I was watching Charlie Rose late one night, almost a year ago, in my home in Crans Montana, Switzerland. I was immediately captured by his interviewee, the American photographer Sally Mann, who was responding to his questions about her then just released autobiography, Hold Still (2015). Her book was later nominated for The National Book Award for Non-Fiction for 2015. Mann’s tomboy elegance, her understated hauteur, and psychological savoir faire in fielding Rose’s anxious interruptions and staccato probings took me to the floor in an eager cross-legged position. I knew I was into someone and something right up my alley.
I knew nothing about Sally Mann, her internationally recognized oeuvre in photography and writing or her “controversies.” Nonetheless, I was captured by her self-described “tetchy” nature and “plucky” style. She possessed these traits with such personal affection. D.W. Winnicott (in Christopher Bollas, Forces of Destiny, 1989), the British psychoanalyst, cautions us, “Don’t assume that we all live a life.” I sensed this woman had decided to live her body and mind experiences to the fullest. I ordered her book from Amazon UK. In just four months, I’m delighted to say I read her book twice, mangled it with notations, took sixteen pages of notes, and took notes off these notes. I read as many reviews as I could and began looking for analyses that went beyond mere commentary on the “facts” of her book—her love of her father, Virginia Carter (Gee-Gee), family, the farm, horses, and the South; the Civil War; slavery; death; her devotion to photography; and her nuanced defense of her photographic controversies.
This essay is about the provocative and expansive experience of reading her book—it is not about the facts, but rather how her evocative writing style induced dreaming, creativity, and mind growth.
Sally Mann and I are the same age—born in 1951. We share a fondness for journals, and writing, horses and horseback riding, kind husbands, reading, not wasting time, and making your mark, solitude, a tomboy tilt on being female, and a “frankly, I don’t give a damn” attitude to some of our ideas and writing. More poignantly, we both had to learn to creatively survive our mothers’ “narrow emotional bandwidth,” but not without being scarred by their “disdain” for the multidimensional nature of ours.
Mann arrived late in my life, but with a wallop that is here to stay. Her insides talked to my insides. Not surprisingly, I had a mild case of anticipatory postpartum depression when I finished her book. I wanted more from her mind, more of her sibling company, but now it was my turn to return the favor.
Sally Mann is a sedulous writer, not a seductive one. She does not try to distract you from yourself or lead you astray, but rather launches you into yourself. Her relentless adherence to her own experiences invites you to do the same. She asks each reader to “hold still,” teach yourself to be content alone and read carefully like her husband Larry, and join her fierce subjectivity with your own. Reading her book is a happening.
During a Q&A interview posted May 12, 2015 on Gagosian, Derek Blasberg told Mann: “When I was looking at the book, I started to wonder if there was also this much complication in my family, but maybe I didn’t know it.” Mann invites you to self-reflect into her work, likely resulting in a form of emotional thinking that brings periods of anguish, but ultimately ecstasy, about the infinite nature of our mind’s capacity to open to new thoughts about ourselves, our history, and our family. She invites you into a room of your own.
I found myself in a state of reverie while reading her book and continue to dream her work deep into my being. I am still psychologically digesting all that I tasted. My psychoanalytic mind and experiential bent led me to organize my reflections around the following concepts.
Mann is the kind of person an experiential reader wants as a companion, one who is devoted to trying with all her being to make deep contact with her experience of living, or with another human being, and with her inner emotional truth. Mike Eigen, psychoanalyst, reminds us that emotional truth is highly charged, explosive, and if used wrongly, can wreck a life—but without it, the soul is dead (Eigen, The Sensitive Self, 2004).
Mann’s hunger for reality, for the truth about her life, herself, and others close to her is at the center of her creativity. She writes with poise about this inner “drilling” (as she calls it) from following her hunger, coming through all her upsets, and living and creating from the turbulence. This security and confidence has served her well, and it is a possibility for each of us. Eigen cautions that we need to engage in this exploration of our psyche for the sake of ourselves and the sake of our world (Eigen, Eigen in Seoul, 2010).
