Unfree Associations

Parasitic Whiteness on and off the couch

Two wooden chairs, superimposed to look like one chair broken in half, lie against a plain white background.
Romy Scheroder, Mirror, Mirror. 2010, original vintage and reproduction chairs. 23 × 24 × 16”. Courtesy of the artist.

On May 27, 2021, Donald Moss, a New York psychoanalyst, published an article titled “On Having Whiteness” in the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association to little immediate fanfare. Rarely, anyway, is a psychoanalytic publication much anticipated these days, even one by a prominent analyst such as Moss, even on such a potentially provocative subject. Barely a week later, Moss began receiving some unusual messages. 

The first came from the Federalist, seeking comment for a story by the young right-wing journalist Spencer Lindquist, set to publish June 7. Lindquist had somehow gotten hold of the abstract for “On Having Whiteness.” Moss, hoping to correct some misinterpretations in the commentary Lindquist previewed for him, spoke on the record before anyone could advise him not to engage. By June 8, the Federalist’s hot take on Moss’s article began to go viral. I was made aware of this like everyone else: by screenshot after screenshot of the abstract appearing on my Twitter feed. I scrolled with my phone under the table at dinner.

On Having Whiteness

Whiteness is a condition one first acquires and then one has — a malignant, parasitic-like condition to which “white” people have a particular susceptibility. The condition is foundational, generating characteristic ways of being in one’s body, in one’s mind, and in one’s world. Parasitic Whiteness renders its hosts’ appetites voracious, insatiable, and perverse. These deformed appetites particularly target nonwhite peoples. Once established, these appetites are nearly impossible to eliminate. Effective treatment consists of a combination of psychic and social-historical interventions. Such interventions can reasonably aim only to reshape Whiteness’s infiltrated appetites — to reduce their intensity, redistribute their aims, and occasionally turn those aims toward the work of reparation. When remembered and represented, the ravages wreaked by the chronic condition can function either as warning (“never again”) or as temptation (“great again”). Memorialization alone, therefore, is no guarantee against regression. There is not yet a permanent cure.

Keywords: racism, envy, groups, aggression

I excused myself and called home; Don is my stepfather. 

The story that follows is of two brief inquisitions that took place this past summer. One, as you might easily suspect, occurred at the hands of the alt-right. The other is less obvious, if only for being hidden away: a trial of Moss by his own colleagues, psychoanalysts terminable and interminable.

Donald Moss is in his late seventies and typically practices from an office in downtown Manhattan. Outside the psychoanalytic community, he’s not famous, or wasn’t before this summer. Moss began his career, as nearly all psychoanalysts of his generation did, as a medical doctor, a path out of an impoverished childhood in Detroit. First working in Queens, Moss then did a long stint at SUNY Downstate while slowly growing his private practice. 

Moss has written since the 1980s about hatred, as he calls it, “in the first-person plural.” Moss (whom I refer to by his last name here because I’m describing the thinker, not the father) argues that we hide what we individually desire by joining a group that hates the category we desire. Collective hatred allows us to dissolve, to eradicate individuality, to spare ourselves from confronting desire. And — a secondary gain — it allows us to enter a group. We don’t hate alone. 

This is a pervasive cultural logic: “boys” are “mean” to the “girls” they crush on; women supposedly hate those they might want or want to be like (a terrible trick of envy). Moss isn’t really talking about these examples. Drawing from a blend of Frankfurt School theory — almost always Adorno — and Freudian psychoanalysis, popular culture, and automatic writing, Moss thinks about the way hatred defends masses against desire. His work thus presents a challenge for clinicians: one cannot disidentify with the hatred one encounters in the consulting room. One must sit with being linked to hatred. Put simply — and it is not a simple task — one cannot use a normative morality or liberal position to say, Well, racism is over there, in my patient, but since I don’t relate to QAnon, I am not racist. Instead of “I’m not,” “I am.” And so the harder question still: “How am I?” 

“On Having Whiteness” is a continuation of this earlier work. In the essay, Moss is not so much describing that we hate in the third person plural, but how we come to do so. Moss doesn’t argue that only white people have what he calls Parasitic Whiteness, but he notes that white people are much more susceptible to it. What is it they’re sick with? Moss metaphorizes how this particular psychic complex — a way of being, of categorizing the other, and of understanding the self — comes to take root in an individual via the social. He traces how it comes to live inside them, and how, once inside, it “infiltrates our drives” — the drives of its “host.” Once there, writes Moss, “Parasitic Whiteness generates a state of constantly erotized excitement, a drift toward frenzy. Fix, control, and arouse; want, hate, and terrorize.” 

