Please don’t look to the ever expanding Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) that lists many of our quite understandable moods, behaviours, desires and states of mind – such as grief following loss – as pathological. It is easy to find yourself in the descriptions of “disorders” and yet it doesn’t teach us very much about ourselves or our psyches. For that we need to look to the poets, artists, musicians and writers, and, of course, the psychoanalytical theorists, who spend years listening to and learning from individuals in clinical situations.
Donald Winnicott, who worked with children and their parents in a kind of snack bar consultation method at Paddington Green hospital, London, as well as running a regular psychoanalytic practice, did not see himself as a theorist, but his propositions about how and why we feel authentic or false are beautiful and profound. I go for his technical rather than his popular writing. Paradoxically it’s easier and more comprehensible. My favourite collection is The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment.
A contemporary of his, Ronald Fairbairn, has less elegance, but a well developed and deeply humane theory of psychological development. He shows how, when we are continually disregarded or hurt by those we depend on, we make ourselves into the author of our own misfortune, thus preserving the person we still need to be OK. He details how active we are in trying to manage disappointment and his Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personalityspeaks to my experience in the consulting room. For my money, he gets closest to dissecting what I can observe.
Alison Bechdel – yes, she of the Bechdel test – has a brilliant application of Winnicott and Fairbairn in her graphic memoir Are You My Mother? It is ravishing and comprehensible – her own story understood with the help of their lenses. It can help you too.
Judith Lewis Herman’s brilliant Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror is a tour de force of history, psychoanalytic politics, trauma, feminism. It foreshadowed so much of the work on trauma in the most intelligent and intelligible way. Readers will find themselves nodding first in despair and fury and then with understanding and relief. She sets a very high bar for the linking of who we are as individuals with the social moment and ideology.
Staying with the understanding of the individual and the political, the great Martinican psychoanalyst Frantz Fanon was the first to detail the internalisation of racism in his brilliant Black Skin, White Masks. It is a model of understanding how the outside gets inside. His ideas have relevance to internalised misogyny, internalised class or perhaps I should say fragile whiteness, fragile masculinity and fragile class identities. More than 60 years in print, it is sometimes critiqued today for its “nationalism”. One will nevertheless find oneself and the psyches of others on its pages. Read it and weep.