The Diva Is/In the Organization: Exploring Personal/Interpersonal/Organizational Dynamics and Their Enactment

Mark B. Borg, Jr. PhD
Community Consulting Group, New York City

Eugene A. Magnetti
Cogent Resources, White Plains, New York

Borg, Jr., M. B., & Magnetti, E. (2004). The Diva Is/In the Organization: Exploring Personal/ Interpersonal/Organizational Dynamics and their Enactment. Psychodynamic Practice, 10 (2): 221-247.

Authors' Note. The authors would like to thank Eve Golden, Jon Lindemann, and Jennifer McCarroll for their thoughtful comments, suggestions, and contributions both to this consultation and to the writing of this article. We would also like to thank Paul Terry for supporting us and encouraging us to articulate and present this piece, as well as the two anonymous reviewers at Psychodynamic Practice who challenged us to our cores with their wonderful, thoughtful, and helpful reviews.


The authors discuss the diva syndrome, as a particular combination of avoidant and narcissistic personality disorder was dubbed by the self-help group for artists that defined it. The diva syndrome in this group was an unconscious enactment between the underlying dynamics of the founder and many of the members of the board of directors, which had been chosen by her. This enactment was subverting both the successful functioning of the organization and the possibility of an orderly succession of leadership. The authors describe their efforts to help the organization, its founder, and its board of directors acknowledge and work through the enactment, and learn to take the diva syndrome constructively into account while planning the group's next phase of growth and development.


Sigmund Freud (1910) recounted in a study of Leonardo that in the last hour of his life, the artistic genius "reproached himself with having offended God and man by his failure to do his duty in art" (p. 64). This might be considered an odd self-assessment, considering that da Vinci's expertise was acknowledged even during his own lifetime, but Freud was pointing not to his talent or his output, but to a characterological instability. Leonardo was referring, Freud suggests, to his famous tendency to leave projects unfinished. Freud added:

What appears to the layman as a masterpiece is never for the creator of a great work of art more than an unsatisfactory embodiment of what he intended; he has some dim notion of a perfection, whose likeness time and time again he despairs of reproducing (p. 66).

Freud might well have been speaking of himself as well as of da Vinci; certainly he never in his lifetime achieved the perfectly satisfactory embodiment of his own great creation. In the statement above, Freud acknowledged that narcissistic injury is an inevitable accompaniment of creative endeavor, no matter how admirable the result may appear to onlookers. And avoidance, he goes on, is often the response to a narcissistic threat. There is a connection in narcissism, therefore, between the wish to create and the risk of creating — between creation and its avoidance — though he did not go so far as to imply that this conjunction was specific to artists.[1] We found ourselves thinking of Leonardo when we were called in to consult to a self-help group for artists.[2]

ART's Chief Complaint

ART (Artists Recovering Together) is an eighteen-year-old self-help organization loosely based on the Alcoholics Anonymous twelve-step model.[3] According to Jo, the founder and a struggling professional artist, ART's primary purpose is to help "suffering artists" recover from creative blocks. When we first spoke with her she told us, "We are artists who struggle to balance our creative output with our artistic temperaments. It's the 'fine madness' that's often the whetstone that sharpens creative gifts." However, she went on, this "fine madness," was showing up a repetitive pattern of destructive interpersonal conflict that was keeping the organization from maturing and expanding.

In fact, ART members had been selected on the basis of this "madness." They represented the full spectrum of creative success from wannabes to working artists, and everything in between. Some were ex-artists, some were "failed" artists, some were ex-psychiatric patients who had been helped by art therapy. They had one quality in common, however, and that was what called them to membership in ART — they all, as Jo put it, "suffer."

ART's official business location has been for most of its history a cramped cubicle in a tax accountant's office. Its records are kept in Jo's apartment, where most of the administrative work is done, and where the monthly meetings of the board of directors are held. These Spartan facilities belie the size of the organization: 53 ongoing ART communities operating in Australia, Japan, the United States, Ireland, England, the Netherlands, Mexico, Canada, France, Germany, and Italy. Chapters in the metropolitan Los Angeles area hold six meetings per week, while members in New York City can attend a meeting any night. Meetings usually attract a core of 5-15 members, with perhaps 20 others who participate occasionally. According to Jo, ART currently addresses the needs of over 1000 people per week. ART is eighteen years old, but its growing pains were those of a much younger organization, reflecting a developmental delay (Eastland, Herndon, & Barr, 1999). ART's goals (as stated by Jo in our initial interview) were: 1) to expand membership, 2) to integrate different organizations of the group's experience of itself, and 3) to attain higher levels of organizational functioning based on a clearer understanding of the group's identity.

Jo called us when ART found itself at a crisis point. She wanted it to become bigger, financially healthier, and more effective, but she felt that she herself did not have the requisite the executive talents and time to make this happen on her own. She had tried several times to free herself from her administrative responsibilities, and hand them over to someone more qualified; she wanted to devote her own organization time to writing and editing ART-related materials. But this succession had never happened. Jo told us that she continued to feel obliged to handle a wide range of management tasks, on the grounds that "no one else could do them." In fact this was an understatement for what happened every time the subject came up — Jo would begin to fight with the board of directors, and the board members would begin to fight with the larger membership, everyone blaming everyone else for ART's perceived shortcomings. Eventually the board, caught in the middle and feeling blamed from both sides and powerless to fix anything, would resign en mass, leaving the organization in chaos. After a period of wound-licking and blaming the board for its dereliction, Jo would choose another board and peace would briefly return. But dissatisfactions would arise again (Jo's being preeminent among them) and ART would begin once again to push for expansion, setting off another round of the cycle. In fact six boards had quit over this issue by the time we were called in, and everyone feared another explosion.

