7000 years ago someone drew a picture of 3 people — a man, a woman, and a child standing peacefully together — the sacred family trinity. It was this — the invention of the family unit that paved the way for love to be a part of our everyday lives. But it didn’t happen all of a sudden. At first the family was created as an entity to increase the odds of survival. A wife gave progeny, so she was important for her fertility. Children were seen as somewhat more useful than the livestock, but not much. If you had a son, he could help to plant in the fields. If you had a daughter, she could help to grind flour. Loving your family members was not a concept that had cultural consciousness in ancient times.
Then we jump several years ahead to ancient Greece, the civilization to which our own feels so indebted. Even this recently, love was not yet a part of everyday life. Women had to marry in order to have a place in society; women had no rights and were imprisoned, literally and psychically for the entirety of their lives. Even the homosexual relationships that were prevalent then and are today touted as being illustrative of modern love were not based on love at all. These liasons were formed between older men and prepubescent boys, and they were power relationships in which the boy hardly had a choice.
Only the older man could initiate sex, and after the boy passed puberty he was cast out of the relationship. Children who were not wanted were routinely put out to the fields to die; it was the father who decided which children would live and which would die, and any old reason was good enough. Remember how the story of Oedipus begins: Oedipus is put out on a pasture to die by his parents Laius and Jocasta.
Let’s jump now another 1500 or so years ahead in time. Some people say that the courtly love that was emphasized in the middle ages marks the beginning of real love. But think about that for a minute. Women were put on a pedestal. They were seen as lovely and sacred — in fact, too lovely and sacred to touch. While the men were busily singing the praises of their women, they were, simultaneously running off to wars and godly quests, leaving their women to revel in their loveliness, alone. Having poems written about me from a distant stranger who I see between crusades is hardly my idea of having a good man around the house.
You can’t have love if it’s strictly utilitarian, as it was in ancient times, because there’s no room for feeling. You can’t have love if it’s all romanticized and idealized and from a safe distance, as it was in courtly love, because there’s no room for reality. In order to have love — real love — you need the good and the bad, the sublime with the ordinary. When we humans were able to make our peace with that concept, we were able to make the transition to link family life and love.
Love as a part of family life really makes its appearance only about 100 years ago. This is right around the time that Freud was inventing psychoanalysis. Freud probably got interested in love because he fell deeply in love early in his life. He broke with the Jewish tradition of an arranged marriage, and married his sweetheart. Then he started looking closely at family life. And what did he see? Well, he saw a lot.
He saw that there is a dark, underside to family life. He saw that there is competition, there is anger and jealousy, hatred; there is the desire to kill. Children want to kill parents (sometimes they do it – the Menendez brothers, Dale Kagan).
Parents want to kill children (sometimes they do – Susan Smith and Andrea Yates),
I’ve been intrigued by Andrea Yates and Susan Smith. They have in common, besides committing infanticide – that they chose water as the medium of death. Freud referred to the unconscious as “oceanic.” I think he meant to call upon the connotation of limitless, deep, eternal – and mysterious. There is of course the amniotic fluid. Our first home is water. Water is mother. We have water births that continue the watery experience for just a moment more – to ease the transition from water to dry.
So, I think symbolically, the meaning of water to the unconscious is Mother. Water is, like mother, connection, support, togetherness, union.
So, when we move from our watery environment to our dry environment – what are we doing? What is the primary experience?Separation.
Freud said birth was the major trauma from which we spend the rest of our lives recovering. But, I think Freud was wrong in positing birth as the major trauma, from which all other traumas derive. Birth is only the event of biological separation. What I think is even more traumatic than biological separation is the breaking of the narcissistic bond, the sense of symbiotic oneness, the once-in-a-lifetime union that exists between mother and infant as well as between mother and fetus – our watery connection. This, the event of psychological separation is, perhaps, the far greater trauma.
And of course, as a mother, I have been thinking and feeling a lot about the process of separation.
When Molly was 4, I was taking a nature walk with her, something she and I like to do together. The area around our country home was buzzing with the song of the cicadas – alas, that was the year of the cicadas. These singing insects apparently come only every seventeen years to live long enough to make their strange ethereal music before they drop their eggs from a tree.
