Tag Archives: Klein

The Roots of Prejudice

The scarier prejudices are those that don’t recognize themselves, followed closely by those that don’t apologize. The second category, if it is malleable, calls for individuals to see reason, be open to contrary experience, which is difficult enough; that is, hard work for anyone. But challenging such a blockade is still easier than calling out the prejudice that isn’t even understood as one.

There are plenty of words representing ideas that are invoked to protect prejudice. Take the word trauma for example. There’s a word which is used on a regular basis to explain reactions to a past event, or set of events. Look up the diagnosis of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) in the DSM (diagnostic standards manual of the American Psychiatric Association) and you’ll find reference to numerous symptoms, falling under three sub-headings: re-experience, avoidance, and increased arousal. When an individual is faced with a stressor, he or she experiences flashbacks, bad dreams, the desire to avoid certain places, people; hypervigilance and agitation in stressful situations. When the trigger is the pace of traffic for a car accident survivor, or the turmoil of a returning soldier, then the assessment of trauma seems appropriate, the prescription of avoidance seems natural, even common sense.

But what happens when fear of a stressful event is conflated with fear of the events’ principal figures, especially if those figures represent distinct social groups? Currently, I observe a disturbing trend in my work, as well as in my community: the prerogative to disparage police, lawyers; representatives of “broken” systems, medical and administrative. I notice that when threatened, individuals launch into fierce diatribes, reducing people in these professions to caricatures, while paying thin lip service to the possibility of error (“I know there are some good cops”, said a man I listened to recently). You might think this constitutes that small space for understanding, as I suggested earlier. But I don’t think so. At least, when there is such awareness, it seems fleeting, and more importantly, outwardly-directed—the worry about what others might think, but not so much an integration of feedback.

A broader understanding of trauma, or its cousin prejudice, lies beyond the medical dimension, within the theoretical realm of the unconscious. In asserting this, I am aware of leapfrogging the conscious derivatives of prejudice, that which is attributed to socialization over time. While I don’t dispute the impact of calculated teaching, or “modeling” as it is also dubbed, I rather think that the roots of prejudice lie in a capacity for splitting, as Melanie Klein first conceived (building upon the writings of Freud) in the 20s and 30s, and in the strange vicissitudes of psychic energy, which call for binding. Splitting is a primitive defense: a habitual impulse towards segregating love and hate that is innate, thus creating a template for good and bad, which provides humankind with both a moral lens, but also a harsh, distorting, discriminating eye. Latterly, modern theorists like Masterson devised maps of intrapsychic structure, which delineate the pathways taken as a result of splitting. Within such maps individuals can potentially see who is who (in terms of what is experienced affectively) in the equations of relationships, and begin to question a presumed reality.

Present-day mental health services addresses social prejudice in an oblique way: by urging separation, boundaries; “tools” for people to use, to enable calming, the quickest paths to safety. Ironically, the oblique path is more accessible for the average sufferer; the methods of choice are more utilitarian. They speak past the core traumas, prejudices, leaving well enough alone lest its practitioners offend those who have already fixated on truth. Therein lies some kind of cycle, I think, which is difficult to interrupt. That’s scary also.

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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

Nothing nice about being nice

Not a very humanistic attitude, is it? I think the Kleiniens would agree with the sentiment, though I surely don’t mean sentiment. Anyway, my novel avoids positivism, almost religiously. In my other book, the one about rehab, I touch on this a bit more, with a bit less surrealism. In that one I’m writing about countertransference: the weight of problems, the past, and the need to deny.

12 examples of being nice, from Crystal From The Hills. (purchase link):

*“Of course, I’m just trying to be nice. Jeez, you don’t have to be like that.”

*thinking his moodiness would fit in nicely: if dispirited, he’d blend

*“Hey, what’s up?” Chris spoke out in a friendly voice.

“Leave me alone,” she curtly replied, and then quickly stepped past him like he was a piece of dog shit in the middle of the sidewalk.
“Nice talkin’ to ya,” Chris said laughingly

*A mop and an ammonia bottle appeared to have been thrown in a corner instead of carefully placed. On top of a towel dispenser, flanking a sink below a two foot square mirror was a book someone had left behind. Nice, thought Chris: reading that didn’t outlast a bowel movement

* He pushed his lower lip across his teeth and looked into Chris, as though the exchange were setting the stage for an opportune critique.Chris laughed heartily. Well done, he thought. Nice. “Alright, I get it. What did you have in mind?”

* There were some nice men along the way: men who were dealt with ruthlessly; men who were sometimes sent scurrying from her dorm rooms with their jeans still climbing past their knees

* A nice man: that’s what she wanted, ultimately. She actually thought she’d met a nice young man recently, someone who was genuinely like a boy. His name was Chris Leavitt. The problem was the girls. Other girls thought Chris was nice, also.

* She sort of accepted that his libidinal overdrive had been a function of his stimulant use, thus overriding the “nice” aspects of his character

* “You have a problem with my place, or my neighborhood?” They’d actually talked about this once before and her answers hadn’t satisfied Chris. He took note of her then explanations: the piece about student debt plus an unwillingness to accept her mother and step-father’s financial support made sense in the context of those supposedly difficult relationships, but it still implied a preference for living elsewhere.

“It’s my what’s-a-nice-girl-like-you-doing-in-a-place-like-this question, I guess.”

“A place like what?”

* She looked over at the bed and saw Chris roll over to her side and flop his arm onto her pillow. There it is, she thought, catching the unintended action that was a replay of the beating she’d received roughly three hours earlier. That’s what she got for being nice

* “Nice earrings,” said one. His Aunt Jenny, a woman raised on the East Coast, once said that Californians lacked irony. She was wrong. At least, if sarcasm is a subset of irony, then Californians, Chris found, were full of it.

* “I thought we might spend some time expressing how nice it is to see each other,” Chris supplied cheekily. He was fidgeting, having difficulty getting situated. His chair was a somewhat disjointed piece of furniture; misplaced, with a distorted iron bar that had gotten literally bent out of shape. As soon as he leaned back, Chris felt the hard protrusion of the un-cushioned upright section. It had a deliberate feel about it, like it was Aunt Jenny’s torture chair.

“Nice to see you?’ she echoed querulously. “Let me tell you, young man: there is nothing nice about ‘nice’. I’ve been concerned about you.”

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