Working Through the Van Dyke -McDonald Tragedy

Photos: Spira and Foxx will be in conversation at Wednesday's Psychoanalysis Today lecture

They say that seeing is believing. Then again, sometimes you don’t want to believe what you are seeing. Here’s an example: the shooting death of Laquan McDonald. Despite initial efforts to keep this out of sight, we, collectively, brought it out of the shadows and dealt with it in the way that citizenship requires, through the Courts. Kudos to Jamie Kalven, the journalist who broke the story and injected a dose of moral courage into Chicago's body politic.

Our city's struggle with the Van Dyke-McDonald tragedy, while painful and anxiety producing, seems to me to be a sign of civic health.  When push came to shove,  we didn’t bury it, we allowed ourselves to believe what we saw, and we’re trying to work it through. There's a lot of working through to do.  As part of this process, on Wednesday October 17, the Chicago Psychoanalytic Institute will be hosting a conversation with State's Attorney Kim Foxx, whose election to this office was an early consequence of the release of the police videos that forced us to pay attention. I’ll be speaking with her about her role as the head of the 2nd largest prosecutor’s office in the country. I’m sure we’ll talk about Jason Van Dyke and Lacquan McDonald.

The State's Attorney’s office and the Courts are one component of what we refer to as the “Criminal Justice System.” (The other 2 are our police and our prisons.) As part of my “homework” for this event I read a book about the “System.” It’s called The New Jim Crow, by legal scholar and former civil rights attorney Michelle Alexander, who has just joined the New York Times as an op-ed columnist.

In her book Ms. Alexander provides a context for the McDonald-Van Dyke story that is, in it’s own way, as hard to look at and as impossible to disregard as the police video of McDonald being shot. She puts it this way: “Hundreds of years ago, our nation put those considered less than human in shackles; less than one hundred years ago, we relegated them to the other side of town; today we put them in cages.”

We have around 2 million people in prison throughout the country. A high percentage of those individuals are African American. Many are serving large amounts of time for crimes of very small magnitude. Most are traumatized by their time in prison, and upon release those with felony convictions are in many places deprived of fundamental rights and employment possibilities.

Alexander argues this system is the current version of the Jim Crow laws passed in the late 19th Century, aimed at locking African-American people into a separate and inferior status. In our contemporary version she posits that the “War on Drugs,” begun in the Reagan era, created a series of incentives that, in toto, has led to the creation of a class that we have rendered invisible by locking them up in prisons.

This may strike you as wildly implausible, or at least exaggerated. But Alexander backs up her argument with facts and reasoning that connect dots that form a straight line leading to something that’s pretty hard to digest. She demonstrates how the nation’s drug policies have weaponized the Criminal Justice System and encouraged arrests, racial profiling and a culture that makes what happened to Jason Van Dyke and Laquan McDonald that night a little more comprehensible.

What Alexander’s book suggests is that we, as a nation, are unconsciously repeating our historical efforts to dispossess and dehumanize a large portion of our population. We may think we’re better than that, but….we don't seem to be. 

I hope that the Van Dyke trial turns out to be a tipping point, and that it will spur us forward to address our tendency to institutionalize racism, which we haven’t been able to address very successfully since the Civil War (despite all the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960's) Not sure where to go from here, but it seems like a good first step is to have a conversation with Kim Foxx and get her ideas.  I’m grateful for the opportunity.  Please consider joining our conversation on Oct 17. Here's the link:

This blog was re-posted from Dean Neal Spira's "A Deeper Look" hosted by the Chicago Tribune's Chicago Now
Psychoanalysis Today, Neal Spira, Continuing Education

On Being Humiliated

Comment by Dean Neal Spira re-posted from his blog at Chicago Now 

Among the lessons to be learned from the Senate hearings on Judge Kavanaugh, one that should not be missed is the psychological power of humiliation. It wasn’t the sexual assault or the fear for her life that made the strongest impression on Dr. Blasey- Ford. It was the humiliating experience of hearing Kavanaugh and his pal laughing as they walked down the stairs.

Dr. Blasey-Ford’s painful recollection of being laughed at and Judge Kavanaugh’s outrage at being held up to our national mirror are conspicuous demonstrations of the what happens when we’re made to feel small by others. Psychoanalysts refer to this as a “narcissistic injury,” meaning to convey that when our self esteem is wounded in this manner it penetrates to the core of who we are.

Narcissistic injuries are felt injuries. They can accompany traumatic experiences, as with Dr. Blasey-Ford. Or they can accompany seemingly minor slights in individuals who, for reasons of temperament or upbringing, are particularly sensitive. Like the current occupant of the oval office, or (apparently) the fellow applying for the job of Supreme Court Justice. And, in the course of our lives, they occur to just about all of us.

Such wounding experiences are impossible to forget. So the problem is, what do we do with them? Judge Kavanaugh gave us an example of one pathway, and Dr. Ford gave us another.

Kavanaugh’s very public display of righteous indignation is an illustration of the very common response to humiliation that we analysts call “Narcisisstic Rage.” It’s not just garden variety anger. It’s the anger of someone whose psychological survival is at stake. Narcissistic rage all too often is the fuel for revenge. When mental health professionals are called on the explain the eruption of senseless violence, we often think about narcissistic rage in an aggrieved, humiliated individual as one piece of the puzzle.

By contrast, Dr. Ford shows us a more complex psychological adaptation. It seems likely that she channelled her hurt into her life work in a way that have led to many accomplishments, not the least of which was her courageous presentation to the Senate committee last week. By telling her story to the Senate and to the rest of us, and in the way she told it, she transformed her experience of being helpless and mocked into something very positive. By telling us her painful truth, she reminded us of the importance of truth.

While I have no doubt that, the wish for revenge is not alien to Dr. Ford. She is a human being. But by recognizing the importance of speaking out at this American moment, and by rising to this potentially humiliating occasion (we call this “sublimation”), she transformed her private pain into a public service. What a great example of making something good out of something bad.

It dawns on me that Dr. Ford is a teacher, and that we could view her testimony as a master class. It appears from Judge Kavanaugh’s reaction that, despite his academic accomplishments, he still has a lot to learn. It would be great if he could learn it from her.



Neal Spira, A Deeper Look, commentary, public affairs

"Every year, we're just waiting for justice to occur"

Cubs We BelieveDean Neal Spira, MD and Associate Dean Leo Weinstein, MD were quoted in the ESPN article "Why do long-suffering Cubs fan keep coming back for more?" You can read the full article here, though we have also posted an excerpt below:

Psychiatrist and lifelong Cubs devotee Neal Spira would not go so far as to mix business and pleasure and say Cubs fans are a textbook example of any particular psychosis.

"No, no, not textbook," Spira said. "Maybe a paper, though. You could definitely write a paper about the psychology of the Cubs fan."

Dr. Leo Weinstein, Spira's colleague at the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis, goes back to a central theme of psychotherapy in probing Cubs fans, and the theory that unconscious childhood feelings get expressed in adulthood.

"It taps into this feeling a lot of us have that things should be fair, that people should take turns and it's our turn to win," he said. "It also taps into the idea a lot of us believe subconsciously that if you suffer enough, you'll be rewarded.

"Cubs fans have suffered for 108 years, so it only makes sense we'll be rewarded -- not because our team is good or that Theo Epstein and the front office have assembled a winning team, but because it's right. And when [that] turns out not to be true, we're upset. People have a hard time giving up that feeling ... but it's a problematic way to live your life."

faculty, Neal Spira, Leo Weinstein