Thoughts on DAPL and Siblicide

Yesterday I was in Knoxville all day for the Appalachian Psychoanalytic Society's fall conference with Jeanne Safer who spoke on Siblings -- the family members Freud forgot. Today I'm reading reports of ongoing over-the-top attacks by police against peaceful water protectors at Standing Rock. Mainstream media prefers to focus on Trump, journalists who try to document what's happening in North Dakota get arrested, and others at the camps report that they are under surveillance and that attempts to share reports with the world are being blocked. Many accounts of human and civil rights violations against water protectors who are being arrested -- 83 of them yesterday -- make some wonder why President Obama and the Department of Justice remain silent.

All of this has set me wondering today about parallels with sibling violence and siblicide. What connected me to Standing Rock news today was Dr. Safer's discussion on Saturday of siblings doing harm to other siblings, while, in some cases, parents make excuses for the abusive sibling or otherwise fail to intervene. (Sibling violence and siblicide have been studied in humans and animals.) Several times while writing this post I felt the undertow that taboos -- such as the power and influence of sibling relationships in our lives -- generate to keep us quiet about them.

When I see things happening out in the world that media, leaders and ordinary folks don't want to talk about, I sometimes forget to subject it all to a psychoanalytic lens. Such an omission is likely one way taboos work to shut me up, after all, psychoanalytic exploration has a pretty good track record for exposing what's unseen and unspoken.

I guess this brings up a question of how any subject gets to be taboo, and, understanding that, how to think about dismantling the ones that cause huge amounts of suffering by remaining hidden. These are questions that, when I can remember to think about them, have sustained my interest in social and environmental justice work, and using psychoanalytic thinking out in the world.

I read two books this past year that have significantly expanded my thinking about collective engagement to change oppressive systems, and, in this blog, I hope to write more about what they brought up for me: Toward Psychologies of Liberation (Watkins and Shulman) and Environmental Melancholia (Lertzman).

It's Lertzman's work that I'm especially connecting with today as I consider the situation at Standing Rock with the Dakota Access Pipeline as a siblicide-in-progress. While Lertzman uses psychoanalytic ideas to explore human response to environmental degradation, I suspect that many of her discoveries can inform new ways to think about human responses to oppression of other humans based on race, gender, class and a host of other -isms and -cides.

What's going on at Standing Rock is one of those all-of-the-above deals -- ecocide, siblicide, genocide. We, the people, need to break the taboos and bring to light all processes now operating in the shadows of psyches and systems that sabotage love and justice.


More stuff to read on this:

Protest Response Puts North Dakota on the Wrong Side of History (Grand Forks Herald, 10/22/16)

Human Rights Abuses Escalate at DAPL Prayer Services in North Dakota (Huffington Post, 10/21/16)

"It's time for a grand jury" (Tom Isern, Facebook post, 10/21/16)

Obama's Legacy Rests on Whether He Stops the Dakota Access Pipeline (Indian Country Today, 10/17/16)

Why Psychology Should Be Part of the Fight Against Climate Change (Huffington Post, 1/18/16)

HB 1840 is nanny-state meddling and legalized assault against Tennessee's LGBTQIA+ communities

The practice of psychotherapy is not for sissies. An agreement to engage in a therapeutic relationship becomes, in many instances, an invitation for one human being to accompany another into the darkest, most terrifying spaces in the cosmos: the depths of the human psyche. It's a private space, the boundary of which is held and protected by the therapist so that the patient can explore those depths as far as they choose to without harm.

That's why I find myself at odds these days with the Tennessee Legislature and with Governor Haslam, who recently signed HB1840 -- the Counseling Discrimination bill -- into law. With his refusal to veto this bill, Gov. Haslam took us outside the boundaries of reasonable rules of practice into nanny-state meddling and legalized assault against the LGBTQIA+ community.

The state of Tennessee requires that I have a license to practice therapy. To maintain that license I have to play by the rules, which include completing a minimum number of continuing education (CE) hours every year. Not that many years ago, rules for professional counselors, marriage and family therapists and pastoral counselors were amended to require that 3 clock hours of professional ethics be included in the total number of hours required in each 2-year license renewal cycle.

Ironic, isn't it. My practice board (the members of which are generally appointed by the Governor) seems to value ethics competency enough to call them out specifically in the rules. Yet the Governor and legislators in Tennessee can make a law that specifically invalidates the codes of ethics for which professionals are held accountable.

Why do we have professional practice boards? Here's what the state of Tennessee says:

The mission of each board is to safeguard the health, safety and welfare of Tennesseans by requiring those who practice health care professions within this state to be qualified.

The mission of each board is to safeguard the health, safety and welfare of Tennesseans by requiring those who practice health care professions within this state to be qualified. - See more at:
The mission of each board is to safeguard the health, safety and welfare of Tennesseans by requiring those who practice health care professions within this state to be qualified. - See more at:
The mission of each board is to safeguard the health, safety and welfare of Tennesseans by requiring those who practice health care professions within this state to be qualified. - See more at:

In other words, professional rules and standards are meant to protect the citizens using professional services. So why did Gov. Haslam sign a bill that changes the rules to protect therapists, instead, thus demonizing a specific subset of citizens?

