Lesbianism and the Fourth Dimension:
Psychosis and Lesbianism in Popular Culture

[In Mental Illness and Popular Media:  The Representation of Psychiatric Disorders.  Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011.]

In cinema theory, Laura Mulvey identifies the male gaze in parallel to the Lacanian notion that “woman is a symptom of man”.  This theory of “woman as symptom”, that femininity is a social construct, has been critiqued by feminist and psychoanalytic scholars since the 1970s (i.e. Irigaray, Silverman).  Essentially, “woman as symptom” renders the feminine as object (the object petit a), the object of desire, thus constituting the male lack and the male’s “positive identity.”  Such theories gave birth to various cultural and media studies terms for how the female is “seen” both as a political and symbolic subject.  However liberating Mulvey’s work seemed at the time, her notion of the “male gaze” has been under scrutiny from scholars of feminist and queer theory which argue that power and visibility are not necessarily uni-directional, nor strictly manifested from a male subject to a female object.

Bracha Ettinger criticizes this notion of the male gaze in  Matrixial Gaze (1995) by suggesting that the question of positing a subject versus an object is no longer a valid relationship of power, nor is the question of two figures looking at each other, effectively constituting a double gaze,  Ettinger constructs the “matrixial gaze” as a that which dismantles the notion of male/female dichotomizations wherein one constitutes the other residually from this “lack”.  In fact, her construction of the “matrixial gaze” undoes the opposition of male/female and in so doing she dismembers the phallus as a central symbolic point of this opposition replacing the phallic with a hybrid, floating matrixial gaze. Ettinger’s work, however, was just the beginning of understanding the relationship between subject/object relations of power and desire since cultural models have evolved various vehicles in the past twenty years for understanding desire as related to a gaze that is very much unrelated to specific gendered and sexed bodies.  First, we need to understand the relationship between the gaze and the development of desire.

In his 1951 article, “Some Reflections on the Ego,” Lacan wrote: “[the mirror stage is] a phenomenon to which I assign a twofold value. In the first place, it has a historical value as it marks a decisive turning-point in the mental development of the child. In the second place, it typifies an essential libidinal relationship with the body-image.”  Lacan further develops the mirror stage concept focusing less on its historical value and more on its structural value. (“Historical value” refers to the mental development of the child and “structural value” to the libidinal relationship with the body image.)  In Lacan’s fourth Seminar, La relation d’objet, he states that “the mirror stage is far from a mere phenomenon which occurs in the development of the child. It illustrates the conflictual nature of the dual relationship.”  This conflict is born from the process of identification born from the mirror stage.  The mirror stage, Lacan hypothesizes shows that the Ego is the product of misunderstanding – Lacan’s term “méconnaissance” implies false recognition. In essence, the mirror stage is where the subject becomes alienated from itself, and where it is introduced into the Imaginary order.  Specifically, the mirror stage refers to the formation of the Ego via the process of identification, thus the Ego is the result of identifying with one’s own specular image.

Lacan’s work on the mirror stage essentially posits that human identity is decentered, a correlative to post-structuralist doctrines of the twentieth century.  This recognition comes about from the individuation of the subject which develops in infants between six and eighteen months when the child recognizes itself in the mirror and comes to understand that she and Other are separate entities as she gradually gains more motor capacity and physical independence.  Lacan maintains that the child sees its image as a whole, yet this lies in stark contrast to the lack of coordination of the body, leading the child to perceive its body as fragmented. This conflict between the perception of the body and the lack of coordination thereof, according to Lacan, is first felt by the infant as a struggle with its image, because the entirety of the image threatens it with fragmentation.  In this way the mirror stage gives rise to an aggressive tension between the subject and the image. In order to eliminate or subdue this aggressive tension, the subject identifies with the image: the primary identification with the counterpart is the foundation of the Ego.  The moment of identification is that of jubilation, according to Lacan, since it leads to an imaginary sense of mastery.  Yet, the jubilation may also be accompanied by a depressive reaction, when the infant compares his own precarious sense of mastery with the omnipotence of the mother, (la relation d’objet).  This identification also involves the ideal ego which functions as a promise of future wholeness sustaining the Ego in anticipation.

Jacque Lacan links the concept of the gaze to the development of individual human agency.  Essentially he transforms the gaze to a dialectic between the Ideal–Ego and the Ego-Ideal. The ideal-ego is the imagined self-identification image — whom the person imagines herself to be or whom she aspires to be.  Lacan further develops his concept of the gaze, saying that it does not belong to the subject but, rather, to the object of the gaze. In Seminar One, Lacan told the audience: “I can feel myself under the gaze of someone whose eyes I do not see, not even discern. All that is necessary is for something to signify to me that there may be others there. This window, if it gets a bit dark, and if I have reasons for thinking that there is someone behind it, is straight-away a gaze.”   Lacan would argue that the “gaze” exists within the mind of the person who feels the gaze cast on them.  This statement implicates, in effect, that perception supersedes reality, that reality is false and most importantly, that only the interlocutor is real.  This sentence would throw a wrench into the dialectic between recognition and false recognition, operating in much the same way that Derrida’s infamous formula of textual interpretation functions—his claim in “Plato’s Pharmacy” that writing removes the text from the author, from the truth, thus opening up the text to interpretation and misinterpretation.  But Lacan’s play of the gaze goes much further and marginalizes, at the very point of experiential knowledge everyone but the interlocutor.  So how do we address the problems of recognition, false recognition and desire that are reproduced in popular culture from the social to the cultural levels of reading?

