psychoanalysis queerness

Notes on the psychoanalytic treatment of queer patients

1. Please understand I speak as a lay person. I know so little.

2. All the key notions of psychoanalytic theory and psychoanalytic practice are subverted by queerness. Approaching a queer patient with therapeutic and conceptual tools developed mostly within a patriarchal, heteronormative framework will by necessity cause pain and (re)traumatize.

3. Feminist psychoanalysis is probably a godsend, but I wouldn’t know because I haven’t read it.

4. A queer person has a history in which the development of libido and the development of the death drive go hand in hand. I mean this in the most literal sense possible: our libido was never allowed, never possible. We knew this very early on, probably as babies. Our desire was always a forbidden desire that we absolutely needed to kill. (I realize a certain psychoanalytic thinking understands all sexuality this way; please spare me).

5. Terror.

6. Suicide.

7. Suicidal baby.

8. The queer baby dies in order to survive.

9. Love is tainted. Inherently. Even if we are deeply loved.

10. We are often not deeply loved. We are strange and don’t fit. Our bodies and minds betray us and those we love every day.

11. The patient-therapist relationship doesn’t fall under the terms of traditionally conceived power relations. Using this framework to relate to the patient will hurt the patient, whose longings have already been brutally punished.

12. A new understanding of the love between the patient and the analyst is imperative.

13. Analysts are socialized in a heteronormative, patriarchal society. They need to work hard at shedding as much of their conditioning as they can.

14. We, the queer people, are inherently monstrous. We are inherently unlovable. The therapist and the patient need to dismantle the conditions of possibility of this monstrousness, together.

15. An unusual openness is required. Rules must be broken. The house has already burned down.

16. We grieve together an irreparable sorrow. We grieve together a life lost. Healing can exist only through radical rebuilding. The master’s tools

17. Queer psychoanalytic houses are made of plasticine and wind tunnels. No one is kept out.

18. The boundaries of the self are exploded. They can be affirmed only in love.

18. We go together deep into the wreck; we feed off barnacles; we build underwater chambers in which to have afternoon tea.

19. There is no normal.

20. Libido freely passes back and forth between patient and analyst.


books queerness

Deborah Levy’s The Man Who Saw Everything and Queer Trauma

Reviewers have read this as a story of self-absorption, but I see it instead as an investigation of the ways trauma disrupts time.

Saul, the protagonist, is a bisexual man who carries a hefty load of queer trauma. After his mother’s death his father and his brother torture him for being “inappropriately” masculine, and if you know about gender/sexuality trauma, you know that it never, ever goes away. Society will never stop being heteronormative, and every fresh reminder of your unfittingness will break the wound wide open.

When we encounter him, Soul is startlingly beautiful and universally attractive. His girlfriend has turned down his marriage proposal and, since he’s a scholar of the GDR and, fittingly, also a scholar of male dictators and their attitudes toward women (is he himself the women dictators abuse?), he goes to East Berlin to do research. In East Berlin traumatized, queer Saul lives that most heady of all times: the miraculous point in one’s youth when suffering and delight are equally acute and plentiful, and life feels like a torrential, delicious flood of pathos, lust, and love.

No one can stay long in such time. People prolong it with drugs but it inevitably ends. The mind cannot take all that intensity, and life anyway doesn’t work that way.

The non-traumatized mind (or the not-too-traumatized mind) moves on, looks back with nostalgia or embarrassment, incorporates the past into the present through memory, and finds a way to create satisfaction and contentment (and joy!) in adult living. The traumatized mind remains stuck in the past and the past is the present and its presence and absence equally torture us.

Levy is doing two things here:

The first is the thought experiment, would you survive a trip into your headiest days? Could you carry on after the acute re-experiencing of what you had and lost?

The second is an investigation of the mind of those who cannot but live in two places at once — the suffering and excitement of their past, the inevitable disappointment of their present.

I think the thought experiment is not really the point here. I think the point is that saul needs to go back, and back, and back, and both fix the terrible things that happened to him and also relive the grand things that happened to him and, this time, make them last, make them not go away. He needs to be back there and make it all override the way his life has become.

I love levy’s portrayal of the free, whirlwind, reciprocated desire Saul experiences in East Berlin. It’s beautiful and queer and delightful. Saul is innocent and kind, forgetful and selfish; he gets to have a second, less troubled childhood. He is hurt and he smothers this hurt in sex, as queer people sometimes do. Queer sex connects Saul to himself and heals, to an extent, or for the moment.