None of this sat well with the far right. By June 9, the image of the abstract had circulated more broadly. The initial indignation of Federalist readers and sympathizers, who were enraged by Moss’s arch comment that there “is no cure” for Whiteness, spread through right-wing online channels, then bled into therapy Twitter. Eventually the academic left had its say too. A close colleague of mine declared Moss the main character of the internet that week (without knowing our relationship). At home, Moss was receiving death threats on social media (where he has no account) and on his work voice mail and private email; his work address, and then his home address, were circulated online. In a tragedy of errors, another medical doctor named Donald Moss was simultaneously attacked on Twitter. This Donald Moss has a few hundred followers and serves as the dean of the College of Integrative Medicine and Health Sciences at Saybrook University. He is not a psychoanalyst, and certainly didn’t write the paper, but the confusion may stem from more than his haters’ impatience to direct a comment to the offending party via a furious @. By algorithmic error, Dr. Moss and Dr. Moss had already been confused for each other online: Google Donald Moss and the psychoanalyst’s books and claims pop up — with the dean’s photograph. Elsewhere, the reverse is true. It is, after all, a common enough pair of names. Yet it was a fact that some made much of, seeing meaning where a search engine failed.

The wrong Dr. Moss also reported his phone ringing off the hook; trolls pored over his digital footprint. He pleaded online that he wasn’t a psychoanalyst and that he had not written the article in question, and in a panicky attempt to clear his name, he falsely claimed that the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association had printed a retraction. Some apologized to him (ostensibly for threatening his life). Others clung to the notion that it was an alternate account, or that one Dr. Moss (my parent) had hacked the other. On the right and within psychiatric communities, some claimed it was a “false paper,” the whole thing akin to the Sokal affair, in which Social Text was publicly shamed for accepting a hoaxed paper. The journal had made no such apology, issued no such correction; the article was, I guess it must be said, “real.” It was an easy falsehood to claim, one probably meant to just shut the commentary down. No such luck for either Dr. Moss.

The full outrage machine — and it is a machine — lurched into motion. Newsweek picked up the story, followed by the New York Post and the Daily Mail. Don — that is, my Don — alternated between despair and disbelief, finally saying to me, “I guess it will be all right. Fine, even — if I don’t get hit over the head with a baseball bat.” At a bar near our home in Oakland, my husband and I overheard one of the two white men at the next table say: “What the shrink was talking about . . .” and then, as references to Nazi Germany piled up, it became clear that we were overhearing a kind of red-pilling meetup, an intake; my stepfather was the cause du jour.

Alt-reading proceeds as a method: born out of decontextualization, it convenes a new reality, then detects fallacy, unearths conspiracy.


Online, the whole contemporary troll toolkit was in use. Inane negative reviews were left on all of Moss’s books on Amazon, including screenshots from the Daily Mail. False testimony to his clinical work followed, posted online by people Moss had never seen in private practice, again easy to spot: “Horrable [sic] advice and very off putting in nature. This medical practice should be called into question. Medical board should evaluate and look into the practice and qualifications.”

Some trolls on Twitter — and perhaps elsewhere; I didn’t look — went down a rabbit hole of information-gathering, weaving together a damaging fact pattern. They read the Moss essay as evidence of a lifelong conspiracy to commit crimes against white humanity, scouring Moss’s older works to substantiate their claims. They concentrated on a passage from Moss’s 2012 book, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Man, wherein he describes a serious childhood illness: 

My grandmother reminded me of my obligations as a Jew. She said I was twice indebted: to her for the blood she had once given me and to Abraham for everything else. She said these debts must be honored. Until they are honored, she said, dying was not within my rights. She said: “You are our only revenge. You are our Hitler. Promises have been made. The dead are watching and must not be disappointed.” . . .

She said: “You will only die by an act of will. As long as you are alive, Hitler has lost .”

The focus on this passage was what I call alt-reading in action. Alt-reading proceeds as a method: born out of decontextualization, it convenes a new reality, then detects fallacy, unearths conspiracy. One of its prime maneuvers is something I refer to as right-washing. Right-washing, by using aggressive historical analogy and association to other evils, yields a reading predicated on inversion: “You have called me a name — but it is you whom the name describes.”

