This column also appears in the online edition of the September-October, 2010 issue of The Therapist Magazine, the publication of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists.
Abstract: This two-part series will explore the ways that the symbolic exploration of film imagery during the brief, one-year analysis of a patient suffering from the effects of very early trauma expanded his capacity to engage and begin to integrate unformulated and dissociated aspects of himself for the first time. Just as elements in a dream clothe the invisible man of the psyche, each movie element and character, by giving voice to personal feelings and meanings in novel and mutative ways, increased the mentalization of lived experience that had never before existed in the realm of conscious thought.
If a myth represents a collective dream, a dream signifies a personal myth written in the language of affect-laden imagery.
Nothing permits us such lush access to the workings of the unconscious mind like a rich dream. For brief moments, dreamer and analyst breach what Jacques Lacan called the “gap” (Lacan 1977/1978) between conscious and unconscious thought and clothe this mostly invisible psychic man. Examining each symbolic garment, we are able to apprehend and construe metaphors and personal meanings that might otherwise just flicker briefly like passing afternoon shadows across a dimly lit wall.
Dream imagery is potent for significant reasons. Imagery is the “vocabulary” of an infant’s first post-natal language. A neonate gazes into his mother’s face as she gazes back, communicating deeply held feelings long before the capacity for spoken language is acquired. An infant’s first smile is in response to her gaze of acknowledgment. Because she sees him, he will begin to see himself.
Throughout life we associate enlightened consciousness with insight, creativity with vision. Even as our modes of verbal communication expand developmentally and refine themselves over time, imagery conveys what words sometimes can’t quite capture. Jacques Lacan (Lacan 1977/1978) referred to unspeakable (or unspoken) lived experience as the Real. Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.
In our culture, movie imagery is the bridge linking social mythology with personal dreamscapes, connecting inner subjective experience and the cultural collective. We analyze movie details symbolically and metaphorically as if we were deconstructing a dream.
As a result, we often begin to conceptualize parts of ourselves in new and original ways, perhaps even identifying and claiming dissociated aspects that have never yet been acknowledged or fully mentalized (Fonagy 1981), parts that have lived only through the dramatization of enactment (Stern 2010). Parts considered “not me” have an opportunity to be transformed into “me.”
During a year-long analysis with Q, a young man who had been abandoned as an infant, long before he’d acquired sufficient verbal language to process or organize his trauma, movie imagery opened up a psychological third space (Ogden 1994) that bridged our worlds.
Without film imagery and art, we might have remained forever isolated from one another, he imprisoned in his tragic past and I in my chair across the room.
He and I often talked about movies when he was struggling to articulate an unbearable feeling or perhaps avoiding one. The Matrix was one of his favorites, a movie I’d never seen except in fragments on television. I liked movies about relationships so had never found it appealing. Just prior to my early summer break, he loaned me his copy, so that the lace-like threads of our connection might not tear. I tucked it in my briefcase where it remained until the last day of my break. When I popped it into the DVD player, I felt him enter the room.
This is the dream. The Matrix is a computer age, film noir movie reminiscent of earlier classics with similar anti-utopian themes. Soylent Green was the dire environmental prophecy of the 1970’s. The 1960’s dangled ingénue Yvette Mimieux in The Time Machine, both examples of a depraved and desperate future. Donald Winnicott’s iconic paper Fear of Breakdown (Winnicott 1974) described how the anxiously feared catastrophe looming “out there” in the future had actually transpired long ago. The Matrix future is portrayed as the degenerate past.
In The Matrix vision of the future, people, like the zombies in one of Q’s recurrent dreams, feed off one another from within the matrix of an artificial, bleakly mechanistic environment.
Lawrence Hedges (1994) described the ways in which people functioning at an organizing/psychotic level prefer objects to people. Guntrip (1995) examined the mechanistic qualities that characterize affectively withdrawn schizoid states often described by patients as empty and depersonalized. Capable of living an intellectually efficient but impersonal outer life, Q relied upon fantasy to keep himself alive. A pseudo-adult, a militarily taut exterior substituted for a more authentic and self-assured manliness.
