I have been a psychoanalyst for about 45 years, and a writer all of my life. Conducted seriously, both practices impart a degree of personal pride that sometimes verges on self importance. Long ago, I began to be chastened of such inclinations with regard to the practice of clinical psychoanalysis: the non-negotiable price of growth as an analyst is a systematic diminution of omnipotence. Likewise with writing: you learn soon enough that you have overestimated the distance that talent, alone, will take you. All this is painful, but necessary, if you intend to persist.
I did persist, and pay my dues. As a result, I am today a pretty good analyst, that is to say, an analyst who is able to restrain himself long enough to learn new things. I’ve also published a few papers that I am able to re-read without feeling acutely embarrassed.
But now, I’ve published a book, and am a fool all over again. I’m given to an unreasonable exultation every time I think of this entity -192 pages of my words, between attractive covers bearing the title, my name, and the favorable opinions of 3 colleagues. I have the temerity to believe I’ve produced something worthy of the attention of lots of people, and this, before anyone but a few friends and editors have laid eyes on it!
The book is about two things that have mattered a lot to me. When I was an adolescent, my brother-in-law experienced what was then described as “a nervous breakdown.” He was hospitalized at a famous mental institution. I could not control my curiosity about him, his behavior, his future and the implications for my own. After he was discharged, the psychiatric resident who had treated him opened a practice of his own, and treated him as an outpatient. In due course, I asked my parents to allow me to consult this psychiatrist. To their credit, they agreed, I did, and the rest, as the cliche has it, is (case) history. I became a patient and, later, an analyst, probably the classic sequence in an analytic career. The first of the two things that have mattered to me, then, is psychoanalysis.
The second belongs to the broad category of narrative. Before I became an analyst, I studied and taught literature. Before I did either, I saw many movies. Narrative is the denominator of literary works, psychoanalytic sessions, and films. Each is a different way of making stories or conveying inner states.
The first movie I can remember attending was called They Died With Their Boots On. It starred Errol Flynn as General George Armstrong Custer. I said I attended rather than saw it because I have scant recall of the feature. The serial,¹ however, remains vivid for me, not its content, but the paralyzing fear it provoked in me. I don’t know how I overcame this trauma, but I did, and somehow had the temerity to return to the movies, with the expectation that they could give me pleasure.
Friday nights, from the time I was old enough to remain awake after 8:00 or 9:00 in the evening, were excruciating for me. They were the eve of the Sabbath, when everything that afforded diversion was forbidden. Because my 2 siblings were so much older than I, they were gone from the household by this time. I was the lone member of my generation left at home, to sit with my parents in the living room of our apartment for stultifying hours on end while my father read whodunnits and my mother, best sellers. I was not a reader. I was not pious. If I had been permitted to turn the light on in my bedroom, I’d have found something to occupy me. But the only illumination in the entire apartment was in the living room, where the lamps were controlled by a timing device known as a Shabbos clock, that would turn them on at dusk, and off at 11:00 PM; and the kitchen, where the candles flickered until they burned out at about 10:00 PM.
The year of my bar mitzvah, when I turned 13, was the year in which I was emancipated from Friday night captivity. I would remain at home for a respectable interval after dinner and, explaining that I was “going out,” would make the rounds of the four movie theaters within walking distance of my home, choose the one showing films the titles of which drew my interest, buy a ticket, and settle in for an evening of diversion, pleasure, and surprise. I thus became a moviegoer, to use Walker Percy’s coinage and engaged in the pursuit he ascribed to it: “The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.”
Movies helped me out of this everydayness, as psychoanalysis did later. From both, I learned about narrative, and was vouchsafed a way of observing, engaging, and losing myself in the stories, told in words, images, movement, color, and sound, that are the element in which we live. Now I have written a book in which I have tried to show how each can enhance and illumine the other. The writing has made me happy. I hope the reading makes you happy.
William Fried is a clinical psychologist, psychoanalyst, photographer, educator, author, and editor. He practices in New York City. Until 2000, he was the associate director of psychiatry residency training and the director of training and education at the Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, NY. In 2000 the Association for Academic Psychiatry named him Teacher of the Year. He has been president of Section I (Psychoanalyst Practitioners) of the Division of Psychoanalysis, American Psychological Association and is a contributing editor of the DIVISION|Review, responsible for the Reminiscence feature.
His new book, Critical Flicker Fusion: Psychoanalysis at the Movies, is published this week by Karnac.
¹ In those days every theater’s daily program consisted of two films, the so-called double feature. One was an expensive piece with well-known stars and elaborate production values; the other was more parsimoniously funded, with lesser-known actors and poorer production values. They were known as ‘A’ and ‘B’ movies, respectively. Moreover, there were no published start and finish times: if you went to the movies, you could arrive and leave at any point in the showing. Because of these conventions, I saw almost every movie, until I was an adult, in medias res, which may account for the ease with which I embraced Greek drama. Sandwiched between the ‘A’ an ‘B’ movies were one or more episodes of a film serial, usually a melodramatic scenario that lasted no more than 15 minutes and invariably ended in a cliff hanger. Some, like Fu Manchu, contained sequences that were so terrifying to me at the age of 6, that, to avoid having to take me from the theater and thus miss the show, himself, my 12-year old brother tied my muffler around my eyes, pushed me under my seat, and fed me candy until the serial was over. I tend to accept his testimony that I found the massacres or hundreds of Native Americans and U.S. Cavalry far less troubling than the fiendish acts of Dr. Fu Manchu.