This column also appears in the November/December 2010 issue of The Therapist, published by the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (CAMFT).
Abstract: This second in a two-part series explores 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 childhood traumata expanded his capacity to think, 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.
Q and I met four times weekly for a year, sometimes five when his skillfully managed emotional needs overwhelmed his narcissistic and intellectual defensive posturing. More often, he held forth on arcane philosophical paradigms, epistemology and knowledge and his unabashed love of the ancients whom he imbued with the nearly superhuman qualities and capacities that deify celebrities in our own personality-infected culture.
More specifically, he imbued these archetypal figures with the god-like attributes an infant ascribes to his parents, those powerful people who represent our first gods, parents for whom he held deep unmet and unacknowledged longings that had festered over the years.
Q would talk about almost anything to avoid stirring the annihilation anxiety associated with his own lost infancy and compromised childhood.
Like Romulus and Remus, Q suckled on mythology and raised himself, running with a pack of equally unparented boys. Wielding his sharpened intellect like a monarch’s sword, he was really all alone in his kingdom. Fortunately, these burnished topics were rich in metaphoric and symbolic imagery that permitted me to access and share his private world. Though he didn’t know it when we began, I was to become his modern day she-wolf.
Primary, and for Q, mythic maternal themes of abandonment, rage and the wordless poignancy of love nearly grasped and lost informed Q’s brief, year-long analysis, offering repeated opportunities for us to examine and explore his experiences deeply. Movie imagery and content represented the gateway linking inside and out, me and not-me, my world and his. It gave borrowed form to what was yet the unformulated content (Stern 1997) of his wordless, inner world.
Despite its brevity, the fact that he was able to sustain a tenuous and conflict-laden connection to me for the duration represented a monumental relational and developmental achievement for Q, surpassing that of any prior association. We struggled together, and the year exhausted both of us.
Almost immediately, he began enacting the Janus-faced, draining aspects of his stagnant and hopeless dialectic, a conflict characterized by a terrifying urge to flee appended to a powerful longing to immerse himself in my mind and body.
Anxious and confused, Q oscillated wildly between starkly opposing impulses, each fraught with danger and dread. Flight insured safety but exacted isolation and madness, while relationships offered the comfort of companionship but were untrustworthy and portended abject disappointment.
Psychosis was preferable to abandonment. Even a whiff sent Q running. Withdrawal, silence, canceling appointments, “forgetting” or arriving late constituted some of the behavioral language he used to convey the full dimensions of his pre-verbal traumata. I will leave you before you can leave me.
Our engagement was sometimes as basic and wordless as breathing together, and many sessions were spent in almost total silence. But it was to become a shared silence, and Q was increasingly less encapsulated in the solipsistic bubble that threatened to devour him.
As our relationship acquired a reliable measure of accountability and consistency, we began to seek precise words to capture and describe unspeakable feelings that had never before been thought or conceptualized in mental terms, only dramatized or projected, what Fonagy (Fonagy 2000 and Fonagy 2002) described as mentalization.
Giving linguistic dimension and form to the amorphous content of lived experience released him from the endless behavioral enactments that condemned him to a stale and deadened life. Though he fled repeatedly, I sustained and nurtured his dare-not-hope that the fragmented shadows of potential self might coalesce into a real boy.
In many respects, the last time we met was as awkward for Q as the first. There was so much left to say and no more time.
Having fulfilled his one-year commitment, he was too proud to admit his reluctance to leave or remain. I was left holding one end of severed and frazzled rope of hope that had bound us. He had no idea where or how to begin. I tried to express what he could not.
“Endings are hard, aren’t they? (Nod) It’s hard to say goodbye. We don’t usually learn how to do endings well in life, do we?”
“Yeah.” He mentioned a friend who had died of cancer.
“I think that we’ll each carry part of the other with us for a long time.”
“Yeah. You’ve been good to talk to.”
“As have you. Didn’t exactly know what you were getting into, did you?”
“Yeah, I did.” A laugh gave him away.
I provided referrals and left future access open-ended. He mentioned that when he told his parents about his analysis, instead of mirroring delight or offering support, they questioned his financial means. They were unable to imagine why anyone would sponsor their child, because they rarely did. He waited until he was nearly out the door to tell me.
Shrugging as the shadow of wordless, unformulated feelings (Stern 1997) began to envelope him yet again, Q left ten minutes early. I listened to his quick footsteps rush down the stairs and watched him drive away for the last time. Relieved and wistful, I enjoyed a quietly restful moment, noticing with pleasure the spring leaves unfurling on the sycamore outside my window. A few moments later I heard rustling in the waiting room and went back to work.
