Metaphor, Re-enactment, and Trauma: The Case of the Boy Who Watched Television

By Frederick Feirstein

This paper was presented at the 19th Annual Interdisciplinary Conference of the International Forum for Psychoanalytic Education, Boston, November 2008. An earlier version was presented at the 34th Annual Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis, October 2006.

In my case study “The Bag Lady And Her Bag Of Jewels” (2006), I showed how a key metaphor expressed as a cliché in the first session and repeated throughout treatment represented a series of remembered traumas. Here in the case of “The Boy Who Watched Television” a single fully repressed trauma was played out in the transference and bewildering re-enactments. The latter presented as one would express disparate associations to a dream — in casual, seemingly unrelated comments before the dream is told.

The dream we might say of the single profound trauma wasn’t made manifest metaphorically in the first session. It was communicated in a strange metaphor/pun in a striking session months into treatment when Peter said, “I’m peaking now, in a climactic and instrusive way.” The affective meaning of the metaphor was triggered sessions later by happenstance when Peter watched, as usual late at night, a television show.

When I first met Peter, he was an affable, aspiring comic in his mid-twenties. He was blond and blue-eyed with a grin like Danny Kaye’s. In his first session he said: “I’m here because I feel ashamed and upset about not feeling sexual towards women like my other close friends. None of them have experimented with homosexuality. I’m the only one with minimal homosexual encounters. I also have bad work problems my friends don’t have. Oh, I can crack people up at a party, or when I’m doing catering. But I’m too anxious to perform on stage. And I’m scared I’ll never be able to do it on television.”

“How do you do on auditions?”

“You kidding? I’ve got problems even interviewing for a regular day job.”

“What happens then?”

“I fucking freeze up. I feel very irritated when someone asks me to account for myself. I get crazy even before I go in. I don’t dress well. I get anxious about buttoning my top button and pulling up a tie. I get into the same sweat when I put on a turtle neck or sweater, anything tight around the neck. I get frozen or angry when the interviewer stretches out his hand to greet me, or gestures to follow him into his office.”

Not long after the first session Peter said that this is how he feels when he comes into my office:
“I get enraged at you a lot when you open the door. If I sense you’re irritated, or have an intense look in your eyes, I want to take my hands and put them around your neck, and choke you!”

That dangerous impulse came up often, and each time I suggested it was symbolic of something we should explore. But it got us nowhere. A few months later, however, a door suddenly opened on his transferential rage. “I just had an association to that intense look of yours. My mother would sometimes just glare at me like that, and then refuse to talk for days. I’d get angry but couldn’t say anything … And I’d get that same feeling of rage in summer camp. If a kid looked at me cross-eyed, I’d get him down on the ground and sit on top of him, and choke him till counselors pulled me off. Then I’d run into the woods and cry, fucking sob, and feel overwhelming guilt.”

Then without making any further connection between his mother’s withdrawals, his assaults at camp, his freezing at job interviews, and what he wanted to do to me at the door, Peter went on to describe a sleep disorder that would make it hard for him to get going at a day job. He said he could never fall asleep until 3 or 4 a.m. What finally would put him to sleep was watching television, not comedy but a melodrama in which someone was dying. He connected this “habit” to a strange dread of his father dying, which would make him feel totally vulnerable in the world. Strange because he had only expressed intense dislike of his father.

Then he told me two memories that he felt were connected to his dislike of the man, “and maybe my fear of his dying”:

“I loved my father till I was seven. But then he came back from Vietnam with a tropical disease. The disease gave his body a stinking odor which made me want to puke… I have another memory of wanting to puke. When I was ten or eleven my father came home drunk late one night, stinking of liquor, and wanting to wrestle with me. He scared the shit out of me by getting me in a tight headlock till I gagged. Then he scared me more by apologizing and wanting to kiss me.”

“Is there some connection between these memories of your father and what you began with – your anger at me and at your mother?”

“Yes, his smell when he was sick really revolted me. But my mother compounded by this by leaving me alone with him. She told me I had to take care of my father, cater to him, cheer him up.”

I wondered if his mother’s demand he cheer up his father might have contributed to Peter’s present conflict about performing comedy. But I said nothing as Peter went back to talking about his mother’s freezing him out and how that seemed connected to what happened last night.

“Last night a woman froze me out by canceling a blind date one of my buddies arranged. I’ve had a couple of setbacks like this lately. But,” he said brightly, “I’m still optimistic. In fact, I’m peaking now, in a climactic and intrusive way.”

That expression struck me as very odd, especially in the context of what he was talking about. “What’s the connection,” I asked him, “between ‘peaking’ and ‘climaxing in an intrusive way?”