But now Jo was trying to do things differently. For many years she herself had had sole responsibility for all operational and program decisions, including the writing of inspirational literature for ART's international membership. And all of the directors had been ART members, hand-picked by her. This time, however, she had enlisted the help of a patron, a businessman and philanthropist, who she had tapped to take over the chairmanship in her place. Hopes were high that the new chairman's executive skills would enable ART to expand in a way that it had never managed to accomplish before. And she sought our services. Jo did not understand why expansion was proving so difficult. Although she did not phrase it this way, she communicated to us her perception that ART required the organizational equivalent of Winnicott's (1965) "facilitating environment" in order to be able to grow successfully. Founder, board, and membership alike feared another traumatic failure.

The Diva in the Organization — The Origins of ART

The relational psychoanalyst Stephen Mitchell (1993) has observed that "artists, like psychoanalysts, have a great impact on what it is they are trying to understand, and there seems to be no way to factor out or analyze that away" (p. 55). ART was Jo's creation, and there was no way to factor out the impact she had on the organization.

Jo is a 59-year-old heterosexual Caucasian woman who was born and raised in the American Southeast. She describes herself as "the only child of a physically and verbally abusive alcoholic father and a passive enabling mother." The only thing, she said, that kept her going as a child was her art — painting, drawing, and sculpting, which she used as an escape when her life felt unbearable. She had other escapes as well. Chronic physical pain due to back problems of unknown etiology had led her to an addiction to narcotics. She has been diagnosed with bipolar illness and borderline personality disorder, and considers herself "severely emotionally disturbed." The organization she eventually founded was designed to serve herself, and others like her.

Jo believes that "God — literally led me out of my pain and into ART." In 1981, while she was in the grip of the narcotics addiction, her world "caved in." Her fiancé left her to marry another woman, she lost her job as art director at a prominent museum, she had no money, she was very sick, and according to her physician, she was in need of surgery. She recalls being "obsessed with the pain in my life — I was a walking dead person."

Jo's response to this situation was a suicidal gesture. A brief stay in a psychiatric hospital followed. The severity of her problems and her opiate dependence were confirmed yet again, and although she identified herself neither as an alcoholic nor as a drug addict, she began her search for God — or, according to twelve-step jargon, a Higher Power--through twelve-step groups. She tried a number of them, (including Co-Dependents Anonymous, Debtors Anonymous, and Alanon), but she never felt that she fit into any of them, and she felt like "a fraud," because none of those programs really addressed her core problems.

However, her attendance in the groups set the stage for an epiphany about her own "closeted" self-experience as an artist. During one twelve-step meeting, another woman uttered six words that altered Jo's life course: "I am powerless over my creativity." Jo understood in that moment that the twelve steps could be applied to her problems with her art, and ART began to come into being.

Jo told us that she created ART out of the belief that it was barriers to creativity that created suffering in the "artist community," in which she included herself. She felt that "if I couldn't do my art, I wanted to die," and she assumed that other artists felt the same way. The first ART meetings were organized according around this belief. She wrote the following excerpt for a piece of ART's literature:

As a closet artist, my heart, my joy, and my soul were locked up. I was soul dead — an artist cannot run from his or her gifts. Unused gifts sit there, waiting sadly, haunting the artist. They yearn to be picked up, loved, used, and cherished. If artists do not use their gifts, their lives will become unmanageable.

From the beginning, therefore, ART's target members were what Jo called "suffering artists" — and their suffering, like hers, included not only blocked creativity but also quite a number of severe emotional problems. The intersection of the vision of the "suffering artist" with the public sector mental health care systems in which so many members were embedded encouraged an already intense identification with a pathologizing stereotype. In that context, even the eccentricities for which artists are well known were considered more manifestations of psychopathology than markers of a creative personality or fuel for art as a cultural contribution. To what extent, we wondered when we arrived, did this preoccupation with the artist as sufferer conflict with the two declared objectives of the organization — to relieve suffering, and to help artists pursue their art? We asked if ART reached out to artists who are not "troubled," and we were told, "They would never come." This was a presented with absolute certainty — to challenge it would require long and hard reflection on groupwide assumptions about artists, ART-ists, organization administrators, potential contributors, and anyone else who might have benefited from, or contributed to, the ART program. But such reflection was not much in evidence at the beginning. The "suffering artist" was securely in the ascendant, and this was a problem.

The "Basic Pamphlet," written by Jo, describes ART's emotional context: "We grew up in an atmosphere of invalidation that resulted in ambivalence about our artistic expression." ART, like other twelve-step groups, views itself as an expression of the group conscience of its membership — in other words, it functions as a group- or community-level enactment (more on this just below). The group conscience works as a collective interpersonal expression of the will, or the "voice," of the group — as Jo put it in the pamphlet, "keeping [ART's] principles before personalities." The stated expression of ART's will was to build something — artistic freedom in its members, freedom to pursue its goals of growth in the organization at large. But the voice of the group was not a single one — there was always a muttering in the background, a covert dismantling of that creative intent. This showed in the constant tendency of members to devalue and invalidate each other, and to undo the work performed by themselves and the board. For example, the catastrophic board dissolutions had repeatedly left the survival of the group in question. These were traumatic episodes, certainly, but the group did survive. Yet this (repeated) demonstration of resilience was overlooked (or dismissed) by the board and the general membership in the context of their conflicts about what ART is worth. "Not good enough!" was the constantly reiterated judgment, words calculated to strike terror into the heart of any artist. Still, people stayed.