As we were walking through the woods, we came across a cicada in the last, waning period of his life. He allowed us to pick him up by his wings, to place him on a tree and then take him off. He sat in our hands, walked on our arms. We spent twenty minutes with this cicada. We even named him and Molly decided she wanted to take him home with her. We set him in Molly’s carriage, perched in the empty seat like he was a king, and started to walk home. Suddenly Molly reached for him, took him out of the carriage, put him on the ground, and proceeded to stomp on him.
For just a little while, Molly seemed to love this little cicada. For that moment, Molly embraced love and life and togetherness. Then Molly had had enough of that little cicada; she was ready to be done with him. In that moment of stomping, she embraced hate and death and separation. In her acts of love and then of murder, she embodied some basic principles about love and aggression, attachment and separation: you don’t have one without the other. They go together as surely as do the proverbial horse and carriage. And they’re usually directed to the same object; you don’t necessarily love one person and hate another; you hate most of all the ones you love most of all. You don’t want to leave someone unless you also want to be close; the people you most ardently want distance from are the same people you want to possess. When I am imagining being alone, being away from those I love the most, my aggressive drive is in high gear; my unconscious is on the subject of murder. When Molly was a baby, there are times, for instance, when her demands had pushed me beyond my tolerable limit and there was no baby-sitter in sight. Rather then screaming at her until she submitted to leaving me alone, I would throw her into her car seat with hopes that the rolling motion of the car would mercifully lull her to sleep.
These were – still are — murderous thoughts toward my child that I commit daily. They are wishes and desires about the temporary obliteration of her. They arise out of a need to be away, to be separate and separated from her. Of course, I do not say to myself (or G-d forbid, to anyone else) that I want Molly dead at these moments. I say to myself that I just want her to be a little different from the way she is. Or, I want her to not be there, to go away, if only for a little while. I want Molly to be less childishly narcissistic: “Come on Mol. Have a heart. Be good to your tired, over-aged Mom.
But here is the ghastly truth about the unconscious: wanting someone to be different is the same as wanting them to not be there; and they’re both equivalent to wanting the person dead, if only for that moment.
It’s a way of saying: “You’d be just fine, if only…” But, of course, that brings us into that shoreless space of the infinite list of “if onlys.” If only Molly were acting like a mature 20-year-old instead of the 8-year-old she is, I wouldn’t have to walk the dog; or if only Molly was thankfully asleep so that I could, at last, get to the murder mystery I’m in the middle of.
The if onlys never stop at just one. The if onlys are a thousand contingencies that aren’t true; All of the if only’s are just ways of not being with what is. They’re ways of killing what is. They’re ways of killing, without the actual act. Metaphorical murders. My friend Dale Kagan, – she’s in prison for her one real murder; I am not for my countless metaphorical murders.
When Molly decided that she had had enough of that little cicada, she could have engaged in a metaphorical murder. She didn’t have to kill the unfortunate creature. She could have just separated – gone on home, leaving him to die a natural death that he was on the verge of doing anyhow. But she is only a child and she is still close to her murderousness in an unfiltered, unadulterated way. My job, as Molly’s mother, — perhaps my main job as her mother — is to help her to learn how to take this wonderful, raw energy and transform it into something equally wonderful, but less destructive.
The evidence is, though: in family life, we don’t seem to be doing separation – murder as metaphor – very well. Too often, family life is pathological fusion – the equivalent of stomping on innocent cicadas. We feel we can’t leave, so we destroy. In spite of our modern emphasis of respecting and valuing family life and love, in spite of our idea that our family is — or should be — a safe haven in a dangerous sea — the truth is: the most dangerous place for us to be is not on a darkened street at night fearing some ugly stranger, but rather right smack in our own home. The truth is: the most dangerous people in our lives are not these ugly strangers with whom we may have an unexpected chance tragic encounter, but rather our own family members, those with whom we are the most intimate. The likelihood of being assaulted, beaten, sexually molested, or killed in one’s own home, at the hands of a loved one, far exceeds the chance of that happening any place else or by anyone else.
