Mar 08

Homophobic Therapist Dads, Gay Activist Sons in “When We Rise”

Last week’s miniseries When We Rise revealed, among many other things, two different unflattering portraits of real-life homophobic therapist dads reacting to their gay sons.

The first such pair we meet is Cleve Jones, the author of last year’s memoir When We Rise: My Life in the Movement, and his father (played by David Hyde Pierce), a psychologist who believes being gay is a sickness to be treated with electroshock or other brain-changing practices.

In the first episode Jones is an adolescent struggling with his budding identity. Now 62, he recently told Terry Gross, NPR, about his despair: “I was planning to kill myself when I was 15 because I thought I was the only queer in the world, and I didn’t want to live that way. And I didn’t want to be ashamed and beaten up, and then I read about gay liberation in Life magazine. And I decided not to kill myself, and I flushed the pills down the toilet.”

As Cleve had feared, his coming out to his parents several years later didn’t go so well. Having purposely waited until he was old enough, he then went off to San Francisco, where he eventually became a well-known activist.

Cleve says he had little contact with his father for at least a couple years after that. Tim Teeman, The Daily Beast: “His mother, a former dancer who taught dance well into her 70s, and he had a much closer relationship. His relationship with his father got close again after Jones was diagnosed HIV-positive and became sick. ‘Both of them were quite perfect in every way. They went to quilt displays and marches and became activists. There was a rapprochement’.”

Jones actually wants to write his next book about his father.

Another key but lesser figure in the mini-series is Richard Socarides, who was an adviser to President Bill Clinton. His father was psychiatrist Charles Socarides (1922-2005), founder of NARTH, the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality.

In When We Rise Richard (played by his actual younger brother Charles Socarides) is being tapped to aid Clinton on gay and lesbian issues when he has a significant exchange with Cleve Jones. “…Jones (played by Guy Pearce) confronts Richard and asks if he’s related to ‘that homophobe shrink who damned my entire generation.’ Richard turns around and politely says, ‘He’s my father; have a good day'” (Theater Mania).

Father Socarides, in fact, had pioneered conversion therapy, and Richard had yet to reveal to him his own sexual orientation. Influenced eventually by Cleve’s strong opinions, however, Richard decides to come out with it. Adam Nagourney, New York Times, recently got the real scoop from Richard about this scene shown in When We Rise:

‘In that interaction with my father, my father takes out a gun and puts it to his head and threatens to shoot himself,’ Mr. Socarides said. ‘Which actually happened. No one ever knew about it. It was really intense. I hadn’t told anybody that ever, because I was trying to protect him, or I guess in some way I was embarrassed or ashamed of myself. I felt enough time had passed.’

ABC News quotes additional info from Richard about this: “I knew that the gun probably was not loaded, I knew he wasn’t going to fire it. But it was very emotional and I probably did not react in real life as calmly as Charlie does in the film.”

But Charlie told Theater Mania: “Richard’s strength is his ability to remain composed and productive under pressure and not let these personal demons eat at him too much.”

Richard himself to The New Yorker in 2013: I don’t think my coming out to my dad was harder or easier than anyone else’s. I didn’t come out to the founder of conversion therapy. I came out to my father.”

Mar 03

Hardest Part of Being a Therapist (“7 Questions Project”)

Being a therapist: what’s it really like?

Several years ago psychologist Ryan Howes conducted The Seven Questions Project in which he asked “big names in the world of psychotherapy” a series of pertinent questions. Although not everyone answered his request to participate, the ones who did were thoughtful in their responses.

When I recently found his series of Psychology Today blog posts about this and reviewed his queries, the one I found most interesting was the fifth: What’s the toughest part of being a therapist? (For the others, click on the link provided above.) And then I read Howes’s own conclusion regarding the project, which included the following:

“Best Question: I thought it would be questions one, four or seven, but question five (the toughest part of being a therapist) turned out to be the most revealing.”

Below are selected excerpts of some of the therapists’ answers to this specific question.

