July 23, 2011



it works not because everyone is different, but because we're not

Crazy: Notes On and Off the Couch is a new book by Rob Dobrenski, a PhD psychologist in clinical practice.  He emailed me and asked me if I would review it.  Note to everyone else: this is a terrible idea.

The book is about his experiences as a therapist, from the difficulties with fees to working with sex offenders.

It's a memoir, but once you publish a book readers interact with it in their own ways, pulling into it things the author hadn't even considered. It stops being non-fiction and becomes a story. 

So instead of reading it like a memoir, let's read it like a story, and see if we can't learn something about ourselves.


Dobrenski's book is about his work with clients, but it's about two other things.

The second thing it is about is his own therapy with a therapist.  It's a parallel story, as he's helping people work through their issues, he's working through his own.

But this is a narrative, and every narrative has a first thing-- an inciting event.  Robert McKee's Story defines the inciting event as "an event that radically upsets the balance of forces in the protagonist's life."  It's the event that propels the story, without which there is no story.  Rob Dobrenski complies with McKee's directive to "put the inciting event into the story as soon as possible"-- he puts it in the prologue.  It is this:  he meets Janet, a beautiful  redhead in his training program, his soulmate, "the one."  

And she dumps him.

Now you have a story.


From McKee's textbook of psychoanalysis:

Story begins when an event, either by human decision or accident in the universe, radically upsets the balance of forces in the protagonist's life, arousing in that character the need to restore the balance of life. To do so, that character will conceive of an "Object of Desire," that which they [believe] they need to put life back into balance. They will then go off into their world, into themselves, in the various dimensions of their existence, seeking that Object of Desire, trying to restore the balance of life, and they will struggle against forces of antagonism that will come from their own inner natures as human beings, their relationships with other human beings, their personal and/or social life, and the physical environment itself. They may or may not achieve that Object of Desire; they may or may not finally be able to restore their life to a satisfying balance. That, in the simplest possible way, defines the elements of story.

Everything that happens in your life is digested by you through this process, so it would be worth your time to memorize it.


So we have a story about a man who loses his soulmate and becomes miserable, Zoloft and therapy miserable, passive suicidality and eating her photograph miserable, all while becoming a therapist and struggling to help others.

I'll grant you that he's 25 when Janet comes and goes, so some confusion, soul searching and drama is to be expected.  The issue for us therefore isn't whether his reactions are normal, but why they are not uncommon. Why do a lot of men go through this, in this way?

How does a therapist do therapy, which is a kind of story?  How does a writer do a story about therapy, a story about a story?

Step 1-- actually, there's only ever one step-- focus precisely on the words.

Here's how he describes Janet:

never before (or since) had I ever believed in the notion of Love at first sight... it was as if the film Weird Science had come to life and someone had created this physical specimen just for me. Or maybe the gods had simply decreed that this was the moment I was to meet my soul mate. Something clicked, and I made a conscious decision to form an indelible bond with her.

Remember: this is in the prologue.  This is what starts the story.  Of course it's a book and of course it's written after the fact, and hell, perhaps it isn't even true but none of those things are relevant because psychology operates outside of time and space. "Well, that part's not true, I made it up."   How can you understand what's true, Dusty?  Truth has seven levels.  Instead, just focus on the words.

Which words?  Note the words, "conscious decision."  That's not a throwaway phrase.  If it was his soulmate, if the gods had decreed it, it wouldn't be a decision any more than you'd say it would be a decision to win the lottery or fall into a hyena pit.  But that he chose to fall for her, decided that he knew how special she really was, decided to fall into a hyena pit-- then you no longer have a story about unrequited love, you have a story about old school Freudian masochism. Think about this. 

As a small point, he didn't realize it, but at that moment he was exhibiting a form of "ownership bias" quite common among 25 year olds: since he was able to get this hot girl and others didn't, this must be a special relationship indeed.  If you consider that the purpose of this ownership bias is the reduction of cognitive dissonance, then what it defends against is buyer's remorse. 

