A while ago quite by accident I happened to see a photo of a woman I saw in therapy many years ago. I recognized the name — the face, like mine, has aged and I probably would not have recognized her had I seen her on the street.
And that setin motion in my mind’s eye a kaleidoscope ofremembered patients now long gone from my life; of patients I saw years ago; kids from the therapeutic nursery program I oversaw more 40 years ago. What ever happened to those kids? The child who was electively mute? The one with feet scalded by an angry mother?The man who struggled with a serious physical illness? The women who were my Handless Maidens? Among many others.
Because that’s the thing about being a therapist. Patients pass through our lives. And unlike friends, who, even when contact is lost, we can locate again and find out how they are doing, patients, when they leave, may or may not ever contact us again. That’s part of the deal, one of the things we have to accept from the beginning. These people who become an intimate part of our lives, sometimes for years, may very well, when they leave, leave us behind except in memory. And when the desire to know how they are arises in us, we have to be satisfied with not knowing.
When my daughter was born, we chose for the announcement a phrase I had read somewhere — A child is someone who passes through our lives on the way to becoming an adult. And maybe a variant of that is apropos for therapy and therapists — a patient is someone who passes through our lives on the way to becoming.
A few years ago I taught a course at our Senior College called Conversations in the Third Act. Among other things we took photos of our hands, as hands show age in ways we cannot cover up as so many try to do with the face. This photo is unmistakeable as one of an older person’s hand. It tells the tale of a life lived.
Living to Tell the Tale
The goal of all life, the end point, death, is what lies in front of us. In the third act of life it looms larger than it has before and is much more a part of consciousness. To be fully alive is to know that death lies ahead.
Between here and death, there is work to be done to deal with things left undone, to reconcile ourselves to our past, to seriously consider the story we have been living with an eye especially toward any changes we want to make in the remaining years.
A friend of mine, a woman in her mid-70’s wrestles with the conflict between the desire to do and the body that no longer wants to. And with the bubbling up of creative possibilities that she does not know she can bring to fruition. All of us in the third act are faced with having to prioritize in a new way, to come to terms with the certain knowledge that if there is something we want to do, want to create, we have to get down to work now because time is passing swiftly.
How to wrestle with these issues without succumbing to despair or melancholy and regret is a major concern. What does it mean to become old? What is old — 60? 70? 80? How do we come to terms with a body, a face that is not the face or body I carry in my mind’s eye of myself? How do we make sense of the story we have lived and consider how we want to live the last chapters?
Jung wrote in Memories, Dreams and Reflections: “Thus it is that I have now undertaken, in my eighty-third year, to tell my personal myth. I can only make direct statements, only “tell stories”. Whether or not the stories are “true” is not the problem. The only question is whether what I tell is my fable, my truth.”
The story of our lives is our myth. People in mid-life and later often enjoy looking back and spinning yarns about what we have experienced. One thing to keep in mind is that myths tell not so much about the literal part of our lives but how we experience events internally, our perceptions and emotional reactions. These reactions can be radically different from what one might expect based solely on what actually takes place.
Stories are how our ancestors wove the fabric of meaning and existence as they made their way in their lives. Human beings are myth makers, story tellers. We remember ourselves and our lives in stories — stories we tell our friends, family, strangers, ourselves. When someone asks you, “What happened?”,you construct a story to relay your experience. Memory crystallizes into story.This is how we attempt not only to portray ourselves in our lives but also to find meaning. Meaning, or the search for it, has always been at the basis of story. Telling stories is the most human of all acts. Exploring our life story not only provides meaning, but also constitutes a celebration of our lives.
Writing your life story is one way of exploring the meaning of your life and an important one. Another is through depth psychotherapy.