The Diva Syndrome

Many of the members of ART bore intimidating psychiatric diagnoses — bipolar disease, chronic anxiety, borderline personality disorder — but they fiercely guarded a sense of themselves as unique and creative individuals, and they resented being standardized into psychiatric pigeonholes. However, one especially pernicious interpersonal manifestation was very prevalent within the organization — the "syndrome" that kept provoking the dissolution of the boards, although it showed up in other circumstances as well. This was the combination of avoidance and narcissism for which ART's members adopted a performance-related term that they found more acceptable than the psychiatric jargon — diva. Jo defined divas as people who "claim credit for all the work — for their glory — [but] disown it completely if [the work] fails — failure is always somebody else's fault." "Diva characteristics" were (officially, at least) considered contemptible, and by the time we made the acquaintance of ART, the term diva bore as heavy a weight of opprobrium as anything in DSM-IV. In Leonardo's case and presumably Jo's, the wish to create was in conflict with the fear of creating because of the intrinsic imperfection, therefore narcissistic injury, of the result. But Jo defines the avoidance differently — as an externalization of the narcissistic injury. Our consultation with ART turned into the elaboration and interpretation of the "Diva Syndrome," and this paper, really, is the story of its vicissitudes.

Diva was the name given to anyone who was perceived to put her or his own interests above those of the group, and since the group was still inextricably identified with Jo, that often meant her interests, or at least her sense of where the group's interests lay. The board dissolutions were punctuated by accusations of "Diva!" and ostracism of those who were found guilty (although we learned later that some divas remained in secret communication with other members less strongly identified with Jo — although they were uncomfortable about this). Jo blamed the divas for the failure of the board to accomplish her aims, and returned to running the show angry and rejecting of any who had been involved in the latest debacle. Our brief was to enable the necessary growth work, and to forestall any new calamities.

Organizational Consultation: An Interpersonal Approach

We, the consultants/authors, were trained in a psychoanalytic organizational training program. Dr. Borg is a clinical/community psychologist and psychoanalyst; Mr. Magnetti has twenty years' experience in more traditional organizational business consultation. We use a method based on a combination of interpersonal psychoanalytic theory (Lionells, Fiscalini, Mann, & Stern 1995; Fromm, 1955; Sullivan, 1953, 1954), community psychology (Rappaport & Seidman, 2000), and community action research (Reason & Bradbury, 2001; Stringer, 1999).

We believe that, like individuals, communities and organizations develop security operations (such as selective inattention and dissociation) that are used for defense against inherent anxiety; these techniques, however, again like individual defenses, often result in rigid interaction patterns (Borg, 2003). We use the term community character to describe institutional patterns of defense. This term denotes the set of security operations that groups, communities, and organizations use to ward off anxiety and to protect their self-esteem/security in everyday life (Borg, 2002). They are processes that determine what is allowed to remain in awareness and what is blocked off — interpersonal operations that organize self-experiences during real or imagined interactions with others. To use a more common descriptor, the community character acts as a "front," the enacted representation of the self- (or organizational) identity that we present to the world in order to deal with experiences that have the potential to overwhelm our ability to function.

Another term we use to describe our model of organizational intervention is point of impact (Borg, 2002). This is the emotional epicenter of a crisis. It is the point at which anxiety triggers a community's characterological defenses, and an immediate precipitating stress converges with long-standing difficulties and conflicts. It is at the point of impact that chronic crises, problems, and pain break through the community character in acute forms — as aggression, for instance, or as competition among various factions. These episodes can spotlight, and track, an organization's emotional history. To manage the anxiety associated with chronic trauma, groups often develop intergenerationally transmitted character defenses, including prejudices (in this particular case, against "divas"), stereotyped or problematic forms of communication (as we noted among board members), in-group insularity (as we saw in conflicts between the board and the membership), and ritualized communicative and behavioral taboos ("it's OK to be mentally disturbed, but not to be a diva").[4] Reactive emotional and behavioral symptoms can result in the perpetual repetition of trauma, and of the interactional patterns that the trauma both engenders and sustains. Accordingly, points of impact occur at areas of maximum tension and anxiety in a system.

Primary task is the purpose, vision, and mission without which an organization ceases to exist (Miller, 1993). Organizational survival depends on an ongoing, at least minimal accomplishment of a primary task. Whether in organizations or community interventions, we have found that points of impact become manifest according to the ability (or lack thereof) to accomplish a primary task. In many cases there is a critical lack of clarity regarding the primary task, or a competition between two or more tasks that jockey for the primary position. In ART, there was overt competition between the task of taking care of artists' needs, and the task of maintaining financial viability. There was also a covert competition as well, manifested in the two voices we mentioned above, and it was this second conflict that eventually made clear how profoundly unclear ART's view of its primary task really was. We agree with Hirschhorn (1999) about the possible value judgment implicit in the assumption that there should be only one primary task; but the problem here was less about competition and more about ART's inability to make use of and integrate conflict, especially around the tolerance of diverse perspectives among its ranks.

In psychoanalysis, the term enactment refers to a co-created relational activation and manifestation of salient transference themes (i.e., of unconscious conflict and dissociated experience) in both the patient and analyst as they interact (Levenson, 1991). Borg (2003) uses the enactment concept to describe unconscious processes and interactional patterns that characterize large groups, including circumscribed communities. Here we will use the term to describe behavioral manifestations among the ART membership — and board members — points (of impact) where acute crises can be used as entrée to salient aspects of chronic ones.

Consistent with our theoretical and methodological framework(s), in our consultation at ART we undertook a long-term participant-observation process, making an ongoing detailed inquiry into the history, functioning, and identity of the group, and developing ways to delineate its community character. This information we then offered back to the community, to help the members create an action plan that would address the historical problems that had led to ART's dead end.


We considered the first year of our consultation (the period addressed in this paper) an "assessment" phase. We described to Jo and the board our participant-observer stance, and they invited us to attend all of their board meetings and to set up interviews with key personnel. In each of our contacts, our task was to observe the functioning of ART members in their different tasks and roles, share our observations, and collaboratively develop with them ways of articulating and understanding the underlying dynamics that had been causing problems in the organization. We held quite a few interviews — both group and individual — with ART and board members. We also interviewed peripheral related people — staff in the organizations that referred people to ART, and administrators of organizations that had donated support (often financial). We were able to attend conferences between the board and representatives of the rank-and-file, participate in ART's yearly convention, and observe a number of fellowship meetings.