The workup of the above passage that circulated online, initially provided by the New York Post, was a mimicry of what I perform with my students when I teach close reading — or, more accurately, of the assignments they hurriedly hand in, particularly when new to the practice. It is doubly annotated, in yellow highlight and red underline, as if to say, See, that’s what he wrote, just there. Let me show you two ways that are, in fact, the same way: pointing. It’s a reading that declares meaning to be at once latent and manifest, a hermeneutics of suspicion turned true paranoid reading. It is Moss, the Jew, who is a Nazi. 

This reading, like all alt-readings, bypassed the historical and material reality — the framing — of the quote. The context, provided by Moss just outside the screenshot of the passage, is that the conversation is a fantasy. It is a fiction, an autofiction, or what Don would call, when telling us stories as children, “a fake real.” In this chapter of Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Man, Moss remembers having polio as a child. He gives two accounts back-to-back, one a real-real, the other a fake real: two of the thirteen ways of looking at a man. It may bear repeating that this is made plain in the text — it is notated. The real story: his mother had taken him to a lake in Michigan where polio was known to be spreading. (When asked some six decades later why she did it, she took a beat and said, “I was an iconoclast.”) He was in a polio ward for some time, consumed with a fear of dying and trying not to die. The fictional story Moss tells is a fantasy of being hooked up to an impossible collective breathing machine where his grandmother, urging him to survive, in a speech she never made, calls Moss “our Hitler.”

The alt-reader doesn’t make things up, but forms a twisted, abstract, decontextualized connection to say, See, he is their Hitler. The message is understood to be decoded precisely in the absence of decoding. The reading prides itself on doing exactly the work it refuses. They could have read it better, sure, but the readers were perhaps too busy using Amazon’s Look Inside function, where only one set of pages materializes at a time. This past summer, if you searched Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Man for the word Hitler, you couldn’t read far up enough to see the claim of fiction. Now you can’t read page 46 (where the word Hitler occurs) in preview at all, because so many searched for it and thus Amazon won’t give it away for free. Yet at the peak of Don’s troubles, Look Inside — which in another context could be a kind of statement of psychoanalysis’s own aims — allowed the readers to read “On Having Whiteness” as an extension of his grandmother’s words, to take the paper as the sign of prophecy fulfilled. As in: Look, Moss is proposing a final solution to what he sees as an incurable disorder; this doctor wants all whites to die.

On June 10, Fox News’s Tucker Carlson did a spot condemning the hateful white analyst. I, now near certain that things were about to move from online to off as Don feared, called a friend who had once been the object of such attention. “How bad is this going to get?” He was calm: “Once it’s on Tucker, it’s over. Give it forty-eight hours.” 

On June 11, the New York Psychoanalytic Institute & Society (NYPSI), where Moss is a member and on the faculty, shut down because of security concerns after receiving its own threats — echoing, however faintly, the actual Nazi destruction of psychoanalytic institutes in Eastern and Central Europe nearly a century ago. My parents were urged to contact the FBI (they didn’t). And then, as my friend had predicted, the alt-right and mainstream attention to the psychoanalyst came to a sputtering halt, as though once the concern was voiced on Fox it had been recognized, reified, and could be let go, if only to make room for the next panic.

In its place, as if on tape delay, psychoanalysis itself began to react to the paper. Perhaps out of solidarity with the fallen analyst, or because institutes had shuttered as a result of credible bomb threats, or because psychoanalysis is unused to the limelight, most analysts had remained mum in the initial firestorm. (Many were asked to by their membership organizations and on listservs.) Once the immediate physical danger had passed, however, an in-field debate — with most speaking against Moss, and some overtly hostile — crystallized around the ostensible question: What does it mean for a psychoanalyst, and maybe especially a white one, to write about whiteness?

The analyst is enjoined not to hate. Or at least, not in the way the patient is permitted on the couch. Psychoanalysis has historically set neutrality as a goal: to contain the feeling mind and its history, the analyst must bracket the world, their sociality, desires. The only problem is this is impossible, especially if we concede that there is something called an unconscious.

