Analysis of "Punch-Drunk Love"

Punch-Drunk Love is a 2002 romantic black comedy written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. It stars Adam Sandler, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Emily Watson. It features the delightfully idiosyncratic music of Jon Brion and the bright, colourful, abstract visual sequences of artist Jeremy Blake. It is Mark Kermode‘s favourite Anderson film.

Barry Egan (Sandler, in an actually superb performance) is a lonely man with social anxiety and anger issues who becomes a victim of a phone sex extortion racket headed by Dean Trumbell (Hoffman); then he falls in love with Lena Leonard (Watson), who gives him a strength and courage he’s never had before, and he fights back against the extortionists.

Here are some quotes:

Barry: You’re a bad person. You have no right taking people’s confidence in your service. You understand me, sir? You’re sick!

Dean Trumbell: No no, SHUT UP! SHUT THE FUCK UP![Simultaneously]

Barry: You have no right to take people’s trust. [Simultaneously]

Dean TrumbellSHUT UP! Will You- SHUT UP! SHUT UP! SHUT, SHUT, SHUT, SHUT, SHUT UP! SHUT UP! Now! Are you threatening me, dick?!

Barry: Why don’t you–? You go fuck yourself!

**********

“I didn’t do anything. I’m a nice man. I mind my own business. So you tell me that’s that before I beat the Hell from you.” –Barry, to Dean

“I have so much strength inside of me. You have no idea. I have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine. I would say “That’s that”, Mattress Man.” –Barry, to Dean

**********

Dean Trumbell: NOW GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE, PERVERT!

Barry: DIDN’T I WARN YOU?!

Dean Trumbell: That’s that.

**********

“Lena. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry I left you at the hospital. I called a phone-sex line… I called a phone-sex line before I met you, and four blond brothers came after me and they hurt you, and I’m sorry. Then I had to leave again because I wanted to make sure you never got hurt again. And, and I have a lot of puddings, and in six to eight weeks it can be redeemed. So if you could just give me that much time, I think I can get enough mileage to go with you wherever you go if you have to travel for your work. Because I don’t ever want to be anywhere without you. So could you just let me redeem the mileage?” –Barry

“So, here we go.” –Lena, to Barry [last line]

Barry owns a small business selling such novelty items as themed toilet plungers. At the beginning of the film, he’s all alone in his office talking on the telephone with someone working for Healthy Choice about a frequent flyer promotion; later that morning, we’ll see him talking with a client on the phone. (Remember landlines? This film uses phone calls as a recurring motif; it’s a symbol of social alienation, since people communicate this way, but they’re far away from each other–they’re connected, yet they aren’t.)

After his chat with the Healthy Choice guy, Barry steps outside, sees a dramatic car crash (the vehicle smashing and rolling over on the street), then another vehicle is driven to the sidewalk by his place of business, and a harmonium is dropped off there. He takes the instrument into his office, and from time to time we will see him play single-note melodies on it.

The harmonium, a pump organ, vaguely makes one think of a church organ. Since the nervous man’s playing of the instrument in his quiet solitude gives him some peace, we can see its having been given to him as an act of divine grace, which leads me to my next point.

We can see the arrival of Lena into his life, her deliberate leaving of her car with him by his place of business as an excuse to meet him, as also being an act of divine grace, for her love of him saves him from his social anxiety and loneliness, and gives him the strength to fight back against his persecutors. She is thus a kind of female Christ.

Among his persecutors are his seven bitchy sisters. They bully, insult, and emotionally abuse him at every opportunity they are given. When he can’t take it anymore and blows up, they pretend that his problems are exclusively his, and that they share no responsibility at all in provoking him.

I know from personal experience what Barry Egan is going through. An emotionally abusive family, typically headed by one or two parents with narcissistic or other Cluster B personality traits, tend to have golden children (Egan’s sisters, it would seem), invisible children, and scapegoats (Egan himself). The narcissistic parents either connive at or encourage the bullying of the scapegoat, using his or her faults as an excuse to justify the bullying.

The bullying can come in the form of mobbing or in slight digs at the victim, repeated over and over again. This is what Barry’s sisters do to him: swearing at him needlessly; mocking him for saying a perfectly normal word like “chat”; calling him “Gay Boy”; nagging him about and pressuring him into attending a birthday party of one of their sisters; and calling him a “fucking retard” when he finally blows up and breaks windows at the party.

Putting up with sibling bullies is like experiencing Chinese water torture. Each insult, each put-down, each criticism, every one bit of nagging all by itself can be endured; but put them all together, one after the other in rapid succession…drip, drip, drip…and one can’t help but go crazy sooner or later.

This kind of suffering is what Barry has had to endure from his non-empathic sisters; and when he reacts, they pretend to be surprised, when it should be obvious to them that their non-stop provocations are setting off an emotional ticking time bomb.

Barry knows he needs help. He asks Walter the dentist (a husband of one of his sisters, he’s played by Robert Smigel) if he knows any psychotherapists–that’s how desperate Barry is. That his sisters would know about his asking for psychiatric help, and about his breaking down and crying in front of the dentist–these are just more reasons for them to criticize him, instead of showing him some compassion.

He wants to escape. He learns of a promotion to gain thousands of frequent flyer miles if he buys enough pudding from Healthy Choice foods (This is a plot point inspired by David Phillips.). Flying in airplanes…flying in the sky…being in heaven…

This wish to be up in the sky, symbolic of heaven, dovetails with the ‘church’ harmonium and the entrance of Lena into his life. These three strands are full of Christian symbolism, that divine grace Barry has been craving, to have someone take him out of his world of suffering and give him peace and salvation. Lena’s love will give him the strength to go on living.

You see, it is she who approaches him, not the other way around, as is done with traditional sex roles. Thus she is a refreshing feminist change from the usual social requirement that the male always make the first moves.

Also, her approaching him, rather than vice versa, can be seen to symbolize divine grace in that she, as representative of Christ, is coming to him, who is representative of the sinner, rather than the repentant sinner searching for God. Similarly, the harmonium, symbolic of a church organ, is dropped off before him, as if it were a free gift. And the offer of frequent flyer miles, acquired through the buying of packages of cheap pudding, is rather like a free ticket to heaven.

Now, Barry is a sinner…of sorts. Besides his explosive temper tantrums, he has also made use of a phone sex service, though he doesn’t have any lustful thoughts at all as he chats with the lasciviously-tongued woman on the other end of the phone.

As of the phone-sex chat, he hasn’t yet dated and fallen in love with Lena, so he’s using the chat not for prurient purposes, but just to relieve his loneliness. As WRD Fairbairn pointed out, we all are object-seeking in our libido–not seeking of sex objects, not satisfying libido through pleasure-seeking (which Fairbairn considered a failure of object-relationships), but objects as in people with whom to have relationships, friendships, and love. No, just because Barry has called up a phone sex line, it doesn’t make him the “pervert” his four assailants and Dean Trumbell (Hoffman) call him.

Again, his chatting with Anna, the phone-sex girl, is another instance of his alienation, for he wishes to connect with someone (ostensibly in a sexual manner), but without seeing the person face to face; this represents the conflict between wanting to have object relationships and wanting to be separated from people. Hence, the film’s recurring telephone call motif.

Barry is terrified of meeting Lena and of the two of them getting to know each other, because his personality has been so split apart. Having a relationship with her would be what Fairbairn, in the endo-psychic structure he devised to replace Freud‘s id/ego/superego, called the Central Ego (Fairbairn’s replacement of Freud’s ego…Barry in the film) connected with the Ideal Object (Lena).

Instead, Barry’s Libidinal Ego (Fairbairn’s replacement of Freud’s id) tries to connect with the Exciting Object (Anna, the phone-sex girl), and his Anti-libidinal Ego (a bit like Freud’s superego) has to endure the Rejecting Object (his sisters, Dean, and Anna’s four thuggish brothers, who attack and rob Barry). Lena is his cure, his salvation, the one who will help him re-integrate his fragmented self.

