The Power of Personal Voice in the Healing of Unresolved Trauma

By Gwyneth Kerr Erwin, Ph.D., Psy.D.

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Julia was a natural storyteller. Her use of language was articulate and sensory-based. Throughout her eight-year, five times a week, analysis, she could be engrossing as she verbally linked together the people of her world and their stories, creating metaphors to communicate her understanding of their experiences. But when it came to the traumatic times of her own life, she not only had few words for such experiences, she had no voice within them.

The personal truth of Julia’s inner and outer life was initially revealed through a three-year long terrifying reliving of the relationship with her father, played out with an orderly who worked at the hospital where Julia was an emergency room nurse. Eleven months into our twice a week treatment, Julia agreed to a dinner with Raul, who had pursued her insistently for weeks. Up to this point, she had managed to put him off, demurring because of their age difference, because of her teenage children, or because she was not ready to start dating after her divorce, but, trying to appease him, she finally gave in to his forceful requests for dinner. Drinking too much wine that night, he got drunk, pressuring her to go home with him and have sex. She sought assistance from the host at the restaurant, who called her a cab.

The next day, Raul called Julia, apologetic and asking for another chance. When she rebuffed him, he became desperate, begging her to meet him, explaining his actions by how depressed he felt, even suicidal. He promised no drinking, just a walk, maybe a cup of coffee. She found his neediness irresistible. The walk was extended by his lengthy monologue, and as the sun went down and his agitation increased, Julia began to feel panicky. Trying to extract herself from their prolonged time together, she worked to convince him that they could talk other times, but that she was not going to date him, and she needed to leave. Under the darkening sky, Raul pulled her down an embankment and raped her. Her impulse to scream for help was silenced by a flood of emotions and sensations she could not even name. I learned of this experience the next morning when she was scheduled to begin her full analysis. As she told me about the rape, she trembled, her eyes darting, her head often bowed. Then, I watched in some horror as her eyes began to dance, her skin flushing, as she stammered, “I’m in love with him.”

Throughout the next three years, Julia was swept up in the emotional roller-coaster of terror and excitation enacted with Raul. Often, I became frightened for Julia, but no sooner would my fear for her physical and psychic safety rise than she would move to a manic state, insisting how in love she was with Raul. His skin particularly was irresistible to her, tanned, smooth, and, especially, because it was hairless. Whatever internal protests began to form when she was with him, evaporated with his touch, his lovemaking rough and exciting.
Her vivid descriptions of these provocative experiences were mingled with those that were painful, for instance, how she had felt in her body every day of her life: as though a knife was plunged into her back, and she was made to live with it there, twisting. In her childhood, her father was the responsive and enlivening parent, charismatic to those who knew him socially and inspiring to his surgical patients and colleagues. At home, he showed a much darker and chaotic side, vacillating between violent outbursts and depression that put him to bed, drinking, weekend after weekend, only to resurrect himself by Monday to perform his medical duties. In his rages, he might throw a television through a plate glass window, or shatter a prized possession of his wife’s, or walk around the dining table drunk, pointing a knife at family members’ throats, including his children’s, while exhorting them to sing.

Julia was convinced her father had incested her, though her memories were more like shards of sense impressions. She alternately felt enthralled by him as he taught her, engaged with her, believing she could do anything, and trapped by him, alone in the requirement to please him, entertain him, soothe him. She struggled to tell me more about the kind of degradation she experienced, even into her adolescence. In an all too typical interaction, she would be in her bedroom — begging. Her father would have a belt or a hanger. Her supposed ‘mistake’ or ‘infraction’ was infinitesimal, unknowable. She was to take off all her clothes, bend over naked, so he could beat her until she welted and bruised. No one at home or school appeared to notice or intervene, even though the bruises clearly showed. The beatings felt sexual to Julia. She felt vial, her father literally salivating. Finally, in emotional paralysis, she could feel herself join him: “I’m in worse than hell — falling in black space. I’m in shock, trapped eternally, having to stay alive to experience it — timelessly, endlessly.”

