That Thing I Keep On Doing…

Circular thinking and the surprise of still being me

Ethan Richardson / 6.21.21

This essay appears in the Surprise Issue of The Mockingbird magazine.

The story begins with a knock on the door, as a young, fully dressed woman crawls out of a half-filled bathtub, in a decadent Parisian hotel. As she trips over bottles and pulls open the curtains, the first thing you think is: This is a story about addiction. The next thing you think is: This is a story about chess?

From the beginning of Netflix’s hit miniseries, The Queen’s Gambit, as we watch this red-haired genius scramble out of her hangover onto the international chess stage, we get the sense that we are witnessing both an achievement and a nadir. The character, who we don’t know yet, seems surprised to have hit rock bottom at such a moment, but there she is. We will soon see that it was a long time coming.

Surprises are like unexpected visitors—both the good kind and the bad. They knock on our door and take us in a new direction. Surprises come both big and small: an unexpected play in the game, an unexpected storm, an unexpected pregnancy, an unexpected pandemic. Usually, though, when we are surprised by some piece of news, it is news from out there, from “across the seas” as Walker Percy tells it.

Sometimes, however, the big AHA! comes not from what happens out there, but from what happens in here. And the surprise is not that we are thrown into some new, unexpected life course, but the opposite: that we are in this situation. Still. That nothing has changed. That we are doing the same thing again. And again. Over and over again. Life throws the occasional curveball at us, but its biggest surprise—despite its reminding us of this over and over and over again—is that we are boomerangs. The things we do, we keep on doing. Incurvatus in se, Augustine called it: “The curved-in self.”

Freud coined this circular element of human psychology the “repetition compulsion,” the tendency to return—against our best interests—to the suffering we know best. Even when we know about it, see it in our parents, make plans to avoid it, talk to specialists about it, as if by magic we find ourselves wounded in the same steel trap. The trap is inside us. We do it to ourselves, but we are surprised every time.

The repetition compulsion is the essence of so much comedy. It is why we laugh at Dr. Rick in the “Unbecoming Your Parents” Progressive commercials. It is the butt of every joke about gym memberships, cleanse diets, date-your-spouse-again tips, and leave-your-old-you round-the-world trips. As Adam Sandler remarks in his “Romano Tours” sketch on SNL, “If you are sad where you are, and then you get on a plane to Italy, the you in Italy will be the same sad you from before.”

Humor helps, but repetition hurts. Addiction is the most overt example of this phenomenon. In 12-step programs, the repetition compulsion is defined as insanity: “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” While this certainly includes the habitual behavior of drinking or using, it also includes the behaviors and rules of the families who surround them. The coaching, the excuse-making, the shaming are all efforts to control an outcome that cannot be controlled. Alcoholism is a disease of relationships, the Big Book says.

The Queen’s Gambit shows this disease in action, albeit alongside some sexy chess. Anya Taylor-Joy plays Beth Harmon, the unlikely chess prodigy who rises through the ranks to become the only female champion the world has ever seen. She learns the game in the basement of a Kentucky orphanage with the janitor Mr. Shaibel, not long after her mother’s suicide. (Her mother has driven head-on into a truck with her daughter in the backseat.)

The orphanage is also medicating the children, and it doesn’t take Harmon long to realize that if she can store up the pills and take them all at once, it makes her feel better. So at the same time that the local high school is finding out just how good this ten-year-old girl is at chess, she is also beginning her relationship with benzodiazepines. The synchronous rising-while-falling addiction narrative takes it from there, culminating in the particularly bleak episode that opens the series—adult Harmon finally earns the chance to play her most feared (read: Russian) opponent on the largest international stage, only to show up late, drunk, and too ashamed to have a chance.

You don’t have to look far to find other stories like this, which conflate genius and addiction, the gift and its cost. This is the plotline for most rock star biographies. What’s different about The Queen’s Gambit is its focus on Beth Harmon’s relationships. While most stories will show the addict who, because of her addiction, drives her loved ones away, The Queen’s Gambit shows us an orphan who is afraid to be wanted. Pills and booze, and chess, are actually strategies for staying alone. Each offers relationships that can’t hurt her…or if they do hurt her, only hurt her in the familiar ways. In short, they aren’t her mom.


In Beth Harmon’s first days at Methuen Home, the orphanage just outside Lexington, her superiors provide a brief summation of her place in the world: “Choices have consequences. You are here because your parents made certain choices. It is our job to make sure you make different choices.”

There is something alluring about the mythology of good choices. Choices are linear, not circular—they either move you towards the goal or away, and the results are completely attributable to the one who chose. This is why the chessboard is such an amenable friend to Harmon. It is a fixed, controllable world with choices and predictable consequences. The more she learns, the better she can be.

But in the chaos of the real world, Harmon’s choices seem not to matter. They just put her in the same place. She craves a relationship, but at every turn, this eludes her. Sometimes it is hard to tell if she’s just unlucky. Other times, not so much: She wants friends, but steals from them. She falls in love, but only with unavailable men. In her adult life, as her chess career soars right along with her addiction, friends reach out. They visit, they call, they call again. Harmon could choose to pick up the phone, it seems, if she were a different kind of person. But she isn’t.

