Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Ode to Psychoanalysis: The Sigourney Award Interviews

Colorful circular lines in a black background with white letters spelling The Sigourney Award
It was not until last year that The Sigourney Awards came to my attention but ever since, I am a great fan and supporter not only of the Trust itself but also everything it supports and stands for. The organization is built on and around the lifelong work, dedication, and passionate activism of Mary Sigourney (1927-1988). Not only is psychoanalysis at its core, the heart within the heart of her worldview, but she encouraged and applauded its expansions into other disciplines and territories by not neglecting or overlooking pressing environmental, social, and community issues.

In fact, Mary Sigourney intuitively understood the wide-ranging potential and myriad and unparalleled benefits of psychoanalysis, which could be applied to diverse fields and disciplines, not only its neighboring cousins, psychiatry, psychology, and child development but also its more distant relatives and friends, such as anthropology, law, and criminology. We have already seen and are indeed aware of how psychoanalysis managed to revolutionize the arts and literature, and to a wider extent, the humanities themselves.

In its heydays, psychoanalysis may have wanted to distance itself from other fields so that it can state and proclaim its independence and to carve out and establish its unique identity and characteristics but now and especially nowadays, it is of the utmost importance for it to emerge, merge with and reach out to other branches to create an interdependent unit. As a result, it is wonderful, encouraging, and accommodating that the Sigourney Awards gives recognition to international individuals and organizations that use psychoanalysis in creative and inventive ways across the globe.

Recently, The Sigourney Trust, the independent nonprofit organization established by Mary Sigourney, has announced their new Co-Trustee Dr. Robin A. Deutsch, a psychoanalyst and licensed clinical psychologist who, alongside Attorney Co-Trustee Barbara C. Sherland, is inspired to not only continue with the excellent work, community, and global outreach but to also expand and build upon it in various ways, to seek more inclusiveness and diversity and to continue to reward and promote groundbreaking psychoanalytic thought leading to the betterment of humankind.

It is important to not only focus on theoretical and academic effects and benefits within the field but to harness, realize, and underscore its practical implications and positive impacts on people’s lives everywhere. It is with great thrill and anticipation that I await the winners of this year’s Sigourney Awards and the opportunity to meet, interview, and talk to them towards the end of this year, which would then add to the already impressive number of 136 Award recipients from 22 countries.

In fact, I had the honor and privilege to interview all last year’s winners and proudly featured them on my podcast. My first interview was a fascinating discussion about skin and psychoanalysis with Dr. Jorge Ulnik, a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and Associate Professor of Pathophysiology and Psychosomatic Diseases as well as Adjunct Professor of Mental Health at the Buenos Aires University. 

As part of his interdisciplinary approach of psychodermatology and the realization that diseases often tend to be intertwined with life events and emotions, Dr. Ulnik worked with skin patients to uncover unconscious trigger factors related to the expression and apparition of skin issues and problems. Our discussion then uncovered various underlying social, cultural, and psychological effects of advertising alongside its perception and depiction of beauty as well as the different uses, applications, and expressions of tattoos.

I tend to consider myself to be creative and like to see seemingly unlikely and hard-to-spot but existent connections between events, but I found Dr. Ulnik’s ingenious views and ideas quite stunning. So much so that we agreed to do a follow-up discussion in his native Spanish on psychoanalysis and cinema, the movies and themes of Woody Allen and Pedro Almodóvar, femininity, beauty, and the case of Marilyn Monroe as well as insights into Melanie Klein’s mother and daughter relationships.

Nowadays, for better or for worse, we are immersed in technology, but it was fascinating to see how the amazing analyst couple therapists Dr. David Scharff and Dr. Jill Savege Scharff had no qualms about technology; in fact, they were visionaries and pioneers in its use and capacity in terms of distance education and training. To train psychoanalysts remotely may seem quite a possibility by today’s standards but this forward-thinking psychoanalytic duo brought forth and highlighted various years ago the many benefits of the use and application of technology in terms of worldwide teaching and continuously growing and expanding learning communities. 

Not only does this give opportunities to people who live in remote regions but also facilitates the lives of those who cannot for various economic, social, cultural, or political reasons and circumstances physically travel to places, hence making the access to education more diverse and inclusive and leading to a truly connected global economy.

Finally, by making their books available electronically and free of charge, the precious knowledge and wisdom of psychoanalysis can be accessed and reached from every corner and every socioeconomic stratum and level in the world creating a stronger and more connected, and interconnected community. These types of goals and ambitions combined and complemented with driven and focused activism match and fit perfectly into the work and worldview of its founder Mary Sigourney.

The other recipient of the award was an entire organization, the Erikson Institute for Education, Research, and Advocacy, which is part of the Austen Riggs Center, a not-for-profit psychiatric hospital in Massachusetts that has been dedicated to and engaged in outstanding research and insights into psychoanalysis. I had the opportunity to interview psychologist/psychoanalyst Dr. Jane Tillman who received the award on behalf of her organization, and we focused on her research on suicide, the process of how a person becomes suicidal, and how to deal with suicide loss, its effects on survivors as well as resilience and suicide prevention.

Dr. Tillman explained how each person is built and wired differently and will deal with pain and adversity in various ways but that regardless of their individual differences and psychological and temperamental variation, social and emotional support and healthy relationships and connections are of vital importance. She also outlined the different warning signs of suicide that one should look out for, and she discussed the stigma of suicide loss and that it is a different, complicated, and traumatic grief process for the families and loved ones involved. Finally, she explained how psychoanalysis today looks quite different from its past, that it has been rebranded and re-packaged and has advanced in various ways and manners leading to a broader field of inquiry, outlook, and knowledge in the current era.

In fact, one of the fascinating aspects of psychoanalysis is that it is not afraid to tread into uncharted waters and territories and nothing is off-limits to this field. It is open and open-minded in its approach, and it is flexible and can bend easily by welcoming and embracing everything from life to sexuality to death, from pain and suffering to joy and bliss, from the unknown and the unconscious to the conscious and consciousness and the mind.

It is the inherent possibilities and potential that have always drawn and attracted me to psychoanalysis, but it was the actual application and its wondrous benefits that converted me and made me a believer in its inherent power for positive and life-changing, and life-affirming change. 

It takes work but it is magical and powerful, and its liberating and healing powers are not that far off and rather quite within reach for each of us. It is the sunrise that comes after seemingly endless and sleepless nights, and I am most pleased to know and acknowledge that there are organizations like the Sigourney Trust that bring forth and shine a light on this luminous path and reward its innovative proponents, thinkers, and leaders.