After a year of analysis, Julia could tolerate glimpses of how quickly her terror or revulsion had converted into craving from either a crumb of affection from her father or his forcing himself upon her. No longer could she feel rage or fear; instead, she became consumed with fervor and insatiable need. She could also begin to tolerate my drawing the parallel to Raul. Drama and trauma continued to haunt their relationship. One night, Raul toyed with a steak knife, as had her father, arrogantly talking to her of the joy and power of holding life and death in his hands. The next weekend when her children were with their father, Raul caught a hummingbird, killed it, microwaved it, and ate it, all in moments, in front of her, as she stood immobilized. Doubled over in pain in our next session, she cried, “He will never let me go.” She was startling awake nearly every night, seeing a faceless person watching her. Her feeling of degradation was profound: “I will never be human again.” Bodily sensations flooded her. The shadowy faceless figure standing over her was playing with himself. She was tingling, vibrating, feeling panicky. Cornered, she would lay still, play dead. She wanted to kill him, but instead internally she was “scurrying around like a terrified mouse, scrambling for my life.” Telling me this, she felt nauseous, crushed under abject shame, writing me an agonized letter:

My attachments should begin to weaken to these people as I feel
the pain they bring me. But it doesn’t happen … There are
explanations, I know … I attached to my mother’s emptiness …
I attached to the terrifying and oceanic experience of my father’s
sexuality. And I experienced it all as love … I come from bad
people, but I want to return to them. I come from a desert. I dig
and scratch at the dry desert floor, and I find a trickle of water.
This is thrilling. This keeps me going. Today, that has become life’s
meaning, finding the water … That is what feels real. That is how I
am hooked up. Nothing else excites me. I do not speak another language.

In working with Julia, I faced daily raw evidence of my research, through which I had delineated the several factors that determine how traumatic experience remains unresolved:

  1. There is no attuned, empathic, and acknowledging adult partnering the child in validating his/her experience or in processing the physiological and emotional repercussions of such experience, and who, in fact, may deny, disavow, or belittle the traumatic experience.
  2. The traumatizer is the very person who should have been a safe island for the child, that is, the parent(s) or a trusted caregiver.
  3. There is no one available to the child to intervene in the trauma or in its repetition.
  4. This collection of realities leaves the child in a profound dilemma, what Hesse and Main (2000) called “fright without solution” (p. 1117).

One of the most poignant consequences of unresolved trauma is the tragic outcome for children where their personal voices are preempted from coming into being, or silenced in their development by neglect or abuse. Language development, however, is another matter, beginning with the activation of Wernicke’s area, which is the site for language comprehension, and Broca’s area, which deals with the articulation of speech, two areas of the brain that are set in motion during the second year of life. Rita Carter (1998), in Mapping the Mind, pointed out that, “Language gives the child the tool it needs to form a concept of itself that it can then place outside its own experience and regard in relationship to others” (p. 156).

In the language era of Brown and Herrnstein (1975), people believed in what Brown called the “storage bin” theory of learning language, that children learn language by storing large numbers of words and sentences in their heads, and retrieve them on an as needed basis. Noam Chomsky (1980) changed all that through his groundbreaking work, coming to the conclusion that children do not build language and grammar primarily from what they hear but because of a genetic design. The environment can support and activate, or suppress, distort, or limit a child’s development of what he calls Universal Grammar.

Julia developed language as most children do from this innate genetic design and from the enlivening engagements with her father. But without the attunement and respect of the adults in her life, who were actually her perpetrators, and who did not intervene in the repetition of her trauma, her personal voice could not develop to communicate her traumatic world of experience.

A year and a half into treatment, Julia anguished, “I have always lived an exemplary life. I had to. I tried never to make a mistake. I tried to make my father and mother happy. I tried to appear normal, like the children of families who cared about each other …” Her mind then formed a picture, one she could give words to:

My father is ‘tanked’, fucking my mind, torturing me. He seems ten feet tall with fangs, claws. I desperately need someone to help me. I need a ‘very big thing’ to help me. Oh! [she noticed] there’s this creature – like an abominable snowperson. Furry. The abominable snowperson bites my father, makes him backup, won’t even let him stand in the doorway. It makes him leave. I am trembling all over. (a long pause) Oh, the snowperson is you! You pick me up and hold me in your big furry arms. We time travel away, to safety.

I felt the arrival of an opening in her psychical space of trauma. I talked that day, sharing with her how her trauma, implicitly encoded and encapsulated, split between terror and craving states, had not ever been able to be used for learning. As such, when it was triggered, it could only be used for reliving. I told her of my research and original findings of how to work with implicit memory to intervene in its repetition. Was she ready to see if we could find the ways?

