Scenes in Psychotherapy: Trauma, Enactment & Hanging Out in the Unknown

Scenes in PsychotherapyI thought I should write something about scenes in psychotherapy. Ways of registering these have become fundamental to my work. I find Freud’s scenes, his thinking through scenes, extremely helpful. He writes about a primal scene, and various other kinds of scene, and for someone like myself, who loves certain kinds of cinema, it isn’t too hard to imagine a form of dreamlike scene.

Scenes in the theatre are so different from scenes on the screen. Freud’s psychoanalysis emerged alongside the cinema and without trying to explain this, I would suggest remembering it. The first film studios were being built in 1897; Freud’s Die Traumdeutung (The Interpretation of Dreams) was published in 1899.

Scenes in psychotherapy need to be acted on carefully. Noticing and thinking of a scene, when I am with a client, but not a scene I walk or even talk myself into, as I might if I intruded on a play, (the disastrous consequences of which should tell us something about intruding on our clients) can get something started as a dream can.

When I hear a dream told to me I do my best not to get in the way of what is being said, and instead to try and keep both the ordinariness and craziness in mind without rationalising them. An interpretation of a dream is an engagement with dream-logic (as you might find in a book such as Lewis Carol’s Alice in Wonderland), something that tries to propagate the outlandishness of an encounter with the unconscious, rather than something that tries to ‘make sense’, defying the logic I have been presented with.

If you watch a film like Jacques Rivette’s Histoire de Marie et Julien you’ll see the kind of thing I am thinking of. This is a film with a very clear logic, as I find in all of Rivette’s films. But as with most of his films, I found myself watching it more than once before I could appreciate it. Then, suddenly, all was clear, and extraordinarily so. There are films by Rivette that have bored me to sleep out of what appeared to be their obliqueness before I suddenly came alive at a viewing (L’Amour par terre, [Love On the Ground] took five viewings before it came alive, during the fifth, to the extent I wondered if I were watching a different film). Each viewing was a re-introduction to a way of thinking, a way of doing things, a way of feeling, that I had somehow failed to comprehend before.

And how many times, I wonder, have I done this with my clients? Not understood because I have failed to pay attention; because I have remained as good as dead to the life in front of me.

I am always reminded: what doesn’t seem to make sense may make sense eventually, as long as I stay with what is in front of me (and then inside me), without trying to hold onto it, crush it, pick it apart or understand it. Forcing an understanding is a particularly terrible kind of violation. 1 My experience of working with people who have been told they are psychotic has shown me that some individuals crave an understanding which is usually withheld from them because of a psychiatrist’s, psychologist’s or psychotherapist’s desire to make sense of them. If they receive understanding, in the way I eventually understood Rivette’s films, I have seen people described as psychotic relax into life, and come together. A theory of psychosis, I could say, might be the hammer which splits off or keeps split, the very person it seeks to understand.

All of which takes me back to near where I began: noticing and remembering scenes in psychotherapy, especially when I believe the kinds of scene cinema 2 can give us, (where I cannot intervene unless I go to the extreme of cutting up the scene, taking some scissors to a length of celluloid, or these days re-arranging the pixels of  a digital production), might take us to places  we may never otherwise know.

In cinema you cannot intrude in a scene; in theatre you can but the effects are unpredictable, usually undesirable and, unless you have been invited in some way to do so go against what has been intended. Interrupt scenes in psychotherapy at your peril, and always understand that your interruption will be traumatic for your client. Remember what Hegel had to say about interruptions: the bud disappears when the blossom breaks through, etc.

This piece about scenes in psychotherapy has become an account of interruptions. Of interrupting a client mid-scene, and of being interrupted by a client’s scene (scenes in psychotherapy as moments of meeting, as they say). If we want to work with trauma something must interrupt us before it interrupts a client. We must withhold our making sense of something until it has deranged us sufficiently for us to not be lost in our own general sense of life, usually where our craziness remains hidden, deferred or displaced. A Jungian might write about a certain kind of intermingling. Heimann (1950) 3 wrote how counter-transference feelings might help us explore beyond what we immediately know.

