Bethany Morris is an assistant professor of psychology at Point Park University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she teaches and does theoretical and qualitative research. Dr. Morris is a transdisciplinary scholar whose work bridges critical psychology, literature, philosophy, history, psychoanalysis, and film studies.
Early in her career, at Prince Edward Island University and Brock University in Canada, she studied alternative anti-psychiatric interventions for early-onset schizophrenia as illuminated by children’s literature. During this time, she was also thinking critically about issues of women’s stigmatization and oppression.
In recent years, her work has focused on using the ideas of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan to gain a further critical understanding of the oppression of women, psychology’s medical model, and other issues related to social justice.
Her recent publications include the co-authored book Subjectivity in Psychology in the Era of Social Justice, as well as her first solo-authored book, Sexual Difference, Abjection, and Liminal Spaces. Throughout her work is a sustained critique of Borderline Personality Disorder, both as a diagnostic category and the way that it is used toward misogynistic ends in popular culture.
The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the audio of the interview here.
Micah Ingle: Can you tell our listeners about your trajectory as a professor in psychology?
Bethany Morris: I am currently an assistant professor at Point Park University; this is my first year there. Prior to that, I taught at Lindsey Wilson College in rural Kentucky. I received my PhD from the University of West Georgia. I was originally in Ontario, Canada, and Prince Edward Island, Canada. I got my undergrad at the University of Prince Edward Island. My original plan was to become a clinical psychologist and quote-unquote “cure” people.
I was very fortunate to have a professor at the end of my undergraduate career there who helped me to really think critically about this idea of curing people of their mental suffering, without considering the sociopolitical contingencies of that suffering. From there, I sought out programs that would reflect that: Brock University’s Child and Youth Studies being one, and the University of West Georgia also being one of the few. And then now, of course, Point Park being another. I really try to emulate that in my own teaching now, to be a critical voice in this sort of omnipresent diseased brain discourse.
I began doing that in Kentucky with some really thoughtful and engaged students who were planning to go on to be clinicians. Now I am trying to do that with an injection of psychoanalytic theory at Point Park University.
Ingle: As I understand it, the program there is a clinical-community psychology program. Can you tell us what kind of work you’re doing there and what the program is like?
Morris: The psychology program at Point Park is quite unique. We have a PsyD in clinical-community psychology that uses evidence-based community research and interventions to address human suffering, with an appreciation for social justice and humanistic ethics. We also have a Master’s in community psychology that takes a humanistic approach to the consideration of individuals and communities.
This program draws on really broad theoretical interests, such as humanistic theories, existential theories, feminist theories, and liberation psychologies. The students in this program are very engaged in their communities and are very insightful about how they want to address inequality at different systemic levels.
We also have the undergraduate program, which is broader but seeks to provide students with the comprehensive background in psychology that many programs offer, but with the emphasis on these unique threads that we have in our graduate programs.
We are also trying to get a PhD in critical psychology off the ground soon, which will focus on how psychology has contributed to systemic inequality, and then train future psychologists to engage with their discipline in a more critical and compassionate way.
I currently teach in the undergraduate and master’s programs. The interests and expertise of the faculty at Point Park are broad, and they are cutting edge compared to other psychology programs in the country. I am still quite new there, but my contribution has been primarily at the intersection of critical psychology, critical theory, and psychoanalytic theory—mainly helping students to learn and understand traditional psychology by asking how it has contributed to these issues of oppression in society. I am also asking: what can psychoanalysis offer us in our quest to think about the individual and the social as always already inherently implicated in one another?
Freud is typically dismissed in psychology as being unscientific or problematic, for his views on childhood and women, which I believe to be a very unfair characterization of the man, as well as a dangerous dismissal of a theory that was never meant to be psychological in the first place.
So, my approach is psychoanalysis at its very foundation undermines psychology and the hyper-objectivist approaches to studying human subjectivity. That is what I am trying to do here at Point Park.
Ingle: You mentioned your work uses the ideas of Jacques Lacan, the psychoanalyst. What is it about this approach that drew you in?
Morris: I was always interested in psychoanalytic theory. I remember being really frustrated when I got to my undergraduate psychology classes and I was told that Freud had been disproven because I thought that was what psychology was. It bothered me that psychoanalytic theory was always relegated to film and literature studies sort of dismissively; as if art had not been providing this intimate mirror into the questions that have been motivating human existence for hundreds of years before psychology even existed as a discipline.
The reason that Lacan attracted me was because of his conceptualizations of suffering. Even though I did not go on to become a clinical psychologist, my concern is still about the nature of suffering.