Pursuant to identification is desire, since the child, from a very early age, attempts to satisfy its basic biological needs and it gets caught up in the dialectics of exchanges with others.  Because the child’s sense of self is fabricated from these identifications with the images of the others, Lacan argues that it is particular to humans to desire directly or to desire through another or others.  Our sense of desire according to Lacan is no longer separable from the biological needs of the individual and there is a subordinate need for the recognition of love of other people.  Hence, the object of desire becomes more desirable if others desire the object as well, less desire is manifested if the masses withdraw their desire.  Hence, the subject’s own relationship to desire is decentered by the other.  In essence, Lacan maintains that the ego is at its fundamental core, an object.  Moreover, this notion constructs a sense of subject which is not “organic” or “natural”, but rather the I is an identification with the other consistently throughout the individual’s life.  It is this identification with the self which takes place through the other.

For as Lacan refers to this state of recognition of the mirror stage that jubilation can result, so too can depression, when the infant realizes his own precarious state of life with the omnipotence of the mother.  This identification also involves the ideal ego which functions as a reminder of a future unity sustaining the Ego in anticipation.  This dual relationship (relation duelle) refers both to the positionality between the Ego and the body, which is generally characterized by illusions of similarity and reciprocity, but this dual connectivity also incorporates the relation between the Imaginary and the Real. The identity from the mirror supplies an imaginary “wholeness” to the experience of a fragmentary real as discussed in “The Mirror Stage as formative of the function of the I as revealed in psychoanalytic experience”, the first of his Écrits.

Lacan writes that “desire is neither the appetite for satisfaction nor the demand for love, but the difference that results from the subtraction of the first from the second.” He adds that “desire begins to take shape in the margin where demand becomes separated from need.”  In this way, desire can never be satisfied or as Slavoj Žižek states:  “desire and jouissance are inherently antagonistic, exclusive even. Desire’s raison d’être is not to realize its goal, to find full satisfaction, but to reproduce itself as desire.”  Indeed, even though psychoanalysis has taught us is that desire is not a relationship to an object, but rather a relationship to a lack (manque), the subject often mistakes desire for that having to possess that object.    So what are the repercussions for desire if desire is not to be realized, wherein the subject must maintain her object of desire in a state of limbo and must, in order to keep this longing alive, not achieve this desire as such?  What are the vehicles for maintaining desire wherein its object will always be alive and accessible?

Lesbian desire replicates this narrative of false recognition, of “méconnaissance.” But what is the symbolic dimension of lesbian desire? Might there be an attempt to recuperate the narratives of power and possession, a long held trope for heterosexual desire, a stereotype that perhaps can no longer be said to apply from the male gaze to the female subject/object?  It would seem, given the plethora of narratives of lesbian desire present in recent cinema and culture that lesbian desire might very well be no different than any other sort of eroticized or intellectualized desire.  What if all desire is about the framing of the subject, more specifically, the inescapability of the subject from recognizing its own artificial projection of subjective wholeness modeled upon others whom the subject encounters in the world?  More relevant perhaps, in the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century when desire would seem more linked to iterability, to repetition, than it is to the mirroring of the other, how can we understand subjective desire when desire today would seem to be more integral to a social process of identification as rather than identification with?  Indeed, the answers to this question of desire begins to unravel through psychoanalytic theory but their ends pour into the modalities of theories of deconstruction as there is a need to understand the space between the reproduction of desire common to psychoanalysis and the (re)iterability of desire developed through deconstruction.

Laying the ground for the politicization of Derrida’s work, Gayatri Spivak, analyses “Limited Inc.: abc”.  Herein, Spivak cautions the reader that deconstruction alone cannot found political actions:  “a mere change of mindset, however great, will not bring about revolutions.  Yet, without this revolutionary change of mind, revolutionary “programs” will fall into the same metaphysical bind of idealized and repeatable intention and context that Derrida plots in speech act theory.”  Central to Spivak’s argument here is that iterability–and not repetition–lays the foundation for identity formation which is integral in fomenting revolutionary or individual discourses of identity:

But repetition is the basis of identification.  Thus, if repetition alters, it has to be faced that alteration identifies and identity is always impure.  Thus iterability—like the trace structure–is the positive condition of possibility of identification, the very thing whose absolute rigor it renders impossible. It is in terms of iterable (rather than repeatable) identities that communication and consensus are established.

Herein we see how identity when iterated is always “polluted” and thus identity is established through a conterminous replication and impurity of this act.  The re-marking of the self must pass through the other vis-à-vis an idealization of this object/other, hence rendering this object through the subject’s body and performance, there is absolutely no contradiction in terms of the original or the replica.  Iterability keeps both alive perpetually as the object of desire can be retained through the re-performance of the subject who constantly recasts this object of desire in the present terms of time and space. Spivak’s analysis of Derrida takes critical discourse and attempts to lay bare the authoritative analysis of such constructions whereby “authority” per se renders visible the skeleton of authority whose power rests upon its own iterability and citation within an academic scene.  But what if this field of production of “knowledge” might also be the theatre for the production, containment and nurturing of desire? And how might this desire be interpreted when desire is assumed to be part and parcel of the psychotic moment of the subject who loses herself in the other?

I will now turn to a genre of cinema and cultural studies which, although not formally labeled, I will call “lesbian psychosis”.  Indeed, “lesbian psychosis” is a Leitmotif not uncommon in cinema and cultural studies; however, in recent years the “psychotic lesbian” has entered into the cultural economy of the social and Internet:  as a field of production of iterability, as social construction, and as a reaffirmation of the object of desire wherein the description of that discourse is one of mirroring, un-writing, undoing.  The un-writing takes the form of verbal play, of oral/aural productions of desire in parallel to the psychoanalytic model.  Similarly, the space of desire is reduced to pure language whereby “nothing happens” and the psychotic event lies not in what happened, but instead in what did not.  Desire and the real as symbolic are forever intertwined and the subject’s inability to bring about a real body based on the perceived desire reproduces what could be called the “mirror stage of lesbianism” through which the psychotic scenario and subject unfolds. The only way to capture the other, to arrive at one’s desire is through a reproduction of the description of desire—through writing, story telling and when language fails, through the somatic reproduction of desire or of that specific object of desire.

