The Trouble with Weatherill

by Mary O’Callaghan

A response to Rob Weatherill’s article (No. 41 Autumn 2003) ‘The trouble with therapy culture’.

Though Weatherill has written a witty and provocative portrayal of ‘therapy culture’ today, there is a kind of schizoid dimension to his analysis. Instead of systematically critiquing what he believes has gone wrong, he turns psychotherapy into the ‘bad breast’ where the ‘sacred’ has been replaced by “saccharine, harmless, new age forms”. This is a scattergun approach where therapy is drained of any redeeming feature and no good therapeutic breast remains. From the outset he chooses to confuse therapy (the profession) with what he calls ‘therapy culture’, namely the market forces that have exploited some of the insights of therapy and have put them to sometimes crude commercial purposes.

Therapy cannot be held responsible for what the BTs and Vodaphones of life choose to do with the ideas and the language of therapy. It is naïve, if not mischievous, of Weatherill to conflate these two separate spheres. It is ironic that he should suggest there was once a pure state of therapy, a state that we might now hope to recapture, uncontaminated by the dross of post modernism. The moguls of Madison Avenue were at their game even in Freud’s time when, as was shown in a recent BBC documentary ‘The history of the Mind’, a member of the Bernays family (Freud’s in-laws) formed a marketing corporation sing Freud’s ideas to stimulate unconscious desire among the buying public. Thus was the PR industry born.

It is undeniable, however, that there are members of our profession who promote their work by using exaggerated, new-age psycho-spiritual jargon or, which is probably worse, who make superficial short-term use of ancient practices and systems without proper understanding or adaptation. It is a questionable pursuit to graft practices that belong to a very different socio-cultural matrix onto contemporary psychotherapy. Due weight ought to be given to the depth of understanding and self-discipline that these practices require on their native soil. The trouble with Weatherill, however, is that instead of confining his criticisms to where they belong he has blasted the whole profession out of the water. Unlike postmodernists, whom he dismisses for giving equal weight to everything, he ends up giving no weight to anything!

For Weatherill himself, it seems, there is a ‘glimmer of hope’ which resides in ‘free association without censorship’, conducted in a space where the analyst listens in silence. Thought this method may work for the author, he falls into the trap of making an assumption a priori that the silent analyst has something over the therapist who engages with her client. I have come across casualties of the silent treatment, people who found silence unhelpful in accessing their unconscious thoughts and feelings and who found the process punitive. I am sure there are times when I speak too much and intrude on my client’s unconscious reveries and burgeoning free associations. Perhaps this is what Melanie Klein calls the depressive position (free of the extremes of idealisation and destruction) in which as therapists we know that we don’t always get it right and are humbled in the face of a genuine encounter. It is more realistic to take this approach than to believe that silence is the only way for the therapist to act and free association the only effective path open to the client.

One has to ask critically what is the nature of the silence that an analyst brings to her work. Surely silence itself is contextual and will vary from session to session, from client to client and from therapist to therapist, depending on our learnt theoretical standpoints or on our personal belief systems, whether conscious or unconscious. Weatherill gives the impression that the therapist should be a tabula rasa for the reception of the clients associations, as if they are unrelated to what is going on in therapist’s own transferential field. However, even in the early days, before we really understood the impact of the counter-transference, the notion of free association was already under challenge. Pierre Janet, a contemporary of Freud and a respected member of the early psychoanalytic movement, considered the method of free association to be naïve, because the therapist, in Janet’s view, unknowingly suggests the course of associations (Ellenberger, 1970, p817). To be or not to be silent is neither the question nor the answer. What is more to the point is to recognise that all therapy operates within a relational field and that in this mysterious and complex arena simplistic formulations have very limited use. By his attachment to silence as an escape from something worse, Weatherill treats all therapeutic discourse as if it were part of “the vast excess of meaning and communication that blights the world”. In a more constructive approach (with which I imagine Weatherill would agree), Christopher Bollas (1987) invites us to consider the analytic silence as the background from which meaningful speech emerges. Viewing silence as the ally rather than the enemy of meaning and communication, Bollas approvingly quotes Susan Sontag on the various psychoanalytic use of silence, all of which aim primarily to add more weight, authenticity and embodiment to the client’s spoken communication with the therapist. Kantrowitz and other (1989) argue convincingly that the personality ‘fit’ between therapist and client is a crucial factor in determining the outcome of therapy, thus indicating the importance of the relationship between the two people involved. Although Weatherill might like to plead for an I-Id relationship, we cannot as therapists escape the dialogic demands of an I-Thou relationship!

