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Review of: The Guide to Interpersonal Psychotherapy: Updated and Expanded Edition (2007/2018), Myrna M. Weissman, John C. Markowitz, Gerald L. Klerman; Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 283 pp. ($34.10 (US$)).
Interpersonal therapy (IPT) is a promising, evidence-based, talk therapy. IPT is the innovative brainchild of Gerald L. Klerman, Myrna M. Weissman, John C. Markowitz, and a team of dedicated professionals. IPT has received expanding attention since the mid- and late 2000s.
This book is an IPT manual and it emphasizes: It is important to keep IPT grounded in affect. Therapy feels meaningful to the patient when it comes alive with emotions related to important issues in the patient’s life. The IPT sessions focus each meeting on a recent, affectively charged event in the patient’s life. In short, the therapist encourages the patient to talk about what happened in their life during the past week. Sounds familiar?
The novice practitioner – perhaps a resident in psychiatry who has been concentrating on psychopharmacology, because that is the prevailing paradigm – is given helpful scripts (what to say to the patient): “In interpersonal psychotherapy, we work on the connection between your feelings and your life situation. In the next X weeks, we will work on unfulfilled wishes and problematic relationships that are contributing to your depression. You should begin to become more comfortable with your feelings in problematic close relationships and decide how to use them to change the relationship/situation you’re in” (p. 106).
Originally developed as an intervention for depression, IPT has been progressively extended to other disorders including anxiety, trauma, and personality disorders including borderline personality disorder. Also of note, IPT demonstrably does not work for substance abuse, including alcohol.
IPT draws on the insight of dynamic psychotherapy that events in the patient’s life evoke strong feelings (or not) and that the processing of those feelings (or not) contributes to the patient’s behavior in the community. The “deep history” of the work invokes the tradition of Harry Stack Sullivan (1842 – 1949) and the William Alanson White Institute, acknowledging the interaction of the cultural dynamics between the self and the community.
IPT acknowledges that sadness and depressed mood are part of the human condition. Low mood is a nearly universal response to disruption of close interpersonal relations. John Bowlby argued that attachment bonds [key term: attachment] are necessary to survival: the attachment of the helpless infant to the mother helps to preserve the infant’s life and well-being (p. 10).
However, the resemblance between IPT and the anti-psychiatry sometimes characteristic of the Neo-Freudians such as Sullivan or Bowlby is soon dispelled. IPT embraces the medical model, asserting that (e.g.) depression is an illness such as the flu or even an appendicitis. IPT proudly embraces the common factor – something shared by all [or most] forms of psychotherapy – that the role of doctor and patient are essential to the process.
The IPT doctor is active in educating the patient about what to expect and what to do, along with more subtle forms of inspirational guidance and suggestion. While the patient may usefully learn directly from experience as redescribed in the process of therapy, he or she had better do so promptly – as the process is time-limited to some sixteen sessions.
The time-limit is an essential part of IPT, acting as a “forcing function” to cause both patient and doctor – but mostly the patient – to “cut to the chase,” say what is bothering her, and take action to do something about it. Hence, IPT’s strengths – the cost is relatively predictable and insurance payers love that – it is relatively easy to define a comparative process test (say, against CBT or psychopharm) – and grant writers and approvers like that – and its weaknesses – it is time-limited.
One clarification upfront. When the trainers of interpersonal therapy say that it is “interpersonal,” they do not mean that the therapy targets the relationship between the patient and the therapist. “Interpersonal” means that it is about the interpersonal relationships in the patient’s life.
The powerful insight of IPT is that the way the person feels about what is going on in her or his life results in behavior, including symptomatic behavior such as depression and anxiety, that remits if one connects the dots between the two, i.e., between the feelings as called forth in the therapy and the dysfunctional symptoms. IPT is unconcerned about transference or the deep past of childhood and it tries to identify the focal interpersonal problem area in the patient’s current life. “IPT does not interpret the transference, but rather helps the patient to relate emotions to interpersonal interactions in the here and now” (p. 74) – otherwise known as interpreting the transference.
Basically, with some conditions and qualifications, the patient is allowed one problem area, though each of the area is potentially vast and overlapping: grief (e.g., death, loss), role disputes (interpersonal conflict), role transitions (e.g., divorce), and interpersonal deficits of attachment (aloneness, isolation) (p. 11).