Psychoanalysis has long been charged with being the stuff of imposture. Freud worked tirelessly to keep charges of charlatanism at bay, including suppressing from public view some of his more out-there findings (on telepathy and the like) for the overall good of his nascent science. Psychoanalysis enjoyed a reprieve from these charges during its most medicalized and enshrined period, from about 1945 to 1970. But once “evidence-based” treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy came to dominate the American mental health care ecosystem, Freud mania gave way to a new-old conception of psychoanalysis as very strange, if not also out of touch. It was solely for the white and wealthy, required a decade of navel-gazing to make any progress at all, and was almost obscene, if not outright perverted.

American psychoanalysis answered to these new pressures by demedicalizing itself. It opened up to include nondoctors (which helped diversify the practice, especially with regard to gender). At the same time, the discipline responded in part by making its purview even smaller, delimiting what it was for: the psychic, not the social. That doesn’t mean there aren’t analysts whose practice stems from other theories — there are — but their tradition is the minor one; the major one holds that for psychoanalysis to be itself, analysts must think of their own social position as separate from the task at hand, even as all humanities and other social sciences have long held that the individual is inextricable from the social. 

The doctrine of neutrality allows the analyst to function as a scientist of the psyche, to listen “evenly” as opposed to unevenly. To float, to be all ear and paradoxically no body, unswayed by any larger social forces. To observe not as a subject but as an objective reader and archivist of the mind. Neutrality requires that the analyst withhold themselves so that the patient can project onto them, or, as Hans Loewald has it, so they can appear “as a mirror which actively reflects back to the patient the latter’s conscious.” As with any mirror, it is assumed that the clearer it is, the better it reflects. A clouded mirror will not do.

His betrayal? Making race and racism a central node of the psyche — as if he were the first to do so.


Perhaps the field’s reliance on the neutral stance is multiply determined. In the United States, psychoanalysis’s relationship to neutrality may come from Freud, but it was forever changed by the arrival and influx of émigré psychoanalysts from Eastern Europe during and after World War II. A great many of these analysts were, I think we can safely say, traumatized. They also, by and large, didn’t want to acknowledge it. Like many survivors, they wouldn’t speak it, not even as scientists of the talking cure. Or perhaps it’s the other way: ever since Freud moved away from the seduction theory (which holds that neurosis was caused by repressed memories of sexual abuse), many psychoanalysts have believed trauma to be in essence too concrete, too literal a theory of psychic pain. Freud is often interpreted as having traded wholesale the notion of universal, objective real abuse for the universal, subjective fantasy of it. In fact, he exchanged universal material abuse for a universal theory of trauma, one that took trauma to be so foundational for a person that it preceded any additional experience. We come into this world with annihilation anxiety. If we have subsequent reason to fear our annihilation (and we will), it will compound in fantasy. 

Nevertheless, many American psychoanalysts then left a real, pervasive trauma at the door — not just their own, but also their patients’. In practice, this has resulted less in a neutral stance than a narrow one. Charles Brenner, the former president of NYPSI, whom Janet Malcolm called “the intransigent purist of American psychoanalysis” and who might, to speak ill of the dead, be referred to as a neutrality cop, went so far as to argue that when it came to the presentation of symptoms or the success of a treatment, it simply didn’t matter if a case had its roots in the Holocaust or that a patient or their parent had survived atrocity. All that mattered was the transference, the psychic action in the room. By coat-checking their social reality, analysts made it possible to reify a kind of assimilated American Jewish whiteness as the norm for the psychoanalyst: the unmarked, unspoken position. They linked universal neutrality to Freud’s “evenly hovering listening.” And what it produced and maintained were white ears.

Like trauma, the political is understood to cloud the mirror, to break neutrality. It is also understood to be containable. Asked for whom one voted, the analyst is not supposed to answer. We may wear our symptoms all too publicly, but not our politics. Neutrality is also protective, then: it confers the power on psychoanalysis to sit outside time, place, politics, and history. The British analyst Hanna Segal claimed, “I am a citizen first, and a psychoanalyst second.” As lived, however, that meant that while she was a citizen first, in the consulting room she was an analyst only, and though she might be applauded for her attempts to shatter the neutral mirror when not practicing, she was not the norm. Analysts are not supposed to be activists at all. Analysts can perhaps be one and then the other. This strategic continence has been extended beyond the consulting room to the field of theory. What would it mean for the process of analytic work to hold in mind the material circumstances from whence the patient came, and of which the analyst is also an involuntary part?