Over the next month as we worked analytically on the procedural process of what I call her “implicit memory banks,” we planned for the working through steps of changing her current experience. But in an act of desperation, she quit her job late one Friday, without notice. When she did not arrive for work on Monday, and there was no word of why not, Raul turned dark with malevolent scorn. In a flurry of phone messages, all of which she listened to, he told her she would never get away, that, in fact, he would ruin her life, or kill her, that she would never know where or when — it could be today or tomorrow. For the next three days, Julia lived inside of abject terror, curled into a fetal position. She hid in her home, not coming to sessions. At the end of the third day, she called me for help, telling me she was unable to eat, even to keep down water. She felt she was falling into an endless abyss, where the torment would never end. I told her I wanted her to come in for our session, even in her pajamas, but if she absolutely couldn’t, I would come to her. When Julia arrived in person for her session, she was gray, lips chalky, and her face expressionless. Deep circles accented her pale and staring eyes. Her mouth was parched, her lips cracking. I got her a glass of water, and a spoon, encouraging her to accept small sips throughout the session. I fed her as I would a dying baby bird with a medicine dropper. She was able to keep down the water. My chair close to hers, I clasped the hand she reached out to me, as I told her that this was not going to be the end of her life. I hoped silently that I was right.

Raul knew where she lived, of course, and began months of stalking her, even to and from my office. His phone messages were unrelenting. She listened to each of them, in panic, but was equally terrified not to track him. She still couldn’t bring herself to call the police, but she was able to resist returning any of Raul’s calls. Finally, she confided in her ex-husband, Greg, gathered up essential belongings and moved herself and the children into his home. Greg was upset, angry, and scared, but came through. He ferried the children back and forth to school and friends. He installed a security system, complete with panic button. He bought her a new car. And Julia went into hiding. For the next six months, Raul’s phone calls moved into a cyclical pattern, but he could not find her.

With some modicum of relief, Julia and I reached a point where a palpable shift occurred in her focus upon her relationship with her father to that with her mother. She asked me: “How am I ever going to recover from not having a mother?” She looked deeply into my eyes, and said, “I have you.” Very quietly, she then said, “There is so much inside me about my mother, but I have no way to talk about it; I am mute.” After several minutes of silence, she said she wished she could draw — if she could, she could draw all the pictures in her mind. As an artist myself, I considered offering a concrete avenue. Years of teaching writing and unfolding the artist’s voice prodded me forward. In about ten minutes, I taught her three basic principles of drawing and gave her a mini-demonstration.

She arrived for her next session with a small box of colored pencils and some large sheets of drawing paper folded in half. Settling herself on the couch, cross-legged and intent, she sat still for several minutes, staring at the paper, pencil poised in her hand. Then slowly, she began to draw. That day, she drew and paused, then drew again, sometimes her brow furrowing, sometimes her eyes squinting. Neither of us spoke a word. I did not move in my chair.

Some thirty minutes later, she chose a colored pencil and began to color, then another. When she finished with the coloring, she returned to her black pencil, and I could tell by the way it moved that she was printing. Then, she put down her pencils and handed me the paper.

The drawing took my breath away. It had the look of a six- or seven-year-old’s, except that it captured her affect. At the top and bottom of each drawing were a couple of simple declarative sentences, telling the story in the picture. She asked me to read it aloud to her.

For nearly six months, each of our five sessions a week was spent the same way. After coloring in her newly drawn picture and printing the few sentences top and bottom, Julia would hand the accumulating sheets to me. I would go back to the beginning, and read her “story” all the way through. The feelings in the drawings washed into me in waves. As Julia drew, she was totally concentrated. Not only was she feeling what she was drawing, but she wanted me to feel it too. And I did, with her able to be in the involved but unobtrusive presence of a caring other.

Sometimes, I would need many minutes to look, study, and absorb what was on the page. We didn’t even talk very much about what was happening — it was far too important for Julia to find her ‘voice’ than to make mine the one to speak. By now, as I read her story at the end of our sessions, it gained momentum and potency. The tragedy of what had happened to her permeated the room, yet simultaneously, I felt quite peaceful in the unfolding of her innermost narrative. The experience was exquisitely moving, a mix of respect and awe. In Julia’s life, she had been consigned to surviving inside her father’s chaotic traumatization, while trying to grow in the unremitting desolation of her mother’s rejection and neglect.
From early in Julia’s life, her mother told her in a singsong, high-pitched little girl voice, “You were an albatross around my neck.” Trying to present the “proper” image of a young resident’s wife, Julia’s mother nursed Julia in the first days of her life, quickly dispatching her to the hospital nursery once she was finished, and intending to switch immediately to bottle-feeding upon arriving home. Julia refused the bottle. Her refusal ushered in a battle where her mother continued actively but unsuccessfully to wean her from the breast, including spacing feedings many hours apart in an effort to force-feed her through hunger.