We worked to develop a collaborative process with ART's founder and board. We wanted to tap into and highlight the group's organizational dynamics, and the characteristic patterns of defense that had built themselves into ART's overall identity (character). As time went on, however, we found ourselves pulled into numerous enactments of ART's chronic crisis mentality, and often it became our primary task to work ourselves out of these transference-countertransference tangles sufficiently to interpret them. When we attended board meetings, for instance, the trustees sometimes became defensive, treating us as if we were trying to "take over." This, we found (and were eventually able to say), was a dynamic very much related to the "diva paranoia" that the board felt toward the general membership, and to a fear that Jo, in her own position, felt especially acutely.

Every time we engaged with ART (generally on a weekly basis), we shared our personal experiences of what it was like to be in this consultative relationship with this organization. We offered interpretations of what we saw and felt, asked for feedback, and tried to work with ART members on developing a more dynamic (and less reactive) understanding of the organization itself. Often this was accomplished by honing in on and working through enactments that we had observed (or participated in) during the project; this gave us in vivo experience of what it was like to trip into an area of intense conflict and have to find an alternative approach to its resolution — alternative, that is, to blaming or running. But that did not come easily. As in an individual analysis, enactment until it is interpreted has a tendency to spread, and there were points in the consultation when the same dynamics played out between the practitioners.

For instance, at one point the two of us found ourselves embroiled in an interpersonal conflict that threatened to destroy our long and amicable working relationship. After some reflection, we discovered that we were enacting the dynamics at play in ART. During a series of board meetings, one of us had found himself increasingly frustrated with the apparent lack of involvement of the other, finally going so far as to question his partner's willingness and competence to stick with the stated goals of the intervention. Consultant A (as we shall call him) felt that his collaborative stance was being undermined by the hanging back of consultant B, who (he thought) was enacting a kind of silent defiance. In fact, it seemed increasingly to practitioner A that his partner, prior to his shutdown, had seemed to be defining new goals for the intervention independently. These had been neither articulated by ART nor discussed between the consultants, and consultant A confronted consultant B about this, stating his feeling that his partner seemed to be manifesting a "rather nasty sense of entitlement."

After one particularly harrowing board meeting (board meetings were full of fights and accusations), we tried to discuss the crisis between us. Consultant B said at that time that he had been feeling fully de-authorized, and that his suggestions and offerings, even sometimes his presence, were being dismissed by both his partner and the board. He cited numerous incidents where practitioner A had cut off his speech, contradicted the relevance of his statements, and had even set up a couple of meetings with board members that did not include him. At that point we were able to recognize an enactment in which consultant A had taken on the role of what ART called the diva extraordinaire, arrogating to himself all productive contribution, and convincing himself in consequence of the ineffectiveness, the incompetence, and even the hostile intent of his partner. Consultant A had projected his diva behaviors onto consultant B so that he could externalize these identical unsavory qualities in himself — and then consider getting rid of them by ejecting his partner all together. Alas, ejecting consultant B would not, in fact, get rid of his "inner diva"; and at this point we were both forced to recognize that the periodic purges didn't get rid of the divas either. Once we had seen these issues operating in ourselves and been able to confront them openly together, we were able to amend our understanding of each other and our understanding of ART.

The Voice of the Diva

When we arrived, the only legitimate "voice" in the organization was Jo's. We saw as our primary task — particularly as we became aware of the suppressed voice that kept muttering dissent as the sanctioned voice articulated its plans for growth — the development of a more complicated view of ART's functioning that would include the "voices" of the many key individuals who had in spite of everything kept it alive for the last eighteen years. This included the split-off voices of those that had been declared "diva," and banished to the outer darkness. One unusually constructive board member who had had a sexual affair with Jo, for example, and whom she had once thought to succeed her, was relegated to a peripheral membership status when the personal relationship did not work out. At the time our consultation began, it was he who was bearing the ultimate name of shame — diva extraordinaire — even though, ironically, he still provided a very valuable service to ART; far from doing no work and stealing all the glory, he remained faithfully in charge of all of its online affairs. And, characteristically, his real contribution was systematically overlooked.

We wanted to include as many visions of the organization's identity as we could. To hear the voice of ART meant reading their voluminous literature, the minutes of all of their meetings (present and past), and familiarizing ourselves with the twelve step approach and philosophy. We listened to all the voices we could find, and what we heard was this.

Jo and the board both, from their own separate perspectives, feared that ART was an object that could not survive its destruction (Winnicott, 1949). Jo's own identification with the "suffering artist" archetype was so deep that its two halves were like conjoined twins who could not be separated without risking the life of both. This set up an unconscious organizational conflict that neither Jo nor her colleagues could resolve. She could not envision treating "suffering" and "art" as two individual things. She could not take the administrative steps that would free the membership to suffer less, yet neither could she relinquish her conviction that the freeing of the artistic soul was the raison d'être of ART. This dynamic was played out endlessly in her repeated renegings about resigning the chairmanship of the board in favor of a more administratively skilled successor. Not to be free to pursue ones art, she had said in her pamphlet, was to want to die. But she did not pursue her art — she was devoting all her time to administration, and was permanently angry and depressed, blaming the board and the membership — "Divas!" — for ART's vicissitudes. We outsiders could see what could not be spoken or even acknowledged among the membership — that Jo herself, in this context at any rate, was the diva extraordinaire, arrogating all competence to herself and passing on all the blame. In her inability to devote herself to her art rather than suffering in administration, she undermined the growth of her organization and its capacity to support the artistic pursuits of her fellows, leaving them too to suffer. She had trained her members well to despise divas, and they were furious at her, but so completely did she embody the organization that everyone feared that it would breakdown if she did. And Jo did fear breakdown (her own, but also ART's, as projected into her concern that no one else could do the work she did for the organization, and her fear about the board dissolutions). She and her "suffering artists" were suffering at least in part from a paucity of resources for handling conflict. Superficially, then, Jo's own inability to overcome her enmeshment of suffering and art put her at odds with her community. Yet so powerfully was she identified with the organization that the board repeatedly fell on its own sword rather than risk the loss of her.

