Even mobsters feel the pain of ecological alienation
Dimpled chads, crashing stocks, anthrax, smallpox, and Saddam. All that and we’re still wondering what’s wrong with Tony Soprano. As the fans of the hit HBO series will tell you, The Sopranos began in 1999 when Tony, a mob boss, blacked out beside his swimming pool in suburban New Jersey. He promptly hired a therapist to help him deal with a set of psychological issues, including the panic attacks that now and then dropped him like a stone. Four years and 52 episodes later, Dr. Jennifer Melfi has dredged up all there is to know about her thuggish but complicated client, his wife and kids, and his dealings in what he likes to call “waste management.” The only mystery left is what’s ailing him.
Melfi’s real-life peers have called her sessions with Tony the best portrayal of psychotherapy ever seen in the popular media, and the show has apparently led a lot of men to try it. Among therapists, there’s been no end to the discussion about the series, in print and online. When they bring up Melfi’s failure to get at the root of Tony’s problems, they blame everything from her short skirts to her various missteps (which nicely complicate the story) to the chance that her client is a psychopath who can’t be cured. Very few have suggested that the problem may be a blind spot shared by her entire profession.
Tony fired his psychiatrist at the end of last season, but she’s almost certain to return for the fifth and perhaps last chapter in the Soprano saga. Their exchange goes back to the first episode, when Tony tells Melfi that his attacks began when the ducks that were living in his yard decided to fly away. He explains how happy he was when “wild creatures” came to his pool and had their babies. “I was sad to see them go,” he adds, and “I’m afraid I’m going to lose my family.” Week after week, Melfi explores every possible thing those birds could symbolize, from issues with Mom and Dad to his own teenage children leaving home. She consults the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—the DSM—and even recites from the profession’s handbook in the dogmatic drone of a true believer. She never considers that sometimes a duck is just a duck.
In the volumes that have been written about The Sopranos, there’s hardly a word about how its natural backdrop, the duck’s world, or what remains of it today, is such a mess. Nevertheless, a case can be made that our troubled relationship with nature is one of the show’s ongoing themes. Creator David Chase and his colleagues usually touch on the subject in a fleeting and witty way, with a character’s offhand remark or the camera’s deadpan stare at some ugly urban artifact; but it’s often there, and has been from the start. That all of us seem to look right past it says a lot about how conditioned we are to take the degraded state of the natural world for granted.
In recent books like The Psychology of The Sopranos and A Sitdown with The Sopranos, Tony’s id, ego, and Italian heritage are studied in depth. Both are good reads that examine Tony’s character through today’s standard therapeutic lenses: ethnicity, family, and the Freudian gaze on early childhood. But what if his ills are tied to issues that modern therapy never explores? Well, it might help to widen the frame and look at the “ecopsychology” of The Sopranos.
Eco what? You can almost see Carmela Soprano’s face as her daughter, Meadow, blurts out the latest new idea she’s caught like a cold at Columbia University. Over the last decade, ecopsychology has emerged as an alternative view of mental health that’s been shaped by influences as far afield as Darwinian biology, Gaia theory, Buddhism, and the work of various philosophers. An ecopsychologist might say that Dr. Melfi will never understand the true nature of Tony’s disease without factoring in the diseased state of nature. In other words, the Sopranos live in a world that is sick, and that world in turn is sickening them. What’s more, they don’t fully realize what’s making them ill because the illness leaves them numb to its cause.
Ecopsychology today is less a formal discipline than an ethic of lament shared by people in many fields. If it has a core belief, it’s that our broken ties to the nonhuman world are the cause of both the modern ecological crisis and a related epidemic of alienation and distress. Ecopsychology offers some curious insights into what’s eating at Tony Soprano and everyone in his orbit, including his would-be healers. That said, the show’s vivid gallery of American types, all on the make and all capable of stunning self-deception, might hold a few lessons for the ecopsychologists as well.
Note: Christie Whitman resigned from her EPA position in May, shortly after this article appeared in the magazine.
Jeremiah Creedon is a senior editor at Utne.
Copyright 2003 by Jeremiah Creedon.