According to Weissman and Markowitz, more than 100 clinical trials of IPT (Barth et al., 2013; Cuijpers et al., 2008, 2011, 2016) are available (p. 12). That is what makes IPT so attractive as “dynamic therapy lite”, especially to psychiatrics who find prescribing insufficient to produce wellbeing in their patients.
The meta analysis by Cuijpers et al. (2016 / see the excellent and extensive bibliography in the book), based on eight randomized trials, suggests efficacy for anxiety disorders: “In anxiety disorders, IPT had large effects compared with control groups, and there is no evidence that IPT was less effective than CBT.” No less effective, but perhaps also no more. [P. 187] However, for those entry level therapists who are not comfortable with the over-intellectualizations of CPT, IPT can have an advantage of validating an approach that empathically gets one in touch with emotions and feelings.
A recurring theme in this approach is that IPT talks to patients about how they feel about what is happening or has happened in their lives and invites patients to make the crucial recognition that their interpersonal encounters evoke strong feelings. Then the IPT mantra (at least in this text): that, rather than being “bad” or “dangerous,” feelings provide interpersonal information (e.g., anger means someone is bothering you) they can reflect upon and use to handle their environment.
The instructions to the IPT psychiatrist in training? “Your aim will be to link the patient’s interpersonal situation (a spouse’s affair, a mother’s death, a move to a different city) to the onset of symptoms in a brief contextualizing narrative that makes sense to both the patient and you. [….] Use the initial sessions to ensure that you have focused on a pivotal, emotionally meaningful area for the patient and that you have ruled out surprises that might otherwise arise later in treatment” (p. 36).
So, for example, IPT points out that patients with panic disorder experience their paralyzing physical attacks as coming “out of the blue,” yet most talk therapies, including IPT, suggest that panic is a response to interpersonal events: one study found that three-quarters of panic patients had had an interpersonal loss within six weeks of panic onset (p. 191).
So what happens when, for example, a woman who presents saying, “My children are my big problem” later, as she gets to know you, calls out the more pressing area of distress: her spouse’s extramarital affair? Given the time-limited name of the treatment, what to say? Well, IPT tries to address this typical situation, allowing for “maintenance,” typically once a month extensions. Twice a month? However, somehow extended the duration of the sessions by means of maintenance seems not to be the right answer. A new contract and a new engagement is needed.
IPT is quite explicit about giving patients the Sick Role. This does indeed relieve patients of blame. It is not your fault – you are sick. “The sick role excuses patients from what their illness precludes them from doing, but it carries the responsibility to work as a patient to get better” (p. 115). Definitely. A sensible trade-off.
However, the therapist is then left with the difficulty that the illness in question – depression, anxiety, trauma, personality disorder, and so on – is significantly unlike most other diseases in the world of medicine. Yes, there is an underlying molecular process; but it is just that, in most cases, science has not identified the biomarkers.
The IPT role-playing script (p. 39) suggests telling the patient that depression is no different the appendicitis or the flu. Wow. Don’t call Carl Rogers – page the surgeon! We can cure an appendicitis even if the patient is unconscious. Indeed at a certain point in the treatment it is required. However, that is not the case with a significant mental disorder. You cannot cure an unconscious psychiatric patient. More to the point, today the patient’s intentional participation in the process is required.
I can’t resist. The history of the heroic age of psychiatry does present “the sleep cure.” Stay in bed for about three months, highly sedated, with the doctor on call fulltime, waking the person once every twenty four hours for nourishment and bowel movement, and at the end of three months – voila! – something significant has shifted – the individual no longer feels depressed. This is the reduction to absurdity of the medical model – yet, in its day, it worked!
For example, in the case of complicated grief, treatment is not a sign of disrespect for the deceased – but that respect is the way treatment shows up – LIVES– for the patient. Complicated grief is a form of depression (p. 45). The doctor must truly have a magisterial authority in order to overcome the patient’s commitment to her or his suffering. You see the problem? It says right there in the manual: your grief is really depression. But the patient’s experience is that they cannot live without the other person. Yes, it violates the IPT contract that the person seems unwilling or unable to try. That is the therapy – you are in violation of your therapeutic contract?
