Phone Calls from a Pervert

This is a short paper written for my Psychoanalytic Diagnosis course at NPAP, May 2016:

We call him “Yellow Belly”. He calls from somewhere in California and no one knows how he got our number at Lifenet, a mental health crisis hotline for New York City residents. The first time I spoke with Yellow Belly he sounded like a typical anxious caller to begin with, but before long it became clear that Yellow Belly is something different. He speaks in a rapid breathy voice that could be the product intense anxiety, or more likely, an excited climb towards orgasm. He wants to be “held accountable” by women in particular and asks me to “hold him accountable”. Yellow Belly describes himself as a “daddy’s boy” since he lives off Daddy’s money, and he views his outie belly button symbolic of an incompletely severed umbilical cord, extending to Daddy oddly enough.

He refers to himself using a phrase that he will repeat over and over in the course of the call: “I’m a yellow belly, big pot belly, innie outie, belly button boy and I need to be held accountable”. I ask Yellow Belly if he has ever been in therapy before. He terminated treatment with his last therapist because she would not “hold him accountable” in the way that he wanted. This involves lying on the floor of the treatment room wearing a crop-top, and with belly exposed and protruding, executing leg lifts while she “hold him accountable”. I suggest to Yellow Belly that it might be more interesting to speak about this fantasy in therapy rather than act it out. Yellow Belly continues as if he had not heard me repeating, “I’m a yellow belly, big pot belly, innie outie, belly button boy and I need to be held accountable”. 

Yellow Belly has a fantasy scenario in which he enters a bar wearing a crop top and flip-flops. A woman approaches him and pokes her index finger deep inside his innie belly button hole and pulls it out with a pop. Yellow Belly is clearly excited by this. The mental health crisis hotline is not a venue intended for sexual gratification, and while my curiosity is peaked, there is no time to explore this oddity any further. Yellow Belly must remain a mystery. I bring our phone call to a close, knowing I will hear from him again soon and the exact same thing will transpire. As I move to say goodbye, Yellow Belly asks with excitement, “Are you going to write this down?”. I respond reminding him that we document all of our calls. “You’re going to write down that I’m a yellow belly right? To be held accountable”.

“Paul” calls from the same phone number. His voice carries the slight semblance of Yellow Belly, but it is stripped of sexual excitement, and the content of the call contains nothing of the yellow belly routine. Now he is sad and lonely, a single man in his 40’s who lives with his father and step-mother. Paul plays the piano and guitar, and he has never followed a career interest due to a “learning disability”. He longs for meaningful relationships but sees himself too worthless to ever be valued by anyone. This flipside, or underbelly, to Yellow Belly may push him outside of the diagnostic category of the pervert, while when Yellow Belly is in the full frenzy of gratification, the colloquial ‘pervert’ sounds about right. This paper inquires if Yellow Belly possess the structure of perversion in a psychoanalytic sense. 

Denied any background information on Yellow Belly, my diagnostic and etiological speculations are fantasy, supported by bits of information disclosed. Let us call Yellow Belly a pervert. For Freud (1927) the psychic maneuver at the source of perversion is that of the disavowal of the threat of castration via an “ingenious solution”—the phallic mother. After catching a terrifying glimpse of female genitalia (the castrated mother, or sister, or nurse) the little boy clings to the belief that the woman has a penis, while simultaneously he retains the knowledge of the dreadful truth. The child constructs a substitute penis for the mother in the form of a fetish. Something else is cathected with enhanced intensity “because the horror of castration has set up a memorial to itself in the creation of this substitute” (p. 154). Freud also suggests that the psyche “chooses” the substitute object “as though the last impression before the uncanny or traumatic one is retained as a fetish” (p. 155). This explains the popularity of the shoe or foot fetish as it was the last object to graze the little boy’s eyes before looking upwards towards the genitals. Was Yellow Belly navel-gazing prior to the surprise appearance of his mother’s genitalia?

