Merton Gill's Psychoanalytic Paradigm

Lawrence Friedman

[Paper presented on June 10, 1995, at the Annual Meeting of the Rapaport-Klein Study Group]


What follows is a tentative and -- I emphasize - very personal view of Gill's paradigm. I know that he developed his later ideas in collaboration with Irwin Hoffman, and in many respects he simply depended on Irwin's thinking, but I am looking at Gill's paradigm this afternoon as an expression of Merton's own mission, and I ask Irwin to understand that I am not commenting on their joint work, per se, still less the philosophy of constructivism.

Gill was certainly the most vivid, and possibly the most eloquent analyst of my time. His rhetoric was a special blend of prickliness and courtliness. His sharply pointed, perfectly phrased comments animated many a dull meeting, dazzling us with polish and wit that I had imagined to be the exclusive virtue of an earlier era. His prose is graceful and respectful of the reader. It can only have been his thoroughness and precision that prompted Karl Menninger to accuse him of making something boring out of a lively subject. Liveliness can be bought at the expense of accuracy. Gill was too thoughtful for that; he had too much respect for his profession, his colleagues, his interlocutors, everyone who would correspond with him. He was never too ill or too busy to try to reach an understanding with anyone who wished to argue with him. One rarely sees such passion outside of politics or religion. And as to practice, I have been awed by his incredibly selfless dedication to difficult patients.

Gill is known for his forthright (and therefore educational) switchbacks on previously held positions. Like Sandor Ferenczi he was more interested in finding the truth about treatment than in nursing a magnum opus. But, in fact, he was never as one-sided or unqualified in his successive theories as has been alleged, and as even he sometimes came to believe. In fact, it seems to me that he was unusually careful in his formulations. His reputation for going 'to extremes was probably earned by the vigor of his opposition. He knew most clearly what was wrong, so to speak, knew it from direct experience, and knew how to express it crisply.

As a thinker, Gill is generally associated with seven tenets: (1) Psychic structure is a continuum -- a continuum of ego and id, impulse and defense. (2) Psychoanalysis is distinguished from psychotherapy by the induction of regression and the resolution of the transference by interpretation alone. (3) Metapsychology is pseudo-biology. (4) The resistance is mainly fear of plausible transference. (5) The analyst is never a blank screen. (6) Psychoanalysis is not distinguished from psychotherapy by its use of regression; but rather by its fearless scrutiny, especially of transference. (6) [With Hoffman] The analyst lacks authority on the relationship, and should enjoy a freer but more tentative expressiveness.

Despite the zig-zags in his advocacy, I think one can catch sight of a common thread that might lead to a useful characterization of his final paradigm.

To begin with, I think Gill was what in common language is called a realist, and what philosophers call a nominalist. He did not want implacable, smug abstractions to stand between him and experience.

For instance, he thought that Freudian structures were too categorical. That is not realistic, he argued, nor theoretically coherent. Mental activity is not so easily tagged. It's more like a continuum from less to more refined meanings, feelings that are more and less concealed. Mental events don't assemble under the flag of ego or id. They are ego-ish when compared to something id-ish, and id-ish when compared to something more ego-ish; impulse in relation to what's more defensive, defense in relation to what's more impulse, etc. (he got there before Brenner.)

Along the same lines, Gill thought that analysts were using a fake biology in the form of metapsychology, to assign meanings to anatomical and physiological compartments, thus unrealistically tearing them out of the unitary, living web of meaning that we see in clinical work. In real life, as Merton saw it, what actually goes on in the consulting room is hermeneutic conversation. Again, it is a single network of relationships among meanings that analysts really think about, not universal, physicalish groupings.

Having thus objected to mental structures and metapsychology as abstract labels ripped out of the real network of human meaning, it was natural for Gill to add "transference" and "resistance" to his list of misleading abstractions. If you get up close to a real treatment, you realize that transference is not a phase of analysis, or a type of hallucinatory experience, unconnected to the whole interaction. And as to resistance, it cannot be abstracted from the treatment event, since resistance is not an. abstract force; it is whatever the patient is disavowing in his relationship to the analyst at every moment. Analysts who wait for Transference or Resistance to come on stage like the ghost of Hamlet's father are, like Hamlet, chicken-hearted cowards frittering away the time for action.