Thomas Szasz (1920-2012)

Individual psychotherapy — that is, engaging a distressed fellow human in a disciplined conversation and human relationship – requires that the therapist have the proper temperament and philosophy of life for such work. By that I mean that the therapist must be patient, modest, and a perceptive listener, rather than a talker and advice-giver…

Even if the foregoing conditions are satisfied, the therapist’s task may not be easy or enviable, as he may be required to be passive in the face of the client’s self-destructive behavior and tolerate the client’s choosing to stick to his familiar, self-limiting life strategies and not risk entering on the path of liberation.

Harriet Lerner

The toughest part of being a therapist is that you constantly run up against your limitations.

Jeffrey Barnett 

One major challenge of being a psychotherapist is to pay attention to our own functioning, monitor our effectiveness, and to practice ongoing self-care…Just like our clients we must deal with life’s challenges and stresses.

Nada Stotland

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of doing psychotherapy is listening to and absorbing patients’ psychic pain.

Irvin Yalom

Well, I think it’s just holding so much pain at times. Worrying about my patients. Seeing some people that I really can’t help, who in some ways are beyond help. Or seeing a sociopath knowing I can’t really do anything for him or can’t reach him. Or watching some people who are throwing their lives away on drugs and there’s so little you can do about it.

James H. Bray

Not taking client’s problems home with you. Many people come for psychotherapy with significant emotional distress and pain. It is important to leave that with the client and not take it home with you.

John Gray

…Whenever I even start to notice a sense of frustration within myself I recognize that I’m not giving a very good message to my client. Whenever you’re frustrated with someone you’re telling them, “you’re not enough, you’re not doing it right, you’re not living up to my expectations.” That’s not helping the client, it’s not helping yourself.

Glen O. Gabbard

The toughest part of being a therapist is being truly “present” with the patient. The demands placed on a therapist in a typical day of psychotherapy are truly extraordinary. The therapist must be present in a way that allows the patient to feel heard, validated, and understood.

Donald Meichenbaum

The toughest part of being a therapist is how NOT to get caught up with all of the questionable psychotherapeutic “BULLSHIT” that pervades the field.

David D. Burns  

…Learning to accept failure on multiple levels is, to my way of thinking, the key to become a world-class therapist. But that means humility, and setting your ego aside, while you develop superb new technical skills.

Jan 16

“Citizen Therapists for Democracy” Newly Forming

Several months ago I posted about Citizen Therapists Against Trumpism, an organization founded by psychologist Bill Doherty during the presidential campaign. Now Doherty has announced the formation of its replacement, Citizen Therapists for Democracy, an international dues-paying association dedicated to newly evolving goals.

As Doherty stated in his launch-related email, goals of Citizen Therapists for Democracy include the following:

  • Learning and spreading transformative ways to practice therapy with a public dimension
  • Rebuilding democratic capacity in communities
  • Resisting anti-democratic ideologies and practice

Some excerpted points from the Citizen Therapists FAQ section:

If it’s partisan politics (vote for my candidate or party), then it doesn’t have a place in therapy. But if politics broadly means how people with different views figure out how to live together and govern themselves—and then the policies that emerge from this process—then it’s game for conversation in therapy.

To be quite concrete, if you treat anxious or depressed Latino or Muslim clients who are frightened about Trumpism (and anti-Semitism is on the rise), is your job only to treat their symptoms or to also oppose the public xenophobia? We believe the nature of our work inherently combines public and private.

Keep in mind that Citizen Therapists for Democracy is not an “anti” movement. We are promoting democracy and public mental health, and in those contexts will oppose threats from any quarter. Further, there is collective power when members of a healing profession engage the public domain in their role as professionals.

On the matter of the blank slate, it’s really a myth in therapy. If a client learns that his/her therapist is in an organization that opposes aspects of Trumpism, well, that’s probably not going to be such a big surprise based on lots of assumptions the client has already made (you drive a Prius and have the New Yorker magazine in the waiting room). In the same way, if a client worries out loud about family members being rounded up and deported, and the therapist agrees that this is a scary public policy, is this not a validation rather than a misuse of therapist power?

