Jill Salberg PhD. Studies in Gender and Sexuality. Volume 9, Issue 3. Jul-Sep 2008.
Psychoanalysis has, from Freud’s earliest ideas, been drawn to comprehending and defining gender-decoding what is masculine and what is feminine. Although Freud believed that masculinity and femininity would normatively fall along biological lines, gender, as a category, very quickly became destabilized by theorists who contested Freud’s view. This article looks at a case in which the analyst came to view the patient’s gender performance as a form of protest as it became transacted within the transference-countertransference relationship. In drawing upon contemporary gender and relational psychoanalytic theories, the author considers the multiple layers of gender meanings held within the patient and within the analyst and concludes that gender is never fully resolved and will continue to carry shifting relational meanings.
Charlotte first came to see me when she was 28 years old. Her self-presentation contained a jarring disjunction that I noticed right away and that would become a leitmotif of our work. She wore highly sexualized outfits, often “vintage” clothing in the style of a Hollywood 1940s-1950s sex siren, like Marilyn Monroe or Jane Russell. Most of her garments fit tightly and clung to her form. But she felt her weight was a problem (standing 5’8″ and weighing, according to my guesstimate, approximately 195 1b). Her dramatic style of dress called at least my attention to a body in which she appeared to move uneasily, not clumsily but not fluidly either; indeed, as the therapy progressed, she made it apparent to me that she was disappointed with the body she inhabited.
Although this dissonance between what Charlotte wore and what she knew, how she appeared and what she felt, perplexed and unsetded me, nevertheless I found myself drawn to her warmth and affability. I was intrigued too. The puzzling but also compelling manner in which she wore her gender challenged me to investigate and reformulate my own notions of femininity. Most notably, I came to feel that her gender performance wordlessly communicated a subtle and intense protest.
Protest as paradox serves as my conceptual theme: In a sense, contemporary psychoanalytic theories of gender constitute a paradoxical protest against classical ideas: they maintain psychoanalysis’s fascination with gender and sex as concepts but refuse to accept the biological determinism traditionally used to explain them. Contemporary reformulations of gender as psychic structure and process likewise operate paradoxically. In Goldner’s (1991) view, “We now recognize that sexual fantasies and acts reflect, express, and can be used to consolidate (or defy) gender identity” (p. 259). Circling back, the paradoxical simultaneity of assertion and defiance captures precisely the double meaning of the word “protest” itself. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), it was, as used in 1400 A.C.E., “A solemn declaration; an affirmation; an avowal.” By 1751, however, a reversed meaning had emerged: “A formal statement or declaration of disapproval of or dissent from; a remonstrance” (Oxford English Dictionary, 1989).
Paradox was widespread in Charlotte’s experience and our work together; protest would emerge only later. Despite flashes of sexually provocative glamour, Charlotte was startlingly naïve about men, women, and sex. She had, I learned, never dated or had any literal physical or sexual contact with men or women. She was a virgin and didn’t fully understand the internal workings of her own body. Although she knew each month she would menstruate, she revealed that she did not understand fully why or how it happened. Sex education had not occurred at home. By the time she realized that she wanted to know more about these things she was too embarrassed to ask. To compensate, she adopted the appearance of knowing, assuming the dress of what she imagined a worldly woman to be, covering her shame.
The story of Charlotte’s parents, as she told it to me when we started our work, was a kind of fabulous movie-style romance, filled with feminine allure with transforming glamour, masculine seduction, and capture. Charlotte’s mother had been raised in South America in an upper middle class family. Taken by her father on a shopping trip to a large metropolitan city, she met an American soldier. A beautiful young woman engaged to another man, she was accustomed to having admirers. When a soldier admired the charm bracelet she was wearing, they started a conversation despite her limited English and he won her away from her fiancé. They married and, soon after they settled in the United States, Charlotte was born.
In many ways, home was not a comfortable place for Charlotte. Her father’s work required him to travel often and sometimes necessitated the family to relocate. Often being the “new kid on the block,” she never felt she fit in. While her attractive and curvaceous mother was nicknamed “The Body,” Charlotte grew up an overweight child. Her discomfort with the contrast between them received no recognition, however. Moreover, her mother seemed to have a fantasy of what a proper young girl should look like and which activities she should be engaged in. But in neither appearance nor aptitude did Charlotte match it. For example, her mother arranged for ballet lessons, a typical after-school activity for girls in the middle-class neighborhood they finally settled into. Absent her mother’s recognition of the discomfort Charlotte felt upon attending class, however, she never had any way to put into words her humiliation over struggling into tights and leotards in a room full of thin and willowy ballerina girls. It was only during our work that she recalled and articulated how mortifyingly painful this experience was. Perhaps part of the painfulness resided in Charlotte’s role as her mother’s best audience. Their time together was often spent on prolonged shopping trips, during which she would admire her mother’s outfits and perfect figure. Her rapt fascination with her mother’s display, her participation in perhaps what might be labeled, in Judith Butler’s (1990) sense a “performance” of femininity, was not, however, reciprocated. When it came time to shop for Charlotte’s clothes, her mother would rush, her evident impatience and lack of interest intensifying Charlotte’s pronounced shame.
