Reparation and Redemption: Nightmare and Memory
In Clinical Practice and in D.M. Thomas’s Pictures at an Exhibition
Marilyn Charles, Ph.D.
There are times when literature offers us a different lens through which to view some of the difficulties we encounter in the consulting room. In D. M. Thomas’ novels, we see him struggling with nightmare and memory: working and reworking these themes from various angles. In Pictures at an Exhibition, he resurrects the themes of reparation and redemption that had been introduced previously in The White Hotel. We see him playing and replaying essential dilemmas in being human, casting and re-casting the parts until the figures blur and we wonder what characterizes a given individual. Whose voice are we hearing? How do we locate ourselves in time and space so as to make sense of the communication?
This experience of disruption is fundamental at various levels. From one frame, this is the dilemma of traumatic experience, in which communication and even knowledge itself is profoundly disrupted and unknown. The voice of traumatic experience is a voice of utter and terrible silence, timeless as the unconscious, echoing into eternity. From another frame, there is the disruption of these timeless truths, through a mythic voice that warns us against becoming too comfortable with the trappings of truth that beguile us into believing our own lies. At various turns, Thomas warns us explicitly against believing in the types of facile truths, condoned by culture, that become traumatizing to whatever is deemed as ‘other’ and thereby open for vilification and demonization. In looking more pointedly at these novels, each of which is framed by the psychoanalytic universe, we can wonder what the writer is telling us about the psychoanalytic endeavour, its perils and pitfalls, and about the very real and complex hazards we face as we enter into the domains of trauma and of truth.
In this paper, I will focus on Pictures at an Exhibition, in which we are pulled out of our alliances with and allegiances to any particular character or story line and are forced to confront, rather, what is most difficult in ourselves – our willingness to demonize others and to excuse ourselves in the process. In this novel, Thomas continually disrupts the narrative flow, pulling us in and out of any identification with form, ethnic affiliation, or historical context. By dislocating us in time and space and decontextualizing the anchors by which we might come to believe that we understand what distinguishes good from bad; right from wrong; or one person from another, Thomas suggests that we must be laid bare in order to discover ourselves and that we should take care, as this discovery may be more than we can tolerate. At that outer edge of experience, he suggests, our choices are to go mad or to be blind, to not-see that which seems unknowable.
Using the frame of the traumatic past, and intertwining the search for understanding the traumatic past in the present (which is the realm of psychoanalysis) with the search for expression and recognition of the magnitude of the traumatic experience (which falls within the domain of art), Thomas puts us up against an essential lie embedded in our very human-ness: our resistance to encountering difficult truths. Deftly, masterfully, he paints a vivid and complex portrait; a palimpsest that both obscures and instantiates the type of warning alluded to by Bion (1977), who pulled the Oedipal myth out of the triangular space in which it has been cast. Steiner (1985) extends Bion’s vision, depicting the Oedipal myth as a dilemma, not between self and other, but rather one in which we are confronted with our own willful blindness, our desire to ‘turn a blind eye,’ to not know what seems too painful to encounter.
In reading Thomas, we come up against our own resistance to encountering our hidden vices: our greed, our envy, our willingness to do harm and even, at times, our sadistic pleasure. In a literary form that has the feel of a fugue, Thomas puts before us story after story, voice after voice, and the instruments begin to have their own elusive yet distinctive sounds as they weave their own melodies. We see emerging, elusively, the configural themes through which we come to know each voice, each character. We struggle to catch hold of these themes, these voices, to discern what distinguishes them; how we might know them, even as context, names, and conceptual anchors change. We come to accept that, even as we search to unravel the mystery, the dilemma goes beyond the mystery to its core: the tragedy of being human and of knowing that one must play destructive parts in this ongoing tragedy, even as one seeks to survive and perhaps even to do some good.
This struggle parallels those we face in our work with those whose early relationships have been depriving and traumatic. These individuals often have no language through which to construct a coherent narrative and so the analyst finds herself caught between the need to resonate to what one patient calls the “silent scream” and the need to keep in mind the ‘cost of crucifixion’ (Charles, in press). The latter has become my way of fixing in my own mind the dilemma in which my patients and I are faced. How do we acknowledge the pain without perpetuating a deadly enactment?
For those who have experienced extreme or early trauma, there is often no verbal language through which to express the pain. The information, then, tends to be communicated through sensory memories, in what I have called the “language of the body” (Charles, 2001a, 2002). When words fail (Farrell, 1995) and salvation seems possible only through external sources, one resolution is to invite the other in by marking (and often magnifying) the distress. This lends an air of inauthenticity to what is, in fact, very real pain.