Two weeks after our last session as I was driving home from Trader Joe’s, my cell phone rang. My car filled with groceries, I was thinking about dinner and the preciously guarded private evening unfolding ahead. Finished with daily responsibilities, the remainder of that warm spring afternoon belonged to me, as pristine and crisp as a clean, blank page.
Though I knew it was Q, I answered the phone with my off-duty greeting, a casual hello. Accustomed to a more professional announcement, he was thrown off balance, realizing he had entered my private life. I was not simply waiting for him. Sensing him stumble, the inflection of my voice rose with recognition, and I welcomed him into conversation.
“How are you?” I asked.
“I’m good,” he responded.
Yes, I thought with some satisfaction, you have acknowledged to yourself that you might miss me a little bit, that our relationship mattered, and you wanted me to know that you were okay. He did not sound bleak, as he so often did, and I relaxed with relief.
I still hold you in mind. I will care about you even when we don’t see one another. Remember…
He was a bit nonchalant though talked for a moment about a pressing legal concern that had been resolved judiciously without serious repercussions as a result of his growing capacity to trust, exercise judgment and control impulsivity.
“Yes, you’ve made a wise choice. I can see you’ve thought about it,” I said, thought being the operative word.
After a moment or two of quiet, as my foot pressed on the accelerator headed for home, he shifted to another topic.
“I watched That Obscure Object of Desire,” he announced, the real purpose of the phone call.
“No kidding,” I responded with delight. “Where did you find it?”
“Oh, I rented it,” he answered.
“What did you think?”
Portals to Q’s representational world, conversations about films were always lively, characterized by genuine mutuality and thoughtful dialogue, and I had once recommended Luis Bunuel, a 20th c. master.
Cet Obscur Objet du Desir, a wonderful movie about a middle aged diplomat’s ferocious obsession with a seductive yet withholding young woman, swirled in a maelstrom of political terrorism.
“It was great!” he answered emphatically, “yeah, great.”
Bunuel’s main character, a poised and stately diplomat, was so completely besotted with a provocative young woman that his predictably composed life deteriorated into chaotic, obsessive fantasy. This transpired as explosive terrorist incidents aimed at his political party increased.
This female character represented what the preeminent object relations theorist, Ronald Fairbairn, (Fairbairn 1946) described as an “enticing or exciting object,” symbolizing sadistic seduction with no hope of connection. The inaccessible and unknowable mother represents the prototype for this subsequent chase-disappointment dynamic. Representing Q’s elusive and remote mother, her imago was superimposed onto every subsequent relationship he initiated (and fled).
In fact, this character was a political and emotional terrorist. To portray his fantasy, Bunuel employed two very different actresses to characterize the young woman, one dusky and voluptuous, the other elegant and lithe. She was a blank screen for the diplomat’s projections. He did not know her at all.
There ensued an endless series of enactments of sexual enticements and withholding, whereby the diplomat responded to her overtures and was repeatedly and ultimately frustrated. Terrorist bombs exploded nearby one after another.
Via film imagery, Q and I witnessed emotional terrorism and the terrors of one’s own repetition compulsion (Freud 1914), the proverbial moth to the flame.
In one seduction scene, the diplomat was delirious with desire in response to the voluptuous character’s overtures. As her clothing was removed, he believed himself about to embrace naked flesh. Instead, he found her body bound by a tight corset with a tight stays and boning that could not be undone. Struggling uselessly to release them, he abruptly collapsed in despair and rage, while she continued to taunt him and laugh.
This was the image of a boy trying to reach his mother’s breasts while she displayed but withheld them. The boy could only begin to think, “I will never go there again, but if I do, I will leave her before she can leave me.” And this became part of the emotional template of Q’s relational life.
“It took me a while to get it…that it was the same person, the girl, that he’d used two actresses, he continued.”
“Wasn’t that a great technique?”
“Yeah, it took me a while.”
“I think Bunuel was telling us that this man could not see beyond his own fantasies, only his projections. We’re really looking at emotional terrorism.”
“Yeah,” he added enthusiastically. “It was really great.”
By observing these characters and their follies, Q finally “got” what Jacques Lacan (1973) referred to as “the joke.” Recognizing that his own inner terrorist was far worse than anything “out there,” he shed his hard shell for a moment. Self-awareness was facilitated, because he could see what the diplomat could not. Before Q was even aware of his insight, his unconscious mind knew what to do with it. It took him a while to “figure it out,” but as he did, he tasted psychological liberty. Q finally got the joke, and he was very pleased with himself.
There were actually two very different women in his life, two maternal paradigms, his mother and her terrorizing imago, and me – imperfect but reliable, available, empathetic and steady. We were not alike. He had dented the severe organizing principle warning that everyone was and would always be just another variant of his abandoning mother. There were two actresses, two possibilities, maybe two outcomes. Perhaps more.