As I learned about this mother, I discovered a woman whose stereotypical trappings of femininity seemed to have hidden her childhood of neglect by her own mother. Charlotte’s grandmother had been an uninvolved mother who turned the care of Charlotte’s mother over to Charlotte’s grandfather. Hence the many shopping trips on which Charlotte’s mother was taken by her father, including the one on which she met her husband, might be understood as multiply charged with a layering of maternal noninterest, compensatory paternal mothering, and oedipal flirtation. If this were so, then it would then be no surprise that Charlotte’s mother could not access a maternal feeling in which Charlotte could feel recognized and held, both in body and in mind.
To view this situation in Butler’s (1995) terms, Charlotte’s mother’s lost (homosexual) love of her own mother, unrecognized, went unmourned, only to show up as bodily experience that personified the lost love. Might one characterize this personification as drag? In likening femininity to a “drag” performance, Butler (1995) says, “Drag imitates the imitative structure of gender, revealing gender itself as an imitation” (p. 176). Charlotte’s mother’s performance of stereotypical femininity conjures and sustains the mother(ing) she loved and, her love never having registered, could not mourn.
I began to see this performance of femininity not only within Charlotte but also as a familial transgenerational transmission of maternal neglect and lost love. For Charlotte, a melancholy gender (Butler, 1995) experience ensued. Certainly, Charlotte’s awkwardness of body and garment may have felt to her like just so much drag. Might her sexuality have been lost somewhere in there too? She seemed frozen, unable to access a body of desire. It was unclear to me what her desire might look like-homosexual, heterosexual, or bisexual? It was not clear to her either: mostly she felt nonsexual and anxious.
Insofar as Charlotte had been relegated to the status of observer, woman became other to Charlotte. This otherness rendered me uncertain about what kind of transference figure I might become for her and whom I might come to represent. On the one hand, I was an observer of her gender performance; perhaps I was the maternal audience she had never had. On the other hand, I was also a woman analyst who lived inside her own body. From a developmental perspective, we might say that, instead of developing an identity inside of herself as a woman, Charlotte seemed to rely on the costume of a woman. Although she could dress up as woman, I often felt as if I were seeing a caricature, an exaggerated copy. More than just a performance, I sensed a defensively created woman. If her mother was the original, Charlotte was the identificatory copy. Feminine drag had become an individual solution to a relational problem. I was left to wonder if this problematic solution was a defensive attempt both to “put on” and refuse to inhabit the role of the femme fatale.
From the very beginning, psychoanalysis has focused on gender both as a category and as a dynamically lived experience. According to Dimen and Goldner (2005, p. 95), Freud placed sexuality and gender “at theoretical ground zero.” Libido, the core of his theory, was masculine in nature and dominated, in a patriarchal way, the conversation. For Freud, masculine strivings in women were a way station on the road to femininity and its inherent passivity. He posited the castration complex as a fait accompli for girls and asserted that it was the inevitable experience of penis envy that ushered in femininity. Van Ophuijsen (1924) introduced the term “masculinity complex” to describe a kind of female character type who protested the female body and role. Thereby, he averred, “the phantasy of masculinity is nourished … even causes women frequently to behave as though they possessed male genitals” (p. 40). Freud seized upon this asseveration as further proof of a refusal by some women to accept the “feminine.”
Although in “On Femininity” Freud (1933) allowed for a greater complexity in his understanding of both femininity and masculinity, his early work collapsed these concepts into a unitary concept of gender, synonymous with sexual difference. Early dissenters followed quickly, with Alfred Adler (1912/1956) introducing the term “masculine protest,” which he believed was related more broadly to feelings of inferiority and wishes to be powerful. He argued that a sense of inferiority was both formative for everyone and socially constructed for women. In effect, Adler became an early proponent of a social constructivist view of gender insofar as he understood that the link between gender and self-esteem-of femininity with felt inferiority and the counterposition of masculinity with felt superiority-was socially determined, not an exclusive result of biology and anatomy. Adler effectively depathologized women’s ambition (Freud’s masculinity complex) by recognizing the validity of women’s protest against this cultural conscription. His phrase “masculine protest” brought a contested view to Freud’s notions of gender, a category that we can see was destabilized in psychoanalytic theory from the earliest years.
The problematization continued with Horney (1926), the first female analyst dissenter. Horney drew upon the work of Georg Simmel, who found that civilization itself is full of masculine categories: laws, the state, morality, religion, and the sciences. Horney argued, “How far has the evolution of women, as depicted to us today by analysis, been measured by masculine standards… [which] [which] fail to present accurately the real nature of women” (pp. 325-326). She argued that penis envy was a metaphor for the social disadvantage women experienced. Women flee their position, taking sanctuary in a fictitious male role, a strategy that Horney believed was reinforced by the social subordination of women. Her theories pointed to the internal nexus of the psychic and the social.
