Fate, destiny, borders and white privilege: some thoughts from Annie Pesskin

There is a tension at the heart of us. A tension between wanting to know and not wanting to know; we humans have a very special capacity to turn a blind eye to the paradox at the heart of ourselves which is that under the right conditions, we are all capable of the greatest good and the greatest evil.  The truth is that we are neither black nor white in our deepest, truest parts – there are only contours of grey.

Look closely enough and every border dissolves.   If you have ever helped somebody die, you will know there is no exact moment of death. Instead, there is a fairly long period of time between their last inhalation and when their hand is cold to the touch.  Even death, which we consider so final, isn’t quite so cut-and-dried when you are right up close to it.

We are all drawn to the border realms.  Who doesn’t gaze at the dawn, or the changing pinks and oranges of a sublime sunset sky? But these places of transition are scary too.  I spend my days listening to patients relay moments of suffering.  They desire deliverance from their darkness.   They long for connection, calm, contentment.  But transformation is painful; change comes dropping slow.  It can take years, even decades.  Time spent in the therapeutic hour is like the dawn and the dusk for it lives outside normal night and day. 

My patients and I spend a lot of time together yet I am not their boss, or their friend, or their lover or their family.  I don’t wish them ‘Happy Birthday’ and they don’t know when my birthday is.  In every other sphere of their lives, their relationships are bound by social etiquette; both parties constricted by what is expected of them.   If you look at it financially, I am in their employ.  Yet to what employee do you confess your deepest shames, transgressive desires, hateful feelings? I live in the twilight zone. I am the stranger they bare their soul to.  A paradox indeed.

The longer I do this job of being a psychoanalytic psychotherapist, the more sure I become that life in the interstices, the zone where one thing incrementally, indecipherably becomes its opposite, is a fascinating and extraordinary place to be.  As a child, I loved to rock-scramble England’s craggy coast. Jelly-shoed, bucket-in-hand, I would clamber from one tidal rockpool to the next, softly stroking maroon anemones, gazing at the glorious pink sea lichen lining the emerald pools and jumping back, startled, by the scuttled retreats of the small brown crabs.  I would kick at the cockles to make them cling ever tighter to their vertical perches and run my fingers over the tiny, circular ridges of the close-packed barnacles suckered to the rocks.   I would get a funny feeling when I thought,  ‘By the time it is supper time, this will be Sea, but right now it is Land and I am standing in it.’

During the summer I read a novel by Ta Nehisi Coates called The Water Dancer (One World, 2019)set in Antebellum Virginia.  The grand tobacco plantations are beginning to decline as the nutrient-rapacious crop exhausts the soil.  Plantation owners who had prospered through earlier generations have fallen on harder times and the consequence for their enslaved African labourers is that families who have lived together for generations are being sold off, suffering unbearable separation and loss.  The novel’s protagonist is Hiram, son of an enslaved mother and the white owner of the plantation.  A boy of prodigious intelligence, Hiram is brought ‘up’ from The Street (where the Slaves are housed) to live in The Warren (the cavernous servant quarters under the Great House) when he is about 8 years old.  Here he is tasked with being first companion, then minder, for his vain, arrogant brother who will inherit it all – house, land and Slaves.

Coates divides Hiram’s interpersonal world into three distinct categories. There is the Quality (the Slave-owning, landed classes), like his brother; the Low (the poor Whites who chain and drag Slaves to the auction block and hunt runaway Slaves); and The Tasked (any man, woman or child who labours under the yoke of Slavery).   Over the course of the novel, Hiram must garner every ounce of his quick wits, physical fortitude and mental strength to escape the Task and achieve his ambition to live as a Free Man.

