Queer Couch for the Straight Girl

Queer Couch for the Straight Girl

by Mark O'Connell
Queer therapist, Mark O'Connell, describes therapy with a heterosexual woman client, and how claiming his queerness, rather than playing a role of "expert," helped his client create a new story for her life.

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The Prescription

I prescribed Gone Girl for my client. Yes, the best-selling psychosexual thriller about a woman who rewrites her life—and perhaps a queer suggestion for a psychotherapist to make. But I am queer, and that is why Amelie chose me.

By queer I mean gay, but I also mean non-normative and unconventional. My approach to therapy is not informed by one school of thought but rather draws from various theories and experiences—as an actor, a writer, and a gay man. Because when we are queer or do not fit in, survival demands that we adapt and often, in the process, become our most awakened, alive, and creative selves.

Amelie’s wish to be those versions of herself may explain her choosing me as a therapist. But she put it to me more simply: as a straight woman she wanted to work with a gay man.

Much has been written about how working with gay therapists benefits LGBT clients. But little, if anything, has been written about the benefits to straight clients in working with queer therapists.
Much has been written about how working with gay therapists benefits LGBT clients. But little, if anything, has been written about the benefits to straight clients in working with queer therapists.

The Glass Box

Enter Amelie.

With a graduate degree in journalism, Amelie was a master of writing other people’s stories. Yet she found herself trapped in a story of her own and unable to write her way out. As her classmates landed jobs at major publications, she was still unemployed and struggling to get by. “I graduated from the top program in my field and I can’t get a job," she said. “It’s official. I’m a loser.”

Amelie had always been told who she was. When she was six she wanted to be an actor, but after seeing her in a school play her father chided, “That’s not you. Try something else." At ten, as her parents were divorcing, her mother tearfully told her, “You’re a good listener,” while Amelie kept her own grief to herself. In high school she was surrounded by frenemies who daily reminded her, “You’re the fat one,” though she was always thin. And in college, after repeated criticism of her creative writing, a professor told her, “You should really be a journalist.” The rest was history.

But this his-story wasn’t working out as she imagined—she couldn’t get a job—and it was finally time to try and write her story.
This his-story wasn’t working out as she imagined—she couldn’t get a job—and it was finally time to try and write her story.
Hence Amelie’s decision to start therapy. When we first met, she felt she was not up to the task, powerless and hopeless to author the next phase of her life. And after a few months, I too felt inadequate. When I empathized with her pain, she felt weak. When I emphasized her strengths, she disowned them.

“I can’t be helped,” she said. “It’s like I’m cursed to watch myself forever the way other people watch me, scrutinizing every move. And every move is always wrong. I see it. But I can’t change it.”

“That makes two of us,” I replied. “I see you locked in a glass box without a key. Every attempt I make to free you fails. Which only makes you feel worse, and makes me feel like a lousy therapist.” This made her feel understood for the moment. But what was next for us? We couldn't sit re-reading this hopeless story forever.

The story in which Amelie was trapped was that of a narcissistic father and a self-deprecating mother. Nothing was ever good enough for her father, including her mother (hence the divorce), and Amelie (so it would seem). He would boast about his own achievements but leave no room for Amelie’s. Her mother, on the other hand, would tell her, “It’s too late for me, but you, you can do anything.” While this would momentarily inspire Amelie to dream of success, where her father might finally see her, it also induced the fear of leaving her mother behind—sad, broken, and alone.

How could Amelie ever be good enough for her father without abandoning her mother, the only reliable source of comfort in her life? This was the glass box in which she was trapped. Every move Amelie made, like attending a fancy graduate school, was intended to strike a delicate balance: win her father’s approval, or at least avoid his critical eye, while at the same time not hurting her mother. She felt frozen, like a gymnast on a balance beam, always at risk of falling. Good reviews or accomplishments kept her safely in a spotlight, but only for a moment, and never enough to sustain her. In this hollow, frozen pose she was arguably safe, but ineffectual. Now, out of grad school and without a job, Amelie had finally fallen, at last revealed herself as a fraud, and let her public down.

I needed to shatter the glass box of this hopeless narrative, and to help her use the broken shards to build a new story of her own making. Yet my own feelings of inadequacy as a practitioner crept into the room, as did my fear that she would leave me behind (like her mother). I began comparing myself to better therapists—peers, mentors, renowned experts—asking myself, “What would they do?”

I looked to Freud and Oedipal theories. I would help her resolve the classic fear of destroying her mother so as to win the love of her father. I sat in our sessions, serenely allowing her to project feelings about her father onto me. I hoped that my subtle insinuating interpretations would lead her to a catharsis, the way a successful psychotherapy treatment is “supposed” to go. But it didn’t, because I couldn’t explain anything she didn’t already know. She was keenly aware of the Oedipal inferences in her dilemma, which made her all the more despondent that she couldn’t resolve it. My interpretations only tightened the lock on the glass box and magnified her feeling that she was not enough—even for her therapist.
 