Let’s consider her name. Lena has various meanings: “light,” “sunlight,” “moonlight,” “generous,” “kind,” “she who allures,” etc. It is interesting in this connection to remember Jeremy Blake’s video art sequences, with their colourful brightness, their images suggesting, if not explicitly evoking, sunlit horizons of dusk or dawn, starry moonlit nights, rainbows, etc. Lena is the light; she is the way, the truth, and the life, for Barry. Accordingly, Lena often appears surrounded in bright light, and she is typically associated in various ways with light.

Her surname Leonard means “lion’s strength.” She as a female Christ can be related to C.S. Lewis‘s Aslan, the Lion of Judah. She saves Barry and gives him his strength.

Now, when I say she saves him as a female Christ, I don’t mean that she saves him so much in the orthodox Christian sense of her ‘dying for Barry’s sins.’ (Only that scene in which the four brothers smash into Barry’s car, and she has blood dripping from her head–suggestive of Christ’s blood from the crown of thorns–associates her with the orthodox Christ.) I’d say that Lena is more of a Gnostic Christ, saving Barry by giving him gnosis, or a knowledge of his inner divine spark. With this enlightenment, he gains the strength to face his bullies.

He knows her by getting to know her during their dinner date. He knows her in the Biblical sense in her hotel room in Hawaii, their island paradise…the heaven he’s flown to on his first-ever airplane flight. And he knows her in Wilfred Bion‘s sense of gaining knowledge (K) through interpersonal communication, a soothing of his anxieties by her containing of them, etc. (Click here for more information on Bion’s and other psychoanalytical concepts.)

Recall this exchange of lines when they are on the bed in the hotel:

Barry: I’m lookin’ at your face and I just wanna smash it. I just wanna fuckin’ smash it with a sledgehammer and squeeze it. You’re so pretty.

Lena: I want to chew your face, and I want to scoop out your eyes and I want to eat them and chew them and suck on them.

[pause]

Barry: OK. This is funny. This is nice.

He expresses his love for her with, bizarrely, aggressive and violent language. She speaks of her love for him in a similarly graphic way, though not quite as extreme in its violence. This is her containing his inner rage, which he’s projected onto her, the way a baby might project its agitation onto its mother, who would then contain it and return it to the baby in a tolerable form. Lena is, through her capacity for reverie, playing the role of mother, soothing his rage and returning his feelings to him–he being in the role of infant–in a pacified form.

This kind of soothing and acceptance is what he has needed his whole life: not to be called a “fucking retard” for getting angry, but to have his rage contained, soothed, and forgiven, like Christ forgiving us for our sins. Accordingly, Barry confesses having busted up the restaurant bathroom, apologizes, and she accepts him all the same. He later apologizes for having left her in the hospital, and for his using the phone sex service, which has led to her injury.

He says “sorry” a lot in the film. He repents; she forgives.

Her loving him as he is, with all of his faults, gives him the self-love and strength he needs to face his troubles. He thus grows in Bion’s K, or in Christ’s gnosis…whichever metaphor you prefer.

Emily Watson is a British actress, and she makes no effort to hide her accent with an American one in her portrayal of Lena; so this means that Lena is an angel of the land of the Angles, another association of her with heaven. Her job involves her often going by airplane, so she flies in heaven like an angel.

Barry has seven sisters, their nastiness to him (indicative of such things as pride and anger) associating them with the seven deadly sins, as well as the seven days of the Creation, this being a creation not by the Biblical God, but by the Demiurge, whom the Gnostic Christians deemed evil for having created the physical world, which engenders sinful desires.

Barry’s other persecutors–those four blond young men who assault and steal from him–may not be his brothers, but they are brothers all the same, so with them we can extend the association, if only symbolically, of his bullying problems with his sisters. Barry shows no sexual interest with the phone sex girl, so the brothers’ calling him a “pervert” is a projection of their own sinfulness, of lust; thus we see here more of an association of sin with siblings, his and the four brothers.

Conflict and sin among siblings is a recurring theme throughout Genesis: between Cain and Abel; between Shem and Japheth, on the one side, and Ham, who shamed their father, Noah, on the other; between Esau and Jacob; Lot’s daughters, the sisters who got him drunk, then seduced him to get them pregnant; and Joseph’s envious brothers, who had him sold into slavery. Brothers and sisters are wicked in this film, where a sinful, fleshly, Demiurge-created, Old Testament-like world can be redeemed only through the light of gnosis, of spiritual knowledge.

Elsewhere, some people have made connections between Barry and Superman, though I find their linking of the two characters to be mostly tenuous, at best. A better link with a strongman would be between Barry and Popeye, if only through the use of the song, “He Needs Me,” originally sung by Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl. Popeye needs her, just as he needs his spinach to be strong. Barry needs Lena, just as he needs to redeem his Healthy Choice products (with green on the cover designs, a colour better associated with spinach than with…Kryptonite?) to join her on airplane flights.

The only legitimate link I can find between this film and Superman is at the end, when Lena, dressed in red, stands behind seated Barry, always in that blue suit, and puts her arms around him, making herself into his ‘Superman cape.’ But even this moment must be seen in its proper context. Barry alone isn’t Superman; he is brave and strong only with her there. He needs her, as Popeye needs Olive Oyl. Furthermore, in that scene, Barry is playing the harmonium, as if playing a church hymn. He is Lena’s Church; her love for him is like Christ’s love for His Church.

Superman may need Lois Lane’s love, and he’d be heartbroken if she died, but he doesn’t need her to give him his powers. Lena, however, does give Barry his strength; this is why a comparison of her to a Gnostic Christ makes so much more sense. She, Lena the light, gives him the enlightenment, the gnosis, that he needs.

She gives him the punch he needs to face his abusers. Her love makes him drunk with joy; she is his sacramental wine, as it were, so his Church is a midway point between Gnosticism and Catholic orthodoxy. Her blood, on her head from that car collision, is his wine, pushing him, in his drunken love, to punch the first of the brothers, and beat and threaten the others.

She is the grace, with the harmonium and the frequent flyer miles (which he must redeem, as Christ redeems the faithful Christian believer), that comes to him, lifts him out of his despair, strengthens him, and saves him.

The Long Road to Healing from C-PTSD

[NOTE: please read the second and third paragraphs from this post before continuing. Important–don’t skip reading them!]

We sufferers of complex post-traumatic stress disorder have to remind ourselves that there is no quick path to recovery. We mustn’t see sickness and health in terms of black and white, but rather as a long progression with a lot of dark to light grey in between.

In fact, impatience in healing can lead to an even worse feeling of emotional sickness. Impatience leads to frustration, which in turn leads to self-blame, meaning the inner critic makes us feel worse for not improving. In failing to recognize the dialectical relationship between illness and health, as between all opposites (which I, in a number of blog posts, have symbolized with the biting head and bitten tail of the ouroboros), we make ourselves sicker.

We know intellectually, of course, that we must be patient as we tread that long, grey path from the darkness to the gradually brighter light, but our emotions won’t accept this reality easily. What can we do to comfort ourselves in the meantime?

Reality isn't so black and white.
Reality isn’t so black and white.

Apart from the usual forms of self-care that I and others have recommended (psychotherapy, art therapy, writing, hypnosis, ASMR, etc.), we should consider such things as a daily routine to start off our day in as positive a way as possible. Michele Lee Nieves recommends starting off the day with these five things:

  1. Do 2-3 diaphragmatic breaths
  2. Trace your meridians (look into kinesiology)
  3. Meditate for at least about 10-15 minutes every day
  4. Read things you find uplifting, and
  5. Write in a journal for a brief time (less than 5 minutes)

Why does one tend not to stick to such a routine? Is it laziness? Poor motivation? More likely, it’s because one’s self-esteem is so low that one doesn’t consider oneself worth the effort to do the healing work.

The road to wellness is NOT a straightforward one.

Of her five recommendations, I tend towards doing only the first two, to be honest (I suppose that means my own self-esteem is that limited). My application of #5 seems to be my blogging, to some extent. Instead of doing #4, I’ve begun the habit of using what Kati Morton calls “bridge statements,” which are the next thing I want to discuss.

As we know, attempts to recover by switching immediately from black to white don’t work. The same can be said about positive affirmations. If one is feeling down about one’s looks, intelligence, and talents, for example, merely saying, “I’m super beautiful and smart, and I’m amazingly good at (subject),” over and over again, won’t lift one out of the depths of one’s low self-esteem, it should go without saying.

