The bigger the front, the bigger the back

I’m reading The Examined Life: How we lose and find ourselves by Stephen Grosz at the moment. Stephen is a psychoanalyst; I was attracted by a review of his book in a recent Guardian Review.

The book is a collection of stories about everyday lives drawn from the conversations in his consulting room with patients as they uncover hidden feelings and baffling behaviour together – says the blurb.

The story titled The bigger the front is about what psychoanalysts call splitting. It’s based not on a consulting room conversation, he says, but one with Abby on a flight from New York to San Francisco. She talked about her Jewish parents whom she is about to meet after a fifteen year gap. Her father stopped speaking to her after she married Patrick, a blond Catholic about whom her father made terrible racist comments. Now her parents are getting a divorce because her mom has discovered that her husband has been having an affair for twenty-five years with his secretary, Catholic and blond.

‘And then I got it,’ Abby says, ‘the bigger the front, the bigger the back.’ That’s the way she described splitting – the unconscious strategy we all use that aims to keep us ignorant of the feelings in ourselves that we’re unable to tolerate. We want to see ourselves as good and put those aspects of ourselves that we find shameful into another person or group. Abby’s father projected his shameful feelings into her husband.

Splitting is one way of getting rid of self-knowledge, says Stephen Grosz.

In the short term this may give us some relief. But in denying and projecting a part of ourselves into another, we come to regard these negative aspects as outside our control. At its extreme, splitting renders the world an unsettling, even dangerous place. It also allowed Abby’s father to deny that he is betraying his wife.

Grosz likes the phrase the bigger the front, the bigger the back because it captures the fact that front and back are part of each other, not separate and disjointed as the term splitting might suggest. The size of the deceit or projection is commensurate with what is being denied.

Grosz says he thinks of the phrase when he hears about some homosexuality-is-a-sin evangelist found in bed with a male prostitute. I found myself thinking of a story posted online two days ago about Matt Moore. He isn’t someone I’d come across before but is described as a notably tortured “ex-gay” who’s written at length for The Christian Post on his efforts to eschew the “homosexual lifestyle.”

Someone noticed that Moore has been using Grindr, a social networking app that helps gay guys meet one another. When challenged, Moore confirmed this, saying that he had committed “major disobedience on my part” — a “disobedience to Christ.” The person who identified him says she is disturbed that “so-called ‘ex-gays’ publicly promote the notion that LGBT people are sinning against a god.”

The discovery that Matt Moore, who claims to be ex-gay but has in fact been frequenting a gay dating site replicates the stories of so many other ex-gays or never-really-gays, or I’m-married-and-dealing-with-it gays.

It’s hard to write about this without offending people whose decisions and integrity I acknowledge, but I have to say that every person I have been introduced to by Anglican Mainstream or whom I’ve met and have claimed to have overcome same-sex attraction all admit to continuing attraction to other men and are all still clearly gay (and are indeed all men – I’ve not yet met an ex-lesbian).

There has to be splitting going on in all the people, straight people, involved with Anglican Mainstream. You don’t put so much energy and money and time into something unless there is a deep hook driving you, a big back that equals the intensity of the front. That’s not going to be a very popular idea either.

My psychotherapeutic training thinks about these dynamics all the time. Why is the Church so obsessed with gender and sexuality? Why do the anti-women’s equality and anti-gay equality groups have such energy and apparent power? Why are their members so fixated on this one thing, gender or sexuality? Why does Christianity have such a problem with gender and sexuality that it is allowing, over a period of decades, these two fundamental dimensions of humanity to dominate the discourse and consume time and energy that would be better used proclaiming God’s infinite and indiscriminate love for all of her creation?

The same dynamics of projection and splitting were clearly present in the common’s debate on equal marriage, though not to the same extent as they are present in General Synod debates. They are present in the House of Bishops, at Church House, and amongst Changing Attitude trustees and supporters. We are aware of the dangers of splitting in Changing Attitude and attempt to stay awake and alert to the times when we are tempted to slip into unconsciousness and blame or criticise others for things that are clearly part of our own personalities.

The Church would as a body be a much, much healthier and holy place if it was more corporately aware and if there were in key roles people who had a greater capacity for self-awareness and self-reflection.


  1. says

    The issue is not attraction, but indulgence. The fact that the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil *was* ‘pleasing to the eye, pleasing to taste and desirable to make one wise’ was never in question. Attractions will continue. The aspirational types will continue be attracted to worldly success. Those with a religious heritage (Simon Peter) will succumb to pressure to disown those without a moral pedigree (see Galatians).

    The real question is whether those attractions override what God has said. Eve recites what God has said and the Satan begins an exercise in self-indulgent interpretation: ‘Yes, has God said…?’ No time to ask Adam, so just dig in!

    Times haven’t changed much, eh? On the other hand, at least, they felt shame and covered themselves.

  2. Richard Ashby says

    The reason you haven’t met an ‘ex’ lesbian, Colin, is because the ex gay advocates aren’t interested in women or their sexuality. It doesn’t fit their world view of women as the passive receptor of the male (and besides for many straight males two women ‘at it’ is highly erotic). It illustrates the obsession that these people have with male sexual acts and the fear of penetration which is ‘un-manly’ and therefore against nature as they see it.
    Of course this may well illustrate the idea of ‘splitting’ anyway, there is evidence to show that those most homophobic actually do protest too much.

  3. Gary says

    You got that right, brother! I heard the phrase “the bigger the front…” many years ago, and it continues to ring true. Whenever I see or read about someone positing a fairly extreme point of view, I reflect on what is likely being left un-said by and about them. The outward is compensation for what is hidden, and what remains unaccepted. The fact that we all keep a part or parts of ourselves in this shadow-area is evidence of how much shame we contain and avoid. Clearly, this is very human behavior, but it nevertheless leads to tremendous pain inflicted on people by those in power. Imagine all that Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and many other leaders kept “at their backs”. Shakespeare would have been nodding in agreement with your blogpost. Thanks!

Join the discussion