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.