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January 14, 2012
President Obama Needs to Mourn (Review essay)
By Thomas Farrell
Dr. Justin A. Frank's book BUSH ON THE COUCH (rev. ed 2007) should be read alongside his new book OBAMA ON THE COUCH (2011) and alongside other books about grief work. Dr. Frank claims the George W. Bush is incapable of serious mourning. But Dr. Frank makes no such claim about Barack Obama. However, Dr. Frank identifies how President Obama needs to undertake serious mourning regarding nondeath losses in his early life.
Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) January 14, 2012: What difference does it make, if any, if the president of the United States is incapable of serious mourning? What benefit, if any, is there to being capable of serious mourning? With the presidential election coming up later this year, I want to explore these fascinating questions.
DR. FRANK OF PRESIDENTS BUSH AND OBAMA.
Justin A. Frank, M.D., is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. As a psychoanalyst, he follows Melanie Klein's approach to psychoanalysis, using her model of our psychological condition.
I read Dr. Frank's book OBAMA ON THE COUCH (2011) before I read Dr. Frank's earlier book BUSH ON THE COUCH (2004; rev. ed. 2007). In his book about President Barack Obama, Dr. Frank sets forth a far more lucid explanation of Melanie Klein's thought than he does in his book about President George W. Bush (GWB). In addition, Dr. Frank's book about Obama includes a helpful glossary of psychoanalytic terminology toward the end of the book.
Dr. Frank suggests that GWB probably suffers from the kind of learning disability known as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
But Dr. Frank's most important diagnosis of GWB is that he suffers from megalomania (pages 200-206, 231).
However, the most moving and at times poignant part of Dr. Frank's book is his recurring discussion of the death of GWB's younger sister Robin in October 1953, when GWB was about seven years old (pages 2-3, 14-16, 68, 84, 105,187, 224-225, 246).
Evidently, GWB's mother and father did not themselves mourn Robin's death in a healthy way, thereby tragically depriving GWB of the kind of nurturing he needed to learn himself how to mourn in a healthy way.
Dr. Frank discusses the importance of mourning extensively (pages xvi, 15, 16, 67, 68, 110, 185, 187-188, 255). He concludes that "[a]acceptance of who we are, with all our limitations, requires serious mourning -- something that Bush is incapable of doing" (page 255).
JOHN BRADSHAW ON GRIEF WORK
In the examples of myths that Joseph Campbell discusses in his book THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES (1949), the hero undertakes the perilous journey and returns with the boon of life. For all practical purposes, John Bradshaw has undertaken the perilous journey of serious mourning and returned with the boon of life. According to Bradshaw, healthy grief is the boon of life.
In the story of the cave in Plato's REPUBLIC, the philosopher who works his way out of the cave and sees the light of the sun then goes back into the cave to work with others who are still struggling in the cave and have not yet seen the light of the sun. Figuratively speaking, Bradshaw has returned to the cave and worked to help others undertake serious mourning. In addition, he has written books and given lectures and workshops.
In his book HEALING THE SHAME THAT BINDS YOU (1988; expanded and updated ed. 2005), Bradshaw sets forth an explanation as to how and why some people may be incapable of serious mourning. He says that people who are incapable of serious mourning are suffering from toxic shame that binds their emotions, except for the emotion of anger. For Bradshaw, grief is an emotion. He characterizes grief as the healing feeling (i.e., the feeling that can allow healing to occur, when healthy mourning has run its course). However, when toxic shame binds our emotions, our capacity to experience grief in a healthy way is bound (i.e., limited so that we do not mourn in a healthy way). When we are incapable of serious mourning in a healthy way, our experiences of mourning in an unhealthy way leave us with unresolved (i.e., uncompleted) mourning. Paradoxically, Bradshaw's prescription for healing toxic shame is grief work, because, according to Bradshaw, grief is the healing feeling.
In other words, according to Bradshaw, a person who is incapable of serious mourning, as Dr. Frank puts it, will overcome this inability through the experience of serious mourning. This is probably the case. But I would point out that it is not easy to engender serious mourning in oneself or in others. Moreover, serious mourning can be an overpowering experience leading at times to a mental breakdown. So if you want to experience serious mourning as the way to overcome being incapable of serious mourning, you should be forewarned that you might experience a mental breakdown instead. Serious mourning resembles clinical depression, a form of mental breakdown.