The Water Dancer is about the border realm between the Tasked and the Free; a domain of great jeopardy where hope and fear flood Hiram (and us, by extension) at every twist and turn of his adventures. Hiram’s heroic quest is to escape his Fate (which is to be Tasked) and to embrace his Destiny (by living Free).   Until I read Forces of Destiny (Routledge, 2018) by Christopher Bollas earlier this year, I have to admit I hadn’t given the distinction between Fate and Destiny much thought.  But on closer inspection, the realm you traverse between the polarities of Fate and Destiny reveals itself to be as fascinating as the rock pools of my youth.  It is also a realm I have come to perceive as central to the psychoanalytic endeavour.

To quote Mr. Bollas (p.25), “Fate derives from the Latin fatum, which is the past participle of fari which means to speak. ‘Fatum’ is ‘a prophetic declaration’, and ‘fatus’ is an oracle. Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary states that fate is ‘The power supposed to determine the outcome of events before they occur’.  Destiny [on the other hand] from the Latin destinare, means to fasten down, secure, or make firm, and the word destination is a derivative of this root. Thus Destiny is linked to action rather than words. If Fate emerges from the word of the gods, then Destiny is a preordained path that man can fulfil.”  (p.25)

Hiram, protagonist of The Water Dancer, is born to The Task.  This means he is Fated in the sense that his Owner (who is also his illegitimate father) ‘speaks’ his choices.  In this social order, the ‘Quality’ determines what The Tasked may do: where they live, who they marry and to whom they are sold.  Hiram must escape The Task and embrace his Destiny, which means choosing to act (escape) and acting to choose (where he lives, what he does, who he marries).  He is helped in his quest by two forces; one of these is the emerging Underground, a loose confederation of individuals united by a foundational belief that the social structures which sanctify, endorse and underwrite Slavery are an abomination and must be dismantled.  The second force is Conduction, a mysterious trans-locating superpower, which Hiram possesses, but must harness and hone, to enable him to move from one watery location (a river near his plantation) to another (the docks of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania) where he can live as a Free Man.

Conduction, a device of magic realism employed by Coates, has some interesting parallels with psychoanalysis.  Of the process, Hiram says, “I began to feel that something was trying to reveal itself to me, that some part of my mind, long ago locked away, was now seeking its liberation….Conduction felt like the breaking and resetting of a bone. Each bout left me fatigued and with a somehow deeper sense of loss than the one I’d carried into it, so that I was in a constant low thrum of agony, a melancholy so deep it would take every ounce of my strength to rise out of bed the next morning…” (p.212).   This description struck me as a lot like a painful therapy session, when essential but buried aspects of the self rise like bubbles into the air of the session, pop in the act of being understood, but leave you feeling spent and sometimes very low.

On p. 25 of Forces of Destiny, Bollas writes, “It should be clear that I think that one of the tasks of an analysis is to enable the analysand to come into contact with his destiny, which means the progressive articulation of his true self through many objects”.  Articulating this ‘true self’ involves a grappling with all the conflicting and contrasting voices within the mind. The therapy is an opportunity to render them ‘known’.  Something similar must go on for Hiram, as he develops his power to Conduct under the tuition of another Slave, Harriet:

            “‘Stay with me, friend,’ Harriet said. ‘No exertions needed. It’s just like dancing. Stay with the sound, stay with the story and you will be fine. And the story is as I have said, offered up for all those given over to the maw of the Demon.  We seen it all our lives, yes we have. Starts when you young, with but the barest sense of the world, but mayhaps even then, you got some sense that it is wrong. I know I did.’

            What happened then was a kind of communion, a chain of memory extending between the two of us that carried more than any words I can now offer you here, because the chain was ground into some deep and locked-away place, where my aunt Emma lived, where my mother lived, where a great power lived, and the chain extended into that selfsame place in Harriet, where all those lost ones had taken up their vigil. (p.271)”

Hiram has a profound experience of being put back in touch with his chain of maternal objects – their stories and memories – which sounds a lot like the process of free association to me.  He must submit to his Unconscious process to ‘conduct’ his way out of Slavery.   In psychotherapy, the patient does not travel geographically (well, except to reach their session and leave again!) but they must travel back and forth through their memories, both their own and also the intergenerational experiences which shaped them and their caregivers’ early lives.  This journey loops back and forth, round and round, in an eternal spiral of free association.  

