Potential Space

by Lorrie Goldin, LCSW, Impulse Staff Writer


The movie Her is a love story for our times. People pass one another without interacting, fixated on their electronic companions. Theodore, who writes others' love letters for a living, is especially disconnected after his marriage breaks up.

Into the void steps Samantha, the perfect partner. Except that she isn't real. Or is she? Samantha's an operating system endowed with artificial intelligence. She has a consciousness. But whose? Her own, as it evolves through "lived" experience? The programmers'? Theodore's? Perhaps Samantha is solely a projection of Theodore's desires, a fantasy for which reality is no match.

The parallels to psychotherapy are many. How real is the relationship between therapist and patient? The work is intimate, yet we remain hidden. Distance and closeness are carefully titrated. Fantasy and projections - key transference components - abound. The real/unreal paradox is fertile ground in therapy, as it is in Her.

Theodore, meanwhile, turns not to a therapist but to technology.  Asked to describe his relationship with his mother in order to personalize his operating system, Theodore says it's fine, except that everything's about her. Samantha (or at least her voice) appears, "an intuitive entity that knows and understands" him and anticipates his every need - the ideal mother/lover. Who doesn't wish for perfect mirroring as an antidote to early wounds when undertaking love - or therapy?

Initially Samantha is all about Theodore. With her help, he starts to feel better. As with the mutual influence of therapy, Samantha, too, grows and changes. All is well, though trouble rumbles in the background. The idealizing transference soon becomes eroticized. Disappointment inevitably follows the intrusion of reality into fantasy.  In an echo of how clients are loathe to share their therapists - or children their mothers - Theodore is dismayed to learn that Samantha is not there for him alone; she's the operating system for over 6,000 people. Like Theodore's mother, Samantha increasingly develops her own interests. "I'm yours and I'm not yours," she tells him. Worse, the pain Theodore's fantasy is designed to defend against is recapitulated: Samantha leaves, just like his ex-wife.

Is it abandonment?  Or a developmentally appropriate separation? Samantha may start as an extension of Theodore's psyche, but, as with healthy infant-mother pairs, they end as two distinct individuals. (Perhaps it's part of the design!) Coming to terms with disillusionment, Theodore can finally write his own love letter to his ex-wife. He retrieves his projections, fully feels and mourns, and thus moves on from loss.  Perhaps Theodore is even ready to try the whole disappointing, glorious mess of human connection again.  For only when we can tolerate that the other is not an extension of ourselves, but another full and complete separate person can we risk ourselves for love - for real.