Interview with Dr. Dan Sapen about his experiences as a doctoral student and life after Derner.
Interview by Schenike Massie, M.A.
Dr. Dan Sapen attended the Derner Institute from 1992-1995 and completed his internship at North Shore Hospital in 1996. He has since worked clinically in several different settings with patients of all ages; he currently maintains a private practice and works at two nursing home/rehab facilities. A passionate writer and musician, he published his first book in 2012 entitled Freud’s Lost Chord: Discovering Jazz in the Resonant Psyche, inspired by his dissertation. He is pictured to the left with his wife, Dina, and their daughter, Alyssa. Fourth year student Schenike Massie spoke with Dr. Sapen about his experiences as a doctoral student and life after Derner.
Schenike Massie: Why and how did you choose Derner?
Dan Sapen: I had my BA in philosophy, and had the opportunity to take courses that incorporated Freud in many ways-from the inadequate mention, as usual written by someone neither literate nor sympathetic, with respect to Freud and the tradition, given in the basic level Personality Theory course, to upper level courses on such topics as “Sincerity and Self-Deception” and Aesthetics, which drew heavily on depth psychology and various notions of the unconscious, a wildly popular Jung seminar given by a British Jungian that was standing room only, to this day the most popular course Vassar gave, and others that focused on post-modern theories that looked at psychoanalytic theory by way of such thinkers as Lacan, Ricoeur, and Derrida. The Jungian in particular seemed so much more welcoming and civil in the course of dialogue than anything else I had encountered, despite its size-it was the beginning of my questioning of the odd and distorted demonizing of Jung by quite literally every Freudian-inclined mentor but one, who tended to do to Jung, and worse, what the learning theorists who wrote the intro textbooks did to Freud-reduce him to an inaccurate caricature and then move on to things supposedly more important.
So, deep, symposium-style round-tables about Big Ideas were one of the things I had gotten used to, and wanted more of. Then, when I had a pre-interview with Lorelle Saretsky and she asked if I had ever heard of Kohut or Bion, and I hadn’t, it occurred to me, with some embarrassment, that I had barely scratched the surface. I wanted that sense of intellectual community again, and occasionally Derner offered a taste of that.
But first, my high school biology professor, Steve Farbstein, had been through analysis and was getting his clinical Ph.D. at the New School, and gave a weekly talk to a small group of interested students about Jung, Freud, and Adler, prioritizing no one over the other. He gave me books like The Fifty Minute Hour, not to mention some new-age physics, and some ideas began to brew that ended up working into my BA and MA theses as well as my dissertation.
When it came time to apply to grad school, I had been in analysis with an Adlerian, who recommended Derner, and recommended me to them, and I applied there as well as to several others around the country that didn’t seem entirely cognitive-behavioral and experimental-I really wanted to get away from New York-but the fact was, Derner was considered by everyone I asked in the business as head and shoulders above the other programs I was accepted to; it seemed the Long Island Expressway would be in my life a little-a lot, it turned out-longer.
SM: What was Derner like when you attended?
DS: “Like”-boy, what level to answer that one on? I remember a slightly musty, grey-brown rectangular set of hallways, some always closed, and some seemingly always alive with some furiously publishing professor with red-rimmed eyes and an ironic attitude of sarcastic welcome. I remember bagels, and Mike Lieppe cutting his hand; I remember talking too much about every idea that seemed at the time to call for it–and too often being rebuffed for doing what I had always done in groups of similarly intellectualized students and professors, examining each and every connection and implication. I did not choose my moments well at all. But I also learned that a desire to sensitively help those in pain, to use a format that invited personal truth, and a love of IDEAS, without political boundaries, was not shared in similar proportions by quite enough other students and professors. If it weren’t for one or two professors and classmates, it would have been a very lonely time. There are many ways to be devoutly religious and suspicious of your neighbor, and not all involve God or gods.
SM: Do you remember your group interview?
DS: Very well! Brilliant technique. Kirkland Vaughans, still one of my favorite humans, if he doesn’t still know it, and a grad student, sat and stared at ten or so confused, nervous students, only speaking to admonish us not to talk about psychology. I was terrified and sure I came off badly but for much of the time, I remember having a nice sense of flow also. I had a bad hair day, was underdressed because though I had my one Blazer pressed, I didn’t try it on and it no longer fit. I also knew in that room a few people I would want to be friends with. A couple made it.
