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Illness as Metaphor

Catching up on my reading while “sheltering at home” in Chicago, Susan Sontag’s (1933 – 2004) book length essay, “Illness as Metaphor” (1977) is especially timely in view of the psychological dynamics around the Covid-19 pandemic.

The message of “Illness as Metaphor” is that human beings make things mean things. The

The look: Mayor Lightfoot clears the beaches and parks in Chicago

The look: Mayor Lightfoot clears the beaches and parks in Chicago

talent for doing this is metaphor. This means that – this is that.. That is sometimes called “art,” but other times, less inspirationally, it is called “magical thinking.” (“Magical thinking” is when not bringing my umbrella casues it to rain and vice versa.)

For example: Cancer is a death sentence. Tuberculosis (TB) is a source of genius. AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) is punishment from God. People who get sick have made a mistake – done something wrong, broken a taboo, committed a transgression against morality or community or both. Seems like problem, yes?

Any disease that is not well understood shows up as “The Plague!” and marks the person who has it. It is a stigma – literally, a mark – on the victim. Thus, the tendency of human beings to take a bad situation – and make it worse.

If Sontag were alive today, she would no doubt have something to contribute to the conversation about Covid-19 as another example of illness as metaphor.

Citing examples from literature, Sontag’s commitment is to drain the meaning from illness as a metaphor so that the patient can get treatment entirely independently of magical thinking about “what did I do to deserve this?” Even the victim blames the victim: “What did I do wrong?” Nothing in particular – follow doctor’s orders – take the treatment (if there is any).

Sontag collects diverse and entertaining literary anecdotes about the meaning of illness for the people impacted by it prior to the antibiotics that cure TB or the admittedly rougher chemo- and immuno-interventions that [often] cure cancer – that is, send it into long-term remission.

For example, TB was regarded and written about as the creative artist’s disease, an enhancement of identity. The disease itself becomes the mark of a creative personality. The disease is the source of creative genius. The list is long but Schiller, Chopin, Keats, Shelley, and Kafka top the list of artists whose lives and productivity were shortened by TB. Unlike such disorders as manic-depression where the boundary between productive creativity and uncontrolled acting out can vary problematically (and some of those on the list may have had some of that too), TB is just bad news. But it is not treated that way.

The tubercular character is both passionate and repressed. Literature is filled with romantic characters whose suffering from TB enhances their beauty when they are women – see Mimi in La Bohéme – or their intellectual vitality when they are men – see Hans Castrop in Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain.

In contrast, according to Sontag, cancer is the metaphor for what is most ferociously energetic (p. 68). The uncontrolled multiplication of cells run riot. There are fewer narrative engagements in literature – see Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illych as a notable exception – but the stigmatization is no less metaphorical. In Mann’s late novel The Black Swan the aging heroine, engaged in a romantic relationship, initially mistakes bleeding as the return of her menses whereas it is a hemorrhage due to cancer.

The link between moral disease and the underlying character is supposedly illustrated by Freud, who communicated brilliantly but was brought low by cancer of the mouth, chomping on his ever-present cigar long before the carcinogens in tobacco were understood. Wittgenstein was a carefully closeted gay person (in the UK where homosexuality was illegal at the time) and died when his prostate cancer spread.

This leads to the discussion of plague literature beginning with the setting for Boccaccio’s Decameron in the pestilence struck Florence of 1348. Thomas Mann’s “The Death in Venice” (1912) has its aging, celebrity hero, Gustav von Aschenbach, metaphorically plagued by an infatuation with a pubertal boy, who looks like Donatello’s statue of David.

The love affair unfolds across ninety pages without the lovers so much as doing more than exchanging an occasional remote glance on the beach across a distance of ten meters, but the animal magnetism on the part of Aschenbach is palpable, the references to Dionysius and Nietzsche compelling, and the ending unpredictable. Aschenbach eats the strawberries, and catches a version of the cholera epidemic that kills him before he so much as feels the slightest need to go to the bathroom. Hmmm. Might not have been cholera. Old age? A broken heart? An unscheduled cerebral event due to a hypertensive crisis brought on by stress?

Fast forward some ten years, in real life, and Sontag is herself a cancer survivor. She was realistic, did not romanticize her illness, did not mistakenly believe that aromatherapy, talk therapy or yoga would cure her cancer. She engaged with the chemotherapy, and lived to fight another day.

In 1989 Sontag updates her work in a separate essay entitled “AIDS and Its Metaphors.” Ten years on (roughly 1987) the AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) epidemic is in getting going and would continue accelerating until 1995. Antiretroviral treatments would start emerging in 1996 that ultimately would substantially reduce AIDS-related mortality.

Here the stigma of being gay loomed large as the Reagan administration and Evangelical Christians led the way in blaming the victims. Drug addicts who used infected needles also formed a marginalized population that, according to the some versions of the Christian right, did not deserve treatment, never mind the sayings of Jesus of Nazareth about what one does to the least of the brethren one also does to Him.

Never was it truer that we are all related – and the least of the brethren eventually and unwittingly started infecting the heterosexual population. Indeed even the credible threat of such infection was game changing, along with the gay rights growing protests, political power, and the participation of fellow travellers of integrity of diverse persuasions.

What Sontag may not have appreciated as much as we do today (Q1 2020) is that it is a cognitive design defect of human thinking to take responsibility for things for which we have responsibility as well as no responsibility, because it is adaptive to do so from the point of view of survival in the face of the unknown. This “taking responsibility” is “making it mean that I did something = x to cause this.” In turn, this “x” is often “I did something wrong.” Not necessarily – unless you consider “being born” to have been a mistake.

When the solution [or cure] is known one has to shift the responsibility and just take the medicine or when there is no medicine just follow evidence-based doctor’s orders. Thus, Sontag’s self-described mission is to treat disease as disease – not as a curse, embarrassment, punishment, or stigma. “Without meaning.”

It is a design defect of human cognition that in the face of the unknown causes of TB, cancer, AIDS, Ebola, or Covid-19, people’s imaginations ran riot with meaning-making about the causes, expressive value, symbolic portend, possible treatments and cures, and outcome of illness.

The lesson? As Sontag surely appreciated, Psychology 101 teaches us that the most fearsome thing is – the unknown. The unknown is a source of meaning generation as one tries to comprehend it, structure it, control or at least manage it. But meaning making itself has its own risks and break downs.

As of this writing (Q1 2020) we do not know if or how readily the Covid-19 virus can be aerosolized – hang in the air and be contagious – twenty minutes (not so bad?) – twenty hours (no so good!). The rapid spread of the community contagion suggests the coronavirus is more contagious than was at first suspected. Bad news. Yet it is the unknown takes one’s power away and unworkably leaves one with the thought, “Maybe I should hold my breath.”

You know how in the vintage back and white monster movies, once you actually see the guy dressed up as Swamp Thing, it is a lot less scary? The creature may still be disgusting, but it is no longer nearly as scary? The scary part is when the heroine is innocently combing her hair and the swamp thing (which is “off camera” and the audience cannot yet see) is silently sneaking up behind her.

You know that scenario? Well, that’s what we’ve got here with the World Health’s Declaration of a pandemic. I will not further comment on the details as numerous resources are available from WHO and the Center for Disease Controls (CDC), frequently updated as we learn more and more about what to do or not do.

I hasten to add that “following doctor’s orders” does not mean abandoning critical thinking. It means following the light, but it does not mean following the light off a cliff. How to know the difference?

Medical “science” makes mistakes. George Washington got a fever, and bleeding him to reduce the imagined excess of blood contributed to his untimely death. In the 1960s, thalidomide was a horrific episode that lead to the strengthening of the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) requirements for validating the uses of medications. Yet in the face of political pressure to “do something” even the FDA bows to the bully pulpit to approve an unproven treatment against malaria for use against Covid-19. Well, at least it doesn’t cause birth defects – we think, we hope.

Sontag does not touch the fraught matter of psychiatric treatments, and some psychiatric treatments that have been applied in certain places and times are indistinguishable from human rights violations, especially seen with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight. For example, the prefrontal lobotomy destroys the personality, rending the acting-out patient compliant and docile – and sometimes incontinent. While some patients have benefited from electro shock therapy (ECT), its use remains controversial, and it has not always been used (as it should be) as a treatment of last resort. (For example, at a time when ECT was the first line treatment because it was arguably the only treatment, see Marsha Linehan’s memoir Building a Life Worth Living of the damage it did to her.)

Medical science makes mistakes. But medical science still makes fewer mistakes than do politicians appearing on TV and pretending to be doctors, touting unproven anecdotal remedies.  Alternative facts, half truths, and dangerous nonsense are readily projected onto the unknown.

The management and overcoming of epidemics is difficult under the best of circumstances. As well as deep medical and public health expertise, it requires leadership, communication, and political skills. Not for the faint of heart.