Here is where “bridge statements” come in, which occupy that grey area of moderately comforting words between the cruel, black self-reproaches and the too-good-to-be-true white words. So, instead of replacing the usual negative self-talk (“I’m fat, stupid, ugly, and talentless.”) with its felt-to-be implausible extreme opposite, we find an in-between self-description (“I’m actually not as fat, stupid, ugly, and talentless as I’ve been led to believe.”), which balances kindness with believability.

A bridge from the darker to the lighter.

Over time, the belief in this kinder, yet realistic, self-assessment can encourage one to improve one’s looks and abilities. Then, one can move further along the bridge, away from the black side, and closer to the white side. Here, at about the middle of the bridge, one can say, “Hey, I’m actually OK-looking. I may not be a beauty queen, but I’ve lost some weight, make-up really does make me look rather pretty, my passion learning about (subject) has proven that I’m actually pretty smart, and I’m growing my talents in this field.”

Later, one goes even further along the bridge, about three quarters of the way across, say, and one reaches the light-grey area. Now, one can say, “Wow, I’ve lost even more weight! I’m still a little big around the butt, but a shapely figure is within reach. I’ve learned a lot about (subject), and in a fairly short time, too, considering how difficult it is to learn. I’m actually a lot smarter and more talented than I used to believe! Why did I ever believe those lies my emotional abusers told me?”

Now, do we ever get all the way to the other side, the absolute white side of immaculate self-love? To be frank, I have my doubts. Even if we neutralize the abusive words our bullies said to us by 100%, the reality is that there will always be new critics, new trolls, new unreasonable nay-sayers, and new narcissistic bullies out there. In fact, wanting too much of the white, the biting head of the ouroboros, leads to the black, the serpent’s bitten tail.

Photo by Craig Adderley on Pexels.com

But to that sobering reality, I say…so what? Who needs to be perfectly happy? When I wrote in previous posts of coming “closer and closer to that nirvana of no more pain,” and of achieving “a lasting cure for complex trauma,” I wasn’t talking about a state of literally perfect happiness (even if it may have sounded that way). I meant that happiness is a process, a moving ever closer towards the white.

“Closer and closer to…no more pain” is nirvana enough for me.

Living Well Is the Best Revenge

[NOTE: please read the second and third paragraphs from this post before continuing. Important–don’t skip reading them!]

Among the symptoms of those suffering from C-PTSD are a preoccupation with the abuser(s), a feeling that they are somehow ‘all-powerful,’ and an urge to get revenge on them. I find myself ruminating over all the times that members of my family emotionally abused me, and the thought that they got away with all of that just makes it hurt all the more.

There’s a terrible feeling of defeat that one gets from contemplating how one’s abusers and bullies never got theirs, that they’ve never even had an inkling that what they did was wrong. Their blissful ignorance (willful ignorance, actually) seems to suggest that the victim got what he or she deserved. Doubtless, the bullies want their victim to think that. No fun for them, otherwise.

The problem with trying to get even with them in some way is that it leads to escalation. The abusers are known for their viciousness when it comes to getting their way, so if you try to hurt them, they’ll hurt you back far worse than they ever did before. You can’t pull a “Cask of Amontillado” on them, so how are you supposed to punish with impunity?

Constant rumination and fantasizing about getting them back is the opposite of satisfying, yet thinking about it, over and over again, is addictive. Added to this problem is the ongoing experience of intrusive thoughts. One never has peace of mind as a result of all this brooding.

We want to put the pain outside of ourselves, but we can’t.

So, what can we do to heal ourselves, and also to get some kind of satisfaction over all of the wrongs done to us? One little bit of inspiration comes from a collection of quotes called the Jacula Prudentum, compiled by the 17th century Welsh-born poet, George Herbert. Number 520 gives this little nugget of wisdom: “Living well is the best revenge.”

“How does one live well, when one is soaking in trauma?” one might ask. Well, we can consider many possible ways, taken in combination: we can work extra hard on healing, that is, psychotherapy, meditation, self-care, writing therapy, art therapy, and mindfulness; and, as I see it, we can try to be as happy as possible.

Derive great pleasure from the idea that your tormentors of the past, those narcissists who gain supply from contemplating how miserable they’ve made you, would be furious to know that you’re actually happy without them! It doesn’t matter if they, living far from you and blocked online, don’t know that you’re happy…you’re the only one who needs to know.

I’m not saying that this is the only thing you need to do to get better. Obviously, you cannot escape from your pain and lie to yourself about being happy, as a kind of manic defence. As I said two paragraphs above, you have to work hard on healing in the various forms I gave as examples, among many others.

Smile, though your heart is aching…

But whenever you can, try to feel good, and let that good mood expand into an even better mood when you contemplate how your abusers wouldn’t want you to feel that way. Enjoy your revenge; imagine them going crazy. Indulge in a little Schadenfreude.

This little piece of advice, like all my others, is only meant to be one of many things you can do to help yourself. My auto-hypnoses on removing the inner critic, treating the painful past as if it were just a bad dream (i.e., no longer relevant to your life now), introjecting positive internal objects, and seeing the good and bad of the world as flowing into each other, not a permanent state of bad, etc., are all meant only as parts of the healing process, to be combined and used with other writers’ ideas. No individual one of them is meant to be a total cure in itself.

People often think of happiness as something way out there in the future, as something we’ll have only once we’ve either achieved something or reached a certain level of spiritual attainment. First, we’re at A (misery), then we go through a process of B (the spiritual or healing journey) in order to arrive at C (happiness). But I think dialectically: sadness and happiness can flow back and forth into each other, like the waves of the ocean. Sometimes we first have to make conditions better in order to be happy, and at other times, we have to decide to be happy first in order to make conditions better.

But for now, here’s a little tip: just imagine those narc jerks seeing you walking around with an ear-to-ear grin. Imagine them stewing over your happiness. That alone should make you feel good.

Revenge is a dish that is best served glad.

Words Cannot Be Chosen Too Carefully

Even though, on this blog, I express opinions that are controversial for some (I am an unapologetic Marxist), I try my best to choose words that not only accurately convey my meaning (which qualifies itself in so many theses, negations, and sublations, it’s like a pendulum swinging perpetually between opposites), but that also convey it as persuasively and fairly as possible.

By “persuasively,” I mean that I try my best to find reliable sources to back up my arguments, which is easier said than done, given that bourgeois Google is bloody awful. (I don’t have time to sift through fifty pages in a search of an appropriate online article, no matter how hard I try to refine my keywords.)

By “fairly,” I mean I try to minimize bias (something never 100% eliminated by anyone), and I try to avoid promoting prejudiced attitudes against any disadvantaged group. Again, I cannot do a perfect job at that, but I try my best.

As a socialist, I want freedom from unfair advantages (often crudely defined as “equality,” but more accurately defined as, “from each according to his or her ability, to each according to his or her needs“), across the board. Social justice isn’t symbolized by a straight, flat line; it’s symbolized by the gentle, up-and-down flowing waves of an infinite ocean.

Still, even my best efforts are opposed by people who won’t read me as carefully as I try to express myself. I’ve had readers who troll me on the basis of only one paragraph, or even just one sentence I’ve written (or even just a part of one sentence!); they have chosen, instead of staying with me and seeing that one problematic passage in context, to jump to conclusions and judge the entire post, or everything on my blog, on that one little fragment.

I’ll give a few examples of such misrepresentations of my writing, starting with some people on the Facebook pages supporting victims of narcissistic and emotional abuse, where I used to share blog posts of my own experiences of that problem…before the ultra-offended began a cowardly campaign of reporting me and putting me in Facebook jail for days, or even a week’s length in time.

What were the usual reasons for this? My occasional criticisms of Trump, for one. My second post on my personal experiences with emotional abuse, which I suffered from my family, titled Narcissism In the Family, while liked by a lot of people, has also generated a lot of criticism, generally from brief comments I made in passing about the Donald, not from the overall content of the post.