Joan Rivière thought the reverse: women took on the façade of a female role. In “Womanliness as a Masquerade” (1929), we learn of her coquettish female patient who secretly felt anxious and adversarial with men and used womanliness to hide her envy and aggression. Rivière believed that her patient was hiding her masculine strivings, that is, her competitive rivalry with her father, behind the costume of hyperfemininity. Her argument countered Freud’s idea that, within the oedipal arena, women compete only with their mothers for fathers’ affection. Instead, Rivière imagined females who strove for activity and competency. Notewordiy is the fact that both Horney and Rivière theorized underlying motives and rationales for women’s assumption of gender masquerade, either male or female.
The question of femininity underwent a seismic shift with the work of Stoller (1968, 1976). In his view, primary femininity derived from “core gender identity,” which he defined as an inner conviction of one’s gender established during preoedipal years, not, as had been thought earlier, a compensatory result of conflict resolution. Stoller further believed that this sense of primary femininity would be transmitted from mother to child during the early symbiotic relationship. Where Stoller believed that both girls and boys start off with a sense of primary femininity, Fast (1984) extends and differs from him. She argues that both boys and girls, before awareness of sexual difference, believe in a kind of sex and gender omnipotence, that is, “I can be both boy and girl.”
Contemporary writers have moved the theoretical discussion into more complex waters by juxtaposing sex, gender, culture, feminism, and the female body. These factors are then understood in terms of how one subjectively inhabits one’s body, mind, and life. Adrienne Harris believes that Riviere’s early paper has become canonical for postmodern feminist writers such as Judith Butler, whose work on gender performativity and melancholic gender elucidates the complexity in the acting of one’s gender. Harris (2000), expanding on this, writes, “Feminine masquerades hide aggression but also longing and love for the maternal body. … Clothes are a sensuous tie to the maternal body, the fantasy of shared skin, both metaphoric and material” (p. 309). Harris demonstrates how gender is multiply determined, in her words, a “soft assembly” gathering fantasies, attachment histories, familial transmissions, and societal structures. Gender then emerges as a kind of cohesion of the intrapsychic, interpersonal, intersubjective, and societal histories that both conceal and reveal the complexity of a gendered life. A common thread in all these writings has been the way in which the garment of gender performs a great deal of psychic work for the woman, be it protest of social position, competition with men, gender inclusiveness, melancholic loss of mother, or ties to the maternal body.
Early Work With Charlotte
Early in our work I wondered with Charlotte if she wanted to know more about how her body worked. She did and asked if I would explain menstruation to her. We talked about secondary sexual characteristic development, hormones, and menstruation cycles. I asked if she wanted me to draw a picture of her internal organs; again she said yes. I drew the uterus, ovaries, and fallopian tubes. Charlotte was very interested, thanked me, and kept the picture. I was a woman who knew about these things, a doctor/woman who could both explain and teach. But could she take this in, join the club of women and embody her body? I did not understand yet how it came to be that Charlotte didn’t know these things. Nor did I understand the complexity in how her physical body became so pushed into the foreground and yet remained so unknown. I sensed that asking could possibly shame her and that my drawings were a beginning, a necessary act that could help her to trust me. But I also learned that her younger brother had been diagnosed with testicular cancer when he was a preadolescent and she a teenager; he died when she turned 18. During his few years of battling the cancer, the family never spoke about it. Although the parents and brother had flown to New York for treatments, she did not know the full details or the struggle he faced. His cancer, most notably a reproductive form, was denied and disavowed. After his death her mother had forbidden her to tell even her friends what her brother had died of, confirming a familial sense of shame. It was a strange sort of secret, both known and unknown, and this also may have played into my decision to give her information, facts, and drawings.
As our work continued, this initial alliance seemed less solid. Charlotte often began sessions either saying she had nothing to talk about or telling me how angry she was with me because the prior hour ended with her in tears once again. Our sessions felt like a repetitive drama, with Charlotte fending off feelings of hurt and despair either about her weight and body or about wanting a relationship with a man but being too fearful even to go on a date. Midsession, when I was able to articulate some of these fears, she would weep and I thought she felt understood. However, she would return the next time angry because she always ended up crying and nothing seemed to change. On the one hand I felt empathic and concerned about her despair; on the other hand Charlotte’s reaction to me suggested that I had been somewhat cruel and insensitive, as if I had opened a wound and watched her flinch. What were we enacting as we moved from empathic connection to overwhelming pain to sadism? What kind of maternal figure had I become? I felt baffled.
Furthermore there was misery over her weight-especially when she would overeat when upset. What became clear in our work was that when she felt enraged with her mother she would finish off a full bag of cookies or tub of ice cream. Slowly the painful experience inside would, albeit temporarily, feel less gnawing, less empty. But she also recognized that being overweight kept men away, another area that produced great longing but even greater anxiety. She asked me to recommend a diet doctor. I referred her to someone who worked nutritionally and behaviorally. This doctor recommended that Charlotte lose 50 lb and set up a balanced eating plan that included portion control and other behavioral guidelines. Over many months Charlotte slowly lost 35 lb. She was initially elated, then somewhat anxious when men started to notice her more and eventually she put the weight back on. I realized that in the countertransference I had aligned myself with her mother’s view of Charlotte’s body-a body to be controlled, trimmed, and overcome. But I was also aware that Charlotte held this view as well.