When Julia was six weeks old and failing to thrive, her mother took her to a new pediatrician, describing Julia as a hysterical baby with a terrible temper. Without knowing Julia’s brief history, he diagnosed her as having “an immature nervous system,” prescribing Phenobarbital as a soothing agent. The mother gave Julia the first dose in the parking lot of the doctor’s office, recounting to Julia in later years what a relief it was to have her stop crying and doze within moments. When the medication wore off, Julia’s frantic attempts to nurse and her refusal of the bottle resumed, her crying escalating. Days later, her mother “accidentally” overdosed Julia on the Phenobarbital, sending her into a coma, without feeding, for three days. The father, toward the completion of his medical training, avoided culpability by keeping Julia home, wondering aloud whether she had contracted polio. Toward the end of the third day of her drugged state, she began moving, and he exclaimed, “Look, she’s working her jaw!”

After Julia emerged from the coma, her father regulated the dosage himself, administering the Phenobarbital until she was three months old and had “learned to stop crying.” For Julia, there was no mother to whom she could attach as a caring and regulating other, delighting in her or helping her calm and find pleasure in her earliest states. There was only the mother who wanted to relieve herself of the “albatross around her neck,” even to the point of nearly killing her baby. By six months, Julia’s mother told her, Julia “miraculously” fed herself solid food, following her self-feed with her first languaging, spoken just weeks later, “Me do.”

Her mother seemed a phantom to Julia, menacing and creepy. Affectively blank, passive, her mother came to routinely hand off Julia to her father to keep him “in control,” or to calm the father down, but then blamed and scapegoated Julia for failing to do so. While the mother was quite beautiful, a model originally and a “model-looking” mother, she was unable to nurture any of her children. Julia was vocal in her hatred for her mother, yet yearned for a mother who would know and love her, having found the only approximation of that in her lively, but cruel, father.

Many months into this process and drawings rendered, she said one day, “I feel like I am finally getting all of this that I have had to carry inside, outside of me.” I considered what was getting outside of her. I realized it was more than her toxic and painful experiences — it was also her introjects. She came in another day telling me that she needed more colors and the day following carried in a new set of pencils – a veritable rainbow of choice. She had finished the stack of loose pages and arrived with a drawing pad, spiral bound. Her story was evolving into a coherent narrative for the first time in her life.

Finally, a session came when drawing another picture in the series of being inside a black hole as an infant, Julia said, “I can feel today that maybe this blackness was really my mother’s – not mine. I think in the next picture I am going to draw it around her.” When the time came for that drawing, she shouted, “No! It was in her, then she put it in me.” Julia was finding her voice.

What I call personal voice is the vocal and written expression of our unique and indispensable essential self. Personal voice represents our ability to think while feeling and feel while thinking in our inner world, and then, to reveal our internal world without defensiveness and to receive such communication from a trustworthy other in an elaborative dialogue of meaning making. Personal voice is complex: specifically made of emotional language arising out of sensory-based imagery, symbolizing a spectrum of affects within a flow of states as we build non-verbal and verbal bridges between categories of experiences, while differentiating what is ‘me’ and what is ‘you’.

What supports the on-going development of an infant’s personal voice from her first cries, gurgles, tiny squeaks, and gestures is the attuned responsiveness of the mother and father, the resonant propositional (Whitmer, 2001) ‘naming’ by the parents of the baby’s/child’s experience until the child is able to do that for herself, and the elaboration of the child’s communication through the parents’ respect for the child’s growing mind, perceptions, and affective experience, what Dennie Wolf (1990) called the child’s “authorial self” (p. 185). Understanding the process of personal voice development, we can imagine how devastating is its preemption or loss and the cost a child must carry in the face of such loss. Without personal voice, the child cannot name or ‘give voice to’ his or her experience, consigned to becoming mute, and to become only the kind of self that others project onto.

When this loss of personal voice occurs, even during the acquisition of language, there is a double cause-and-effect result: the essential self of the child becomes hidden, and personal voice is silenced. With such silencing and the continued absence of the interpersonal, elaborative communication so needed to nourish the growth of the essential self, the child’s adaptation reinforces a wounded self at the expense of authentic living.

During the nine months of Julia developing her personal voice through her narrative drawing, she had no direct contact with Raul. He still called several times a day and heavy breathed, or left brief, menacing messages, or just hung up. One day, as she was drawing, the peaceful energy in the room vanished in an instant, the air becoming charged. I could hardly sit still. Julia’s feet were moving, she was restless, tears streaming down her face. I had never interrupted her, but this time I asked, “What are you drawing?” The unfinished picture showed her father standing in the doorway, watching her. She looked at me with pleading and helplessness. I said, “You do not have to be a hostage all your life.” Her brow furrowed, as though the thought had never occurred to her.