“Oh, I’m mainly climactic. Everything is coming to a head.” Then Peter laughed uncomfortably. “I knew it as soon as I said it. I want everything to come out.” Scanning my face for what I was thinking, Peter grinned sheepishly and added, “It’s a big dick, isn’t it?”

As I sat there bewildered. I thought: With these puzzle pieces of associations, and this odd metaphor now, was Peter trying to communicate some confusing state he had been in?

“I know the answer!” he laughed. “It’s my own dick, but I don’t use it.”

Then like a stand-up comic he went on (unconsciously) to sexually pun: “I try to get a grip on myself all night and go to sleep. But I stay up all night, losing the grip. I want to bring someone else and go along for the ride … Though I have this asshole job, I should get these head shots and put it with my resume and go look at Backstage. I should memorize my lines.”

What I wondered was he trying to reveal with these unintended puns on “head,” “grip,” “asshole,” and “Backstage,” – all keyed in by “peak.” Was he

trying to give me a peek at having more oral and anal sex than he had already told me about? And what was peaking in an intrusive way? Was a memory of sexual trauma intruding, now beginning to peek through?

It occurred to me how these quick questions that came to me paralleled the rapid-fire way Peter felt questions came at him from a job interviewer. I wondered if this sudden rush of puns was covering up something unexpected about to emerge.

I stayed silent and he continued punning, rapid-fire: “But instead of getting a grip on myself, I only want to grab someone else. Sexual tension and everything else on top it. Me and my friend Larry get stoned and talk about us not being happy in our jobs and eat. I’ve been eating so much, I gag and throw up. I want to throw it all up!”

As I thought he was going to connect this feeling to choking when buttoning a shirt or to memories choking other children, Peter went on to say this: “After I get stoned and eat, I’ll fall asleep. Fall asleep on the job,” Peter added irritably. If I get to a job! Fucking day jobs,” he said emphasizing each word slowly. Every one of my friends has a cool job. And a girlfriend. Her breaking the blind date last night was a minor stab wound, a wound to my pride. I resent my friends with girlfriends going on vacations.”

Peter sat in agonized silence, looking at me for direction in this slow, cranky complaint.

Not wanting to “intrude” with a speculation, I asked Peter if he noticed the shift his style of talking had taken — from a stand-up rushing riff on sex to a slow, deliberate, irritable rhythm about work and his friends’ work and social lives.

“I was peaking wasn’t I?” he laughed.

“But then you became irritable — piqued.”

I spelled out the homonym or him, hoping that the sound association would lead, as it does with rhyme, to some unconscious connection of meaning. I learned the value of doing this in working with a patient who didn’t bring in dreams and associations but a list of rhymes which he nightly wrote out in a trance-like state and would associate to in the session the next day. This, incidentally, led me to understand how associations are preconsciously compressed in poetry, as in the rhyme described in this stanza of mine.

from GRAVITY OF THE BLACK HOLE
Otto Rank who is now anonymous
Called it The Birth Trauma, where we put to sleep
Unconscious meanings in the rhyme tomb/womb
So, the pull toward Mommy brings us six feet deep..

So when I enunciated p-i-q-u-e-d, he said desperately, “Yes, I’m piqued. and just jerking off. I’m not doing fucking anything about it. I can’t get a grip on myself! At this nightclub gig I’m doing, the boss loves me. If I’m this ‘great,’ why don’t you pay me more! I pulled off something other people couldn’t. A party for Suits! People were uptight, and I put on the greatest deadpan conservative front. Then I cracked them up. I had these people in the palms of my hands. If I put my mind to it, I can do anything I want. I had a grip on myself.”

“You keep talking about a grip on yourself.”

“I can’t … Sometimes I want to shake myself. I could say ‘shake’ and ‘grip’ is jerking off. There’s this complete build-up and I want to rid myself of these intensities. Sometimes I feel I’m a walking time-bomb and want to scream. I try to blow it off. It lasts an hour. Then I like to punish myself.”

Again I addressed his punning metaphoric style. “So you’re talking about jerking off, blowing off, grabbing onto someone else’s dick, or your own, and then punishing yourself.”

“That’s exactly what my life consists of. I want to peak, but I get no real response. I go nowhere. That blind date cancelled me out, didn’t she?” he said bitterly.

Then he told me a fragment of a dream he’d had two nights before in which, as we’ll see, his mother cancelled him out over what all session he was both hiding and wanting to reveal to me: “My mother pulls open a curtain and discovers me playing with toy soldiers.”?

Peter remembered a box of toy soldiers that he kept in his parents’ garage. Then he focused on the garage door. He remembered how when he was in the third grade, his mother opened that garage door and discovered him and another boy showing each other their penises. She gave him a crushingly disappointed look.