Whereas in CBT, a therapist might ask a patient to look at the evidence about an anxious thought, an IPT therapist lets the patient sit with the feelings, pointing out at an opportune moment that guilt is a actually a symptom of the depression. What is the evidence that when your friend does not answer your text message, it is because she or he is cheating on you? Are there any facts here? In IPT rather, let’s talk about your feelings about the relationship: have you ever had any feelings of temptation towards cheating? In short, in IPT the therapy is to talk about the temptation (loss, fear, anger, and so on) and bring forth a catharsis – yes, it says it right there in the manual – catharsis makes you better.
IPT acknowledges the need to manage magical thinking, but IPT does not call it that]: The bereaved person fears that if they recover from the grief (i.e., the depressive episode), it means they did not love the deceased as much as they had believed. To their way of thinking, if they really loved the person, the loss would be so great that they could never recover. The treatment? Acknowledge, validate, and work through the loss by talking about it. In that sense, IPT is a talking cure.
The guidance for those practicing IPT (p. 57)? Ask for the details of the interaction. Often, the patient will come in with in interpretation: “He is a jerk.” Okay, got it; but what did he actually say? : “What did you say? What did he say? How did you feel then? Then what did you say?” and so on. Get in touch with facts and feelings. The reconstruction of interpersonal encounters provides a sense of how the patient functions interpersonally, what may be going wrong in the relationship, and where the patient ignores or suppresses emotional responses to the other party
It is a strong point of IPT’s approach to treatment – get the facts. Freud pointed out long ago – the patient comes in and cannot give a coherent account of his or her life. Freud noted the gaps – repression – but equally important are the distorted communications, interpretations, and positions. “The boss is a jerk.” “Okay – I got that – what did he actually say?”
For those curious as to what is a “role transition”: Moving one’s household, taking a new career or job, leaving home after school or divorce, being diagnosed with a serious medical condition, taking on new responsibilities due to the illness of a family member, or a change (decline) in economic status, are other examples of life role transitions. Refugee status has become a transition problems for significant populations in many countries.
Unlike many descriptions of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), IPT focuses on discussing feelings, normalizing them as responses to interpersonal interactions and as useful interpersonal information, and using them to take action to change the patient’s interactions in order to resolve the identified problem area (p. 88). That a person feels angry about a perceived or actual interaction contains valuable information for the person, which is usually overlooked due to over-intellectualization or being overwhelmed by emotions (under-intellectualization).
IPT emphasizes, “depression is a medical vulnerability, sort of like having an ulcer. If you should get depressed in the future, the important thing to remember is that it’s a treatable illness, it’s not your fault, and you just need to return for treatment, the way you would for any other medical problem” (p. 113).
IPT is a sensible, practical approach. The take away is that whatever the intervention one should actively try to solve the problem – working on solving the problem = x drives the therapy. The hidden / confounding variable is that the problem seems to be = x but is actually = y or = (x & y). In that case, the openness of psychodynamic therapy will surface an issue of which IPT remains unaware. Of course, the process will require more time.
There are many applications of IPT – to postpartum depression, depression in adolescents, depression in children of tender age (recommendation: treat the parent(s), depression in senior citizen, – here we go into the weed, there are many studies, and the results are generally favorable – the guidance? If one tries, one gets better.
Since this is not a softball review, the most critical thing I can think to say is that it is not really treating what the DSM describes as depression – it is treating stress – and there is nothing wrong with that – the cytokine theory of depression makes the case that “depression” is “sickness behavior” – this aligns well with the repetition (nearly ad nauseam) to the patient that “depression” is a sickness like the flu or [incredibly] enough an appendicitis. Okay, let’s take this seriously. This is supposed to be a common factor – but you would not hear Carl Rogers say it. You would not hear CBT practitioners say it – rather they would say, “you have a skills deficit – and while that is not your fault, no one ever taught you the skill, we are not “blaming” biology, we are blaming the parent or the early environment
At times and at risk of over-simplification, CBT is committed to how thinking causes, brings forth, determines one’s feelings. IPT emphasizes how one’s emotional experiences cause, bring forth, and determine one’s thinking. “Therapists work hard with […] patients to identify emotions— and particularly negative affect and feelings of competitiveness, anger, and sadness— that arise in everyday situations. The therapist and patient discuss whether such feelings are understandable and warranted. The idea of a transgression— that there are some behaviors that break expected social conduct, warrant anger, and deserve at the least an apology— may be helpful in normalizing such feelings for patients” (see p. 164).