Most of this criticism seems to have been centred around my use of Trump as an example of overt narcissism. Now, criticizing him has, for obvious reasons, become a tad political, to put it mildly, and I know we’re not supposed to share political opinions on those Facebook support group pages; so sharing that post–as well as Absence Makes the Mind Go Fonder, which also includes a brief criticism of the Trump administration–is a no-no. Still, let’s be reasonable: is there anything controversial about acknowledging Trump’s most obvious narcissism? In mentioning it, am I going off topic or something?

But even beyond that, let’s consider the politics. How can there be survivors of narcissistic and emotional abuse, in significant numbers, supporting Trump? Do these worshippers of right-wing authoritarianism have Stockholm Syndrome? Why do they think a billionaire narcissist actually cares about them, when they aren’t even in his economic league?

Just because he isn’t part of the Republican/Democratic duopolistic establishment doesn’t make him one of ‘the good guys.’ Trump supporters have no sense of historical materialist, class analysis, something that has been sorely missing in political discourse ever since the rise of neoliberal capitalism and the disastrous dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Trump is merely a dissident member of the ruling class; he’s part of its more nationalistic faction. Like all members of the capitalist class, though, be they conservative or liberal, their main concern is to protect and preserve their class interests, not to care about the common people. One must be willing to acknowledge how narcissistic capitalists are.

Trump speaks out against the wars to gain popularity with the anti-war right, and to be reelected in 2020, not because of his convictions (assuming he has any). His bloated military budget, interventions in other countries’ affairs, expansion of imperialism, bombings, and starvation sanctions are consistent with those of his predecessors.

One doesn’t have to be a pussy-hat wearer, talking nonsense about “Russian collusion,” to oppose him. All one has to do is see him do all the things that the American political establishment approves of him doing. What he says means nothing (except in how it displays his narcissism and lechery); what he does is everything, the same as with other politicians, past and present.

If he truly wanted to “drain the swamp” of corruption, he would never have appointed former Exxon-Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, who has hoped for a coup in Venezuela (and has been replaced by the far more charming Pompeo–sarcasm); nor would he have appointed Steven Mnuchin, formerly of Goldman Sachs.

Some survivors of narcissistic and emotional abuse turn to Christianity to give them comfort, which is no one’s business but their own, of course; but some of these will have a more conservative, fundamentalist-leaning faith. With this inclination, they may imagine that God appointed the obviously sinful Trump to the Oval Office, justifying their absurd convictions by citing where Scripture has given instances of God choosing sinners as kings before (“The Lord moves in mysterious ways,” apparently), instead of these fundamentalists just acknowledging how cognitive dissonance has blinded them, and how the real reason they support him is for his pro-capitalist, authoritarian, right-wing policies (e.g., his support for Israel).

I wonder if God has appointed the corrupt popes and hierarchy of bishops in the Vatican for the same mysterious, divine reason? Have the anti-Catholic evangelicals ever thought of that? I doubt it.

Have these Trump-supporting abuse survivors considered the abuse dished out by ICE at all the Latin American families being torn apart, children separated from parents, and put in cages before being deported? The fact that Obama was the deporter-in-chief of “illegal” immigrants (just so we’re clear, people are not illegal in my opinion; I don’t believe in nations or borders–I believe in people, and these people are often apprehended for minor offences, if any) doesn’t make Trump’s continuation of this injustice more acceptable.

If Trump supporters are so infuriated with the influx of Mexicans and Central Americans across the border and into Texas, have they given any thought as to the cause of this influx? The US government has thwarted most of the attempts of Latin American countries to elect left-wing governments and pull themselves out of poverty, violence, and despair; and these frustrations go right back two hundred years, starting with the Monroe Doctrine and the dwindling of the Spanish Empire’s hegemony over the region, continuing with the Roosevelt Corollary, and fully blossoming with American interference with the governments of such countries as Chile and Guatemala.

American overturning of democracy in their “backyard” has continued unabated to the present administration, with such interventions over the years, successfully or not, to remove Noriega, Chavez, Zelaya, Maduro, and currently…Evo Morales!

The purpose of all of these coups, whether successful or not, is not to promote “democracy” (the US does business with the head-chopping Saudi kingdom, for fuck’s sake!). It is done in the interests of capitalist imperialism: Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world, and Bolivia has lithium, whose production Morales wanted to nationalize to help his people, which would have stopped German and other nations’ companies from profiting from it.

With so many Latin Americans languishing in poverty and hopelessness, forcing women and children into prostitution, is it any surprise that many Latinos try to build a future for themselves and their families by crossing the Texan border, and trying to stay for as long as they can? Do the abuse survivors who support Trump have the empathy to consider Hispanic suffering?

The same applies to the ban against Muslims till we “can figure out what the hell is going on?” To stop terrorism and the influx of Muslim refugees into the West, we could start by acknowledging the American creation of Al Qaeda and ISIS, and not “bomb the shit out ofMiddle Eastern countries. Abuse survivor supporters of Trump, how about some of that good ol’ empathy?

Finally, let’s consider Trump’s friendship with such abusers of power as the Clintons and sex offender Jeffery Epstein, who no intelligent person believes committed suicide. Now, to be fair to the Donald, we can’t technically prove if he’s guilty of forcibly raping a 13-year-old girl at one of Epstein’s parties, nor can we be sure if he’s guilty of the many, many sexual misconduct allegations he’s been accused of over the years; but given his manifest lechery, the pussy-grabber is probably guilty of many, if not most, or even all, of those allegations.

And yet there are Trump defenders, many female, who comment on those Facebook support group pages. It truly boggles the mind how these people remain wilfully ignorant of the facts.

Of course, it is possible that many, or most, of those Trump supporters aren’t actually victims of narcissistic and emotional abuse, but are just trolls who seek out anyone online who criticizes their beloved leader, and thus found my writing on those Facebook pages. Erich Fromm wrote much about the mentality of group narcissism, and the identifying with and admiring of the authoritarianism of the idealized leader.

One of these haters of mine actually made a baseless accusation of racism on my blog posts. (No, readers, my quoting of racial slurs used in the movies I do analyses of does not indicate an encouragement or endorsement of their use, let alone the offensive attitude behind them; my quoting of them is meant as a commentary on the problem of racism. I don’t censor the words, just as I don’t censor four-letter words, because I don’t believe in censorship. It’s as simple as that.) I soon learned that my accuser was yet another Trump supporter who didn’t like my criticisms of him. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!

But enough of Trump. On the other side of the political coin, and ironically so, since this next case is also a reaction from Narcissism in the Family, a woman blogger who, from her writing, was clearly in a bad mood, got upset about this passage I wrote: “Though the narcissistic father is a formidable bully, I suspect the narcissistic mother is, in many ways, often much worse, if for no other reason than that she can cunningly exploit the stereotype of the angelic, saintly mother who criticizes her victim only out of ‘concern’.”

If I remember correctly, she quoted “narcissistic mother…much worse” in boldface. She ended her snarky response by most eloquently calling me a “muthafucka.” I gather from her response that she believed my passage was a sexist generalization (her whole blog post was an extended rant about every blogger she found who made remarks she didn’t like about females).

To be fair to her, she quoted my passage in context; but she didn’t seem very interested in that context. I did not say that all narcissistic mothers are worse than all narcissistic fathers because the former are women, as she had implied was my meaning. By saying “in many ways, often much worse,” I was implying that narcissistic fathers are also, in many other ways, often much worse than their maternal counterparts (though I hadn’t bothered to mention how). I imagined my qualification would be sufficient in avoiding a dangerous, sweeping generalization. Apparently, I was wrong.

The “many other ways” qualification included the narc mother’s ability to “exploit the stereotype of the angelic, saintly mother.” This wasn’t meant as a promotion of sexual stereotypes; it was just an acknowledgement of the problem. A narcissistic father, on the other hand, could use the stereotype of the ‘paternal authority figure who must never be questioned, only obeyed,’ making him, in that sense, much worse than a narc mother.

My own father had an authoritarian, conservative mentality that did him little credit; but he didn’t exploit it to play mind games on my siblings and me the way my mom did, so I can’t say I know the experience of being raised by a narcissistic father. He was a grumpy, mindless, bigoted old fool, but he was no narc. For these reasons, and not sexism, my blog post focused on narc moms instead of narc dads.

