‘The war, my mother, lots of individual things’ - a Discursive Psychodynamic Reading of Psychotherapy Text Heenan, C. (1996) CHANGES, Special Issue on Qualitative Psychotherapy Research. 14(3):208-212 Discursive approaches to psychology challenged notions of ‘inner mental processes’ arising out of individuals’ private experiences, focusing instead on the socially constructed nature of such concepts as the mind or the self (Henriques et al, 1984; Parker & Shotter, 1990; Harre & Gillett, 1994). Central to this shift in perspective is the argument that language is both the medium and vehicle for the construction of subjectivities. Moreover, rather than revealing meaning, language simultaneously produces and constrains it (Burman & Parker, 1993). However, it is not just that individuals draw on available linguistic practices, or ‘interpretative repertoires (Potter & Wetherell, 1987) in order to construct a sense of self, but also that these repertoires are themselves made available through existing psychological, psychiatric or religious or other discourses which construct subjectivities. A discursive framework has particular paradigmatic implications for the theory and practice of psychotherapies, as well as the theory and practice of researching psychotherapies. Although a belief in the constructive function of language is central to psychodynamic practice (Frosh, 1989), the notion that the therapist is not revealing the client’s ‘true self’ or bringing about change in their structured internal self, but instead, discursively constructing a psychodynamic narrative, contradicts many of the tenets of classical psychoanalytic models (Bateman & Holmes, 1995). The thought that well-designed research projects might reveal these suspect hermeneutic tendencies in psychodynamic therapies, will probably delight some sceptics. Unfortunately, a discursive perspective also challenges traditional scientific research paradigms, through its questioning of truth, objectivity and positivism. From this postmodern standpoint, science is simply another discourse, constructed and maintained by its practices, one of which is research. Researchers do not reveal but construct ‘areas of interest’, ‘problems’ or ‘important findings’. In this paper, I write as both researcher and therapist, offering an analysis of a piece of text from a psychodynamic psychotherapy group which I ran, for women with eating disorders. This formed part of a part time PhD project in which I am using a discourse analytic approach to refexively critique my work in this field, as well as other feminist and psychoanalytic practices. Initially, I was confident that my feminist framework gave me sufficient ‘insight’ to understand the links between ‘eating disordered’ clients’ - a subject which has been dear to many feminist therapists’ hearts (Orbach, 1978,1986). However, a growing dis-ease with the tensions between an apparently unitary feminism and the practice of psychodynamic psychotherapy prompted me to find other perspectives, other discourses. This has meant questioning the whole framework in which I have been steeped as an academic, a researcher, a therapist and a feminist. It has been no easy transition from the confident position of making psychodynamic interpretations about psychological processes, or from making assumptions that a sound research project would reveal ‘what’s really going on here’, to adopting what has felt like a very contradictory position as a ‘discourse analyst’. For a long time, I have felt the two positions to be at odds with each other in much the same way feminism and psychotherapy has been seen to be at odds in terms of the former flagging up the social construction of gender and the latter flagging up innate conflicts. However, as Flax (1990) suggests, this false opposition reflects the way in which meanings are constructed within a dualist framework which also perpetuates a false separation between body and mind (see Littlewood, 1992). I use the following piece of text strategically, as part of the construction and elaboration of the idea that self, identity and subjectivity are discursively produced. At the same time, I would argue that a discourse analytic reading is incomplete without a psychodynamic framework - and vice versa. MARY: One thing is I, it's (the group) helping me with though is the fact that I realise having a family and always being somebody's mother or somebody's wife, um, I've tended - I don't know if anybody else does this but - say at a meal time and there's been sort of, perhaps some leftovers and a fresh lot of food and the leftovers I always - been brought up during the (Second World) war, I can't waste food because during the war it was very scarce so, but it was always drilled into me as a little child, 'You've got to eat it up because you know there's, there's not much'. That's because of the shortages. So, it's just ingrained in me not to waste food - and uh over the years I've found myself, 'Oh, that'll do for me. You know, I'll have the leftovers'. The rest of them can - and what it's done for me, well this last, I've thought, 'To hell with that! Why should I have the leftovers?'. I've just done it automatically for all these years, it's all right, it's good enough for me and I've just suddenly, it's only this last week and I've thought, 'It isn't good, throw it out. Nobody else wants it so throw it out. Why should you eat it?' and it's, it's/ THERAPIST:/You don't need to be a garbage can?