For example, Albert Camus’s The Plague provides the paradigm structure of an epidemic. The epidemic is a social drama is three acts. The first act contains hints that all is not right. Most of the tourists pack up and leave. No one dares say the word “cholera” or “plague.” The commercial class of businesses and shop-keepers are in denial out of a combination of economic interests and outright fear for their own health and well-being. Then a rising number of illnesses and deaths requires people to confront the fact.

The second act consists in the search for causes. When science does not have the answer (or as in medieval times science is not quite what we mean by “science”), people substitute value judgments for causal accounts. In medieval times, Jewish people and practices were blamed. In our own time with Covid-19, some are pointing a finger at Chinese people, projecting their fears. I hasten to add there are Covid-19 lessons to be learned in the breakdown of the early warning system for disease under diverse political and economic stressors not further analyzed here.

At this point in the drama, act three, the social and political strengths and weaknesses of the community are exposed. The poor suffer disproportionately whereas the rich leverage their access to resources to survive. The ultimate voter suppression opportunity? The ruling class uses the opportunity to thin the ranks of the opposition; though to be sure, the disease is a great equalizer, arbitrarily carrying away rich and poor, indiscriminately.

Other individuals and groups – first responders – step up and perform heroic acts of self-sacrifice for the good of the community. The latter also exposes the weaknesses of the response of the authorities as people are asked to “step up” without adequate personal protective equipment and systems.

Finally, the disease runs its course when it runs out victims susceptible to its action and intervention by the authorities – medical and social – succeeds in stemming its tide.

Sontag is clear. Disease is the result of pathogens such as bacteria, viruses or toxic chemicals such as tobacco and arsenic, so follow doctor’s orders, take the medicine (if available), in our own current predicament, maintain social (physical) distance, shelter in place, and live to fight another day.

By 1977 tuberculosis (TB) had long been curable. Innovative chemo- and immuno-therapies for cancer were supplementing radiation therapy. So cancer no longer equaled a death sentence. But the inertia of thinking, judging, moralizing, politicking is such that TB and cancer were rich sources of metaphor – commentary, comparison, and expressive discourse about relationships, community, and politics. In literature and historical narrative illness is not mere disease, it is metaphor. Illness gathers together, activates, and occasions meaning making about life, death, morality, merit, transgression, finitude, and mortality.

Sontag’s method is based on her breakthrough approach in “Against Interpretation” (1964), which is directed against the accumulations of meaning that stick to modern art. Her recommendation? Instead of trying to figure out what it means, let it be what it is.

This is the existentialist moment in Sontag. Disease is a reminder of human finitude – mortality. That is one of the few things that can be said to be the truth with a capital “T” – no one gets out of this thing – that is, life – alive. Everyone dies – but the manner of coming and going is highly diverse. We humans work mightily to negotiate and postpone the exit – that is called modern medicine. Go back to the top of this post and substitute “modern medicine” for “illness”; and, while that does not change the guidance, it puts in perspective just how much trouble we really are today.

 

References

David S. Jones, MD PhD History in Perspective – Lessons for Covid-19

https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp2004361?query=RP

March 12, 2020: March 12, 2020
DOI: 10.1056/NEJMp2004361

Megan Molteni, (3/4/2020), Everything you needed to know about a coronavirus vaccine:

https://www.wired.com/story/everything-you-need-to-know-about-coronavirus-vaccines/

Politico: Coronavirus Will Change the World Permanently. Here’s How (03/19/2020): https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2020/03/19/coronavirus-effect-economy-life-society-analysis-covid-135579

Note this material is highly time sensitive. All the usual disclaimers apply.

© Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project

Alternative facts, dangerous half truths, and complete nonsense

Granted, medical science may sometimes mistakes. But medical science still makes many, many fewer mistakes than do politicians appearing on TV and pretending to be doctors, touting unproven anecdotal remedies.  Alternative facts, half truths, and dangerous nonsense are readily projected onto the unknown.

The management and overcoming of a pandemic is difficult under the best of circumstances. Along with deep medical and public health expertise, it requires leadership, communication, and political skills. Not for the faint of heart.

A single fact is worth a thousand opinions. Here is a fact from Emily Landon, MD, Executive Director Infection Prevention and Control, University of Chicago Medical Center (for the complete text see the URL at the end of this post):

“Two cities in America made different choices [in 1918] about how to proceed and when only a few patients were affected. St. Louis shut itself down and sheltered in place. But Philadelphia went ahead with a huge parade to celebrate those going off to war.

“A week later, Philadelphia hospitals were overrun. And thousands were dead, many more than in St. Louis. This is a cautionary tale for our time. Things are already tough in Illinois hospitals, including mine. There is no vaccine or readily available antiviral to help stem the tide.

“Our health care system doesn’t have any slack. There are no empty wards waiting for patients or nurses waiting in the wings. We barely even have enough masks for the nurses that we have. Looking back to the last time, we were–limited tools and having a dangerous infection spread quickly was the beginning of the 1918 pandemic.

“All we have to slow the spread is social distance. And if we let every single patient with this infection infect three more people and then each of them infect two or three more people, there won’t be a hospital bed when my mother can’t breathe very well or when yours is coughing too much.”

[March 20, 2020: https://www.uchicagomedicine.org/forefront/coronavirus-disease-covid-19/emily-landon-speaks-about-covid-19-at-illinois-governors-press-conference ]

The genie seems to be out of the bottle (in this case, not a friendly genie) and to get it back in we need to “shelter in place” and stay home except for necessary trips for groceries, medicine, elder care, nuclear plant maintenance, and a small set of related activities.

Psychologically the most anxiety and fear inspiring thing is the unknown – that one can be infected without realizing it, and, thus, spread the infection without realizing it.

The lesson? My behavior affects you and your behavior affects me. We are all related in community. That’s the empathic moment.

Relatedness creates responsibilities to conduct ourselves in such ways as not to harm others. A lot of innocent activities – going to a restaurant, the theatre, a sporting event, playing cards (?!) – that involve congregating in groups seem less innocent this week than they did last week.

Yet another anxiety-inspiring unknown is that we do not know when we will be engaging in these activities again, though we surely will be doing so. I feel like the little kid who fifteen minutes into a three-day road trip to Florida starts asking, “Are we there yet?” The matter is serious, but we also need to enjoy a lighter moment. Chill, dude!

I am going to keep it short today; and for the to-be-determined weeks ahead – follow Dr Landon’s guidance – follow doctor’s orders – stay home.

See the complete blog post of which this is an update: Empathy in the age of the coronavirus: https://wp.me/pXkOk-aq

Notes

I acknowledge the title of Jeffry Pfeffer and Robert Sutton’s excellent business book, not directly related to this post, which I own and enjoyed reading, Hard Facts, Dangerous Half Truths, and Total Nonsense: Profiting from Evidence-based Management (2006).

Also relevant is a first hand account of the symptoms (March 27, 2020) [once again, not for the faint of heart]:

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD, and the Chicago Empathy Project

Empathy in the age of the coronavirus

What does empathy in the age of coronavirus look like? Two words to get started: social distancing.

Social distancing makes sense and is necessary; but social distancing has a cost and an impact.

No hugs allowed. No shaking hands. Bumping elbows? Questionable. “Hug therapy”? There is such an innovation, as the right kind of hug seems to release endorphins – but it is on the ropes. Not good news, though perhaps only a temporary – months long? – setback.

Do not overlook the obvious good news. Some jobs can be performed remotely using

Follow medical doctor's orders - keep calm - and wash your hands!

Follow medical doctor’s orders – keep calm – and wash your hands!

online methods and Skype-like facilities such as Zoom or Signal. Many businesses already operate secure virtual  private networks. Many kinds of consulting, coaching, guidance, and talk therapy can occur via telecomm, and, though aspects of empathic relatedness may be lost or stretched thin, good enough results can be attained to make it worthwhile to try. Other situations are more problematic.

The social distancing recommendation is strained to the breaking point when it comes to first responders such as doctors and nurses (police, fire, ambulance drives, and others).

Yes, one can take a throat and nose swab without too much interaction, but it is not going to happen from six feet away. Moreover, one does not know what is the cause of the patient’s symptoms so further “laying on of hands” is often required. Thus, the risk. I acknowledge that it is deeply cynical, but I have to note: “Just because we have a germ phobia does not mean we cannot get sick.” We can – and do.

Here the empathy lesson is that empathy is a two way street and the first responders may require reasonable accommodation – and empathy from the community including the patients. So if the doctor shows up in a HAZMAT [hazardous materials] suit, it is not for lack of empathy, it is due to needing to screen dozens of people and stay healthy to screen even more. See above on the cost of social distancing.

What to do when there are no masks and gowns, or MDs and nurses are asked to wear yesterday’s contaminated stuff, are the tough questions. Some hospitals (and families), who have fabrication (including sewing) skills, are making their own. Others are calling the media and blowing the whistle on this appalling situation of first responders at unnecessary risk. All are madly rushing about trying to close the barn door now that the horses [of the apocalypse?!] have escaped. [Update: paragraph added: 03/21/2020.]

