Talk Therapy: Frances - Week 4: Ep 92

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

There are many elements that make this episode very rich but at the top of my list is that, for the first time, I felt emotionally connected to Frances.  It has been relatively easy to feel an attachment to Sunil and to Jesse (and even to Adele!), but Frances presented a greater challenge. Once Frances let us in on her experience with her dying mother, suddenly she felt more three-dimensional. The irony for me is that I could see more of her precisely at the same moment that I could feel that she barely existed-for herself or for her mother. 

The clip I have chosen begins with Frances nipping at Paul for rejecting her invitation to come to her opening. Then there is a fascinating sequence in which Paul asks if Frances is upset with him,  thanks her anyway for inviting him, doesn't wait for her answer, suggests she invite her daughter, Izzy,  reassures her that she has not lost Izzy for good, discloses that he had himself feared he had lost his daughter, and reassures Frances that Izzy truly admires her.  He notes that Frances persistently puts herself down and views herself as having nothing to offer as Frances.  Frances then moves the focus to her experience with her mother who was her most avid fan, whose presence was "like a special light that shone just on me."

Some questions that arise are: is Paul reluctant to hear that Frances is upset with him? Why does he feel compelled to reassure her that her daughter loves her and won't disappear? When he self-discloses about his daughter, is this a lapse of a boundary (for which Paul is, of course, infamous) or a judicious use of self-disclosure? Who is he speaking about when he speaks of Frances feeling she has nothing to offer except when she is in her role as an actress?  Indeed, in many episodes across all three seasons, Paul is really describing himself-often without self-awareness-when he is interpreting the meaning of his patients' behavior. (Remember when Frances says there are "overlaps" between her and the character she is portraying in The Night of the Iguana? Frances, portrayed by Debra Winger, that is!) 

Finally, this entire episode seems to turn on the question Frances struggles with, is there a there there? Is this a question we can ask also of Paul?  Near the end of the episode, Paul reassures Frances that her mother could not have been disappointed in Frances' absence when mother was dying because, "your mother didn't know you weren't there."  This comment by Paul is deeper than even he realizes because this may be precisely why Frances has not existed for us or for herself before this clip: because Frances' mother may never have seen the little girl  who was there, so Frances could never see herself.  In similar fashion, was Paul really "there," i.e., seen by his mother or his father?

Rachel Seidel, MD

Though we are getting a few brief glimpses of what's inside Frances' mind in week 4, she remains mostly a figure obscured by smoke and fractured by mirrors for me. As she tells Paul, "all my connections are fiction, always have been," adding later that, after performing, "I go home, the apartment's dark, the fridge is empty."  I think these are important revelations about her self-experience and self-state. 

Is what Frances presents to Paul and to us as her shallowness ("no there there") a reflection and extension of something important missing since her early life with her idealized mother? This is certainly possible. From Frances' description, we can imagine that her mother's constant presence at her daughter's performances involved at least as much self-interest and vicarious, narcissistic pleasure as it involved love for Frances.

So, perhaps there really is "no there there." I'm interested, however, in another possibility. What if we think of her apparent emptiness as a form of protection or defense? Has Frances, by dint of growing up in an environment that didn't encourage individuation and open expression of feelings, especially of angry feelings or interpersonal confrontations, learned to hide her nascent true feelings and perceptions with smoke and mirrors? Has Frances sadly come to conceal her true feelings even from herself? She is seemingly compliant with Paul, nips her anger at him in the bud when she feels rejected, and she also avoids confrontation with her sister, indeed avoids the realities of illness and death.

Frances' narrative about her mother seems to me, at least in part, to be another performance. While it is somewhat affecting and one feels the germ of some emotional truth in it, Frances brings out the smoke and mirrors again; she razzles and dazzles Paul and us with a story that tells of love, but love that is expressed partly in the form of a collusion with her mother to cover up the reality of illness and pain with face paint and theatricality, literally putting a good face on it.

