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  • Amy Calmann LCSW

Watching Gypsy Ignites Curiosity about our multiple selves

When many patients, colleagues and friends began talking about the television show Gypsy, I knew that I had to check out this new series on Netflix. As I move my practice to a new office, it has been difficult to fit in the latest television debuts while I am making this transition. It requires more concentration to learn about a new set of characters, and the families and friends of those characters, rather than to put on a rerun of Seinfeld or Law & Order in the background, since I usually recall what will happen. The soup nazi can be screaming, and people can be fighting for chocolate babka, and I can carry on with tasks. But I was extremely interested to explore why this show touched the lives of so many people in my life.

For those of you who have not yet watched Gypsy but plan to do so, I will not be giving away any more spoilers than the trailer for the show may have divulged. After I finished watching the first season, the three premier thoughts that came to mind were that Jean Holloway (the therapist played by Naomi Watts) clearly displays sociopathic behavior. Secondly, how can I immediately download Stevie Nicks new version of "Gypsy", the theme song for the show? And lastly, Jean has an enviably beautiful office, albeit not typically realistic for most therapists struggling for space and windows in the ultra competitive New York City real estate market. Not only could Jean hold therapy groups in that office, but she could host entire AA meetings, and set up a coffee machine and snacks on those tables!

However, regardless of all the natural bright light streaming in through her windows, Jean lies, steals, cheats and displays a deeply dark and troubling side of herself, with little evidence of a conscience, and a gamut of unethical behaviors. The word unethical does not truly capture the severity of her actions, and the damage it does to her patients and her family. It pains me when I see therapists being depicted in this manner, because many people are already anxious about the idea of trying therapy. Seeing a therapist hunt down their patient’s family and partners, and invading their lives, can only serve to create a greater barrier for people who are considering talking with a psychotherapist.

If someone already has concerns about the confidentiality of what they reveal in their sessions, and they already fear disclosing information because it would make them feel more vulnerable, then Jean Holloway is the antithesis of the therapist that one needs in order to dangle a toe in the therapeutic waters. Jean is the great white shark in the water, and it’s possible you could lose that toe, or maybe even the whole foot.

The show’s writer worked with her sister, a CBT therapist, to ensure that the show was as accurate as it could be, given the pathology of the main character. There is some accuracy to the way in which Jean conducts her sessions, and it can be interesting to watch how she approaches each person who comes in to her practice. I still must hold myself back from throwing tomatoes at the screen when I observe some of the scenes that do not ring true to me. I wonder if attorneys feel the same way when they watch the courtroom antics of my Law & Order shows.

The series depicts the life of a therapist, both inside and outside of her office. Although there have been plenty of characterizations (and mischaracterizations) of therapists over the years, a detailed view of a therapist’s life outside of their office is not seen all too often. And in reality, a therapist’s life outside of their office is typically hidden from the view of patients. I use the term hidden, not because therapists go out of their way to hide themselves (some may), but because the work of a therapist is to focus on the person who is coming in for assistance. The focus is not, and should not, be on the therapist. If it is, then the therapy has likely gone astray.

Being able to see the life that your therapist leads, outside of the little bits that you might know about the person from your relationship within sessions, can be a double-edged sword. You are given the opportunity to peek behind the curtains of the magic show, and you acquire a whole bunch of secrets. It normalizes a therapist, so perhaps it can feel less threatening to find that of course your therapist has their own thoughts, feelings and vulnerabilities, and unfortunately possesses no magical powers. At the same time, what if you don’t like what you see? I can assure you that if I pulled the curtain off of my analyst’s life and found Jean Holloway standing there, I would not be booking another session.

I think the show cultivates a unique perspective, and one that you do not often see on the big or small screen. It allows both patient and therapist to indulge in fantasies about what the other person might be like, outside of what they know about each other. In today’s profoundly connected world, we potentially have information at our fingertips about any person that enters our universe, if we so desire to seek out that information. And sometimes, that information finds us, whether we want it to or not.

I choose not to google my patients because I don’t believe it is fair for me to know more about someone than they want or feel ready to share with me. However, that does not mean that I don’t think about what it might be like to see my patient grocery shopping or on a date or arguing with their mother. If I know my patient is going through a difficult time, I might imagine that they are at home, curled up with a good book and a cup of tea, and caring for themselves. At other times, I might be worried that they are doing alright, and then feel concerned when I imagine that they are not.

Jean’s fantasies about her patients come alive when she surreptitiously meets with the people in their lives, gathering information and forming relationships that she should never have. Watching Jean blur, or rather obliterate, boundaries is horrifying to witness. Simultaneously, Jean is satisfying the curiosities she has about her patients, and I think that curiosity is something that all therapists can relate to. Our curiosity helps us to learn from our patients about how to better help them, and it allows us to examine ourselves so we have a greater understanding of what is occurring. Our curiosity can provide a way for people to become more inquisitive about themselves, opening a door for the growth of more self awareness.

Jean Holloway’s curiosity appears to be predominantly self-serving, as a tool to meet her own perceived egoistic needs. If we can put aside Jean’s disturbing and violative actions, and we remember that most therapists hold themselves to high ethical standards and are rarely engaged in malpractice suits, then maybe we can open a pathway to discuss some of the compelling ideas that have been presented through this show. It would benefit all of us to acknowledge that there are many parts of ourselves – the light and the dark and all of the gray areas in between.

We will never know all of these parts of our patients, and our patients will never know all of these parts of us. And we will each never know all of these parts of our own selves. And that is perfectly all right. We can remain curious, and we can remain engaged in our fantasies, and sometimes that is precisely what is needed.

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