Looking Back

Death will not part us again, nearer to heaven than ten thousand ancestors who dream of me… ~ Rickie Lee Jones
The ancestors possess this in-between quality of the flown soul and the hovering presence ~ The Book of Symbols

Until a short time ago if you googled my name, without initials, credentials or qualifiers you would find only text and images of my most infamous and tragic relative. My name would summon a black and white photograph of a lovely blonde woman, posed formally, in a light-colored taffeta gown, with stiff bows and many strands of pearls. To me, she resembled my father, and how beautiful he might have been in drag. I never knew her, and although she lived in a perpetual vegetative state since my early adolescence – since before the internet existed – her life, her story, preempted my digital footprint until I reached the half century mark of my own life.

I often wondered what clients who googled me would make of it, when my name emerged on their screens attached to her story. Would they glean our association, guess that I was/am her namesake? Probably not. I never met her and my relation is distant enough, and further obscured by an adoption – that it is in no way obvious. It is an inconsequential, silly, tangential anecdote, a piece of Martha trivia shared sometimes at dinner parties when I’ve had a glass of wine or two.

Yet, when I realized that I had dethroned the preceding and deceased Martha Crawford in the digital archives, I found myself examining the psychological legacy I had inherited from our common ancestors and my peripheral relationship to her.

The ancestors are those who have “gone before” (from the Latin ‘antecedere’) all the life that has ever been, leaving behind the traces of kinship ~ The Book of Symbols

When clients first come to therapy, the first thing that a responsible psychotherapist does is to “take a history” enquiring about the biopyschosocial events, achievements, traumas, and milestones that compose a clients history from birth to the present:

“When did you first have these symptoms? Who are the people in your family of origin? How old were you when your brother was born? When your parents divorced? When your mother died? What was school like for you?”

Many clients resist, annoyed, wondering why I am asking about stuff from long ago that “obviously” has nothing to do with what is going on in the present.

Others are protective: “Look, I’m not interested in blaming my parents for my problems. My parents were great.”

Blame is not the point – I am scanning for patterns, for repeating themes, for unfinished business, for unexamined loyalties to the way things used to be, that have grown into present day obstacles, or, at least, are no longer useful.

Thorough clinicians often try to reach back before birth: “Do you know the story of how your parents met? What do you know about your mother’s childhood? What was your father’s relationship with his grandfather like?”

Family systemic therapies look back as many generations as possible, creating complex genograms, family trees graphed out, dotted with triangles, circles, and squares.

I remember in social work school family systems class, as we were all asked to chart out our own multi-generational family histories – the students’ gasps of surprise as patterns suddenly seemed to pop off of the page – recurring generation after generation.

I had my own realizations: My paternal great-grandfather had died when my grandfather was nine years old, my grandfather had divorced and abandoned my father when my father was nine years old, and my parents divorced, my own father seemingly incapable of fathering any longer when I turned nine years old.

Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation. ~ Exodus 34:7 King James Version

Working at a day treatment program early in my career, I sat with the aunt of an African-American client who had severe limitations in his ability to communicate about his own history. Together we sketched out a genogram on a legal pad as I asked her about who had married whom, how many children they had. Suddenly she asked me a question, gesturing to my name plaque on my door.

“Your middle name, is that a family name?”

“Yes” I answered, “why?”

“I just wondered…” she drifted off, her brow furrowing. She tapped her pen on my page as she then wrote in the same uncommon family name, my middle name, into her family tree. Surprised, I couldn’t wrap my head around her question.

“What do you wonder?”
“Any of your ancestors live in the South?” she enquired.

My heart froze, as I realized what she was wondering. I suddenly noticed that the naming patterns in her family and in mine were shockingly similar: the client’s mother (aunt’s sister) was named Martha, and their maiden name was the same as my unusual middle name. There were uncles and brothers who had my brothers’ names, and my own aunt had the same first name as the woman sitting in front of me. As I looked over the page I saw grandparents and great grandparents with similar (or exact) and fairly uncommon first names. My mind scrambled, my heart pounded as I rapidly flipped through that branch of my family tree as I knew it:

“No. Midwestern Quakers, Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota – many many generations… Its funny, I see not only my name, but lots of my old Quaker relatives names, here, and here, and here, in your family tree.”

“Oh, Quaker names…” she smiled warmly, obviously relieved and took my hand “I suppose that its just some sign that you are the right person to help our sweet boy.”

It was the beginning of one of the sweetest, warmest, most touching relationships I have ever known with a cherished client and his family.

