In my last blog, You Must Know!, I discussed Alanis Morissette’s song, You Oughta Know! from the perspective of the narrator’s fight to maintain her self-esteem in the face of her lover’s betrayal. Here, I’m going to consider one of the less developed themes in the song.
In a psychotherapy, it is often these less formed communications that reveal the most important aspects of the patient’s inner world. Throw away lines, or subjects that are quickly skipped over, can point to issues that are too painful to bring fully into the therapy, but too powerful to keep out.
The narrator’s anger in the song You Oughta Know is so overpowering, it is tempting to see the song simply as a monolithic outpouring of rage. It takes a little time to realise that the narrator’s outburst is not as one dimensional as it first seems.
For 45 seconds from the 2:30 minute mark, the narrator doesn’t utter any words. Rather, she emits a series of ahs and ehs. These expressions are not quite plaintive but they could move us toward the powerlessness the narrator feels underneath her rage.
The narrator is too angry to stay with her vulnerability and after 45 seconds, she again explodes with fury. However, this time, in a song that is largely about the short comings and destructiveness of the man who betrayed her, the narrator refers to herself as a joke. It is as if she touched something within herself during her quieter period, and it stays with in her fury. If the narrator was in therapy, this would need to be explored.
Without the narrator present, the rest of this blog is speculative. However, the narrator does give some hints as to why she might see herself as a joke.
In the first stanza, the narrator refers to herself as perverted. She seems to claim it as a badge of honour that she went down on her ex-lover in a theatre.
In contrast, the narrator believes her replacement to be older, speaks eloquently and would make an excellent mother.
The joke could be that the narrator believed the man when he said he would stay with her until he died. However, despite his proclamations of love, he ultimately saw her as a fling. When he tired of her, he moved onto someone who could give him a more rounded relationship. Someone who could have his baby.
This is not to say that a permanent relationship should be everybody’s goal in life. However, the way the narrator juxtaposes herself and the woman who replaced her might suggest it is important for her.
What could be particularly distressing for the narrator is that she may have hit her psychological limitations. For whatever reason, she may not have the inner resources to be part of a healthy ongoing relationship. She might have attempted to compensate for this lack by making herself wild and exciting. The ultimate joke might be that she has seduced herself. At a deep place within her, she made herself believe that being uninhibited would lead to love. It is a rough way to say it but I am trying to capture the humiliation people feel when these internal compensations fail.
Patients are usually painfully aware of their inner limitations. They watch other people do things they cannot and wonder what is wrong with them. They feel humiliated, a joke. They often respond to this intense shame by getting angry at themselves and/ or the world.
Ironically, it can be this rage at themselves and the world that drives these patients forward in life. It is as if they believe they can overcome their limitations if they can just beat themselves and the world into shape.
These patients have a hard time in therapy when they realise how their life has been governed by their inner limitations and the resultant humiliation and anger. They understand an inner transition needs to take place but have no idea what it might look like or what to do.
Without the narrator present, there is no way of knowing whether these speculations have any validity. However, this could all be worked out in the therapy. What is important is the psychotherapist’s determination to look beyond the immediacy of the patient’s presentation. To pick up the subtle clues and follow where they might lead.