Monday, December 17, 2012

Knowing and Not Knowing

By Kevin Murphy
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.

The recent exposure of a high profile celebrity paedophile in the UK shocked British society. How did nobody know what he was up to? How could such a high profile person get away with the scale of abuse for such a long period of time?
These are valid questions. But looked at from the perspective of this country where we have had respected members of this community doing the same thing for even longer, it is a more familiar phenomenon if not equally shocking.
The central and simple question common to both jurisdictions is how did nobody notice? It’s a question that gets its power from the retrospective point from which it always gets asked. Looking back, with the knowledge we now have, it seems astonishing that abusers were allowed to do what they did without any hint of suspicion falling on them. And, equally, how many of them were so often nearly caught only for someone with the power to expose them deciding that nothing bad was going on. So the answer to the simple question is an equally simple word that is regularly used in psychoanalysis but rarely used anywhere else: disavowal.
The dictionary definition of disavowal is: To disclaim knowledge of, responsibility for, or association with something. That’s what the dictionary says but this definition assumes we disclaim knowledge and responsibility purposely or consciously. Not every one who looked away when abusers were in their midst did so knowingly. Not every one who failed to act, did so out of unconcern. Which brings us to our next question: How can this happen?

Psychoanalysis has long recognised that we can choose to ‘not know’ without even knowing we’re doing it. When the celebrity UK paedophile was abusing children, good people were not consciously turning away from what they saw; they were unconsciously doing it. Why? Because to acknowledge that they saw what they thought they saw would have been too real, too overwhelming, too much to bear. And because nobody else signalled any suspicion they felt justified in their judgement.
That’s why in psychoanalytic usage, which expands on the dictionary definition, the term "disavowal" is often translated as "denial". It denotes a mental act that consists in rejecting the reality of a perception on account of its potentially traumatic consequences. Note that in this definition the reality of a perception takes places first in order for it to be rejected secondarily.
But people will say to themselves, wait, there’s no way we could have spotted what that man was up to and walked away knowing he was abusing young girls. That’s true, but that is to assume that you would have consciously acknowledged what the person was doing. You would have needed a moment in which it was crystal clear in your thinking so that you could say, ‘Hey wait a minute, this man is not doing good things here and it must stop.’ These situations, in reality are never clear, so we tend to disavow them. We see something odd, but only partially, and so our instinct is to shove them out of our minds because we are not sure what it is we really saw. And when it comes to anything sexual that we don’t understand, it is usually the first thing to get shoved out.
The cleverness of nearly every paedophile is to play directly at this instinct in all of us to see, half understand what we are seeing, recognise the inherent unpleasantness of it if turned out to be true and then look other way, telling ourselves we didn’t really see what we thought we saw. All of this happens in a split second and is over before we’ve even had a chance to think about it properly. It is how we automatically defend ourselves against unpleasant things. Part of the paedophile’s pleasure, on the other hand, is gained, not just from what he does to his victims, but in turning the scrutiny of sensible others away from his actions knowing they are confused and uncertain of what it is they might suspect him of. The clerical child abuse over decades in this country is an illustration of this very thing.
While disavowal works at its strongest in areas of sexual matters, it is not confined to them. Every time you come across good people standing by while bad things happen and continue to happen, you will find some form of disavowal. In contemporary society, you’ll find it cropping up in the most unusual places; in government, in civil life, in relationships, on committees. A current but more extreme example that comes to mind is the recent mass killing in the US that has brought gun laws back into the spotlight. Yet the pattern there has always been one of consistently forgetting about the problem very quickly once the publicity has died down. These are all forms of disavowal.
We can even have it in terms of our relation to ourselves. We can know something needs to be done and yet it never gets done. We can understand that our lives might be better if we stopped doing this or started doing that, and yet we never seem to do it. To understand it, and to spend time coming to see it in ourselves, is an important first step in being able to ensure we in our own small way learn to deal with disavowal. That, in turn, means we can move closer to recognising it when it occurs in the wider world around us and allow us to maybe do something positive about it.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Allure of Pornography

By Kevin Murphy,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.

