Thursday, February 28, 2008

In Treatment

As you know if you are a regular reader of zigzigger, HBO's In Treatment is a major pleasure around the zig's and my midwestern bungalow these days. In addition to being a soapy treat, filled with the revelations of small gestures and expressions, laden with juicy tension, sexual and otherwise, it's also led to some provocative conversations with friends. Through a series of circumstances, some of our closest friends in MKE are psychologists, clinicians who are either university faculty or private practitioners. And their reactions to the show have been revealing of the different investments of differently positioned viewers, as well as of the curious ways in which psychologists define their relationships with clients (my friends call them clients, In Treatment's Paul calls them patients).

A central story arc of In Treatment is Paul's relationship with his patient, Laura, a woman 20 years his junior who declares her love for him early on in the series. Soon we learn that Paul, living in an unhappy marriage to his wife, played by Michelle Forbes, has some pretty hot and heavy feelings for Laura, too. This situation of "erotic transference" and "counter-transference" forms the moral, ethical, and emotional dilemma at the heart of the show. Not all of my shrink friends have watched enough of the show to offer much of an opinion on this relationship. But a recent conversation about the series made clear their inability to suspend their disbelief. They were incredibly worked up about the "bad" kind of therapy Paul offers--all that talky psychodynamic stuff (these folks are cognitive-behaviorists)--and couldn't stop talking about it at that level. When the subject of Paul's relationship with Laura arose, they really got worked up, only grudgingly admitting to the potential pleasures for viewers of the forbidden romance plot underlying the ethical dilemma Paul faces.

Their reactions to the In Treatment plot have also made me think about what seems to be a tendency amongst my psychologist friends to have very strong feelings about the inviolable lines between therapists and patients/clients--a dynamic that In Treatment mulls in really thought-provoking ways. It makes perfect sense to me that, amidst the kind of emotional discourses between therapist and patient, there can be all kinds of feelings, ideas, fantasies, etc. This is what makes IT relatable and emotionally believable, even for the non-therapized (although perhaps not for the actual therapist). Interestingly, my friends have similarly rigid takes on faculty/student dynamics. Of course, I understand the power imbalance between faculty and students and strongly believe in the importance of faculty always being cognizant of their relative power and avoiding the kinds of romantic entanglements Paul and Laura are experiencing as a result.

Yet there is also a way in which faculty/student dynamics can be like therapy, or at least like the TV version of therapy we can now watch on HBO. By this, I don't mean that the professor serves as personal counselor, though of course one finds oneself in such situations from time to time. Instead, I'm talking here about the kind of mental and, sometimes, emotional, connections that professors and students can have--connections that they should have, I think, when ideas and learning are engaging and provocative for all. Such moments can be exciting, and they can result in strong ties between all involved, whether in a one on one teaching context or in a classroom setting, in which the ties can be between peers as well as between teacher and student. Such moments and the relationships they produce can and do change people, as learning to think in new ways inevitably does. And there can be an intimacy and an emotional experience tied to that that may, in some way, approximate Laura's experience with Paul, and Paul's with her.

In the meantime, I remain captivated by the show and the ways in which it makes the smallest details of the utmost importance. As MZN has discussed on zigzigger, new camera set-ups, characters standing up, wearing their hair differently, etc. are incredibly exciting moments, and always pregnant with meaning. (Paul sitting on the couch with Laura in the 3/3 episode, slouched down, with his foot up on the coffee table?!! Amazingly revealing, given his typical posture across from the couch in the leather chair.) MZN compares this to Warhol, but I say that these are the kinds of details beloved by soap fans, used to wading through hours of boring for the smallest moments of revelation. Maybe that's another parallel to the teacher/student thing: hours of boring, not much happening, interspersed with the rare moments of big excitement when ideas click and you see new things about yourself, others, the world.


tvfan said...

If a psychologist dates a patient, that's a pretty basic violation. But I don't see the teacher/student thing as such a big deal, if they are both adults. I would probably wait until the end of the semester or keep it secret, but in the scheme of things, who cares? If both parties behave responsibly, the other students shouldn't be affected. And since it's the professor who stands to lose professionally, the balance of power may not be what it seems.

Anonymous said...

I've often felt the parallel between teacher/student and analyst/analysand and find violating the trust of either highly problematic. Even after the highly imbalanced and emotionally charged relation has ended in that shape, I think it's very hard to ever get on equal grounds (though it does happen). In a way, the way you describe student/teacher relations as allowing for peer moments only cements the way it usually isn't (and shouldn't be, I'd argue!)

As for In Treatment: I actually like violations of this particular taboo in fiction, but the very setup of the show makes it too close to the real thing for me to be able to divorce it. I'm glad you articulated so well why others had problems with the show, because that hit home with me...

[Also: nice meeting you in person, finally :)]