Saturday, May 17, 2014

What a joker

Quite a few clients say they don’t remember their childhood.  Trauma is the rule-out explanation for this, generally.  For example, a 26-year-old man I counseled remembered nothing of his first sixteen years because of early trauma.  But more often, I believe the reason is the failure of life to stick to the depressed or depressively anxious child’s brain.  Existence is underlain by the music of pain, which distracts by dissociation and buries by repression.  Experience bounces off the brain, or slides down and under.

That was my childhood.  I have a few handfuls of memories, the sharpest no more than dust on powder, the rest a single cell or molecule’s worth and beneath snow.  What mostly stuck are body-mood sensations of condensed experience, and only a few of those.  I don’t remember any birthdays.  We had a Cape Cod vacation, I may have been eleven – I don’t confidently remember a restaurant’s wooden communal table, crowded convivial atmosphere, lobster and butter and bib.  There was a hyper-bleak Florida vacation, off-season, at my uncle’s West Palm Beach condominium: I had rubbed one eye so much that my parents took me to the emergency room.  What memories formed, always, were those accompanied by feeling.  I now picture, faded as a forgotten dream, Carlton West, my family’s guide during our Nantucket Island visit.  He was a lovely, engaging old black man who talked warmly to me as an individual.  I believe no one had ever done that before.  Most of the memories – elementary school boys and girls, all of whom touched or bothered me in some way.

What I want to touch on here is my peculiar root system where depression affected memory, and memory in depression made character.  Not a good character but a repugnant one, had anyone cared to look, to awaken it.  It took me many years, in child obliviousness, to realize my mother was a snob, maybe a contemptuous snob, maybe even a heartless snob.  She disclosed with a laugh one day that family friends, fellow Jews named Arsht, were known as “Ar-shit.”  I knew that “joker,” which she would label some inoffensive stranger, was the most ineluctable trashing of personhood possible.  By my early elementary school years I had absorbed that a joker was a pathetic, meaningless embarrassment of a person, so ludicrously shameful that all his efforts to be serious were a joke.

I remember never seeing one moment of charitable giving or hearing a kind word for someone from either parent, though these absences were numbed in a home with no anger or drama or energy anyway.  That is, until a day during my fifteenth or sixteenth year, after my neurotic shell had begun its growth, when my parents went for a ride in the country and I joined them.  We were on a road passing hills and in a tiny hollow there was a trailer park, the first in my sheltered life that I had ever seen.  Mother looked over at the encampment and uttered the word “junk.”  I was startled, not knowing what she meant.  I asked for clarification.  She meant the people living there.  This was the first, and in fact the only time that the molecular structure of the air in which I had grown up was revealed to me clearly.

A little boy who is quiet and shy, who leaves no footprint, never gets angry (I quietly went about sizzling ants on a light bulb and collected hundreds of ant corpses) and offends no one.  And who after first or second grade, maybe as far as third, had no heart for other people, only fear of the poor, distaste for the unlucky, no compassion for the sick.  (Two decades later, if my stepdaughter were ill and had a cough, my only reaction would be the puerile pun, “Dr. Cough-man, where is Dr. Cough-man?”)  My father was injured in a small explosion at his workplace during my mid-teens.  I don’t even recall that the family shared this with me beyond a passing mention, though he had been hospitalized, and I know that my only feeling was some pulsing oblivion.

My family never gave direct instructions in misanthropy.  The only race-tainted attitude I ever heard came from my aunt, a nurse at an elementary school which served black neighborhoods.  Some mild disdainful remark, once or twice.  But I absorbed my home, the feelings of the adults.  Later, sixteen years old and driving, I’d observe another driver being irresponsible and would get riled.  But then I’d see it was a black person and the anger would vanish: Can’t expect any better.

I believe the swan song of my loving feelings was my world of turtles.  From about age eleven to thirteen I had cumulatively shoplifted a dozen little red- and yellow-eared ones from Woolworth’s at Reisterstown Road Plaza, and had a fine mini-aquarium set up.  I loved those guys, would fondle them with ardor (they’d get a kiss or two), kept their home sparkling clean, fed them meal worms and grasshoppers, read about them, was aggrieved when one would get “sideways disease” (I guess my research was a bit lacking) and start swimming at a forty-degree angle, a harbinger of its eventual failing and dying.  When the first one left me, I was heartbroken and would have been inconsolable had I been able to reach out with a feeling to anyone.  I still wonder if Turkle remains buried, fifty years later, in the backyard of my Chisholm Drive home, in a wooden box with a new Kennedy half dollar.

