Autotomy and Remembering

The limbs of a starfish assist escape because they can be shed.

(Shuker, KPN. 2001. The Hidden Powers of Animals: Uncovering the Secrets of Nature. London: Marshall Editions Ltd. 240 p.

Some people live their whole lives in one zip code. They remain near and close to their family of origin, and their extended family. They find their earliest attachments to be hospitable, enduring, and nurturing. There are people who still have their best friends from kindergarten, from high school, from college and from twenty years ago.

These lives have, for the most part, offered a kind of narrative continuity, consistency, a sense of going-on-being, where the people who know them now, knew them then, and can watch and mirror what has changed, and what hasn’t.

These are lives that unfold progressively, epigenetically, perhaps each chapter moves forward with a tidy security – or perhaps with a suffocating, repetitious, entrapping or even boring continuation of themes and relationships carried over from the chapter before. The joys, challenges, losses, and unavoidable abject sufferings of life take place in a more or less, consistent, continuous context.

And there are others, different – not better or worse – who have great, insurmountable, or repetitive breaks in their narrative. Life stories that start over again, and sometimes again and again, with little or nothing remaining from one chapter to the next. Life itself has offered minimal constancy.

Survival has required that limbs must be shed in order to carry on.

These life narratives unfold like a collection of short stories, episodic, mini-narratives which carry their own arc. A turn of the page and a new story begins with a new setting, new characters and events that make little reference, and hold little knowledge of the story that preceded it.

I think of them as starfish.

So many come to this city to get away from someplace else, to escape relationships and connections to those who could or would not follow them in. They have fled small towns and provincial, tradition bound communities for the expensive freedom and anonymous diversity of urban life.

Others ran for their lives, their freedom, and their sanity from families or communities or countries that would have done them in, annihilated, abused, repressed, devoured or destroyed something sacred in them had they not escaped over the bridges and tunnels into the great, teeming cement labyrinth. Others came, what-the-hell-do-I-have-to-lose, from homes that collapsed out from under them. Everyone essential died. Or abandoned them. Families fragmented, degenerated and blown to bits, like dandelion seeds, scattered around the world, every man woman and child for themselves.

Maybe there are more in New York City than in other places.

Or, maybe, there have just been more in my office.

The leavings-behind and losses of emigration, adoption, coming-out, addiction, abuse and recovery, divorce, deaths and die-offs, abandonments, disasters, severed family relationships, the sudden eruption of mental illness in ourselves or those we depend on, wars, epidemics, all of these, and more can create fissures in time, in our sense of unfolding Self, cause us to shed skins, sever limbs, and to start life over again.

Any form of severance or cut off, letting go, of giving up, of going away from a relational environment that we have been profoundly attached to, or stuck on, involves leaving some aspect of ourselves behind.

Sometimes we must cut-off toxic environments and unrepentant abusive family members to preserve ourselves. Sometimes we develop inflamed, excruciating emotional “allergies” to people we have loved but can no longer be near. Sometimes we are cut-off or cast out, or a life-structure simply collapses or disappears out from under us with out our having any say in the matter.

Attachments to those around us take pieces of us with them whether they are lost voluntarily or involuntarily.

Like our evolutionary relatives, slugs, starfish, sea stars, lizards, spiders that leave bits of themselves behind when survival mandates it, we human beings, perhaps further along in the evolutionary chain, nevertheless rely on atotomic functions to preserve ourselves too.

Autotomy (not to be confused with autonomy, but sometimes utilized in service of preserving it) from the Greek auto = “self-” and tomy = “severing.”

In “Awakening the Dreamer” Phillip M. Bromberg discusses Nobel prize-winning poet Wislawa Szymborska’s poem titled “Autotomy” which relies on the image of a sea creature called a holothurian as it splits itself in two – half dying, half alive, in order to grow again another day.

Bromberg uses a Latin phrase borrowed from the poem “Non Omnis Moriar” – “I shall not wholly die!” – as the reflexive motto of dissociation in the face of repetitive or traumatic loss:

Others may validly discuss such severances in terms of post traumatic dissociation, or attachment theory and disorder. I am less interested in diagnostics, pathology or prognosis, but more an experiential Winicottian construct: exploring the disruptions in the fragile sense of “going-on-being” through time, as a self that is at least partially recognizable and somewhat knowable to those around, and to oneself.