I call out some statements that, strictly speaking, make no sense: “Klerman advocated for research standards in psychotherapy that were comparable to those in pharmacotherapy research” (p. 12). Okay, but: The authors cannot be referring to double blind testing where neither the patient nor the doctor knows what treatment he is delivering. I am giving you CBT versus IPT versus psychopharm, but neither of us knows what it is. Notwithstanding the many useful results provided by IPT practitioners, this points to a significant blind spot.
A silly statement by the authors, in which the authors get carried away with their own greatness: “No other psychotherapies explicitly focus on the IPT problem areas” (p. 106). Really? Counter-examples? Freud’s “Mourning and melancholia”? Life transitions in DBT? Lack of skills in CBT? Role disputes and discrepancies (all of the above)?
Another thing that seems just plain crazy to this author is the approach to trauma, though, once again, trauma survivors have benefited from IPT in evidence-based studies. IPT acknowledges accurately: The trauma explains why the patient is struggling interpersonally, but receives no further direct discussion (p. 195). However, a time occurs in most conversations with trauma survivors (with or without a bit of nudging) when the trauma seems to erupt – spontaneously comes up – and IPT ties the therapist’s hands because she or he cannot engage with it. Why not? It is not part of the definition of IPT? The researchers are doing an evidence-based study and to do so would “confuse” the modality with exposure focused treatments? So much the worse for the evidence ( am inclined to say). If the patient brings up the trauma and is willing – indeed wants and give every evidence of wanting to talk about it – then it would be unethical not to do so. Did anyone think of that?
The ultimate true but trivial statement, apparently now required to be fully buzzword compliant: “Neuroimaging studies have shown that psychotherapy changes your brain chemistry [Brody et al., 2001; Martin et al., 2001 9see the excellent bibliography in the book itself for details)]: it’s a biological treatment” (p. 110). Hey, studying French will change your brain and brain chemistry. Studying French is now a biological treatment?
Time-limits are essential to IPT and are a kind of “good news,” “bad news” sort of practice. Freud himself made use of setting a time limit in the case of Sergei Pankejeff (“the Wolf Man”) when Freud felt, after months and months of work, the treatment was stalled, the patient was living in genteel poverty, burring through his modest fortune, couldn’t pay, and it was time to fish or cut bait (my expression, not Freud’s). It seemed to have worked, or at least worked well enough, as a “forcing function.” However, this parameter on Freud’s part was used on an exception basis. IPT takes the “forcing function” and makes it the rule. In fact, traditional Freudians may see IPT as a case collection of parameters (exceptional practices that are employed in the face of contingencies in treatment) that try to add up to “psychoanalysis lite.”
The risk is that while a medical molecular process may not aware of the clock, the blind spots, self-deceptions, and self-serving behaviors by which people afflict themselves unwittingly are acutely aware of the passage time. Therefore, the “disorder” goes under ground until the time is up. In a telling analogy, the process is like announcing to the local armed insurgency, freedom fighters, or your opponent of choice that the UN expeditionary force is going to pull out in sixteen weeks. The opponent’s strategy strategy going forward is clear. Lay low until the powers-that-be pull out. Then it is back to business as usual.
Meanwhile, once feelings are identified and normalized, role playing is needed to help patients become comfortable with self-assertion or confrontation. “They may never have expressed a wish and almost never have said “no” to anyone. Yet if a patient has a successful experience in one of these situations (e.g., asking for and receiving a raise, confronting a spouse), the patient will have learned a new skill, discover some sense of control over the local environment, and likely feel better” (p. 164).
The IPT text and training repeatedly emphasize that “feelings are powerful, but not dangerous—and in fact, you need them [feelings] to decide whom you can trust. Expressing your feelings to another person may seem risky, but it provides a test of whether the other person is trustworthy or not. If you feel angry and voice it to another person, the other person has the chance either to apologize and change behavior, or to confirm that he or she is uncaring or untrustworthy” (pp. 194 – 195).
Agree – but there is a big “but.” The thing is that for some people feelings ARE dangerous if the feelings threaten to fragment the coherence and integrity of the sense of self. This is especially the case with survivors of trauma. There is it not just an over-feeling, but a feeling “I am gonna die!” One can dismiss this as a “personality disorder,” but I do not believe such dismissal would be fair or accurate. If subjected to strong enough feelings, just about anyone is capable of being shaken to their core. Therefore, methods are for strengthening the person’s self’s sense of stability and equilibrium in the face of strong feelings. Expanded distress tolerance? Expanded emotional regulation? Self-soothing? Working through? Exposure? Transmuting internalization? Suggestion? Encouragement? All of the above?
