March 24, 2003

What Seelig sees

By Eric Rangus

Like any psychoanalyst worth her salt, Beth Seelig has a comfy, yet functional sofa in her office.

The most luxurious pieces of furniture, though, are a pair of identical leather swivel chairs.

They fit a body perfectly. The cushy chair molds itself to a person sitting in it. Why would anyone want to get up?

“Emory gave me the couch, but I brought these from home,” said Seelig, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and director of the Emory University Psychoanalytic Institute. She sits in one of these chairs during her roughly 20 hours a week of clinical time. Analysis patients lie on the sofa; psychotherapy patients have a choice—sofa or chair. For visitors, the chair is quite inviting.

“You need something comfortable to sit in, and that turns,” Seelig continued, rotating the chair using her feet. “It makes it easier to listen to people.”

While her profession is probing people’s brains and subconscious, Seelig is not one to play mind games.

“Human nature hasn’t changed that much,” said Seelig, who has more than 30 years of experience and has been at Emory since 1991. “The details are going to be different, but the basic themes arise again and again. Everything just boils down to sex and aggression. The rest is a variant on those two things.”

So there you have it.

“The way I look at psychoanalysis is that it’s a research project conducted by two experts,” Seelig said. “Patients are experts on their own lives, although they don’t necessarily know everything about themselves because some of it is subconscious and therefore not immediately accessible. The analyst is an expert on how people’s minds work and how their inner lives are structured in general. And the analyst helps the patient explore herself—basically to lead an examined life, which is an incredibly productive and useful thing to do because we all have issues.

“There is no such thing as a human being without conflict,” Seelig continued. “That conflict comes from external reality, but it also comes from what’s within you. And analysis helps you understand your conflicts better, to understand the genesis in your early life and to make more informed choices so you are less driven by forces beyond your control. You understand yourself better.”

Referring to Seelig as a “woman doctor” would be woefully condescending. Although it is worthy to note that Seelig is Emory’s only female full professor in psychiatry—she was promoted last fall. However, the fact that this woman is a doctor, is something that never strays too far from her mind.

“I did not believe in the existence of sexism until I entered medical school,” said Seelig, who started at New York Medical College in 1968, during the height of the Vietnam War. Seelig’s mother was a physician, so seeing a woman in the practice was natural for her.

Seelig was standing in line to register for classes when the man in front of her turned around to say hello. “You sent my best friend to Vietnam,” was the man’s unconventional greeting. “You’re just going to get married and have babies and you’re going to waste your medical degree.”

Seelig was used to being in a man’s world (she was one of just six women in her graduating class from Columbia’s engineering school), but her experience in medical school was quite a bit different.

“I thought all this fuss about sexism was nonsense,” Seelig said. “So, I found about it later than most people. It became important to me to try and help other women.”

That’s one of the reasons Seelig got involved with the President’s Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW), which she now chairs. It’s a chance for her to mentor women from outside the medical school. Among PCSW’s accomplishments this year, Seelig said she is most proud of a continuing study on gender equity in faculty salaries and a recent student effort to study sexual harassment on campus.

Prior to her PCSW involvement, Seelig had not had a lot of contact with female staff members, and she said that also has been one of the most enjoyable aspects of her commission work.

“The fact that women can help other women learn the things they need to do to advance in their job is very important,” she said.

His bedside manner notwithstanding, that young misogynist medical student in front of Seelig was right about one thing: Seelig had babies—two daughters. Laura, 24, is a graduate of Swarthmore College and has been accepted to medical school, and Sara, 20, is a student at Oberlin College, studying vocal performance and environmental studies. She performed a recital in Atlanta on March 23. Seelig kept several flyers on her desk advertising the appearance.

It’s easy to see, though, that Seelig hardly wasted her medical degree, though she did take time off to raise her children, working part time for several years. She gave up her full-time position at Columbia (temporarily, as it turned out), opened a small private practice and spent her free time in such executive positions as Brownie leader.

Seelig’s experience makes her an ideal source for one of the most common questions young doctors have: How to balance work and home life.

“The first answer I always give is that it’s impossible—but you do it anyway,” said Seelig, whose husband, Michael Fanucchi, is an associate professor of hematology and oncology in the Winship Cancer Institute.

“You just realize that you live with a certain level of guilt,” she continued. “People always talk about quality time with children being important. But the fact is, if there isn’t sufficient quantity, quality suffers tremendously.”

Seelig’s current research is family oriented. She is investigating altruism—the practice of helping others, even through self-sacrifice. Seelig previously looked at why Americans became involved in volunteering, and now she has begun a study on maternal altruism.

“When a mother gives up everything for her kids, is that entirely altruistic or are there some narcissistic aspects to it?” Seelig asked. “It could be that self-esteem is predicated on being the ‘ideal’ mother; she must behave as the ideal mother would behave and is driven by that.”

Seelig gave an example: Say a woman loves chocolate cake. If that woman derives more pleasure from seeing her child eat chocolate cake—that’s true altruism. But, if she gives the cake to her child simply because she feels she has to, or if she needs that child to appreciate her because of it—that’s pseudo-altruistic. It’s more about the mom.

“It’s interesting to tease out the differences,” Seelig said. “When are the things we do for others really about them, and when are they about us?”