Q&A: A shrink who studies Jewish guilt

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Name: Lee Grossman, MD
Age: 68
Hometown: Oakland
Position: Psychoanalyst

Lee Grossman


Recently, you were the featured speaker at Diesel Bookstore’s Freud Bar in Oakland, where you gave a talk on “Guilt, Pseudo-guilt and Woody Allen.” Where did that idea come from?

Lee Grossman: I had just been complaining to someone about Woody Allen’s morality, and so I decided to talk about that, through an analysis of a very short paper by Freud called “The Exceptions.” Freud discusses a certain kind of moralism, that sounds like morality, where the subject lets himself off the hook for doing immoral acts by suffering for them. It struck me that Allen’s films — two in particular, “Match Point” and “Crimes and Misdemeanors” — were built on the premise that it is pretty much OK to do anything you want so long as you suffer loudly for your actions after the fact. In both of those movies, the main characters kill their mistresses and get away with it — which is seen as justifiable action because of how unhappy the character is. That’s what I meant by pseudo-guilt — it’s not really guilt, it’s really a kind of payment for the license to commit immoral acts.

Can you explain the distinction between guilt and pseudo-guilt?

In Freudian terms, the guilt that matters, in terms of the creation of neurosis, is unconscious guilt. The person doesn’t know that they’re motivated by guilt or they don’t experience it as guilt. Pseudo-guilt, by contrast, is a conscious feeling that the subject describes as guilt. A kind of showing off of one’s emotions, a “look at what high moral standards I have.” You see this a lot in the characters that Allen plays — while he portrays himself, superficially, as a shlemiel, the implication is that he is this deep thinker, this existential sufferer. There is a wonderful line from Nietzsche that summarizes this very well: “Suffering enobles; it separates.” I think that’s a part of Allen’s unconscious philosophy, that while he purports to be struggling with his inferiority, he’s really claiming a kind of superiority based on the fact that he sees himself as such a suffering existentialist.

“Man Scaring Pigeons,” 2010, San Francisco photo/lee grossman

Do you see a relationship between art, humor and psychoanalysis?

I do. Mainly the ability to look at what we would ordinarily take for granted and then see it freshly. The analytic task is to uncover how the patient finds the world and why they think it has to be that way, in order to help them shift gears away from that. An artistic project is a similar kind of project. When an artist creates a work of art, the first thing they’re doing is telling themselves: Look at this as if you’ve never seen it before, as if you don’t already know what it is. Humor does the same thing — it takes an ordinary assumption and turns it on its head. Marshall McLuhan once said something to the effect of we don’t know who discovered water but we can be sure it wasn’t a fish — and that’s the premise of all three of these things, that we’re trying to discover the water we’re swimming in.

Is there truth to the stereotype of the Jewish character waylaid by guilt?

I would say from clinical experience that although guilt is a Jewish stereotype, as the Levy’s Jewish Rye Bread commercial would say, you don’t have to be Jewish. I see it quite frequently of people in other religions. I’ve also been impressed by the fact that many of my Catholic patients have assumed it was a Catholic stereotype.

Does Donald Trump seem like someone who has an analyst?

I don’t think Donald Trump is someone who can be analyzed. I think he’s a terrifying man who has no conscience and no grasp of cause and effect beyond the strictly manipulative one. He knows how to go after what he wants and he’ll do anything to get it and he’s completely ruthless. If you don’t have a conscience, you can’t be self-observing in a constructive way. If you don’t have that capacity, I’m not sure you can be analyzed.

In addition to your psychoanalytic practice in Menlo Park, you’re an award-winning photographer and have traveled all over the world. When you have something to express, why do you reach for the camera?

Much of my work is street photography, and there is something really fascinating that happens when you are in the street with a camera. By virtue of how the camera separates you from your environment, it allows for an exciting distance. I feel like I’m able to gain a special kind of intimacy with my subjects, which I just love. When I’m not taking pictures of people, the environments I photograph typically involve passages and transitions. This echoes my psychoanalytic interest — of what’s underneath.

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Hannah Rubin

Hannah Rubin is a writer at J. She can be reached at [email protected].