Having gotten in touch with emotions, patients can proceed to more usual IPT maneuvers, such as solving a role transition. As patients gain comfort with their feelings, they engage interpersonal situations with expanded competence, life feels safer, and they begin spontaneously—without IPT therapist encouragement—to face the situations and traumatic reminders they have been avoiding. In the vast majority of instances, the authors assume the patient is out of touch with his or her feelings. The therapy consists in invoking the feeling so that the patient can get in touch with it. But what about being over-whelmed by one’s feelings? Yes, one can also lose touch with one’s feelings if one is overwhelmed, but it is significantly different mode of losing touch. What about that?
We end on a positive note. IPT is demonstrably effective with borderline personality disorder, though the time-limited aspect is “finessed” by [apparently] doubling the number of sessions to distinguish between establishing trust with the therapist and actually doing the work.
We give the last word to the authors of this engaging, practical text: “The therapist presents BPD to the patient as a poorly named syndrome that has a significant depressive component. A major difference between MDD [major depressive disorder] and BPD [borderline personality disorder] is that while depressed patients often have difficulty expressing any anger, patients with BPD often do the same much of the time but then periodically explode with excessive anger, which reinforces their tendency to avoid expressing anger whenever possible. The goals of treatment are, as is usually the case in IPT, to link mood (including anger) to interpersonal situations, to find better ways of handling such situations, and to build better social supports and skills.” (p. 201).
(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project
I am catching up on my reading. Christine Ann Lawson’s Understanding the Borderline Mother is a classic in its field, with a whopping 396 Amazon reviews (Q1 2019), enjoying a rating of 4.7 out of 5.0. Impressive. (See the bottom of this review for bibliographic information on the book .)
Numerous readers have remarked that this book opened their eyes to what they had to survive growing up. These survivors were not bad,
crazy, or broken in the way they were led to believe by what was fundamentally an invalidating child-rearing environment. The vignettes and analyses in Lawson’s book provided them with a transformational “Ah ha!” moment. For many survivors this was a tad like Saul becoming Saint Paul on the road to Damascus – a bolt of lightening out of the blue. They then could begin the hard work of incremental change needed to restore the self-soothing, emotional regulation, and distress tolerance capabilities needed to feel like whole persons again – or for the first time ever.
So up front and considering this is not a “soft ball” review, I acknowledge the importance of Lawson’s contribution and recognize that her work made a profound difference for many survivors. It is especially important to keep that in mind, given that I express significant reservations and criticisms.
The technical details? The borderline personality disorder (BPD) gets precisely defined as a psychiatric entity in 1980, entering the third version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-III). However, long before that signal event “borderline” was understood to be a person whose personality structure (or lack thereof) is characterized by a compensatory but problematic defensive structure that guards against a psychotic breakdown.
Here “psychotic” means “out of touch with everyday reality.” The implication was that such borderline individuals were at risk of completing losing contact with the world of everyday life, decompensating into a full-blown psychotic breakdown. In particular, if the borderline person were treated with psychoanalytic methods, itself encouraging a mild form of regression back to the childhood fixations, whether real or imagined, the risk was of causing the borderline treatment to “go off the rails” into explicit mental illness. In a different, allegedly humorous context, the description “borderline” has come to mean that the patient is hard to work with, difficult, or simply “the therapist doesn’t like the patient.”
A bit more background will be useful. Innovations in treating personality disorders by Heinz Kohut, MD, including new forms of transference such as self-object transference, made narcissistic personality disorders (NPD), arguably on a continuum with borderline personality in a pre-1980 sense, accessible to psychoanalytic methods. (See footnote  below.) However, NPD remains distinct from BPD. The treatment of NPD is relevant here since the children of BPD parents do not necessarily acquire BPD themselves, but sometimes suffer from a pervasive narcissistic vulnerability.
In contrast with Kohut’s deficit model of the narcissistic self, Otto Kernberg, MD, developed a formulation that posited actual defects in the structure of the borderline personality – aspects that were not merely missing but broken. The resulting borderline behaviors need to be confronted and rooted out by a kind of “tough love” on the part of the therapist.
