Sexualities Lost and Found: Lesbians, Psychoanalysis, and Culture (Book Review)

Author: Gould, Edith and Sandra Kiersky (Editors)
Publisher: Madison, CT: International Universities Press, 2001
Reviewed By: Nina Williams, Summer 2002, pp. 49-51

Sexualities Lost and Found: Lesbians, Psychoanalysis, and Culture is a collection of essays edited by Edith Gould and Sandra Kiersky (International Universities Press, 2001), scans a panorama of views on not just lesbianism, but culture, psychoanalysis, and the interdependencies among all three of these freighted terms. This collection captures what is both difficult and exciting about these topics: every fragment of any sentence about the connections among lesbianism, culture, and psychoanalysis can be, and is, parsed differently in each essay. The reader who is looking for the definitive word on what lesbianism means, how psychoanalysis understands it, and how culture shapes our perspective will finish this book knowing that these are unanswerable questions for those looking further than the glib reply, but intrigued by the range of the authors’ ideas.

The editors begin by noting “an appalling blindspot in the literature” regarding the existence of lesbians as consumers and providers of psychoanalysis. Kiersky and Gould’s first effort at filling in the blank spaces was a special issue of Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy, the journal of the Psychoanalytic Institute of the Postgraduate Center for Mental Health in 1996. The first six essays in this collection are from that special issue. They have been supplemented with another ten papers, which together describe the “subversion and reemergence of lesbian experience as it is actually lived” (xii). Authors are teachers, clinicians, and academics.

The editors note that a literature on postmodern deconstructions of lesbians has been established by Butler (1990), O’Connor and Ryan (1993) and Domenici and Lesser (1995), but add to their collection some clinical voices as well. Glassgold and Iasenza’s 1995 book also brings a strong treatment orientation to the subject. One way to read this book is to use it as a source for various ideas on conceptualizing and working clinically with lesbian populations; its scope in this regard is wide, including essays on parenting (Glazer), infertility (Bassin), sexuality (covered by several authors), community dynamics (Shumsky), clinicians (Crespi), musicians (Sand), and poets (Richards). The depth of these contributions varies from the informative survey to the more searchingly analytic, and the focus from particular to lesbian subjects to more generally theoretical.

Another way to read this book is to see it represent the struggle in psychoanalysis to distinguish between surface and depth, between theoretical authority and postmodernist unpacking of such topics as identity, definitions of desire, and revisiting the finding that an initial figure drawing of a male figure is more common among lesbian subjects. The authors pursue Castle’s (1993) “apparitional lesbian”—the barely glimpsed figure who haunts analytic discourse and seems oddly disconnected from the women-loving-women we encounter in that world and beyond it.

The first essay of the book may arouse the quickest attention for the reader of the contents. This contribution, by Joyce McDougall is referenced in a number of the papers that follow as evidence that classical psychoanalysis has softened its pathologizing of lesbians. McDougall is also the author of a paper cited repeatedly in this literature, from i(1980), that famously described lesbians as perverse, overidentified with father, and in hot pursuit of mother. McDougall’s case examples in that paper were extremely disturbed women, some virtually nonfunctioning, which critics have pointed out leaves the impression that primitivity and lesbianism were inevitably paired. In short, it is easy to see why a rethinking on the topic by McDougall arouses so much interest.

And McDougall is openly rethinking in this paper, not apparently interested in gathering evidence to support any particular theory, respectful of her high functioning patient’s life choices and judgment, and open to gaining clinical material that directly contradicts her earlier conclusions. In fact, she acknowledges that “my increasing experience, both with my ongoing self-analysis and with many lesbian analysands, led me to conclude that the generalizations I had made in my 1980 paper were inappropriate and applied only to the analysands quoted in that paper” (pp.3-4).