“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.” – Brené Brown
“Psychoanalysis cannot be considered a method of education if by education we mean the topiary art of clipping a tree into a beautiful artificial shape. But those who have a higher conception of education will prize most the method of cultivating a tree so that it fulfils to perfection its own natural conditions of growth.”Jung CW, vol. 4, para. 442
People come to therapy expecting cure or healing from their problems. I don’t think of therapy as healing in the usual sense. To heal means to make whole or healthy, to recover or restore and comes from the root kailo meaning whole or uninjured. In order to think of what I do as healing, I would need to see the people I work with, and indeed myself, as broken, ill and I don’t, not in the sense of illness. Barbara Stevens Sullivan has a wonderful way of putting this:
“In some sense, a person is her wounds. A sapling, planted beside a supportive stake that the gardener neglects to remove, will grow around the stake. The stake’s presence will injure the growing tree; the tree will adapt by distorting its “natural” shape to accommodate the stake. But the mature tree will be the shape it has taken; it cannot be “cured” of the injury, the injury is an intrinsic aspect of its nature.” (The Mystery of Analytical Work, p. 175)
I do believe that all humans are wounded, varying in degree and type of wound, but we are all wounded. My first professor in abnormal psychology put it this way — from the moment of conception we are bombarded by influences of all kinds, both noxious and helpful and as adults we are who we are at least in part due to the effects of these influences. Some of us will be more scarred than others, but none of us will be unmarked by the experiences of our lives. So wounded per se is the normal state, not a state of ill-health.
Now, the extent to which our wounds make our lives complicated and/or difficult is where therapy enters in. Problems in living are what bring most people that I have seen into therapy — the desire to experience life in a different way is the motivator. There is no procedure or pill or technique I can apply that will close the wound. Whether or not healing is the appropriate description for becoming conscious of something that is an integral part of us, an unerasable part of our history, is something I balk at a bit. I can become more conscious of the ways I have internalized people and issues in my life. Becoming more conscious of them increases the array of possible responses I have available to me, so I can choose differently and thus find myself not in the old familiar ruts but in very different relationship to myself and those around me. That is what I believe therapy does for people and indeed is what I have experienced in my own therapy. I cannot be what I might have been had I not had the mother I had or the experiences in life I have had — I am indelibly marked by them. But I can be freer in how I live my life and perceive my possibilities through the process of examining my thoughts, behaviors, history, dreams, reactions. That is what talk therapy as I know and do it is about.
This past Saturday I had lunch with someone who was one of my first friends in Maine. We met when both of us were in our late 20s. We and our respective husbands were very close for close to 10 years. Then life intruded and the chaos of divorce, first hers then mine, and we drifted apart. She who knew me when I was 27 and seeing me now would not notice too very many things different about me except that my hair is grey and I am wearing glasses rather than contacts — all external manifestations of age and the life I have lived. I look at her and I see her grey hair and a few wrinkles. Superficially we are both quite the same.
Yet having known her very well, I can feel she is different — softer, sadder, more open. I imagine she noticed that I am calmer, less prone to sarcasm, more contemplative, warmer, maybe more confident. I still delight in words and have a dry sense of humor. Still I am a bit shy, though a bit less reserved. But on the whole, like her, I feel softer and more open.
The changes I have experienced in my life as the result of a long and successful analysis are interior, and though they shape what others see, are most likely unknown to others. Those inner changes were hard won. The forces against them from my early life were fierce and did not go down without a ferocious fight. Through those hours of talk with my analyst, I began to be able to see the destructive bits and then to be able to not act on them, to let them go by, like bubbles rising in champagne. I still have moments of feeling like I used to feel, but I see it, I feel it when it happens and I now have the freedom to make choices that do not feed those moments and so they do not grow into hours or days as once they did.
I see therapyas opening the door to new possibilities. I cannot undo my history, make myself as if my childhood or any part of my life had been ideal, but I can become more conscious of the ways that history and my interpretations of it have operated in my life and in that way allow me to choose from a wider array of possible behaviors as I go forward. I think we are all wounded to greater and lesser degrees. The wounds do not disappear, though they do become less dominant in our lives. But healing, in the sense that we usually think of it, seems to me to not be operative in the dealing with these wounds.
The image above is of ice crystals on my window on a very cold winter day. They obscure the view outside, just as the secrets we carry obscure a truly clear view of us.
Probably my favorite volume of Jung’s Collected Works is V 16, The Practice of Psychotherapy — which isn’t surprising, I suppose. It is one of the first that I read all the way through. In his discussion of catharsis as a part of psychotherapy, Jung talks about the pernicious effect of secrets in our lives and says that they prolong our isolation from others.
