What Is He Thinking?

Decoding the male psyche.

Why Psychologists Will Miss James Gandolfini

Sinners in Heaven vs. Saints in Hell

It’s impossible to mourn the death of James Gandolfini and not reflect on his extraordinary performance as the psychologically complex and tortured mob boss, Tony Soprano, in David Chase’s HBO series, The Sopranos.  Gandolfini’s interpretation of Chase’s scripts, especially in Season One, offered up one of the most psychologically insightful characterizations ever to appear on television.

 Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano was Everyman.  The universality of his character lay in the uncanny sensitivity with which he was able to dramatize a primal developmental dilemma faced by all children given the imperfections of ordinary family life.  This dilemma is simple but its consequences are often profound.  Children cannot easily experience themselves as innocent and helpless in relation to any form of mistreatment by their caretakers, even if such mistreatment is unintentional or embedded in an otherwise loving relationship.

 The arc of Season One of the Sopranos basically involves Tony’s gradual, albeit reluctant, awareness that his mother, Livia, isn’t just hostile and ungrateful, but devoid of maternal instincts and fully capable of endorsing a “hit” on her only son as punishment for his putting her into a nursing home.  Livia isn’t just a “tough old bird;” she’s Medea.  When finally confronted with this fact by his psychiatrist, Tony becomes enraged, upends the table in her consulting room, and threatens to choke her. 

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 Leaning over his therapist, Tony explodes and says: “You fucking bitch…that’s my mother you’re talking about, not some fuck up in Attica…..See, we’re through, you and I …you’re lucky that I don’t break your fucking face into 50,000 pieces!” 

 Tony can’t handle the truth, although both his particular truth and his fury at hearing it is a hyperbolic dramatization of what each and every one of us wrestles with in our lives, namely, how do we tolerate the awareness that those who were supposed to care for and protect us often failed to do so?

 Whether it’s emotional neglect, failures in empathy, guilt, or more overt forms of abuse, we all unconsciously minimize or subtly excuse our parents mis-deeds in an effort to maintain a relationship that is necessary for our survival.  We adapt to the reality of our own dependence on the very people who have hurt us.  One of the most important ways we do so is by blaming ourselves, a pattern that is further fuelled by the tendency in children’s minds to egocentrically mis-interpret cause and effect relationships in all areas of life.  We take responsibility for our own suffering.

 The ubiquity of such an adaptive strategy is the reason psychologists argue that  “children would rather be sinners in heaven than saints in hell.”  We are all motivated to unconsciously repress our genuine innocence because embracing it would mean facing the painful truth that, in certain important ways, our parents failed us or, worse, actively hurt us.  It is a rare child who can tolerate such a truth.  Instead, children—all of us—are highly motivated to maintain some illusion, however slim, that their caretakers’ failure was due to something that the latter couldn’t help or, worse, something that we provoked in them.

 This need to maintain that we’re “sinners in heaven” is often one of the major resistances to change in psychotherapy.  Absent a self-compassionate grasp of reality, past and present, an individual can’t get better.  In order to take responsibility for making good choices in life, we need to face the ways that our prior choices have been constrained by false beliefs about our own “badness.”

 In the character of Tony Soprano, James Gandolfini depicts someone—it could be any one of us—struggling to face the intolerable.  The tragedy—and this is where the brilliance of Gandolfini and Chase come in-- is that he’s always on the losing end of courageous attempts at self-compassion and acceptance.  In the real world, for most of us, it usually remains at least an open question.

Michael Bader, D.M.H.,  is a psychologist and psychoanalyst in San Francisco. He is the author of Male Sexuality: Why Women Don't Understand It—and Men Don't Either.

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