Psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic psychotherapy in Dublin

(first published in the APPI Review, peer journal of the Association for Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy in Ireland, Autumn 2009; also available at the author’s website:

Roudinesco on Lacan, Jones on Freud, Storr on Jung… many of us have one or more of these tomes on our shelves, literary and symbolic homages to our professional iconography. We bear a burden of transference, to the founding Fathers – and Mothers (Hail, Melanie and Hermione!) – of our craft, to the wisdom and words of previous generations. Their experiences inform ours: clinically, culturally and personally. History begets the future. Or maybe itʼs just curiosity… Schadenfreude, anyone?

At first glance, Michael Murphyʼs memoir is indeed a formidable narrative. Its title ʻAt Five in the Afternoonʼ refers to the traditional time of the bullfight, the intrepid matadorʼs appointment with destiny. The legend underneath the title reads ʻMy Battle with Male Cancerʼ, emphasising this fatal theme. I was not unaware of Michael Murphyʼs treatment for cancer; I had heard his interview on radio during last year. I welcomed his candid account of the post-surgical complications and I cringed in sympathy with him at Derek Mooneyʼs brutal question “Is there lead in your pencil?” (on RTE Radio 1).

In todayʼs ʻFix-Itʼ economy, we are all complicit in an adamant refusal to consider the potential unwelcome consequences of exigent medical treatments. We use words such as ʻcureʼ, ʻfightʼ, or, as Murphy has chosen, ʻbattle.ʼ We nod numbly as the experts cite percentages and other fate-directed calculations but denial remains a subtly seductive refuge. The die has already been cast; our number has already come up; what could the chances be of further annihilation at the hands of destiny? But, as Murphyʼs experience here stipulates, cancer breaches the psycheʼs defences as easily as it does the somaʼs.

Murphy has written a poignant, moving memoir. He has woven language and heritage together to create a lyrical quilting of his suffering. As Schopenhauer wrote: ʻIf the immediate and direct purpose of our life is not suffering then our existence is the most ill-adapted to its purpose in the world.ʼ

Limited only by language, a limit he assails with verve and erudition, Murphy details the almost limitless suffering of the human condition. The language is frequently other, with Spanish, Latin, Irish, French and German references sprinkled throughout the narrative. As such, it mimics the analytic discourse of the other in its random associations, the metaphor-laden ʻas-ifsʼ and ʻwhat-ifsʼ.

This is a deeply personal account uttered in a public forum and it is as his public persona that he writes: the newsreader of 35 years, now broadcasting the news of his own life-or-death battle. He depicts a Mayo childhood marked by abuse and exclusion. He is the second of his motherʼs sons to have cancer and he still grieves for that brother who took his place at their fatherʼs table.

He introduces his alter ego, the analyst, his professional anonymity one more of the objects to be lost. The chapters split the narrative into themes, objects, relations, signifiers. Each separate battle with loss – a father, a brother, a friend, innocence, sexuality – charts a series of real, symbolic and imaginary woundings. Each anecdote marks another cut: family, seminary, surgery.

Of course his relation to his cancer is an Imaginary one; the scars and post-surgical incontinence are felt as an imaginary wounding, a narcissistic injury. His battle with male cancer has forced him to address his own male-ness as he re-lives his relation to male ideals: father, brother, abuser, lover, analyst.

He speaks at length of his own experience in analysis with a series of analysts: Freudian, Jungian and Lacanian. It was unsettling to read this chapter. Maria Cardinaleʼs anonymous ʻlittle doctorʼ in “The words to say it” is replaced here by the named analysts. My discomfiture at his disclosure of his analystʼs name, and of himself as analysand on the couch, surprised me. ‘Le sujet supposé savoir’ is replaced by ‘le sujet appelé’; the pages are invested with the phallic signification of a name… This is a de-idealisation that Murphy challenges me to share: a rending of the mask that privileges the analystʼs anonymity. I wondered what his analysands must have felt, reading through these self-disclosures.

In his analysis, he identified his lifelong attraction for ʻnegative attentionʼ, for ʻhumiliationʼ, the image he had of himself as a ʻscapegoat.ʼ Perhaps it is this which compelled him to publicise his ʻmutilationʼ, his post-surgical emasculation. This book is a series of radical ʻcutsʼ – by analysts, by colleagues, by family and friends, each one named as fully complicit. Perhaps, for Murphy, this naming knots up the Real and the Imaginary in a Symbolic invocation.

There are names throughout the book: people, places, pets. Of course, for the reader its attraction lies in the names that evoke a powerful transference reaction, names such as Cormac Gallagher, former course director at St. Vincentʼs, names such as APPI. Is APPI mentioned anywhere else outside of the rarefied atmosphere of its own publications? I confess to a certain panicked reaction on discovering the chapter about Murphyʼs presentation of papers to the APPI Congress in 2004. His description of that unfortunate experience depicts an organisation in chaos. What he perceived as the sadistic projections of APPI that day were another manifestation for him of the rejecting Other of his childhood: once more, a transference on a lacking, inconsistent Other.

The missing character in this narrative is Murphyʼs voice; this is a book that demands a soundtrack. Radical prostatectomy notwithstanding, Murphy has gone back to broadcasting and his voice can be heard, once more reading the news, a solemn invocation. “I embrace my listener all over with my voice and capture them. Itʼs a seduction,” he writes. At times, I found the text overlong and it occurred to me that Murphy has been seduced by his own voice in this book, in his self-revelations here and in his extraordinarily frank interviews on radio and TV.

It is tempting to analyse this book and, consequently, this author. Perhaps it is what is expected of this review: a diagnosis of the author as neurosis; a reduction of his narrative to a set of signifers. That would be a cut too far, I believe. Notwithstanding his many years in analysis, there is suffering yet and his voice resonates with that suffering through this narrative, articulating it in an outpouring of the drive as parole. Murphyʼs book is an admirable attempt to resolve his current symbolic impasse, the product of what he refers to as ʻsixty years of dammed-up internalisations.ʼ