Trauma and Therapy-Speak

March 30, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

It’s nice to have your perceptions ratified so that you can stop asking yourself, “Is it just me that’s noticing this?”  Lately, it seemed that I was hearing more talk about trauma — and for some things that didn’t seem especially traumatic. Katy Waldman heard the same thing. “Around every corner, trauma, like the unwanted prize at the bottom of a cereal box. The trauma of puberty, of difference, of academia, of women's clothing.” Women’s clothing? Oh well, Waldman is a staff writer at The New Yorker and presumably more plugged in to the zeitgeist than I am. That sentence is from her article “The Rise of Therapy-Speak” (here).

Google nGrams confirms our suspicions. Mentions of both trauma and harm rose starting about 1970.

But trauma’s market share increased.

The important difference is that while both trauma and harm injure a person, trauma implies long-lasting psychological damage.  
Waldman can’t decide whether therapy-speak is really a recent development. The title of the article (“The Rise of . . .”) implies that it is, and she says that “the language of mental health is burgeoning.” But she also quotes a psychologist who tells her that “the language of the therapist’s office has long flooded popular culture.” I agree. The specific words that are in fashion come and go — trauma is on the rise, inferiority complex and midlife crisis are relics of the past — but thev process remains the same. So does the criticism. Waldman takes aim at “therapy-speak”; forty years ago the same target was “psychobabble.”

Psychotherapeutic discourse usually remains inside the gated city of the educated liberal elite. I imagine that on Fox News there’s about as much  of “toxic” relationships or emotional “triggers as there is of “mindfulness.” Those outside this world can find therapy-speak and its attendant world view annoying. Waldman speaks of “irritation that therapy-speak occasionally provokes,”

the words suggest a sort of woke posturing, a theatrical deference to norms of kindness, and they also show how the language of suffering often finds its way into the mouths of those who suffer least.

Therapy-speakers are annoying partly because they are parading their self-absorption. As Lee Rainwater said a half-century ago, "the soul-searching of middle class adolescents and adults,”  when compared with the problems of the poor, “seems like a kind of conspicuous consumption of psychic riches.” Nobody likes a show-off.

In one important way, trauma talk is different from earlier therapy-speak. Among the people Waldman is writing about and their counterparts in earlier generations (those who suffer least), therapists, neuroses, depression, anxieties, etc. have long been part of the conversation, These are, after all, the people who went to Woody Allen films.  The trauma frame shifts the focus to some external source. To some extent that has always been true of psychoanalytic ideas, with their emphasis on childhood experiences with parents. But calling it trauma puts it in the same been as the post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by soldiers who have been in combat. Besides magnifying the harm of these more mundane forms of suffering, it also implies that the harm was done by others, whether by intent or inadvertently. Imagine if Philip Larkin had written, “They traumatize you, your mum and dad.”

* I thought that “therapy-speak” might be Waldman’s own coinage. An Internet search turned up only one instance of this term, in a 2019 article at Slate.

The Filmmaker — Bertrrand Tavernier (1941-2021)

March 25, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

“The Clockmaker” was Bertrand Tavernier’s first feature film. I saw it in 1978 when it came out, maybe because one of the two theaters were it opened was only a few steps from where I lived. What the film tught me— and I’m sure this was not Tavernier’s intent — was that so many movie tropes that I had assumed were universal aspects of film story-telling were merely American. But that’s what the movie does, mostly by avoiding those tropes or cliches. The dining table looks familiar — the plates and glasses and flatware — but the meal that’s served is very different.

Here’s the movie’s set-up. A young man, still in his teens, has disappeared from his job at a factory So has his girlfriend, who also worked there.  Somebody murdered the factory boss, an unpleasant man who hit on female workers. The police suspect the young man and are trying to track him down. The head police inspector brings in the boy’s father, tells him that the son has committed murder, and asks the father (Michel, a clockmaker) to help in the search.

You know how this will play out. The father will start an investigation of his own, but he will be constantly thwarted by the police, who continue to pursue their theory that the son is the killer.  As the father gets closer to solving the case, the police will threaten to jail him on one or another pretext. In the end the father will find the real killer and expose the incometence or corruption of the police. There may even be a final gunfight where the father has to dodge bullets from both the bad guy and the police before finally outwitting everyone and killing the bad guy.

