Some thoughts about the transition to an online weekend conference  

Jill Savege Scharff

Because of physical distancing to combat COVID-19, the International Psychotherapy Institute (IPI) moved its April weekend conference on sex and gender and its student graduation ceremony from the usual site in Rockville to IPI’s 1000-capacity Zoom room online.  I thought it was a good decision, and I planned to be there.  I had attended a number of online Town Halls and was quite used to seeing all the attendees in their electronic squares in gallery view across multiple screens, or a large image of a single person in speaker view.  However, in the week before the conference, I was still thinking of scheduling enough time to drive up to Rockville.  I was still anticipating meeting colleagues in the flesh.

Once the conference began online, I resonated with comments about what people were missing – the time after the session to meet and greet in the hallways, the pleasure of embodied presence, giving a hug, comforting someone who had lost a friend or loved one.  Electronic social time was scheduled but was barely used.  Once these aspects were acknowledged and mourned the large group seemed able to work.  Members got used to entering their requests to speak on the chat, and the co-chairs held the center, monitored the chat and called upon participants to speak during the discussion periods. One member spoke of his hatred of physical deprivation and of having to look at his colleagues in their little boxes.  It reminded me of the Pete Seeger song written by Malvina Reynolds, “little boxes just the same.”  But each person seemed far from the same to me.  The variety of backgrounds and size of image within the frame reflected the personality of the person within.  To me, the online setting offered one great improvement.  Instead of looking at the backs of heads as people addressed the speaker or the panel in the Rockville hotel, I was looking at faces, and I could see everyone perfectly.  Although it is a 2-D image, the speaker view brought me very close to a real live person, perhaps because of the size of the image, but more likely because of the affect being expressed.  We broke into assigned small groups five times during the weekend, each group using its facilitator’s own Zoom room number, and that worked well.

People speak a lot about being fatigued by the effort of being online all day.  I felt fine on Friday.  By Saturday the relentless pace had got to me.  I needed to take part of the afternoon off to relax, get some exercise and fresh air.  I missed a presentation that was important to me, and then a small group.  Missing those was a loss I had to take because the conference schedule was too tightly packed for me and for many others.  During the conference, I got an email announcement of a conference that was to have been in Panama in October would now happen online instead. I had intended to go because of wanting to work with my colleagues in Panama, but now I faced a choice: do I want to attend a conference online in three languages?  I tried to tell myself that it will be easier to listen to just the English translation without having to tune out the language of the presenter and the interference from other headsets, and cheaper than traveling to Panama.  But for me it would be so much less enjoyable because of my particular attachment to the place and the people.  If this notice had not come in the middle of a packed conference schedule, might I have responded with more enthusiasm?

This bears on the decision I must make about attending the APsaA conference in June, now also online.  IPI’s director is asked to help ApsaA plan for that transition.  It is an honor for IPI to be recognized as having experience in reaching across a distance.  So, I should want to attend, but I am not drawn to it.  What had drawn me to IPI’s event was the subject matter, the conference design, and the object relations analytic perspective.  The weekend was organized on a theme, with participants studying, responding, discussing and developing the theme.

On Sunday, the conference had its first technical glitch.  The director worked feverishly but with an outward appearance of calm as she put in place an alternative gathering place.  Reminded of the old days with frequent technical problems when IPI teaching was frequently interrupted on the old Polycom system, David Scharff felt that current participants now knew what he and those early classes had put with.  Someone offered him “technology empathy”.  Since the director and many of those leading the current day’s events had experienced those days too, they rolled with the punches.  On this occasion, the host-administrator was locked out of the IPI Zoom room.  She could not reach the Zoom representative to arrange for a new number.   It was explained that Zoom had scheduled an update unknown to us.  The director and the administrator worked together like lightning to inform 72 participants of a switch to the director’s own Zoom room number.  The conference start was delayed by 15 minutes to allow everyone to log on, and the schedule was quickly adjusted in consultation with the conference co-chairs and session co-chairs.   We saw a fine example of grace under pressure.  The ensuing case presentation and discussion proceeded smoothly thereafter.

Last came the graduation.  The convenience of the online venue meant that lots of family members and friends from far away could attend. Faculty described the qualities of individual graduates from IPI’s psychotherapy and psychoanalytic training programs.  Students spoke of their experiences of pain, challenge, perseverance, passion, and reward. Lots of congratulations and praise for work well done was mixed in with sadness of leaving behind group members to whom people had become close over two  to four years.  Some were laughing at silly skits.  Others were in tears at the beauty of a song that captured saying good-bye to a friend who would be missed.  True, this graduation was devoid of physical copresence, but there was no lack of affect.  The closing ceremony felt like a salute to psychoanalysis, to a vibrant, sturdy organization carrying on in spite of the corona virus, a demonstration of the life force over COVID-induced death anxiety.

