Seen and Heard

Memories and mysteries and not many clues

“What are these blinks of an eyelid, against which the only defence is an eternal an inhuman wakefulness. Might not they be the cracks and chinks through which another voice, other voices, speak in our lives. By what right to we close our ears to them?” JM Coetzee Foe.

Years after her death, I can still remember my mother’s telephone number. I thought of it while walking the dog in the park. Or rather, it thought of me, leaping unexpectedly in to my mind. I don’t have a particularly good memory, and had not thought of the number since she died. But those digits have a life of their own. Science would probably explain it using pictures showing a part of my brain lighting up. But it would not know why. The account would just be a metaphor for something no one really understands. More than three centuries after the Enlightenment inaugurated the age of reason, and a decade since “the end of history” was announced, memory, and the past it is meant to represent, remains a puzzle.

Despite brain imaging and neurology’s hint that it has us figured out, when it comes to memory – which is to say, what identifies us – we are – like the teenager in the 1970s pop song – “working on mysteries without many clues”. Science, which I thank God for when I go to the dentist, is not much use when it comes to what I might be beyond an organism. This is because I am not identical with my physiology. The memories that make my story mine alone – that set me apart – reside in countless nuances that science has no method to measure or monitor. Yet, if these nuances are ignored, I am set adrift. I am, in that sense a stranger to myself, linked to, but not the same as, the observable processes that keep me alive. Why does my memory rescue some scenes from oblivion, while others that I try to forget hang on? No lab test or scan can tell me.

I used to think that perhaps the explanation lay in social structures, that what stayed in my mind was what my family with its need to keep its place and its silence, left unsaid. But that is not right. What my family kept hidden is not explained by what it lacked materially. My mother had little interest in objects and did not crave entrée to higher levels of society. She was a new arrival to Melbourne and like all outsiders gave her past away for an imagined future. But it was not the promise of middle-class comfort. The future she wanted, but could never speak of, was one without certain memories. They were not class bound reminisces.

The past that my mother wanted to leave behind involved a childhood that kicked off with her father’s death and built up to a camouflaged feeling of unfairness in love. My mother would remind me how easy I had it compared to her childhood. She was talking about loss and her exile from a desired, adoring gaze. Hers was a personal rather than class conflict that had more in common with Freud than Marx.

But I did not know that for some time. My inclination, like hers, was to flee, which I did by working as a foreign correspondent. And at first what was in the newspapers I wrote for seemed to account for what went on in the world. I was happy to see the events that I wrote about as facts, even though some “facts”, a medical discovery for instance, needed an “expert” to interpret them. Then, in 1993, I encountered something that was not just beyond what I knew, but beyond the “facts” that purported to explain it. Sitting in an English courtroom I heard how two 10 year-old boys had taken a two year-old toddler, James Bulger, to a Liverpool canal where they tortured and murdered him. In court, the only question that mattered – why – was kept oblique by the assertion that the 10 year-olds were “bad seeds”. There was no evidence of psychosis – just biological blame. It was the same with Rosemary West who, with her husband, Fred, sexually abused and disposed of at least 10 young women, notably her own daughter. Dubbed the “House of Horrors” murderer, she sat a few metres from me in Winchester crown court looking in her pressed blouse and cardigan, like my auntie Glad. Her guilt, as with the boys, was undisputed. What was in question was motive, mainly as a means to explain something that seemed unthinkable. Surely she had to be mad or bad and yes, that is what the media decided, blaming – as 19th century psychiatry did with “lunacy” – genetics. This default to biomedicine shut down the question rather than, as I wished, opening it up, and that may have been the intention. To see such excess as anything other than “evil” would have led to more anxiety. It left me wondering whether the science that claims to understand us is used to seal the lid on uncomfortable human truth.

There are innumerable ways of recounting a life, both to ourselves and to others. They all toy with memory and describe childhood as a fraught love affair. I wanted to know what those family romances consisted of – how we are made and unmade by what we remember and forget. I didn’t anticipate objectivity. That, with uniformity, is what science looks for, but it is not to be found in human subjects, whose minds and memories are already saturated with judgement.

