Ethel Person

On Fantasy and How We Make Our Lives, Part I

VTR Date: May 25, 1995

Guest: Person, Ethel


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Ethel Person
Title: “On Fantasy and How We Make Our Lives”, Part I
VTR: 5/25/1995

HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND, and I’ve done programs with today’s distinguished guest twice before this, a decade ago about the psychology of women, and in 1988 about her book “Dreams of Love and Fateful Encounters”. Both times, Dr. Ethel Person, Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Columbia University Medical School and private practitioner here in New York, presented us with some of the most interesting food for thought. And today’s program will be no different, as we consider Dr. Person’s “By Force of Fantasy: How We Make Our Lives” just published by Basic Books. Though Dr. Person insists to start with, that to a large extent our experience, our own inner world is mediated through our fantasies and day dreams, castles in the air, “mental scripts and scenarios”, she calls them. Most of us believe, she says, that these emanations are of little significance in our lives. But since I find them of such significance in my own life, I think I’d like to begin by challenging my guest, and asking her to explain this point. Dr. Person?

PERSON: Well, many people are like you, but not everybody is like you, so that there are a lot of people who are in touch with their fantasies. A lot of them are writers. Writers have had fantasies since they were very little, often. But there are many people who are out of touch with their fantasies and they don’t register them, so they really don’t think that they fantasize.

HEFFNER: Why are they out of touch?

PERSON: Well, people are out of touch for a lot of different reasons. First of all, some people don’t notice them because they haven’t learned to think that they are important, or they have been taught to suppress them, or they haven’t been encouraged to have them. But I think that part of the problem is that we don’t tell each other our fantasies, so we each have to discover them for ourselves, so to speak. Whereas everyone tells each other their dreams, so that if you don’t dream, you go home and try to dream, but nobody is talking about fantasy, so in a sense, it’s a secret world. Ah, now, why to some people fantasize and others don’t? Why are some people musical and other people aren’t musical? People are differently gifted. I mean you have different access to that part of the mind. Minds are not the same from person to person. So the fantasizing gift is very differently distributed. If we don’t fantasize, we still can appreciate other people’s fantasies.

HEFFNER: Now, if I said not “fantasize” but “day-dream” would I be right or wrong?

PERSON: You mean are they the same? Oh sure, sure. And if you describe fantasies in a certain way, you’ll get people, you’ll get 96% of the population saying that they’ve had them, but they may not consider them very important, or they’ll consider them peripheral or things that just drift off into the air that have no real significance. And they’re not…daydreams have a function for them, but they would not be serious daydreamers. The way you are.

HEFFNER: The way I am as a serious…well, I remember my governor saying “Don’t daydream, Dickie! Stop daydreaming!”

PERSON: So it was already clear.

HEFFNER: So it was clear that that’s what I was going to do.


HEFFNER: What’s the function of daydreaming or fantasizing?

PERSON: Well, they have so many functions. That’s why we’re so well constructed by nature or evolution or God…whatever it is, we’re constructed so that any one function or any one activity has so many different functions. And daydreams…I think people think that they are to get you out of boring places, so that if you have a daydream and you’re bored in school, you interest yourself and have an adventure. If you’re a boy, you have a lion-hearted adventure and if you’re a girl you have a princess-in-the-tower adventure, whatever it is. But they have much more serious and on-going significant functions. I think that one of the main functions of a daydream is that by writing a hopeful future scenario you get through a very bad patch in your life. I think there are so many children that are unhappy, that they really survive their childhood and their parents by fantasizing a better tomorrow. So that the real major, major, major function of fantasy is hope. It keeps hope alive. Now it’s also a place where you run trial scripts so that you can figure out what you’re going to do before you do it. It’s different from planning, because in a daydream you actually put yourself in the story. It’s a real scenario that’s happening. And there are other types of daydreams. There are daydreams which people use to arouse themselves sexually, there are daydreams that people use to put themselves to sleep, and there are some fantasies, fantasies about who we are or who we want to be. So there are myriad, myriad, myriad of functions. Just recently, when people are so much interested in trauma, one of the major functions of fantasy is to relive the trauma in such a way that one masters it. And still other functions, if you want me to go on…

HEFFNER: Please!

PERSON: One of them is that it contains emotion, if you’re anxious, if you’d rather pin that on a daydream than have it free-floating.

HEFFNER: I understand that.

