The secrets in our silences

Photo: Statue of a head with eyes closed.

I began reading the book History Beyond Trauma by Françoise Davoine and Jean-Max Gaudillière during a turbulent time in my life — when deaths, losses, and uncertainties continually piled up. Despite my best efforts to remain optimistic and push forward with life as planned, traumatic stress was threatening to be more than a subject I researched or a condition I treated. At times I felt I was only a narrow step out of its grasp. At first I didn’t speak of this, as if by not voicing my fears I would somehow outpace them.

During times when feelings of overwhelm constantly nip at our heels, Folly is likely to enter our lives, and we take her hand willingly. So I put down History Beyond Trauma, which might have saved me from a regrettable detour. Much later I would learn the book sensitively looks at the intergenerational transmission of war-related traumas, and critically analyzes the ways analysts and their analysands together reenact not only their own unspoken traumas, but also the silenced traumas of their parents, grandparents, and the ancestors of their communities and cultures.

With Folly by my side, I started analysis with a very controlling man who was also my supervisor. In my state of duress, I ignored all I had learned in my training about the perils of dual relationships. But more importantly, I ignored what I knew as a trauma survivor about the dangers of excessive power and control. Had I continued to read History Beyond Trauma, I would have come across Davoine and Gaudillière’s discussion of Lacan’s notion of the “Real,” which is concerned with the erasure of traumatic histories. In one passage they wrote:

“Madness can very often be considered a normal mode of survival in the face of actual manipulations on the part of the environment, from a prior moment that has dropped out of time. What we are dealing with in that case is a normal craziness that bears witness to a normality that is crazy, trivialized, dehistoricized, and denied: ‘What happened didn’t happen.’ From that time on, the place vanishes with the past: there is no place, no past. It has become impossible to trust one’s own emotions and sensations.”

Now, I am a middle-aged woman with four advanced degrees, as well as quite a few years of hard-won street smarts. I am also blessed with a loving and supportive husband and good friends, all who repeatedly pointed to my Folly, which I was too frightened to see. This is the power of the traumas that binds us to others and blinds us to reality — that ‘What happened didn’t happen’ stance towards life that Davoine and Gaudillière wrote about. We start ignoring what we know is Real on a deep and intuitive level, especially if we can’t use our senses to access the Real in the tangible environment.

If I can deny the Real (or more technically speaking, dissociate from it), and I am someone who knows better (at least on a rational level), then how vulnerable are clients who are often isolated in their suffering, not to mention lack the years I had already clocked studying the phenomenology of “madness” and the mental health industry?

Most who practice psychotherapy are not exploitive by nature as my analyst/supervisor was, and yet many have traumatic pasts. Sometimes us therapists like to pretend we have already healed our personal traumas, or to a lesser degree, pretend we can ignore the depth to which they inform so much of what we do and who we are. Yet it is the nature of trauma — just as it is the spirilic nature of healing — that we must address our traumatic pasts over and again across the lifespan, although usually without the intense pain and distraction that can characterize early attempts at overcoming trauma. (Hopefully, much of this early work is completed prior to working in the mental health field.)

Painful as such memories can be, we must consciously remember the traumas in our past, because the problems that come with unconscious remembering are too risky. Davoine and Gaudillière wrote:

“But whatever the measures chosen for erasing facts and people from memory, the erasures, even when perfectly programmed, only set in motion a memory that does not forget and that is seeking to be inscribed.”

In effect, the Real we attempt to forget pushes to become part of reality, which means clients are always vulnerable to therapists’ failures to witness their own traumatic wounding.

I worry about the silences that shroud the practice of psychotherapy as well as therapists’ stories of their own traumas — those silences that risk turning therapists into “blank screens.” On the one hand, clients don’t come to therapy to hear about us, and we wisely use the time to help them narrate their silences and their dreams for whom they could become. Yet on the other hand, if we pretend our own traumas are not at least on an unconscious level pushing for their own resolution, then we increase the risk for Folly to choose the direction the relationship will take.

