What’s Left Unsaid
by KATHRYN HARRISON
This review has me stirred up. I am interested in the study of where I was during my lost years, and how I was able to get lost things back. My therapists saved my life, of course, and they were all radical hippie third-force neo-Freudians, now here comes a new book with the same overtones, but the review does appear to put the locus of the craziness within the victim and I have real big problems with that. The follwing was written by the author of The Kiss, an icky sex-with-daddy memoir, and I’m feeling the same sort of irration with this review I took from that. I spent hours trying to understand what I don’t like here, but the book under review sounds good and I plan to read it.
Should we care about psychoanalysis? Freud’s dead and the review itself does include the standard 4 paragraph apology, evidently some things remain to be sorted out, meanwhile let’s hit the brass tacks:
At the age of 16, Annie Rogers stopped speaking. “I realized,” she explains in her new book, “that whatever I might say could be misconstrued and used to create a version of ‘reality’ that would be unrecognizable, a kind of voice-over of my truths I could not bear.” Given her apprehension, silence was a sane response — the only response possible for a girl who understood herself as having been called by the archangel Michael to end human suffering by translating “the voices of angels for the world.”
She goes on to conflate the madness of auditory hallucinations with the madness experienced by victims of abuse–
Rogers recovered; she spoke; she grew up and became a Harvard University professor and a clinical psychologist who treated abused and abandoned children, fulfilling the vocation that, when she was a teenager, landed her in a mental institution.
Trauma victims end up in mental institutions too, but Rogers was delusional and experiencing hallucinations, and there’s no mention of trauma in this review. Nice way to muddy the waters and preempt any chance of knowing what we are talking about.
She no longer felt the responsibility to convey messages from heaven and had replaced the archangel with another divinity of sorts, someone with a different ecstatic following — Jacques Lacan — but ending human suffering remained her purpose. “The Unsayable: The Hidden Language of Trauma” is an account of Rogers’s successes, as well as her frustrations, in helping girls, herself included, hear the stories of their pasts and discover the truths of their essential selves, truths that surface no matter how forcefully they are repressed. A basic principle of psychoanalysis, Rogers, who now teaches at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, reminds us, is that a powerful, even controlling part of each person, the unconscious, “insists on knowing the truth, even if the truth is a shocking and costly retrospective.”
True enough. Freud said we hysterics are suffering from reminiscences. I am waiting for some acknowledgement about how that happens, what happens when a narrative gets shut down. Acknowledge how that internal reality (crazy, hysteric, suffering from reminiscence) is caused by an external process (social impotence.)
Like Rogers, I too was done talking at an early age, it wasn’t only that no one would listen, it was that I had lost language, and I submit that the former led to the latter. By age sixteen I could no longer think. That was my problem. You meet people like that, perhaps you met me. Bygones be bygones and all that conciliatory shit, but man did you have fun with me.
She calls her own troubled adolescence “a place of shattering and beginnings,” and she presents her personal history as a prelude to a series of case studies that reveal how the ideas of Lacan (whom she introduces as “enigmatic, maddeningly obscure”) provided her an essential tool for analysis. Those ideas offered Rogers “a structure for listening” to her patients so as to help them understand themselves and transcend symptoms more commonly treated with cognitive-behavioral therapies (shitferbrains) developed for post-traumatic stress disorder. Lacan’s contention that “the unconscious is structured like a language” was the epiphany — the light-bulb moment — she needed to begin to untangle the puzzles of symptoms, actions and statements that characterized the abused children she worked with, many of whom were considered too sick or damaged to be helped.
I was in that population, kicked out of high school for becoming a girl who did not talk or comb her hair, and hobbled into church covered in welts and bruises. Teachers, priests and counselors were incurious about all but viable avenues for getting me off their hands. Most recommended I join the military.
When we contemplate acts we consider unspeakable, we call on a civilized society’s imperative to remain silent about physical abuse, rape, incest — the third monkey in the see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil triumvirate of denial that protects abusers who hold victims in their thrall. As a matter of conscience we fight to create a climate in which victims are not shamed into silence’s effective complicity. But unspeakable is not the same as unsayable. The first audience of the self is, of course, the self, and what stops us from revealing hurtful and damaging events isn’t (or isn’t only) imposed from without.