PERSON: If you’re anxious, you may decide that you’re anxious…typical example: A mother will keep her child home from school because he might just possibly get strep throat and then will miss the party. They will run that as a fantasy. That’s an anxious fantasy. Not all fantasies are pleasurable. Now, that has the function of containing whatever anxieties she’s feeling in her life for whatever reason. So you can have a fantasy that contains or pins down the feeling, or the feeling produces the daydream.

HEFFNER: You say not all fantasies are pleasurable. But they’re ours. They’re yours, they’re mine. Why would I choose something that was not pleasurable? Why would I find hope…

PERSON: Well, you know that this is the same question that came up about dreams. The question is if dreams are the fulfillment of wishes, why on earth do we have nightmares? So that’s really the same question. And there are a couple of different answers. One of the answers is that daydreams are not always what they seem to be, so that you may have a daydream that seems to be unpleasant on one level, and is pleasant on another level. The classic example that women have talked about for so many years is the rape fantasy. It may be unpleasant…it may give pleasure, but paradoxically so…it may be unpleasant and give unconscious kind of pleasure. So why? Simplest explanation is in a culture where sex is frowned on for women, but projecting it onto the rapist one can enjoy one’s sex without feeling responsible. Underneath that if it’s unconscious is that it is the focus of somebody’s sexuality. There’s a narcissistic kind of thrill in it. I’m not saying that women fantasize rape to be raped. Far, far from it. They may be troubled by the fact that a rape fantasy is exciting. Nonetheless, it is one category of fantasy.

HEFFNER: Why do you make such a point of making that point?

PERSON: Because it’s one of the simplest examples of…

HEFFNER: No. No, no why are you so certain to say that not that women…

PERSON: Want to be raped?


PERSON: Because I’ve talked to enough women who have run the fantasy over the years and that’s never the reason. I’ve never heard of a woman who either consciously or subconsciously wanted to be raped.

HEFFNER: I didn’t really mean that. I mean is this “PC”? Is this politically correct?

PERSON: Oh, am I politically correct? Well, sometimes I’m politically correct, sometimes I’m not. But, no, I just thought it was a good example because it’s a common example.

HEFFNER: What is the counterpart with men?

PERSON: Oh, a man might run a rape fantasy which he finds abhorrent, which might also give him pleasure and have an ambivalent response. So that a man who would never in a million years think of raping or even forcing a woman might have a rape fantasy in order to assuage some wound to his masculine self-esteem. So that might be a comparable kind of fantasy.

HEFFNER: Dr. Person, where do we get our fantasies?

PERSON: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: What are the sources?

PERSON: What are the sources. I think that people think that they’re so much our personal property, that we’ve invented them, and to some degree that’s true. But we get them from so many different places. We get them from our very early experiences. Early. First years of life…when we really don’t have a very good grasp of reality, we make up stories about what we think are happening. There our fantasies are in a sense reality-oriented. But we also get them, since we have wishes and we have desires and we have drives, we also are constantly on the look-out for scripts with which to clothe those impulses. So one of the places we get our fantasies from is the external world. We get them from our parents, we get them from our fairy-tales, we get them from the stories in our culture, we certainly get them from the movies, and we get them from the larger culture that we happen to live in. So they are both internal and they are external. I mean they come from inside and outside and they tend to connect us both to our inner life and to our external reality.

HEFFNER: There seem to be so many people who have a stake in denying the influence from outside. From books, the scripts that you’ve been talking about, from books or plays or poetry…you quote this Fuentes as saying “We are what we eat”. I’ve always said that, but I didn’t expect to find it in your book, Dr. Person. The substance of that, “we are what we eat”…he goes on to write that the tales we read…

PERSON: We are what we read. He says specifically that we are the comic books we read. He goes on even further, we are the comic books we read. Well, it’s a close question because you don’t want to say that we are so influenced by the scripts that you want to raise the specter of some kind of censorship. But I think one wants to say that we pick scripts that are matched to our impulses. That is if somebody is adverse to a certain script, or a script does not speak to you on a certain level, you won’t buy into that script. So that the way that we use scripts…it’s a marriage between what’s going on inside us and a script that comes to us from the outside world. So, what would be a concrete example…let’s say someone wants to be noticed, or wants some narcissistic pleasure, to be important in some way. Now, simple example, men and women will look to different scripts because traditionally they get reinforced by different things. So if you’re looking for a realistic script, you’re going to go and look for something that has some possibility of actualization in the real world. If someone has a lot of anger or aggression, an aggressive script will speak to them in a different way than in someone who is totally inhibited about being in touch with their anger or who is less angry. So that there’s a marriage between what’s external and what’s internal. It’s not that one is simply a tabula rosa and that the script imprints on you, but that the script meets you halfway in terms of what’s already in you.