Meanwhile, Marsha Linehan, PhD, a self-styled radical behaviorist, is the innovator who created a treatment approach called “Dialectical Behavioral Therapy” (DBT) that often is effective in treating BPD while other approaches have been [are] less successful. No short description of Linehan’s program is available, but a suitable over-simplification may be useful: DBT combines cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) within a framework that emphasizes mindfulness, empathic listening, and validation of the grain of truth in even the BPD person’s most perplexing distortions to restore the BPD individual’s capabilities for emotional regulation, distress tolerance, self-soothing, interpersonal skills, and self-esteem. DBT is not for the faint of heart and requires an entire team, including both one-on-one counseling and extensive work in groups. It is different than boot camp, but sometimes not by much. Substantial evidence-based, peer-reviewed publications support the effectiveness and validity of the approach.
Lawson, gets matters right with her use of Marsha Linehan, Heinz Kohut, Otto Kernberg, and Ernest Wolf, even when these innovators are not specifically addressing borderline personality disorder (DPB). As noted, Kohut and Wolf have done a deep dive on narcissistic personality disorders. In comparison to BPD, though related, neither the symptoms nor the treatments options are the same. This points to the hazards of broad-brush stroke labeling segments of suffering humanity, albeit with the worthy end of expanding our empathy and understanding for the survivors.
Lawson gets the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual(DSM) criteria right in terms of the BPD person’s fear of abandonment [“I hate you – don’t leave me!”], volatility of relationships, volatility of emotions, volatility of self-image, self-injurious (para suicidal) behavior, impulsivity and acting out, and physiological symptoms. People have different ways of expressing their suffering and the suffering of the BPD person can be intense, so engaging with them is not for the faint of heart.
One strong point. Lawson’s is perceptive in the use of Christina Crawford’s searing memoire, Mommy Dearest, about Christina’s Academy Award winning movie star mother, Joan Crawford (1905 – 1977). This paints a convincing picture of growing up with and surviving the BPD mother (in this case, Joan Crawford). Once again, such material is not for the faint of heart. It turns out that many Hollywood movie starts are good actors both in front of the camera on stage and off of it. “Acting” is different than “faking,” but to a child of tender age the distinction is not always clear. “All the world is a stage,” but when one is a child of tender age, one cannot simply walk out of the show if one does not like it or is being traumatized by it. The lives of the rich and famous are as susceptible to mental and emotional disorders as anyone.
The criticism? To generalize from the example of the tortured genius of Joan Crawford to the run-of-the-mill perpetrations, self-deceptions and manipulations of the standard, working class BPD mother is to go from the sublime to the ridiculous or at least to tear a passion to tatters. It makes for bad theatre, but then again so does real life. I would have liked to hear more about how Christina and her brother dealt with the worst of the perpetrations and escaped the disorder themselves, even if it did leave them with a pervasive narcissistic vulnerability.
Christina describes an invalidating environment, one of the principle causes of BPD. Yet she retained powers of self-expression and freedom that allowed her to overcome [some of] the worst consequences of her environment. This is not to say she did not suffer. She did. What made a difference? What enabled her to compensate – acquiring the distress tolerance, emotional regulation, and self-soothing skills in which mother was so dramatically lacking? Strange to say, maybe Christina got these life saving skills from the nuns at the religious boarding school where she was sent. No doubt the matter is more complex.
Thus, the help promised in the subtitle “Helping her children transcend the intense, unpredictable, and volatile relationship” is mostly targeted at the grown ups who have survived childhood with a BPD mother. It is not clear what such help would look like for a child of tender age other than to turn to the other parent, relative, or mentor-like friend of the family for the mirroring and recognition needed to acquire skills in emotional regulation, distress tolerance, and self-soothing. In some cases cited by Lawson, the abuses rises to a level at which intervention by the state (Children and Family Services) would be appropriate, though such is sometimes like going from the frying pan into the fire.
For example, Lawson’s examples of the mother who drowned her two children, strapped into their car seats in her SUV (Susan Smith (1994)), and the mother who shot her three children at close range (Diane Downs (1983)). These examples result in the reader feeling vicariously traumatized. I am not saying these are not horrific examples of criminality, insanity, or both. They are. I am saying these examples in the book are symptomatic of Lawson’s rhetorically “over the top” approach.