But the point for us here is that even before we leave the prologue of this story or finish the first session of therapy, we should already understand that in order for him to get over her, to "restore balance in his life," he's going to have to figure out why he did this to himself. 


The other thing of note in that paragraph is the movie choice, Weird Science.  Here's a handy life tip: when someone likens their life to a book or movie, pay attention, that's more informative than two MRIs and an Amytal interview.  Second tip: when they do reference the movie, the important thing about it is the thing they forgot.  So what do we know about Weird Science?

We know it was made in 1985, which means Dobrenski's sexuality began to form around the narratives and images of that time, which is why he referenced this move and not Bride Of Frankenstein or Simone.  This is important because when you're trying to understand someone's relationship to sex, you have know the stories the person uses to value it, i.e. the stories they were immersed in during their teens.  In the 80s, that meant getting not the hottest girl, but the girl from the higher class.(1) It also divided society along a two party system, preppies vs. nerds, "beautiful people" vs. "untouchables."(2)

His use of Weird Science was intended to mean, "a perfectly constructed woman to my exact physical specifications" but that's not what it means.  Three paragraphs later, describing his surprise at her dumping him, he says this:

I was so dumb that I was actually shocked when it happened.  But we were meant to be together!  Didn't you see Weird Science?!
I saw Weird Science, all the way to the end,  the end where the boys decide they don't want their perfect woman and make her leave (in this case nicely.) I'm sure Janet thinks she left and I'm sure Rob thinks she dumped him but I'm all in that he did everything in his power to make her realize he wasn't right for her, to make her do the hard work of leaving him since he couldn't cut that cord himself.  When you have your perfect woman for the 90 minutes of a movie and you never have sex with her, I suppose it could mean you're just nervous but it probably means she's not your perfect woman.  (I'll grant that the opposite is not at all informative.)  And Rob may have had sex with Janet, but he probably doesn't have to think hard to find a million other examples of things he did that, in retrospect, clearly told him Janet wasn't the One.  It's hard to depict psychic resistance in a visual story; in dreams it is done by feeling stuck or slowed, but one solid way to do it in a movie is by making the character wear pants in a shower while Kelly LeBrock is naked.  So Weird Science isn't about getting the perfect woman, it's about realizing you don't want the perfect woman.

Once she gets dressed, Lisa and Janet's entire purpose is to build up their self-confidence; create some scenarios where they can manifest their identities, and then get out of the way.

The point, however, isn't that Dobrenski's movie choice was wrong, or that he misunderstood  its story.  The point is that he chose perfectly, but misunderstood why; which is why in therapy and in stories, similes aren't accidents.  "Lisa is everything I ever wanted in a girl, before I knew what I wanted."  I hear you, Rob.


But I'm jumping ahead. Let's get back to the story.

Rob is miserable when she dumps him. Janet was perfect, and Janet is gone, into the arms of a different man. And another man. And another one. And guess what?  All the men are hot.  And so is she.   And etc.

Or so he imagines.  Carol, his therapist, tries to clear him by asking him to describe these images that plague him, of Janet and her other lovers.  So he says,

Janet is in her bedroom... She's gorgeous; she's wearing a negligee that she bought when we were together. She's smiling and being all seductive." [And the guy?] "He's tall, like six-foot-two, a little bigger than me. He's good looking. Very good-looking, built and strong.

Carol correctly interprets this all as a self-defeating negatism; he creates a "flawless rival" in his head that he can never best; which virtually guarantees his ongoing misery. Only when he understands that this image is unrealistic will he get over her. So, she suggests, try to take these fantasies to their conclusion. What happens after they have sex? Does the guy leave? Is she hurt that she was used? Does she go to the bathroom?  Etc.  Make her a real person, and not a porno.

In this way Rob slowly gains control of these images and fantasies. "When images become boring," says Carol, "they go away. And, fortunately, so do your symptoms."

So it helps Rob, but it leaves an unanswered question: why did he have these images in the first place?