At this archaic organizing level, Q found safety in the realm of things rather than people, though longed to escape his own matrix web and, therefore, found the movie quite compelling. He watched it over and over and had several copies. Infants were manufactured and then cannibalized to sustain the controlling artificial life forms, the reverse of caring human motherhood, whereby the mother nourishes her child.
We are offered a psychotic, biblical end-time image signifying the loss of the maternal, of purity and empathic human concern, a model as remote from Winnicott’s (1953) good-enough mother as the cold and transparent man in the moon. Reality deconstructed, it floated unmoored from comforting illusions.
Q struggled to differentiate waking from sleeping states, reality from illusion, believing he was the product of some “higher” agency, convinced that I existed only as a product of his own mind. Experiencing himself as a non-corporeal entity having no mass or substance, indicative of the unorganized-organizing self that has yet to come into being, he ascribed the same hollow qualities to my existence. If it doesn’t really exist, it can’t hurt me, I thought to myself as I watched the movie, listened to the dream. Am I real or am I illusion? Is there a baby without a mother? Is there a mother without a baby? “I want someone to give a shit,” Q often said to me.
Q’s original trauma, initiated at conception and concretized when he was six months old, was the initial severing of psychic and then physical connection to mother who, after reproducing selfishly and thoughtlessly (mechanically), found herself unable to care for her infant and gave him away six months later. He was transported out of state.
End times occur when your mother does not want you, and your (unknown) father wanted you aborted.
This horror becomes the template for your future, depicted as the decrepit past over and over on the screen of your mind, the origin of Q’s belief that he was “too much” for everyone. His tiny infant self was too much for mother, too much for father. Yet he loved his mother and raged that his love had been insufficient to keep her bound to him. “What’s in this for you?” he often asked me.
Q relived this trauma daily, though had adorned himself in hero’s cloaks to disguise his fragility. His organizing principle* dictated that serviceability and brilliance would garner meaningful interpersonal connections. “I’m the only sane person in my family,” he often said. “I try to advise the best I can. Why else would anyone want me around?” he asked wanly. Saving others from destruction, he struggled to save himself. His pain and intellectual expansiveness mirrored an autistic and psychotic inner landscape. Anguish kept him alive, pain being better than nothingness and the psychic void of emptiness (see Grotstein 1990).
His two-year military enlistment afforded one such opportunity to both enact this role and immerse himself in fraternity. Q sought surrogacy everywhere, yet self and object constancy eluded him. There were only particles and waves that dodged substantiality like bad TV reception.
Black pixels coalesced into Darth Vader, the father who abandoned, yet was ultimately able to redeem himself.
Q embodied and acted out both parts, the hero and the unknowable, treacherous, dark father who threatened to abort and consume like Kronos the Titan god who killed his father and devoured his children.
There is a gruesome scene in The Matrix whereby an infant, every orifice penetrated by black tubes, is either being fed liquefied human remains or is itself being consumed, posing Q’s terrible paradox – eat or be eaten – an endless enactment of doer or done-to (Benjamin 2004). The therapeutic environment offered a third possibility, that of collaboration and co-creation, the possibility of achieving self and object constancy, the hope of experiencing object usage and living viability in an uncontaminated present.
The conclusion of this two-part series will appear in the November/December online edition of The Therapist, Volume 22, Issue 5.
* Deeply held emotional truths driving beliefs, thoughts and behavior that are not necessarily accurate.
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Grotstein, J. (1990). Nothingness, meaninglessness, chaos and the black hole – the importance of nothingness, meaninglessness and chaos in psychoanalysis. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 26:257-290.
Guntrip, H. (1995 11th printing). Schizoid phenomena, object relations and the self. Madison, Connecticut, International Universities Press, Inc. (Original publication date unknown)
Hedges, L. (1994). Working the organizing experience. Northvale New Jersey. Jason Aronson, Inc.
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Stern, D.B. (2010). Partners in thought. New York. Routledge – Taylor & Francis Group.
Winnicott, D.W. (1953). Transitional objects and transitional phenomena—a study of the first not-me possession. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 34:89-97.
Winnicott, D.W. (1974). Fear of breakdown. International Review of Psycho-Analysis, 1:103-107.