By Jeremiah Tessier, BGSP Student
Recently my girlfriend and I attended a bed and breakfast which had an extensive library in the basement. I asked to purchase a few dilapidated books from the owners at a discount price, one of which was Sartre’s Existential Psychoanalysis. “Psychoanalysis – that was the academic trend a while ago so you can have that one” said one owner. “Yes, since we’ve learned more about the brain a lot of that has become irrelevant” added the other owner. They were then surprised to hear that I had recently acquired a Master’s Degree in Psychoanalytic Counseling. The look on their faces seemed to say ‘people still do that?’ “We apply it in school settings to great effect, believe it or not!” I replied. Unconvinced they changed the subject.
About a week later, my girlfriend and I were browsing a local bookstore. Not only could you buy Civilization and Its Discontents, among other classic Freud texts, for less than 3 dollars in the discount bin, but you could also purchase a Freud action figure, the packaging full of parapraxis jokes, Oedipal homages, and images of phallic objects, complete with his hand holding a cigar, for 50% off regular retail price.
I wondered if this was what the popular articles and books had meant when they said Freud was dead – Did they mean he was left to disrepair, neglected or overlooked in a basement, or discount bin; reduced to a joke the punchline of which is almost moot if not definitely misunderstood?
Though psychoanalysis has fallen from its once hallowed spot as the go to frame for understanding social or psychological phenomenon, or the perfect reference or footnote for adding some flair or validity to your own theory, it has not lost its power. In fact, it seems the more we try and reduce psychoanalysis to a joke, and the more we make psychoanalysis synonymous with the image of Freud and the Victorian bourgeoisie despite their being many practitioners, innovators, and sub-divisions of the field, the more the word “psychoanalysis” seems to take on a magical quality.
It has itself become one of the taboos Freud would’ve have studied in Totem and Taboo; it has become a dirty word, a curse. Its utterance makes one shrink, pun intended, and recoil like some sort of mystical monster the likes of which we may only compare to the vampire in the presence of sunlight, the demon at the sight of the crucifix, or the spirits at the scent of singed sage. And like spirits, and just as Freud or Jung showed us – the more we try and push it under, the more it comes to silently animate us.
So if Psychoanalysis is a social pariah, then why does it permeate our schools and mental health intuitions like a specter – or Casper the friendly ghost? Yes, you may be surprised to know that every year the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis places students in various schools around the Boston area such as South Boston, Roxbury, Dorchester, and Chelsea; Psychoanalysis is alive and well in our schools, it is helping your children and you may not even be aware of it.
Psychoanalysis has been made into something scary for people. At a family event a relative who is a Clinical Psychologist asked casually “so you work in the schools right – but you can’t do psychoanalysis there, huh?” I told him I was trained to provide psychoanalytical influenced counseling. “Well it’s good you don’t call it psychoanalysis, people are afraid of that word.”
He is right. This is not so different than the stuff clinicians who are just starting to work in the school systems encounter. The unsaid tone that some starting counselors walk into is some version of ‘Psychoanalysis? But surely you can’t do that here?’
We face faintly condescending yet equally sincere questions from school faculty like “so what do you actually do?” which when answered is often met with a rebuttal of “yea, but how does that help them behave better in class.” Frequently jokes are made during the lunch breaks counselors are present at – “I love this pasta dish so much! But I guess you’d say that’s because I really love my mother or something! Hah!” Sometimes we are so fortunate to experience more direct encounters – “I don’t believe in talk therapy, you should take a different approach.” In regard to this different approach, some will suggest you wander the school and ‘put out fires’ or resolve conflicts as they arise, or try and convince the child to attend certain afterschool programs, or think a different way. Anything but sitting and talking about feelings in the here and now.
A colleague and I ran a group composed of inner city 7th graders and their teacher during a class period in the school day. Though the teacher was very open minded to idea of psychoanalytic counseling, naturally he had his reservations. “I don’t feel like we really did anything in today’s sessions” he would sometimes say. Or similarly “I am not sure we made progress today” or “I don’t think they’re ready for this.”
Parents may have similar questions or concerns as the faculty. When we call them on the phone to introduce ourselves, or send home permission slips in order to see their children it is not uncommon to hear things like “my kid doesn’t need therapy” or “what did my kid do wrong today.” The kids, as if echoing this notion, may sometimes say things like “just tell me what is wrong and I will fix it for you.”
If it is not the explicit commentary of the school faculty or parents, then it is often the school system as a whole which, being more spread out, with responsibilities and information scattered and delegated, not unlike a schizoid mind, bureaucratically throughout the avenues of the system, relying on agents as acting bodies on the part of Law and Order, comes with its own challenges.
When I first started at my most recent school it felt that the institution as a whole was paranoid and anxious at the idea of something “scandalous” occurring, possibly due to a series of events that occurred the year prior. It felt that the school would have preferred to have no one in therapy because therapy could mean the possibility of stirring up feelings that could lead to something “bad” or uncontrollable happening. Thus the school’s idea of therapy seemed to initially be to imitate the look of therapy while actually convincing kids to stay within the order of the school.
