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The Healing Power of Storytelling

The Healing Power of Storytelling
By Dr. Karyne Messina  • Issue #14 • View online
This month’s newsletter shares a review of a new book from a trio of psychoanalysts that examines the transformative power of storytelling in psychoanalysis, an excerpt from my forthcoming book, and a call for pitches for a potential new writing project.

Book Review: When The Garden isn't Eden
…[W]e analysts all have our templates for perceiving and listening to our patients, but templates alone are too simple and not enough. Instead, we work towards a richness of language and meaning by gathering up our patients’ bits and pieces of memories, fantasies, associations, pains, passions, and dreams. As with a great sentence, the language of an apt interpretation must be formed in a way that will touch or resonate with the other. (When the Garden Isn’t Eden, p 126.)
When the Garden Isn’t Eden: More Psychodynamic Concepts from Life, by Kerry L. Malawista, Linda G. Kanefield, and Anne J. Adelman, Columbia University Press, May 2022, 232 pages, $26.
We’ve all been there: faced with a complex concept and unsure how we’ll explain it, many of us turn to storytelling to parse what we’re after, and When the Garden Isn’t Eden captures the essence of contemporary psychoanalytic theory today by sharing poignant narratives that illustrate how therapy happens in analytic consulting rooms.
The various vignettes are precisely what make this book so relatable; the analyst-authors show how analysts think as well as how they strive to provide psychotherapy. Each dyad works together towards recognizing their struggles, pain, sorrow, and joy, allowing a new understanding of the world to emerge. Breakthroughs occur by the grace of these authentic connections created in private practice. It is a most Proustian approach–tell me a story, and let’s see where the narrative takes us. Whereas memory-laden madeleines evoked Proust’s past, When the Garden Isn’t Eden‘s authors recall past events upon reading newspaper headlines, evocative dreams, and other events.
And, it works. Kerry L. Malawista, Linda G. Kanefield and Anne J. Adelman are excellent writers, storytellers, and teachers who have masterfully woven theory with what it means to be with or attuned to others.
Personal disclosures are skillfully integrated with psychoanalytic theory which renders When the Garden Isn’t Eden freshly authentic while illustrating the authors’ expertise in the theory and practice of psychoanalysis.
This innate attunement is what allows parents early in a child’s life–and then therapists later–help people put their feelings and other internal experiences into words making life meaningful and worthwhile.
The authors value the importance of mentalization, which is the ability to actively listen to others in an atmosphere of respect. Rather than engaging in a one-person process where one person tries to control another person, mentalization is a two-minds process where both people have a voice and are free to express themselves. In this state, a person is keenly aware of his or her view and respects those of another person. This does not imply that all ideas are agreed upon, instead it means all ideas are welcomed. This process allows collaboration between patient and therapist to emerge–essential to any treatment.
Reading When the Garden Isn’t Eden got me thinking about something I read by William Osler, a 19th century physician and founder of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine:  “No bubble is so iridescent or floats longer than that blown by the successful teacher.”
 A must-read for psychoanalytically oriented psychotherapists, psychoanalysts, and mental health practitioners, When the Garden isn’t Eden will provide general readers deeper insight into how we can truly know others.
Our Democracy in Peril: An Excerpt from "Resurgence"
With the French Presidential elections recently decided in favor of incumbent Emmanuel Macron I thought it might be timely to share an excerpt from my forthcoming book where I examine the rise of populist groups in Western Europe, which is not immune to Trumpist nationalism. Charismatic leaders in Germany, France, and the United Kingdom have been not-so-quietly channeling widespread feelings of frustration and rejection among the so-called silent working-class majorities into successful bids for political power. Just as many pundits and poll-watchers initially dismissed Donald Trump as a show-boat jokester, they similarly regarded Marine Le Pen, Boris Johnson, and the leaders of Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland as indulging fringe voters with no serious chance of election. That sentiment has changed, and populism in Western Europe is gaining traction.
As we all know, what goes around, comes around: Marine LePen’s recent loss recalled the presidential elections of 2002, when her father faced off in the final round against then-incumbent Jacques Chirac.
Projective identification unconsciously contributes to the manipulation of their political adherents and helps them maintain their grip on power. However, each leader has a different approach, leadership style, and way of using projective identification.
