by Sandie Friedman
In a writing program for psychoanalysts and therapists, many writer-clinicians turn to the personal essay; they attest to a fruitful “synergy” between writing and clinical practice. What is the nature of this synergy? In this article, I theorize the personal essay from a psychoanalytic perspective, arguing that the form has much in common with what Christopher Bonovitz has termed “interpersonal fantasy.” In the second part of the article, I draw from examples to extend this theory, analyzing how the form benefits writer-clinicians. The writer develops a fantasy of an Other to write with (a real or imagined reader), as well as a fantasy of an alternative self: the persona who narrates the story. Forwarding Thomas Ogden’s concept of the “analytic third,” I argue that the writer creates an “essayistic third”: a narrator who is distinct from the writer himself, and who exists in a collaborative space between writer and reader/Other. The writer-clinician carries this essayistic third, an evolved form of the self, off the page and into the consulting room.
Introduction: A Mysterious Synergy
“I always wished I could write more, but I was blocked up. I now realize I didn’t have a reader or Other I could write to or talk to—like being locked in a small space,” Miriam began, when I asked about her history with writing. As much as she longed to write when she was growing up, Miriam’s mother stood in the way: a critical figure who did not like messes or imperfection. “Unless you can replace the maternal interject” with a more receptive imagined reader, she explained, you cannot proceed. A larger space opened up for Miriam, fortunately, when she was a doctoral student in French literature. “I had a positive transference to my dissertation advisor. I wrote for her, held her as a reader in my head. Ten pages a week, and a reliable and benign reader, made it possible.” She was able to finish her dissertation, and to develop a new relationship with writing. As you can guess from her language, Miriam later trained as a psychoanalyst, and continues to write.
I met Miriam in New Directions in Psychoanalytic Thinking (ND), a writing-focused program under the auspices of the Washington Center for Psychoanalysis. According to their website, it offers “a three-year postgraduate training program for clinicians, academicians, and writers who want to develop a richer understanding of modern psychoanalytic perspectives and apply it to their own work.” The program holds three weekend conferences a year, which include talks and panel discussions by guest speakers, as well as meetings of writing groups to discuss students’ work. Conferences have been organized around a wide variety of topics in psychoanalysis, including: “memory, gender, trauma, infancy, evil, dreams, the body, creativity, mourning, projective identification, and the psychology of the therapist.”
All students enter with some background in social work, psychology, or psychoanalysis, and many have been trained as analysts. Some have specific projects in mind; many have always wanted to write but were inhibited by a critical internal other—or simply lacked confidence. With few exceptions, participants are well-established in their careers as clinicians, and they look to writing as a new avenue of development. I am one of the exceptions: a college writing teacher with a long-standing interest in psychoanalysis. I was a student in ND from 2005-2008, and after graduating, have continued to lead workshops in the program.
Looking at the online ND brochure, you will get the impression that professional writing and publication are important goals; the program celebrates publications by faculty and students by listing them on the website and in the brochure, and by announcing them at weekend conferences. In fact, many students enter the program with the goal of publishing in scholarly journals such as Psychoanalytic Dialogues, Psychoanalytic Quarterly or The International Journal of Psychoanalysis. And many do go on to publish scholarly books and articles. But an even larger number discover that once they begin writing in a more personal or creative mode, they lose interest in scholarly writing. In particular, ND participants are drawn to the form of the personal essay, which gives them the opportunity to reconstruct and reflect on their private experiences.
One ND participant, James, wrote: “Doing something (permitting myself to do something) that I’ve wanted to do for a long time, I generally feel more relaxed and free in my clinical work. I can’t quite explain this synergy yet, but I feel it.” What is this mysterious “synergy” between writing and the practice of therapy? How can we theorize the work of the personal essay in psychoanalytic terms? I am interested in how the form functions for the writer (as opposed to the reader), and in why so many clinicians in ND make their way towards this particular genre. Further, what is the value of personal writing in a community of therapists? ND participants, especially those in my seminar on the personal essay, attest to the fact that personal and creative writing makes them better therapists. I will begin this essay by theorizing the personal essay from a psychoanalytic perspective, and move towards examples that will help us understand the “mysterious synergy” between writing and therapy, which James observed.
I. Theorizing the Personal Essay
First, a word on terminology: some writers (Patricia Hampl, for instance), use “memoir” and “personal essay” interchangeably, and the forms are closely related, both relying on personal experience or memory as their foundation (1999, p. 33). The difference, as I see it, is that the essayist always reconstructs a memory in the service of an idea: a memoir is purely narrative, while the essay is both narrative and reflection. You may find borderline cases and exceptions, but for the purposes of this project, I would like to focus on the personal essay, the hybrid form that contains both storytelling and thinking.