Pornography is an enjoyable and necessary part of human life; an activity that free, liberated people can engage with as they wish. It represents an openness around sexuality that is refreshing and unrestrained, and it provides very visible answers for anyone who has any questions as to how the sex act should be conducted. It should be applauded not criticized for the work it does in the democratization of sex. It allows access to the viewing of sexual acts to all adults. Any attempt to stifle the free sexual expression that pornography symbolises is an attempt to bring us back to the dark ages when sexual issues were forbidden from being discussed. Pornography is the ultimate freedom.

I think that more or less sums up the position of those on the side of pornography. They are sentiments you will no doubt have heard in one form or another. And, of course, pornography is no longer pornography, it is adult entertainment.
Well, it is certainly that, even if you might quibble with the nature and content of the entertainment on offer. But one thing is certain, sex sells. There are no shortage of users for this form of ‘entertainment’, the scale of the pornography industry is enormous and there are plenty of candidates willing to tell you that it is healthy and wholesome. But is it?

I’m not arguing from a moral or religious point of view or from the concern about the commercial exploitation of one gender or another. Rather I am taking a view from the perspective of mental health and mental wellbeing. So let’s have a look at some of the things that pornography users talk about when they present themselves in the clinical setting. First and foremost, it is predominantly men. Women, in my experience, may use internet pornography but they seem to use it in a way that does not have them seeking help to get away from it.

So it is predominantly male, at least in the confidential setting of my private practice, and the predominant feature is that they wish to get away from using it, to stop altogether. I find this an interesting phenomenon. Pornography is a ‘pleasure’ product – like so many products on offer in our culture – and yet here we have men saying they are indulging in too much pleasure and want to stop. That’s because too much pleasure is the same thing as un-pleasure. And we never know we’ve crossed the dividing line until it’s too late. That’s something we never hear debated much these days.

The next feature worth mentioning is that they find they cannot stop using it. It has become a compulsion, an addiction if you like. And like all addictions, it is a way of regulating our internal pleasure economy, as one analyst describes it. The problem is that this chosen method of regulation of our pleasure gets out of control and instead of us controlling it, it controls us.

The next point to bear in mind is that some men come to realise how destructive internet pornography is to their real relationships. When so-called perfect bodies are engaging in so-called perfect sexual acts and giving all the impressions of getting so-called full satisfaction from it, it is difficult to get one’s real life experiences to match. Real life is not always like that. So pornography creates an illusory ideal. And illusory ideals can be one of the most destructive elements in our thinking. We can never reach them, they never go away and the uncomfortable tension between these two positions can last indefinitely. Men will often tell you that their real life partners just do not excite them after watching pornography.

The other psychologically destructive point is that pornography is not real. You’d be surprised at the number of people who disagree with this statement. No, they will say, pornography is real, there are real people on screen, I can see them! The key words here are ‘on screen’. It is a virtual world, a world of make believe, where fantasies of male potency and pleasure can be acted out without consequences. There is no engagement with a real, living person, no relationship is forming, and even more importantly no real lessons in how to love or engage sexually with another human being are being learned. Rather it is a repetitive exercise that eventually takes on the form of an unsatisfying cyclical experience that is devoid of human contact.

But bear in mind, the choice of pornography for most men is made for this very reason. It is a move away from reality, away from the demands of the real other person, into a world of imagination where no demands are made and no expectations are imposed. Unfortunately, the impersonal, self sufficient, self pleasuring gain, for those who do come for therapy, has long ago been far outweighed by the loss involved. And what is the loss?

Pornography remains a solitary act, an essentially empty pleasure which draws us in with great promises that are never delivered. At the end of it we remain the same as we were when we started; isolated, questioning and alone. There is no enrichment worth speaking about, other than a momentary, facile pleasure. When this experience comes to dominate the experience of users of pornography, they then seek therapy. Or when some other real life interruption ‘jolts’ them out of the fantasy.

The lure of the forbidden, though, always has a certain cache, a certain alluring gravitational pull. To combat this, you will hear some pornography users talk about it as if it were an active, directed choice. They make it sound like the kind of thing that men of action do, a kind of taking control of one’s pleasures in a rational, almost heroic way. All men do it (by implication, all men of action) and so do I, you’ll hear them say.

