Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Healing Through Witnessing

Bruce Reis, PhD, on faculty of the Relational Track at NYU Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis, and coeditor of the forthcoming book Heterosexual Masculinities (Routledge Press) was featured at the Tampa Bay Institute for Psychoanalytic Studies, Inc (T-BIPS)’s Trauma Workshop Series HEALING HAUNTED LIVES Part III: “Healing Through Witnessing,” on February 7, 2009 in Tampa, FL. While many analysts strive to help survivors put in to words (symbolize) their traumatic experiences, Reis entertains the possibility that some experiences, by their very traumatic nature, can never be described or understood through narrative. He cites Caruth’s idea that trauma, by definition, is that which cannot be symbolized. Trauma memory, then, is occluded. Trauma is retained in the absence of narrative. Trauma is repeated bodily, and the transference becomes the “scene of address” with a certain way of listening, a certain recognition and receptivity on the part of the therapist. Repeating is a form of remembering and not an enactment. The action itself is the memory.

In Part II of HEALING HAUNTD LIVES: “Treating Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse,” on January 10, 2009, Lycia Alexander-Guerra, MD explicated the physiological dissociation of memory: how trauma can inhibit the hippocampus’ symbolic encoding and integrative functions while simultaneously enhancing the amygdalar functions of perceptual, procedural, and implicit memory, both resulting in memories which are de-contextualized from each other, and in somatic, affective, procedural memories which are unlinked to words. Alexander-Guerra, as per Jody Messler Davies and Gail Frawley, discussed how reenactments of experiences which lack words can become an opportunity for the therapist to lend words and make meaning with the survivor of previously unspeakable traumas.

Reis, however, takes a non-narrative view, highlighting a revision in technique, and reminds us of the crucial dimension of the wordless experience of “being with” the survivor. Translation into language loses the force of the event and, presumably, increases the survivor’s isolation. Being with allows for the intersubjective experience and for an affective scene populated by another, without symbolizing and without meaning making. Alluding to the “Testimony Method,” which is a non-medical approach to survivors, seeing them, not as sick, but as people with whom we must sit, Reis sees trauma as an imperative to witness, where another becomes aware of what we experience (Sander), opening suffering to its social dimension. It is isolation, the catastrophic loneliness (Grand), which is relieved somewhat, even as the trauma itself can never be undone.

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