The local (Tampa Bay) psychoanalytic society had the pleasure of hosting, on March 18, 2017, Adrienne Harris, renowned psychoanalyst and author, known for her work on gender and, more recently, on the analyst’s ‘ghosts,’ that is, what ‘haunts’ the analyst and makes her or him less able to see the patient’s ghosts. Ghosts are a sign of blocked mourning of what has been lost or never was, but also, pointedly, about the confrontation with the limits of our immortality/omnipotence by the knowledge of the finality of death.
This countertransferential problem of ghosts may be aggravated by the analyst’s overlooking the importance of self-care. Therapists get so interested in taking care of others that they often ignore their own self-care. Citing Lyons-Ruth, Harris reminded us that children with disorganized attachment can cope by becoming disorganized, and, later, our patients, or they organize the best they can and become caretakers of their parents (what Lyons-Ruth called “tend/befriend”) in a “precocious maturity” and, later become therapists and other caregiving professionals.
Rey noted that many of his psychotic patients sought not to change themselves but, instead, to repair damaged internal objects from their childhoods. Apprey called this the “pluperfect errand,” an impossible task to go back and fix the other of the past. Harris said, therapists, too, may have an unconscious hope in our mission as analysts, which is “organized around our omnipotence,” to help others. “Some therapists have masochistic levels of commitment” to their patients, where they will try to do anything to intervene or help their patients. This penchant also may come with an increased capacity to be attuned to others. Harris mused about one version of the Greek myth of Philoctetes: that he could only be a perfect archer if his wound remained unhealed.
Unfortunately, self-care may be circumvented by the shame felt over needing, neediness, the shame of disappointed or unfulfilled need, as if all are not entitled to self-care.
Harris also talked about “Ghosts and Demons in the 21st Century.” She asked, “How do cultures come to terms with impossible betrayals?” and noted that “ghosts proliferate when there is no witness” to trauma. Ferenczi had also pointed out in Confusion of Tongues that the lack of a witness is as catastrophic as the traumatic event itself. Harris cited Ireland’s great famine. When catastrophe goes unwitnessed, it reveals itself in symptoms (e.g. alcoholism), sometimes generations later. “Melancholia is a hallmark of ghosts.” These “ghosts are lived through enactments, carrying and reproducing historical trauma.”
Another unwitnessed or insufficiently witnessed historical catastrophe is US slavery, its unfaceable and unspeakable horrors more recently coming to light. Stalinism, too, went long unwitnessed, with its subsequent flourishing of “the grotesque,” the admixture of horror and comedy, in art and literature.