“On Having Whiteness” takes the social in the individual to one possible end. Put another way, it starts with a beginning. When Moss was a little boy, he had a friend named Bobby. We, as Don’s children, knew the story of Bobby. It was a kind of fundamental shame episode in his young life that, despite being the kind of thing many would want to forget, and certainly not publicize, Don impressed upon us as a lesson. Now readers of his essay know it too. Bobby had, in Moss’s words, a “severe cleft palate.” Moss loved Bobby, and Bobby was the best person in his young life. Moss writes, “When school started, though, I went to a regular school while Bobby was sent to one for disabled kids. That was the end of the friendship. We never spoke again.” Moss tells us that this wasn’t instructed, nor was it corrected parentally or societally. Instead, it was a product of “mapping,” a term he uses to describe how we situate the self and its objects psychologically and socially to understand our location in the world of people. When someone maps — and we all do — there are those people beneath one, less than oneself and therefore forbidden as erotic and love objects. Here is where hatred comes. Then there are those “above one,” who are also forbidden. Hatred blooms there too. 

What it produced and maintained were white ears.


While Bobby was or is white, this mapping was predicated on another bodily difference, on the axes of disability and ableism. But for Moss, this anecdote is an example of what he metaphorically calls Parasitic Whiteness, a genre of mapping, at its earliest work in a subject — himself. Throughout his childhood, he continued to map. A beloved aunt was too fat and therefore revolting. JT, a neighborhood friend, became legible as Black and thus to be avoided. “Once begun,” Moss writes, “the rest can seem like simple common sense, the preservation of the host’s proper place — somewhere near the apex — within the only proper and permanent Order of Things.” Parasitic Whiteness takes time to take hold. It does so via any hierarchical articulation of difference, or in Moss’s terms, a vertical map in which the subject has placed themselves above the other. Moss had mapped Bobby as below, and from there all else followed. In the place of his deep love for Bobby, now lost, emerged hatred, a new possession. And Moss was possessed — or, in the metaphorics of the paper, he was a newly available host to a parasite. Evoking Cheryl Harris, Moss writes: “I was no longer merely white; I was White. I had property and properties.”

The paper argues that mapping, and Parasitic Whiteness specifically, is as Fred Moten has remarked “killing you, too, however much more softly.” Here’s Moss: 

But with this claiming comes a fear of a crash, of losing everything, of having it taken away. So Parasitic Whiteness, bent first on dominion, now bends toward aversive and then violent defense. Defense now a permanent necessity, safety turns into anxiety, freedom into paranoia, escape into entrapment . Parasitic Whiteness, promising health, delivers sickness.

If Moss’s paper describes where and why Parasitic Whiteness operates, then the blowback to its thesis proceeded to enact it: white people are so attached to whiteness that they engage a violent defense. For white people ill with their whiteness, the problem was not only the critique itself but that Moss made it. Don was tracing Parasitic Whiteness in himself. He is also Jewish, the bearer of the intransigent ambiguity of the category of white. This difficulty of mapping resulted in trolls arguing over whether this meant he was a race traitor pure and simple (a white man selling out whites), a Marxist Nazi marching whites to their death, a kike, or, most coherently incoherently, all three. The symbols and categories desegregated, a most obvious symptom of right-washing. Moss was self-hating; or he was, as those pointing to the character of my great-grandmother Anna were sure, getting retribution for the Holocaust, a genocide left unfinished such that Jews (Moss somehow in charge) could rise up against whites once more. The category errors were symptomatic of exactly the kind of mapping illness Moss discusses in his work, but also of what happens when such psychic designations fail to function. Either way, it begot what it described: hatred in the first-person plural.

The voice mails were all in one psyche, lived in dozens of subjects:

Donald, “On Having Whiteness,” and you’re a filthy Jew. Shame on you.

I came across your psychobabble online. Whiteness is a disease? Do you schmucks just come up with this stuff to make more money and make a name for yourselves? It’s complete psychobabble insanity. There’s no such thing as Whiteness. Whiteness is a fucking color, you fucking moron. There’s thousands of activists working right now on getting licenses revoked from doctors who are pushing this racist psychobabble. You shouldn’t be counseling anybody. You suffer from white guilt . You’re a sociopath. A fucking mental patient .