Vito Russo’s Celluloid Closet marks a clear critique of the genre of perceived homophobic plots within ostensibly gay cinema by noting the many films in which the protagonist commits suicide (i.e. The Children’s Hour, 1961), where homosexuals are the object of a mass murder  (i.e. Cruising, 1980) and where homosexuals are themselves murderers (i.e. Silence of the Lambs, 1991 and Basic Instinct, 1992).   Many of the films were the object of massive protests as their production was disrupted and/or their release in movie theatres thwarted since gay activists identified certain of these films as a type of cinema which “negatively portrays” homosexual characters.  Due to the paucity of gay characters in cinema these critiques would seem well-founded given that the few roles to be filled would end in the subject’s death or inevitable psychosis.  Yet the problem with such critiques is that the notion of “negative” and “positive” representations can never really be established as a sort of democratically evolved consensus and admittedly, all sorts of people become–both in reality and on-screen–psycho killers and obsessive lovers.

Yet the one prototype in popular culture which seems to function as both trope of this mirror stage to transference of desire in both popular cultural models of cinema, within the social and in the realm of the cyber-social is that of the “psychotic lesbian.”  The trope of the psychotic lesbian functions as both a model of the cinematic roles formerly assigned to lesbian characters–for we must not forget that Shirley McClaine’s character in The Children’s Hour, although she kills herself, is rendered “psychotic” by her desire for Audrey Hepburn’s character.  Let’s not forget that in films where the lesbian is “psychotic” she is generally both an assumed psychotic of a given social real and one of a narrative vehicle which adds to the mystery of the plot, confuses the roles that various characters play and ultimately plays with the dissonance between reality and fiction on many levels within the film and from within cultural tropes within the social.

For instance, in Basic Instinct, the murder suspect and mystery writer, Catherine, becomes the object of inquiry and desire for Nick, the San Francisco Police detective, who ends up becoming more like Catherine, imitating her words and becoming her psychological subject of study for her forthcoming novel. Catherine is also the doppelganger for Beth (a police psychologist) as Beth is for Catherine—Nick’s desire for both women becomes that of the patient for the psychoanalyst and the “breakthrough” Nick seeks is nothing other than to resolve the mystery.   The mystery could likewise be said to be two-fold:  that of the murders and that of his own desire.  Similar to Rear Window wherein the same type of drama unfolds as each character plays a role made to fit into the “frame of desire” Žižek describes this play of desire that is manifested through the actions of Grace Kelly:  “By literally entering the frame of his fantasy; by crossing the courtyard and appearing ‘on the other side’ where he can see her through the window.   When Stewart sees her in the murderer’s apartment his gaze is immediately fascinated, greedy, desirous of her:  she has found her place in his fantasy-space.”  Yet in Rear Window, it is James Stewart who reduces Grace Kelly’s character to object of desire as she becomes his physical surrogate while he lays helpless in a wheelchair while in Basic Instinct, although not paralyzed, it is Catherine who commands Nick into her frame of desire as he plays a role for her novel and as her psychological subject.  Although Žižek attributes this to the gaze of a decentered, male chauvinist subject, I would argue that this gaze of desire is not uniquely male chauvinist.  In fact, I would say that the gaze of desire by the subject desiring her object is often caught within the trap of enacting that desire—should she be wheelchair-bound, closeted, or fearful of engaging that desire for any number of reasons, the incapacity to reach that goal, that aim of expressing desire sets into motion a totally different interplay wherein the subject attempts to control and manipulate the actors within her frame of desire in order to envisage something approximating desire, something akin to the fantasy space she imagines but cannot have. Control, drama, and manipulation take over where the subject can no longer exercise control over her own life.  Basic Instinct essentially takes the powerful woman (lesbian, bisexual or heterosexual—we never really learn) and turns around the gaze of desire and roles of power through narration and writing.  The “psychotic lesbian” was an utter invention of the protesting masses which reduced this film to homophobia rather than unravel the levels of sexual play between men and women that this movie directly addresses.

Not discussed frequently amongst scholars of queer theory, sociology, psychology and cultural studies is the “psychotic lesbian” who is a common figure of anxiety amongst lesbians who chronicle their stories on dating and social networking sites.  Likewise, the “psychotic lesbian” is also a trope, an “inside joke” of sorts, that has fairly or unfairly been stereotyped.   On the virutal dating site, okcupid.com, you can find hundreds of profiles which attempt to warn off the “potential psycho” through the built-in narrative which allows all viewers to be warned:  “You should message me if: [y]ou have a sense of humor and can roll with the punches! Oh. And if you are not a psycho. Although many psychotic-types I have met tend to think they are perfectly sane, so I suppose that is a pointless request” while many others get right to the point: “Write me if you are not psychotic.”  What is most interesting is how this trope of psychosis functions as a means of interpreting desire and identity from within and from without the “lesbian community”, for perceived psychosis can be a fear in any context, in any community; yet the narrative of psychosis also flows from the very subjects who maintain a politics which resists homophobia.  Has the “psychotic lesbian,” within lesbian culture specifically, become the “n-word” of gansta culture wherein recognition, permissibility and even desire regain their legitimation from the widely circulated vehicles of the lesbian as the iterative of persona and desire?