I suppose I should be grateful to that woman blogger for adding a link to my post, as it may bring me some more readers, who I hope will be open-minded enough to scan for the full context of what I was writing about, and thus realize I wasn’t being anywhere near as unreasonable as she was portraying me. I, however, won’t provide a link to her vituperative post, one she herself in her introduction admitted would be an unpleasant read. She can thus consider my omission of a link a favour I’m doing her.

It’s curious: my blog post criticizes a known narcissistic male chauvinist, and people (many of them women) are offended; a few paragraphs down from my brief critique, and I make another brief comment on narcissistic mothers, and it is I who am the male chauvinist. No matter how carefully you try to choose your words, you just can’t please some people.

To end off, I must discuss a recent reaction to my analysis of Belle de Jour, which is about a woman with masochistic fantasies who decides to become a prostitute by day. The reaction was one of offence, since the commenter believes it is utterly impossible that a woman would ever create such a story, let alone ever choose to be a prostitute herself, outside of poverty and exploitation.

Now, I wholeheartedly agree that the great majority of prostitutes in the world, especially in the Third World, are terribly brutalized and degraded (recall my words above about impoverished Latin American women and children, as well as the girls Epstein paid to be raped); in fact, in my analysis of the film, I emphasize the problem many times!

The socialist society I espouse would transform material conditions so thoroughly that everyone–man, woman, and child–would be adequately employed and provided for, thus reducing prostitution to a near 0%. Furthermore, the lack of alienation caused by capitalism would mean that men would no longer be treating women as objects, but as human beings.

That said, well…I’ll just leave these links here in response to what my commenter deems an utter impossibility. Not that I aim to endorse or promote such ideas, but, well…in the parlance of our time…just sayin’.

Seriously, people are way too easily offended these days. How carefully do I have to choose my words to avoid upsetting people?

‘Insidious,’ a Poem by a Friend

A poet friend of mine, Cass Wilson, who also goes by the name Immortal Magpie, wrote this poem about the insidious effects of narcissistic abuse:

Insidiously
You weave your web of lies
Gossamer strands of falsification
Strive to imprison me once more
A myriad of ignoble eyes
Project rose coloured echoes of the past
Evoking flashbacks of tenebrosity and pain

On enlightened wings I rise
Free from the odious taint of your deceit
Familiar to your fallacious words
Impervious to the callous beast
that resides behind the mask

This poem is essentially about her ex-husband’s attempts at hoovering her back into a relationship with him. He’s like a spider, weaving his “web of lies/Gossamer strands of falsification.” I love the musical assonance of these lines, as I do the lyricism and music of the whole poem.

Comparing her narcissistic ex to a spider reminds one of the hubris of Arachne, who boasted that her weaving was better than that of Athena. Just as Athena turned Arachne into a spider for her presumption, Cass’s ex is but a spider in her eyes, one she knows will never weave anything of love for her, no matter how he tries to make her think he will. She won’t ever be imprisoned in those webs again.

“A myriad of ignoble eyes” suggests the ever-watching, invasive eyes of Argus, eyes of judgement we get from narcissists who have few kind words to say to us, but many critical and cruel ones. Still, those eyes “Project rose coloured echoes of the past,” in an attempt to suck her back into the doomed relationship by misrepresenting it as having once been beautiful. She won’t be fooled, though.

“Evoking flashbacks of tenebrosity and pain,” those eyes only trigger painful memories for her, emotional flashbacks that she wants to put behind her forever. Thus ends the first verse, one evoking the pain of the past relationship that she is in danger of being sucked back into. Then comes the second, final, and empowering verse, which looks out into the future.

She flies with “enlightened wings,” knowledge of his true, cruel nature, a knowledge that sets her “Free from the odious taint of [his] deceit.” She is “Impervious to the callous beast/that resides behind the mask” of his narcissistic False Self. That “callous beast” is the lack of love and empathy that he tries to hide behind his fake show of love.

This poem is a delightfully lyrical expression of the pain we can feel in a relationship of narcissistic abuse, as well as the hope of one day putting it all behind ourselves. If you, Dear Reader, have any stories to tell of similar experiences, whether in verse or prose, please let me know in the comments, and I’ll reblog what you write here in a future post. Peace and love! 🙂

Some Preliminary Thoughts on ‘Joker’

Arthur Fleck is my hero.

Sorry, I’m a bit of a joker sometimes…HA-HA-HA-HA-HA!!!

I finally got around to seeing Joker today. Wow! What a powerful film. Though set in the early 1980s, it’s as relevant to today’s times as any movie can be. Indeed, it’s the first Hollywood movie in a long time (to my knowledge, at least) that has genuine balls.

Contrary to what some of the knuckleheads in the mainstream media have either said or implied, Joker very much has a message. And no, that message is not for sexually frustrated, right-wing men to go out doing mass shootings. The film’s message is firmly left-wing: all out war against the bourgeoisie, and that’s what the ruling class–for whom the mainstream media works–feels truly threatened about.

No, I’m not advocating everyone wearing clown masks going on mass murder rampages, and busting things up. I believe in an organized, well-planned revolution that will result in giving people like Arthur Fleck what they need: decent medical and psychiatric care, guaranteed employment, etc. In short, I seek to eliminate the class system that deprives the have-nots, and which causes the alienation that causes so much of Fleck’s suffering.

I can’t do a proper analysis of this film until it comes out on DVD; then I can watch it twenty to thirty times or so, and savour every detail of this masterpiece, mining it for themes and symbolism. Until then, these preliminary remarks will have to do: after all, so much has already been said about the film in newspaper articles and videos.

Go see the film if you haven’t yet…no, chances are, you won’t become a murderer.

‘I Was a Kid,’ a Poem by a Friend

Here is a kind of prose poem that a Facebook friend of mine, Gerda Hovius, wrote several days ago, to express the pain she felt from having an emotionally abusive father. Actually, I think the poem is in verse (note the mid-sentence capitalization that occurs from time to time), but it was presented to me in paragraph form, and I’m presenting it below in the same form for two reasons: first, I don’t know for sure where she wants the lines broken (e.g., for the sake of enjambment), and this damn blog won’t (to my knowledge) allow me to separate lines within the same blocks to make verses, so we’ll have to make do with what’s below.

The poem was originally written in Dutch, but she translated it as you can see below. In it, she expresses her childhood traumas as I recommended to in this post; and as I suggested here–where I called out to all bloggers to share their experiences of narcissistic and emotional abuse–I want to encourage others to share their pain in words, so I can reblog them here. Here’s the poem:

“I was a kid, A happy child, a child that wanted to be loved. There was no space, there was no time, I wasn’t allowed to cry or be myself. I was not allowed to think what I thought or express that hard or soft. Nothing about me was good enough, Only if I did something he asked me. Then I got a little appreciation, A little attention a little time. I thought it was up to me That everyone saw me as a bother, Whenever I said how I felt or said something, there was always a comment on me. Who I had to be and what I had to be, it takes a lifetime to cure this. I now know better who I am and that I know myself a bit. I was always allowed to be there even though I didn’t feel that way, I was still small. And now if something happens or I get tired, the black clouds cover my sky again. Then I feel again that lonely child who did not belong and was not loved. Yet I know that I just had bad luck, that my father went through it himself. Yet that does not make the sadness go away it is perhaps a little easier to bear if I can access it, as I say now. I still feel hatred when I feel bad and someone is standing in front of me. I am mad at all the injustice here. It is my life it is my destiny, I can give my love my heart is not rotten. I understand that people don’t get it when I’m in the middle of it again. That makes it painful because I feel even more distant from everyone else. And indeed I feel very bad because I am not what is expected of me. But in the end what they do is not relevant, I would like to contact even if it is not possible. Don’t blame me for being an instigator if you don’t understand. It only hurts more.”

I think we can all relate to how, “if something happens or I get tired, the black clouds cover my sky again. Then I feel again that lonely child who did not belong and was not loved.” Elsewhere, “I still feel hatred when I feel bad and someone is standing in front of me,” like that inner critic facing us with his frowns. Still, we know there is good in us in spite of how awful we feel: “I can give my love my heart is not rotten.” The trauma of emotional abuse won’t make our feelings rot away–we’ll survive.

