Talk Therapy: Sunil - Week 4: Ep 91

Though therapists have supervision (recall Paul's sessions with Gina), one thing they don't traditionally get to do is watch the "game tape" of a session. We've enlisted three experts (read their bios) to weigh in on select moments with Paul and his patients. What's said, implied, or deeply buried? Let's go to the videotape...

(The content in these discussions does not reflect the opinions of HBO.)

Joseph Shay, PhD

Isn't Sunil a wonderfully fascinating and complex character? For anyone who hasn't seen the first two seasons of In Treatment, Sunil's treatment is a very good place to peek in on how Paul Weston practices his particular brand of psychotherapy. The patient tells his or her story, Paul listens raptly and carefully, and then Paul draws the patient's awareness to deeper-sometimes contradictory-narratives of the story. This deepening of "truths," if you will, is a cornerstone of psychodynamic psychotherapy.  Not the search for the truth, but the invitation to examine and understand underlying, and often more painful, versions of what is motivating one to behave as he or she does.

Before we enter the clip sequence under discussion, Sunil has spoken with Paul about his certainty that his daughter-in-law, Julia,  is having an affair with the author of a book, Young Boy in the Cave. As Sunil describes Julia's interpretation of the book, we can sense Paul wondering if Sunil's perceptions are driven by elements in his own unconscious. Sunil then shares a "very strange" dream he has had of a "dark-coated animal" lying on the shore of the sea, having fallen from a cliff. In the dream Sunil was unclear whether he was trying to "harm or revive her." He then describes himself burying the animal in his son's backyard only to find that he has already buried something in the hole which he felt was "very very important to me" and he felt he had done something terribly wrong.

Paul invites Sunil to wonder whether the animal being buried was a surrogate for Sunil's daughter-in-law, Julia, suggesting a possible death wish on Sunil's part. Paul has also hinted to Sunil that his aversion to Julia may be a way of denying or rejecting his own possible sexual attraction to her because of how Julia reminds him of either Sunil's deceased wife, Kamala, or perhaps more poignantly, his first love, Malini, with whom he had a forbidden cross-caste relationship.

Sunil has just disclosed to Paul that Malini broke off the relationship with him 32 years ago and it felt like a "spool of hot thread through my heart."  Paul now understands there is a deeper reality and the clip begins with him pointing out to Sunil that the prior version of this story told by Sunil had Sunil ending the relationship with Malini.  Shaken just a little by having his attention drawn to this. Sunil asks Paul why he is so fascinated by the story of this early romance? Paul replies to Sunil, "the part of you that loved Malini is deeply hidden."  This is a core construct of psychodynamic psychotherapy: part of you is deeply hidden. 

Sunil says Paul is talking to a ghost, and Paul picks up on this word, ghost. Why this word and not another? Sunil then reveals-for the first time in 32 years-a more deeply hidden truth. Malini threw herself from a bridge in anguish and drowned, wearing the coat (remember the dark-coated animal?) Sunil had given her before she ended the relationship with him.  The dream of an animal falling off a cliff, interpreted in one way earlier in the session, now has a more resonant meaning for Sunil.

As he does in so many sessions, Paul then sees another hidden connection. Julia figures in this story somewhere, implies Paul, which Sunil finds "preposterous." Paul gently but firmly persists.  It is not a coincidence, he says, that Sunil is so conflicted about the intimate-and powerfully erotic-connection between Arun and Julia which must remind him of his tragic-and powerfully erotic-connection to Malini. Sunil says, "maybe, maybe. I don't know." But we know. We also know that when Paul is so astute, it often suggests he has been resonating to the deeper layer of his patient because of an analogous layer within him. We'll have to wait until he sees Adele later in the week to see what this might be.

Rachel Seidel, MD

Sunil loved watching Malini smoke. I love watching Sunil smoke. I also love listening to him talk with Paul, their faces expressive and mobile, their hand movements communicating to us in a way that even their words cannot. I am moved by Paul and Sunil together-these two immigrants, sitting with cups of steaming tea, trying to learn each other's languages/cultures, suffering from losses of love, stirring the embers of unresolved grief until they sometimes reignite into passion.

Sunil first takes out a cigarette during the initial session with Paul, Arun and Julia-the smoking itself an act forbidden by daughter-in-law, Julia, but later tolerated by Paul who provides a container for Sunil's cigarette ashes. Through this small exchange, we are given to understand on an unspoken level that Sunil is bringing to Paul his pleasure, his compulsion, his self-destruction, his body (or things bodily, odoriferous), his connection to his forsaken homeland, and his preoccupation with the ashes of death and the funeral pyre. In an empathic, role-responsive way, Paul shows that he accepts Sunil's smoke and ashes-literally with an ashtray, but more importantly by his warm welcome and by his open curiosity, by his tolerance of Sunil's pain, by holding what Sunil has said previously in mind, and even by serving tea as a gesture, a bridge between their Irish and Indian cultures.

