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Houdini's Box: The Art of Escape

Houdini's Box: The Art of Escape

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by Adam Phillips

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In this uniquely brilliant and insightful book, acclaimed essayist and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips meditates on the notion of escape in our society and in ourselves.

No one can escape the desire and need to escape. By analyzing four examples of escape artists—a young girl who hides from others by closing her eyes; a grown man incapable of a relationship;


In this uniquely brilliant and insightful book, acclaimed essayist and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips meditates on the notion of escape in our society and in ourselves.

No one can escape the desire and need to escape. By analyzing four examples of escape artists—a young girl who hides from others by closing her eyes; a grown man incapable of a relationship; Emily Dickinson, recluse extraordinaire; and Harry Houdini, the quintessential master of escape—Phillips enables readers to identify the escape artists lurking within themselves. Lucid, erudite, and audacious, Houdini's Box is another scintillating and seminal work by one of the world's most dazzlingly original thinkers.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review
“Our most urgent project,” claims therapist/author Adam Phillips, “is to escape.... If escaping is what we do, then we can at least become escape artists.” In this quirky, complex meditation, Phillips guides us through the maze of contemporary escapist psychology. He provides no easy answers but helps us to reflect -- from multiple vantage points -- on our cultural taste for bondage and freedom.

To illustrate his complex subject, Phillips interweaves two complementary narratives: a biographical study of Harry Houdini, the most spectacular modern escape artist, and a psychological case study of an anonymous patient who vacillates, as we all do, between fear and desire. By juxtaposing these two stories, Phillips exposes for us the psychological underpinnings of everyone’s escapist fantasies; he shows us how similar, in the end, are the desires for entrapment and escape. “What one is escaping from is inextricable from, if not defined by, what one is escaping to,” Phillips explains. And in this context, Phillips considers the sexual fantasies that we construct, the fantasies of fame and freedom, the fantasies of fulfillment. But throughout, he focuses us on the importance of treating our dreams with the respect we accord to reality.

Phillips’s book is a curious, evocative study. It encourages us to reflect on what we’re doing when we forge routines so habitual that we are left free to dream -- to dream of escaping these very routines. It’s a book that forces us to recognize how we construct and destroy our days, our families, and our selves -- and so gets to the heart of contemporary psychology. (Jesse Gale)

Kirkus Reviews
Tentative explorations into what it means to escape, from noted British psychoanalyst Phillips (The Beast in the Nursery, 1998, etc.). Using aspects of Houdini's life as a kind of refrain, and layering the escape-artist's chapters with episodes from his own psychoanalytic practice, Phillips makes glancing forays into the complex world of flight. Contradictory, too, but that's not much of an excuse when Phillips himself appears hopelessly muddled by his research. "People often feel most alive when escaping," the author observes, although it "is often linked to a sense of failure." He often strikes a passive, reactive note ("what we want is born of what we want to get away from"), and even his active voice is more than slightly obscure ("what one is escaping from is inextricable from, if not defined by, what one is escaping to"). Although Phillips provides some provocative ideas on guilt and avoidance ("the imaginative activity involved in flight can blind us to any knowledge of quite what it is we are escaping from") and on Houdini's role as a respected outlaw (his popularizing "of the iconography of what we now call sadomasochism" and his "tapping into a market for torture"), his theses are compromised by notions that simply don't hold. "Things are not frightening because they are real, they are real because they are frightening" is a case in point. So is his assertion that "the pornographer works to avert the death of desire" and his bizarre declaration that "in this simple event—dangling, chained upside down, over 150 feet up—the traditional erotic story joined forces with the new economic story: you can make it if you work, if you've got something unique to sell."What's traditional about being chained and hanging upside down while suspended 150 feet in the air? No blinding insights here, but rather a scaffolding of Freudian interpretation that feels highly provisional when not downright rickety.
From the Publisher
“Provocative, smoothly written . . . . A pleasure to read.” —The Washington Post

“A rare achievement–as remarkable a piece of tightrope walking as Houdini ever performed himself.” —London Daily Telegraph

“Illuminating and intriguing.” —BookPage

“Fascinating.” —Entertainment Weekly

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
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Random House
File size:
2 MB

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

A five-year-old girl comes into my room ready to play another round of her favorite game, hide-and-seek, a game she has been playing with me twice a week for several months. It is the way, down to the smallest detail, we always begin our time together. In the room there is an armchair, a table, and a chair. She stands in the middle of the room, closes her eyes, and says, “Start looking.”

I have watched her, as usual, walk into the room and simply close her eyes. But in her mind she is now hiding. And quite quickly getting impatient.

