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Who Loves Ya, Baby?

THE BIRTH OF PLEASURE, By Carol Gilligan, Alfred A. Knopf. 256 pp. $24

July 28, 2002|TERRY CASTLE | Terry Castle is the author of the forthcoming "Boss Ladies, Watch Out! Essays on Women, Sex and Writing."

Reading about other people's therapy sessions is even more boring than having to listen to your friends' long and moronic dreams. In a dream narrative there's usually a bit of comic phantasmagoria to mull over for a second or two. ("And then I saw my cat wearing underpants! Then he turned into Calista Flockhart--with polka-dot fur! Then there was an avalanche and my father--no, it was really George Bush!--made me do a nude hip-hop dance in the snow!") You muster the requisite po-face and nod politely, even as the dreamer blathers on, agog over the Deep Symbolic Meaning of It All.

The therapy narrative, however, would seem to be inherently stupefying. Here's feminist psychologist Carol Gilligan, former professor of gender studies at Harvard and author of the influential "In a Different Voice" (1982), describing (in "The Birth of Pleasure") a session with "Dan," a hopelessly dreary computer scientist who comes with his wife "Jude" for couples counseling at the Cambridge Family Institute:

"Looking at the sullen man sitting across from me, I think of a child who feels unseen and unappreciated. He's holding out, I suspect, and I wonder why. Dan loved his mother as a young boy. He saw the human face behind the mask she wore and also her wish not to be seen. I find myself wondering whether out of love for her, he moved away from her so as not to see her. Did he sacrifice his relationship with his mother out of his love for her? And was he waiting for someone to see his sacrifice and appreciate his love?"

Gee, professor Gilligan, you may be right! But let's hear more:

"In moving away from his mother, he was protecting himself from her abandonment of him (putting on her mask, hiding her face) and also from her anger and her sadness. But in closing himself off from her, he was also protecting her by not seeing what she did not want people to see (her anger, her sadness, her imperfection), distancing himself from her so as not to blow her cover. In this, he had been a loving son. I say this to Dan, and Jude's face changes, softens; she moves closer to him and starts to cry. Dan feels present for the first time."

Dan may be present, but the intelligent reader is half asleep. Who cares about this stone-faced nincompoop? "Sons and Lovers" this ain't.

There are many such vignettes in "The Birth of Pleasure," Gilligan's new study of "love and the forces that stand in the way of pleasure." The vignettes all seem to involve uptight upper-middle-class "couples in crisis" and their offspring. The kids have fashionable Baby Gap names such as Zoe, Gabe, Emma and Jake. (No one is ever called Myrtle, Ty-Ree, Devonne or Spud in these kinds of books.) The adults are all deeply mopey, having fallen prey--husbands and wives alike--to what Gilligan calls the "trauma of patriarchy." The trauma of patriarchy--a term she never explains--is what makes little boys of 5 or 6 reject their mothers, hanker after AK-47s and "conceal those parts of themselves that are not considered to be manly or heroic." In girls, says Gilligan, the trauma hits later, at adolescence, when they realize--ka-boing!--that the world is ruled by "the law of the Father." The law of the Father, in a nutshell, says that girls are not allowed to do fun things, like have wild sex or eat a lot. So girls learn to hide their desires for pleasure and intimacy--for the "full openness and vulnerability of relationship"--and then get hitched up to dopey emotionally stunted men. Everyone ends up "dissociated" and boy, is that bad.

Yet Gilligan sees a way out of the "parched desert" of human relationships under patriarchy. The key to psychic health is internalizing a new "myth of love"--one that undoes the hoary old structures of "male domination" and repairs "longstanding ruptures between people and between nations." Gilligan's already got the perfect one picked out for us: the fable of Cupid and Psyche from "The Golden Ass," a 2nd century work by the Latin writer Apuleius.

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