According to Davoine and Gaudillière, telling the stories of trauma, and of traumatizing relationships, is central to healing what has been left unspoken. They wrote, “The stories of deep connection and pain must be told.” They also warned, “If for some reason, they cannot be spoken, they are told through an other,” which is how the intergenerational transmission of trauma occurs. The Real becomes a silent contagion passed from parent to child (and perhaps in a similar fashion, from psychotherapist to client). This transmission of the Real reminds me of C. G. Jung’s remark that, “The greatest tragedy of the family is the unlived lives of the parents.” Yet the “tragedy” is not only their unfulfilled wishes and desires, but also the Real silenced by their families and communities who were also unable or unwilling to acknowledge their own traumatic experiences. And this goes on and on across generations. Stopping this cycle is the gift psychotherapy can potentially give to the world, but only if those who provide psychotherapy can learn how to consistently acknowledge the Real in their own lives, which they too have learned to deny.

Speaking about trauma is not always enough to avoid its repetition and transmission. I knew some of my analyst/supervisor’s traumas, just as he knew mine, but given how easy it is to deny the Real, the impact of these past traumas on our current relationship were swept aside, even as we spoke about them.

Unfortunately, our words cannot always protect us from what Janet identified as our unconscious pursuits of acts of triumph and what Freud identified through the repetition compulsion. Trauma leaves too much unresolved, as well as too much within us that seeks resolution, even as we have difficulty facing it. Words are often a flimsy defense against profoundly visceral wounding; so is knowing the right thing to do. This is largely why healing from traumatic experiences requires working with the body. We are all so much more than what we think, believe, and even feel is true about ourselves.

I quit working with my analyst/supervisor much earlier than planned. The ending was abrupt and ugly. I got out of that relationship as quickly as I did largely because of people who made the effort to pull me from Folly’s grasp and then support me as I finally grieved all the losses that had piled up — including the added load of the analyst/supervisor I once trusted. It took a small village for me to actually see what was Real and then act in accordance with it, regardless of what my analyst/supervisor wanted me to believe was true.

My relationship with my analyst/supervisor has been the most defeating and humbling aspect of my training as a therapist thus far. I share it here because I don’t think the mental health field is doing a good job monitoring its members with regards to their own trauma histories and how these histories potentially impact the people we hope to serve, let alone our relationships with each other. We use words like countertransference and co-transference to encapsulate those times when we unwittingly ‘leak’ into the therapeutic relationship, which is an inevitable and natural aspect of the process. However, a systemic-level silence seems to permeate our profession around the topic of what it means to be a collective in which the majority have histories of childhood abuse and other forms of adverse childhood experiences. Where are the discussions about the inherent problems that arise within a community of wounded healers and with their collective failures to deal with the Real?

There is something engrained in the role of psychotherapist that seems to encourage people to act as if they aren’t somehow wounded, or act as if they have moved so far beyond the experience of being wounded that they can ignore the traumatic experiences in their pasts — the very ones that often brought them to the profession in the first place. Yet unlike other professions, where people can enjoy a cloak of professionalism that hides personal idiosyncrasies and histories, mental health workers need to be real and vulnerable and at the same time almost saintly in their handling of other human beings. This potential contradiction can pull for us to deny the Real, especially given the natural desire to feel we are doing a good job and believe we are capable providers.

Psychotherapy is also a largely solitary profession, and we usually lack opportunities for peers to observe our work. Supervision and consultation, although meant to be occasions for gaining objective insights and constructive criticism, nevertheless cannot protect the client from what we defend against seeing in ourselves and in our personal histories.

The situation is confounded by the ridiculous hierarchies impacting relationships between psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, marriage and family therapists, and the like. Furthermore, too easily practitioners get caught in status-seeking head games (or playing out unresolved, early life sibling rivalries) that traffic in feelings of shame, envy, and competitiveness. Such emotions make it difficult to access the more vulnerable aspects of our selves, which we need to be attending to as we deal with the multitude of feelings, memories, if not body sensations invariably activated by our clients’ traumatic experiences. It is when we aren’t supporting each other, and safely identifying the potential Follies within our midst, that our clients are at most risk of falling victim to our traumas and our failures to witness the Real, which we too often silence in our desire to act as the professionals we imagine they need us to be and who we wish we were.