Together we failed to tell the story the way it was “supposed” to go. I began to watch my every move, seeing myself the way I imagined she saw me: caught in the spotlight, wide-eyed, locked in my own box, stuck on my own beam.
I became an empty replica of a therapist, going through the motions, safe but ineffectual. Just like her.
I became an empty replica of a therapist, going through the motions, safe but ineffectual. Just like her.

I did not usually try to play this role of the orthodox expert with my other clients, and I wondered why I was doing it with her. Could it be that her fear of disappointing her father induced similar fears in me? Was I afraid to un-closet myself to her? To reveal myself as a crap therapist, unintelligent, also a fraud?

I thought of my closeted days in high school, how I would walk the halls watching my every move, hoping to camouflage myself from scrutiny and derision, hoping to pass, to be anything but gay.
I thought of my closeted days in high school, how I would walk the halls watching my every move, hoping to camouflage myself from scrutiny and derision, hoping to pass, to be anything but gay. I thought of my own days in therapy, and how the Oedipal story never really helped me to understand myself either. How being a boy attracted to boys in a hostile world had made my journey of self-discovery queer, outside of the box, and creative. How I had to write a new story of my own to make room for myself in the world.

Show Your True Colors

And then I realized it. By trying to pass as an “expert” therapist for Amelie—to be her Wizard of Oz—I had denied myself access to queer insights from behind the curtain that could be of use to her. Cut to me running late to work one day. Windblown hair, shirt untucked, coffee spilling—and Amelie watching it all as I approach the elevator bank. “Busted,” I think. Of course I don’t want her catching me backstage, disrupting the character I had tried to play for her: the serene, wise, powerful therapist. “You caught me in Bruce Wayne mode,” I say to her. And she laughs. In our session I share my embarrassment at being caught fumbling. I wonder if this resembles the feelings she has described in her own life.

Amelie seems relieved that I’m human. She says that none of the men in her life—including her boyfriend and her father—understand how much pressure she feels, as a woman, to hide her inadequacies and pain.

In the past I might have said something flat and clinical, like her father, or over-validating, like her mother. But this time I do something queer. I take a page not from a psychotherapy book but from one I read for fun—Gone Girl. I feel a momentary rush of humiliation as I take off my superhero mask and recommend a beach read—and not just to any client, but to one who is extremely well-educated and has read everything. Unsurprisingly, she has not read Gone Girl. But her eyes abruptly brighten, and I start to relax. I’ve made a crack in the glass box. Suddenly there is more possibility in the room.

I describe the character of Amy from the novel. How as a child her therapist parents had written books based on idealized versions of her that she could never live up to. How oppressively scrutinized she feels, and how her sudden disappearance gives her the freedom to write a new life. (Albeit one that involves murder and framing her husband for crimes he didn’t commit.) I suggest that the book asks whether the only way to make a straight man understand a woman is to rewrite his life, against his will.

She laughs and says, playfully, “This is why I wanted to work with a gay man.”
She laughs and says, playfully, “This is why I wanted to work with a gay man.”

Amelie wanted to be seen by someone who understood her experience of not fitting in. Someone who existed outside of tradition, who knew personally the need to adapt in an unwelcoming world, and who could help her to reclaim a lost sense of self. She wanted the man behind the curtain all along, not the Wizard of Oz.

I suggested that Amelie write a story about herself. Not a journalistic piece, but something more creative, outside of the box (without killing anyone). And she did. The following week she told me how rewarding it was to transform her pain and hopelessness into art. She radiated with the glow of achievement, and though she did not imagine the story would impress her father or get her a job, it represented something better: her capacity to make use of her own truth.

Ironically, the story was published in a prestigious journal. It was then spotted by the owner of a popular blog, who eventually hired Amelie as a staff writer. Ecstatic as I was for her, and for myself—didn’t this imply that I was, in fact, a wizardly therapist?—I had concerns. I asked her if this too-good-to-be-true outcome might validate her, and me, in all the wrong ways. Launching us back up onto the balance beam, for instance, or down into that suffocating glass box, with that old familiar fear of failing?

But then Amelie shattered my suggested narrative and pieced together one of her own.

 “No,” she said. “The reward in writing that story was in writing it. I discovered how valuable it is to make meaning out of my own experience, no matter what the response. This job symbolizes a new self-narrative for me. I used to think I needed to contort myself to get anything in life—a friend, boyfriend, a job. But now I know that I can be truthful, vulnerable, and creative, and the opportunities available to me as a result will fit much better. I used to chop off my toes to fit into glass slippers. Now my slippers are custom-made.”

This is my version of Amelie's story. After she reads it, I’ll look forward to hearing her own.


© 2016, Psychotherapy.net, LLC
Bios
Mark O'Connell Mark O'Connell, LCSW-R, MFA, is a NYC-based psychotherapist in private practice. His writing covers a range of topics related to the performing art of living, and has been published in Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, as well as popular sources, including The Huffington Post and on his Psychology Today column, Quite Queerly. He is the author of Modern Brides & Modern Grooms: A Guide to Planning Straight, Gay, and Other Nontraditional 21st Century Weddings. His website is: www.markoconnelltherapist.com