A Psychoanalytic Perspective on Hope and Shame in American Identity
An “American Girl” to love
The very first word — “Well”– that begins Tom Petty’s 1970’s rootsy track, “American Girl,” is the first hint of an abashed humility behind the song’s exuberance. The titular “American Girl” is under the thrall of a highly animating, if indefensible, optimism. Having been infused with Americanness, the girl ‘couldn’t help thinking’ sings Petty, ‘that there was a little more to life somewhere else,’ even if, as he implies, her American fantasy flies in the face of the American reality she actually lived.
The song, with its adolescent breathlessness and jangly melody, is about life-altering promises and unrelenting hope, especially hope that persists in the face of disappointment. It’s a song that almost “can’t help” but generate a bouncy-kneed, happy nostalgia in the listener, and, at least for some, a mild accompanying shame. Shame because, when placed alongside some of the starker realities of American history, the hopefulness and naïve optimism embedded within the narrative of the American dream can feel like a deceptive and morally repugnant lie. We are at a particular moment in American history when many feel the vital need to pull aside the idyllic curtain of patriotic memorials and anthems. By illuminating the gaping chasm between the dream and reality, we hope to disabuse ourselves of some of the delusions at the core of American idealism. By keeping an unrelenting eye on the social and moral failures that comprise our national order, we hope to prevent yet another slip into a utopian American self-deception.
When Petty croons, ‘after all it was a great big world with lots of places to run to,’ you can almost hear his sad sympathy for this dreamy girl who believes she can escape, but most likely will find herself in circumstances much the same. After all, by the end of the song, she’s standing on a balcony imagining that the rumbling cars driving passed on the highway are the sounds of the ocean. It’s just the kind of thing Americans tend to do — we intoxicate ourselves on escapist hope, blind to the decaying strip malls and polluted waterways outside our doors.
The British psychoanalyst W.R.D. Fairbairn had a way of understanding this kind of pathological hope, which he saw as the child’s unrelenting love for the “exciting object (1944).” While Fairbairn also spoke of the “rejecting object,” in his schematic the exciting object is the unconscious representation of the loved object, generally the parent, for whom the child holds out unwavering hope. Despite evidence to the contrary, the child enthralled to the exciting object never gives up hope that their parent will finally deliver. While in some other dissociated part of his mind the child believes that his parent will never follow through, under the spell of the exciting object, the child has disconnected himself from this reality so as to psychically keep alive the possibility that his needs and longings will one day be fulfilled. For Fairbairn, the internal split between the exciting and rejecting objects is not only a consequence of severe trauma — it is a universal adaptation to the inevitable failures that all children experience at the hands of invariably disappointing human parents. This segregated internal object world allows the child to preserve unwavering hope and expectancy, but only by denying to himself the knowledge of the real disillusionment he has experienced in relation to the parent. It is a hope that lives on a kind of lie, one that can only persist through mechanisms of denial and dissociation.
The especially toxic part of this scenario is that this ever-hopeful child maintains hope at his own expense. Because he feels he cannot survive the reality of his parent’s rejection, he must remain in the spell of the parent’s empty promises, through his relationship to the internalized exciting object. When he does become aware, on some deeply felt but still unconscious level, of his parent’s failures, he must quickly narrate the situation as the result of his own inadequacies and flaws. He feels that, for instance, if his mother does not love him, it must be because he has somehow made her love disappear, or worse, that his own love must be toxic. All of this complex and painful psychic work is designed to maintain the idyllic position of the parent in his mind, to prevent the child from experiencing a traumatic disillusionment about love. Much as he suffers from his own delusional hope, he needs it in order to survive.
Petty’s “American girl” seems similarly driven to keep alive her belief in promises. ‘If she had to die tryin’ he says, ‘she had one little promise she was gonna keep.’ We never hear what exactly the promise is, and it doesn’t much matter; what does matter is her desire to believe in the possibility of fulfilled promises and actualized fantasies, to believe there is a somewhere, in the great big world, that a girl can run to. She is, he emphasizes repeatedly and with increasing urgency, an American girl, and so she is afflicted with the American dream, perhaps, like Fairbairn’s hopeful child, to her own detriment. Do we dare see ourselves in such a character at this disheartening moment in American history? What if the most psychically damaging part of our national fantasy is not so much that it trades in lies and false promises, but that some young, earnest part of us — even and maybe especially the most critical part of us — actually believes deeply in it? In some disavowed, but occasionally palpable, way we feel our failure to achieve said dream is due to our own deep flaws and inadequacies. In that sense, there is something self-protective and psychically self-interested about the clear-sighted rejection of an ideal that holds us hostage in the name of hope.
And yet, seen through Petty’s eyes, from a wry but tender distance, the American girl is no sap or fool. The song manages to know just a little more than the girl knows, and this is the source of its ache as well as its celebration. When he says she ‘couldn’t help’ thinking there was more to life somewhere else, you do not feel Petty’s condemnation, but his loving understanding. In this way, the song offers out a slightly ironic, paradoxical way of relating to the imposition of idealistic Americanness on our psyches. Rather than contempt or scorn, the song models an acceptance of our endless love affairs with exciting objects, and even an appreciation of the energies and adventures that derive from them. What if, despite everything we’ve learned through experience and the lessons of history, we occasionally “forget” what we should know and are temporarily afflicted with a restless optimism? Petty suggests that we can forgive ourselves these states. He reminds us that there’s a particular kind of beauty in belief and longing, even when we may never get what we want. ‘God it’s so painful,’ he cries out, ‘Something that’s so close, and still so out of reach.’ It may embarrass us in its infuriating naiveté, and repeatedly disappoint us with its moral failings. Nonetheless, the version of hopeful American-ness Petty offered, through a story of a girl, is one that some of us can’t help but love.
Stacey Novack, PsyD is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst on the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Psychoanalysis.
 Fairbarn, WRD. (1944). Endopsychic structure considered in terms of object relationships. Psychoanalytic studies of the personality, 82-132. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1952.