure to remember is related to a refusal to mourn.
This reading of A Lie of the Mind places these twin problems in the context of an American culture of manhood. By a culture of manhood, I do not mean to imply a singular or static masculine identity, nor a masculine identity singularly possessed or perpetuated by males. I use the term manhood here to signify a view of human development that idealizes autonomy, control, and freedom from dependency. Many contemporary women, particularly white, middle class women emancipated from an older domesticated version of womanhood, have in a sense become “men” in this cultural sense. A Lie of the Mind invites critical engagement with the destructive and regressive aspects of American ideals of manhood. For if we take the position that the United States is a country suffering from chronic amnesias, and these amnesias contribute to its incapacity to mourn the violence that pervades its own political past, we might also question how these pathologies are transmitted through various psychological paths of identity.
A Lie of the Mind opens as a place of broken connections, of displaced people, and of chronic lapses of memory. Family members—presumed intimates—are unable to hold in mind knowledge of one another. Against this social landscape of unstable and frayed kinship ties, the sibling relation emerges as the one reliable human bond. Yet the sibling bond also is cast as precarious, strained by the emotional load of family grievances and bitter rivalries. The play opens with a bad phone connection. A younger brother is frantically holding onto his older brother who is reeling out of control. Jake calls from a forlorn phone booth on the highway, confessing to his brother Frankie that he has killed his wife. “I didn’t see it coming,” Jake explains in telling the fragmented story of his violent outburst, “I have been good for so long.” We learn that Beth is not dead. She is brain-damaged by the blows suffered through this assault by her jealous husband, but the damage also is rooted in a pernicious line of family pathology. “How can you love a man who tried to kill you,” Mike later asks his sister in frustration. “He’s my HEART,” Beth responds emphatically. The seeming masochism of Beth’s position yields to a more complex picture of her constraints. Breaking out of suffocating and controlling familial bonds, Beth strives to grow up. “I’m not a baby!” she insists, as her brother steadies her efforts to walk and talk. The sibling pair offers some possibility for restoring life—for regaining memory. Each sibling serves as the unconscious of the other—the one who holds the discarded memories of the other. Jake remembers his sister’s sexual abuse at the hands of the father and she recalls the violence where Jake brought about the death of the father. These siblings cling to one another like orphans.
The parents are useless and the knowledge they hold is obsolete. Beth’s parents abandon her in the hospital, unable to understand her medical situation. They are ghosts inhabiting a world that no longer exists. Jake’s mother holds onto the ashes of her dead husband, along with the war medals and flag that draped his military coffin. He was no hero, she announces bitterly, positioning the son as the bearer of this failed legacy of manhood.
Like many of Shepard’s plays, A Lie of the Mind centers on the relationship between manhood and America and the illusions that bind national and gender identity. And like many of the other plays, this drama conveys a pronounced sympathy with the dilemmas of women. Shepard creates richly drawn female protagonists—women who are complex agents of cultural history as well as victims of forces that hold them in check. The moral distribution of responsibility for violence falls more heavily on men, although women are not simply passive observers of their fate.
Two versions of hell shape the intersecting fates of men and women in this lonely landscape. A suffocating domestic sphere tended by women anchors men who also perpetually escape its influence. The men hunt, but they do not like meat. The socialized violence of hunting, bound in earlier eras to modes of subsistence, now gives way to the mere pleasure of the hunt. Men hit the road but the road to the bigger highway is risky. Lorraine warns her fleeing son Jake that he, much like his dad, may find himself “busted open on the road.” Caught between the call of the wild and the pull back to the maternal fold, men wander uneasily in search of a place of mooring. Women wander off as well but into an interior world of fantasy and absentmindedness.