Before Trump began musing a presidential run, Marine Le Pen was carefully and thoughtfully rebuilding a political party mired in controversy nearly since its creation by overt anti-Semitism and bigotry. Why maintain allegiance to such a party? Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, founded the National Front in 1972 as a corrective response for what he believed was a decline in French society, and in the half-decade since, his inflammatory rhetoric has slowly become part of the French mainstream conversation. However, to understand Marine, I believe we must examine her father’s role in laying the groundwork for her current political success.
So, what did Le Pen père despise so much about the direction of his beloved France?
Part of this societal collapse, in Le Pen’s view, was due to the decline of the Catholic Church’s influence and a “demographic depression” caused by “the professional promotion of women outside the family.” He also asserted that “although men and women are profoundly different, and although nature has programmed women to assure the reproduction of the species as their essential task, the feminization of society has encouraged women’s independence and turned them away from the vital function of reproduction (Eltchaninoff, 2018).” The decline of French civilization is due to this sense of loss. Women have allowed themselves to be swept up in this revolution that is not really in their best interests, and, poor things, those modern women do not realize they are being had. It was up to Jean-Marie to lead them to salvation.
Jean-Marie also blamed foreigners, Jews (frequent indirect targets of anti-elite rhetoric throughout Europe), and immigrants for French society’s debauchery. For some 30 years Jean-Marie Le Pen championed strict controls on immigration and questioned the reality of the Holocaust. His support primarily drew from a fringe cohort of fascists left over from World War II. Through the eighties and nineties, Le Pen slowly gained political credibility, due in no small part to his unwavering persistence and undeniable charisma. Slow and steady pays off: Each election cycle brought more legislative seats to the FN. Le Pen always eyed the Elysée Palace and in 1995 ran for president. He won only 15 percent of the vote, but the electorate did send FN party members into mayoral seats in cities like Orange and Nice. The party claimed power in chunks but was never considered a contender for major power grabs.
That all changed in 2002, when the presidential elections jolted the French out of their political ennui as Jean-Marie Le Pen advanced to the final election round. This astonished pundits and the voting public, but it was not some silent wave that pushed Le Pen. Voter apathy proved a major component. Sixteen politicians threw their names into the presidential ring, and an embarrassment of choice, along with insipid campaigns, kept many voters at home, assuming “their” candidate would make it to the final round. A misplaced, naïve confidence ruled the political theater, and an historic 28 percent of eligible voters stayed home. Le Pen squeaked into the final round with 17 percent of the total vote—roughly 234,000 more votes than he received in 1995, enough to put him one round away from the top job in the land. Realizing they were improbably close to electing a fascist racist misogynist to the highest office in the country, the French electorate overwhelmingly rallied behind the 83-year-old conservative Jacques Chirac—not so much because he was popular, but because he remained the only suitable alternative.
A Call for Contributors!
In my forthcoming book, Resurgence of Global Populism A Psychoanalytic Study of Projective Identification, Blame-Shifting and the Corruption of Democracy (Routledge, August 2022), I offer a psychoanalytic perspective on the global implications of the current populist movement by suggesting that the presidency and legacy of Donald Trump have influenced the behavior of other world leaders and contributed to emerging trends in conservative-leaning populist countries.
Similarly, if you’re a regular reader of my newsletters, then you know that I believe there is much to say about Russian President Vladimir Putin–in fact, that I believe the most beneficial approach to understanding his motives is to invite fellow practitioners and professors to share their perspectives in written form. I am proposing a book that would examine Putin’s mental state from various psychological angles. My co-editor in this project is Richard Wood, author of the forthcoming A Study in Malignant Narcissism: Personal and Professional Insights (Routledge). 
Despite feeling powerless to take action, Richard and I believe we can wield words in protest against Putin’s genocide of the Ukrainian people. Like many psychoanalysts, it doesn’t feel like I can do much except to write about the war.
We are assembling an exciting group of mental health practitioners, historians, and analysts. The goal for this proposed project is to look something like The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 37 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President (2018), but focusing on Putin.
Do you have something to share? A unique angle that looks at Putin’s mental state? Perhaps a theory about the proliferation of misinformation? You don’t have to be an expert on Russia or Putin, but your proposal should examine the Russian president Please send your pitch to with “Putin Pitch” in the subject line.
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Dr. Karyne Messina

This newsletter will explore theories based on psychoanalysis and promote the development of the mind and human relationships while also advancing scholarly and social progress.

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