Ghosts, Trauma and Travel Fever in Psychoanalysis
A reflection on working with the transgenerational transmission of trauma
Ghosts in the Consulting Room: Echoes of Trauma in Psychoanalysis, published by the Relational Perspectives Book Series, delves into the overwhelming feelings related to mourning. Bringing together a collection of clinical and theoretical papers, it features accounts of the unpredictable effects of trauma that emerge within clinical work, often unexpectedly, in ways that surprise both patient and therapist. Distinguished psychoanalysts examine how to work with a variety of ‘ghosts’, as they manifest in the relationship between patient and analyst, 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 arising in silence or gaps in knowledge, and living in strange relations to time and space. Read an extract from chapter three, “ Travel Fever: transgenerational trauma and witnessing in analyst and analysand,” by Michael J. Feldman below.
“What haunts are not the dead but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others.” Notes on the Phantom , N. Abraham (1987)
Aaron called in for a phone session from Poland. On tour with a relentless schedule and demanding director but without much money, this handsome young artist was on his own, checking trays in hotel hallways for uneaten scraps of food. Surprisingly amused, he laughed at his nightly rounds; I was startled and blurted something out. “You’re a Jewish boy in Warsaw with nothing to eat, maybe feeling overwhelmed is about something else!”
Aaron didn’t connect hunger or continuous travel with the flight of his father’s family during the Second World War. He didn’t relate a director ordering him around now with a domineering father bossing him around as a boy without protection from a depressed mother. Cutting ties to any childhood past, Aaron lived in the RIGHT here and RIGHT now. Past and future collapsed into a present and any sense of space was vast and unbounded. And it went further. Keeping out ghosts from father’s childhood, Aaron kept himself in the dark from ghosts of his own, including frequent moves between parental homes tending to younger brothers and sisters. When we first met, Aaron insisted he didn’t need a home, food or sleep, only his work. It shouldn’t be a surprise that his main artistic theme was collapsing families.
In a state of manic denial and psychic numbness, Aaron filled every free moment developing new work. Day was structured by a strict regimen of diet and exercise. But when night fell and action failed, he was haunted. Unable to sleep, he became “porous with travel fever,” (Mitchell, Hejira, 1976). He switched into trance-like states of movement, wandered without rest in whatever town he was in or found refuge on long-distance flights to Paris. Like his other nightly rounds, Aaron had little curiosity about these spectral experiences and laughed them off. With minimal expense, he got himself to the nearest airport and purchased a ticket using numerous frequent flyer points and considerable charm. I nearly missed it. Flight was refuge. I wasn’t sure Aaron could be curious enough about his ethereal high-speed act to think about the scarier prospect of slowing down.
A central thesis of this chapter is how broad historical trauma affecting many, if not all, during the 20th century and personal experience of it, collide and create symptoms that are passed down the generations. Historical is the larger context for personal. Psychoanalysts, especially American, also descend from forbearers who survived forced or voluntary emigration, global war, and economic hardship throughout the same time period. Either or both forms of trauma, historical or personal, may be familiar and remembered or eclipsed and seemingly forgotten. The encounter between personal traumatic legacy in patient and analyst is often unrecognized.
In this case presentation, negotiating impasse first required the analyst to remember and rework his own traumatic legacy more fully. Only then, could he create space in which the patient could gradually become more aware of experienced and inherited traumatic past. Initially through enactment and physical language, which better suited his defensive structures and artistic temperament, analysand induced analyst into a joint experience of intense immersion for both to witness. That required the analyst to participate in unconventional ways before his usual role, translating action into word to create meaning, became tolerable. Common language, or its absence, proved essential in this process. Above all, this chapter is about the disorientation of secrecy and perpetual migration. I suggest, “Fasten your seatbelts it (is) going to be a bumpy night” (Mankiewicz, 1950). Keep this in mind when reading itself feels disorienting. It is not intentional. It may be inevitable.
From the start, Aaron’s nocturnal spells made me imagine father’s flight from childhood home during wartime. Unprocessed traumatic affect from flight during war was unconsciously transmitted to Aaron in ways he was compulsively repeating in action. Davoine and Gaudilliere (2004) describe a type of madness in patients who experience massive historical and societal trauma. Psychic collision of time, space, and history produce symptomatic “collapses of time and . . . speech,” similar to those Aaron may have inherited from his father, who didn’t sleep either, even though Aaron never experienced war himself.
