By Lynne Layton
Past-President’s Column, February 2018
I haven’t yet had much time to settle into the role of past-president of Section IX, in part because it’s only been a week from the end of my term to the beginning of writing this column, but perhaps even more so because I don’t feel any diminishment in my commitment to the Section. There is SO much work to be done. But how to contribute to that work in this different role? I’ll begin to try to figure that out by talking about what these past two years of working with all of you have brought to me personally and politically.
Often, I get involved in activist projects before I know a whole lot about the roots of the issue I’m protesting – this was true both in regard to our protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline as well as the ensuing letter of apology to native populations. At the same time that we were mobilizing for those actions as a Section, Donald Trump was elected President. I had just begun to write a paper for the Austin Division 39 affiliate on psychoanalysis and ethics. For a couple of years, I had been teaching Freud’s paper, “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death” (1915), alongside Jacqueline Rose’s (2004) post-Abu Ghraib commentary on Freud’s paper, titled “Our Present Dis-Illusionment.” I became committed to the idea that ethical behavior demands confronting our illusions both about ourselves and about our collective and intertwined histories (what Davoine and Gaudillière (2004) call the Big History). I sought out psychoanalytic teachers who had spoken about what I began to think of as an ethic of dis-illusionment, chief among them Freud, Fromm, and Erikson. I also had gotten involved with the national organization, Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), a group of white allies to Black Lives Matter and to documented and undocumented immigrant groups. And I got involved in an activist project focused on making my very white liberal town, Brookline, MA, more racially equitable. The first phase of that project was to get the town to adopt a program in which they commit to looking at all town policies and divisions through the lens of racial equity. This passed town meeting almost unanimously. The second phase has been much harder both to conceptualize and to carry through: it involves getting the townspeople to look honestly at the psychic and material effects of white advantage, to look honestly at past and present history. Meanwhile Trump’s policies and his blatant racism were making all this activist work feel increasingly urgent.
Even as I got involved in these movements requiring spot actions, showing up at rallies, and lots of meetings, I was aware of the big gaps that exist in my understanding of U.S. history. About a year ago, I had to come up with a title for my Division 39 2018 keynote address, and I decided to elaborate on the theme of an ethic of dis-illusionment. I wanted to contrast such an ethic with an ethic of adaptation to the cultural status quo. The conference theme, Generations: Ghosts and Guardians, provided a good frame for thinking about intergenerational transmission and the Big History. So, to prepare for writing and, quite honestly, to do what I’d been “meaning” to do for years, I decided that it was crucial for me to confront the real history of the U.S. After spending the summer reading about our history, I experienced my own sense of radical dis-illusionment. You may say: as a long-time leftist, didn’t you KNOW? Well, yes and no (I first wrote “yes and know”). Born in 1950, I, like most white students of my era, was of course, throughout my childhood, indoctrinated with what one can only call fake news posing as U.S. history. Nothing about Native American genocide, little to nothing about slavery, nothing about the Civil Rights movement that was unfolding at the very time I was in school. But I protested the Vietnam War in my late teens and early twenties, so I did know about government lying. And then there was Watergate and Nixon.
I have always had enormous respect for what I consider the most powerful finding of psychoanalysis, the ubiquity of the repetition compulsion when what is too painful or too unpleasurable to be remembered is acted out again and again. Since reading works like Suzy Hansen’s Notes on a Foreign Country, Roxane Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, and Carol Anderson’s White Rage, however, I now have equal respect for the power of disavowal, perhaps the primary motor of the repetition compulsion. We know that illusions about ourselves die hard; illusions about our history seem to die even harder, and usually they don’t die at all. They become the undead in two contradictory ways: like vampires that need to keep repeating the kill over and over, or, more hopefully, like ghosts that demand that something be done to unmask illusion and demand justice.