These patients bring us back to where they are stuck, demanding that we attune to the proto-symbolic elements of the communications so that they can be reassured that we are, truly, reading them. If we are unable to note the air of dissonance with which we receive these distress calls, we miss a crucial healing element: that the self is paying a huge price for defining the other as a source of salvation, and that part of the distress ensues from the denial of the hostility towards the object for being an insufficient saviour, or for being a saviour at all. We find ourselves cast in the role of saviour/persecutor, and search for ways of healing the splits so that we might become a deidealized support for the other’s emerging attempts at constructing a more viable self.
Individuals who have had insufficient or actively destructive parenting can find themselves caught between an arrested internal development and a pseudo-mature external façade. When the price of engagement has been self-annihilation through intrusion or neglect, the question becomes whether one can be fed without being destroyed, and whether one can exist as a separate self. One is in the paradoxical and inherently unresolvable dilemma of needing to sacrifice the self as a way of creating one’s life. In some sense, we have before us the story, not only of an ongoing crucifixion, but also of an immaculate conception: Can one become a self without having to take in the seed of another? Can one deny what one takes from the other? Can one learn to accept the gifts while refusing the toxins? These desperate issues seem to be played out in the desire to abstain from eating altogether or, failing that, to disgorge whatever becomes toxic when taken in. We can see in this enactment the desperate need to be able to be given to by the other without being taken over, the terrible fear of becoming lost in the taking, and the rage at being so dependent on depriving objects.
Optimally, in our early years, we begin to develop our ideas of self and other through relationships that are sufficiently attuned that we can learn to recognize self and other with some reliability. When parental attunement has been insufficient, however, it is difficult to build consensual meanings, or to clearly and adaptively distinguish self from other. When care has been purchased at the price of self, it is not at all clear that one can assert one’s self, particularly those aspects of self that feel dangerous.
So then, in comes my patient, ‘Alice,’ frightened and alone, isolated behind a façade that had become a desperate pretense at being a self. The mother who does not have sufficient boundaries to effectively mark distinctions between self and other, is not well-equipped to help her child to develop her own boundaries and, through them, her own ego strength. In the absence of sufficient ego strength to make adaptive choices regarding the quality of relationships, Alice tends to find herself at the mercy of either the withholding good object or the actively bad object. This lends itself, in the treatment, to unstable relations in which the analyst is always in danger of being persecuted by the need to be the all-good object lest she, herself, be thrust into the abyss of becoming the persecuting object.
Melanie Klein, more than any other theorist, invites us into this dire realm of what she terms the ‘paranoid-schizoid position,’ in which it is not the quality of life that is at issue but rather survival, itself. The paranoid-schizoid position is a way of characterizing a state of primitive anxiety in which there is a fear of disintegration or “falling into bits” (Klein, 1946, p. 4). There is very little resilience or capacity for integration, so that affect is regulated through very primitive defenses, such as splitting and denial, and relationships are split into dichotomized disjunctions, such as good and bad; persecutor and victim.
Klein (1946) helps us to locate ourselves in this disjunctive world through her descriptions of projective identification, an identification that takes the form of an aggressive object-relation. In projective identification, whatever is vilified or causes excessive anxiety is not seen within the bounds of self, but only outside, in the other. When the primary impulse is to harm or control, the other is felt, reciprocally, to be the persecutor. If the good parts are projected excessively, the other becomes the ego-ideal, resulting in over-dependence on the other and a reciprocal weakening and impoverishment of the self.
Whereas Thomas characterizes this dilemma through the multiplicity of characters in his novel, Alice describes this dilemma through the multiplicity of characters in her dreams. One series of dreams, in particular, seems to be paradigmatic of the dilemma in which Alice and I find ourselves. In this dream, we can see the displaced aggression lurking behind its mask, waiting to destroy her and the treatment, unless we can recognize it and contain both good and bad aspects of self and other. Her recounting is elusive, the dream a means of both revealing and obfuscating split-off aspects of self that she needs me to be able to integrate without destroying her in the process.
Alice tells me that for some time she had been unable to dream, though at times she would take a nap and dream, but can’t always distinguish between the dream and the reality. On this occasion she had had a dream; one of a series of dreams, not exactly the same, but having this theme of cats. She is not sure why she would dream of cats, as she doesn’t particularly like them.
