Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Devil in the Details

"But good people, heroic people, are led into temptation by their very goodness — by the illusion, common to those who have done important deeds, that they have higher responsibilities than the ordinary run of humankind. It’s precisely in the service to these supposed higher responsibilities that they often let more basic ones slip away." –Ross Douthat, The Devil and Joe Paterno, The New York Times, Nov. 13, 2011

After reading a column like the one Mr. Douthat wrote for today’s paper, I am left wondering if his failings are intellectual, psychological, or both. Since Anna Freud published The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense in 1937, professional and amateur psychologists alike have had no excuse not to be aquainted with the concept of identification with the aggressor, the role it plays in individual moments of psychic conflict, or how for some it becomes the basis for pervasive aspects of character.

It can be difficult for anyone, when faced with the immolation of a victim by an aggressor, to take up identification with the vulnerable party and not identify with the powerful abuser. This is a human frailty in a moment of stress, and it might make us understand the psychic fortitude it would have taken for Mike McQueary and Joe Paterno to go directly to legal authorities and report a crime where a crime had been committed. We should not, however, engage in the ongoing idealization that Douthat evidences when confronted with the unsalutary effects of this psychic operation as it played out in these men’s behavior. No, it is not in service to higher responsibilities that a usually-moral individual fails the test of siding with a helpless innocent human being who is being violated; it is in fact an identification with the wrong party that leads to this behavior.

When such a pattern of identification is habitual it is evident in sociopathic behavior, and in individuals with such character, actual generosity and sacrifice are rarely seen.

When such a pattern of identification is aberrant, we might understand that it occurred in particular circumstances, where the identification with the aggressor was already strong for other reasons, as it was with McQeary and Paterno and their colleague Sandusky. Such an indentification with the wrong party, morally, might be out of character for an individual. What it is not, as Douthat lamely offers, is in any way a product of heroism, or superior moral character. That idea is an insult to all the individuals who would have made the right choice and called the police.

In the movie Female Perversions, Tilda Swinton plays Eve Stevens, one of two sisters struggling with the effects of growing up in the milieu of their parents’ marriage. In a pivotal scene, Eve is talking with her sister, Maddie (played by Amy Madigan), about events of a particular day in their childhood, which have come up recurrently in her dreams. As she asks her sister about her own memories of that day, she describes the first details as she remembers them: The girls were swimming in a backyard pool while their parents played cards with another couple at a poolside table. Their father got enraged and tipped the table over, causing playing cards to end up in the pool. Later that evening, they witnessed their mother coming out to the living room in her robe to try to soothe their father’s hurt pride. When Eve relates the next events that occurred, she makes a factual mistake, and then corrects herself: Their father struck their mother as she approached him in his chair, and she fell to the floor. Eve says, “And then I went to her;” but stops herself. “No,” she admits to herself and to her sister, “I went to him.” For Eve, her original moment of siding with her aggressive father gives her an important avenue into understanding the way in which this identification became generalized and has plagued her throughout her life.

A number of individuals at Penn State need to ask themselves why they came to the aid of Jerry Sandusky and not the boy he was raping in the shower. I am sure they might find layers of rationalization and denial along with their core identification with the offending party. It is an error we all might fall prone to under the right circumstances of psychological vulnerability. What it would not ever be is a product of too much heroism and its effect on our view of daily events.

Mr. Douthat is free to live in a world where powerful institutions that have his sympathy are deemed to be worthy of moral authority. For the life of me, what I can’t understand is how he contrives to consider himself an intellect worth listening to when he lives in a world that is also doggedly pre-Freudian.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Am I religious? Should anyone care?


Wherever you go, I will go; And wherever you lodge, I will lodge; Your people shall be my people, and your God, shall be my God. (The Book of Ruth, 1:16)

My husband and I recently bought our first house together. Now, more than ever, we are each other’s family. I not only lodge where he lodges, I pay a mortgage where he pays a mortgage. Our decorating decisions have taken on increased significance in this, our third actual residence together, because having bought the house, there are intimations of permanence where there were once intimations of transience. No longer is there a landlord in our midst whose ultimate ownership of the property might attenuate our ownership of the particulars, down to the size and color of the pillows on the couches. I suppose it is some kind of acknowledgement that we are a mixed-faith couple that the crucifix he bought in Croatia for his late mother and the menorah on our kitchen window sill has each found its place in our home. His people have become my people—a fact never more in evidence than it was last weekend when we flew to Wisconsin to attend the wedding of his youngest cousin, and my 10-year-old son reunited instantly after a year's absence with Jack, his 10-year-old second cousin on my husband’s side. But is my husband’s God, my God, too? One of the reasons I identify with Judaism instead of Christianity is because it leaves room for skepticism about the existence of an afterlife, and it does not consider such skepticism to be the very definition of “lacking in faith.” My sense is that my husband is not a skeptic on this subject, and retains much more identification with the Christian faith in which we both were reared. Whatever disparity there is between us, however, it is not one that causes us consternation.

