The Clare Spark Blog

May 25, 2014

Links to blogs on mass murder/pop culture

Draper: Ulysses and the Sirens (1909)

Draper: Ulysses and the Sirens (1909)

(Image from populist website: painting by Herbert James Draper (1909) attacks “vampire bankers” who send Sirens to destroy Ulysses—an image of The People beset by finance capital. By using this painting, I am not endorsing populist demagoguery. See comments below.) (Ulysses) (“Christian” love as antidote to “Jewish” hate) (Jared Lee Loughner) (James Eagan Holmes) (Adam Lanza) (retitled “The Godfather….) (How the punkish Foucauldians discourage mental health interventions.)

Elliot Rodger

Elliot Rodger

March 10, 2013

What remains useful about Freud?

One version of individuality, NYC

One version of individuality, NYC

(For a prelude to this blog, see

It is obvious why many social conservatives would reject anything smacking of Freudianism out of hand: besides his secular version of Judaism throughout life, his later work identified him as an atheist, and in such works as The Future of an Illusion argued that those persons believing in religion were in a state of regression (clinging to an idealized Father figure); he denied that children were “innocent” by pointing to infant or  infantile sexuality and the Oedipus complex; he argued that most of us live with ambivalence about all our love objects: such mixtures of love and hate regarding parents and siblings destabilize portentous emotions that preserve hierarchy, whether these be the deployment by powerful institutions of hero-worship, state-worship, or the expectation that families are (unproblematic) havens in a heartless world.

Rather, for Freud (especially for some of his followers), the rhetoric of the perfectly happy family preserves tyrannical hierarchies, causes childish regression to dependency and loss of a critical/skeptical outlook in adults, and worst of all, eliminates the notion of the horizontal contract in favor of vertical contracts. I.e., the Good King or Leader will protect us if we don’t question the legitimacy of his policies and institutional practices. This move removes attention from the fairness or unfairness of the horizontal contract, a fiction of rationality that can be  preserved either in the statism of the progressive movement or in the “rational choice” theory of libertarians. But if there is an abundance of labor, the employer holds all the cards; if there are many beautiful women competing for the love and protection of powerful men, woman’s worth is downgraded, except in agricultural, pre-modern societies where female strength and competence as helpmeets and breeders are primary. And we wonder at the popularity of primitivism? (click onto the illustration of a youthful anarchist: if this isn’t neo-Nazi, I don’t know what is).

Which brings us to the question of individuality. As moderns and inheritors of civilization, we want to be introspective, to be self-examining. We abjure impulse in favor of picking and choosing our life partners on the basis of their psychological maturity, as prospective companions; we hope to be appropriately self-critical as parents and adults with respect to the elderly, or how we evaluate everyone and everything from economic policies to great writers, presidents, and other historical actors, or to beloved mates, teachers, and friends. Such strenuous introspection is difficult without the memory of multiple traumas, small and large. Here was Freud’s lasting contribution to humanity. The more we courageously look at our choices, noting which were forced upon us through the accidents of our particularly histories, the more able we are to look at whether or not we had the individual choices we imagine. We recognize, without shame, internal conflicts, and face them with curiosity and the determination to dig further, without hating ourselves for our “errors” or sins.

Freud remains unsurpassed in his diagnosis of early childhood and trauma: traumas that resurface in later life to cause psychosomatic illness and the immobilization of anxiety, depression, and the fear that we have not lived our own lives, but were the playthings of a wicked cosmos, even demonic forces.

To acknowledge how sex and aggression play out in institutions and in always difficult families, how instinctual forces may penetrate all our attachments or “choices”—whether these be our votes for representatives, or whether or not to be parents, or to understand sexual attraction or repulsion, or to practice sadomasochist rituals, is to attain a higher level of freedom than Freud’s predecessors enjoyed. As one great teacher of mine reassured me: “We are not civilized yet.”

Sigmund Freud was the consummate bourgeois, pointing to both the limits to human freedom and to the long process of emancipation from self-annihilating illusion. How many of us possess his courageous, if ambiguous, embrace of the modern world? How many of us dare to give up the perverse satisfactions of the guilty liberal by emulating Minerva’s owl? There are few compensations for old age and painful experience, but here is one: we may see the trajectory of our lives and treat our choices with less disappointment and more generosity.