We may, indeed, have an ancient picture of family members standing peacefully side by side, but we have an even older picture of one person killing another. (In fact, the earliest known picture depicts men killing one another.) Remember the Old Testament story of Cain and Abel, the two bothers, one killing the other. What you may not know is that Cain is credited as the founder of civilization; he invented agriculture and made many innovations that are inherent in a civilized society. Cain, the founder of civilization; Cain the murderer.
As long as we have had family, we have had destructive hate as a part of family life. It’s been with us since the beginning, and it’s with us now.
Here are just a few statistics about the prevalence of destructive hate expressed through violence in our relationships: Children are learning violence as part of family life. Physical punishment is still the preferred method of child rearing. In a recent survey, more than 70% of the respondents said that slapping a twelve-year-old is necessary, normal and good. Many parents believe that children “deserve to be hit” or “need to be hit.” The absence of physical punishment seems to be the deviant method of child rearing.
With physical abuse so prevalent in childhood, it is not surprising that the practice should find its way into the dating scene. Although we like to have nostalgic memories of our courtships, involving candlelit dinners and stolen kisses, unfortunately the truth is that hitting, beating and abuse are as much a part of the American dating scene as are loving flirtations and affections. Studies have found that between 22 and 67 % of dating relationships involve some form of violence. In one study, more than one-quarter of the victims, and three out of ten of the offenders, interpret violence in a dating relationship as a sign of love.
The statistics don’t change much when marriage occurs. One out of four wives, and one out of three husbands, thinks that a couple slapping each other is normal and good.
And what about sibling love? We may be taught that we should be our brother’s keeper, but more often, like the original founders of our civilization, brothers Cain and Abel, we end up wanting to do away with our siblings more than we want to love them. In fact: violence between siblings is more common than violence between parent and child or violence between spouses. When the first study was conducted on sibling violence, the researcher had difficulty getting the parents to discuss the topic. The problem was not that parents were ashamed or thought such violence to be wrong. Rather, the problem was that sibling violence was such an everyday occurrence that parents hardly thought it worth mentioning.
In this age of violence, terrorism, death and destruction – is there an antidote for our g-d-given predilection for destruction. The good news is that we can learn to do better. LEARNING is what human beings uniquely do rather well. But it’s a startling concept: We have to learn to love.
It doesn’t help that there are so many mistaken ideas that we have about love, myths I call them. These erroneous ideas have prevented us from finding, recognizing and maintaining real love.
What are some of these myths about love? We believe that the best love of all is passionate love. Yet passionate love has a short half-life. Anthropologist Helen Fisher has documented that the chemical attraction that draws males and females together in all animal species lasts for as long as it takes to get the progeny to be self-sufficient. This period of time is different for each species, but for the human species it is about 4 years. Then she surveyed cultures all around the world to see when most divorces take place, and sure enough she found that they occur, most often, around the fourth year of marriage. Another researcher, Liebowitz, talks about passionate love in terms of brain physiology. Phenylethylamine — PEA — is a brain molecule that causes feelings of exhilaration, elation and euphoria. The brain is literally revved up. No wonder people in love stay up all night talking and caressing. But no brain can withstand a constant state of being revved up indefinitely, even for the sake of romantic bliss. Maybe falling out of love is nothing more than the PEA levels beginning to drop. Liebowitz finds that the revved up state lasts 2-3 years. So, clearly, if we determine the validity of our loving feelings by how much passion we feel, we’ll realize that it’s all downhill after the initial burst of fireworks.
Yet, with all the difficulties in love, somehow we manage to find a way of staying together, and sometimes we are even kind and decent and loving to one another. Liebowitz speculates that after the PEA chemical fades, another chemical system takes over, and this one is attachment. What he means to say is that there are many compelling reason why people choose to stay together even after chemical attraction is no longer there. Some people stay together because they enjoy each others’ company and have mutual interests. Sometimes people stay together to raise children. Sometimes they stay together simply because it feels like too much trouble to look for someone else. Even this is part of brain chemistry. We know the older one gets, the easier it is to remain attached.
