Friday, July 23, 2021

Found in Translation


Behold some residents of the 2015 writers' conference at Napa Valley Community College. That was when I last attended, with my sweet husband before his diagnosis of lung cancer. We both had a good time; he always got on well with writers and hit it off particularly well with Brenda Hillman, whose mother was born in Brazil.

I'm looking forward immensely to taking part in a workshop given by Robert Hass (yes, that Robert Hass) on translating poetry. So far, the languages of the source material proposed by other attendees include Tagalog, Korean, Russian, Spanish, and my own German. I want to come up with an English translation of Schumann's setting of sixteen of the poems of Heinrich Heine, Dichterliebe--A Poet's Love. I have loved this piece of music ever since I was introduced to it 50 years ago, and I've been fooling around with translating Heine ever since I first read him. What I'm trying to say is that this is indeed my idea of a good time.

So, this year will be the first time I'm attending a writers' conference solo. I've never before attended one of these conferences without my husband. I'd attend the workshop in the morning and we'd get lunch and I'd tell him all about it and then go write and we'd get dinner and I'd tell him how I wasn't sure if what I'd written was even a poem and he'd support and encourage me through all of this and even claim to have had a good time reading or walking or lying out somewhere and looking at the sky.  I still expect to have a good time talking with other writers and attending events, but--I'll miss my sweetheart too.

Monday, July 12, 2021

Bruce Wayne! He's the greatest orphan of them all!


In a desperate effort to find the top of my desk, I came across the following dialog. 
I wish I had written it, but I suspect I transcribed it from the LEGO Batman movie.

Joker:  I’m your greatest enemy!

Batman:  I don’t really have a bad guy. I’m fighting a few different people.

Joker:  What?!

Batman:  I like to fight around.

Joker:  Look, I’m fine with you fighting other people, if you want to do that, but what we have? This is special. So when people ask you who’s your #1 bad guy, you say….?

Batman:  Superman!

Joker:  Are you seriously saying that there’s nothing—nothing!—special about our relationship?

Batman:  Whoa. Let me tell you something, J-Bird:  Batman doesn’t do “-ships”. As in “relationships”. There is no “us”. “Batman & Joker” are not “a thing”. I don’t  need you. I don’t need anyone. You mean nothing to me. No one does.

Joker:   Don't you think it's finally time to face your greatest fear?

Batman:  You mean snakes? No! Clowns! No--snake-clowns!

Joker:  Why did you build the Batmobile with only one seat?

Batman:  Because I only have one butt.

I wrote down also these deathless lines:

What's good about Batman:  Lots of cool gadgets; loves punching; excellent brooding.

We're going to punch those guys so hard, words describing the impact will spontaneously materialize.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Subtle, He Says


Another day to miss my beloved and hilarious husband, the late Walter Maya. This earnest artist believes that his creations subtly suggest our various sexual parts. I found it difficult to think of anything else, except maybe what I have heard about acid trips. Walter would have sniggered himself silly over these pieces, the more so as the artist believes his creations to be evocative. Right. Like the rude rocks of Joshua Tree National Monument.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Psychology Meets Politics, part 4: Not with a bang, but a whimper


Actions like separating children from their immigrant parents, with no records kept by which the children and parents might be reunited, certainly could be characterized as attacking the relational bonds, the more so as the children’s suffering and decompensation are well documented. Other executive orders leading to withdrawing funding for remedying the situations of people who are vulnerable, certainly are not impeded by concern for that vulnerability. If anything, 45 seems easily willing to characterize these vulnerable people as having brought their situations on themselves—by being poor, by living in the vicinity of environmental hazards, by working while studying at universities, by being born with disabilities—or at the least being deserving of mockery.


I believe also that many of 45’s well-known practices can be characterized as attacks on linking. Consider his pattern of hiring contractors and stiffing them on the agreed payment after the work has been completed. He has reneged on contracts with everyone from plumbers to lawyers to venues for events. He is so well-known for this pattern that he has encountered increasing difficulty hiring lawyers to represent him. Isn’t a contract a sort of relationship, even if a transactional one? Isn’t our entire capitalistic system predicated on payment received for work performed? To claim many many times that the work is always substandard makes me think of the (grown) enraged child finding a caretaker disappointing, inadequate. (There is also the issue of feeling entitled to receive anything and everything for free, but that is not my focus here.)


