Braided Selves: Collected Essays On Multiplicity, God, and Persons

by Pamela Cooper-White, Cascade Books, Eugene, Oregon, 2011, 244 pages.

Review by Merle Molofsky

In her collected essays, spanning a number of topics that are both related and disparate, Pamela Cooper-White draws on her background and interest in theology, pastoral counseling, psychoanalysis, and anthropology, to offer a scholarly and creative approach to the concept of self from a primarily theological/psychoanalytic perspective.  That the topics are both related and disparate mirrors her exploration of unity and multiplicity.

Her fundamental thesis, unifying the nine, independently written, collected essays first published between 2002 and 2011, is that “both persons and God are multiple, [italics in original] and that this multiplicity, although intuited in past generations, needs to be foregrounded in ways that were unthought and perhaps even unthinkable until the postmodern era” (p. 2).  She draws upon a dialectic of one and many, referencing the vast heritage of Western culture and thought, from the Biblical era, Greek philosophy, the Enlightenment, and psychoanalysis, to explore how Western thought moved away from a sense of multiplicity to a sense of unity, and back again – an oscillation of the one and the many.

Cooper-White is an expert braider, an expert weaver, moving among disciplines, drawing together a range of ideas, to support and explicate her thesis.  While she is a proponent of multiplicity, her scope of mind and openness of thought allows her to appreciate the value of unity, identifying, for instance, the American Civil War for the preservation of the Union and the abolishment of slavery as an example of meaningful unity.

It is a rare experience to enjoy reading a book while disagreeing with its basic premise, and I found myself totally engaged, indeed, enthralled, by the richness and profundity of her ideas and the depth and breadth of her knowledge, while constantly arguing with her fundamental notion, that we are not a single self, but rather are braided selves, a multiplicity of selves.  She explores what it means to be an “I” –that understanding what “I” means has become “more complex and fluid” in post-modern times, and is rooted “in light of who we are and what we believe and imagine God to be”.

I found myself insisting that I have a sense of having a core self, that a single “I” has an ongoing sense of experiencing, an ongoing narrative that defines the “I” I am.  While I continue to hold to this position, because it is “my” self state, reflecting my beliefs, my memory, my core connection with my earliest awareness of being, I very much enjoy the unfolding Cooper-White offers of braided selves, in both the Godhead and in the human person.  My particular disagreement is that I think what she calls the multiplicity of selves are, rather, aspects, facets, of self, with a core unified self.  And yet, the braiding metaphor seems to hold for both her version of self/selves, and mine.

Cooper-White’s extraordinarily engaging first words of the introduction are,  “All writing is conversation”, which drew me into the potential for dialogue.  She invites intellectual discourse as one reads.  She creates her intellectual foundation by asking us to consider new, fluid metaphors and models of the universe, with the understanding that the more we allow for this expansiveness, the more empathy and compassion we will have for ourselves and others.

Cooper-White’s ability to braid psychoanalytic concepts and theological concepts, combined with her luminous use of language, her finely honed writer’s craft, leads her to deeply explore what is offered when we use “metaphorical theory and theology to bridge ordinary life and the luminous realm”, inviting us to see “the sacred in the ordinary” (page 9).  I fully agree with this perspective, which supports a form of primitive fluidity, primitive permeable boundaries that allow us to imagine the chimera, sphinx, and griffin.  Cooper-White’s premise leads to a ground of being of maintaining a multiplicity of selves by virtue of this primitive fluidity.

I’d like to offer a brief summary of her rich nine chapters, recognizing that a summary doesn’t even skim the surface, let alone penetrate the depths, of her work, and cannot do justice to her ideas.  I hope the summary whets the reader’s appetite for more….

Chapter One explores the notion of “thick theory’, derived from a term used by anthropologist Clifford Geertz.  “Thin theory” offers “evidence”, a one-note scientific method.  “Thick theory” offers questions, complexity, rather than answers.  She turns to Derrida to postulate that good theory not only questions the subject of its investigations, but itself.  Such use of “thick theory”, applied to pastoral counseling, leads Cooper-White to use Patrick Casement’s term, the “internal supervisor”.  And from this perspective, she addresses empathy in psychotherapy and pastoral counseling.

