Preview Mode Links will not work in preview mode


Jan 3, 2024

Lauren Levine

Risking Intimacy and Creative Transformation in Psychoanalysis

Note: I had planned to interview Dr. Levine about her book.  Leading up to the date we had agreed on, I was struggling with what to talk to her about.  Timothy Williamson notes the gladitorial or adversarial nature of philosophical discussion.  I certainly had some critical commentary on Dr. Levine's book, but I also prefer to be reparative, as opposed to carpy-suspicious, as a reader (Sedgwick).  And it was my sense that in Dr. Levine's particular intellectual culture, sharp-edged criticism can be considered inappropriate, and even lead to cancellation (cf. Jon Mills's criticism of relational psychoanalysis). 

In an email to Dr. Levine, I indicated my dilemma as we approached the date.  After mentioning that I did indeed have some potentially inappropriate (for some cultures) questions about her book, I realized there was a huge open question: she would probably want to know what they were.  Not wanting to be patronizing--and hoping that perhaps she would actually say my questions were all perfectly fine--I listed them. 

But soon thereafter, I got an email from Dr. Levine saying Dr. Levine she did not, in fact, want to participate in the podcast interview about her book.

It felt Karenesque of her and it felt like I was being canceled for daring to be critical, to engage in critique.  As Jon Mills will testify, this seems to be a problem with Levine's intellectual community: a strategy of ostracizing or refusing to speak with people who want to ask challenging questions. Stephen Mitchell himself seemed never to criticize any psychoanalytic theorist.  His mission was to affirm every psychoanalytic theorist, to show they they improved in some slight way on every previous theorist.  {Although as Barry Farber has emphasized, his validating ways did not extend outside the rich, prestigious, supposedly intellectual faction which houses themselves in psychoanalytic institutes.  Mitchell ignored Carl Rogers (probably because he never read him or certainly never took him seriously).

For "relational psychoanalysts" if you are in their group, they flatter each other; if you are outside or want to ask challenging questions, they shun and cancel.  Contrast this with Judith Butler who stresses the importance of "checking in with other perspectives [and] responding thoroughly to reasonable questions." 

So in an experiment, I did a podcast about her book, without her, without the author.  I want to do these about books (for example, books in which the author is, say, deceased.  Or the author is alive but in prioritizing their time, is unable to speak with me.  This gave me my first opportunity.  In this podcast, I review the negative, possibly out-of-bounds (as culturally defined) thoughts I had regarding Dr. Levine's book.  I'm also re-producing the offending email:

On Tue, Mar 5, 2024 at 11:40 AM August Baker  wrote:
Thank you for sharing your thoughts. As for me, after sending my email and before getting your reply, I was feeling increasingly uncertain about whether we had enough overlap or shared reality to have a productive talk.  Your email made me feel better about it, but I am still uncertain.  
My last list was based on impressions, prior to a final review of the book.  I need to do a complete, close read of the book and propose a new list. 
I tried to distinguish between "practitioner" vs. "academic," but I now think those were the wrong labels. And anyway as you point out, you are an academic as well as a practitioner.  I don't know how to label what I am talking about.  Perhaps I can best express the difference by paraphrasing one of my prior interviewees, Timothy Williamson.  He describes a particular cultural approach to how people should best talk to an author about a book.  I do not think it is the same cultural approach you have ("cultural" here referring here not so much to "practitioner" but to the culture of the intellectual school or paradigm you are a part of.  What to call that school?  I don't know.  Perhaps "early 21st century psychoanalysis.")  
In Williamson's cultural milieu, discussion of a book is, he admits, something like gladiatorial combat, or like the adversarial system in litigation.  It is an interlocutor's role to give their most sharp-edged responses to an author.  The interlocutor argues against the author. "A feel-good slogan is that discussion should be constructive, not destructive. It sounds like a platitude, but imagine telling city planners that they should always build houses and never knock them down."
It's not about practitioner vs. academic. I was wrong in labeling it such.  It's not about Left vs. Right either.  I interview both Left and Right. It is one of the things I explicitly try to do: get a wide range of political standpoints. It's not about philosophy versus other fields either.  I don't know a good label for it, but perhaps we could call it "critical" versus "reparative."
Some authors have this "critical" approach.  They expect me and want me to give my most sharp-edged criticisms.  This is true whether I interview a Left-leaning philosopher like Martha Nussbaum or a Right-leaning economist like Deirdre McCloskey.
On the other hand, when I interview a psychoanalyst such as yourself--or such as Christopher Bollas whom I interviewed recently--I get myself into a more reparative frame of mind. It just seems to me a matter of being culturally sensitive.
The trouble is that with your book, I fear there is not enough overlap between us.  Your strength is your clinical vignettes; yet I am not a clinician, and the one thing I know about clinical work is that I don't know enough to talk intelligently about it.  On the other hand, there are many areas where you and I have a different worldview.  Yet I don't see a way to discuss those issues in a culturally-appropriate-enough way.
I can tell you a few of the ways that we are simply on different wavelengths.  There are many, but four come to mind immediately. 
(1) politics. You write: "We are currently in the midst of a terrifying sociopolitical backlash by the radical right to suppress our stories, to silence and whitewash the white supremacy and racism embedded in our history and culture. We must face our legacy of chattel slavery and the slaughter of Indigenous people on which our country was founded."
I discussed this with Peter Brooks in a podcast I am publishing online today.  I simply don't agree with you here.  In my fantasy, if I try to empathize with you, you (correctly) view yourself here as taking a strong, righteous political stance, and as a matter of personal integrity, you don't want to back down off of it.
From my perspective, and I think you will find this offensive (and hence, I don't think it is productive to talk about it) there is much more to the story of the U.S. than slavery and the slaughter of indigenous people, and what you are doing is taking recourse in paranoia and splitting.  
For numbers 2 and 3, consider the following quotations:
"Julia and I begin to weave together a shared narrative history about her early life, especially with her mother ..."
"the rewriting of the family narrative seemed to open psychic space ..."
"creating a share narrative of his traumatic history"
"Coming to terms with the “lack” in parenting and the pain it caused is allowing ...
"he needed me to feel the depths of his pain, to not abandon him like his parents when he pushed me to the brink, 

