Interview between Judy Tyson and David Heilman, who will be presenting the next MAGPS Cinema Series movie, “Black Swan,” Saturday, April, 29, 2017.
JUDY: David, I’m looking forward to getting to know you. And I’m wondering about your choice to present Black Swan at the Cinema Series on April 29.
DAVID: Absolutely, but before we start, I’d like to thank you and Lenore for giving me this opportunity to speak with the MAGPS community.
JUDY: You’re welcome. These interviews are a great way to share your personal self and your insights related to the film you have chosen to present. And our Cinema Series evening is a great way to enjoy our group, and have some fun and a learning experience as well.
Please tell us about yourself, your years before grad. school at GWU, and how you came to decide you want to be a mental health professional.
DAVID: From as early as grade school I wanted to study voice and be an opera singer. I first studied at the Cleveland Institute of Music and then I majored in voice at The Juilliard School. When training as an opera singer, performance anxiety was a part of my everyday life. At Juilliard, I was taught anxiety was good; the fuel that makes for a brilliant performance. But I was not taught how to cope with relentless observation and intense competition. Needing help managing my stress, I began psychotherapy. I gained insight, increased my confidence and an ability to cope with substantial performance pressures. I also came to have high regard for my therapist and the psychotherapy process.
JUDY: You invested so many years in opera, why did you shift your focus to the mental health profession?
DAVID: I stopped singing professionally in 2010. Studying at the Music Academy of the West, I was fortunate to be mentored by mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne. And she encouraged me to study abroad in Germany. I soon realized that performing on the road would be an unavoidable reality. After much soul-searching, I concluded life on the road would be exciting; but it wouldn’t make me happy. I am proud of my life changing decision to leave music, study psychology, and become a psychotherapist. I’ve come to realize that practicing psychotherapy is an art. Becoming a mental health clinician has been one of the wisest decisions of my life.
JUDY: What a journey you’ve had! You enjoyed creating music; faced your fears as a performing musician; were mentored by a famous opera singer; challenged yourself by scrutinizing your choice of careers; and you have done what it takes to change careers. The insight and wisdom you gained along the way gives you a unique perspective to appreciate your client’s challenges.
You’ll soon graduate from GWU with a PsyD. How did you become aware of the value of group as a change agent?
DAVID: I first became a fan of group when attending GW’s “Group Relations Conference,” required for all Psy.D. first year psychology students. The conference is run similar to a Tavistock group. We learned about group process by completing a task in a small group while a group leader pointed out what is occurring unconsciously within the group. I was riveted by what transpired in my small group. I realized that group process reveals unconscious interpersonal patterns. I noticed I was competitive with my group members, and felt the shadow of Juilliard’s performance pressures influencing how I related to my group peers. That experience changed me. I learned that group process can stimulate twinship, honesty, and cohesion. I realized that skilled group leadership can effect positive change.
JUDY: Leaving the music profession to study psychology and train as a psychotherapist seems to be a dramatic change. Would you share your thoughts about that? What moved you to choose a mental health profession; And your interest in group, in particular?
DAVID. I believe my love of music and singing ensemble influenced me most in choosing group work. I still sing occasionally with the choir at the Washington National Cathedral. There are similarities between choral work and group work. Both incorporate improvisation. The boundaries in music are found in the time signature, the key signature, and the notes. Yet, the performance of the music is a live interaction among singers and their conductor. Anything is possible. No performance is identical. Similarly, for the group leader(s) and the group, each session has boundaries: time and confidentiality, cost of the sessions. And, again, anything is possible. Interactions among the therapist and group members are unique and unpredictable. So, for me, the group session is similar to a “musical” experience. Musicians sing ensemble to make music. Likewise, the group leader’s objective is to help the group develop cohesion (ensemble) as a means to support their insight, self-awareness, and personal growth.
JUDY. That is a beautiful metaphor. As a musician who enjoys playing chamber music, I very much relate to your comparing musical ensemble with the group process.
Let’s focus now on your decision to present the Black Swan at the Cinema Series. What motivated you to choose a film with such a dark theme?
DAVID. I know Black Swan can be a tough sell because of its disturbing nature. However, as group leaders, we know it is important to be aware of undercurrents of competition and envy that may exist in our groups. When these feelings go unnoticed, not tended to, group members become anxious and shut down. Anxiety and paranoia may not lead to the plight experienced by the star ballerina in Black Swan. However, the stress the feelings impose can border on destructive. If competition percolates in the group, unchecked and unseen by the leader, there is no group safety.
I hope the film will stimulate a group discussion of the power of competition and how it can be a change agent. In Black Swan, we see an undercurrent of competition; a pecking order, and a striving for the company’s artistic director’s love or attention. And a toxic group culture goes unnoticed until damage is done.
My wish is that those who view the film will heighten their awareness of their own feelings of jealousy, rage, envy, and competition the film addresses. I’d like to explore together how group can be an ideal setting to identify, process, and show the universality of these experiences.
JUDY: I agree, keeping aware and addressing signs of competition can be healing for group members and ultimately stimulate group cohesion. I look forward to exploring our views regarding how we might address competitive strivings in our groups.
In “Black Swan” the camera focuses its lens on our star ballerina. The camera gives us a glimpse of her external and her internal life. Her life as she experiences it. Viewing her world through her eyes, we begin to wonder, what is real and what is projection? They blur for us. Please comment on this aspect of the film.
DAVID: So often in group we see members finding that what they believed to be “real” in others, is not “real” at all. For example, a member might believe another specific group member thinks they are rude and selfish, when this was never the case. It is the nature of group process for this “blurring” to occur and this is why a grounded group “leader” is critical to keep the process healthy and safe.
JUDY: Would you share with us the take away you hope to offer others from our viewing and discussing the film?
DAVID: As group leaders, we can help members see their “truths” differently. The film shows many “truths.” And without giving away the ending, I believe it will enable us to see how competition can get ugly and feel scary when it is unacknowledged and unexplored. I so look forward to exploring this provocative and important film with the MAGPS community.
JUDY: Me too. We certainly have an interesting, thought provoking, and stimulating evening to look forward to.