The Great Mistake
published in Psychoanalytic Perspectives, Fall 2010 pp. 259-278. Finalist for Gradiva Award.
Once I saw a woman reading something I had written about the destruction of the World Trade Center. She was crying. The description of my experience working with a survivor, along with her own memories of what had happened on September l1th, had made her cry. She didn’t know that I was the writer, or that I was present and watching. While I felt happy that I had touched her, I was distressed by her sorrow. I thought about introducing myself, but I didn’t want to interrupt her experience; most of all, I was reluctant to make myself known.
Creating art, whether stories like the World Trade Center piece, paintings, or merely doodling, helps me figure things out and survive. The process teaches me about myself and others and enables me to work more deeply in my practice. A doodled drawing of the tough, burly patient I saw in my office earlier in the day turns into a picture of a little kid, sitting in an empty space on an old-fashioned milking stool—I guess he needs to be fed and I’m the invisible cow. Will I be there for him? Will I feed him? What was his mother like? The pretty young woman sitting cross-legged on the floor turns into a hunted animal and I might be the trap. “The art of trauma is created through the presence of a dialogic relationship, and facilitates the continuance of this relationship with its viewers or readers” (Laub and Podell, 1995, p. 996).
Milner (1957, 1987) wrote extensively about the parallels between creative experiences and the psychoanalytic process: “…emotion, feeling, consciousness…Their shared essence is the body” (Damasio, 1999, p. 284). The art product, which includes the mutually created analytic process itself, serves as a “witnessing presence” (Rose, 1966; Robbins, 1987). “The act of creation [thus] implies a need to externalize, to objectify and to communicate, both in the artist and in the analysand” (Beres, p. 416).
I’m interested in investigating the intersubjective dimension in psychoanalysis and art-making, which involves self-disclosure. Often psychoanalysts write their memoirs and then hide them, as Freud did, but some analysts are more frank about their histories (Renik, 1999; Meissner, 2002; Richman, 2006; Kuchuck 2008, 2009).
Can you remember back to when you were a child in school, and in math class the teacher said, “Show your work”? I never wanted to. What if I was wrong? What if my numbers were right, but the teacher didn’t like how I arrived at them? If I had to show my work, I wanted to present a perfect answer, like the personification of the all-knowing and impenetrable psychoanalyst. You might like what I add up to, but you might not like all the components that make up my equation. Or you might not like me at all. Is what I have to give good enough, or is it a great mistake?
When I look at art, I want to see movement and change—mind, heart, and hands leaving erasure trails of thought, body, and breath, but my own tracks feel more like evidence proving to a hanging judge that I’ve committed a crime, many crimes, actually—stupidity, insensitivity, disloyalty, selfishness…I could go on.
Mostly I conceal my work, hold it close, at least for a while. I need to have a private conversation; I especially don’t want to be overly influenced by the reactions of others. I’m too vulnerable—I like to please, so maybe I’ll show you, but, then again, maybe I won’t. “I created a symbiotic partner in my work and protected it from ever leaving” (Robbins, location 884-889, 1987).
I can hide my work, but I can’t hide my feelings—they are always clearly written on my face. I used to consider this a great mistake, something that couldn’t be controlled or eradicated. “When I look, I am seen, so I exist” (Winnicott, 1979, p. 134). But I’m not always sure if I want to be seen, or if it is safe to exist. Will you let me be who I am? How will you be affected? Will my being who I am feel injurious to you?
Two years or so ago, I made a picture I called Bij. It was published in the International Federation of Psychoanalytic Education’s journal, Other/Wise, in 2009 and in Reflexions, Columbia University Medical School’s literary and visual art magazine, in the Spring 2010 issue.
I started to get the idea for the picture in January 2008, when I was in India, where I gave a paper about the relationship between a particular yoga practice and psychoanalysis. Going to India to talk about yoga and psychoanalysis was almost like a pilgrimage, homage to the two great cultures that helped me grow up. About that same time I was initiated into mantra meditation at the Integral Yoga Institute in New York City.
The word “Bij” means seed in Sanskrit, and sounds like “bitch” in English. I found the word when I was reading about mantra meditation and looking for the meaning of the root or seed word hreem, which, it turns out, refers to the female principle in the universe. Bij is about trauma—trauma is the seed, the irritant, I’m the bitch beginning the mess, the mess-making activity that Gilbert Rose calls “reality construction” (1966, p. 507).
