(Definitely Not the Same Old Song and Dance)
By Johanna Cuevas, Ph.D.
Presented at IFPE Conference
October 30, 2010
In the midst of winter,
I finally learned
there was in me
an invincible summer.
He who has a WHY to live for, can endure almost any HOW.
All during my teaching career, my hope was to bring out the best parts of my students. It wasn’t enough for me to make sure they had the basics; my goal was for each child to leave my class knowing what talents and strength they possessed. The majority of my students came from homes with limited resources and deficiencies in the English language, but these same youngsters had the potential and the capacity to do well if they had someone to guide and encourage them.
When I began my clinical work, I continued this belief and practice. As I worked with youngsters and their families I pointed out areas of strength and those healthy and positive qualities they possessed. Once these were recognized it became easier to work on the troubled areas.
For some time, I have wondered if resilient behaviors could be used within an analytical framework to augment the process. While an analysis is an often painful experience for both the analysand and analyst, it may be possible to imagine that both persons involved have something solid that allows them to deal with memories, traumas, and feelings of loss, hatred, confusion, depression etc. Each of us who has walked this line has been able to do so because of this solid part — this resilience — that part which in spite of all the shortcomings in our lives has somehow equipped us with the stamina to survive horrible experiences.
As the work typically begins to unfold and deepen, the memories and the feelings that accompany them may become so threatening that old survival behaviors arise. These may be manifested in periods of silences, forgetfulness, subject changing, misunderstandings or angry responses. How both the client and therapist respond to this resistance — the transferences and countertransferences — may strengthen the work or impede it.
During my own therapeutic journey, my therapist, a very kind and wise person, acknowledged those parts in me which were competent and strong and able to function well in the world. This acknowledgment came at a time when I felt my life was coming apart, and I was in the throes of depression and anxiety. She frequently reminded me of my love of working with the children I taught, and allowed for spaces of writing those things that I felt unable to put into words during the session time. She encouraged my curiosity about reading and the process we were undergoing. (I’m sure I drove her crazy.) My resistance to what she said and did was high. I had been taught well as a child to be silent and not give up any information; if I did, some catastrophe would occur. But I was touched by the fact that she recognized this other part of me — the competent part — and allowed it into the consultation space. It was this part of the therapy that allowed me to deal with the parts of my life that I feared, that had been silenced and very much split off.
Three years ago, I attended the memorial service for a psychoanalytic colleague. Her writings were passed out, and I was fortunate to get a copy. I had met her a few years before at an IFPE conference in Pasadena and at some local seminars. She was such a lovely person — so funny and so vibrant. I was stunned to learn what an awful and traumatic childhood she had had and wondered how it was that she became this amazing creative person. What struck me was the fact that as a child she had become involved with a church group that in many respects took her in and saved her life. This relationship allowed her to have a support group, a family structure and mentors, even if they were not blood kin.
Psychological resilience is generally defined as the positive capacity of people to cope with stress and catastrophe, the ability to bounce back to homeostasis after a disruption. It can be used to provide resistance to future negative events. (Masten, 2009) In the literature on resilience certain characteristics seem to be agreed upon. (Newman & Blackburn, 2002, p. 9)
- strong social support networks
- the presence of at least one unconditionally supportive parent or parent substitute
- a committed mentor or other person from outside the family
- a positive school experience
- a sense of mastery and belief that one’s own efforts can make a difference
- participation in a range of extracurricular activities that promote self- esteem
- the capacity to reframe adversities so that the beneficial as well as the damaging effects are recognized
- the ability — or opportunity — to “make a difference” by helping others
- not to be excessively sheltered from challenging situations that provide opportunities to develop coping skills
Our colleague appeared to have several of these characteristics that probably helped her not to become totally lost and reactive to her world of abuse and trauma.
My childhood friend Renne calls to tell me she has cancer. I ask her how she is. She tells me she’s OK, taking it and one day at a time. She goes on to say, “Well, when I was in recovery after the biopsy, the doctor came over to me and said I had cancer and walked away”.
“That was thoughtful of him”, I say sarcastically.
“Yea, the fuck!” she says, but quickly adds, “I didn’t cry… I really haven’t cried, well, maybe just a couple of tears, but that’s all… I can’t cry, you know, it’s a sign of weakness…I’m not weak!”