Each episode of The Sopranos begins with Tony driving his SUV out of Manhattan onto the New Jersey Turnpike. Alone with his cigar, bound for his big suburban home, he first passes over the Meadowlands, a former lush Eden of tidal marshes that for thousands of years has been a haven for migrating birds. What Tony sees (or doesn’t see) is a blasted vista of smokestacks, tank farms, and other industrial detritus rising from a polluted swamp. Some observers have noted that Tony’s trip is a jump-cut history of America’s march to the suburbs packed into a rock video. It’s also a visual record of the price we’ve paid, in terms of environmental damage, to enclose a parcel of lost Eden in our own backyards.
Tony and Carmela Soprano ruthlessly strive to secure the standard American good life for their kids, even as they try to suppress the truth that they owe it all to violent crime. Meanwhile, their private pursuit of happiness, multiplied across the culture, is creating its own sort of havoc. Cancer seems to whack as many people on the series as wise guys do with guns. Almost everyone relies on a drug or two (or three), from chemo, coke, and heroin to the many legal nostrums for depression and stress. Tony pops Prozac and lithium like mixed nuts. Melfi goes for tranquilizers and vodka. Meadow’s freshman roommate from Oklahoma quickly unravels under the sensory assault of the big city. “I think I miss my ferrets,” she says, but anti-anxiety pills will have to do.
In much of America today, this psychologically abrasive milieu is now often taken to be the norm. More than a decade ago, the growing acceptance of such conditions began to fascinate cultural critic Theodore Roszak. Back in the late 1960s, Roszak coined the term counterculture to describe those who were trying to live outside industrial society and its values. In The Voice of the Earth, first published in 1992, he examined the aftermath of a social revolution that may or may not have failed, but clearly had stalled. The result was an emerging perspective he called “ecopsychology.”
As he notes in a recent new edition of the book, Roszak couldn’t figure out why so many people were willing to damage the planet—and why environmentalists usually failed in getting them to change their ways. Then he began to view our runaway spending and driving patterns as compulsive self-medication. Most people know such behavior hurts the natural world, he says, and may actually feel bad about the damage, but they’re too hooked on the little relief it brings to stop.
To understand this syndrome, Roszak turned to Paul Shepard (1925–1996), whom he calls “the first ecopsychologist.” In Nature and Madness and other books, Shepard argues that our disregard for the earth deepens into a kind of insanity as we lose touch with the other animals that have played an age-old role in shaping the human mind. Worse yet, in Shepard’s view, this growing estrangement from our natural family has profoundly altered the way we raise and educate children, especially boys. For complex reasons, the result is a culture whose men often claim both the right and the need to destroy other living things, in response to their own insecurities. Roszak agrees: “I have also come to believe that, at its deepest level, the environmental crisis traces to the twisted dynamics of male gender identity.”
Roszak found that mainstream psychologists weren’t much help with these issues. Their models of mental health were usually limited to a realm defined by the bedroom and the job. In Roszak’s view, it’s a bias shared by the profession’s big book, the DSM, which “never asks about the quality of people’s relationship with the natural world in which our species spent 99 percent of its evolutionary history.” The oversight is all the more odd in light of ample research that shows time in the wild can be deeply therapeutic, especially for the young. (Melfi confides in her shrink how ashamed she is when her son considers dropping out of college to join the forestry service.) The underlying problem is that most therapists are as deeply invested in our industrial culture as the rest of us. They don’t have much incentive to look into the deeper social disease when, in Roszak’s words, they “earn from urban angst.”
Roszak would like to see mainstream psychology repair itself by adopting a more ecological perspective. But Canadian psychotherapist Andy Fisher says, in effect, don’t bother. In his recent book, Radical Ecopsychology, he warns his peers to keep their distance from mental health care institutions that ultimately serve “the dominant power-interests of our society.” Fisher is convinced we’ll never be well until we dismantle a social machine that keeps us in a state of war with nature. Because standard therapy may be propping up this system on some deep level, he urges his colleagues to explore new methods, including the therapeutic power that earlier peoples found (or summoned) in rites and rituals. Once therapists have become social critics as well as healers, they can help to create a new culture that doesn’t so brutally sever us from the ancient needs and rhythms of human life.
Ironically, Tony believes that he, too, is living out a revolt against modern society. As he tells Dr. Melfi, he was determined not to end up like the “worker bees” that the early industrialists exploited “to build their cities and dig their subways and make them richer.” In one of the essays on Italian American life in A Sitdown with The Sopranos, E. Anthony Rotundo, author of a book on modern American masculinity, looks at the standards of manhood inside Tony’s band of thieves. “Whatever else organized crime may be,” he notes, “it is a vehicle for recreating an Italian village in a New World.” The show’s creator, David Chase, puts it more universally: “People are basically tribal.” Tribalism is alive and well in Soprano country, not only in Tony’s crew, but also in street gangs, police forces, unions, schools, and churches. All provide the status systems that we as primates seem to crave—and that society at large has gotten too large and complicated to provide for us.
