Sunday, March 10, 2013

Without memory or desire


Remember the words to the song: We’re having a heat wave?  The weather at its extreme affects everything and when it’s hot day after day it’s hard to keep on thinking let alone writing.  It’s hard to sleep.  A sheet is too much.  The fan whirrs its way through the night and interferes with my dreams but the mornings at least are cool, at least for a few hours before the sun forgets we’re in autumn and bears down on us as though we are mid summer. 

On the other side of the world folks will be preparing for spring and normally I feel sad at the last of the summer but not this year.  This year there is a general plea across the sound waves, let it end.

Yesterday I received a letter in the post, a short letter typed and tacked onto a plain white card with a photo as its frontispiece.  I recognised the handwriting on the envelope as coming from my correspondent and friend, Gerald Murnane.  He and I have been writing to one another for several years no, almost ten years by my reckoning, mostly long letters but this time Gerald has told me that he wants me to know that his letters will be reduced for the next several weeks/months because he is in the  middle of writing yet another book, his eleventh I think. 

I have mixed feelings when I read this note. Fair enough I think, he’s busy but then the internal carping begins.  For one thing I’m jealous of Gerald’s ability and opportunity to tackle yet another book – at the ripe old age of 74 – and for another, even if I were totally immersed in a book, which I sometimes am though never quite as thoroughly as GM, I would not dismiss my regular friends with a fob off until their book is finished. 

I know this is unreasonable.  GM’s position is the more appropriate.  Why should he not consider his own needs?  At least he has written to let me know as much.  He writes further that the photo included features 'the sky at evening' near Goroke 'when smoke from the Grampians covered western Victoria'. 



This weekend, a long weekend in Melbourne for Labour day my husband is making tomato chutney.  Despite the heat.  His sister dropped off ten kilos of ripe old fashioned tomatoes. By old fashioned I mean tomatoes grown in the soil of her garden without all the added gizmos that commercially cropped tomatoes include.  They taste better as a consequence. 

Last weekend my husband made Italian sausages, the week before German bacon.  He’s on a home cooked produce burst which pleases him greatly.  

The only thing I can do is write, but when the writing goes badly I can feel jealous of those people who appear to be productive, like Gerald and my husband.  My desire to be productive can bring me unstuck.  


There’s this notion in psychoanalytic psychotherapy, care of Wilfred Bion, that a therapist enter each session ‘without memory or desire’.  It’s a tough one.  To my mind almost impossible but the spirit of it is sound.  The idea is that you enter each session afresh, ready to see what comes up and to approach it with an open mind. 

I try to take the same approach whenever I settle down to write.  To see what comes up for me, and hold no concern for the outcome.  It encourages a certain freedom of thought, especially the idea that I have no expectations of how the writing will go, of what I might produce, of whether it will be worthwhile or whether it will disappear along with so much of my writing into the wastepaper basket of time. 

I’ve spent years at writing school.  I’ve spent years at therapy school and there are always rules about how to proceed, theories about how to relate to the person who comes to see you, how to put pen to paper, your fingers on the keyboard.  Everyone has a slightly different take.

I have this urge now to write about a video I watched yesterday of a certain Eric Wolterstorff  who teaches a bunch of students on transference and trauma.   It comes in the form of a YouTube demonstration.  

I enjoy the way the man presents his ideas and I enjoy his ideas.  They derive in part from Freud’s thinking but they branch off into ideas from systems theory.  One idea being that in each group, beginning with the family constellation, people tend to take on one of a series of roles at different times.

These roles ideally are fluid.  In other words a person can have a preferred mode of operating most of the time but there will be times when the person will slip into other roles.  And that is best, according to Wolterstorff.  The roles each have their advantages and their disadvantages. 

The first role - to me the obvious one - the one into which I reckon I most readily slip is that of the caretaker.  This is the person who says to herself.  I don't have a problem – she may have one, but she tells herself she’s okay, namely not in profound need - I’m okay, but I'm responsible for everyone else here.  

The second role is that of the identified patient, in the family, in the group, the one who is seen to be most in need of help.  The IP as Wolterstorff refers to him/her is the person who assumes, without words more often than not, but through his behaviour, I have a problem and I’m not responsible for fixing it.  

In  Wolterstorff's words, ‘I serve you in the relationship by holding the anxiety for both of us.  Your job is to take care of the problems.’  I put myself in this vulnerable position in which I am helpless and it’s your job, therapist or other members of the family to fix things for me.

The third category is that of the distancer.  The one who says, ‘I don’t have a problem and I’m not responsible for fixing it.’  You lot can fight it out among yourselves, I’m off.  And the distancer takes herself into the next room to watch television while the rest of the family war on. 

The forth and final category in this somewhat over simplified schemata is that of the outcast.  The outcast says in a somewhat aggressive manner, again not so much in words as in behaviour: ‘I have a problem.  I am the problem and not responsible for any effects on anyone else.  Got a problem with that?’  It’s not my responsibility this problem so if you want me to change it you’re going to have to set to work to fix it.

Wolterstorff  refers to these roles as a function of what he calls 'procedural memory'. 

Are you with me here?  or have you switched off? 

On paper it might seem boring but coming as it does from this man whose delivery is comforting, thoughtful but simple enough to understand, I found myself watching all four of these presentations and wondering how they might apply. 

Wolterstorff also talked about 'event memory' where he described the way in which a group of people whom researchers interviewed ten years after the Space shuttle Challenger disaster recalled the event.  The people interviewed were about ten years old at the time of the tragedy. 

Apparently, the subjects remember the core significance of the event after the trauma but they tend to forget the peripheral details, the things surrounding the event tend and tend to distort or alter them in oder to fill the gaps.    

This is typical for all of us when we try to remember.  We lose contact with the surrounding details and so begin to construct bits and pieces of memories from other events and times.

Memoir writers do it all the time.  Therefore memory is unreliable, though Wolterstorff argues and I’d agree, the core memory of the traumatic event itself tends to stay and be remembered with some degree of accuracy. 

Which brings me to another aspect of this talk which I found fascinating in relation to 'event memory', namely the notion that part of our memory of the event is built around those who were there, and the roles they might play. 

The questions are:  who was watching, who did it, who helped and who was hurt?  Wolterstorff divides these roles into the observer, the perpetrator, the saviour and the victim,.  Again he reckons it's important that we can be fluid within these roles.  

It’s not helpful to get stuck in any one role for good, though it seems some people do.

Hence I’d argue the value of empathy.  Empathy enables us to see things from other people’s perspectives, including the uncomfortable ones of being the perpetrator.  Who wants to see themselves as a bully?

 If we get stuck in a role or lose the ability to combine roles, we cannot move forward fluidly throughout our lives. 

If you think on it, you too might see that at times you take on one or another of these roles.  I become a bully because I am bullied.  I stand by and watched as another person is bullied because I cannot bear to be the victim.  Let someone else take on that role.  All four positions move over time. 


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