Legacy of historical trauma may be passed down even when traumatic experience is forgotten or disavowed. Madness, described above, is also meant to capture a confused and desperate attempt by the subject to maintain meaningful social attachment under extreme circumstances. The subject’s symptoms repeat a version of “what it was necessary to do in order to survive” (Davoine & Gaudilliare, 2004, p.xxiii). I wondered if Aaron’s symptoms were showing us what he, or preceding generations of family members, needed to do to maintain the crucial attachment required for psychic survival under extreme conditions.
Our unexpected interaction around searching for food in Warsaw, an uncanny collision involving inherited and experienced trauma, signaled the presence of hidden history. Faimberg (2005), who also links symptoms in the present with traumatic experience in parental past, suggests there are always at least three generations present in the consulting room: subject, parent, and grandparent. A “telescoping of generations” occurs based on the subject’s unconscious identification with important ancestors who endured massive trauma. Split off in order to evade conscious memory, identification becomes detectable only at key moments in transference-countertransference interplay similar to the one between us “when the discovery of the secret history,” becomes possible (Faimberg, 2005, p.8). But Aaron’s need for control left him unprepared for the ambiguities in time and space stirred up by daily life and intensified in the psychoanalytic situation. Deployment of continuous work constituted what Baranger and Baranger (2008) would call Aaron’s “personal bastion,” a psychic space of refuge containing reassuring and omnipotent fantasies sorely needed to ward off helplessness, vulnerability, and despair. From the subject’s point of view the bastion exists in a matter of fact way to protect it from becoming a focus of analytic exploration.
When we first met, Aaron was a prodigious artist in his late 20s, cheerful, talented, and outwardly humble. But there was a tension between us. His soft whisper of a voice pulled me closer, while his abstract words pushed me away. I was working hard just to hear him, but we spoke different languages. This was the first example of language as barrier. His was fleet, ethereal, and post-modern, mine clumsy, heavy, and outdated. Aaron’s body language was also disorienting. Perched forward on the edge of his chair, Aaron broke through usual spatial boundary between analysand and analyst. He was in charge and I was off balance. Setting his own control, he used his body to regulate anxiety.
Aaron’s spectral presentation, calm bright eyes and quiet smile, but rigid forward leaning body, was out of his awareness but resonated with Bleger’s (1967) description of the subject’s “ghost world.” In his words, it represents relatively primitive or psychotic parts of the subject’s ego. By projecting such ghostly psychic content onto the analytic frame, the subject uses it as a site where unconscious struggle with the analyst takes place, destabilizing its usual function as stable container. Current attack by the subject originates during early preverbal development and represents an attempt to ward off fear of invasion or persecution. It is meant to control the body and mind of both patient and analyst. To that end, Baranger and Baranger (2008) advise the analyst to attend to his own bodily sensations, insofar as they alert him to “invasions” by the subject “who is placing an aspect of his personal experience inside the analyst.” I thought of introjection and projection onto a depressed mother.
When affective experience of traumatic experience threatens to resurface within the analytic relationship, the subject may anticipate the internal flood all over again with renewed fears of persecution, isolation, and psychic abandonment. This is the moment Gerson (2009) describes, “when the psychic container cracks,” when the witnessing third is lost, “when the third is dead.” At that moment, a dead third haunts the consulting room, an absence that is present or presence that is absent. It has the power to numb and disorient analysand and analyst.
Overwhelming dissociated affect also makes itself known through noticeable gaps in narrative. Gaps prevent recall of emotional experience and construction of coherent memory or narrative in one or both clinical partners. The French analyst quoted earlier, Nicolas Abraham (1987), believes gaps represent unspeakable unknown secrets buried in the unconscious by important others. Gaps are inhabited by “phantoms” the French word for ghosts that nevertheless haunt the subject. I understood Aaron’s detached lack of curiosity about crucial, but missing, details of his personal and family history as evidence of unconscious gaps. His psychic survival had required splitting off and evacuating unbearable haunting affects from unthinkable family secrets that remained buried within him. The unbearable and unthinkable traumatic past he found impossible to represent and recall symbolically, he was discharging somatically and compulsively. I registered it as so disorganizing it made staying with him even more challenging. Along with disruptions in the frame, these disorienting gaps repeatedly threatened to crack my containing mind. I came to learn this was the language of ghosts.