[Professor Hank Greenspan of the University of Michigan, a trained psychoanalyst, has given me permission to quote his response to the blog: “In an age of tweets and bits and quick fixes, the notion of spending, literally, years trying to understand someone else’s subjectivity in its particularity and complexity–including one’s own!–is radical enough. Also, the related notion (alien to most academic work) that no interpretation can be more than conjecture until it is engaged, refined, and worked over with the person about whom the interpretation intends to apply. Timing counts too–also alien to work that concerns only texts rather than folks. Freud’s “technique” contribution remains, for me, his most important legacy.”]

Minerva's Owl?

Minerva’s Owl?

November 19, 2012

Abandonment anxiety and “moderation”

Over the weekend, I discovered that my computer had been hacked. It set me into waves of panic. The panic was about abandonment, and the subject leads me back to certain themes on my website that have been discussed at length: attachment theory, panic attacks, the neutral state, rival conceptions of managing conflict, and the psychiatry wars between Freudians, Jungians, and anti-“talking cure” pill-dispensers.

As my Facebook friends are aware, I live in Southern California, which is home for New Age mystics and those who seek “healing” of conflicts that have lodged in the material body, or, worse, conflicts that are omnipresent in the (mis-named) “body politic.” It is to these latter seekers after “peace of mind” that this blog is mostly addressed.

It has long been my position that traumas inflicted in early childhood can never be healed, no matter how much insight into family dynamics, the poor parenting skills of our caretakers, or knowledge of world, national, and local history. For instance, I could dwell on women as particularly susceptible to abandonment fears, but men have abandonment fears too, whether they go beyond the typical feminine fear of aging and being dumped for a younger woman, or not.

This blog is not consoling, except in one respect: as mature persons looking at conflict inside or outside our own psyches, we may learn to manage conflicts, even if they can never be resolved. In the public sphere, we should beware of politicians and pundits who preach the opposite: that a neutral, artful, manipulative mediator can get warring parties to agree on compromise.

We are facing two particularly unresolvable conflicts today: 1. Israel and the Palestinians; and 2. Republicans and Democrats (the political parties not only have divergent views on capitalism, but are internally incoherent). The term “moderation” is a favorite conception of psychological warfare practitioners. “Moderation” is something that every healthy person strives for, but the word is too abstract, taken by itself, to be useful.

When we look to “moderation” are we talking about the portions of pasta that we consume, or “compromising” with the person with a gun or missile pointed at our home? We have seen how ineffectual appeasement has been in the past, while through the 1930s, Hitler constantly tested the democracies who were loath to embark upon another war after the war-weariness that ensued after the Great War. There are times when the enemy must be resisted and defeated, not pacified.

Families and family histories are a different matter. Paraphrasing Tolstoy, each family is miserable in its own unique way, whether over political differences, memories of past injuries, generational conflict, sibling rivalry, or marital strife. Liberals recommend better “communication skills” as if these techniques actually soothed the savage beast that often emerges at such moments as Thanksgiving or similar holidays. Some religions advise “forgiveness” as if such a gesture would confer “closure”, restoring a harmony that never existed, maybe not even in the womb.

My own view is that no amount of appeasement, compromise, or reparations can cure ancient hurts, but that self-knowledge (including knowledge of those organs where rage is stored), knowledge of our relatives’ sore spots, and particular needs, are skills that everyone can acquire in time. “Healing,” like the sentimental songs that the Yankee Doodle Society have reconstructed, is a utopian fantasy, but wise management of irreconcilable conflict is realizable.

Happy Thanksgiving, and work on your deep breathing. (For a different take on Thanksgiving, see Especially timely given the new Spielberg movie on Lincoln.)

March 18, 2012

History as trauma (2), Rosebud version

In response to my hint on Facebook that Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, who recently went on a rampage killing 16 Afghanistani civilians,  might be suffering from a mental disorder, X wrote: “The only thing new here is the growth of a professional class of social leeches who use all human discomfort as a niche for some absurdly over-credentialed “helping” professional as a “grief counselor” or PTSD expert, all of whom are in full retreat from American values that have stood us in good stead for 240 years and pushing us towards some kind of Euro Social Justice oblivion. The “Say a Prayer for Peace” commercials make me want to hurl as the vet is coached to say he would have committed suicide without the counseling of some leech or other we should send money to support.

[“X” cont.] If I was in command of a military force today, and a Sgt Bale popped up, I’d make sure some “tragedy” or other took place before he got in the hands of the touchy, feely, lawyered up creeps who are infesting our nation and preserving and supporting the lives of now millions of marginal people who could actually be making a contribution to a better America.”[end X message.]