When I finished Bij I showed it to my husband. At first I felt proud and happy, but then I felt sick with shame and fear because I had exposed my faulty self. “In symbolic play, form and content become one” (Robbins, 1984, p. 12). What is Bij? Is it an amalgamation of worthless glop? Am I?
Bij is a conglomeration of photos and paintings glued together, printed out and worked on, scanned into my laptop, and then worked on some more. Paper torn and refitted, images destroyed and put together in different ways. Even the scanner played a part, leaving a flash mark on one of the images. It felt to me like the point of entry—or trauma’s belly button: the first and most primitive way in, that is now closed. “STAY OUT!” it admonished.
Bij is one in a series of paintings and mixed-media constructions that began with an image of the Red Fort in Delhi, India. To get to the Red Fort, my husband and I took an auto rickshaw from the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. This is a long ride in a three-wheeled tuk-tuk, powered by containers of gas attached to the outside of the vehicle, directly behind the occupants. While I felt like we were sitting on a bomb, the tuk-tuk still seemed safer than the streets surrounding the fort, which were filled with beggars who had no legs—or the ones they had were rotting—and whose hands appeared deformed by accident or illness. I thought about leprosy and worried about being touched, once we had disembarked from the relatively safe confines of the tuk-tuk.
Fueled by the terror of contagion, we ran across the street, darting through the crazy, chaotic traffic, and entered the quiet safety of the Red Fort—first a beautiful large entryway, crumbling a bit, then several buildings, synthesizing Persian, European, and Indian art in red sandstone, then a garden, and inside big rooms with gracefully painted walls; I especially noticed the women, wearing jewel-colored saris, and there were benches to sit, a nice place to eat—no beggars. I never wanted to leave this beautiful fort that was safe like the inside of a meditation, or an ashram, or a psychoanalyst’s office can be.
Bij starts with the gate, standing between and connecting the danger outside, the safety inside, and the harmonious dialogue of different cultures. Next to the image of the fort is a picture of my husband, Mark—a night picture taken in the dark. I love peering at vague shapes, making out memories, dreams or feelings, and understanding something or someone who does not want to be known—mysteries may take shape to be solved, or I may simply open to them and accept them as riddles.
I played with the image and made two Marks, and saw how his shoulders were in relation to the back of his head, a little threatening-looking. I like the shape of his arms and back. Bij contains many body and part-body images, both accidental and deliberate. The central white square seems to have eyes and is shaped like a face. My own face appears mostly hidden to the right of the square—I’m peering out of the doorway, looking at you looking at the picture, hiding as I hid under the covers when I was little, frightened, alone at night, in the dark, wondering what those barely perceptible shapes were near my closet door. Ghosts? A robber coming to kill me? A vampire? This is where my curiosity about forms hiding in the dark, begins—fear becomes interest, a productive counterphobia.
When I finished Bij and showed it to my husband, I went from proud to sick-in-my-stomach terrified in less than a minute and started to cry. I caught my breath and wondered about the meaning of my extreme reaction, and after some thought I realized that Bij was a bricolage, something put together with whatever material is available. I grew up in a chaotic, rejecting, and alcoholic family, and had grabbed whatever good came my way, whenever and wherever I found it. Supplies were scarce when I was a child, and I often felt needy and humiliated. Like a bricolage, I had put myself together from whatever I had found. I was lucky to have found my husband, we were lucky to have made a family of our own.
In the picture called Bij, Mark is looking away from the viewer, and into me, as I am Bij, with knowledge and acceptance of who I am and who he can be, the good analyst-husband. There are ghost figures, too—female on the left, a menacing male, mother and father, perhaps.
I printed Bij on vellum. Vellum is translucent and intimate, fine and a bit slippery to the touch, hard to penetrate and resistant to rips, if you want to tear it, but agreeable if you fold it carefully first. Vellum is like skin. When I write this down, I think of tearing skin, tearing my skin, violence, tears ripping, and tears crying. I cry easily. Skin is a container, like the Red Fort, like making art or yoga. Psychoanalysis can be a container, too.