In her dream, she realized that she had a cat but that she had forgotten that she had it, and now realized that the cat would be needing things; things she had failed to provide. She went into the room where the cat was, and there was all this fur and then she realized that there were lots of little kittens and she thought ‘Oh God the cat was pregnant and had kittens’ and then she saw two big cats staring at her and they seemed menacing. This theme of menacing seemed to link back to the other cat dreams she had had as an adolescent; in one, she had left a cat unattended in the bathroom because there was a party in the house and she needed to keep it away. But then she needed to go see to it and she was afraid to; again the sense of menace.
Alice’s associations go to her brother, who was allergic to cats, and to her father, who didn’t like cats, but maybe it wasn’t that he didn’t like them - she remembered him painting a room and needing to keep all the windows open because of the smell of the cat and her father being very angry over this. Alice seemed to think that the anger toward the ‘damned’ cat was displaced.
Her associations go to the room and the sense of place; she had never had a secure place in her home. Everyone else had had a room, a place, but if someone was going to be displaced, it would be her. She described in great detail the walls of her previous rooms and how they had been painted. She said that when she came in to our sessions she felt as though she painted a picture each time. There was always a new canvas, she said, and it depended on how she felt. Sometimes she had only three colours; sometimes she might have twenty.
She was telling me that she felt free to paint in her own way and contrasting this with her experience of her parents coming to town and trying to paint her apartment. Alice had mentioned wanting to paint one of the walls in her apartment, and her mother had wanted to know ‘which colour?’ Alice explained that she didn’t want to paint it a colour; she wanted to paint on it. Her mother refused to understand this and kept searching for a colour.
Alice contrasted this with her experience of me, saying that this is the first time anyone has ever really listened to her. In the past, therapists had had some protocol they seemed to be going through and it was like they could only see the tip of the iceberg and did not want to look beneath. I wondered what I was not seeing, and referred to the kittens, wondering whether the kittens were a part of her she was not willing to see and if I was colluding in ignoring important issues.
We can see how Alice’s hostility becomes displaced and masked by the ‘forgotten’ cats whose needs make them ‘menacing,’ and how I become responsible for marking the place of whatever is not being seen. In denying her needs, Alice becomes complicit in her own persecution, leaving even the idea of need for the other to hold, so that saving her life becomes something she must be forced into, against her will. This becomes one more crazy game in which she can only lose.
The abstention of the anorexic is an untenable resolution to an impossible dilemma (Charles, 2001). Finding words helps to cast some light into the darkness, and thus titrates our fear (Bion, 1990, 1991; Charles, 2004). And yet, for those caught between the need for food and the need to abstain or evacuate, there is a tension being played out between the words that might make the experience digestible, and the terrible fear of knowing.
Much as Thomas paints and repaints word portraits of the various facets of a self he cannot quite integrate into an acceptable or coherent whole, we can wonder how Alice’s willingness to “paint a new picture” masks her fear by ‘painting a pretty picture’ while she unlinks one experience from the next. Her facility at splitting makes reality highly changeable, depending on the affect of the moment. Many colours may be needed to obfuscate and paper over the walls of a room that has become untenable, and windows may need to be opened to eradicate the smell of cat within. Our task then is to reposition ourselves so that we can accept the difficult realities and work our way towards a more stable and tolerable representation without splitting off the messier, more problematic aspects.
We find Alice stuck in much the same way as the characters in Thomas’ novel, none of whom can free themselves from taking responsibility for their actions, however constrained their freedom might be. One of the sequelae of such trauma is profound difficulties in affect regulation giving rise to the somatic symptoms that plague Thomas’ Dr. Lorenz, and the desperation that Alice experiences as inchoate feelings of “panic” or “falling.” Much as Lorenz looks to Galewski as a source of both persecution and salvation, Alice’s difficulties in integrating good and bad aspects of self leave her caught in relationships in which she is inevitably persecuted by either the withholding good or the actively bad object. It is difficult to tell which is more dangerous, making it very important that I not reject my own badness nor accept the role of the ideal ‘good’ mother, who could ‘know’ her without words. I find myself in the paradoxical situation of needing to be able to read her silent communications and yet to also affirm that I will, inevitably, at times be wrong. This makes it crucial that Alice learn to use words with me, to choose her words, so that she can be in charge of the communication in a way she has actively avoided in the past. This avoidance seems to be an integral part of the passive-aggressive enactments through which she would play out the pretense of engagement without having to take the risks entailed in actual contact with another human being.
