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Post-Election Ghosts

I want to be able to say something about the aftermath of the election, as a psychologist, as a psychoanalyst; as a Canadian expat since 1990, who only decided to become an American citizen after George W. Bush was first elected. But most importantly as a human being. But it’s difficult for me to even begin to find the right words. Although my first impulse is to think of Trump’s election in sociological, political and historical terms, I’ve spent the last 40 years or so writing and practicing as a psychologist and psychoanalyst. And although I belong to many professional listservs on which colleagues speak about the current situation in psychological and psychoanalytic terms, and have read numerous psychobiographies of Trump in recent months, for the most part, I find this level of discourse absurdly reductionistic when it comes to thinking about the present situation.

Tonight for the first time I began to get a glimpse into how I might begin to think about my experience of this post-election period. I teach a course on psychoanalytic intervention on Mondays at 4:00 to doctoral students in clinical psychology. And I began the class tonight by asking my students to refresh my memory as to whether or not we had talked about last Tuesday’s election yet. And they reminded me that we actually hadn’t had a class since the election. They said that they have been talking about it in all their classes since, and feel that they don’t want to talk about it in class anymore. And then I realized that I am having difficulty locating the election in time. It seems to me that so much time has elapsed since then, that it’s impossible to believe that it was only last Tuesday.

And then, just now I received an e-mail from a patient of mine on the West coast (also a psychoanalyst), who I have been working with for a brief period of time via skype. She had cancelled our session last Thursday, and tonight she e-mailed me to explain that she hasn’t been sleeping since the election and that she had cancelled our session because she didn’t feel up to talking about it. And I e-mailed back that I don’t know exactly what she is going through, but that for me, living in New York, my current experience is somewhat reminiscent of my experience during the post 9/11 period. That in some way everything is different now. And life has a somewhat dreamlike quality.

But in some ways, the current experience is even more bizarre. Because unlike 9/11 when the source of the trauma was concrete — marked by the destruction of the Twin Towers, the death of so many people and the inconsolable grief of their survivors… the current trauma is more ethereal. There has been a radical disruption in my construction of reality. An existential rift. I’m sure I am not the only one who experiences it this way. And what makes it even more complicated is that this is not a shared trauma. A good proportion of our fellow Americans are jubilant about the outcome. So this absence of a shared reality makes the entire experience even more ethereal.

The contours of this trauma are only partially visible. Hadas Wiseman, a colleague of mine in Israel who studies the experience of third generation descendants of Holocaust survivors, describes their experience of being haunted by traumatic experiences of their grandparents that were never fully articulated and are in some respects invisible to them. She suggests that this invisible quality contributes to the pernicious nature of their traumatic experience. They are haunted as much by an absence as they are by a presence. Adrienne Harris, a colleague in New York uses the term “ghosts” to refer to the type of traumas that by their very nature are partially or completely hidden and unarticulated. She and her colleagues write about their work with patients, who in retrospect come to see that they are haunted by traumatic events in their family background, that they knew little or nothing about, until they began analysis and started putting together the pieces, and filling in missing pieces by raising questions with surviving family members. These invisible traumas — by their very nature partially hidden, not readily amenable to symbolization — can be particularly pernicious. Perhaps these semi-lacunae are the ghosts that are spoken about in other cultures and that were known by our own ancestors. And I believe that at this point in the post-election period, we cannot even begin to know the shape of things to come. I don’t want to be overdramatic here. One way or the other we must and will find ways of grappling with the future. But at least tonight, this notion of “ghosts” feels like a meaningful way for me to begin speaking about this experience. We’ll see if it still feels meaningful to me tomorrow morning.

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Jeremy Safran

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