Bereavement (i.e., serious mourning due to the death of a loved one) is not clinical depression because it is bereavement. In other words, it is obvious that a loved one's death precipitated one's bereavement. But nondeath losses can also precipitate serious mourning, as Susan Anderson describes in her fine book THE JOURNEY FROM ABANDONMENT TO HEALING (2000).
However, it strikes me that clinical depression, a form of mental breakdown, should be understood as a signal that the person needs to experience serious mourning in a healthy way, if this is possible for the person to experience. Similarly, the symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) should be understood as signals that the person experiencing the symptoms of PTSD needs to experience serious mourning in a healthy way, if this is possible for the person to experience. No doubt certain other kinds of symptoms should also be understood as signals that the person experiencing the symptoms needs to experience serious mourning in a healthy, if this is possible for the person to experience. But serious mourning in a healthy way is a powerful experience. So when the symptoms are already showing that ego-consciousness is being overpowered, the first order of business for the individual person should be to work out a suitable containment pattern, which usually involves the help of one or more other persons such as psychotherapists and Exquisite Witnesses, to use J. Shep Jeffreys' term in his book HELPING GRIEVING PEOPLE -- WHEN TEARS ARE NOT ENOUGH: A HANDBOOK FOR CARE PROVIDERS (2nd ed. 2011). By working out a suitable containment pattern, the individual person may be able to develop the inner strength in his or her ego-consciousness to undertake the arduous and at times perilous work of serious mourning.
The most famous imagery that I know of for containment occurs in the ODYSSEY when Odysseus is tied to the mast of his ship with his ears plugged as his ship navigates Scylla and Charybdis. Navigating your way through Scylla and Charybdis is a perilous journey.
In real life, President Abraham Lincoln did undertake the work of serious mourning while he was in office. But it remains to be seen if President Obama will follow President Lincoln's example and undertake serious mourning while he is in office. For understandable reasons, President Obama may prefer to work out a suitable containment pattern instead. After all, President Lincoln was assassinated. For understandable reasons, President Obama may prefer not to run the risk of being assassinated if he can help it.
Unfortunately, we do not understand how to help people experience serious mourning in a healthy way. Nevertheless, by definition, serious mourning in a healthy way is a containment experience that is comparable to the containment experiences that babies need to experience when they are distressed. By definition, containment experiences help us contain our abandonment feelings. When individual persons voluntarily seek help through psychotherapy, they are usually seeking help in establishing a containment pattern in their lives that will enable them to cope more effectively with their abandonment feelings. At times, containment is the best way to proceed, especially if containment helps the individual person develop inner strength. Serious mourning in a healthy way requires a certain amount of inner strength, because mourning can be an overpowering experience leading to a mental breakdown. Serious mourning involves what C. G. Jung refers to as legitimate suffering.
J. SHEP JEFFREYS ON GRIEF WORK
As a result of my own experience of bereavement, I started reading works by other people about their own personal experiences of bereavement such as Joan Didion's book THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING (2006). In addition, I started reading works in the professional literature about loss and mourning, including Freud's famous essay "Mourning and Melancholia" (1917). Incidentally, if you are going to read only one thing about serious mourning, read Freud's essay. There's a fine mind at work in that essay.
Then I recently read the second edition of J. Shep Jeffreys' book HELPING GRIEVING PEOPLE -- WHEN TEARS ARE NOT ENOUGH: A HANDBOOK FOR CARE PROVIDERS (2011), mentioned above. In my case I am not trying to be a care provider for anybody else but myself.
Jeffreys ably covers certain works in the professional literature that I had read as well as other works that I had not read. In the spirit of giving credit where credit is due, he surveys the professional literature and summarizes what each author says -- without trying to adjudicate competing claims made by different authors. But his own contribution is in the overall editorial apparatus that he uses in organizing the book and in the direct editorializing that he occasionally provides as he proceeds, most notably on pages 46-49.
