Social Issues and Cultural Diversity:
The Expanded Realm of Self Psychology
by Annette Richard, MPs
Jill Gardner introduced the third and last panel of the conference by noting that it addressed two questions: first, can the intensive study of the inner life of the individual person illuminate the behavior of large groups in our troubled time?; and, second, conversely, can the study of large group phenomena illuminate the inner life of the individual?
Tessa Phillips, Ph.D., the first presenter, offered a portion of her scholarly research entitled "Race, Place and Self in the Experience of a Bystander." She drew the audience directly into her journey by describing an encounter in her own consulting room with a new patient, a woman of colour. Dr. Phillips reported that she had been changed by her research insofar as race was no longer a barrier to her listening and thinking. Having grown up in apartheid South Africa, she fled to Australia after the Soweto uprising in 1977. She had hoped to put South Africa behind her, but with the profound changes that followed Mandela's release from prison in 1990, she experienced an eruption of many conflicting feelings. It was time, she felt, to integrate her past and present. And much to our profit, she did so masterfully by raising profound questions: "What are the relationships among politics and memory and self? Between individual responsibility and collective responsibility? How does context shape experiences of race? "
A poignant story taken from the first interview she conducted for her thesis served as the ground for an exploration of the difficult issues involved in being a bystander to political atrocities. Rosemary, a white middle class woman who returned to South Africa after living abroad, and her black live-in maid Clara, gave birth to their sons at the same time. Remarkably, it was only upon hearing the baby's cry that Rosemary realized that Clara had been pregnant too. Both babies grew up together until a neighbor reported that Clara's baby was living illegally on the premises. Six months after the child was sent to live with his grandmother, he died of malnutrition. Even though Rosemary opposed the system, she was part of the white elite who benefitted from apartheid. Given her " public self, " which was defined by her white skin, she was unable to resolve the overwheming sense of guilt and responsibility for the child's death felt by her " private self. "
Dr Phillips then described the specifics of the South African apartheid system that, as she noted, gave a particular shaping to the deep political, social and class divisions not only between blacks and whites, but within the selves of individual black and white South Africans. Dr Phillips brilliantly addressed many issues related to the problems faced by those known as bystanders, the ordinary people who do not stand up to oppressive regimes. Through her keen empathic imagination (and probably through her own experiences), she seemed to grasp Rosemary's experiential world. As a consequence of the culture generated by the apartheid, Rosemary had lost sight of the inner world of blacks, just as the blacks too seemed to have lost sense of their own inner world. Discussing the reasons for the loss of Rosemary's empathic imaginative capacity toward Clara's inner life, Dr. Phillips posited that the power structures in South Africa enforced the "splitting and segregations of one's subjectivity." When apartheid ended, Rosemary (and Dr. Phillips) was surprised and shocked to discover "'things' she did not know she did not know." Dr Phillips introduced a powerful metaphor that captures the division in the self that, she believes, was a means of surviving for both Blacks and Whites in South Africa: the "Apartheid of the Soul." She thus showed how exquisitely race, place and self are intertwined for all involved in the system.
Dr. Phillips ended her talk by describing the transformative role of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in post apartheid South Africa. As a result of the TRC, the inner world of oppressed South African blacks could begin to be apprehended by white perpetrators and bystanders--and probably by many blacks as well. Rosemary's crisis of subjectivity at the time of the TRC exemplifies the breaking down of denial, and the blurring of "public and private categories of responsiblity." In a tragic epilogue, Dr. Phillips recounted her own traumatic experience when, very recently, her sister's boyfriend was mugged, stabbed and murdered while on a mid-afternoon walk in Cape Town. Insofar as the murder suspect is black and the victim white, Dr Philips dramatically underlined powerful questions for us and our patients: "Who should be on the receiving end of such anger? . . . . In situations like this, should we ignore race, ignore history and circumstance? " A standing ovation by the audience expressed a very emotional response to her much appreciated presentation.