My grandmother-in-law, a holocaust survivor who by 102 had lost and reconstructed several lives, used her own language to describe people without such consistency:

“They are like ‘this’ in the world” she would say, showing us the back of her hand, a bent, arthritic index finger standing up as straight as it could, the other three fingers and thumb curled in a knotted ball in her tiny palm.

One finger standing alone, in a solitude which carries its own burden, but also still in historical and enfleshed connection to the other digits, now unreachable, cut off and out of sight.

Those “like this” in the world carry stigma in our culture, just for surviving their losses.

Kohut might talk about the loss of “self-objects”: people who help us to see and feel ourselves and give us a contextual, reliable, accurate sense of our selves, through time, across developmental stages. When specific “self-objects” are lost, shattered or eliminated, access to specific internal representations of ourselves are lost as well.

How full, how complete, how round, and how thread-bare can our memories be when there is no one there to participate in the act of remembering with us?

After grad school, I worked in a long-term day treatment for adults with severe and persistent mental illness, and was shocked by how little the treatment team knew, (or had bothered to find out) about the histories of the clients we served. Most lived in mental health residences. Many had lived their entire lives in state institutions like Willowbrook until Geraldo Rivera stormed the gates. Few had any involved family members. Many of the clients were unable to articulate anything understandable about their lives, scrambled thought process and daily dream-time disrupting any ability to sort historical memory fragments from the archetypal images produced by hallucinations, internal stimuli, delusions, and projections.

Their charts and psychosocial histories were barren: family history “Client says he has a sister, no longer in contact” or “Unknown”. Some clients had been served by the same agency for over ten, fifteen even twenty years, with their treatment providers passing through and being replaced every three or four years. Not only were their historical narratives lost, but when each new clinician updated the “expired” paperwork, huge chunks of their recent, therapeutic histories would be lost too.

I found myself writing voluminous progress notes and enormous histories in longhand fountain pen, stapling stacks of extra pages into the standardized forms. I would hunt down every piece of data I could find on their behalf pulling old charts from the archives, requesting ancient medical records from hospitals. I would find clues, 10-year-old phone numbers, a mention of an aunt with an unusual name who may be more easily located by 411. I spent hours and hours when the whole building was emptied, making phone calls, pouring through records, finding pieces of the past to help the clients I was serving remember who they are. When I could find something they were thrilled – “I remember her!!” or “Yes! That was the phone number of my old counselor he was nice” or even “That was where the bad things first happened…” a piece of themselves, a lost bit re-collected, re-contexutalized.

One (fictionalized) small, smelly client with poor hygiene wore many coats, and had been mute at the agency and at his residence for over 5 years. His peers called him “The Smell” as he never spoke a word or made a sound. He came to my office to draw pictures with me regularly, to play Winnicott’s squiggle game together. One day, after many months, he wrote out a phone number.

Which I called.

The woman on the other end was a relative who hadn’t heard from him in years. I told her he was silent and we knew nothing about him. “Oh, he gets like that when he smokes crack” she said instantly. “He’ll talk his damn head of when he isn’t getting high.”

He met my request for a urine test with a drawing of a big, piss-yellow dragon guarding a castle in the distance – an initial refusal – which eventually led to a nod, a signed consent, pee in a cup, detox, and several years ahead of amazing art work, joyful, loud effusive wise cracking and talking his damn head off.

It was even annoying sometimes, but in a good way.

The subsequent regeneration, however, can be particularly dramatic. As long as the shed limb is not devoured by the predator and still contains a section of the central body disc of the starfish that shed it, this limb has the ability to regenerate into a complete starfish.”
(Shuker, KPN, The Hidden Powers of Animals: Uncovering the Secrets of Nature)

I knew, and know, that those big fat long-hand documents I had written would only live in their charts for a time, that they would end up culled, archived, updated by other clinicians who would understandably and wisely, leave the office at the end of the work day. In 5 or 8 years time much of the detective work, and re-assembly would be forgotten by the institution and maybe the clients too. If, and when clients lost gains we had made together, if “The Smell” ever fell silent again, there may be no remaining documentation of what we had regenerated. And I would not be able to stay there long-term and help him, or any of them, remember.

But I do still remember.
And I will remember for the rest of my life. Ridiculously perhaps, on some mystical,non-sensical plane, I believe it matters that I do. Clients I haven’t seen or heard from for decades do come back, call, leave messages, send notes, or check in to be sure that I am still able to remember them.

Being re-membered, over the course of our lives, lets us experience ourselves as whole.