It is not surprising that Gill's nominalism would eventually summon the whole, traditional picture of treatment to judgement. He found in it something even more pernicious than fake psychic structures, something worse than pseudobiological-metapsychology, something more dishonest than Resistance-with-a-capital-R. It is the custom of packaging the analyst's actions as a taken-for-granted, null class of events, a neutral backdrop for the patient's gratuitous displays of unprovoked affect. Gill said that you will never understand what the patient is experiencing, let alone enable him to express it, if you think that you're doing something abstract, called analysis, rather than doing something individual and personal that warrants a personal reaction. Gill knocked analytic treatment right off its Platonic pedestal, and when you pick up the pieces, it's just an analyst and a patient reacting to each other. The analyst is doing something, not conducting something.

Since the patients preconscious was the register of the analyst's behavior, this had the important effect of calling overdue attention to the preconscious as the site of analytic work. To see what was in that register, the analyst would have to entertain the patient's view as a plausibility, en route to determining -- not truth or distortion, but the patient's customary bias. [Nominalism was thus encouraging egalitarianisms and cooperativeness.]

This touches on another theme in Gill's work -- a theme that defined his last work. 1 have suggested as one motive that Gill wanted to be realistic -- even immediate -- with patients, and so for theory, chose a continuum rather than abstract structures, and for practice, a personal interaction rather than a psychoanalytic "situation." But, further, I think Gill felt that technical abstractions were not just unwarranted reifications, but also tools that analysts use to intimidate and manipulate patients; the second motive in his work, that became dominant at the end, was hatred of manipulation. When the analyst pigeon-holes behavior as "impulse" or "defense," as a shift of energy, a resistance to treatment, or a transference projection, not only is he thinking badly (according to Gill); his type-casting is preventing the patient from recognizing what's being done to him. Gill saw that many analytic traditions amount to a kind of gas-lighting, a professional bullying. It is not just that abstractions are false; they also coerce patients by prejudging them.

Gill seems to have subscribed to a Nietzschean truth: To assume that you "know" about someone ahead of time guarantees that you will manipulate him -- it is already a manipulation of him. Gill's skepticism of abstract items and his preference for continuous immediacy, now joined forces with his hatred of intimidation and manipulation, and he was ready for his final battle.

His last enemy was nothing less than all the foreknowledge that goes unquestioned by the analyst. He waged war against unreflective, unchallenged routines, everything that forecloses a new meaning at a new moment with a new individual. He challenged smug assumptions because they coerced the patient's meanings. But it wasn't a precious concern with individuality that absorbed Gill. He was not an existentialist. He believed in analysis as a general process that should be investigated by consensual study. He believed in tracking down hidden truths -- painful truths when necessary. He was an innovator in psychoanalytic documentation, and a leader in psychoanalytic research. He considered psychoanalysis a form of science. I think Irwin Hoffman's philosophy of social constructivism offered him a way of coming freshly to the patient and remaining open-minded, without having to restrain his exposure of subterfuge. 1 think he was drawn to constructivism because it respected individuality without mystifying it -- Gill, I think, hated mystification. The point was not to celebrate individuality, but to avoid manipulating, bullying, fooling people. And "people" includes analysts. For Gill was no more willing to be coerced than to be coercive. That's how he differed from some other anti-authoritarian theorists, such as Schwaber. I think he saw those others as masochistically reversing the old bullying, and allowing themselves to be uselessly stifled. It is difficult, indeed, to imagine a theory so powerful that it would persuade Merton Gill to allow himself to be stifled. Social constructivism permitted both parties to thrive.

Although Gill would doubtless have continued to describe analysis as a quest for understanding, I get the impression that, at the end, another definition was almost as important to him: psychoanalysis is the continuous effort to interact without manipulating. Just as Kohut thought of understanding mainly as a way to restore the empathic bond, so, I suggest, Gill's honest probing of the interaction was mainly intended to clean up subtle coercion and restore integrity to the relationship. Gill's final definition of psychoanalysis was embodied in the mantra: Nothing remains unanalyzed. And why is everything to be analyzed? Not to dissolve it; the transference does not end. And not to accumulate knowledge; that's too vague an aim. The fundamental reason that nothing should remain unanalyzed is so that every interpersonal force will be undermined by reflection, rather than being re-enforced by a silent assumption.

Gill felt personally responsible for carrying forward Freud's work in Freud's manner, that is, without sycophancy or compromise. I think he did it. He made logical sense out of the structural theory. He rescued Freud's transference and resistance paradigm from reification. And, finally, he made an honest man of Freud in regard to one vital treatment promise. It would have brought down Gill's formidable wrath on me for saying so, but say it I must: In his final years, Gill was busy polishing up Freud's blank screen.