Reveries on the U.S. Election

by Andi Pilecki

In 1933, an exchange of letters between Freud and Einstein in which they discussed the nature of human aggression, destruction and the potential for peace, was published under the title, “Why War”. Today, in the after shocks of an election that has the nation and the world reeling, we might ask, “Why Trump? “

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As I read Norberto Carlos Marucco’s paper, “Between Memory and Destiny: Repetition” (2007) in preparation for the upcoming IPI conference, I was gratefully reminded of the role psychoanalysis might play in unraveling this most pressing question. Trump is one man, and he could have never reached this position without tapping into and exploiting the reservoirs of a desperate, divisive cultural moment. We might think of him as an unfortunate symbol of the kind of repetition Marucco elucidates, one born out of traumas that have yet to be adequately remembered and worked through. Marucco presented this paper at the IPA Congress in Berlin, and began by drawing a link between the relevance of this location and its history, and the analytic work of “tearing down walls” in order to facilitate the work of transformation. This reference could not be more startlingly resonate, as the United States has just elected a man who placed building another wall at the centerpiece of his campaign rhetoric.

 

Marucco draws our attention to the influence of the death drive on repetition, saying that this drive, “leaves its trace through the most subtle and destructive effects, namely, the perversity of leadership, the loss of social points of reference, and the degradation of altruistic cultural ideals and identifying bonds, which leads to intense feelings of helplessness and social exclusion” (p. 310). Like many other therapists, in the days following the election I felt like a first responder to a traumatic event. One after another, patients described feeling stunned, heartbroken, depressed, and angry, as they worked their way through these early stages of grief. My holding capacity felt strained and compromised, as I struggled with similar feelings. For so many, suddenly the ‘altruistic cultural ideals and identifying bonds’ that have expanded over these last 8 years crashed down around us, and in one devastating moment, we regressed back to a level of ‘helplessness and social exclusion’ that had seemed only the day before a fading vestige of the past.

 

Apparently, this was a naïve assumption. We must now ask ourselves: What has not been remembered or worked through? What has yet to be healed, and as a result, now emerges as repetition? We might find clues to these questions in the jubilant support Trump has received from white nationalists and the Ku Klux Klan, groups that suddenly feel they once again have a legitimate place within the mainstream political and social sphere of our country. Of course, this is a moment that can only be understood through an honest analysis of intersecting factors, of which race is one aspect. As a white American, however, I believe we now have a mandate to face and to undermine white supremacy in ways that we have apparently yet to achieve. I would never suggest that every person who voted for the new president-elect is an ardent racist. In fact, I think it is absolutely essential that we resist the temptation to rely on such polarized thinking. I do believe, however, that as a country we have failed to adequately remember, work through, and heal from the legacy of racism that contaminates the deepest roots of the American psyche and its intuitions.recycle-1767735_1920

In describing how we might interrupt repetition compulsion, Marucco argues that, “acknowledging trauma and culturally historicizing it plays a key role” (p. 311). He goes on to suggest that contemporary psychoanalysis owes a debt to culture when it comes to facilitating this process. I tend to agree with him. In our consulting rooms, under significant attacks on linking, feeling and thinking, we tenaciously hold space for the work of remembering and working through, for ‘acknowledging trauma’ and helping patients make connections between past and present. We can only hope that such connections enable a more fully awake engagement with a future that is more than mere repetition, one in which our patients continue to develop a capacity for growth. Is this not the same hope that we have for the country, for the world?

 

I feel galvanized to seize upon this as, what educators call, a “teachable moment”. What does this election have to teach us about repetition and the return of the repressed on a cultural level? What might we as a psychoanalytic community have to offer in terms of a contributing to a long overdue, honest dialogue about race, white supremacy, and the transgenerational trauma of slavery and colonization? What do we have to account for within our own community when it comes to race? I have often wondered why there is such scant discussion of these issues within analytic spaces. Perhaps this absence has something to do with who is at the table, and who is not. Maybe before we can reach out to the world in an attempt to generate such links, we must look within, at what we ourselves may be repressing, and therefore, repeating.

 

I can say that, as a queer person, I have felt unsettled and alienated by the often heteronormative assumptions underlying so much analytic literature. I am not sure we have fully reckoned with the history of homophobia and heterosexism in our field. Few people in my generation know that there was a time, not too long ago, when training institutes would not permit openly gay trainees to become analysts. Analytic perspectives on homosexuality were not only informed by, but also informed the broader cultural lens. This speaks to the power we had, and I believe still have, when it comes to informing social and cultural narratives, which certainly have a real impact on peoples’ lived experiences.

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In the days following the election, stories poured in across the country of black and brown children being bullied by white classmates, of white supremacist vandalism, of LGBTQ people being chased and attacked, and of LGBTQ suicide hotlines reporting a surge in calls. On the other hand, people are reaching out to one another and organizing, inspired by a renewed commitment to justice in the face of bigotry. What is our task as a psychoanalytic community as we reflect upon this moment? What might our unique perspective reveal about restoring a capacity to think and experience empathy in a time where thinking and empathy are under attack? As Marucco reminds us, in the midst of international atrocities, Freud found the ingredients to examine life and our essential nature as human beings. May we continue to carry this torch forward with a renewed faith in the transformative power of psychoanalysis not only on an individual, but also a cultural level, and may we begin with ourselves.

 

References

Freud S (1933). Why war? Standard Edition 22, p. 199-215.

Marucco, N.C. (2007). Between Memory and Destiny: Repetition. Int. J. Psycho-    

            Anal., 88:309-328