- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 19, 2001

HOUDINI'S BOX:THE ART OF ESCAPE
By Adam Phillips
Pantheon, $22, 181 pages, illus.
REVIEWED BY NICOLA SATER


One could say that the mind has become unpopular. Psychiatrists, now commonly called neuroscientists, have become zealous in their search for data about the brain, and they have stopped talking about the undomesticated complexities of the mind. Even the man on the street thinks differently about himself. He knows that depression is a disease, caused by chemical imbalances in the brain, effectively treated by Prozac. In fact, many have concluded that they can safely and reasonably treat temperamental difficulties, impulses, and desires with Prozac.
With this sort of thinking, there is of course the risk of losing one's mind (pun intended). Reduced to matter, chemicals, proteins, we become no more meaningful that a throbbing mass of tissue. Sad, really.
Yet all is not lost, for while psychiatrists have become silent on the subject of the mind, Adam Phillips has not. He is a psychoanalytically trained psychotherapist from London who specializes in the treatment of children, as well as a prolific writer. Throughout his several books, which include "On Flirtation," "Terrors and Experts," and a small collection of aphorisms called "Monogamy," he has repeatedly and eloquently discussed our minds, defined here as our makers of meaning.
Mr. Phillips tirelessly argues that we are too good at becoming entrenched in our ideas and beliefs about the world. That those things we deem the most meaningful can become prisons while offering salvation. That we never are that certain about what we want or what we believe in, that our minds are very tricky indeed. He doesn't let us off the hook with simple solutions to these conundrums, and he reminds us that there is no easy way to escape their impact. It is hard to believe he would be pleased with the use of Prozac to iron out the wrinkles in a man's temperament.
Now Mr. Phillips has written another book, called "Houdini's Box: The Art of Escape." As the title implies, he examines the mystifying tricks of Harry Houdini, the man who "could adapt to anything and escape from it." That examination provides the anchor for a free-range exploration of the meaning of escape, how it is inexorably tied to being trapped and being free. For the writer it is never simple, and he presses on his reader the importance of understanding that for Houdini, "getting free was the adventure, not being free."To escape means to escape from something, but Houdini proved that escaping was merely an act, that one could "do extraordinary things that made no difference."
Mr. Phillips adds that, for modern man, escape has everything to do with desire, which in turn has everything to do with fear. Sigmund Freud, he reminds us, believed that "we are simply bearers of free-floating desire that is always seeking its targets." Mr. Phillips goes on that, "imaginative life is almost exclusively about elsewhere." Sandor Ferenczi, a colleague of Freud, described a common habit we develop: that of most assiduously avoiding those things that cause the most anxiety (for example, the phobic).
The avoiding person became, in other words, "an amateur escape artist." Mr. Phillips argues that the things we avoid become features in the picture we create of ourselves. He states, "We are all too familiar with ourselves as escape artists. Knowingly or otherwise we map our lives — our gestures, our ambitions, our loves, the minutest movements of our bodies — according to our aversions, our personal repertoire of situations, encounters, or states of mind or body that we would do anything not to have to confront." So we escape what we fear, thus creating a picture of ourselves that rearranges our desires, they are a "good cover story for our terrors."
There is a patient, a gentleman sent by his ex-girlfriend (revenge or social work?) after an article he'd written was rejected by a prominent journal. This man's "desire collected him into a picture of himself." He had never been able to marry, for he could not settle down with a single woman. Mr. Phillips saw him as "a man grabbing things off the supermarket shelves."
Mr. Phillips sets out to show him, convert him, to the idea that if this man stopped grabbing for a moment — for his desire, as explicated in the book, was merely the symptomatic manifestation of his phobia of anticipation — he would find "his supposed desire disintegrating; he would discover that he wasn't quite so certain about what he wanted, or even if he wanted." It turns out that the patient wasn't interested in that, for, the writer notes, "he wanted me to turn him into a better choice maker. I wanted to turn him into a better risk taker."
As always, Mr. Phillips has written a beautiful book. The writing is superb and the ideas appealing. He is known for his distaste for the simple solution, the monocular view. That shows in the structure of the book which starts with a five-year-old girl standing in the middle of a room with her eyes shut, imploring her therapist, Mr. Phillips, to find her. This odd game of hide-and-seek intrigues him, offers clues about a suspected sexual abuse, maybe represents a means she has created of "managing bewildering invasion."The child had a history of not playing the game properly with other children, of going too far away and for too long, so the others would eventually stop looking for her. Apropos, after that first chapter, she is never found again.
The book ends with Emily Dickinson, the poe who went into seclusion 20 years before her death for reasons that have never been entirely clear — desire versus incapacity? Mr. Phillips sees a woman who escaped from the mundane world around her into her "peculiarly resonant" isolation, one who understood both the "perils and ecstasies of withdrawal." He calls attention to two poems, one written before and one after her dramatic withdrawal, both addressing her love of the word, "escape." In the first poem, the thought of escape "reinforces her sense of helpless imprisonment." In the second, she is thankful for the word, for it makes it possible to "imagine alternatives for ourselves."
Mr. Phillips leaves us — as always — with more questions than answers; he leaves us titillated, too, appreciating those questions. They are like beautiful paintings or beautiful women, something we desire. For a moment, the questions and conundrums appeal to us, and in that moment they don't look so much like symptoms. The problem of course with turning any meaning on its head, becomes one of substance; does any of this matter? And like the neuroscientist with his huge data collection, one wonders if we've come up with any answers at all. It seems, for Adam Phillips, though, just kicking around the questions is the real prize.

Nicola Sater, M.D. is a psychiatrist in private practice in Maryland.


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