On the other hand, I hear from my sister that a source of consternation to my 92-year-old Roman Catholic mother is that she might die and go to purgatory. It’s not that she can’t accept that the Almighty might think she has some faults in need of purging—her own righteousness is not a necessary part of her religious views—but instead the prospect that she will need the prayers of the living to help her get to heaven. She fears she’s not inculcated enough of this view in any of the living she’ll leave behind for us to spend the requisite time praying, after her death, for her admission into paradise.

Of this I am fairly confident: The God image that comes to my husband’s mind when he looks on whatever religious symbol he encounters in our home or out in the world is more similar to my image of God than it is to that of my mother, with whom he nominally shares a Christian faith. And this is true even though I identify with the Reconstructionist movement in Judaism most because it holds that God is not supernatural, and puts forth the fairly radical idea that religious traditions as we know them represent not God’s attempt to communicate His nature to man, but instead man’s attempt to articulate the nature of God for ourselves, and therefore that all religious precepts about God are more or less anthropomorphic, and only tenuously Divine. How can I say that my husband’s image of God is more like mine than it is like my mother’s? In the terms of normal discourse on the subject, his view is more like hers: God is supernatural, personal, and intends His own revelation. Furthermore, He created us as individuals for personal immortality. None of this do I share. But it is exactly this normal religious discourse—which would lump my husband with my mother as believers, in contrast to me, in the company of mere humanists—that I would have change.

It has long seemed exceedingly curious to me that so many teachers and leaders who claim for themselves the title of “religious” relentlessly draw a line of distinction between the faithful and the non-believing, when what seems to me much more compelling is the distinction between those who see God principally as strict, jealous, vengeful, and unforgiving and those who believe that any God worth the name must certainly be at least as loving and forgiving as we are at our best. Whether the latter group believes such a God is real or is a fiction, they seem to me to behave more in concert with each other than they do with those who believe in the other, darker God.

Sitting at that family wedding last weekend and listening once again to the familiar Pauline text from 1 Corinthians on the nature of love (Love is patient, love is kind; It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud; It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs; Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth; It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres) I reflected again on its inspired and wise description of mature and sustaining love. In this letter, Paul attributes anthropomorphic characteristics to God, for sure, and yet seems to think of God as being like us in our best moments, and to see us as created in His image, if only we could refine ourselves into our best selves, not our worst selves.

If my mother’s anxieties prove to be well-founded, it would mean on the other hand that God is a stickler for a game that is played according to arcane rules: She can be admitted to paradise only if enough entreaties come from the living for God to allow it; Mere good will, mere loving intentions would not move Him. It seems to be an image of an omnipotent but capricious Ruler, a “gotcha” God, not at all in keeping with the mature loving attitudes Paul exhorts us to emulate in 1 Corinthians.

It is not to trivialize my mother’s concerns about possible eternal deprivation that I point out that she could take a view of God that made Him even more imperious and peremptory: The news every week is full of reports of religious persons who believe piety demands that the righteous undertake immediate and harsh punishment—in this life, not leaving it to the hereafter—for offenses to Godly ways, from adultery all the way down to the lesser offense (as most of the planet’s population would see it) of dating a boy outside one’s own sect. But even the horrific reality of honor killings committed in the name of the Deity does little to sway the normal discourse about who gets to wear the mantle of faith and piety. What would it take for the dominant contrast drawn in discussions of faith to switch from belief and non-belief to the contrasting outcomes between equating Divinity with vengeance and equating Divinity with love?