Yellow Belly’s libidinal energy is clearly invested in his belly and its button, but I do not know if this localized preoccupation is necessarily a fetish. The thrill he derives is from speaking, with rapid exited breath, about being a coward and a daddy’s boy. Through perseverative articulation of his self-deprecating phrase, Yellow Belly begs to be humiliated. He metaphorically exposes his pot belly to me, a woman on the other end of the line, of whom he asks to be “held accountable”. This suggests a masochistic slant to Yellow Belly’s perversion, and requires a different formulation than that of the Freudian fetishist. 

From a Lacanian perspective, perversion results from a failure of the father function; the name of the father, or the law of the symbolic order, is incompletely installed. Without sufficient castration in language, the little boy gets to continue in his satisfaction, but it is not all pure pleasure. With no castrating father to open up a symbolic space between him and his mother, the boy himself becomes the phallus for the mother, plugging up her demand completely and leaving no space for the articulation of her desire for something else, outside of the child (Fink). This unmitigated jouissance produces suffocating anxiety in the boy. The pervert then must make the law come into being, to set a limit on his jouissance, by staging the implementation of the law with someone else (Fink). The pervert sets a scene in which he will be “held accountable”.

I picture Yellow Belly’s father a wealthy business executive, perpetually traveling and always absent, leaving Yellow Belly without competition in the Oedipal situation. Whatever castration in language his father provided was fleeting and insufficient—enough that Yellow Belly would not become psychotic, but not enough to save him from perversion. Yellow Belly was left to consume and be consumed by his ravenous mother. Both overwhelmed by and reveling in his Oedipal victory, little Yellow Belly fancied his pregenital self a better suitor for mother than his grown-up genital father. The pervert’s rejection of genitality helps him to disavow both sexual difference and difference between the generations, each of which poses an obstacle to the child’s possession of the mother (Chasseguet-Smirgel).

Much of Yellow Belly’s speech jumbles and conflates the sexes. His unique innie outie belly button is both an innie and an outie at the same time, his big pot belly resembles a fertile pregnant womb, and his insufficiently severed umbilical cord extends metaphorically to his father who is a source of financial nourishment rather than a castrating figure. This creative concoction appears to work. Mother has a penis, Daddy has a womb, Yellow Belly has it all in his “ingenious solution”. Speculation points towards the likelihood that Yellow Belly is a pervert. But where does Paul fit into this formulation?

In Splitting of the Ego in the Process of Defence (1938), Freud postulates that the “ingenious solution” of the pervert is not without cost. To both deny and admit reality simultaneously requires a rift in the ego, a chasm that only swells over time. It seems that a gaping ravine separates Yellow Belly from Paul and isolates the frenzy of satisfaction from a lonely sad reality. Do they ever meet? Do they know each other? I fanaticize about getting Yellow Belly on the psychoanalytic couch to try to get to the bottom of this enigma, though it is said that perverts do not enter analysis often as they enjoy their perversion and see no reason for it to change. It is Paul who may suffer sufficiently to enter the analytic room, and it is his capacity for melancholy that questions the diagnosis of perversion. At this point, the riddle of Yellow Belly remains unsolved and no definitive diagnosis can be stated. Reflection only opens up more questions, much like the process of psychoanalysis itself.



Fink, B. (1997). A Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis. Harvard University Press.

Freud, S. (1927). Fetishism. S.E. 21: 149-157.

Freud, S. (1938). Splitting of the Ego in the Process of Defence. S.E. 23: 271-278.

Chasseguet-Smirgel, J. (1985). Creativity and Perversion. W.W. Norton.

Repetitions Unto Death

This is a short paper written for my Freud I course at NPAP, November 2015:

Immersed in American optimism and its ubiquitous marketing of happiness, I find myself drawn to the dreary. In psychoanalytic literature I like that which has a feeling of tragedy, melancholy, or impossibility. It is not real human suffering that pleases me, just to be clear, but rather the aesthetic of tragedy, like Oedipus, or Antigone, or the work of Lacan. In Freud I am pulled towards the bits popularly perceived as “pessimistic”—those like repetition compulsion and the death drive. These ideas offer a refreshing contrast to the sugary optimism of popular psychology and our aim as a species to evade death through technological and medical advancements. This paper looks at repetition compulsion and the death instinct in Freud’s texts, which bring out the melancholy flavor of life that is always already traveling towards death.