I scanned Bij into the computer, turning it into a ghost that exists in another dimension. I’d like to project the image into the air and then walk into it, and record that too. You’re invited to come with me, if you like.
Scanning makes Bij more cohesive and yet untouchable—losing the time and shopworn qualities of the original, which is more part of the world and the product of my hands. I love the worn feeling of things used in the world. Lucky for me my taste includes old things, as I am getting to be old, too. How did my mother feel when she was my age? Sometimes, when I look down at my left hand, I’m startled to see my mother’s hand, not my own. She painted too, but never original work, only copies. And then she stopped.
I turned the digital Bij blue, like the one you see at the beginning of the article, (if you view the Internet edition) to differentiate the untouchable digital Bij from the fleshier red one that can be touched, moving from feeling to thinking, more appropriate for something existing changeless, complete, and perfect in cyberspace.
I’ve always had trouble working with the color blue. When I finished the blue multimedia Bij, I felt satisfied and showed it to my blue-eyed husband—he can be troublesome sometimes, too. First I was proud. Then I was scared and ashamed: Bij was too much like me. The fleshy red Bij is concealed in a folder I keep next to my desk in my studio—maybe I’ll frame it sometime, maybe I won’t. I like that it lives hidden and aging. If you look hard, you can find traces of the red Bij behind the blue one. Let’s say, I am Bij.
The Great Mistake
When I was five or six years old, my favorite possession was a small, pale-pink wooden record player, and my favorite record was called “Churckendoose”—a song, as I remember, sung by Ray Bolger, about an unusually large egg laid by a chicken and hatched by a chicken, a turkey, a duck, and a goose who took turns sitting on it; when he emerged from the egg, he looked a bit like each of them—and exactly like himself.
No one in the barnyard had ever seen such a strange creature before. They all said, “What are you? You’re ugly.”
“I was raised by a chicken, a turkey, duck, and a goose, and so I am a Churckendoose! Must I be a chicken or a goose? Can’t I be a Churckendoose?”
I, of course, am a Churckendoose too, and, like Bij, composed of many parts. My mother hen was not very interested in me as an egg, and the rooster sometimes showed me too much interest. The other creatures who lived in my barnyard—grandmothers, teachers, uncles, and aunts—kept me warm enough so I could hatch.
They loved me, but they did not love my mother and would have thrown her out of the nest if they could. I don’t know why she was so rejected, but feeling unwanted informed her treatment of me. So they didn’t love her, she didn’t love me, and she was envious because they liked me better. She had lost the capacity to relate, what Winnicott calls a “primitive agony” (1974, p. 104)—I know the inside of that—and so I lost her too, or hardly ever had her. She was hermetically sealed; I was ashamed and frightened that I could not reach her.
I wanted to be preferred, but was scared when I found that I was. I was more than the Oedipal winner, I had won all around, but there was no love shared among the people I loved, and loving one meant rejecting the other, or at least that’s what they said. I wanted to hold on to everybody. My warring grandmothers once told me they had declared a truce for my benefit.
Family members’ narcissistic investments in my identity were made worse by the times—I was born in 1945 and embodied the hostilities of WWII—my father was half Russian Jew, part American Protestant from way back, and his paternal grandmother was said to have been Dakota Sioux; my mother was Austrian, Belgian, and Catholic.
My family simplified this rich diversity to Jew vs. Gentile, and what was I? Not Jewish, not Catholic, or Protestant, not Native American—a mongrel, I was told, until I learned to say “All that I am does not fit in your mouth,” but inside I felt blamed and shamed for being who I was—being many things, not just one thing. Some of that shame and pride is now reflected in Bij, and how I feel about showing it. Bij is not really painting, not really collage, not really photo image, not always part of fleshy reality, and that makes me alternately proud, ashamed, and frightened as I try to bring it, myself, together in a corporeal whole.
When I paint, I often listen to music.
Oh, life is bigger
It’s bigger than you
And you are not me
The lengths that I will go to
The distance in your eyes
Oh no, I’ve said too much.
I set it up.
I still have my first painting. It is not my painting. My mother saved it. I remember I was sitting in my mother’s lap, finger painting, perhaps the only time this ever happened. My mother didn’t like people sitting in her lap. She didn’t like me sitting in her lap especially. When I grew up and had kids, she didn’t let them sit in her lap either. She was always very clean, and she wanted me to stay ironed and quiet and sit in another room, away from her.