When Charlotte’s mother came to visit her in New York, she spent endless hours and days shopping the New York stores. Charlotte, although often enraged, would take off from work accompany her mother, once again as her audience. I began to wonder-what had her mother been relendessly and endlessly shopping for all these years? I concluded that clothing was not the central goal but some experiential moment between herself, Charlotte, and the dressing room mirror. In the absence of her own experience of having been mothered, she was unable to hold internally some view of herself as woman. She had needed her mother for that. As Winnicott (1967) says, “…the precursor of the mirror is the mother’s face” (p. 111). He goes on: “When the average girl studies her face in the mirror she is reassuring herself that the mother-image is there and that the mother can see her and that the mother is en rapport with her” (p. 113).
In longing for an “en rapport” connection, Charlotte’s mother was insisting that Charlotte function as a mother-mirror-audience, participating in her dramatic presentation of gender. Here Charlotte performed the role that her mother’s father, and perhaps her own father, had filled. Charlotte, as audience, was to provide to her mother reassuring confirmation of “Yes, I am beautiful, yes I am being seen” and, perhaps, “Yes, I am worth being looked at.” The mother’s enactment of her own melancholic structure of longing, neglect, and loss, was thereby transmitted to Charlotte.
Who did Charlotte become while watching? Was she the adoring and doting grandfather or a nonenvious grandmother who could now caretake this daughter? What became clear to me was that Charlotte and her childhood had been hijacked; the maternal role had been reversed, with her mother becoming the child who desperately needed love, recognition, and affirmation. Charlotte was to provide all the desired mirroring function while holding within herself the unbearable aspects of the mother’s own inner world, that is, feeling not beautiful and not seen. Gender became the mise-enscène, the theater of their mother-daughter drama.
But then I too had to wonder what form this drama was now taking with us. During our early work Charlotte was confronted firsthand with my body and sexuality. I was pregnant during this time, which made my own sexual life apparent. But her recognition of me as a sexual and fertile woman was also, no doubt, problematic for her insofar as she was bemoaning her sexual fears. Did I become the oedipal victor to whom she kept losing out? Had I once again enacted some version of her mother? Did my own body reenact the trauma of melancholy gender? I wasn’t sure but I did feel at times I wasn’t helping her either.
What I was hearing about and experiencing in repetitive enactments in our sessions was the very process of how melancholic loss becomes an internal structure. This repetition took place very concretely. Charlotte’s dress as an adult ensured that she would no longer be overlooked. In dressing to arouse attention, she identified with the sexual role of the mother, whose performance of femininity relied on being the object of the “gaze,” a traditional Hollywood staple of movies from a certain era. Marjorie Garber (1995), in writing about these movies states, “Men looked at women; women were looked-at. Men were subjects, women were objects and usually sexual objects… passive recipients of the gaze” (p. 496; see Person, 2006,) for a fuller elucidation of this point).
But Charlotte’s emulation of her mother was also a charade, an appropriation aware of itself as such. In the charade, Charlotte could become her mother while keeping her distance, simultaneously forging a melancholic identification with her and mocking her in a form of protest behavior. Charlotte longed to feel loved by her mother. But also she was angry over having been neglected by her and not seen, which left her with feelings of powerlessness, defeat, and melancholy. Undoing helpless, powerless positions by paradoxical protest behavior was creatively empowering, not a simple parody. In her choice to dress in a conspicuous and provocative way, Charlotte identified with the early mother imago as “The Body” and dissociated from her own experience as the overlooked, invisible child. But her gender presentation can also be seen as defensive: In order not to feel less than mother, Charlotte tries to be mother. She then wards off painful self-states of feeling humiliated, overlooked, and not beautiful (a maternal disidentification) while attempting to overcome these affects by “dressing the part” (a maternal identification). Charlotte’s internal split was reinforced through the chronic repetitions of subjugation, humiliation, and the audience participation that she endured, whether at ballet school or in stores with her mother.
Yet, in spite of this diminished maternal mirroring experience, Charlotte was able to create a sense of self through a defensive construction of both femininity and what I want to call “gender as protest.” By doing this she was able to preserve an illusion of self, not a façade or false self but a “self in relation” to mother. Here I am extending Butler’s idea of melancholic gender into a more relational-intersubjective view. By transforming herself into a version of her mother’s exhibitionism, a copying that captured her and her mother’s desperate need for attention while also caricaturing it, Charlotte could hold on to the mother, not lose her. In this way she also protested gender itself, asserting her own powerful stance against her mother’s bondage and coercive exhibitionism. Her appearance both held the exhibitionistic aspects of mother and, by its very exaggeration, demanded a kind of audience-like or voyeuristic participation. Goldner (1991) writes, “.. .gender can be used as a vehicle to establish, maintain, or deny, crucial attachments. [As such] gender shapes and organizes the conflict-laden layering of internalized self-representations and object ties that become the child” (pp. 261-262).
