Debates over gun control vs. mental illness after a mass shooting are ridiculous kabuki dances that defy reason but have become so ingrained in our culture that their essential irrationality is invisible. The dance begins with a tragic shooting rampage by a young man dressed in camo with a semi-automatic rifle or pistol. Gun-control advocates take to the airwaves calling, again, for greater regulation. Initially, the NRA and its shills, aware of their shameful political vulnerability at this moment, are quiet “out of respect for the grieving families. Soon, however, when pressed, they begin talking about mental illness and call for a “national conversation” about how to detect, treat, and handle these disturbed individuals and others who might become like them. Eventually, when the threat of regulation gains traction, they begin to play political hardball and fight any reforms at any cost.
I’m a psychoanalyst. So it was with great interest that I read Daphne Merkin’s New York Times Magazine article about her forty-year history of psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic psychotherapy. Merkin is a terrific writer, a brave observer of her inner life, and a lively critic of the professional cultures devoted to studying and healing inner lives. She found the New York psychoanalytic culture reassuring, even if not always helpful. She says: “…aside from the fact that the unconscious plays strange tricks and that the past stalks the present…..[there is] a certain language, a certain style of thinking that, in its capacity to reframe your life story, becomes—how should I put this?—addictive….Whether [it does] so rightly or wrongly is almost besides the point.”
In our theory and practice as psychoanalysts, we have a tendency to idealize and elevate process goals over therapeutic outcome. This tendency is problematic because it deprives us of a vital check and balance in our technique and can lead to an implicit pessimism about our ability to systemically evaluate and modify our theory of therapeutic action. This trend in analytic thinking is traced, and vignettes are presented to illustrate it. Speculations about the reasons for the tilt toward process goals and away from therapeutic goals are offered.