But one afternoon, as I remember, she did let me sit on her lap. I loved painting, loved sitting in her lap, loved that afternoon alone with her, until she grasped my hands—I remember she held them both; I struggled to get free, but she was stronger—she forced me to paint those tight little circles you see coming off the top of the picture. I hated those fake phony screwy circles; I screamed, cried, and tried to escape.
Well, that’s how I remember it, but the picture says different—there’s no sign of struggle in those marks. Maybe my hands liked making tight circles and simply ran off the page. My mother’s hands would not have run off the page. I have always felt that the picture was false, that my mother was proud of a false picture that belonged to her and called it mine. It’s a portrait of a messed-up teddy bear belonging to us both, a witness to our misbegotten relationship.
Not My Painting, by Lynn Somerstein
Still, when I was looking for the picture and it wasn’t where I expected it to be, I felt ill for a moment. My mother treasured it. She kept it for me until I grew up, and now I have it. The paper is disintegrating.
My mother’s body went through many changes. When she was young she had been an athlete—had majored in physical education and studied tap dance. Then she stopped caring about her body. Over time she quit painting, walking, and even cooking, and devoted herself to eating candy and doing crossword puzzles. She turned into a giant granite head attached to a marshmallow body—seriously obese, with back trouble, swollen legs, bad circulation, and breathing problems. Eventually she bought a reclining chair, sat down, and never got out of it, not even to go to bed at night. Then she died.
When she was young she experimented with color—I remember she painted the bathroom chartreuse once—but later her world grew increasingly monochromatic. She used mostly variations of brown and taupe—tobacco colors. She smoked ceaselessly and never opened the windows, and so her house stank. Perhaps she needed to cover us with her scent and make us all hers, the same as her. Perhaps the smoke helped her feel strong and was her container. Of course it was a smoke screen, like her use of language: Her talk was all confusion, an endless obfuscation devised to drive me mad. She gave me very little to hold onto, except smoke. She hated me when I stopped smoking, called me a traitor and showed me her granite face.
So open up the window and let me breathe,
I said, open up the window and let me breathe
I’m looking down to the street below
Lord, I cried for you, Oh, Lord.
“TB Sheets,” Van Morrison.
The only time I saw my mother cry was when she learned of her estranged father’s death. She was hiding in the kitchen, doing the dishes. My father told me what had happened. I went in to comfort her, and saw her tears just before she sent me away. Her parents had been divorced when she was in her teens. She wanted to go with her father, but he wouldn’t take her along—he made her stay with her mother, whom she hated. Later she found out he had had another family all along, with several children—half-siblings whom she never met.
Did her husband’s absence and shadow-marriage cause my grandmother to hate my mother? Did it make my mother angry, frightened, and remote or was there an additional and particular trauma that she never talked about? For reasons I could not grasp at the time, I worried that she had been raped. It scared me to think that I might be raped too.
When I was growing up, my mother spoke with longing, wishing she had learned to play the violin. She had a massive record collection that was carefully catalogued, but I was the only one who ever played it. What happened to my mother’s music? Thinking of her historic wish, I begged her to take up the violin, but she said it was “too late.” She preferred living with her regrets.
I played piano incessantly.
Milner writes (1957, p. 87) “…jealousy and fear of the creative activities of the parents can often make it very difficult to believe in creative interplay in general.” Certainly I felt left out of my parents’ relationship sometimes, but more often I begged my mother to join us, to play with me. Music and books especially kept me breathing, but I wanted a living mother too.
Years ago I worked with a patient who seemed so perfect in her exterior that I wondered if she had an interior. She had a lovely figure, erect posture, and was always well-dressed and made-up, with her hair done. She was lacquered. She made the kind of faultless, impenetrable impression that my mother had wanted for me, an image of a woman with no opening. I wanted to teach her about what is called, in Japanese, wabi-sabi, a celebration of the beauty of all that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete” (Koren, p.7).
She sat on the couch, as near to me as she could get, totally motionless. A “strange duck,” I can recall thinking, and although fairly young, her stiff posture made her appear to me 20 years older than she was. She had decided to try therapy to help with her fear of making mistakes, which caused her to check her work relentlessly.