Though Paul is unfamiliar with Sunil's culture, there is much in him that might resonate with Sunil's internal life and experience: Paul has lost a wife (through divorce rather than illness); Paul has also lost another significant woman, Gina, with whom he too had a boundary-crossing, passionate relationship that still burns, just as Malini still inhabits and possesses Sunil. Sunil's passion for Malini has been concealed, not spoken of to anyone. Sunil's grief and passion re-emerges 32 years later, in the context of his current, heated entanglement with Arun and Julia, and his treatment with Paul. 

Sometimes, of course, smoke obscures fire as well as pointing the way to its location. In this episode, Sunil employs his cigarettes in an effort to distract Paul, to conceal what he is afraid to recognize in himself. As Paul works diligently with Sunil to understand the dream, he asks Sunil to tell more about the "dark-coated animal with labored breathing." This multi-determined image of animal-like yearnings evokes anxiety in Sunil, and he lights a cigarette. Paul pursues, points out that Sunil described the animal as in a state of decline and called it a "her," and Sunil supposes Paul thinks the animal represents Julia. When Paul asks what Sunil thinks, Sunil offers Paul "a smoke," adding, "It's light." Sunil is trying to protect himself, to do "dream interpretation light," rather than enter the cave of the heart, but even as he attempts to conceal his deepest secrets, he associates to Malini who loved to smoke and "smoked as if she knew some great secret." Out tumbles the deeply and painfully felt, previously untold story of his love and loss of Malini, and of her suicide. This allows Paul to compare Sunil and Malini's relationship with the intimacy between Arun and Julia, and to wonder whether this unconscious connection is why Sunil has been so conflicted about Julia.

Is Sunil ready to let the smoke lift and see what's in his mind and heart? His reply, "perhaps."

Randy Paulsen, MD  

When Paul says to Sunil, "I have to point out ... you had made a great sacrifice," he is intervening in a story that Sunil has kept inside, but has not spoken to anyone.  He describes himself as a ghost.  The story has been a ghost story.  An American psychoanalyst, Hans Loewald, uses a Greek myth from the Odyssey to describe psychotherapy.  The therapist provides the context for the ghosts of our past to come to life, to walk about in the room, become the therapist, the dream, the patient.  He alludes to our hidden pasts as ghosts who haunt our lives, until in the present moment, in the telling and remembering, the ghosts "taste the blood of our recognition" become real, felt, and can be laid to rest as ancestors.  This is such a moment in Paul's therapy with Sunil.  This story of Malini, never told to anyone before Paul, has haunted Sunil and currently provokes him to an agitated state living in his son's house. 

We, in the audience, are witness to this process.  Paul confronts Sunil with the fact that his story of how the relationship with Malini ended is different from the previous week.  He alludes to something "deeply hidden'".  And then Sunil tells the story of how Malini threw herself off the bridge between Calcutta and Howrah City wearing Sunil's coat with stones in the pockets (Virginia Woolf).  The suicide is revealed still without much feeling.  Paul says, "I'm so sorry."  Sunil wonders why, Paul did not know her.  But Paul clarifies that it's Sunil's pain, still carried in him all these years that he is sorry about.  "The Police were curious, like you," says Sunil, but this therapy connection is not just a criminal, or intellectual, investigation.  It is an attempt to heal this scar, which is held in the unconscious.  Sunil's language is beautiful - "someone is pulling a hot thread through my heart"-but it is now being spoken in a new context, with new effects on him.  With Paul he is telling this old story to someone who feels pain at hearing, who connects the story to dreams and distortions (his reactions to Julia), and Sunil thus hears his own story through Paul's presence.  This brings Sunil in contact with the actual buried pain that he felt long ago, perhaps a pain that, alone, he had been unable to bear until now.  Even now, it is something hardly bearable. "My mind is like a bad neighborhood, I don't go there alone," writes Annie Lamott.  Paul is Sunil's companion in this visit to his bad neighborhood.

Finally, just a comment about the value of dreams.  This is a rich dream - it leads Sunil to the bad neighborhood.  The writers, and the actors do a wonderful job of placing it in this session.  Culturally bound, Sunil asks for omens, and theory-bound, Paul asks for associations.  They don't get stuck in that sweet irony.  The session evolves.  The fallen, dying she-animal (goat or dog), is prodded by Sunil, time is running out, then he is confronted by his son as he digs a grave for Malini (perhaps) in Orun's backyard.  It provides a way of understanding  Sunil's dilemma in his son's house.  What, and who, has been awakened, is dying, and needs burying?  The dream is Sunil's own unconscious creation, but the meaning of it evolves beautifully in this hour -  a meaning, which he and Paul create, haltingly, together.

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