(2)  Parenting.  I appreciate your narrative of your personal struggle with your son.  It gives me goosebump, and I admire and respect your parenting and your writing about it.  On the other hand, I have a very different perspective, having worked much with parents who, to my understanding, were great parents but for whom their narratives did not turn out so well.  Their children did not flourish, and they need to deal with that pain, as well as the stigma that I think is implicit in your own view. Namely, that if the parent does parenting right, the kid will turn out well and happy. This is the flip-side of the other psychoanalytic worldview, which I also bristle at, namely that if the adult is unhappy, look to the childhood and especially the parenting.  
(3)  the importance of narrative.  I personally think that narrative is over-emphasized.  See my podcast with Peter Brooks.
Essentially, summing up (2) and (3), when you write to a psychoanalytic audience, is it not true that you can simply assume as a default that psychoanalysis cures by re-parenting?  That the basic story one learns in analysis is "I was a beautiful soul, but X was very bad."?
All psychoanalysts will agree that that is not the whole story, but nonetheless it is the strongest current, and exceptions seem to me to be of the sort that prove the rule.
That's fine, but many people outside of psychoanalysis do NOT share this view.  And it seems suspicious that tales of cure so often follow the same path, especially when we know that we should be suspicious of narratives.
(4) Regarding the relational school, I have two issues (again, neither of which seems suitable or appropriate for us to talk about), 
(a) there is an understandable but irksome tendency to write its own narrative in an self-serving and insular way.  Barry Farber, for example, argues convincingly that much of the supposed revolutionary thoughts of relational psychoanalysis were anticipated by none other than Carl Rogers.  Yet Rogers is never given his due.  There is an intellectual arrogance to relational writing, as though Rogers were too much a lightweight to credit.
(b) Relational writing seems to neglect analytic hate in Winnicott's sense.  Relational analysts show a great deal of hate, but this doesn't seem to be talked about much.  It is talked about a little, but again as the exception that proves the rule.
I do not think that any of these four are appropriate for our conversation.  They are what I would talk about perhaps if I were adopting Williamson's cultural approach.  
I will do a final read-through of your book to see if I can find some common ground for us for a productive conversation.
As you can see below, others--indeed, those supposed to know--feel very differently than I:

‘In this exquisite new book, Lauren Levine captures the finely nuanced tapestry that emerges when an analytic dyad takes shape; the interweaving of two different narratives of self that come together, engage with each other, distance each other and ultimately form the subject matter of the analysis that unfolds. With brilliant clarity, and detailed and forthrightly honest clinical examples, Levine demonstrates how the collision of the patient’s and the analyst’s preferred life stories demands the analyst’s, at times painful emotional honesty, in re-opening dissociated pockets of enlivening engagement and creativity.’ Jody Messler Davies, NYU Postdoctoral Program, Stephen Mitchell Center for Relational Studies