Her name was a variant of Ann. We’ll call her Lee Ann, to protect her privacy. Ann is my mother’s name and my middle name, too. My grandmother’s name was Anna, like her mother before her.
Lee Ann was not attached to her body—she seemed to float a few feet above it. Her stilted movements reminded me of when I was in high school and what it was like to walk the entire length of study hall, which was held in the high school auditorium, and hand a note to the teacher in charge, who stood on the stage in front of the room. I had held myself rigid then too, and had tried not to sway when I walked. The boys clapped and stamped their feet rhythmically, and I recall marching in time to the beat of it—even though I tried to resist. I was humiliated and angry and afraid. My body did not feel like my own. I didn’t want to have a body at those times, it was too dangerous. I wanted to float above it, where it was safe.
I wondered who owned Lee Ann’s body? Whose rhythm did she obey? She had lost her connection to her feeling body when she created a reified perfect image, more like an impersonation of a woman than a real one. If the body’s natural rhythm is superseded by someone else’s, could that be a metaphor for soul murder (Shengold, 1989) or rape? Does the body itself become a great mistake? My own body felt squeezed into nothingness in her presence.
When I was with Lee Ann, I could hardly breathe—I wasn’t sure it was allowed. Any careless movement, the blink of an eye, a slight shift of position, was an injury, and I clenched my whole body to remain still. It was excruciating, but Lee Ann could not tolerate reminders that we were not one. For many months I heard only air talk, no information about her life, her family, her friends. Did she have any? Did she exist? Did I? We shared dissociative responses to an unknown trauma. I often thought of my mother during sessions.
Lee Ann was devoted to therapy. She never missed a session. She once came to my office drenched up to her knees—she had waded through flooded streets to keep our appointment. She was terrified of contagion—the sewers were backed up—what germs might now be colonizing her feet, her legs. She asked my permission to wash in my bathroom and wanted to know if she was crazy or out of line for asking, then washed herself in my bathroom sink.
My fantasy was that Lee Ann was too weak to survive in the outside world. She might disappear between sessions. She might simply evaporate, like my mother, Ann, who was unable to hold down a job outside the home, who, indeed, rarely went outside at all, and never alone. Her attention repeatedly drew her inwards until she was gone from me, indifferent to my existence and her own—dead to her own music and hating what the real world could give. She was stuck inside limitless autistic dreams. I needed both Lee Ann and my mother to awaken and take what the world could offer them. In that way, I could feel less guilty about accepting the bounty I saw around me, and they would be less envious of me. “Women’s conflicts around creativity and public agency may be related to separation issues, to oedipal victory, or to loyalty to damaged or fragile others” (Harris, 2002).
It’s a big world and there is plenty for everybody. If I could only share—if they would only take what I had to give to them, all that I love in the glorious world.
I was in despair, and asked Lee Ann to speak more about her childhood. “Where did your family like to go when you were little?”
“It doesn’t matter. I don’t remember.”
Instead she talked incessantly about her work. “A trained chimp could do it,” she would say, yet she was obsessed with the zookeeper, her boss. Lee Ann wanted to meet all of her employer’s needs, even before he was conscious of them, and then later when he became totally dependent, almost like an infant, turn against him, enacting the “unthought known” (Bollas, 1987), memories that told me about herself and her mother. As Milner (op cit. p. 66) writes, “what one loves most, is necessarily separate from oneself; and yet the primitive urge of loving is to make what one loves part of oneself. So that in loving it one has…destroyed it as something separate and outside and having an identity of its own.”
Lee Ann worked for a series of powerful men, becoming their trusted advisor, arranging every aspect of their lives, infiltrating their careers, friends, and families. As soon as her employer became completely dependent and reliant on her work, she would become very demanding, claiming that she was unappreciated and unhappy. As a result, she would get remarkably generous perks as the men struggled mightily to hang on to her. Once she had them on their knees, clinging and begging her to stay, she would abruptly leave them.
“That Bozo didn’t know what was coming,” she used to say, seemingly with great satisfaction.
She was a vampire, sucking the agency, the will, the life out of these men. A killer like one of the scary ghosts I painted into Bij. I wondered if my intense and unmet needs for my mother could turn me into a killer too.