Social media and cinema is replete with tropes of identification and desire which go terribly awry; yet as gay rights came to the fore of discussions in popular culture, mass media, politics and cinema, the lesbian psycho killer was not ignored in the proliferating roles written for the big screen.  Here I will focus upon two films which examine the psychotic lesbian through the mirroring of individual identity and the construction desire which most often take the form of iterability by the central “psychotic lesbian” figures: Single White Female (1992) and Chloe (2009).

Single White Female and the Mirror of Desire

In Single White Female, Allie breaks up with her boyfriend and needs to find a flatmate with whom to share her expensive, New York City rent.  Enter Hedy, the maladjusted, young newbie to the city who wins over Allie on her interview for the flat and the two begin a happy co-existence which we are shown as a mise-en-scene very reminiscent of the “falling in love” scenes of Hollywood romantic comedies with the lilting flute music accompanying the scenes of Allie helping Hedy move into their home:  Hedy finds an old lamp which Allie repaints for her, they move furniture around spilling items from a table on the floor, Hedy finds a silver platter under the sink and she polishes it to reveal Allie looking at their reflection together, Hedy screen’s Allie’s ex-boyfriend’s phone calls, they stroll the streets of New York eating ice cream.  As a friendly gesture to Hedy who seems interested in learning about dressing nicely, Allie helps Hedy to gain fashion sensibility as they spend all their free time together in their first weeks together.  They fall asleep on the bed watching In a Lonely Place (1950), a film which foreshadows the anger and madness of Hedy as Hedy attempts to take the place of Allie’s ex-boyfriend, Sam.

As the film progresses Allie discovers that Hedy has been stealing Sam’s letters from the postbox and things get markedly worse when Sam and Allie reunite.  Hedy goes to even greater lengths to stay in the picture as it is eventually revealed that they want to move back in together and that Hedy needs to find another flat.  At this point, Hedy ends up looking more and more like Allie as Hedy’s obsession with her dead twin sister is externalized through her iteration of Allie’s body and sexuality.  Sister, friend, flatmate, lover—all the social roles are confused as are the distinctions between the movie we are watching and the movies cited within Single White Female. These movies serve to further mirror Hedy’s desire for Allie as we see in Bell, Book and Candle the possibility of love is discussed:

Jimmy Stewart: I know it doesn’t make sense, but…I have an idea I must be in love with you….Would you like it to go on for always?

Kim Novak: Does anything go on for always?

Jimmy Stewart: Well, one likes to think some things do.

This scene is followed by Allie’s return after a 24-hour absence:  Hedy in her bed with their dog exclaims that the dog missed Allie hence Hedy had to go to her bed to comfort the dog.  Hedy scolds Allie as if a child, mimicking the words of a parent in a string of clichés, “Where the hell have you been? I’ve been waiting since six o’clock last night to hear from you.  I’ve been worried sick…There’s such a thing as a phone, you know?”  The romantic and sisterly love becomes distorted and the jealousy of Sam’s new insertion into Allie’s life is of great concern to Hedy when she learns that they are now engaged and her tenure in the apartment is threatened.  The rest of the film is dedicated to Hedy’s intensified mirroring of Allie as she imitates Allie’s dressing style, her sexual habits, and in the most intense scene of verisimilitude Hedy’s descent down the hair salon’s white and steel staircase sporting an exact replica of Allie’s hair. The psychotic moment is revealed and Allie finally begins to understand that something about Hedy is amiss as she says, upon seeing Hedy’s new haircut, “You have got to be kidding.”  Hedy works to emulate Allie sexually as she escalates her iteration of Allie: she masturbates while Allie catches a glimpse and in a later scene Hedy sneaks into Sam’s bed pretending to be Allie.  The sex with the self is made to iterate that of the other and through Allie’s absence Hedy is able to keep hold of her desire for her sister/flatmate/lover, Allie, as Hedy announces to herself in the mirror admiring her new haircut, “I love myself like this.”  The object of desire is multiple—it is Allie, it is Hedy mirroring Allie, but it is never Hedy.

The sexual tension and identity confusion reaches its apex when Allie confronts Hedy after learning of Sam’s murder:

Allie: I know you weren’t yourself when you did this, Hedy.
Hedy: I know. I was YOU.

The mirroring of Allie results in a series of psychotic episodes which leaves everyone in Allie’s life dead.  The production of lesbian desire and identity in this film takes place through the reproduction of the other somatically and ultimately, the repositioning of characters through their elimination and the weaving together of narratives from Hedy’s past and Hollywood cinema.  The mirror is shattered when Hedy says: “Did you know that identical twins are never really identical? There’s always one who’s prettier… and the one whose not, does all the work… She used me, then she left me – just like you.”  Allie responds, “I’m not like your sister, Hedy. Not any more. I’m like you now.”  Hereafter the roles become re-reversed:  Hedy becomes Allie and Allie becomes Hedy.  In looking for Allie, Hedy reverses who ought to be frightened of whom, as Hedy is on a psychopathic rampage and calls out to Allie who is hiding from her:  “Allie? Allie, come out of hiding now! I’m scared!” The cross-identifications and mis-identifications are multiple and constantly in the process of construction and fracture.  Desire is attained only through the suspense that keeps these two women apart for their union brings about the death of desire and somatic death.  The female gaze of this film is always duel: that of Allie who is initially curious about Hedy and as the film progresses her curiosity grows to concern while Hedy’s gaze is constantly eroticized, associated with desire, insanity, and aggression.