‘In this powerful and creative volume, Risking Intimacy and Creative Transformation in Psychoanalysis, Lauren Levine explores the healing power of stories as they touch our vulnerabilities, our strengths and resilience, intrapsychic and sociocultural traumas. Levine beautifully explores the transformative value of sharing our stories with a listening, witnessing other, bearing witness to our wounds, our shame, and our collective sins.’ Galit Atlas, author of Emotional Inheritance; NYU Postdoctoral Program in Psychoanalysis

Risking Intimacy and Creative Transformation in Psychoanalysis is a wonder, a collection of essays whose honesty, integrity and authenticity challenge us and teach us, making us more vulnerable and hence more alive than we were before reading. It provides a relational blueprint to the intricacies of our deepest fears and fantasies about the psychoanalytic process as well as an openness to the insidious impact of racism and sociopolitical trauma. It is extremely rare that such a broad range of the human experience is taken on by any author; it is a rarity indeed for it to be done with such brilliance, thoughtfulness and creative care. This is a most welcome book, which should be read and re-read for the often painful aliveness it brings to the therapeutic encounter.’ Steve Tuber, author of Attachment, Play and Authenticity: Winnicott in Clinical Context

‘In this moving and incisive work, Lauren Levine reminds us that storytelling has both dangerous and curative dimensions. We often use stories to evade our own traumas and hide from self-awareness the gaps in our personal narratives. This has also been true of the field, in terms of the stories psychoanalysts feel comfortable engaging in our various models of the psyche. With an emphasis on the sharing of stories as the key to transformative mental healing, Risking Intimacy and Creative Transformation offers a powerful introduction to the insights of a relational psychoanalysis that can address the racial and cultural traumas of the 21st century.’ --Michelle Stephens, founding executive director, Institute for the Study of Global Racial Justice, professor of English and Latino and Caribbean Studies, Rutgers University 

‘Lauren Levine explores the creative potential of what might be called story living. She captures how shared stories build relational and political transformations. But only, as Levine carefully details, when patient and analyst together confront personal inhibitions and cultural prohibitions that render stories normotic and deadening. Levine theorizes and clinically animates the ways in which we not only “tell ourselves stories in order to live,” as per Didion, but also how we tell stories to change the order of living.’ Ken Corbett, NYU Postdoctoral Program in Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy

‘Lauren Levine’s highly creative work, Risking Intimacy and Creative Transformation in Psychoanalysis, marks the evolution of relational theory as a space of increasingly wonderful complexity. Her clinical and theoretical approach stresses the role of imagination and novel forms of clinical interaction. In this work, weaving film, poetry and dance into compelling psychoanalytic stories, we see both clinical and theoretical movement and expansion.’ Adrienne Harris, NYU Postdoctoral Program in Psychoanalysis and New School for Social Research


Risking Intimacy and Creative Transformation in Psychoanalysis

In this compelling book, Lauren Levine explores the transformative power of stories and storytelling in psychoanalysis to heal psychic wounds and create shared symbolic meaning and coherence out of ungrieved loss and trauma. Through evocative clinical stories, Levine considers the impact of trauma and creativity on the challenge of creating one’s own story, resonant with personal authenticity and a shared sense of culture and history. Levine sees creativity as an essential aspect of aliveness, and as transformative, emergent in the clinical process. She utilizes film, dance, poetry, literature, and dreams as creative frames to explore diverse aspects of psychoanalytic process. As a psychoanalyst and writer, Levine is interested in the stories we tell, individually and collectively, as well as what gets disavowed and dissociated by experiences of relational, intergenerational, and sociopolitical trauma. She is concerned too with whose stories get told and whose get erased, silenced, and marginalized. This crucial question, what gets left out of the narrative, and the potential for an intimate psychoanalytic process to help patients reclaim what has been lost, is at the heart of this volume. Attentive to the work of helping patients reclaim their memory and creative agency, this book will prove invaluable for psychoanalysts and psychotherapists in practice and in training.


Lauren Levine is joint Editor-in-Chief of Psychoanalytic Dialogues. She teaches and presents both nationally and internationally, and has published articles about sociocultural, racial and relational trauma, resilience, and creativity. Dr. Levine is faculty at the NYU Postdoctoral Program in Psychoanalysis, and the Stephen Mitchell Relational Study Center, where she is codirector of the One Year Program in Relational Studies. She is visiting faculty at the Institute for Relational and Group Psychotherapy in Athens, Greece, and the Tampa Bay Psychoanalytic Society, and supervisor at the Institute for Relational Psychoanalysis of Philadelphia. Dr. Levine is a psychoanalyst in private practice in New York City.