I got a message for you. Go fuck yourself, you fucking scumbag. Piece of fucking shit . I got an idea. I’m a white guy. I’m in Florida. Why don’t you come down here and say to me what you said in your interview when you didn’t have anyone around you. Come down here to West Palm Beach, motherfucker. You’re a fucking pussy doctor, that’s what you are. And of course, you’re connected to New York and San Francisco. What a fucking surprise. You’re a fucking scumbag. You’ve got my number. Give me a call back, you piece of shit . See what you’ve got to say. Or come down to Florida and tell me to my face what you said. You fucking piece of shit . Go fuck yourself. You’re as much of a fucking doctor as Jill Biden. You’re an asshole. You’re in some hot water, man. Everyone knows what you said about being white. I’m gonna tie a chain around your spinal column and hook it up to my white truck. You’ll be tied to the tree after I lynch you and you’re gonna be. I’m gonna fuck you. Fuck you. I’d watch my back.

You’re gonna be ripped apart in the street by the people. You’re gonna die.

How you doing, Donny. It’s we the people calling you again. People are destroying you, you know, it’s hilarious. You’re an obvious fucking lunatic. My whiteness makes me terrorize nonwhite people? Well, you’re white and I’m about to terrorize you six ways from fucking Sunday. You’re gonna be ripped apart by bare hands in the street . Gonna be like a barbecued pig at a luau. Everyone gets their hands in there and fishhooks your fucking eyes out of your fucking skull. Time’s short . Your career’s over. You’re done. All this deep state bullshit, it’s over. Watch the waters. Someone’s coming, bitch. Fuck you. Kill yourself.

I find insane just how disgusting of a Jew you are.

Within Moss’s own field, the outrage was similar, if couched in a different vocabulary. The temporalities of reaction are strange, given that the paper had, in the tradition of the field, already been received. Over the preceding two years, until just before the pandemic, Moss had given this paper as a talk repeatedly, in several places: South Africa, New Haven, and even at the NYPSI. In South Africa, an Afrikaner man, asked to respond to Moss, wept with anger; at NYPSI, in front of twice the usual audience, a man stood up and declared something to the effect of, “Well that’s well and fine but I’m Jewish — what does this have to do with me?” A listserv dustup followed that presentation, centered on Moss’s use of the word parasite, which some feel is inextricable from a Nazi discursive legacy and thus automatically anti-Semitic. A senior analyst in the audience told me by phone later that week that the talk evoked the famed British analyst D. W. Winnicott’s notorious presentation of his paper “The Use of an Object” to the NYPSI audience some fifty years earlier, which literally, as the story goes, gave Winnicott a heart attack. After recovering, Winnicott later said, “Now I know why America got into the Vietnam War.” 

None of these skirmishes lasted long, and the paper was, elsewhere, well received. In New Haven, Moss was met with a standing ovation. Someone even offered that the paper marked a before and an after in his life. It ultimately appeared in an issue of the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association (JAPA) on race and psychoanalysis, which included luminaries in the field such as Beverly Stoute and Dorothy Holmes. Holmes, in addition to her own contribution, wrote a response to Moss’s paper, asking that psychoanalysts listen although they’d undoubtedly be uncomfortable. 

The paper’s reception on publication suggested that many analysts were indeed made uncomfortable. Debate within the psychoanalytic community occurs mostly on email listservs these days, and that was where analysts turned to air their grievances. Sometimes it really was about psychic reality, the personal animating any political heat. My favorite example (narcissistically) was my own former analyst chiming in on a listserv to say, “Who is Don?” when it was extremely unlikely — for reasons I know from on and beyond the couch — that she could truly claim not to know.

What is this a description of but free association and fantasy gone wrong?


Some critiques focused on where Moss thinks Parasitic Whiteness comes from; where he is thinking about the inside out and outside in, others thought this was wrong-minded, suggesting that Parasitic Whiteness must lie with early childhood development or epigenetics. The same analysts who derided Moss for violating analytic neutrality — and who pleaded for a kind of listening free from morality and politics — reacted with an indignation born of same, calling the paper “elitist,” “over-certain,” “smug,” “woke,” and “universally racist.” Several ended their emails by suggesting that their remarks would be censored. Someone suggested that, if not Moss himself, someone related to him might be watching. They were probably referring to my mother, who is also an analyst. But they weren’t wrong: I was watching. (I’ve subscribed to a handful of analytic listservs for close to a decade, posting infrequently but enough to be known as present.) Others concern-trolled their collectives about the death of the free exchange of ideas — as if Moss had been “thought policing.” In short, Moss was charged with the worst of both the right and the left. 

