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Madgirl: A Very Angry Child Starts Psychoanalysis on Madmen

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For those of you who watch the television series Madmen with any regularity, you no doubt are acquainted with little Sally Draper, Betty and Don's oldest child, a pretty unhappy little kid since the show began.  Sally always had a tendency to look sullen and behave impulsively, often in a poorly conceived bid to get her anxious, remote and sort of weird mother's attention and love.  Sally took a big turn downhill when her grandfather died a couple of years ago (at least according to her mother Betty -- but could this be a projection on Betty's part, since certainly Betty went south when her father died?)

Madmen the show takes place during what we in my field call the "golden age of psychoanalysis."  At the time it was the only viable treatment short of the madhouse, and pervaded the culture especially of the Eastern upper middle class.  

As an aside, psychoanalysis played a major role in the development of the professions of advertising and public relations beginning early in the 20th century.  In fact it was Sigmund Freud's nephew Edward Bernays who is credited with starting the field of Public Relations in New York in about 1915. Bernays believed that business could make use of an understanding of subconscious motives and desires to change public attitudes. Apparently, Bernays is responsible for our feeling that bacon and eggs is a good breakfast. I think he worked for the bacon lobby.

The advertising profession has waxed and waned in its interest in psychoanalysis, but tends to come back to my field from time to time in its search for more and better ways to understand motivation and influence people. Season four of Madmen has a pretty psychologist on scene claiming that she can figure out what people really want in a scientific way. It is interesting that in a brief conversation with her, Don was more honest, vulnerable and self revealing than he is with anyone.

Now, at the beginning of season four, Sally's parents Don and Betty have been divorced a year and Betty has already remarried. "I thought children didn't have a sense of time," she tells the doctor she eventually consults.  That's one of those delicious Madmen moments, like the littering after the picnic scene, where we realize we've made a little progress as a civilization.  Sally is increasingly symptomatic.  She seems unable to relate to any children except the very strange Glen, who deserves a blog post of his own.  She throws up at the new step- grandmother's holiday table. She chops her hair off "to be pretty" and laments to her father that she hates it at home with her mother.  The last straw is she's caught masturbating during a sleepover watching Illya Kuryakin on TV (a nice touch I thought).  Her mother seems to hate her and her father doesn't know what to do with her. He clearly can't take care of himself, let alone his children. Only her stepfather Henry seems to have any capacity to parent, though Sally, in her strange haze, seems unaware of him.

Henry convinces Betty who convinces a reluctant Don that Sally needs "professional help." They get a recommendation from "the school" and shortly we see Betty, prim and controlled, in an initial consultation with Dr. Edna, a lovely woman of about 60, warm and confident, with a terrific office filled with toys.  In one poignant and perfectly acted moment, Betty glances at the dollhouse and her eyes light up , conveying in a second a universe of little girl longing and deprivation buried very deep inside her bitch-self.  

Although it's not explicitly stated, I maintain Sally is about to start a psychoanalysis.  The iconic couch is rarely used in child analysis.  Some child analysts use toys, others don't.  But Dr. Edna says "we'll start at 4 times a week."  That's an easy give away.  There is no other psychological outpatient treatment that occurs at that frequency.  More telling though less obvious is her answer to a question of Betty's:  "Will you tell me what she says?"  Flat and assured, with a level glance, Dr. Edna says a crisp no.  One thing psychoanalysts know is that the kind of psychological treatment we do depends on an absolute guarantee of confidentiality.  We expect patients to say the hardest and most humiliating things about themselves, out loud.  So we have to assure them of confidentiality or they just can't do it.  Looking forward, we know Sally has to say how much she hates her mother.  And how much she loves her mother and feels hated.

Psychoanalysis has come a long way in four years of Madmen.  In season one, Betty was "sent" for analysis to be "fixed." She seemed to have an anxiety disorder -- perhaps the "problem with no name" Betty Friedan was soon to write about (Betty Draper didn't seem so disturbed back then).  Her "psychoanalysis" was a caricature, with a cold, remote and silent jerk of an analyst and a stark and dreary consulting room.  Plus, there was a complete violation of confidentiality which indicated a condescending patriarchal collusion between the analyst and Betty's husband. 

Now in Dr. Edna's office, you get the feeling that Betty could use a second a chance at treatment, and wishes she might be cared for by this warm, calm and smart woman.  

Last Sunday's show ended with Sally's analysis beginning.  She's walking into the office alone, and the visual image conveys the fear that every patient experiences on beginning treatment. This arises from a variety of sources, but "shame and dread" kind of captures it. It always seems like it's the therapy that's about to cause the shame and dread, but of course it only exposes what's already there.

I will to follow Sally's analysis on subsequent blog posts.  I have a partisan hope, of course, which is that it demonstrates the value of a little known asset of the therapy business, child analysis. These days, child analysis will rarely be the first treatment tried to help a kid, and in many situations it may not be the best, or not necessary.  But for a child like Sally, ridden with internalized conflicts, shameful secrets and embedded misery, it actually is the treatment of choice. I hope we see her get some real help in a world of adults who for the most part have failed her.