I was critically oriented before I started pursuing psychoanalytic theory, and so my conclusion was that the contemporary diagnostic response to mental suffering was not only insufficient but harmful. It reproduces the assumption that suffering is something the individual owns and is responsible for, as opposed to emerging from a more complicated constellation of factors, including social factors.
Pursuing that line of thought still left me with the problem that individuals are still the ones suffering and pointing to systemic or social factors does not always address that very intimate experience of suffering. For example, everyone and anyone can tell you that the reproduction of untenable beauty ideals in the mainstream media may be a factor in eating disorders and extreme dieting, and that is of course a big problem, but that does not tell you about how those ideals become infused with meaning for the person refusing food, or how those beauty ideals become intricately woven with the language and ideas shared amongst the family the person is immersed in.
So Lacanian psychoanalysis—and I think this is so, so important if we are going to think about human subjectivity—does not ask what is wrong with the person. Instead, it asks, what question are they attempting to ask about life itself, and themselves in relation to others, and then: how have they attempted to answer it with their behaviors? I think that opens up new ways of thinking about human suffering that the traditional medical model does not.
Ingle: It is about this attempt to bridge the social and the individual. Your work and your interests are at the intersection of psychoanalysis and these broader social issues. What kind of work do you do from this intersection?
Morris: My work is largely theoretical and qualitative. For a while now, I have been primarily interested in issues of sexism, but also racism, particularly this idea from Eduardo Bonilla-Silva. He says that we have a society of racism without racists and that many, many of the people who adopt ideologies and practices that will be labeled as sexist or racist, usually do not identify themselves as such, even when they seem to be so just blatantly.
So, we can critique this idea a little bit, but my concern following this statement is that analyzing social structures and behaviors can provide a lot of answers to questions about prejudice and discrimination, but I felt that there were answers missing on the part of the actors perpetuating the prejudice and discrimination.
I find a lot of the psychological analyses of people who may be considered racist or sexist so unsatisfying because they are typically diagnostic or degrading. They cite mental disorders like “antisocial personality disorder” or refer to psychometric tests, like how people who are sexist are male, so it would be narcissistic or something like that. I do not know if that is entirely helpful because it reinforces the authority of the psychiatric and psychological institutions.
Psychoanalysis, instead, takes any behavior or thought and not only asks why but helps the person themselves to ask why and to be curious about their own behavior. This allows us to look at social issues not just in a purely descriptive manner, but rather ask: what are the latent questions at work in these various racist and sexist discourses?
This is where I am beginning to situate my work. I did this in my book, where I looked at a number of historical practices and discourses that harmed women, including the witch trials, the borderline diagnosis, and transphobia. I asked, okay, let’s assume that the people that are complicit in all of these things are not just evil villains or just purely sadistic, but actual human beings struggling with something—something in particular when they’re confronted with certain types of bodies or certain types of people.
I did that in my book. I am doing that with some research on incel [involuntary celibate] communities, MGTOWs [“Men Going Their Own Way”], and a little bit with thinking about how we talk about racism and racist discourses.
Ingle: Through this Lacanian approach, you are trying to get at the fact that, one, there is a close link between the social and the individual. Two, there is this attempt to address people’s suffering without it being this top-down psy-complex authoritarian model, which I think is important. In your book, you argue for what you call a renaissance of an investigation into film and literature. Does this connect with this issue a “psychology for the people”?
Morris: I don’t know if it would be psychology for the people, but I definitely think it would a different sort of encounter with human subjectivity. I believe that people who write literature, people who write films, tend to have a better handle on the intricacies of human experience than most psychologists. And maybe that is because most of these representations of humans in art are not psychological, but rather psychoanalytic and philosophical.
Art has a way of speaking to the various existential and unconscious experiences that cannot be adequately addressed in a traditional reductionistic psychological approach. Art also makes demands of you that modern psychology does not. It asks you to bring something to the piece, to question your own interaction with it.
A great example of this recently is the new film Nomadland by Chloé Zhao. It is a beautiful film that opens up questions and insights for the viewer. It kind of gets at what I am hoping to demonstrate in my book and in my other pieces—what art can do. Whereas by relying on the production of knowledge and psychology, you are essentially kind of killing the subject, you’re studying it, you’re pinning it down, you’re dissecting it.
What this means from a psychoanalytic perspective is that you foreclose desire and interpretation on the part of the subject themselves. They cannot be curious about themselves in the same way. This does not mean traditional psychological approaches are entirely useless, it just means that they’re studying something different than they claim to be. They are studying different instantiations of mind, body, and behavior.
Whereas art, in addressing this question of the psychology of the masses, both in its representation and its confrontation with it, evokes the unconscious and therefore desire, human contradiction, suffering. It lets the human subject emerge.
