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We are, therefore I am: an introduction to and political history of the psychology of relationships.
In 1977, Carol Gilligan published the essay "In a Different Voice," describing the discrepancy in morality and self-expression between men and women. In a radical break with the Freudian school that dominated psychology, Gilligan and her peers identified relationships rather than the notion of self as the foundation of our psychological and physical states. Initially met with patronizing indulgence by colleagues, this essay, along with early work by the psychiatrists Judith Lewis Herman and Jean Baker Miller, would go on to radically alter the way we understand the psychology of women, shed new light on misunderstood conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, and inspire a trove of bestselling and sometimes controversial books--ranging from Reviving Ophelia to Raising Cain and The Courage to Heal to You Just Don't Understand--that focused intense concern on childhood development, women's relationships, and psychological trauma. In This Changes Everything, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Christina Robb tells the story of relational psychology and recounts the untold work of a pioneering group of psychologists--mostly women--who at times took monumental risks, crossing boundaries and breaking institutional taboos, in order to fully understand the ways in which relationships shape our every experience of the world.
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Christina Robb was for more than twenty years a writer for The Boston Globe, where she was part of a team of journalists who won the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 1983. This is her first book.
Excerpted from This Changes Everything by Christina Robb. Copyright © 2006 by Christina Robb. Published in March 2006 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
Relational psychology is the way the women's movement and other human rights movements of the 1960s moved into psychology. It is about how our ideas about psychological development and mental health have become democratic, and it came from questioning authority--most important, questioning traditional answers about difference and relationship.
Difference--of species, habitat, coloration, size, character--gives nature depth and strength. Why should some human beings tell a story that says differences are about better and worse?
Relationships weave all creatures into the web of life. Why should some human beings tell a similar story about relationships, a story that says relationships are for weaklings and real men stand alone? And why are the human beings who tell these stories the ones who hold the most power?
These were the kinds of questions in the back of Carol Gilligan's mind when, in 1975--as a thirty-nine-year-old unpublished, part-time assistant professor of developmental psychology at Harvard, taking a year off to be with her three sons because her family had just moved from one suburb of Boston to another--she heard in the voices of women a different story about difference.
Across the Charles River in Cambridge and Somerville, Judith Lewis Herman, a young psychiatrist, and Lisa Hirschman, a young clinical psychologist, were listening to poor patients talk about incest. They weren't supposed to hear it. Their supervisors told them to ignore it when their patients talked about incest. Their textbooks said incest was rarer than rare, a case in a million. But their patients told them they had suffered incest, sexual abuse, and rape and had histories of prolonged and repeated trauma. Herman and Hirschman were women and their patients were women. They realized that what they were hearing and why they weren't supposed to hear it were political as well as medical problems, and the incidence of father-daughter incest they found was exponentially greater than medical science said it was.
They were picking up where Freud left off more than a century ago, before he retracted his discovery that childhood trauma, especially sexual trauma, can cause the most severe mental illnesses. And they were--as Freud was, and as most psychotherapists still are--listening to women and girls at a time of great and democratizing social change.
In fact, in 1975, inside a radius of about five miles, three revolutionary projects were afoot near Boston: Carol Gilligan was recording the different, not deviant, voice she was hearing in women making moral decisions. Herman and Hirschman were counting cases of incest for the first time ever. And the psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Jean Baker Miller was writing about the politics of dominance and the politics of relationship and about how being subordinate in a culture of dominance hurt her women patients and warped the dominant psychology's view of women. Working at home in Brookline, the same little suburb of Boston that Gilligan had just moved to, Miller filled her book with insights from women clients she met in a storefront clinic and in the middle-class comfort of her private office, from the explorations of two consciousness-raising groups, and from her own search for forerunners among pioneer women psychologists. Toward a New Psychology of Women, published in 1976, demonstrated that what male psychologists had labeled women's weaknesses--hypersensitivity, merging, dependency needs--could be seen as strengths: authenticity, empathy, a drive to connect, and the skills to stay connected. Miller saw that men and children relied on women heavily to use these strengths but mocked and devalued them because men, especially, weren't supposed to admit they needed anybody.
These early leaders in what I'm calling the relational revolution were all white women in what were still very much white men's fields. They knew they could never be department heads or make millions. But they hadn't been brought up to want those things anyway. Like Psyche, the mythical heroine Gilligan sees as a political archetype who can teach us to heal relationships, these women were all intensely curious. They were smart. Political reform was giving them access to traditionally male knowledge that women of earlier generations had had to scrape for. And the women's movement was giving them the freedom to hold this knowledge without disowning their own experience.