As Jeffreys explains, attachment theory as advanced by John Bowlby and others dominates the professional literature about loss and mourning. Briefly stated, we form attachments, which are also referred to as attachment bonding and attachment bonds. We feel a sense of loss in our lives when we experience the loss of an attachment bond with someone or something (including the loss of our dreams in which we had invested ourselves).
In other words, no attachment bond = no experience of loss = no experience of mourning a loss.
As Jeffreys indicates, there are two broad categories of loss:
(1) loss due to the death of someone significant in our lives, which is also known as bereavement, and
(2) nondeath losses.
When we speak of the death of a loved one, we usually think of the death of a marital partner or a romantic lover or a family member, where we have established a personal two-way love relationship with another individual person. However, I would note that presidential candidates in the United States try to win our votes and approval. In a sense, they try to win our love.
When they succeed in winning our love, then we run the risk of falling out of love with them, in which case we may experience our own falling out of love with them as nondeath losses. To be healed of such nondeath losses, we will have to undergo the work of mourning our losses that Susan Anderson describes in her book THE JOURNEY FROM ABANDONMENT TO HEALING (2000).
Tragically, at times, certain politicians such as President John F. Kennedy and other public leaders such as the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., may be assassinated. In those cases, because of the love that we invested in the public figures, their assassinations result in our bereavement.
As Jeffreys discusses nondeath losses, it turns out that nondeath losses can include a wide range of losses, because we can and usually do form a wide range of attachments in our lives.
As we have seen, the Bush family experienced bereavement due to the death of Robin Bush. But we have not seen bereavement due to a loved one's death enter the life of young Barack Obama. However, as I will discuss below, young Barack Obama did experience the nondeath loss of his Kenyan father, and his mother also experienced the non-death loss of young Barack's father.
So loss = loss of attachment bond.
Whenever we experience loss (i.e., the loss of an attachment bond), we need to mourn our loss. At first blush, this sounds straightforward. But there is a serious complication. Depending on our earliest attachment bonding, we may or may not be able to mourn in a healthy way. Jeffreys refers to our earliest attachment bonding in terms of secure attachment bonding and nonsecure attachment bonding. Blessed are those who formed secure attachment bonds with both mother and father. Blessed are those who formed secure attachment bonds with either mother or father. Blessed are those who formed secure attachment bonds with other significant persons in their lives. Secure attachment bonds are needed in order to undertake serious mourning in a healthy way.
As a result, we need to speak of (A) a healthy way of mourning, which, as mentioned, is connected with secure attachment bonding, and (B) an unhealthy way of mourning, which is connected with nonsecure attachment bonding in our earliest experiences in life.
Jeffreys identifies three patterns of nonsecure attachment bonding (pages 52-57 and 307):
(1) anxious-ambivalent nonsecure attachment bonding;
(2) dismissive-avoidant nonsecure attachment bonding; and
(3) fearful-avoidant nonsecure attachment bonding.
Any one of these three nonsecure attachment bonds will produce the conditions for the kind of grief work that Bradshaw writes about.
From what we know about young GWB's family life, it is hard to imagine that he experienced a secure attachment bond with either his mother or his father. Of the three patterns of nonsecure attachment bonds that Jeffreys discusses, GWB most likely experienced the fearful-avoidant nonsecure attachment bond. Of the three patterns discussed by Jeffreys, this one strikes me as the one most obviously connected with megalomania.
However, from what we know about young Barack Obama, it appears likely that he did indeed form a secure attachment bond with his mother. But it does not appear likely that he formed a secure attachment bond with his father. Instead, it appears most likely that young Barack Obama formed a dismissive-avoidant attachment bond with his father. For example, Candidate Obama famously dismissed the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who had been a father figure in Obama's life in Chicago, and threw him under the bus when Wright proved himself to be a liability of Candidate Obama's presidential campaign. (Concerning Wright and Obama, see the index of Dr. Frank's book for specific page references.)
Dr. Frank does not diagnose President Obama as being incapable of serious mourning. On the contrary, Dr. Frank says that President Obama has got some work to do still regarding his father and mother.
