An interview with Michael J Feldman
On Ghosts in Contemporary Psychoanalysis
Ghosts in the Consulting Room: Echoes of Trauma in Psychoanalysis dives into the overwhelming and often unprocessed feelings related to mourning. The book uses clinical examples of people living in a state of marginality or ongoing melancholia. Bringing together a collection of clinical and theoretical papers, Ghosts in the Consulting Room features accounts of the unpredictable effects of trauma that emerge within clinical work in ways that surprise both patient and therapist. Distinguished psychoanalysts examine how to work with a variety of ‘ghosts’, in work with children and adults, in institutional settings and even in the very founders and foundations of the field of psychoanalysis itself. They explore the dilemma of how to process loss when it is unspeakable and unknowable, often manifesting in silence or gaps in knowledge, and living in strange relations to time and space. Joshua Maserow interviewed Dr Michael J. Feldman who penned chapter 3, “Travel Fever: transgenerational trauma and witnessing in analyst and analysand,” for Public Seminar.
Public Seminar [PS]: How did you find yourself writing psychoanalytic papers about transgenerational trauma? Did your will-to-write emerge out of the treatment with your (de-identified) patient, Aaron, or did you intend to write about the subject prior to this clinical encounter?
Michael J. Feldman [MJF]: Good question. I was introduced to the topic working with young children and their mothers in a therapeutic nursery at Columbia. The attachment literature was new to me and reading Selma Freiberg’s paper Ghosts in the Nursery was a major influence. It’s one of the first clinical papers that describes what we call attachment trauma and I use it in teaching. Most of my experience in transgenerational trauma was in clinical work and teaching, and writing was driven externally by requirements for analytic training or projects for Journals. I expected it to play an important role in the work with Aaron because his compulsive need for travel resembled the flight of his father, and father’s Jewish family from North Africa, eventually leading them to the United States. I’ve always loved history so it was natural for me to be interested in the history of his family and where they came from. I knew little about French North Africa and Aaron didn’t know much about it either but he wasn’t curious and that surprised me. Where were the family stories, where was the war?
What I didn’t anticipate was how his family history resonated with me, and the forced migration of my father’s family from Central Europe. The work brought up much of my history, even demanded it. That brought new challenges and made the work a powerful learning experience. Both of us had a father who endured early separation, loss of home or homeland and the language of early childhood when the trauma occurred. That’s crucial because it limited their capacity to remember it and share in another childhood and homeland later on. In the transference-countertransference matrix, we repeated the frustrating attempt to reach a distant paternal object without a shared language to understand it. Eventually, we reached an impasse that threatened to end the treatment. To negotiate it, I had to revisit family ghosts before I could help Aaron with his. Reading Sam Garson’s work on psychoanalytic witnessing was another turning point because it also introduced me to relational psychoanalysis, an approach that was missing in my training.
Will-to-write is interesting. I needed a setting that welcomed the personal and professional and was lucky to find it in a group Adrienne Harris was starting at the time. It began as clinical supervision and quickly expanded to writing and presenting. The intellectual distance I needed for writing gave me a new perspective and when I realized writing about the work with Aaron helped me understand the relationship with my father, it became more than an assignment and my will-to-write emerged.
PS: You begin “Travel Fever: Transgenerational Trauma & Witnessing in Analyst & Analysand” with a quote from the Hungarian born, French psychoanalyst, Nicolas Abraham. He says, ‘what haunts are not the dead but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others’ (Abraham, 1987). Can you tell us about the psychoanalytic use and salience of terms like haunt, phantom and ghosts? What does it mean, speaking from the perspective of a psychoanalyst and psychoanalytic scholar, to be haunted by ‘the gaps left within us by the secrets of others’?
MJF: The language in Abraham’s quotation is ambiguous and that’s important because unprocessed trauma and its transmission is ambiguous and the failure of parent and child to recognize it is repeated with the analyst. He intended his ideas to complement Freud’s and they are undeniably psychoanalytic. Like the patients in Studies in Hysteria, who repeat the past and suffer from reminiscences, those with transgenerational trauma repeat a traumatic past and suffer from haunting memories, but they belong to someone else.
Ghost is the English translation of Abraham’s ‘fantome,’ and it stands for unmourned loss. Such loss, and the task of mourning, is dissociated and transmitted to the child as an unconscious gap, outside of time and memory, or a buried secret. When dissociated states in a traumatized parent rupture the attachment relationship, the child desperately tries to restore it by searching for the missing contents of the parent’s mind, creating meaning for the gaps with unconscious fantasy. A recurrent childhood dream with its staged and scenic atmosphere is an example and also goes back to Freud. But it’s an act of repetition by the child, of experience that belongs to an attachment figure who can’t remember it. That happens in Travel Fever, where my father’s lived experience becomes my dreamt experience. Similar sequences of rupture, search and fantasy are also replicated in analysis and when there are two subjects, as it was with Aaron and me, rupture followed by futile search, leaves analyst and patient in a state of not-knowing and not-finding. Creation of new meaning requires survival of the analyst’s mind as container of the patient’s aggressive fantasies, behavior or both. Bion’s work on linking and Bleger’s on the psychoanalytic frame are major contributions.
