“Carol” and That Elusive Psychoanalytic “Cure”

Although Todd Haynes‘s Carol is a lesbian romance set in the 1950’s, the film’s producers and stars have also emphasized its contemporary relevance and universality—it’s about the ache of love and desire, no matter the sex or gender or times.

On the other hand, there is a major difference between Carol’s same-sex romance and other types of secret loves that occurred in that era: the belief that a “cure” could be available via psychoanalysis, which at that time deemed homosexuality to be a perversion. To enter analysis then as a woman who was admittedly attracted to other women was to automatically enter what we would now call a type of conversion (or reparative) therapy.

This prevalent position within the psychoanalytical community persisted into several ensuing decades despite the fact, by the way, that by 1973 homosexuality was no longer a disorder per the DSM.

Margaret Talbot, New Yorker: “Though homosexuality was invisible to most Americans at the time, it was increasingly discussed among intellectuals, many of whom were in the thrall of psychoanalysis. The question most often asked about same-sex attraction was still whether it could be overcome, but people were finally beginning to acknowledge the range of possible sexual identities and behaviors.”

The author of the novel The Price of Salt, on which Phyllis Nagy‘s Carol screenplay is based, was Patricia Highsmith, who, although already successful in her writing career, published it under the pseudonym Claire Morgan. Only late in her life did Highsmith choose to come out publicly as the real author.

Why the need to hide? The novel’s story was actually inspired by events in Highsmith’s life. According to Kate Hart (This Recording) Highsmith’s journals reveal an incident “of falling in love with a female customer while working at Bloomingdale’s, but later find[ing] out — when stalking the woman at her New Jersey mansion — that she is married with children.”

Her reason for working as a shopgirl to begin with? Mike Powell, Rolling Stone: “in part to offset the cost of psychoanalysis.” Both she and her fiancé, author Marc Brandel, believed she needed this therapy in order to be able to marry him—she needed, after all, to do something about her desires for women.

Twice-a-week sessions or not, she never did, however, marry Brandel—or any man.

Which is not to say she was at peace with her same-sex attractions and relationships. Hart: “…(S)he felt guilty about being gay…Highsmith often focuses on the transience of gay relationships in the fifties, offering stock psychoanalytical stereotypes: ‘Homosexuals are really very reticent about their affairs. Under a pretence of sanctity, they hide the triviality and transitoriness of their relations. This is their real shame and baseness’.”

That bit of intellectual theorizing may be related to this finding of Hart’s: “Highsmith often uses a clinical language in her notebooks to distance herself from her sexuality and to view it as a treatable disease, as she was taught to do in her therapy sessions.”

Highsmith, though, also found closeted life quite challenging and at times rightly saw “the taboo of homosexuality”—homophobia, in other words—as the true culprit. “…(C)onsciously I am not in the least ashamed of homosexuality, and if I were normal, and equally imaginative, I should probably consider it very interesting to be homosexual, and wish I’d had the experience.”

Given the pressures working against her, it is certainly to Highsmith’s credit—and unfortunately probably not to the credit of her therapy—that, compared to other lesbian romance writers, she was able to depict in The Price of Salt a relatively favorable spin on the couple’s choices and outcome.

If you haven’t already seen Carol, below is one of the trailers:

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