What would, I wondered, an account of a life be like if it was not foreclosed or forced to fit in with “rational” parameters? I knew that the stories my family and I told, no matter how truthful they tried to be, depended on reconstructions from the vantage point of the present. That did not make them inauthentic, but it did make the way we construct memory and identity, more complex than either the facts I found in journalism or the science that says we are our nerve-endings. Science has never found the biological substrata of human suffering, just as the eyewitnesses I quoted in journalism never offered more than facts fashioned out of necessarily partial memory – memory that I now realize was full of holes hollowed out by the infinitesimal small wounds that prompt us to lie to ourselves.

I wanted to find another space from which memory might come, a space full of words, ongoing beginnings you might say, yet with an end in sight. Both of these, beginnings and endings were frontiers arising from language and the way that it serves as our boundary, and the possibility of beginning anew. So I spent 10 years becoming a psychoanalyst, someone whose function it is to be surprised by words. Psychoanalysis is not like organic psychiatry or psychology. It does not erase the mind from mental treatment by separating off the disturbed individual from the disturbance. Rather, it is curious about the complex motives and intentions that surround distress, and how they are inscribed and deciphered in language. Analysts listen to the eruption of that underworld of emotion as it arises in speech, usually from dreams, slips of the tongue and symptoms. Sometimes it can be alarmingly literal, with words we have heard and turned into weapons, scarring our bodies. Or, more commonly, it is the cells we erect in our mind as we try to flee memories that, though they might not be historically true, are true for us. This is the complexity, the fact that we act not only in response to what we see but also what we fear and because we are afraid, deny. It seeps out, however, in symptoms like anxiety, and in unexpected words – words like those that spoke my memories and sheltered my secrets.

Secrets like my mother’s body being the first female body I looked at – axiomatically at birth, and also later, entering puberty when I walked past my parents’ bedroom. That body shaped what female bodies were for me. I don’t remember thinking of her body as beautiful, possibly because she did not. Her only way of liking the body she kept sheathed through summer, never going to the beach because that would reveal her varicose veins, was to see it in the past. She found ways to continually stumble across an old photograph of her at 17, kicking her leg high in a chorus line of theatrical amateurs. It was a long line of girls and her question was always the same: “Which one is me?” It bought delight to her – like the punch line of a joke; it opened up possibilities; she could be other than she was, an unrecognizable figure from a past that she was now free to invent.

I myself am drawn to black and white post war photographs – Sidney Nolan’s sparse Parkville studio, Jack Kerouac’s monochrome New York. This might be because, as Ian McEwan has suggested in his novel, On Chesil Beach, because we are fascinated by the era when our parents courted, or it might be because of how space and a lack of gadgets and “lifestyle” marks the pictures. They depict people not accustomed to being watched; whatever performance exists is outside the urgency of camera range… in landscapes where little is expected. Faces, posture and possibility inhabit the setting on equal terms. The space devoid of objects is an invitation to create, to see the options that emptiness provides. My mother feared emptiness, as that was the where memory dug in. So she filled it, not just with select images like the dancing girl, but with photographs that made new memories. As a toddler the same age as Bulger she dressed me up in unfamiliar finery and had a photographer snap shots that made me look like someone else. They were the memories she wanted to keep, rather than the reality of what our lives were like.

My story, though individual, is incidental to the media culture I once inhabited. And yet its account of hiding secrets and running away from the implications of unconscious desire has an unwelcome and universal quality. We drag our past, with its undigested emotional baggage, along with us, and in re telling it we can’t help but evoke the narrative form that Freud stumbled across with his case studies. These allow the speaker to inject the present into the past so that memory can influence contemporary time. It is always to do with love in the sense of the longing felt for a place and a person that won’t ever let you down. This is a dream from which it is hard to recover. Freud learnt it accidentally, by listening intently to what people said but did not hear. He thought his case studies would be science, but when he reread them, he named the accounts novellas.