Catastrophe arrived within an hour. As Julia pulled up to Greg’s home, she saw Raul parked nearby. In her panicked phone call to me, she agonized, “How did he find me?” She was stunned, but now had the strength to act. In a flash of good fortune, Julia received a call from a friend who had heard about a fund-raiser dinner featuring the officer responsible for setting up the police department’s anti-stalking team. Julia spoke to the speaker afterwards, and they met the next day. A police phone trap was set and within the week, Raul was apprehended. The anti-stalking expert and his deputy accompanied Julia to court to file a restraining order against Raul, finding three other restraining orders in place from women Raul had harmed and stalked. One of them now filed charges, with proof. Raul was given substantial jail time. Julia moved into a new home with the children, beginning a new life. She told me in a later session, “The knife is no longer in my back. For the first time since I can remember, it’s not there.” While our dedicated analytic work continued for another five years, Julia and her voice were free.

Peter Shabad (1997) poignantly captured, “The traumatic theme causes the child to transform his strangled communications into the belated effects of posttraumatic symptomatology. A person’s unique constellation of psychological symptoms reflects the lonely, nonverbal journey of the repetition compulsion (what I conceptualize as implicit memory relivings), to bring out proof of his sufferings” (p. 355).

One of the analyst’s significant contributions is to come to know the essential self of the patient enough to be able to assist the patient in finding avenues for the voice that represents such experience, often for the first time in the patient’s life. For our patients to risk being found, the analyst must be willing to speak, not in professional jargon, or at a safe remove through what Ivri Kumin (1989) called “incorrect interpretations” (p. 141), but in the brave and revealing atmosphere of her own personal voice and affective language. Leo Kovar (1994) said, “[The analyst] must en-vision the words spoken. Bare by themselves, they must be clothed pictorially, not with stills but with movies. The therapist of the word, at his best, gives his patient a gift that cannot be purchased … The talking therapist must have the desire and the aptitude to talk to his patient in such a way that this intangible gift-giving becomes … palpable” (p. 566-569).

Such is the creative process at the heart of the resolution of trauma, the attachment nature of the analytic relationship, and the narrative process in which analyst and patient engage to weave together, understand, and repair the patient’s lived experience. As in the beginning of life, with the birth cry of personal voice, so, too, do we have the opportunity for a new birth in the analysis, which breathes respiratory life into that personal voice emerging from the wounding our patients carry. When personal voice recovery and previous language development go hand in hand, we find an individual who can develop “an authorial self,” an essential self with a coherency of being and the efficacy to live and speak an authentic life.

REFERENCES

  • Brown, R. & Herrnstein, R. J. (1975). Psychology. Boston, Massachusetts: Little,
    Brown.
  • Carter, R. (1998). Mapping the mind. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Chomsky, N. (1980). Rules and representations. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Hesse, E. & Main, M. (2000). Disorganized infant, child, and adult attachment: Collapse in behavioral and attentional strategies. Journal of the American
    Psychoanalytic Association, 48, 1097-1127.
  • Kovar, L. (1994). Freud’s legacy—The laying on of words. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 30, 522-575.
  • Kumin, I. (1989). The incorrect interpretation. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 70, 141-152.
  • Shabad, P. (1997). Trauma and innocence. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 33, 345-366.
  • Whitmer, G. (2001). On the nature of dissociation. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, LXX(4), 807-837.
  • Wolf, D. P. (1990). Being of several minds: Voices and versions of the self in early childhood. In D. Cicchetti & M. Beeghly (Eds.), The self in transition: Infancy to childhood (pp. 183-212). Chicago: University of Chicago press.


Gwyneth Kerr Erwin, Ph.D., Psy.D. is a Training and Supervising Psychoanalyst, and President of the Newport Center for Psychoanalytic Studies and its Training Division, the Newport Psychoanalytic Institute, and its Board of Directors. She is in private practice in Tustin, California, working with adults, couples, families, adolescents, and children. She earned her Masters in Professional Writing from the University of Southern California, her Ph.D. and Psy.D. from the Newport Psychoanalytic Institute. Her areas of expertise include infant and child development, the repercussions of trauma upon early development and its assessment and treatment, unresolved trauma and its assessment and treatment, and the use of personal voice in the healing process.

In addition to being a Faculty member at NPI, ICP, and LAISPS, she is an active keynote or contributing presenter at conferences. She is a Member of the Newport Center for Psychoanalytic Studies, The Association for Autonomous Psychoanalytic Institutes, the International Forum for Psychoanalytic Education, and the American Counseling Association. As a professional writer, book doctor, and editor of twenty-five years, she conducts private professional writing groups and is a dissertation consultant.

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