In the consulting room, we attempt to build a space in which the patient might think her own thoughts and dream her own dreams, in which the palimpsest can both hide and reveal the layerings so that we can contain and integrate them over time. We can see in the characters of Lorenz and Galewski, and their successive reiterations throughout the novel, an intertwining of self and other; perpetrator and victim. In Alice’s dreams, we see hints of the obfuscative attempts to hide her own potency, which has come to seem dangerous. The fear of being the deprecated object makes it difficult for Alice to even seek less destructive relationships. And yet, I cannot be willing to accept the dramatization of Alice’s crucifixion - that story in which others’ demands organize and structure her experience such that she is merely a puppet on a stage; the menacing and forgotten kitten. Rather, I would like to encourage her to give up the safety of the silence - and of the cross - and reposition herself as a subject in her own right.
Alice’s ambivalence comes to the fore as she invites me to read the affect in her face without providing any words of her own through which we might anchor her experience. My conjectures, then, when stated aloud, tend to define her experience rather than acknowledging it. This is hazardous ground, as we do need to define our terrain, but we need to define it in her terms; to position her as the subject of her experience rather than losing her once again in the very act of trying to find her.
I try to articulate this dilemma to Alice so that we might perhaps consider it rather than merely becoming lost in the enactment. At times I can engage her in pursuing these avenues of exploration and she seems to be able to use my words constructively, whereas at other times she accepts my words blindly, seemingly annihilating herself with them. At these latter times, she can be painfully silent or torturously glib and facile, hiding her anger behind her angelic smile. Either way, I sense she is using me in the service of self-destruction and I find myself in another impossible dilemma.
If I try to rescue her, I affirm her insufficiency and further subjugate her to my authority. If I refuse to accept her desolation of herself, she will often leave silently angry, unable to acknowledge the anger out of fear of retaliation. At those times she tends to experience me as hopelessly persecutory, which evokes the reciprocal fear that it is I who am angry with her. If I can talk to her about this stalemate without attacking her with it, we can begin to talk about her own anger. Affirming my awareness that she experiences me as persecutory helps to anchor us in a consensual reality through which Alice is better able to locate the less persecutory analyst and the less annihilated self. At other times, however, we cannot repair the disconnection and she responds to my words by merely looking lost: persecuted and attacked by something she affirms to be true.
Much like the experience of reading Thomas’ novel, trying to find Alice is like holding a Jacob’s ladder and watching it change, endlessly. We see the split between the feared and the fantasied Alice and how easily one becomes the other, as the grandiose Alice invites the devouring need of the murderous mother, and the empty Alice invites deprecation and abandonment. The shadow of the murderous mother - emptying her of anything good and filling her intrusively and toxically - is always at our heels. Her avoidance tends to keep her in an as-if realm in which she can pretend to be, but cannot actually be, in this way affirming her fears. My task, then, is to actively challenge these assumptions by finding the hidden Alice, so that she might move beyond the constraints of this terrible prison she has constructed and build a more viable and satisfying existence.
Although Alice laments the lack of recognition by the other, she is also so afraid that recognition would be deprecating that she cannot make any explicit demands. Her needs become apparent indirectly, as deficits that are left unfilled. She becomes a characterization of her complaint: the empty chasm that cannot tolerate the ingestion of food; the helpless victim of her own inability to sustain her life. In this way, it is her helplessness that is communicated most directly. Indirectly, however, the underbelly of this communication is like a very sharp hook that embeds itself, as the assault on the other hides behind the assault upon the self. The hostility, thus hidden, is free to fester and spread, creating its own alternate reality, in which not-eating provides strength and refusal to ingest is an act of self-vindication. Acknowledging her ambivalence and inviting her to speak to it helps to ground my recognition, so that it might be more useful to her in her attempts to ground her own experiences of self and other more adaptively. “There seems to be a fear that if you take any power for yourself, you will be attacked or abandoned,” I say: “Both, perhaps,” I add, as I see the spark of recognition in her eyes and the merest nod of affirmation.
Without faith in one’s own value, the search for recognition becomes a search for misrecognition. My faith then too easily becomes a dangerous seduction, a function of my demands on her rather than a reflection of self. In this topsy-turvy universe, Alice goes through the looking glass, and bad is good and good is bad. I see how difficult it is for her to maintain any coherent or adaptive sense of direction in these odd spaces she creates. In these moments, it is difficult to get our bearings: the world has turned on end and often I can only point to our position in the conceptual landscape and affirm that we are, indeed, upside down once again. I know I cannot save her preemptively: the choice must be hers. If she would truly like to have a life, I tell her, she will need to make decisions based on the values she chooses to assign, rather than becoming lost in this treacherous universe that parodies her relationship with her mother, in which living is achieved through dying. She will have to find her own internal compass; construct a legend to her own map of the universe; and make her own decisions regarding her values, her ends. Otherwise, we find ourselves locked in a battle for psychic survival that is built on fictions so densely warded off that we cannot even encounter them. They seem, rather, to loom or to intrude upon us in ways that evoke anger, fear, panic, or other ways of not-seeing.