And yet internet pornography – an industry of massive scale – is a passive act. There is no action involved here. Even interactive pornographic experiences are ultimately virtual in nature – there is no real interaction and it ultimately involves passive viewing. It is essentially the passive viewing of others’ enjoyment, one in which we share only at the level of a visual experience. We can certainly join it as a masturbatory experience, as practically all men do, but it is still not ours, it is somebody else’s. This passive position usually sits at odds with most men’s view of themselves as being active and in control of their lives. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find examples from other parts of their lives where they watch and secretly engage with other people’s experiences. But, on the other hand, if you were to look for the first possible examples of where the urge to view others having sex might arise in a person’s life, you might find yourself asking if it has Oedipal roots.

Which brings me to my last point. There are many different forms of pornography on the internet. You can probably find every sexual taste catered for in some form or another. Most involve consenting adults while others are in the realm of serious violence against vulnerable women and children, cynically masquerading as liberal sexual practices. Not all forms of pornography mean the same thing. Some people are looking to escape the real world of human relationships; some believe an ultimate form of pleasure exists and it is only a matter of finding it; others use pornography to deal with anxieties that masturbation might comfort; others still are engaged in more complicated relations of domination and submission; and those who seek to hurt are giving free rein to the basest instinct of all, the violent urge to destroy lives.

Generally speaking, for most men pornography is a pleasure-seeking escape into fantasy from reality. Until, that is, for some it becomes a reality they have difficulty with and so their daily lived experience becomes impoverished and problematic as a result. The allure of pornography is that it offers forbidden pleasures along with the promise that the ‘freedom to enjoy’ is as simple as turning on a computer. But freedom to enjoy is a much bigger thing. It involves understanding what we want to enjoy, how we want to enjoy, and with what real, other, consenting person we might choose to enjoy. If passive and solitary viewing of the sexual acts of others on a computer screen were the answer, we’d have been recommending it long ago.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Other Side of Love

By Kevin Murphy,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.

Of the many reasons why people choose to engage with therapy, you often find the issue of love somewhere in the background. Either in terms of its absence in people’s current life, or in terms of its absence in their earlier lives. A common experience you’ll hear spoken about is, having found the right person and fallen in love with them, they are not being loved back in return.

Or you’ll often hear about a repeated resistance towards entering relationships for fear this very thing will happen; it is a powerful unspoken fear that can sometimes keep people in and out of relationships most of their lives, and mostly out. Love, despite what the romance novels and magazines will tell you, is not a self-explanatory human phenomenon. When it goes right yes it is the simplest thing in the world.

But when it doesn’t work properly it is a complex, confusing experience. This less talked about side of love represents a profound puzzle for more people than you’d think. And while the circumstances are always particular to the individual, the questions it poses are generally on how to find it, how to keep it and how not to be hurt by it.

It is fascinating how often love is written or spoken about and yet very little time is spent on the question of what actually goes on when we love someone or they love us. Yes we know that our emotions go into overdrive, that we can often feel elevated, inspired, confident and happy. These are all wonderful things that spur us on to find love. That’s when it goes right.

But, as we see from examples all around us, love can also go dismally wrong. Freud, in one of his texts, famously listed a number of paths to human happiness and one of them was falling in love. Yet interestingly, he added that love was also the most high risk path to take because the happiness it provided could be taken away at a moment’s notice. Anyone jilted, or deserted, or cheated on, or even bereaved knows how this feels.

So we have this thing called love between two people, between men and women, women and women, and men and men. What is it? Some call it a madness, others call it the salvation of the human race. Others still believe it does not exist in any true form. And yet, if we listen to the major discourses that are going on in contemporary culture, you could reasonably assert that the attainment of love is among the highest goals set by contemporary society. Just think of the amount of time and money invested, by both sexes, in making ourselves worthy of someone else’s love. Not all of it is vanity or narcissism; wanting to love and to be loved is a fundamental human desire.

Finding thinkers who understand love and who can put an understandable shape on this enigmatic desire is not the easiest of tasks but one person who has some very interesting ideas on love and its place in human experience is, surprisingly enough, a philosopher. The late Jean Paul Sartre’s most famous work is Being and Nothingness, one the founding texts for a philosophical movement called Existentialism. Put simply, the philosophy of our being in the world, our existence. It’s probably not the first place you’d think of looking to find out about love. Yet here are some of the things he says.