We don’t really know what the rest of saul’s life is like. We know he is loved, at least by some, and we also know that he fails massively at being happy.

Time is a kindness. Queer-traumatized people, most of us, find some relief in the dulling that time brings. How can one survive reliving freshly the moments when everything was still possible? Maybe one can’t.

Painting: Fred Smilde, Until that Time.

lesbians queerness

Lesbian sex

The other day I used the “girls don’t have penises so they use their fingers” shortcut to define lesbian sex. I felt quite ashamed later of its imprecision and crassness.

  • For one, men use fingers too with women and men, and women use fingers with men. In other words, fingers are not alternative to penises.
  • For two, sexual activity is not limited to fingers and penises, nor is it limited to insertion of tubular objects inside orifices. People use hands, lips, tongues, teeth, bellies, backs, shoulders, knees, elbows, arms, feet…
  • But then my imprecise and crass formulation also lent itself to the general assumption that women lack something very important and they need to make do with something — in this case fingers — that is vastly inferior.
  • Lesbian sex is sex and hetero sex is sex and gay sex is sex and all manner of sex is sex and I am not going to define sex here, but if you think it’s sex and it feels like sex, for the intents and purposes of its validity to you (i.e. not in relation to legal standards, necessarily) it’s sex and it is not better or worse or superior or inferior to anyone else’s sex so you get to have sex any damn way you please.

love psychoanalysis queerness

Lesbian pain

A backlit girl in silhouette has her hands raised in a door-like opening. Beyond the opening there is a large body of water, out of focus. The larger context, which I have cropped out, suggests that the girl is about to jump into water, or use a zipline. The cropped image gives a sense of isolation, surrender, and a jump into the unknown.
Photo by Марьян Блан | @marjanblan on Unsplash, cropped by me.

1. The other day I quoted three lines from Gentleman Jack — I am sure they are pretty accurate but I am quoting by heart.

2. As always, I can’t write in full discursive paragraphs about this because my mind is tired and fragmented, so let me use again numbered paragraphs.

3. I have always known that being a lesbian made my life difficult, but this TV show, alongside painful and incremental seeing of myself as someone who had a lesbian childhood/adolescence/twenties/life in analysis, ripped a veil of not-knowing.

4. Women go to great lengths to convince themselves that “it’s nothing.” Gay women, straight women, trans women, all women.

5. Ann Cvetkovich talks about lesbian trauma (trauma qua lesbian) in An Archive of Feelings, which I read years ago (this is not a perfect digital copy but it’s free so THANK YOU SO VERY MUCH to those who put it online!). The second chapter, “Trauma and Touch: Butch-Femme Sexualities” does particularly good work at describing the kind of pain that butches, and femmes, in different ways, accrue simply in virtue of being. The kind of butch the chapter describes is very much not the kind of butch I am, though, so, even though I was really taken by this chapter, I couldn’t apply it to me.

6. Still, if you don’t know anything about lesbian pain and lesbian trauma, this is a good thing to read. It’s particularly good because it emphasizes how femmes and butches heal each other in ways that an uninformed, quick-judging eye would find dysfunctional (hint: it’s not dysfunctional if it helps).

7. My non-lesbian, lesbian-ignorant analyst has brought me here. She has created a space in which I can grieve decades of ungrieved lesbian trauma. Sometimes you need a lesbian therapist. Other times you just need a good therapist.

8. The instant the veil of not-knowing was ripped I knew everything. The parts fell into place like tetris bits. I knew and knew and knew. And I knew that this pain started pretty fucking early.

9. Parents of queer girls: don’t underestimate the suffering of teeny tiny queer girls in playgrounds, day cares, and kindergartens. The world is truly, really designed to make them feel like they don’t belong, however good the intentions of those who surround them.

10. [flashback of tiny me tantruming in my underwear because my mom wanted me to wear a skirt].

[flashback of early grade-age me approaching the director of the choir I sang in and loved days before Christmas night because he had said, “Boys wear blue pants and white tops, girls wear blue skirt and white tops” and I knew that a) I would have to miss Christmas if he didn’t allow me to wear pants and b) I would (probably) have to lie to my mom as to the reason why. People: I loved that choir. I loved it so much I was crazy about it. And I. would. have. missed. Christmas. night. mass. Small me approaches director: “Can I wear pants?” Director looks at me puzzled, waits a beat that lasts a lifetime, then, barely thinking, says, “I don’t see why not.” People: this kind of relief, you get it a handful of times in your life. I ran all the way home and jumped on all the little walls and cavorted like mad in the street because I could sing at Christmas night mass].

