Without relationships there is no self

Memoirs and therapy are not self-indulgent

We think we are a self. Separate from the environment and other people. We even write memoirs about our so-called self, and go to therapy to unearth its hidden depths. But the self is not separate. We are made of our relationships with others, writes Elliot Jurist.


Memoirs are proliferating at an extraordinary pace. The genre has become emblematic of our time – revelry in the splendor of the almighty self. Something similar might be said about therapy. Yet memoirs and therapy are usually not just about the self – more often they are about fathoming relationships and refining the meaning of connections with others. This is especially evident in memoirs which discuss therapy, such as recent memoirs by Vivian Gornick, Alison Bechdel and Stephanie Foo. These books make clear that while memoirs and therapy are inescapably indulgent, they need not be self-indulgent.

After all, one can indulge others as well as indulging oneself. This captures what is true about memoir and therapy: although they might portend an orgy of self-gratification, they include a place for recognizing and gratifying others.

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The verb ‘indulge’ comes from the Latin, meaning “to give free reign to,” an appealing way to think about memoir and therapy and how they overlap. There is a fascinating ambiguity across dictionary definitions about whether to indulge means “to do and enjoy something pleasurable” or “to do something in excess” (or “to do something that is bad or unhealthy”). The latter definition involves a further ambiguity, between doing something in excess so that it becomes bad versus doing something that is inherently bad. This sinister aspect of indulgence likely stems from its religious appropriation as a vehicle to address sin: the Church could grant ‘indulgences’ to sinners, thereby reducing their punishment. While indulgence has an obvious link to going astray, the link to healing is unexpected, another way it is suitably applied to both therapy and memoir.

The difference between indulgence and self-indulgence becomes clear when we turn to memoirs that describe therapy. The three memoirists mentioned above all describe different ways that relationships define us and help us to know ourselves. All three focus on their relationships to their mothers.


And all three use memoir and therapy to help them avoid the self-indulgence of feeling like victims without agency, while giving free reign to their need to better understand their relationships with others.



In Fierce Attachments, the sense of safety that attachment can bring is counterbalanced by Gornick’s struggle with attachment that feels oppressive and causes resentment. Attachment might be a biological need, but that does not mean that it is always gratifying.

Gornick’s immigrant mother has high-minded aspirations but is also critical and frustrated by the limiting conditions for women at that time. Gornick’s father died when she was thirteen years old, resulting in her mother returning to work and mourning her husband interminably. The fierce quality of this attachment served as compensation for the loss, but led Gornick to seek separation as much as closeness.

Gornick’s world expanded when she left the Bronx to attend City College. She initially sought out therapy because of unhappiness in her relationships with men. Her experience in psychoanalysis was mixed. When she mused about feeling like a fugitive or illegal immigrant, without rights and always on the run, her analyst noted that marriage could enable her to become a native citizen: “Well, then, let’s get you married.” Gornick replied, “No, no, no. A thousand times no.” The analyst protested that she only wished to promote a balance of “love and work.” But Gornick was determined to be a writer and would not be deterred from pursuing a creative life.

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Alison Bechdel’s graphic art memoir, Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama, is about her struggle to contend with her complicated relationship to her mother, with the help of psychoanalysis. Are You My Mother? borrows its title from a children’s book, which conveys the infant’s search for connection and the wish for a response. A sense of disappointment that her mother was not invested enough in being close pervades the memoir. Bechdel’s mother makes a unilateral decision, for example, to stop kissing her goodnight at the tender age of seven. Whereas Gornick tried to find the right distance from her mother, Bechdel contends with her disappointed wish to be closer to her mother.

There are nice moments between mother and daughter – like the time that her mother offered to repair old jeans and invited Bechdel to choose the fabric. Bechdel is also aware that her mother sacrificed her career as an aspiring poet to take care of her family. Bechdel volunteers that her own “creative risk-taking” derives from her mother. Still, the latter’s homophobia tarnishes their relationship. Her response to receiving Bechdel’s first book of poetry, featuring her identity as a lesbian, was to ask if she might have published it anonymously.

Bechdel’s memoir blends her memories with what she has learned through psychoanalysis. Her first therapist, Jocelyn, was a warm figure who pushed Bechdel to recognize her anger at her parents, especially her mother. At one point, Jocelyn wonders what Bechdel’s mother learned from her own mother. Bechdel pursues this and receives the answer that “boys are more important than girls.” This is a transformative moment, as it allows Bechdel to appreciate the weight of internalized sexism that has infiltrated their relationship. It moves her to feel empathy for her mother, redefining their relationship, even though their painful history is hardly eradicated.

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Carol, Bechdel’s next therapist, encourages her to try the couch. They work together over a decade, and presumably longer. They discuss the “plexiglass dome,” a metaphor that Bechdel had already adopted to capture how her mother put up a barrier. Sometimes a “keep out” sign would be posted outside her door. In response, Bechdel leaned into a false self, pretending no longer to need her mother or anyone else.

Bechdel’s commentary on the psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott provides an additional level of complexity. She cites Winnicott as describing how less than optimal care for the infant from the caregiver results in “mental functioning becoming a thing in itself, practically replacing the good mother.” Added to this is Winnicott’s concern that prematurely relying on one’s own mind produces “a denial of dependence, a fantasy of self-sufficiency.”