This moment of possibility represented the fruit of analytic “thirdness” (Ogden 1994), the opening of a shared and generative psychological space, one that bodes creative potential rather than stasis and engenders possibilities that break the rigid dialectic of doer and done-to, what Jessica Benjamin (2004) called complementarity.
It is not simply this or that. It may be this and that or perhaps something completely different. Q experienced a nascent awareness that he might end his own psychotic reign of terror. He might liberate himself from his isolated and rigidly autistic, mechanistic mind-prison.
I turned from the main thoroughfare into my neighborhood, slowing down and shifting my hands slightly on the steering wheel. A dog trotted across the street.
“I talked to my (attorney) uncle, and he told me what to do.”
He had found a way to bypass mother and access father. He could observe himself and choose to avoid another episode of terrorizing repetition. He could call me.
“Well, if you feel like it, when you get the information you need, let me know, and I’ll check it out. He knew I was familiar with the context of his current circumstances.
I’m still with you. I will care about you even after you’ve gone. Perhaps this was a test. Perhaps it was the final punctuation mark on our unfinished narrative but the beginning of another.
There was nothing left to say. Pulling into my carport, I offered one last remark.
“I’ll be around.”
“Ok,” he said. “Thanks Mauri-Lynne.”
I hung up the phone, releasing his hand hoping he would reach for others and find reciprocal warmth. I opened the car door, encircled a big bag of groceries with my arms and went inside to make dinner.
There would be one more phone call some time later from this intensely funny and intelligent boy-man, but by then I had slowly begun to release him and his hold on my mind. Luxuriating in the lightness of removing my own constricting stays, I felt unbound by the taut maternal preoccupation that had clenched so intensely during the past year. Our trajectories had crossed and were now diverging. I was glad for both experiences.
In the car running errands, my cell phone rang, this time from the bottom of a large bag. I knew immediately it was Q. I had lost a message shortly before and suspected he’d tried to call earlier. (He had.) I answered neutrally, though when I heard his voice, matched his tentative tone with my own enthusiasm.
“How are you?” I asked again.
“I’m good,” he responded, his voice stronger. “I’m good.”
After a moment of quiet, he continued, “I think of you often.”
I think of you often. In my surrogacy, he had found a tangible realness. I was no longer simply a projection, a wavering hologram of film pixels. I had become a tentatively real object that he could access within himself and use productively and reliably, and as I did, he became real, too. As his projections withered, available inner space opened for the imprint of new interpersonal and self-object experiences. I had survived, and so had he, and we were both changed.
“Remember when I told you a long time ago that even after you’d gone away, I would continue to think of you?”
We shared a sweetly quiet moment. During that silence, I felt a transient but lofty affection for work and life. I looked out the car window at the sky, as translucent as a watercolor wash. I felt hope for him and for me. At the end of his analysis, Q had managed to reach the beginning of the beginning. He was trying to do for himself what I had tried to do with and for him.
He was using film imagery on his own as a trellis for self-support and was experiencing an emergent sense of himself as a cohesive being in the making, the resumption of his prematurely truncated going-on-being (Winnicott 1960). Instead of hitting the replay button on the old movies of his past, I wondered whether he might now produce a new movie with an original script created anew.
We shared an incomplete experience. Many issues remained unexplored. We tolerated ruptures and bore anguish together. An embryonic reflective capacity fluttered. What emerged was nothing less that the basis for hope.
WARNING! This text is printed for the personal use of subscribers to The Therapist Magazine and/or Inside Out Journal and is copyrighted by Mauri-Lynne Heller. It is illegal to copy, distribute or circulate it in any form whatsoever without permission of the author.
Benjamin, J. (2004). Beyond Doer and Done to: An Intersubjective View of Thirdness. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 73:5-46.
Fairbairn, W.D. (1946). Object-Relationships and Dynamic Structure. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 27:30-37.
Fonagy, P. (2000). Attachment and Borderline Personality Disorder. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 48:1129-1146.
Fonagy, P., Gergely, G., Jurist, E and Target, M. (2002). Affect regulation, mentalization, and the development of the self. New York: Other Press.
Freud, S. (1914). Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through (Further Recommendations on the Technique of Psycho-Analysis II). The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XII (1911-1913): The Case of Schreber, Papers on Technique and Other Works, 145-156.
Lacan, J. (1973) The four fundamental concepts of psycho-analysis. New York. W.W. Norton & company.
Ogden, T.H. (1994). The analytic third: working with intersubjective clinical facts. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 75, pp. 3-19.
Stern, D.B. (1997). Unformulated experience: From dissociation to imagination in psychoanalysis. In: Relational psychoanalysis, the emergence of a tradition. Hillsdale, HJ: Analytic Press. (Original work published 1983)
Winnicott, D.W. (1960). The Theory of the Parent-Infant Relationship. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 41:585-595.