There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.
-Zora Neale Hurston
For years, psychoanalytic institutes have been struggling with how to develop a more multi-culturally diverse Institute culture – in their candidate pool, faculty, and curriculum. In this light, John Turtz, PhD, Co-Director of the Manhattan Institute for Psychoanalysis, reflects on his personal responses to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book and National Book Award winner, Between the World and Me. He references psychoanalysis’ “history of exclusion” and discusses the need for psychoanalysts to struggle with these difficult issues around race.
Reflections on Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
By John Turtz, PhD
Hatred is an ordinary human experience that has extraordinary results.
Kathleen Pogue White, Ph.D.
Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015), an African-American writer and journalist, has written an extraordinary book entitled Between the World and Me. It is a masterpiece in the form of a letter to his son. Coates writes of the subjugation of the Black body by the powers that be in white America. He writes about the social construction of race, stating, “But race is the child of racism, not the father” (p. 7). I recently listened to Coates read this letter himself in the audiobook version; this is a beautiful recording. The letter to his son is as much poetry as it is prose. It is, from my perspective, simply magnificent, and it led me to the following reflections.
The philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas has written about the importance of “the Other.” Colin Davis (1996), a scholar of twentieth century French literature, wrote, “The thought of Emmanuel Levinas is governed by one simple yet far-reaching idea: Western philosophy has consistently practiced a suppression of the Other” (p. 1). Through various means such as empathy and domination, we try to make the Other a part of ourselves. We attempt to eliminate the difference and assimilate the Other into the same. Levinas, on the other hand, focuses on the radical alterity of the Other and on how the Other simply cannot somehow be reduced to the familiar sameness of the subjective self’s personal domain. In fact, the subject is born only in recognition of the Other’s radical otherness.
The Lacanian psychoanalyst, Bruce Fink (2007), in a book on psychoanalytic technique, has written about the difficulty in listening and truly hearing and experiencing otherness. He writes, “We tend to hear everything in relation to ourselves” (p. 1) and “Most simply stated, our usual way of listening overlooks or rejects the otherness of the other” (p. 2). Fink then advises, in a similar vein as Edgar Levenson, “Stop trying to understand so quickly” (p. 6). Our tendency is to listen for the familiar, thereby making false assumptions that we then take to be fact.
Listening to Coates read his letter to his son made me even more aware of my own deficiencies in my attempts to deal with my own internal struggles around race and otherness. Lacan has asserted that inauthenticity leads to a power hierarchy (Ehrenberg, 1992, p. 83), and postmodernists have examined the nature of binaries and how they too lead to hierarchical power structures. We therefore need to move toward greater authenticity in dealing with race issues and toward the deconstruction of binaries with regard to race. Psychoanalysts of color, such as Kathleen Pogue White (2002) and Kirkland Vaughans, and white analysts such as Melanie Suchet (2007) and Neil Altman (2004) have initiated the difficult and challenging but essential dialogue on race issues. It is crucial for all psychoanalysts, I believe, to struggle to a much greater degree with these issues. Psychoanalysis itself has, since its origins, been a mostly white, often Jewish, culture with a great history of exclusion. Is it no wonder that we have a difficult time attracting people of color to come train with us? There are no easy answers (that’s perhaps the understatement of the year), but we must continue the struggle begun by analysts that have been courageous enough to sail into these stormy waters.
The American dream has generated a lot of trauma. From the Trail of Tears to the shackling of African-Americans in chattel slavery for centuries to Black men hanged by white men hiding behind white sheets or shot in the back by police officers empowered by the culture of whiteness, there is a deplorable side to America. It’s so much easier to not see what there is to be seen, to pretend that this is all in the past, to pretend that I am not at all responsible, to avoid otherness, and to hide from others as well as from myself what I feel are unacceptable aspects of myself.
I do not consider myself to be innocent. My hope is to struggle with these issues in a more open and authentic manner moving forward. Though it may be myth, it is told that Martin Luther said, “If I knew that tomorrow was the end of the world, I would plant an apple tree today!” Whether true or not, it is a beautiful expression of hope and the human spirit. In this spirit, I hope to work toward greater awareness of my own “not me” aspects, struggle to get to know these aspects of myself in a more intimate way, and thereby struggle to deal more constructively with that deeply ingrained white mask of privilege, power, dominance and subjugation.
Altman, N. (2004). Whiteness Uncovered. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 14:439-446.
Coates, T. (2015). Between the World and Me. New York: Spiegel & Grau.
Davis, C. (1996). Levinas: An Introduction. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press.
Ehrenberg, D. B. (1992). The Intimate Edge: Extending the Reach of Psychoanalytic Interaction. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Fink, B. (2007). Fundamentals of Psychoanalytic Technique: A Lacanian Approach for Practitioners. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Suchet, M. (2007). Unraveling Whiteness. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 17:867-886.
White, K. P. (2002). Surviving Hating and Being Hated. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 38:401-422.
John Turtz, PhD is Co-director of the Manhattan Institute for Psychoanalysis and Director of the Couples Therapy Training Program at the Westchester Center for the Study of Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. He is in private practice in Manhattan and Larchmont, NY.