It’s not that mysterious. If you’re being terrorized and violated with no escape your mind can negate these experiences even as they are happening. You’re going to have to adapt, if that means going into fantasy worlds and escapism, these processes don’t come with on and off switches, nothing to stop the development into 24/7 mindlessness.
So self-censorship “isn’t only imposed from without” that’s no reason to assume innate pathology and let society off the hook. I hate these circular inquires–we’re always left with the usual implied psychopathological mechanism that makes victims psychopathological. That’s not how it was for me, I had a mouth and I had agency, agency I originally exercised to get society to intervene. I lost my will as a direct result of the unresponsiveness my personal agency generated. And make no mistake, it is a big deal to renounce one’s agency in the world.
Before they protect their predators, victims of trauma (defined as any experience “which by its nature is an excess of what we can manage or bear”) protect themselves by not consciously expressing what happened to them.
Isn’t that peculiar? Girls are so strange. Look, it gets to that point when you get shut down. They shut you down, first, and then you lose your words. It’s then you begin to communicate in crazy symbolic ways, as a last resort that’s based on a thorougly unwarranted optimism.
To articulate, or to say, is to put together, to draw fragments of an experience into a coherent narrative, a potentially devastating process if the experience was so overwhelming as to have been, like the author’s own past, “shattering.” Before a thing is consciously (if not audibly) voiced, it has yet to be acknowledged or owned; it has yet to be believed.
Trauma victims believe what happened did happen..
They just don’t want to believe what it means.
But this is why I’ll read the book, it describes the amazing therapists who helped me most:
Lacan’s insights represent a “radical return to Freud,” to the concept of a separate and dynamic unconscious where “time stands still, words function as puns, forbidden ideas find uncanny disguises and dreams are riddles or puzzles.” The Freudian, or Lacanian, analyst is as much sleuth as listener, piecing together a code that emerges from language, symptoms and actions. “Although unconscious life is anything but random, its logic isn’t always clear” but it can be deciphered “through associations and in retrospect.” In recounting her treatment of an 11-year-old girl who suffered debilitating headaches and anxiety in the wake of being abused by a neighbor, Rogers outlines a process of listening for words or even parts of words the girl repeated during therapy, remarking how motifs from her dreams connected to her waking life, and remaining alert to any physical symptoms, in this case the headaches. After sessions, Rogers took notes, and she ruminated on what she’d heard. Like a good detective, she acted on a hunch as well as evidence when she asked the child if headaches might not be code for Ed aches, a way of “telling by not telling” that the neighbor, whose name was Ed, had hurt her.
I was lucky to find treaters who paid attention to cracking my code. Would I find this sort of help today, or is this the end of an era that’s worth fighting for?
Psychoanalysis has been eclipsed to a great extent by less expensive and less time-consuming therapies, and by the even shorter cut of psychopharmacology. But as “The Unsayable” demonstrates, analysis is as uniquely rewarding as it is demanding. Given discipline, patience — and a measure of courage — it may be the only means of reaching certain patients. To learn that “the unconscious is structured like a language” is to see this aspect of the self as radically different from the way it is popularly misrepresented, as a murky soup of dream fragments and primitive urges from which it’s possible to fish out the occasional insight, a kind of primordial chaos from which higher consciousness distinguishes itself.
For Freud, Lacan and Rogers, the unconscious is as complex and sophisticated in its organization as is the conscious, and as individual: each psyche requires its own lexicon. Within this mysterious realm that the Jungian analyst Alan McGlashan called a “savage and beautiful country,” Lacan’s voice does hold the power of an archangel’s, and Rogers’s ability to listen and perceive has an equally rare authority. It isn’t everyone who can hear what we don’t allow ourselves to say.
And students of psychology who show signs of this potential are to be replaced by monkeys and behaviorists, but I repeat myself.