None of that happens because this is not an American film. It’s “L’Horloger,” based on a Simenon novel. In an American film the hero would focus almost entirely on solving external, practical problems — outwitting the killer and the police. But in “The Clockmaker,” there’s no mystery to solve. The son killed his boss. Instead, the film shows Michel coming to terms with that reality and coming to a better understanding of his son as, over the course of the flim, the son is found in the North, brought back to Lyon for trial, convicted, and sentenced to twenty years. The film is also about the relationship that develops between Michel and the police inspector, who also comes to  a better understanding of both Michel and the son.

The film differed from America films in other ways that I came to see were typical. First, the protagonist is not physically attractive. Michel (Philippe Noiret) is pudgy, with thinning hair and a weak chin. Nor is he physically active. This is not Liam Neeson pursuing his daughter’s kidnappers.

Second, in American films, children are superior to parents. They are more capable, more competent, and more moral. Even when the older character (an actual parent or a parent-like figure) is a good guy, he must be saved from his own incompetence by the younger person. In French films, by contrast, it is the  parents who must suffer and deal with the missteps of their children. The parent-child, older-younger pattern also appears as more powerful - less powerful, in this case police-civilian. In American films, the character we admire is rarely an agent of the government.

Third, in both French and American films, larger forces — “society” or the government — may be unfair. American films are about the protagonist’s struggle against injustice, a struggle that is usually successful, if not entirely than at least in some small personal way. French films are more likely to follow the protagonist’s inner struggle in coming to understand the reality of those larger forces even if they cannot be changed.

I have seen other Tavernier films, notably “Round Midnight,” but the one that has stays with me is “The Clockmaker.”*

* A trailer, without subtitles, is here.

Could Anything Ever Outweigh Gun Rights? Let’s Ask Megan McCardle

March 20, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

“He bought his gun legally, so there’s nothing that could have been done to stop it.” Yes, you do hear this argument posed against the obvious truth that if the Atlanta killer hadn’t been able to get a gun, he could not have committed these murders.

The response of course is that his purchase was legal because the laws are so lax. In other places with other laws, that purchase would have been illegal.

The defense of the current law is the Second Amendment, which the gunslingers interpret as absolute (except of course for that pesky preamble about a well-regulated militia). The carnage, to use the Steve Bannon - Donald Trump turn of phrase, is the price we pay for our liberty and freedom.

Here is what Megan McCardle, a thoughtful and reality-based conservative, said in a podcast discussion a day or two after the Atlanta shootings:

As with any other civil liberty, curtailing [Second Amendment rights] has costs as well as benefits, and those have to be weighed. I think that I would place a different weight on the liberty than [gun-restricting liberals] would.
The killer walked into a gun store and walked out a few minutes later with a 9 mm gun. So McCardle is speaking for those who weigh the killer’s convenience in buying a very deadly weapon against the lives of his victims, and her scale tips in favor of the killer.

So here’s the question for her and all those others who talk about “the price we pay for our liberty.” Is there any “price” that’s high enough to warrant restricting guns?

  • the eight killed in Atlanta– pennies
  • the 20 children slaughtered in Sandy Hook – what a shame, still a bargain
  • the 49 killed in the Pulse nightclub massacre – cheap
  • the 60 dead, 400 wounded, and another 400 injured in the panic in the Las Vegas shooting – still a small price to pay for a big liberty.

These are just the mass shooting, the headline grabbers. They are far outnumbered by shootings with only one or two victims, shootings often done with guns that were bought illegally. Our gun laws, such as they are, make buying those guns about as easy as it was to buy marijuana back when that was illegal.

The NRA answer is obviously that no “price” — no number of bullet-ridden bodies — outweighs the right of anybody to buy any gun. But what about less doctrinaire conservatives like McCardle. She usually takes an economist-like approach, weighing costs and benefits. So is there any price she would find too high? If so, what is it?

When “Legends” Fail

March 1, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

There’s a difference between liberals and conservatives, not just in their policy preferences or their views of Trump. They also differ in how they react to bad stuff in their own camp. Liberals are far more willing to recognize these inconvenient truths and to do something about their flawed leaders. Conservatives rally to the defense.