Eigen (Psychic Deadness, 1996) is also devoted to the concept of impact. He describes it as the most intimate fact of meeting between two people, suggesting that we take seriously the impact someone is having on us—the sensations, feelings, and imaginings that grow from another’s impact as it washes over our mind and body as we engage, or observe. Mann’s reflections and perceptions about all the characters in her book result from her ability to wait patiently, and then write creatively on the impact of the people, places, and activities of her life. Writing an autobiography particularly is about devotion to lingering and musing over impact, nursing the shock, joy, terror, love, hatred, and satisfactions of the people important in one’s life. Registering impacts is an important meaning-making activity.
Mann provides us with unique observations and perceptions about the living and the dead in her life. As a reader, she may constrict or expand your mind and your personality; she may cause your being to open up to uncertainty, or to close down in protection. Regardless, she beseeches us to make more contact with ourselves and others around us. She reminded me again of the relational pleasures that are available when we give impacts time to build, muse over them, wait and keep our mouths shut until we have something authentic to say or write to another.
Relational Ethics in a Family
The first system of justice is the family. The construction of meaning occurs within family members as they assess the fairness in the give and take of care between parent and child (J. Hibbs, “The Context of Growth: Relational Ethics Between Parents and Children”, 1988).
If the give and take seems just, fair, and negotiable, the child feels a healthy entitlement to invest in his own growth and the development of his own voice. Positive loyalty develops, the child feels safe to receive care and give care in return, but not at the expense of his own development. This is a growth-producing pattern that shapes future relating.
If the give and take of care between parent and child feels unjust, unnegotiable, and not fair, the child may feel exploited by a power imbalance and feel that he is unable to negotiate his needs with those of his parents. He is likely to develop what is called “low entitlement,” not ask for what he needs, and continue to be exploited by others; or he may develop “destructive entitlement,” impose his needs on others, and choose to exploit them as he was. He will develop negative loyalty to others, either over care or under care, but always at the expense of his own growth and development, as well as his individual voice. This is a growth-inhibiting pattern that also shapes future relationships.
Every family is a system of justice: yours, mine, and the Manns’. The lively negotiation of fairness in the give and take is a life-long process and a private one.
And Finally, .… the Platonic Doctrine
“The Platonic doctrine of recollection asserts that we do not learn but rather, with time and penetrating inquiry, release the comprehensive knowledge that came bundled with us at birth.” (See page 283 in Mann’s book.).
“As for me, I see both the beauty and the dark side of things; the loveliness of cornfields and full sails, but the ruin as well. And I see them at the same time, at once ecstatic at the beauty of things and chary of that ecstasy. The Japanese have a phrase for this dual perception: mono no aware. It means ‘beauty tinged with sadness’, for there cannot be any real beauty without the indolic whiff of decay.” (See pages 414 and 415).
“For me, living is the same as dying, and loving is the same as losing, and this does not make me a madwoman; I believe it can make me better at living, and better at loving, and just possibly better at seeing.”
Hold Still – A Memoir with Photographs
Bollas, C. (1989). Forces of destiny: Psychoanalysis and human idiom. London: Free Association Books.
Eigen, M. (1996). Psychic deadness. London: Karnac Books, 2004.
Eigen, M. (2004). The sensitive self. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.
Eigen, M. (2010). Eigen in Seoul: Volume one, madness and murder. London: Karnac.
Freud, S. (1909). Family romances. F. E., 9: 235-241. London: Hogarth.
Hibbs, J. (1988). “The context of growth: Relational ethics between parents and children.” Children in family contexts: Perspectives on treatment. In Combrink-Graham, L. (Ed.). New York: Guilford Press.
Mann, S. (2015). Hold still. New York: Little, Brown, and Co.
Sobelman, Linda. (2011). “Back to the future: The curative fantasy in psychoanalysis.” The Second Century of Psychoanalysis. In Diamond, M. & Christian, C. (Ed.) London: Karnac.