If we are to learn to love — by which I mean learn to be loving — it’s an active verb, it’s an act, as well as a feeling — then it’s best that we receive our lessons when learning is the easiest, before our emotional patterns have become ossified. Our psyche, like our muscles and joints, can become rigid, and learning, or unlearning becomes more difficult. The time when it’s easiest, fastest and smoothest to learn is, of course, when we are children. And we need these lessons to be authentic and real, not some sanitized, idealized version of love that none of us can live up to and that none of us will be able to sustain over time.
What makes the human being different from all other species on earth is the presence of the neo-cortex — that part of the brain that governs reason, logic, rationality, communication and speech. Because of the neo-cortex, we humans, unlike any other animal, can learn from our reasoning power and can speak.
The etymological root of the word “infant” is infans, meaning literally without words. As infants, we are without speech, and our growing up is a process of learning to talk, to give articulation to our experiences and our inner world, to say what we see and think and feel. And this, of course, is the very definition of civilization. Freud said: “The man who first flung a word of abuse at his enemy instead of a spear was the founder of civilization.”
We need to learn that hate is not a four letter word. For children to learn to love, they need to learn that they hate and that they, too, are hated. Children are hateable precisely because they themselves hate. The parent who does not permit her or himself to hate her child is refusing to respond to the real person that child is. In such an atmosphere of denial, the child will never have the feeling that he is known, accepted, and fully loved for who he is.
Healthy psychological growth is fostered by parents helping their children to recognize and feel their destructive wishes and, at the same time, to refrain from acting on them. Constructive hate — hating without destructive action – murder as metaphor — is the same thing as love — will allow the child to be hated and to hate without being frightened of the consequences.
What about those of us who didn’t get these important lessons in childhood?
Psychoanalysis is a ritual of telling one’s story. Its medium is words. The use of words for the purpose of healing comes from the Greeks. They recognized speech to be man’s greatest treasure, a gift from the gods. Revered even more than the physician, who could heal the body was the person who could bring “cheering speech” to another. In telling the patient to say what comes to his mind, psychoanalysts are suggesting the silencing of the normal operations of our everyday conversational speech. When we do this, another language presents itself to us. This is the language of the unconscious. This is our inner speech. This is the speech that connects us with our deepest being.
In psychoanalytic therapy, the patient is instructed to talk, to “say everything”, or to “say what’s on your mind.” This is, of course, what a good mother says to her child: “Tell me about your day.”
Case study: Audrey was one of my first patients. There we sat – mute, speechless. Invitation to come back. Audrey was adopted. But between adoptive mother and adoptive child, there was not a match; there was never an emotional resonance between them that might have helped to heal the wounds of Audrey’s initial rejection. Audrey grew up feeling alone, unloved, untethered. By the time Audrey came to me, she had withdrawn into a silent, sullen teenager. She spent her evenings drinking and doing drugs in a vain hope of anesthetizing her pain, her sense of unremitting isolation. For twenty-five long years now, Audrey has struggled mightily in her therapy sessions with me, feeling her aloneness, her isolation and her essential strangeness to the rest of humanity, including to me. She has struggled to talk to me, feeling that words themselves, communication meant to be heard to by another, only make her feel more alone, more empty, as she has wondered whether or not I care enough even to listen.
Recently Audrey told me about the suicide of one of her husband’s students, a high school senior. Audrey was particularly disturbed by the event because she remembered that it was when she herself was a high school student at the very same school that she first presented herself on my analytic doorstep contemplating suicide.
With her history of early abandonment, and feelings of not being wanted, Audrey’s primary conflict, a life-long vulnerability, has been around the issue of separation. Her wound of aloneness has been with her for as long as she has memory. With this wound, Audrey has lived every day of her life feeling that she was not lovable enough to be loved, not lovable enough even to be kept. Separation has been, for her, both a terrible fear as well as an unremitting desire. It has been both her salvation as well as her curse. It has been what she has run from, but it has been what she has embraced. Audrey has struggled mightily in her analysis against her impulses to stay separate from me through silence or through leaving; she has struggled, for all these years, to talk and to stay. She has fought me and resisted me; she has left me for stretches of time. And I have struggled just as mightily as she against my own induced impulses to throw her away, cast her out as was done to her originally. I have had the same feelings that I believe both of her mothers must have felt toward her – that she was too much trouble, made my life too difficult – better to just expel her and be rid of the problem. I have struggled to not act out these impulses, but rather to keep her, using my words, at times, to persuade her, assist her, even coerce her and force her to continue this process of self-exploration that we have embarked upon.