Some readings of Lie of the Mind might draw out the relationship between the history of trauma in the lives of the lead protagonists and their blunted emotional capacities and memory lapses. Violence, abandonment, and emotional abuse dominate the histories of the two families trapped between futile efforts at exogamy—at attachments beyond the original family—and a regressive pull back to a hothouse of incestuous familial ties. The men hit the road, in a reckless bid for freedom, as the women wander into an interior dream world. The trauma of violence, loss, and abandonment gives rise to a numbing incapacity to connect with others. The mother’s incapacity to remember her daughter-in-law’s name, Jake’s repeated invoking of the absent Beth as an effort to recollect her—all of these dramatic devices foreground the blunted capacities of the protagonists, their incapacity to hold relationships or to preserve memory of others.
The failure to remember may also be framed as a form of melancholia—a self-absorption that follows from a disturbed process of mourning. Drawing on Freud’s Mourning and Melancholia we might begin with the idea that loss of a valued object—whether a person, a homeland, or an ideal—often confronts us with intense ambivalence. This monograph by Freud places memory at the center of the problem of mourning, and describes the condition of melancholia as a failed process of grieving. Freud’s concept of grieving cannot be summed up, as Judith Butler notes, through a version of the Protestant ethic, with its fixation on dutiful completion of tasks. Rather, Freud’s concept of mourning emphasizes the elusive search for the part of the other that must be found and preserved internally in reviving libidinal engagement with the external world. Preserving the internal object—the representation of the lost other, whether one’s country, a loved one, or a beloved ideal—confronts a series of forces that perpetually place the mourner at risk of melancholia. Idealizing the lost object—whether in nostalgia or memorials—serves as a means of preserving the good object against the unconscious anxiety that one has somehow been part of its destruction.
The centrality of ambivalence in intimate human bonds—of shifting currents of love and hate—is at the center of the Freudian paradigm. To varying degrees, we do not fully recover from the discovery that those we hate and those we love are often one and the same persons. What we come to dread and fear, those in the Freudian tradition would suggest, are unwelcome parts of ourselves. Although there are many potential readings of the play, Shepard seems to make central the problem of guilt. With the exception of the brain-damaged Beth, who remains childlike and unchanged throughout the play, the protagonists inhabit a world of shared torment.
Shepard draws us into a web of conflicted motivations behind the various screens of amnesia. While we recognize Jake as a prototypical wife beater, the play refuses to grant us such an easy way of classifying this violent man. In explaining his violence, Jake initially adopts the classic defense of the batterer: he blames the victim. “She got me in trouble more than once,” Jake insists in explaining how he beat his wife. Much like a good psychoanalyst, Frankie confronts Jake with how he habitually attacks the things he loves. Remember that goat you had as a child, Frankie recalls, how you “kicked the shit out of that goat.” This farm animal that Jake had loved so dearly had stepped on his foot, unleashing a torrent of violent rage. Beth, too, had stepped on him by moving out into the world and beyond her husband’s control. His paranoia was nursed by his deep sense of deprivation, but also by his equally deep sense of entitlement as a man.
In returning to his mother and assuming the position of infant, spoon-fed by the mother, Jake’s character regresses and this infantile dynamic is exposed. We recognize how the form of manhood Jake embodies is precariously held together, teetering on violence, on the one hand, and regression into madness on the other. Lorraine is a monstrous mother but we learn that her bitterness grows from the betrayals of the husband, the “stuff he put into me that’ll never go away” (67). Men in her world are like snarling dogs, and she has been bitten. But Lorraine retreats from recognizing her own guilt, her own part in perpetuating a pathological manhood. For to acknowledge her disappointment in her deranged son, his destructiveness and failed manhood, would require that Lorraine confront more than she can bear. To preserve the fantasy of the good son, Lorraine transfers moral responsibility to her dutiful daughter.
If Shepard would have us mourn the losses of both real and imagined pasts, of patriarchs and other sovereign powers, we also are left to wonder where there is potential consolation or hope for reparation. If the process of grief and mourning requires that we confront how we are each morally implicated in human destructiveness, we are still left with uncertainty as to how to intervene in the destructive cycles of history.
