Tony Soprano hasn’t been cured. The main character of HBO’s hit series has been seeing his shrink for four years, and she hasn’t been able to stop his panic attacks from dropping him like a stone. Host Steve Curwood speaks with Jeremiah Creeder, senior editor of Utne magazine, who suspects the root of Tony’s problem is “ecological alienation.”
[MUSIC: Alabama 3 “Woke Up this Morning” Music From The Sopranos Sony (1999)]
CURWOOD: Just in case you don’t recognize it, that’s the theme from the hit HBO series “The Sopranos.” Yes, today we consider Tony Soprano and his extended dysfunctional family from the Jersey ‘burbs. Mob boss Tony is the program’s central character and one of the most talked about segments of this program is his psychotherapy with Dr. Jennifer Melfi.
TONY: This isn’t gonna work. I can’t talk about my personal life.
MELFI: You were just telling me about the day you collapsed.
CURWOOD: There’s been much online chatter among real life psychotherapists about these sessions. Emails back and forth discussing what Doctor Melfi is doing wrong, and why she hasn’t been able to cure Tony of his frequent panic attacks despite four years and more than fifty episodes of therapy. For a second opinion, we turned to Jeremiah Creedon, senior editor at Utne magazine. His article, “The Greening of Tony Soprano,” appears in the current issue of Utne, and in it he explores a theory that Tony may be suffering from what eco-shrinks call “ecological alienation.”
CREEDON: I went back to the very beginning, and to the very first episode, and the very first session between Dr. Melfi and Tony, and tried to go from there and see what really might be bugging him.
CURWOOD: Uh, huh. What did you see?
CREEDON: Well, as I watched the episode, Melfi asks Tony what’s wrong and he explains how happy he was when wild creatures came to his pool and had their babies.
TONY: A couple months before, there’s these two wild ducks landed in my pool. It was amazing. They’re from Canada or someplace and it was matin’ season. They had some ducklings.
CREEDON: They then proceeded to fly away, at which point Tony has his first panic attack that drops him like a stone in his suburban backyard. He says that he was sad to see them go, and then goes on to say, I was afraid I’m going to lose my family. And from that point on, Melfi begins exploring everything that those ducks could symbolize. But I began to see that she never really took the ducks for what they were, that maybe ducks are just ducks, and that Tony was really sad to see them go. And that made me think that Tony may be suffering from alienation and distress tied to the degraded state of the natural world in which he lives
CURWOOD: Now, I’m looking at this article that you wrote for Utne, and in it you quote psychologist Andy Fisher, a book that Fisher wrote titled “Radical Ecopsychology.” And let me read to you the quote, I’m sure you remember it. “Ecopsychology has emerged largely from a sense of loss, and one of its goals is simply to articulate such sorrow, which many people might feel today but have no way to express. A psychic numbing from the environmental damage of the world around us and from our disconnect from nature.” How do you see this being played out in the show?
CREEDON: Well, I noticed, watching through very closely, that there’s all sorts of very subtle and witty allusions to the fact that the world in which Tony and his family live has been degraded. Everyone seems to be doing a drug or two or three, both legal and illegal, in a way to treat themselves for the psychological abrasiveness of modern life.
CURWOOD: Well, what about the opening scene, I mean…
CREEDON: Well, that’s a good point. The opening credit sequence of Tony leaving New York City and driving across the Meadowlands to his suburban home, that area he crosses, the Meadowlands, has been for thousands of years a haven for migrating birds. And yet now, it’s become more or less a badly damaged environment.
CURWOOD: A lot of smokestacks, pollution, and the bodies that Tony Soprano dumps there, too.
CREEDON: Well, yes, you do get the sense that this is a place where nature has become a place that’s more or less a body dump for the gangsters, where they go to commit their misdeeds and to hide the remains.
CURWOOD: Now there’s a point in the show, Jeremiah, where the daughter, Meadow, is screaming at her dad, “I’m tired of telling people that you work in environmental cleanup,” as a cover for him being a mobster.
MALE: So, Meadow, what business is your father in?
MEADOW: Actually, he’s in waste management.
MALE: Ah, toxic chemicals, medical waste, that sort of thing?
MEADOW: Yeah, sort of. Environmental cleanup.
CURWOOD: So, you think the writers are having some fun with this too, I guess, huh?
CREEDON: Yeah, they are. All through the series they look at this issue in a real witty way. For instance, Meadow’s roommate at college is from a small town in Oklahoma, and she immediately begins to wig out living in Manhattan. And eventually she ends up at the psych ward of the local hospital there, getting anti-anxiety medication. And yet, when she comes back and they ask her what’s wrong, she puts it pretty bluntly.
CAITLIN: I think I miss my ferrets.
MEADOW: You’ve got to snap out of this, Caitlin.
CURWOOD: You say some pretty intriguing things about male psychology in your piece. For example, you quote a writer named Paul Shepherd as saying that our disregard for the Earth has made us estranged from our natural family, changing the way we raise and educate our children, especially boys. That this makes men who want to destroy other living things in response to their own insecurities. Is that what you think is really wrong with Tony?
CREEDON: Well, I think Tony certainly has a love-hate relationship with nature. And that also runs throughout the series. That he clearly loves animals—we see that from the very first episode. And yet he’s also a creature who resorts to violence at almost every turn.
TONY: You got to help me with these cinch bugs. They’re killing my sweet corn.
MALE: Well, this blue stuff works pretty well, and its safe for the environment.
TONY: I tried that. You got any DDT back there?
MALE: That stuff’s illegal. It’s been banned.
TONY: Yeah, but you got a little surplus in the back…you go…you look…I meet you back there.
MALE: Look, Mr. Soprano, if I could do something, I would.
CREEDON: I think that somehow this is analogous to the way one kind of male role model in our culture does function. A philosopher like Paul Shepherd would probably go all the way back about four hundred years, to 1600, to the work of Francis Bacon. To say that this is really part of the Western mind from the beginning, that we’ve had a pathological desire to conquer nature. Or, in Francis Bacon’s term, that we can turn nature into our harlot, and get from nature what we want. And I think this is the thing that the ecopsychologists say is the broken relationship we have to heal.
CURWOOD: Well, we’re just about out of time here, but I got to ask you one thing before you go. I understand that the Meadowlands is now in the process of being cleaned up after all these years of being a dumping ground, and being riddled with pollution. And since Tony’s fired his shrink, I’m wondering if he’s going to find his salvation not in therapy, but perhaps become an environmentalist, and then help clean up the Meadowlands.
CREEDON: Well, let’s hope so. It would be great if Tony did that.
CURWOOD: Jeremiah Creedon is the senior editor at Utne magazine. Thanks for taking this time with me today.
CREEDON: Well, thanks so much for having me.
[MUSIC: Alabama 3 “Woke Up This Morning” Music From the Sopranos Sony (1999)]
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