Aaron wasn’t the only one with ghosts. Phantoms of my own were stirring from grandparents who fled Central Europe before the First World War and my father’s childhood in Brooklyn during the Great Depression. My father’s parents fled Russian partitioned Poland to the east and my mother’s parents left Austrian partitioned Poland to the south. Usually referred to by its provincial name, Galicia, the Austrian partition had the largest Jewish population in all of Austria at that time. Aaron’s joke about scavenging for food in Poland triggered an inherited fear of deprivation and violence because of the eerie way it located him in my ancestral homeland. But again, it was more complicated still. Inherited fear came to mind quickly. Even though I didn’t experience those events myself they were well known through family history I’d heard many times. Personally experienced fear from my own trip to Poland decades earlier was temporarily split off and only came to mind later. When I visited Poland, then a Soviet satellite under martial law, I was so afraid of going hungry I took along a jar of peanut butter. But in the office, our bodies do the talking; inherited and experienced trauma activated inside mine, disavowed and numbing inside his. Unconscious transmission also played a role. At that stage of treatment, Aaron not I was the hungry other. In part, I may have assigned him my historical hunger and shame to avoid thinking about them. To create a live analytic third, as Gerson suggests, I had to lead the way, remembering and acknowledging my own ghosts before Aaron could begin thinking about his. Blurting out in session, followed by memory of personal fear regarding hunger and dangerous travel, was a step in that direction.
From the beginning of our work, Aaron described me as “the calm center” of his chaotic world. But as soon as we agreed to meet twice a week, he announced he was leaving on tour. Surprised, I suggested exploring his feelings about our dilemma. Instead of curiosity he called up his bastion and doubted whether I truly understood him and the demands of his career. Without empathy, Aaron showed me his travel schedule for the next two years in meticulous, mind-numbing detail. I was speechless. Language deserted me. Eventually, I understood our enactment as one version of internal conflict between shame and omnipotence. He evacuated shock and confusion, leaving him powerful and in control. He was the demanding and bossy director/father and I was the helpless child.
I also understood the enactment as Aaron’s need to get out, just when things between us were heating up. Being together in a calm warm way was dangerous. Experience of me as attentive and accepting stirred up intolerable longing and desire or fear of destructive collapse. What he wasn’t able or ready to express in words he was communicating in action. Flight was refuge. It was also a stealth attack on the frame.
One of many moments I had of profound uncertainty, I felt unable to think. When we discussed videoconferencing, I was unsure expanding the frame would contain Aaron; but without trying, the long-term treatment he needed would surely collapse. I didn’t know if Aaron was leaving or staying, if the treatment was ending or surviving. Faimberg (2005) describes the analyst’s need to bear the anxiety of not knowing, and sometimes not even existing in the subject’s psyche, as a key task in working with these patients. I did feel pulled toward the dead third and challenged to show my capacity for rescue, a tension in the countertransference that would repeat many times. Either way, he was using his bastion to reset at a time when the intensity of our relationship unsettled him.
A dream from a videoconferencing session confirmed haunted space: “I’m in France, on a French couch. There are 200 nude bodies in an
abandoned warehouse connected by wire.”
Associations followed to art installation, sex, contagion, and death. “It’s a strange dream, because I feel antiseptic toward sex,” as though the dream belonged to someone else. More associations with sex and death. His father, with a history of compulsive sexual behavior, was recently diagnosed with prostate cancer. In a guilty identification with the aggressor, Aaron was preoccupied he himself was infected with a sexually transmitted virus and worried they both might die.