Freud’s concept of the compulsion to repeat makes its first appearance (to my knowledge) in Remembering, Repeating and Working Through (1914). Here the patient recalls nothing of the repressed material, but rather unconsciously acts it out. “He reproduces it not as a memory but as an action; he repeats it, without, of course, knowing that he is repeating it” (p. 150). The repetition occurs of its own agency, unbeknownst to the patient who consciously tries to remember and articulate the past in order to be “cured” by talking. The force of unconscious repetition reigns over the conscious agent who is trying so hard to do otherwise. This suggests that the conscious self is not the center of agency, but rather something else, something unconscious, the unconscious, has more sway in the movement of things.

Freud’s discovery of the unconscious decenters and deflates the conscious agency, who has historically felt itself arrogantly center and in charge. Freud (1920) emphasizes the fact that consciousness is just one aspect of the psyche, perhaps even secondary or peripheral: “Psycho- analytic speculation takes as its point of departure the impression, derived from examining unconscious processes, that consciousness may be, not the most universal attribute of mental processes, but only a particular function of them” (p. 24). This description of consciousness as “only a particular function” of mental activity situates consciousness as an appendage to the larger mass of dynamic activity rumbling outside of consciousness, determining the subject’s movement in the action of repetition.

Lacan’s preferred translation of Wiederholungszwang: automatisme de répétition, passes into English as “automation of repetition” rather than “the compulsion to repeat”, the latter of which implies that the conscious subject is compelled to repeat, while the former has the feeling of an automatic force of repetition running of its own accord. This could be verbalized as the distinction between “I am compelled to repeat” and “repetition is happening”.

“Repetition happening” has an element of otherness, something outside of the self, commonly thought of as destiny. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) Freud observes: “The impression they [some people] give is of being pursued by a malignant fate or possessed by some ‘daemonic’ power (p. 21). This quasi-mystical perspective places the blame in external forces—in the cards or in the stars. Freud continues: “...but psychoanalysis has always taken the view that their fate is for the most part arranged by themselves and determined by early infantile influences” (p. 21). The psychoanalytic view locates the cause of events in the individual with his or her unconscious penetrated by the influence of others. This has a feeling of both inside and outside, self and other, at the source of repetition.

The inside/outside, self/other distinction is further complicated in the work of Lacan as for him the unconscious comprises the language of the Other. In his 1955 seminar he reiterates: “Here we rediscover what I’ve already pointed out to you, namely that the unconscious is the discourse of the other... it is the discourse of the circuit in which I am integrated” (p. 89). This circuit, the syntax that structures the unconscious, limits the range of the subject’s originality, thus ultimately he or she is structurally destined to repeat. Lacan continues: “ can’t stop the chain of discourse...” (p. 89). The symbolic order has a feeling of running on its own—over and over in a circular path—it is the automation of repetition determining the subject.

“Repetition happening” could also be articulated as “it is repeating”. When Freud introduces the vocabulary of ego and id, his language is “I” and “It”. “It” has a feeling of otherness, something alien, the disavowed part of the self no longer recognized by the “I”. It is the “It” or id that is doing the repeating. Freud (1926) elaborates: “The fixating factor in repression, then, is the unconscious id's compulsion to repeat” (emphasis added, p. 153). Here, the id is the guilty agent carrying the ego along in unintentional and sometimes painful reoccurrences.

The repeating agent seeks to regain a lost previous state—an inanimate state. Again and again repetition searches for the irretrievable past—the quiescence of non-being. Freud (1920) observes: “If we are to take it as a truth that knows no exception that everything living dies for internal reasons—becomes inorganic once again—then we shall be compelled to say that ‘the aim of all life is death’” (p. 38). And more advanced organisms “make ever more complicated détours before reaching [their] aim of death” (p. 39). This paints a beautifully peaceful view of the aim of life, not to attain greatness, power, or immortality, but rather to meander meaningfully towards death.