Mark Smaller then presented " Self Psychology and the 'Forward Edge' Hits the Streets: The Analytic Service to Adolescents Program (ASAP)." Describing his transformative experiences at Morton Alternative High School, on Chicago's west side, he spoke of falling in love with the students, their parents, the principal, and the teachers. The school had been set up for 40 students who had been expelled from two regular high school--usually for violent, threatening, drug or gang related behaviors. Dr. Smaller presented the results of his research which involved providing depth psychological treatment at this school for the last six years. Marion Tolpin's idea of central "strivings of the forward edge" stood out as the beacon orienting this challenging enterprise in reaching out to deeply troubled younsters caught in seemingly intractable social problems. Dr. Smaller recounts : "I began to learn from the students that their respective traumas would not necessarily be the focus of our work. Rather, what these kids had to know in order to be successful in our collaborative work was that their longings, aspirations, and ambitions needed to be central.".
Dr. Smaller provided a detailed account of the treatment and research model for ASAP which emerged from the joint efforts of the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis and the staff at Morton Alternative High School. The goal was not only to provide innovative services to the community, but also to learn how psychoanalytic ideas could be applied to diverse groups, with implications for all psychoanalytic work. Situated in an environment where dramatic statistics have documented a catastrophic developmental milieu for children, the ASAP model proposes to offer a facilitative therapeutic milieu for each student's growth and functioning. Through a focus on the "forward edge" model of emotional development (Tolpin, 2002), all staff and peers are helped to become part of a truly reliable and responsive selfobject environment for each student. By way of illustration, Dr Smaller described how, in the case of a student doing little school work, the staff will look at what helps that student get out of bed and come to school rather than on what prevents him from doing the work.
Dr. Smaller's description of the treatment of two students illustrated important aspects of the approach. While the students' traumatic experiences were acknowledged, he suggested that it was mostly the collaborative caring focus on their healthy thriving selves that allowed their symptoms to subside and enhanced their resilience and self-esteem. This approach was used systematically in treatment with individuals and in groups, in class by teachers, and in supportive events for failing and overwhelmed parents otherwise unreachable by the usual helping agencies. The preliminary quantitative and qualitative findings of the ASAP research project, according to Dr Smaller, seem to show that "this model can reduce levels of depression, anxiety, and stress, and improve overall school functioning of students." Attempts have been made to replicate and adapt the ASAP program for use in other middle or high school settings. The focus on the forward moving self in a responsive milieu, if proven successful in facilitating growth, could have implications for treatment in many other clinical settings.
Dr. Smaller noted that many questions remain unanswered, such as whether the gains made by some students will last, and why it fails to help other students. He concluded by noting: "The three most important aspects of adolescence are: connection, connection, and connection. As he demonstrated, playfulness, humour and a caring focus on healthy strivings, as well as a systematic and collaborative reaching out to make connections with can make a difference with people who have suffered from the most horrific social devastation.
Both of the papers in this panel represent major contributions toward the application of self psychology and intersubjectivity to the larger social, political and cultural contexts in which we live. They pointed the way toward the expansion of our capacity for empathic understanding of individuals both in our consulting rooms and in their own communities.
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- IAPSP Interviews
Interview with Eldad Iddan
- Feeling, Relating, Existing
A blog by Robert D. Stolorow, Ph.D.
- Huffington Post Blogs:
'Inside the Mind of a War Vet' & 'Trauma and the Hourglass of Time'
by Helen Davey & Robert D. Stolorow
- TRISP's Bystanders No More Conference: A Ground Breaking Event
by Susanne Weil
Conference Panel Summaries:
- Keynote Address: Progress in Self Psychology and its Impact on Contemporary Clinical Practice
by Anna & Paul Ornstein
- PLENARY II
by Scott Davis, Frank Lachmann & Arietta Slade
The IAPSP eForum is the annual online forum of the International Association for Psychoanalytic Self Psychology. Edited by Doris Brothers, Ph.D.
- Editor's Introduction
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- Letter from the President
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