This was one of Aaron’s first dreams. There was so much to unpack and he wasn’t even in the room. It was also a transference dream and the couch was the portal through which ghostly fear came to mind. I wondered how the couch, flown to France as well, activated conflictual sexuality and guilt. Aaron tended to find older partners who were also sexually promiscuous. Eventually he admitted thinking about the Holocaust but was worried about saying so. “You’re Jewish, I don’t want to hurt you.” Although it was his dream, and the Second World War an essential chapter in inherited family history, he located its legacy in me making him anxious and guilty. Later I learned he was assigning victim status to me, dismissing the possibility he was also a victim. Being a passive victim was intolerable. I registered unconscious uncertainty about playing dual roles in that tragedy, even though I remembered France was victim and aggressor.
Aaron also disavowed his victim status by denying his father’s religious identity as Jewish. He only described him as Tunisian. Need to avoid religion altogether helped him avoid acknowledging his father was a persecuted victim during the war and a stateless refugee before migrating to Israel because of religious identity. Evacuating victim status into me made me carrier of Holocaust legacy for us both and it made him feel guilty.
Years later I would hear about father’s experience in a French transit camp outside Marseilles, the required route for North African Jews emigrating to Israel. Aaron’s dream originated from the unconscious transmission and fantasy about father’s internment there, transit camp condensed with concentration camp. But for now, what happened to him during the war, and after, was off screen. Personal traumatic experience within larger historical trauma fractured history and memory, splitting religious and national identity. Unconscious splits generated gaps inhabited by phantoms, recalling Abraham and Faimberg, creating problems in the treatment that would last for years. Instead of exploring the impact of war on his family and its meaning for Aaron, we were caught up in prolonged struggle over personal traumatic legacy. In retrospect, impasse over identity resembled attack on frame.
My paternal legacy was resonating too. With my father gravely ill, I was in a race against time to replace gaps with information about his childhood in Brooklyn during the Depression. Since his first language was Yiddish, there was always something foreign and exotic about the parts of his childhood he did speak about. But I wanted answers to replace the haunting gaps he avoided, hoping they also would explain why he often seemed so remote. When he was a young boy, his mother required an extended hospitalization. Because his father had to work during that time, he was forced to place his two young sons in a local Jewish orphanage. My father was so traumatized by this experience he never spoke about it. He preferred telling happier stories about his large extended family, turning a blind eye to the fact none of them took him in.
Gaps transmitted from my father’s childhood made me assume I had special understanding of Aaron and the unspoken secret his father transmitted to him. Goldberger (1993) calls this a “bright spot,” a false belief blinding me to Aaron’s unique history because I assumed it was the same as mine. Both relationships were frustrating. Neither Aaron, nor my father wanted anything to do with the past. They didn’t need me asking questions; they needed me to carry the gap in a state of silent mindless loss. In both cases, family trauma was mixed up with historical trauma, from the Second World War to worldwide economic depression to the founding of the State of Israel. We were both sensitive sons haunted by gaps left within us by our fathers’ secrets.
For Abraham (1987), once the secret is buried it must remain buried. Gaps and ghosts pass unconsciously from parent to child and “the special problem in these analyses lies in the (subject’s) horror at violating a parental or family secret” inscribed there (p. 290). Davoine and Gaudilliere offer a description closer to the subject’s conscious experience. Because descendants, like Aaron or I for that matter, didn’t experience war or economic depression personally, we don’t identify with it even though it’s just beneath the surface.
Denying paternal Jewish identity helped Aaron disavow his connection with that trauma and any possibility of sharing buried family secrets. Aaron wanted to bring my Jewish identity into the room first, along with the ghosts haunting me. It made him feel guilty because it was just beneath the surface in him. He was testing me. By evacuating inherited shame and vulnerability, he was aggressively searching for my witnessing, containing mind, and finding it; or by collapsing it, confirming his fear of being abandoned, naked, and wired.
This time, however, I didn’t stay paralyzed. As a former student of performing arts myself, my body wasn’t dead and my mind wasn’t numb. I was full of feeling that was physical and emotional. I was surviving Aaron’s attack and reactivating my analytic mind as an embodied listener and witness (Reis 2009).
To read the full chapter click here.
This excerpt is published with gratitude to, and permission from Taylor & Francis Publishers. Purchase a copy ofGhosts in the Consulting Room: Echoes of Trauma in Psychoanalysis on the Routledge website here, and on Amazon here.
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.