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trauma,

  • Fantasy Net

    Fantasy Net” is one of Donald Kalsched’s terms that I became very fond of. Pondering how I ended up where I did in life, the term took on a significance that eventually became one of the core ideas in Focusing Emptiness.

    The reference In Focusing is to childhood trauma – my own childhood trauma -- and the psyche’s way the psyche has of protecting itself by splitting off  its most vulnerable parts, and pushing them into the unconscious. Sometimes, these parts can be caught in a kind of archetypal safety “net.”

    As is the case throughout the narrative in Focusing, I build examples of this archetypal safety net into the story, but I don’t stop along the way to explicitly point it out. But almost immediately, the story begins hinting at archetypal possibilities. The first chapter is entitled “The Witch in the Closet,” about an old woman (or a witch, depending whether you are an eight year old boy, or an adult) who provides the reference story of Peter Pan. And there are the dogs in the story, most of which are named for the pirates in that story.

    Split off or repressed content, what I call the lost child, or the lost children, that slips into the unconscious,is always looking for a way out…looking for a resolution. Projecting unconscious material out into the “external” world is one way such material can present itself to consciousness. But unconscious material doesn’t just project itself out onto anything; it requires a “hook” (so to speak).

     

    You see this especially with scapegoating (see my article: The Scapegoat Archetypal and the Need to be Right: depth approaches in organizational cultures, Fall 2010 Annals 51 in the Annals of the American Psychotherapy Association) where a group’s collective unconscious begins to search around for someone to appropriate its material. In other words, the “hook” needs to be appropriate…participating in some way.

    In some cases, the hook might be an individual. In other cases, it might be a group of individuals (e.g., the Jews). But it could also be a story, in which case the projection would not be so much projected “onto” the hook, but “into” the story.

    In Focusing, the witch provides the story. On the one hand, it is a story of Peter Pan, but on the other hand – the archetypal hand – it is the story of a warrior. And that is just what Peter Pan is – a warrior… a child warrior. In the original story, as opposed to the watered down version by Disney, Pan was in fact a killer. He killed pirates with his knife.

    So…it is this fantasy story that becomes the safety net into which my own vulnerable, split-off parts fall. Later, as I get older, the surface structure of Peter Pan will be exchanged for something more “appropriate.” But the warrior archetype, with all its implications, will remain as the core of whatever surface structure is adopted – e.g., a marine in Vietnam, a kung-fu practitioner, and so on.

  • Firebase Erksine

    One of the most powerful sections in Focusing Emptiness is the chapter about firebase Erskine. This is the story about a remote artillery support base during the Vietnam war. But it didn't take up much room in my book until late one evening, quite by accident, I stumbled across a website devoted to the survivors of those who died there.

    Erskine2

    It was especially the postings of the children of those who died that  hit me the hardest. Those postings called to me to try harder,  to write something better, to write something more. But Focusing  Emptiness wasn’t a book about Vietnam. It was about trauma, and  awareness, and how our defenses can fool us into making poor  decisions. And then something occurred to me, something about  a theory I knew of  concerning the children of trauma; that they these  children might be more vulnerable to traumatic situations later in life,  that they might be more prone to bouts of PTSD. But if anything, it seemed to me that my childhood had erected unseen walls that helped  to block out the harsh realities of life. Indeed, I may have  been less vulnerable. And I was never haunted by the ghosts of  Erskine the way others were. But I did not escape entirely.

     

    It wasn’t  until I began writing about Erskine that I became aware of just how far my defenses had gone to protect me. I faintly remember Top Johnston, for instance, the Sergeant with me there at first, calling me over to the artillery pit where the whole fiasco on that hill began. Making my way through the blackened rubble the fires had left, I was soon standing at the pit’s edge, looking down through the smoldering streams of smoke rising up into the humid jungle air. But then…that’s all….that’s where my memory ends. I have no recollection of what I saw. I know what was down there because I remember the Top describing it. It was the burned and fragmented bodies of those who were engulfed by the fire and explosions that had taken the entire hill before we arrived. But I don’t remember seeing any of it. It was simply gone.

     

    Our defensive structures are often hidden from us.  We only see the results of their action. We find ourselves in conflict withloved ones for reasons we don’t understand, we make decisions we look back on later and wonder what possessed us, we alter our experiences, sometimes allowing them to quietly slip into our unconscious. But once constructed, our defense mechanisms area never really gone. They are still there, underground, influencing our perceptions, molding our decisions, interacting with the world from beneath the surface of what we think we know.

    The A Shau Valley 1

     

  • Glimpse into the Past: Excerpt from Focusing Emptiness

     

    I was six months oldwhen my birth father stepped

     
    out and my stepfather stepped in. He was a mean drunk. He hit
     
    people. Mostly he hit my mother, and maybe that’s where my
     
    battle with him began. I don’t know for sure if that’s where it started.
     
    I have no memory of its beginning. It seemed as if we were always at war.
     
    Around age seven or eight I was formally introduced to the
     
    larger family drama by way of my mother’s sister, my Aunt Patty, who
     
    took me aside one evening to show me how to call the police.

     

     
    “You’re too young to be saddled with this,” she said, “but
     
    you’re the oldest and you need to do it. If you don’t, I’m afraid your
     
    stepfather might kill your mother one day.”
     

     

    She wasn’t far off. He did almost kill my mother on more than
     
    one occasion. The earliest I remember was of him breaking a whiskey
     
    bottle over her head during one of their fights. I was curled up in a
     
    ball in my room upstairs, listening to the battle below. It was a war
     
    zone down there—glass breaking, furniture crashing. Despite my
     
    brothers and sisters nearby in their own rooms, I felt alone upstairs,
     
    my mother’s appointed caretaker, tasked with saving her.

     

     
    On several occasions, I managed to make my way down the
     
    flight of stairs leading to the phone and call the police without being
     
    seen by my stepfather, then to stay out of sight until they arrived. But
     
    the thought that my mother’s life rested with me alone brought a
     
    feeling of sick emptiness that would often cause me to shake violently.
     
    Images of my mother being killed and fears of my getting something
     
    wrong, of not being around when she needed me, were unbearable.
     
    Upstairs in my room at night, I would often feel a tangled knot in my
     
    stomach. Then came the images before I’d even fallen asleep, of hooded
     
    phantoms. Pulling the covers over my head, I would wedge myself down low underneath my covers
     
    and scream for help. 

     

    Me with my childhood dog.