Ethel Person

On Fantasy and How We Make Our Lives, Part II

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 II
VTR: 5/25/1995

HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. This is the second of two programs with Dr. Ethel Person, Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University Medical School, programs we take as our text her new basic book “By Force of Fantasy: How We Make Our Lives”. Dr. Person, thank you for joining me again. We almost got to the point of talking about dual fantasies. I wonder whether you would elaborate upon that notion.

PERSON: Well, yes, I think you were interested in what real effect fantasies have in our lives. And I believe and think that I can demonstrate that all the truly meaningful relationships of our lives occur when people either consciously or out of consciousness bring together fantasies, they share fantasies, they have either the same fantasy, or they have complimentary fantasies. Because I think the greatest thrill in life, the greatest charge, that little frisson, is when you actualize your fantasy. And you do it primarily in relationships.

HEFFNER: A shared fantasy means that two people come together and through the sharing of a fantasy find what you’ve written about before, which is love? The emotion of love?

PERSON: Well, it doesn’t have to be romantic love, and it doesn’t have to be exquisite sharing, but love is a good prototype. So is friendship, so is partnership, so is joining together in a political movement or some idealistic movement. Or you can be partners and share fantasies in crime, war, a lot of things. But it’s that congruence or that complimentary fantasy that allows you, that legitimates what is internal. The minute you share a fantasy it becomes part of reality and it is that congruent between what is inside the psyche and what is in the real world.

HEFFNER: You make it sound as if we wait for someone or some activity, or some movement perhaps with which we can share…

PERSON: We scan the environment looking for it.

HEFFNER: That’s what you meant when I was trying to tease from you…

PERSON: Yes. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: …some support for my notion about fantasy and violence…

PERSON: Yes. But it depends. Sometimes you really want to actualize a fantasy and sometimes you just want to play with it. But you do scan the environment, and you hear what people say that becomes a clue to their sharing your fantasy. You know, in that way that you’re in a room, and you hear your name, no matter what you’re talking about…it’s the same thing if you have a fantasy running. If you’re really looking for a sadist, you’ll hear that little thing that he or she says that is the tip-off. Now you may not process that consciously, but the masochist will find the sadist, the rescuer will find the rescued, and etc. So you are scanning constantly to find someone with whom to share this deepest longing.

HEFFNER: See, I talked about romance and love, because I was thinking of “across the crowded room”. And you say one hears ones name of finds a partner in crime. The romantic emphasis here, does it not deserve, does it not belong there?

PERSON: Sure. It’s also romantic, but it’s not exclusively romantic. Fantasy infuses all areas of our life and not just the romantic area. Parents have fantasies about the children they want to raise. Children have fantasies about the parents they would prefer, and they may go looking for surrogate parents. They may fall in love with their best friend’s parents. So it’s not just a romantic liaison, but it’s a different, but it endeavors across the spectrum of all the interests of our lives.

HEFFNER: Who are we then, Dr. Person?

PERSON: Oh, we are a very complex mix of what we bring to the table and what we find. But the question…would I be the same person if I had been born in the 5th century in China? Not at all. I wouldn’t have the same values, goals aspirations. I might have the same basic talents, but they would play out in a totally different way. Because the configurations of possibilities would be different, my imaginative life would be different.

HEFFNER: What role does fantasy play in therapy?

PERSON: Well, a crucial role as I believe people are trying to actualize their fantasies all the time. There’s always a connection between the fantasy, the behavior, the relationships the patient is looking for, fantasies about what they can and can’t do, and fearful fantasies that may inhibit them from going in certain directions, but passionate quests that will take them in other directions. So I think therapy is about fantasy. It may be called something else, but it’s really about fantasy.

HEFFNER: How does the therapist use the fantasy?

PERSON: You use the fantasy by uncovering it. You bring it into the fore, so that the patient is more aware of what their fantasy, motives and preoccupations in their lives are. They’re encoded, in fact, you see. So that, one of the things you do is you interpret a patient’s relationship with you in terms of a fantasy wish, the wish for a good parent, or the fearful fantasy that one has a punitive parent, master, boss, whatever it is. So you’re constantly uncovering those fantasies.

HEFFNER: And the therapy that puts its emphasis on biochemistry?

PERSON: Is also wonderful therapy.

