Trauma Transmission

The Sopranos: Season 4 Analyzed; Week 7

Trauma Transmission

The Sopranos: Season 4 Analyzed; Week 7

Trauma Transmission
Talking television.
Oct. 28 2002 8:20 AM

The Sopranos: Season 4 Analyzed; Week 7

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Dear all,

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Tonight's episode is perhaps the best of the season to date. Again, we return to the question the relation between Tony's therapy and his life. For talk therapy to work, a person must have the capacity for self-observation and impulse control. And if we consider the session with Melfi strictly on its own terms, Tony seems to be making progress. He's advancing on both fronts.

Let's take a look at the details of the interaction. The fact that Jennifer confronts Tony about his threatening outburst in an earlier hour tells that she has become less self-sacrificing and more concerned with her own welfare. As a result, she's decided to set stricter limits with her patient. These developments will probably benefit the treatment with someone as explosive and action-prone as Tony.

But after Jennifer won't let him redeem himself with a FTD bouquet, Tony actually deals with the confrontation remarkably well. He knows that it was the rage provoked by Gloria's suicide that was at the heart of the whole thing. Melfi reiterates one of the fundamental principles of talk therapy: You can get as angry as you want, but it can't pass over into "physicality." Her use of the stilted term is, of course, somewhat typical of Jennifer, but I think it is also an indication of how uncomfortable she was feeling. There's no pretense at detached neutrality, and she let's Tony know how frightened she was. "You loomed," she tells him in no uncertain terms.

But the fact that Tony only threw a box of tissue paper—one of the main tools of our trade—isn't only comical. It also tells us that his anger was somewhat contained and deflected. He's picked up the lingo and knows that the goal is "impulse control." Tony has obviously been thinking about it and observing himself outside the hours, for he informs Jennifer that he didn't attack the crack addicts, but drove away.

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We then get another round of straightforward give and take between therapist and patient. Jennifer's still not in the mood to be masochistic under the guise of therapeutic neutrality. Sarcastically, she wants to know why Tony won't afford her the same courtesy he gives a crack addict. But Tony's no dope, and he realizes—rightfully—that he can use the right of therapeutic truthfulness to his own advantage. "Now that we're opening up," he tells Jennifer, he's going to let her have it for her lousy referral. Tony is learning that you can experience intense anger without it spilling over into action. This is an essential prerequisite for psychic growth. And Jennifer correctly doesn't try to defend herself.

Things outside Melfi's office, however, aren't as encouraging. Tony's lack of self-observation—his splitting, which Glen has stressed—is monumental. On the one hand, he espouses all the platitudes of conventional morality with the piousness of a Bill Bennett. Not only is he a proponent of the work ethic and individual responsibility, but he defends the values of hearth and home when he counsels Christopher to marry Adriana. (In staying single, Paulie is less hypocritical than the other wiseguys in this respect.) More tragically, Tony doesn't understand that it's his own criminal activity that accounts for A.J.'s disaffection and inability to identify with the family tradition. When the young black girl witnesses her father getting shot—just as Tony witnessed awful things awful things involving his own father—we are reminded of the widespread transmission of trauma from one generation to the next in today's world.

And Tony is often still driven by his impulses without a trace of moral restraint. Despite his attempt to be blasé and mature about Ronnie and his former Russian mistress—"You're both adults," he tells the sleazy politician—he can't control his rage. Not only is he jealous but (yes, Jodi) his droit de seigneur has been offended. (Furio had better take heed.) Ronnie's cries while Tony is whipping him are almost a parody of Jennifer's admonition to put it into words: "Tony, calm down. We can talk about whatever's bothering you."

Joel

Glen O. Gabbard, M.D., is a professor of psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and author of The Psychology of The Sopranos, inspired by this discussion. Philip A. Ringstrom, Ph.D., Psy.D., is a senior faculty member at the Institute of Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Los Angeles. Joel Whitebook, Ph.D., is on the faculty of the Columbia Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research. Margaret Crastnopol, Ph.D., is on the faculty of the Northwest Center for Psychoanalysis. All are practicing therapists as well.