What, we wondered, made this self-defeating duality so compelling to Jo? And why was the problem so invisible to her many colleagues? Why did Jo, and the board, and the membership, and we ourselves at times, collude so persistently in the perception of artist as victim/diva? Why did Jo cling to the suffering of her blocked artistic pursuits, and so perpetuate that suffering for the membership as well? And why couldn't any of this be challenged? That question was the one that started us thinking about Leonardo.

Freud had addressed it. Artists, Freud had said about Leonardo, have to suffer. They must suffer because their work can never satisfy their vision for it. Narcissistic failure is their lot in life, the price they pay for their acts of creation. At best, they fail in their own eyes, and there is no guarantee that they will not fail in the eyes of others as well. Suffering and Art, said Freud in a curious foreshadowing of Jo, are inseparable after all.

Where, then did that leave Jo? Her art, by her own admission, was not only an act of creation. It was also an escape from unbearable reality, and balm to an abraded soul. She needed escape, as she told us, and her narcotics use and suicide attempt attested to this. Yet artistic failure is an inescapable risk to a practicing artist, and we began to wonder if that was the one risk that Jo could not afford to take. To the extent that the other members of ART shared this dilemma, they supported each other in their need to disavow it, and together they displaced the internal confrontation that Freud described onto external struggles over a symbolic archetype — the diva. The diva — the artist who gets all of the credit but none of the blame, who reaps all of the glory but does none of the work, who leaves her colleagues to suffer by taking from them all the sustenance that Art can offer and leaving them only its indigestible, if not poisonous, leavings — its "not good enough."

This led us to consider again ART's idiosyncratic choice of terminology for this artist-specific pathology. In ordinary colloquial usage, people use prima donna for what ART meant by diva; a diva, on the other hand, is a person, usually a singer (and usually female) who is highly-strung and temperamental — yes, and perhaps even a bit entitled, too — but above all supremely gifted. In ART's lexicon the focus on avoidant narcissism (as in the prima donna pejorative) had eclipsed the more salient quality of great talent, just as suffering had eclipsed artist. In ART, the concept of "diva" represents both the organization's overtly targeted point of impact (the seemingly cancerous reason it breaks down), and primary part of its organizational identity (or its community characterological defenses). However, the ways in which this "suffering artist syndrome" has been enacted to defend against the group's underlying organizational problems works more like an aspect of ART's community character (that which distracts and defends against the real organizational issues). Was ART the organizational equivalent of the greatly gifted soprano who behaved so badly that the great opera houses that were her proper domain kept kicking her out? A singer who can't get along with others will not have a chance to use the (almost) divine voice and musicianship that drive her, but neither will she have to risk being judged for its inevitable human failures. A frustrating paradox indeed.

We began to understand that diva captured very elegantly ART's preoccupation with the paradox of narcissism — the simultaneous desire for and fear of exposure. The making of art is a dual engagement, and a public one, with omnipotence and with its failures. By relinquishing interpersonal omnipotence to victimhood, a suffering artist can protect the more important kind — artistic omnipotence. As soon as she stops being a victim and begins to create, however, her omnipotence will be challenged, if not from without, then from within. That was Leonardo's lesson. A similar dilemma is reflected in the more concrete arena of relationships. A chronic sufferer and a victimizing object stay close to each other, and neither one — in spite of the suffering — is destroyed. A challenge to the victimizing object threatens its destruction, which is a frightening risk in itself. But if the object does survive the challenge, the challenger must acknowledge that she is not as omnipotent as she would like to be — not as omnipotent as she needs to be to protect the raw narcissistic vulnerabilities of a terrified child. (In ironic support for Jo's melding of suffering and art, Maria Callas — la Divina, truly the diva extraordinaire — is reputed to have dismissed with contempt the notion that of psychoanalysis for singers — talking about pain would only ruin one's art. "Don't talk about it," she commanded. "Sing it! [i.e., enact it]." But Callas was able to risk being judged, and judged she certainly was.)

As Jo repeatedly enacted these struggles, they were being enacted as well on the board and in the membership, who, we may imagine, shared them. They had been handpicked by Jo after all, who said directly that she was looking for people like herself. The object that cannot survive destruction must either be preserved or killed, and in the face of Jo's fear the board chose to destroy itself instead of her, protecting her from its own destructiveness and keeping alive the organization that she (still) alone embodied. But the scenario was enacted not as an interior drama, but as an external one — suffering artist-victims being kept from creating by powerful artist-thieves, the divas.

We constantly heard about, and saw for ourselves, what happened when ART moved toward extending its confines — in Bion's (1965) terminology, when it moved beyond what it trusted could be "contained." It appeared to us that ART could operate only within certain confines, and when these confines were transgressed, battles and eventually expulsions ensued. The confines were defined in accordance with the varying tolerances of Jo, the directors, and the core membership for relinquishing control. And here is another intersection with the diva. The diva (in Jo's sense) demands control, even if by assuming it she loses her object. But she must control the narcissistic stimuli that impinge upon her. She can escape to drugs or death or dreams of art, but she can't mourn the loss of omnipotence or bear the ambivalence intrinsic to relationship, and ultimately, therefore, she can't risk real artistic exposure. Her temperament is diverted from the service of art — to escaping from its dangers. Yet she longs for it, and the glory she feels it would give her.

When we got to ART, we observed a stagnant organizational environment haunted by a permanent underlying sense of imminent crisis. Jo and the board seemed to fear that a move in any direction would bring with it threats to their dominance. But we knew from our inquiry into the history of ART that it had always been Jo (in collusion with the board) who had "pushed the button" and triggered the event, or the series of events, that resulted in breakdown. While Jo and the board dreaded a revolution from without, we could see that the revolution was already beginning within.