HEFFNER: What is its relationship…

PERSON: What is its relationship? The biochemistry says that you have these moods that can be controlled or reversed by drugs. And I certainly think this is terrific. Now, this may be true, there may be biological depression. There might also be a depression from a fantasy, or a conflict that has transpired in some way. So you get to the same place from two different directions. And very often the best therapy is one that uses both drugs and interpretation.

HEFFNER: May I be so bold as to ask you what you think the configuration of treatment will be in the future in terms of the kind of talking cure?

PERSON: (I’m just reaching for some water)…

HEFFNER: Please? And I raise that question because there has been so much emphasis these days upon the psychopharmacological approach to dealing with individuals. Are you talking and talking about therapy, and talking about fantasy, and talking about a lighter touch with people whose problems don’t…

PERSON: No. No, no, no. I think the future of talking therapy is here to stay. I’m not sure who will be doing it but…it may not be psychiatrists, but somebody will be doing it. But I see therapy as coming together and really bringing different strengths together. So somebody will use both. There are lots of studies that show that the best treatment for depression probably uses talking therapy and a drug therapy. And if you want to relate this to fantasies, fantasy is another way of talking about relationships and the fantasies of relationships. You can change a mood, but you can’t change a pattern of behavior simply with a drug. On the other hand, if the feeling is out of whack, if the patient is so anxious and depressed that they can’t talk, obviously we should be using drug therapy as well. I see no real conflict between these two at all.

HEFFNER: Is the world really all that good, Dr. Person, that we don’t have to worry about the future of talking cure? That indeed, there is going to be room for the, for the chemist and the room for the talking cure? We really have to look into the future.

PERSON: Oh, I have no doubt about it. If you want to talk about real trouble for the world, lots of real trouble for the world, but not in this area.

HEFFNER: Not in this area?

PERSON: I don’t think so.

HEFFNER: Even with the pressures of economics? Even with the pressures of dollars available for the kinds of treatment?

PERSON: Well, but different people are willing to do therapies. It will be reorganized, but it’s not going to disappear.

HEFFNER: Reorganized how?

PERSON: Maybe out of…it will be less medical, probably. There may be a split in the field, but that will not be a disappearance of the talking therapies. How can it disappear when what we know about mental life has so much to do with talk, with narrative and with fantasy? You can’t…you see, suppose somebody…to go back to one of your interests, suppose somebody is angry. That’s interesting, and there may be a component that is biologic, that is learned, whatever it is, but the way that it is enacted is narrative.

HEFFNER: But, well, the best way for me to take an impasse here, to take this situation, is to ask you whether there are others in the field who would disagree with your optimism, let’s call it, about the psychiatric future.

PERSON: Sure. Oh, sure.

HEFFNER: What is it that they see that you don’t?

PERSON: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: What is it that they SAY that you don’t?

PERSON: They say that money is drying up. They say that departments of psychiatry are having great trouble, that they’re having to let people go. They’re fearful, as I am that it will create a whole new class of homeless who don’t have adequate care. Nonetheless, you’re asking me two separate questions. You’re asking me what’s the near future and what’s the long future, the more distant future.

HEFFNER: Well, I realize that I am not knowledgeable to not only ask the question but also to deal with the answer that you give me, so that I know in all fairness, take my question with grace when I say “what would someone else”…

PERSON: Well, you see, psychiatry may become largely a psychopharmacological specialty. I desperately hope this is not true. But there are many other people who are educating themselves in the intricacies of the mind and they will step into the breach if they have to.

HEFFNER: People trained how, in what way?

PERSON: Psychologists, social workers, many other people.

HEFFNER: So you’re saying that the medically trained person…

PERSON: Yes. Maybe…talking therapy may be conducted by other people, IS being conducted by other people. I hope it’s not lost in the psychiatric profession. I don’t think it will be. Is it possible that it will be? Absolutely. But will it be lost as an insight? No. It’s too important an insight into the human mind. The human mind really is organized in terms of development, social life, goals, and I see a great part of this as being constructed in terms of fantasy. There’s no way to get at that through a drug. So therefore I think that it will remain.

HEFFNER: If you have to make the bet, would you bet that fantasy will be in the, in the…ah…modalities of treatments offered by people other than the psychiatrists and the medically trained?

