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I'm Repressing, and Lovin' It!

My friend Griffin and I once talked about writing a book called "Co-Dependent, and That's OK." We were kind of kidding, but kind of not. We had both experienced the bad sort of dependence, misshapen relationships which bring out the worst in both parties, but we didn't see dependence as an inherently negative force. I mean, what is love, really, but a type of dependence, the intense and inescapable need for another person? What is community, what is civilization, but a willingness to need others and allow them to need us?

Of course, we were also just being contrary, reacting to the simplistic pieties of daytime TV. Although I am as enthusiastic an armchair psychologist as the next gal, I still tend to view conventional wisdom with a jaundiced eye. "Closure," for example, is a principle I just don't believe in; I don't think it's possible, and the more I hear about it the less meaning the idea seems to have. I am also suspicious of the therapeutic value of self-expression, but I have tended to be a little suspicious of my suspicion. For one thing, my objection is often purely aesthetic: The urge to "deal with" trauma results in a lot of execrable art, poems and paintings that should never see the light of day but which their creators feel the need to share. But I am also aware that I want to question the value of talking things out because I really don't like to talk things out; in fact, I hate talking things out, and all my attempts at talk therapy end not when my issues are neatly sorted, but when I reach the point beyond which I will talk no further.

Knowing that talking about the things I don't want to talk about is kind of the goal of talk therapy, I keep some semi-traumas handy for discussion with therapists, matters which touch obliquely on the real pains and sadnesses that haunt me. Sometimes this results in a semi-catharsis, but the dark heart of my psyche remains unexplored.

What, then, if repression were not a failure on my part, an unhealthy unwillingness to engage in therapy, but a legitimate strategy for mental self-preservation? This is the intriguing concept Lauren Slater puts forth in yesterday's New York Times Magazine.

Now, I don't altogether trust Lauren Slater, largely because she's a therapist who has made a successful metacareer out of endlessly analyzing and publicizing her own many pathologies, and I don't believe for a minute that she is willing to trade her own lucrative volubility for a life of quiet Stoicism. Nor do I agree with all of her conclusions. Nevertheless, I found some of the studies she reports on interesting, in part because they seem to be in accord with my own experience. I am aware that I am not a statistically significant sample, but I also know that, in my own life, positive, constructive action seems to be an effective antidote to depression, that keeping myself busy has been at least as helpful in staving off despair as laboriously digging down to the roots of that despair. Pulling myself together, rather than dwelling on my falling apart, has made me happier, and I am finding that happiness begets happiness. I'm repressing, and loving it.

According to Slater, I'm not alone. In her article, she tries to understand why no one is interested in the healing power of repression, why we insist on believing that repressed trauma will—always, inevitably—erupt in a psychic cataclysm. One answer, I believe, is suggested by all the Greek cognates I used in that last sentence. Slater touches briefly on how contemporary psychology still reflects ideas shaped 2,500 years ago, but I think she misses the point. When she uses the image of Oedipus blinding himself when his awful truth comes to light as an argument in favor of repression, she doesn't recognize how that very image and the aesthetic philosophy that shaped it inform not just the stories we tell about ourselves, but the very way we tell stories.

When we're encouraged to turn our life experiences into stories, we generally resort to the stories we know. Imagine Oedipus, killing his father, marrying his mother, and living happily ever after. It's inconceivable. It's barely a story. It's half a narrative—not even half, really, because the real action, the point of the play, the tragedy, is in the catharsis. When he told the story of Oedipus, Sophocles was creating an emotional experience for his audience, leading them to a healthy emotional purge. Greek drama is a carefully orchestrated kind of therapy, necessary for the proper functioning of the individual and the state.

Psychoanalysis is a similar experience, an attempt to guide the analysand towards a therapeutic catharsis instead of an emotional breakdown. The idea that the breakdown is inevitable without the controlled purgation is, perhaps, as much a product of our ideas about stories as it is a clinical, observable truth.

February 24, 2003 | Permalink | Comments (0)

I'm a Hasbian

Although it pains me to admit it, there's just no denying: I'm a hasbian. Sure, I've had sex with ladies. I even dated one. I went to a women's college—it would have been sick not to. For the past several years—since leaving the women's college, actually—I have been exclusively hetero, however, and I can't really imagine going homo again.

Why? Because chicks are crazy. I just don't get them, and I turn into a freaked-out jerk when I'm with them. I turn into the worst guys I have ever dated and/or had sex with.

Nevertheless, when pressed to describe my preference, I say "bisexual," even though I know this is totally bullshit, since I have no intention of getting with the girls again. Why, then, do I say it? Because, in my experience, guys find it really, really hot.

Believe me, I'm just as disgusted with me as you are.

Anyway, I can't really relate to the women Amy Sohn talks to in this article. I'm pretty sure that if any of my friends or lovers were disturbed by my sexuality, they would be neither my friends nor my lovers. I can, however, kind of understand lesbians being a little suspicious of women who are only gay sometimes. It never occurred to me that one might escape intimacy by shifting back and forth from men to women and back again; that seems like an excellent strategy for someone as emotionally retarded as myself, although I can't say I've ever found it difficult to avoid intimacy with men.

February 10, 2003 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Are You Hot?

I teach a class called "The History of Gender" to high school students. Right now, we're slogging through ancient Greece. I find it all terribly interesting, but one of my students recently informed me that the class is "not as sexy" as he thought it would be, and I think he was speaking for his colleagues. So, this we week took a pop culture break to watch an episode of Joe Millionaire. We've devoted a lot of time to discussing the physical appearance of participants in the show. Is Zora fat or isn't she? Concensus is that she is not, but that she is fat for TV. Is Sarah a natural blonde? My students all agree that she is not. No one, it seems, finds Evan at all hot. I've tried to explain that, regardless of our individual opinions, Evan is supposed to be hot—in the universe of the show, he is hot. Clearly, I have not had a lot of success making this conceptual point, as the response tends to be, "But he is so not hot?"

I should point out that only the girls in the class are willing to voice an opinion on Evan's level of attractiveness, while the boys keep their views—if they have them—to themselves. I should also point out that the girls all think Evan is a doofus, and I believe this colors their feelings about his attractiveness. Their opinions about the attractiveness of the women on the show is similarly biased: They don't care if Zora dyes her hair, because she is nice; with Sarah, on the other hand, dark roots are the outward sign of her dark, greedy, duplicitous soul.

All of this, I believe, goes some way towards explaining why a show like Are You Hot cannot work. Somehow, I was unaware of this program's existence, but Heather Havrilesky offers a scary synopsis and analysis at Salon. While it's undeniably pleasant to look at hot people, it's even more pleasant when there's some sort of emotional connection. And, that connection has to be there in order for public humiliation to be entertaining. Would watching Mojo get the boot have been as much fun without the love poetry, without the sad, bizarre jigsaw puzzle? I think we can all agree that the answer is "no."

On a tangential note, while looking at gender roles on Joe Millionaire, my students and I discovered that Paul the butler is neither man nor woman. While he is certainly male, he has low status, no money, he has access to both Evan's quarters and the women's wing, he's a foreigner, and he's bitchy, all of which makes him suspiciously unmasculine.

February 10, 2003 | Permalink | Comments (0)