Fred Trump kept 45 afloat financially to flaunt as a puppet, albeit an implausibly successful one. Mary Trump’s examination of her family’s finances establishes that 45 has never made money in any of his ventures, and that Fred’s ‘loans’ were outright gifts. In this light, The Art of the Deal seems more like The Art of Being Born Into a Mob Family. Could 45 ever become a real boy? Becoming a reality TV success was not enough to reassure him. A ghost-written autobiography, whose author has been vocal about his profound regret for legitimizing Trump, was not enough. Literal golden walls and toilets were not enough. Becoming President would strike some people as a high success, but 45 has found his fantasies often thwarted. No military parade to coopt July 4—no invulnerable wall to keep out dangers—no Nobel Peace Prize—not even the cover of Time. Only what I imagine to be an indefinable unease, a haunting suspicion that he is getting stroked to be put to use by cold and powerful men. Still. Again.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Psychology Meets Politics, part 3: attacks on linking

So:  What might attacks on linking look like? The patient/target person/speaker declares themself to be disappointed in the authenticity, the adequacy, of the caretaker’s efforts. They push the caretaker away and declare themselves to have been abandoned. They behave in such a way as to encourage the caretaker to withdraw, or at least to refuse their demands in self-protection, effectively spoiling whatever good may have been offered. Then they declare that they have been abandoned again. They contrive relationships in which the caretaker wishes to prove themself different from the “others”—more steadfast, more faithful and true, simply more decent—some kind of better. What might have started out as a relationship between equals quickly, so very quickly, devolves into a master-supplicant dynamic. The supplicant is cast as an inadequate caretaker; the master positions themselves as a perpetually abused child, justified in whatever vengeance they care to inflict. Yes, justified:  all manner of punishment is justified as deserved. If you recognize this as the dynamic between abuser and abused, you are correct, and I am sorry that you know what I’m talking about.


You may suspect that people who employ these strategies have often had early experiences characterized by the twin evils of deprivation and absence of reasonable consequences. This is indeed the case. Both these conditions can be met by inconsistent, or unreliable or neglectful parenting, in which the child does not feel seen, does not feel that their needs will be met, nor that food and affection will be dependably forthcoming. These conditions are harmful and painful at any age; they are more damaging when the child is just acquiring speech. Consider also that, for a baby, a toddler, failure to be cared for is literally life-threatening.  Infants wail as though they will die if the caretakers can’t figure out what is wrong. They are correct. Empathic caretakers find an infant’s protests very hard to endure. Those infants who suffered in silence are much less likely to have survived.


Object relations theory would predict that a failure of care for such young children, younger than three years could produce a fear of annihilation that would be overwhelming. One defense against such a fear might be proclaiming oneself omnipotent. Object relations theory would predict also that such a child would find vulnerability frightening to the point of feeling life-threatening in its presence, and would reject also manifestations of vulnerability in others. Furthermore, such a child would see any failure to mirror his exact wishes as betrayal. “Attacks on linking”—undermining the forming and maintaining of relational bonds—would be a likely consequence, and an apt description of the woes to follow. Such a person would tend to require impossible proofs of love, and would readily find others to be falling short. Relationships of genuine reciprocity would not be established. Other relationships would be short-lived, unless the others could entirely subjugate themselves to the conditions of the now-grown child. Disappointment would lead to breaking off the relationship. Said child would also likely try to disrupt others’ relationships, in ways that might strike us as distinctly cruel, because of the danger felt to be carried by the prospect of vulnerability. Not merely the absence of regard for the experiences of the vulnerable.  No—not simple disregard. Rather, targeting the vulnerability and inflicting pain, so that the child might assure himself that he was not the one who was vulnerable. If this confusion about who is vulnerable and who is suffering, or must be made to suffer, strikes you as immature, you are guilty of profound understatement.


Friday, September 4, 2020

Psychology Meets Politics, part 2: Is there a there there?

Bion was….interesting. He seemed to delight in provocation. He developed his theories from working with an experimental group, self-referred ordinary people with no particular pathology or origin. He was frank in stating that his groups were not intended to be therapeutic, a statement which evidently impelled the group members to look for therapeutic benefit and to complain to him when they felt he was falling short of their expectations. He did not make individual interpretations based on individual histories or behaviors. Rather, he made statements characterizing the behavior or mood of the group as a whole, and he made these statements in object-relation terms, untranslated. That is, he did not say, “You are frustrated by the hard truth I am presenting you with, telling yourself that I mean to harm you.” He might say something like, “The group is suckling at the bad breast.”