Chloe and the Iterability of Desire

Chloe by Atom Egoyam takes the story of a couple, Catherine, an OB/GYN, and David, a university professor, whose marriage is in a lull.   Chloe, a young prostitute, hits on Catherine one night at a bar; her response is to hire Chloe to test her husband whom she has suspected of cheating.  As the story unfolds, Chloe comes to Catherine with her erotic narratives of what she did with David. Catherine’s grows closer to her husband through these stories while Chloe’s attraction grows for Catherine and eventually Catherine gives in to Chloe’s advances, for a night.  Her eventual refusal of Chloe, her “return to heterosexuality” brings about the continuance of Chloe’s psychotic break.  For as we learn, the affair she was paid to have with David never occurred—Chloe’s fictional relationship was merely an aphrodisiac for Catherine, both of whom feed upon this fiction in order to fulfill their relationships:  Catherine with David, and Chloe with Catherine. The psychotic lesbian in this film is embodied by Chloe, but the manner of seduction takes place through words, stories, truths, and lies.  Chloe, though extremely young, is perspicacious about matters of sexuality and very early on in the film states:  “I guess I’ve always been pretty good with words. In my line of business, it’s as important to be able to describe what I’m doing as it is to do what I’m doing. When to say what. What words to select.”

Thusly Chloe weaves her narrative of desire for Catherine who feeds off this faked romance with Catherine’s husband that Chloe has created just for her to bring her lover pleasure and eventually to seduce her lover.  Chloe is aware of the power of words and body and the choreography of each:  “Some men hate to hear certain terms. They can’t stand specific moves and then they can’t live without others. It’s part of my job to know where to place my hand, my lips, my tongue, my leg and even my thoughts.”  Yet, Chloe is aware that the stories and words she weaves for her clients are but one part—there is the other facet of fantasy into which she plays and then, suddenly, as all fantasies do, finish, “disappear”:  “Am I your secretary or am I your daughter? Maybe I’m your seventh grade math teacher you always hated. All I know is that if I do it just right, I can become your living, breathing, unflinching dream, and then I can actually disappear.”  This line foreshadows the film’s end as she fulfills ultimately the dreams of all involved, including her own, and then she does indeed disappear.

Representing sex with men as formulaic, a science of what to do, what not to do, Chloe evokes for Catherine the young escort who can help fix her marriage.  Little does Catherine suspect that Chloe has fallen in love with her, becoming fixated on her, obsessed with entering her life.  After their sexual encounter, Catherine breaks it off.  In retaliation Chloe uses Catherine’s son as access to his mother by having sex with him in Catherine’s bed.  The story ends tragically with Catherine confronting Chloe in her house wherein Chloe turns the role of prostitute/pimp around telling Catherine that she cannot be bought off.  When Catherine asks Chloe what she wants, Chloe responds with “a kiss” and Catherine complies; however, while kissing Chloe Catherine sees her husband watching her.  Catherine panics, pushes Chloe back causing the bedroom window to shatter and Chloe has safely caught the window frame, for a moment—she then smiles and lets go of the window plunging to her death.  The last scene in the movie is of the happy couple attending their son’s graduation party and Catherine is wearing the hairpin that Chloe had given her.

The oral stories which Chloe creates and Catherine demands of her, fabricates a very odd picture of desire and fantasy, of how the self mirrors the other through the narratives she needs to hear, and how the storyteller’s lies might just be the fantasy of truth for the listener.  The psychotic lesbian in this film is more complex to interpret since Chloe is ultimately a young woman with no experience in emotions—she knows how to handle sex, desire and eroticism, but not love.  Chloe is also, it would appear, extremely vulnerable Catherine, on the other hand is more adept at handling love but craves the sexual and erotic which Chloe offers, initially as narrative and ultimately as performance.  When Catherine realizes that the sexual performance is not what she wants and that the narrative of her husband’s infidelity with Chloe was a hoax, she wants out and Catherine stops the action.  Catherine had presupposed that money would buy her confirmation of her husband’s infidelity and instead of receiving this confirmation or negation, she ended up having an erotic encounter through a fictionalized narrative, styled by the prostitute she hired.  Money buys Catherine what she wants, a story, but she is ultimately denied the truth behind the narrative she wants to believe.  Chloe, on the other hand, is a master of words and of storytelling more than she is of sex.  She understands what it takes to seduce a man but falls in love with the woman who pays her for her for her words—for Chloe does not make the distinction between the somatic and language—hence this storytelling that she performs for Catherine is an incredibly sexual act.  In the end, it becomes clear that Chloe (whose sexuality is at the very least bisexual and perhaps homosexual) is in love Catherine and cannot continue to dominate this discourse of love with Catherine.  Once the fantasy of Chloe and David has been defused, the only way that Chloe can “have” Catherine is through her own death.  Chloe is the tragic figure, a psychotic lesbian in search of her object of desire, for certain; but she is also a figure who is tragically romantic.  Catherine, on the other hand, disassociates from Chloe with a certain ease that is uncanny—she commands Chloe about as a prostitute, she later “experiments” with Chloe, and then kills her “accidentally”.  But the “accident” could be read as one of homosexual panic—for the fear Catherine felt when her husband saw her kissing Chloe led her to push Chloe to her near death.  Yet within this film, the spectator is not initially led to question this death, not forced to postulate Catherine’s potential psychosis simply because Chloe’s death returns the alienated couple to their “happy ending” at their son’s graduation party.  It would seem that Chloe remains incidental to this couple’s married life as they present the image of being happily married in this last scene.  The true force of this film lies in Chloe making Catherine see that fiction can be—and often is—better than reality.  What is really true in this final scene?  Are we witnessing the happy couple or the placated, passionless couple making an appearance?  In the last scene of the film we see that Catherine has retained the trace of her experience with Chloe in her hair (the hairpin).  This final image evidences to the viewer that perhaps Catherine is not so heterosexual and that she might even be less mentally stable.

