By Michael Roberts
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In the spring semester of 1992, Dr. Peter Buirski, dean of the Graduate School of Professional Psychology at the University of Denver, handed out to his doctoral students the standard assignment for his Ego Models course:
Read "Portnoy's Complaint" and write a paper which formulates the character's psychological problem according to the psychoanalytical theory of Sigmund Freud. Specifically, what is interfering with Alexander Portnoy's ability to lead a productive life? List his problems and then using a psychoanalytic understanding gleaned from this class, explain how these problems came about.
Like many universities, DU divides its graduate psychology programs into two separate schools. The psychology department offers a Ph.D. to students who plan to stay in academia, teaching and conducting research in the field of psychology. By comparison, DU's Graduate School of Professional Psychology trains students to enter the clinical, practical side of psychology. The school operates the Professional Psychology Center, where, under the supervision of faculty, students counsel real patients. Once students complete their GSPP education, they gain a Psy.D. degree--doctorate of psychology.
Buirski, who in addition to being a teacher acts as administrative head of the GSPP, has an extensive background in Freud's theories of psychoanalysis, and the Ego Models class was reportedly a favorite of his. The subject of the assignment, Portnoy's Complaint, was written by Philip Roth in 1969. Roth, who won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction last year, has made his reputation by writing detailed confessional accounts of his life against the backdrop of a strict religious moralism. Portnoy's Complaint, a sexually graphic coming-of-age story about a young Jewish man, is classic Roth and nothing if not fertile ground for a Freudian.
Unfortunately, one of Buirski's students, a forty-year-old woman, didn't see it that way. In a long preface to her essay, she explained how "appalled and disgusted" she felt in being assigned to read and analyze Roth's novel. "The book was difficult for me to read because of its sheer sexism," the student wrote. "There were...times where I was unsure if I could continue reading...It felt like revisiting an ugly insult that I left behind in my past."
At one point, she continued, after coming upon a particularly disturbing section, she was compelled to scrawl a note to herself in the book's margins: "Without choice I have read this tale of misogyny, and it has made my heart heavy because too often it reminds of a not-so-long-ago past in which the common cultural practice was to view women as 'objects' which men used for their purposes...This really is too much--What the hell am I supposed to think and feel as a reader--a female reader?...I am numb, I feel only a black canvas of dread and knowing."
Depending on one's politics, it would be easy to dismiss the woman's comments as an angry student's stand against sexist literature or the whining of an overly sensitive feminist--if it weren't for one thing: Recently, the seven-year-old term paper was added as evidence to a turbulent lawsuit that in the past five years has laid bare more about the inner workings of Denver's premier private college than DU would ever want revealed.
The dispute started over a faculty member's job. In 1996, Dr. Sheila Deitz, a professor of clinical psychology and director of the Professional Psychology Center, was fired for incompetence. She blames most of her troubles on Dean Buirski, who she claims targeted her for intimidation when she first arrived at DU in 1989. Deitz's dismissal alone would be enough to make the lawsuit remarkable. Despite some recent assaults on the institution of tenure, the sacking of a university faculty member for poor performance is so rare in this country as to be virtually non-existent.
Yet because of who is involved, the quarrel has expanded--as evidenced by more than 700 separate exhibits on file in the case--to include much broader and more esoteric issues than simple employment law. For instance, that of Freud's place in a modern world.
In addition to citing the Portnoy term paper as evidence of hostile attitudes toward women at the GSPP, Deitz cites other misuses of Freud's theories there. She claims that Buirski referred to female incest victims as "Oedipal winners" and once said, "Any woman who is raped that is not sexually aroused is having an hysterical reaction." Buirski has denied making the comments.
Many legal disputes turn on what, precisely, a person meant when he said or wrote something. But in a lawsuit of and by trained psychologists, casual remarks about a person's mental condition that might be tossed off by the general population take on a serious specificity. So when Deitz called Buirski "a personality-disordered, narcissistic powermonger, sexist human being," it's crucial to know: Was she speaking off the cuff or making a clinical diagnosis?
And what did another female professor genuinely mean to say when she reportedly told Deitz she thought that Buirski was a "narcissist who suffered from an Axis II disorder?" (The woman later clarified that while she might have referred to the dean as "self-centered," the comment was intended in a "layman's sense," not a clinical one.)