An Interview with Lynne Layton

Lynne Layton is a psychoanalyst in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and part-time assistant clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. Holding a Ph.D. in clinical psychology as well as comparative literature, she has taught courses on gender, popular culture, and psychoanalysis for Harvard’s Committee on Degrees in Women’s Studies and Social Studies. Currently, she teaches and supervises at the Massachusetts Institute for Psychoanalysis.

She recently published a book called Towards a Social Psychoanalysis: Culture, Character, and Normative Unconscious Processes and is the author of Who’s That Girl? Who’s That Boy? Clinical Practice Meets Postmodern Gender Theory (2004). She was also the co-editor of the books Narcissism and the Text: Studies in Literature and the Psychology of Self, Bringing the Plague: Toward a Postmodern Psychoanalysis, and Psychoanalysis, Class and Politics: Encounters in the Clinical Setting. Her involvement in editing peer-reviewed journals includes being the associate editor of the journal Psychoanalytic Dialogues and the former co-editor of the journal Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society.

She is the past president of Section IX, Division 39 of the American Psychological Association, Psychoanalysis for Social Responsibility, and co-founder of the Boston Psychosocial Work Group and Reflective Spaces/Material Places-Boston, a group of psychodynamic therapists committed to community mental health and social justice. She is also on the organizing committee for Grassroots Reparations Campaign, an organization working towards building a culture of repair.

In this interview, Layton discusses social psychoanalysis. She explores how her construct of “normative unconscious processes” can illuminate how oppressive systems are continually internalized and reproduced, both inside and outside the clinic.


The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the audio of the interview here.

Javier Rizo: Could you tell us your journey to psychoanalysis and specifically social psychoanalysis?

Lynne Layton: I was first a graduate student in comparative literature in my early 20s. One of the courses that I took was on intellectual history, and one day my instructor was talking about [Sigmund] Freud. The instructor recounted a story of Freud and his relationship with [Wilhelm] Fliess, specifically the latters’ theory of hysteria that located it in the nose and the sinuses. During that hour-and-a-half lecture, I had gone from feeling absolutely fine to having a serious cold by the end of the lecture. I had never thought of myself as hysterical before, but it had me wondering about unconscious processes and the close connection between the body and mind. I think that was one of the beginnings of my interest in psychoanalysis. After that, I remember wanting to be a comparative literature professor and then get some training in psychoanalysis.

The other really important piece of what interested me in psychoanalysis was all rooted in what I knew (and then began to realize I didn’t know) about myself. I was very involved in the feminist movement of the sixties when I was in college and beyond, continuing to be a feminist activist and interested in feminist theory.

I kept a journal for my first women’s studies course when I was in college. I talked about how I was not going to get married and wanted to have this career in comparative literature. By twenty-two, I was married, having to make several compromises in what I was able to do. The dichotomy between the talk I was talking and the walk I was walking got me wondering, “what are the processes that go on unconsciously that are working against what you think, consciously, you want to be doing?”

I happened to be at Washington University when I was studying comparative literature. A journal coming out of there called Telos, led by Paul Piccone, brought critical theory from Germany to an American public. They included figures from the Frankfurt School such as Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and a little bit of Erich Fromm. These were among the first folks who had an interest in putting together Marxism and psychoanalysis in the early 20th century. So we read those people who were bringing together the social and the psyche.

From the outset of my personal and intellectual journey, psychoanalysis was social. It was not just about the individual mind, but how it’s shaped by the social and political, historical currents that are going on. I think one of the other important things about these theorists for me was their focus on what binds people libidinally, attaches people to ideologies, and demands that they conform, working against their conscious wishes of what they want to be doing and thinking.


Javier: You mention your first entry was through comparative literature, and psychoanalysis is often found in English or literature departments, but I know you’re a practicing clinician as well. How did these understandings translate into the clinical realm?  

Lynne: I think that brings us to a significant historical reckoning. When I started training in psychology, I went to Boston University, and it was entirely psychoanalytic. I was not going into a program that was inimical to what I wanted to learn. That was in the 80s, when many, if not most, psychology departments were psychoanalytically oriented.

It was not more than ten, twelve, fifteen years later that the BU program and every other program in the country got rid of their psychodynamic orientation, coinciding with the beginnings of managed care and the elevation of “evidence-based” science. There was hardly any psychoanalytic training to be had on the graduate student level, and you had to go somewhere beyond to be able to get it. But, if you didn’t have experiences like mine where you started to realize your unconscious mind was working against your conscious mind, why would you think after your years of cognitive-behavioral work that there was anything else?