Stranger Than Fiction: I wasn’t a lesbian…I was psychotic!”

These three films contain the tropes of the psychotic lesbian that are played out in a not so atypical manner.  I say “not so atypical” because in general at the end of Hollywood films, the “bad guy” dies.  So ought we to be surprised when the “psychotic lesbian killer” meets her horrid death?  What is most interesting is how the protests regarding cinema extend to real life dramas of lesbians who fall out of love, out of glamour and go out of their minds.  In fact, some stories are simply so much stranger than fiction.  I turn here to a report published on August 21, 2000 which describes the end of one of America’s most famous lesbian relationships in terms of mentally ill health:

Just hours after announcing her separation from longtime partner Ellen DeGeneres, Anne Heche was hospitalized Saturday after she wandered to a rural home near Fresno (yes, we said Fresno), California, appearing shaken and confused, and began making strange statements to the homeowners.

Heche, 31, reportedly parked her car along a highway and then walked about a mile to a house in Cantua Creek, located near Highway 33 in rural western Fresno County in Central California. Sheriff’s deputies were called to the home around 4:30 p.m. They said the star of such films as Six Days, Seven Nights and 1998’s Psycho cooperated with them and then asked for an ambulance.

According to a deputy’s report obtained by Fresno’s NBC affiliate, KSEE-TV, Heche (who, according to witnesses, was wearing just a bra, shorts and shoes) told the deputy “she was God and was going to take everyone back to heaven with her…on some sort of spaceship.”

This event put Anne Heche in the uncomfortable spotlight of the “bizarre”.  Yet, this running about Fresno in her underwear was not nearly as offsetting as her re-entry into Hollywood which cemented her winning title in the “psychotic” category when ABC’s 20/20 screened on September 5, 2001 an interview of Anne Heche with Barbara Walters.  Presenting her Fresno episode from the year before and her book, Call Me Crazy, this interview re-presents Heche to the American public as a newly formed subject, who returned from an otherworld of psychosis within the framework of “normalcy,”  a Barbara Walters interview.  Though both media coverage and Heche as well painted herself out to be “psychotic”, her rendering of her insanity and the recuperation of her “self” reveals the liminal space of sexual identification and (in)sanity in our culture today—both how they evidence themselves in popular culture and how they symbiotically feed each other.  In fact, I would argue that this particular Hollywood story exemplifies perfectly the trope of sexuality in American culture wherein the modality for finding oneself is first through losing the self (i.e.” insanity”, “craziness”) and secondly through this evolution of a mirror stage of an adult “rediscovery” of sexuality.  In the year following her breakup with Ellen DeGeneres, Heche “recuperated” her sanity by abandoning her abusive childhood, distancing herself from her lesbian past, and by shedding the skin of her other constructed person, Celestia, who resides in what Heche called the “Fourth Dimension.”

In the Barbara Walters interview Heche presents her story and her book whose title invokes the viewer/reader to “call her crazy”; yet, this interview exemplifies how Heche had bubble-wrapped her insanity in the rhetoric of a split persona.  Infused within this oral and written narrative are the tropes for sexual and spiritual rebirth whereby the finding of one’s sexuality and God are interwoven.  Heche summarizes her story to Walters:  “I had another personality. I had a fantasy world. I called my other personality Celestia. I called the other world that I created for myself the Fourth Dimension. I believed I was from another planet. I think I was insane.”  From here, Anne Heche attempts to describe the degeneration of her person throughout her life—from the sexual abuse of her father, her mother’s negation of this abuse, her father’s homosexuality and eventual death resulting from AIDS and the residual “splitting of the self” as she terms it.  Heche claims to have existed as two people mirroring a Jesus who could not and who did not save her while embodying the damaged woman who delved into her work and sex to reconstruct herself.  This description of Heche’s embodiment of a God figure was not the “insanity” for Heche, but rather the sign of a greater insanity: her life of 31 years.  As she discusses her life her interlocutor, Walters, is presented as the figure of “normalcy” and in turn we hear Walters respond with incredulity to Heche’s descriptions of alterity:

Anne: I told my mother at about the seventh year of therapy that I had been abused sexually by my father and she hung up the phone on me. To have gone through so much work to heal myself, and have my mother not acknowledge in any way that she was sorry for what had happened to me, broke my heart. And in that moment I think I split off from myself. So Anne, this girl who had just confronted her mother, shrunk, and out came Celestia, where I was literally thrown to the ground, and I’m not kidding, in New York City, thrown to the ground and heard the voice of God, and thought I was absolutely insane. I had no idea what to do. I was existing as two people.

Barbara: So even though you thought you were Jesus, or Celestia, you also at the same time knew this was an aberration.

Anne: Absolutely. That’s the thing about going crazy. You are absolutely aware — at least, I was — that I was Anne Heche, an actress, that I had friends, there were people who would think I was crazy if I was ever going to talk about this. And at the same time I’m hearing God talk to me saying ‘You are basically from Heaven.’…

Barbara: You go in your trailer and you’re another person. You close the door and you’re another person. You’re Jesus.

Anne: I’m Celestia.

Barbara: And Celestia is also Jesus?

Anne: No. Celestia, as I was told, is the reincarnation of God, here [on earth].

