What Sanity Looks Like

My blogging friend, the wonderful Pete from Couch Trip, is a trained psychotherapist, and given the soft spot I have for a bit of psychobabble, I read his best-of lists most attentively. This year he recommended James Masterson, and a fine recommendation it was. I have been reading his book The Search for the Real Self with great pleasure and interest. Masterson’s thesis is that we live in an age of personality disorders, rather than neuroses, and these are notoriously hard to cure. But disorders are very painful; they allow people to live outwardly successful lives but undermine their ability to deal with crises. His approach is to understand disorders as a form of false self, a mask created out of privileged parts of the personality destined to hide the intolerably vulnerable parts. Because such a manoeuvre cuts sufferers off from their real feelings and desires, it inevitably produces destructive behavioural patterns that ‘protect them from feeling ‘bad’ at the cost of a meaningful and fulfilling life.’ Given that disorders and neuroses are usually magnified versions of the sort of struggles we all engage in existentially, I thought that New Year’s Day was a good day for a spot of soul hygiene. What follows is the list Masterson creates of the ten main principles of the ‘real’ self, the indicators that we are in touch with our honest feelings and have healthy interactions with ourselves and others:


1. The capacity to experience a wide range of feelings deeply, with liveliness, vigour and spontaneity. When good things happen, we can be happy, when bad things happen, we can be sad or disappointed. In either case, we don’t block or deaden feelings but feel what is appropriate, to the extent that it is appropriate.

2. The capacity to expect appropriate entitlements. We can take accurate measurements of our skills and limitations and what we might expect from them, understanding that in time, we can ‘master our lives and achieve what is good for us.’ It means we don’t expect life to be excessively harsh or unrealistically rewarding, also, that we can expect reasonable behaviour from others.

3. The capacity for self-activation and assertion. This refers to our ability to identify goals, wishes and dreams, to recognise our unique individuality, and to do so independently of the desires and wishes of others. It means we can take steps towards achieving what we wish, and supporting and defending dreams when they come under attack.

4. Acknowledgement of self-esteem. People with a tendency to see only the bad side of things remain oblivious to both their positive qualities and their successes. In order to make it through the bad times, we have to be able to remind ourselves of our genuine worth and abilities. The world is rarely able to provide the recognition we desire, and so a certain amount of it must come from ourselves.

5. The ability to soothe painful feelings. Our real self will not allow us to wallow in misery. We will find suitable comforts and appeasements for ourselves, put problems in perspective and make sensible decisions with regard to the way we move forward.

6. The ability to make and stick to commitments. Relationships and career goals are often tough to achieve, but a solid connection with the real self allows us to commit to them and deal with obstacles and setbacks. We don’t quit too soon or doubt ourselves and others unjustly.

7. Creativity. Masterson’s definition of creativity is a bit unusual but I really like it. He talks about the way that creativity allows us to replace ‘old, familiar patterns of living and problem-solving with new and equally or more successful ones.’ As our situations and circumstances change, we can find the inner creativity to adapt and negotiate. We need to find new ways to cope with loss and to rearrange priorities, to meet new demands and find new means of expressing ourselves. Creativity also allows us to alter the way we think, throwing out unhelpful assumptions, false impressions and bad memories and replacing them with something more useful.

8. Intimacy. The capacity to live fully and sincerely in a relationship without excessive fear of abandonment or engulfment. It also indicates the ability to retain a sense of separateness and autonomy, and avoid the sort of compliance that can lead to resentment or a painful loss of self. If a relationship fails, we can hold onto the belief that another one will be possible in time.

9. The ability to be alone. In touch with our real selves we can be alone without feeling abandoned, and don’t need to rush off into manic distractions to avoid the thoughts and feelings that arise. Fundamentally, it’s the recognition that the ability to find meaning in life comes from within, and is not dependent on another person.

10. Continuity of self. No matter what happens to us, we can still feel in touch with the tensile wire that runs through the centre of the self and holds us together. This capacity allows us to acknowledge the core of the self that exists across space and time. It is, I think, what we might call the first rung on the ladder of spirituality.

Having typed all that out, I feel there should be an eleventh, something along the lines of the ability to read such a list without thinking a) ‘Oh my God, I am such a failure’ or b) ‘There’s nothing wrong with me, I’m fine thank you very much.’ May the New Year bring us all the courage to change what we can, the strength to accept what we can’t, and the wisdom to know the difference!