“Not angry, but disappointed. Piqued — like the look you sometimes give me at the door. I want to strangle you then. Piqued — just like that blind date makes me feel now. It may not seem major,” he said, “a look like that. But I think it had a lot to do with my whole life.”

“How?” I asked.

“I don’t know, but it’s something I feel.”

I brought it back to the transference and asked if there was something he was hiding that might make me feel piqued at him.

“Yes,” he grinned sheepishly, then looked bereft. “There’s something I want to tell you, if I can get a grip on myself.” He took a deep breath.

“Sometimes when I can’t go to sleep, I go out around midnight to a movie theater down the block.” Haltingly, eyeing me for a reaction, he told me how three or four times a week he’d go out in a trance state to a gay movie theater where he would have anonymous sex. While it lasted, he’d feel “powerful and vindictive.”

This feeling reminded him of getting on top of a kid in camp and choking him. “Powerful and vindictive,” Peter repeated. Then Peter described how he’d look away at the movie screen and get contemptuously angry if the man tried to develop an attachment to him.

After the encounters in the movie theater were over, Peter would plunge into the night air, feeling ashamed and revolted. He would go home and curl up, watching television until he fell asleep. “I always have to sleep with the television on,” he said.

Now that he had told me this, now the door was opened on what he called “my compulsion,” Peter felt relieved. “This is it! I’m re-playing in the movie theaters and my revulsion afterwards what happened in the garage.”

I told him that he could use this insight to stop movie-going, that with the risk of AIDS it could be suicidal. He agreed though, he added, that he was afraid he couldn’t stop — even though he was scared of AIDS and hated the feelings of revulsion after he left the movie theater. “It’s like an addiction. But I’ll try my best to stop it, and to just talk about my feelings in here.”

A few weeks later, Peter began a session saying again that he felt the urge to choke me when I opened the door. But this time he knew it was “crazy,” and felt it had something to do with last night.

“Last night I was watching a television drama about a girl who had been molested, and I had a weird conviction that something happened to me! In a discussion after the show, someone made a point that people who have been molested don’t remember it till many years later, and that they can get a sense of it from repetitive dreams. I’ve had one since childhood that I’ve never brought up. It was short and doesn’t make sense but I had it for over twenty years:

“A hand reaches from a doorway. Then I see a pair of eyes, staring at me intensely from above. I try to look away and watch television.”

“Where in the room was the television?”

“In the corner,” I think.

“What did the room look like?”

“I don’t remember, but it was like a bunk in camp. It was dark in the room but light outside. I hate the daytime. It’s weird but that’s one reason I quit my day job. I like to sleep during the day.”

Then Peter asked me if I thought he had been sexually molested.

I said, “It’s possible but I don’t know.”

Peter got very angry and said he wanted to choke the life out of me. I remained silent.

“I thought of this just now: I feel like choking you when you open the door for me to come in, not when I’m leaving.”

He then added that he had a strange experience the other day that upset him and scared a gay friend of his, a t.v. producer who hadn’t been supportive of him in his comedy club work. When the friend opened the door with what Peter thought was a “falsely innocent look on his face,” Peter grabbed him by the throat and pushed him against the wall. Then, recovering himself, Peter apologized and said he’d been in a “weird state of mind. What he came over me to do that?” He told me that this was the kind of state he’d get into in the movie theater.

Slowly, over the next few months, we began to approach the plot line of what was unconsciously driving Peter when he went for his friend’s throat and was tempted to go for mine at the door.

Peter came in for a session after a night in which the roles of choker and choked were reversed.

“Last night I went to a rough bar where I naively let myself get picked up by a guy I had some very bad vibes about. I went back with him to an apartment the guy said he was ‘just flopping in.’ After a couple of minutes the guy locked the door and wouldn’t let me out. He threatened to hit me if I tried to escape. He wanted all my money. The weird thing is, he wasn’t much bigger than me, but I felt absolutely panicked and powerless, like a kid! All I had in my wallet was ten bucks, which I gave him. Then the guy laughed and let me out. Afterwards I felt revolted and crazy for doing that. Those feelings of panic and helplessness were so familiar. Wait a minute …”

Peter paused, sucked in his breath, and then said quietly:

“Shit, I’m having a flashback to a room like that where someone invites me in and suddenly locks the door. It’s like when an interviewer shakes my hand and leads me into his office. It seems very nice, that room.

“I think that a man invited me in to watch some television. Then he locked the door. It’s exactly the same feeling I had last night …You know that intense look in that repetitive dream? I just saw his face! He was smiling, and that smile dropped and he had that intense look in the eyes. I remember choking. I couldn’t speak! … It’s vague, but I remember him letting me back out and threatening me that if I told anybody anything, my father would die.”