People who experienced nonsecure attachment bonding in their early lives will not be able to mourn losses in their lives in a healthy way, unless and until they somehow experience what Bradshaw refers to as grief work and what Dr. Frank refers to as serious mourning and an accompanying new kind of containment experience that they had not experienced early in life. Containment experience is the opposite of abandonment experience, and vice versa.
In the professional literature about loss and mourning, the terms "resolved" and "unresolved" are used. When the healthy mourning process has run its course and been completed, the mourning process is described as having been resolved.
However, people who are not able to mourn in a healthy way do not experience the resolution of their mourning process. As a result, their uncompleted mourning process is described as unresolved. Unresolved mourning remains in their lives -- perhaps to be resolved at a later time, if and when they later learn how to experience a new pattern of containment experience to replace their old pattern of abandonment experience.
The mourning process is work, the work of mourning. The mantra to feel the feelings applies to the mourning process. In addition to feeling the feelings of mourning, one needs to express one's feelings somehow, sharing them with others who are able themselves to serve as Exquisite Witnesses (or care providers), as Jeffreys describes them. The Exquisite Witnesses serve the purpose of containment. The emerging process of containment facilitated with the help of the Exquisite Witnesses enables the mourner to learn a new pattern, the pattern of containment, to replace the old dysfunctional pattern of abandonment. However, as Jeffreys emphasizes, there is no one right way to mourn.
Jeffreys forewarns would-be Exquisite Witnesses to be alert to experiencing what he vividly terms Cowbells. He tells a personal story to explain his use of this term (page 5). The basic point is that the Exquisite Witness needs to be alert to how she or he is responding to the mourner. In other words, the mourner is expressing her or his feelings. As the Exquisite Witness listens attentively and empathetically, the Exquisite Witness may experience feelings in herself or himself that signal some unfinished business (i.e., unresolved mourning) from the past.
Now, regarding the work of mourning nondeath losses, such as the nondeath losses that young Barack Obama and his mother experienced, I would suggest that Susan Anderson's book THE JOURNEY FROM ABANDONMENT TO HEALING (2000) is basically about mourning nondeath losses. Even though she focuses on the experience of being abandoned by one's marital partner, or by one's lover, she is basically discussing abandonment feelings. In nondeath losses, we experience abandonment feelings. For this reason, her book can be read by anyone experiencing abandonment feelings connected with nondeath losses.
At her website, Susan Anderson, C.S.W., makes her essay "Suffering the Death of a Loved One" (2006) available. The URL for her website is www.abandonment.net. In this essay, she emphasizes that mourning losses due to death is not the same as mourning nondeath losses, even though both kinds of losses involve attachment bonds.
Anderson's claim that mourning the death of a loved one (bereavement) is not the same as mourning nondeath losses strikes me as an important claim. Her efforts to explain as explicitly as she could how the two mourning processes are different helped me sort out my own experiences into the two broad categories discussed by Jeffreys, mentioned above: (1) mourning the loss due to death and (2) mourning nondeath losses.
However, Anderson herself does not explicitly discuss how mourning the death of a loved one (also known as bereavement) might be accompanied by mourning a backlog, as it were, of unresolved mourning of nondeath loss or losses.
Because Dr. Frank diagnoses GWB as suffering from megalomania, it is not surprising to find that Dr. Frank discusses mania in his book about GWB (pages 202, 232, 254). Because Dr. Frank differentiates megalomania from what I will refer to as simple mania (he refers simply to mania, without a modifying word or prefix), it is not surprising to find that Dr. Frank also works with the term manic in places in his book about Obama (pages 34, 52, 221).
However, after Dr. Frank's extensive discussion of mourning in his book about GWB, mentioned above, I was surprised to find that Dr. Frank refers to mourning only once in his book about Obama (page 97). But Dr. Frank's extensive discussion of how Obama's otherwise nurturing mother did not herself exemplify for young Barack healthy mourning about her own nondeath loss of Barack's Kenyan father or help young Barack himself learn how to mourn his nondeath loss of his father in a healthy way.
