by Calla C. Jo, LP, LCSW, Director, CHD
May 28, 2019
Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation: On the Social and Psychic Lives of Asian Americans (RMRD) is a rare text. It treads unexplored ground as well as synthesizing topics that have yet to be put together in psychoanalytic literature. Asian American history, social theory, and critical race theory is weaved into a text that repurposes older ideas into current times. Freud’s melancholia is not thrown out as unrelatable or irrelevant, rather it is repurposed as a social phenomenon that affects a class of people.
While psychoanalysis historically examines the individual and family unit, sociological studies, including race studies usually examines the group, the data produced by the group, and the legal and historical reasons for movements within large groups. RMRD sets out to explore not just the mother, but the motherland, not psychoanalytic theory as it applies to a case, but as it potentially applies to a class.
The ideas are big and the case presentations are personal. Freud, Winnicott, and Klein’s ideas are referred to, among others, and the specific theories referred to are summarized clearly and succinctly. The chapters in RMRD take turns from the theoretical to the clinical. Authors David L. Eng and Shinhee Han have known each other for 25 years, and although one chapter appeared about 19 years ago in another form in a psychoanalytic journal, their friendship and observations have slowly come together in what has been observed both in the classroom and in the therapy office for decades.
In book presentations / readings Eng and Han describe the clinic and the classroom as two privileged opportunities to observe the students. Han has worked in five different university clinics and Eng is a humanities professor. They describe that a white student may seek therapy when their pain / depression / anxiety is somewhere between a 4 or 6 on a ten point scale. But an Asian student is often at a ten or beyond, having been forced to the clinic by a concerned professor or resident advisor. Many cases of Asian students have gone too far to be appropriate for outpatient mental health care. In the case of African American students, they are rarely seen in the clinic. Han wonders if it is because they do not see the clinic as a space in which they belong.
Han is a Korean American with a slight accent which betrays her status as having immigrated to the US at a young age (1.5 generation). She offers a patient the choice to conduct their sessions in Korean or English. She is, at a glance, Asian. While working with this patient, Han becomes pregnant, and her swelling abdomen becomes another non-verbal disclosure which gathers symbolic importance in the case discussed.
Therapists of color do not have the luxury of certain aspects of self-disclosure. We are what we are, and one looks reveals to the viewer something. People of color experience living in our skin differently than people perceived to be white; few people in the majority can begin to comprehend emotionally, although an intellectual understanding is a start.
As a fellow Asian American therapist and person of color, reading Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation felt a little bit like coming home to something familiar but new in its juxtapositions, both exciting and familiar. I certainly cannot guess how it will read to majority readers, but my guess is that it will be both engrossing and enlightening.
by Lori Gottlieb (Author)
Another book, MYSTTS, distills the theory of how psychotherapy works for a lay audience. This time, the theory is cushioned by magazine style short chapters bouncing between the author’s patients and her own therapy. Gottlieb’s frank disclosures and honesty are stunning to read, from the perspective of a therapist, but are syntonic with today’s bare-all society.
It was a fascinating exercise to read this book and wonder how her patients feel about her candor, her vulnerabilities and insecurities laid bare. How might a prospective patient feel after reading this? Would they be drawn to work with her? Would they be repulsed? Will she be working with new patients who have read the book in a new and different way?