Of course, supporters still insist that the bill also protects citizens needing counseling services.

Just days before Gov. Haslam signed HB 1840 into law, NPR's Steve Inskeep talked him on Morning Edition's special broadcast from Knoxville. During the interview, Haslam posed a question that I think is crucial to the whole discussion on HB 1840:

HASLAM: So on the therapist bill - I mean, the American Counseling Association says that you should always counsel from a valueless position. In other words, you don't put your own values into the conversation. You're there to help. I personally wonder, like - I think regardless of whether you're a religious person or not, everybody comes into every conversation with a particular worldview and things that you believe are right or wrong. And so I think the question is can you counsel from a totally non-value-based position?

When I heard him say this, I actually gave Haslam a spontaneous thumbs-up. What a great question! It goes right to the heart of the whole discussion about HB 1840. How can you counsel from a totally non-value-based position?

If you are a mental health professional, you have likely (I hope!) given huge amounts of time to study, contemplate, and consult with experienced practitioners on this very question. You think about the answer from your first day of professional training until you retire from practice...and maybe even beyond that. Really, can a human being do anything from a totally non-value-based position?

My answer is, we can't.

What we can do, though, is to cultivate awareness of our own values and worldviews. We can discover from the patient what they need to make the therapeutic space safe enough for them to do their psychological work. We can learn how to respectfully explore the subjective experience of people we see, rather than make people into objects. We can stay aware of the thoughts and feelings that arise when we're with someone, and explore these in self-analysis and with peers and supervisors to identify biases and unhealed aspects of ourselves that may create barriers to healing for the patient.

A decision about whether or not we can work together is best made collaboratively by me and the person seeking help. The standards of practice in my profession have always included ways to help people find the best care possible, even if it isn't from me. Respectful referral in a way that does not harm the patient is not a big mystery to those of us who do this work. We don't need interference from politicians to get it done.

One of the best ways we, as helpers, can be professionally accountable to the public is to take full responsibility for our own psychological health and development. That includes personal work that can take us into the dark and terrifying spaces of our own psyches.

Therein lies the gift, I think, that mental health practitioners of all kinds can offer to the world. Doing such work with ourselves and others allows us to see that discovery and full integration of human experience, no matter how dark and terrifying, is possible. Such a process, for one thing, liberates us from the inevitability of projecting our own fears onto others, seeing them as real, then needing to enact hateful, discriminatory legislation to protect us from terrors we have only imagined as out there.


See these related articles:

Counseling bill detrimental to clients' health (Letitia Flores, May 2, 2016 / Knoxville News-Sentinel)

Message from ACA CEO Richard Yep Regarding Tennessee HB1840 (American Counseling Association, April 27, 2016)

TN's HB 1840 Negatively Impacts the Mental Health of LGBTQ Youth (Statement from The Trevor Project)

Bill Would Discriminate Against Vulnerable Patients (Dianne Bradley, April 5, 2016 in The Tennessean)

Black Psychoanalysts Speak

Psychoanalytic Electronic Publishing (PEP Web) has made an important film available without subscription on their website. In Black Psychoanalysts Speak, participants -- primarily 11 Black psychoanalysts who participated in two conferences focusing on diversity in psychoanalysis (2012, 2013) -- contend that psychoanalysis has a long history as a progressive movement devoted to the common good.

BlackPsyA screenshot

Screenshot from the film, Black Psyschoanalysts Speak.

Psychoanalysis, they say, asks us to look at processes of self deception that not only perpetuate individual unhappiness, but also oppressive and inequitable social structures. Psychoanalysis has for the most part, however, focused on training students and treating patients who are relatively privileged. As I have discovered, there is a fair amount of resistance to exploring what light psychoanalysis can shed at intersections with race, class and culture outside the consulting room. Hearing similar experiences expressed in this film, I felt very inspired to continue my own explorations.

Finding this film coincided with my launch of a new series of posts at another blog. As I mentioned in my initial post there, events that have that have unfolded or intensified in the past few months -- police brutality and resistance to it emerging with the #BlackLivesMatter movement, Native American and First Nations resistance to the KXL Pipeline, corporate land grabs and other challenges to sovereignty and protection of sacred lands -- have inspired me to explore my connections to these issues beyond those that have naturally come as a result of involvement in social and environmental justice work:

Among my ancestors were settlers who arrived here on the Mayflower. And some who were slave holders. I am a descendant of colonists, people who anchored ideas and values of white supremacy into this land and built a nation upon them. Sometimes it's difficult, in light of ongoing oppression and exploitation in the United States and elsewhere, to integrate the realities of my lineage. But for reasons that I’ll explore in a future post, distancing from ancestors delays transformation and healing -- for everyone.

I'll probably cross-post or at least link to this series on this blog, since some of posts will reflect my experiences of psychoanalysis and my interest in the intergenerational transmission of trauma and social healing that has deepened over the past few years.

So, here's the first one: Truth and reconciliation, honor and healing, and another leap into the deep end of the pool