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Have you ever considered the connection between psychology and politics? What do you feel psychologists can bring to the work of American democracy that is different from what other kinds of scholars and political analysts bring to the table?

 

Selection One 

“In 1966, when I was fifteen, I read a book called If the Sun Dies by Oriana Fallaci (1929-2006), the legendary and fierce Italian journalist. Fallaci’s account of her trip to America to explore the U.S. space program, and the extensive interviews she conducted with American astronauts on technology, space travel, and humanity’s future, fired my youthful self with idealistic hopes and dreams that streaked across my imagination like rockets aimed at the future. As the oldest daughter of an airman who flew for TWA, I couldn’t help but be thrilled by Fallaci’s book. The sky and everything in it—the stars, the sun, the moon, and beyond—made up our family myth. The space age was just dawning over the horizon of American life; satellites bobbed through the sky above our Missouri farm; and autographed posters of American astronauts hung on the wall beside my bed. Restless to get off the farm and on with life, I felt stirred to do something similarly daring one day, even to become an astronaut myself and be the first woman on the moon . . . . Eventually, most of what I remembered reading faded with time, save one vivid, photographic image: that of Fallaci, a tall, striking woman, walking along a sandy white beach in Florida with an astronaut, both immersed in conversation on esoteric and existential matters, such as, for instance, what would happen to humanity when the sun dies.”

“I entertained one other bold dream when I was young and imagining a life for myself. I wanted to be the first woman president. Some time after I’d read If the Sun Dies, I became involved with a student group organized by a local politician. We took a trip to Jefferson City, the capital of Missouri, where we visited the governor in his spectacular, high-rise office, lined with windows that revealed wide vistas. The governor’s enormous, polished desk, the photos taken with presidents and other politicians, the state flag, and all the accouterments of power were on full display. But the man behind the desk didn’t seem as impressive as the trappings of his office. He was obsequious without seeming to really care about any of us; whispering into the ear of the man who’d brought us, he appeared to my admittedly naïve younger self as a kind of sly fox. 

Politics, I decided then and there, was not my vocation. Still, it would always interest me, and later I would be inspired by Robert F. Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy, and would join in the antiwar marches and activism and protest movements of the late sixties and early seventies. Throughout the years, I maintained an abiding interest in what was going on in the messy and unpredictable world of American politics—whether it was Bill Clinton’s impeachment, 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the election of the first black president, or the BP oil spill. Filling in the blank spaces in my education, I read histories of the early years of the United States and biographies of the Founders, and began to weave themes on my country throughout my writing. (From the Introduction to America on the Couch)

From Part V, Chapter 27 “The Politics of the Father as Leader: An Interview with Andrew Samuels” (AOC):

Over time, [British Jungian psychoanalyst Andrew] Samuels became increasingly aware of the extent to which large-scale political events have a dramatic impact on our inner lives. Not only were we shaped psychologically by our parents and early-childhood traumas, Samuels came to realize, but by the epic triumphs and tragedies of our particular historical era. Humans’ instinctive political energy, as well as their non-rational provoked by world traumas, he realized, needed to be both honored and decoded.

Questions and Exercises for Selection One:

--What are your earliest memories of your connection to America as it came to you through your parents? Can you recall some of their own memories that they shared with you growing up that specifically shaped your ideas and perceptions of America? Of democracy? What were your parents’ political beliefs and convictions, and party loyalty, and how did that shape you? Did one parent influence you in this regard more than the other? Did your parents belong to the same political party? If they didn’t belong to the same party, did they argue, or keep their opinions to themselves?

--What are some of your earliest memories of the greater American body politic as it began to dawn on you through large, collective tragedies and events? Which of these events made you feel proud to be an American? Which events made you feel ashamed to be an American? How do you think these events shaped your fate, your choices, and the direction of your life?

--What was your earliest form of direct political engagement: whether getting into a political debate with a friend or family member of opposing beliefs; getting involved in social justice or protest movements, or through voting, or political organizing?

--Did you ever imagine or fantasize about being the president? Running for political office?

Selection Two:

“Over time, my fascination for America, politics, and psychology began to coalesce into a distinct form. Psychologists had available to them a body of knowledge on human nature unique to the modern era, one that had been accumulating since Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams in 1900. What was more, they were privy to the deepest feelings, secrets, and struggles of individuals. More than anyone, these psychotherapists, psychologists, and psychoanalysts were witnesses to how the American dream played out in the actual day-to-day lives of the country’s citizens. And, as I also came to discover during interviews I began to conduct with them on various themes, these “astronauts of inner space” had a strong sense of responsibility toward and keen interest in the external, socioeconomic, and cultural realm of the body politic, and the way that the outer world shaped their clients’ emotional and subjective lives. There was even, I discovered to my delight, a unique school of psychology called “psychohistory,” which applied the principles of psychology to historical events.

Questions for Selection Two:

--Have you ever considered the connection between psychology and politics? What do you feel psychologists can bring to the work of American democracy that is different from what other kinds of scholars and political analysts bring to the table?

--If you’ve been in therapy, how has that affected you in your relationship to America? Has it made you more conscious of how certain American characteristics and traits have shaped you psychologically, whether for better or for worse?

--I vividly recall the time that Ronald Reagan appeared in one of my dreams. Barack and Michelle Obama have been frequent nightly visitors as well. Have political figures ever shown up in your dreams? What do you think they might have signified?

America on the Couch Book CoverThe America on the Couch Study Guide is presented by psychology journalist Pythia Peay to provide an online venue for participants to study selections from her books America on the Couch: Psychological Perspectives On American Politics and Culture (a collection of interviews with 37 psychologists and psychoanalysts) and American Icarus: A Memoir of Father and Country (the story of her father’s American life) (Lantern Books). It also aims to provide a community space where participants can share their own private, psychological responses, memories, and feelings as they come up around the 2016 Presidential election and other cultural and political events, as well as their own American stories and reflections on America. This is NOT a space for partisan debate, but for thoughtful and respectful commentary, dialogue, and mutual exchange.

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