The aim of the journey is to set the ‘true self’ free, just as Hiram’s journey is to be free of The Task.  The patient, arriving in the therapist’s consulting room, feels Fated because they are repeating behaviours which distress them but they don’t know why.  Their Destiny is to understand the hidden forces which constrain them, mangle them and render them lost.  They can then use these insights to act differently – to swipe right on bumble, say – opening the curtains of possibility instead of staying safe, but stuck, in the dark of loneliness.  But, just like Hiram, if they want to pass from one state (Fated/enslaved) to another (Destined/free) they must spend a period of time (the therapy) in the scary borderlands with me where their monsters lurk.

Can what is true for the individual also be true for the group?   I would like to think so.  Social change has always happened through brave people asking awkward questions.  ‘Why should slavery exist in America?’ or ‘Why shouldn’t women have the vote?’ come to mind.  The UK psychoanalyst Helen Morgan gave a talk on ‘whiteness’ earlier this year and asked just such a question of me.  The question was, ‘What does whiteness do for you?’  If you had asked me, ‘Is it easier to be white in the UK than black?’ I would have answered, ‘Yes of course’.  Had it ever struck me that my blindness to what my whiteness does for me might just have something to do with it? Well…awkward pause…no.  For what Helen Morgan put to me was an irrefutable argument that the important psychological defence of disavowal was at work within me, and in any other white person who would have answered that question the same way I did.  

She makes the point that white people use disavowal to cope with their profound, unmanageable sense of guilt about what their forebears did when they invented and perpetuated the Slave trade.  Disavowal is where two conflicting realities cause a vertical split in the psyche.  In her paper, Whiteness – A Problem for our Time (p. 474. BJP 37, 3 (2021), she writes,

“Unlike repression, the individual remains conscious of both sides of the split but will disavow either to meet internal desires and needs or to minimize anxiety. Thus I can know the reality of the consequences of my behaviour but will disregard that awareness in order to satisfy my desires, my omnipotence and my narcissistic sense of entitlement…On one side of the psyche is the investment in white privilege and the racist thinking which underpins it; on the other is one’s condemnation and rejection of racism. In between is a silent, empty space in which it is impossible to play or grieve.” 

 That empty space is a borderland full of monsters: racist thoughts, fear of difference, a place to get rid of badness and project it into non-whiteness, whenever and wherever I need it.  If I can talk about this gap, dare to play and grieve in the space cast by my white shadow, then perhaps I can cease to be a fated, passive beneficiary of this socially-sanctioned structure and start to act differently – embrace my Destiny – you could say.

How have I answered this question about what whiteness does for me?  What has it led me to do differently, you may wonder?  Well, for starters it has given me a new perspective on those aspects of England I used to admire wholeheartedly. I spent more of my adolescence that I would like to admit lost in the trashy, romantic fiction of Georgette Heyer whose mise-en-scène is England in Georgian times.  Bath’s honey-limestone Assembly Rooms and The Royal Crescent feature heavily, as do the 18th century streets of Mayfair and the Great English Country House, many of which were built at pace, in Palladian splendor, throughout this period.  Now I am struck by the reality that so very much of it was built with Sugar Money, a dizzying flow of cash into Britain’s coffers, dating from the 1680s until Slavery was fully abolished in 1833.   Sugar Money also provided the capital for the Industrial Revolution.  So, we led the world in its headlong plunge towards environmental degradation powered by a toxic trade in African flesh?  Yuk.  I don’t feel quite so proud of my Britishness, these days.