Secrets, like an affair or a gambling problem or some misdeed or money problems — the kind of thing we lie awake and worry about, worry about others discovering — are often a big part of what brings people into therapy and what patients find most difficult to talk about. Shame and fear of judgment fill the room. The carefully cultivated image of respectability or responsibility or moral superiority will surely shatter into a thousand pieces the moment anyone, even the trusted therapist, finds out what is concealed beneath the facade. Each patient with such a secret imagines herself to be alone in the world, unlike and apart from all the rest of humanity, unable to imagine that the therapist has heard similar tales many times before.
When we carry secrets like this, they become barriers between us and everyone in our lives, cutting us off from real intimacy. Anything which threatens to reveal what we seek so to hide becomes a source of anxiety and must be avoided. Maintaining the facade, the persona which covers the shame of the secret becomes paramount. In Japan I am told there is a saying that first the man takes a drink, then the drink takes a drink then the drink takes the man. The same is true of secrets as the secret comes to own the life of the person carrying it.
Psychotherapy, like the confessional, offers a unique opportunity to break the secret and its hold on the life of the carrier. First comes the mustering of courage to say it, to tell the therapist what has been held in shame, to brave the condemnation and the rejection, the fear of which maintains the grip of the secret. And once spoken, then the work of discerning the meaning of the secret and opening to the shadow.
I hear from people about things they are afraid to discuss with their therapists, secrets they carry and feel shame about. I know how hard it is to open up the dark corners of our lives and let another see in. It feels like a huge risk. But what is the point of being in therapy if, at some point, the secret is not told? If it remains untold and unexplored, the therapy in a very real sense is a lie because it never gets to the truth of the patients life and feelings. So we say to patients that they should say whatever comes to mind and mean to include the secrets as well.
Here are some of Jung’s thoughts, all taken from Vol. 16, pp.55-60:
Anything concealed is a secret. The possession of secrets acts like a psychic poison that alienates their possessor from the community.
All personal secrets … have the effect of sin or guilt, whether or not they are, from the standpoint of popular morality, wrongful secrets.
…if this rediscovery of my wholeness remains private, it will only restore the earlier conditions from which the neurosis, i.e. the split off complex, sprang.
All of us are somehow divided by our secrets but instead of seeking to cross the gulf on the firm bridge of confession, we choose the treacherous makeshift of opinion and illusion.
It is by no means easy to let go of our secrets, whether we feel, that do so would be rude or because we fear being judged or rejected or abandoned. It is hard work and takes time. But it is important to keep at it.
Saying whatever comes to mind is a goal and one it takes work to reach. An important part of that work is exploring the difficulty we have in getting there.
It looks like I will be teaching a short course on Understanding Your Dreams in the spring at the Belfast Senior College here where I live. And I plan to offer an online dream group later in the spring — stay tuned for news about that. Given that, I thought maybe a small introduction to understanding dreams would whet your appetite.
Jung tells us:
“After the parting of the ways with Freud, a period of inner uncertainty began for me. … I felt it necessary to develop a new attitude toward my patients. I resolved for the present not to bring any theoretical premises to bear upon them, but to wait and see what they would tell of their own accord. My aim became to leave things to chance. The result was that the patients would spontaneously report their dreams and fantasies to me, and I would merely ask, ‘What occurs to you in connection with that?’ or, ‘How do you mean that, where does that come from, what do you think about it?’ The interpretations seemed to follow of their own accord from the patients’ replies and associations. I avoided all theoretical points of view and simply helped the patients to understand the dream-images by themselves, without application of rules and theories. Soon I realized that it was right to take the dreams in this way as the basis of interpretation, for that is how dreams are intended. They are the facts from which we must proceed.” (Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections Pp. 170-71)
It is very difficult for some of my patients to get it that I am not the expert on their dreams, that I have no magic wand to wave to magically reveal all that the dream contains. That they themselves are the experts for their dreams is a tough concept as many of them are so used to looking to experts for answers. But this is exactly what I like most about Jungian dream analysis, that we start from the patient and not from the theory.