/ MARY:/It's a, it's a kind of revelation because I spent all these years um, if, it's, you're taught, ‘If it's for out, it's going to be for me’ and I just thought, 'You stupid idiot, you know, why should you do it?' and it break, it, just like you were saying about it being a very complicated reason. There's all sorts of reasons you, you know, the war and my mother always making me clean my plate up and lots of individual things but together you're making it, 'Well, it's all right for me' and it isn't all right for me but just like you (other client) were saying, it's taken you fifteen years you know, it's taken me about three times as long as that love, so it's a long time you know. Don't think because it's fifteen years, it's insurmountable. I'm trying and it's an awful long time since I've, you know mine started. From a discourse analytic perspective, we can think about the way Mary describes and explains the complexity of her (compulsive) ‘eating disorder’. Due to its multiple locations, the personal meaning which food and eating has for her is embedded in a particular historical and social context; that is, ‘the war, my mother making me clean my plate, lots of individual things’. It all adds up to, ‘leftovers being all right for me’. This could also be understood as her endeavouring to portray her inappropriate behaviour as consistent for her due to her history. Moreover, as ‘always somebody’s mother, somebody’s wife’, she is currently drawing on available contemporary gendered discourses about mothering and heterosexual partnerships which involve women putting others’ needs before their own. So, she ensures the others get ‘fresh food’. However, Mary’s current family don’t ‘eat up what’s on their plates’, the food she has prepared for them as a wife and mother. She also clearly makes more than they need or want. Does preparing more than is necessary, as well as eating up the leftovers, offer Mary a way to maintain an illusion that she is functioning adequately as ‘somebody’s mother, somebody’s wife’? After all, throwing out the leftovers might mean her food is ‘garbage’. Moreover, as a British wife and mother, she is also drawing on current moral discourses about waste which prevail upon those who have leftovers, not to waste them. These current discourses feed her historical self whereby it’s ‘ingrained’ in her not to waste, and she feels she must eat what’s left although the war is over and food is no longer scarce. From a psychodynamic perspective, Mary seems to still be living through a war, albeit an internal one which she primarily locates within and between her body, her mind and her emotions: her wish to eat and her wish to be in control of this desire. Her psychological conflicts were constructed during a time when she was physically ‘under siege’ as a child with little power, under siege not just from the ‘named’ enemy but from her mother who wanted her to ‘eat up’. Although she was ‘cleaning her plate’ for her mother, nevertheless she and her mother were also participating in ‘the war effort’ and ‘keeping up morale’. In this instance, it meant ensuring that British children did not appear to be suffering and that British mothers were seen to be maintaining family life ‘as normal’. However, was there really ‘not enough food’ - of a physical nature, that is? Presumably, if there hadn’t been, Mary would have had no trouble ‘cleaning her plate’. As an adult, Mary knows that she had not been starving on a physical level. For her, ‘eating up’ involved having to adopt her mother’s definition of what was enough. Moreover, by giving into her mother’s ‘drilling’, Mary participated in constructing and maintaining not only her mother’s subjectivity but her own, as a child with no rights and as a female child who should be obedient. Although Mary is now in her sixties and her mother is dead, she still has an intense relationship with this mother; at times she and her mother seem one and the same, especially in relation to how and what she eats. The internal ‘mother-object’ she actively relates to is one which is both desperate to ensure she gets enough to eat during a time of (relative) scarcity and one which makes her eat although she doesn’t want, or perhaps need, the food. In order to receive her demonstration of love - feeding - this ‘know it all’ mother has to be given into, ‘for Mary’s own good’. Again, it is essential to remember how the particular social and historical context of this personal relationship influenced the development of these women’s subjectivities. Not to eat when ‘there’s not much’ would have been viewed as dangerously rebellious. Further, the link between physical and emotional nurturance in which her subjectivity is embedded, affords a psychodynamic understanding of Mary’s feeding of herself as an adult. It is a demonstration of love to herself which does not overtly challenge other unconscious meanings. As the therapist, I suggest to her that she is still using herself as a physical and emotional ‘garbage can’, just as she was used as a child. (Clearly, this interpretation referred to other material which Mary had made available.) In the psychotherapy group, Mary re-enacts her past and present relationships with myself and the other members. She becomes my ‘wife’ and the group’s ‘mother’, ensuring that the others get fresh food from me, while appearing content with the leftovers. As she feels I sometimes have not got enough to ‘go around’, so she supplements my meagre portions with her own by paying attention to the others and helping them out when she feels I am not. But Mary also wants to be ‘somebody’s child’; that is, mine. She complies with what she feels are