- The Nightgown
When psychotherapist Ernestina Carrillo received a nightgown as a gift from a Latina client, one might presume that she was exercising the same “good judgment” that she advises psychotherapists to practice when considering whether or not to accept gifts from their Latino clients. Such “good judgment” dictated that she return the gift, along “with a careful explanation of why it could not be accepted.” The careful explanation she offered, for which she provides no further details for her reader, did not have the effect of discouraging the same Latina client from returning the following week with a new gift. The second time, the client gave her a dishtowel, which Carrillo, presumably still practicing a therapist’s “good judgment,” accepted “graciously” (Carillo 2001, 47).
The reasons for which I will be training my attention on the scant details offered in Carrillo’s vignette of a case study with a Latina patient and for using the case more generally as a holding frame for the essay’s arguments are as various as they are exasperating. Not the least of them has to do with what I [End Page 29] admit concerns a strict policy to which I adhere: never look a gift horse in the mouth. I would accept both the nightgown and the dishtowel as gifts; and, although I try to make use of each of them in this argument, I appear to be playing favorites, given the extra attention I pay to the rejected nightgown. With regard to both gifts, I seem willful in my inability to trust my “good judgment” that the excessive signifying weight I will likely be condemned in the end for overburdening such lightweight textiles with the responsibility of carrying will not fulfill their promise for metaphorizing, as I hope they do, under the mystifying rubric “race and psychoanalysis,” a variety of conceptual confusions and errant forms of substitution. I will list them in the order in which I address them, with the proviso that the borders that separate them are at times porous. One, the psychotherapeutic critical literature on gifts and gift giving; two, contemporary psychotherapeutic and epidemiological literature on Latino mental and physical health and disease; three, my own constitutively-incompletable second book project, The Life of the Undead, which I use as a case study (as it takes up with the literatures listed in number two above); four, Robyn Wiegman’s recent book Object Lessons, which I mine for the clarifications and complications its terms lend for exploring myriad vicissitudes that I claim come with working at the intersection of race and psychoanalysis from the site of “identity knowledge” fields of study such as, in my case, Latino studies (Wiegman 2012); and finally, five, the nightgown, whose allegedly “inappropriate” nature the use of “good judgment” prided itself in having discovered to make it disappear, to go missing. For these reasons alone, it seems rather obvious why the nightgown need not placate its readers by conceding to the pressure of explaining why it creates the opportunity to have the final word for itself.
Although gift-giving has always been a regular occurrence in psychotherapeutic settings, the robust and complex critical literature now available on the topic has chiefly emerged in the last 15 years and reveals varying opinions regarding whether or not therapists should or should not accept gifts.1 Regardless of the differences in opinion, most agree that a gift in psychotherapy requires the therapist “to express genuine appreciation and gratitude and, when appropriate, to also explore the meaning and conscious and unconscious intent of the gift with the client” (Zur 2010, 1). I would first like to spend [End Page 30] some time attending to how the terms “appropriate” and “inappropriate” are treated in the critical literature, to draw out some basic differences between psychotherapy and psychoanalysis, which are not, as it turns out, unlike the differences between a dishtowel and a nightgown. The above passage points to a determination of appropriateness that is contingent upon a prior determination of appropriateness made by the therapist who accepted it, thereby making the gift’s “meaning and conscious and unconscious intent,” potentially and “when appropriate,” available...