But then some months later, a second one died, and the feeling was not there.  Flushing him down the toilet was adequate.  My closest friend Vincent and I, from first grade, became ships passing though we had some eighth grade classes together.  The depressive alienation, loss of heart and childhood, was so palpable and so impossible to do anything about as we drifted away.

I used, above, the term “condensed experience” to mean cumulative impact seeping into the floorboards of one’s life and to suggest that ‘you are what you breathe.’  The term comes from Stanislav Grof’s esoteric theory of birth trauma and its lifelong wake.  In an interview, Grof describes the Coex, or Condensed Experience:

“Let me clarify first what I mean by a Coex system. In traditional psychotherapies there's the idea that we have experienced a number of traumatic things in the course of our life, and that it's kind of a mosaic of trauma, whereas if you work on these past issues using experiential psychotherapy -- whether it's with psychedelics or some powerful non-drug techniques -- what you find is that these traumatic memories seem to form certain kinds of constellations. So for example, when somebody has problems with the self image, in this kind of work what can come up is a series of traumas that have damaged that person's self image, that come from different periods of that person's life, and they create a kind of psychological constellation where the connecting factor is the quality of the emotion. Sometimes it could be also a quality of the accompanying physical feelings. This kind of constellation functions in the unconscious, and when the individual is under the influence of that constellation, it colors the self-perception, self-image of that person, attitudes towards the world, certain specific forms of behavior, and so on. What is fascinating here is that each of those Coex systems seems to be anchored in a particular facet of the birth trauma.”*
Character is, like self-esteem, a concept that most people understand only by what they feel or want it to mean.  Self-esteem is not pride or egotism (or humility) or conviction of competence to handle life or justice anger or awareness of self-value, as much as it is the existence of a core feeling-identity.  It is not something a narcissist can have or that a brilliant achiever will necessarily have.  Similarly, character is not personal morals or humane behavior public or private as much as it is the core preconscious self: the electrons, the interstices of behavior and thought.  It is a scattered kaleidoscope of internal feelings bent mostly in this or that direction.

If I am representative, “moral” character as it reflects off other people and nature is the preponderance of positive self-feeling, or the absence of it.  It may seem to come from the child’s being treated well, but there is a deeper source which is the definition, the constituents, of “being treated well.”  I was handled with charity and kid gloves by all the adults, but I didn’t exist.  Birth trauma and parents’ depression and dissociation, their own absence of self, left me to be and to be treated as a role – boy, son, child, future piano virtuoso – whose unique energy could never emerge.  Without it, how can character grow?

There is another factor.  When a child’s self cannot emerge, it is pain that cannot be taken away by others.  “The people in the environment”** become disappointments.  Alienation, disappointment and pain hide beneath a complaisant persona but they seek egress,*** and possibly projective vengeance.  Had my parents been warm-hearted altruists it couldn’t have answered the pain and would have only confounded the terrain, just as mother’s holding a baby while stressed will teach his nervous system more tension than love.****  But words of pain and contempt – “he’s a joker” – would feel more ego-syntonic, like home.

I believe that character botches from these reasons and grows from love.  The love that helped me change, so many years later, was not self-love but grief: self-compassion.  I have found that there is no way to acquire this but to de-repress, to descend to the wounds at the beginnings of our life, to finally own rather than disown the child we had to forget in order to live.  But as this is a process that will succeed or fail on a continuum, so resurrected character will exist in different pieces and strengths.  Full grief will be full reunification, and we will return to primordial love and loving character.  Or so that is my theory.  I have only become a partial reclamation, capable of some empathy and selfless love.  Others feel and give more than I.  And beneath the stubborn repression, some parental shards of prejudice remain, quirky, vestigial.  If you prefer Miracle Whip to Hellmann’s mayonnaise, I will doubt your quality as a person.