I remember a story from when I was teaching at this wonderful organization, the Boston Institute for Psychotherapy. It was one of the few places that offered low-cost, long-term treatment, and it was also a training program. I remember someone telling me that she had trained in a program in Ohio and had never heard of Freud or anything about psychodynamic work. Then, she happened to go to a lecture where somebody started talking about it, and she got so excited about it because it connected with something in her life. So then, she found the Boston Institute for Psychotherapy and was thrilled about it.

At Harvard, I taught a course in social studies on psychoanalysis and culture, and I had some psychology majors in the class. They told me that one of their professors had said psychoanalysis was a theory that started in 1870 and ended in 1970. So that was what was being taught in the 90s in the Harvard psychology department. This person said, “I wanted to take one course that was about people before I graduated, so that’s why I’m taking your course.”


Javier: You mention this move away in clinical psychology and psychiatry away psychodynamic models towards others that fit within a managed care context. I know you talk about neoliberalism in a lot of your work, so I’m curious about how this fits into your development as a psychoanalyst but also as a social psychoanalyst.

Lynne: Neoliberalism is not a word or ideology that’s talked about so much in psychology. I think part of this shift away from psychodynamic and psychoanalytic thinking is well-described in some of Sam Binkley’s work, a Foucault scholar and sociologist. People are encouraged not to look back into their history, taught that relationality isn’t as important as the development of your sovereign individual self, and that you’re supposed to look towards the future and be positive (which connects with how popular the positive psychology course was at Harvard in the nineties and 2000s).

This has always been true in the United States—we don’t think about people’s problems as having social roots. But it has reached new levels with neoliberalism, where you’re really the problem if you’re not happy. It puts a weight on clinicians who become agents in some way of the state—in terms of not seeing many of these issues that many of our patients suffer from as social problems instead of individual problems.

Neoliberalism also creates a two-tier mental health system. Short-term work in clinics for people who can’t afford it, and maybe psychodynamic, four or 5-day a week analytic work for people who can.


Javier: So there’s a large influence that neoliberalism as an ideology has had in clinical practice and social life more generally. Can you speak to social psychoanalysis specifically within the clinical realm and your development of clinical theory?

Lynne: Because of my earlier training and how I was thinking about myself from college during the Vietnam War and the beginnings of second-wave feminism, we were really thinking about ourselves in social terms and not just psychological terms.

By the time I became a clinician in my 30s and into my 40s when I became a psychoanalyst, my interest was in exploring we become shaped by the systems we grow up in, systems of sexism, racism, heterosexism, classism. How are they shaping us in an intersectional way? How are they shaping our behavior? How are we working against ourselves and, in some ways, our own best interests in our interactions with others and in our relationship to our own bodies? For me, that always had to be seen within power differentials and the social matrices that operate. So that’s what I mean by social psychoanalysis, that you’re not looking at the individual as outside of any social context.

They talked a lot about the biopsychosocial model when I was in training, but it didn’t mean very much. I mean, socioeconomic status was also something you were supposed to be thinking about, but it didn’t change how you talked to the patient or how you thought about the relationship of their experience to other folks in different social positions. I’m certainly not the first person to think of psychoanalysis socially—Fanon was certainly one of the forbearers.

A big influence on me was Erich Fromm, a sociologist who developed a couple of concepts that were influential in what I was starting to do. The social unconscious was one of his concepts. He explored what kinds of things you’re not allowed to think about in a culture, and how that forms a particular character within a particular socioeconomic order. He was not influenced by feminism, so he came up with this “dominant character” that wasn’t differentiated by gender, race, sex.

In my book, where I talk about character, culture, and normative unconscious processes, I’m trying (because of influences from Black feminism, intersectionality theory, critical race theory) to understand character in a much more differentiated way. Wherever you are socially located, there’s going to be some ideal way that you’re encouraged to be in that location. When you are not like that, you often will be shamed for not being like that, and it will cause psychological conflicts that you may end up continuing to act out to your own detriment. I’ve turned Fromm’s social unconscious into a process rather than a substance. It’s the operation of those forces, those unconscious processes, that cause damage in the first place.