The Trouble with Freud’s Id

As a kind of backlash to the multiplicity of meanings and the leveling of value that characterise postmodernism, Weatherill appeals to a fundamentalist Freudian perspective, in which the id is constructed as wholly negative, So as to afford space for ‘the free circulation of malediction and spite’, Weatherill would give the id unfettered freedom without being constrained by the superego or tamed by the ego. Whatever about the merits of such an approach, let us be in no doubt that it is in stark contrast to Freud’s stance in which the id was treated with suspicion and had to be under the control of the ego. Weatherill’s incompatibility with Freud is neatly encapsulated when he reverses Freud’s edict ‘where the id was there shall the ego come to be’ to ‘where the ego was there shall the it (id) come to be’.

To appreciate the incompatibility of these contrasting standpoints it would be useful to remind ourselves of some of the influences that underpinned Freud’s construction of the id, that repository of unruly energy that resides at the instinctual core of our nature. One influence was the repressive late Victorian bourgeois society, of which Freud was a product, which generally saw the id in narrow moralistic terms. A second was Freud’s own innate conservatism and his need for persona and social respectability, which had the effect of inhibiting his capacity to be truly radical when it came to allowing the id its own wildness. The third was the harsh destructive tenets of Social Darwinism, to which he had turned in an attempt to give his theories an evolutionary foundation, and which had the effect of reinforcing his negative perspective on the id.

The extremely negative perception of the id, which these influences created for Freud, inevitably impacted on how he saw humanity. ‘I have found’, he said ‘little that is ‘good’ about human beings on the whole. In my experience most if them are trash’….(cited Storr, 1989, p7). The only escape route for Freud from this relentless negativity, with all its unruly destructiveness, was to give pre-eminence to the taming function of the ego. By thus emasculating the primitive vitality of the id, Freud was able to assert ‘Where the id was the ego now resides’. This is a position very foreign to what Weatherill has in mind.

Despite my general disagreement with Weatherill’s analysis, I agree with him on the important question of our relationship to id. The id has to be allowed find its authentic voice; in fact it is probably true to say that the suppression of either feeling or free association is an act of violence against creative self-expression. Freeing the id will be much less a problem if, as Freud was unable to do, we dissociate ourselves from the cut-throat competitiveness of Darwin’s views on evolution where only the fittest survive. Even during Freud’s time there was an alternative in the ideas of the Russian naturalist and political philosopher Kropotkin, who had far more field work to his credit than Darwin and who was among his foremost critics. Kropotkin believed that natural species were more interested in what he called ‘mutual aid’ than with the competitiveness claimed for them by Darwin. This important contribution by Kropotkin to evolutionary history is now generally accepted (Roszak, 2001, p154).

This has huge implication for our understanding of the id. For Kropotkin the id, far from being simply a cauldron of seething unmet drives, is also a storehouse of evolutionary wisdom that has sustained humans and other species for millions of years. Had Freud allowed himself to be truly radical and looked to Kropotkin rather than Darwin as an evolutionary authority, he would have taken a much more balanced view of the id’s relationship with the ego and would have see them more as allies than as adversaries. Furthermore, had the dominant culture, including Freud, not put so much emphasis on taming the id we might have been spared the widespread mistrust of the body and the instincts so graphically illustrated, for example, in the growing levels of obesity and anorexia. We can no longer recognise 
real hunger pangs; we have lost the ‘measure’ of ourselves. Our instincts have been so pathologised and tamed into submission that they have lost all their vitality and we are left, as Weatherill would say, with only the signs of instincts. It is as if Freud’s socio-biological perspective is the perfect fit for today’s disembodiment, including the disembodied capitalism that we have come to call ‘normality’.

In the end, the real trouble with Weatherill is that in seeking a remedy for what troubles him in the world of therapy today, he chooses one which, on examination, turns out to be much closer to the problem than the solution.

Mary O’Callaghan is a psychotherapist and supervisor in private practice and in the public sector in Dublin and is a member of IAHIP and UKCP.


Bollas, C. (1987) The Shadow of the Object. London: Free Association

Ellenberger, H.F. (1970) The Discovery of the Unconscious. USA: 
Basic Books.

Kantrowitz (1989) The patient analyst match and the outcome of psycho-analysis: a pilot study’. Journal of American Psychoanalytic Association, 37: 893-919

Roszak, T. (1992/2001) The Voice of the Earth: An exploration of 
Ecopsychology, USA: Phanes Press.

Storr, A. (1989) Freud: Past Masters. UK: Oxford University Press.