No I don’t believe in luck
No I don’t believe in circumstance no more
Accidents never happen in a perfect world
Jimmy Destri, of Blondie
Lately, in connection with another project, I’ve been reading a number of books by ex-residents of Bruno Bettleheim’s Orthogenic School in Chicago. One thing that each resident takes up in their own way is one of the Bettleheim’s guiding principles: there is no such thing as an accident.
Bettleheim took this quite far. If during a hectic dodgeball game, you jumped out of the way of the ball and your elbow encountered another person’s ribs, the game would be stopped and you’d be asked why you had done this. Saying “it was an accident,” or “I didn’t mean to hit him,” were not allowed as responses. Rather, you were required to reflect on your unconscious motivation for this aggressive act.
Most people’s response to hearing a story like this is to say it’s absurd. A demonstration of how mad psychoanalysis can be when taken to an extreme. I can understand this response. And yet, I think meditating on both the principle and our response to it will pay dividends, illuminating the correct and incorrect use of psychoanalytic ideas, the limits of psychoanalytic explanation.
First of all, is it correct to say that in psychoanalysis that there is no such thing as an accident? Certainly Freud and many other analysts (including myself) have found that many actions, originally thought to be accidental or inadvertent, can be discovered, through the application of the psychoanalytic method, to have been unconsciously motivated, meant if you like, or at least, meaningful.
But it is important to note here that “explaining” actions in this way is not the point of an analysis. One doesn’t want a client to come out of an analysis full of lovely explanations for why they do what they do, but behaving exactly the same.
Rather the point of understanding actions differently is the coming to “own” them retrospectively. So, for example, I’m late by fifteen minutes to meet a friend. In my mind, it’s an accident, and I tell myself if I’d been luckier with the Underground I would have been on time.
But when I meet him, he says, “Still pissed off about what I said about your story?” I then remember how angry I was about his criticism during our last meeting, how I stewed on it for days, repeating it in my mind and stoking the anger again. I immediately see — and own — how my being late was in fact, an expression of my anger and reluctance to see him again. I smile, chagrined. “I don’t hold a grudge, do I?”
The experience of many such incidents, both in your own life and in the analyses you conduct, does tend to produce some scepticism about the explanation “it’s an accident.” But does it rule it out of court? Given “a perfect world,” infinite time to reflect on our lives, and a completely enlightened, unjudgemental mind, perhaps…
In other words, no.
I’m sceptical about “accidents” because of repeated experience of discovering that what I (and others) once thought was accidental, turned out, not to be. It may be the case that Bruno Bettleheim had similar experiences to me, and had come to believe a more extreme version of what I do, that accidents never happen.
No problem so far.
He, and I, can believe what we want. It’s when Bettleheim attempts to impose his understanding on another that this becomes problematic. Especially when the others are children in his care/power.
Let’s say, I believe Freud is the bee’s knees. I may believe a lot of what he says is true. In spite of my wealth of experience justifying these beliefs to myself, I am not entitled to insist that you share them. Even if I believe it would greatly improve your life to know the wonderful truths of Freud, I have no mandate to impose my beliefs on you, any more than I can insist that you agree with me about Barack Obama, David Cameron, or anything else.
If you come to me for help, our work together may result in your sharing my admiration of Freud. You may have experiences which make you believe that accidents never happen. (You may not of course. You may end up thinking Freud, and I, am bonkers!)
I cannot shortcut the process by which you arrive at your own understanding of the truth of whether accidents are possible (and everything else). If I attempt to do so, and insist you believe something or act as if it is true and I have power over you, you can only identify with me or comply with me — pretend that you agree that what I say is true and give me explanations that might satisfy me.
Since the aim of psychoanalysis is to increase your freedom, identification (technically, identification with the aggressor) as an outcome is unsatisfactory — as it limits your understanding to that of the person you are identifying with.
The latter is largely what seems to have happened at Bettleheim’s school. Residents learned not to say “it was an accident” and instead to say things like “Yes, I guess I was angry that my mother used to shout at me,” or “I did feel aggressive after my session with my counsellor.”
Having to comply in this way is antithetical to the whole psychoanalytic enterprise, which is founded on telling the truth. In other words, ideally residents would have been rewarded for saying “I believe it was an accident, Dr. Bettleheim, whatever you think. Maybe I will come to understand differently in the fullness of time, but at the moment I think it is quite wrong for you to insist I produce explanations that relate this to my past. It completely devalues the currency of explanation, and of this school. And if you don’t mind, I’d like to go back to my game of dodgeball.”
Of course, the young children at the school were not in a position to say this. Neither are vulnerable and dependent patients. That is why it’s so important that therapists maintain a high degree of awareness of the limits of their explanatory principles, and of the largeness of their power in the therapeutic situation.