So forget about your books of dream symbols and just be with your dreams. Ask yourself the questions Jung asks in the quote above. Let the dream talk to you. And if you must have a book to help you, here are 2 that may give you some ideas:
Leo, one of my cats, has no problem with questions of any kind. But in therapy personal disclosure is a common issue in therapy as patients wonder if it is intrusive to ask the therapist personal questions and therapists wonder how much to disclose. I have never found this to be an especially difficult issue. Taking a page from an early supervisor, I tell patients early in our work that they should feel free to ask any questions that they like of me. I tell them I will answer any that I feel comfortable with *and* that I think it is also important that we consider what the question is about for them. What is happening, what are they feeling that gives rise to this question today? Very rarely has anyone asked anything that felt intrusive or that I felt I couldn’t or shouldn’t answer.
But this issue touches into boundaries and the frame of therapy and needs to be handled thoughtfully rather than automatically.
Years ago, when I was trying to sort out just what was the nature of my relationship with my analyst and wishing that I could know that we would or could be friends when our work was over, he told me that he considered the analytic relationship to be very personal, as personal as any. That puzzled me because I knew the boundaries — we wouldn’t have dinner together or any of the kinds of things that friends do. Yet the relationship was very close. Therapeutic relationships occupy their own niche — neither friendship nor distantly professional, but a space which is both intimate and follows its own etiquette. And because it is different, an intimate relationship yet not mutually disclosing, it can be difficult to understand the boundaries.
The therapist is not the subject of the therapy and that is one reason that there may be some reluctance to answer personal questions. Not because there is something to be hidden but because focusing on the therapist’s life means turning away from that of the patient, thus it can be a resistance, this wanting to ask questions. Or the desire may rise from ordinary curiosity. This is why it is useful to consider what underlies the desire to know. It is important to remember that the therapeutic relationship is not like any other and that one of the goals of depth therapy is to make the unconscious conscious.
“The principle aim of psychotherapy is not to transport one to an impossible state of happiness, but to help (the client) acquire steadfastness and patience in the face of suffering. ” -C.G. Jung
When I was nine, we lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico. My mother, not an easy woman, thought I would never become a desirable catch, as I was too preoccupied with books. Her poking, prodding, and criticism did not work, so she enrolled me in a ballroom dance/etiquette course. As it happened, that same year, the University of New Mexico was mounting a production of Euripides’ “Medea”. They needed two nine-year-olds to play the sons, but it was thought that nine-year-old year old boys were too rowdy to take the discipline to be in a play like that, so they came to the dance class to pick two girls. I was one of them.
I remember being fitted for the costume, being taught to walk like a boy and to scream like a boy. I did not know what the story was, but it was fun learning those things.
I finally saw the play all the way through the day of the dress rehearsal. I remember standing in the wings watching. The meaning of the play rolled down the aisle like a dark cloud and swallowed me as I realized she kills her sons. In a moment, I understood what role I was playing. I can remember the hair standing up on the back of my neck and the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.
I woke up the next day with a fever and by the end of the day, it was clear I had the measles. I missed the whole run of the play.
Fast forward many years to graduate school. Medea continued to fascinate me so I decided to write my dissertation about her. I was struck by how modern her situation seemed. Imagine Medea as a girl, star-struck by the hero, Jason. Her name means cunning or knowing. She is the niece of Circe, granddaughter of Helios, daughter of a king. A powerful woman, a priestess of Hekate. Yet, when she sees Jason, described as good-looking, tall with long blond hair, a Fabio of his day, she becomes infatuated. Jason represents the glory and civilization of Greece, adventure. In order to help him to survive the tasks given him by her father as the price for obtaining the Golden Fleece, she must choose love over duty. In turn, in order to secure her help, Jason swears to marry her. In choosing Jason, Medea breaks the tie to family and home to go with Jason to a land where he is hero and she a barbarian.
Jason wants her, needs her, in order to successfully complete his quest. He is willing to give her what she wants—that feeling of being wanted and a place to hide her power and control. In agreeing to marry Medea, Jason gains everything—his life, the Golden Fleece, his safe return as a hero. In one version of the play, the Nurse raises the important question: “Why must a woman seek a man who seeks his special gold?”. Men with this kind of commitment, more to their quest than to the woman, seem unlikely to match the devotion of a woman like Medea. But she feels wanted, needed and so surely, perhaps she thinks, he must be the one for her.