Maybe that is what science of the psyche is. There is no guarantee that any science of today won’t be the alchemy of tomorrow. And when it comes to the particular science that purports to account for memory, what we find is less explanatory and predictive power than fiction. This is especially so with organic psychiatry and psychology, which struggle to meet science’s holy trinity of blind, controlled and randomized trials. Rather than proof, they have what in the US is called “proofiness”, accounts that only seem rigorous. They rely on either drugs which are unspecific in their effect and, in the case of antidepressants, no more effective that placebo, or questionnaire- based behavioural modification whose effects tend to be short-lived.

But mostly, in their eagerness to be “scientific”, they attempt to stitch up the subjectivity of the individual, that is, they want to foreclose the ambivalence of being. They don’t want to hear the ebb and flow of memory, structure of dreams and stories that people tell to explain themselves to others. Nor are they comfortable with how the unconscious does not distinguish between past and future, an intermingling that makes memory unreliable. Yet, this is how the mind functions. You can see it in the way that, for instance, young people will locate themselves in both the past and present tenses at the same time – “I hadn’t seen him for ages, and I am, like, ‘what do you mean’?” This irrational speech, devoid of self-consciousness, reveals the sliding between now and before that occurs in memoir.

The mental health industry, however, has largely given up on the inner world for an inferential world that portrays emotional states as little more than a chemical imbalance. The appeal is the supposed precision of organic medicine, and the confidence (and funding) this elicits from Government. But science is at its most persuasive when it is deductive, that is proven from universal laws. The biomedical model in psychiatry can’t claim this basis. Instead, it is inductive, often naively so, in that it infers universal laws from a number of observed cases. And even in these observed cases, say a depressed person being treated with medication, it is not certain what is being seen. While some symptoms seem to abate with antidepressants no one knows why. The notion that these drugs – SSRIs or selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors, like Prozac – function by influencing the concentration of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, in the brain, is a theory riddled with contradictions. Not only is there no causal, scientific evidence linking depression and serotonin levels, some drugs can alleviate depression, yet have little to do with the regulation of serotonin. Psychiatrists, as the Stanford anthropologist Tanya Luhrman, explains, are trained to identify suffering without being able to do much more than hand over a biomedical lollipop. This is the price the dominant discourse in mental health pays for seeing – allegedly scientifically – a category of illness, rather than a person: A patient is the category indicated by their symptoms. But psychiatric symptoms, which are descriptions of behaviour, are not from science, if that term is still true to its Latin root of scienta, or knowledge. They come from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – DSM 1V – whose categories are the outcome of haggling between interest groups. Rather than describe mental disorders, DSM 1V creates them, often because drugs are available to allegedly treat, and so define, them.

This is one battleground in which science and rationality are said to be central. I prefer another. It is the landscape in which language surprises, opening up secrets that are the real software of our life. Secrets, I came to realise, derive from fantasy, from rivalry, hatred and desire. Whether we like it of not, they are unconsciously passed on from one generation to another. My mother fashioned me out of a desire she did not understand and never explored. It was not the biological urge to reproduce, although that clearly accounted for my being born. My psychic existence, the thousands of tiny messages that I absorbed into something I called memory, reflected what was seen and heard. That is the family romance referred to earlier and it roars inside us.

My mother could not, as writers Virginia Woolf and Jeanette Winterson did, recast herself through words on a page. She stuck to her story and, in so doing, preserved faux memories. Science was wrong about acid rain, but there is no mistaking the corrosive effect of toxic memory. Unspoken they destroy us, as families of soldiers understand. But it is not enough to just open your mouth. As Freud found in the case of Dora, the first story is never true. Narrative truth and order are not indicative of what happened; they are a means of exchange.

This is what we do when we try to understand puzzles like memory: we exchange fragments of what occurred and what we wished for, invariably with attention directed towards who it is we imagine we are addressing, and that is seldom the person standing in front of us. It means going beyond the familiar story we call our history to unravel how we repeat what we don’t remember. Telephone digits that linger on in memory are like the flaws in love which require us to think more about our intentionality than we do about our pain.

Posted on 01 June 2013 in - Temenos Journal - Time

Peter Ellingsen

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