“Look!” she says. “Start looking!” Of course I am looking—what else could I be doing?—but I don’t seem to be playing the game. It occurs to me, for once, that perhaps I should close my eyes, which I do. And then she says a bit crossly, “OK, I’ll give you a clue. I’m not behind the chair.”

I say to her, not too plaintively, “How will I ever find you?”

“Just keep looking,” she says blithely, clearly wanting to be helpful. Then, a bit more frantic, a bit more Alice in Wonderland, “I can’t escape, I can’t escape . . . I must be here somewhere.”

“No one can look everywhere,” I say.

“We can’t escape, we’re doing that,” she replies thoughtfully, as though this was the most sensible, least histrionic of acknowledgments.

She waits, eyes squeezed shut, while I keep failing to do what it looks like I’ve already done. So what I have found—indeed can’t help seeing: her in the middle of the room, hiding—is obviously not what she wants me to look for.

“Will it be dangeroos when I find you?” I ask. (Her mother would read the sign at the zoo as “Do not feed these animals, they are dangeroos,” so “dangeroos” is her word for it.)

“You’ll die,” she replies. Then there’s a pause, and she says in her most world-weary voice, “I give up.” It is as if the rehearsal is over, and we can now resume, after another failed attempt at something, our ordinary life in the room.

There is a drama, a tableau that she has to show me, that we are both trapped in. This is what we have to take for granted, she seems to be saying, this is what we need to do together, to get things started. And the sign of our entrapment is that she never changes; whatever I say, her lines are always the same. So what I say—even though it is as different as I can make it each time, even though I rack my brains for what she wants to hear—seems equally repetitious. I am her desperate improviser, trying to spring her. I will only know if I am someone else to her if she wants to change her tune. But in this strange duet for one the hide-and-seek is like a dream game, secluded away; a play within a play that we both briefly enact and watch, and then give up on. She rarely refers to it afterwards, and I refer to it as much as I can, trying to fit it in or link it with the rest of her life. But because there is no conversation about it, because it is at once open and unopened, it is, to all intents and purposes, an unspoken thing between us.

I thought sometimes that there was a note of triumphant relief in her apparent dismay inside the game. She wants me to find her, but she warns me that I will suffer if I do; or she fears that no one really wants to find her because they wouldn’t be able to bear the consequences. Either she is practicing her privacy or there is a solitude she feels imprisoned by. The girl standing in the middle of the room with her eyes closed sometimes seems to be parading her safety, and sometimes alerting us to a terror (people often feel most alive while they are escaping, most paralyzed before and after). But either way, what is most striking about the game, when we are playing it, is that I can’t escape from looking for her, and she can’t escape from hiding. There is nowhere else for either of us to go.

This girl has been referred to me for what is called, in the strange language of what is called Social Services, “query child sexual abuse,” and truanting from home and school. So the voices of my (psychoanalytic) education provide me with a serviceable understanding of this apparently split-off game. There is something eerie about her ability to remember her lines—her knack of keeping them identical, whatever I say—but this too might be a way of managing a bewildering invasion (the violent imposition of another’s desire making her mechanical). The game might literally repeat her experience: the impossibility of being able to hide, and the wish for a magical solution to this—all you have to do is close your eyes. If I do find her she fears that I will do something terrible to her—but the terror of waiting seems more unbearable than the terror of the event—or that she might do something to me. So I might think of myself as finding words for her fears, voicing what there might be to escape from, and one way or another providing reassurances about safety. But both she and I, in her “game” and my practice, are telling each other stories about safety and danger. Indeed, what else could there be to talk about? Whether or not fear is our founding passion, we are haunted by a picture of ourselves in flight, on the run. Whether we are getting away from something or getting away with something; as Icarus or Oedipus or Narcissus, as victims or tyrants, we cannot describe ourselves without also describing what we need to escape from, and what we believe we need to escape to.

When children play hide-and-seek—or when adults are knowingly or unknowingly elusive with each other, playing at repulsion and enticement—what is being played with is the fear (and the wish) of never being found. When the game goes on too long the child who is hiding always helps the seeker out. No one must disappear for too long, no one must get too far away. And the odd moment of being found is the end of the game. But if playing hide-and-seek is one of our emblematic games—at once testing the appetite of the seeker and the resolve of the one who hides—it is also a game haunted by the possibility of escape, of being able to escape the intention, the desire of another (chosen) person. Every successful game of hide-and-seek—and one way or another, barring tragedy, it is always successful—reassures the players that no one can escape, that there is nowhere else to escape to. The transgression is to disappear, to find a place where no one keeps an eye on you. The puzzle of hide-and-seek—its absurd drama of conflicting wishes, in which to be found is to lose the game, and not being found has to be got just right—becomes a blueprint for the dilemma of the erotic, of whether we want our sexuality to intensify our self-consciousness or release us from it. In her game the little girl is convinced that neither of us can escape, that what we are doing is not escaping; that the adult is as confined as she is. What they (we) share is being trapped in something together, which might be called need or sexuality, or the wish for certain kinds of recognition and reassurance.