I hear variations of this story again and again in my office from smart, competent women who spend their days wanting to be wanted and being disappointed time and again. To a degree I lied it myself when I was a young woman. Too often the women seem to see themselves as trophies or dolls on the shelf and convince themselves that whoever chooses them must be the right one, because after all, he is choosing her. And too seldom see themselves as also in position to choose, not merely to wait until being chosen.
Following from Lacan, who asserted that women want to be wanted more than they want to be loved, women too often seek to be desirable rather than to be fully known. Polly Young-Eisendrath explores this “wanting to be wanted” not as the normal outcome of female development but as a problem in her book, Women and Desire: Beyond wanting to be wanted.
“The compulsion to be desired and desirable undermines self-direction, self-confidence, and self-determination in women from adolescence through old age, in all our roles, from daughter to mother, from lover to wife, from student to worker or leader, whether or not the affliction is conscious.
Wanting to be wanted is about finding our power in an image rather than in our own actions. We try to appear attractive, nice, good, valid, legitimate, or worthy to someone else, instead of discovering what we actually feel and want for ourselves. In this kind of conscious or unconscious arrangement, other people are expected to provide our own feelings of power, worth, or vitality, at the expense of our authentic development. We then feel resentful, frustrated, and out of control because we have sacrificed our real needs and desires to the arrangements we have made with others. We find ourselves always wanting to be seen in a positive light: the perfect mother, the ideal friend, the seductive lover, the slender or athletic body, the kind neighbor, the competent boss. In place of knowing the truth of who we are and what we want from our lives, we become trapped in images.” (Young-Eisendrath, Women and Desire: Beyond Wanting to Be Wanted, p.3)
Q. How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?
A. None—the light bulb will change when it’s ready.
Well it is actually appropriate in talking about therapy.
How much does a person have to want to change in order to change at all? Basically nothing is going to happen as a result of therapy if the person doesn’t want to change. And it is a lot more complicated than it seems. Change is inherently destabilizing and uncomfortable, even when it seems highly desired. So there is a big difference between feeling you want to change and actually doing the changing.
I read somewhere that a famous guru when asked how to stop smoking said, “That’s easy. Don’t smoke the next cigarette.” All the work of therapy lies in that space between the question and the action.
The pattern of beliefs and feelings we have about ourselves, built up over a lifetime often with roots in our earliest relationships and never really challenged by us create the prison we live in. We don’t realize is that this prison has only three walls and no bars keeping us in. We don’t realize this because we stand in the corner looking at the walls in front of us and believe that there is no way out. Therapy is, at least in part, the process of turning around and discovering that we can walk out of our prison. That process is not easy and it can take a very long time, but stripped to bare essentials, that is what we do in therapy.
So you decide one day to go to a therapist to see what she can do to help you. In therapy, no matter how much you may believe you are controlling your responses and behavior, over time your habitual ways of thinking and acting about yourself and your world show up. These are the stories you tell yourself about yourself; they make up your prison. As the therapist questions your habitual responses and views and challenges your ideas about yourself and the world, ever so gradually, you start to change — daring to be more open, to question what you have believed, to try new ways of behaving. It is slow and subtle. The therapist has to be both patient, caring and willing to challenge you, the patient, even make you uncomfortable or upset. And be able to not take personally the feelings you have toward her or him. Gradually the story you tell yourself about yourself changes, not in kind but in degrees. The things that used to be self-defining recede a bit to allow other self-perceptions and beliefs to come to the fore. The more deeply ingrained the patterns, the longer it takes to change them.
The therapist doesn’t DO anything. We listen, we offer observations in the form of interpretations, we may confront but we have no magic to make change happen. It is entirely possible to spend months or even years in therapy without changing at all. The hard work of making the change — or, to return to our famous guru’s recommendation, not smoking the next cigarette — is up to the patient. So why see a therapist? Because it is very difficult to see yourself clearly. Just as a camera cannot photograph itself except in reflection, the kinds of changes that are the heart of therapy need someone to serve as a mirror, as someone who can see and hear you without having an agenda about or for you, someone who can be caring and brutal. I can’t think of anyone I know who has done that without help, including myself.