The case itself illustrates an entirely different dynamic in the family, which may interest analysts curious about the diverse histories of sexual minorities. Rather than being an exuberant tomboy, the patient had to fight to assert her femininity in the face of parents who had hoped for a boy to replace a son they had lost two years before. Although her mother was certainly a part of her erotic vocabulary (as she is for so many heterosexual people of both genders, as well), the patient replaced her father as her mother’s emotional caretaker, an intense relationship that was not primarily erotic. The patient completes one prize-winning novel during the treatment and begins another, works through the end of a long relationship and initiates a healthy new one, and develops a profound empathy for those people in her life who had mistreated her. In short, it would be impossible to pathologize this woman, and McDougall clearly admires her. The analytic literature needs more cases like these and clinicians willing to report on changes in their thinking with experience. Teachers who assign McDougall’s earlier paper should find assigning this one as well will illustrate a great deal about what has changed in the past thirty years.

All of the articles in the book are worth a read, and there are several very good ones, which not only report on the current status of discourse on the topic, but also propose fundamental shifts in perspective on key concepts. Kiersky’s Exiled Desire proposes that one cause of the isolation and fear that many lesbians experienced early in life is that lesbian desire in young girls is not noticed, mirrored, and explained by an attuned mother. This results in a sense of unreality: “Put simply we felt real because our experience is responded to as real and because we are not left alone with our feelings” (p. 29, italics in original). Her approach is relational and she singles out the restoration of a sense of reality as a crucial goal in the analysis. She addresses the difficult topic of erotic transference-countertransference, and writes that “there were times...when countertransferentially my responsiveness was less than optimal” (p. 39), an especially helpful illustration because the outcome illustrates the patient’s capacity to interpret the analyst’s behavior and for both to feel understood and valued even when neither is perfect.

Gould’s chapter on the homoerotics of the female dyad in psychoanalysis explores the possibilities when desire is given sociocultural and relational roots as well as biological ones. The author adds to the argument that categorical explanations of female desire may not accurately capture the range of women’s experience, not just the categories of hetero- or homo- but what Wrye and Welles (1994) describe as “all manner of sensual bodily fantasies in relation to the analyst’s body” (p. 35).

Drescher relates his work with a patient whose sexual orientation is different from his own from the perspective of an analyst who doubts that sexual orientation is “a meaningful clinical concept at all.” Contrast this with Arlene Kramer Richards’ effort to find a place for not only the category, but also Freud’s theory of the negative Oedipal phase. Although these radical disputes about the subject are mind-expanding, they inevitably draw one’s attention away from lesbians and toward what different epistemologies these writers bring to the task. There is no unifying theory, no commonly agreed upon vocabulary, and this splintering seems to exemplify the field. Drescher’s paper addresses many of the themes that relational and intersubjective writers sound on the topic of homosexuality: the limitations of categorical thinking, the patriarchal assumptions indivisible with our ideas of sexual desire, the effects of a largely heterosexual and closeted homosexual authorship on the literature, the complexity of object choice, the patient’s assumptions about the analyst’s sexuality and the consequences of these assumptions not being voiced or affirmed. These themes are explored in papers by Lesser, D’Ercole, and Schwartz as well. Lesser points out that assumptions that sexual orientation is always fluid are as dangerous to reify as assumptions that it is not, and Schwartz’s paper develops the idea that genital contact may not always be “the primary signifier of intimacy” (p. 228). Rather, “lesbian sexuality as theorized and practiced suggests an eroticism which allows for multiple identifications multiple positions of desire, and objects to reflect a polymorphously diverse sexuality” (p. 232).

D’Ercole investigates the relationship between gender identity and object choice when either analyst or patient approaches these entities as mutable, and the connection between them idiosyncratic. D’Ercole points out that some aspects of identity have a totalizing, structural quality while others are experienced as more performative, and that our theories regard these denser self representations as more mature and preferable. D’Ercole disagrees: “For me, gender and sexuality have become something that we do rather than something we are” (p. 192). She rightly points out that this new perspective raises questions not only about the nature of lesbianism but about our psychoanalytic focus on structure, development, and authenticity.