Dream Story

Years ago I saw the film Eyes Wide Shut directed by Stanley Kubrick. It was a dreadful film, publicised on the fact that Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise were playing husband and wife whilst actually being married. Quite what insight anyone thought might be available into their real life identities, I’m not sure. Film is all about the visual surface; it struggles to imply further, invisible dimensions. And that’s probably why it was a poor adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 novella, Dream Story, for the dominant feature of the book is the way it plays with the idea of the parable at all sorts of cunning levels. A parable is a story that says one thing, while meaning something altogether different. It is literature’s cleverest and most baffling device. And dreams are a perfect example of this – for the ‘manifest content’ of the dream, its plot, has very little to do with the ‘latent content’ of the dream, or what it’s about. The dream work is all about disguise, subterfuge, misdirection, the recognition that what you see is not what you get, and that human beings are icebergs – only the smallest uppermost portion is visible, whilst unguessed-at structures lie deep beneath.

It’s a moment of unguarded revelation that kicks off Schnitzler’s novella. Fridolin is a reasonably well-to-do doctor in Vienna, and one night, he and his wife, Albertine, exchange intimate confidences. She confesses a strong physical attraction to a Danish military officer she glimpsed in the hotel on holiday, he confesses to a similar attraction for a young woman in a bathing suit who seemed first to welcome his gaze but ultimately sent him away. Whilst neither of these adventures had any kind of real outcome, Fridolin’s narcissism is deeply wounded, his jealousy retrospectively provoked. Depite the proximity of marriage, husband and wife still have their separate lives, in which all manner of erotic temptation might occur.

These feelings seem to set off a chain of encounters over the course of the night that follows for Fridolin. Called out to a dying patient, he is surprised when the daughter of the deceased makes passionate advances to him. On the street, he bumps into an attractive young prostitute, but fear of disease and insecurity prevent him taking any action. In a coffee house he meets an old acquaintance, Nachtigall, who tells him he will be playing piano at a private orgy that night. His curiosity aroused, Fridolin prises the password out of Nachtigall and determines to follow him. He goes to find a costume to wear, and is surprised again when the daughter of the costumier flirts with him. The pent-up erotic energy of the evening reaches a culmination at the masked party. There he meets a woman with whom, unlike the others, he feels genuine desire. But recognising him as an intruder, she warns him away. Fridolin is determined to have her, but he is shortly accosted by other party-goers and told to leave. Fridolin offers to unmask himself and take whatever punishment might be his due, but the woman steps in and offers herself as a sacrifice in his stead. Fridolin is kicked out and driven away, his conscience heavy, his desire unsated.

When he gets home, he wakes Albertine who tells him about a complicated dream she has been having, one in which she has been with the Danish military officer and laughed to see poor Fridolin crucified. As might be expected, Fridolin is none too happy about this. His sense of injury is magnified by his night of might-have-beens, and he feels that his marriage must end.

The next day, Fridolin retraces his steps, and finds that the glamour and magic of the previous night now reveals its sordid underside. He cannot work up any desire for the daughter of his dead patient, the prostitute is in the hospital, the costumier’s daughter is a whore, and at the mansion where the party was, he is handed a note telling him to go away and never return. The culmination of this negative energy, this entropy, is when he reads in the newspaper about a woman who has taken poison and believes it to be his saviour from the orgy. He goes to the morgue, views the dead body, cannot decide whether she is the same woman or not. But the message to the reader is clear; underneath the scintillating energy of the erotic lies the death drive, what lifts Fridolin to a point of maximum vivacity now takes him down to the darkest depths of death.

Once more he returns home in the small hours of the night, to find that the mask he forgot to return with his costume is lying on his pillow beside the sleeping form of Albertine. Fridolin is overcome with emotion, and his sobs wake his wife. He now recounts to her his adventures and she accepts them easily and kindly and this act of grace soothes Fridolin completely. Husband and wife reach a new understanding, although what it is they understand is a mystery. It wouldn’t be a parable if we knew. Wise Albertine, who seems to have kept the upper hand across this narrative tells her husband:

neither the reality of a single night nor even of a person’s entire life can be equated with the full truth about his innermost being.’