She re-created this relational work experience at least 10 times in the years I worked with her, with great success, except for one man, who told her, “This is my life, not yours,” and fired her. She was shocked.
Eventually this story was over—the energy was used up—giving rise to her second symptom, which was the inverse of the first: a series of relationships with a woman, a peer, not a boss, whom she perceived as powerful, stupid, narcissistic, superficial, demanding, lazy, good for nothing, and causing endless misery to selfless Lee Ann, who fought her tooth and nail.
No matter where she worked, Lee Ann found someone to play this new part, and still did when she left therapy. The scene was a little changed—rather than concentrating exclusively on relating to a superior, parental figure, she now was locked in battle with a peer, a stand-in for her sister, whom she described in similar terms, and an aspect of herself and her mother, too. At least the aggression was out in the open, less hidden than it was with the employers she had repeatedly seduced and abandoned.
I remember how desperate I felt sitting with her. She had complete control of the sessions, and of us both. I was a Bozo too. She always began the session saying, “And how are YOU?” She wanted to be the analyst, and I did too! It was my office, she was the patient; I was just beginning my practice and I wanted to work the way I thought I was supposed to. BE the doctor. Lead the way. Save Lee Ann! We were in the mother/daughter struggle (part of hreem, the female principle). When I finally understood Lee Ann had to be the analyst and I had to be her patient, I stopped resisting, and the analysis moved forward with its own life—like art, meditation, or yoga, the process is all. I stopped forcing things. It got better.
Once when I was a teenager I asked my mother, “Aren’t you supposed to be the mother?” She didn’t answer, but that’s when I began to understand that sometimes things are just the opposite of what you might expect. The mother is the child. The patient is the analyst. The trauma is the belly button, the navel, the place where you get your nourishment; it’s the seed word, Bij. It’s the great mistake.
Lee Ann rarely said anything with real meaning; though she spoke incessantly, her words were like a fog; she was driving me mad, as my mother had. I felt trapped sitting with Lee Ann, as I had felt trapped sitting with my mother—expected to be perfectly silent and motionless, with a pleasant expression on my face. Hair neat, dress smooth, socks pulled up, no wrinkles.
We talked some more. When Lee Ann first began to speak, she sounded like someone who had learned a foreign language from a tape—her inflections were odd, her word choices came from an outdated dictionary. Her voice didn’t sound like she used it very much. She could not speak naturally, she could hardly relate. Her laughter sounded forced, stilted, unreal. She was dissociated, self-conscious. A false mark, like the picture I made with my mother, a primitive agony.
Then a client who had an adjacent appointment told me that Lee Ann and I always dressed in the same colors. I had never noticed this, and was shocked. I love color, enjoy it viscerally, comfort myself watching how colors relate, see color sometimes when I meditate. I was too scared to see where we touched, as I was scared to see that the picture, Bij, was a self-portrait.
I mentioned it to Lee Ann one morning when we both wore black and red. I thought, but didn’t say, that we were wearing the colors of hate and love. “We match,” I said, “we often match, and we don’t even call each other up in the morning to set it up, we just know.” Lee Ann was pleased. It became a standing joke, something we could play with together. We matched like best friends in junior high. We matched like the mother/daughter dresses that were popular when I was a child. We were the same. We matched, the two of us were like one person, as my mother had needed me to be one with her, and as I could not bear.
“Where there is no space between self and other, without two people, there is no relationship which can launch the process of identification” (Somerstein, 2008). You need to look across a little distance to see the other and know it is not yourself, or else your interest is just narcissistic self-attachment. Like seeds that need to be planted several inches apart so they can grow strong roots, love blooms better with some room between the stalks. When I refused my mother’s intrusions, she was hurt, alone, but I was alive, enduring the “distance in her eyes,” preferable to the merger she longed for.
How would Lee Ann and I end up?
Psychoanalysis is not knowing what’s coming, like picking up the paintbrush and your hand moves, like moving from pose to pose in yoga, with intention from the inside. Completely in the moment.
Most things people enjoy were anathema to Lee Ann. It was beneath her contempt to go to the movies, meet friends for dinner, or to read anything other than philosophy. But she did mention once that she had studied a certain style of modern dance featuring slow incremental movements and long holds. I didn’t tell her that I had studied modern dance, or that I studied a style of yoga featuring slow incremental movements and long holds. I didn’t want to intrude on her space, on her growing separateness, but I remarked to myself that our bodies’ organic rhythms were in synch. Her body was breathing, and there was hope.