Once again, empathy is about community and responsibility. Here is the empathic moment according to celebrity MD, Sanjay Gupta:

“How I behave affects your health. How you behave affects my health,” Gupta said on the air with CNN. “Never, I think, have we been so dependent on each other, at least not in my lifetime, and we should rise to that occasion.” [Kate Shepard and Allison Chiu reporting The Morning Mix March 18, 2020: ‘I’ve never seen Dr. Sanjay Gupta like this’: Strollers, joggers in locked down San Francisco spark anger on CNN: https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/03/18/coronavirus-cnn-sanjay-gupta/ ]

UPDATE: March 22, 2020:

University of Chicago Medicine infectious diseases expert Dr. Emily Landon spoke during the Illinois governor’s COVID-19 press conference on March 20, 2020. Hear her explain why the statewide order to stay at home is crucial to protecting everyone.

“Our health care system doesn’t have any slack. There are no empty wards waiting for patients or nurses waiting in the wings. We barely even have enough masks for the nurses that we have. Looking back to the last time, we were– limited tools and having a dangerous infection spread quickly was the beginning of the 1918 pandemic.

“Two cities in America made different choices about how to proceed and when only a few patients were affected. St. Louis shut itself down and sheltered in place. But Philadelphia went ahead with a huge parade to celebrate those going off to war.

“A week later, Philadelphia hospitals were overrun. And thousands were dead, many more than in St. Louis. This is a cautionary tale for our time. Things are already tough in Illinois hospitals, including mine. There is no vaccine or readily available antiviral to help stem the tide.

“All we have to slow the spread is social distance. And if we let every single patient with this infection infect three more people and then each of them infect two or three more people, there won’t be a hospital bed when my mother can’t breathe very well or when yours is coughing too much.” Do your part – follow Dr Landon’s guidance. Meanwhile –

You have got to get the black humor here. The situation in Washington DC (and on CNN) is serious but not hopeless; the situation in Milan, Italy, is hopeless but not serious – people under lock down as the death toll rises are going out onto their balconies and singing.

The mother of an eight grader in New Rochelle, New York, who comes home with a fever, is leaving trays of food outside his bedroom door and everyone is eating off of paper plates. This is what empathy looks like in the age of the coronavirus.

This is not a Saturday Night Live (SNL) skit. Six guys in HAZMAT [hazardous materials] suits descend on the family in New Rochelle and make them sign an agreement to stay home for two weeks. They signed. It could be worse. This too shall pass, and presumably the kid (whose fever is going down) will have enhanced (if not unconditional) immunity and can himself serve as a first responder once he grows up.  [See Jason Riley’s Report from New York’s Containment Zone March 17, 2020: https://www.wsj.com/articles/report-from-new-yorks-containment-zone-11584485597?cx_testId=3&cx_testVariant=cx_2&cx_artPos=3#cxrecs_s.%5D

Well and good, except where’s the empathy?

Empathy is all about boundaries and crossing boundaries with understanding, receptivity, responsiveness, respect, dignity, courtesy, humor (when appropriate), affection, affinity, and, at the risk of circular reasoning, empathic relatedness.

So what are the proper boundaries in a coronavirus epidemic? Empathy lessons 101 teach us that the most fearsome thing is the unknown – the Hold that thought. The unknown is stressful. The unknown leaves one feeling isolated. The unknown inspires anxiety. The unknown creates an opening for alternative facts, half truths, and total nonsense.

As noted in this blog previously, you know how in the vintage black and white monster movies, once the audience actually sees the Swamp Thing, which is obviously a guy in a lizard suit, it is a lot less scary? The creature may still be disgusting, but it is no longer nearly as scary. The scary part is when the heroine is innocently combing her hair and the swamp thing (which is “off camera” and the audience cannot yet see) is silently sneaking up behind her.

Doubtful this is the Zombie Apocalypse, but it puts me in mind of that U2 classic “Mysterious Ways”: “We’ll be living underground. Eating from a can. Runnin’ away from what you don’t understand. Love.” [Insert dramatic base line here.]

All right, so we are not yet ready for the Zombie Apocalypse, but some people are acting like it – like Zombies, that is. Especially unfortunate is that a few of them hold high public office or are media personalities. But we have got to work with what we’ve got for the time being. Other people are totally “business as usual.” Both extremes need to cut that out! Instead think! Think:  community and responsibility.

I am inspired in this thought – community and responsibility – by Jason Bridges. From a practical point of view, Jason Bridges, a professor of philosophy of mind and of Ludwig Wittgenstein (University of Chicago), writes eloquently in an unpublished but widely circulating email of community and responsibility in the time of coronavirus:

“Crises like this lay bare what is always anyway true: we are all members of community. To belong to a community is to be responsible for it” (Unpublished email 2020).

Though Bridges does not use the word “empathy,” this is the empathic moment. Those of us who are not at an especially high risk may usefully ask: “Is doing this responsible?” (“This” being many forms of in-person social contact we have taken for granted.)

The issue – and conflict – is that empathy is supposed to bring us closer –emotionally and spiritually. However, given the kind of physical embodied creatures that we humans are, emotional and spiritual closeness are often mediated by physical, bodily closeness (though crucially not always). (See above – back to “hug therapy.”)

We seem intrinsically to be a species that likes to congregate and get close to one another, at least on many occasions. Some cultures – Italian, Spanish, French, Southern (?) – seem to do this more so than others – Scandinavian, German, Northern (?). America, China, and Russia are vast and include some of each.

Thus, we return to the crucial issue of social distancing and its impact – and cost – with an illness spreading through community contagion.

By cancelling in person events at church, work, school, sports, theatre, and so on, in order to save lives, one is doing exactly the thing predicted to expand loneliness, isolation, detachment, and risking irrational behavior such as hording and opportunistic price increases. You solve one problem; create another. That’s another reason this is a crisis – the dominoes are still falling.

You see the dilemma? Going to church is not usually regarded as an intrinsically empathic activity, but lots of people do it because the experience of community addresses their need for empathy, to be acknowledged as a whole person, to feel included. Same idea with other community events.

Research shows that loneliness can be as bad for one’s health as smoking cigarettes or obesity (see John Cacioppo, (2008), Loneliness, Human Nature, and the Need for Social Connection, New York: W. W. Norton). Loneliness causes stress, reducing the immune system response, and triggering inflammation. Fear also causes such an immune response decline; and, heaven knows, the unknown – including aspects of the COVID-19 situation – is the most fearsome thing. So here is the rock and here is the hard place – what is one to do?

Just doing some brain storming here. The line at the polling station during the March 17, 2020 election had people waiting six feet apart. The frozen custard shop was reconfiguring its service line with markers on the ground at six-foot intervals. Given that the store is often jammed with children pushing forward, it is going to be interesting to see how that works.

Tips and techniques for maintaining and expanding social contact include: pick up the phone and talk to someone. Do not merely text, but have a conversation. Same idea using video conferencing such as Skype, Zoom, or Signal. Talk with one or two friends a day –once again, talk, not text. Do something for someone. It does not have to be volunteering to get the first coronavirus vaccination human trials, and dealing with the uncertainty whether it will cause your children to be born with tails. Do something small. Make a trip to the store for the senior couple next door. Help with chores, homework, or whatever you can contribute.

Although exercise and mindfulness do not usually require talking with others, they can be done in such a way that social distancing is maintained – for example, running outdoors or sitting indoors in a spacious room. These reduce loneliness and related stress.

I will not further comment on the detailed recommendation as numerous resources are available from WHO and the CDC (other relevant local authorities should be included here), frequently updated as we learn more and more about what to do or not to do. I accept the guidance and so should you, dear reader.

Now I agree events need to be cancelled due to the risk of community contagion. What I am asking is whether, for the time being, people can get their head around sitting two sneezes distance apart (in accordance with present CDC guidelines) and the pastor holds two services – one for seniors and one for those less at risk. More work? Yes, but perhaps doable just the same. (Okay, “two sneezes” means the six

Seems like the right idea to me for so many reason. Artistic activity boosts the immune system? Might be worth a try, though tragically the local Italian newspapers are crowded with obituaries. The hypothesis is that the warm, affectionate, cultural practices of getting in close for conversation and food and Catholic mass and so on, did not work well, rapidly spreading a highly contagious pathogen. No good deed goes unpunished!? Yet good deeds in abundance are many and even more are needed.

So, once again, what does empathy in the time of coronavirus look like?

As noted, it also looks like the Italian people, who are suffering severe fatalities in the pandemic, getting out on their balconies and singing – serenading the neighborhood.

It looks like maintaining a healthy routine of exercise, diet, communicating at arms lengths and with electronic media, keeping calming and carrying on – I mean – washing your hands.

It also looks like young healthy people making grocery shopping runs for senior citizens who are still healthy but reluctant to venture out. It looks like shoppers buying two cartons of eggs and two packages of toilet paper instead of two dozen.(What were these people thinking? Right, they were not thinking – that is the point – as Hannah Arendt noted long ago, not thinking can provide an opening for evil to get a foothold.)