We saw this start to happen when we found ourselves on the frontlines during ART's yearly convention, where the meeting representatives met with the board, supposedly to give voice to the concerns of the general membership. What happened, though, was that during the two-day convention Jo and the board consistently dismissed, cut off, and otherwise devalued the contributions of the meeting representatives. They addressed the concerns of these members with hostility, acting as if each statement made by the representatives were a complaint, and proof positive of the entitlement running rampant in the general membership. They seemed to feel that their authority was being undermined, and that they were losing control of the organization, and they shut the upstarts (divas) down. But with each shutdown another voice was silenced, until it could be heard only as the faint background muttering that we had noticed when we arrived. (It was not lost on either of the consultants the degree to which our own enactment resembled this situation.)

This process supported a sense of resentment and paranoia in the organization. Active wishes for help coexisted with the identification with passive suffering. But it seemed that the opportunity for creation (especially creation of organizational change) instead of suffering was dreaded for its potential to result in yet another disintegration of the board of directors. The previous disintegrations had been both explosive (the board members left under circumstances that felt close to violence) and implosive (the founder was left alone to deal with all the past and present "baggage," and the threat that the process would repeat itself). As we had previously observed in other communities in crisis, there seemed to be an unconscious injunction working to "maintain the status quo at all costs" (Borg, 2002, p. 352). The board might not survive, but Jo (as an object) does — maybe that's why the representatives backed off at the convention: their fear of losing what they perceived to be their supportive environment (i.e., Jo herself). But in ART it could be only one and not both. They can't survive each other.

That was the history that had brought ART to its current state of chronic crisis, experienced most profoundly as a sense of implicit — though not necessarily realistic — limitations on the work it performs. The connection between the history of actual disintegration and the current crisis was evident in the board's sense of impending doom, and its visceral dread that another "breakdown" was on the horizon. Early manifestations could be seen in the increasing hostility and defensiveness between members of the board (especially Jo) and the non-board members who served as representatives from the membership at board meetings. This was especially true when individual board members attended fellowship meetings — the self-help support groups where, through open discussion and working the twelve-steps, recovery can be found. They felt attacked, as though they were being held responsible for each and every problem that members experienced in the meetings — including the rather frequent arguments that broke out between members whom the board members didn't even know. After all, most people can't survive their own destruction. To do that is to be an artist — to offer your own substance to other people in an act of creation. But this is an active suffering, not the passive kind.

We therefore framed our guiding research question for this consultation as follows: How can ART develop a structure that will not only support its health, development, expansion, and financial viability, but also foster a legacy that will allow it to survive the passing of its founding membership? The question could also be worded as: What would happen to ART if the hard-working, emotionally invested gatekeepers left and allowed "those divas" to take over? The apprehension that such a scenario raised was reminiscent of Winnicott's (1974) "fear of breakdown" (p. 103) — that is, fear of breakdown in reference to an overwhelming experience that had actually occurred in the past, rather than one that might potentially occur in the future.

The Diva is the Organization

ART was an organization crippled by narcissistic avoidance. This had resulted in a powerful split between a good and idealized outside world (consisting of consultants, the new about to be board chairman, and potential funding sources) and a bad inside world (consisting of the board, the individual members, and the founder — all, in the eyes of someone or other, divas). In the 2000 breakdown (the last one before our arrival), the only member to make the transition to the new board was Jo — a sign that during the eighteen years of its existence, ART's character still resembled only Jo's; it had not yet developed an organizational persona independent of, or even just different from, hers. Therefore, one of our primary goals was to help ART step back from its identification with the founder's personality/pathology, and make room for the other board members' different personalities, pathologies, symptoms, resources, skills, and voices.

"If artists do not use their gifts," Jo had written in her pamphlet, "their lives will become unmanageable." This was a self-fulfilling prophecy that was organizationally enacted repeatedly over the next eighteen years. As ART grew, Jo's pursuit of her art was pushed aside (perhaps more accurately, Jo pushed it aside) and true to her prediction, her life — and the life of the organization that represented an unconscious enactment of it — became increasingly unmanageable. She maintained that anything that kept people from engaging with their artistic talents condemned them to a meaningless life; therefore she wanted both to help others and to help herself to overcome these barriers. Yet when we met her, she was completely absorbed by the ART program to the point that her own creative work had been almost completely diverted into it. We acknowledged the possibility that her work with ART served as a defense against her anxiety about pursuing her own art. Along these lines we asked ourselves, What kind of anxiety is being defended against here? Are the risks of being a "diva of temperament" really less than those of the "diva of talent"? Really talented people evoke strong public reactions in others — people envy them, people criticize them, people desire them, and so on. Suffering artists don't run those risks. But there is one further twist to the diva knife — if you abandon your talent for the safety of temperament, although you will be spared the catcalls, you'll also miss the bouquets — and the chance to sing.

Freud (1908) observed that an artistic state is similar to the unconscious one, in that conflicting pulls operate outside of the awareness of the individual and produce creative resolutions. Jo's "diva character" consisted of dissociated and enacted aspects of herself — both her talent and her temperament — that she had not been able to integrate into an ongoing functioning artist self. Everything Jo refuses to accept about herself (especially her diva characteristics) was apparently being made manifest in ART, its members, and its history. Thus, ART's recovery depended on its becoming able to move away from identification with its founding diva. But it needed — and so did Jo — some essential missing elements. After all, without a sense of agency and responsibility, without a certain amount of aggression, without a willingness to expose oneself, art can't happen.