I’ve written before about the problem of feeling “even more distant from everyone else.” As for our abusers, remember that “in the end what they do is not relevant”; they do not deserve the consideration our endless rumination gives them. We shouldn’t be blamed “for being an instigator,” for we have to right to give expression to our pain. If we don’t express it…”It only hurts more.”

Please, Dear Readers, put your pain into words. If you’d like me to post your words here, I’ll be glad to, for we all have to help each other. We all need others to validate us. You can put your thoughts in the comments section, and I’ll quote them in a future post. Peace! 🙂

Putting Trauma Into Words

[NOTE: please read the second and third paragraphs from this post before continuing. Important–don’t skip reading them!]

In previous posts, I wrote of the dialectical nature of health and ill health, and every intermediate point, all of these being represented on a circular continuum symbolized by the ouroboros. The two extreme opposites meet where the serpent’s head bites its tail: at the head, feelings of self-love get excessive, bordering on pathological narcissism; at the bitten tail is the threat of (if not the realization of) fragmentation, a psychotic breaking away from reality that is often defended against through pathological narcissism, where the serpent’s teeth are biting. Everywhere else on the ouroboros’ coiled body is every intermediate point from the best of health, just behind the head, to the worst of neurosis, just before the bitten tail of psychosis.

To simplify, we can make three basic categories of mental health and ill-health out of this ouroboros as a symbol of the circular continuum: the biting head is the narcissistic world of what Jacques Lacan called the Imaginary Order, seeing an ideal self in the mirror, just as Narcissus, seeing his reflection in the pond, fell in love with himself; the bitten tail is the traumatic, inexpressible world of what Lacan called the Real; and the intermediate, relatively healthy world represented by the serpent’s coiled body is what he called the Symbolic Order, where we’re connected to society through language.

The expression of our feelings, through society’s shared symbols and signifiers (i.e., language), is the basis of our mental health. Bottling up our feelings, never venting them, leads to mental illness. A crucial part of giving expression to how we feel, though, is having people who will listen to us, who will validate us, who will contain our pain as a mother would contain the anxieties, fears, and frustrations of her baby, then transform those feelings and process them for it (since the baby has no mental apparatus yet developed for thinking and processing thoughts on its own), and return them to it in a form it can accept, thus pacifying it. We need people–friends, loved ones, therapists, etc.–who will perform that maternal role for us if we’re ill.

Wilfred Bion‘s theory of a mother containing her baby’s disturbed state (in maternal reverie) is replicated in the patient/therapist relationship, where the patient is in the baby’s role, and the therapist is in the mother’s role. Such a relationship is necessary when, overwhelmed by raw, unprocessed external sensory stimuli (beta elements) that become traumatizing, the patient has psychotic episodes and approaches psychological fragmentation, a terror of disintegration, a mental falling-apart.

This falling apart often happens because there is no one to help the sufferer contain and thus help to process his or her trauma; the therapist must step in and do the containing. This containing (similar to D.W. Winnicott‘s notion of a holding environment) allows the agitating beta elements to be processed and transformed into alpha elements, or thoughts acceptable to the patient. These alpha elements can go into the patient’s unconscious mind–which is structured like a language, as Lacan said–and can be used in dreams and as thoughts to be expressed in words.

Most of us, of course, cannot afford a therapist, due in no small part to the aggravation of wealth inequality over the past thirty to forty years; so we may have to make do with playing the role of therapist for each other. By this I mean being the empathic containers of each other’s traumas and anxieties; for the trauma of having suffered narcissistic and emotional abuse is such that, given no validation of our pain at all from the narcissist’s flying monkeys, we victims are like those crying babies in need of having those agitating beta elements (our trauma) transformed into alpha elements (processed, more soothing thoughts).

So how can we rank amateurs help each other? By listening to our fellow sufferers and validating (containing) the emotional effects of the abuse they went through. Similarly, we can vent our own pain (the contained) in as expressive and vivid a language as we can muster (Richard Grannon calls it ‘Emotional Literacy‘), while others (e.g., our communal online support on Facebook pages about emotional abuse) listen to and validate us. This is how we can move from the bitten tail of trauma (Lacan’s Real) to the upper middle of the ouroboros’ body (Lacan’s Symbolic Order, the realm of interpersonal communication).

I’ll start with some venting of my own pain, which I hope, Dear Reader, you’ll contain for me, then return to me with some soothing validation. (I’ll be willing to return the favour if you send me a link of your verbalizing of your traumas, your ‘contained,’ and I’ll reblog it here, as is my intention with the message given in this post.)

  • Back in the early 2000s, when my mother was prating on and on about my supposedly having Asperger Syndrome, or AS (I’ve never been diagnosed with it, and she didn’t even merit being called an amateur psychiatrist, let alone someone with any measure of authority on mental health issues), I grew increasingly agitated, frustrated, and exasperated with her. When she dismissed my legitimate objections, I just felt unheard, invalidated, and uncared for.
  • In the mid-2000s, when she rejected my wish to fly from Asia (where I live) to Canada to see my sister, J., and her terminally ill husband, rationalizing that I’m “different,” as well as “tactless and insensitive” (due, apparently, to AS–see Part 2 of this), I exploded with rage at her condescending, hurtful attitude, for which she’d never repented. I felt insulted, devalued, excluded, and unwanted.
  • When, not too long after, J. emailed me, telling me to stop complaining to Mom about her attitude, showing me she was 100% on Mom’s side, and trivializing my pain, J. made me feel like a ten-year-old; I frowned like a hurt child, though I was in my late thirties when I read that email. I felt humiliated, disrespected, and infantilized. Her not wanting me to reply made me feel silenced and voiceless.
  • By the 2010s, when I realized that not only was Mom’s talk about AS, but also her labelling me with classic autism when I was a child, all lies, I felt so betrayed and heartbroken, I thought of the whole family, who supported her in her fabrications, as a bunch of perfidious snakes! How awful it is to feel so alone, so isolated, and so unloved. I felt fooled, conned, cheated, deceived, and tricked. (See Part 3 here.)
  • As a child, whenever I got subjected to Mom’s wild rages, or the bullying of my elder siblings, I felt terrified, helpless, overwhelmed, and trapped. Mom’s indifference to, if not outright conniving at, all that bullying just increased my sense of loneliness, of separateness from society, of unworthiness, of inferiority.
  • During the 2010s, when I heard, in the middle of a long-distance phone call from Mom, that she said–after indulging in a spate of bad-mouthing of my youngest cousin, G., about whom she’d never said anything kind in her life–she thought he might have Asperger Syndrome, I groaned in a fury, knowing she was using this psychiatric label to devalue his worth in the family…just as she’d been doing with me. I felt a growing sympathy for my so-unjustly-despised cousin. See Part 4 here.
  • Later this decade, as it became more and more obvious that Mom (an RN, incidentally) was adamant about not wanting to help my cousin, S., who was manifesting paranoid delusions about me, I felt a growing hopelessness, a despairing of the family. No one else, including J., showed any interest in helping S., either: these were the same people who had preached to me for years about the importance of putting other people’s needs in front of your own…and they were now proving they were no better than “self-centred” me! Now, I felt a growing contempt for them and their hypocrisy.
  • When my mother told me a string of lies in the late summer of 2015, the year before she died, and I heard the most blatant untruth of them all–that I supposedly had sent my aunt a series of “over-the-top” emails (click here for the whole story, if you’re interested: Part 5–More Elaborate Lies)–I lay shaking in bed, shocked, unable to sleep the whole night (I’d received Mom’s email, with this lie, just before I was to go to bed). I felt disoriented, baffled, confused, and disconcerted. I had no idea who that family even was anymore.

As you read through my examples, note my use of ‘feeling’ words, especially those in italics: agitated, frustrated, rage, betrayed, etc. It is the use of words like these, carefully chosen and made as vividly descriptive–particular and precise in meaning–as possible, that is the key to processing your trauma. Get to the root of your trauma, and get it out of your system; share your words with people you can trust, people who will contain your pain for you, validate it, and send the energy back to you in a transformed way, to pacify and heal you.

