Q: What is the link between love and patriarchy as it plays out in The Birth of Pleasure?
A: There is a line at the end of Saki's "The Storyteller," where a man who has been telling a story to two unruly children on a train sums up the moral of his tale by saying, "You can't have pigs and flowers." It's a bit of a stretch and not to be taken literally, but this pretty much sums up the relationship between love and patriarchy. You can't have love and patriarchy. Love means opening yourself to another and taking the other into yourself; it means being vulnerable to other people's wants and needs; it means delighting in another person, tasting the joy of being together, weathering, exploring, embracing the difficult times; and perhaps most of all, it means being willing to change. You'd have to be crazy in a hierarchy to leave yourself open in this way, whether you're the bottom or the top, which is why in so many relationships where people are struggling to open themselves to one another or to be vulnerable to one another, invariably they can't, and that's why these relationships are in trouble.
Q: How does the myth of Psyche and Cupid relate to the tensions and difficulties of relationships between men and women in our society?
A: The myth of Psyche and Cupid comes from Apuleius' novel, Metamorphoses, where it is presented as "an old wife's tale," told to a young woman who has been kidnapped and taken into the forest on the eve of her seemingly-perfect marriage. It's a cautionary tale about love, and I read it as a map of resistance, showing how to get out of a tragic story, like the Oedipus story, or all those stories in operas and country westerns and plays and novels where love leads to loss and pleasure to death.
It's a strikingly contemporary tale in the sense of speaking so directly to tensions and difficulties which continue to beset men and women, such as the dangers of becoming an object, the need for women to say what they know about love-to break taboos on seeing and speaking about what they know, what happens when a man can't show his love, the need for equality in love relationships, and perhaps most radically, if a woman finds herself forced to choose between staying with her husband and risking her child and herself or, to quote Hamlet, taking arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing, end them, the better choice is to take arms and a lamp to look at the situation. What Psyche discovers in looking at her lover under the light is that the stories she was told about love and marriage are not true. The old wife's tale counters air-brushed images of love and marriage by making it clear that the labor of love which leads to the birth of pleasure is a long and difficult labor.
Q: Your work counseling couples. What do you hope to achieve through this project? What did you learn from the couples that you worked with?
A: I began my work with couples by interviewing men and women whose intimate relationships with one another had reached a point of crisis. I continued this work with Terrence Real, a couples therapist, and we saw couples together, offering counseling in exchange for their participation in our project. What I learned from the couples was that even in the midst of crisis, you can pick up the voice of pleasure, and if you follow this voice, it will lead back to a time before loss or trauma made it seem too risky or dangerous to love. By listening for the voice of pleasure as well as the signs of loss and trauma, we found ways of moving in the face of what otherwise often seemed a hopeless impasse.
I also discovered that my work with adolescent girls and young boys was an invaluable guide in the couples work, because it tuned my ear to an emotional openness in men that was quickly covered and to an honest voice in women that seemed too dangerous to express. Terry Real's ability to speak with men lovingly and truthfully opened the couples work to a kind of candor that made it possible to work very quickly because it broke the collusion that occurs in couples therapy when a therapist and a woman tacitly align to protect the vulnerability of a man. When this happens, a series of issues manifest in the couple but rooted in patriarchy never get addressed.
Q: In The Birth of Pleasure you write, "The resistance story is a psychological story set in a historical and political landscape, and both love and the soul need to be placed in a cultural framework. Then we can see why we have loved tragic stories of love. .." Why, do you think love relationships in our society are so often haunted by loss and pain? Is there a way to get around this trauma within the confines of a patriarchal society?
A: One of the questions that led me to write this book is why is it so hard to resist a tragic love story, or to put it differently, why are we so drawn to tragic stories of love, where pleasure is Act I in a play that ends badly? I found myself asking what is so dangerous about pleasure and what stake do we have in the tragic ending? These questions took me into a history of loss and separation that I saw playing itself out among the young boys and the adolescent girls in my studies. They would come to a place where loss seemed inescapable, where it seemed impossible for them to stay open and present in their relationships. I observed boys around the ages of four and five beginning to cover their emotions and girls at adolescence beginning not to say what they were really thinking and feeling. I have always been grateful to the woman in one of my early studies who asked me: "Do you want to know what I think, or do you want to know what I really think?"
If the only way we can maintain relationships is by not showing what we are feeling or not saying what we are really thinking, then we end up giving up relationships for the sake of having relationships. The absurdity of this, when you think about it, is countered by the fact that we often accept it as inevitable. And I think this is one reason why many people are unhappy in love, because what is said to be love often feels like constraint.
Love relationships in our society are shadowed by the legacy of a loss that has its roots in childhood. Because this loss is often experienced as a loss of voice and connected with a feeling of being unable to speak or to say what is happening, it bears the hallmarks of trauma. One way to get around this trauma within the confines of a patriarchal society is to break this silence. The fact that more women and men are now speaking openly about what is happening or has happened in their intimate relationships is one clear sign that we are moving out of patriarchy.