In my day, growing up in the fifties and early sixties, a woman wasn’t supposed to be assertive; she was supposed to be relational. Her most important function was to get married, which I did, even though that’s not consciously what I wanted to do. You were shamed for being assertive, so it becomes conflictual. If you were sitting with a therapist back in that day, many believed that was what women were supposed to be. That therapist might make interpretations, nods, and affirmations of precisely what has caused the sexist-induced pain in the first place—in other words, upholding the sexist system rather than questioning it. What I’ve discovered in the course of reading a lot of clinical work, and thinking about my clinical work, is that this happens a lot more than we want to admit.

Particularly when we’re not thinking about people in the context of their social locations and just thinking about people. “People” tend to be upper-middle-class White males. That norm gets encouraged for men, a particular way of being male. Then there’s a particular way of being female, whether White, Black or working-class, that can also be encouraged to the detriment of the person you’re working with. I feel like I took the work that had been applied to culture outside and tried to bring it into what happens in clinical work that supports the status quo, what Erich Fromm called the “pathology of normalcy,” rather than contest it.


Javier: You’re touching on this concept that seems to run through a lot of your recent work on “normative unconscious processes.” Could you speak to how that concept has been received by the analytic community, psychiatry, and psychology more generally?

Lynne: I think outside of the psychodynamic, psychoanalytic world, it’s not received at all.

Even within that world, it’s interesting the way things are set up in terms of disciplines, with this discipline being separate from that discipline, sociology from psychology, etc. I’ve come across work on neoliberalism by psychologists who aren’t clinicians but are in development or personality, that are so similar to what I work on. When I read interviews with some of those folks, they talked about how marginal they felt in their psychology worlds. It made me so sad because we didn’t even know each other.

I would say that, in the psychoanalytic world, I’m asked to speak, and I write a lot, but it’s still a marginal perspective. Most recently, I hear over and over again in many places people saying, “yes, we have to take diversity into account. I think it’s really important. We have to hire some Black faculty to teach some of our courses. But we really don’t want to dilute the pure gold of our curriculum.” As if this is like this little add-on, and it’s not going to challenge the “pure gold.”

So long as most people in the field do not think systemically about things like racism, classism, and sexism, I don’t think I would ever be a dominant voice in the field. But there are enough of us, which is life-saving for me—like folks in Psychoanalysis for Social Responsibility in Division 39. From the nineties, the journal Psychoanalytic Dialogues had issues on topics like psychoanalytic feminism. I ended up working with a lot of the folks who wrote in that issue, including Virginia Goldner, Adrienne Harris, Jessica Benjamin, and Nancy Chodorow.

If you’re talking about social inequalities and power structures, it’s not the mainstream of psychology. It’s never going to be. I think it’s a very individualist field that only becomes more so, and it’s very elite. For example, if you work all day on Friday because you have a job, you can’t train at my institute because the courses are on Fridays.


Javier: Can you speak to neoliberalism’s push towards isolation from social connection? Including the idea that solidarity and forming connections with other people may subvert neoliberalism as an economic and ideological system.

Lynne: One of the first things that come to mind when I think about isolation is the separation of the psychic from the social. In my earlier writing, I had understood that to be part of a bourgeois, individualist, class-based society. The norm was to hide the fact that power relations, different realities, and different social locations were going on.

There was an idea that started in Freud that we are more alike than different psychologically, and I think this is true in some ways. I think Freud had some good reasons for having a universalist view. He was Jewish in a very anti-Semitic culture, so he was at pains to be thought of as human. Unfortunately, the upshot of that in psychoanalysis is to obscure the relationship between the psychic and the social.

In middle-class ideology, one of the tools for disguising its power is to take itself as “human.” I was in this meeting of Reflective Spaces, a group of social-justice-minded clinicians, predominately made up of white folks. In one particular meeting, we were supposed to be talking about social and clinical activism. We go around at the beginning of the meeting and try not to introduce ourselves by our status, but why we’re here. That question was, “how do you connect your social activism and your clinical activism?” What happened in that meeting was that almost all the White folks said, “I don’t know how they connected… that’s why I’m here”. The people of color were just shocked, like how could you not see the connection between your social location and what you do in the clinic? It was only then that I realized that the separation of the psyche and the social is a product of racism as well as a problem of classism.