These last statements bring up my childhood memories of a scrawny girl who could outrun, out-jump, and fight any boy or girl three times her size. I don’t ever remember her crying. I don’t press her on this issue of being strong because I know how important it was — and is — for her to feel strong and invincible. When we were eight years old, Renne’s father passed away. I remember standing on the stoop of our building and watching as the men from the mortuary took her father away on a stretcher. Renne and her mother followed, the mom in tears and Renne with a stoic expression.
I have been reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, and come across an observation by one of the main characters, a 13 year old girl, Paloma, about the building’s concierge, Madame Michele. Madame tries to present herself as a stupid concierge, but Paloma believes her to have the elegance of a hedgehog: on the outside, covered in quills, a real fortress; yet on the inside is the hedgehog’s simple refinement: a deceptively insolent little creature, fiercely solitary — and terribly elegant. (p. 143)
When I read this, it strikes me that my friend Renne is very much like Madame Michele —prickly on the outside, but inside surprisingly intuitive, intelligent, well read, and quite funny. This is the adult Renne I know now, the one I discovered about ten years ago. I believe Renne learned early that the only way to survive and deal with her life circumstances (her father’s death, an alcoholic mother who worked nights and left her alone, meager finances, and the death of her mother when she was 17) solidified the presentation of the stoic, prickly veneer.
Presently, the cancer has spread to her liver and she is on double doses of medication — which she calls Kryptonite — and tells me her oncologist “Dr. Kevorkian” is working on her. She speaks little of this experience and is terribly anxious and appears depressed. I wish she could have someone clinical to speak with. But this someone would have to woo her — accept the presentation of strength and invincibility she so tenaciously holds on to. This resistance would need to be seen as a resilient behavior, one which previously served her well, but that currently needs modification to help her get through this physical and emotional ordeal, while preserving this persona of great strength.
In the novel Before Green Gables, the Prequel to Anne of Green Gables, by Budge Wilson, we meet Anne Shirley as an infant whose parents die and who is taken in by their housekeeper, an overwhelmed, cranky, poor woman with an alcoholic husband and three children. From the onset Anne is seen as an added burden to the already chaotic circumstances of this family. Fortunately, the oldest daughter, Eliza, takes a sincere liking to the child and begins to treat her as she were her own. She reads to Anne, spends whatever time she can spare with her, shares school experiences and her dreams, and creates the possibility of another world outside of their present reality.
Anne blossoms from this care. It soon becomes apparent that she is very bright, speaking at an early age, verbalizing ideas, making intuitive statements, which of course are not perceived as an asset by the family, but as possibly housing a small red haired witch. By the time Anne is four, she is already involved in the tasks of cleaning, cooking and washing diapers for her foster mother.
Outside of Eliza, Anne experiences no comfort or warmth from the other members of the family. When Anne is five, Eliza leaves to marry a young man, and although she had promised to take Anne with her, she leaves her to assume Eliza’s role in the family. Anne is devastated, feeling totally abandoned and inconsolable. But being the ingenious, precocious child that she is, she invents a friend, a reflection she sees of herself in a glass pane in a cupboard door that is tucked away in a back hall. She knows this reflection to be her own but uses it as a form of comfort, as a child might use a doll or stuffed toy. She calls this reflection Katy Marie, who becomes her solace, best friend, kindred spirit and to whom Anne is able to disclose all her hurts and dreams. It is this image and the ability to go to school that enables Anne to survive and grow intellectually, while being forced to take on all the household responsibilities and abuse.
Anne is once again moved when the foster father dies. She is given away to a young woman who is about to have a child and who already has four other children. She is moved to an isolated location in the woods and although her living conditions are a bit better, her responsibilities increase with the birth of twins and the depressive state of this foster mother. Anne continues to speak to her imaginary friend even though the cupboard was left behind. She is able to return to school and gains the friendship of her teacher and a neighbor while continuing the grueling responsibilities of taking care of the children while cooking and cleaning for this family. Once again Anne is moved when this foster father dies, this time to an orphanage where she encounters other difficulties. The early attachment to Eliza and the rich fantasy life, which centered around characters and places in literature and poetry, appears to have formed the basis for her ability to cope with the cruelties she encountered.