The Organization as Diva

The development of the twelve step model (and other self-help recovery groups) is well-documented (see especially Eastland et al., 1999). The problems of leadership, organizational development, and how each group or program will survive the succession of its charismatic founders have been primary from the beginning, and reflect the problems of crisis and change (for instance after acquisition, downsizing, merger, etc.) in more traditional organizations as well (Marks, 2003). Some groups, like the Oxford Group, the alcohol-recovery self-help group that set the stage for the later development of Alcoholics Anonymous and many others, never made it through the hurdle that ART is facing (Hartigan, 2001; Pittman, 1997) — the succession of its founders. Issues of prestige, power, and privilege seem to have found their way into most, if not all, of the major self-help organizations operating successfully today (Levy, 2000). This means that at some stage of their development, they will have to face and work through these threatening issues, regardless of how altruistic and benevolent their primary task may be. Many factors determine whether a self-help group will make it or not through its initial growing pains, including the types of problems being addressed, the population the organization attracts, and the support the organization can obtain and sustain from the surrounding community. In ART, even after eighteen years, most of these factors have yet to be addressed.

ART, perhaps like any organization that is primarily identified with its founder, can be viewed as the primary enactment of Jo's dissociated or unused self-states (Bromberg, 1998) — aspects of her self-experience that had not been integrated into her conscious sense of herself because to do so would blemish the cherished self-image she feels she must present to the world. States of self-experience are dissociated for the anxiety they provoke. Jo's pathology found resonance with the group's valency (Bion, 1961), as ART seemed to offer her both a container (the hope of healing that would facilitate sustained artistic production) as well as an enactment of defense (investment in "artistic suffering"). By her own admission, she was looking for other people "like herself."

A view of ART from the system standpoint would have to consider how all its parts interrelated — Jo, the members, the board, its external supporters (potential funding sources, mental health services, etc.), and the surrounding society that (ART's members thought, and wrote into their pamphlet) adjudicate a role to artists and to the mentally disturbed. The notion of the "suffering artist" was very seductive to ART's constituents, and very consonant with the view taken by the rigid, short-sighted, unimaginative, and in many ways inadequate public health care provisions available for the emotionally disturbed. ART was built around a group identity and the unconscious characterological defenses that supported it. In spite of protestations to the contrary, that group identity accepted artists as pathological sufferers, rather than as creators of culture. This is the distortion that is reflected in the degradation of the diva from one divinely gifted to a royal pain in the ass. The group identification hints at the psychological dangers of art, and the potential envy that may dog artistic success, but it fails to account for the real contributions that artists make, and does not provide a supportive environment for furthering them. To make good these two gaps was an important aspect of our task as consultants when this organization called us in.

It seems that the idea of creating and sustaining a place safe from the harsh (real and fantasied) impingements of the environment sustained ART as an organization (that is, it gave ART a reason to exist as a safe harbor against these demeaning stereotypes). Yet, as we mentioned earlier, we found that this very harbor perpetually threatened the esteem and value of its members by enforcing a state of "sick" or "infantile" disorder that complied with these perceived societal label: artist equals disturbed individual. And it was as an organization that served such "disturbed individuals," rather than as an organization that highlighted artistic gifts and talents, that ART had traditionally sought, and received, its funding. In other words, ART's victim identity and the philanthropic system were in collusion. We did find upon investigation that not all ART members had complied with this victim ideology in the past. But those who did not, those who actually used the support they received from ART to work through their specific "artistic" dilemmas wound up being the recipients of Jo's and the board's most overt diva projections.

We believe that the members who were ostracized as divas by Jo represent ART's struggle to transcend its current stultification and move beyond the limitations of its founder and board of directors. They were extruded in an enactment of the frightening aspects of ART's underlying potential for success, and thus publicly sustained the ambivalent mixture of hope and dread about achieving the activity and agency that allow one's talents to be realized and presented to a feared but desired audience. To help ART make sense of its complicated situation and organizational circumstances, we would have to find ways to integrate the darker and potentially disruptive aspects of its identity into a more comprehensive understanding of its history, its current situation, and its future.

Conclusion: The Return of the Prodigal Diva

As we have said, ART was at a point of impact when we began our consultation. At first we felt that the disintegration/revival pattern manifested the fear of breakdown that seemed to pervade the (community) character. But as it turned out, the members had an equal if not greater fear of not breaking down, of the uncertainties and risks of growth, and of being left behind if ART (given adequate support and resources) suddenly started acting like a well-managed, functioning organization. This possibility appeared to be intolerable to the organization's founder, board of trustees, and members. We discovered innumerable instances of ART members at all levels working together to maintain the status quo, participating along with Jo in this collusion (buying into the whole diva concept perhaps being the best example of this). Once the group was invested in its "suffering artist" identity, not to suffer meant to risking losing a sense of belonging. Once that became clear, it no longer appeared ironic that breakdowns in ART occurred at times of increasing forward momentum — when decreased suffering looked like an organizational possibility.

Yet Jo and ART alike were unable to distinguish between administrative functions and service provision, resulting most profoundly in an equation of: Jo the suffering artist + Jo the reluctant administrator = Jo the pathological diva. When the administrative and service functions were conflated, the disaster that resulted resembled Jo's internal history of crisis and disaster (especially those described in her description of her history — in the ART literature). Many other key members of ART also had an affinity for the group's entrenched organizational structure, which served as a receptacle for the projection of their most anxiety-producing self-experiences.

Especially through our ongoing participation and collaboration with ART on rebuilding an organizational identity that would actually (and more consciously) facilitate growth and better contain the various voices — feelings, thoughts, opinions, and so forth — by the end of our initial consultation, ART had gained the capacity to reestablish itself and to recreate conditions for success. The board had developed an increased awareness of its own internal dynamics, an openness to new ideas for leadership and support (for instance, hiring a non-ART member to chair the board, and requesting additional consultation), and a willingness to focus on some of the acute aspects of its chronic difficulties.

Much of our work involved helping board members develop and maintain an emotional space that would allow them to work through the anxiety that had plagued their previous efforts. Our assumption was that doing so would allow them to contemplate what kind of ART that might exist if they transcended their familiar cycle of organizational suicide and resurrection.