[Clare:] Clearly, much more needs to be said about the current state of medicine with respect to PTSD and other forms of disabling responses to traumas. This blog will comment further on the material introduced here: I have finished reading Robert Scaer MD’s book, The Body Bears the Burden: Trauma, Dissociation, and Disease (Routledge, 2007), and now can argue for its importance, especially in the light of Obamacare and primary care medicine in general.

Who won’t like this book? Government officials invested in the Affordable Care Act, insurance companies, trial lawyers, many feminists, and those who, out of life experience or conviction, disregard any type of medicine that relies solely upon a materialist (empirical) study of the brain, the endocrine system, and the mind-body continuum.  For what Scaer’s book delivers is a comprehensive survey of the field of neurophysiology and the pathologies that stem from trauma, especially those that result from a failure of mother-child attunement and bonding, though he does mention the many traumas that his patients have experienced, including natural disasters, automobile accidents, military combat, assaults, child abuse, incest, rape (including date rape) and more. But when mothers experience post-partum depression, for instance, Scaer considers such a calamity to be a form of child abuse that damages the child for life, including the proclivity for violent crime or any other antisocial activity. He returns to the infant and pain so frequently that one wonders if this frequently reiterated factor is not a part of his personal biography. (Examples: fetuses feel pain, circumcision must be accompanied by anesthetic, new born baby should be put on the mother’s breast immediately.)

I am convinced that Scaer’s work and that of other neurologists who have produced work since the last half of the 20th century are correct in refining the field of neurology and psychiatry, especially in overthrowing the Cartesian dualism of Mind as separate from Body, and in defending the idea of the unconscious, even though it is not Freud’s unconscious. Moreover, many practitioners, including students of healing in other cultures, have developed treatments that release the original frozen trauma, so that the patient does not experience subsequent physical and mental disorders such as fibromyalgia and panic attacks. These are all listed by Scaer, and evaluated by him as a scientist. His rather tentative and humble book is not about selling a fast track to cure; nor is he in agreement with DSM-IV in their limited understanding of trauma.

This is why I consider Scaer’s book to be a revolution in patient care, but one that makes recommendations that are not yet capable of being broadly realized, for HMO’s do not support long term mental health services, nor do primary care physicians have the time to take lengthy family histories. I have written elsewhere about panic attacks, in which it is suggested that each of us make a list of those terrifying, helpless-making moments in our past that could have contributed to the separation anxiety that is called panic or other names. See If there is something amiss with mother-infant bonding, the patient must resort to inferences about the relations between mother and child, for mother’s mood after birth cannot be directly recalled, although mother’s intent on escaping domesticity offers hints.

Even to read Scaer’s book may be a form of preventive medicine. Return to the Affordable Care Act. For those who wrote the legislation, preventive medicine entails screening for cancer, such as mammograms and colonoscopies.  They do not mention lifestyle choices and/or mental health services that can be shown either to lead to optimum functioning or, conversely, to unnecessary and persistent pain and suffering, not to speak of early death.

Poster Coming Home

Why do I, as feminist and mother of one son and two daughters and grandmother to two grandsons and five granddaughters, dwell on the mother-infant attachment? I am convinced that many men are determined to control women because of earlier experience with mothers who were either (subtly?) rejecting or clinging to their sons, to the exclusion of other mature attachments (e.g. the Orson Welles-directed film of 1942 The Magnificent Ambersons). The first version of Nancy Dowd’s movie (Buffalo Ghosts) that was eventually released as Coming Home, featured a souvenir store on an army base in the Dakotas that emphasized the soon-to-be deployed Viet Nam soldier’s tie solely to Mother, not to wives or other love objects. Such sappy mementos as embroidered mommy pillows, for sale to officers and enlisted men alike, may have been too hot to handle.

Nancy Dowd, screenwriter

Scaer is the first author I have found who mentions the switch from happy face to angry face that causes baby to feel shame and guilt, literally turning his face away from the scary mom. For these men, women are always dangerously unpredictable and fit the archetype of Gorgon or Medusa. See Moreover, women, especially modern women, may signify the onset of a terrifying modernity that will only make mother more overpowering and omnipresent. Rosebud!

Here is what I find most instructive about Scaer’s work. He deals with the highly variable individual case history, yet government bureaucrats, not to speak of other professionals, deal with large populations, for whom one size fits all—the latest DSM manual for psychiatrists, the state-imposed school curriculum, the rules set up by Medicare and insurance companies. If childhood trauma is as frequent as Scaer’s stats suggest, then we are not educating youngsters where they need it most. For the lesson of trauma is this: every child needs a safe place with clear boundaries in order to explore the real world that s/he must master to survive and thrive. Distant bureaucrats or entirely cerebral teachers, or  hurried, un-empathic, physicians, hemmed in by the fear of litigation, or simply untrained in the latest discoveries in neurology and endocrinology, cannot treat the traumatized patient or student, and as Scaer argues, that includes a huge proportion of their clientele.

