Violence and Intimacy

File:William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) - Dante And Virgil In Hell (1850).jpg

Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us, but one can do the most violence to another when one is close to that person. Physically close. Pinching, punching, pushing, plucking, picking, pulverizing — actions that can only be done at close quarters, the victim is pilloried and punished. Perhaps then, it is no wonder that human kind can be uncomfortable with and afraid of intimacy.

When physical vulnerability is compounded with the psychological, we tend to be even more careful. Those who are close to us know just where to strike, where the soft and breakable parts are; and they are just in reach.

I watched a History Channel feature the other night on The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. The point was made that while the Thompson submachine gun was a useful weapon for killing at a distance, many of the most important gangland assassinations were done with a pistol, while holding or grabbing the victim, or pulling him close to make certain that he couldn’t reach for his own weapon. Intimacy again — the closeness that made injury possible, more certain, more lethal.

Remember Delilah of the famous bible story that featured Samson? Again, intimacy, this time of a sexual nature, allowed her to rob Samson of his strength by having his enemies cut his long hair while he slept.

When you were a kid, do you remember an aunt or uncle or grandparent who would hold you close and then pinch (and shake) your cheek between thumb and forefinger? It was alleged to be an act of affection, but whenever it was done to me, I couldn’t quite understand how something that hurt that much was supposed to show love.

I’m sure you know the origin of the handshake — an ancient custom designed to display the fact that you do not have a weapon in your hand with which to do injury at close range.

And, in the “you always hurt the one you love” department, we should not forget that “crimes of passion” account for many of the violent deaths in this country. That is, we are harming those we know, not strangers, in fits of intense emotion and impulsivity.

How does this relate to therapy? In part, because the therapeutic relationship is a somewhat one-sided intimacy. The patient makes himself vulnerable to the doctor, displays his wounds and expresses his emotions, trusting that his secrets and feelings will be safeguarded, treated with kindness and respect, and definitely not used against him. Therapists need to keep this in mind, lest they re-traumatize the person, injuring him in a way that is similar to the very torment that he came to therapy to heal.

Although a counselor’s power can hardly be considered “great,” it is considerable when it comes to his patients. Psychologists would do well to remember the quote from the movie Spider-man: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

The moral of the story? Allowing one self to become close and vulnerable to another person opens the door to the best and worst that life can offer. It is therefore of great import to choose a friend, a lover, or a therapist with care.

As the Knight Templar told Indiana Jones in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when the explorer had to pick out the Holy Grail from an assortment of old cups, “choose wisely.”

The above image is William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s 1850 painting Dante and Virgil in Hell sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

“Mad Men” and “The Sopranos:” Not So Different

“Bad people behaving badly,” might be an equally good title for either of these two critically acclaimed cable TV series. “What,” you say, “but they are so different!” I’m not sure that you are right.

True, “Mad Men” is set in the early ’60s and “The Sopranos” more closely approximates our time. True, one show is about a legal business, the ad game, while the other is about the mob. True, in the former show the protagonists wear suits and ties, expensive ones, while the cast of “The Sopranos” is rather more casual.

But, below the surface, there are lots of similarities. Both shows are about the importance of money and power, and the willingness to hurt others to get those things. Even if their methods of hurting others are non-violent, the “Mad Men” do their share of hurting: to competitors in the industry and to spouses and co-workers. The “Mad Men” are better tailored than Tony Soprano and his compatriots, know better table manners, have more formal education, but have learned how to get what they want without leaving marks on their opponents’ bodies, leaving them only on their psyches and in their hearts.

Women are second-class-citizens in both of the worlds depicted. Each world is “a man’s world.” Infidelity is the norm, it seems.

Both shows feature a closeted gay man, one called Sal, the other Vito. Once each one is exposed, trouble awaits. Sal is fired from the ad agency, while Vito is murdered by the mobsters.

Each of the two television-universes exist in the New York City/New Jersey area. But the real location is the jungle, where the jungle’s law prevails: survival of the fittest or, perhaps, the most brutal.

And neither show features particularly likeable people. Nearly every one — men and women and, to some extent children — seem enormously self-serving. Yes, they have their own pain, sometimes to the point of driving them to seek psychotherapy. Yet, whether on or off  the therapist’s couch, the players in these mini-dramas appear insensitive to or unaware of the pain of the people closest to them. Witness, Betty Draper, Don’s stay-at-home, Grace Kelly-knockoff wife and her treatment of her children. Or, of course, the mob-wide blindness to the human havoc wrought by corruption and murder in “The Sopranos.” If nothing else, both series let us know that even the most self-involved, narcissistic, and corrupt individuals can be sensitive to their own injuries, regardless of the insensitivity they show to others.

There is emptiness at the core of these lives, too. The men and women are unhappy, think that they know what they are doing, but seem unaware of what really drives their behavior below the surface. They have little self-awareness and don’t reflect on their lives, their direction, or question their values and the contradictions between what they think they are and what they really are.

I keep looking for some redeeming human qualities in the “Mad Men” characters, but the players instead seem to have lost most of those that they had earlier in the series. As for “The Sopranos,” no point in looking for something that was never there.

I must admit that it is getting uncomfortable to watch “Mad Men,” watch the moral degradation of characters I’ve come to know a bit. I’m still hoping for a turn away from “the dark side.”

But I’m not optimistic.

The above photo is of Christina Hendricks, one of the stars of “Mad Men,” by watchwithkristin, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.