In relation to putting on a face, it is noteworthy that their session starts with Paul admiring Frances' new haircut and hair color. At the end of the session, she "puts on her face" again before leaving, then wants to make sure there's no one at the "Stage Door" [my expression, not hers]. She leaves-and like a character in a play-returns only to drop a bombshell of a line on Paul and on us: She has the results of the test for the BRCA gene, a test that may change her external and psychic realities in extraordinary ways. Provocatively, Frances says-with an apparent indifference that belies what might be enormous fear-they can talk about it next time. The fog rolls back in, exit stage right.

Paul is going through his own personal difficulties and may not be thinking clearly on his own. However, it seems to me, that Frances often beclouds Paul's ability to think, throws him off his axis, and seems to evoke in him a wish to disclose personal information. Several times in the course of this episode, Paul tries to wake himself from reverie, to say something meaningful, emphatic, in order to try to touch her more deeply; sometimes he even succeeds. Frances also evokes Paul's vulnerability, and they are drawn into an enactment in which, even while Paul is encouraging Frances to be curious rather than self-punishing, he overrides his own curiosity, making assumptions about Frances' feelings, giving reassurance (which though sometimes helpful, can also be depressing and leave someone feeling not understood at all), and reveals in various ways his own personal and family concerns.

On the other hand, there is also a sense of growth and hope in this episode: We learn that Frances is doing better at work, not forgetting her lines, and Paul is gaining some insight into her mental life and character, expressing interpretations that she seems able to hear. At moments during this episode, I believed Paul and Frances might connect more deeply, but for the moment it seems too intense perhaps for both of them: Paul moves away from pursuing the promising thread of her anger at him and Frances still slips away from Paul like smoke, with a self-effacing comment, an ironic shrug of the shoulder or curl of the lip, or a deft change of subject matter. I can't wait for some more of the smoke to clear.

Randy Paulsen, MD   

This segment, for me, begins when Frances invites Paul to her opening and he says, "no, thank you."  The scene shifts from the exterior world, her performances, his appearance at her performance, to an interior world, which they begin to share.  Suddenly his question, "are you upset with me?" is asked right in the room between them.  She attempts to accept the "no," saying she knows that it's protocol, a necessary framework, but she is upset.  For the therapist, this moment draws Paul not only into the realm between them, but also back into himself.  What they begin to share takes on realness, substance.  The actors and the writing do an incredible job of enveloping each other and us, the witnessing audience into the drama.  We, like Frances, have "clicked in" - no more worries about "lines."

Paul guesses that Frances might like to invite her daughter, Izzy, and Frances tells him that she can't even be in the same building with her, yet she's still reading her daughter's email.  She mentions an exchange between Izzy and her boy friend who had seen one of Frances' movies on TV and writes, "your mother was amazing,"  She says, "she IS amazing."  A lovely back and forth ensues where Paul tries to show her the positive nature of that comment which she wards off by saying, "it was the performance."  He talks of parenting adolescents as being like watching them go to the dark side of the moon.  Frances unerringly picks up the energy there and asks, "did that happen to you?"  P answers yes, "with my daughter."  This is a good disclosure because it lets her know he is there, too, and that his images come from life experience that they both confront as parents. 

Next you can see Paul begin to draw from his experience in his last session with Adele - he talks about the life of playing roles, being in role, being with patients, a life of other-centeredness that goes on for so long that you no longer know who you are.  Adele had him sitting back, small in the couch, realizing how much he had neglected not only his family, but also his own connection to himself.  This urgent wisdom, half interpretation, half recently gained autobiographical insight is what fuels his reaching out to Frances.  This then enables her, without artifice, to discover, and say that the person she would most like to invite to her opening is her mother.  Her mother whose presence shone like "a special light for me."  Something the tender feeling, feeling seen, that is happening in the room, in the present moment with Paul, may be the spark for this remembering, this realization, of wanting to invite her Mother, to feel that "special light."  As can happen in therapy, the felt experience of this desire in her, for her mother's presence, can help Frances be more real in her life, and in her performance. 

This then leads to further truths about a dying parent, and not being there in reality for that death - a scene not unlike the one between Paul and his father who died before Paul could get there.  This overlap, I imagine, will play out in intriguing ways over the next sessions between two increasingly real people.

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