How We Work with This
The interesting thing however, is that for all the initial resistance a new counselor may face, once kids begin attending regular sessions, the teachers and faculty tend to warm up to the idea of psychoanalytically informed therapy – as long as one stays away from the exact word “psychoanalysis” that is! One teacher said to me about a child I was seeing “I don’t know what you’re doing, but he hasn’t had an incident in a while. He hasn’t hit anyone, and stays in his seat more.” Considering the sessions I had with the child were focused mainly on impulse control, and introducing words in the place of immediate action, I was not surprised, and was pleased that the teacher had attributed some value to psychoanalytic counseling whether she knew it or not. I could have said “psychoanalysis is what I am doing and look it works!” but this would be more for me, than the child or the school. Perhaps the most important detail here is that this apparent change had come about not through my own agenda as counselor, but rather through the child simply talking about whatever he had on his mind that day! That is, the child felt free to be himself, and I quietly kept an eye on his thoughts, feelings, and actions and what they meant in the big picture.
In fact, whether we are aware of it or not, psychoanalysis is always in the ether; it is always at work. Bion said psychoanalysis was a thought waiting to be thought for millennia before it was actually thought. It is working and helping though we may not be aware of it; one could say most are unconscious of the psychoanalytic content found in everyday life. Teachers may not know what psychoanalysis is, or they may see it as a sign that marks “danger, keep away,” but this is all grist for the mill, so to speak. The cliché is that to work with children in a school system one must absolutely work with teachers and parents – in this case, this is a cliché that should not be ignored! As counselors we work with the feelings and perspectives of the adults in the children’s life in a similar way as we work with the children themselves. We join in the resistance the schools put forth, that is, we proceed at the patient’s pace, like a sort of dance, and attempt to understand and in a way take part in the perspective of the person rather than argue his or her view.
Just as I try and understand what my patients mean by what they say, so I also try and understand what the teachers mean. For example, a teacher in my group was worried about “progress” “readiness” and “doing” in sessions. I would ask “what does progress look like?” or “What does them being ready appear like?” or “what should I be doing more of in the sessions to help?” – all of which are forms of joining his view, rather than disputing it. Each time the teacher would pause, reflect, and say “well I don’t know, let me think about that and get back to you.” Myself and the group co-leader would listen to the perspective of the teacher and the students during the group, and the simple act of having both their voices heard in the presence of one another was found to be greatly helpful. By the end of the year he was asking questions like a psychoanalytically informed counselor to great effect, and the students felt more comfortable in expressing themselves. There was no crazy interpretation, no whimsical wordplay, nor any mystical intuition, but rather, there was deliberate and thoughtful dialogue with attention paid to feelings and perspective.
Every time we do as such we lift psychoanalysis out of the shadow again. It becomes revitalized; reanimated like Frankenstein’s monster, the monster many seem to think psychoanalysis is. But just as Frankenstein’s “Monster” was a misunderstood and gentle creature created by a Naples born Genevese scientist (two countries bordering Austria) and turned into a monster by anxious towns people, so Psychoanalysis is a misunderstood and gentle creature created by an Austrian scientist turned into a monster by anxious towns people.
The term psychoanalysis has become loaded with a certain discursive weight, and the field’s occasional own resistance to change has not always helped its case. What I mean is that the term comes to shape the perception of counseling in schools in a bad light more than it does to inform or reassure others of the counseling or therapy that will be undertaken. But the idea is that it’s not as scary as we’ve made it out to be. Psychoanalysis is the shadowy figure in the closet that looks like a monster to the child, but upon flipping the light switch, we see it is a coat on a hangar that keeps us warm and dry in the winter.
At its heart Psychoanalysis is the idea that there is an unconscious that animates or drives us to act, and that if we integrate what we are not aware of through fantasy and explorative language we will arrive at feelings and thoughts that may allow us to be healthier in body and mind. Furthermore, we may be able to rise to the occasions of life appropriately: When a situation requires one set of actions or feelings we are able to employ them freely, rather than be stuck in a sort of automatic response to ideas of past experiences.
This is not as foreign as we are made to think, and it is certainly not the typical ‘tell me about your mother, you’d really like to kill your father’ interpretive, hypersexual jargon that is seemingly circulated in contempt and reproach by faceless figures. If we step away from the syllogisms and neologisms of ivory-tower theoreticians, or out of the rhetorical grips of contemporary thinkers who, though intelligent, astounding, helpful, and admittedly enjoyable in their own right, have reduced Psychoanalysis to a footnote or appeal to authority in order to elevate their own Hegelian/Marxist, socio-political theory, then we see psychoanalysis as a pragmatic and applicable approach to the wide array of human experiences. One that may help children and adults alike through the simple act of sitting and listening closely.
To learn more about applying psychoanalytic concepts in school systems, join BGSP’s Continuing Education event, School-Based Treatment, on Tuesday December 6, 2016.