The unconscious, as understood in terms of the Symbolic Order, isn’t the unconscious of an individual person; it’s rather a trans-individual unconscious connecting us with everyone else. The unconscious as the discourse of the Other (radical ‘otherness’: that is, all other people out there, not just someone we would narcissistically mirror against ourselves, as a baby and its mother looking into each other’s eyes), a conversation between the self and other, communication and connection between people in which they aren’t extensions of a narcissistic self, but coexist as equals.

As a rank amateur myself, with no formal training in the field, I tend to modify and adapt psychoanalytic theory as I see fit, so when I see a similarity between Lacan’s trans-individual unconscious and Jung‘s collective unconscious, I do so with an understanding that Lacan would probably wince at my conflation of the two.

My point is that it is in this place where all minds meet–a psychic state unified by communication, shared symbols and signifiers (‘language’ here has the expanded meaning of being a signifying system of differential relations–all interconnected ideas, just as our trans-individual unconscious makes us all interconnected), and listening empathically. I like to call it the Unity of Space, an infinite ocean where we can all heal together.

Narcissistic Envy and Jealousy

[NOTE: please read the second and third paragraphs from this post before continuing. Important–don’t skip reading them!]

The development of pathological narcissism can in some ways be connected to the irresolution of the Oedipus complex, for as Don Carveth has noted, this complex is a narcissistic trauma. Still, we must first clarify what the Oedipus complex really is; a brief explanation of other psychoanalytic concepts helpful in understanding narcissism (a more detailed exploration can be found here, if what’s written below is frustratingly obscure) will be made below, too, before I get into a discussion of how my family conflicts can be seen as an example of narcissism based on Oedipal envy and jealousy.

The best way to understand the Oedipus complex is in a metaphoric sense–far more than just Freud‘s literal, primitive conception of wanting to remove the rival, same-sex parent and wanting to possess the opposite-sex one (or, in the case of the negative Oedipus complex, children loving the same-sex parent and hating the opposite-sex one). The desire for the one parent doesn’t have to be sexual, incestuous; and the hostility to the other parent doesn’t have to involve murderous phantasies. The child simply doesn’t wish to share the desired parent with a rival; he wants that parent all to himself.

Furthermore, as I’ve touched on elsewhere, the desire and hostility don’t each have to be reserved for only one parent or the other; a child typically has a love/hate relationship with both parents, based on his or her acceptance of what Melanie Klein called the “good” and “bad” mother and father aspects of both parents, understood when the child has developed a sense of ambivalence for them, derived from the depressive position, a resolution of the black-and-white splitting from the earlier paranoid-schizoid position.

Anyway, the Oedipal situation is best understood as a narcissistic relationship we all, as little children or infants, had with an idealized parent and the rival other parent, who annoys the child by drawing Mother’s attention away from him or her. Usually the ideal parent is the mother, idolized by little boys and girls–these latter kids during the pre-Oedipal phase–because the mother usually has more access to, and (unfortunately, due to sex roles and the patriarchal family) responsibility for, the babies than the father has.

This narcissistic period occurs in what Jacques Lacan called the Imaginary Order, sparked by the mirror stage, when an infant sees his or her mirror reflection for the first time, then conceives him- or herself as a coherent, unified being (as opposed to the spastic, fragmentary body the infant otherwise perceives himself to have). The reflected image is an idealized self–just as the mother’s smiling face, which the baby sees as a metaphorical mirror reflection of itself, is the face of an idealized person the child imagines to be an extension of itself, rather than an independent being in her own right, with her own needs and desires.

The notion of the mother as an extension of the baby is intensified since, as Wilfred Bion observed (and expressed with his idiosyncratic terminology), the baby needs the mother to provide her ability to think for it and process its outer stimuli (beta elements), because the baby doesn’t yet have a developed thinking apparatus. The mother is a container, holding all the upsetting, frightening external stimuli for the baby (the contained) in a state of maternal reverie, then transforming the baby’s pain, anxiety, etc. into a pacifying form it can accept (alpha elements), and returning it to the baby.

This, according to Bion, is how Knowledge (K) develops for the infant, a transferring of energy back and forth, from infant to mother and back again (container/contained), via projective identification; acquiring knowledge, however, may be desired or feared. (Bion observed this of Tiresias in the Oedipus myth, when the blind prophet was reluctant to tell King Oedipus that he was responsible for his father‘s death, and that he had married and committed incest with his mother. Read more here, pages 45-49.)

A narcissistic mother, already lacking in empathy, may not be all that willing to help her babies grow in knowledge through reverie and Bion’s notion of containment, thus causing the babies’ anxieties not to be processed and soothed, but rather to be turned into a nameless dread; the frustrated baby thus, in self-defence, limits its acquiring of knowledge (-K) from what it perceives to be the “bad mother.” The narcissistic mother would rather have her children dependent on her than be independent in knowledge.

This building-up of knowledge exclusively through the mother (or, by extension, the infant’s Oedipally-desired, male or female primary caregiver), can thus be a bad thing if this desired caregiver is the baby’s more-or-less only window to the world, barring the intervention of a third party (Father, or by extension, the rest of society) to round out and give nuance to the child’s experience of the world. The child thus never matures or fully leaves Lacan‘s narcissistic Imaginary Order to enter the Symbolic Order, to acquire fluency in the language and shared symbols of society, and thus fit into society.

In a similar vein, Heinz Kohut wrote about how the infantile narcissistic state is composed of two poles: 1) the idealized parental imago, an image of the loved parent (what Kohut called a self-object to satisfy narcissistic needs, or to validate and affirm the ego’s narcissistic self-image), which is introjected and felt to be an internal object inside the child’s mind; and 2) the boastful grandiose self, which can be related to Lacan’s narcissistic ideal-I from the mirror stage. If these two poles’ effectiveness in building psychological structure for the child are compromised (e.g., because of an unresolved Oedipal conflict), he or she could develop pathologically narcissistic traits as an adult.

Since the mirror doesn’t have to be a literal one (i.e., the infant–looking at his mother’s loving face [see Homer, page 24]–can see a symbolic mirror reflecting both his ideal, grandiose self and his idealized parent, an extension of himself via projective and introjective identification [container/contained]), we can see how Freud, Lacan, Bion, and Kohut can be fused. This is the self/other dialectic, the human personality as understood in a relational sense with other people, the psychic bridges between us all.

So, the Oedipal relationship with (usually) the mother is one of mirroring narcissism back to the child and of giving narcissistic idolatry to the desired parent. The problem for the child is that this two-way, mirroring relationship can’t last forever. As the child gets older, he or she must come to accept that the prized parent has desires for someone else (the other parent, a boyfriend/girlfriend, etc.). The parent can’t belong exclusively to the child, and this traumatizing disappointment must be gotten over.

Most of us can get over this, to at least a reasonable extent, hence our infantile, childhood narcissism is let down tolerably, bit by bit (optimal frustration), and reduced to socially acceptable levels by the time we reach adulthood. Some people, on the other hand, because of some arrest in their childhood development, never sufficiently resolve this Oedipal trauma; these people grow up with pathological levels of narcissism, and throughout their lives need people to mirror their grandiosity back to them in the form of narcissistic supply.

I believe my mother suffered such unresolved traumas when she was a child, having been born in England two years before the Blitz, which–even if the bombings hadn’t happened in the city or town she, as an infant, had been in at the time–at least would have exposed her to a great level of parental stress in her immediate environment.

More significantly for her, though, would have been the death–several years later–of her father, to whom she’d have had a great Oedipal attachment, him being her metaphorical mirror when she was a little girl in the 1940s. Finally, her move with her widowed mother to Canada, by the 1950s, would have ripped her away from the–to her–idyllic, Edenic world of her origins, and put her in a strange new world she’d have found difficult to adjust to at such a tender, young age.

Because of these disruptions in her childhood development, she would have needed to fill in the voids where empathic mirroring was supposed to be. I believe she would eventually use my dad, my siblings, and me to fill in those voids, either to mirror her grandiose self back to her (i.e., my sister, J., her golden child, her idealized self), or to have people onto whom she could project the hated parts of herself (me–the scapegoat, or identified patient–and her nephews, L. and G., and eventually S., too, as I’ve explained in previous posts). To an extent, even my dad got scapegoated (whenever he displeased or disappointed her, which was frequent); so when he took me under his wing when I was a kid, the rest of the family blackballed me all the worse.