Another formulation of ghosts speaks to the role played by aggression in conflicting identifications. Fraiberg discovered that identification with their aggressor distinguishes traumatized parents who transmit trauma from those who don’t. It also plays a role in the formation of conflicting identifications in the subject. The projection of intolerable aggression and appropriation of the child’s positive self-experience by their traumatized parents, constitutes alienating identifications in the subject and narcissistic vulnerabilities that haunt and control the subject from within. Faimberg’s work address that. In analysis, the agent of such a mechanism is the subject whose projection of aggression and internal dead and dying objects form encrypted identifications located in the analyst. The cumulative burden of such identifications rests on the analyst’s capacity to contain and survive experiences of being cut off from the patient’s mind and of being controlled.
PS: Over the last few years you’ve engaged German and Polish analysts, at conferences and in print, on the topic of historical ghosts and the intergenerational transmission of trauma. Were they open, receptive and welcoming to your lines of argument? How did they engage with your work?
MJF: Important question and the way it’s phrased is interesting because the ghosts we’re thinking of stand for trauma that wasn’t always welcome in private or public discourse, including psychoanalytic spaces. Engaging the work today, without being open and receptive, repeats such traumatic experience. In other words, the stakes are high.
My interest in starting a conversation with German and Polish analysts is a natural extension of my connection to Berlin and friendships there going back more than 30 years. Members of my generation learned about the war and Holocaust but the roles played by parents and grandparents are buried secrets and haunting gaps. I think we can say they are descendants without history.
The work resonates with analysts from both countries, because of their experience of traumatic legacies and the construct of the ‘analyst’s ghosts’ gives a name; but they’re reluctant to speak openly. Other analysts express deep ambivalence. They erase differences between experienced trauma and legacies of trauma endured by prior generations but borne by the analyst. Gaps are meant to be closed. They are uncomfortable thinking openly about the analyst’s ghosts although such analysts are themselves descendants. Consequently their interest in exploring or witnessing ghosts is limited.
The German translation, published in March, elicits diverse responses. The title is changed to Ghost Stories, consistent with an earlier English language version. Two discussants, including Bruce Reis from IPTAR and the NYU Post-Doc, write thoughtful discussions – his from a Relational and Contemporary Freudian perspective and the second from a Lacanian one. The other discussants are critical of the treatment and the theoretical underpinnings. The analyst’s ghosts don’t illustrate a new dimension in the treatment, they interfere with it. Recurrent flight is reframed as a desperate response to a preoccupied analyst without engaging my observation that Aaron’s experience of being with a new man, his analyst, in a new way (calm and close) added a new threat in the form of intimacy.
Holding to familiar ideas and rejecting new ones repeats the assumptions and avoidance I made with Aaron. It would be interesting to hear how their approach differs, in managing both their transgenerational legacies and the patient’s. One German reader suggests that dismissing my ghosts and omitting theirs is a melancholic enactment, a repetition of denial in place of parental memory and mourning.
The debate in Germany may be with one another rather than with me. German-Canadian analyst Roger Frie, a third generation German descendant, writes about collective dissociation. To protect the image of loving parents and grandparents, roles they played in the war and Holocaust are kept ‘not-known’. He speaks to the shame surrounding what isn’t known, and what is. Faimberg makes a persuasive argument in her work on disavowal.
By comparison, Polish ghosts demand recognition. A few weeks before a meeting in Warsaw, the Polish government passed a law restricting free speech surrounding the roles played by Polish Catholics during the Holocaust. Many analysts chose to boycott the conference as protest. I wanted to participate but expressed my ambivalence by postponing my flight and a fear of being arrested, a fantasy that became a plausible reality given that the topic of my paper was witnessing the loss of Jewish Poland. As I wrote to the planning committee asking about their plan to protect Jewish participants another ghost came into mind from lived trauma during my first visit to Poland then under Communist rule. I was detained for a period near my grandparent’s village and my passport was taken.
When I arrived in Warsaw there were more ghosts in the conference than in the streets and they bore an uncanny resemblance to the ones in my paper. It was curious that the planning committee misplaced my abstract when they were putting together the final program, so when I learned my room assignment, I made sure to confirm it would have the necessary equipment. The day before my talk was scheduled I did a complete run through at the lectern reading the paper and screening scenes from the Polish film I use to illustrate my ideas. When I arrived for my presentation the next day the room appeared to be arranged for some other presentation. The lectern was gone and so was the speaker’s table. The special cord I brought to connect my laptop barely reached the projector. Traumatized past in traumatizing present resonated with the title of my talk, borrowed from the film, “We Must Forget What We Didn’t See Here.”
It may be too soon to engage German and Polish analysts on the analyst’s ghosts. My work activated their ghosts instead of bringing them into discussion — a repetition of past trauma. We may have family backgrounds with vastly different experiences that transmitted vastly different legacies but we’re all descendents. We can’t change history but we can talk about what to do with it.
PS: What are you working on at the moment? Has your thinking around historical trauma and psychic haunting taken new twists and turns? How so?
MJF: At the moment I’m working on a writing project about ghosts based on my experience with analysts from different cultures in addition to Europe. Ghosts are relevant today given the resurgence of ethnic nationalism and limits on what is acceptable to think and say. Another writing project is an essay on my return to Poland as a psychoanalyst where I’m extending the discussion of my first visit in Travel Fever. The German analyst who commented on the discussions shared his appreciation of the paper and called the project a success for taking the first step. He encouraged me to keep writing and that’s what I plan to do. Now that the conversation is started it’s important to keep it going.
Michael J. Feldman is Faculty at the Columbia University Center for Psychoanalysis and Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University, College of Physicians and Surgeons. He is a member of the Committee on Gender and Sexuality at the American Psychoanalytic Association.
Joshua Maserow is a PhD student in clinical psychology at the New School for Social Research and an editor at Public Seminar.