For the reader who wants a relatively straightforward example of how this new paradigm views lesbians, psychoanalysis, and culture, I’d suggest beginning with the final paper in the collection, A Postmoden Comparative Study of Figure Drawings of Lesbian and Heterosexual Women: A Ttribute to Ted Reiss and Ralph Gundlach, by Susan Iasenza and Sheldon Waxenberg. The authors repeat the familiar research into figure drawings and confirm that a significantly larger percentage of lesbians drew a male figure before a female figure, that ambiguous features were more common in drawings of women by lesbians, and that heterosexual women were significantly more likely to draw disconnected body parts in the female figure. The authors then proceed to offer postmodern interpretations of these findings to counter the traditional, more pathologizing explanations. For instance, they suggest that one does not necessarily reject feminine identification by exercising “more flexibility and diversity in the...expression of their sexual and gender identities and roles” (p. 289), and that ambiguity in drawings might suggest interest in cultural explorations of androgyny rather than confusion about femininity. Heterosexual women, who might particularly suffer cultural oppression about body image, are seen to express through bodily disconnections in their drawings a response to societal pressure that lesbians partially escape.

The authors conclude. “sexual identity, although inclusive of sexual object choice...includes sex role (masculinity-femininity) and sexual self-image (how the person relates to her sexuality), a complexity that defies categorization” (p. 290). Or, put another way, suggests a new universe of clinical exploration of how patients and analysts use these terms.

One major limitation to this collection is the lack of any cultural diversity, particularly given the editors’ interest in the impact of culture on lesbians and theory making. There are no contributions exploring racial or class factors, and even Crespi’s twenty-five year scan of the lesbian community refers only to the psychoanalysts within it. Certainly one critical result of the theoretical and cultural revolution in gay and lesbian acceptance is the need to explore and appreciate how historical and cultural influences vary for lesbians emerging from particular times and communities. One wishes as well for an effort to explain the inclusion of a few articles that seem to have very little to do with lesbians; although both are quite interesting (Donna Orange introduces intersubjective thinking on desire and Virginia L. Blum reveals the homophobia in Kohut), neither provides either theoretical or clinical focus on women.

Ultimately, however, one’s pleasure with this book may depend as much on one’s comfort with retiring the mantle of authority from the analytic wardrobe as to the contributions themselves. There is no small amount of frustration produced by the discovery that what one has assumed was bedrock reality is revealed as one’s defensive and wishful projections. It is never easy to gracefully surrender what makes one feel secure, especially when postmodern, intersubjective, and relational schools seem inevitably opposed to compensating the loss with a new set of explanations, categories, and traits.

Thus, although this book colors in some of the details of the “apparitional lesbian,” she remains ephemeral. This seems both cultural and inevitable: inevitable, because of this current suspicion of fixed categories and the natural reluctance to propose one; cultural because, despite this growing and useful counter-argument, so much of psychoanalysis seems at best ambivalent about lesbian existence.


Butler, J. (1990). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge.
Castle, T. (1993) The apparitional lesbian: Female homosexuality and modern culture. New York: Columbia University Press.
Domenici, T. & Lesser, R., eds (1995). Disorienting sexualities: psychoanalytic reappraisals of sexual identities. New York: Routledge.
Glassgold, J. and Iasenza, S., eds (1995). Lesbians and psychoanalysis: Revolutions in theory and practice. New York: Free Press.
McDougall, J. (1980). The homosexual dilemma. In: Plea for a measure of abnormality. New York: International Universities Press, pp. 87-139.
O’Connor, N. & Ryan, J. (1993) Wild desires and mistaken identities: Lesbianism and psychoanalysis. New York: Columbia University Press.
Wrye, H.K. & Welles, J.K. (1994). The narration of desire: erotic transferences and countertransferences. Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press.


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