On being boring

To give you a favour of Stephen Grosz’s The Examined Life I randomly chose one of the stories. Here is On being boring:

GRAHAM C. WAS BORING. One night, his girlfriend, an economist who worked in the City, told him so. They had just had a dinner party, during which she’d watched him, again and again, thoroughly bore the person he was talking to. ‘Can’t you tell when someone goes dead behind the eyes?’ she asked. Then she broke up with him.

A few weeks later, the senior partner at Graham’s law firm called Graham into his office. He told him that his work was fine, and that he appreciated the long hours he was putting in. But he warned Graham that the clients weren’t taking to him. If Graham wanted to make partner, clients would need to feel a loyalty to him; they should want to call him with their problems. Graham saw the future he’d imagined for himself slipping away. Worried and depressed, he came to see me.

For the first few months of his analysis, Graham bored me too. As our work progressed, I found his sessions increasingly deadening. Before each session, I’d have a coffee and splash cold water on my face, but this didn’t really help: boredom isn’t drowsiness. For me, it’s a bodily reaction more akin to nausea. I felt fine in the sessions before and after Graham’s, and yet more and more numbed during his hour. I wasn’t entirely sure why. Graham listened to my ideas and responded with his own; he raised questions and sought clarification; he was appreciative of my work – he even reported improvement. And yet, it all felt hollow. We talked about him, but I rarely felt as if he talked to me.

There was another riddle: Graham’s life should have interested me. His parents and grandparents worked in the film industry and Graham’s own work as a lawyer involved a number of intricate and intriguing cases. His life was interesting but, for some reason, he could not make himself interesting to others.

Boredom can be a useful tool for a psychoanalyst. It can be a sign that the patient is avoiding a particular subject; that he or she is unable to talk directly about something intimate or embarrassing. Or it can mean that patient and psychoanalyst are stuck; the patient is returning again and again to some desire or grievance that the psychoanalyst is failing to tackle. A boring person might be feeling envious, and might kill a conversation – disrupting it or paralysing it – because he cannot bear to hear a helpful or compelling idea coming from someone else. Or the boring patient may be playing possum – just as there are beasts in the jungle that survive by playing dead, some people, when frightened, simply shut down. It’s also true that psychoanalyst and patient will sometimes unconsciously collude to desiccate the atmosphere between them because they fear things becoming too emotionally disturbed, or too exciting. (Some years ago, I found that my sessions with an attractive young female patient were getting more and more lifeless. If I had to guess, I’d say that we were unconsciously avoiding any sort of charge between us.)

But I couldn’t understand what was happening in Graham’s sessions. It was true that he tended to avoid commitment and conflict. I never had the sense that he was fully committed to practising law, for example – I thought he might simply be trying to please his parents. He was close to his parents, and still spent most of his holidays with them. But when I tried to look at the lack of disagreement in his family, he laughed. ‘So that’s it?’ he asked. ‘I’m depressed because I can’t get angry with my parents?’

One day, Graham told me that he’d gone for a drink with Richard, a colleague from work. They’d arranged to hang out for a couple of hours, but after forty-five minutes Richard had suddenly remembered an errand he had to run, and had left. I suspected that Graham was telling me the story because he knew that Richard had been bored. And so I asked him: ‘Do you ever feel you’re boring others?’

‘I notice when people stop listening or look away, if that’s what you’re asking.’

‘Did Richard look away?’

‘He looked away, but he wasn’t bored.’

‘How do you know he wasn’t bored?’

‘Because I wasn’t being boring.’

‘So you ploughed on,’ I said.

‘I continued,’ he replied.

I began to suspect that there was something aggressive in Graham’s willingness to inflict boredom. After all, he admitted that he noticed when his listener stopped listening. So why did he continue?

Graham had once told me about Sundays at his parents’ home. For as long as he could remember, his parents had hosted his grandparents and various friends for Sunday lunch. He confessed that he found the lunches excruciating. ‘A room full of adults, all talking, laughing together – I don’t remember them ever inviting a family with children my age.’ I imagined the loneliness Graham might have felt. Perhaps he was recreating in his listeners a feeling he’d carried with him since those lunches – perhaps his dullness was a form of despair.

A few months into analysis, Graham remembered a dream. In the dream, he was standing outside the house he grew up in. He wanted to go inside but couldn’t. As a rule, I would want to focus on the content of the dream, to spend some time unpacking it with him, trying to understand his associations. And Graham took a very long time recounting it to me. He described the house and its history, and then went into great detail about his feelings for the various rooms and their decor. During a session a few days later, he spent a very long time describing a relatively minor incident from his childhood. And it hit me that Graham was silencing me. He understood that I would consider dreams and memories important, that I would not interrupt him, and so he took his time, staying in those stories as long as possible.

Graham’s being boring was aggressive – it was a way of controlling, and excluding, others: a way of being seen, but not seeing. It also served another purpose. Especially in the context of his psychoanalysis, it protected him from having to live in the present, from having to acknowledge what was happening in the room.

When I spoke to him about what was happening in his life, his response was to look back, avoiding how he felt or what he thought now. ‘I was never there,’ says Hamm in Beckett’s Endgame, ‘Absent always. It all happened without me.’ Graham’s long detours into the past were a haven from the present. Over and over, without knowing it, he was refusing to let the present matter.

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