In his view, the human relationship is not simply a benign, harmless, fully empowering experience. We need others but there is a push and pull going on all the time. We need the other person but we want to be free of them too. We want to master the other person, be the boss if you like, but they in their own way want to master us too. So while being human is about being someone for others, or in this case a special other person, there is an almost unnoticed conflict running through the heart of human relations, no matter how much we love someone. When you hear someone say they can’t understand why they argue so much with their partner when they are so much in love, this is why.

Sartre also says the notion of finding someone with whom we can become ‘one’ is a strong and necessary ideal that drives us to find love. But he says we need to be wary of that ideal and remember that if such a unity were to truly exist, the thing that makes the other so attractive to us i.e. the fact that they are different and unique and refreshingly ‘other’ than us, would disappear. We’d be left with what? Someone very different to the person we fell in love with.

So becoming everything the other person wants you to be in the relationship might seem like the perfect formula for success. But in reality you are turning yourself into someone very different to the person you were who began the relationship, to the person you were who attracted your partner at the outset.

Sartre is possibly most interesting when he talks about what it is that we look for in another when it comes to love. In the first instance, the thing that draws us to another, apart from their looks, prospects, biological suitability and so on, is that they represent for us a model of freedom. This is an interesting concept when you considered the attraction that the lives of the rich and famous have had for generations. Behind the glitz and the glam, these people probably represent icons of freedom. And not just financial freedom but an almost indefinable freedom whereby they have truly made themselves into what they perhaps always wanted to be. Or so we imagine. Let’s be wary of this too because our successful idols tend to be all too human, just like the rest of us.

Nevertheless when we love we want some of this freedom that the suitable or chosen ‘other’person represents both for us and, we presume, for everyone else in the world. But here too there is a paradox. By wanting it for ourselves, we tamper with this very freedom by trying to contain it if you like, and so there is always a risk of damaging the very quality we were attracted to in the first place. We want to ‘own’ that freedom, or at least share in it, but we want it to remain free at the same time. As Sartre says, the lover does not want to possess the beloved as a thing, instead he or she demands a special type of ownership: he or she wants to possess a freedom as freedom. (See p.478, Being and Nothingness, Washington Square Press, 1956).

This is a hard one to manage and it is probably the reason why love is such a difficult game to play, as the song says. This sense of freedom's indefinable place at the heart of love is probably also the reason why so many love relationships lose their magic for one or other partner after time. Owning the freedom that attracted us can make that freedom less attractive, we can inadvertently tarnish it, in other words. So how does one get around this? For Sartre we almost have to imagine ourselves into the place of being the new reason why this freedom in the other person exists. We didn’t cause it, certainly not, because it was probably there long before we ever came along. But we want to be the continuing reason why it burns brightly and strongly. As Sartre says, ‘in love, the Lover wants to be “the whole World for the beloved”.

So when love goes right, yes it is about wanting to love and be loved by someone special, that much is certain. It is a two way street. We want to love someone but we also want that someone to love us in a way that perpetually re-creates us through a freedom that was freely given and remains true. On this point Sartre says, ‘if the Other loves me, then I become the ‘unsurpassable’ which means I must be the absolute end (for the other). In this sense I am saved from instrumentality’. By this he means that the loved person becomes different to all the other instruments of satisfaction in the world; he or she becomes special, unique.

'Thus to want to be loved is to want to be placed beyond the whole system of values’, to be everything for the lover. Or as he puts it, ‘I must no longer be seen on the ground of the world as a ‘this’ among other ‘thises’, but the world must be revealed in terms of me’. That’s why you’ll hear someone in love telling their partner, ‘you mean the world to me’. And that is a freedom, freely given, that loses none of its magic by being either offered to another,shared with another or received from another.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Sex Abuse as Perversion

By Kevin Murphy MSc.,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.