What is the supposed importance of confessing belief in God? Could any God at least as loving and mature as the best among us really care? Why would He need it? And if the way we live our lives and treat our fellow man and make our moral decisions were otherwise identical to our belief-confessing neighbor, why would any but a self-preoccupied and most unloving God be hung up on us believing in His existence? Many of the doctrinaire would have us believe that it is faith that makes us moral, and secular existence that makes for amorality or immorality, but evidence is generally to the contrary—there are bad deeds issuing from the believing and non-believing in equal proportion. When the pope decries the secular West, why does the normal media discourse grant him the presumption that he represents piety more than our more liberal, tolerant Christian leaders? It seems to me that we abandon some depth of meaningful discourse when we implicitly accept that a punitive and intolerant view of human sexuality is more “religious” or represents a position of faith more than more tolerant ones. The Catholic hierarchy can say the pope speaks for 1.3 billion believers, and therefore represents the perspective of Catholic faith, except that on the morality of contraception, he clearly doesn’t speak for Catholic believers, since the vast majority disagree with him. The same goes for our habitual equation of Islam with Islamic “fundamentalists.” The very word gives them some presumptive right that is not logically theirs.

What does it matter if false distinctions are commonplace and other, more apt distinctions are lost? I think there is important value to be found in drawing the distinction between a mature spirituality and its immature opposite, for a lot of reasons. One is the evil perpetrated in the world in the name of certainty about a jealous, angry, vengeful, punishing and unforgiving God. Would that we could agree to name and to criticize these evils without having to accede to being the straw man the “true believers” would have us be, namely, an impious lot, who have no regard for Divinity or for morality. The flip side would be the ability to advance peace and human cooperation by positively preaching tolerance and the importance of entertaining sufficient doubt that we can defer damnation and punishment to the Deity, instead of taking them into our own hands. We could advocate addressing conflict in terms of competing interests and an explicit secular and religious consensus about the dignity and rights of the human person, and explicitly advocate that there is sufficient doubt about Divine imperatives for us to leave them out of our plan of action. Philosophers disagree about whether it makes rational sense to believe the human person is sacred if one does not posit the existence of God (see, but rational or not, what is empirically true is that atheists are just as likely to value human rights as are believers.

I personally find it hard to imagine that if there is a God, He is less forgiving and loving of my fellow man than I am. That He is less appreciative or capable of comprehending mutuality than the best of us humans. By mutuality, I refer to an idea technically described in psychoanalytic theory, but I think one fairly easily understood by anyone capable of the trait, which is regard for another with empathy and mutual trust, although we fully know they are themselves and are neither a part of us nor in fact just like us—only enough like us for us to know they should be treated as we would like to be treated.

Would most of those who, unlike me, believe that God is personal and that there is individual immortality after death, actually cast their lot with the man who seeks the “honor killing” of his own teenage daughter for dating a boy from another faith, rather than with me? Am I really the one closer to their idea of an enemy of the kingdom of God? If I am not, then let’s begin to change our discourse about faith so we can discuss the distinctions we actually believe are most important, instead of the often-specious demarcation between who is religious and who is secular. Am I a religious humanist or a secular humanist? It is a distinction truly in the eye of the beholder. If a God who is not supernatural is no God at all to you, then you’d say I am secular. It’s an issue of semantics to me, because I believe in my God, who isn’t a God who cares. To you it may be more than semantic. But if you care, have you asked yourself exactly why that is? And is it possible that we could start a discourse that unites us, you and me, against the influence on our world of the darker view of God, the God of our basest anthropomorphic projections, the God who is gratified by suffering and appeased by destruction? I am optimistic and hopeful that we can. We just need to find the words, and more than occasionally the gall to speak them.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Voir Dire: My Day In Court

When I reported for jury duty this morning, I was fairly certain of the stakes. Last night I’d been surprised that my high summons number didn’t give me a pass on even having to show up, but once I listened to the pre-recorded message from the clerk’s office and adjusted to the news that my presence was actually required, I thought my day at court would play out predictably. I thought the commitment would surely be just for today, and that any chance of being placed on a jury was remote. My one previous experience of being brought into the courtroom for voir dire had ended predictably, with the judge sending me back to wait with the jury pool on the basis of my being a physician, and the case involving physician testimony about injuries to the plaintiff in an accident.

So I wasn’t prepared to feel anything when my number was among those called in a group to go to a courtroom upstairs for jury selection. The defendant looked relaxed—-too relaxed, as though this was just one more spin round the dance floor for him—-sitting next to his attorney at the table. The defense counsel and the state’s attorney were both decades younger than me, as I expected. The judge made mention of the fact that he had been called out of retirement to help clear up the court’s docket, and he looked the part: gaunt, white-haired, his voice a little tremulous. The defendant was charged with theft of a car, unauthorized use of a car, and resisting arrest.