Like the analysand, the essay-writer revisits and reconstructs memories—not always certain of their significance, but somehow gripped by them. Miriam observed that the writer resembles the patient, “pushing forward in the dark when you don’t know where you’re going, knowing that you’re not in control.” The reader, on the other hand, is more like the analyst, who has some critical distance from the patient’s narrative and operates from a position of authority. The essay-writer is both patient and analyst at different stages in the writing process: she must reach backward for memories, relying on intuition and not fully in control; in crafting later drafts of the essay, she must re-read these memories and offer some interpretation of their meaning—she becomes the reader’s guide to the meanings of the story.
The personal essay aligns neatly with the classical Freudian process of bringing repressed memories to consciousness in order to understand the origins of a current symptom. In “Remembering, Repeating, and Working-Through,” Freud (1953) argues that if the patient is unable to overcome repression and remember, he will be compelled to repeat negative experiences: remembering is key for the process. However, I would like to bring the essay into conversation with more recent theories of psychoanalysis, particularly interpersonal models. I will argue that the personal essay is a form of what Christopher Bonivitz (2010) has called “interpersonalized fantasy.” Bonovitz and Hirsch (2010) respond to a traditional psychoanalytic stance towards fantasy, which regards it negatively, as unrelated to real life and disconnected from relationships. According to this view, fantasy is “a defense, or regressive or childlike in nature, something to be renounced in favor of a more mature adaptation to the real world”(Bonovitz, 2010, p. 628). Against his view, Bonovitz and Hirsch argue that fantasy is constructed in dialogue with the real world, and in response to others. They present it in a much more positive light, and Bonovitz recounts two cases in which fantasy, played out in the consulting room, fostered insight and growth. Bonovitz dismisses efforts to parse out “what is conscious fantasy and what is unconscious”(2010, p. 639). More important, he argues, is:
how to maintain the illusory space so fantasies stay intertwined with reality, creating and re-creating characters in the people around them. Fantasy potentially extends the mental canvas, jostling one’s inner objects and keeping them in dialogue with the outside world, thereby allowing room for emergent representations to make their way into the picture. (p. 639)
Like Bonovitz, I am interested in fantasy as a means of extending “the mental canvas” and shaking things up, “jostling one’s inner objects” (p. 639).
In presenting the essay as interpersonalized fantasy, I’m really making two claims: that it is a form of fantasy, and that it is interpersonal. I’ll take up the more controversial part of my claim first: the personal essay is a form of fantasy. Despite what hard-liners might insist, the personal essay is not a faithful rendering of experience, but a play between memory and imagination. In Patricia Hampl’s (1999) essay, “Memory and Imagination,” a meditation on the form, she writes:
If I approach writing from memory with the assumption that I know what I wish to say, I assume that intentionality is running the show. Things are not that simple. (…) The heart, the guardian of intuition with its secret, often fearful intentions, is the boss. Its commands are what the writer obeys—often without knowing it. (p. 28)
For Hampl, then, unconscious fantasy drives the recreation of memory. As Hampl muses on a written fragment of memory about her first piano lesson, she discovers that she has altered the dynamic of a friendship to accord with what she felt it should have been like, and has given herself a coveted object (a piano instruction book) that she actually never possessed. In re-reading her own work, Hampl acknowledges that she has unconsciously followed the dictates of her heart, altering the story, even though she wished to produce a faithful transcription of the past. In the search for symbols to express ideas, “memory impulsively reaches out and embraces imagination”(Hampl, 1999, p. 31). The mind instinctively turns to invention in order to better express an emotional truth.
The nature of this fantasy is largely visual. Every beginning writer has heard the injunction: show, don’t tell. And it’s true that the power of a personal essay often derives from its cinematic nature: we don’t just learn what happened—if the essay is effective, we get to experience it along with the narrator. The form relies on carefully elaborated visual and other sensual detail, along with the writer’s thinking. Again, this dovetails with Bonovitz’s claims for the value of fantasy, which he also sees as visual. He writes: “It is the visual and its elaborations in fantasy that makes it so potentially rich and three-dimensional”(p. 632). The image “gives form to an unarticulated, emotional experience”(p. 632). One of my mentors in essay writing insisted that we not merely describe, but “render” a memory—the word evokes painting more than writing. An essay-writer becomes engrossed in a vision of what happened, and works to render this vision for the reader. The image becomes a medium for conveying emotion as a bodily sensation, perhaps prior to—or beyond-language.
It may be less controversial to suggest that the essay is interpersonal, but that too requires some explanation. Writing appears to be a solitary activity. Nevertheless, Miriam observed that “you’re always writing with an Other, whether in person or in your mind—the relationship that you have with the Other is crucial.” She suggests that even when the writer has no external audience in mind—when she is writing in her journal, for instance—there is nevertheless an internal Other who acts as audience. For Miriam, the “maternal interject” was such a hostile audience that she was prevented from writing at all, and could begin only when that imagined audience was replaced by a real, receptive one in the person of her dissertation advisor. The audience—whether imagined or real—shapes the material on multiple levels.
II. Safety, Risk, and Fantasy
Writing is interpersonal, even when it seems to be private; as Miriam observed, “the relationship that you have with the Other is crucial.” She was able to begin writing productively only when the critical internal Other was replaced by a live, receptive reader. This transformation in her relationship to writing must have influenced her in seeking out the community of ND, and she emphasized the importance of the writing with others: “The group serves as a container and recipient.” In describing the group context this way, I suspect that Miriam had in mind something like Winnicott’s “holding environment.” In order for an infant to develop well, he needs what Winnicott called a “facilitating” or “holding” environment, which extends beyond the mother’s embrace, but is characterized by the sense of safety the child felt there. The term becomes a metaphor in the analytic process. Winnicott writes: “You will see that the analyst is holding the patient, and this often takes the form of conveying in words at the appropriate moment something that shows that the analyst knows and understands the deepest anxiety that is being experienced, or that is waiting to be experienced”(1965, p. 240). So the “holding environment” may mean the consulting room, or in the case of ND, a safe and protective community.
As a program, ND provides a “protective container”(Modell, 1993, p. 278) in which to face the anxieties of writing about private experiences of childhood, trauma, pregnancy, illness, or loss. Here, writers can count on appreciation and empathy, even when they are also looking for critique. Smaller writing groups, especially the long-term groups that sustain themselves for three years or more, are especially powerful as holding environments. ND students, many of whom have wanted to write since childhood, are finally able to experiment with the medium and to discover what one writer, Ellie, called “a creative aspect of myself.”
The sense of safety within the community enables writers to take risks: to do what Jeffrey Berman (2001) calls “risky writing.” Berman is a college English teacher who makes personal writing central to his pedagogy. He argues that writing about risky subjects—abuse, alcoholism, suicide—fosters personal and intellectual growth. The writer must overcome shame in order to write at all and, in his classes, share the writing. Berman cites a number of scientific studies that confirm the healing power of writing (Pennebaker 1990; Bracher 1999; Anderson and MacCurdy 2000; Lepore and Smyth 2002), and he has added to this literature with three studies of transformation through personal writing (1994, 1999, 2001). In ND, as in Berman’s classrooms, risky writing leads to insight, healing, and growth.
Bonovitz, too, illustrates how the willingness to take risks can lead to transformation. His case studies do not involve writing, but instead are about taking risks in the consulting room. One patient of his, Gladys, is at the beginning frustrated with what she feels is the predictable routine of therapy; she nicknames Bonovitz “same old” (2010, p.633). Over time, they enter into riskier territory, as Gladys begins to share her sexual fantasies. Although she initiates and sustains this playful exchange of erotic dreams, Bonovitz remains aware of the dangers involved: at moments, he may suddenly become the “lecherous father who was invading her”(p. 635). These frightening moments that approach a traumatic repetition ultimately have value, however. They “open up space to move and eventually incorporate this traumatic reality”(p. 635): the real father who invaded her with looks and words. Gladys moved past the stage of frustration with the “same old” routine of therapy, and the relationship became more playful, energized, and exciting. In the other case Bonovitz describes, there is a rupture when he takes the risk of making sexual tension explicit. In working through this rupture, however, they arrive at deeper insights about her relationships with men. In both of Bonovitz’s cases, taking risks catalyzed change; in Berman’s classes, risky writing serves the same function.
III. Risky Writing and the Essayistic Third
During three years of teaching the personal essay in ND, I have seen many different kinds of risky writing: pieces on unwanted pregnancy, parents’ hostility to a gay partner, a mother who ejects her child from the car when she talks back. But when I considered which pieces I wanted to write about here, my mind immediately went to these two. They stood out as especially creative, moving, and resonant (although they don’t, at first glance, seem to have much to do with fantasy). Memoirs or essays about cancer reveal the writer at her most vulnerable, gripped by terror and often humiliated by the procedures she must undergo. When she submitted a draft of her piece, “The Radiation Diaries” to my personal essay workshop, Charlotte prefaced it this way: “My goal is not that this be published, or public, but that it develops into a complete and fluid thought. An exercise meant to help me process a very recent journey.” In the holding environment of ND, it was possible for Charlotte to write about—to “process”—the painful and destabilizing experience of cancer treatment.
In the “Radiation Diaries,” Charlotte writes in the present tense, in diary form, which gives the piece a gripping immediacy. It begins with the narrator’s arrival at the radiation oncology clinic: “This place is cold, beige, and stark. I have no directions to it. It is early in the morning and I am stumbling along 5th Avenue nearly before light.” The bleakness of the setting mirrors the narrator’s numb despair. We soon learn that she’s arrived at the clinic belatedly: “I am here, entering this space after a month of procrastination, avoidance born of terror, some of it rational.” The diaries record several phases of Charlotte’s emotional response to the treatment, including rage, “a frantic desire for safety,” and a “sense that time does not belong to me.” The narrator brings us into the room when she receives the treatment, allows us to overhear conversations with the nurse who accompanies her, as well as Charlotte’s own inner monologue.
There is, finally, a turning point, when she writes: “Things are getting better. It appears that there is, in fact, an end to this ordeal. From time to time, there are flashes of an above ground self, of a mind that recognizes past, present, and, most importantly, future.” “The Radiation Diaries” ends at a moment when the cancer is at bay, but this remains a moment of tension, not resolution. The voice here differs sharply from the anguished and bewildered narrator of the piece’s opening. A long reflective paragraph reveals a narrator who has come through this process determined to accept, even to embrace, her own vulnerability and mortality: “If I want to live, I clearly have to learn to die, to live in a delicate balance where, even with moments of flashing resistance, I know I’m not going to win this one. “
The occasion for Ellie’s piece, “Unstable Ground,” is also the threat of cancer: “The voice mail tells me that I need to call the imaging center about the results of my mammography. Terror grips my whole body and I reach for the phone. I am told my exam merits another more in depth diagnostic test.” (Italics in the original.) While the “Radiation Diaries” keeps us in the charged, frightening present, “Unstable Ground” uses the phone call from the imaging center as the occasion for a psychoanalytic journey, taking us back in time to the narrator’s childhood. The piece explores the early reasons for a particular experience of instability: a recurring terror at “the idea of no longer living.” In one striking episode, the child discovers a box of baby clothes deep in the hall closet, and wants to dress her baby doll in them. The mother forbids it, explaining tersely: “They were for my first baby.” “Where is he?” the child asks. The mother’s response reflects her impatience and emotional detachment from the child:
He was about five days old and he died because something was wrong with his heart. Now, that is enough. Put the clothes back in the box and close the closet door. Go and practice the piano. I can’t be bothered now. I am trying to make dinner.
Ellie reconstructs memories of the mother’s harsh criticism and accusations, offering us insight into those moments when, as an adult, she faces a void. “Unstable Ground” ends with good news from the doctor: there are calcifications, but no malignancy. The conclusion of the piece, though, is not about the relief at this news. Rather, it closes with a moment of self-insight: “Under conditions that replicate early painful moments, I can be confronted with searing thoughts of imperfection and shame that slow down and obstruct my attempt to stabilize myself.” In this last part of the essay, Ellie can write about these destabilizing experiences with the authoritative voice of the analyst.
Neither of these pieces, as I admitted earlier, seems to have much to do with the notion of “fantasy,” which normally has a positive connotation, something we allow ourselves to indulge in. However, they do align with Bonovitz’s (2010) definition of fantasy as a delicate negotiation between imagination and reality: the writer is reconstructing experiences, filling out details and emphasizing what is important. But they also contain an implicit fantasy of the Other, the reader who accepts and “holds” the writer at her most vulnerable. It’s no accident that Charlotte’s “Radiation Diaries” closes with a meditation on vulnerability: “I have been fighting all these vulnerabilities with much too great a force. Trying to defend against them itself seems a disease. The more I fight, the more they rise, and now they will not be put down. The truth is, if I look back, and sideways too, I have always been this vulnerable.” The writer can reveal her vulnerable self to a compassionate Other, or a group that can, as Miriam put it, act as “receptacle and container.” By reconstructing the memory for this receptive Other, the writer makes her present in the past: this imagined Other is now woven into the fabric of the memory. If writing can make the past present, it can also project the present into the past, making the imagined reader a witness to the remembered events.