We need to be in relationship that re-members us in order to re-member ourselves. Therapists are people who have committed themselves to re-membering.

Ideally, therapists commit to remember, long after the appointments have stopped. This therapeutic promise outlasts the treatment. Maybe even for our whole lifetimes, or as long as our capacities permit.

There are healthy and broken people living lives of constancy.
There are well and wounded people living through intermittence and discontinuity. Any one can be dis-membered.

Yet, even if only one limb remains, if even a piece of the central body remains, we can re-establish cohesion, wholeness.

The therapist has a special function in relationship to people living in the throes of discontinuity. It is this: To create a continuous environment, that exists over time, and may need to endure over a lifetime, that allows the core, the central body, to identify itself again, to resume its task of re-generation, to find its inherent capacity for “going on being.”

The therapeutic relationship becomes the seat of consistency, the embodiment of abidingness – continuing on, persisting, enduring in order to honor and assemble the tales of all the lost bits and pieces as they emerge.

To regenerate, we re-member, together, over time.

copyright © 2012
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

25 responses

  1. i remember, and always surprises me how just a little details will bring up “homework assignments,” family hx, or other narratives about my clients. It was refreshing to read my memory is more than not having to look down at notes, but providing consistency, constancy and even aid in regenerating. many thanks for sharing your thoughts and reminders.

  2. There is so much here that resonates with me. I do have several, cherished friendships of 25+ years, but have let go of so many others.

    I lost my mother to mental illness about a decade ago, but the losing came in small bits for many years before that. She wanders in and out of my life, calling out of the blue just to talk, then hanging up abruptly when I ask for her address or suggest I come visit.

    A year ago, I received a phone call from the social worker at the hospital she had been admitted to after a suicide attempt. She had found a picture of my children in my mom’s purse, with our names and phone number scrawled across the back of it.

    I cannot tell you the tears of joy I wept when that social worker called. That small link of knowing, just for that day, where my mother was. Of sending her my love. I pray that my message, passed on through the social worker, gave my mother some sense of herself that day.

    How you find words for so many unsayable things, I do not know. Thank you.

  3. Thanks so much – I’m so glad to have found your beautiful blog as well!

    You might also be interested in a piece I wrote about my daily practice here – Walking in Circles.

    Cant wait for some free time to read through your site!


  4. That is so moving, and so glad that moment can occured for both of you – for you to know too, that she still carries your image, and your children’s faces with her, even in the darkness.

    I will hold this story in my heart too.


  5. Holly Cow! This post struck me to my core. My septate, disconnected lives, my short stories, all those I have had the privilege to love, and lost and found and lost again, all the while being me…it is crazy that I survived…but it is exactly how I did. Wow.

  6. Many people can and do survive such cycles of loss and regeneration. It’s my privilege to be able to watch those miraculous processes unfold.

    And thank you for reading


  7. Thanks John,

    It’s funny – people often ask me how I can remember- how can I not remember?

    Sometimes I do forget boyfriends names for example- which I usually fudge with overuse of pronouns til it pops back up-
    But the transactions, the events, the salient symbols and story – I rarely forget these things.

    Glad I’m not the only re-memberer.


  8. I’ve been receiving communications since my recent post on severences and healing – from people who find themselves feeling trapped in hurtful or abusive, or masochistic relationships to their family of origin, and who are wondering if “cutting off” will help them heal:

    Here is my response:

    Cut-offs are very difficult, and like any amputation – there are phantom pains that linger for a long time, and can be very severe.

    It leaves one to then deal with the rejecting or tantalizing family members as introjects, alone in our heads, debate with them, wrestle with them, fight for our core needs with an internalized image and voices of the the rigid or damaging parts of parents, as well as with our own guilt, grief, fear of disloyalty and uncertainty about having resorted to extreme means. Sometimes that can be significantly harder than dealing with real humans, who may be more 3 dimensional and more capable of change, remorse, reparation, or for whom you may be able to develop some understanding, acceptance, or maybe, at least, detant.

    Sometimes we can cut off false-hopes and mourn the parents we wish we had, while we stay in connection to the parents we’ve got.

    But, sometimes it is in fact, easier to deal with the internalized voices of our families when we aren’t being reinjured by them over and over in daily life. Sometimes it is necessary to cut off in order to heal – but it is the cruelest choice we can ever be faced with.

    To stay connected to the first and most primal loves of our life, at extreme cost to ourselves,
    or to save oneself and lose the loved one, and maybe also lose their love.