In "The Ghost of Janet" he describes the sessions that deal with getting over Janet and his "irrational cognitions," e.g.

She was perfect.
I'll never meet anyone else.
I'm a worthless person and I don't deserve anyone.
I'm nothing without her.

The typical way of working these problems is to realize that they aren't true, that they are self-defeating; that they originate in childhood, that they are the results of insufficient, or inconsistent, parental love.  That's the typical way, and the wrong way. 

Tell me about Janet, his therapist asks.  What did you like about her? 

He describes what he liked about her in detail.  We're in a story, so focus on the words:

  1. She was fun to be with.

  2. "I miss being sexual with her." "I felt good with her."

  3. She was good looking, but in italics he writes, All these guys want to be me.

I hope it is immediately obvious, through this simple exercise of saying in words what you think can't be expressed in words, what's wrong with his love for Janet: none of those things have anything to do with Janet. They are all about him.  In fact, Janet is pretty much an inanimate object, a MacGuffin.  The therapist detected it as well: "Could she be more symbolic than real in some ways?" Cross out the last three words and you have it.

This applies just as readily to the guy who is upset/sad/angry that he can't get a beautiful woman, not stopping to know or care if they should get together.  She isn't real, she's just a plot device to move your story along.

Hold on: it is IMPOSSIBLE  to understand you are doing this while you're in it, while there is a real life woman in front of you, "it can't be all about me, look, she smiles when I buy her roses!"  Which is why doing this exercise is so important.

"But I'm not insecure!" you might say, "I just like hot chicks!" No doubt. Which is why Dobrenski's summation is perfectly accurate: "I don't believe I need her to feel good about myself. It was just easier to feel good about myself when I was with her." Nothing like an accessory to reinforce a brand.


Note also that this is definitionally narcissism, but it's not at all abnormal-- this is a totally ordinary, mid twenties kind of narcissism.  It is not pathological.  But that doesn't mean it doesn't hurt just the same.


Back to the upsetting fantasies of Janet with other men. We know he got over them by imagining more realistic scenarios. The question is, why did he imagine the unrealistic ones?

"Lots of times I paint a picture that she's a raging slut who's screwing a new guy every other night," [he says to Carol, his therapist.]  "Other times it is her soul mate.  Both drive me crazy."

At that point Carol decided to teach me an interesting trick.

"We've talked a lot about how our thoughts influence our mood. People make the assumption, however, that we always think in words. Here is a great example of how your cognitions are actually pictures. The images are your thoughts, which are driving this jealous reaction.  The good news about this is that images are just like a film, except you are the director.  With a little practice you can make the camera do whatever you want.  Please, take me through one of these images."

And he describes the scenario of seductive Janet in her negligee and the built 6'2" guy about to plow her.

The trick is that Carol's trick isn't a trick, it is the entire purpose of the fantasies.  Carol is going to help Rob make the camera do whatever he wants, as if the camera was right now doing something he didn't want, but in fact the camera is already doing exactly what he wants.  The camera isn't making him miserable, it is keeping him from going insane.

If we're in a story, and Rob is, than these fantasies are exposition, they are telling the audience something.   Look closely at these fantasies, at your own cuckold fantasies.  Inevitably in these fantasies there is a fetish object, something that existed in your relationship.  It's seems incidental to the fantasy but it is highly energized, eroticized: a piece of jewelry, clothing/bathing suit, or a location (car, bar, beach, etc).  The sex is the visual focus, but the eroticized negligee that they bought when they were together is the true main character of the fantasy.

Men make the sex the focus, while women make the fetishized object more explicit: they obsess over the ex taking his new woman to the same places; or buying her "the same kind of scarf he got me"; or saying the same phrases ("that's what he used to call me.")

It seems masochistic, driving yourself crazy thinking about what you've lost, making the loss even worse by finding the specific ways that it hurts you.  