Because Dr. Frank connects GWB's being incapable of serious mourning with his megalomania, as diagnosed by Dr. Frank, why is Dr. Frank silent about how Obama's mother evidently failed herself to engage in serious mourning her nondeath loss of Obama's father and also failed to help young Barack learn how to mourn his nondeath loss of his father in a healthy way?
I do NOT mean to suggest that President Obama suffers from the kind of megalomania that Dr. Frank diagnoses GWB as suffering from.
However, if Obama does not suffer from megalomania, does he suffer from what I referred to above as simple mania?
What I am here referring to as simple mania, to differentiate it from megalomania, may not be uncommon in American culture. See John D. Gartner's book THE HYPOMANIC EDGE: THE LINK BETWEEN (A LITTLE) CRAZINESS AND (A LOT OF) SUCCESS IN AMERICA (2005) and Peter C. Whybrow's book AMERICAN MANIA: WHEN MORE IS NOT ENOUGH (2005).
In any event, I want to quote a telling passage from Dr. Frank's book about Obama: "Still there is no question that Obama's passion lies in the drive to heal the split he sees as red and blue. And he sees speeches as transformative, no matter what actions are taken" (page 33).
Now, if Bradshaw is correct is claiming that grief is the healing feeling, then Obama's drive to heal the split he sees as red and blue should lead him to advocate grief work, as Bradshaw does. However, instead of advocating grief work as the way to bring about healing, Obama gives big-sounding speeches that have no connection with grief work. Nevertheless, he evidently sees his big-sounding speeches as transformative, as though healing and the transformation that accompanies healing were brought about by listening to big-sounding speeches instead of by undertaking the work of mourning in a healthy way.
I know, I know, people do not live on bread alone. For the sake of discussion, I am willing to allow that certain people may find Obama's speeches uplifting and encouraging. I understand uplifting and encouraging speeches have a valid place in our public lives. But people also do not live on big-sounding speeches alone.
Besides that, I do not understand why Obama sees the split between red and blue states as something that he should work to heal. Does he really imagine that he is going to heal megalomaniacs? For understandable reasons, Obama might prefer not to be assassinated by megalomaniacs. However, it strikes me that he should undertake a policy of containment regarding the megalomaniacs not only in red states but also in other parts of the world today.
As Dr. Frank intimates, the first task at hand for President Obama is to work out a more realistic understanding of his mother and his father and their relationship. But to do this, Obama would have to undertake the work of serious mourning of nondeath losses in his early life. In other words, the real split that Obama should work to heal is the split in his own psychological world. As Bradshaw says, grief is the healing feeling. To help himself heal the split in his own psychological world, Obama needs to undertake serious mourning. If his grief work were to heal him from the split in his own psychological world, then he would emerge far more capable of following a policy of containment of the megalomaniacs in red states, instead of hoping in vain that he will somehow heal them through his big-sounding speeches.
To be sure, the megalomaniacs in red states do indeed truly need to be healed of their megalomania. However, they are not going to be healed by big-sounding speeches. To be healed, they will have to undertake serious mourning.
In the meantime, in the presidential campaign of 2012, President Obama should use big-sounding speeches to rally blue-state liberals against the red-state megalomaniacs. The Republicans are up to no good. So liberals should work against Republicans running for elective office.
Submitters Website: www.d.umn.edu/~tfarrell
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; Ph.D.in 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 WALTER ONG'S CONTRIBUTIONS TO CULTURAL STUDIES: THE PHENOMENOLOGY OF THE WORD AND I-THOU COMMUNICATION (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2000; 2nd ed. 2009, forthcoming). The first edition won the 2001 Marshall McLuhan Award for Outstanding Book in the Field of Media Ecology conferred by the Media Ecology Association. For further information about his education and his publications, see his UMD homepage: Click here to visit Dr. Farrell's homepage.
On September 10 and 22, 2009, he discussed Walter Ong's work on the blog radio talk show "Ethics Talk" that is hosted by Hope May in philosophy at Central Michigan University. Each hour-long show has been archived and is available for people who missed the live broadcast to listen to. Here are the website addresses for the two archived shows: