by Vanessa Hannah Bright
Can the environment one lives in become a kind of internalized object? The theory of object relations describes the process by which each person’s psyche develops in relation to those who take care of him or her during the early years of life. These people – the mother, father, siblings, teachers, and many others – become internalized and represent our “internal objects”, which we carry with us for the rest of our lives. But what about the water we swim in, so to speak? As someone who immigrated to the United States from Russia at the tender young age of 11, I have the perspective of living in two very different environments, both of which played a significant role in how I grew and developed. I can see now that I had naturally internalized Russia’s environment as part of the backdrop to internalizing the human objects who were part of my life when I was growing up; these people, too, had internalized this environment, which partly determined the way they related to me and to others. This had a profound effect on my perspective of myself, others, and of life itself. This didn’t become obvious until my family and I moved to the United States and my life began to unfold in a completely new way.
“Well, I see that there is no way for me to work with you except after school. I don’t know why I thought you could do better. Sit down, you fail,” said my teacher with an exasperated sigh. Shaking, I wobbled back to my desk after a miserable attempt to recite an assigned reading in front of my third grade class. I felt as if I’d been punched in the stomach before I could even see the attacker.
These words were spoken by my Russian literature teacher Mrs. Margo*, a bitter woman disliked by pretty much every student in my school in Kyrgyzstan, Russia. They were devastating on so many levels, especially because I had tried so hard to prepare for that particular assignment, and because I actually volunteered for it despite having terrible rapport with the teacher. It was a courageous attempt on my part at finally getting it right and winning her good graces after many, many failures.
The task was to read about two pages that described the biography of the famous Russian poet Pushkin, and to report this biography from memory in front of the class. When I got the assignment the day before, I resolved to study hard and to prove to Mrs. Margo that I am not the lost cause she thought I was. At home, I made a true effort and prepared as best I could. I remember standing by my desk at home, reciting the passage until I felt confident about it. Success was so close I could taste it.
The next day, Mrs. Margo asked the class for a volunteer to do the report. Though I was anxious, I mustered up all my courage and raised my hand high. I saw her notice me with a look of surprise on her face – usually, I tried to hide out and not get called on. I can still hear the sarcasm in her voice when she said, “Oh, Inessa has her hand up. Well, let’s see what you’ve got.” (Inessa was my Russian name, before I changed it when becoming a US citizen at 19). I walked to the front of the class, stood near Mrs. Margo’s desk, and began. “Pushkin was…” Suddenly, it was all gone. I became intensely anxious, froze, and couldn’t remember a thing. All I could see was the entire class looking at me, and the judging gaze of Mrs. Margo, which I can now only describe as sadistic; back then it was just frightening. Excruciating silence filled the classroom and the longer I stood there, the worse it got. Several unbearable minutes later, Mrs. Margo failed me in front of the whole class and sent me back to my seat, utterly humiliated and completely hopeless.
This was one of countless examples, a memorable one because it was the last time I made such a valiant attempt to prove my worth to a teacher. For as long as I’d been in school, no matter how hard I tried to please my teachers, I couldn’t succeed. So at age nine, after putting all my energy into it one more time and failing yet again, I pretty much gave up on school altogether. Finally, Mrs. Margo had created the self-fulfilling prophecy – I had actually become the hopeless cause she insisted I was.
I met Mrs. Margo when I started second grade. For some reason she seemed to hate teaching, children, Jews, and maybe life itself. She was grossly obese, very strict, and I never even once had seen a smile on her face. On top of that, she and my grandmother had also once been friends, as my grandmother also was a teacher at my school, and the two had had some kind of feud. Once I became Mrs. Margo’s student, she began to use me as the class scapegoat. No matter what I did, it was never good enough for her. The same thing happened in my math class with Mrs. Zoya, who also hated my grandmother for some reason, and used every excuse to punish me for crimes I didn’t commit. But as an eight-year-old I didn’t know any of that. All I knew, and all I kept internalizing ever more deeply, was that I was a terrible, hopeless student – a lost cause by all counts. By the time I was in third grade, when even my most valiant efforts to get it right yielded barely mediocre grades, I started to actually believe that I was indeed a failure. Add to this the fact that I was teased mercilessly for being mildly overweight, and you have a scared, miserable little girl whose very existence feels unbearable. All I wanted was to be invisible, and there was nowhere to hide. Of course, what I really wanted was for someone to notice me and give me the kind of support and care that I truly needed, but with everyone just trying to survive, I had little claims to being heard.
I remember Russia in the late 1980’s as a bitter place of deprivation and bitterness. Even if a family happened to have some money, it didn’t guarantee them being able to buy bread or milk on any given day, let alone “fancier” foods like sugar or eggs. One might have to wait in line for several hours to buy some meat or fish – that is, if the supply didn’t run out by the time you got your turn. Everyone from doctors to factory workers often would have to wait for months between being paid their meager salaries. My mother, a mechanical engineer, once told me she hadn’t been paid in six months. Because my father was not present in my life, she had to provide for the two of us; at times, she gave me the last of the food and went hungry herself. Teachers were no exception, and they were overwhelmed with large classes, as my grandmother told us. Often, they took their desperation and rage out on their students – those young souls who had already internalized the depriving, cold atmosphere of the state of things in the country, and yet who were still young enough to be dominated. Parents regularly beat their children, sometimes brutally, for school failures – this was considered normal. Add in the rampant anti-Semitism, and things were bleak indeed. My teachers having a history of disagreements with my grandmother simply added salt on the wound that would have been there either way.
I think of my life in Russia at this time in my life as if in the custody of a depressed, cold, depriving, and neglecting mother – a “bad object” that was the environment itself. With everyone struggling to make ends meet, warmth was difficult to find and punishment was always just around the corner. Since my family was struggling just like any other, all of them, too, were in the custody of this bad object of a “mother” (“Mother Russia”?) All of us had internalized this environment and learned to expect to be treated poorly, to live without, and to curb our complaints, for there were no ears to hear them. Survival mode was the norm. Mrs. Margo, Mrs. Zoya, and the rest of my teachers, being in this same environment, also internalized this “mother” of a country; they too, were in survival mode, which shaped the way they treated their students.
Two long years after that miserable failed attempt to win Mrs. Margo’s graces, I found myself on an intercontinental flight to New York: my family was immigrating to the United States for permanent residence. I was feverish with excitement that I would get to see my uncle again, but little did I know that everything would change, from my clothes to the language I would come to cherish as my own. On that trip, all I knew how to say in English was, “My name is Inessa”. The flight attendant, who always seemed to have a big smile on her face, gave me a breathtaking American toy (a “Magic Slate” drawing pad) and I got to drink the inordinately delicious, fizzy orange soda for the first time in my life. Even then, being treated so well was highly unusual and incredibly exhilarating. Having gotten used to being treated with sarcasm and bitterness, my family and I were truly shocked that the flight attendants and other service professionals treated us with respect. It was actually difficult to believe that their smiles were genuine, both when we were on the flight and for quite a while after we’d settled down in New York.
Soon after we settled in, I was enrolled in a public junior high school, where I didn’t understand very much of anything. I was placed in an ESL (English as a Second Language) class with a teacher who, luckily for me, spoke Russian. Mrs. Rose was completely different from any other teacher I’d ever had before – she was the first of many “new objects” I encountered in this country. She was warm and supportive, and despite my early failures given my lack of English skills, I always felt that she saw my potential and encouraged me to achieve it.
Being wise, Mrs. Rose seated me next to a Korean girl with whom I had no choice but to speak English. To be able to communicate, the two of us carried small bilingual dictionaries around, and our language skills skyrocketed in a matter a weeks. In a few months, we were both making jokes in English – a sign that we were becoming friends and getting more comfortable with the language. “Do I have anything on my face?” Kim would ask me after lunch. I’d look at her face and say, “Well, only your nose, your eyes, and your mouth”. This sent us both into careless giggling fits. Compared to my experience in my former school in Russia where I was so anxious about being teased that I have completely blocked out all memories of having lunch in school, things certainly had changed.
Although I initially struggled to understand anything in my classes, everything was different. I kept waiting for the mean boys to poke me and call me names, but that didn’t happen. No one teased me for being overweight. No one laughed at me if I made a mistake. And my teachers seemed to like me, something I didn’t expect and didn’t entirely trust, but at the same time immensely enjoyed. I was no longer the scapegoat and no one seemed to be out to fail me. Doing my best was actually good enough! And to my inordinate joy, everyone’s grades were kept private. I was stunned when I saw for the first time that teachers folded the exam papers when passing them back to each student so that no one else would see the grade – what a change from having my grades announced for the whole class to hear!
One other major change occurred, one that’s so obvious that it might go unacknowledged: learning a new language with which to express myself has allowed for some truly unexpected developments. While I can speak, read, and write in Russian, it still always stirs up the feeling of encountering bitterness, arrogance, and condescension. And no matter how hard I try, Russian feels wholly inadequate at expressing the subtleties of experience that English does so well for me. Russian grammatical structure, requiring masculine and feminine classifications, makes for some very awkward communications. For example, certain words cannot be expressed in the feminine even if you are talking about a woman, so you are forced to say things like “woman-doctor”. The sexism that’s built into the language is more pervasive and more demeaning than it may seem at first.
But what bothers me the most about the Russian language is that when speaking to someone, you must know whether to use the formal or informal pronoun form. This instantly creates either a major divide between the two parties, or an intimate, almost sexual closeness – with no middle ground. When talking to a teacher, you always use the formal, which instantly establishes the student as the subordinate one (and for young children, the feeling of being small and insignificant), and the teacher as the one who’s got the upper hand no matter what. When I speak Russian, I find almost no way to feel like an equal with someone with whom I use the formal pronoun. On the other hand, when using the informal pronoun, I have a sense that there is no way to have a professional relationship with clear boundaries between us. When Russian was all I spoke and there was no way to compare relationships in a different language, I had no idea what a large divide this is. But once I learned English, I found that it offers the balanced medium I didn’t even realize was missing. It feels to me that through learning this new language, I have gained more than a way to communicate with the “natives” – I have found a new way to be more of who I really am.
Looking back on it, I can see that the new, nurturing environment of this country allowed me to flourish. Mrs. Rose, who had herself already internalized this environment by the time I arrived in her class, was able to, in turn, foster it for me. Once I became more comfortable with the language (which, luckily, at age 11 was easy for me), my grades soared and I began to excel at just about everything.
I had literally gotten a second chance. I got to restart school, my slate wiped completely clean. I got to leave behind the menacing boys (most of whom were beaten by their parents) who called me names I cannot bear to repeat. I got to escape the downright nasty teachers who picked on me and used any chance to give me a failing grade. I got to get out of an environment where being Jewish posed a threat. I got to start over.
So, in effect, America had become a kind of new mother, a “new object” to relate to – one that offered the kind of environment I needed to be able to grow and develop to the full potential I would have never been able to achieve back in Russia. This “new mother” was able to provide for me and my family in ways that “mother Russia” simply could not. While money was tight for many years after we arrived, I have never since taken for granted that there is always an abundance of food on the supermarket shelves and no threat of it ever running out. The people are kinder, and most of them assume I’m a good person to begin with – a stark contrast to the cold, sarcastic way in which most people related to one another in Russia. I have been able to develop my talents and be appreciated for them. And, I could actually express myself with this “new mother” in a way where I feel valued, respected, and most of all, finally truly understood.
From the point of view of object relations theory, we would hope that the psychoanalyst becomes experienced as a new object by the client – an object who relates differently and is more available and present than the less-than-good-enough objects in the client’s past. A new environment of acceptance and openness is created and consistently sustained. Through this new object relationship, the client is hopefully able to heal, though of course not without great tension between seeing the analyst as a new object and as an old one, sometimes at the same time. It has been said that through being such a new object, the analyst provides the client with a “corrective emotional experience”, one where the client can start to see the distortions he or she projects onto the analyst and onto others. For me, being in a new country with values that allow people to show far more respect for the human being than I ever thought possible, it was an analogous corrective emotional experience to form this new relationship to the very environment I now lived in. I still carry with me the old objects of Mrs. Margo, Mrs. Zoya, and those in my immediate family while I was growing up – and I still project them onto current teachers and those I perceive as authority figures. However, leaving the custody of that cold, depriving “Mother Russia” has allowed for a new kind of experience. My new object relationships will never be the same.
* Note: All names except my own have been changed.
Vanessa Hannah Bright is a psychoanalytic candidate at the Institute for Expressive Analysis. She publishes an independent blog where she explores her experience of training to become a psychoanalyst as well as shares her reflections on the psychoanalysis of everyday life. By combining her psychoanalytic training with her prior background in Chinese Medicine, Vanessa intends to design a therapy that deeply engages the body, mind, and spirit.