I speak to Alice of what I do see. There, before me, is the incredibly poignant and lovely pietà figure with her vast, silent scream. There, in another moment, is the pitiful child who is lost completely in the wilderness. There is also, however, underneath these more ego-syntonic images, the arrogant Alice who enjoys being used so that she can point her finger in accusation. The part of her that affirms herself by demonizing the other is a deadly ally that leads her further and further into acts of self-harm and self-annihilation. She acts out the fear that it is the Alice-who-knows who must be killed, lest the world shift once again and she becomes the bad object. Yet, clearly she cannot survive without her own potency, which is tightly entangled with her rage. Without acknowledging the rage, we cannot find her agency, with which she might extricate herself from the trap she has set. In any given moment, I do not know whether she can tolerate the exposure, whether my faith in her potential can be realized or whether she will have to de-create it in order to re-establish her own deadly order.
In this moment, my faith in Alice pays off. Her silent scream gives way to a silent rage that I interpret to her. My unwillingness to ‘buy’ the act, while also acknowledging the pain and the rage, reorders Alice’s reality and gives her an opening. In reaction to my recognition of her unacknowledged hostility, she said, she found herself directing it at me, but realizing it did not belong to me. This experience was disjunctive and disturbing to her, providing an opening for a profound shift.
In the next few days, Alice found herself setting limits in the very relationships in which this had seemed most impossible. Rather than acting out her anger passively by tolerating the abuse and then belittling the abuser, she is setting limits. She feels, she says, as though she is “in training for the battles to come,” in which she will have to demand to be treated as a person, rather than resorting to the submissive victim role. She acknowledges the part of her that still struggles; that crashes. I accept this part. She will have to accept it as well, and learn to live with it in more adaptive ways rather than exacerbating it as a means towards salvation.
For Alice, there is always a tension between the terrors of growth and the devastation wrought by evasion.
“I feel like this is a major problem that I can't just keep thinking is going to get better,” she tells me. “Every day I get up and swear that it’s going to be different, and every day I fail. I just don't know how to make it any better.”
I take this in and an image comes vividly to mind. “Adrienne Rich (1981, p. 59) has a poem called 'Turning the Wheel',” I say. “It begins:
‘The road to the great canyon always feels
Like that road and no other. . .’
but then she goes on:
’Today I turned the wheel, refused that journey . . .’”
“Sometimes we turn the wheel,” I say. “We take a step sideways, in another direction. Sometimes it’s almost the same direction, but not quite. It's a step.”
In Thomas’ novel, it is difficult to find our way. Reparation and redemption are offered, but always at a price. Ultimately, we are never quite sure who is the victim and who the persecutor. We slowly find our way through a world that confounds us, as he shakes the universe he is creating and it clouds once again, just as we thought we were finding our way through a child’s glass landscape. We begin with the harsh counterpoint of a person in pain, trying to assuage that pain with sweet music, set against the ashes of burning bodies turning acrid in the wind. And we end, seeking solace once again, but becoming, insidiously, by the secrets lurking in the silence:
“Music is a great solace,” says the analyst, “I wondered if you’d mind my putting on a tape, very low? Thank you. The Goldberg Variations, . . Heavenly.”
“You’ll start me off crying again,” says the patient,” “That was wonderful! I wasn’t imagining it, was I? You did lean over and kiss me on the forehead, didn’t you? That’s one of the most wonderful things anyone’s ever done to me! You’re such a kind man. I’m sure you’re going to help me.”
In my work with Alice, I am always perched at the edge of the split she so easily invokes between good and bad, between hopelessness and possibility, and between what may and may not be known in a given moment. My task is to acknowledge her current limits while also repudiating their inevitability, and to believe in her viability without leaving her at the mercy of her incapacity. There is always a choice, I tell her, and it is important to be able to make a better choice, to mark every success, no matter how small. For it is the ability to mark meanings, to track experience, and to celebrate small successes upon which a life is built.
Moving back, then, into our novel, we are hoping to believe in salvation, but are never quite clear whether we have found the kiss of the father or that of Judas, or which of these might be more deadly. So then, as we finish the novel, we are hoping for a thread to reveal, finally, the complexities we have encountered in this labyrinthian journey, and yet, we end as we began:
“So how do we start?” writes Thomas, “With a dream?”
(Thomas, 1993, p. 274)
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