It also looks like employers keeping staff on the payroll even though business is in a downturn.

It looks like insurers forgoing their monopoly rents and agreeing to reimburse first responders for their services in treating all potential patients without condition or qualification.

It also looks like government support for big pharma, which has a chance to shine [for a change!], in developing a vaccine (and anti-viral treatments) on a crash, moon-shot-style basis, which vaccine, in turn, has to be given-away to the planet.

Paraphrasing Jason Bridges, crises like this lay bear the weakness and strengths of the community. It puts me in mind of the kid’s game “The Cooties.” Some seven-year-old yells “You’ve got the cooties!” It is the game of tag. The kids all runs around like crazy playing tag – the opposite of social distancing, yet a transformation of it – because you cannot get close or you might be “tagged.” Fortunately, no one dies of the cooties, unlike COVID-19. Thus the breakdowns of empathy of the community are exposed – hoarding, stigmatizing, opportunistic behavior, boundary violations, beggar thy neighbor behavior.

Never was it truer that good fences (not walls!) make good neighbors; but there is a gate in the fence and over the gate is inscribed the word “Empathy.” Every breakdown, when handled with empathy, has the possibility of a breakthrough – a breakthrough in sustaining and crossing boundaries with expanded understanding, generosity, humor (as appropriate and inappropriate), responsiveness, receptivity, respect, random acts of kindness, dignity, and our shared humanity.

© Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project

 

Online therapy now. This is the time.

If ever there was a time for online (tele/cyber) talk therapy, this is it.

In case you were trekking through Tibet or living in a cave with Buddhist monks, allow me to clarify why. Key term: social distancing.

It is not that anyone who is sick or symptomatic would knowingly go to an in-person

Cover art: Theory and Practice of Online Therapy, eds., Weinberg and Rolnick

Cover art: Theory and Practice of Online Therapy, eds., Weinberg and Rolnick

therapy session anyway, nor does one have to avoid mass transit or public taxis or garage attendants (who may park one’s auto while coughing on the steering wheel). Reasonable accommodation works well. Yet just because you have a germ phobia or are getting clinically paranoid does not mean you cannot get physically ill!

Therefore, keep calm – and carry on – I mean: wash your hands!

Okay, this is not funny. The lesson? Psychotherapy 101 teaches us that the most fearsome thing is – the unknown.

You know how in the vintage black and white monster movies, once you actually see the guy dressed up as Swamp Thing, it is a lot less scary? The creature may still be disgusting, but it is no longer nearly as scary? The scary part is when the heroine is innocently combing her hair and the swamp thing (which is “off camera” and the audience cannot yet see) is silently sneaking up behind her.

You know that scenario? Well, that’s what we’ve got here with the World Health’s Declaration of a pandemic. I will not further comment on the details as numerous resources are available from WHO and the Center for Disease Controls, frequently updated as we learn more and more about what to do or not do.

Just as many businesses, schools, colleges, universities are working remotely – that is, online – for example, delivering a webcast online, clients and therapist may leverage the convenience and social distancing of online therapy for their therapy sessions. One can also apply the lessons of social distancing in an in-person office setting, but it has to be a reasonably large office (which I do have) about the distance of two sneezes across. However, that is not what I am talking about here. What am I talking about? Download a video telecommunication application (function) such as Zoom (this is just an example, not a product endorsement), which reportedly uses encryption. Then review the instructions or call the Help Desk (which I am not operating for purpose of this post).

I cut to the chase. Here are two lessons learned since I originally published this post about online (cyber) therapy in September 13, 2019.

First, an online session presents new opportunities for the equivalent of slips of the tongue. There was one individual with whom the occurrence of the word “mother” was inevitably followed by the Internet connection freezing up, requiring a restart. You can’t make this stuff up. After I called it out, he stopped messing with the volume controls, which seemed to have occasioned pressing the wrong button. Therefore, in an empathic space of acceptance and toleration, the therapist may reasonably provide understanding, accommodation, and some extra time to reinforce and support relatedness.

Next, I can see many psychiatrists, psychologists, and clinical social workers with contracts with insurance companies getting stressed because insurers generally resist paying [will not pay] for tele-consultation (or will do so only (say) in Alaska where there is no other provider within 200 miles).

That is definitely an issue; and it will not be solved here. It may require an act of Congress to curb expanding monopoly rents on the part of insurers during a national crisis, and I would be in favor of such action. It is true (as far as I know) that one cannot take someone’s blood pressure over Skype, though I would not rule out some innovator coming up with an attachment that connects to the computer’s USB. In any case, I am not holding my breath, and I am continuing to expand my online empathy consulting practice, since – how shall I put it delicately? –  my relationship with insurers is actually more than a distance of two sneezes across and, in many cases, breaks down in that an empathy deficiency is not [properly speaking] a medical diagnosis.

Update: March 17, 2020: This just in from The Washington Post: “Medicare expands telemedicine to allow seniors to get virtual care at home” [https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2020/03/17/coronavirus-latest-news/#link-FAF2A2J73BDH3FH6GUHMGM5OSE] This is progress – and it is about time!

Meanwhile –

Meanwhile –

The following was published on September 13, 2019 and is repeated here as highly relevant to our current wellness challenges.

The genie is out of the bottle. The day that the first therapist invited his one-on-one client (who had an urgent need for a conversation but an inability to get to the office) to put down the phone and dial into Skype, the genie escaped from the bottle.

The reader will recall that in the 1001 Arabian Nights the Genie was very powerful but a trickster and nearly impossible to control. Making wishes is tricky, and if one is not careful, the sausages end up stuck to one’s nose and one must waste the last wish to get them off. In this case, the Genie is Internet technology such as Skype and Google Groups and the emerging conveniences, affordances, complexities, entanglements, and even resistances that it offers.

In the Arabian Nights, the hero, Aladdin, had to trick the Genie to getting back in the bottle by appealing to his narcissism. “You are not all powerful,” Aladdin said. “A large creature like you could not possibly fit in that small bottle!” The Genie’s wounded narcissism caused him to prove that he can indeed fit back in the bottle. Aladdin puts the stopper back on – trapped! However, in the case of the Internet and online communication tools, do not look to be able to turn back the clock.

But there is good news. The human face is an emotional hot spot. It is rich in micro-expressions many of which are available and visible even though the “real estate” on the screen in less rich in detail than an in-person experience. Indeed it is not even clear that the face as presented online is “less rich.” It is the only thing being displayed, and the viewer is led to concentrate on it in detail. But here the trade-off of bodily presence versus the imaginary comes into the foreground.

The criticism fails that the online conversation between persons lacks the reality of the in-person encounter. But this criticism fails, in a surprising way. The criticism fails not because the online media is so real. Rather the criticism fails because the in-person psychotherapy encounter is shot through-and-through with the imaginary, with symbolism, the imaginary and irreality. The “irreal” includes the symbolic, the imagined, the fictional, the part of reality which is distinct from the real but includes the past and the future and the imaginary, which are not really present yet influence reality.

In psychotherapy, the in-person encounter is precisely about the symbolic and the imagined – the transference. The basic definition of “transference” is that the person relives emotionally the relationship to objects (persons) from the past, persons who are not physically present in the room (or in the virtual space online).

What we are calling the “virtuality” of the technology media adds an additional dimension of irreality to the symbolic and imagined transference relationship. Yes, the media is the message (as Marshall McLuhan famously wrote), but with the arrival of online therapy the media is first and foremost the transference. The message now occurs with a strike-through, message.The online technology itself becomes a source and target of transference.

The one thing that immediately occurred to me: Psychotherapy invokes a virtual reality all of its own – even without cyber space. This is especially the case with dynamic psychotherapy that activates forms of transference in which one relates to the therapist “as if” in conversation with a past or future person or reality, the latter not physical present. Indeed, with the exception of being careful not to step in front of a bus while crossing the street on the way to therapy, we are usually over-confident that we know the reality of how our relationships work or what people mean by their communications. This is less the case with certain forms of narrowly focused behavioral therapies, which are nevertheless still more ambiguous than is commonly recognized. Never was it truer that meaning – and emotions such as fear – are generated in the mind of the beholder.

While virtual reality (VR) goggles as such are not a part of any online therapy group process, VR goggles are currently being used in individual psychotherapy with clients who are dealing with phobias and related individual issues.

[See www.psious.com– an engaging start up which is promoting the VR goggles for psychotherapists. The author (Lou Agosta) reports: I have no financial relationship with this company, and I wrote a blog post in 2016: “A Rumor of Empathy at Psious”: https://tinyurl.com/jyuxedq]

For example, it is much easier for someone with a fear of flying to put on a set of VR goggles in the therapist’s office and take a virtual trip to the airport, board an airplane (in VR), and be taxing down the run away (in VR), than it is to do this in the real world. The next step in a group process is to create an avatar that resembles one’s individual physical self, warts and all, and to join the other avatars in an online virtual reality group session. New possibilities are opened up by this form of therapy for dealing with all kinds of emotional and mental issues that are beyond the scope of this article.