There seemed to be some embarrassment, shame, and anxiety about his bringing the attention of an outraged public down on their ever-fragile discipline: Wasn’t he going too far? Moss seemed to predict this reaction. He opens his essay with a disclaimer that also functions as claim: “This is not a traditionally organized psychoanalytic text. No clear path links my argument to that of my predecessors. This formal peculiarity might be the product of my effort to braid together two incompatible voices, to write simultaneously from both inside and outside the affliction I mean to study.” The tradition he leaves behind is one that refuses the outside while never writing from within. It aims instead to stand far above the map, with an impossible objectivity that is neither inside nor out. 

There is a perhaps apocryphal story from the beginning of the Blitz in London. The British Psychoanalytic Society had convened a meeting. An air raid siren sounded. Perhaps a bomb had dropped in the distance. D. W. Winnicott — the analyst who would thirty years later have a heart attack at NYPSI — stood up and said, “I should like to point out that there is an air raid going on.” Apparently the congress continued, although it is rumored that Melanie Klein, then one of the two leaders of the society, shot back something like, “the bombs are dropping out there, not in here.”

For psychoanalytic theory, broadly, there isn’t one reality, but two: psychic reality and external reality. Bombs inside and bombs outside. Freud elaborated these as separate yet intermingled sources of worldview. All analysands have “‘phantasies [which] possess psychical as contrasted with material reality . . . in the world of the neuroses it is the psychical reality which is the decisive kind.” External reality, according to Freud, accounts for just about everything else: the physical environment, the subject’s body, and the subject’s inscribed place in society. A normative psychoanalytic subject has a complex relationship to reality in both forms. While the ego makes us responsive to external reality, we also run our worlds through our psychic realities. A hallmark of a nonnormative subject for psychoanalysis — say, someone in the grips of psychosis — might be someone who only has access to psychic reality. What Freud saw as the great basis of his work was the illumination of that inside, that psychic reality. In turn, psychoanalysis by and large treated the world as a universe of possible attachments, all of which were only important to psychoanalysis insofar as they could be situated in psychical reality and fantasy. 

Racism is no fantasy. It is a material reality, with absolute consequences for lives as they’re lived and as they’re ended. It cannot be contained to the internal, even though racism mobilizes a whole range of projective identifications — of othering, of splitting and mapping — which are then materially enacted. It is too easy for this discipline of the inside to say, Look, we’ve closed the door; that’s out there. It isn’t. Individuals, on the couch and off, are filled with the outside, its history, its pleasures, its violence.

While sexuality and gender are absolutely and obviously categories of interpretation for dominant strains of psychoanalysis, race, historically, is not. Class is not. Dominant white psychoanalysis has radically conceptualized the former (sexuality, gender) as coming from within, and the latter (race, class) as coming from without. (That’s in part why psychoanalysis has become more open to revisions of its heteronormative stances, however slowly — because it already recognized sexuality as its domain.) This may seem baffling to those beyond psychoanalytic circles: we’ve had an available set of theories pertaining to the psyche and race since at least Du Bois and the “psychological wage” of whiteness, through to Fanon then Baldwin, in Black studies, literary theory, and elsewhere. Inside psychoanalysis too, theorizing the social within the psychical — and explicitly race within the psychical — has been taken on by many psychoanalysts, including doctors Anton Hart, Dorothy Holmes, Kirkland Vaughans, Beverly Stoute, Annie Lee Jones, Kathleen White, Joel Whitebook, Dionne Powell, Francisco González, and the psychologist Lara Sheehi, among many others. (This lineage of thought was apparent even in Freud, who belonged to a marginalized category that marked him forever as the father of the “Jewish Science.”)

