Wednesday, October 31, 2012


Understanding the mystery of a human being through acting, impersonating them, is quite different from the therapist’s task of getting them to understand themselves. Or is it? Can “impersonating oneself” be both therapy and art form?

A particular way of approaching acting is to look for the spine of the character — what is their central motivation? What is the drive-line of that person from which all else can be unfolded: the details, the emphasis, the context of the time and place, the family roots, the history? Then the problem becomes one of communication: how must it be shaded and edited and embellished for an audience to “get it”? The actor looks within his or her own life for connections, sense memories, melding with that person. People who live with actors sometimes complain that they don’t know this person who comes down to breakfast. They’re inhabiting their role.

The task of the therapeutic counselor is to stay OUTSIDE the person they are trying to understand but ALSO to go inside the way an actor would. A counselor who only uses some checklist based on theory OR only his own inner life might only be partially successful in calling out the person’s own understanding. So many times I’ve had counselors insist on things about me that weren’t there at all. Or blunder into something painful and then not to be able to deal with it. Not that I’m extraordinary. Everyone is extraordinary. Some hide it better than others.

Much of art is choosing the media and style or genre in the first place, though some brilliant artists can find the “way” from inside the subject matter, which makes it harder for a watcher to interpret because they expect one thing and get another. If you read “The Boy and the Dog Are Sleeping” thinking “this book was written by a pornographer,” it will be a different story than if you read the book thinking “this book was written by a Navajo man.” The assumed persona of the author is a necessary part of the fiction. 

People have experimented with submitting famous books to publishers.  One of the most famous was “The Painted Bird” by Jerzy Kosinski who was hailed by Elie Wiesel, Arthur Miller and Cynthia Ozick, as brilliant and absolutely authentic. They were agreeing with the editor who recruited the writer at a cocktail party where she was impressed by his persona. When those people who feed off of revelations finally tracked down the somewhat less flamboyant truth, people still insisted on the earlier “truth” until the critics finally got bored and wandered off, muttering about the “Holocaust industry” and “Holocaust pornography.” Someone took the trouble to retype the whole manuscript and send it under a pseudonym to a publisher who pronounced it dreck.  That’s what they expected and that’s what they saw.

These flirtations are acting, theatre, staging. People who can recognize the loss of boundaries on television or the movies entirely forget that books are just as much an art form as cinema. 

Therapeutic role-playing is entirely different. The client is looking for truth, maybe by trying on possibilities to see whether they fit. It’s something dangerous to do without a community or a partner, who will keep track of the daily presentation of the individual so they can return to some kind of dependable base. In an airplane there is an instrument that stays parallel to the true horizon outside the machine and by consulting it, the pilot has a trustworthy reality, even though it’s only symbolic.

Perhaps insanity is losing that horizon instrument. But where is the therapist with a strong enough edge-of-land not to be lost while still open and intuitive enough to “fly” alongside as a reference point? How do you find him or her? 

As I write, we are all thinking about this because of the shooting at Fort Hood. Here was a man isolated by difference, a “painted bird,” and yet in the midst of people supposedly alert to healing. Why didn’t they put an arm around his shoulders and take him aside for a coffee? Because he was “different,” because he refused help, because they weren’t thinking about him but about their own safety — which turned out to be very much endangered?

The actor taking on the role of this killer will look for a “spine” that intends to help but becomes deformed somehow. The journalism about him — which is more delicate and resourceful than usual — is suggesting forces like pride; isolation; devoutness; and second-hand trauma from empathy with maimed, disfigured, terribly suffering combat survivors who really cannot be saved. Some of them walking dead. A therapist trying to help this man (there won’t be many volunteers) will have to step inside him, confront his demons alongside him, and then step back out to the larger context to understand what his life can mean from now on. Both the therapist and the actor will be changed.

Presumably this killer of many is not physically damaged or deformed, though we know that brains grow in response to the world around them and people exposed to ghastliness do not function normally. That’s the whole essence of post-traumatic stress syndrome, that it is not just “wrong thinking” but that the response system of the brain itself has been twisted into repetition and over-reaction. A result becomes a cause.

Tim says that the hard part of “saving” boys who have been abused and trafficked is not physically removing them from that life. Why should their captors be too anxious to catch someone rebellious when there are plenty more where those came from? The hardest moments come when the boy wants to go back to where things are familiar and he knows where he stands. It is a psychological captivity. 

In a new life a kind of homesickness sets in, the danger of the unknown future overwhelming the danger of the known past. It takes a community and a lot of long walks to create a new “spine”. But the driving arrow of time pushes on through the newly familiar, capturing it, as experience does in every life. A growing brain, increasing skills, wider experience, more options, and pretty soon the ego has enough traction to begin moving again.  We hope.  It enlists the parts of the brain “under the horizon,” the subconscious that can only be accessed through images and music, where so many youngsters dwell.

(This is an old post I thought could bear repeating.)

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