At the graduate school where I’ve taught and learned for awhile now, the very first student assignment in the very first class consists of this: identify five people in your personal life whom you feel great affinity for. List some of the qualities you most appreciate about them. Next, identify five people in your personal life whom you feel some kind of aversion towards and list some of the qualities that you dislike about them. Now write a paper about how each of those qualities is alive and actively operating in you. The name of this exercise is “Reclaiming Our Projections.”
Women outnumber men enrolled at my school by a wide margin. Many of them come from very difficult family histories involving both mother and father. As an older male, I often initially show up as “good dad.” Invariably though, through the magic of transference and projection and traumatic dissociation, at some point during the two years of the program I will inevitably be turned into “bad dad.” I intimately understand that the bulk of the brain’s processes take place below conscious awareness, and I am super-scrupulous about not consciously violating sexual and physical boundaries. And not solely out of altruistic and compassionate concern for others, but also out of enlightened self-interest: to act otherwise would profoundly damage my own heart, brain, mind, body and soul. Neurology never sleeps; it bears witness 24/7 to all trespasses, both for and against us (I’m pretty convinced it’s from that neurological reality that the notion of an all-knowing, all-seeing God has arisen; God’s kingdom, as Jill Bolte Taylor so powerfully reminds us, lives in the depths of the right brain mostly as embodied implicit memories).
Inevitably, even though I understand the dynamics intellectually, I am always a little bit astonished and disturbed every time I find myself transformed into Bad Dad. After all: they’ve done the reading; they’ve completed the assignments; they’ve written the papers! Bad Dad isn’t me, alive and threatening outside of them; he’s alive and overlaid upon the present and running the show from within them.
I struggle most with the students I have both strong negative and positive counter-transference toward. Women who remind me of significant females (and sometimes men!) from my own personal past pose more of a challenge than others. One woman, Adriana, stands out in recent memory.
Adriana and I had an easy, instant connection. She loved to write, and I arranged a grant for her through a woman’s foundation to do a book on a topic she had great passion for. Adriana had a wry, sharp sense of humor and made a living much as I had for many years: buying run-down San Francisco Victorians – Painted Ladies – and fixing them up to resell at a profit. I felt considerable affection for her. Adriana also had an alcoholic father, who was hyper-critical and abusive and extremely unskillful with boundaries. One day in a classroom exercise in which I elected to also participate, I paired up with Adriana. One part of the exercise was to offer two words that encapsulated our feelings or experience of the other person in the moment. Thinking about the remodeling work we shared in common, my two words for Adriana were: “painted lady.”
Well, painted lady is also the name used to describe prostitutes, and the moment the words left my mouth, by her strong reaction I knew that I had inadvertently violated a psychological boundary. Adriana’s face turned paper white. Her pupils dilated and her breathing stopped. In an instant she was no longer in the room doing this exercise with me. She was transported back to an earlier time, fully immersed in a very painful dissociated interaction with her own father, and she didn’t even realize it.
When Adriana mentally returned to the room, the dissociative episode was only partly abated. She stood up crying and screamed epithets at me. She threw her textbook at my face and ran out of the classroom. She resisted all later attempts by me, the school administration and her fellow students to reengage and try to repair the damage that had been done. Even the sincerest apology rarely reorganizes neurology. Adriana went non-contingent and later wrote a scathing, damning letter to the school president and dropped out of the program – a personal history of suffering catalyzed, but not healed, by the inadvertent use of two unfortunate words.
Unfit for Human Habitation
Over the years, partly in the wake of lesser variations of the above episode that didn’t result in a permanent relationship rupture, I have had many women confess to me that they felt “unfit for human habitation,” and express the desire to become a nun or go live as a hermit in a cabin in the woods. They longed for absolute safety and a strong container. While I fully understand such impulses, and have come to learn how early abusive childhood experiences profoundly disorganize the brain and confuse thinking and feeling – especially under stress – I am also deeply saddened by them. In the Gnostic Gospels Jesus said: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” Jesus was a master neuroscientist. He knew from long experience that any boundaries we place around our brains and hearts need to be like the boundary around a healthy cell – semi-permeable and flexible, lest we end up simply locking the demons inside. But what Jesus doesn’t mention here is the importance of honoring flexible boundaries, of readiness, and the timing that is so critical, such that what is inside us may be brought forth gently and patiently bit by bit, rather than be ripped out wholesale like a bindweed from a flower bed.
Hold a Hand When Heading Home
Almost universally women like Adriana are of extraordinary intelligence, exhibit great sensitivity and have huge, compassionate hearts. They are women with the makings of great power, each on deeply intimate terms with the suffering that undergirds our world. Had Adriana remained in the program I would have hoped to have offered her this healing possibility from trauma expert John Palumbo:
There cannot be effective emotional connectedness without understanding. I am suggesting that we attempt to directly enter the world with (the traumatized person). Not solely from an impassive theoretical arena, but to actually walk, feel, see, smell, taste the trauma. “Hold my hand. I want to go back there with you. I am afraid, and I don’t like where we may be headed together, but I need to go there with you. Maybe then, I can truly understand what now I can only glance. Maybe then, together we can touch this thing and take it out of the shadows.”
Some part of me deeply wishes for a world that could walk hand in hand with all of its abused and battered women, rock them, cradle them and sing them each a soothing lullabye; provide them with a kind of neuro-cardio do-over and assure them that “everything’s gonna be all right, rock-a-bye.”
And with some of these extraordinary people, we and they, may ultimately be best served by simply honoring the organic, mysterious unfolding of their journey.