We’ve had a great number of inquiries in this country into institutional and clerical sex abuse. The most recent one, The Cloyne Report, is consistent at least in that it reinforces the picture of Ireland that has emerged from earlier inquiries. Abuse was perpetrated on the vulnerable and those most in need of protection and care. It was done by those in positions of power which, in the case of the clergy, was usually unquestioned. The task of bringing the truth to light was a long and arduous one. The abused were not believed and the abusers were not inclined to own up to the truth of what they had done. And, perhaps unnervingly, the abuse was perpetrated by those who were concealed or protected behind the veil of ‘doing good’. Their credentials were never in doubt, their intentions never questioned and, often, they were simply moved to another location and allowed continue their abusive activities by the Church.
There are any number of perspectives from which to approach the issue of the systematic clerical sexual abuse of innocent children in this country. But at the core of it all there is a running theme that never really gets highlighted. For men or women, whether they are of the cloth or not, to have carried out the kinds of abuse they did means they are perverse. Now that’s a word you will have to search long and hard to find in the acres of coverage that the sex abuse scandals have produced. But perhaps that’s not so unusual.
Perversion is not something that is studied or written about or given as much prominence by other branches of psychotherapy as it is by psychoanalysis. That in itself is a curious thing. The word began to fall out of popular discourse from some time around the mid 20th century, probably in the post-War period. Then in the Sixties with sexual freedom it became downright unpopular to even consider it. And yet behind the scenes it was going on all the time until it burst upon us in the past 15 years. It seemed to take people by surprise, as if we didn’t know what word to put on what was happening. Well, we didn’t. And the Church, in particular, has been regularly criticized for being so unprepared in its response. Yet how could it respond to something whose name had been effectively forgotten by society as a whole? How could it respond when it appeared to know practically nothing about the grim reality it was supposed to deal with?
Perversion, in the psychoanalytical sense, is when someone who has been profoundly affected by their upbringing acts out sexual fantasies on another person, almost exclusively against that person’s will. The reason they choose a sexual act is not so much the pleasure they get from it directly but because they know their actions carry such a social and moral taboo that the kick from breaking rules, and indeed being able to experience boundaries being broken very clearly, is all the greater. So, in this sense perversion has a paradoxically intimate relationship with the law, both written and unwritten. The priesthood was not chosen simply on the basis of allowing easy access to victims; its position as symbol and representative of law was essential too.
In most if not all cases of clerical sexual abuse the perversion has been of the sadistic rather than masochistic kind. It is rare to read of a priest having an act of suffering inflicted on him by a child. But the examples are abundant of things being the other way. The sadistic pervert has no interest in the person or child they are abusing. The person is merely an object that allows them achieve their goal. This is often a crushing experience in itself for victims.
And what is the goal of true perversion? Well the perverse act seeks to re-enact a very particular fantasy. The pervert must see and experience the anxiety they are causing in the other person. This anxiety is going to be the signal that triggers all sorts of pleasures for them. Any sexual satisfaction after that is merely a bonus. And even witnessing this anxiety in the other is not the end of it. It is done in the compulsive and unconscious hope of reducing their own massive anxiety.
The pervert is a conundrum. Externally they appear calm, nice, friendly, understanding, at ease with the world. Yet internally, they are continuously haunted by anxiety on such a scale that it often takes the complete violation of another human being to temporarily banish the demons. Psychoanalytically understood, this massive internal and very secret anxiety is there because at some early phase in their development they remained both sexually and psychically attached to the mother-figure in a way that was not healthy for them. Their life was and is, in a very real sense, not their own and their search is for continuous independence through evoking again and again the moment of separation in a staged, often sexually explicit way. It is not a pretty picture and from the outside it does present a confusing face: violence behind calmness; complete human disregard behind empathy; sexual voraciousness behind sexual abstemiousness. A study in the March-December 2011 edition of the Irish Journal of Psychology found that the clerical child sex abuser is a man with low self esteem, who denies sexual drives and sexual interests, but who is interpersonally agreeable and empathically concerned with others. He is more conscientious and has fewer psychological vulnerabilities, such as neuroticism, loneliness and sensitivity to personal distress. The study doesn’t go as far as to say so but this mix of characteristics makes him a frighteningly efficient predator.