HEFFNER: You know, it’s interesting, you say halfway. There are many others who say much more than halfway, and Fuentes seems to be saying that. “We are what we eat” and even the comic books we read as children. That’s more than halfway.

PERSON: Well, he’s talking about it in a broad cultural way. I think that there’s a particular reason that Fuentes got there and not another writer. Because of Cervantes. Cervantes is the great Spanish…Don Quixote…I mean he’s the great…Cervantes is the great author and Don Quixote is really the organizing myth in many Latin cultures. And Don Quixote is someone who was totally obsessed with living out his notions of medieval chivalry. So it’s there in that literature, that most Latins know that we are influenced in those large directions in terms of the culture we live in.

HEFFNER: Let me ask you in terms of practice. And I don’t mean the specific patients you deal with, but in terms of your psychiatric practice over the years. To what extent have you found persons that are acting out what it is that their icons, their fantasies based upon the literature of the times, the films of their times, that cultural input?

PERSON: On some level we all do, it depends on what level you’re talking about. But when we get acculturated, the way we get acculturated when we are kids growing up and we’re separating from our families, we pick icons in the culture who speak to us personally. And we do tend to imitate them, just the way that you imitate the popular kid on the block. Or the way you imitate the coach, or the way you fall in love with the teacher. Those are expressing impulses in you, and you’re drawn to that other person. You want to be LIKE that other person in some way so you model yourself on that person. That’s an incorporation of an external script.

HEFFNER: But the familiarity that develops out of the continuing connection with a particular script…I think of the notion of violence, Dr. Worthen years ago cataloguing the number of times one individual or another would have read a violent comic strip, and then saying that this comic strip became an icon, became a cultural input.

PERSON: It’s very complicated. I don’t want to sit on the fence, but I almost have to because you know, when we have our icons, we have our fantasies we have them for two different reasons. One reason is so that we can exorcise the behavior, in other words there are some people who are the kindest, gentlest people in the whole world who love violent movies. Most of the people who go to see the “Die Hard” movies are not going to become terrorists or terrorist fighters. But they do exorcise something by seeing that film.

HEFFNER: Why do you say most of the people?

PERSON: Because…

HEFFNER: It’s not very cautious and you’re a very cautious person.

PERSON: Because I don’t think that most people are violent in that extreme way we’re talking about. I was reading in the newspaper about the decision on whether or not to release the latest “Die Hard” because of the big explosion and there was a throw-away line that I think was very interesting, and I think it’s true. The throw-away line was “people like to watch things being blown up”. Now…at least in the movies…so it represents something. It has some internal meaning without inciting people to go and blow something up. If somebody is on the edge, if someone has a proclivity, it may put someone on the edge, but that person will seek and find a model. That’s why it’s a very hard question. You can’t solve it scientifically very easily, because there are lots and lots of variables. But on a case to case basis if you asked me if I know anyone who’s influenced…

HEFFNER: It’s a fair question, yeah…

PERSON: Totally…of course, of course. But they have not…it’s not as if they have walked into this movie or read this book and said “I am now under its spell”. It’s not that you are hypnotized it’s that you find something that speaks to your deepest needs that gives you a way to go.

HEFFNER: Now, let me ask you as a social activist and not a psychiatrist…

PERSON: You as a social activist?

HEFFNER: YOU as a social activist! You!

PERSON: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: I’m asking you this question. Aside from your role as a psychiatrist, does that role feed you enough of a sense of what makes us what we are…we are what we eat…to feel that movies that manifest this violence are sufficient in their negative input, you feel, to say stay away from them?


HEFFNER: Why do you say that so fast?

PERSON: I like them…


PERSON: I like those movies! Ah, aha! Yup. That’s why I’m so…

HEFFNER: Tell us about your fantasies!

PERSON: (Laughter) No, that’s why I say it’s interesting, the question that this writer, this article in this news article raises which is what impulse doesn’t speak to. It might speak to the impulse of control, because in the end everything was made alright again. But they are very complicated questions. You can have your violence and have your reassurance in these films. Both. So I am not…to the degree that I am a social activist this would not be my cause. My cause would not be to censor…

HEFFNER: Catharsis. Does this play a role in your thinking about…

PERSON: Oh sure, sure. I mean, this is the whole theory of fairy tales, Bruno Bettelheim’s theory…some people don’t agree with that. But there are certain fairy tales that answer to a child’s anxieties and assuage those anxieties. That you find in the world a protector, that you are in grave danger and you find someone to give you the answer. So you have the anxiety being addressed but you also have it being assuaged in terms of a solution.