And yet, could our tribal impulses be part of the problem? Tony’s own revival of traditional culture in the form of the Mob, complete with initiation rites and a ferociously rigid code of male behavior, makes you wonder. In fact, it’s hard to watch this dark comedy of American manners (or read about ecopsychology) without musing over the old question about just what kind of animal we really are. Back in the 18th century, the French moralist Jean Jacques Rousseau argued that we’re basically peaceful creatures trapped in a society that corrupts us. The 19th-century English romantics shared his anti-urban vision, as do most ecopsychologists today. An opposing view, expressed by Freud and the songwriter Nick Lowe among many others, is that a beast lurks inside us “caged by frail and fragile bands.” (Lowe’s bare-bones classic, “The Beast in Me,” fittingly closes the first Sopranos episode.) The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky was just as pessimistic. Evil was destined to poison every society, he wrote, because it rises from “man’s soul alone.”
In season three, Carmela visits an elderly psychiatrist who has become a harsh critic of his profession. He bluntly tells her that Tony’s only hope of being cured is to spend seven years in jail reflecting on his misdeeds and reading Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Calling Carmela an “accomplice” to her husband’s violence, he advises her to leave Tony and take the kids, “or what’s left of them” after growing up in a family riddled with deceit. Though she knows he’s right, she eventually seeks out a second opinion from a Catholic priest who is studying to be a psychologist. His subtle argument against divorce gives her the excuse she needs to put off the painful decision to leave her husband (and his money).
From a radical perspective like Andy Fisher’s, the priest appears to be confusing Carmela’s best interests with those of the social institution he ultimately serves. But you also have to acknowledge her willingness to play along. Carmela is tempting fate, and so are we, given our complicity in no less violent crimes against nature.
Fisher says that “ecopsychology has emerged largely from a sense of loss,” and one of its goals is simply to articulate such sorrow, which many people might feel today but have no way to express. Only then will anyone be able to realize that the “family” an animal lover like Tony fears losing may extend beyond his wife and children.
This deep sense of grief underlies one of the most troubling (and perhaps problematic) themes in ecopsychology. It’s the belief that most of us suffer from “psychic numbing,” a term first used by psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton to describe a state he found among atomic bomb survivors in Japan. Many insist that environmental damage is having the same effect on a vastly wider scale. Activist and teacher Joanna Macy calls it our “dulled human response to our world,” born in the effort to repress an “anguish beyond naming.” For the perceptual psychologist Laura Sewall, it’s “a form of denial that shields us from fully experiencing the latest reports on ozone depletion, increasing pollution, toxicity, poverty, illness, and the death of species.” Roszak, Fisher, and many others would agree.
Accepting for now that we are living in a trance, how are we to deal with the pain of waking up? Both Macy and Fisher find some guidance in the noble truths of Buddhism. Tony agrees, or so it would seem, given his comment to Dr. Melfi at one of his sessions: “You have to joyfully participate in the suffering of the world.” Explaining his rare good mood, he tells her he’s been to the zoo, where it felt “good to be in nature.” Actually, he was getting it on in the reptile house with his latest girlfriend, a Buddhist Mercedes saleswoman. She’s also one of Melfi’s clients, though the doctor has no idea that the two have gotten together until Tony’s bit of advice gives them away. When Melfi suspiciously notes that his “thoughts have a kind of Eastern flavor to them,” Tony shrugs. “Well,” he says, “I’ve lived in Jersey my whole life.”
In the course of that life, the Sopranos encounter all sorts of characters, from vain surgeons and lawyers to cynical federal agents, media-savvy Indian activists, crack addicts, crooked ministers, and shrewd Russian thugs. One of the show’s pleasures is how well these bit players in the modern human comedy are drawn and acted, perfect down to the clothes they wear—and the fashionable ideas that drape them just as lightly. Viewers are constantly reminded how ready we are to turn the pop philosophies of the day, or what Tony calls “California bullshit,” into self-deceiving excuses for doing exactly what we want to do.