Then there is Maggie. Maggie was a 14 year old girl I worked with at a clinic for about 5 months. She was referred because her parents felt she was depressed and possibly suicidal. She was sullen and withdrawn and resistant to any form of communication, eye contact or empathic responses on my part. I tried various things, but nothing seemed to work. She just sat there slumped in a seat and waited for time to pass and the session to end. An opportunity presented itself when the usual room we met in was unavailable and I had to use another therapist’s room. As we walked in and sat down, Maggie spotted a magazine on a table and took it and began looking through it. She read the article totally ignoring me. I asked her about what she was reading and she responded that it was about Kurt Cobain. I was familiar with this musician and I shared my sadness about his death, the loss of such a talented young man.
“Why would you care, you know nothing about him — you know nothing about his music”.
It was the first time Maggie showed any emotion, or spoke directly to me. I asked her to tell me about him. Maggie said, “He was great” and she started to cry.
I commented to her that I thought he must have felt hopeless and with no one to turn to. Maggie shrugged. Before she left she asked if she could have the magazine. I told her it didn’t belong to me but that I would copy the article and photo and let her take this home with her. I also said I would make a copy for myself so I could read it and that we could talk about it at our next session.
The next couple of sessions were spent talking about Kurt’s life, his marriage, drug problems, and music. Somewhere in these conversations I asked Maggie if she ever wrote her own songs or poetry. I was surprised when she said she did. I asked her if she would bring some of her work in to share with me. Maggie ignored this question and I didn’t press her. I hoped the opportunity would come up again at a later time when I could ask her about sharing her songs.
About two weeks later, Maggie came into the session with an old, beat-up looseleaf binder. She sort of threw the binder down on a table and sat down in a chair away from it. Then she surprised me by saying, “Take a look.” At first glance I thought the binder contained schoolwork. But a closer look revealed at least a hundred or more sheets of paper that were actually poems, songs, and a diary. I expressed admiration for her work and the thoughtfulness and care she placed on these pages. I told her she was quite talented and creative. She sloughed this off with her usual shrug.
It was difficult for Maggie to take in this recognition of her talent and the positive qualities she had. Anonymity was very important to her. She didn’t belong to any clubs at school, shared little with her parents, and even less with me. She would allow me to see into some of her inner world but would not elaborate on it or answer any questions. I knew she read a great deal but would not talk about the readings or the authors. I asked if she had read The Diary of Anne Frank and she responded that she had, when she was eleven years old, and this discussion went no further.
As I look back, I think I could have used some of Anne Frank’s diary entries to make a better connection with Maggie. When I reread the diary, long after my work with Maggie, I was so taken by Anne’s self awareness, her openness in what she wrote, and real concerns about her interactions with her family and others sharing the confinement of the annex.
Throughout her diary entries, Anne is very concerned about how she is perceived by the adults who share her confinement in the annex.
Sunday, July 12, 1942. Anne tells us, “I don’t fit in with them…(mother, father and Margot).” (p 29)
Monday, September 28, 1942. “They (the van Daans) criticize everything… about me: my behavior, my personality, my manners…” “Harsh words and shouts are constantly flung at my head…” “According to the powers that be, I’m supposed to grin and bear it. But I can’t!” (p.44)
At another point Anne says (Saturday, January 30, 1943), “Everyone thinks I’m showing off when I talk, ridiculous when I’m silent, insolent when I answer, cunning when I have a good idea, lazy when I’m tired, selfish when I eat one bite more than I should, stupid, cowardly, calculating etc. etc. All day long I hear nothing but what an exasperating child I am, and although I laugh it off and pretend not to mind, I do mind.” (p.81)
She suffers greatly from these rebukes and the only solace is the diary she calls Kitty. She writes (Saturday, October 30, 1943), “That’s why I always wind up coming back to my diary — I start there and end there because Kitty’s always patient… I promise her that despite everything, I’ll keep going… I only wish I could see some results or, just once, receive encouragement from someone who loves me.” (p.142)
Anne reads in a magazine (Tuesday, January 6, 1944): “…girls my age feel very insecure about themselves and are just beginning to discover that they’re individuals with their own ideas, thoughts and habits.” (p. 161) Anne is desperately trying to find her place in life, in the annex, and understand what is happening to her — why she is the way she is, why it is that she cannot change her character even though she tries.