Got questions about therapy? Leave a comment or email me using the form on the right, and I will do my best to answer. Please keep questions general rather than about your therapy or therapist.
I entered private practice in the early 80s after my children were born. At first, I did a lot of school consultation and consultation to day care centers and to Head Start. But after my own children came along, I decided I no longer wanted to work with young children.
In my mid-30’s I started to wonder what I really wanted to do when I grew up. I considered going to law school. Or becoming a nurse and then a nurse midwife. Or going to medical school. Or getting a degree in public policy. In the end I came back to my beginning — I knew I wanted to do psychotherapy with adults.
Graduate school and my first job had given me the bare minimum training to be able to sit in a room across from another person and listen. Which I started doing. And I began to read again about therapy. I would find a book that spoke to me and when I finished it, I would look at the bibliography and start reading those books. I read Freud and Jung and neo-Freudians and post-Jungians. My father had always told me I could learn anything I needed to know from books, and though he wasn’t right, that notion stood me in good stead as I read and read and read. I came to the material without prejudices so I read widely — everything from ego psychology to archetypal psychology. It was all fascinating to me. Of course some of what I read resonated more than others and I found myself drawn particularly to two areas — object relations and that branch of post-Jungian psychology that developed in England and influenced by object relations. I fell in love with Winnicott, Guntrip, Balint and Samuels, Redfearn, Stevens Sullivan. I plowed my way through several volumes of Langs’ seminars.
Reading is fine and important. But no amount of reading can make anyone a better therapist. So I also sought both clinical supervision and personal analysis. I wanted supervision from therapists I knew to be better than me, more skilled, better trained, more experienced. And as Jungian analysts began to settle in Maine in the 80’s, I was able to find them. Between 1985 and 1998 I worked with three different Jungian analysts in supervision — one was quite classical, another embraced Langs’ therapeutic frame, and the third gave me the blend of psychoanalytic approaches and Jung that appealed to me.
Supervision is an important part of becoming a therapist. But personal therapy is even more important in my view. I had been in therapy in college and again in my mid-thirties. But what I wanted now was Jungian analysis. In 1986, a week before I turned 40, I started analysis with one of the first analysts to move to Maine, I worked with her for 3 years. I then started seeing another analyst, a man I ended up working with for 24 years.
But why Jung, you ask? It is the focus on meaning that really works for me with Jung. Symptoms have meaning which for me is a liberating way to understand life and behavior. Far more useful for me than something rooted in pathology and a notion of illness.
Jungians frustrate me sometimes. Sometimes it becomes too airy and I used to get annoyed at how little in the Jungian literature there was on technique. But the other side frustrates me too — with too much on technique and rules. Finding my own balance point in between has been a big part of my growth and development as a therapist.
One of my supervisors told me we practice what we believe. So I came to be a developmental Jungian (that’s what Andrew Samuels calls that branch of post-Jungian practice that combines Jung and object relations) because it is what I believe, because it makes sense to me in some deep and fundamental way. If you could see me work, you would not likely see much difference between how I am in session with a patient and how Paul Weston of In Treatment is or how most modern psychodynamically oriented therapists are. The difference lies more in how we view what we see, a difference not as great as some think, than it is in what we do. So, I practice what I believe.
Here are a few of the books that I read along the way that I have returned to more than once:
Now to what any of this means to you. If you decide to work with me, it helps for you to know that I am not an overnight sensation, that I have spent many years learning about and reflecting on what I do as a therapist and that I have also done my own work in my personal therapy. The specifics of my theoretical orientation may be of interest to you but as we sit with one another, they are not really important for you all.
Knowing that I come from a depth orientation matters because we will not be focused so much on solutions but rather on meaning– what does it mean in the context of your life that this issue persists for you? or what is this dream trying to tell you about yourself and your life.
As Sheldon Kopp put it, “The continuing struggle [in psychotherapy] was once described in the following metaphor by a patient who had successfully completed a long course of psychotherapy: ‘I came to therapy hoping to receive butter for the bread of life. Instead, at the end, I emerged with a pail of sour milk, a churn, and instructions on how to use them.’ “
At this time of year we often think and write about things we remember. So this is a good time to stop and think about memory itself.