I had just enough prior experience to expect the first question posed by the judge: Had any of the prospective jurors been convicted of a crime, been the victim of a crime, or had family members that were convicted of a crime or were victims of a crime? More than half the jury pool stood. As it turned out, my summons number was at the low end of the group that had been called, and I was first to approach the bench. The attorneys and the defendant all leaned in close to listen to my exchange with the judge.
“State your juror number, your name, and your reason for standing,” the judge instructed us.
“Juror 481," I said, and I gave my name. "I stood because I have been the victim of a crime.”
“Can you tell us, Dr. Hoffman, what that was, and approximately when?”
How does he know I am a doctor? Oh, right, they asked for my profession on the jury questionnaire.
“I was forced off the road and robbed at gunpoint when I was 18. And my car has been stolen three times in Baltimore City since I moved here in 1987.”
“From your residence?”
“Two times from outside my residence. Once from the doctor’s parking lot at the hospital.”
“Anything else?”

I hesitated. Only the group at the bench could hear what I was telling the judge. I had raised my right hand and sworn that I would tell the truth. Did that mean that it had to be the whole truth? Or would merely some of the truth do? I thought of other crimes I’d been the victim of: burglary, twice. Chased through Baltimore's Mt. Vernon Square by a gang of rock-throwing homophobic teenagers, who my companion and I managed to outrun, in my early 30s. Minor assault, a few times, but mostly by mentally ill patients, in care settings. The crimes against me as a child? Not for polite company. Did I continue to elaborate?

No, I did not.

“Those are probably the salient instances, your honor.”
“And do you believe that those experiences will affect your ability to be fair and impartial in hearing this case.”
“No, I do not, your honor.”
“Good,” he said. “You may return to your seat.”

I turned from the bench, and as I sat down among the prospective jurors again, I realized I was welling up with tears. The attention of the courtroom had shifted to juror number 483, at the bench. I put my face in my hands, and wondered at my response to the interaction that had just transpired. I stifled anything like a gasp.

I have often advised trainees in my profession to be prepared for never-ending surprise. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, you’ll see something for which you feel utterly unprepared. You think you’ve seen death in all its forms in front of your eyes, and then you’re bowled over by the miscarriage of a second-trimester fetus in the moments between your helping the patient onto the ER exam table and your return with a bag of saline to start an i.v. You think you’re hardened to the grim possibilities in life and then a seventy-year-old great-grandmother who’s caring for her small great-grandchildren because their mother is a prostitute and their grandmother died of AIDS confesses to you that she herself is shooting heroin into her veins every day.

Even so, I was not prepared for the utterly new dimension for me in today’s voir dire. To stand in front of a judge, to whom I have sworn to speak the truth, and to say “I have been a victim.” And, equally the truth, “I do not think this marks me with a defect in judgment, or fairness, or impartiality.” And then to hear his response: “Good.” No attempt on his part to argue the opposite—-because he did not believe the opposite. True, he was probably gratified that I didn’t try to use the events to wiggle out of jury service, but I do not think, nevertheless, that he believed the opposite.

“Good.” That single word of acknowledgment and affirmation from some old gentleman with the mantle of legal authority resting on his shoulders packed more punch than I could have anticipated.

The contrast to what I have experienced for a lifetime, not only that someone’s criminal act was actually leading to a criminal prosecution, but also the contrast to the usual supposition that I could not be trusted to know if in fact I was a victim, the supposition that if I have been a victim I am too biased to take part in any discussion of the appropriate response to such events, the supposition that someone besides me is whole enough to make sober judgments where I am clouded and irrational, took my breath away.

After the rest of the questions were asked and answered, after three quarters of the prospective jurors left for reasons of conflict or stated bias or wives about to deliver babies at home, I approached the bench first, as my summons number would dictate. The state had no objection to my being seated on the jury. The defense attorney, earning his keep, used a peremptory challenge to thank me for my service and send me home. But I, lowly prospective juror, almost negligible in my importance to this process, left with something I had never experienced before in my life: a whiff of actual justice, rendered to me by a judge in a court of law in the jurisdiction in which I have resided for most of the past 20 years. No one knew it but me, but it was to me that it mattered most. Even a whiff of justice, it turns out, could make me grateful for my day in court.