Charlotte’s turn to vintage clothing, a turn to something new, old yet not of her own childhood, memory, or experience, was a link to these internalized self-other states. Her true memories were ones of having the wrong body, a chunky girl body, and of shameful humiliation. These memories would have caused Charlotte to dress in some way that would leave her feeling less than small. Her protest of this diminished position became embedded and layered within the overstatement of her dressing. This is very close to the idea of mimesis. Luce Irigaray (1985) writes, “There is, in an initial phase, perhaps only one ‘path,’ the one historically assigned to the feminine: that of mimicry. One must assume the feminine role deliberately, which means already to convert a form of subordination into an affirmation, and thus to begin to thwart it” (p. 76). Such was the path Charlotte had taken, a paradoxical affirmation and protest of the feminine.
In contrast to her deliberate and great sartorial efforts, Charlotte’s incapacity to reflect on her inner feelings, the absence of her sense of self within a body along with her ignorance of the body she inhabited, was quite striking. In her provocative style of dress, Charlotte was in search, like her mother, of being seen and reflected back through the eyes of others so that she might come to know herself. She wanted and lacked a developed capacity to mentalize. As Fonagy and Target (1998), working within the British Object Relations tradition of Winnicott and others, say of mentalization and the self-reflective function, “When the mother reflects, or mirrors the child’s anxiety, this perception organizes the child’s experience, and he now ‘knows’ what he is feeling” (p. 94). They elaborate in detail what Kohut (1977, 1984) had implied in terms of the mirroring function of the selfobject. Fonagy and Target write, “If [mirroring] is frequently absent, reluctant, or contaminated with the mother’s own preoccupation, the process of self-development is profoundly compromised” (p. 94). Absent mirroring is the very experience of not being seen, of not being held in mind by the mother, which Fonagy and Target assert will leave its mark in terms of impairment in the self-reflective function of the developing individual, as we see with Charlotte.
Additionally Charlotte may have sensed that her actual body disappointed her mother. Insecurely ensconced in her admired body, this mother was unable to lovingly accept Charlotte’s type of body. This failure became internalized within Charlotte as a rejecting interior attitude, as manifested in, for example, her profound inability to connect and discover pleasure in her own physicality. By the same token, then, Charlotte’s protest also took up corporeal residence, as expressed in her incapacity to inhabit her own sexuality. As Susie Orbach (2006) writes, “.. .it becomes obvious that the bodies we occupy are the embodiment of our parental bodies and our sibling bodies, their relation to our bodies, their wishes for our bodies, their projections onto our bodies, and our making what we can of their bodies in our body” (p. 95). In her lack of awareness about the interior of the female body, Charlotte remained frozen as the sexless child, refusing and unable to grow up and be a full-bodied woman. During our work, when she did start to date men to whom she felt attracted, her anxiety and fear often took over. Sometimes placing herself in compromising situations, she would enter into some sexual play in a bar or a side room at a party only to become numb, unable to feel anything. Suddenly she was being groped and she was frozen, unsure if she was a “frigid” woman or if the man was not the right man.
Charlotte often wore a charm bracelet, like the one her mother had on when she met Charlotte’s father. In her fantasy, a man would notice this bracelet and then Charlotte could charm him. This fantasy was multiply layered-part fused maternal identification, part youthful girl’s wishful fantasy, and part talisman. It underscored Charlotte’s profound fearfulness and inability to feel present within her own self, both within her body and with men: in it, the man is attracted to a thing, not to her, or, rather, she is a thing to be admired, not a person with depth and interiority. Melancholy gender indeed: in the absence of a sense of depth derived from maternal interest, she, like her mother, might feel that at least she could be an attractive thing, a copy of the femininity that copies stereotype.
Sexuality resided somewhere else, not inside of her or her body. Dianne Elise (2000), in writing about women’s difficulty in holding states of desire, says, “Herein lies one potential reason for females not to want: active desire could painfully revive the earliest experience of wanting and not getting the mother-never getting the mother-and of having the wrong body/genital” (p. 131). Elise (2002) believes that good enough mothering of a daughter will include an erotic component. This desire of the mother toward her child is acknowledged with boys but remains overlooked with girls. What Elise points us toward are the thwarted homoerotic longings in the girl for her mother. In some way Charlotte’s mother had refused her, just as the grandmother had rejected Charlotte’s mother. This transgenerational transmission of maternal denial of daughter’s desires reveals a matrilineal line of unsatisfied and unsatisfying mothers and daughters. Once again I found myself offering to explain womanhood, specifically desire. I gently asked Charlotte if she had ever masturbated. She replied not only that she had not but also that she wasn’t sure how it worked. I recommended some books that covered sexuality and sex. I let her know that we could discuss what she read and that I believed that sexual pleasure was something positive. Furthermore I made it clear that I approved of her giving herself pleasure, perhaps a necessary prelude to encountering another person.