The quiescent sinking back into the earth of the death instinct described above stands in stark qualitative contrast to the destructive impulse articulated in Freud’s (1930) later work, although he identifies both as the same drive: “This aggressive instinct is the derivative and the main representative of the death instinct...” (p. 122). The internal movement of the organism softening back into the earth in Beyond the Pleasure Principle turns outwards in hostile aggression towards each other. In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud entertains an idea that the destructive drive may be the end of the species: “Men have gained control over the forces of nature to such an extent that with their help they would have no difficulty in exterminating one another to the last man” (p. 145). We may actually end up annihilating ourselves. After briefly savoring the pleasurable pessimism of this, I will leave you with the surprisingly hopeful words of Lacan: “The human being himself is in part outside life, he partakes of the death instinct. Only from there can he engage in the register of life” (p. 90). This is the dialectical moving forward of life with its underbelly of death.



Freud, S. (1914). Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through. SE XII, 145-156.

Freud, S. (1920). Beyond the Pleasure Principle. SE XVIII, 1-64. Freud, S. (1923). The Ego and the Id. SE XIX, 1-66.

Freud, S. (1926). Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety. SE XX, 75-176.

Freud, S. (1930). Civilization and It’s Discontents. SE XXI.

Lacan, J. (1991). Seminar Book II, The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis. Norton: New York.

Portals into the Lives of Strangers

Written in August 2015:

I’ve worked for a full year now, full-time, at NYC’s mental health crisis and suicide prevention hotline. On average I answer between twenty and thirty calls a day—a survey of suffering in the city. These are conversations I never would have had, people I never would have “met”, otherwise. While they make the call and disclose what they wish, it feels like a strangely voyeuristic peek into the lives of strangers who in the safety of anonymity tell more.

Some voices are in tears, questioning if the pain of life is worth it. Something may have happened, a death, a rape… or it’s been a lifetime struggle against incapacitating emptiness, restless disinterest, acute sensitivity to the pointlessness of existence, or vague suffocating dread. Others need to be heard by another human voice to soften their intolerable loneliness.

Many are frequent callers whom I’ve come to know well. Martha relays with drama (multiple times a day) the interminable misery and tragedy of her life. All of us at the hotline are reliable witness to her suffering, and perhaps complicit in its perpetuation. She is “Martha” here because I picture her looking like Martha Graham (in her later years) maintaining a stern expression with conviction.

Another regular seems confused about the purpose of our hotline and reports daily what he ate for dinner and lunch.

At times a call, colored by the mood of night, feels strangely intimate with silences of understanding. Then we say goodbye, without ever knowing who we were.

Another category of call is the 311 transfer. If someone calls city information in NYC and sounds intoxicated, incoherent, crazy or belligerent they are automatically transferred to us. And it seems without being informed. They still think they are reporting to the city that the landlord is sending poisonous vapors through the vents or that the neighbor downstairs is routinely removing items from their apartment and replacing them with identical, inferior items.

At the hotline we have the power to intervene and much of my uncertainty lies in whether or not to. How do I do the least harm? Is the person with paranoia, suffering the persistent persecutions of the mind, better off sedated to the point of feeling nothing, or left alone?

In some situations you have to act. Recently a woman told me she was in the middle of an intersection, in a wheelchair, trying to get run over by traffic. Whether she actually was or not, you can’t just let that happen. I had my coworker call 911 while I listened to the caller’s rant against the world, muffled in street noise. When the police arrived she was understandably pissed off.

In less urgent situations we can send people to the home to make an assessment and connect the person to “treatment”. This is usually for those with “poor insight” into their illness—for whom the thought of seeing a psychiatrist would not occur as for them it has nothing to do with the problem. While I do make these referrals, my free spirit leans in the direction of allowing self-determination. I’m not interested in participating in the business of social control. Let the person be eccentric, let him cause problems… just not serious harm.

For a stretch I was reading Beckett in the down-time between calls and I found it went quite well with our more “disorganized” callers. After spending time with Malone, Mahood, and Worm I was already in a space where the caller’s creative use of language sounded about right—no concern over contradictions or need of a linear plot. I stopped trying to make them make sense to me.  

I’m not sure how many people I’ve spoken with so far. Thousands I guess. I find it fascinating to think that speckled over the five boroughs of NYC, I “know” people. I’ve heard intimate and peculiar details of their life, know their losses and fears, have a sense of their suffering, have been there at their lowest low—without knowing who they are—these curious portals into the lives of strangers.