DBP is properly distinguished from manic depression (Bipolar I), post partum depression that reaches psychotic proportions, psychopathy, or paranoid schizophrenia. My concern is that Lawson gathers wide-ranging and provocative examples of trauma, deceptions, perpetrations, manipulations, lies, dangerous half-truths, and total nonsense – and attributes them to BPD. BPD is characterized by boundary issues – and violations – and so are the distinctions in this book.
In short, BPD mother is straight out of Grimm’s fairy tales – now the waif, now the hermit, now the queen, now the wicked witch. Well and good. This is not a treatise on fairy tales; yet Lawson misses the point about the uses of enchantment. To the child who is being weaned, the loving (not BPD!) mother who is temporarily withholding the breast in favor of a Sippy-cup, this standard mother suddenly seems like the devouring witch. She is now and will be the loving caretaker again once the crisis of weaning has passed, but with an enriched personality that includes both positive and negative aspects instead of the splitting and extremes of early childhood. In short, there is nothing wrong – but something is missing – empathy.
For example, Lawson does a nice job marshaling a nightmare and candidate BPD mother from the ancient Greeks, Euripides’ Medea. When Medea’s faithless husband, Jason, proposes to leave Medea for another woman, the gates of chaos are opened. In revenge, Media kills her children and the other woman. This is perhaps the literary origin of the expression “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” From another perspective, a common place exists that when people do not get the empathy or dignity that they feel they deserved, they become enraged. But this takes rage to new, heretofore unprecedented levels. Medea “acts out” her revenge with chilling effectiveness. Medea’s pending loss gets transformed into psychopathic, psychotic, criminally insane rage. Does anyone besides me think that to attribute such perpetrations to BPD would be overstating the case?
One of Lawson’s commitments is to expand the reader’s empathy for the child of a BPD mother. Of course, to the child it is not BPD. It is just behavior that leaves the child bewildered, confused, in semi-shock, or even traumatized. By definition, the diagnosis of BPD cannot be applied to anyone younger than adolescence. Personality disorders usually show up in puberty or adolescence.
The BPD person’s behavior is a study in invalidation, misuse, abuse, emotional disregulation, boundary issues, boundary violations, lack of empathy, lack of recognition, lack of mirroring, lack of response to the child as a whole person, and inconsistent, intermittent, low quality parenting. When the environment is sufficiently invalidating and the child lacks resilience or another sane adult model to help compensate, then the result can indeed be a perpetration of generational BPD.
Ultimately Lawson shocks, shifts, and shakes our complacency about BPD. She may even leave some vicariously traumatized by her narratives of child abuse and boundary issues. However, she fails to enhance our empathy with the BPD person by sensationalizing and “demonizing” the worst excesses of BPD.
I hasten to add that BPD can be described as lying a spectrum with demonic behavior. This is especially so if one is describing BPD from the perspective of the child of tender age. But, once again, that is the issue. The devouring witch of Hansel and Gretel is a representation of the standard mother who is withholding the breast from the child as the latter is being weaned. But the standard mother is usually not suffering from BPD.
The fairy tale narrative informs our empathy with the child. Within the story, the story teller inspires empathy with the children (Hansel and Gretel) such that it seems to them alternatively like a death sentence by starvation, leaving a hunger big enough to eat a house (which is how the children first encounter the gingerbread house). It is of course neither of these, but the narrative enables the grown up empathically to get inside the child’s experience.
The issue with Lawson’s book is that it does not distinguish between BPD, child abuse, and criminality. Yes, BPD mothers’ relationships with their children sometimes cross the boundary between “mere” BPD and even more severe forms of loss of reality testing, psychosis, and sheer insanity. However, BPD is distinct from narcissistic exploitation, manipulation, and criminality. It takes more than BPD to produce the kinds of horrific results that occur when a parent murders her child, but we only hear about BPD as if it were the only “cause.”
No one is endorsing using a child as a narcissistic extension of the parent’s defective grandiosity. The mental health consequences of the latter are severe, especially when occurring habitually. No one is endorsing everyday, run-of-the-mill bad parenting. There is not a lot of good news here. However, all these failings are different than child abuse and criminality.
Lawson rides the slippery slope from perpetrations and emotionally traumatizing behavior all the way down to dehumanization and homicide. Granted it may seem to the survivor of a BPD mother as if she or he were a Holocaust survivor – nor should anyone devalue the suffering of what anyone else had to survive, including the Holocaust – but a significant difference between the two still exists.