So we are back to icebergs again, the acknowledgement that the most powerful things that happen to us are often divorced from any kind of explanation, and uncertain as to what effect they have on the soul. There is what happens, and what it means, there are the things we do and who we are, and the one is always made of radically different stuff to the other, the relationship between them enigmatic but potent. Sexuality is the clearest example of this, as it is the place where we are most uniquely ourselves, and both unknowable and inexplicable. It is where the world can open up to us, tender and thrilling, and where it can turn its coldest, most hurtful back. And it is a place of beauty and magic, yet also the realm of the sordid and the deathly.

This was an excellent novella, neat, powerful and with such a contemporary feel. Don’t bother with the film, but read the book instead.

For German Literature Month

The Prince of Tides

A therapist friend of mine once said that the worst thing he could hear from new clients was that they had had a perfect childhood. ‘That’s six months’ work right there!’ he’d groan. Pat Conroy’s chunkster novel of a deeply dysfunctional family, The Prince of Tides, is an extended testimony to his words. The Wingos of South Carolina live on Melrose Island, an area of outstanding natural beauty, and the narrative marks a sharp contrast between the lush gorgeousness of the setting and the flawed and damaged humanity who inhabit it. This is Eden, but a paradise in which Adam loses money hand over fist and blacks Eve’s eye when she screams at him that he’ll never amount to anything. The three children, Luke, Savannah and Tom bond together fiercely to survive their parents’ disastrous characters and the picaresque fate that seems to be their inevitable lot. But while children and adolescents may be able to run fast to avoid the encroaching shadow of a difficult upbringing, there comes a time when they must slow up, and darkness overtakes them. When the novel opens, Tom Wingo, out of work and in trouble in his marriage, learns that Savannah has made another suicide attempt. He decides to go to New York where she has been living, to recount the family history to Savannah’s psychiatrist, Susan Lowenstein, in the hope that it may bring both him and his sister a measure of peace.

From earliest childhood, Savannah had been chosen to bear the weight of the family’s accumulated psychotic energy. Her luminous sensitivity left her open to the violence and disaffection of our household and we used her to store the bitterness of our mordant family chronicle. I could see it now: One member of our family, by a process of artificial but deadly selection, is nominated to be the lunatic, and all neurosis, wildness and displaced suffering settled like dust in the eaves and porches of that tenderest, most vulnerable psyche.’

This is the kind of chronicle that Conroy writes, seven hundred pages with his big heart and his overstuffed thesaurus on his sleeve. But he is very astute about the nature and consequences of suffering, and the Wingos are a pitifully plausible tribe. Father Henry Wingo is a gifted shrimper, but a frustrated entrepreneur. His wild and untenable schemes for making money repeatedly leave the family on the brink of bankruptcy. He has tireless energy and enthusiasm to bequeath to his children and the breathless buoyancy of the dreamer, but it’s his fists and his temper that they fear. The mother, Lila Wingo is frankly a piece of work. A social climber with a pretty face and a will of iron, she holds the family together by emotional blackmail and pulls it apart with her chronic dissatisfaction. What they do to their children is bad enough, what happens to the children at the hands of fate is even worse, but the greatest crime enacted upon them is the pact of silence that their parents impose. ‘I dwelt in a world where nothing was explained to children except the supremacy of the concept of loyalty,’ Tom writes. Though the wounds healed, the obligation to pretend that they’d never happened in the first place was undoubtedly the most damaging and lasting burden of all.

But before you get the wrong idea of this book and think it is a litany of disasters, I should point out that narrator Tom is the most idealising of the children, the most loyal to the family experience, the greatest believer that the sum of his siblings adds up to far more than their individual worth. His worship of the natural world in which he was raised and his memories of the unexpected and magical triumphs that he shared with Luke and Savannah make up a large part of this narrative. In fact, part of what Tom has to learn from Susan Lowenstein is the necessity of accepting the bad parts of the past, and of integrating them into his life. While they work together in New York, Susan sends Tom her disaffected adolescent son, Bernard, for private football coaching. Susan’s family has issues of its own, as her famous violinist husband dominates his wife and son, insisting that Bernard become a violinist too and sparing very little love for either of them. Bernard and Tom will develop a mutual respect for one another, and Tom will fall in love with Susan, and this surrogate family helps in no small measure to restore his faith in himself and his capacities for love and for teaching.