11. But no, no, no, these are not good examples. These things are easy for an aware parent to catch. This is what is difficult:

When your little girl’s heart is silently and inconsolably broken because the little girl she is friends with and loves passionately does not love her passionately back because she, your girl, is just too different and the games she, your girl, plays are not the games the little friend plays and yes, yes, they are friends, but the little friend is mostly friends with other girls who are more like her. And your little girl bends herself over backward to find points of commonality: she asks to do homework together, she walks her little friend home, she brings her cookies — she tries all the things. And her hopes are raised with each successful and intimate encounter, then dashed like clockwork the following hour or the following day.

Your little girl has awesome little boy friends she gets along with like a house on fire, and a beautiful little girl friend you can do absolutely nothing to convince to passionately love your girl back.

12. Sometimes the little friend is her sister.

psychoanalysis queerness

My analyst is not a lesbian

Black and white close up of a standard USA medication bottle resting on a wooden table (grain visible). The label has been scratched off except for “sadness, fear.”  Hight contrast, some distress.
Please don’t use without permission

1. The first analyst I had, analyst A, was a lesbian. This really helped validate me as a lesbian.

2. I think few comprehend the degree to which same sex loving people may be able to deny to themselves their same sex loving and even their identify as same sex loving people. We think we are bisexual. maybe. We think we can be straight if we try hard. We think all manner of things that don’t make any sense at all.

3. I write in numbered sections because I am suffering greatly and my mind is fractured. Writing in sections imposes outside order to the inside disorder and does not demand that the mind strain too much to achieve inner organization.

4. My current analyst, analyst B, is not a lesbian and does not know much about queerness, meaning, she knows as much as a competent analyst living in America in 2020 knows, but has not specifically devoted time to learning queer studies.

5. Maybe I am in touch enough with queer me that this will not have a great impact.

6. I love B but of course I can keep loving her even if I decided not to work with her. But I’ll work with her through now. This is necessary.

7. No one knows the future.

8. This is such a rough time. I am confused and fragmented. I need to allow myself whatever helps me to pull through. I am steeped in the Mad movement and not too fond of drug companies and the way the pharma-psychiatric-legal system dehumanizes people, but right now psych drugs are the only way to buy me a crutch to last this terrible time. I hate it when our desire to maintain the purity of our ideals make us feel like frauds for doing what is good for us.

psychoanalysis queerness

Why are we all still here

1. It’s hard to balance the facts that:

  • I make other people’s lives very difficult,
  • my own life is all but intolerable to me, yet
  • everyone wants me alive.

2. Why?

3. Gentleman Jack took me for quite a spin.

4. My analyst, who understands my being a lesbian pretty much not at all, won’t ever watch it. Maybe it’s important for queer people to see queer therapists?


Two women dressed in early 19th century outfits, one light blue one back, hug while also

6. Why was there so much bitterness from my gf toward me tonight? What have I done? What should I do?


the role of the analyst

Regarding the post I wrote yesterday, about my mother, I have to wonder. People keep other people emotionally captive, but it often works both ways — people keep themselves captive to others, as well.

A couple of days ago I dreamed of someone who was my girlfriend for a few years many years ago. I dream about her all the time, so she clearly absolves a rather critical symbolic function in my mind. I have dreamed about her for decades. I haven’t seen her in decades. There have been stretches of months in which I dreamed about her every night. All these dreams are consistently torturous and nightmarish.

But this is besides the point. The point here is that, later that day, I found myself making a thought experiment I make all the time these days. What if I felt so at peace with my sexuality that I decided to live with a woman instead of with my husband?

This prospect is terrifying to me on about sixty-seven fronts, but the one front I had in mind in that moment was, “How can I do this to him?”

But this is besides the point. The point here is that, on that day, I also thought of that long-ago yet so present girlfriend and thought, “How can I do this to her?”

Once I realized that this is what I was thinking I had to be blown out of the water. And I was. This is a person I haven’t seen in decades! She is married! I don’t owe her anything.

And yet, I feel I owe her the world.

