A letter from the Santa Fe retreat

It is crucial at the inception of an action that may strain the ties that bind people that they be assured of the eventual restoration of calm and order

By William Fried

April 17 - April 18, 2012

The Division 39 board held a retreat for its members and the chairs of its committees on the Tuesday evening and Wednesday prior to the annual spring meeting in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The retreat began at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday with a plenary session at which the facilitator, Macario Giraldo, introduced himself and presented his credentials. He said that he was a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst trained at the Washington School of Psychiatry, where there is a strong program in group studies in which he participated both as a candidate and a faculty member. He added that he has had many years of experience facilitating groups such as ours. He then introduced his wife, Mabelle, as his cofacilitator, and described her qualifications: an art therapist by profession, she, too, has had extensive training and experience in conducting group events. Dr. Giraldo had been introduced to the board at its January meeting in New York, where he had asked the members to reflect on their experiences as psychoanalysts “at this time in your practice; at this time in your life; and at this time in the American culture” in preparation for the retreat.

The initial large group meeting was held in a spacious ballroom at the La Fonda Hotel. The chairs had been prearranged in an oval configuration, and people sat wherever they chose. The participants engaged in a lot of greetings and informal conversation, paying scant, if any, attention to the stipulated 5:30 p.m. start of the session. Several minutes beyond the planned starting time, when it seemed as though the group would not, itself, assume the responsibility for beginning to work, Macario raised his voice to request attention, and delivered the information about himself and his wife described in the first paragraph.

At this point, Henry Seiden observed that the oval described by the seating was far too large for comfortable communication, and he asked whether we might tighten it by removing some of the unused chairs and bringing the ones on which we were sitting closer together. There was some discussion of the problem this might pose for latecomers, but the group agreed that they could be accommodated whenever they arrived. Eventually the number of attendees totaled approximately 43, but a significant remnant arrived late.

A schedule had been distributed that specified, in addition to the sequence and timing of the meetings, how each participant would be assigned to one of four small groups, each addressing a different theme. Group A would deal with “Diversity and Generativity”; Group B with “Power and Authority”; Group C with “Psychologist- Psychoanalyst Identity Issues”; and Group D with “Practice and Survival.” There were 11 people assigned to Groups A, B, and C, respectively, and 10 to Group D.

Next, Macario directed that each group repair to one corner of the large ballroom. The groups accomplished this with little difficulty, although some stragglers had to be told where to go. Macario then indicated that he wished the groups to perform four essential exercises. The first, a demonstration of harmony, consisted of each group’s singing one note of a chord a third higher than the previous group. The result was a short-lived tetrad, akin to the sound typical of barbershop quartets, that apparently satisfied Macario’s requirement for a symbol of the participants’ harmonious inclinations. The second task involved an equally symbolic demonstration of anger and discord: Macario asked the attendees to scream as loudly as they were able and they obliged, albeit with somewhat less enthusiasm than might have been evinced by a less highly self-controlled sample of the general population. Macario’s third request was for an act that would show the participants’ ability to use wit and humor in their engagement with each other. Accordingly, he urged that everyone laugh heartily and aloud. Again, the group obliged. Finally, he instructed the retreaters to sing the tetradic chord a second time, apparently to express the confidence that, whatever the temporary disruptions caused by anger and wit, eventually, harmony would again prevail.

I was reminded of a short poem by Yeats called “The Lover’s Song”:

Bird sighs for the air,
Thought for I know not where, For the womb the seed sighs. Now sinks the same rest
On mind, on nest,
On straining thighs

It is crucial at the inception of an action that may strain the ties that bind people that they be assured of the eventual restoration of calm and order.

The initial exercise completed, the participants were directed to resume their previously heterogeneous positions in the oval of chairs. The facilitator now suggested that people speak spontaneously about their dreams, fantasies, and expectations regarding the retreat, but expressly prohibited any attempts at interpreting these. A long silence ensued, as often happens at precisely this juncture in every group experience I’ve ever attended that conforms to the model of a group relations, Tavistock, or T-Group event. Despite the avowed purpose of establishing a group culture by speaking of what comes to mind, people act—for all the world—as though they are shocked by the facilitator’s implication. They sit in thickening silence until someone ventures a remark.

In this case, the speaker was, appropriately enough, Bill MacGillivray, president of Division 39 and initiator of the retreat, the person who had persuaded the board it would be useful to have one and whose efforts mobilized and focused the board’s resources and energies for it. Bill briefly expressed his gratitude for having found a home in the Division, which answered his need to belong to a psychoanalytic organization that harbored many disparate tendencies under the unified purpose of sustaining psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic psychotherapy and supporting their growth. He spoke of feeling privileged to have risen, by degrees, to his current position of leadership.