While Freud was the first in the field to notice the repetition compulsion, he couldn’t explain why it happened. It violated the basic assumptions of his “pleasure principle,” that people by nature avoid pain and seek pleasure. Why would one continue to relive the pain? His best guess was that there was another subconscious motivation at work, a “daemonic” instinct towards self-destruction. It would be another 50 years before some of Freud’s successors in the field would attribute the fault to our “internal working model,” the innate understandings we have of ourselves, our relationships, and our overall place in the world. These models are the “unthought knowns” in our lives—the instincts we learned when we were very small—the facts of life we never think about, but seem to know subliminally, just as we know what milk we drank and what games we played and what stories we heard. They form the engine of messages that keep us running in the same familiar circles.

While we travel the tenuous line of Harmon’s career arc, we are also getting acquainted with her internal working model. Each episode opens with a small memory of her mother. Like blueprints for her own adult life, these vignettes anchor the action. In one of them, Harmon sits in the backseat while her mom drives. We know this is before the crash, but we haven’t seen this part. When young Beth Harmon asks her mom what’s wrong, she is told she is the problem, the one her mother has no solution for. And then she’s told to close her eyes.

Fragments like these shape the trauma of her particular childhood but also the impossible conundrums of relationships the world over: to be a wounded child requiring the care of another wounded child. In each memory, there is an implicit message that shapes Beth’s inner world. She never says it out loud, she may not even think it, but she knows it better than the chess board: “No one will want you. You are only safe if you are alone.”


In many ways, psychology has produced more questions than answers. It has provided some powerful descriptions about the nature of human suffering, the ways we tend to get in our own way, but it has been less successful in prescribing the necessary change. Perhaps it is true that we are compelled to repeat our histories. Perhaps it is true that we do this, as Freud argued, not simply because we have bad habits, but because, deep down, our navigation system is wrong. Perhaps the problem is not in the booze or the pills but in the faulty engineering of the human heart. So what? What do you do with that?

Long before Freud, St. Paul asked the same questions. “Why do I keep on doing the things I don’t want to do? I know what the right thing is, but I don’t do it. No, I keep on doing the wrong thing.” In response to his own question, Paul says it is “sin living in me.” He could say what is good, but he could not bring it to bear in himself. “Who can save me from this body of death?”

We all have our own internal working models, the old family stories that drive our many repetitions. They are like the code that runs our operating system. We may tell ourselves, “You are only safe if you are alone,” or, “You are never safe if you are alone,” but each of us has a code of conduct we inherited. We live today, in our adult lives, with a wide array of unspoken intuitions we’ve always known but never thought about: to always trust, to never trust; to always stand out in a crowd, to never make a scene; to always ask for help, to never be the needy one. Even in the best of families, we carry on, often without realizing, the blueprints of our ancestral homes.

But for St. Paul, there is another “unthought known.” It is the original blueprint, the origin story at the heart of the universe, the cantus firmus of every human heart. Sometimes, as it was for Beth Harmon, it isn’t even remembered until it is experienced anew, at just the right moment.

Despite being a terrible friend and a more terrible drunk, and despite taking the phone off the hook and settling in closer towards oblivion, Beth receives a surprise visit from a forgotten friend. Jolene, also an orphan from Methuen, brings news from a long-forgotten world. Her first chess teacher, the custodian Mr. Shaibel, has died. Jolene has come to take her back. After a perfunctory funeral, Harmon ventures into the orphanage for the first time in so many years, down to the old basement where her first teacher taught her how to play. She sits in his chair, in a dim corner of his basement office, and is astonished to find her own face.

An entire wall of Mr. Shaibel’s pitiful office had, in her absence, become a Beth Harmon shrine. Press clippings, photographs, a note she wrote him years ago asking for $5 to enter a tournament. It’s all there. A testament of the dead man’s love for her. She returns to Jolene’s car and erupts in tears. Suddenly the fiction of her mother’s model is clear to her—not only has she been loved, but she was never truly alone.

She knows she needs to change, but worries she can’t. She tells Jolene, “My mother went crazy. How could I be any different?” Taking her hand, Jolene reminds her that while her mother is gone, she is still here. Jolene considers Harmon family. When Harmon counters that she can’t even play in this next tournament because she can’t afford it, Jolene offers her own savings. Harmon resists, but Jolene doubles down:

Shaibel isn’t the only one who kept after you all these years … I read the papers. Even on a group trip into town, I spent my ice cream money on a damn chess magazine that had your ugly face on it. We weren’t orphans as long as we had each other. I’m not your guardian angel…I’m here because you need me to be here. That’s what family does. That’s what we are.

When we are surprised by ourselves, at our becoming our parents, at our bringing our same sad selves with us wherever we go, at our endless repetitions of a gloomy history, we wonder, could this broken machine ever really change? Even St. Paul wondered at his inner boomerang. He found hope not in reprimanding his psychic orphan, but in the promise of a new family entirely. Change, if it is ever possible, comes when we are adopted—when we are fully seen for the orphans we are, accepted despite our faults, and welcomed into a family which, perhaps to our surprise, has the oldest working model there is. We know its message, even if we’ve never thought it.

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