Which brings me to my mom. Is she holding me hostage or am I holding myself hostage to her? Does she consider me her savior or do I consider myself her savior? Of course these two options are not mutually exclusive, nor are they exclusive of a number of other options. But this is a thing I learned in the process of doing psychoanalysis. You can’t fix these dynamics through sheer self-understanding, or sheer willpower, or sheer anything. You have to let the structures that keep you captive be dug out of the foundations that hold you up and gently, be lovingly dusted up, looked at, readjusted, maybe reassembled. And you can’t do it on your own. All this dusting up and readjusting must be done with another.

This is the myth that is holding so many of us truly hostage: that we are supposed to fix ourselves, become better persons, on our own, through sheer determination. Why have we created this poisonous fiction? Why are we all so terribly wedded to it?

Art by Mark Spain

psychoanalysis queerness

the writing cure

Yesterday, Thanksgiving day in the United States, I woke up feeling terribly depressed. When I say “I woke up” I mean that I felt terribly depressed the second I went from unconsciousness to consciousness. When I say “terribly depressed” I mean overwhelmed by a despair so deep, it seemed intolerable.

Later on, after breakfast, I sat down and poured out this despair into written words. The whole writing experience, which I vaguely meant as a cris the coeur addressed to no one in particular and therefore, most likely, for no eyes other than mine, turned out to be an amazing exercise in self-analysis and, ultimately, liberation and recovery. I felt light and happy all day.

This is the first time in my life (I think) that I see with my own eyes, concretely, black on white, how depression (may) = self-hatred (may) = rage. It was incredibly powerful for me to find, at the root of my despair and self-loathing, a childhood memory of sexual trauma I didn’t even remember had occurred. This memory, in turn, gave rise to the realization that a profound discomfort with myself that has dogged me all my life is rooted (at least partly) in a discomfort with me others have communicated to me very early on for being a queer kid, and that has caused me to feel immensely and devastatingly threatened in my very existence.

This whole process was ignited by a conversation I had with my best friend, who is now so in the dog house, I hesitate to call her my best friend (I’m furious at her). For reasons having to do with a tremendous amount of pain in her own life, past and present, she is doing wrong by her teenage daughter. She is ignoring what is clearly an eating disorder and following a clueless doctor’s advice that this young girl be examined by a gynecologist for no longer getting her period. The kid, in the meantime, is not eating. Since mother and child live a long way from me, I know this only because my friend told me. When I however suggested that instead of taking her to a gynecologist she take her to a nutritionist or an eating disorder specialist, my friend’s defenses went all the way up and she strenuously denied that the child wasn’t eating.

This is someone with whom I have had a long and lovely friendship. I have known her since I was 15. We have shared our lives for decades. Yet, now, she is a stranger to me. She has been for about two years, since, faced by a horrible personal crisis that rendered her entirely incapacitated, she sort of rejected me and the bond that had sustained both of us for years and shifted her allegiances to men and their cures. Men as in psychiatrists. Guys in coats. Guys who don’t want to know anything about what’s going on with you because they have the latest, most wonderful pills which, taken in wondrous combination, will make everything all right.

I have been thinking about this for two years and I still don’t see the bottom of it. I strongly believe that people have a right to their own choices. Yet her choice, the choice made by this person who was the heart of my heart, wounds me and enrages me beyond any rational explanation.

Yet I have stuck by her. Uneasily. Till the other day. Because, when she told me about taking her daughter to a gynecologist, I saw myself again as the child of a helpless, beholden-to-others mother who would not and could not listen to me and consequently caused me some heavy-duty trauma. I could not stand by the sidelines while this story reproduced itself in my friend’s and her child’s lives. As an aside, I wonder how many parents are equipped to deal with traumatized, pained, desperate children who act out because they have no other ways to get through to them. Our culture does next to nothing to train parents on how to deal with these moments. Our culture, as a matter of fact, gives us all the wrong cues.

On Wednesday, as I was relating this story to my therapist, the connection between my friend, her child, and the time my mom took me to the doctor emerged all by itself through free association. I had said this story to my therapist before, but it had been in terms of my being too skinny. On Wednesday, I couched it in terms of having my sexuality checked. I was so taken by this new interpretation that I couldn’t remember what the previous version had been. In the previous version I could not make sense of the doctor’s touching my genitals. I remember asking my therapist why he did that. She didn’t know either.

Now I know.

I have read (in this truly excellent and striking book) about women’s putting their stories into writing and finding in this act of writing and publication (someone, at least an imaginary someone, has to read what you wrote otherwise it doesn’t count) a powerful survival tool. I wish all women, all people in pain, the love of another who is willing to do with them the journey to understanding and recovery.