To Cheer a Dead Man’s Sweetheart

Psychotherapist Phillip Hodson considers the wider perils of the therapeutic hug

The Times – 6th December 2003

Up to 12 New York firemen face divorce because they have fallen in love with
widows of comrades slaughtered in the Twin Towers. Following a century’s old
‘liaison’ tradition in their Department, these officers were asked to bring ‘comfort’ to
the bereaved by acting as surrogate family members. Their brief was not meant to
include serial infidelity. But should we be so surprised that those three words
“liaison, comfort and surrogate” have become bedfellows?

Medicine is very clear about its explanation. The brain cells for general arousal are
parked right next door to those for sexual arousal. Given a sufficient degree of
“startle factor” in the reticular activating system, you will automatically find yourself
turned on by any dramatic general alert. Get trapped in a lift with someone, for
example, and there is a good chance you will be attracted to that person. Survivors
of the two world wars displayed such behaviour. When peace was declared in 1918,
and again in 1945, complete strangers coupled in Piccadilly doorways contrary to all
prevailing and official mores. Euphoria simply carried them away. Thus it is that
grieving firemen liaising with grieving widows are halfway to passion before they
have removed their helmets.

Of course reductive medicine provides just a skeletal explanation but this particular
drama requires psychological flesh. One New York psychiatrist has made a good
start: “Firemen rescue people. It’s their job”. He went on to state that emergency
service personnel are often first born children who have had to cope with
displacement, they usually have a strong sense of individual responsibility and enjoy
feeling useful for what they can do rather than for who they are.

But if this is true, how out of role must the surviving firefighters of New York City have
felt by the evening of September 11th? Their working efforts, while heroic, had
proved hopeless. No power on earth could have saved those trapped in the upper
towers. As the structures fell, some 90 firemen and their trucks were crushed into
the rubble. If you have watched helplessly as your peers are murdered, how
attractive it must be to find yourself truly, madly, deeply needed by the wife of a
buddy; a woman who grows dependent on you and responds with hungry and
affirming arms to your tentative hugs? There is always something arousing when
women in distress call up the protective spirit in traditional men. The risk is that this
holding inevitably becomes a having.

The story of what actually takes place between the actors in such dramas obviously
stretches far beyond New York. It does include those otherwise respectable men and
women having stand-up sex on Armistice Day expressing their sheer relief in survival,
the desire to make love instead of war, to superimpose the symbolism of personal
pleasure upon that of perpetual public sacrifice in an unconscious reawakening of
their own reproductive biology. Post-war baby booms are sufficient testimony. The
story further owes something to Biblical injunctions in the ‘levirate’ that a man
should marry his dead brother’s widow so that life can ‘carry on’ regardless of
incestuous connotations. Above all, it is touched to the sorrowful quick by AE H
ouseman in his First World War poem about a demobbed Flanders soldier reassuring
the ghost of his dead comrade that his old girlfriend is being well “looked
after”. He knows this for a fact because he is the one now looking after her: “I
cheer a dead man’s sweetheart, Never ask me whose”.

Sometimes, men with a need to rescue almost sniff out those with a reciprocal need
for them to do so. In her recent novel “The Pilot’s Wife”, Anita Shreve draws the
portrait of a strong, silent man who comes to offer comfort to a bereaved widow but
stays to fall in love. For his part, he confesses to being “drawn to moments of
intensity” and he likes “watching people mend”. For hers, “she could feel a weight –
not all of the weight, but something small and gelatinous – slide off her shoulders…
‘You’re like a kind of priest’, she said”.

In formal Jungian psychology, this dialectic of ‘Rescuer and Rescued’ is an archetype.
Sex is almost a by-product of the process. It can even be a spectre at the grave.
Bereavement guides have learned to state that one of the more difficult problems of
losing a life partner is that your sexual drive doesn’t necessarily behave itself by
switching off at the tap. One widower said he felt “inappropriately priapic” at his
wife’s funeral because he automatically scanned the charms of her black-stockinged
sisters. Any major loss can produce such a libidinous surge. The tensions of a final
divorce, for example, may lead perfectly continent human beings to take several lovers
in a fortnight to prove they aren’t dead yet. Whether it’s divorce or death, those
recently bereaved will also attract sexual advances from opportunists who detect vulnerability.

The need for better therapeutic containment of this potential sexual chaos is the real
lesson of the New York firemen. “Buddy liaison counselling” has been abandoned. It
is simply not up to professional standards when the scale of the tragedy is as large
as the Oklahoma City bombing or the disaster of the Twin Towers. For the untrained,
it is ever so easy to lose your good intentions in the ‘therapeutic hug’. This then
becomes the ‘exploitation hug’ with the rapid erotic inter-leaving of thighs and a rate
of arousal I defy most people to douse.

Instead, at the suggestion of the McKinsey Organisation, the New York Fire Service
has introduced no less than 300 professional counsellors and therapists. They
believe this will provide four new safeguards. First, professionals are specifically
trained to understand and manage “counter-transference” feelings from therapists
towards clients. It helps that they can also be struck off if they don’t. Second, they
are ethically enjoined NOT to touch their clients at all. Third, they are neutral players.
They carry no personal burden of guilt for rescue-failure that may be scripted into the
average New York fire officer for many years to come. Fourth, and above all, they
get their therapeutic hugs elsewhere.

Phillip Hodson is a Fellow of the British Association for Counselling and
Psychotherapy

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