But, to everyone’s surprise and I do mean mine, Bion’s group members ended by feeling that they had benefited from the experience. There is something to be said for making true statements about the events unfolding in front of us. One of Bion’s enduringly useful concepts is attacks on linking. Strictly speaking, he was referring to patients’ efforts to disrupt the bond between patient and therapist; more generally, the concept refers to efforts of people suffering certain kinds of pathology, or having suffered certain kinds of events, to disrupt the emotional bond between themselves and others in a caretaking capacity. Let’s set some context..


In the Trump family, Mary Trump fell seriously ill when Donald was 30 months old. She had given birth to his younger brother nine months earlier, and complications from that birth had gone undiagnosed. She underwent three surgeries within a span of ten days, and took months to recover. At that time, there were already four children:  Maryanne 12, Freddy 10, Elizabeth 6, and, Donald.


Fred Trump was devoted primarily to his business and is reported as finding the suffering unbearable, or at least intolerable. He kept 12-hour days and felt he had worked enough when he came home. By Mary Trump’s [niece of Donald, granddaughter of Fred] account, Fred also believed that giving in to emotions or needs of any sort would make a child “soft” and that the goal of parenting was to raise kids to be “killers”—ruthless in pursuing financial success. That is to say, his goal, when he took any interest in the children at all. Only boys were valued; girls were advised to go to secretarial school. Mary Trump the mother, who came from a hard-up working class background, had a housekeeper to do the cleaning, but Mary did all the cooking and childcare. I speculate that this was not only a matter of Fred’s notorious tightness regarding spending money, but also their mutual notions of what a suitable role was for a wife. Mary was a younger child of ten, and her mother also was regarded as cold. Or maybe simply tired, but it’s hard for a child to tell.


At any rate, while Mary Trump mother was hospitalized, who took care of the children? She recovered slowly, over a period of months. Who engaged with the children during that time? No one seems to remember exactly. Maryanne, who was 12, remembers bathing the younger ones. Fred’s mother, who lived nearby, provided meals, but, like Fred and his father, was remote emotionally. To some extent, the older children looked after the younger ones; still, a nine-month-old baby can be pretty overwhelming. And a rambunctious toddler in the middle of the terrible twos is a handful under even the best circumstances. Summarizing author Mary Trump’s wealth of incident and detail leads me to conclude that basic physical needs, on which our young existence depends, were unreliably met, never mind emotional needs. She elucidates other issues as well, such father Fred being perpetually dissatisfied with all his children, and fastening on Donald to be his shiny fa├žade in the Manhattan world of influence and big money.

To be continued

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Psychology Meets Politics, part 1 of 4: Meditations on 45's Attacks on Linking

Attacks on Linking


After the 1964 election, when many psychoanalysts and psychologist speculated on the mental status and personality organization of Republican candidate Barry Goldwater, there evolved an agreement among mental health professionals known as the Goldwater Rule. Briefly, we agreed that we would not speculate about the mental status of politicians unless we had ample information, such as can usually only be obtained under conditions of evaluation or treatment.


I believe the last four years have offered just such ample information. Besides the intimate family and financial documentation provided by 45's niece Mary Trump, 45 has been unusually prolific in documenting his trains of thought, his reasoning, and in giving accounts of his states of mind. Twitter is of course a rich source. So are 45’s rallies and the particular encouragements he has thrown out to his supporters. So too are the accounts, whether testimony or books or lengthy interviews, of the many subordinates who have been dismissed from advisory and Cabinet positions. 45’s many denials of having known these people may be regarded as self-serving, but also as finding it easy to deny connection with them. (See for a listing. I counted 185 up to March 2018, at which point I stopped counting.)


When I think of our Dear Leader, 45, I find myself thinking of other characters, in history and in stories. I think of Henry VIII, incapable of leading or strategizing, propped up by Cromwell, fancying himself irresistible to women. I think of the folk tale of the Fisherman and His Wife, and how she was never satisfied, berating her spouse who did all the work, demanding greater and greater splendor and aggrandizement, until finally she went too far and lost everything. I think of Pinocchio who wanted to become a real boy, and of the Velveteen Rabbit, who was told that becoming real entailed suffering and acquiring imperfections, and how they both succeeded in becoming real, but only through supernatural intervention. But after reading Mary Trump’s Too Little and Never Enough, an unsparing account of her family’s bleak dynamics, I find myself thinking also about Wilfred Bion’s concept of attacks on linking.

To be continued...