We all know that, for Gill, the blank screen metaphor was the Devil himself. But in its origin, the blank screen meant that the analyst would be the only person in the world who did not impose a fixed role and relationship on his partner. What Gill did was to catch Freud welshing on this promise, and he found that analysts had been cheating on it ever since. The way they did it is by hiding their actions in a sealed envelope called, the blank screen. In effect, Gill recognized that, to be truly dedicated to the goal of the blank screen, the analyst would have to stop pretending that he is one, and, instead, continuously analyze his unavoidable impact.

In a way, the same thing applies to technique; customary analytic technique pretends to be a kind of blank action. In his later work Gill pointed to the great, nominalist truth that in personal reality there is no technique, just this analyst and that patient. It is only by sleight of hand that the analyst makes some actions seem to materialize out of a timeless, nether-world called technique, when, in fact, the analyst is actually doing a something to someone at some time.

Thus Gill was angry with me for talking about how "The analyst" behaves, and he scolded me for imagining what this means to "The patient." "You don't know that," I heard him say, In effect, "You have to look and see. Talking to us in this room, you don't know the analyst; you don't know the patient and you don't know the moment." It startled me to realize that my picture of the analyst as not a blank screen offended Gill as much as other people's picture of the analyst as a blank screen. And then I realized why: It is pictures drawn ahead of time -- any pictures -- that prejudice the issue. I realized that in Gill's eyes, my antecedent. supposedly superior knowledge makes me a manipulator rather than an inquirer. In other words, by presuming to know ahead of time, I was not being blank enough to receive on my screen whatever the therapeutic moment would create. 1 was bound to paste an unquestioning image of myself onto the interaction, and then dishonestly claim that I was just reading out what's there. [Gill also suspected that I was trying to rid myself of the characteristics I was describing and thus make myself invisible, or that I automatically assumed that if patients accused me of manipulating them, they must be right.]

Gill was at the forefront of a major movement in psychoanalysis. Its agenda involves confronting the reality of treatment events, stripping away protective self-images from the analyst, and refocusing on the bite and crunch of effective therapy (which usually lies in the newly freed negative feelings about the analyst's behavior).

In Gill's paradigm the analyst is wary of all fixed, abstract knowledge and keeps an open mind about every level of work from the expectations of daily routine, through grand theory of the mind, on up to the notion of a pre-established reality.

This paradigm is modeled on ordinary conversation; a wish to communicate is assumed as its base-line. The work is mutual and cooperative in conception, but unpredictable as experienced. The analyst calls out when he spots a muffled communication, and he leans over backward to catch uncomfortableness in the relationship. A strenuous effort is made to examine all the inputs to the patient's situation. The idea behind the treatment is that one's sense of things is obscured by fixed assumptions, and is clarified when both parties note how they mutually weave meanings together.

What about technique? Technique joins other eternal truths in the dust bin. It comes down to "Just analyze!" Some older analysts used to say that, too. But the reason they scorned technique was that they fancied themselves to be intuitive knowers and "just analyze" for them meant "keep reading out the id," whereas Gill despised technique as a manipulative pretension, and his "just analyze" meant demystifying and deconstructing personal impacts.

In short, Gill's last paradigm is a rigorous attempt to rid analysis of the element of manipulation. There are several such projects today, but few that so consistently seek to neutralize manipulation on the levels of both action and thought -- few that so consistently deconstruct performatives (as Havens calls them) by both analyst and patient.

To what end, we might ask? Obviously the goal can no longer be to point out distortion -- not even to point out bias among a range of possibilities. The final goal can only be to provide an experience of mutual freedom and fearlessness; to show how meanings come about; and to foster a coherent and autonomous life.

[Note: An Italian translation of this paper, titled "Il paradigma psicoanalitico di Merton Gill", appeared in Psicoterapia e scienze umane, 1997, XXXI, 1: 9-16. A later version, titled "A personal view of Gill's paradigm", appeared in D.K. Silverman & D.L. Wolitzky, editors, Changing Conceptions of Psychoanalysis: The Legacy of Merton M. Gill, Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press, 2000, pp. 30-35; European distributor: Eurospan. We thank for the permission]

Lawrence Friedman, M.D.
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New York, NY 10021
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