Friday, February 28, 2020

Racism, Intersubjectivity, and Multiple Selves

Interviewed by Hari Shreenivasan on Amanpour and Company, February 14, 2020, the author of How to Be an Anti-Racist (2019) Ibram X. Kendi understands the multiplicity of selves. Racism is structural says Kendi. It is not about a person’s make up (no such thing as a ‘racist bone’) but instead is about ideas and actions. Kendi eschews essentialism and says, “No one becomes a racist or even an anti-racist. It is a reflection of what a person is doing in each moment. And people change. And so if, in one moment, a person is saying that a particular racial group is inferior, they’re being a racist. In the very next moment, if they’re supporting a policy that’s leading to equity and justice, they’re being anti-racist. There are so many people with both racist and anti-racist ideas who support racist and anti-racist policies and because of that we can’t label them one or the other permanently. We can only say what they’re being in each moment.“  

[One might say Kendi is a phenomenologist, determining by an observable outcome or effect whether a person or a policy is racist. The disparities in health care, criminal justice, employment, banking and real estate practices, education, and income all speak to racist politics at the local and federal levels. It is not biology, but racist policies which incur distinct disadvantages to people of color.]

When Kendi notes that “...striving for anti-racism is an ongoing journey” I think about how precariously we all hold intersubjectivity; The tension held between subject-to-subject relating and subject-to-object relating always finds us falling to the side where we treat others like objects, thus we struggle to right ourselves atop that tightrope again, holding that tension.

Kendi posits that to say ‘I am not a racist’ is insufficient. To relegate this part of one self to the Not-me vitiates one’s capacity to self reflect on the possibility of holding, inadvertently or otherwise, racists ideas or having racist actions. Moreover, Kendi encourages that each of us move actively toward articluating and embracing anti-racist views and policies and toward actively fighting inequities. 

Kendi, a historian at American University, won the National book Award for Nonfiction in 2018 for Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma as a Function of Dissociative Attachment Patterns

Dissociation is a relational process that keeps traumatic experience unformulated and thus experience is not fully integrated into consciousness and into a sense of self. Dissociation is a defense [defense here is used colloquially as it is not so much conflictual as it is the brain's response to traumatic experience -- a response which hyperactivates the brain’s limbic system (particularly, the right amydala) to encode experience emotionally, perceptually and procedurally while at the same time impairing the left hippocampus’ ability to symbolize and contextualize the experience. This change is brain functioning is mediated through hormones, the HPA axis, and neurochemicals and change in blood flow to brain centers.] Dissociated self states inaccessible to consciousness, and therefore to self reflection, keep self states from being in dialogue with one another.

Unresolved, dissociated trauma in the caregiver impairs her/his capacity to regulate affects in the child. Overwhelming affects can remain unintegrated into the child’s sense of self (they become the Brombergian Not-Me). Chronic misattunement from the caregiver is traumatic for the infant, setting the child’s psyche up for dissociative processes. While Bradfield states that it is not only painful affect that is dissociated but also the child’s need for relationship with the caregiver, I prefer to think in terms of attachment patterns (for example, avoidant attachment when an infant has learned that the caregiver is predictably unavailable to regulate distress). Later, such a child may continue to experience feeling “abandoned, abused, isolated, and fearful of others” with a self that is disconnected with parts of the self “sealed off.”  

Intergenerational transmission of trauma is “a function of patterns of attachment relationship.” Consciousness and unconsciousness are co-created reciprocally, if asymmetrically, and a caregiver with unresolved trauma can not respond to the infant’s distress. Instead s/he may be frightened or frightening to the infant and “may demonstrate incoherence, inconsistency, disintegration and fragmented expression of intense and contradictory affects.” Consequently, the infant develops specific strategies to manage its own distress, usually, with a dissociated parent, a disorganized attachment which predicts future dissociation in the child. Recall that dissociation is the hallmark of trauma. ‘Voila! intergenerational transmission of trauma!’

Traumatic experience, dissociated because it has not found a relational home [what Kohut called self-selfobject experience; Mitchell, the relational matrix; and Stolorow, the intersubjective context], is communicated to the therapist through relational patterns in behavior and in the body. It also enters the therapeutic relationship through enactments. 

Bradfield, B. (2011). The Dissociation of Lived Experience: A Relational Psychoanalytic Analysis of the Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma. Int. J. Psychoanal. Self Psychol., 6(4):531-550

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

An Object Relations approach to Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma

One of my favorite courses at the Tampa Bay Institute for Psychoanalytic Studies is the third year’s course on Trauma, probably because trauma accompanies most, if not all, of our patients into our offices. Trauma is ubiquitous, and we struggle with making sense of our own, sometimes simultaneously, just as we struggle with aiding patients make sense of theirs.

When we discuss intergenerational transmission of trauma in class an interesting paper is one by Alessandra Cavalli. While clearly steeped in Object Relations theory with its concomitant metapsychology, I especially liked the metaphor of the “void” or the “deadly” for it brought to mind Donnell Stern’s “unformulated experience,” Christopher Bollas’ “unthought known” and, as Cavalli notes, Bion’s “nameless dread.” To become known requires a “matrix,” or what Robert Stolorow calls a “context,” a relational home. Cavalli notes that she uses the patient’s past not for reconstruction so much as to link, give meaning, and that words and representations need a safe space in which to come into being.

Annihilation anxiety is great in children of traumatized and dissociated caregivers. Just as Andre Green’s “dead mother,” depressed and offering only deprivation, cannot create meaning for the infant (such that the infant itself is deadened), a caregiver with unresolved trauma cannot respond, see, recognize the infant’s experience (can not hold the infant in mind, cannot mentalize nor foster mentalization) and so the infant brain does not sufficiently develop a sense of self. (Winnicott described a disruption in “going on being.”) Additionally, parental anxiety gives the child the experience that the world is dangerous and possibly can destroy the infant. The caregiver’s failure to regulate the infant’s overwhelming affects, likewise, produces anxiety in the child. [I particularly liked the author’s idea of the enduring presence of absence (in the mother) creates a “dead third.”]

The analyst is tasked with developing an increased capacity to tolerate affects and to withstand identification with the patient’s experience, that is, connecting with the void, while also helping to give form (representation and words) to experience and thereby integrate disparate self states; the adult self and the child self can be in conversation. By bearing witness, the analyst helps the patient withstand seeing more parts of herself. The analyst’s curiosity and holding in mind the patient fosters growth of the patient’s mind, that is, promotes mentalization. 

One note of disagreement is the author’s statement that there can be no separation if there is not representation. This seems like old-fashioned Mahlerian language to me. As Daniel Stern pointed out, an infant has a sense of separateness very early on, so this idea might better be phrased in terms of insecure attachment, such as either a denied or debilitating longing for a mother able to be present.

Cavalli, A. (2012). Transgenerational Transmission of Indigestible Facts: From Trauma, Deadly Ghosts and Mental Voids to Meaning-Making Interpretations. J. Anal. Psychol., 57(5):597-614