Tag Archives: Winnicott

I mean


I have a response to ubiquity. After a three month absence, I have a response to something that’s happened. It just all happened so quickly, so pervasively. No days off, I notice. And I don’t mean anything specific or even topical, necessarily. I don’t mean the impeachment business (whichever one we’re on now), or the Syrian debacle; I don’t mean Brexit or climate green deals, or wildfire alarms that hit close to home, literally; I don’t even mean the pathos of a shooting at an airb&b. Anomalously, I might have attended the Who concert last month—perhaps the last time they will perform in my unburning neck of the woods—and meant something lamentable in my time-is-passing reverie. Once I would have thought The Who ubiquitous. Or inviolate. Something not to be taken away, as the sign on Keith Moon’s chair once read. Something that will be with us, always.

I don’t mean this in a temporal sense, of course. I don’t mean that aging doesn’t exist and that icons don’t die before they get old. Smokey The Bear just turned seventy five, I hear—how timely, I think, not realizing how much we need him and his message. As I tell knowing friends or colleagues, I didn’t miss The Who this time. I never miss The Who, those closest to me know, because they are never far away from my mind. They are incorporated, as psychoanalysis teaches us: that means something like downloaded to those who think in cybernetics. They are introjected, which means something broader, more meaningful in an abstracted sense. Once, when I was a kid, as in last week, I played with the gestures of performance, swinging my arms in a Pete Townshend-like arc, doing the windmill thing, as it was once dubbed. My second favorite is a Keith Moon act, which looks like a Muppet maneuver: the arms flap about like those of a manic chef attacking his waiters with knives, or a symphony conductor who has lost track of the beat. There was no idea in this per se. There was no thought as we think of it. Behind these elements, however, is some manner of scripture. There is a story that began (and even this is arbitrary) in the 1940s, in West London during World War II, and was itself shaped by intergenerational trauma.

Yes, what isn’t? Trauma was ubiquitous in the 1940s, as it is today. The difference was that trauma was lesser spoken of back then. It was dealt with, however, with play of an exciting yet dangerous kind: enactments, repetition. War. And maybe sex, Freud’s preferred obsession, though The Who, my incorporated objects, had less to say about sex. At the time, non-masturbatory sex was being written about, or sung about by everyone except The Who. For their dominantly male audience (they even included the male symbol in their original logos), mimesis about something else was the original, and aptly primitive mode of communication. It was also reciprocal. Pete and the boys copied the Mods’ narcissistic dances, and he wrote lyrics that mirrored them, not himself. He held them, a Winnicottian might say—taught that their experience was no illusion. Whatever is happening is real. “I” or they couldn’t explain, he first expressed. No words, just action, based upon loneliness and confusion. The links had been attacked and destroyed, says a Bionion interruption, by bullets and bombs, and later prohibitions that stretched through the fifties…no, don’t, and STOP. Something primal didn’t stop, and a baby boom followed. That’s what follows war, I glean: life. Only life changes, gets electrified, and eventually, mass produced and consumed. That meant, among other things, that things don’t matter. Guitars and drums, for example, don’t matter. They are no longer precious artifacts, so they can be destroyed, or sacrificed in the name of an as yet unidentified human phenomenon.

What fans later introjected from The Who were a repertoire of gradually articulated ideals: they were anti-war, anti-material, egalitarian, and implicitly tolerant of the different, the wild and the marginal (I mean only that the members of The Who were very different in their individual personalities, thus enacting a symbolic democracy). At the same time, their ongoing mental illness was manifest and wrought casualties: they acted out their traumas, their early abandonments and abuses, doing some damage amid the entertainment, it has to be said. Do I mean anything specific? When eleven fans died in a concert stampede in Cincinnati in 1979, The Who incurred ambiguous responsibility, being part of the machine that made money and killed. As Keith Moon and talismanic manager Kit Lambert played out their respective self-destruction, The Who played on, not knowing what else to do, perhaps? In the 21st century, they are ghostly hypocritical, serving as an echo of inchoate principles—their gestures of performance and expression lingering like totems of an exploded generation.

21st century life is beyond electrified. It is digitized, and our heads (and personal info) are up in the clouds; it is relentlessly solipsistic, and I don’t like change or floating, or burning. I occasionally look up from my phone, and I’m doing something The Who didn’t do so much: I’m writing about sex. I’m writing about excess, which The Who did indulge, and in the context of sex that means sex addiction, plus the treatment of it, because when the play is over, the pieces have to be picked up and looked at by someone. In my forthcoming book, entitled Getting Real About Sex Addiction (plus a subtitle that hasn’t been worked out yet), the treatment of sex addiction or its synonymous terms are thought about alongside a whole lot of ubiquity. Honesty, I didn’t know where to begin. I just mean that I did.

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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