Charlotte bought the books and read them but didn’t fully engage in conversation. She made clear these were things she had not known and was very interested in but more than that I wasn’t told. I was left wondering to myself what I may have enacted this time with Charlotte. Had I ushered in a homoerotic component in the transference-countertransference? The maternal homoerotic? Or had I responded to one already present and in some way said it was all right for us to engage in this? Was I now a seductive mother asking to watch her stimulate herself? Or, as I hoped, could I become a maternal presence who could encourage pleasure-a new object, with a new message-that your body is a pleasure? For my part I can say that I felt a powerful connection to Charlotte on some unconscious level that I wasn’t always quite aware of.
Our Intersubjective Collisions
Charlotte’s exaggerated style of dress was one that I felt placed her in hiding and made her hard to find. I didn’t yet know the difficulty I had in looking. Dimen (1991) writes that “problems of self may come to be coded in terms of gender, and those of gender in terms of self. Self and gender identity inhabit one another so intimately …” (p. 337). And therein would lay the dilemma for both Charlotte and me. We would need to find a way to deconstruct this coded self-gender interplay. I did not fully understand all of these dynamics until a shift in my own subjective awareness occurred. In appearance and fantasy Charlotte presented herself as an “überfemme,” a persona I had difficulty relating to. I hadn’t realized that I too was in a contested position in terms of gender. My own rebellion, fueled by the 1960s counterculture movement, was expressed as a rejection of “girlie girl” femininity. This identification prevented me from viewing Charlotte’s display of gender as creatively filled with meaning and nuance.
I began to feel both provoked and concerned; wearing such outfits, what sort of attention would Charlotte receive out in the world of men? Was she asking for trouble, for problems she was not yet equipped to decode and cope with? Was I now worrying like a well-meaning but intrusive mother? And what was she telegraphing to other women and to me: Competition? Adulation? Mockery? Part of the feeling evoked in me may have had to do with my own preference for wearing pants, something Charlotte never did. Did I feel she was challenging my own construction of femininity? And was she? It took quite a while for me to realize that I was prevented by my own internally organized frame of a tomboy from “seeing” Charlotte. I remember feeling, as a teenager, entitled to wear pants and have a say in my body, my clothing-even when sent home from school for refusing to wear a skirt.
Although tomboys are playing with gender conventions (Harris, 2000), not unlike Buder’s (2004) “doing and undoing” gender, the important questions are, as both Goldner (1991) and Harris (2000) contend, about how gender comes to carry the internal work of relational dynamics. Was Charlotte’s playful dress-up behavior engaging others to play freely with her or was it a tightly scripted compulsive drama? Charlotte seemed to me rigidly stuck in a costume. But, upon probing my countertransference, I found that I was equally inflexible in not being able to recognize that Charlotte occupied another position on the same continuum I too had experimented with. We certainly were not creating a space within which to engage or play with our differing roles and identities.
If Charlotte was engaged in a charade of femininity, was I doing something similar with masculinity? I hadn’t realized that in some way I had become the impenetrable boy-analyst, as if to say, “I wear the pants here.” I was coding things through my own tomboy lens and couldn’t see either the protest and pleasure in Charlotte’s form of femininity or the comforting identification with the maternal realm. Perhaps I was playing a kind of “fictive” boy to Charlotte’s “überfemme.” In my failure to fully recognize the meaning behind Charlotte’s femme display, I was not attuned to her as she needed me to be. Had I become the rejecting maternal object? Had I privileged my tomboy style, not unlike her mother had with her glamour girl persona, at the expense of seeing Charlotte?
Or was I the absentee father away on business or busy in the garage fixing a car, too often engaged in my psychoanalytic form of business to be availably connected to her? And was this where her pained feeling from our early years originated, in my refusal as maternal or paternal transference figure to fully see her? As a result, I did not yet discern the complexity of Charlotte’s paradoxical affirmation and protest in her gender performance. Our complementary enactment of Charlotte’s particular maternal transference (her femme protest) and my (perhaps masculinized) countertransference rejection of this style of femme became our specific form of impasse.
A turning point came when I began to learn more about Charlotte’s relationship with her father. Although the world of dates, men, and sex left Charlotte feeling inadequate and ill prepared, she was very much at home in the world of business. She was able to take charge in a way she recognized as very much her father’s style. She felt most comfortable solving business problems, devising ways to increase sales through innovative marketing, often tripling a company’s gross revenues. Here was one of the places in which Charlotte and I came to see her as powerful and agentic. She structured her work life in emulation of her father, an “identificatory love” in which, as Jessica Benjamin (1991) has written, the father helps the daughter form an identity as a separate subject capable of developing the sense of a self who feels and desires. Charlotte’s fauier had allowed her to identify with him over competency, “fixing things.” He fixed airplanes and cars, and now she fixed businesses. It was quite interesting that in her coding of feminine gender display she had lost access to the identification with her competent fadier. But I also began to see a yearning for closeness with me through a paternal transference.