Let me offer an example. I was working with a man, Adam, who arrived at a session in great distress. He had been travelling with his partner, Craig, a man of the same age, after a period of unhappiness between them. It had seemed that their situation was improved, although not dramatically so, but certainly to the point where a weekend away together in one of Europe’s oldest cities did not seem like foolish idea. On the first evening, however, they had found themselves shouting at each other in a cinema’s packed public bar. The argument grew more and more heated until the two started to fight and they were ejected from the building.  ‘It was as if’, Adam told me, ‘we were back in New York.’

The couple, of a similar age, had lived in New York for several years before their financial situation led them to take up residence in Adam’s mother’s home. I was aware of the many difficulties the couple had faced then and was drawn to try and explore the situation in terms of what we believed we had started to work through together.

What helped the two, though, arose instead out of something that we noticed about the particular scenes of New York and where they were living at the time of the trip abroad: London. Adam wondered what it had been about the cinema where they rowed that had triggered the exchange that was so reminiscent of their heated public rows, on occasions leading to physical fights, in New York.

He then observed that in New York and at that time in London (they had been living in London for some time when he first saw me) Craig had been in psychotherapy, and even though their relationship had often been difficult it had only been when my Craig was in psychotherapy that their relationship had grown so violent.

I found myself on the verge of drawing Adam to think about what Craig might be going through, based on his own experiences; or of asking him whether he feared Craig’s psychotherapy might endanger their relationship. Fortunately Adam interjected: the scene in London and the scene in New York reminded him of one when he was a teenager, living with his mother. His father had died when he was a young teenager.

Adam grew very emotional and remembered how his mother would not talk to him about a relationship that seemed to be developing, the first since his father’s death,  with a man he had never seen or met. He had overheard her speaking to him on the telephone, arranging to meet him, and this was almost exactly what he had heard Craig doing with his psychotherapist. He realised the extent of his jealousy towards Craig’s therapist and the traumatic effect of his mother’s silence about her relationship. He noticed that Craig’s shame at seeing a psychotherapist reminded him very much of the feelings he had experienced in his mother: he had never thought she might be ashamed to see a man she later went on to marry. She had always spoken about wanting to protect Adam, in case the new relationship had not worked out.

The truth, at least what Adam felt to be his emotional truth, suddenly made sense to him. I could feel, as he sat and thought about what he had just described, in a state of deep sadness and then anger during which he had repeatedly punched the side of the armchair he sat on, that something had shifted in him.

This seems to have been be the case. We continued to work for some time, occasionally using EMDR to explore and bring into the world his rage, an awareness of the transgenerational shame in his family, and the diverse roots of his feelings in his very early life.

Scenes in psychotherapy are usually not things to be interrupted and explained in the therapy room. Just as remaining with the obscure intensity of a dream, with its uncertainties and incongruities, can lead us to get something from it in ways we may never at first be able to comprehend, staying with the sometimes worrying scenes our clients may desperately want explained might bring us to an awareness of things beyond reason. Aetiology is born out of anxiety, but so can be an honest encounter with the unknown: the only way I can imagine that truth can be told. I’m talking here about poetic truth, the greater truth a poem, or a certain kind of film, or for that matter a dream can give us.

Scenes in psychotherapy: dreams, films, stories and other accounts of things I will never really see. Scenes in psychotherapy: opportunities to listen and engage with a logic which has been beyond me. Scenes in psychotherapy: places where things can come together.

  1.  Spock, we must remember, was a very gentle individual who didn’t rush into things. As a child I generally found the crew of the enterprise stupid irritatingly unadventurous, and Spock, a true adventurer, the only one able to arrive at some understanding of why the others kept getting things wrong.
  2. Film is not cinema.
  3.  HEIMANN, P. 1950 On counter-transference Int. J. Psychoanal. 31:81-84.  HEIMANN, P. 1960 Counter-transference Br. J. med. Psychol. 33:9-15

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