A few others essentially echoed Bill’s focus on the importance and significance for them of Division 39 as a place in which they felt safe, welcome, and uniquely nourished. Laurie Wagner then remarked that, because there were people in attendance whom she did not know, it might be appropriate for everyone, in turn, to introduce themselves. There being no immediate objection, Laurie implemented her suggestion by introducing herself, appending a short summary of the various governance positions she has occupied, first in sections, then in the Division, and finally in APA. Apparently content to do likewise, the person next to her gave a similar recitation, followed by the person next to him. The process seemed on track to complete a circuit of the oval when Macario wisely—it seemed to me—shorted the circuit and urged that the group return to his original prescription that they share their dreams, fantasies, and expectations about the retreat.

Some members responded by describing dreams about the deaths of parents, and reconciliations with them, especially mothers. A few of the new, young people said that they were pleased to be members of the group. Marilyn Metzl asserted that she’d recently attended a presentation at which people spoke about how they got their names and that doing so had stimulated some fascinating discussion. A minute or two later, I announced that my name is “K,” a disclosure that surprised all those who, in my substantial tenure on the board, have known me as Bill. I explained that my mother wished to honor her deceased father by giving me his name but was deterred by his having been called “Kalman,” a name she felt was too foreign and oddsounding for an American child. Because it was his first name, however, her sense of protocol required that it be mine. Her compromise was to give me his first initial and a derivative of his middle name, “Wolf.” Thus, “Kalman Wolf,” by a tortured and ingenious effort at translation, became “K. William.” This situation, I continued, has consigned me to membership in a persecuted minority, those who are forever unable to complete any form that calls for one’s first name and middle initial, as what form does not?

It has also left me with a deep and enduring identification with the protagonist of Kafka’s novels whom the reader meets as simply “K,” long before we learn that his full name is Josef K. Like him, I harbor a profound mistrust of groups and organizations and did not hesitate to voice this to my fellow retreaters. To his credit, on hearing me say this, Macario endorsed its importance for a group that, until that moment, had shown little inclination to be critical of their shared experience.

My contribution was followed by those of others who spoke about their concerns for the retreat, the division, and the themes that they had been given to explore. At 7:00 p.m., Macario ended this introductory session and the group repaired to another room for dinner. The atmosphere was convivial, and unlike many group facilitators, Macario and Mabelle joined us for dinner and engaged with us quite spontaneously.

The next morning each of the four groups held a separate meeting in a prearranged location, their charge to discuss theme A, Diversity and Generativity. It will be noted that this theme had already been designated the responsibility of Group A, but, by the facilitator’s decree, was to be the focus of the initial meeting of all the small groups. These sessions were allotted an hour, after which a half-hour period of “reflection” was scheduled. Some participants requested clarification of the concept, and were told that people were at liberty to construe it according to their own interpretation.

What followed was a plenary session in which the configuration known in group parlance as the “fishbowl” was used. It consisted of two concentric ovals, the inner composed of Group A on one side and Group B on the other; the outer was likewise composed of Group C on one side and Group D on the other. Two members of Group A were asked to communicate their group’s findings to Group B, who were asked to respond to these communications with questions. The process was then reversed, with two members of Group B now sharing the findings of their group with Group A, whose members were to ask questions. Groups C and D, from their position in the outer oval, were given the task of commenting on the process they were observing in the inner oval.

The proceedings I have just described were repeated later in the day: small group meetings were followed by large ones in which the morning’s positions were reversed, with Groups C and D in the inner oval, and A and B in the outer. Lunch was served between 1:00 p.m. and 2:30 p.m., and there were half-hour periods of “reflection” between most meetings. The two facilitators, Macario and Mabelle, visited each of the small group meetings, making occasional observations and suggestions. At the final large group meeting, two representatives of each small group sat in the inner oval and conducted a dialogue with the others while everyone else sat in the outer oval. After this, all of the participants were asked to sit in a single large oval, as they had at the inception of the exercises the night before. In fact, there was a remarkable and, no doubt, deliberate symmetry to the entire structure of the experience, one that recalls the return to harmony after discord/ anger, and wit/humor.

