Madgirl: What Happened to Sally's Psychoanalysis on Mad Men?

09/03/2010 03:57 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

I was really looking forward to seeing what happened next after Sally Draper's initial visit to a child analyst in episode 5 of this season's Mad Men. But Sally and her problems and her treatment didn't show up at all in the subsequent episode.

Instead, Episode 6, called "Waldorf Stories", was all about alcoholism -- Don's descent into it, alcoholic blackouts, recidivism of alcoholics who were sober (Duck Phillips), the alcohol soaked culture of advertising in the sixties (and some professions today?) and the excruciatingly painful effects on work performance, success, family life, self esteem and relationships of all kinds that follow inevitably from excessive alcohol use. They packed in a whole lot of realistic alcohol related pathology in one episode.

But I was thinking about the non-appearance of Sally's treatment, which she quite desperately needs, in Episode 6. So often in real life, parental problems like substance abuse lead explicitly to the "invisibiliziing" of the children involved. Their needs and lives simply cannot be continuously contained in the alcohol soaked parent's mind, nor can the child experience the parent as "present" even when they are physically present because there is always a sense of "absence-in-presence". They are there but not really.

At the end of a long binge on Don's part, we learn that he has misplaced an entire day because of an alcoholic blackout. His furious ex-wife, Betty, says the kids have been waiting two hours for him with their bags packed.

I know from long clinical experience that this kind of event, waiting expectantly for a parent who never comes, is one of the most painful memories of childhood. I only see adults in my practice, and they NEVER forget these lapses on a parent's part. The lasting damage quite obviously includes a feeling of not being lovable, not being worth anything. But there is a more profound and subtle damage that is professionally interesting and extremely damaging to a developing individual.

Neuropsychoanalysis, a quite amazing field of inquiry you've probably never heard of, explores and develops links between modern brain science and psychoanalytic concepts derived over the last century from old fashioned clinical observation. One of the neuropsychoanalytic ideas I find particularly intriguing, the so-called SEEKING system (all caps on purpose), was articulated by neuroscientist Jaak Panskepp as one of four basic emotion command and control systems. The central idea is that the SEEKING system is a multilayered, linked set of brain functions that add up to the ability to develop a positive expection that something good will happen in the world if you go exploring or get involved with people or things out there in the world.

Waiting for your father to come, knowing on some level that he's not going to because of his drinking or his work or whatever, grinds away at a child's developing SEEKING system, impairing or destroying this all important component of life that tells us it is worth making an effort, something good is bound to happen if we do. Sally Draper may still have time to learn that the world has something to offer her. Her "bad behavior" can be seen in a positive light--she's still trying to get a response from the oblivious and self centered people around her.

The sensitiveity and insight of Mad Men's creators is extremely impressive. I hope Sally's psychoanalytic treatment gets someone's attention in episodes to come. It doesn't seem like she can stand much more neglect. Children's psyches combine an amazing resilience with an impressionable fragility. To borrow from Arthur Miller, "attention must be paid" to a child in trouble.