Fictions from memory

At the outset of a psychotherapy episode, a man referred to me by a trusted colleague outlines goals drawn from a course of group therapy: “I’d like to get to the root of my anger,” he says. I nod, affirming that this seems a worthy goal, though in truth I’m not sure what he means. I mean, I know what a root is, and I know roughly what is meant by the phrase he uses. But I feel uneasy, because I don’t know how to get to the roots of this man’s problem. I don’t think we’ll decide upon something; at least, not in the tidy, package way that treatment plans and opening discourses on therapeutic goals suggest. I don’t think that anyone would find roots to a problem in the sense of finding a definitive answer.

In the first five chapters of Paul Renn’s Silent Past and Invisible Present, the reader gets a review of neuroscientific thought relating to trauma, the formulation of memory; the history of psychoanalysis and its treatment of trauma; how it conceives of childhood memories as either the product of fantasy or else real life events. I am reminded that Sigmund Freud once attributed fantasy wish-fulfillment to patient who reported seduction by a friend of her father. While acknowledging the real-life event, the focus turns to the intrapsychic as far as treatment is concerned, and the case study appears to predict the later disputes between the likes of Klein, Fairbairn, and researcher John Bowlby.

We have declarative memory, autobiographical information that speaks to who we are, or who we think we are. Emotional memory, including thoughts and feelings operating in a relational context, shapes memory and fosters experience of reality. Trauma, the readings propose, distorts or inhibits play, wounds consciousness, and generates false equations, the psychic equivalence between internal reality and external reality. “I know for a fact that she hates me,” said a teenage client once to me. I could not have convinced him otherwise—not that I tried. This problem likely stemmed from the aggregate of events that could not be remembered in detail, or symbolized by verbal description. They were rooted in affect dysregulations, the creation of a false self as trained through misattunements. The amygdala of the limbic system will have been developed to interpret cues coming from early caregivers, process the fight/flight emotional response and provide emotional meaning, and activate memories such that they are experienced thereafter in the moment, as if time stands still. The Hippocampus, that evaluative organizer of information, is inhibited in times of trauma, suggesting a triage of tasks that strikes us as—what?—short-sighted? I suppose I could reflect on experiences of cold feet and sudden holes in my stomach to relate instances of my enteric nervous system influencing my own reactions—memories in my body.

In reading chapters four and five, which seem to recapitulate post Freudian psychoanalytic theory and the debates of its adherents, I note the familiar divides between the likes of Fairbairn and Bowlby, versus Freud and Klein. I continue to wonder if the disagreements were overstated, and that a difference in accent, as in the weight of focus, was most apparent. For example, could not an emotional attachment to a caregiver (Fairbairn, Bowlby) be thought of as a subset of drive theory, in so far as a libidinal gratification is derived from an attachment to a caregiver? After three years of intermittent exposure to this chapter of psychoanalytic history, my philistine curiosity laments, what was the fuss all about? I appreciate the author’s reminder about Winnicott’s notion of the “capacity to be alone”. It seems to me an eloquent statement of the value of silence, as experienced by two people sitting in a room together, experiencing a feeling. It’s not a shared experience per se, because the autobiographies are different, and because each person’s experience of emotion is different. But there are therapeutic values present: empathy, attunement, a witnessing. I think I have these experiences. Finally, I am introduced to the term hermeneutic: the understanding of subjective inner reality, with a distinction drawn between historical truth and narrative truth, between real events that might not have occurred, but are nonetheless “true”. This notion is a tantalizing one. It lets me off the hook from knowing, and I’ve always liked that aspect of my chosen business. The problem is: it lets me off the hook from knowing.

In my novel, Crystal From The Hills, Chris Leavitt copes with his traumas, recent and past, with distortions, and through play: it is play gone wrong for an adult male with responsibilities and a supposed bright future ahead of him. What he really wants is to go back in time, pretend nothing happened, both on an intellectual and emotional level, and start life over again. The problem, solution, and the hope, lies in the witnesses: the impromptu, reluctant therapists that are the people around him. He believes what has happened to him, whether it has or not, because it fits his narrative truth, and his courage–his happy, yet unsentimental ending–is in facing his distortions.

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February 2, 2014 · 8:39 am

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