my demands, doesn’t complain and gratefully eats up whatever I dole out. Yet, she is full of rage about a number of very painful events in her life which go beyond this piece of text - and terrified of the possibility that she might act out this aggression on others, preferring instead to hurt herself by treating herself ‘like a garbage can’. From a more discursive perspective, the function of the therapy group for Mary, would be to improve her sense of individual agency, by means of ‘revealing’ underlying causes for her problems, thus enabling her to break ‘ingrained’ habits. She is struggling to ‘break’ a relationship with food which started well in the past but which still has a hold on her. Although she has just offered a very complex explanation of the ‘complicated reasons’ why she has problematic feelings about food, she tells herself she is a ‘stupid idiot’. Perhaps as she is positioned as an ‘eating disordered patient’ in a therapy group, she is bound to construct herself as stupid, while I as the therapist, am ‘the expert’. Moreover, to behave or feel in ways which are not rational, also goes against the prevailing norm of being sensible adults in control of life and self. In addition, to appear to overtly ‘know’, she would be challenging not just an internal mother, but the transferential mother which I offer her in the group. Finally, she might risk the other members’ envy of her ‘knowing’ when they are confused. By both allowing Mary to re-enact these issues in the group and by participating in them whilst also observing, commenting, making links between her various selves - the wife, the mother, the client, the daughter, and by drawing analogies between this political and personal war, Mary begins to think, feel and experience herself differently. She does not ‘discover’ herself but constructs a subjectivity which is both psychodynamic and feminist. However, it is not that she simply adopts the discourses which I bring into therapy as neutral observations, it is the way in which they have come to have particular meaning for her in terms of how her personal and social world intersect at particular points in history both past and present, inside the therapy room and out. This involves us both adopting slightly contradictory position as psychotherapist and client who both ‘know’ and yet ‘don’t know’. Although Mary does recognise when emotional experiences resonate, she needs to be encouraged to regard internal experiences of emotion not as occurring in some kind of private vacuum, as some kind of moral failure or irrationality, but as viable material which can be named, made public through talk and action and be taken seriously, as a woman. A discourse analytic approach to psychotherapy research offers a particular challenge to both the researcher and the therapist. There are no hard and fast guidelines as to ‘what to do ‘how to read’ the text, or ‘how to do’ the research. Moreover, psychodynamic meanings are not there ‘to be revealed’ as truths; instead they are constructed - not simply between client and therapist within the context of the therapy, but out of historical, social, psychodynamic, gendered discourses. In turn, this mirrors the research process which does not ‘discover’ but construct findings within a particular context. Reading text from both a discursive and psychodynamic perspective affords multiple meanings which, through being made public, open up the private world of psychotherapy with its focus on apparently ‘inner’ processes, and the public world of research with its apparent ‘objectivity’, to public challenge and collaboration. Thanks to Erica Burman for her helpful feedback, and to Ann Barratt for her observations about growing up in Britain during the second world war. REFERENCES Bateman, A. & Holmes, J. (1995) Introduction to Psychoanalysis: Contemporary Theory and Practice London: Routledge Burman, E. & Parker, I. (1993) Discourse Analytic Research. London: Routledge Flax, J. (1990) Thinking Fragments: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and Postmodernism in the Contemporary West. Berkeley, California: University of California Press. Frosh, S. (1989) Psychoanalysis and Psychology: Minding the Gap. London: Macmillan Education. Hare-Mustin, R.T. (1994) ‘Discourses in the Mirrored Room: A Postmodern Analysis of Therapy’, in Family Process (33), pp.19-35. Harre, R. & Gillett, G. (1994) The Discursive Mind. London: Sage. Heenan, M.C. (1995) ‘Feminist Psychotherapy - A Contradiction in Terms?’, in Feminism and Psychology, 5, 1, pp. 112-117. Hollway, W. (1989) Subjectivity and Method in Psychology: Gender, Meaning and Science. London: Sage. Littlewood, R. ‘How Universal Is Something We Can Call ‘Therapy’?, in J. Kareem & R. Littlewood (eds) (1992) Intercultural Therapy London: Blackwell Scientific Publications. Madill, A. & Docherty, K. (1994) ‘So You did what you wanted then’: Discourse Analysis, Personal Agency, and Psychotherapy’, in The Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, Special Issue on Qualitative Social Psychology, 4(4):261-274 Orbach, S. (1978) Fat is a Feminist Issue. London: Paddington Press. Orbach, S. (1986) Hunger Strike. London: Faber and Faber. Parker, I. (1992) Discourse Dynamics - Critical Analysis for Social and Individual Psychology. London: Routledge Potter, J. & Wetherell, M. (1987) Discourse and Social Psychology: beyond attitudes and behaviour. London: Sage. Wyatt, F. (1986) ‘Narrative in Psychoanalysis’, in Narrative Psychology: The Storied Nature of Human Conduct, T.R. Sarbin (ed) New York: Praeger Publishers.