Audrey was wise enough to get herself into analysis at an early age so that she could repeat with me the pain of too much separation — too early of a separation. She was wise enough to seek a therapeutic method of being released from that pain. There we sat in our first session some twenty-five years ago, myself, as a bourgeoning analyst, as anxious as she, my new patient — my not knowing what to do with her any more than she knew what to do with me. It was clear to me that she was in the throes of pain that no sixteen year old should have to experience, but all that she allowed to be visible to me was a resolute wall of mute silence. After a few sessions of sentences uttered in fits and starts, but mostly long stretches of uncomfortable silences, Audrey informed me that she was quitting. We were both relieved at the anticipation of being released from the tension that was between us. But, for me, there was regret, as well. I knew that for this girl to have a better life in the future than the one she had already had in the past, she needed to have a different kind of emotional experience with me in the present.
For years, Audrey remained incapable of talking to me. I talked. I told her about my day; I told her about world events; I read stories to her. I did what any good mother does with her infant. I taught her to talk by talking to her. Session after session passed with her maintaining her silence. Then she found a way to talk. She started writing me letters between sessions. Although she uttered barely a word when she was with me, I was getting long, heartfelt, anguished letters detailing as rich of an internal life as any I have ever encountered. Though she may have been mute on the outside, her letters show her to be a seething cauldron of feelings and conflicts on the inside. This girl wasn’t talking, but could she ever write. Proust would have been envious.
I called you on the way home from my last session but you were already with another patient. I was thinking that if you handed me a gun I would have shot myself, and then I tried to figure out why I hated myself enough to even think of such a thing. Before the session I was sad. During the session I was on the verge of tears. I didn’t know why I was feeling this way. Now I feel powerless, like a freak of some kind. I can’t make myself do what I really want to do. I want to be with you and to let you see me. But I think it is impossible. I try to think of what to say, I try to give you the best of myself but there is nothing worthtelling you, and somehow I reduce myself to nothing, and that’s what you get. I am trying to take care of myself. I am pushing myself to be with other people to give them a chance to know me, even when I feel like crawling under a rock. I thought thing would be better between you and me by now. I hate myself.
Audrey’s letter reveals that she is living in the underground of her psyche, the land of self-hate. It is her self-hatred that is paralyzing her and silencing her.
I think of the process of being analyzed as a growing down. In order to give up the compulsion to repeat the past, you have to grow down into that past, return to it, defenseless and open. You must return to that psychic place where the pain began, and allow yourself to re-experience it. This is the only way to find who you really are, who you were and who you should have been, who you would have been if you had been left to your own devices and grown up normally and naturally, unimpeded by whatever forces threw you a curved ball, and took you off track.
Being psychoanalyzed is the process of being grown down on purpose and with intent. The people who avail themselves of it are those who, like Audrey, have had trouble with the normal growing up process. The job of the analyst, then, is to return the patient to that period of time before defenses were erected — before there was a tightness in the chest instead of a raging anger, before there was numbness instead of unbearable hurt. This is the time when feelings are still raw, unfiltered, conflicting and irrational. All this stuff is the natural state of the child, but becomes the unconscious of the adult. When analysis is done properly, this growing down is done quite artfully. It is a guided tour. This excursion into one’s internal landscape is quite a different matter than when one grows down, or stays grown down because one simply can’t grow up. The former has maturity as its goal, and is organized and freeing; the latter is chaotic and constricting. The analytic process is done with great deliberation and control. It is the analyst’s job to make sure that this delicate, even dangerous, growing down heals rather than harms.