Rich or poor, families have a fearsome ability to be hellish in Conroy’s book. But the hugeness of life, its limitless capacity to surprise and shock, delivers credits and debits pretty much even-handedly. The trick is to hang in there long enough to reach a place of understanding. This was a vivid and engrossing book, bursting at the seams with triumphs and disasters written by a man who clearly disagrees with Kipling that there is anything imposter-ish about either of them. It is also an intelligent and sensitive study of trauma and dysfunction. Whether you like it or not will depend most probably on how you take to the language. Conroy packs his prose with lush, lyrical and overblown imagery, every sentence is a rich verbal meal. When you’ve got 700 dense pages of this, it’s inevitable that some parts won’t hit the mark. ‘By growing up we had committed the crime of blurring those distinctions by which my mother defined herself; we also provided her manumission from the narrowness of that flawed self-definition.’ ‘When [my mother] smiled at me, I felt cleansed in the secret grotto of her highest affection.’ ‘With Luke in tears, you could learn something of the melancholy of kings, the solemnity of a scarred lion banished from the pride.’ These sorts of sentences trembled on the verge of naffness for me, but they were balanced out by plenty of others that were arresting or beautiful. The different elements of the story in the past and the present work extremely well together and the Wingos I thought were a terrific creation, right up there among my top five dysfunctional families. Spirited and generous, violent and excessive, this is a novel that gives the reader everything it’s got. Wallow in it, and then book a retreat in the sparse prose health farm.


I love Neville Symington. I really and truly love him. For the vast majority of people who will never have heard of him, he is an Australian psychoanalyst who spent formative years at the Tavistock Clinic in London. But for me, he’s one of those writers who reliably and consistently wakes my mind up and leaves me thrilled to the core with enlightenment. That doesn’t happen every day, you know.

Neville Symington: I love him, but not in ‘that’ way.

The thing that made me prick up my internal antennae this time was about trust. Symington was recounting his early training and the time he spent in infant observation. He noted that the baby, when he reached the stage of beginning to walk, could toddle between Symington and the mother without falling, but when he tried to cover the ground between two inanimate objects, he regularly stumbled. Symington writes: ‘He reminded me of St Peter walking on the water of Galilee. He was able to do so while looking confidently at Jesus, but as soon as his eyes strayed to the churning sea, he began to sink.’ It provided him with an early psychoanalytic truth: ‘the source of confidence lies in an act of trust directed towards another person.’

This struck me in so many ways. So much of what we have to do, the difficult things, leave us feeling isolated, when what we really need is the steady loving and containing gaze of another person. Perhaps the way to find confidence, when we lack it, is to imagine the eyes we trust upon us, or to dedicate our actions towards someone whom we trust completely.

But funnily enough, what this also made me think of was the function of plot in narrative. In Peter Brooks’ very accessible book, Reading for the Plot, he explains plot as akin to the Freudian fort-da game. Freud noticed his grandchild in his pram playing with a toy which he threw away from him, with the cry of ‘Fort!’, and then pulled back with the word ‘Da!’. Freud believed that in this way, the child was symbolically coming to terms with the absence of the mother. He could invest the toy with emotions towards the mother and make it go away (fort) and then bring it back at will (da), thus mastering the discomfort and anxiety he felt at the prospect of separation. Peter Brooks believed that plot worked in the same way. At the start of a novel, a problem is posed, something – truth, meaning – is posited as missing, and the plot works to resolve the enigma or the absence. We accept that our sense of significance (‘What does it all mean?’) will go away from us for a time, in the safe knowledge that it will be returned to us in a satisfying way at the end of the book.

In many ways, the fort-da game can be seen as the next level in the child’s ability to develop trust and confidence, as s/he transfers the need to have people right there in the flesh onto the imaginary plane. It shows as well the early and innate understanding we have that our imaginations can be the source of much strength, flexibility and comfort. If we go along with Brooks and see plot as the place where that sense of imagined mastery goes in later life, we can understand how good books are for allowing us to think about all sorts of things that might be unbearable in real life. When reading, plot can be the place where we put our trust in the author to steer us home safely. And in the meantime, we can think through all sorts of dangerous and sorrowful scenarios, we can entertain all kinds of difficult thoughts, because we have trust in the narrative to bring about a satisfactory resolution at the end. No wonder, also, that books that end ‘badly’ or in a dissatisfactory way can make the reader very upset or angry. We little realise how much we have invested in the right outcome.