As Americans, perhaps we are invited by the play to identify with the pious Mike, the protective big brother who thinks he knows best, who insists on a confession from a compliant evildoer. Rather than an act of violence against his sister, an act that reenacted a violent history most brutally felt by women, Mike insists on a story that casts the violence as an assault on family honor. In the demand for submission over a weakened foe, in his humiliation over his defeated enemy, Mike refuses to acknowledge his own guilt and vulnerability. This desire to torture the object of threat grows out of a desperate effort to externalize the state of vulnerability, to put it someplace else, outside of the self, and to bring it under control. The American military response to 9/11 has been described as this form of pathological defense—both in the sense of a closing off of some disturbing part of the reality of a situation and as having the consequence, like many pathological defenses, of generating the very threat against which it initially serves to defend. Like a repetition compulsion, the war against terrorism allows the sovereign state a perpetual replay of engagement with a dreaded threat to its sovereignty—a perpetual struggle with the elusive dangers that can never be mastered.
Shepard introduces the flag as a fetish object for the parents who have abandoned their children. As the elder couple ritually fold the flag (the father recalls the correct military regulations), oblivious to the injuries of their children, the play seems to answer the question of what people remember. The failures in memory are the result of failures in love. The flag operates as a fetish in the sense that the object protects from human connection. As a memory fetish, the flag also signifies an imagined past that unites America as a people—an America with roots in small towns, small farms and roads that lead to larger places. If the stark emotional landscape of this play registers the difficulties in memorializing this imagined past, we would want to acknowledge Shepard’s personal roots in these same Western landscapes. This familiarity provides him with a capacity to give dramatic power to the costs of the various lies we endorse to keep the fantasy alive. But the radical counter-culture that gave Shepard a foothold beyond the ghost towns and car culture of Americana offers intimations of alternative communities beyond the roads that lead nowhere.
The family structure of the play registers tribal bonds of kinship, families torn loose from a way of life that bound men, women, and children within a hierarchical social order—a way of life that was oppressive yet secure. Many of Shepard’s plays are concerned with the place of the Western and Midwestern small town in the American imaginary—places that occupy an important social symbolic space in collective memory. But Shepard refuses any nostalgic return to this imagined American heartland. He reminds us of the costs of refusing to remember the destructive side of our collective past, the deadening effects of various refusals to mourn.
The play would have us recognize that there are both real and imagined pasts that we must mourn as Americans, as men and women both overly bound to limited spheres of attachments in the nuclear family, with its ideal of the self-sufficient dyad as its core fantasy. And it warns of the unbounded terrain that lies outside of the stifling sanctuary of the nuclear family. The play also acknowledges ambivalence through its characters: a woman who still loves a man who is trying to kill her, a man who wants to return to the fold of his mama while also breaking free of her, a father who loves the objects that represent people—the American flag—more than the people themselves. And I think the play invites us to acknowledge the power men still hold (over women and other men) and to mourn and relinquish old ways of life.
At the conclusion of the play, Frankie, the gentler of the two protective brother figures, survives the wounds inflicted by the patriarch and regains through assuming a feminine position of vulnerability his humanity. Beth does get the “woman-man” she desires in Frankie, although Beth seems permanently broken, unable to recover the man-side of herself. Sally, dutiful daughter and sister, also undergoes a transformation in that she is able to emancipate herself from the patriarchal family. She and her mother set the house on fire, signifying the violent ruptures accompanying acts of rebellion. The mother looks to the future as the daughter looks back, searching through piles of photos for a picture of her mother she can hold onto. The play seems to tilt toward the matrilineal line for the transmission of cultural memory, but here, too, the ties that bind are fragile. In returning to Ireland, in search of her matrilineal past, the mother becomes an unexpected source of consolation to her daughter. Someone will be there to recognize us, the mother assures the daughter. There always will be a straggler who remembers. But the play also casts this mother/daughter pair as perpetual wanderers, having burned their bridges behind them. There is no going back.
In the current political fog in America and as reactionaries call for revival of the old patriarchal order, we need all of the resources we can gather to find a path forward—and all of the beautiful spirits to guide us. Viva Sam Shepard!