During the final half hour, from 6:30 p.m. to 7:00 p.m., people shared their reactions to the retreat with considerable unanimity. They described feeling pleased with the substantive focuses and outcomes and gratified at the emotional and relational effects. Even those who’d expressed initial skepticism had changed their minds and now thought the idea to have been highly worthwhile. My first inclination was to be quiet, but in the end, I asked for the microphone and offered my opinion that the value of such a retreat tends to be a function of the degree to which the participants are willing to risk regression to get to the issues underlying the decision to have the experience. By this criterion, I said, the retreat was not a success. As after the comments I’d made about my name, Macario seemed to nod a confirmation.

But no one took up my dissent, and the working session ended in an ambience of harmony apparently deemed desirable, if I were to judge by Tuesday’s overture. The group left the ballroom for the more festive environs of a reception where they were able to eat, drink, and engage with each other nonprescriptively.

The very next day, Thursday, the Division 39 board held its regular all-day meeting beginning at 8:30 am in the Inn at Loretto, a locale separate from the La Fonda, where the retreat had taken place. Perhaps the planners had anticipated the advisability of interpolating an appropriate boundary between the two activities, or maybe it was nothing but a logistical desideratum. However that may be, the distance did not turn out to be sufficient to prevent contamination of the board meeting by the pathogens stirred up during the retreat.

Item 1 on the board’s predistributed agenda was “Welcome and Call to Order: Dr. MacGillivray.” Bill did call the meeting to order but then, in an extraordinary divergence from the agenda, proceeded to explain the meaning of his own name and to elaborate on the family circumstances that led to its being given him. His rationale for doing this, though not entirely clear, seemed to be to convey something of the diversity of his history and background. The “Summary of the Retreat” he sent to the participants afterward begins with an item that illuminates his intentions further, albeit retrospectively. He wrote,

  1. Diversity starts with the individual,
    with our stories: recognize our "individu- al" diversity and multiple identities.
  2. Have our stories, our journeys, part of our communications, not only of our
    " [quotation marks his].

Thus, he seemed motivated both to tell something of his story and to render it of equal importance to those of our “stars,” by which I presume he means the luminaries of our profession who have name recognition and are likely to draw crowds when they present at conferences.

Wittingly or not, he also gave tacit license and approval for the other board members to do likewise, and they did so unhesitatingly. No sooner had Bill finished his précis, than the person on his left began hers, and after hers that of the next person, and so on, until all of the 40-odd board members had given renditions of their own. Moreover, few of these equaled the brevity of Bill’s account: the narratives seemed rather to become longer with each successive person and finally leveled off at about two minutes each. By the time everyone around the conference table had taken a turn, the clock read 10:30 am, and nothing on the official agenda had been addressed.

Although the board then proceeded to attend to the items on its agenda with efficiency and dispatch, adjourning an hour earlier than scheduled, the singular and spontaneous event that had occurred first thing in the morning was barely mentioned either during the remainder of the meeting nor among board members who spoke with each other in the course of the conference.

Clearly, however, something momentous had happened, the more dramatic for the peculiar absence of analysis and elaboration that characterizes the intercourse of the members, both as a board and as psychologists/ psychoanalysts. It was as though they had enacted a conflict that could not be thought about or reflected on, and it had subsequently, stealthily, and quickly slid back under the radar of consciousness.

To some of my closer colleagues on the board I suggested that the universal sharing of personal data and experience that had taken place had been a response to unfulfilled hopes and expectations stirred by the retreat and that these had been largely unconscious. It was these to which I had referred in my comment at the final plenary session about the failure of the group process to provoke the degree of regression that is necessary to attain the optimal outcome for such an experience.

I should add here that I was not entirely surprised by Bill MacGillivray’s starting the board meeting by explaining the meaning of his name and the circumstances of his acquiring it, for he’d previewed this revelation in a remark to me over lunch on Wednesday. It was an apparent response to my discussing my own name at the initial plenary on Tuesday evening. I seem to have stirred a response in Bill that was of sufficient cogency to motivate his comment to me and, in the interval between it and the board meeting, to endow the idea with enough force to impel Bill to preempt the written agenda in order to give it voice and priority.

That the theme (thus carried from Marilyn Metzl’s mentioning the presentation she’d attended at which people spoke about how they’d gotten their names; to my speaking of my name; to Bill’s comment to me and then to the entire board, about his; and finally, all the board members’ explication of theirs) was names suggests that there was a profound, unmet need for recognition among the participants in the retreat. Why this would be so, and why at this time, are subjects for fruitful speculation.

One possibility is that the recent explicit emphasis on the recruitment and maintenance of a younger, more diverse membership to carry the work of sustaining and growing psychoanalysis into the future may have provoked a latent fear of effacement and loss of status among the majority of board members, an entrenched old guard. Another consideration is that many board members may harbor an unconscious envy for what Bill MacGillivray, in his summary of the retreat, referred to as the “stars” of our profession, whose names are instantly recognized because they are associated with records of achievement. As those responsible for the governance and structuring of the division, the board members might see themselves as an anonymous support system for the public platforms on which the “stars” make their acclaimed and well-attended appearances.