Heche presents her schism as one of illness and conterminously, as one of a breaking point, the return to herself.  Heche’s personification of the heterosexual “turned lesbian” who becomes possessed by God as a woman enacts one of the most bizarre of Hollywood stories, for certain; however, this story also feeds the image of lesbian identification as the “final phase” in returning to the “saner self.”  This identification of self for Heche and the conterminous desire for the other (DeGeneres) is evidenced within Heche’s autobiography:

By the time I finished shooting Six Days Seven Nights I felt like three completely different people, all existing at the same time.  I was Anne-n-Ellen, the second half of the most famous gay couple in the world.  I was Anne Heche, the closeted abuse victim with a burning desire to be a successful actress, writer, and director. And I was Celestia, a spirit being from the fourth dimension here to teach the world about love.  The fight to keep all of me alive over the next three and a half years almost killed me.

The mirror identification for Heche results in both jubilation and horror—though Heche disavows her relationship with DeGeneres was one of experimentation—it is clear that on a super-sexual level the heterosexual turned gay actress had a conflictual relationship to many dualities she embodies: her heterosexuality and homosexuality; her destructive past and her healing present; and her insanity as symptom and her insanity as remedy.  Born from her identification to the last three and a half years of her life which “almost killed” her, lesbianism could be said to have both rendered her insane and killed her; likewise it could have been the trigger to understanding her problems while it might have also been part of the problem.  Or was she, as many web entries attest, just another “psycho lesbian”?

What is clear from Heche’s interview with Walters and her autobiography is that her relationship to DeGeneres was part of a larger “journey”—a voyage of love, of sexual discovery, of self-discovery and of the “psychotic.”  She tells Walters, “Fresno was the culmination of a journey. Of a world that I thought I needed to escape to in order to find love. So in the pain I think what triggered the pain of my breakup with Ellen, was a bottoming out of ‘there’s no love here, I’m going to go get love.'”  So from Fresno where her journey ended, Heche was instructed to meet a spaceship, to board the spaceship and “take a hit of ecstasy.” As Heche describes, it was then that she realized that she did not have “to leave the world to get love”.  Heche, the mirror of her lesbian lover, of God, and of sanity was finally “cured” through a psychotic terrain of spaceships, ecstasy and Fresno—not to mention a night in a mental hospital.

Between 2000 and 2001, the Internet was rife with postings which complained that Heche gave lesbians a “bad reputation” while others accused Heche of being a Hasbian (essentially, “a former lesbian who is now in a heterosexual relationship.”  Slowly, Heche’s name soon developed into its own definition whereby “pulling an Anne Heche” is now a synonym of Hasbian.  Since Heche’s “coming out” to sanity in 2001, her narrative serves as a compelling introduction regarding how psychosis and lesbianism are strung together and spun in the media by everyone to include those in the gay and lesbian community. Many people in the gay community were angry with Heche, misquoting her interview frequently, rephrasing her words, to say something she did not in fact state:  “I wasn’t a lesbian…I was psychotic!”  This phrase became a current rejoinder for those referring to Heche as the “sell-out” or the budding starlet who “used” a more well-known celebrity to climb the wall of fame.  But what does the “psychotic lesbian” say for those of us who are acutely aware of the troubles of speaking about very real problems within the community that do include various “psychosis” to include incidents of stalking, obsessive behavior within relationships, high rates of domestic violence, serious drug and alcohol abuse and then the common references to “U-Haul lesbians”?

Derrida writes on the language of life and death, a modality which can be applied to this problem of representation of the truths and fictions of psychosis—the ability to discuss reality by taking part in the distinction between writing science and writing life. Lesbian desire as “psychotic” is caught between the thanatological and thanatographical, between life/death and writing.  Lesbian desire could be said to be the reproduction through these narratives which reframe life as death, death as life, and identity as iterability.  The tropes through which we had heretofore collided with the hegemony of mass media, for instance, are also the tropes through which we have come to understand ourselves in the polysemous manifestations and language of identity politics.  Ultimately, the “psychotic lesbian” might be best understood as an implosion of identity politics upon itself wherein the sexuality of a person/character can never be precisely represented or deciphered.  Likewise, the trope of the “psychotic lesbian” manifests an aporetic space wherein the scope of identity as a mirroring of the other takes its toll on the social when iteration upon iteration becomes imitation and renders sexual identity and desire a house of mirrors in which desire moves the unknown real and the projection of a fiction which, in the end, disappoints.



1 Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. (New York: Oxford UP, 1999), 833-44.

2 Bracha Ettinger, The Matrixial Gaze (Leeds: University of Leeds, 1995).

3 Jaques Lacan, “Some Reflections on the Ego,” International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 1953;34(1):11-17.

4 Ibid, 17.

5Jacques Lacan, “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I.” Écrits: A selection, trans. Bruce Fink (New York: W. W. Norton, 2002).

6 Jacques Lacan,  The Seminar of Jacques Lacan:  Book 1, Freud’s Papers on Technique 1953-1954, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York:  Cambridge University Press, 1988), 215.

7 Jacques Derrida,  “Plato’s Pharmacy,”  Dissemination, trans. Barbara Johnson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982).

8Slavoj Žižek, “A Plea for Ethical Violence,”  Umbr(a). (1) 2004:  75-91.

9 “Limited Inc abc…”, Glyph 2, trans. Samuel Weber (Baltimore: The John Hopkins Press, 1977) 162-254.

10 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Revolutions That as Yet Have No Model: Derrida’s Limited Inc”  The Spivak Reader:  Selected Words of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak  (New York: Routledge, 1996), 87.