Lee Ann and I began guessing games—what colors will you wear Tuesday, or same and different. She began wearing silk blouses in brilliant colors, rich like the colors of India. Maybe we could both exist. Our color play was me, not me. “At the time of absolute dependence, with the mother supplying an auxiliary ego-function, it has to be remembered that the infant has not yet separated out the ‘not-me’ from the ‘me’—this cannot happen apart from the establishment of ‘me’” (Winnicott, 1974, p. 104). Our play helped us become real to each other, but when I offered Lee Ann the opportunity to draw or work with color, she refused, with some condescension, to participate in such a childish activity. I felt chastised; my gifts were not good enough, I was not good enough.
After a long time Lee Ann told me she was terrified of making an earth-shattering mistake.
“I work for a bank. What if I make a numerical error? I could cause the downfall of New York’s economy; it could spread to the whole U.S., and then Europe. The world!”
Apocalypse, I thought, and remembered Winnicott, who wrote that the fear of future breakdown was the memory of breakdown in the past (1974).
After a year or more, we were able to play with this fear, and when The New York Times ran a headline about the faltering stock market, I asked her if she were the cause. She thought about it for a minute, and then laughed cautiously. (Today, when the economy is in a deep slide, I sometimes wonder if she “succeeded” and really did cause an economic breakdown, or thinks that she did.)
I questioned Lee Ann about her family life. She had almost no memories. I struggled—each time I felt I had come up with something, she cut me down. I was searching for meaning.
Individuals who feel unaccepted by parental figures come apart in their minds and bodies; the body reacts to the distress of rejection, the mind often dismisses that information from conscious awareness in order to protect the child’s well-being and the relationship with the parents—but the body knows what the mind refuses to admit, and this increases feelings of anxiety. The once attuned body/mind splits apart, the mind takes over, and the body, its feelings and memories, are lost to awareness, while trauma lives on, hidden deep inside the flesh.
Somerstein (2010, in press)
“I feel that you are in the bottom of a deep pit, and I’m circling around the lip of it, trying to find a way to help you out without falling in myself,” I said.
“Once,” she said, “when I was little, there was a kitten.”
“A kitten,” I said.
“Yes. It was hiding inside the motor of my father’s car; where it was trying to stay warm. It was winter. He started the car; the kitten died.
I wasn’t circling the pit anymore. Lee Ann killed me and tossed my body in. We were both like the kitten who died seeking paternal warmth inside the car/womb; a truly great mistake. This was her breakdown, associated with her father; I wondered what else happened, but never found out.
When she was pregnant with Lee Ann, her mother’s father, the maternal grandfather, died, sending Lee Ann’s mother into a deep depression that lasted for some years, setting Lee Ann’s emotional thermostat on low. Her mother’s depression made her father’s availability very important.
What was her father like? Lee Ann said he was a genius who spent all his time in the basement playing and listening to music. He could barely remember her name, or her two sisters’ names either, he always mixed them up. I noticed that Lee Ann did that too. Both sisters were the same to her—worthless, and envied; they fought with one another, all the time. They always had.
I expected her mother to be some miserable creature chained to the kitchen, someone like my own mother, whose intelligence and power found no outlet, and so burned her and everyone else up, but no—Lee Ann’s mother was chained to her job, instead. She was an accountant who made a really good living. She had invested the money she earned in real estate and become rich.
“What do you like to do?” I asked Lee Ann. “Do you like anything? Does anything appeal to you?” Her life seemed so bleak, like living in a prison or a concentration camp. I wondered if the Holocaust was family history. It was not.
I began to regain my own body, came alive to speak about the beauty of plants and flowers, their scents, responsiveness to care, the life and energy they lend to the environment, their colors. I seduced and nourished her with my own love of color and scent. Then Lee Ann bought a small miniature rose plant, like the red one I had in my office—it was the same as mine, but different—hers was yellow, the color of the sun, optimism and hope. Like Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince, she learned that the value of the rose comes in the caring for it.