The other thought I have is this: what would it cost to restitute to every descendant of Slavery the dues owed to their forebears for our ‘act’ of enslaving them in the first place?  What recompense in monetary terms could you make to someone for having their child ripped from their embrace and sold like a goat in front of their very eyes?  Or what about holding down your own wife as she is flogged?   How would it have felt to be the child of that couple, witnessing that?  What price would you put on that?  These are bleak but important questions.  In 1833, Britain used 40% of its national budget (£17 billion in today’s money) to buy the freedom of every Slave in the Empire.  But it was the white owners who received monetary recompense, not the Slaves.  The UK Government only finished paying off that debt to slave-owning families in 2015.

The messiness of it all is beautifully expressed in The Water Dancer, where, towards the end of the book, there is this passage:

            “‘We can’t ever have nothing pure,’ Robert said. ‘It’s always out of sorts. Them stories with their knights and maidens, none of that for us. We don’t get it pure. We don’t get nothing clean’.

            ‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘But neither do they. It is quite a thing, a messy dirty thing, to put your own son, your own daughter, to the Task. Way I see it, ain’t no pure and it is we who are blessed, for we know this’.

                        ‘Blessed, huh?’

            ‘Blessed, for we do not bear the weight of pretending pure. I will say that it has taken some time for me to get that.  Had to lose some folk and truly understand what that loss mean. But having been down, and having seen my share of those who are up, I tell you, Robert Ross, I would live down here among my losses, among the muck and mess of it, before I would ever live among those who are in their own kind of muck, but are so blinded by it they fancy it pure. Ain’t no pure, Robert. Ain’t no clean’.”

Helen Morgan’s paper, Whiteness: A Problem for our Times, explains how and why ‘whiteness’ got invented.  Backed by bogus scientific claims (biological anthropology, phrenology) and Biblical quotations about Ham, it emerged as an idea in 17th century Virginia when the first enslaved Africans arrived.  Anxious lest the indentured European labour force should find common cause with their enslaved brethren, the ruling elite invented the term ‘white’ to gather together the plantation owners, the overseers and European labourers into one all-inclusive group through a set of laws which ‘privileged’ white skin over black. 

Then, it took very little time for the unconscious imaginary in relation to ‘white’ and ‘black’ to complete the job.  The universal associations of ‘white’ to mother’s milk and life-producing sperm in contrast to ‘black’ shit and bile; the ‘white’ of the peaceful dove, angelic wings and daytime versus the ‘black’ of night-time terrors, war and sin.  Devils inhabit the ‘blackness’ of Hell, angels the ‘whiteness’ of Heaven.  Link all of that to the lighter hues of skin colour and the rest to darker skin tones and much of the psychological work of domination is done.

The polarity only works from far away.  Up close, the border is all too fuzzy.  If you are 7/8 ‘white’ and 1/8 ‘black’, are you still ‘black’?  If you can ‘pass’ in ‘white’ society and no-one knows you have ‘black’ in you, are you still ‘black’? Are you ‘white’? It depends where you are looking from, I guess.  Such contortions in the rigidly-policed racial hierarchies of plantation-based economies even had a name – the answer to them was yes, if you are 7/8 ‘white’, you are still ‘black’ and were called an ‘octaroon’.   Being down in the muck of it, as Hiram says, is indeed the truer place to be. There ‘ain’t no pure, ain’t no clean’.

Sometimes I say to patients, where and when it is appropriate, the following: ‘Imagine you are pulling a heavy load on a wagon. The ground is flat and the load is heavy but you are just about managing – this is the privilege of whiteness.  Then imagine the gradient changes, just by a few degrees, so you are pulling uphill.  You have the same load, the same strength for pulling.  But you just can’t manage the load. You collapse, exhausted.  This is the burden of carrying the ‘white’ shadow – which we can call being ‘black’.’   

Economic expediency, backed up by poor science, got us into this mess.  DNA analysis has shown that race is an empty category – it has no scientific basis, whatsoever.  What it does have is a pernicious hold over our minds, whatever hue our skin colour may be.  Only by living in the borderland where the polarities dissolve can we start to engage with what racism is and how it operates upon us.  Only then can we try to take off the blinkers of Fate and embrace our Destiny.  Reading this blog might just be a start.  

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