11 Ibid, 87.

12 Here Spivak elaborates this point of iterability further:

Iterability “itself” cannot be privileged as a “transcendental condition of possibility” (pp. 72- 244) for fiction, theater, parasite, citation, and the like. Whereas repetition presupposes a full idealization (repeatability as such), iterability entails no more than a minimal idealization which would guarantee the possibility of the re-mark.  But since “the iterability of the mark does not leave any of the philosophical oppositions which govern the idealizing abstraction intact (for instance, serious/non-serious, literal/metaphorical or ironic, normal/parasitical, strict/non-strict, etc.’ “  (pp. 42, 209-10), this is an impure idealization, a contradiction in terms, which cannot be caught within the either-or logic of noncontradiction.  “No processor project of idealization without iterability, and yet no possible idealization of iterability” (pp. 42-43, 210).   In order to work with a non-transcendental, non-logical (non)-concept (or graphic) such as iterability, one must think a great change of mindset (Ibid, 88).

13 “Material objects, and seemingly non-textual events and phenomena would have to be seen not as self-identical, but as the space of dispersion of such “constructions,” as the condition or effect of interminable iterations. Yet, since iterabilty fractures intention as well, a simple stockpiling of “authoritative analyses from this point of view” without intervention in enabling and disabling auto- and disciplinary critiques would be beside the point” (ibid, 90).

14 Basic Instinct, directed by Paul Verhoeven (1992, Los Angeles: Columbia Tristar), DVD.

15  Slavoj  Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology. (New York:  Verso Books. 1989), 199.

16 Single White Female, directed by Barbet Schroeder (1992, Los Angeles: Columbia Pictures), DVD.

17 Chloe, directed by Atom Egoyam  (2009; Toronto: Sony Picture Classics), DVD.

18 Bell, Book and Candle,  directed by Richard Quine (1958; Los Angeles: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment), DVD.

19 Mark Armstrong, “Anne Heche Hospitalized”  E!Online  Aug 21, 2000, http://www.eonline.com/uberblog/b40331_anne_heche_hospitalized.html

20 Anne Heche, Call Me Crazy: A Memoir (New York, Scribner, 2001), 224.

21 “Hasbian”, Urban Dictionary, last modified 30 November, 2003 http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=hasbian .

22 “Anne Heche”, Urban Dictionary, last modified 1 August, 2008 http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=anne+heche .

23 “U-Haul lesbians” is a reference to the popular joke which not so subtly described the problems of lesbians who move very quickly from dating to a live-in relationship.  The joke goes as such: QUESTION:  “What type of car does a lesbian bring on the first date?  ANSWER: A U-Haul (U-Haul is a self-rental moving truck).

24  In Jacques Derrida’s The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation: Texts and Discussions with Jacques Derrida (Lincoln: Nebraska University Press, 1982), 4-6, he writes:

What one calls life—the thing or object of biology and biography—does not stand face to face with something that would be its opposable ob-ject: death, the thanatological or thanatographical.  This is the first complication. Also, it is painfully difficult for life to become an object of science, in the sense that philosophy and science have always given to the word “science” and to the legal status of scientificity.  All of this—the difficulty, the delays it entails—is particularly bound up with the fact that the science of life always accommodates a philosophy of life, which is not the case for all other sciences, the sciences of nonlife—in other words, the sciences of the dead… A discourse on life/death must occupy a certain space between logos and gramme, analogy and program, as well as between the differing senses of program and reproduction.  And since life is on the line, the trait that relates the logical to the graphical must also be working between the biological and biographical, the thanatological and thanatographical.



“Anne Heche”, Urban Dictionary, last modified 1 August, 2008 http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=anne+heche .

Armstrong, Mark. “Anne Heche Hospitalized”  E!Online  Aug 21, 2000, http://www.eonline.com/uberblog/b40331_anne_heche_hospitalized.html

Basic Instinct. directed by Paul Verhoeven.  1992, Los Angeles: Columbia Tristar, DVD.

Bell, Book and Candle.  directed by Richard Quine. 1958, Los Angeles: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, DVD.

Chloe. directed by Atom Egoyam.  2009; Toronto: Sony Picture Classics, DVD.

Derrida, Jacques.  The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation: Texts and Discussions with Jacques Derrida. Lincoln: Nebraska University Press, 1982.

Derrida, Jacques. “Limited Inc abc…”, Glyph 2. trans. Samuel Weber.  Baltimore: The John Hopkins Press, 1977, 162-254.

Derrida, Jacques. “Plato’s Pharmacy,”  Dissemination, trans. Barbara Johnson.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Ettinger, Bracha. The Matrixial Gaze.  Leeds: University of Leeds, 1995.

“Hasbian”, Urban Dictionary, last modified 30 November, 2003 http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=hasbian .

Heche, Anne. Call Me Crazy: A Memoir.  New York, Scribner, 2001.

Lacan, Jacques.  “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I.” Écrits: A Selection, trans. Bruce Fink.  New York: W. W. Norton, 2002.

Lacan, Jacques.  The Seminar of Jacques Lacan:  Book 1, Freud’s Papers on Technique 1953-1954, trans. Alan Sheridan.  New York:  Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Lacan, Jaques. “Some Reflections on the Ego.” International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 1953;34(1):11-17.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 1999.

Sigmund, Freud.  “The Theory of Instincts.”  An Outline of Psychoanalysis.  Eds. Clara Thompson, M.D., Milton Mazer, M.D. AND Earl Witenberg, MIX.  New York: Random House, 1955.

Sigmund, Freud.  Beyond the Pleasure Principle in The Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud.  London: Psychoanalysis, 1953-1974.  .

Single White Female. directed by Barbet Schroeder. 1992, Los Angeles: Columbia Pictures, DVD.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Revolutions That as Yet Have No Model: Derrida’s Limited Inc”  The Spivak Reader:  Selected Words of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.  New York: Routledge, 1996.

Žižek, Slavoj. “A Plea for Ethical Violence.”  Umbr(a). (1) 2004: 75-91.

Žižek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. New York:  Verso Books. 1989