I was only now beginning to realize that Charlotte wanted to make use of me as a fadier, both absent and present, within a maternal transference. Thomas Ogden (1987) has suggested that the female’s entry into the oedipal arena starts with the transitional phenomenon of otherness. He states, “This reorganization takes place non-traumatically because it is mediated by a relationship with the mother that embodies the following paradox: the little girl falls in love with the mother-as-father and with the father-as-mother” (p. 489).
This configuration, I grew to understand, became one of the ways we could find each other. I could recognize and begin, from within the paternal position, to admire both her power and her competency at work. I too worked hard, enjoyed competency, and felt comfortable with my own identifications with my father. I could then recognize the efficacy she felt while also appreciating how inadequate she felt in the other aspects of her life. This kind of recognition of the other as a subject of desire and agency is what Benjamin (1990) believes is crucial in analytic relationships. Bruce Reis (2004) suggests that Winnicott’s mirror role of the mother is also a kind of recognition and can be conceived of “as a relational event: embodied and embedded in an intersubjective matrix of pre-reflective immediacy” (p. 349). I realized that I had to really “see,” love, and accept all of Charlotte, that is, her overweight body, her particular performance of femininity, and the disjuncture between her feeling about her body and her clothing that originally made me so uneasy. With this recognition came an internal shift for me; I stopped focusing on her weight and style of dress. A small space began to open up for us. This growing work on the paternal transference was extremely important when Charlotte’s father was diagnosed with cancer. She spent time really talking with him about her fears and her need for closeness with him. And he was able to talk with her about his fears. During his chemotherapy-radiation treatments our work intensified and 2 years later when he died Charlotte felt she had been able to fully connect with him and say good-bye. It was during this time that I once again failed to see Charlotte and recognize what she needed from me. Her mother had shut down after the father died. Unable to talk at all about their shared loss, the mother turned on the TV and literally tuned Charlotte out. I waited to hear from Charlotte while she spent her father’s last days with him and attended his funeral. And Charlotte waited for me to reach out to her. My failure to sensitively reach out to Charlotte left her alone and enraged. Her anger penetrated me and I saw myself as both a misattuned distracted mother-a mother failing to love her in whatever state she was in-and an often absent father, crushingly gone now for good. And with that painful view a new space opened up within me and for us to talk. I believe our work shifted once again as I could now experience her rage over her aloneness and her need for comfort. I, like the mother, had failed her but was able, unlike the mother, to acknowledge my failure, locate our ruptured tie, and repair the damage between us.
A few months later Charlotte changed jobs and was now managing a retro restaurant in downtown New York. After a year, she was also booking talent for club events at the restaurant. She had been telling me for some time about an upcoming event, sisters performing to vintage music. She coordinated and promoted this act, almost co-creating it with this family of women. She very much wanted me to see this act and I decided to attend. At the restaurant I saw someone new, a Charlotte who had come to life. As both manager and hostess of this show, she easily floated from table to table making sure everyone got noticed and spoken to. While there, we found a way to playfully switch our roles and power: she was in charge and the star attraction while I was the admiring audience, probably a fuller realization of the erotic paternal transference-countertransference we had been engaged in.
Unlike shopping with her mother, in this scene I was an audience to Charlotte’s performance of what I began to see as an integration of both maternal and paternal representations, a transformative moment. Charlotte was a jewel of a hostess but also very much in charge, masterfully managing this event. I was able to recognize in a visceral way the crucial therapeutic importance of recognizing the subjectivity of the other (Benjamin, 1990). In allowing her to be the “main event” and recognizing her talents, choices, and desires, I believe I further enabled Charlotte to come to life, to act with vitality. Once we were back in my office, the roles could now fluidly keep switching between us as we eagerly discussed that night. I found a way to see her; she had found a lively way to play.
As our work continued, Charlotte came to further trust her feelings and desires. She began exploring new interests, most notably taking classes in boats and navigation for the NYPD Harbor Patrol. In this very masculinized world with its traditional male uniforms, she came even more alive. Her pleasure in these classes and on Harbor Patrol was enormous. Suddenly for the first time in years, Charlotte appeared for sessions wearing pants. When I remarked on her pants she replied, “I like wearing my Harbor duds.” Perhaps within this absorbing new interest a full identification with father and more elaborated subjectivity was allowed to flourish. What was noteworthy was her ability to make use of a new iteration of her transference identification with me via the method Charlotte knew best, dress-up. Femininity, we began to see, has a variety of costumes and Charlotte was expanding her possibilities.
It was during this time that Charlotte began to date her first real boyfriend. She became deeply involved with this man emotionally and wanted to become sexually intimate with him. For the first time Charlotte asked to speak with me between sessions, feeling unable to wait. She called me when she became too anxious prior to a weekend trip away with this man. We talked about what she wanted, her fears about sex, of what to expect about penetration. But she also stated that she really wanted to have sex; she had enjoyed the physical closeness they had been having. It was clear to me that she wanted more. After the weekend away, Charlotte told me about her first full sexual experience: “I always thought it was the sex I was afraid of. I now realize it wasn’t the sex, it was about being intimate, telling him how I felt, being so vulnerable with him.”
