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Ezra Feinberg: "Trump and the Holding Environment"


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An earlier version of this piece was originally presented by the author at State of Emergency: Politics, Aesthetics, Trumpism, a public forum that took place at New York University on December 10, 2016.

Text by Ezra Feinberg

I’m a psychoanalyst and psychotherapist and after Andrew Weiner asked me to present here I sent an email to my community of psychoanalysts asking for clinical vignettes pertaining to the aftermath of the election. As you might imagine we have all been hearing our patients talk about it almost nonstop, and there are all sorts of interesting theoretical and clinical implications to all of it. So this is something of a bifurcated presentation—I’ll be sharing with everyone a theoretical idea and after that I’ll be sharing a clinical vignette from an interesting and provocative patient sent to me by a colleague. I want to say that while the two segments of this presentation are surely linked, they are disparate as well, so one doesn’t necessarily illustrate the other. Instead, they are just two pieces of the wide-ranging and varied psychoanalytic implications of our current predicament.

If Hillary Clinton had been elected we would not be here today. Why is that? Perhaps it is because we would not feel so immediately threatened.

Take out the policies and gaffs and one is left with Trump’s words indicating threats to the body in everyday life, a body that might be grabbed, blocked, tracked, denied, gutted, locked up, abandoned, or removed. The British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott wrote famously about the holding environment of the infant, about the transparency between the arms and body of the mother and the wider environment of the home, the neighborhood, the city, the state, the country, and the world and society in which the mother holds the child. However, the world of the infant is a terrifying place, filled with constant threats. Winnicott wrote, in 1960, “the holding environment … has as its main function the reduction to a minimum of impingements to which the infant must react with resultant annihilation of personal being.” The very experience of the body as the place wherein one securely lives is constantly impinged upon, and without the holding environment there is only annihilation. But Winnicott was not only referring to the physical danger to the infant. The holding environment extends out to the psychological development of the child, providing the relative security and reliability necessary for the emergence of the earliest forms of fantasy, play, and thought, arming the child with a capacity to navigate threats and potential dangers. Post-Trump, we speak of once-reliable norms and foundational concepts such as truth, justice, and accountability no longer being _up_held. Likewise, we are no longer being held. The “we” here is, of course, complicated by the ways in which the persistent other of our discourse—the Trump voters—themselves claimed to have lost their holding environment. They would now seem to feel upheld as we feel dropped, our impingements mounting, our annihilation looming. Regardless of the side, we both do and do not “grow out” of the need to live in a holding environment, and what is threatening post-Trump is equal parts physical and psychical.

The word “annihilation” contains the Latin nihil, or nil—nothing. That is, to annihilate is to turn into nothing. For Winnicott, the holding environment facilitates the infant’s survival of these threats of annihilation. In the absence of a holding environment we are nothing, and it is in having been held ourselves that we may find psychic existence, and thus be able to hold ourselves.

Threats of annihilation and the capacity to navigate through these threats feature in the following clinical vignette. As I mentioned, this is not my patient, but the patient of a colleague of mine, Dr. Manya Steinkoler. Manya has disguised certain details for the sake of confidentiality, but the gist of the patient’s story remains. This is a Latina woman, aged thirty-two, currently in a biweekly psychoanalytic psychotherapy. Both for the sake of time and so that we might further take it up in our discussion, I’ve decided to provide no commentary after the vignette. This session took place three days after the election:

Talking as soon as she entered the room and even before she sat down on the couch, animated and eager to tell me her news, Carmen began with a warning: “Dr. Steinkoler, I know that my complaint towards men has to do with my father, and I know that we have worked on my not jumping up at every instance to defend the underdog and raging like a loca contra macho stupidity, but there are times when my duty as a citizen and a woman is far greater than my triggers from my own past.”

She began to tell a story. “So, I’m walking by the bicycle shop near my house. The owner is this kind of cute but not like so great-looking guy—he used to be hotter, he has a belly now—Ernest. His name was Ernesto and not Ernest—I know all about it. His grandfather was Italian and his grandmother was Jewish. I slept with him not long after I had my daughter. Only once, around ten years ago. Paulus was away on business and I had not felt like a female for god knows how long. Anyway, we never talked about it and we pretended it never happened. I buy my daughter’s bicycles there over the years. So Ernesto sees me this morning—three days after that motherfucker won the election, and Ernest-Ernesto says to me, ‘Hey Carmencita, my people are in charge now! My boys are running the show and they will show you that they are in charge.’ Can you believe that?! He actually said that. I know I am too reactive. So I stood for a second and thought—do I let this dickless moron say stuff like that or do I say something back? When am I entitled to say something? Does it matter that I am reacting and he is pushing my buttons? I made a decision to speak: I was not just reacting. I walked right up to him and said—in his face—and I know him mind you: ‘Ernesto’—I called him by his Italian name—‘is this the first time you have said this or have you been saying this to everyone and their mother since Tuesday?’ See? I did what I learned in therapy—ask questions, make the other speak, don’t just antagonize. So—you won’t believe it—you know what that idiot said? He said, ‘I just said the same thing to Nana ten minutes ago when she walked by.’ Nana is a West African living in the neighborhood. She is beautiful and is trying to start a modeling career. And I may be thirty-two, but I know how I look. I asked him one more question: ‘Ernesto, who are “my people”?’ And he said ‘White men.’ And then he had the moronic balls to add, ‘White Christian men. We are running the country now and you will know your place.’ Then, I admit, I went in and gunned him down. Nuclear bomb. Carpet bomb whatever. I slayed him. ‘You dickless moron!’ I yelled at him. ‘You told this stupidity to Nana and Carmen, the two best-looking girls in this neighborhood, the two girls you are attracted to, so you could feel important because you look like shit, your wife left you and you have no woman. You want to think you have some power when you have none. If you think that just because an even bigger moron than you has become president of the United States that it means that you can speak like this, you have no idea how you are destroying yourself and what a moron you—and he—will prove to be for history and eternity. First of all, you come from immigrants and you are part Jewish so you are not so white. Second of all, you have a bicycle store because you lost your car dealership for dirty dealing. Now you think that dirty dealing is somehow sanctioned by the guys in charge. You even called them boys and not men. They are boys and not men. Dirty dealing and hate will never be sanctioned and deep down you know it, which is why you spoke this crock of shit to me and Nana—two women you thought would never speak back to you. Well, we can and we will—at least I can and I will. And if you keep at it, I will tell everyone in the neighborhood that you have a small dick and that I made the mistake of sleeping with you once and that is why your wife left you.’ Now, doctor, I know that I went too far. I know that this last bit is the kind of thing I have to work on, the kind of thing that will get me in trouble—I know. But as I was giving it to him I thought only about one question over and over again, a question that has been on my mind since my heart sank on Tuesday night to the bottom of hell with half my country. The question is this: Even if my reacting has violence in it, does that mean I am not allowed to react? If I am enraged against the hatred of women, corruption, the abuse of innocent people, and I react with passion, does this mean I am the same as those who are showing a passion of hate? How do I triumph over this without being Ghandi and wearing a diaper and starving myself? There has to be a way to speak and act and not feel guilty for it. The fact that I am telling you that I don’t feel guilty for yelling at him makes me wonder whether I do. But if the whole country feels like me and no one does anything—then what will happen?”

Image via Baltimore Sun.