Psychoanalysis explores the gaps between desire and possibility
It was often noisy around the dinner table at my home, with one or another person storming off for an indiscernible reason before the meal ended. At others' houses, an equally incomprehensible calmness prevailed. Why? What made the difference between my normality and that of my friends?
My curiosity about what made individuals and families behave and feel as they did got more fuel from my parents' tendency to speak in whispers or in a doggerel Yiddish when the children weren't meant to understand. And there was lots we weren't meant to hear about: auntie Frieda, grandparents, money, communism, cancer - troubles of one kind or another.
The secrecy made me eager to eavesdrop on the most ordinary of conversations on the bus or the tube and to ask questions where no explicit prohibition existed. Unsurprisingly, I became an enthusiastic reader of the problem pages in magazines. Did I know, then, that human processes and emotional life would have an enduring appeal for me? Of course not. I was schooled to be interested in history or law or medicine, never even knowing that studying people - what they felt and how they acted - was even possible. It was many years and many a detour later, through those more conventional subjects, that I came to be interested first in women's psychology and then in the whole area of human subjectivity.
Psychoanalysis seemed to reach those places left unanswered by history and economics. Like literature, it explored people's personal responses and the gaps between desire and possibility. It suggested that the incomprehensible could be brought into the light to be pondered over and engaged with. It changed the nature of what might be taboo.
As a young feminist in the 1970s, when it felt as though all the western world was changing, the question of why people clung on to their "oppressions" was paramount. It was easy to see how opportunities for change weren't necessarily taken up and that inside of each of us lived structures, emotional structures, that seemed, at times, as immovable and material as the barriers outside. Women often stayed in destructive relationships, found it hard to fight for sensitive medical care, or create the change in their domestic arrangements that many wanted.
Psychoanalysis understood the force of the emotional structures that girdled us. It spoke of conflicts, defences, transferences and complexes, and in so doing gave a set of explanations that showed how and why we were bound to our history and to the tendency to enact and repeat what we didn't wish to.
But it did more than just provide tools for explaining. It offered the hope of understanding and change and, for some, personal liberation. It might sound naive now, but liberation - personal, sexual and political - was a big idea 30 years ago, and the more subversive aspects of psychoanalysis were seen as useful handmaidens in the struggle to change both one's personal and the political worlds. To become a therapist, you have to listen carefully. Listen to what was being said, to the words used, to the pauses, the hesitations, the omissions, the tone, the feel and the wishes buried within the sentences.
You have to be good at hearing secrets and be vigilant about keeping them. You have to be mentally nimble enough to enable the people you see as analysands, patients or clients to put together understandings of their distress, opening up new possibilities in the process. And you need to be able to tolerate a range of feelings (shame, hurt, hate, fear, terror, grief, love) that most people would run a mile from, but which you will be inviting your analysand to experience and explore with you.
I found these activities deeply absorbing. I found, and continue to find, the intellectual challenge of engaging with another person's difficulties with the aim of helping them, entirely engrossing. The "ah ha" of understanding and connecting is not just what keeps individuals coming to psychotherapy, it is what keeps psychotherapists open, lively and challenged. We are fascinated by why people feel and think and believe as they do. For me, writing is a way of expressing the excitement and depth of what I learn in the consulting room. It's a way of taking those secrets and giving them back in way that reveals how the indepth study of an individual can enrich our understanding of ourselves.