You are probably also talking about another feature of neoliberalism—the downplaying of interdependence and solidarity. What comes to my mind when I say solidarity is class solidarity. The busting up of unions is one of the non-clinical versions of these broader destroying of relational bonds. In one of the essays in the book, I talk about how neoliberalism has impacted different large groups, and that chapter is called “Yale, fail, jail.” The whole thing came from a white, middle-class patient of mine who got this message growing up that either you’re going to an Ivy League school, or you’re going to jail. When she said it, I didn’t realize how well it captured neoliberal society. That radical inequality that marks neoliberal culture and inequality was precisely what her parents were anxious about—pushing her to be the 1% that succeeds rather than the disposable 99%. In that chapter, I talk about how one of the features of the middle-class family that’s pushing for their children to succeed is amoral familism.

Empathy gets redefined in that context. You don’t want to look at things like empathy that’s the same throughout history; you want to historicize these terms. How is it operating now? What kind of cultural work is it doing? So, empathy has come to be redefined that’s something on offer, in the middle and upper-middle-class, to your family and those who are your intimates. Maybe you have some sad, empathic feelings towards distant sufferers, like people in Afghanistan. Still, you’re never looking at your complicity, the interrelationships, and how we’re involved in each other’s suffering and joys—it’s part of the denial of the systemic.


Javier: How do social psychoanalysis and normative unconscious processes play out in how therapists respond to their clients?

Lynne: There are many schools of psychoanalysis. I’m mostly tied to relational psychoanalysis, which started in the US in the early 80s with Stephen Mitchell and included many of the feminists that I had mentioned earlier. A tenet of that school is that there are two unconsciouses in the room in any therapy.

A long time ago, a Kleinian said, “there’s not one sick and one healthy person in the room,” there are two sick people. If you think that this culture makes you sick, then yes, there are two sick people in the room. If you don’t look at your own history, your own social locations, and understand that, in the context of these larger systems, you may very well be likely to reproduce the cultural sickness. I value the relational school’s perspective on the unconscious process. They’re not the only school to talk about enactment, but other schools don’t emphasize therapists’ role in the enactment.

In his 1972 book Fallacy of Understanding, Edgar Levinson said, “as psychotherapists, I cannot be sure that what I have said is heard as I said it. I cannot be sure that the patient’s perception, if different from mine, is any less appropriate. I cannot be sure that I did not say what he thinks I said rather than what I think I said.” So, that’s sort of the heart of normative unconscious processes. Either you or your patient can catch an enactment that’s going on where you’re involved in reproducing the systems you should be trying to resist. That requires vulnerability and humility in the therapist, to be open to listening to what your patient says they just heard, and not to get defensive about it.

A lot of the relational literature talks about working through impasses, particularly Jessica Benjamin’s work on acknowledging the harm done. She says that sometimes the therapist has to go first; what was the therapists’ role in creating an impasse? I’m focused on a particular kind of psychosocial impasse. It could be the patient who notices it, you who notices it, but unraveling it is a step towards health.

The other thing I’m thinking of is a seminar Janet Helms gave within the APA trust—“We hold these truths” with people within the ethnic minority psychology groups that are also somewhat marginalized by APA. In this series, they were put front and center after the murder of George Floyd. She opened her lecture by saying she would talk about white male heterosexual privilege, which she pronounced as “WIMP.” She said, “all of our symptoms derive from WIMP, and that includes white men’s symptoms too.” That’s what I’m hoping clinicians can be more conscious of in their work.


Javier:  Could you speak to where you hope social psychoanalysis can go in the next few years? What do you see as its potential?

Lynne: I think there’s some backlash going on because there’s a real proliferation of people writing and looking at Whiteness and how it’s operating in their clinical work. Decolonial theorists, including Daniel Gaztambide’s and Lara Sheehi’s work, are just really wonderful exemplars of social psychoanalysis. I don’t think it can be put back in the bag.

I also have hopes and fears about where this country is going. I’m terrified of it. I do a lot of reparations work, and while I don’t like it, I do a lot of electoral work because I feel like whatever we had in terms of democracy is under attack. I’m encouraged so much by how many seminars and webinars I’ve heard in the last year and a half where people of color speak out about the harm they’ve borne in their training programs and institutions. I feel like most institutions want to make changes, but I’m not sure how capable White-dominated ones are doing so. There may need to be separate BIPOC institutions that need to form, and they will certainly be social and hopefully psychodynamic, but that goes back to where we started.




MIA Reports are supported, in part, by a grant from the Open Society Foundations

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