Yet, this exchange about the historical, cultural realities of our lives – of who our people might have been to each other – of an abomination that my ancestors would have been legally empowered to inflict upon their greats and great-greats – served as a reminder of what had, in fact, been inflicted, of what had been survived, of the strengths and losses of previous generations and what had unfolded for this family in its wake. What could have been between us, and what was, and the attending irreconcilable divergences were as alive in our relationship as the synchronicity of our mirror-names.

Our historical context matters. It lives in our names, in our bones, in our privileges, in our genes, in our family stories, and in our strengths, scars, wounds and failures.

How would we have survived had we not been carried on the shoulders of the ancestors? How would we have found our way had we not been guided by the psychic deposits they have left us as signs….They haunt us if neglected. The bother and disturb us if we do not honor their living presence. ~ The Book of Symbols

I’ve had many clients who saw their parents behavior as mystifying, intolerable, oppressive, unjustifiable. And when we looked into their deeper historical/cultural/generational histories – of curtailed freedom, poverty, oppression, famine, war, genocide – “bad” parental behaviors suddenly became acts love from another time, another circumstance. A crying child – while a family hides from a murderous army – must have its emotional vulnerability suppressed in order for future generations to exist and survive. Parsimony appears withholding and unloving until a family history, a generation or two prior, of extreme poverty is understood and acknowledged. Cloying anxiety about a child’s diet can look merely pathological if a deep family history – of not knowing when they might next eat unconsciously conveyed forward into the present – has been overlooked.

Sometimes awareness of the personal aspects of our deeper histories fade away due to simple disinterest, disrespect for what came before, from passivity, or lack of curiosity and empathy.

And we all know what happens to those who forget history.

The unconscious compulsion to repeat can extend well beyond the scope of an individual life.

The dead may be malevolent or benevolent, feared or admired, given bribes to keep them from mischief or gifts to make them happy. ~ Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend

And there are lost and stolen stories, the broken narratives of disrupted bloodlines: Adoption. Death. Family severance.
There are unspeakable, silent legacies: Trauma. Torture. Abuse.
There are intentionally suppressed histories: Secrets. Shame. Lies.

And certainly the stories and mysteries that surround both the Other Martha, and my grandfather, the events that bound them to each other, have been a hovering presence in my life: legacies which could not ever have been predicted, inheritances painful, joyous, and surprising. And that are also in some form, being passed on to my children for good and for ill.

According to traditional Korean beliefs, when people die, their spirits do not immediately depart; they stay with their descendants for four generations. During this period the deceased are still regarded as family members, and Koreans reaffirm the relationship between ancestors and descendants…

But, I have seen too much to believe that anything is ever really lost, even when we do not have conscious access to our inheritance – our bodies speak, the ancestors whisper in our ears, live in our cells, in our genes and come to us in our dreaming.

They cannot ever be taken away from us completely, nor can we escape them.

They are with us always and everywhere,
whether we like it or not.

copyright © 2013
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

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. http://www.asknature.org/strategy/7120557f65475a9a7d8656fd02946964)

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

Mutual Conflict Unto Death (with apologies for the missing umlat)

I don’t do a lot of couples counseling. I do some.

I first tell everyone who calls me that my husband, a psychologist, is actually much better at it. He was trained systemically, with the whole supervisory-team-calling-into-session-from-behind-the-mirror thing. I imagine he is more confident in his ability to break up the destructive brawls that inevitably erupt on his couch.

I don’t know why, sometimes I suppose, based on a referral from another therapist, or a friend I have treated, or some other couple I have seen – a few couples persist in wanting to see me, and we enter the second trial. If we make it through the ridiculous rounds of insurmountable scheduling obstacles and are able to find a compatible hour for three busy New Yorkers to meet I assume that there is something I am supposed to learn and am meant to provide while being temporarily triangulated into their relationship.

Inevitably, I spend the first several weeks feeling like a nine-year-old hostage forced to watch the grown ups battle, bicker, and struggle for dominance. Feeling my alliances, my empathy, sympathy and budding attachments to each one challenged, injured, and shamed. I feel emotionally split apart, as I struggle to understand enough about each of their perspectives and pain. Just as I am able to sense one partner’s vulnerability, it is then attacked, undermined, distorted by the other’s rage and pain.

At some point, my own powerlessness is intolerable to me, and I start to get angry at the fouls, the low blows, the unconscious manipulations, the belief in the supremacy of their own individual injuries, as I watch them both bleeding in front of me. I just need it to stop. The internal anger and impatience helps – it gathers my energies and consolidates my power – I am not a child, I am not an impotent audience member watching an ugly drama unfold, I OWN this couch damn it. This is MY office, and I have some say about what behaviors I will permit and enable in my own space.