Virginia Woolf and Winnicott are fancifully adopted as parental figures, and Bechdel even conjures an amusing image of them greeting each other in Tavistock Square, as Woolf walks her dog and Winnicott heads to see his analyst. Both Woolf and Winnicott are admired by Bechdel as feminists, with the twist that Woolf inspires her work as a writer while Winnicott provides the nurturing. Bechdel declares that she wished Winnicott was her mother, and that initially she thought “Winnicott” sounded like a woman’s name. Winnicott appeals to Bechdel, as he steered psychoanalysis towards a new emphasis on vitality and creativity, and the sense of being alive.

Bechdel is particularly struck by Woolf’s breakthrough moment, when she distanced herself from her mother, thereby opening the floodgates to write To the Lighthouse. Bechdel contrasts this with her own struggles with writing her book. By the memoir’s end, psychoanalysis has helped her evolve from feeling like a victim to taking responsibility for her life. Three words appear to her in a dream: “drive, thwart and laden.” She then glances into the mirror and declares: “I am the one whose drive is being thwarted” and “I am the one who is thwarting it.” Naïve critiques of therapy insinuate that it fosters self-indulgence and wallowing in victimhood. Here we witness the opposite: Bechdel recognizes what she failed to receive from her family, but it propels her forward as a creative agent in search of a more satisfying life.

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Stephanie Foo’s What My Bones Know is a saga of growing up in an immigrant, Asian family, and suffering mental and physical abuse at the hands of both parents. After being abandoned by her mother, she lives with her father, but ends up alienated from him. Her memoir focuses on reckoning with the diagnosis of complex trauma.

Foo was born in Malaysia to an ethnically Chinese family and moved to the United States aged two with her parents. Racial and cultural traumas are in the background: immigration, the Second World War (Foo’s family was forced to relocate to Japan under the Japanese occupation), and incarceration (her grandfather was arrested as the British attempted to stamp out the threat of communism). Foo identifies as American, but it is revealing that her memoir incorporates the history of her extended family.

Foo’s mother seems quite disturbed. She attacked Foo verbally and physically, and eventually walked out on the family. She returned briefly only to beat her daughter: “Something inside me closed toward her that would never open again.” Living with her father brought more trauma. He would drive recklessly, almost killing them: “At a certain point, your body gives up on wild, animal panic and instead settles into a foreboding calm. You accept the end. You lose hope. And then, with hope, goes sanity.”

Foo estimates having had ten therapists, including one whom she dubs, “Mr. Sweater Vest.” Her life changes after meeting Dr Ham, a psychoanalytic psychologist, the director of a childhood trauma clinic. He sees relationships as the source of patients’ issues but also as the solution through building a patient-therapist connection. Although she finds him confrontational, Foo comes to appreciate his honesty, integrity, and vulnerability. Ham helps her to question her tendency to misinterpret others and to accept that rupture and repair exist in all relationships.

Foo’s trust grows, and she characterizes Ham affectionately as a “disturbingly good listener” and as “naggy, and accidentally harsh, and Asian.” In just over three months, she says, Ham “change[d] my inner narrative from a hateful whip-bearing tyrant to a chill(er) surfer dude.” Although this seems flippant, Foo is documenting internal change. She adds, “there are two main differences now: I have hope, and I have agency. I know my feelings, no matter how disconsolate they are, are temporary. I know that regardless of how unruly it is, I am the beast’s master, and at the end of each battle I stand strong and plant my flag: I am alive, I am proud, I am joyful, still.”

A distinctive aspect of this therapy is that both parties agreed to audiotape the sessions, which Foo transcribed. Both patient and therapist then commented on the transcription, and discussed it in future sessions. This non-typical practice bore fruit. In seeing things from a “pleasant distance,” Foo says she was better able to take in what Ham was saying. She reflects on coming to terms with trauma, “mourning the childhood you could have had, not just what happened.”


Memoir and therapy might be indulgent, but they are not self-indulgent... they can even serve to make us less self-indulgent, by encouraging us to turn towards our relationships with others.


These three indulgent memoirs highlight how psychoanalysis helped the authors forge the determination to transform their lives. For Gornick, this means differentiating herself from her mother, which she does through tussling with her analyst and propelling herself as a writer. For Bechdel, understanding her relationship with her mother more deeply involves accepting the limitations of this relationship. Her idealizing invocation of Winnicott and Woolf fuel her determination to write her book. For Foo, there is a path from parental rejection to facing her painful history of trauma, and she finds a degree of compensation in the warmth and thoughtfulness of collaborative work with her analyst.

All three memoirists are feminists who come to possess a greater sense of creative and free agency through psychoanalysis. And all three use memoir and therapy to help them avoid the self-indulgence of feeling like victims without agency, while giving free reign to their need to better understand their relationships with others. Memoir and therapy might be indulgent, then, but they are not self-indulgent. Indeed, despite their dubious reputation, they can even serve to make us less self-indulgent, by encouraging us to turn towards our relationships with others. While indulgence gets a bad name, indulgence can be a healing force, where it involved bringing to consciousness the relationships that shape us. The self is not isolated. The self is not an island. We become, and are, our self through our relationships with others.

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