I read a lot of memoirs. I remember discovering biographies when I was in 3rd grade — remember Landmark Books? I found them and began to eagerly read biographies of people like Clara Barton and Abraham Lincoln. But there weren’t many about women. In fact women’s lives seemed not to be deemed interesting until the women’s movement began to encourage women to speak in our own voices about our lives.
Among the many wonderful memoirs by women I have read in the last 25 years or so are:
Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick
A Chorus of Stones by Susan Griffin
Skating to Antarctica by Jenny Diski.
The Shadow Man by Mary Gordon
Devotion by Dani Shapiro
Memoir necessarily engages in the problem of memory. Is what is remembered what happened or a narrative created on a mesh of emotion, images, and sensations? Diski says, “Memory is not false in the sense that it is willfully bad, but it is excitingly corrupt in its inclination to make a proper story of the past.”
Jung tells us: “The function of memory, or reproduction, links us up with things that have faded out of consciousness, things that became subliminal or were cast away or repressed. What we call memory is this faculty to reproduce unconscious contents, and it is the first function we can clearly distinguish in its relationship between our consciousness and the contents that are actually not in view.” (CW 18, p.39)
Now here is an example from my own life that I believe is a memory —
I am old enough that when I was in elementary school, we had a Christmas pageant in school, complete with angels and shepherds and everything. I will always remember the pageant when I was in second grade.
In my class, the best reader was to be made the head angel and would read the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke. Well, I *knew* I was the best reader because I was reading several levels ahead of everyone in my class. My nearest competitor, Martha S., was a good reader, but I knew she was not the best. So I was absolutely certain that the head angel position was mine.
Imagine my shock, my horror, my outrage when on the day when parts were assigned, it was not I who was to be head angel, it was to be Martha S.! In my mind, this was a terrible injustice. Here I was, the very best reader in the second grade and I was to be consigned to the ranks of the ordinary angels! As it happened, Martha was a very pretty little girl with long blonde hair while I was chubby and brunette so maybe Martha fit the picture of an angel better than I did. Outwardly I accepted this injustice and quietly took my place in the ranks of the angels.
My mother made my costume, complete with glittery wings and a halo. We rehearsed. And then came the day of the pageant.
Martha stepped one step in front of the ranks of angels and took a breath to begin her reading. And then, just one word ahead of her came another voice from the back of the angels, reciting the story perfectly word for word. Martha got flustered but I continued on. Yes, I had memorized the whole story. I knew I was the best reader.
To my mother’s great credit, she did not get angry or make me feel bad. And what I did became the stuff of a story my family told about me.
BUT — is what I remember what actually happened? I certainly wanted to be the head angel. And to this day, I still know the words to the story. But if we could talk with Martha S., would she remember it the way I do? Or is it a narrative developed to fit the story of myself that I was weaving, the story of a spunky little girl who could make things go her way?
The words “memoir” and “memory” come to us from the middle English/Anglo-French word memorie, and from the Latin memoria, derived from memor, which means “mindful.” Russell Lockhart in Words As Eggs: Psyche in Language and Clinic traces it also to an Indo-European root smer– — which in one form refers to grease and fat. How is memory connected to ‘fat’? Think about how difficult it is to get rid of fat. It sticks. It adheres. It won’t leave. It leaves traces. A memory is what sticks, what adheres in the mind. Memory is the fat of the mind. Related words that share the history of memoir include remember, commemorate, memorable, memento, and memorandum. The word mourn also shares its derivations. The same root that gave rise to memory gives rise to mourn. When someone has passed away or slipped away, we mourn that memory. When we are in mourning, we are deeply engaged with the memory of that person. Our mind is full of memories. We can only mourn through memory and with memory. We mourn for what we had and can now have only in memory.
Think about a vivid dream you have had. When you write, it becomes something other than the dream. It becomes a text, an adaptation of the dream, but the dream, consisting of images, cannot be fully and accurately captured in words. The same with memory. The experience remembered is not a record, faithful in every detail. The memory is particular to the rememberer. Even in a family, the same event can and often is recalled differently by parents and children, even by siblings.
A symptom is an untended memory. It is the voice of a forgotten or banished part of ourselves… Memory is the medicine of the psyche – even, and especially when the memories are dark. – George Callan