Lawson’s best guidance for surviving the BPD mother, whether as a child of tender age or a grown up survivor, may be summarized: set limits, deploy different ways of setting limits to inbound aggression, insist on respect for boundaries, drain the emotion out of emotionally fraught situations, deconstruct upsets, do not personalize accusations, call out “crazy making” behavior. These are all ways of managing manipulation, bullying, emotional perpetration, and so on. All are easier said than done.
The most critical remark I can think of? Lawson deploys the main psychological mechanism underlying BPD, splitting, resulting in a black and white representation of the BPD mother – only there is no white. In short, the BPD mother is literally described as a “witch” (as well as a queen, waif, and hermit). This satisfies the definition of “demonization,” both literally and metaphorically.
I am just getting warmed up here. Granted Lawson does not aspire to evidence-based peer-reviewed research. Her argument is narratively and rhetorically strong. However, how is Lawson’s argument that the BPD mother is the cause of the child’s suffering any different than that the “ice box” mother (usually attributed to Bruno Bettelheim (but the matter is debatable)) is the cause of childhood autism?
In both cases, as the mother enters the narrative – or the room – the audience expresses its negative opinion of the mother by breaking out in hisses and boos. Well and good. You have got to blame someone. Blame the mother?! Still, as usual, correlation is not causation; and the correlation is indeed compelling in the case of BPD in the ways that escape the “ice box” mother description.
Lawson documents that the BPD mother enacts a long list of behaviors that are manipulative, perpetrating, and out-and-out boundary violations. This is not disputed. Unacceptable. From the perspective of the child of tender age, the behaviors are particularly appalling.
What Lawson may usefully have acknowledged is people have different way of expressing their suffering. The BPD person’s dramatic, para suicidal behavior – cutting, substance abuse, acting out – inevitably gets our attention. That is the effect of the behavior – it gets our attention. But that is not the reason why the person misbehaves in this way.
The BPD person is trying to regulate her emotions, deal with the distress she is experiencing, or sooth herself. The person is trying to survive her life – survive the distress of the moment. That one can attain emotional equilibrium in an emotional emergency by carving up one’s upper arm with an Exacto knife is hard for the non mental health professional to get one’s head around. Indeed it is hard for anyone to get their head around it; but that is what needs to happen to understand the BPD person.
Lawson properly directs such empathy as is available in the conversation at what the children have to survive. I am not proposing at this late point that Lawson needs to have expanded her empathy for the BPD mother. Rhetorically and narratively that is not in the cards. However, this may be a moment to hate the sin and “love” – or at least provide treatment for – the sinner. That someone ends up in jail for child abuse does not mean that the perpetrator does not need treatment. She does – as does the child.
By the time the survivor of the BPD mother shows up at the door of Lawson’s clinic, it is too late for early intervention. It is too late for empathy lessons in child development. It is too late to teach parenting skills. It is too late. Period.
Still, I came away persuaded, identifying and devaluing the BPD mother as the cause of the survivor’s suffering, too – fully enrolled in Lawson’s project and interpretation. However, what did not happen was creating a space of validation, toleration and acceptance in order to engage the tough issues of recovery, transformation, change, and mourning one’s losses.
Borderline personality disorder remains stigmatized even today. Lawson’s account does nothing to remove the stigma, and, in several ways, reinforces it with devaluing labels such as “witch.” Once again, I hasten to add there is no excuse for bad behavior on the part of anyone, including BPD persons or those committed to treating them.
Truth and reconciliation commissions are in short supply in the political world; and, likewise, such is the case in the milieu of psychotherapeutic treatment. Rare is the instance in which a BPD mother says, “I did it – I was the perpetrator – no excuses – I was a shit. This is what happened [….]” And the survivor then gets to say whether or not she accepts that as the truth and can go forward on that basis. However, I would have appreciated Lawson’s at least calling out the value of such interventions in the context of community mental health – prior to referring the subjects and survivors to Dialectical Behavioral Therapy.
 Christine Ann Lawson, (2004), Understanding the Borderline Mother: Helping Her Children Transcend the Intense, Unpredictable, and Volatile Relationship. New York: Rowan and Littlefield. 330 pp. $46.92 [“free” Audiobook with (Amazon) Audible Subscription].
© Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project