PERSON: Oh, sure, fantasy is part of what you do…even with drug therapy. People have fantasies about the drugs they are taking. People have fantasies about coming to doctors. So there is no way that you can be a good doctor and not deal with that. The fantasy of the magical cure, walking into your office and somebody will give you the pill and you will be totally changed. Or the fantasy that somebody has of walking into your office and they will be destroyed, that you are the enemy, etc., etc. Or that you will be great friends, collaborators, whatever it is. The very context of therapy develops within the context of the fantasy that the patient brings into the room.

HEFFNER: Are there those who feel that the emphasis you place on fantasy is misplaced?

PERSON: If so, they haven’t told me. I think that people might talk about fantasy in other terms.

HEFFNER: Such as?

PERSON: Object relations theory. Self object representation and what the self wishes of an object. I like fantasy better as a term because it’s an experience where people know what you’re talking about and it describes not only a relationship but the desire nature of that relationship. So I think it’s a more descriptive and experience close word. I think it’s a richer word. It describes what is described in other terms in the field.

HEFFNER: You know, Dr. Person, I, I think back to our previous discussion, your previous book, and I want so much for you to draw a line that incorporates the two books.

PERSON: Well, one comes out of the other, there’s no doubt. This is an evolution out of the “Love” book. When I was writing the “Love” book, I figured out sometime after I wrote it that fantasy and imagination really were at work in two ways. One way is that I think that romantic love comes into the culture in troubadour culture. Not that people didn’t fall in love before then, but love was not permeated throughout the culture. There were cultures that your best friend was…if you were a man your best friend was a man. You had sex with your wife, but not intimacy. And the idealization that you usually have in romantic love was reserved for God. So that romantic love enters into the culture as an incorporation of a fantasy of bringing all of these subsidiary wishes together. More than that, but when you fantasize about who you fall in love with I think you have what H. G. Wells called “the lover’s shadow”, and I borrowed that word. I think you have a prototype of who you can fall in love with. You might not know it, but you see that person. And we get back to “across the crowded room”, and you say, “Ah, YOU’RE somebody I could fall in love with.” You say that unconsciously to yourself. And so that’s an imaginative construct that has been developing in you since the time you were little. So that imaginative construct is a fantasy. The “lover’s shadow” is a fantasy. So that when you fall in love, you really attempt to bring your fantasy into enough congruence with the real person. So having figured that out, that fantasy played such a big role in romantic love, in falling in love, and that romantic love itself was an imaginative innovation, I began to think, “Well, that’s interesting. That has to be significant in other areas of culture. There have to be other major, major watersheds where fantasy is so important.” So that’s how the “fantasy” book evolved out of the “love” book.

HEFFNER: And what are those other watersheds?

PERSON: Well, the watersheds…some are small and some are large. One that I found was the birth of effective Zionism in the fantasy life of Theodore Herzl. He was interesting because he was a Hungarian Jew who had moved to Vienna, who was an assimilationist, wanted to be a writer, but from earliest childhood had very active fantasies about saving the Jews. And he had…he started a diary at a certain point in his life and he put in retrospect fantasies and dreams he had had. One of the fantasies…the identifications…he had had a dream that Moses…there was a strong Moses identification as there was with Freud…then he had a fantasy about saving all the Jews in Vienna by leading them to St. Stephen’s Cathedral and they would all be baptized, and that would end the problem of anti-Semitism.

HEFFNER: He would stay outside…

PERSON: Absolutely. He would stay outside. Well apparently, although there is some dispute whether he actually saw Dreyfus or not…he was very affected by Dreyfus, Dreyfus who was charged with treason, who had been an assimilated Jew in the French army…and the idea that people were stripping his epaulets really disgraced…they were saying “death to the Jew”. They weren’t saying “death to the traitor”, they were saying “death to the Jew”. So apparently this very much changed the way Herzl thought. He thought “if this can happen…this is no solution. We’re going to march to our homeland, we’re going to take our homeland”. But he then saw this return to the homeland as political. What his originality was to see this as political, and he had many, many fantasies about how to affect this. But what’s interesting is when you talk about how the shared fantasy comes together…Viennese Jews thought he was out of his mind. They thought he was pompous, thought that he wanted to be King of the Jews, and were terribly scornful. The people who reverberated with him were the Eastern Jews who already had an ongoing dream of the Messiah, a Messianic return to the homeland. They were the ones, because they had this core, could respond to his fantasy of the political homeland. So you put the two things together. That’s a man whose fantasy life took him in the direction of a political solution and he found this reciprocal, hoards and hoards and hoards of Eastern Jews who could respond because of a cultural myth they had, had carried with them for so many years. That’s one of the, I think, smaller watersheds, smaller in the sense that in the fact that the State of Israel was created, and it gave a way out of this cultural bind. Before that, you could be an assimilationist Jew which didn’t quite work, or you could be a ghetto Jew, which didn’t quite work. There was no other way to go.