I borrow Mr. Gottman’s invaluable behavioral tools: I teach about using non-inflammatory subjective “I” statements and fair fighting techniques. I confront and reframe expressions of contempt and toxic resentment. I express my deeply held wish that that all committed couples world-wide would be assigned heart rate monitors the moment they move in together and would be legally mandated to STOP TALKING when their heart rates become elevated. Adrenaline is as altering and intoxicating as any drug, and there is no chance of engaging in constructive discussion or debate with anyone who is in fight or flight mode.

I encourage some, usually heterosexual couples to visit Gottman’s site, and grab any tools, aids, DVDs or books that speak to them. (http://www.gottman.com although his longitudinal research has been on heterosexual couples – a lot of his data on conflict resolution is useful in any intimate relationship)

I feel a little better after taking some concrete action.

A little braver, less cowed. I’m off the ropes and into the ring.

Some folks toddle off a this juncture, after a handful of sessions, happier with a few, shiny, brand-new relational skills in their pockets.

Other couples find it all quite useful, but want to use the tools in service of something deeper.

Here is where I begin to love the work. I hear the voice of Mr. Adolph Guggenbuhl-Craig and his mad, brilliant, if terribly dated 1970-something book with a horrifically translated title: “Marriage Dead or Alive.”

Seminal in most Jungian circles, I’ve never met a non-Jungian who has heard of him.

Since the book is usually out of print (there is a newer edition with a somewhat less cringe worthy title: “Marriage Is Dead, Long Live Marriage” that may be more available) I don’t agree with all of it, it remains somewhat trapped in its era, (step over the jarring references to “angry women’s libbers”) and god knows you don’t want to be caught reading it on the subway or at the playground in front of other smug mommies – I’ll summarize its key points, as I see them, here:

“Marriage” for purposes of this discussion is defined simply as a life-long committed partnership – legalized or not, between any two people. Such commitments may, or may not include actual or implied monogamy.

Guggenhbuhl-Craig suggests that people in western cultures currently enter into marriages for primarily two reasons: The first, and most common is to pursue comfort, ease, well-being, what he calls “mere happiness”. He suggests that marriage is actually a pretty lousy method for achieving happiness, and that there are many other ways to arrange your personal affairs to make your life easier. The most rudimentary forms of comfort and happiness can be more easily and reliably procured through other processes.

Marriage partners too commonly irritate each other’s raw spots, scrape, bang and stagger into each others spiky and brittle bits, making marriage an inefficient institution for insuring pleasure and well-being.

I often think of G-C’s “happy” couples as being organized around an avoidant contract: Love means never making me uncomfortable. Love means avoiding potential embarrassment, shame, exposure, judgement, rejection unhappiness in the relationship. Love means never telling your partner what they don’t want to know about you, or about themselves.

The second, (and the only real reason to live in a life long committed partnership in G-C’s view) is to pursue “salvation,” to reach for individuation, to learn more about what we don’t know about ourselves, to take more responsibility for our undeveloped aspects, to confront our own shadow and to press our partners to integrate their own denied, disavowed, unacknowledged bits.

This model of committed life long dialectical partnership, he suggests, is not a “merely happy” process.

Moreover, it is not the only or the best route to salvation and individuation. It is only one of many established paths up the mountain. No better, no worse, and not for everyone, and certainly not for the feint of heart or those who are looking for the easiest way up.

The call of committed dialectical partnership involves entering into generative, on-going wrestling match. A painful one at times, where we are certain to be confronted with nearly intolerable truths about ourselves and about our loved ones as we struggle to see ourselves, our partner as whole.

Mutual conflict unto death.

There will be necessary sacrifices. Sometimes profound ones. The pursuit of “wholeness” in this context doesn’t mean getting to do whatever we want, or living out all of our desires and needs. Wholeness means being aware of our needs, and having them acknowledged in relationship whether they can be fulfilled or not.

Especially when they are not.

The saddest cases I see are the utterly unreconcilable ones where one partner yearns for a relationship of mutual, intimate respectful conflict and the other wants to be kept as comfortable as possible.

I have also seen avoidant couples grown so disconnected and unhappy that they finally discover their capacity for mutuality and take the risk of intimacy together only through the process of dissolving their marriage. Dead marriages reborn as vital, respectful honest, divorce.

Courage, respect, intimacy, honesty, acceptance, inspiration, growth seem to me to be true purpose of relationship. Happiness is only a feeling, love is a way of behaving with courageous acceptace of yourself and others.

Happiness, comfort is of course a lovely thing, a wonderful by-product of intimacy earned, of trust hard-won.

And in the spaces in-between battles fairly-fought, we should accept all the rest and ease that comes to us along the way.

copyright © 2011
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

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