    It is terrible, excruciating either way, and painful beyond belief, and there is no right answer – only your answer.

    I have seen people heal and struggle with both routes, and with all the spaces in between.

    My sympathies go out to all who may face such primal and impossible scenarios.



  9. Wow, this post is hitting me hard. I started crying about half way through and can’t seem to stop. … I tried commenting. Can’t seem to figure out what to say in less than 10,000 words. Except, maybe… I think a bolder fell on my starfish. ~ rl

  10. Thanks for reading.
    I only did a very short tour in front line community mental health services- about 3- 3&1/2 years.

    Many many others are far braver, with more courage, endurance and resilience and have served for years, decades and lifetimes.

    In my practice I see a broad range of people many of whom have experienced severe and subtler severances.

    But many others have offered their lives to service in much more dedicated and admirable ways than I have.

    Thanks for reading and for your kind words.

  11. This is a profound summary of the difficult choice so many face with their families of origin. I have wrestled with this for a long time. My dad married a very difficult woman, and I finally had to say, “Dad. I can’t be with your wife again. I love you and want to see you, but not with her because she is so mean to us.”

    And so I haven’t seen my dad in two years. Maybe it would hurt less if he was a crappy dad, but he wasn’t. He was a really good dad.

    For me, the cutting off has come from setting boundaries. I don’t know if I would have had the courage to set the boundaries for myself…but for the sake of my children, I have.

    So I like to think the door is open to some change, but in reality, any future relationship is murky.

  12. Yes – this is what I was referring to whenI spoke of sudden, inflamed emotional allergies that can erupt in relationships.

    We are not fixed entities, we are not-things with permanent properties and qualities. Profound needs can emerge from unknown places and put us into grating, raw, infecting contact with each other- Love is powerful but it is also fragile and for some – reducing contact and erecting boundaries actually can preserve our ability to love each other from a far.

    We can be intolerably rubbed the wrong way or abandon each other in ways that we cannot fathom or anticipate.

    I am sorry for your loss – and am sorry that it is a loss that our culture cannot easily acknowledge or support you in grieving.


  13. I found that intensely moving; I remember a blog/website where there were photographs of the contents of suitcases(and the cases themselves) stored for long term for those admitted to mental institutions. Most never left and their belongings remained unclaimed and unnamed.
    The telling of our own story is healing, even when we tell it only to ourselves but told and shared with others, it can become both a healing path and a work of poignant, heartbreaking art.
    I’m one who has had to start life several times over. My Cv reads like that of two people conflated into one.
    Thank you; your grandmother-in-law’s analogy will stay with me a long time.

  14. The telling of our own story is healing, even when we tell it only to ourselves but told and shared with others, it can become both a healing path and a work of poignant, heartbreaking art.

    I think this is very true Viv, thanks for reading, and for sharing your thoughts.

  15. I left my place of birth, 14 years ago to move to London. There are some days when I wished I hadn’t. Uprooting and starting again somewhere new as an adult isn’t easy. Finding a new sense of belonging isn’t a straight-forward process either i.e. it’s not something you complete ‘doing’ in a period of time. I live with the knowing that I may never belong anywhere and in a way find my belonging in the non-belonging.

  16. “Belonging in the not-belonging..”.

    That is really key – one of the experiences I’ve had in writing and posting this essay, is the many responses through social media and email, from hundreds of people who have found a sense of tribe, only with other people who have also lost their tribe…

    Its a unifying, archetypal story, that our present culture doesn’t like to tell very often.

    But it is a big tribe – larger than you could ever imagine, of those who find belonging in non-belonging.

    Thanks for your comment.


  17. To cut ties in service of sanity and survival is not a choice taken lightly. The most painful part is the knowing that there are those who judge you for your choices, never understanding that you had no choice, not really, and that those you “abandoned” were never truly there at all or at least had abandoned you long before you felt the need to make it official.It is possible to feel some sort of compassion for those you have needed to run from. They were damaged too. Still, sometimes compassion cannot save your own sanity or skin and so you make what seems to others a harsh and cruel decision. But there is not always a feeling of guilt. I can’t say that I feel guilty for choosing not to allow them to murder what little was left of my soul.And the question I most dread is: where are you from?

  18. I think what you write is important and true.
    And for many the result of a long process.

    There is a terrible narrative burden carried by those who have survived such losses- Where are you from? is often the beginning of a long series of “normal” but completely unanswerable questions.

    Thanks for your comment.


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