HEFFNER: Why do I have the feeling that you are now relating fantasy to mysticism?

PERSON: Well, they are related, but I’m really talking about a shared fantasy. I’m talking about how the fire in one man lights a fire in a group of people, and leads to cultural change. But fantasy is related to mysticism. It’s not the only thing related to it, but it is related.

HEFFNER: You say shared. It was the power of one man.

PERSON: Yes, but he found an audience who was receptive because of something they brought to the table. In other words, his fire did not light any fire in the hearts of Viennese and German Jewry. They thought, “This man is out of his mind. We want to go the assimilationist route. Why does he want to take us out of culture? He wants to march us off to some arid desert. He’s out of his mind”. He had to find some that had a dream, that could respond to what his message was.

HEFFNER: “Out of his mind”. How much of fantasy is out of ones mind?

PERSON: How do you mean that? Out of one’s conscious mind or crazy?

HEFFNER: That’s a fair question. I must admit that I’m thinking more of…I wouldn’t have used the word “crazy” but okay…

PERSON: No, I don’t think fantasy is crazy at all. I see fantasy as a metaphorical, symbolic way of realizing a wish. And what makes someone a great fantasist or innovator is that they can organize it in a way that someone else hasn’t been able to do.

HEFFNER: And when many other people have not been able to do it, but many people respond, doesn’t that make you somewhat uneasy about the irrationality involved in this?

PERSON: Well, irrationality is involved in our lives. I end up saying about fantasy, I’m a great advocate of fantasy, but I say that these fantasies are really cultural mutations. They are to culture as biological mutations are to biological evolution. That some of them are wonderful and take us further along an evolutionary path towards the good or whatever, others can be lethal to our very lives. And this is true not just in biology but those occur in cultural mutations. So the fantasy in the shared fantasies process, whether it turns out to be for good or evil, is a matter of cultural judgment, case by case. I’m talking about a major process that moves us individually, moves us in terms of shared partnerships, and also culturally. It may be good, it may be bad.

HEFFNER: You put a lot of emphasis upon shared fantasy in this way.

PERSON: Oh sure, because it’s only by sharing it that the internal gets externalized, becomes a part of the external reality. You see, even if you tell someone your fantasy, it becomes part of the real world in a different way than if it’s just in your head.

HEFFNER: But sharing it seems to imply something else, seems to imply leadership, seems to imply a leader and those who respond.

PERSON: Well, the artist-prophet. I would put Herzl in the category of artist-prophet. And Jacob Arlow, who’s an analyst, who’s written about this, has called him “mid-wife to humanities’ dreams” which I think hatches the sense that in some way he can crystallize what’s going on in a certain moment of time. One can certainly say that for Germany, unfortunately, Hitler was an artist-prophet who solved a terrible social dilemma and who led the world to the brink of catastrophe, but the same dynamics are at work.

HEFFNER: Ethel, I, I…I was afraid you might have been offended if I mentioned Hitler.

PERSON: Not in the slightest.

HEFFNER: When you mentioned Herzl, I couldn’t help but think about Hitler.

PERSON: Totally. But look, I write about the…I write about the army that never demobilized after the First World War that came, ah, the backbone eventually of the S.A. They were operating around a military culture that shared fantasy and Hitler was able to enter into that, so to speak.

HEFFNER: Does it end up frightening you more than anything else?

PERSON: Well, I’m not frightened, I’m an observer. And I would…ah…you say “are you a political activist?” A political activist against a shared fantasy that I thought was taking us down a treacherous path. But how can you look askance at cultural evolution? It’s a fact of life.

HEFFNER: But you look askance at the participants.

PERSON: Yes. You can look askance at it case by case, but you can also stand back and look at the mechanics of it. If you look at the mechanics of it you have a better chance of impacting on it in a certain kind of way.

HEFFNER: Let’s share our fantasies in just a bit, but right now our program is over. But thank you so much for joining me today, Ethel Person.

PERSON: Thank you.

HEFFNER: 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.