Despite a century of work on this intersection, normative white psychoanalysis has changed little. The field might be more inclusive (but barely), there may now be the occasional course on the psyche in society offered at some institutes with left-leaning members, and there is decidedly more rigorous programming on race at the American Psychoanalytic Association, where recent speakers have included Christina Sharpe, Saidiya Hartman, Jonathan Metzl, and Claudia Rankine. And yet, while the neutrality cops may be dead, many psychoanalysts still seem to say, “long live white neutrality.” As Dorothy Holmes writes in her response to Moss, “traditional psychoanalytic frames are particularly suspect because our history in psychoanalysis has been that we have appropriated those frames to perpetuate Whiteism.” If to the pseudonymous mass of the internet Moss was configured as a race traitor, then to some of his colleagues, Moss was a discipline traitor. His betrayal? Making race and racism a central node of the psyche — as if he were the first to do so. He wasn’t. Still, he got into trouble with his peers not for how he addressed whiteness, per se, but for violating the white analytic tradition of not addressing it at all. 

We know what animates the white nationalists when they fixate on critical race theory, or trans kids, or Black Lives Matter: a furious anticipation of the end of liberal capitalism and the start of my fictionalized great-grandmother’s white genocide. Freud argued that we can’t quite fear our own death for having never experienced it, but a collective death we just might (this is in part why right-washing latches onto the Holocaust — it has happened before). White supremacists feel that their maps have been ripped up, that who was once low may now be high or at least gaining ground. Psychoanalysis (even if authored by a marginalized subject) has benefited from the same hierarchies; it has been made from the same materials, emerges from the same reality, and will be harmed by its loss. The crisis about Moss was a crisis about the future of the field. 

Coincidences of historical timing positioned Moss’s paper to call the wrong kind of attention to race and psychoanalysis from outside the discipline. The JAPA issue happened to publish right as the latest round of critical race theory outrage gripped schools. Backlash to the uprisings of the year before was continuing to unfurl. Perhaps some of those same factors primed American psychoanalysis to bristle at the latest in a long lineage of works that have attempted to make racism as foundational to the psychic drives — to primary processes, to narcissism — as Freud did for sex. As liberal Americans, Moss’s most generous critics within psychoanalysis acknowledged first, of course, that racism is bad. But is it so bad as to be foundational, really? Is it on par with human sexuality as a central problem, and therefore a structural problem for psychoanalysis? No, no, they said, not really. This position even turned to a defense of Moss, a misreading in its own right: that the essay was about white supremacists — not all white people. For Moss, this is the first mistake of working clinically, collectively, and individually, with the phenomenon of hatreds. Because to him, yes, racism specifically, and hatred generally, is psychically foundational. Yes, all white people.

When I was a child, when Don was still working at Downstate part time, he took me to the hospital on rotation and to the cafeteria on our first and last Take Your Daughter to Work Day. He introduced me to his colleague as his daughter, and I, with my misplaced loyalty, sneered as well as a sub-10-year-old could, “Step.” But stepdaughter isn’t accurate either. I have no memory before Don, no memory before psychoanalysis. The poet and critic Wendy Lotterman, also the daughter of a psychoanalyst, recently wrote me about our mutual double bind, of family and affinity, to this science and its styles of reading. We are both in a “lifelong project of trying to work out a balance of refusal and acceptance of this nonelective inheritance of an obviously fraught but also vital lifeline.” The saga with Don made it hard to remember why I care about the practice of listening to psychic reality at all even as psychic reality was in evidence everywhere. As analysts joined the fray, refusing to meaningfully engage with the content of Moss’s work, my last held illusion that most psychoanalysts were committed to rigorous and flexible thinking was dispelled. 

Psychoanalysis, Winnicott’s theory in particular, holds that it is only after disillusionment that we might be capable of living in the world as it is — not that reality is shattered, but that, in the process of repair, the real is made more whole. And so I’ve tried to adopt that as method here: to identify the continuities between psychoanalysis’s performance of neutrality and a kind of alt-reading endemic to the online far right. One looks away by not looking; the other by seeing too much. These ways of thinking meet in a practice of suspicion that will only be mobilized to reject social reality. We know that conspiracy relies on forms of apophenia, or the tendency to perceive a connection or meaningful pattern between uncorrelated symbols. What is this a description of but free association and fantasy gone wrong? As Reed Berkowitz writes about QAnon, “There is no reality here . . . this is a breadcrumb trail AWAY from reality.” 

Here reality has been lost twice over. First in the fantasy of a destroyed social order, and then in an anxiety about that threat so intense it may well give in to psychosis. The map is burning. Where reality diminished, the named neutrals of the consulting room and the anons online met in a first-person plural, joined by a refusal to read and a refusal not to.

If you like this article, please subscribe or leave a tax-deductible tip below to support n+1.

More from Issue 42

More by this Author