If Dad and I were mirroring each other, Mom was getting all that much less of a mirroring from me, causing her narcissistic injury. Narcissists are known for their wish to hog all the attention to themselves, so anyone taking any of that coveted attention away is seen as a rival to be envied. A key personality trait of people with NPD is envy: envy of others as well as a perception that others envy them, something easily interpreted as projected envy.

I believe that my mother’s envy of Dad’s ‘usurping,’ if you will, of some of that attention was part of her motive to fan the flames of jealousy that my brothers, R. and F., felt when Dad seemed to favour me over them. Their jealousy would have been a manifestation of their unresolved negative Oedipal feelings toward Dad; the same would apply to my sister, J., in her Oedipally-inspired jealousy. The Oedipal situation is all about narcissism, family rivalry, competition for love, and therefore, jealousy.

Jealousy differs slightly from envy, in that the former involves a fear of losing someone’s love to another person (this was my siblings’ problem); whereas envy involves irritation over one person having some kind of advantage, something or someone the envier lacks, thus making the envious one want to hurt the object of his envy (Mom’s problem).

I believe Mom envied the attention I gave to Dad, so she set up two camps in the family: those who were ‘loyal’ to her (my three siblings), and those who were ‘disloyal,’ Dad and me; this division into camps was the basis of much of the needless conflict in our family. While much of my father’s grumpy, authoritarian nastiness was due to his excess adherence to conservative values (his slavery to tradition), I believe a lot of his adversarial nature came from his bitterness in having married a narcissist, all while lacking the psychological vocabulary to give expression to his frustrations (one of Dad’s many bigotries was his hate of psychiatry, which he believed spawned many social ills).

So, by pushing R., F., and J. to focus their attention on Mom, to mirror her grandiosity back to her, and by punishing them if ever they failed to do so, Mom was causing my siblings to have–at least to a significant extent–an insufficiently resolved Oedipal conflict, a conflict she exploited to her advantage. They idolized her, felt a guarded hostility to Dad (criticism of him was allowed to a point; criticism of Mom was taboo, with rare exceptions), and tormented me for daring to do what they’d been forbidden to do: to have roughly equal proportions of affection and hostility for both parents.

I’m not saying R., F., and J. felt only negative feelings for Dad: a certain, circumscribed amount of affection for him was seen by Mom as not only acceptable, but appropriate and expected (after all, we had to maintain the public image of being a ‘good, loving family’). A similarly limited love was doled out to me by all of them, ‘as appropriate.’ J., as the golden child, was especially obligated ‘to love’ me.

The conflict that my mother promoted was also meant to stay within certain ‘acceptable’ limits. Mom was at least partly responsible for having failed to resolve the mid-1970s conflict between Dad and teen R. over the relative triviality of his bad grades at school. I speculate that she may have, in fact, helped escalate the conflict leading to teen R.’s leaving home; it’s all described in more detail here–scroll down about a third to halfway into it; read there also about his ranting to me, years later, of Dad supposedly loving J. and me more for having gotten better grades in school…Oedipal jealousy. Mom thus had to be careful not to let family fights escalate into physical violence, or into any of us, still underage at the time, running away from home.

Hence, Mom tolerated anyone verbally abusing me, but drew the line at physical violence (i.e., when she knew F. had perpetrated it); also, Mom’s use of the autism lie on me (read about that here) could have been partially motivated by a wish to ensure I’d be too scared to run away from home, she having implied that I was ‘too mentally incompetent’ to be able to take care of myself.

The family was fond of scorning me as some kind of overgrown child. But if I’m right about this repressed, unconscious Oedipus factor as the basis for so much of my conflict with Mom and my siblings, as well as their conflicts with each other and with Dad (all those unresolved Mommy and Daddy issues), we now can see who in my family, deep down, were the truly childish ones.

R., F., and J. were in a perpetual competition to see who was the ‘worthiest’ of Mom’s love, never realizing that conditional love isn’t love at all. They based their (and my) worth on how much of Mom’s love we had ‘earned’ (in earlier posts–some of which are among the links given above–I gave many examples of my siblings implying they’d ‘earned’ a love I hadn’t). Their sense of emotional stability, self-confidence, and ability to function normally in the world was based on the comfortable, flattering illusion of that love. I saw through the family’s bullshit, and they shame me for daring to have that Tiresias-like insight, Bion’s K, which they are probably still too afraid to uncover.

Wilfred R. Bion, Learning From Experience, Maresfield Library, London, 1962

Heinz Kohut, The Analysis of the Self: A Systematic Approach to the Psychoanalytic Treatment of Narcissistic Personality Disorders, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1971

Sean Homer, Jacques Lacan, Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, London, 2005

Intrusive Thoughts

[NOTE: please read the second and third paragraphs from this post before continuing. Important–don’t skip reading them!]

Way back when I wrote my article on C-PTSD, I discussed emotional flashbacks, which are a re-experiencing of the emotional states of painful memories from emotional abuse. This re-experiencing of the painful emotions from a memory–not a re-experiencing of the memory itself, as in the flashbacks of PTSD sufferers–can last for hours, days, or even weeks, often with an overwhelming feeling of profound sadness, anguish, or fear.

In my article, I imagined my generally brief fantasies of rage at my emotional abusers–my (probably) narcissistic late mother and her flying monkeys, my siblings–to have been emotional flashbacks. I believe I may have been mistaken about that: what I have been experiencing seems to have been more like intrusive thoughts.

We all think black thoughts sometimes, even the healthiest of people; but these kinds of thoughts become a problem when they recur obsessively. Intrusive thoughts tend to come in three basic forms: aggressive, blasphemous, and sexual. I generally get them in the first category.

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An imagined scenario, of me in a conflict with my mother, my older brothers R. and F., or my older sister J., will pop into my head. I’ll imagine myself yelling my grievances at them, the whole situation soon spiralling out of control. I’ll end it by telling myself mentally to stop dramatizing the ridiculous spectacle in my head, and I’ll feel awful.

This has been an ongoing problem in my head for years, even decades. One of the things I was hoping to achieve by ending communication with the family was to stop these mental melodramas from playing in my head, over and over again. Going no contact was a necessary condition for ending the emotional abuse, to be sure, but it wasn’t a sufficient condition.

Those people still exist as internal objects in my head. The auto-hypnoses I created in previous posts, such as exorcizing the inner critic demon, imagining that painful past as a mere dream, etc., are helpful to an extent, as has been this writing therapy–processing my feelings by finding the right words to describe them–but other methods have to be used in conjunction with those to lessen the effects of the trauma even further.

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An additional tactic we survivors can have in our healing arsenal, as it were, is to practice grounding whenever those intrusive thoughts pop up in our heads. Essentially, this involves bringing ourselves back into our bodies, back into the present moment, typically using the five senses (e.g., taking note of how something in our immediate surroundings feels, looks, sounds, smells, and/or tastes, to bring us out of our ruminating, dissociating heads, and back into our bodies at the moment).

One time, a week or two ago, I was getting worked up with an intrusive thought about an imagined argument with one of my siblings. It was irritating me so much, taking my mind off of one simple thing I needed to get done at the time, that I decided to ground myself: I focused on my arms, my legs, my torso, and my head, thinking about what was going on in those body parts at that moment, instead of dwelling on those ghosts in my head. It worked. I brought myself back to the present moment, and I could function.

Another thing I’ve found helpful, when imagining the hurtful things my family would say to me, is to say to myself, “Their opinion doesn’t count.” It’s just one opinion that they all share, and it has no nuance or sophistication (‘I was just born screwed up,’ apparently). It’s also a result of their willful ignorance of the true causes of the problems I had with the family, problems largely caused by them, but things they never want to take responsibility for.

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There are lots of videos and blog posts out there on grounding and other ways of dealing with these nasty emotional spells. Here are a few. Another thing you can do is use positive affirmations to help pull you out of your pain. I recommend using techniques like these if you have a problem with intrusive thoughts.

I know it’s difficult to replace our bad thoughts with positive ones, but we have to try; if we don’t, we’ll just stay a prisoner in the dark. All things are hard at first before they can be easy; repeated effort can help us eventually shift from the bad thoughts to the good.