ART's stated goal has always been to support "suffering artists" in their efforts to enact their art in ways that feed them, emotionally (and literally). Yet Jo tended to perceive any expansion as dangerous and embittering; as much as she wished to escape her administrative role, to do so would mean that her glory had been stolen by the divas, who would leave her with nothing but blame (the risk of immersing herself in art). This made it very difficult for ART (as embodied in Jo) to accept consistent nourishment from its members or from the outside world. At least in part, this is probably another tie to the intense cathexis of suffering in ART — and its ongoing investment in and enactment of the starving artist cliché.

Still, we recognized ART's stubborn resiliency, and the desire of its leaders — despite their disorderly approach — to learn to enact their hope, love, and dedication as well as their fear in the name of artists who are truly suffering. The fact that ART has repeatedly survived its own traumas and continued to help its members identify and express their creativity deserves much credit. But each time we found points of impact — the intersections of acute anxiety with more chronic traumas in the group's history — the historical trauma was quickly transported into the future. We found that an enormous amount of anxiety was attached to the fear that ART's patterns might be inescapable, repeated ad infinitum; this resulted in the projected belief that such traumas were an entrenched and intractable part of ART's identity. There also seemed to be a vested interest in maintaining a sense of trauma and anxiety, on the grounds that ART would cease to exist if its members stopped suffering and starving.

In organizational consultation, as in individual psychoanalysis, working through demands that powerful ambivalences be confronted, that lost connections be mourned, and that blows to our carefully sequestered early omnipotence be tolerated (Freud, 1917). To avoid the mourning process is to exist as "a crypt inhabited by living corpses" (Kristeva, 1989, p. 233). Or, as James Joyce (1922/1993) succinctly wrote in reference to the closed circuit of intractable mourning, "Oomb, allwombing tomb" (p. 47), meaning that to grow beyond the womb is to move beyond the delusion that we are in control, or can live safely forever within that protected environment. If we are to grow into autonomy, we must have faith that we, as individuals or as organizations, can survive even in unfamiliar and occasionally hostile surroundings.

As this paper was being written, ART was starting to recreate its identity. With the help of several other consultants (specific to particular tasks at hand), it had established a goal for the next phase of consultation — to continue to rethink, and to begin to rebuild, its organizational structure. The new structure will allow ART to maintain the integrity of its service to artists, but add components that can focus individually on such issues as funding (in the form of mental health and cultural enrichment grants), administrative services, outreach, and literature. Jo has voluntarily stepped down from her purely administrative post, and is working on a book that describes the history and principles of the ART program. The diva has thus found a niche in which she can enact her talents, her passions, her skills, and her need for acknowledgement. She has become a respected founder and elder whose identity has been retrieved, and ART is now able to enact an identity that is more inclusive of its membership.

Returning once more to Leonardo, we can say that his dissociated self-states were completely absorbed in and enacted through (Freud would say "sublimated in") his artistic and scientific work. According to Freud (1908), the "pathological" symptoms of this sublimation were evident not there, but in his early parental relations (especially with his mother) and the absence of libidinally-invested objects in his life. Jo's dissociated self-states were absorbed similarly into the myriad functions of her organization — including individual ART meetings and chapters, ART literature, interactions with board members, and a long list of organizational tasks. But her symptomatology was enacted there as well, with repercussions throughout — specifically, in the sequential disintegration of previous boards of trustees. For both Jo and ART, these symptoms (dissociated self-states) were enacted in a complex set of functions and services that were enmeshed and manifested in ART's community character. The previous points of impact at ART represented the necessity that those functions be dislodged from the historical and unconscious enactment of its founder, as well as from the dictates of a series of boards of directors that had been chosen twice over for their own propensity (valence) for this kind of emotionally monopolistic organizational structure (as did, or do, the general membership).

The working through process was initiated during our consultation as ART gained insight into the self-destructive patterns of defense that were being enacted within it. Perhaps most importantly, ART began to be was able to respond to recognition, appreciation, and support from the outside world — that is, from us. Our work appears to have provided the organization with an extended emotional framework that was spacious enough to contain its enactments. This space allowed enough new perspective that some old assumptions could be reconsidered, and emotional feeding — the sustenance offered by the outside world — could be accepted as nourishment instead of poison.

Of course, we were part of that last enactment, too. Eventually we were perceived as grand divas ourselves, wanting to take all of the credit while avoiding the actual work that would have to be done to enhance ART's functioning. We certainly became well able to empathize with the painful emotional experience of being unappreciated — especially for our efforts to separate the "diva" from the "syndrome" (that is, the artists from the disorder). We are continuing our consultation in parallel with an expanded team of experts in various areas of organizational functioning and development, and hope to provide a report on ART's progress in the (not so certain) future.


1 Authors and researchers who have challenged the practice of pathologizing artists include Csikszentmihalyi (1996) and Grey (1999). Those who have written in support of the practice or who have pathologized artists themselves include Freud (1908), Jamison (1989), and Kris (1952).

2 We have used pseudonyms for the organization and its founder.

3 Twelve step programs (based on the twelve step model) generally adhere to the principles set out in the preamble of Alcoholics Anonymous (modified slightly by each program to address the problem, or set of problems, specific to each group — e.g., Narcotics Anonymous replaces the word alcohol with drugs, etc.):

Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.There are no dues or fees for AA membership; we are self-supporting through our own contributions. AA is not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, organization or institution; does not wish to engage in any controversy, neither endorses nor opposes any causes. Our primary purpose is to stay sober and help other alcoholics achieve sobriety (Alcoholics Anonymous, 1997, pp.xiii-xiv).

4 Organizational theorists (Jaques, 1955; Menzies, 1960) and psychoanalysts (Bion, 1961; Eisold, 1994) have described socially structured defense mechanisms against anxiety in terms ofgroup-level dynamics.


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