Dis-illusionment must proceed on multiple fronts. We can bring our psychoanalytic knowledge to bear on contemporary political issues. I took a try at this in a recent article that appeared in the January 2018 issue of Psychoanalytic Perspectives, an issue devoted to psychoanalysis and contemporary politics (other Section IX members have articles in that issue as well). In my article, titled On Lying and Disillusionment, I contended with the debate going on in our circles regarding whether or not it’s useful to understand Donald Trump as mentally ill or rather to focus on calling him and his policies out as evil. I argued for a both/and, understanding Trump’s character as sadly not aberrant in our neoliberal culture. And I tried to look at how illusion and lying to oneself takes shape in different segments of the U.S. population, including among liberals.
People in the section like Oksana Yakushko, Stephen Soldz, Steven Reisner, Ghislaine Boulanger, Ruth Fallenbaum, and others, have focused our attention on the illusions we hold about our field and our professional organizations. Oksana has written about how deeply entwined our field has been with eugenics movements. Stephen, Steven, Ghislaine, and Ruth led our Section and our Division in contesting APA’s ethics code that allowed psychologists to participate in enhanced interrogations.
Finally, on the topic of dis-illusionment, while I was preparing to write the Austin paper on ethics, I allowed myself to get immersed in the writings of people critical of what they call, variously and dismissively, therapy culture, therapy discourse, psychologization, and the professional psychology project of governing the soul (e.g., Eva Illouz, Frank Furedi, Nikolas Rose). I say “allowed myself” because it wouldn’t be accurate to say that I didn’t know for years that this literature existed. But it was only when I stopped practicing that I could bear to read what these critics had to say about, for example, how our field has constantly increased the range of what officially comes to be seen as a mental health problem. They strongly contest the way that we in our profession consent, knowingly and unknowingly, to treat social problems as psychological ones.
So, given all of this “new” knowledge, which has not accidentally accompanied life in our current elected regime of ignorance and cruelty, I am often a nervous wreck and sometimes a yelling maniac. Nonetheless, during these two years of being president of Section IX, I have felt a strong sense of responsibility to offer containment to our members; I know that all of you have been reeling from the country’s willful and unconscionable turn to ignorance and illusion (under the guise of Making America Great Again). Over the two years, I felt that before I could send out any email to the Section, I had to think carefully about every word that I wrote, had to keep asking myself: what is my project?, what is psychoanalytic activism right now? do I care about the “rules” of APA listservs (as Howard Zinn (1994) said, You can’t be neutral on a moving train)? What I didn’t really realize until becoming Past-President, though, is how much containment you all have offered me. And I am very grateful for that!
My project, I have concluded, has been “connecting the dots,” and there is no better place in Division 39 than in Section IX to pursue that project. We must continue with the work many of our members have undertaken to connect psychoanalysis with community, to understand better the nature and effects of group unconscious process, to think and practice intersectionally and with as full awareness as possible of the Big History and of how we are all implicated in each other’s psychic fates. Finally, we need to continue to fight oppression wherever we see it damaging the mental health of all our fellow human beings, and to understand how oppression differently operates for victims, perpetrators, and bystanders. We must continue to question the politics of our professional organizations and continue to insist that the psychic and the social are not separable, that to ban discussion of “politics” from our discussions of practice, from our listservs and professional conversations IS in fact a politics, one that supports an individualistic and elite status quo.
Outside of my Section activities, it has become clearer to me that what I want to do in these coming years is work in electoral politics, to write postcards, to textbank and phonebank in order to elect people who respect what we know about environmental damage, who respect the human and voting rights of all of our people, who fight xenophobic and racist action and language. Some of the people I’ve been supporting are as full of illusion about some aspects of the U.S. and about neoliberalism as the next guy, but I feel that, at this moment in history, I have to be strategic and not indulge myself in what too often has seemed to me to be the disastrous purism of the left. As a member of the Section and the Division, I will continue to press for commitment to an ethic of dis-illusionment, a psychosocial praxis that deconstructs collective and individual illusions and that stands firmly on the side of the oppressed. Thanks to all of you for your support, containment, and your comradeship. I look forward to more years of working by your side.