Chapter Two, “Human Development in Relational and Cultural Context”, begins, tellingly and evocatively, with a quote from Martin Buber, “In the beginning is the relation”.  She postulates a “new metaphor for human development”, a move away from the linear, “I”-focused, hero’s journey-focused metaphor of development, to a metaphor of  organic unfolding, like the rings of a tree, rather than the vertical growth of a tree.

Growth is conceived of as “multidimensional interrelation”.

Using Winnicott’s notion that reality is known only through play and fantasy, Cooper-White says that both “core self” and “multiple self” are illusory, that the term “self” itself overly concretizes experiencing of “between” states.

Chapter Three is a re-reading of Freud’s model of mind in Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams.  with an exploration of challenges from relationality, the scientific community, and traumatology.

Chapter Four questions the idea, or ideal, of integration, allowing for multiplicity, and as such is the core of her argument.  Chapter Five applies psychoanalytic concepts, particularly relationality, and transference and countertransference, to pastoral counseling, and drawing on theological concepts of a Trinitarian God and an I and Thou God and person relationship, she offers an intersubjective possibility of engaged care.

Chapter Six, “Complicated Woman: Multiplicity and Relationality Across Gender, Politics, and Culture”, is a pragmatic yet poetic application of Cooper-White’s ideas to how we perceive ourselves in the world in the context of how we are perceived.  And, as such, she leads us to a valuation of multiplicity.  We are many selves, in many contexts.

Chapter Seven, “The ‘Other’ Within”, further delineate multiple selves, that we need to address the “multiple meanings given to [sociocultural] experiences, both in the crucible of unconscious fantasy and the relational flux of co-created reality”.  This requires “a conception of the psyche that is fluid, multiple, and relationally constituted”, which will lead us “to awareness of our internal inconsistencies and complexities, which can in turn engender authentic empathy for the Other”.

Chapter Eight, “I Do Not Do the Good I Want, But the Evil I Do Not Want is What I Do”, introduces its theme both in the title and in the first sentence, “The overall theme of this book has been to value multiplicity positively in understanding both God and persons.  The chapter concludes with an acknowledgment that the image of God has to be one of multiplicity, that “The extent to which we can become aware of our inner multiplicity and take seriously the host of voices crying from the margins of our own unconscious life may well be the extent to which we are able to recognize and withdraw projections that demonize, dominate, and exclude actual other persons in the context of actual political life.”  It is the moral core of the book.

Chapter Nine, “Braided Lives”, integrates the multiplicity of ideas in the book while leaving multiplicity as the core of that integration.  Cooper-White offers a concept of core self as part, not center, and multiplicity as a paradigm, in contrast with Lachmann’s paradigm of integration.  Cooper-Whites’s concept of multiplicity of braided selves offers a new paradigm of identity, agency, relationship, and spirituality.  She defines us as “like God” in that God is multiple in a eternal creativity.  She invites us to live in the imagining of the Other.

Merle Molofsky, MFA, NCPsyA, LP

National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis; Harlem Family Institute; International Forum for Psychoanalytic Education

26 West Ninth Street
Suite 2B
New York, New York 10011-8923

Merle Molofsky is a psychoanalyst in private practice in New York City, a poet, fiction writer, and playwright. Her psychoanalytic articles have been published in Other/Wise, The Psychoanalytic Review, Journal of Religion and Health, and other journals. She serves on the Board of IFPE, is Chair of the IFPE Ethics and Psychoanalysis Committee, and is a member of the IFPE Committee on Sexuality.She has served as Editor of Other/Wise from Spring 2010 through Winter 2012. She serves on the Advisory Board of Harlem Family Institute (HFI), and is faculty and supervisor at NPAP and HFI. She is former Dean of Training, NPAP; former Director of Education, IEA; former Board member, NAAP. Her play, “Koolaid”, was produced at Lincoln Center. Her books of poetry, Mad Crazy Love: Love Poems and Mad Songs, and Ladder of Words, are available at Merle received the 2012 Gradiva Award in Poetry from the National Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis.

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