HEFFNER: Of course you make reference here…well I couldn’t help but think of Shakespeare’s notion, first we kill the lions…when you make reference to Plato’s notion here in the fantasies of everyday life and you…tell us that…Plato argued that the work of poets and Phrygians would be banned in the ideal state because stories that have a profound and generally deleterious affect on their audiences lead up to bad actions. Now you do the quoting here.


HEFFNER: You make reference to it here.


HEFFNER: There must be something in here that appealed to you. And now, of course, what I hear is that the impact isn’t that great.

PERSON: Oh, no, I quote him because I think that the source to most impulses can be traced back to that caution. I say it’s much more complicated. I do not see a one to one correlation. But there are times when I think that aggressive films and aggressive fantasies can be adopted in a different way. But there has to be a certain kind of individual and a certain kind of cultural mix for those fantasies to take fire.

HEFFNER: In a nation of more than a quarter of a million people my assumption would be and I would think it would be yours too, that there would be enough opportunities, no, not enough, too many opportunities for that mix to take place, even at random.

PERSON: Well, you see that’s very complicated because people are affected not just by the movies, but they’re affected by the world in which they live. So if you asked me what I would prefer to ban, I would say to have less violence on the street and more in the movies, if it worked that way. Because people use as fantasy fodder and fantasy models not just what they see in film, they use what they see in life around them. That’s much more potent.

HEFFNER: Why do you want to make a choice necessarily between the two? Why not make your preference in terms of both? Both present us problems.

PERSON: Because catharsis is important. How do you feel about it? You’re the censor! Tell me…

HEFFNER: I’m not the censor. I’m not doing that any more…

PERSON: No, no, no, but you’ve thought about it more deeply than I have.

HEFFNER: That’s why I thought, because I read your book, “Aha! Ethel Person has provided me for the first time…with not a research document, but with a general sense that “of course!” that which has been brought before us, those icons, those children’s tales…then you quote Fuentes? I think…there it is!” Ethel Person realizes that it is that imagery that can, in too many instances, provide the stuff for fantasy.

PERSON: You see, I think that it’s not a single factor. I think it can crystallize it, but for example, with an aggressive script, I don’t think you crystallize it in somebody who is not already wired that way. I don’t think you create a…

HEFFNER: Let’s grant that. You seem now to be stepping back from what it seemed to me to be the thrust of chapter eight of this quite taking book, in which you seem to be emphasizing what it is that the cultural contribution can be. You must suspect that it’s of great significance.

PERSON: I think that it’s of great significance…tell me what example you want to talk about, about an example. I think it’s very complicated.

HEFFNER: Well, but I…you couldn’t help but be right when you say that it’s complicated. Let’s say it’s very complicated. Then, when you have to make choices, when you have to make cultural choices, you opt in one direction or another. You say whatever the complication is, I fear. I feel and I fear that this imagery can too often meet up with its partner, that individual who’s ready for this act of violence. Well?

PERSON: You see, I’ll tell you why I think it’s so complicated. One of the movies I love, did you see “Heavenly Creatures”? Is that the name of it?

HEFFNER: Yah. I didn’t see it.

PERSON: It’s a great film. It’s a true film. Or based on a true story about two lost girls, each depressed for different reasons who come together and begin to share a joint fantasy life. An adventurous joint fantasy life.

HEFFNER: A murderous one.

PERSON: No, they start out with castles and kings and romances and sex and they’re very dependent on one another. And then what apparently happens is that they’re going to be separated against their will. And one of the girls says “We could avoid being separated if only we killed my mother.” And this they proceed to do. Now one of the things that makes this such a stunning tale is that one of the girls has been identified as a very famous mystery writer. And that in itself is very intriguing. Here you have a joint fantasy that comes out of the anger and the frustration and the solution of the two girls. I don’t think it’s coming from the outside. But there is something in the sharing of it between them that facilitates it.

HEFFNER: Let’s talk more about this coming from the inside or the outside because our time is up now. Stay where you are, we’ll do another program.

PERSON: All right.

HEFFNER: Thanks for joining me today, Dr. Ethel Person. Thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time, too. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about the program today, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $4.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Carnegie Corporation of New York; The Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey Foundation; The Virginia and Leonard Marx Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; and from the corporate community, Ruder-Finn and Mutual of America.