The social forces that allowed Donald Trump the man to become President, and that are rising around the world, are so much bigger than his personality that focusing on a diagnosis risks marginalizing the contributions of therapists. Once mental health professionals took a diagnostic position during the campaign, that’s all the media wanted to know from them—before the media moved on to more interesting topics.

Refer to this link for additional reasons that you might be interested in joining Citizen Therapists.

On the other hand, “You’re probably NOT a good fit if any of the following is a big ‘yes’ for you” (from the same link):

  • Your main focus for action now is making sure Trump is a one-term President with a Democratic Congress after two years.
  • You think that therapists must continue to beat the drum that Trump has a personality disorder that makes him unfit to be President.
  • Your main approach to Trump supporters in the White working class is help them see how they’ve been duped.
  • You believe that Progressive politics has most of the answers to our nation’s problems, with Conservatives having little or nothing to offer.
  • It would feel weird to have Conservative therapists share a social change organization with you.

Sep 23

What Therapy Is Like “From Both Sides”

Reading these fascinating, no-holds-barred essays, it’s sometimes hard to tell who is “crazier” – the patients or the therapists! Author Lee Woodruff, reviewing How Does That Make You Feel? True Confessions from Both Sides of the Therapy Couch, essays about what therapy is like

Therapist Sherry Amatenstein, who’s edited a new collection of 34 subjective essays representing “both sides of the therapy couch,” reportedly actually wanted readers to realize that therapists are neurotic too.

While some of the presented writers have been “shrunk,” some have been the “shrinks”—and some, similar to the lead character in my novel Minding Therapy, have been both. All the contributors, many of whom have written professionally, are listed on the book’s website. (Scroll down to find them.)

Just a sampling of titles by those describing what therapy is like from the client’s perspective:

  • Beth Sloan: “I Really, Really Hate You”
  • Jenine Holmes: “Therapy Is For White People”
  • Charlie Rubin: “Why I Didn’t Enter Therapy Sooner”
  • Janice Eidus: “The Therapist of My Dreams”
  • Pamela Rafalow Grossman: “With Some Gratitude to My Asshole Former Therapist”

Some brief details about other pieces in this category follow.

Susan Shapiro, author of the 2009 comic novel Speed Shrinking, is “a self-described ‘shrinkaholic’ and ‘therapy-lifer,’ who describes lining up a UN of advisers—an Indian psychopharmacologist, a Middle Eastern hypnotherapist, a Jewish Jungian astrologer—to meet with shrink-seekers for three minutes to exchange numbers à la speed dating” (per Dorri Olds, Tablet).

On the other hand, Beverly Donofrio relates what she’s learned from her experiences with 10 “serial therapists” over the course of decades.

Anna March‘s “Lies I Told My Therapist” confesses to six years worth of big falsehoods—because she couldn’t trust that her therapist would really care about her actual life.

Estelle Erasmus was placed in therapy at the age of 16 by parents who could never have suspected the potential damage. Nancy Szokan, Washington Post: The unethical “…Ron ‘(name kept the same to protect no one)’ told her he was going to help her ‘become a woman’ by getting in touch with her sexuality — and she’s explicit about things he said and asked her to do. But then she relates how he led her to insights that rescued her troubled relationship with her family.”

At least a couple pieces deal with therapy termination: Allison McCarthy‘s “How About a Hug?” and clinical social worker Martha Crawford‘s “Back Into the Wild.”

