On the unbearable

The 54-year-old woman presented as burrowed into some unhappiness while having achieved a good deal of professional success. The mother of two and the husband of one, she was the main source of financial support. They lived in a slightly decrepit midcentury modern house near the university where she worked. Years into her analysis she would say, repeatedly, that she loved her backyard more than she hated her husband. So, ergo, she could tolerate an unhappy marriage. This was a marriage where she continuously subordinated her own desires and instincts to those of her husband’s, who didn’t seem the least bit inclined to offer any love or support. Mostly he was a mean and selfish son of a bitch. The woman was always doubting herself, having a hard time seeing reality for all her attention to how things must really be according to some other people’s, any other people’s, perceptions. Early, that is two years, into the analysis, she abruptly terminated it. Two years later she came back having lost a lot of weight and gained a good measure of insight into herself. But she still repeated the mantra of loving her backyard more than hating her husband. She complained that she could not figure out how to parent her children. On the cusp of adulthood, they were indeed challenging. She never knew where she stood with them, how to mother them, what it was to be a good mother. In fact, this drew us back to an early recurrent theme: that in her childhood her parents had treated her as a little adult, a source for advice, approval, even sexual arousal. To compensate for her precociously adultified early experience, even as a small child she identified as an adult.  She could handle whatever. She could take care of anyone and everyone. Whatever they needed, she could attend to it. However they saw things, she‘d see to things. So maybe you see where I am going. Or maybe you don’t. She thought she understood and could take care of other people’s needs and desires, but she had little clue about her own. It’s like she could not hear them.

This clinical vignette brings to mind the much beloved little essay, Ghosts in the Nursery, which describes a treatment decades ago of an infant boy who had a mother so traumatized that she could not hear her baby’s cries. Not just metaphorically but literally, she did not hear them. The social workers were in the room, the baby was wailing, and the mother was oblivious. It took everything they had for the social workers not to pick up and soothe the baby, but not wanting to embarrass the mother they let him cry for an unbearable five minutes or so. Why, they later wondered, does the mother seem to actually not hear her baby’s cries? What happened to her? So when they returned they began to ask and they began to unearth all the trauma the mother had endured in her own childhood. She could speak of the neglect and trauma matter-of-factly, but there was no affect attached. So they proceeded to return to it often and remark, “that must have been awful” or sad or painful or whatever in order to get her to connect what happened to her and how it had actually been for her. And as they did so in their sessions with mother and baby, the women began, spontaneously, to start hearing her baby’s cries and pick him up and soothe him.

Since reading this essay for the first time in my own psychoanalytic training, I have been gripped by it. How concretely it connects the divorce between traumatic experience and affect. Indeed, the divorce is not incidental. It is integral. Some experiences elicit feelings that are too hard to bear, that are, in fact, impossible to bear. As libidinal little creatures who cannot bear pain, we find ways to split it off. Surely all the defense mechanisms that have been chronicled in the psychoanalytic literature are testaments of this basic phenomenon. When something hurts, we do whatever we can to keep form hurting. Call it what you will: regression, repression, reaction formation, isolation, undoing, projection, introjection, turning against the self, and reversal. All these are vicissitudes against anything experienced as intolerable. The mother who as a child was neglected, the woman who as a child was deprived of her childhood, anyone who suffered anything that was simply too much to bear, may well turn to these defenses.

The mother of the baby had found life bearable through isolating the affect of her own trauma. The other mother found solace in tending to other people’s needs and disavowing any of her own. But one day, each woke up, the first through the gentle awakening by the social workers. The second was more complicated. That mother who had assiduously split off her own desires on to the needs of others, even through years of analysis, woke up one day to find her daughter being denigrated and manipulated by the father. Suddenly, this reality was too much. It slapped her in the face. She could no longer think that she could let it abide and take care of or clean up the toll. What was tolerable one day, was suddenly impossible.

Funny how I am using the same words to describe two different realities: the traumatized one and the current one. The one that the small child must defend against to stay lucid. The one the adult must grapple with to move ahead. The small child can well cower beneath the covers. The person trying to make her way in the world needs to look outside and see reality. Where the child has few if any means to change reality, the adult can get a divorce.

And so she did.

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.

1 comment

  1. Great piece! I think, here, loving one’s back yard more than hating one’s husband is signal. If that was the definitive statement the wife could make, given the totality of circumstances presented, the only lawful, sensible means of self-preservation would have to be divorcing the son of a bitch. I am a pragmatist.

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