And so, Audrey and I commit ourselves to this arduous process of growing down. Audrey’s life-long open wound around the issue of separation means that the very slightest intimation that I want to leave her devastates her. The mere act of ending the session is a trapeze act; I know that if she senses that I want her to leave, or that I am relieved that the session is over, or that I am in a hurry to get on with the rest of my life, even to see my next patient — I know if she feels these feelings coming from me, she will never come back. I cannot leave for vacation; I cannot innocently change an appointment; I cannot let her pass in the hall the patient before her nor after her; I cannot have any distraction from her when I am with her (such as the phone ringing or my becoming aware of traffic noise outside the office) – none of these things can happen without her sinking into her regression, falling down into that psychic space where she once again feels unwanted, cast out.
Her response, always, is to leave. The pain of her feeling unwanted is so deep that it is intolerable to her. She leaves frequently and she leaves for long stretches of time. There are a host of stimuli that cause her to leave the analysis. She leaves when she feels better and she leaves when she feels worse. She leaves when she cannot bear for one more moment the idea that she is sick for putting so much into our relationship. She leaves when she feels too grateful for my attentions and care. She leaves with no stimuli other than the demonic images within her mind of her revulsion to others, to me. She tells me that I will be a free woman without her, as though she had chained me, forced me against my will to tolerate her presence. She tells me that I will be well rid of her. She tells me that she can’t imagine why I would want to be with her, that I have to be doing it only for the money. But she always comes back. I always take her back. More often than not, I pull her back – I chase her down, make her come back. We follow this pattern of leaving and coming back, struggling to find a voice for years. I watch her marry; I watch her give birth to three children and I watch her embrace these roles with real joy and satisfaction. Her life outside of the analysis is rich and full; she has matured into an independent, productive woman, wife and mother. Yet, inside the analysis, she stays regressed to the place of her open wound. As she says, “I save the sick part of me for you.”
She herself understands that the battle she is fighting is the struggle to re-find her lost self, and she knows that this struggle is entirely related to her early mothering experience. She understands, too, that she has transferred onto me all of her conflicts about this early mother.
I am trying to grow, trying to become the person I was meant to be, whoever that is, but I don’t have the right tools. I had two mothers and neither one could love me. It’s like I have a hole in my heart and in my soul and nothing can fix it. I don’t want to let it defeat me, but somehow it does. – I feel I am fighting a losing battle. I need someone who is always on my side, someone to turn to for comfort and support. I am trying my best to keep you separate from the other women who have hurt me so deeply – it’s easier to just mistrust all women. In so many ways, I am an orphan and think it would be more truthful if everyone behaved that way. If I could just say that my life began when I met Jonathan (her husband), there would be no confusion.
This growing down process, and the growing up that ensues, takes Audrey and I years, decades. Slowly, cautiously, she begins to allow herself some trust.
After our last session, when you blindsided me with that question, I didn’t want to vow to never speak to you again. I think maybe things are finally beginning to change for us. I wanted to understand what was happening and I wanted to reach that understanding with you. Thank you.
In exploring her past, Audrey reaches a point where she comes to believe that finding her biological mother will fill her emptiness, will satisfy the perpetual longing for union that has taken residence in her psyche. We explore this. We discuss every possibility – that her mother is dead, that her mother is a prostitute, that her mother is fat, ugly or disgusting, that her mother rejects her once again. Audrey assures me that whatever the truth, it will be better than the perpetual wonder, the endless longing to know. She embarks on the search, and after two years, Audrey finds her.
Audrey and I have the initial idea that her story will have a happy ending. When Audrey first contacts the woman, this long/lost-now/found mother responds to her by saying, tearfully and movingly: “I have thought about you every day of my life. When I look at pictures of my other two children, I always know that there is one missing.” I cry when Audrey tells me this, and I think that maybe Audrey is right, maybe this mother will fill in the hole in Audrey’s psyche that I have been unable to fill, maybe Audrey will, at last, find a resting place for a few moments. Audrey’s spirits did seem to pick up a bit during these contacts. But such was not to be the case for very long. After a few phone calls and letters, even an exchange of photos, just as they were poised to meet, this woman disappears. She refuses to return Audrey’s calls, nor respond to her letters. Audrey writes her begging her to please just say that she can’t handle the contact, or that she is too ashamed to tell her other children, something, anything to assuage Audrey’s feeling that the problem is not just that Audrey is disgusting, hateful, unworthy of attention, of love, not deserving of even just a plain old note explaining the difficulties. Audrey’s first letter to her after the rejection is sweet, undemanding – just a request. The next letter, she pleads.