But look back at what Janet was to Rob.  What he really liked about Janet was what <<Janet>>  meant about him.  In Jerry McGuire, when Renee says to Tom, "you had me at hello," it's in response to the mushiest yet most accurate line in the movie: "you complete me."  No kidding.  So when Janet leaves, he doesn't lose her, he loses what the part of him she completed.  That's what hurts him.  The fantasies are a battlefield medic sewing up a wound of the self with dirty thread and a rusty needle.  But at least you're alive. 

Sure, on the one hand you've had a huge piece of your identity torn out-- you wanted to be the kind of guy who dated the kind of girl that Janet represented, and by leaving she's shamed you, exposed you as not that kind of guy, as a loser-- but on the other hand you were that guy, and you can prove it: she's wearing your negligee.

That loss of self is what you're trying to recapture with the masochistic fantasies:  she's hot enough to have any guy she wants (and she picked you); she is in total control of her sex, wielding it for pleasure or for profit however she wants; so when she had sex with you, and liked it-- it signifies your own value.  When some faceless stud undoes her bikini top in front of everyone, and she confidently flaunts her body-- that's your self-confidence she's flaunting.(3)

Since you see the fantasies but not the wounded self you think one's real and the other isn't. The hard part is to accept these fantasies as merely information, as part of the story, what do they tell the audience?  The fantasies aren't the wound, the wound you have to close is the self: I'm not broken now that she's gone, I'm not a worse person, her leaving doesn't reveal me to be a loser.   The next woman I meet will not know or care that I am the man Janet dumped.  I'm depressed but still whole.   I want her to have sex and be happy, or frankly it doesn't matter if she has sex, because it has nothing to do with me. 

When that wound closes, you won't need the fantasies anymore.  Or the negligee.


Rob closes his book with parallel stories of endings: ending of his therapy, endings of clients' therapies, and endings of his involvement with clients' ongoing therapies.  Actual therapists spend offensively little time understanding how and when to end a therapy (Rob and Carol do it right); and even ordinary humans seem to have great difficulty, anxiety, saying good-bye, hanging up the phone, not feeling compelled to tack on a "why don't you text me when you've settled in your new place?"

But knowing how to end things, whether it is therapy or a relationship or a book, is a fundamental skill that allows us to move on.  Otherwise the past is dragged around like a deployed parachute, slowing your every move and suggesting to anyone who sees you that you must only just have landed. 

Every story has an ending, and the more satisfying the ending the better the story.


1. An example: Molly Ringwald played the unpopular kid in Sixteen Candles, pursuing the preppie jock; yet in The Breakfast Club she played the popular, "beautiful" type pursued by marginal character Judd Nelson.  She looked exactly the same in both, but her "value" as sex object (not girlfriend) was higher in The Breakfast Club.  She went back to being a desexualized person (not object) in Pretty In Pink. John Cryer, who was in love with Molly throughout the movie and eventually loses her to the preppie guy, is compensated for his loss by the sex object Kristy Swanson.

2. Movies like Heathers  and ultimately Mean Girls permanently disposed of this narrative, and high school movies now generally favor parliamentary style politics: multiple parties forming  coalitions.  Teen movies now also downplay the ages, so while the plot of Weird Science couldn't be redone using 40 year olds, you could flip the ages in The Hangover or High School Musical and the stories and their themes stay mostly the same.  They are both movies about childish adults, or adultish children, which are the same thing.  Interestingly, Zac Efron's other movie 17 Again believably recreated 80s style power divisions and objectifications  precisely because it was a movie about a middle aged man being 17 again, i.e. the movie was believably the worldview of such a middle aged man.

3.  There is an element of aggression in these fantasies, and the extent to which this or the other explanation is operational depends on how "whole" you were to begin with.  Unconsciously and deliberately putting your ex in these fantasies, forcing her to have sex with strangers, forcing her into sex she would not want herself; commandeering her image without her consent, destroys the integrity of the woman by reducing her only to an object-- all of these are regressive acts. This is a kind of revenge, compensation for the loss-- if I can't have your love, fuck you. (see footnote 1, above.)