Here the point is just to look at how virtual reality (“virtuality”) already lives in the in-person psychotherapy session even as it might have been conducted in 1905.  There is a strong sense in which the conversation between a client and a psychodynamic therapist already engages a virtual reality, even when the only “technology” being used is a conversation is English or other natural language.

For example, when Sigmund Freud’s celebrated client, Little Hans, developed a phobia of horses, Freud’s interpretation to Hans’ father was that this symbolized Hans’ fear of the father’s dangerous masculinity in the face of Hans’ unacknowledged competitive hostility towards his much loved father. The open expression of hostility was unacceptable for so many reasons – Hans was dependent on his father to take care of him; Hans loved his father (though he “hated” him, too, in a way as a competitive for his mother’s affection); and Hans was afraid of being punished by his father for being naughty. So Hans’ hostility was displaced onto a symbolic object, the horse. Hans’ symptoms (themselves a kind of indirect, “virtual reality” expression of suffering) actually gave Hans power, since the whole family was then literally running around trying to help him and consulting “The Professor” (Freud) about what was going on. In short, the virtual reality – now remove the quotes – made present in the case is that the horse is not only the horse but is a virtual stand-in for the father and aspects of the latter’s powerful masculinity.

So add one virtual reality of an imagined symbolic relatedness onto another virtual reality of a simulated visual reality (VR) scenario, the latter contained in a headset and a smart phone. Long before VR technology, therapists of all kinds, including behaviorists, used VR by activating the client’s imagination by asking him or her to imagine the getting on the feared airplane. One may try to escape virtual reality by not going online, but the virtuality follows as long as human beings continue to be symbolizing, imagining creatures.

This blog post is an excerpt from: Lou Agosta’s article “Empathy in Cyberspace: The Genie is Out of the Bottle” in Theory and Practice of Online Therapy: Internet-delivered Interventions for Individuals, Groups, Families, and Organizations edited by Haim Weinberg and Arnon Rolnick. London and New York: Routledge: To order the complete book, click here: Theory and Practice of Online Therapy [https://tinyurl.com/yyyp84zc]

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project

The Theory and Practice of Online Therapy: Internet-delivered Interventions for Individuals, Groups, Families, and Organizations, eds., Haim Weinberg and Arnon Rolnick, published by Routledge:

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments

Introduction to the book Haim Weinberg and Arnon Rolnick

Section 1 General considerations for online therapy edited by Haim Weinberg and Arnon Rolnick

Chapter 1 Introduction to the general consideration section: principles of internet-based treatment Arnon Rolnick

Chapter 2 Interview with Lewis Aron and Galit Atlas

Chapter 3 Empathy in Cyberspace: the genie is out of the bottle Lou Agosta

Chapter 4 Sensorimotor psychotherapy from a distance: engaging the body, creating presence, and building relationship in videoconferencing Pat Ogden and Bonnie Goldstein 

Chapter 5 The clinic offers no advantage over the screen, for relationship is everything: video psychotherapy and its dynamic Gily Agar

Chapter 6 Cybersupervision in psychotherapy Michael Pennington, Rikki Patton and Heather Katafiasz

Chapter 7 Practical considerations for online individual therapy Haim Weinberg and Arnon Rolnick

Secion 2 Online couple and family therapy edited by Shoshana Hellman and Arnon Rolnick

Chapter 8 Introduction to the online couple and family therapy section Shoshana Hellman and Arnon Rolnick

Chapter 9 Interview with Julie and John Gottman

Chapter 10 Internet-delivered therapy in couple and family work Katherine M. Hertlein and Ryan M. Earl 

Chapter 11 Digital dialectics: navigating technology’s paradoxes in online treatment Leora Trub and Danielle Magaldi 

Chapter 12 Practical considerations for online couple and family therapy Arnon Rolnick and Shoshana Hellman 

Section 3 Online group therapy edited by Haim Weinberg

Chapter 13 Introduction to the online group therapy section Haim Weinberg

Chapter 14 Interview with Molyn Leszcz

Chapter 15 Online group therapy: in search of a new theory? Haim Weinberg 

Chapter 16 Transformations through the technological mirror Raúl Vaimberg and Lara Vaimberg 

Chapter 17 Practical considerations for online group therapy Haim Weinberg 

Section 4 Online organizational consultancy edited by Rakefet Keret-Karavani and Arnon Rolnick

Chapter 18 Introduction to the online organizational consultancy section Rakefet Keret-Karavani and Arnon Rolnick

Chapter 19 Interview with Ichak Kalderon Adizes

Chapter 20 All together, now: videoconferencing in organizational work Ivan Jensen and Donna Dennis

Chapter 21 A reflexive account: group consultation via video conference Nuala Dent 

Chapter 22 Practical considerations for online organizational consultancy Rakefet Keret-Karavani and Arnon Rolnick 

Epilogue Arnon Rolnick and Haim Weinberg

 

 

 

Translation, Bible Stories, and Empathy: The Contribution of George Steiner (1929 – 2020)

George Steiner passed away in the fullness of time at his home in Cambridge, England, at the age of 90. This blog post acknowledges and honors him for his contribution, largely previously unnoted, to the understanding and practice of empathy.

 Those who are interested in learning more about his many, many books and the

Tower of Babel: Bruegel, The Elder, 1563, under construction

Tower of Babel: Frans Bruegel, The Elder, 1563, under construction

details of his biography can consult the New York Times obituary cited below – he grew up speaking French, German, and English and claimed not to able to remember which came first and he graduated the University of Chicago after a single year in 1948.

 In so far as one of the major breakdowns of empathy is when empathic response gets “lost in translation,” George Steiner’s book After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation (1975) is devoted to empathy and restoring it in the fact of misunderstanding. This turns out not to require the use of the word “empathy.” What is basically a Bible story and a single paragraph in Genesis turns out to be nuanced enough to sustain a five hundred page plus treatment.

 Thus, the story of the Tower of Babel from the Book of Genesis in the Bible (Genesis 11: 1–9) forms the backdrop for one of Steiner’s major contributions and, at the risk of oversimplifying his diverse and multidimensional contribution, may be the single best presentation of his life’s work.

 As you may recall, in what is basically a Babylonian, not a Hebrew, myth, which gets included in Genesis, there is a Golden Age. It consists in the earth and the peoples of the earth being “of one language and one speech.” I elaborate the point: Disagreements between people about the meaning of truth, beauty, goodness, utility, or freedom simply do not occur because there is only one language, which everyone shares.

 So misunderstandings are impossible on principle in this Golden Age. Not only does this make life very agreeable, it gives the people enormous power. You know the expression “Power to the people!” Well, such is actually the case in this story. The people are one, and the people decide that they are not going to settle for life here on earth, they are going to move into heaven. They start building a tower – the Tower of Babel – because heaven is “up there” and how else would you get there?

 Next scene. The Gods are looking down from above, as the tower is getting taller and taller. And it is not like just a few people are coming. They are all coming. The Gods are even getting a tad worried about this development – but not for long. A stratagem is needed to foil this unacceptable and obvious sin of pride. Pride goeth before the fall. The Gods “confuse the tongues,” mix up the languages, of the people. The people now become the peoples with each separate community having its own identity and manner of speaking incomprehensible to its neighbors. Before there was only one language, now there are many.

The one builder says: “Pass me the slab.” But he is now speaking a different language than his coworker, who thinks he is saying, “Pass me the mud” or even worse, thinks he is saying, “You are an idiot.” General chaos breaks out with significant aspects of paranoia, xenophobia, hostility, and aggression. Fistfights break out (not actually in the story, but “off stage”). The work on the tower is halted. The project fails. History begins. The Golden age ends; the people are scattered and become different communities (nations); history as we know it starts.

 It is a history of misunderstanding between people and peoples, resulting in border disputes, personal disputes, contractual disputes, inheritance disputes, disputes over disputes. Often attempts are made to settle such disputes with aggression, resulting in more disputes. Thus results the current situation of humanity, in which we are not only separated by different languages but misunderstandings occur even within the same language, which becomes other to itself due to ambiguity and vagueness. Not a pretty picture.

 So what has this to do with empathy? In so far as empathy lives within language, this is a story about empathy. The Golden Age was one of perfect understanding – empathic understanding. Much of history consists in human understanding getting lost – lost in translation. The result when misunderstandings occur is the current state of the relations between diverse communities – one of hostility and the risk of aggression.

 Enter George Steiner’s work: After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translations. The word “empathy” does not occur in this work, yet it is one permeated by the empathic project of overcoming breakdowns in understanding as meaning gets “lost in translation.”

 When we practice translation, we are practicing getting in touch with the world of the other person in its nuances and significance. That is top down, cognitive empathy. When we practice translation, we create a clearing for the experiential dimension of a person’s experience to emerge into a clearing in which the feeling can be communicated. That is bottom up, affective empathy.