SM: What is your best Derner memory?
DS: Bob Mendelsohn bringing his martial arts instructor to teach us the application of a rare Filipino style to protect oneself against a violent patient.
SM: Wow! What have you done since you completed the program?
DS: Lots of variety, and a few nice long-term gigs. I took forever to write my dissertation, partly because I had the mixed blessing of a clinical supervisor who trusted my work and kept me working as much as possible while I did what I promised friends who had graduated that I would never do: choose a dissertation topic I love too much. I have done clinic work, residential teens-in-trouble school psych; worked with special needs children; worked in nursing homes and physical rehabs with some hospice work; did some private work with performers, artists and athletes dealing with motivational blocks. I currently have a mostly full private practice in addition to working at two nursing home/rehabs, so that any new patients I take are at the expense of family time or gym time; I’ve begun to get back into music, recording some tunes properly that I wrote mostly before Derner; gotten back into my sport, boxing, training for old-guy tournaments and sparring as many rounds as I can get in each week with young guns I really should be avoiding. In 2008, my wife Dina and I adopted a newborn, Alyssa Jayne, and parenthood has been a rich and beautiful experience, and not at all an easy one.
It was hard to find a committee or the confidence to get on with my dissertation. In 2003, I had the privilege of meeting and working with editor John Peck, translator of Jung’s Red Book and a noted poet and analyst, who saw the potential in a project that had languished for a few years, as did a few influential musicians who cheered me on. Bob Mendelsohn was then good enough to agree to be my chair and helped keep the writing grounded and clear, and then my favorite publisher asked to publish it. The basic idea is that Freud’s avowed distaste and confusion over music is expressed in those very aspects of psychoanalytic theory that are least well developed, but that those flaws and empty spaces have been gradually filled in by the work of various post-Freudians, Jung and post-Jungians, and then I use two works by Miles Davis and John Coltrane as models for these psychological dimensions. Most gratifying of all was that I got an offer right after defending my dissertation to re-write it as a book for Karnac Publishers-now available at Amazon or the website of your choice, titled Freud’s Lost Chord: Discovering Jazz in the Resonant Psyche. I have a friend from college who is a publicist, and has gotten me quite a lot of print, some radio and TV opportunities, and shortly a book release party in Manhattan that will feature good live jazz.
SM: Wow, congratulations! You’ve certainly had a busy career. Do you have any advice for current students?
DS: Yes. Don’t forget what it is in your own make-up that draws you to psychology. Remains curious and skeptical-do not mistake even the most intricate system of concepts for a dogma that must be adhered to. There is a dangerous human need that no amount of analysis can cure, which is the false comfort of believing you belong to a club that has all the answers, and knows exactly who the enemies and frauds are. No school of thought is a church. Be aware of that need within yourself, and fight it at all costs. That kind of thinking is behind all the worst impulses of humanity. I spend a few hours a week in online forums that exist for the purpose of exploring a certain range of phenomena through a depth psychology lens. Some of the dogmatic certainty and sheer bad manners come regularly from the very same people who chair departments and write widely respected books of theory and practice. The political and religious mindsets, the us-vs-them mentality of very well educated primal hordes, remain something that holds back the spirit of inquiry at a very primitive level. Be better than that – remain curious, read outside the syllabus whenever time permits.
Our field still has a lot of growing up to do, and treating the illusion of scientific certainty as a means of being superior to another bunch of analysts is something we should all be above by now. But the splits that formed our field over the past century-Freud and Jung, the different post-Freudian schools-are still happening. It is up to a community of self-aware individuals to read the originals, not the innuendo laden critiques that one’s own compatriots write about that “other” guy, and truly let the various metaphorical systems that are our best and only ways of putting psychological things into words, develop and cross-fertilize. Heed Bronowski:
It is important that students bring a certain ragamuffin, barefoot irreverence to their studies; they are not here to worship what is known, but to question it.
— Jacob Bronowski
The Ascent of Man (1973), 360.
And, give the institute what it demands as quickly as you can and then devote the rest of your career to all that. I’m pleased with a lot of what I’ve done during a long stay at Derner and then after, but I would like some years back, if only I could have a do-over. Don’t make the same mistake. The rest of your career is the time for defining who you are and changing the world a bit.
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