One element of the essay-fantasy, then, is the imagined presence of a receptive Other; however, the most crucial element, I would argue, is the creation of the narrator herself. The essayist Vivian Gornick (2001) begins her guide to writing personal narrative with an extended section on persona. As a young and relatively inexperienced writer, she recalls, Gornick wrote what she regards as a failed book about living in Egypt. It failed because she was unable to find a persona in which to narrate the story: without a clear sense of who was telling the story, Gornick remained uncertain about what story to tell. Only later, when she was writing a memoir about her mother (the powerful Fierce Attachments), was Gornick able to discover a narrator whose perspective shaped the story. As she wrote this memoir, Gornick discovered that she took a profound pleasure in her daily meeting with the narrator, a person who was derived from her, but was not quite her:
I longed each day to meet her again, this other one telling the story that I alone—in my everyday person—would not have been able to tell. (…) It was not only that I admired her style, her generosity, her detachment—such a respite from the me that was me!—she had become the instrument of my illumination. (2001, p. 23)
Instead of feeling a sense of control over “this other one telling the story,” Gornick feels lucky—as if she had found, not created this narrator. She echoes Hampl’s claim that the writing process depends on intuition and the dictates of the heart, rather than on intentionality.
Looking at the examples, we can see that this narrator is not stagnant, but evolves radically as the story moves forward. The speaker at the beginning of each essay is engulfed by terror, without a sense of detachment from her situation; in the “Radiation Diaries,” the speaker is literally “stumbling along” in the dark. By the end, there has been a radical shift, from a narrator who was pinned down by her circumstances, to one who has found new insight not just through the ordeal, but by processing it in writing. At the end, we find a persona who is capable of reflecting on her situation, and who has understood something crucial about herself. Writing about a happy or neutral memory probably would not yield such a radically altered self. While Hampl (1999) fulfills an unconscious desire by giving herself a longed-for object in the written memory, these writers give themselves something much more fundamental: a self that can withstand terror and accept vulnerability.
Writers who are beginning to experiment with the form of the personal essay may be confused by the distinction between the writer and the narrator of the essay, puzzled by my insistence that they are not the same. In an effort to clarify this, the analyst Annette Leavy, also a co-leader of our workshop, suggested that the narrator of the essay could be understood as parallel to Thomas Ogden’s (1994) concept of the “analytic third.” Rather than understanding the unconscious life of the analyst and patient as separate, he sees them intertwined: the analytic third is the “jointly created unconscious life of the analytic pair” (Ogden, 2001, p.167). Like the analytic third, the narrator of the essay is a creation distinct from both writer and reader, but exists in a collaborative space between them. “The essayistic third,” as I’ll call it, is also a jointly created entity, and a crucial component of the interpersonal essay-fantasy. While Gornick (2001) developed increasing control over the persona who narrated her story, not all essayists work this way: the creation of the essayist third might be wholly deliberate, or partially unconscious.
An evolved version of the self: this is what the process of writing the personal essay yields. The new self becomes visible in the persona of the essay: the tone and voice in which she speaks, distinct from the writer’s everyday voice. At one point, “The Radiation Diaries” breaks into a poem, which we can see as a declaration of existence from the emerging self. The poem begins: “I am learning to live with fear./I am learning to live with disappointment and with the fact that all things do not work out for ‘the best.’” This self accepts her vulnerability and at the same time, asserts resilience: “I am learning that one can visit all the rings of hell without moving into any one of them.” Towards the end of the poem/declaration, the language shifts in order to emphasize that this is a self in the act of becoming: “I would like to learn to see, though whatever dark glass, whatever tiny edge of truth shows itself.” (Emphasis added.) Rather than “avoidance born of terror,” her feeling at the beginning of the essay, the narrator asserts her determination to see truth. Using the same language of evolution, Charlotte writes: “I would like to learn to enjoy fantasies again.” I would argue that the essay itself is evidence that Charlotte is learning to enjoy fantasies again: the essayistic third is a fantasy of the evolved self. The work of writing the essay, then, can transform the writer by creating a vision of the unfolding self. This is what the personal essay affords the writer, and what she carries with her, off the page and into the consulting room.
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Sandie Friedman would like to express her deepest gratitude to the New Directions students and faculty who contributed their thoughts to this study, with special thanks to the writers who allowed her to discuss their work here.
Sandie Friedman is Assistant Professor of Writing at George Washington University. She is also a 2008 graduate of New Directions: Writing With a Psychoanalytic Edge, a program under the auspices of the Washington Center for Psychoanalysis. This piece emerged from her experience teaching writing workshops for New Directions and for the Philadelphia Center for Psychoanalytic Education.