 After Babel is a work of vast learning in which Steiner makes the case for the study of languages, especially as they occur in Sophocles, Shakespeare, Goethe, Dante, Proust, since that is what humans speak and use and live in, rather than language as such as an ideal abstract system. We quite often succeed in translating, even though our translations are far from perfect, in need of revision, and vulnerable to ambiguities of nuance and significance.

 To make the connection between translation and empathy, something that Steiner never explicitly does, we are cast upon the seas of the interrelations between different texts. Jorge Luis Borges is celebrated for his fictions that expose the deep structure of nonfictional reality. Early in After Babel (p. 70), Steiner turns to Borges’ short piece “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” (1939).

 The title itself points to what is absurd, even logically alien in Borges’ approach, since everyone knows that Miguel de Cervantes is the author of Don Quixote. Menard’s project was not to compose another Quixote, which would be easy, but the Quixote itself (p. 71). 

 This is the empathic moment: “Far more interesting was ‘to go on being Pierre Menard and reach the Quixote through the experiences of Pierre Menard’, i.e., to put oneself so deeply in tune with Cervantes’s being, with his ontological form as to re-enact, inevitably, the exact sum of his realizations and statements.

 Here empathy is no mere psychological mechanism for the transmission of a contingent feeling, but the foundation of relatedness between persons in time and history.

 At this point Steiner quotes Borges’ quoting Cervantes’ and Menard’s texts. They are of course identical quotations from Don Quixote. The reader of Borges’ text (and of Steiner’s use of it) is left scratching his head. But then the punch line:

 To write of “history as the mother of truth” at the beginning of the 17th Century when Cervantes was authoring the work was eminently sensible. But to write this way three hundred years later, at the beginning of the 20th Century is a work of towering genius (no pun intended!). When Menard was re-enacting Cervantes’ act of authorship – i.e., transforming Cervantes’ being into his own – Menard did this three hundred years later – after William James has stated that history is not what happened but what we judged to have happened. This a work of supreme and prodigious translation: “The arduousness of the game is dizzying [….] When the translator, negator of time and rebuilder at Babel, comes near succeeding, he passes into that state of mirror [….] He does not know ‘which of us two is writing this page’” (pp. 71, 72–73).

 Strictly speaking, this could be seen as a breakdown of empathy, since it implies a merger of the two beings, but the integrity of empathy is restored when the merger turns out to be temporary and transient, preserving the distinction between self and other.

 Though Steiner makes the case for comparative literature as the lever of humanization – even while intermittently deploring the state of the humanities as a discipline – in translating back-and-forth, the idea of a logically perfect, ideal language and radical translation are never far away. Radical translation, in turn, puts us in mind of radical empathy – the progressive liberal trying to empathize with the Evangelical Christian and vice versa. How is that going?

 Translation is indeed a metaphor for the situation of human understanding, community, and the challenge of expanding empathic relatedness. But in so far as translating is also occurring literally and constantly within a given natural language whenever we ask another person what they are trying to say, even as they say something that seems meaningless, translation is virtually identical with historical existence, our way of being in the world after the fall at Babel.

 Granted the matter is devilishly complex, rather than ask what is wrong, point out what is missing – what gets lost in translation? Each of ten thousand distinctions leads to more distinctions and the “fan out” is virtually beyond calculation. Is space available for a space of acceptance and toleration and to resume work, if not on a tower, on a bridge over troubled waters?

 References

 Christopher Lehmann-Haupt and William Grimes, (2020), George Steiner, prodigious literary critic, dies at 90, February 03, 2020, The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/03/books/george-steiner-dead.html

Lou Agosta, Empathy Lessons, (2018), Chicago: Two Pears Press: https://www.amazon.com/Lou-Agosta/e/B07Q4XX6PF?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1581278312&sr=1-1-spell

George Steiner, (1975), After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation, London: Oxford University Press (a Galaxy Book). 507pp, $4.95 (original price): https://www.amazon.com/George-Steiner/e/B000AQ1YD6?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1581278399&sr=1-1

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project

Noted in Passing: Elizabeth Wurtzel, Author, Prozac Nation

Elizabeth Wurtzel (1967–2020) died at the age of 52 on January 7th in New York City of metastatic breast cancer. Wurtzel became a notorious “bad girl,” with a wicked sense of black humor, sparing few, least of all herself, and a disarming “tell all” candor in her break through memoir Prozac Nation.

Full disclosure: I am catching up on my reading. Triggered by Wurtzel’s passing

Elizabeth Wurtzel (her young self): Cover Art: Prozac Nation

Elizabeth Wurtzel (her young self): Cover Art: Prozac Nation

away, I had not read her best selling Prozac Nation until earlier this week (01/14/2020). I acknowledge I need to get out more.

Now I am familiar with pathographies – autobiographies and biographies of mental pathology – having read Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind, Jamison’s “Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mani, and Character,” and Elyn Saks’ The Center Will Not Hold, all worth reading – as is Prozac Nation. Thus, I bring an innocent reading – and eye – to a work that is anything but innocent.

Wurtzel is credited with putting the funny but self-lacerating memoir on the literary map, with its account of her emotional struggles against the Black Wave of depression, volatile internal conflicts, and acting out in the form of cutting, starting at age eleven. Subsequent attempts to attain emotional equilibrium through substance abuse and volatile relationships with members of the opposite sex, the narrative actually turns into a coming of age story. Some coming; some aging.

Not quite stream of consciousness, but definitely a rapid fire, back-and-forth conversation of Wurtzel with herself, it puts me in mind of the cliché: your mind can be a bad neighborhood; if you go there, you are going to get mugged, albeit in a comical way; mugged by negative self-talk, devaluing self assessments, and rage at the narcissistic slights inflicted by intimates, strangers, and intimate-strangers alike.

Wurtzel’s writing is shot from a cannon. The character sketches are wickedly funny and just as cutting as her own practices of self-injury. One example: “If Archer weren’t so good-looking, I’m not sure he’d exist at all, since he lacks most vital signs [….][H]e is the best opportunity to hang out with a gorgeous man and be certain that there will be no sexual tension whatsoever” (p. 224).

Wurtzel literally calls out the elephant in her family’s living room early in the narrative (p. 58): her parents are fighting, from the time Elizabeth is two years old, when her mom divorces her dad. The parents continue to fight (including in court) throughout her childhood, adolescence, and emerging adulthood, all the while “telling me that their [hostile] feelings for one another shouldn’t affect me,” blaming the victim if she feels affected, making the child an unwitting pawn.

Usually an emotion will shift after a few hours and a depression will shift after a few months, even if no intervention is undertaken other than good rest and good nourishment. To keep the disorder in place, active measure must be undertaken by the person, environment or both. The ongoing family situation is a significant contributor to the extraordinary duration of the distress.

It gets worse. The dad has access to health benefits through a good, albeit low level, corporate job; but it seems that every time the growing Wurtzel gets into an emotional crisis (chronic emergency would be more like it), the dad stops paying for psychotherapy, telling her its nothing personal. The real reason is usually a dust up with the mom.

Queue up the late rock-and-roller Stevie Ray Vaughn: Caught in the cross fire. Elizabeth is. She cannot help but internalize the conflict. Any kid would. This is the way it is. It starts so early and continues so unremittingly, that one must be positively as blind as the parents not to see it: this is an invalidating environment.

Another example of invalidation that might be straight out of Heinz Kohut, MD: “For instance, I’ll walk into her [mom’s] apartment and she’ll just blurt out, Those shoes are so ugly! And I never asked her. And I like my shoes […] The concept of Who asked you? does not exist in my family […] We’re all meshed together” (p. 231). Unremitting, serial breakdowns in empathy, resulting in emotional contagion, conflict, and enmeshment with the toxic self-object and hostile introject. Ouch!

Abandonment comes up early and often. In year-after-year of being sent off to a different camp, depending on which one offers a discount to her and her mom, who are living in a kind of genteel poverty. It induces a real panic about abandonment in the young Wurtzel, resulting in dozens of calls requesting rescue. Having been dutifully rehearsed during latency, this fear takes on a life of its own. “[…] [B]eing alone turns into a terrible fear that I will have no friends” (p. 89).

In several relationships with college BFs (at Harvard College) Wurtzel cries and cries sad tears, angry tears, at the prospect of separation such that the behavior creates the dreaded self-fulfilling prophecy. She goes well beyond “high maintenance” into the land of continuous confrontation, just plain crazy shit, and the bottomless pit of infinite upset all the time. Meanwhile, the guy wants a friend with whom he can go to the movies and party, maybe perform some consensual sex acts between reading about Derrida and Marxism. Enough.

Years later it comes out. The man Elizabeth thought was her dad, who was divorced after two years by the mom, and who also thought he was the dad, is not the biological father. Even though he did not have the DNA data, somehow he was never able to relate to Elizabeth in quite the proper parental way. (See the article by Wurtzel entitled Bastard, cited at the bottom of this post.)

