Book Excerpt: Sopranos Psychology

To say that the therapy represented in The Sopranos is the most accurate and complex ever to appear on television or film is not the same as saying that it is identical to what transpires in the office of the typical female psychiatrist conducting psychoanalytic therapy with a Mafia don. It would be a challenge, of course, to find such a therapeutic pair anywhere in the entire psychoanalytic community. The notion that a powerful mobster would seek out twice-weekly analytic therapy with a gorgeous woman therapist is a conceit that tickles the funny bone of audiences, who find this high concept irresistible. At least producers think they do. The Sopranos series was the sixth time in the 1990s that a mobster visited a therapist to get in touch with his feelings. Bill Murray spouted psychobabble in the 1993 film Mad Dog and Glory. Four years later, John Cusack poured out his soul to psychiatrist Alan Arkin in Grosse Pointe Blank. The same year National Lampoon's The Don's Analyst appeared on cable with Robert Loggia as the don and Kevin Pollak as the analyst. In Faithful (1996), Chazz Palminteri makes phone calls to his therapist (played by the director, Paul Mazursky) while holding Cher hostage. And in Analyze This (1999) Robert DeNiro is a mobster who, like Tony, suffers from panic attacks and Billy Crystal is the therapist. (Coincidentally, their creators made The Sopranos and Analyze This without any knowledge of each other's projects.) There is something inherently reassuring in learning that hard-boiled criminals are really sensitive pussycats beneath the surface. All that mayhem, extortion and cruelty probably just stem from not being loved enough as children.

Media like television and film occupy a region between reality and illusion. This realm is known as a "play space," a concept derived from the work of the British analyst D.W. Winnicott. He refers to a psychological experience that begins between an infant and mother but arises later in other relationships. It is a psychological space between fantasy and reality and between one's inner and external worlds, and it plays a key role in the development of play, creativity and other factors that lend richness to human experience. In the ideal psychoanalytic treatment, the patient and analyst enter this space to explore aspects of the self that are based partly in fantasy and partly in reality. For example, you as a patient may experience your analyst "as if" he or she were your mother or father. This evocation of an old relationship may help you explore feelings toward the therapist that grow out of early experiences, and help you to see how you re-create these feelings in your present relationships.

The unlikely notion that a troubled mobster might visit a therapist for intensive psychoanalytic therapy is an example of entering this fantasy-saturated playground, though in reality such events are unlikely to unfold in just this way. However, if one accepts the premises of the treatment arrangement — if indeed a Mafia don were to actually enter treatment with a beautiful Italian-American psychiatrist, the therapy that unfolds in The Sopranos becomes compelling and believable.

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