Audrey and I struggle with the bloody aftermath of having found this woman.
Audrey has entered a profound depression — much worse than the kind of low-level chronic ache she felt before she found this woman (it is hard, under the circumstances, for either Audrey or myself, to refer to this woman, Eleanor, as Audrey’s mother). This is an acute pain — a red-hot inflammation, rather than a dull never-ending throb. It feels to me as though I am not particularly helpful in guiding Audrey through this pain. She begins the car ride to her sessions with eagerness and hungry anticipation, looking forward to seeing me and talking to me, longing for some comfort from her pain that she hopes being with me will bring her. She can maintain this hopeful posture until she crosses, approximately, the Queensborough Bridge; sometimes she gets as far as when she parks her car; on rare occasion, she makes it to my front door in good spirit. Then her depression begins to set in again, and by the time she reaches the analytic couch, she is as close to catatonia as a normal neurotic can get — unable to speak, lying on the couch in a confused stupor, not knowing what she feels nor why she feels it. She leaves the sessions, most often, with a headache, wondering when her misery will end and what will make it go away. She is convinced, after these sessions, that she means nothing to me, that she needs to find a way to make me mean nothing to her, and that our sessions are torture with no purpose.
Yet, she doesn’t end our relationship.
Audrey has resorted to her earlier method of communicating to me, her letters. Twice a week I get letters from her, truly heart-wrenching, soulful letters that describe in exquisite detail every nuance of feeling she has had, both during those mute, unrelaxed sessions and, as well, since the last time that she saw me. Her letters are breathless to me, so moving, so reflective and so articulate of her inner processes.
You were so right about how Eleanor’s rejecting me makes me feel — did I tell you that or was it an educated guess? This may sound dramatic but I do believe this is killing me. I know I can’t be a complete nothing, there has to be something to me, but what little there is – is being chipped away. I remember this feeling. I know how people can reach the point of not wanting to live — I’m not at that place, and I don’t know if I will ever reach it again, but I can see it. It is there for me to see, not so very far away from where I am. I look at my girls and I promise I will never leave them — and I know Jonathan and I will be together forever — these three are the only people on this earth I can be sure about. I wish I could be sure about you. I always think about you and I want to talk to you and be near you. These are my first thoughts. If I really think about it, I always come to the conclusion that you really wouldn’t be interested. I know I’m not good enough for you — you’re just too nice to tell me. You once asked if I felt humiliated because Eleanor rejected me. The answer is yes, but I am too humiliated even by the humiliation to even want to admit it. Also, I am deeply hurt by her rejection. The most humiliating part about all this is that I still have to hunt around for all the facts about the beginning of my life– the one person who knows the whole story refuses to speak. How can she do this to me? And I know what she is doing is fucking up my thoughts and my relationship with you. Today when I saw you, I just wanted to leave. I want so much to be near you, but I feel like you are going to kill me too — as if my loving you will lead to my destruction. I believe that when I was in her womb, Eleanor probably wanted to kill me. This is so hard for me to know. But I do know it now. I wasn’t sure at the time, but I believe it was the birth of my girls when I began thinking about finding my mother. It was after Jonathan almost died that I began searching. I think my love for the girls and my connection to you was what really triggered this need to find what I think, what I thought was my lost connection with my mother. Now I can see that she and I never lost each other. No one stole me from Eleanor. She ran away from me. And let’s face it, if my own mother can’t love me how can I expect you to? I can’t write any more.
When I was leaving your building today, I heard the construction men downstairs say that your building is 17 years old. That means I’ve known you for over 17 years, and I can’t even look you in the eyes. I hope this is going to get better. I’m really tired. It is clear that Audrey, in analytic terms, is now reliving the very early rejection from her mother when her mother gave her up for adoption. This is clear, to both of us. Some would say that this act of knowing is what is helpful, that it should be helpful. It isn’t.