But you wouldn’t know that from reading Ross Douthat. It’s hard for conservatves like Douthat — thoughtful, principled, horrified by Trump — to say something good about Republicans these days. So instead, he goes after liberals. In his column yesterday, “The Twilight of the Anti-Trump Idols” Douthat is at pains to show folly and error of liberals for making heroes of Andrew Cuomo and the Lincoln project. Both of these parties turned out to have feet of foul-smelling clay.

. . .in the substitution of figures who ended up exposed as corrupt or just incompetent, we can see once again the importance of thinking about how we got Trump in the first place. Our society’s sickness may be particularly acute in Trump worship, but the affliction is more general. The stink of failure hangs over the liberal and cosmopolitan as well the populist and provincial,

See, Douthat says, liberals are just like conservatives. They share the same moral failings; they both suffer from the same “general affliction.”

Well, no. Of the “legends” Douthat mentions, only one is an actual Democrat — Cuomo. The other legends include the Lincoln Project, a group of anti-Trump Republicans; Mitt Romney, also a Republican who occasionally opposes Trump; and “Europeans,” whose countries seemed to be doing better on controlling Covid-19.

Republicans in government and media have stood by Trump and his administration through all the lies, corruption, impropriety, cruelty, and incompetence. The strongest criticisms from official Republican organizations and Fox News have been aimed at those who dared criticize Trump. They are even hard pressed to find anything bad to say about the insurrectionists who invaded the capital.

Democrats and other liberals, by contrast, are hardly coming out in support of Gov. Cuomo. Nor have I heard them laud the Lincoln Project and Mitt Romney lately, though I don’t pay as close attention to these things as does Ross Douthat. As for the Europeans, have liberals been dismissing troubling numbers as “fake data.”? Do liberals circle the wagons when one of them has stumbled? Ask Al Franken.

I’m not sure how to account for this difference. Is it just Trump? Or do conservatives generally run no risk of losing support when they shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue or the Capitol building?  I’m skeptical about Jonathan Haidt’s “moral foundations” as causes of behavior rather than as after-the-fact justifications, as when conservatives use “loyalty” as an ideal to support their choices. But in this case maybe their stronger emphasis on loyalty leads them to defend their “legends” even when those paragons have done things unbecoming a legend.

Singing Badly — Farce and Tragedy

March 1, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

Marx said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. Maybe, but sometimes it’s the other way round.

The woman who opened the CPAC meeting in Orlando with her rendition of the National Anthem* chose to do it a capella. As you can hear, that’s probably because the true pitch of an instrument would only accentuate her notes that fall somewhere in between the keys of a piano. Besides, no accompanist could possibly keep up with her unpredictable key changes.

Did she have a precursor? She did indeed. “Darlene Edwards,” a parody of a nightclub singer, was a character created in the 1950s by Jo Stafford, a pop singer with classical training. Darlene performed overwrought versions well-known songs like “I Love Paris” and  “Autumn Leaves.” She would hit off-key notes and add or drop beats in a measure, all the while accompanied by “Jonathan Edwards,” her real-life husband Paul Weston, playing a florid style piano you might hear in cocktail bars of the time. Here is how they destroy “Take the A Train.”

Jonathan and Darlene Edwards were clearly farce. The humor is based on the proposition that “this is not us.” And in fact they were talented musicians, and you get a sense that what they’re doing to the pitch and meter is far more difficult than a straight performance.

The CPAC singer’s two minutes on the stage is probably not tragedy, at least not according to literary definitions. But it is sad. There is no distance between the performer and the role. She even seems to think that she’s doing a fine job. **

There’s an obvious parallel to be drawn between her and the most important performer at the CPAC, a man who apparenly really does believe that everything he has done has been perfect. His performance too appeared to be farce, and it was easy to laugh at. Eventually however, it became clear that this was no laughing matter.

* I still have no idea who she is. My searches on Google and Twitter turned up nothing. A Facebook friend said that she was the daughter or niece of someone who gives a lot of money to CPAC.

** I’m not sure where Florence Foster Jenkins fits here. Accorfding to Wikipedia, “The question of whether ‘Lady Florence’ . . .was in on the joke, or honestly believed she had vocal talent, remains a matter of debate.”