Therapists’ essays also include one by the book’s editor. Some of the others:

  • Juli Fraga: “When the Therapist Cries”—About dealing with therapist-patient boundaries.
  • Molly Peacock: “Not Even a Smidgen”—On her belief that long-term therapy need not be considered pathological. “…(I)f you work with people who are creatively re-inventing themselves, then the therapy is inventive. You don’t have to give it up like smoking or alcohol! Instead it increases the likelihood that things will work out. I have the absolute conviction that it’s a creative process, that it isn’t pathological, not even a smidgen” (from Partisan).
  • Dennis Palumbo: “A Long, Strange Trip”—“…(A) mystery novelist and Hollywood screenwriter,” says Szokan, [Palumbo] “describes how he left a successful career and launched himself into six years of training to become a licensed psychotherapist. His friends said that proved he’d lost his mind. ‘I pretty much thought the same thing’.”
  • Jessica Zucker: “The Pregnant Therapist”—And all that entails.
  • Nina Gaby: “I’m Not Supposed to Love You”—As she states in her own blog, “…I wrote about a kind of transparency, a kind of love…Not romantic love, not familial love, but a love that helps us do the work we do, a word that is often taboo in our profession.”

And in the grouping of essays penned by therapists who’ve also been in therapy:

Sep 05

Manifesto Against Trumpism: For Therapists Et Al.

Previously I’ve written about the negative effects of the ideology of Trumpism, including in a post about Writers On Trump that linked to a petition opposing his candidacy (still available for signing).

Writers, of course, aren’t the only ones worried about the possibility of Trumpism infiltrating the world. Another group are therapists, as many of us already are seeing the adverse mental health effects, broadly known as Trump Anxiety and political anxiety.

So, when I recently heard about an online manifesto called “Citizen Therapists Against Trumpism” I easily opted to sign it. Others, though, may have some doubts, so the creator of the manifesto, family therapist and psychology professor (University of Minnesota) Bill Doherty, has posted a FAQ For Therapists on the related website. A sampling of quotes:

We have to be concerned with public mental health and the social conditions that promote human flourishing or dysfunction, which means public involvement–a citizen politics

There is collective power when members of a healing profession speak out together in their role as professionals. Society entrusts us with special responsibility in the arena of mental health and relationships. When we see public threats, we have a responsibility to speak up collectively and take action–and not be constrained by the inevitable opposition.

…(W)hy not also write about the risks of a Hillary Clinton presidency? For the same reason I did not feel compelled to write a manifesto about what Mitt Romney and John McCain stood for, even though I supported Obama. They represented political philosophies that have a legitimate place in the spectrum of public thought in a democracy. George Wallace did not. Donald Trump does not.

In an interview with public radio‘s Bob Garfield, Doherty explained how this manifesto against Trumpism came about in the first place:

…I visited a concentration camp. I toured Freud’s house and saw videos of him fleeing Nazi Europe. And I began to look into this and realized that mental health professionals stayed silent during a very dramatic time in the history of the Western world. I saw the rise of Donald Trump and what he represents as on that continuum, a movement that undermines the public good, public mental health and our democracy. So I felt that this time, this time, mental health professionals should not just stay in our offices and act as if the world is not threatening our clients.

Trumpism is defined in the manifesto, by the way, as “a set of ideas about public life and a set of public practices characterized by such actions as ‘scapegoating and banishing groups of people who are seen as threats…’;’ degrading, ridiculing, and demeaning rivals and critics’; ‘fostering a cult of the Strong Man’; an ongoing lack of truth; subordination of women; nationalistic tendencies; and the inciting of violence.

The various effects of Trumpism, the manifesto states, include but are not limited to fear and alienation, “exaggerated masculinity as a cultural ideal,” “coarsening of public life by personal attacks on those who disagree,” and “erosion of the American democratic tradition.”

It’s important to note that therapists supporting the manifesto are not stating that we are against those who choose Trump as their candidate:

We understand the draw of Trumpism and we acknowledge that some of our fellow citizens, and some of our clients, may vote for Donald Trump not because they embrace all aspects of Trumpism but because they are frustrated with their circumstances and fed up with the current political system. We are against Trumpism and its architects, not against those who are inclined to give it a chance to change the direction of the country.

On the website are also specific suggestions regarding other possible constructive actions.