Reference

Davoine, Françoise, and Jean-Max Gaudillière. 2004. History Beyond Trauma: Whereof one cannot speak…thereof one cannot stay silent. Translated by Susan Fairfield. New York: Other Press.

© 2014 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).

4 comments

  1. Pamela Spiro Wagner says:

    Hello Laura,

    In my experience, it has always been the most wounded therapist
    – from psychiatrist to APRN to social worker alike – and the one who has had or
    has taken the fewest opportunities to resolve his or her own traumatic past
    that needs to “share” the most with his or her clients or patients. Of course,
    I speak only or mostly from personal experience with very wounded and as a
    result traumatizing “healers” from every rank in that hierarchy. But it seems
    to me that just because it is my own experience alone doesn’t invalidate it. I
    have been around the block more than a few times in my 61 years and if my
    experience with psychotherapy and mental health practitioners of all sorts has been
    solely in Connecticut, I cannot believe that wounded TMI-sharing is concentrated
    here alone.

    On the other hand, sometimes I think it is me, my own fault,
    that I bring it on myself somehow, that something in me actually elicits this
    “I’m going to tell you something that I don’t usually share with my patients
    but…” or “I don’t usually give my clients my home telephone number, but in your
    case I want you to know where I live…” and so forth. It has gotten to the point
    that if and when a therapist or doctor tells me something like this, my hackles
    rise at once, and I run the other way. I have learned the hard way that when someone
    offers to treat me as someone special, I get burned, and burned badly. But why?
    Because that “special” comes with a price, and the price is that I have to be
    special to them, I have to do or be
    different and in that sense pay them back for whatever special attention they
    seem to be offering to pay me. I can only tell you I have paid a terrible price
    for this time and time again.

    If you teach your therapist-readers anything in your blog, I
    hope it will be that they need to keep their traumatic pasts and unhealed wounds
    OUT of the conversation with their clients, that “sharing” does not help; all
    it does is make the client feel sympathetically fearful that their own concerns
    will be too burdensome for their now-seen-as-delicate therapist. When the therapist
    shares this sort of personal information, claiming to want to seem “human” it is deeply suspect. In reality it is not an
    honest sharing, but just a chess move in an unconscious game of one-upmanship.
    Believe me, the patient does not need to know the therapist’s trauma history
    and will not benefit from it, no
    matter how good it makes the therapist feel to talk about it.

    Granted, I generalize, but this has happened to me so many
    times I don’t know what else to do but to speak in general terms. Or is it just
    me? Is it because I listen or seem to have a sympathetic mien? Do I bring it on
    myself, is it in fact MY fault that so many therapists and doctors have seemed
    to want to talk to ME about themselves and then blamed me when things went
    sour? That is to say, I could not heal them
    nor could I even satisfy their need to be a hero to me?

    Argh…Well, needless to say, your post was of high interest
    to me. I admit that in some sense I may have misunderstood the thrust here.
    Forgive me if so. In any event, thank
    you for permitting me to speak my mind, even if I have wandered far from the
    subject you intended. Sincerely, Pam W

    • Laura K Kerr says:

      Pamela,

      Thank you for sharing your experiences and taking the time to educate the community. I agree with your insights and believe the tables were definitely turned on you. And I think what you and I experienced happens a lot because therapists are not utilizing their relationships with each other in ways that would protect clients from these kinds of abuses of psychotherapy.

      I imagine you must have a very healing presence, and are likely a very caring person, which is why therapists and other professionals are drawn to tell you things. Don’t blame it on yourself! Rather than exploiting this aspect of your personhood, mental health professionals should be helping you get to know this part of yourself and how best to use it to serve you rather than others — and certainly not them.

Comments are closed.