If the latter observation has any validity, it would derive from the oft-noted conflict between bureaucratic and charismatic predilections to which systematic attention was first drawn in the writings of Max Weber. The power and influence of charisma is rooted in an individual’s personal gifts and requires no official sanction or approval. The power and influence of bureaucracy is attained by such legitimate means as election and due process. Looked at in this way, people become “stars” by virtue of their gifts and need not answer to constituted authority, whereas constituted authority (in this case, the board) must answer to its constituency and uphold the structures of the organization. That tensions should exist between the two should come as no surprise. It should also come as no surprise that, for complex reasons, these tensions might be hidden.

At another level, we can recall that people who work closely together—as the board does—have difficulty when their underlying conflicts (which may be conceptualized as Bionian basic assumptions) are neglected. They can obstruct and sabotage the work of the group fatally if not addressed. The retreat should have had this objective, but instead it took the form of something conceptual and substantive, an intellectual defense of the sort that is entirely congenial for so highly intellectualized and intelligent a group.

In this situation, the need for recognition was the tip of the iceberg, only a precondition for the work of confronting the basic assumptions. Thus, the outpouring of personal material was an expression of the need to begin such a process, but also the implicit acknowledgment of the resistances to doing so and the absence of opportunity. It will be recalled that when Laurie Wagner had proposed and initiated a prototype of the personal go-around that later occurred at the board meeting, the process was curbed by Macario. He correctly foresaw that its continuation would have constituted a simulacrum of work that, in effect, would serve to delay and perhaps ultimately subvert the actual work of engagement to share expectations, dreams, and fantasies. During the board meeting, but more pointedly, at the retreat, the participants embodied the supreme irony of a group of psychoanalysts and psychoanalytic psychologists who do not want their resistances analyzed, or their unconscious conflicts exposed.

Parenthetically, I would surmise that as an experienced and sensitive facilitator and psychoanalyst, Macario must have gauged and been guided by the group’s disinclination for regression and exploration of underlying conflicts, and decided to respect the group’s implicitly conveyed limits. In this, he was acting the good analyst who defers in the face of strong resistance.

I’ve already discussed the theme of peoples’ names as it arose in the retreat and the board meeting. Another such pervasive motif was that of home. Among the attendees there was frequent reference to Division 39 as a place where people felt at home or, alternatively, where they had found a home in which they felt comfortable, welcome, and safe. The unspoken subtext to this theme is that home is the domain of family and that families are, at best, a mixed blessing. They frequently oscillate between function and dysfunction and their agendas are often occult. As a result, finding a home—even in asylum—is never without its own attendant perils. The danger derives from the tendency of those who view the second home as reparative of the first, to forget that conflict is as relational as breast-feeding. It must not be ignored that, after the Fall, the serpent, too, was expelled from Eden, to ply a profitable trade among the sons and daughters of man. Even those who believe that the Savior brought the wherewithal to expunge the effects of original sin are painfully aware that life after rebirth is just as fraught and treacherous as it was the first time around.

Another recurrent theme of the retreat was that of the death of parents, especially mothers. One possible interpretation of the material in which this theme was manifest is that the participants in the retreat, people for whom Division 39 holds a deep meaning as a home, also view it as an alma mater (a nourishing mother), and are afraid that it is dying. If, in fact, it is, the principal cause of death may be none other than the unconscious conflicts among its members that have become irreconcilable because they have been placed beyond the reach of intervention. Moreover, the board appears, unconsciously, to have conflated Division 39 with psychoanalysis itself, and so their fears for its demise are experienced as the peril of the imminent death of the entire field.

Division 39 is a group of people interested in psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis is, among other things, a methodology for gaining access to experiences of inner strife and conflict for the purpose of alleviating the strains, contradictions, self-delusions, and contortions of spirit that threaten to diminish and deplete lives. The board of an organization that represents such a praxis should, in my view, embrace the necessity to apply it to its own functions and operations. I think we have been remiss in doing so both during and after the retreat.

About the Author

William Fried is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst in addition to a photographer. Dr. Fried is a member and on the faculty of the Institute for Psychoanalytic Training and Research and is past president of Section 1 Division 39, Psychologist- Psychoanalyst Practitioners. He practices psychoanalysis and psychotherapy in Manhattan. He is a contributing editor of DIVISION/Review.