Many years ago, before we had invented feminist psychology and psychotherapy, I enrolled in a large Midwestern University’s Psychology Department to begin my study of Clinical Psychology. I already had a Masters degree, which, in those years, entitled me only to administer test batteries and neither to counsel nor to conduct psychotherapy. Only the doctoral degree and a complex course of study entitled one to enter the innermost sanctum of another’s psyche. This is no longer so and three semesters of rapid technological and methodological study, in many states, will qualify you to administer therapies under supervision. On the other hand, you are not to touch deeply into the soul of another, but only to help organize their cognition or thoughts.
This is a much simpler task than the one I thought I wanted to learn. In fact, it resembles nothing so much as common sense, which many of us have acquired outside the university. That is, a lot of people, probably most of you reading this blog, can tell someone not to worry about the future until it arrives and not to think there are only black and white choices in life.
It was soon time for my first case that was to be supervised in the campus clinic. I drew a heterosexual married couple as my first clients, and a Gestalt and humanistic therapist with many years of experience as my supervisor. He generally watched the sessions through a one-way mirror that had recently become a useful tool for supervision. I approached my first session nervously. What did I know about psychotherapy or marriage? I was, however, reassured by the presence of my supervisor nearby.
What had brought them to therapy? After all, this was a very conservative Midwestern couple and it was many years before psychotherapy had inserted itself into almost every aspect of American society. They took turns explaining that the wife had had an affair with the husband’s best friend, who had recently left her and moved to Florida. (Given that it was my first Midwestern winter, I could easily understand the Florida part.) There was a certain song about being left that was popular at the time (isn’t there always?) and every time it came on the radio, she would begin to cry. Needless to say, he was no happier than she was, but neither believed in divorce. So here they were, presenting themselves at the doorstep of a neophyte (in a free clinic) for help.
They both wanted the marriage to continue, but was there even a marriage left, except in name. I had no idea what to do, but my supervisor did. He felt that the husband had to learn to be more of a man, to take charge of his marriage and his wife. I was to put him through a set of Gestalt exercises (I do not have space here to explain Gestalt therapy, but the interested reader can explore it further), where he would puff out his chest and strut around saying “I am a man.” Once he had done this enough, the injunction would take and both he and his wife would acknowledge his manhood.
My first failed case was in the making, although I did not understand why. Only thinking back through the lens of feminist and contextual therapies could I see the many problems with this intervention. First and foremost, there was no gender analysis. The wife was assumed to be wrong and her reasons for the affair were never explored. There was no understanding of context and the complexity of the human psyche. Also my own gender was not considered. At the time, I was still at a loss, but I forged on and so will we continue in the next blog…