But what does it mean to say that causing anxiety in another person is done to reduce their own inner anxiety? When a sadistic pervert ( as opposed to a masochistic one) is carrying out his acts of sexual abuse, violation, humiliation and so on - and because by definition he has chosen a person who is unwilling - he is seeking to illicit a sign in the victim that a limit has been reached. And remember a limit is a boundary along which a law, written or unwritten, is usually laid down. This limit is usually when the victim says stop, calls for the help of a parent or makes some other gesture or sign that what is happening is unpleasant or unacceptable. For the perpetrator this is the moment he is looking for, this is what all the grooming was for, when the boundary line between two important things becomes obvious, when the victim signals that this is not what they want and they vitally want something quite the opposite. It is here that they are being separated by the pervert from the thing they want most in the world, the thing most precious to them at that moment. It can be mother, father, safety, bodily integrity, peace of mind, ordinary life without nightmares, their favourite doll or train set, untrammelled confidence, wholeness of spirit, self-belief, an absence of confusion, their right to innocence. And in the moment of separating them from it, the pervert psychologically speaking gets a clear glimpse of what that most precious thing is. There are many, many ways he can see or imagine he sees this. It is a re-enactment of the act of separation from something precious; the pervert through his victim gets to see the moment that failed for him, the moment when he failed to separate off from his most precious thing and so was condemned to a life of not being his own person, but somebody else’s.
Psychoanalytic theory has been constantly evolving the notion that the perverse individual is formed as a result of this unsuccessful passage through a crucially important moment in every child’s development. Each and every one of us has to learn at a very young age, and at an unconscious level, that we must separate emotionally and psychologically from our mothers, even though mother is the source of all comfort for most of us. If we don’t somehow take on board this idea, we remain attached in a way that is unhealthy for us, not in moral sense but in the psychological sense that while being oddly comforting it is also deeply anxiety provoking. Helping us to separate is usually father or a father figure (which need not be a man). And helping him out in this regard is mother herself, or what the late English psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott called the ‘good enough’ mother who can signal to her child that while she loves him/her unconditionally she also has her own desire in life. If the child remains convinced that he/she is the only thing that can fulfil mother, we have the beginnings of a problem. What starts out as a comforting notion, begins to be burdensome (because no-one can fulfil that role) and eventually massively anxiety provoking (because one’s life is not one’s own).
The thing that makes perverts differ from other folk who start out deeply caring for their mothers is that they can’t get away, and often don’t want to get away, from an uncomfortably close relationship and one that has not always been a positive experience for them. They then begin staging acts on others that re-route their anxieties about this into causing equal anxiety on their usually defenceless victims. The reason the grooming of victims is so important is because it ensures the victim becomes ‘defenceless’ either in a physical or psychological sense, mirroring the defencelessness that the perverse person has always felt about their prototype relationship with mother. The universal law that insists we all separate from mother at a profoundly personal and unconscious level (even though consciously loving her and caring for her all our lives) is behind it all. The pervert is re-enacting his unique position with regard to this law, he is bringing to life the boundaries of this law because he compulsively but unconsciously believes it will allow him separate from mother and dispel his anxieties. Except it never works, and that’s why it must be repeated again and again.
Where did this cruelty come from? How did mostly men and some women in religious orders get such a taste for debasing vulnerable women and children? These were the polar opposite of the values and beliefs they were supposed to represent. Weren’t clerical abusers supposed to be well educated and come from good stock, good families? It seems ridiculous to imagine they were all abused as children and so repeated the abuse on others. What makes far more sense is that they, like generations of perverse characters before them, had profound disruption to a seemingly simple but deceptively complex ‘moment’ in their development in learning how to treat mother with love and respect while being able to become their own person. A new study that compiles the personal histories of these offenders to see if there are common patterns in their childhood experiences would make interesting reading.
For victims, it is often a major step to be able to say ‘I was sexually abused’. But that’s not the end of it. The grip of sexual abuse on its victims long after the abuse has stopped is due to the finer detail with which the abuser stitches his handiwork together. Usually a campaign of conditioned defencelessness has been waged on them long before any abuse takes place. The antidote, if that’s the right word, lies in unpicking the threads of that stitching one by one, bravely and slowly and carefully, so that eventually all that remains of a masterwork in cruelty is a collection of loose threads that no longer have a dominating effect on the larger fabric of someone’s life.