It’s this portrait of a flawed and spiritually needy creature, often kind but no stranger to aggression—and deeply committed to its own best interests—that the ecopsychologists might want to take a closer look at. In the show’s many character studies, we see our capacity not only to be both good and evil, but also in certain cases to enjoy both. Though we often do destructive things in the quest to dull our pain, we’re driven by other motives as well, including the hunger for honor, riches, and sensual excess. This view of human nature doesn’t contradict the critique that the larger society may be ill, and that many of us are deeply saddened by what we’re doing to the natural world. But the individual is given a more complex and active role in spreading (and perhaps curing) the disease, as life inside the Soprano household constantly reminds us.
It’s a nice touch that Tony and Carmela have given their daughter a pagan name, Meadow, as if to say she’s the only one whose destiny isn’t bound to the patron saints (and sinners) of their Italian ethnic past. If there ever is to be another Meadowlands rising from the toxic broth, a place that is more than a body dump for local gangsters, the suggestion is that it might have to be the handiwork of young women. As for Meadow’s younger brother, Anthony Jr., the burden of his father’s name may say it all. Paul Shepard and Theodore Roszak might argue that he’s doomed to have the same cauterized self that awaits most grown men. Like Tony, he’ll go on exploiting nature despite his clumsy love for it.
Though Shepherd and Roszak are certainly right to a point, it’s worth noting that women play a powerful role in shaping male gender identity. Tony’s mother has surely helped to steer him into his criminal life, and Carmela is more than a little guilty of keeping him there. It’s been fascinating to watch Meadow approach the age where these issues now loom before her. While always aware of the cruel machinery beneath the family lie, she soon will have to choose, like her mother, whether to assume a part in keeping it hidden.
Given our deep loyalties to tradition and kin, such decisions are terribly hard, and it isn’t clear what she’ll do; but there can be no doubt that it will be a choice. That is the one real luxury that her affluence has given her (and a lot of the rest of us). If in 10 years time she finds herself numb to the world, there will be no mystery why. It won’t be a case of repression following traumatic shock. It will be a conscious act.
“I’m tired of telling people that you help with environmental cleanup!” she finally shouts at her father. (If only former New Jersey governor Christie Whitman, now head of the EPA, would say the same to her boss.) When it comes to our destruction of the wild, the lies and self-deception that are eating away at the House of Soprano in fact pervade the entire culture. Psychiatrists have said that Tony’s problem is a “vertical split” that allows his good and bad sides to operate in full awareness of each other, thanks to a hefty dose of denial. An ecopsychologist might say the larger society is likewise divided in our love-hate relationship with nature. With or without the help of our healers, the next step will be harder. We have to admit we’re pretty much all accomplices in the most dangerous form of organized crime today—our ruthless shakedown of the planet.
Jeremiah Creedon is a senior editor at Utne.
The Voice of the Earth: An Exploration of Ecopsychology by Theodore Roszak (Phanes Press, $19.95). Roszak adds an update to this new edition of the 1992 book in which ecopsychology is explained.
Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind edited by Theodore Roszak, Mary E. Gomes, and Allen D. Kanner (Sierra Club Books, $16.95). In this 1995 collection, psychologists, wilderness guides, activists, and others explore the influence of nature in their life and work.
Phenomenology of Perception by Maurice Merleau-Ponty (Routledge, $14.95). A 20th-century French thinker, Merleau-Ponty created a fascinating but difficult model of how our minds (and bodies) are shaped by the wider living world. This new edition (the book was first published in 1945) marks a revived interest in his work, sparked in part by the evocative use of his theories in The Spell of the Sensuous, an influential 1996 book by ecophilosopher David Abram.
Nature and Madness by Paul Shepard (University of Georgia Press, $17.95). First published in 1982, this is one of several recently reissued books by the pioneering American philosopher whose insights on nature anticipated what now is known as ecopsychology.
Radical Ecopsychology: Psychology in the Service of Life by Andy Fisher (State University of New York Press, $24.95). Part manifesto, part theoretical study, Fisher’s book is an ambitious call for a new appreciation of nature in both practical therapy and social action.
A Sitdown with The Sopranos edited by Regina Barreca (Palgrave Macmillan, $12.95). In a series of thoughtful and largely appreciative essays, eight writers explore Italian American culture as portrayed on The Sopranos.
The Psychology of The Sopranos by Glen O. Gabbard (Basic Books, $22). Gabbard, a psychiatrist, uses Tony Soprano’s life and therapy to illustrate this engaging introduction to modern psychoanalysis.