Wurtzel has a gift for zingy one-liners, coming out of the blue, and yet creating their own context instantaneously. As regards the above-cited elephant, “We went to Alaska and we froze to death” (58) – emotionally. More like the abandoning, ice box father and the bonfire mother. Things heat up, especially with her mom: “I come from a family of screamers” (p. 185). Balance is hard to find.

The subtitle is “Young and depressed in America,” and one can sees Wurtzel’s editor’s skillful hand in connecting the dots between individual suffering, of which there is an abundance, and the breakdown of communities, ongoing, whether due to globalization, an opioid epidemic, or the malling / mauling of America.

The reader learns the difference between sadness and negative self-talk and what we might call existential depression: “I’d been expelled from the place where possibility still existed” (p. 60). Depression is the loss of the possibility of possibility. It is not just that I lose love and long for love; I lose the possibility of the possibility of love. This is gonna be tough going.

This is definitely a page-turner. Hard to put down. However, there are also some loose ends. I mean in the narrative, looser than Wurtzel herself. 

The title is premised on the interpretation that Wurtzel suffered between the ages of eleven and twenty one from a hard to treat Black Wave. Tons of talk therapy – finally she can’t stop crying for days – and not for the first time – and her shrink prescribes an anti-psychotic – Mellaril [thioridazine] – and its anticholinergic effects promptly dry up her mucus membranes, allowing her “to get a grip on it.” She is able to stop crying.

I am reading this passage and scratching my head. This is an emergency measure, right? Wurtzel is a lot of things, but her reality testing of the everyday is good enough. I know nothing, really, and am not a prescriber. However, I have been know to echo Lou Marinoff’s saying, “Plato, not Prozac!” And yet: An actual antidepressant such as imipramine or disiprimine would have had the same anticholinergic effects, have dried up the tears physiologically, and it might actually also operate as an antidepressant, would it not?!

Perhaps it was because of the unremitting of suicidal ideation that Wurtzel endorsed and expressed that no medical doctor recommended a tricyclic antidepressant. A person can actually hurt themselves with the tricyclic antidepressants, as with any powerful drug, which can cause a fatal heart arrhythmia if consumed contrary to proper guidance and in volume. But if this is supposed to be an emergency measure, a small number of pills in small dosages, closely supervised, would also have been possible would it not? Was Wurtzel getting adequate medical treatment even by advanced 1994 care standards? We may never know.

I am not one noted to value psychiatric labels, seeing them as getting in the way of being fully present with the other person as a possibility. Yet Wurtzel has a breakthrough towards the end of her narrative when she gets one – a label – along with the newly available fluoxetine (Prozac). Her psychiatrist gives her a diagnosis of atypical depression. I would add, demonstrably treatment resistant. “Atypical” because years of talk therapy and first line antipsychotics have barely made a dent in her unremitting self-abuse, inclination to self-medicate with weed, alcohol, and acting out with a series of boy friends, a couple of whom are the target of an intense romantic idealization combined with a neediness calculated eventually to drive them all away. However, at this point, the Prozac seems to work – except that about two weeks after starting to take it, she is feeling a tad better, and her only serious suicide attempt reported in the book occurs. Hold that thought.

One thing lifted Wurtzel’s work head and shoulders above your average narrative of suffering and redemption for me. Wurtzel is working through her invalidating environment and she gets it: “…[M]y addiction to depression …involved the same mental mechanism as someone else’s alcoholism” (p. 23).

Suffering is sticky. The risk of suffering is that it becomes an uncomfortable comfort zone. The body and the mind adapt to chronic pain and chronic stress. Even when the result is still pain, not numbness, the entire messy complex takes on a life of its own and becomes: suffering. If you water the tree of your sorrows, the tree grows. It grows until the suffering becomes the man-eating plant in the back of the Broadway play Little Shop of Horrors. That seems to have been going on here.

Empathy lessons occur in abundance in Prozac Nation, but they are mostly in a privative mode – that is, empathy is conspicuously missing.

Wurtzel is hungry for someone to respond to her as a whole person, writing: “I love you and I support you just the way you are because you’re wonderful just the way you are. They don’t understand that I don’t remember anyone ever saying that to me” (p. 231).

Wurtzel’s mother “loves” her as long as (if) she is brilliant, gets into Harvard, and they can continue intermittently to tear at one another’s guts on special occasions. He dad “loves” her as long as she does not make herself too needy, will pose for his photos, and otherwise leave him alone. Her friends “love” her as long she as is funny and amazing and the life of the party. Her boy friends “love” her as long as she continues to put out, which she does all too casually, leaving her feeling cheap. The impingements come fast and thick; here “love” means acknowledging someone as a whole human being, i.e., empathy; but no one gets her as a possibility.  

My take on it? If, at any point, someone would have given her a good sustained listening, something important would have shifted. Nor is it quite so simple. Her suffering would not have been magically disappeared; but it would have been decisively reduced. Once again, we will never know for sure.

Page after page of this page-turner, Wurtzel is explicitly crying out for “love,” and people are trying to love this individual, who seemingly inevitably gets caustically cutting towards others or becomes a needy emotional sponge, an unlovable rag of self-pity, albeit with a sense of humor, driving them away. Thus, Wurtzel’s ultimate test of love: love me even when I am deep down unlovable. It doesn’t work that well.

One can have empathy with the loveable but loving the unlovable is a high bar, by definition impossible. This person needs the firm boundaries of a rigorous and critical empathy. But instead Wurtzel’s friends and counselors efforts are lost in translation and become emotional contagion, projection, and inconsistent efforts to force compliance and conformity.

Finally, Wurtzel does get some empathy from the shrink disguised in the narrative as “Dr Sterling.” She was. Wurtzel writes: “Dr Sterling knew that somewhere in my personality there was a giggly girl who just wanted to have fun, and she thought it was important that I be allowed to express that aspect of myself (pp. 211–212). Predictably the breakdowns and out-of-attunements are frequent. The cutting remits but the acting out – street drugs, sexual misadventures (including the “accidental blow job”), and repetitive, endless phone calls – ramp up.

So what happens? Along comes Prozac [fluoxetine] and Dr Sterling gives it to her. Wurtzel is feeling better as a result of the medicine. But “better” is relative. Wurtzel gets into it with her psychiatrist, and she locks herself in the bathroom and takes the whole bottle of Mellaril [thioridazine], knowing that her shrink is waiting outside the door for her. As Wurtzel feels herself going under from the effects of the drug and she hears her shrink shouting outside the door, she unlocks it.

Now never say that someone who threatens suicide or actually swallows the pills is not suicidal. Never. People have been known to be all-too-unlucky in such situations and succeed where they are using a bad method to try and solve the problem of their suffering. I suggest this was one of those, and arguably as a result of the un-inhibiting effects of the Prozac.

Those are such facts as reported in the narrative. Throughout the book, Wurtzel is plagued by suicidal thoughts, she cuts herself and engages in taking street drugs and crazy sex, but not until she gets the Prozac does she actually take action and make a serious attempt at suicide. Hmmm.

I am not making this up. It is in the book. Has anyone read it since 1994? This is the book entitled “Prozac Nation” and is regarded as some kind of strange endorsement for Prozac. Wurtzel subsequently and consistently denied it was an endorsement of fluoxetine [Prozac], emphasizing her commitment to being self-expressed. That she succeeds in doing in spades. Definitely. What some authors won’t do to move some copy!

I read Wurtzel’s memoir for the first time ever upon learning of her passing on January 7, 2020. We can measure the distance between the publication in 1994 and today in that of all the reviews between then and now no one – not one – mentioned that the fear of abandonment, the invalidating early environment and ongoing invalidating entanglement with the warring parents, the volatile emotions (especially atypical depression), volatile relationships, volatile self-identity, and para suicidal behavior are the check list for borderline personality disorder.  I hasten to add checklists are overrated, and I acknowledge I might have missed something.

However, it does put me in mind of a quotation from Marsha Linehan, innovator in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), and who, in the  video cited below, is talking on camera with permission with an avowedly suicidal patient. Linehan says: “I think it is good that you see it as a problem that you feel suicidal and want to fix that; but suicide is not so much a problem as a solution.” Pause for jaw dropping effect. “People’s lives are so messed up that they want to check out as away of solving the problem. What our program does is help you find a better solution – so it is not really a suicide prevention program so much as a life worth living program.”

Elizabeth Wurtzel succeeded in having one of those lives worth living, even without a formal program and in spite of all the challenges put in her path by accidents of biology, early experience, and her own demons. She had gifts aplenty and she managed to use them to attain a good measure of power, freedom, and full self-expression. Above all, self-expression. We are enriched by Wurtzel’s comet-like trajectory through our post-modern modernity and diminished by her passing. It is truly an ask-not-for-whom-the-bell-tolls moment.

REFERENCES

Elizabeth Wurtzel, (1994) Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America, New York: Mariner Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (paperback edition), pp. 339, $16.99.