Over the next few months Peter had more flashbacks to the room, the repetitive dream became more detailed, and he began to make connections between what he was visualizing and his disconnected and mystifying re-enactments and puzzling terrors: His fear of a job interviewer opening the door and “inviting” him in; his fear before he’d go for the interview of his collar or tie choking him; his wanting to choke me; his sleepless nights watching t.v. shows in which someone died; his not being able to sleep without the t.v. on; his compulsively needing to have sex while a movie was playing (he would lapse into this dangerous activity when I went away) — all these needs and terrors signaled by that key metaphor:

“I’m peaking.”

The scene that Peter finally remembered, now in a chronological narrative happened when he was seven:

“It was summer. My father was away fighting in Vietnam. Me and my mother went on vacation to a hotel but she got sick, bed-ridden, and slept a lot. One afternoon I went out to play.

“It was a bright afternoon and one of the help, a hippie-looking guy with a blond greasy ponytail and eyes like the eyes in the repetitive dream, invited me in to watch television. The guy leads me into his room that looks like a bunk in camp. We have milk and cookies and sit on the bed watching television. Then the guy suddenly wrestles me down on the bed. I tried to escape, but the guy locked the door and with an angry look on his face put his penis in my mouth. I remember choking, and wanted to throw up.

“When I hit the bright sunlight I felt terrified because the man told me at the door that if I talked about this, my father would die. So I kept my mouth shut. A month later, when my father came back jaundiced and stinking from tropical disease, I was scared that if I did my father would die – because he was sick.”

All Peter could do was his job as his mother described it — to help take care of his father by entertaining him, by making him laugh.

“I wanted to be helped, not the other way around. I wanted protection like you protected me from going into the movie theater.”

But his father was in no physical shape to protect anyone, not even himself. And from that day on Peter harbored a simmering rage at his once beloved father whom he felt had abandoned him by going away and leaving him to the mercy of that man in the hotel.

Now with some feeling of mastery of that forgotten trauma, now that he felt he had a safe place with me, Peter boldly wanted to venture out to deal with the trauma in a way he felt I couldn’t help him. He wanted to join a group of sexually assaulted men and, if he dared, see a hypnotist to learn more details than we had recovered. I referred him to a good analyst I knew who both did hypnosis and ran a group for sexually assaulted men.

Peter went to see him while continuing our work in the hope he could find out who his abuser was and get physical revenge, or at least bring him to justice.

What Peter learned under hypnosis, and from more flashbacks he had inside and outside of my office, put his impulse to choke in striking dramatic relief:

His abuser was a hotel handyman. Peter had been the man’s room twice, the second time to see a bird the man had captured. “He told me I would love the bird. He showed it to me outside. I found it cute and found myself walking back into his room again.”

(As he had walked back time after time into the movie theater.)

Peter remembered that this time the man penetrated him anally.

Then he demonstrated to Peter exactly what he would do to his father if Peter talked. He choked the bird to death.

Peter could come up with no more. He couldn’t remember who the man was so he could strangle him. We worked for a time on how he could live without physical revenge. In the end Peter accepted what had happened to him. The acting out stopped and he began to seek out a partner whom he could love and trust. He had a couple of relationships that he struggled to work out. After a year he found a good partner, a successful entertainment lawyer. Peter felt confident enough in his considerably strengthened sense of self to end treatment — which he did with my blessings.

I ran into Peter on the street a few years later. He said he was acting, working in television commercials, and asked if I had seen any. I hadn’t but
congratulated him nonetheless. He said that he and his partner were still together and considering adopting a child. He was very appreciative of the work we had done, and I walked away feeling secure that The Boy Who Watched Television was now safe under Peter’s own care. I also felt secure that what we had discovered about his single profound trauma was genuine – first hinted in his metaphor, “I’m peaking;” and then from his flashbacks, his lifelong repetitive dream, and from our unscrambling his mystifying, repetitive impulses at my door that fit the plot of the trauma. Drama to trauma. He now could live with the memory of the trauma – rather than die by re-enacting it.

References

  • Feirstein F. (2006). Metaphor And Trauma: The Bag Lady And Her Bag Of Jewels,” Psychoanal.Rev., 93:39-56.

Frederick Feirstein is a training and control analyst at NPAP and practices in Manhattan. He frequently writes on metaphor and trauma. He also is a poet and playwright. He has been a Pulitzer Prize finalist and Guggenheim Fellow in poetry and won the OADR award in playwriting. His new book of poems, Gravity of the Black Hole, is also a music theater piece that The Medicine Show performed in New York in March.

One Response to Metaphor, Re-enactment, and Trauma: The Case of the Boy Who Watched Television

  1. Colin says:

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