Ingle: Diving deeper into the Lacanian approach, can you talk about what this approach has to offer when thinking about sex, sexuality, and gender issues?
Morris: I address a lot of this in my book. My book comes after spending a long time being concerned about how ideas about women, “problematic women” in particular, get reproduced. I used Lacanian psychoanalysis to try and think about what we call sexual difference but trying to think from the other side—trying to think my way in from, not so much men, but a patriarchal subject, which is not limited to sex or gender.
Essentially it boiled down to me asking: how do we get to a point where we think X about this group of people? For example, it used to be believed that women were capable of producing monstrous babies if they could not control their emotions.
There’s a great excerpt in a British medical journal from the 1700s of a doctor explaining how his patient gave birth to a baby that looked like a frog after she was threatened by a young man who was going to throw a frog at her. The assumption is that there is something about being a woman, in this case being a pregnant woman, that makes her susceptible to all sorts of monstrous and horrific fates. We see Freud’s old question here, what does a woman want?
We see this in all kinds of representations in history. We see it in the witch trials. We see it in the discourse surrounding women who commit filicide. We see this in the representation of the femme fatale, like Fatal Attraction for example. These are then re-represented in the diagnostic category of borderline personality disorder.
I emphasize a concern about sexual difference because, in many of these practices and discourses, there seems to be an implicit assumption that there is something about “women.” In psychoanalysis, we would call them feminine subjects, because in Lacanian psychoanalysis there’s not adherence to this biological imperative. There are masculine and feminine subjects that do not necessarily correspond to biology. But there’s something about these feminine subjects that the knowledge of the time cannot hold.
This follows much of what the French feminists were arguing, like [Julia] Kristeva, like [Luce] Irigaray, like [Hélène] Cixous. But instead, I am trying to think through this phallic or patriarchal logic, attempting to create knowledge. In short, knowledge systems are reproduced to hold this anxiety of sexual difference. That is what I am trying to argue in a number of cases throughout history, in which you have feminine subjects whose behaviors or practices do not fit within the logic of that particular moment in history, or what [Michel] Foucault would call the “episteme.”
Ingle: I’m seeing the link here between what you’re saying about how Lacanian psychoanalysis is curious about what sort of questions people and society are asking about life.
Morris: Yeah, because in many of these knowledge systems, like medicine—it’s produced through phallic logic that does not necessarily encapsulate all the people that it pertains to. So, you have this excess.
You can see this excess manifesting in what we are calling feminine subjects. When religious ideology was the way we understood the world, all of a sudden you had this excess being represented in witches because there’s this confrontation with what we’re calling, in psychoanalysis, sexual difference.
Ingle: Continuing this theme around social justice, I know that you have done work with colleagues around “wokeness.” I am curious if you could explain what a Lacanian approach has to say about some of the contemporary social justice issues that we’re collectively trying to work through.
Morris: The book I worked on with my colleagues—Sebastienne Grant, Chase O’Gwin, and Sakenya McDonald—was an investigation into how these ideas about social justice in our society may shape our subjectivity or psychologies.
It is a book that looked at several perspectives. The Lacanian analysis was in there, but it also looked at concerns about being woke as opposed to being compassionate and responsible to other human beings, where wokeness may be understood as a demand, as opposed to an ethic of relating to others.
We each emphasize different concerns in the book, but you could say that the collective project was to engage with the discipline of psychology during a really important socio-historical moment of social justice and ask how psychology has shaped our understanding of difference and relationality.
We were asking: is this the best we can do? Are we reducing people to tropes and signifiers that correspond to different psychological notions of what human subjectivity is, or are we engaging ethically and compassionately? I think Lacanian psychoanalysis hones in on that, especially with considering signifiers, or how we represent ourselves to other people and how people are represented to us.
And then, what do we do with that? How do we live ethically? So wokeness is a concern in our book–not in the intention behind being woke, but more so how it is taken up discursively. I would say our book is more concerned with promoting socially responsible subjects in these different social institutions.
Ingle: I want to back up a little bit. You have been critical of mainstream psychology’s understanding of borderline personality disorder. I’m curious if you could talk a little bit more about that.
Morris: I have been working on the concept of borderline personality since my undergrad. I had an excellent professor there who grabbed hold of me and helped me shape some of my ideas about this.
I have a problem with the diagnostic category, but I also have a problem with the ways in which this term has really permeated our cultural discourse. I do not think you can separate the psychiatric discourse from the cultural discourse because that’s not how knowledge works or is used.