She and I could then more completely understand the fallout and fuller damage done during her brother’s illness and death from a reproductive cancer. It is hard enough losing a brother to cancer but nearly impossible to integrate when your family cannot discuss it or face it together. The complete refusal to discuss or mention the brother after his death, the erasure of his life and of a death that was related to reproductive organs, became dissociated within her. We could see how terrified she may have been during her teenage years when her friends were sexually experimenting. She was frozen-a deer in the headlights of life-and forbidden by her mother to discuss the brother’s illness with anyone. Charlotte never told her friends that her brother was sick or described the kind of cancer he eventually died from. The body became “other,” outside her realm of experience. She came to understand that it was sexuality as well as genuine intimacy that she feared, the vulnerability created out of exposing oneself, one’s feelings, and body to another.
On a trip, she and her boyfriend flew in a small propeller airplane. I then learned that her father had flown planes like these. He would take her along during these same teenage years and allow her to “co-pilot” the plane. And so there were moments of pleasure with her father, although again not in a verbal realm. This seemed to reflect a metaphor for how our work progressed. When I could first shift inside myself and recognize her abilities, desires, and strengths, I could then see my own fears of relinquishing my hold on gender constructions and the power they held over me. With the lessening of my own fears I could connect more with Charlotte. Then both Charlotte and I would have alternating and differing kinds of female power. We could co-pilot this treatment, fly together, and make it safe.
How We Ended
Charlotte had bought a house and lived with this boyfriend for nearly 2 years. The relationship had grown in some external ways but it had stopped in the more personal aspects of fully being a couple. Although Charlotte had developed a fully orgasmic sexual life with this man, he soon had lost interest in sex. He had also retreated from her emotionally. I referred them to a colleague for couple treatment and Charlotte worked hard with me to understand her part in their difficulties. She realized that he was not as open as he had seemed while pursuing her and that he was deeply reluctant to having an ongoing emotional and sexual intimacy-something that had been his pattern in his prior relationships. Charlotte came to see how invested she had been in shoring him up and repairing him. He was to be the parent she could fix, change, and transform into a more available and loving person: a mother who could hold her emotionally and a father who could be present and talk with her. As we worked on this Charlotte grieved; she mourned the loss of the fantasy parents she wished she had and the loss of her brother, someone she imagined she would have turned to and confided in had he lived. She knew this man would not be able to give her enough of what she now wanted and felt capable of having with another person. They decided to sell the house and split up.
Charlotte then resolved that she wanted to fulfill a fantasy she had had since college-to travel cross-country by car. At first I saw this as precipitous, a running away from her life. She had given up her management job at the restaurant to live with this man and had not been working while they were together. Slowly Charlotte was able to show me that what I was coding as rash was really her passion. She wished to live life on her terms, not according to my careful middle-class values of work first, vacation second. She was not without prudence in her plan, which included placing her half of the proceeds of the sale of the house into the bank and charting a travel route that would track her friends scattered across the country.
We ended our work together with Charlotte feeling more fully alive and ready to launch herself into an adventure in her life. I received postcards for a while from across the United States. She wrote, “I finally was able to go cross-country, which I have dreamed of for years. Combining a passion for freedom with the logistics of a GPS, I explored America the Beautiful with my dog. I cried when I saw the Grand Canyon, I think because it was so awesome and it was such a long-term goal for me to see. I can’t say that I miss you because I always feel like you are with me. You won’t believe that all the work that we did together has just fallen into place, and I am happier than ever.”
Charlotte and I came to understand how much her sense of feeling unseen or unheard by her mother left her incapable of embodying herself. Her father was felt to be present by his absence. Direct protest was not available; it would not register or be accepted. Charlotte’s feelings of hurt and rage were expressed, creatively and unconsciously, as a caricature of femininity. Gender as a category carried the multifaceted conflicts and relational configurations in her family. Bringing these conflicts into consciousness and enacting them within the transference-countertransference matrix became crucial for our work together. As with any enactment, the unpacking of my own participation effected shifts in my work with Charlotte. My own internal analysis of where I was stuck with Charlotte freed me to reach out to see and hear her differently. Additionally it seemed there was something powerful and liberating for her in “wearing the pants.” Perhaps this was one more protest path, a fuller father identification, on the road to integration. The irony should not be lost that while wearing pants she became more fully embodied in her female body and was able to claim and take pleasure in her own sexual feelings, perhaps for the first time.
In working with Charlotte I learned the full and oddly paradoxical definition of protest: that protest holds the affirmation as well as the repudiation of what is deeply felt. It turned out that I, like Charlotte, had unfinished gender work. I end with this possibility: that in fact, gender is never fully resolved. It continues throughout life to carry important coded relational meanings. We are always offered the possibility of shifting and reassessing our gender construction, if only we can see.