The only thing that makes Audrey feel better, and truly the only promise that psychoanalysis can afford her, the only help I can give her, is to help her to talk. This is the only cure that psychoanalysis has to offer.
The thing that uniquely defines psychoanalysis, separates it from all other therapeutic methods is its belief in the unconscious, belief in the meaning of what’s not said. What Freud discovered is that people would rather be sick than to think and feel and say the unthinkable, the unfeelable and the unmentionable.
What Audrey can’t say to me and can’t feel when she is with me is that the painful, unvarnished truth is that her long, arduous search for her biological mother has been simply a diversion from her analysis and from me. It’s been a way of running away from her true devotion, her true love-affair with me. What she can’t say is that I am the only mother who has ever mattered to her. She can’t say it because she is humiliated to feel it and wishes that it weren’t true. She wishes that she did not have the psychic construction to care as much about a relative stranger as she cares for her children and husband, a relative stranger whom she sees for a mere 50 minutes a week and to whom she has to pay money to see. This feeling of caring so much seems perverse to her, and she feels herself to be perverse, really “sick” as she puts it, to be this person. She fights being this person every time she sees me, and her internal fight with herself gives her headaches, depression and catatonia in my presence.
Audrey has a break-through. She finds voice to rage. She is angry at me for leaving her. She is both rational and irrational. She knows that I have a right to take a vacation, but she is no longer devastated by my departure; she is just angry. She is able to articulate, at long last, the idea that she has been fighting all these years – that she wishes I belonged to her, wants me to have no life other than to care for her. She wants me to be like Sleeping Beauty, asleep until she awakens me. Audrey is giving herself over to that earliest period of life when symbiosis between mother and child is the definition of life. She tells me these wishes without any need for them to be true; merely acknowledging them and feeling comfortable with them is sufficient.
And then the rage spills out into her feelings about the rejecting mother that she was cursed to be born to. She writes her third, and final letter to Eleanor, and she is no longer kind, nor whimpering. She is outraged at this woman’s failure for even basic human decency to acknowledge, in words, face to face, that she cannot continue the relationship. This silent, unresponsive woman does not even have the decency to tell her daughter to go away; she just disappears on her. Audrey has reached the point where she can just let her feelings be; she has stopped judging them and trying to butcher them to death.
For the first time in a great while I left the session feeling hopeful and with the same amount of energy I arrived with, if not more. I did not feel drained, broken, or crushed. I feel somewhat energized. Now I believe our relationship has possibilities. It can become a source of pleasure for me. When you said that you have been more of a mother to me than Eleanor ever could be, it didn’t have the same sting as it would have in the past. It was not an altogether unbearable thought. It did bring tears to my eyes. You know those basic laws of decency — like you don’t sleep with your siblings or your parents, you don’t fall in love with someone else’s spouse. I have been feeling that loving a mother other than my own was like breaking one of those laws.
Audrey continues working in her analysis on sorting out her feelings about me and her biological mother (we seem to be fused in her mind). She continues her pattern of wanting to bolt. But, for the first time, she doesn’t. She tolerates her feelings without action.
She reports to me a dream:
There were rats in the basement. When I discovered them, they were asleep and somehow I got them into a box with low sides. I covered them all with a blanket because I wanted them to sleep while I figured out how to get rid of them. I called an exterminator and I told him not to wake them up when he looked at them. I didn’t want to kill them in the basement because I wasn’t sure if I could get them all once they started to run.
And then she says about the dream:
I haven’t had a rat dream in a long time. In the past I think the rats represented my fears, and they were terrifying. Now I think the dream is about self-awareness. I feel freer these days. Now that I am sharing my deepest feelings with you I feel less burdened. But I know there are still hidden places, and I guess I’m still a little fearful of waking up the rats again.
Her pain from being rejected by her mother is still an ache but she is able, at last, to rejoice in the strong love that she and I have for each other. We need not be separate any longer.
She says: I can now accept that you care for me and it is okay if I feel the same way.