When I found Miller's book in a bookstore a couple of years after it was published, I did what thousands of her readers did: I read it, sent it to my mother, and gave copies to several friends. At the time, I was in the brief freelance phase of a twenty-year career on the reporting staff of The Boston Globe; I had time to volunteer as a music therapist at McLean Hospital, the venerable Harvard-affiliated mental hospital, and to take an adult-education course at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute. I hoped the course would help me understand the suffering I encountered as a volunteer. The course was fascinating and infuriating. The fundamental stream of proto-thought that Freud discovered and called "primary process" and the relaxed but alert, open attention he recommended paying to people in order to tune in to the way they express this primary process blew me away. Not just the idea but the experience of hearing and talking back to people in a language that I and they had been using all the time but never noticed or attended to was like adding some lush orchestration to a tune I had only known as a melodic line, to use the sort of musical metaphor Gilligan favors. But I saw that at the same time psychoanalysts opened this wide door to people's experience and motivations, they locked or kept locked a lot of other doors. I read all the Freud I could get my hands on, and I noticed a huge ignorance in the middle of psychoanalysis, Freud's system for gaining knowledge. This ignorance was most obviously about women, and I am sure it was obvious to me only because the women's movement encouraged me to see this kind of blackout of women's experience wherever it occurred. I read that Freud's first patients were women and girls who eventually traced their complaints to incest and childhood sexual abuse. But the genial, clear veteran psychoanalyst who taught our class in Boston, and who was also a physician, insisted to us that girls didn't know they had vaginas until they were about twelve. And when I say insisted, I mean that when his adult female students informed him that this wasn't true, he dismissed our response. How could anyone put stock in a theory, so centered on sexual and erotic themes, that held that half of all children had no knowledge of their own genitals while the other half were practically obsessed with theirs? And how could anyone construct ideas about girls that ignored the experience of people who had been girls in favor of the assumptions of people who hadn't been? Could it be--I thought, listening for that lush orchestration of symbolic thinking I had just learned to hear--that psychoanalysts simply didn't want to know what girls knew or how girls thought about themselves? And why not? What was so dangerous about the self-knowledge of girls?
Nearly twenty years after my epiphanies about Freud's psychology--both the epiphany of understanding what he taught about primary process and the epiphany of discovering that psychoanalysts didn't want to know what girls and women knew--I found myself sitting in Jean Baker Miller's office in the Stone Center of Wellesley College. Month after month for the past three or four years, after we had walked down to the little kitchen in the nineteenth-century brick building and waited while the water boiled and then walked back to her office with mugs of tea, I had interviewed her about her career, her ideas, her practice of psychotherapy, her collaborators, and the institutions she built. Finally we had come to the end of this exploration, and I asked her my standard end-of-interview question: "Is there anything that I haven't asked about or that we haven't talked about that you think is important?"
Jean shifted in her chair, and then was quiet for about half a minute, a long time in an interview. Finally she said, "I just hope you really understand, and can get it across, that this changes everything."
Miller is a mild-mannered, unassuming, plainspoken woman, and one of the most attractive aspects of the psychology she and her colleagues have put together is that they don't try to explain everything. They have taken their insights from listening to women and girls and applied them first to the cases that were actually before them and then slowly, as more data accumulated and as they began listening to women of color, men, and boys, to a wider group. So I was surprised to hear this rather global comment. But Miller is as brave as she is unassuming, and as bold as she is clear. She meant, she continued, that the relational-cultural theory that she created and elaborated with Judith V. Jordan, Janet L. Surrey, the late Irene P. Stiver, and other colleagues is not just about psychotherapy or even just about human relationships. It's not that kind of theory. It doesn't just describe; it changes--everything. She believed, she said, that if she and others simply continued speaking and writing about the discoveries they were making about the power of relationships, their work would revolutionize society as well as psychology. And as the years of my preparation for this book went on, every psychologist and psychiatrist, every social worker, every patient or client I interviewed echoed her, often in the same words. And I began to notice that they were right.
In the hours after the terrorist attacks in New York on September 11, 2001, the Salvation Army arrived at Ground Zero with bottled water and grief counseling. The idea t...
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