I believe Maggie was also trying to find her place in life; like Anne she felt she had no voice, and like Anne she wrote to have one. At one point Maggie asked me if I read, what I read. I could have responded by reframing her question but I decided to tell her that I did read, though not as much as I would like to, and had just finished the last of the series of novels, Anne of Green Gables. She just looked at me and said to tell her about it. I related some of my favorite parts but also realized I was feeling somewhat on the spot. I told her so. i also said I wondered if she felt this way when I asked her questions. Her response was, “What do you think?” I got it, and apologized. I explained that I wasn’t trying to pry, but was trying to get a sense of who she was. “And who are you?” she says to me. “Ahh,” I said. “Touché!” What and how to explain myself. My own resistant feelings were very much present. Should I disclose anything about my personal life? I did want to answer her truthfully but in a way that might be helpful. The best I could think to say at that moment was that I was a person who was constantly evolving, like Anne Shirley, growing in ideas and thoughts. This came as the result of people I met, with interactions and connections with them. I told her I was basically me: a funky short lady who very much appreciated young people’s ideas and thoughts. And who would also appreciate her thoughts, feelings and ideas. I told her a bit more about Anne Shirley and Maggie sat quietly. As usual she did not respond to what I said.
The issue of suicide came up not long after this conversation. Maggie was curious to know if I had ever felt suicidal. Once again I felt on the spot. I thought, young people have this uncanny ability to notice the holes in one’s socks. I told Maggie that there was a time in my life when I was depressed and hopeless. This feeling led me to believe I might die, yet it was more a fear of the anxiety and despair I experienced rather than a conscious wish on my part. I had never considered suicide but the depression felt as if it might kill me. I went on to tell her that at the time there was a comedian that I really liked, Freddie Prinze, who had committed suicide, and his death really impacted me, a sort of push that turned the cart over. He wasn’t the cause, but his death added to my feelings of depression. I wondered out loud if she had similar feelings when she found out about the death of Kurt Cobain? She was able to speak of some of the anger she had felt. I also shared with her how I felt about Freddie Prinze’s suicide: the disappointment and betrayal, the loss of such a young and vibrant person, who made me laugh. Maggie didn’t say anything about what I had told her, she never referred to it at all. I had to trust that her silence was a way to protect herself, to feel safe.
Abruptly Maggie’s father announced to the family that he was taking a job in another state and they would be moving in three weeks. I felt saddened to hear this. A connection had just begun to strengthen between us and I wondered if I had been able to do enough to puncture a hole in her malaise. I didn’t feel she was suicidal, only toying with the idea as a way of perhaps keeping a tie with Kurt Cobain. I told Maggie she was very talented; perhaps the move would give her a new start. I encouraged her to continue writing, to join a writing club at her new school if there was one, or try the school newspaper. I also shared with her that when I was very depressed this little old woman doctor had told me to go run every morning before I went to work. I told her the running really helped me, along with my teaching, and friends who hung in there with me.
I don’t know what happened to Maggie. I told her she could call or write to me at the clinic if she wanted. I said I would respond to her. I never did hear from her. I’ve often thought of her and wondered how she was. I hope that when she left she felt listened to; I hope that she believed she had a voice like the real Anne Frank and the fictional Anne Shirley; and I hope she knew that definitely she had been heard.
- Barbery, M. (2006). The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Paris: Editions Gallimard.
- Frank, O. & Pressler, M. (1991). Anne Frank: The Diary of A Young Girl. New York: Anchor Books.
- Masten, A. S. (2009). Ordinary magic: Lessons from research on resilience in human development. Education Canada, 49 (3): 28-32.
- Newman, T. & Blackburn, S. (2002). Interchange 78: Transitions in the Lives of Young People: Resilience Factors http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Publications/2002/10/15591/11950. (p. 9)
- Wilson, B. (2008). Before Green Gables. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Johanna Cuevas, Ph.D. is a bilingual psychologist who has worked with children, adolescents and families. She is a retired elementary school teacher who has trained and mentored student teachers and worked with children with special needs. She has a long time interest in psychoanalysis.