‘I believe in love’: Elizabeth’s Wurtzel’s final year, in her own words by Elizabeth Wurtzel, https://gen.medium.com/i-believe-in-love-elizabeth-wurtzel-s-final-year-in-her-own-words-e34320e41ee0 

Bastard Neither of my parents was exactly who I thought they were by Elizabeth Wurtzel, https://www.thecut.com/2018/12/elizabeth-wurtzel-on-discovering-the-truth-about-her-parents.html

Elizabeth Wurtzel by Liz Phair, June 16, 2017, https://www.interviewmagazine.com/culture/elizabeth-wurtzel

Lou Agosta, (2018), Empathy Lessons, Chicago: Two Pears Press: https://www.amazon.com/Lou-Agosta/e/B07Q4XX6PF/ref=dp_byline_cont_book_1

Marsha Linehan talks with a patient about borderline personality disorder and dialectical behavioral therapy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tgzw50SbokM

© Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project

Review: The Collected Schizophrenias: Essays by Esmé Weijun Wang

Esmé Weijung Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias: Essays (Gray Wolf Press, 2019: 210 pp.) are an articulate and clarion cry to bring empathy to an arena in mental health where it has been missing.

My take on it? Ms Wang seems not to have been one of those survivors whose mental disorder is inextricably entangled with her genius. She was already talented and successful, studying at Yale, before her first breakdown.

The disorder was a major curve ball, delivered at high velocity, and hitting her in

Cover Art: The Collected Schizophrenias

Cover Art: The Collected Schizophrenias

the head – and heart. She gets up, dusts herself off, and, with writing that knocks it out of the park, recovers her own humanity with compelling accounts of her experiences, both humorous and heart-rending, thereby enriching ours and expanding our empathy.

At risk of mixing the metaphor, life handed her lemons. By my estimate, about a bushel. She did not merely make lemonade. She has concocted a kind of electric cool-aide. This is a beverage which perhaps will leave one feeling a tad trippy and vertiginous, but one which expands one’s empathy, not only for survivors of mental illness, but for our humanity at large. The rumor of empathy in Wang’s work is no rumor – empathy lives in Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias.

The celebrated psychiatrist-philosopher Karl Jaspers (1883–1969) wrote in his seminal two volume psychiatric text General Psychopathology (1913/1959) that lack of empathy was diagnostically significant for a diagnosis of schizophrenia. If one is having trouble empathizing with the other person, the diagnosis of schizophrenia is by no means certain, but belongs on the short list.

The doctor and therapist struggle to have empathy for the often-bizarre constellation of symptoms characteristic of schizophrenia – hallucinations, delusions, incoherent “word salad” speech. The care-takers, from their own perspective, experience a lack of out-bound empathy from the patient, whose suffering is thereby aggravated in being further cut off from human connectivity and isolated. 

One thing Ms Wang’s memoir of her disorder makes crystal clear is that her empathy is functioning full throttle. Even if her empathy is sometimes inaccurate  (as is everyone’s) or misfires (as does everyone’s), Wang’s empathy lives as a commitment to appreciating the other’s point of view and relating to the other with affinity and appropriate affection. Wang fully experiences the dignity violations, lack of respect, and objectifications on the part of the medical system and professionals trying to help her, leaving her alternatingly in despair and enraged.

Paradoxically a dimension of her reality testing continues to function even as she is fearfully hiding in the closet due to psychotic symptoms that demonstrate to her the break down of her reality testing.

While it is true that most sufferers and survivors of the collected schizophrenias do not present as “high functioning” as Ms Wang, growing evidence is available that, even in the acute phase of the disorder, most psychotic persons appreciate that the hallucinated voices and ideas of reference are somehow subtly and significantly distinct from everyday reality. This awareness, however tentative it may be, can be leveraged and made the target of therapeutic conversation. This has clinical significance for cognitive behavioral and emotional interventions in the acute and the survivor phase. This is the empathic moment of which even so celebrated a shrink as Jaspers missed.

“High Functioning” is itself the title of an chapter in which Ms Wang is in recovery. She is giving presentations on mental health to interested citizens and professionals as part of some gig and good work she has landed after her professional career was ruined by the disorder. The reader gets background on Wang’s earlier career as a fashion journalist. We get a reading list of other “high functioning” individuals who have struggled with mental illness and go on to get PhDs, McArthur “Genius” Grants, and endowed chairs in psychiatry at major universities such as Kay Redfield Jameson, Elyn Saks, and other notable authors of “pathographies.” Pathographies are an emerging but not really new category of biographies and memoirs of survivors of mental illness.

This paradox of reality testing within the breakdown of reality testing has also been pointed out by thinkers whose critical inquiries into mental illness need to be better known.  I am thinking especially of the work of Louis A. Sass (1) and Matthew Ratcliffe (2), whose books are cited at the bottom of this review. (See also my related blog reviews of Ratcliffe: https://wp.me/pXkOk-8g and Sass: https://wp.me/pGb20-pp.)

There is something for everyone in Ms Wang’s collection.

She acknowledges that she takes her anti-psychotic medications on schedule, and, moreover, the medications that work for her right now are so-called first generation, haloperidol and quetiapine (Seroquel). She argues that the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) takes positions dear to the heart of the families of the mentally ill (take your meds, allow for involuntary incarceration in an emergency (5150: code for involuntary commitment), be a good “mental patient” conforming to the hierarchy in which psychiatrists are I authority).

At the same time, Wang is an evangelist and a strong advocate for RAISE (Recovery After an Initial Schizophrenia Episode) and the need for autonomy for the mentally ill: “Rarely did I experience such a radical and visceral imbalance of power as I did as a psychiatric inpatient amid clinicians who knew me only as illness in human form (p. 57).

The anti-psychiatry movement will find comfort and is well-represented in Wang’s work. Not only do the mentally ill have to survive the illness, they also have to survive the system that is supposed to help them: “Though nearly all the statements a psychiatric patient can make are not believed, proclamations of insanity are the exception to the rule” (p. 101). Crazy making rules and treatments. If that is not a double bind, I would not know one.

Wang takes a position: “I maintain, years later, that not one of my three involuntary hospitalizations helped me. I believe that being held in a psychiatric ward against my will remains among the most scarring of my traumas” (p. 110). A bold statement of the obvious: That is tragic – and an outrage.

The honest broker, Wang then reports on individuals who committed violent crimes and/or killed themselves while in the grips of psychotic episodes. No easy answers here.

The social justice dimension is not pervasive in Wang’s memoir – perhaps because Wang’s family and husband were able to be supportive enough to arrest her slide into the abyss of insanity just short of the edge – but explicitly surfaces periodically and powerfully: “nearly 1.3 million people with mental illness are incarcerated in state and federals jails and prisons” (Department of Justice) (p. 110). Wang does not say what percentage is getting the treatment they need in accordance with professional diagnostic guidelines. I am going to be optimistic: 25%?

Since this is not a softball review, a point occurred at which I was about to put down the book with the admittedly devaluing, objectifying judgment: This individual is a walking laboratory of psychiatric (and medical) curiosities.

Wang endorses the Cotard delusion, in which the person claims that I part of his

Esmé Weijun Wang, author: The Collected Schizophrenias: Essays

Esmé Weijun Wang, author: The Collected Schizophrenias: Essays

body does not belong to him or that he as a total person is dead and should be disposed of properly. My empathic understanding of this disorder – and this is not the truth with a capital T but consider the possibility – is that the person’s emotional life has been short-circuited. The person is emotionally “dead,” for without emotions and affects we lack vitality and aliveness. Wang’s credibility (with this review) is restored as she reports she was so desperate she was considering ECT (electro shock therapy), but did not go through with it. The disorder spontaneously remits.

In an ongoing and increasingly desperate search to regain her power over the seemingly endless series of (un)related disorders, Wang suspects she may have an autoimmune disorder. Whether late stage Lyme disease is one of those, I do not know.

By this time, Wang is a relatively well-informed professional patient with limited but apparently sufficient resources, and she manages to go on a kinda of new age medical retreat to Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the treatments with a “lyme literate” medical doctor (LLMD).

Always the honest broker, Wang reports the writings of Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams, in which Wang compares Lyme is to the problematic, hard-to-pin-down, possibly delusional disorder, called having “Morgellons.” Jameson gives an account of the person who has Morgellons, in which the individual experiences worms or worm-like sensations, crawling beneath his flesh, which, apparently, sometimes pops out. Yikes.

At this point, I abandon any skepticism I might have about Wang’s suffering as a medical patient as my own limitations or arrogance. I decide to acknowledge once again there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies (note: “philosophy” meant “natural science” in Shakespeare’s time).

 

(1) Louis A. Sass, (1994), The Paradoxes of Delusion: Wittgenstein, Schreber, and the Schizophrenic Mind, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

(2) Matthew Ratcliffe, (2017), Real Hallucinations: Psychiatric Illness, Intentionality, and the Interpersonal World, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 290 pp.

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project