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* “The Intuition Network, A Thinking Allowed Television Underwriter, presents the following transcript from the series Thinking Allowed, Conversations On the Leading Edge of Knowledge and Discovery, with Dr. Jeffrey Mishlove.”  The Adventure of Self-Discovery with Stanislav Grof, M.D. at  As Wikipedia says, “Grof is known for his early studies of LSD and its effects on the psyche – the field of psychedelic therapy.  Building on his observations while conducting LSD research and on Otto Rank’s theory of birth trauma, Grof constructed a theoretical framework for prenatal and perinatal psychology and transpersonal psychology in which LSD trips and other powerfully emotional experiences were mapped onto a person's early fetal and neonatal experiences.  At

** Phrase borrowed from Horney, Neurosis and Human Growth, also referenced at blog post Solipsism,

*** Word borrowed from Janov, from The Primal Revolution: “I believe that in every neurotic, by definition, there is some kind of secret craziness – some hidden sickness that erupts.  The psychotic is ‘up front’ with his insanity.  He can’t hide and put on a good social face.  But the neurotic has learned to do just that; he acts.  The act is perfected and unconscious.  But the early thwarted needs and impulses find devious routes for egress.”

**** “Conversely, a mother may sense in her infant a small negative reaction to the way she holds him and tense up in fear.  She is afraid she is a bad mother who does not know how to hold her baby.  Or else she decides that his negative response is directed against her; that he is a bad child who does not love being held in her arms.  So she is the mother who is likely to firm up her grip, and in doing so prove to the child that his efforts at bettering his lot, at adapting to how she holds him, have no such results and are better given up.”  Bruno Bettelheim, The Empty Fortress, p. 28, The Free Press, 1967.

1 comment:

  1. Great article and my head (heart??)(both memory storage locations!) pops up very often amongst the words you have written. Just as Moses only caught a glimpse of the back of God, insights come and go in a wisp of cloud which dissipates as soon as you try to chase it, or try to hold it down. Subtle!!! Extremely!! For myself, "born dark blue" as my mother said, forceps delivery and the first 24hrs in an oxygen tent, my mother too timid to call for help from "superior" doctors and nurses because she felt I'd been stuck in the birth canal far too long (an all too common attitude in those days - about 1950. You didn't "bother" the authorities)). At 18 months, my foot ran over by a construction truck on a non-completed housing estate. At 4 years, four nurses/doctors hold me down because of my protests, in order to remove a corn bean which i'd got stuck up my nose! Born in low status working class - and so went to schools where sensitive old me lived in fear of annihilation - both, physical and mental - and me being over-sensitive child - I'm talking about children who later went on to beat up three cops at once, when knuckle dusters were the icons of the times, and stealing transistor radios from the local stores was a measure of macho kudos (not me, far too timid!)((And the males were worse!!!;);)) Parents powerless, in money and psychological resources, shackled by their own birth limitations, existing, arguing, fighting......under the duress of everyday existence, always gloomy (my father was heavily passive-aggressive, my mother easily provoked into reactive outbursts, both of them still suffering, and blind to, their own decrepit upbringing (you may have to have some idea of the status of the working class in Britain - especial through the WW2, to understand life on the streets then, in the terraced houses etc). Dolly tub, "copper", manual wringers, galvanised tin bath etc etc. I'm sure the USA had it's equivalent, though perhaps not so tawdry.

    You are right, you have to touch the feeling states one was in at the time. Sometimes I can recognise events in my head, and be very erudite as to their effect on me as a child, yet nothing is moved inside me, nothing is dislodged, unravelled. Sometimes I can read an insight yet, for all it's wisdom, it does not disrupt at synapse level. Sometimes, the same insight, written only slightly differently, perhaps only one word, opens the floodgate.

    I'm 67 and now retired, from a lifetime job which was full of pressure and anxiety(Construction Engineer). I was just the right candidate for this work!! Like a glove!!

    Retirement reduces the anxiety. I don't miss work at all.

    Indeed, we must be "born again". But not in the conventional concept. I see it as a need to go back to the beginning (regression, reflection, primal). Just been mis-interpreted for 2000 years!! Regards, Paul Wood


Comments are welcome, but I'd suggest you first read "Feeling-centered therapy" and "Ocean and boat" for a basic introduction to my kind of theory and therapy.