When I first discussed this game with her parents, they told me that when she played hide-and-seek with her friends, “she often goes so far away that she’s not really playing the game anymore.” This had made her friends very scared at first, but eventually they got used to it and “didn’t waste much time on her. . . . They don’t bother.” Beyond a certain point, after an uncertain amount of time, she has changed the game (and it is worth wondering what this particular kind of arranged solitude releases her into). And the impatience of her parents and her friends—verging on indifference, as impatience always does—seems to be an essential part of her drama, a message carefully though unconsciously sent, a reminder of the frustration that is afoot here. She makes everyone so impatient with her that they are quite unable to think exactly what it is that they are impatient for. Her not playing the game properly is not seen by her friends as a fascinating innovation; from their point of view she contributes nothing. But what do they want from her? What is assumed not to be working properly here, or indeed, in her? Like all so-called symptoms her truancy stages a dilemma for everyone involved with her. She creates a conflict inside them that they dispose of as blame and accusation. When she gets away—when the school, her friends, or her parents give up on her, that is, do the opposite of invade her—who is disappointing whom? Her behavior conjures up in people something they want to get rid of. It is not clear, when her friends just stop looking for her, who is fleeing from whom (or from what). To escape—or, of course, to be unable to escape—is often linked to a sense of failure.

Because it is apparently the preferred life one is escaping to, our fears are the key to our ideals. What we want is born of what we want to get away from. “She’s a right little Houdini,” her father told me, “she can’t wait for anything.”

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Meet the Author

Adam Phillips is the author of Winnicott; On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored; On Flirtation; Terrors and Experts; Monogamy; The Beast in the Nursery; Darwin’s Worms; and Promises, Promises. Formerly the principal child psychotherapist at Charing Cross Hospital in London, he lives in England.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Houdini's Box: The Art of Escape 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I love it
Guest More than 1 year ago
Escape provides both hope and control. The pleasure of the escape can come to exceed the potential pleasure of what is being avoided. Psychotherapist Adam Phillips develops these themes in the context of Houdini's career, the attraction of his escapes for audiences, case histories such as those involving a five year-old girl who plays hide-and-seek in peculiar ways and a man who avoids women he is attracted to, mythology (Oedipus, Prometheus, Daedalus, Icarus, and Sisyphus), and literary characters (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Emily Dickinson). The book's themes work best in the context of Houdini. The other examples provide context, but not nearly as much insight. I was particularly interested to learn that the story I had heard about Houdini's death was wrong. He was challenged by a young man to take a punch in the abdomen, even though Houdini had never claimed to be invulnerable in this way. Houdini died a few days later of an internal infection probably caused by the blow. Apparently, he wanted to maintain the illusion of always being able to escape from danger . . . even when he knew of no way to do so. Part way through the book, I began to consider my own avoidance behavior and got some good insights. Certainly, there are some things that are so attractive, this is best not to be tempted. Taking that step to remove temptation is certainly a sign of the degree of the temptation. In general, I found the book interesting, but found that it had some serious drawbacks in its structure and focus. For example, there is discussion about prostitution, pornography, and avoiding sexual relations that is loosely tied back to Houdini's skills in escape illusions. I found the connections tenuous, not well made, sometimes puzzling, and of little interest. The discussions with patients are probably easy for a psychotherapist to follow, but I found them not very clear. I suspect that I would have enjoyed the book more without the patient sections. At the same time, the mythological references are mainly of value to someone who doesn't know the stories. For those who do, those sections become long and somewhat tedious. Basically, the book needed to be edited down further and to connect the dots more. At the same time, the section on Emily Dickinson could easily have been expanded. If you know a lot of about psychological theories, this book will probably not add a lot for you. If you don't try very hard to avoid things, this book will probably not be very interesting. For those who strenuously avoid and would like to know more, this is a pretty low-key introduction into seeing the possible meaning behind patterns of avoidance through self-questioning. What are the implications of your avoidance? Can you embrace what you care about in healthy ways? How well is your seeking out or avoiding behavior serving you and others? Find ways to serve others, give love, and enjoy life! Donald Mitchell, co-author of The Irresistible Growth Enterprise and The 2,000 Percent Solution