Wednesday, January 17, 2007

"It is up to you to be Lacanians if you wish; I will be Freudian."

Last night I just finished reading what was perhaps the most depressing, but also most fascinating, book I've ever read in my life: The Unsayable: The Hidden Language of Trauma by Annie Rogers, PH.D.

Miss Rogers is a psychotherapist who specializes in working with traumatized children in her practice. This means that she generally works with children who have been horribly abused somehow, usually sexually, and most of whom have then in turn acted out their abuse on other, smaller, more helpless children than themselves. She has worked with some boys in the past, but for this book, she focuses specifically on girls, and on her own abuse as a child at the hands of her depressive, alcoholic mother which caused her to lapse into psychotic and schizophrenic periods as an adolescent and young adult.

The book is divided up into quarters, the first and fourth quarter about the author's own struggle with mental illness, the second quarter focusing entirely on one case study of a girl named "Ellen" who was horribly abused by her older male babysitter for three years before she told her parents about it, and the third quarter about a series of girls in a mental hospital in Boston who are all there because they were abused in unimaginable ways and reacted violently to that abuse themselves by engaging in their own torture, rape and abuse of other children.

The stories in this book are indescribably awful, and at several times I had to just put it down for a few days and (somewhat begrudgingly) come back to it; it took me over three weeks to get through it. The cast studies are described with matter-of-fact details, and only occasionally does Dr. Rogers write about her own emotional reactions to any of it.

What's fascinating about this book, however, is the method that Dr. Rogers uses, which is a language referred to as "the unsayable." According to Rogers, who herself is working from a framework set forth by the French psychoanalyst Dr. Jacques Lacan, people, especially children, who have been through highly traumatic events in their lives, sometimes lasting over periods of several years, lose the ability to speak about it in everyday terms and language. In other words, what they've been through is so horrific that words fail them, and the human language (no matter the language) will never be able to live up to the task of conveying the true horror of what they've been through. So "the unsayable," in other words, is the language of the subconscious, that every single person on Earth speaks through in some form or another.

It's like the idea of subtext in a screenplay; the Unsayable is all about the patterns people speak in, the words they leave out, the repetitions they engage in, their physical behavior that betrays their inner life. What Dr. Rogers is trained to do is decipher this "language" in her young, damaged patients, to try to see through it, interpret it, and then parse out what it is, exactly, the girls are trying to get across to her. Or, alternately, what they're trying to hide, but unintentionally revealing anyway through all of the above. Many of the girls she worked with don't even remember years of their lives, such as the girl who was 12 or 13, started being abused around the age of 7, but has zero recollection of anything in her life between the ages of 7-11, when she attacked another child and was put into this home. Already a quarter of her life is missing from her consciousness! It's in there somewhere, obviously, and it's Dr. Rogers' job to pull it out, make it known to the girl, put it into a language and context she can make sense of and handle emotionally, and then work through. It's certainly not an easy job, and in the case of the girl who was abused by her babysitter for 3 years, Rogers worked with her for almost 10 years, at least once a week, often more often than that, to get to the heart of her own disturbing behavior.

The language of the Unsayable stems from Freud, originally, and I have to say, this book made me look at Freud through a whole new light. Rogers spends a few pages towards the end of the book lamenting how Freud has been hijacked by the mainstream and often made a joke of by people who don't really understand what he was really all about. To Freud, the subconscious is not really about what most people think it is. It's not about things that are buried, necessarily, and that you're not aware of. It's about things that are buried that are trying desperately to make themselves known to the consious mind through various avenues I've already mentioned. Rogers came back around to Freud through the French analyst Lacan, who himself was a Freudian, and did much work to advance understanding of this "unsayable" language of the unconscious.

Lacan himself describes it this way: "Freud's central insight was not [...] that the unconscious exists, but that it has structure, that this structure affects in innumerable ways what we say and do, and that in thus betraying itself it becomes accessible to analysis".

Hence, what is known as a "Freudian slip."

Lacan developed several phases that an unconscious develops, mirrored to Freud's own Oedipal crisis stages, like the Anal, Oral, Latent, etc. He expounds upon them, however, using his own language and interpretation, which is far too complex to go into here, but if you're interested, they are laid out in the above link.

Also in the last chapter of Rogers' book, she talks about a school she attended in Canada, the Freudian School of Quebec, which has had quite a lot of success in treating young psychotic adults who have been deemed untreatable, including severe schizophrenics who went on to have productive work lives and have honest to God relationships with people. People who wish to go through their own Lacanian psychoanalysis (and anyone can, as Rogers did) should expect a treatment of 8 to 9 years, but gets to the heart of what it means to become a professional analyst. According to Rogers:

What does it mean to become an analyst? It isn't about acquiring a piece of paper that gives you a title and it isn't about gaining a theoretical expertise, per se. It isn't about having a couch and sitting behind it. To be sure, it is a long process that may not lead you where you think you are going. Willy Apollon says, "We are not a school of analysts; we are a school of analysands." That's the heart of becoming an analyst: a long route through your own unconscious, and the courage that's required to experience anxiety and anguish as you face your own life's failures - before you sit behind a couch and pretend to be an analyst with someone else's suffering.

I know what she means. Even in the brief period that I was in therapy in 2005, it was intense and by far the most painful and unsettling experience I've ever had. And we'd barely even begun to scratch the surface. If you've ever been through this yourself, you can start to understand why psychotherapy really has such a low success rate. It's too excrutiating for most people to go through, even if you think you're ready. My therapist told me once that he's had clients that it took years of counseling to before they would get to the real reason they were there. Years! Imagine it. Now apply that same logic to a child, who has been through unspeakable circumstances and can't even begin to make sense of it, and what a painstaking process it must be to get to the heart of their trials and behavior.

Thank God for people like Annie Rogers. She's my new hero.

No comments: