In an early morning conversation with Daniel Shaw, LCSW, from the National Institute for the Psychotherapies (NIP), NYC, as the prelude to his presentation to the Tampa Bay Psychoanalytic Society, Inc (TBPS) on November 7, 2009 of his paper Enter Ghosts: The Loss of Intersubjectivity in Clinical Work with Adult Children of Pathological Narcissists, Shaw disclosed how he was inspired, in part, by the NY production of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night to write about Alice and the cumulative relational trauma she suffered at the hands of her narcissistic parents. Shaw’s early training had led him to Heinz Kohut’s How Does Analysis Cure and Alice Miller’s The Drama of the Gifted Child, but he credits Alice with teaching him to ‘hang in there with’ challenging patients, and for helping him to grow as an analyst and a person. Allowing for the possibility that nobody is always right allows for growth (even in such hegemonic ideologies as classical psychoanalytic theory).
The breakdown of intersubjectivity is complementarity. Shaw expands Fairbairn’s concept of “the moral defense” to include the complementary part parents play in this relational dynamic. Recall that the moral defense, put simply, states that in order to maintain the attachment to the parents, a child of bad parents chooses to feel s/he is bad rather than acknowledge that the parents are bad. Complementary to the child, narcissistic parents see themselves as all good, perfect, and infallible, the complement to the child’s taking on the badness. As the parent disavows her/his own badness, the child is coerced into accepting the projection. The child is continually objectified, not subjectified.
Narcissism negates subjectivity. When a child is continually objectified by narcissistic parents who do not recognize the child as her/his own center of agency, the child suffers cumulative relational stress, or cumulative developmental trauma. The child grows up in a double bind, not allowed independent desire which risks abandonment and rejection, but disdained for her/his dependence, a dependence associated with shame and humiliation.
Kim Vaz, in her introduction of Shaw to TBPS, revealed his struggles with, and his compassion for, his challenging patients when she took this excerpt from another of Shaw’s papers, which received the 2001 Educator's Award for an Outstanding Scholarly Paper from NIP ( Shaw, D. (2003). On the Therapeutic Action of Analytic Love. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 39:251-278.):
“Ari was a patient who was not easy to love, at least not at first and not for me. Ari was forty when he began to see me. His marriage was falling apart and he had been miserable for years. He felt close to becoming violent with his wife. He was burned out, always angry and always anxious, at home and at work . . . . Ari spent most of a year splenetically venting, about his wife, his son, his partners, his employees, and so forth. Feeling shut out, I often found myself shuttling between resentment, detachment, and feeling intimidated. Eventually, I understood that I was withdrawing, withholding a necessary confrontation, in retaliation for the narcissistic injury I felt about my perceived lack of effect on him. This understanding helped me to reorganize and mobilize the assertiveness I needed in order to reach Ari. One day, I finally raised my voice and said, quite loudly, ‘You know, I would like to say some things to you, but I'm afraid if you don't like what you hear, you will bite my head off, possibly literally.’
Ari looked up at me with his sharp, penetrating eyes, and I was scared. I was quite surprised and touched, though, to see Ari's eyes go moist, his face reddening. He said sadly, ‘I'm just like my father. Yes, this is what I do to everyone, my wife, my son, everyone, just like my father did.’
I said, ‘It must be awfully lonely, with everyone afraid of you like that.’ He looked up at me, silently. I added, ‘You know that song “Desperado?”’
‘Yes, I know it,’ he said, still looking intently at me.
‘You remind me of those lines, “you better let somebody love you, before it's too late.”’
Ari looked down and began to weep. I was quite moved. Right then, my very mixed feelings about Ari melted into an unexpected warmth, respect, and tenderness, and I heard myself say to myself, ‘I really love this guy.’ ”