Joyce McDougall, supervisor and friend

The author shares his memories of a mentor, colleague, and dear friend, and describes her respectful, generous and thought-provoking approach to psychoanalysis

By Isaac Tylim

Before computers and e-mail, before consultation by Skype or phone, there was in-vivo consultation with foreign analysts. Visitors from Europe would come to New York City for a sojourn, open a temporary office at a colleague’s suite or midtown hotel, and keep busy discussing clinical material with domestic analysts who were eager for a fresh reading of some of their ongoing cases.

I met Joyce McDougall in the early 1980s, at the inception of what would become her recurrent visits to the Big Apple. My contact person was a French-born analyst, a resident of New York City, who facilitated these meetings by managing Joyce’s demanding schedule.

The study group of which I was a part at the time was focusing on the topic of perversions. To the extensive reading list that included pioneering works by Freud, Stoller, Kahn, and Chasseguet-Smirgel, among others, we added Joyce’s Plea for a Measure of Abnormality. The book generated numerous questions and heated discussions as to what was to be considered a perversion. Joyce challenged the existing boundary between normality and abnormality in sexual and gender development. Her pioneer contributions had a profound impact in our field, and Plea continues to nurture lively debates in analytic circles.

Moreover, the sexual revolution, the feminist movement, and the DSM dropping homosexuality from the category of perversions made it necessary to expand theoretical horizons. Consulting with the author who was attempting to make distinctions between perversions and what she termed “neo-sexualities,” seemed to meet our needs as clinicians and theoreticians. Accordingly, a meeting with Joyce McDougall was scheduled for us. It was to occur at the Manhattan hotel where she stayed and did her work.

After a short wait in the Beaux Arts–style Algonquin hotel lobby, we headed upstairs to her suite. A vivacious, smiling woman, elegantly dressed with a diaphanous scarf around her neck, opened the door. She made us feel welcome from the start, and after we presented clinical vignettes she proceeded to share her views.

One of the cases offered by a colleague was that of a man addicted to pornography who would spend hours roaming the seedy porn shops on 42nd Street (decades before Mayor Giuliani sanitized it by transforming it into Las Vegas on the Hudson). Joyce was asked, “When would such behavior be considered adaptive or normal? When would it become abnormal?” She replied, “This man is defending himself against narcissistic wounds. It may be impossible for him to accept the painful realization that he can’t have it all and be it all—penis, vagina, man, and woman.”

During that memorable two-hour consultation, another of the clinical vignettes was about an analysand suffering from a psychosomatic disorder. Joyce’s understanding of how the body signals rather than symbolizes affects led to a most stimulating revision of previous psychodynamic formulations on the relationship between body and mind.

I had only recently completed psychoanalytic training at the time, and was still searching for my own analytic voice. Soon after meeting Joyce, I decided to seek supervision from this New Zealander, who via London and Paris was becoming L’enfant terrible of the analytic world. My own work with analysands suffering from psychosomatic conditions made it a perfect time to acquaint myself with new lines of psychoanalytic discourse on this important connection.

From Joyce I soon learned that the body of my ulcerative colitis patient was “going crazy” so that his mind would be protected from disorganization. In a short time she tapped into my countertransference to those patients who presented themselves in an affectless manner. My boredom or sleeplessness was an instrument that could be used to gain access to the patient’s inner states. Joyce encouraged me to help the patient to waken the dormant “monsters” so that they could overcome pervasive alexithymia and began to fantasize and dream. Joyce guided me from the unsymbolized domain of psychosomatics to that of symbolic representation, from body symptoms to affects and the words that accompany them.

A listener par excellence, she managed to convey in supervision a nonjudgmental acceptance of the material as well of my interventions. One felt totally free in her presence, devoid of institutionalized transferences or theoretical alliances. Moreover, she displayed a unique ability to address technical matters without embellishing them with dry conceptualizations.

Like Freud, Joyce derived her theory from direct, clinical contact. Her understanding of complex issues was conveyed in an entirely accessible way, and above all, it never felt as though her ideas were being handed down from of an analytic ivory tower.

Her papers and books leave no doubt that Freud, English object relations, and French psychoanalysis (Laplanche, Lacan, Green, and the Paris psychosomaticians) informed her work. Yet unlike some of her French colleagues whose writing style was somewhat alien to English readers, Joyce’s was clear and direct, like the way she supervised. Her elegant conceptualization invited either reader or supervisee to a safe and ever-enriching forum.

I was profoundly affected by her always respectful and generous attitude. Her truly original and thought-provoking approach made for an atmosphere in which my own creativity was invariably stimulated. Over the years our professional relationship was complemented by a special friendship that developed gradually in the course of several meetings at conferences here and abroad.

Of all my memorable encounters with Joyce, I cherish most the last time I saw her in Paris, her adopted city. The year was 2004. She insisted on meeting at her apartment shortly before sunset. Her intention was to surprise my wife and I with a view of Paris from her favorite restaurant not far from her home. It was one of those long June evenings when the sun seems reluctant to set, and Paris feels like the proverbial moveable feast.

We took a stroll on the lovely Rue Quinquinpoix, a narrow medieval lane not far from our destination, the Centre Pompidou. Les Halles, site of the traditional central market of Paris, was crowded with young and old, musicians and street performers from diverse cultures. Bursting with energy, Joyce appeared to know all of her neighboring street vendors and shopkeepers.

The restaurant, George, was at the top of the Centre Pompidou. The room, a big glass box with the City of Light as its background, felt magical. Upon Joyce’s arrival, the maître d’, sommelier, and waiters rushed to her, kissing her right and left, and often even a third time—as the French are known to do. She didn’t have to ask for the best table; it was ready for her. “You’ll see,” she anticipated, “in about 45 minutes Paris will shine. Look for the Eiffel Tower all lit up.” Then without consulting us, she ordered champagne rosé. The glasses were uncannily replenished for the duration of the meal.

Between sips of this most delicate rosé and morsels of delicious French cuisine, personal and professional anecdotes abounded. Joyce shared stories of her upbringing in New Zealand (which she described as a beautiful country, “But oh so boring!”), her family of origin, and her analytic training in England and Paris. Anna Freud, Andre Green, and many others joined us at the table through Joyce’s vivacious way of invoking them either in English or French.

It was very touching and not a little saddening to hear her say that, due to health reasons, she may not be able to travel again as she used to (“My New York days are over”). But she made a point of stating that life was still good. She was still working at the time, seeing only analytic patients five times a week.

There is no question but that Joyce’s joie de vivre was always the center of her being. Her love for life was communicated to everyone she knew—analysands, supervisees, colleagues, and friends.

Toward the end of the evening, when the conversation returned again to the thorny issue of what is normal and what is pathological or abnormal, she asserted, “Isaac, normal is someone that you don’t know very well.”

Those who have had the privilege of being close to Joyce McDougall must consider themselves extremely fortunate.