Fiction and wishes: the representations of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis
Psychotherapy and psychoanalysis appear quite often in films, series and books, sometimes to add depth to a character, sometimes as the main subject of the story, and other times as a comedic aside.
This is all a part of the writers’ creative material and it can turn out to be very effective narratively. We are moved, for instance, when we discover the unsuspected fragility of a character, or we marvel at the psychoanalyst’s phenomenal insight, and we often delight in the fact that we’re entering into forbidden territory, the analyst’s office, protected by the strictest professional secret. On top of all this, we’ll frequently see the portrayal of intriguing and scandalous transgressions of deontology.
All of these representations are perfectly legitimate as narrative resources and thankfully psychology, psychotherapy and psychoanalysis are not treated as sacred objects that could only be approached with the greatest reverence.
However, this phenomenon could also spark our curiosity since we’ll often find that the same themes repeat themselves in these representations –– themes, we will notice, that have very little to do with reality. Indeed, the representations of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis, especially in audio-visual media, are full of entirely fictitious situations. What are they, and where do they come from? Why are they so often repeated?
We will also observe what seems to be the extreme difficulty of representing therapeutic work in a way that is more or less true to reality. It is highly unusual for it to be realistically portrayed, apart from a few rare exceptions that are generally no more than pale approximations. Must we conclude, then, that it is indeed impossible to represent, in audio-visual media, the complexity, the honesty and the human depth of psychoanalysis in a way that could interest a viewer?
Let us attempt to answer these questions; we’ll begin with the themes that repeat themselves and see why they do.
Fiction: the omniscience of the psychoanalyst
When a psychoanalyst is represented in a film or in a series it is not unusual for us to be astounded by her unbelievable insight when she is faced with what, in principle, seems to be a patient who presents very complex and challenging difficulties with a long history. Without us being able to follow her deductive processes, the psychoanalyst reaches a miraculous understanding of the problem; the patient, thunderstruck, is profoundly moved, and his entire life changes from that moment onwards.
Of course, yes, the work of psychoanalysts consists of revealing the unknown ––they are sometimes very intuitive and intelligent, and have inspired moments–– but any claim of resemblance between the reality of daily analytic work and the scene that has just been described is quite misleading. It is not that easy. Nevertheless, the fantasy of magical understanding, of telepathy, is never far away, and it infiltrates all popular conceptions of the profession. Why is that?
Because the psychoanalyst is often unconsciously assimilated to the childhood images of one’s mother and father: the parents that understand, in quite an extraordinary way, incidentally, the needs of an infant without it having to ––or being able to–– express itself with words. An average mother, when she hears that specific cry or that slight whimper physically perceives that her child is hungry, sleepy or wants to cuddle, and she intuitively knows what to do.
This average mother seems all-powerful and omniscient to the infant since she appears to know how to do everything, and the infant feels transparent to her. Even though as we develop we become less and less transparent, that primary mother remains in our unconscious and she reappears when the circumstances lend themselves to it. She is a mother that seems to understand us magically and who is capable of relieving us of our discomfort with the greatest ease.
Therefore, the unbelievably insightful psychoanalyst that we see in a film (in the literal sense of the word, un-believable) is, in reality, a pure fabrication. She represents the regressive desire to be a small infant with a mother who is very sensitive to its needs, the desire to be surrounded by the soft cocoon of maternal care that protects the infant from a premature experience of the difference between itself and other people.
The slow and sometimes difficult reality of psychotherapy, where one must work to express oneself and to understand, is anything but magical. The fantasy of the omniscient psychoanalyst allows us to momentarily defend ourselves against that frustrating reality and imagine a more pleasing world.
A wish: to enter into forbidden territory
Everybody who works in the area of mental health is obligated, by the very nature of their profession, to maintain rigorous confidentiality standards and commit to protect professional secrecy. It is essential that patients know that they are free to talk about things they have never talked about to anyone ––nor, perhaps, fully to themselves–– in a safe environment.
The psychoanalyst’s office is sometimes the receiver of the most shameful admissions of patients’ private lives, the most embarrassing ideas and fantasies, disturbing feelings, and highly charged emotional elements. Without the guarantee that what is said will never leave the office, no real work can be done. Psychoanalysis is, therefore, an eminently private undertaking that develops only between the psychoanalyst and the patient. Everyone else is excluded.
This, however, often kindles a great deal of curiosity. What is going on in there? What is he talking about? What’s the secret life under that appearance of normality? Are there other people who feel and think the same things I do? The representations of psychoanalysis that we can find in films and series satisfy this curiosity since they slip us into this closed space, without any negative consequences, and offer us the vision of a very private relationship between two people. Where does this great curiosity come from, then?
From two places: one has to do with childhood, the other with the inevitable separation between human beings.
Childhood: we will remember that the psychoanalyst if often assimilated to the unconscious images of the childhood parents. Let us add to that that those parents were the object of great curiosity for the child. Indeed, a normal part of development is for the child to ask itself questions such as: “What are mummy and daddy doing behind their bedroom door?” “Why do they look so happy together sometimes?” “What are they sharing?” “Something interesting is going on and I’m excluded…” Later on in development this curiosity is repressed because the feeling of exclusion is particularly painful and it is very unusual that an adult should remember it. Nevertheless, that curiosity remains in the unconscious and appears under the shape of its derivatives, in situations that resemble the original configuration. Psychoanalysis lends itself very well to this: “What on earth is going on in there?!”
The separation between human beings: as we grow up we develop a private inner world. It is partially shared with people close to us, but not completely, and this is a normal part of everyone’s private life. Our culture also imposes certain rules on us, we cannot talk about absolutely everything; certain things, especially those related to sexuality and aggressiveness, are considered shocking and reprehensible. However, those very things reside in all of us, to a greater or lesser degree. This entails a certain amount of hypocrisy that is inherent to our culture, and we won’t get into that in order not to extend ourselves too much, but one of the consequences of this is that many people wonder if what they feel or think in their intimate selves is “normal”. Now we can understand that having access to other people’s most secret worlds by seeing what is talked about in a psychoanalyst’s office is often a relief: “Thank goodness, I’m not the only one who wishes for/feels/thinks that!”.
To be continued.