Today marks exactly two months since the Women’s March on Washington, one of the largest protests the capitol and the country have ever witnessed. We asked BPSI member and Social Awareness Chair Dr. Deborah Choate for her thoughts on how our new political reality affects human relationships, both in the realm of psychoanalysis and in the “real” world. 


Deborah Choate, MD


“Alternative facts.”  The Orwellian chill of that phrase from a Presidential spokesperson stuns. The denial of the objective reality of numbers of people present at the Inauguration versus those at the subsequent protests pointed from day one of this administration to authoritarian manipulation of truth.   Our work as psychoanalysts involves remembering, repeating and working through. Facts take on different shapes and coloring as they are revisited, but this is a very different beast than “alternative facts,” which I think most of us would call “lies.”  Donald Trump appears to be increasingly isolated in his own reality, with its own language and “facts”, which unfortunately, given his position, affects us all and requires vigilance.

Our profession depends on listening, and we need to listen to those with whom we disagree.  Right now, for a majority of US citizens, as evidenced by the popular vote this past election, those with whom they disagree are those for whom now President Trump makes sense.  (He does not seem to feel the same imperative to listen.)  In her book, Strangers in Their Own Land, Arlie Hochschild, a liberal sociologist from Berkeley, explores why politically conservative people in the Louisiana bayou support individuals and policies that appear to her to go manifestly against their own best interests.  She tries, as she puts it, to broach “the empathy wall”, and explicates many motivating factors including economic, ethnic, and gender as shaping different perceptions and ideologies. In the current barrage of executive orders – gagging, banning, stripping of rights – which appear to be driven by what psychologist Nancy Burke has described as Trump’s desire not to lead  the country, but to own it, I confess to finding it extremely difficult  to listen to those who applaud these actions. While it is important to listen,  it is equally important not to acquiesce to what is felt to be fundamentally wrong: the racism, sexism, classism and xenophobia of the election that has so quickly born toxic fruit.  It is hard to reconcile these two ideals.

The Women’s March the day after the inauguration, for all the dissent and near despair which brought it into being, felt exhilarating: 3 million people around the world protesting peacefully, even joyfully.  A week later, as the Muslim ban was launched, to again be in the streets afforded a repeated experience of solidarity, but also brought home the stark realization that this was just the beginning of something very dark. What happened in one short week was genuinely alarming, both what happened and how it happened.  Thousands have protested and will continue to protest, and while it is arguable that large scale public protests are experienced by those in power only as evidence of their own importance, they are a strong beginning. Other forms of resistance for those who want to resist need now to be mobilized.

What of this do patients bring to us? What do we bring to patients?  How do we listen?  What do we hear?  What do they hear? The question of does the sociopolitical belong in the consulting room has by many, for many years, been either ignored or answered in the negative. Judging by what several, if not most, clinicians are hearing in our offices these days, it seems to be becoming increasingly clear that the world we live in does influence the psyche and to ignore that, or always interpret it as a manifestation of internal psychic conflict, does a disservice to our patients, and ourselves.

The particular psyches of those now in power have a definite impact on us. Without offering diagnoses of someone not met with first hand, one can still observe behavior and actions.  A man fixated on size and his own aggrandizement, who needs to pick fights and surrounds himself only with those who prop up his ego, has quickly changed the world picture. In a chaos of bullying and “alternative facts”, isolation has been prioritized, putting “independence” in a weird new light.   For some, “activist” and “psychoanalyst” may not go together, but for those for whom they do, there is The Psychoanalytic Activist, a blog put out by Section 9 of Division 39, (Psychoanalysis for Social Responsibility,) of the American Psychological Association, which is currently running pieces by socially concerned psychoanalysts about The First 100 Days. Also of interest is the online pamphlet “Indivisible” which offers detailed information on organizing.

In our Psychoanalytic training we generally make limited use of work that addresses issues of race, class, gender and ethnicity, leaving clinicians and our patients isolated in our own way, at a time when isolation from ideas and others has become particularly dangerous.  It seems a good time to think and talk about ways this might change, in the consulting room and out, to help us all better be part of an interdependent world, however much interdependence as an operating principle is taking it on the chin right now.

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