Finally, can children in isolated rural areas, dominated perhaps by religious fundamentalists, ever feel safe? Can kids in urban ghettoes, or anyone who is a member of a stigmatized group ever feel safe in public schools or anywhere else? And how do we know if we feel safe or not; we may be stoic or too polite to admit even to ourselves how we feel as we face the great questions of the day. There are private questions that often arouse shame when discussed publicly. I do not expect that my readers will divulge intimacies either here or in social media in general, nor, I suppose, should they.

February 4, 2012

Blue Bloods, Freud, trauma, 9/11

Poster for Blue Bloods

I have seen every episode of the CBS drama Blue Bloods, starring Tom Selleck as a Catholic family patriarch. Selleck plays Frank Reagan, New York City ex-cop who has risen to police commissioner, where he is an avatar of civic resolve, duty, self-control, piety, and rectitude. The episode of 2-3-12 was of special interest, because it showed Reagan dissatisfied with his psychiatrist, played by F. Murray Abraham. The psychiatrist is not dwelling on sexual history (as the stereotype would have it), but rather on his client’s response to recent multiple traumas, which turn out to include 9/11, but before that, the loss of Reagan’s wife, the dirty-cop murder of one of his three sons, and possibly the shock of his youngest son, a graduate of Harvard Law School, abandoning his profession for the family business, where he is reduced to being a rookie cop on the beat. It is only in this episode that we learn that Reagan was in the North Tower on 9/11, and that his ex-partner is dying from a lung disease caught while breathing the noxious air that followed the bombing of the Twin Towers. (Viewers will easily identify “survivor’s guilt” as did Reagan himself.)

The [Jewish?] psychiatrist’s questions anger Reagan, who walks out of his (secret) session, his inner feelings unexamined and undisclosed. His assistant guesses that he has disappeared because of an affair. When queried as to why the affair has ended,  Reagan replies that “she asked too many questions.” (I.e., the focus in therapy is on this world, not the next one.) The rest of the episode deals with an incident in which a neighbor of Danny Reagan, angered by the presence of a half-way house in his neighborhood, causes a former child-molester to run out in the street, to be hit by Danny’s car, containing his wife and two sons.  The neighbor then shoots into Reagan’s car, traumatizing his wife and one of the sons. Linda Reagan, the wife, is horrified by the close call, and is in a snit for most of the episode. She is not used to “bullets flying around” as her husband explains to his partner. But Danny, though sometimes a loose cannon, wants above all to preserve his marriage, so he offers his badge to the now mollified Linda. She refuses it, for Danny has caught and handcuffed the shooter,  obviously a bigot who, with his loudmouth wife, resents the airs put on by this blue blooded police family, and unlike the Reagan family, lacks compassion for the fallen.

But it is the climax that prompted this blog. At the funeral of Reagan’s partner (another “Irish-American”), Reagan gives the eulogy, and expresses a central tenet of Catholic theology. We can’t know why he, Frank Reagan, survived 9/11, while his colleague did not. It is beyond human ken. The implication is that 9/11 and its tragic toll in human life is incomprehensible, but, like other difficult questions related to human suffering, must be “part of God’s plan.” He actually used those words. We question, but there are no answers to be had in this world.

When I first started my dissertation research, I noticed that the most influential Melville scholars (including both Protestants and Catholics) had thrown up their hands at the “mystery” of Melville, who takes his place with the Holy Trinity that is yet one God, and, like 9/11, with its victims and survivors, unknowable, no matter how carefully we read him (Melville) and his biography. So it is with millions of others who resist psychiatry and various forms of psychoanalysis, social work, and counseling. For these stoics, human suffering is unfathomable in its causes. Taking a family history and digging inside our own responses to traumas possibly inflicted by even the most well-meaning of parents, is tantamount to parricide and deicide. And Frank Reagan’s father, a former cop and police commissioner, is off limits, as is Reagan’s mother. Honor, family, and justice are transmitted in the blood. Just look at the poster for the show.

Can we survive as a representative republic when vast segments of our population resist those critical processes that would make us independent and appropriately curious and critical of the persons and events that help shape our lives? Must our politics be seen only “through a glass, darkly?” For a related blog see (The episode in question was repeated 6-17-12.)

Note: I have seen this episode twice and have corrected the error that Reagan might be grieving for a competitor, not his former partner.

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