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Justin Frank, M.D., Puts President Obama on the Couch (BOOK REVIEW)

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(5) "Why is he so driven to compromise, settling for positions that leave so few people genuinely satisfied?"

(6) "Why is he drawn to charismatic, narcissistic men who ultimately let him down?"

(7) "Why does he appear to resist confronting authority figures?"

(8) "What is the source of his famous, Zen-like calm, and how and at what cost does he maintain it?"

(9) "Does his reluctance to challenge the relentless attacks by his opponents mean that he doesn't recognize the hatred behind those attacks?"

(10) "If the president doesn't see red states and blue states, what does he see?"

(11) "How was the raid on [Osama] bin Laden -- its planning, execution, and announcement -- consistent with his character, and how was it not?"

Dr. Frank does not use these eleven questions to structure his book into eleven chapters, one chapter devoted to each question. In stead, the main body of his book unfolds with an introduction at the beginning and an epilogue at the end with ten roughly chronological chapters in between. But each roughly chronological chapter includes flash-backs and flash-forwards regarding Obama's life. A glossary of psychoanalytic terminology, source notes, acknowledgments, and an index round out the contents of the book.

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In the introduction Dr. Frank says that Obama "is infinitely complex, the embodiment of one-who-creates-ambivalence-in-all-individuals" (page 1). How's that for a thumb-nail characterization of our president? Nevertheless, Dr. Frank says that President Obama is "generally in excellent mental health" (page 3). By his excellent mental health, Dr. Frank means "his emotional health" (page 4). But Dr. Frank makes it resoundingly clear that Obama has certain blind spots, which Dr. Frank interprets as probably arising from psychological repressions in his psyche.

Question: How many among us do not have psychological repressions in our psyches? As we read Dr. Frank's analysis of the president, many of us will probably wonder about our own psyches and psychological development.

As mentioned, Dr. Frank works with Melanie Klein's approach to psychoanalysis, which of course he has to explain to us. Because he does explain her approach to us with numerous concrete applications involving Obama, this book is a tutorial in her approach to psychoanalysis. Indeed, this book is a kind of tutorial in Freudian psychoanalytic thought. But Dr. Frank is obviously not working with transferences evoked in Obama's psyche and brought up in one-to-one sessions with Dr. Frank as the psychotherapist. If transferences from the client and counter-transferences experienced by the psychotherapist are the heart of psychoanalysis, then Dr. Frank's psychoanalysis of Obama can be described as heartless, lacking the heart of psychoanalysis.

Based on her observations of young babies, Klein posits that in their psyches babies split their impressions into two broad categories. But let's start with the basics: containment and abandonment. The "good enough" mother figures out how to hold the baby and appropriately respond to and thereby contain the baby's crying. The baby's crying is an expression of the baby's anxieties. The baby's expression of his or her anxieties register on the mother. The mother feels the baby's anxieties. The mother's experience of empathy for the baby's anxieties leads the mother to respond in an emotionally appropriate way to comfort the baby's anxieties.

But what happens when the mother herself is somehow the source of the baby's anxieties, in the baby's perception? In such cases, the baby begins splitting. Dr. Frank writes that "the healthy development of the splitting mechanism [is] a process that good parenting can facilitate" (page 14). Simple splitting involves splitting "our internal world as well as our perception of the external world into good and bad" (page 14). The splitting process "begins a process of establishing the two opposing attitudes that Klein noted the infant demonstrates toward aggression: [1] the "paranoid-schizoid position,' in which aggression is perceived as emanating from outside the self and the infant feels anxiety about being attacked, and [2] the "depressive position,' in which aggression is experienced as coming from within the self and the infant feels anxiety about being hurtful in a way that might harm a loved one" (page 15).

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So without the benefit of transferences and counter-transferences, Dr. Frank proposes to undertake to psychoanalyze Barack Hussein Obama in terms of the two major constructs established by Klein: (1) the paranoid-schizoid position and (2) the depressive position. But don't jump to any conclusions regarding these two positions based on the highly suggestive names of the two positions. It turns out that each of these two positions can contributed positively and enormously to our mental and emotional health. "Compassion and acceptance of the "Other' are essential to the depressed position," Dr. Frank tells us (page 16). Obama excels in acceptance of the "Other." "A person firmly rooted in the depressive position takes responsibility and feels genuine concern for other based on self-knowledge of his own aggression and is generally mentally healthy and mature" (page 15). However, "Obama often seems unparanoid and unprepared for the hatred of his opponents . . . despite the evidence before his very eyes. Nor does he grasp the degree to which his opponents -- like most people -- are dominated by the paranoid-schizoid position of black-and-white thinking" (page 15).

Briefly stated, Dr. Frank sees Candidate Obama drawing on the orientation of the paranoid-schizoid position very effectively in his presidential campaign. But Dr. Frank sees President Obama more or less switching from the paranoid-schizoid position and switching to the depressive position. "People who have put their internal splits into perspective can be more decisive because they are not afraid of destroying other parts of themselves" (page 27).

In any event, Dr. Frank says, "As the baby internalizes the mother's love, splitting lessens in degree and intensity, and the baby develops confidence in his love for her, and in the environment in general" (pages 13-14). Obama conspicuously abounds with self-confidence. So we can conclude that baby Obama internalized his young mother's generous love.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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If President Obama wants to be re-elected in 2012,... by Thomas Farrell on Wednesday, Oct 19, 2011 at 9:22:14 PM
I voted for him as the obvious choice rather than ... by Dawn Owens on Wednesday, Oct 19, 2011 at 10:05:05 PM
Your outrage with Obama is justified and understan... by Thomas Farrell on Thursday, Oct 20, 2011 at 3:41:00 PM
The good doctor ignores things like Obama being th... by Robert James on Thursday, Oct 20, 2011 at 1:15:53 PM
Dr. Frank does discuss Obama and the HARVARD LAW R... by Thomas Farrell on Thursday, Oct 20, 2011 at 3:55:38 PM
sure he can[[NOBELL]]... by . . on Thursday, Oct 20, 2011 at 2:25:06 AM
Dr. Frank and other Obama supporters should have r... by BARB BF on Sunday, Oct 23, 2011 at 5:25:18 PM