It permeates society, shapes our understanding of different ideas, and then it reinforces those institutions. My issue with the term borderline really started when I would frequently hear it being used by people telling stories, usually about their ex-partner in a certain performative way. Notably, it was typically used by men talking about their ex-girlfriend—not always, but usually, and the intention behind it was always to convey that they, the man, had gone through something.
Remarking that they had dated someone who was borderline has cultural cache. I was really interested in how that was actually just a stand-in for the term crazy. Because accompanying this proclamation that X was borderline, there were usually facial gestures or vocal intonations or something that was attempting to elicit sympathy or comradery.
These phenomena made me think about how we can use signifiers or terms that have been authorized by different social institutions to say something or behave in a way that others would find offensive or inappropriate—using borderline instead of crazy because it does not index the same sexist assumptions. But I do not think that this is far off from what the diagnostic category attempts to do as well.
Many other scholars have called attention to the diagnostic criteria of the DSM-IV and how it pathologizes women for doing behaviors that would be considered totally acceptable if they were performed by a man. In the fourth edition, it is even included that 75% of BPD cases are women.
This disappeared in the fifth edition of course, where they claim that they have solved the problem. But what I attempted to address in my book was that this phenomenon of over-representation of women in the BPD category can be situated socio-historically, similar to the witch trials or monstrous birth. The knowledge system of our time, our “episteme,” is psychiatry and psychology.
And thus, the monsters that we actually create are going to look like psychiatric patients, and the ways that we talk about those people that disturb us are going to be informed by those knowledge systems as well. So rather than talking about how a woman’s desire or fear can imprint on her fetus and create frogs, we talk about neurotransmitters and psychometric tests and scales.
I do not think that BPD is the only diagnostic category that does this, but I think it is a great representation of how it does this in response to concerns about what is considered appropriate behaviors for feminine subjects.
Ingle: You are critical of the “medical gaze,” which has been described by French philosopher Michel Foucault. You talk about this in reference to the historical oppression of women. I am curious about your current thoughts about the medical gaze and how that intersects with some of your current work.
Foucault has been incredibly influential on my thinking and the medical gaze has informed many of my critiques of traditional psychiatry and psychology. I think it also relates to the work I’m doing with Lacan and his notion of the gaze, in which the gaze of another shapes who you are.
Think of a child who frequently requests to be looked at. Look at me, look at me, look at me. Or the child who cannot seemingly escape the gaze of another, who is constantly surveilled, and how that may shape how one comes to experience themselves and conduct their relationships.
The gaze of another provides a coordinate for our subjectivity. If we think socio-historically, we can see how the gaze from doctors or clinicians has really called forth different subjective possibilities—what is considered sick, what is considered deviant.
While this can be restrictive, where I’m going with my work now is to also think about how often we demand the medical gaze to be turned upon us. Whether literally by a doctor or our internalized doctor or through consultations with friends or websites.
The question is: can we have a relationship to the gaze that is less oppressive? I think that comes from addressing social issues. But we also then must consider the subject in the society who is asking to have that gaze turned upon them.
That would be my Lacanian addendum to Foucault’s notion, which I would even venture to say that Foucault himself probably accounted for, but it is going back to how the individual experiences the social and demands of the social—and, how the ways we typically think of these things as separate is really problematic. The psychoanalytic subject is always already social.
Ingle: This is a really interesting question that you’re bringing up, which I think is relevant to a lot of contemporary anti-psychiatry, mad studies, and service user movements. It is not only professionals and authorities imposing this stuff. There is also an aspect of people wanting something, wanting a way to understand their experience, wanting help. What is on the horizon for you?
Morris: Right now, I have a few things in the works that I’m getting excited about. We are in the middle of a semester, so right now my concern is grading and tending to my students, but I am also going to get more involved in Division 24 of the American Psychological Association. That is the theoretical and philosophical branch.
The psychology program at Point Park is also in the final stages of getting a PhD program in critical psychology off the ground, like I said, which will really draw on our already existing community-clinical programs. I was pretty involved in the development of that, and I am really hoping to continue to do that.
I am also working on some co-editing projects. I am doing a special edition of AWRY: Journal of Critical Psychology, which looks at the intersection of critical psychology and psychoanalysis. I also just joined a team to co-edit a book on existentialism and sexuality. The chapters are coming in and they are super fascinating.
Finally, in the very near future, I am going to be putting a new book together on subjectivity, in the Lacanian sense, and dieting. So specifically looking at our neurotic relationships to food and dieting and the ways that it gets exploited in our contemporary culture with the diet industry. That is probably within the next year I’d say, as my next project.
MIA Reports are supported, in part, by a grant from the Open Society Foundations