Freudian what?, or Sometimes a gaffe is just a gaffe

Here's a story. It's true (excepting any names involved).

Many years ago - close to a couple of decades, I'm afraid - my girlfriend and I had enlisted the help of two or three friends in muscling a couch up a narrow staircase. We'd removed the iron railing but the passage remained difficult to negotiate, and the couch was as heavy as sin. One of the friends helping out was a coworker of mine, a ruggedly attractive girl we'll call Alice who had delighted me that day by wearing a rather insubstantial t-shirt. She took up a position opposite me as we wrestled with the couch. After a few minutes of struggle - the kind of labor that makes folks perspire and clothing alternately cling and droop - I called for a break in the action. Specifically, I looked up into the inviting hollow formed by the collar of Alice's shirt and said, "Let's take a breast."


No one spoke. Alice gave me quite the dirty look. So did my girlfriend. So did everybody, so far as I can recall.

Incidentally, Alice now goes by Alex, thanks to the wonders of modern science. Make of that what you will.

Here's another story. Same parameters apply.

This happened only a decade ago, more or less. A friend we'll call Scott and I had been drafted by our bookstore employer into providing literary entertainment at St. Louis' alcohol-free, family-friendly, come-hang-out-in-our-eerily-vacant-downtown New Year's Eve event, First Night. We were charged with reading from - of all the written works in the world - Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis. A little light reading for your holiday fun. There were three sections to the story and only two of us to read it. We decided that I would lead off with all of the first installment, Scott would read the entirety of the third section, and we'd together abridge the middle portion to save time. We would have taken my car, but it was not located where I remembered parking it; I figured that either I had parked somewhere else in a liquor-induced haze, or the car had been towed by local officials for parking violations. Either possibility was as likely as the other, and there was nothing for it at the time. We took Scott's car.

Scott and I were to read in a room at the convention center, where we found a fairly sizable collection of mannered white folks, middle-aged or older, just the kind of people you'd imagine would want to listen to Kafka on New Year's Eve. I approached the podium, smiled in generous welcome at the audience, and began to read from Joachim Neugroschel's translation of the Kafka classic. This is the first line of the story as I read it: "One morning, upon awakening from agitated dreams, Gregor Samsa found himself, in his bed, transformed into a monstrous virgin."


My audience of mannered white folks, middle-aged or older, burst into hearty and thoroughly unmannered laughter - all except one older woman with black-rimmed glasses, who gave me a look to rival the one I'd received from Alice some ten years before. I smiled again, this time in rueful and earnest acknowledgement, and went on to complete my reading assignment without further error. After the reading, the woman with glasses sought me out and complimented me on the job I'd done. It was very nice of her, all things considered.


The notion of the Freudian slip - "an error in human action, speech or memory that is believed to be caused by the subconscious mind," or more popularly "a slip-of-the-tongue that reveals the speaker's true meaning or intention" - is so ingrained in our culture that anyone who makes a verbal gaffe is as good as guilty, in the eyes of others, of covert motives. It's the kind of dime-store psychology, "common sense" analysis, that is correct often enough that people assume it's always correct - and that's remarkably lazy thinking. I'll readily admit to ulterior thoughts in the case of Alice, the couch, and the t-shirt. On the other hand, I'll strenously deny that anything was roiling in my subconscious mind during the Kafka reading except my missing car (which turned out to be stolen, and thanks much for asking). The assumptions we make about other people's verbal slips are reflexive and unthinking, yet we treat them as facts.

I think of this today because of this story out of St. Louis, which is making the rounds even as we speak:

KTRS host is fired over racial slur
Jake Wagman, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

A local radio personality was kicked off the air Wednesday after using a racial slur when talking about U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Dave Lenihan, who was in his second week as a morning show host on KTRS
(550 AM), was fired almost immediately after saying "coon" while describing why
Rice would fit well as commissioner of the National Football League.

"She's been chancellor at Stanford. I mean she's just got the patent resume of somebody that's got some serious skill," Lenihan said, according to a recording provided by KTRS. "She loves football. She's African-American, which would kind of be a big coon. . . ."

"'A big coon?' Oh my god," Lenihan said during the morning broadcast. "I am totally, totally, totally, totally, totally sorry for that. OK? I didn't mean that. That was just a slip of the tongue."

I heard this replayed on the air this morning. Lenihan sounded at the end like a man struck by the terrible realization of his own mortality - as well he might have, since he was summarily fired before lunch. Station chief Tim Dorsey wasted no time, and showed no mercy.

"I don't know what is in Mr. Lenihan's mind. I know what I heard," Dorsey said.

Dorsey knows what he heard. But he doesn't care about what it meant...or didn't mean.

Now make of that what you will.

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