“Remember,” I said, “when I wasn’t allowed to move? When you wanted me to hold completely still, not even blink?”
“I’m glad that’s over,” she said.
Her parents retired and moved to Florida, where she visited them often and saw to her surprise that her father was very popular in their retirement community. He played the piano at all the parties. Had he always been like that? Hadn’t she noticed? Perhaps he was nudged out of the basement and into the world by his advancing age and the great welcome men sometimes experience in retirement communities, where there are many more women than men. They loved his music.
Lee Ann and her father gave each other a second chance. He had fun, and shared it with her as she sat next to him on the piano bench as he played, and they both sang, enjoying time spent together—revitalizing Lee Ann. She even sat on his lap! His delight gave her permission to find her own. The only time I saw tears in her eyes was when she was speaking of him and his growing older.
She decided to paint her apartment, buy furniture. We talked about color as she came alive to beauty. Her home became the canvas of her developing ability to experience pleasure and inhabit her life. Virtue was no longer associated with self-denial.
When her father died, Lee Ann’s mother moved back to New York to be near her daughters; she was feeble and needed their help. Soon she fell ill with an incurable cancer. In contrast to her feelings of sadness around her father’s death, Lee Ann spoke mostly of the competition among the sisters to show who was the best-loved and most virtuous daughter.
About a year after her mother’s death, Lee Ann and I worked toward termination. She had solved to her satisfaction her problems with obsessiveness and her fears of error; she had found a vocation that caused her a lot less stress. I felt there was much else to work out, but she was satisfied and grateful. Maybe unconsciously she wanted to spare us both the full blast experience of her maternal transference.
Seeing with the Heart
The three of us, both Anns and I, had similarities in our natures—anxiety reactions to trauma, a tendency to freeze in fear, to disappear, and to lash out. We were sensitive to color, texture, rhythm, and the demands of others; we all had mothers who were unable to enjoy life, who associated self-denial with virtue, and fathers who were able to have more fun. We were all perfectionists, patient, verging on masochism, inclined to live in our heads, obsessive-compulsive, inveterate bookworms. And behind this, of course, was a pattern of difficult early-attachment relationships.
My mother and I rarely talked to each other. I know less about her history than about anyone else in my family, which makes me feel sad and ashamed. When I can’t fill out the maternal medical history information form in the doctor’s office I feel defensive. What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I get along with her? Shouldn’t daughters and mothers know each other?
I know she abhorred the “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.” As I saw music and color ebb from my mother’s life, I pushed and poked her to come alive, which she resented. I was terrified that I would be just like her; I played piano and danced like the devil to keep breathing. Art and books were my companions and the arms that held me.
Lee Ann and I had long conversations of several years, meeting sometimes twice a week. At first she only valued her brain; feelings were meaningless and worthless, only logic counted. She spoke with “abstract words, intellectual discussions…black and dead, none of the colour and life of words when they are used to describe particular things” (Milner, 1957, p. 82).
“One sees clearly only with the heart” (Saint-Exupéry, 2000, p. 63). I think I helped set the stage for Lee Ann’s renewed relationship with her father, which was warmly satisfying and nourishing to them both. It certainly promoted Lee Ann’s growth and her ability to feel.
Lee Ann’s body changed during treatment from stiff and rigid, seemingly decades older than she was, to slinky and sexy, kittenish. Although she had no sexual liaisons during our work together and little romance in her history, I have a feeling that changed after our work ended—at least I hope so. Often people experience a developmental spurt after the death of a parent or the termination of an analysis.
Art and psychoanalysis are body mediums. I need to put my whole body into things, to feel my body, to use it as bridge between outside and inside, a tuning fork to feelings, using the bodily experience of transference and countertransference in the here and now as a psychotherapeutic tool—the art of psychoanalysis. Emotion and creativity live in the body’s cells (Milner, 1950) and must be expressed. Following the trail I left making Bij led me to a reevaluation of my family history, especially my relationship with my mother, which helped me understand Lee Ann.
I was lucky enough to be able to draw on art-making as container and relationship for as long as I can remember. Lee Ann and I, our relationship, and especially the renewed love between Lee Ann and her father, opened her to feel, live, and create beauty. The quality of our final good-byes was warm, full, and permanent.
“Good-bye,” she said. “Wabi-sabi.”
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