This is the first of a series of posts using an autobiographical incident to explore some connections between trauma, memory, human community, and social-political institutions in the broadest sense.
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When I was three years old, I broke my leg. Thirty-eight years later, I broke it again—sort of.
I broke my leg at three in the sense that it I was the one whose leg was broken, not in the sense that I was the breaker. There really was no “breaker” as such. No one did it to me. It just happened. It was an accident.
I am the youngest of three siblings. My sister is ten years older than I; my brother, three. Early one Saturday evening way back in childhood, we three were playing together in our father’s “den”—that is, the one-time dining room that he had converted for use to hold a desk with our telephone on it, along with a desk chair and a few other odd pieces of office-like furniture–while our parents were getting ready to take the whole family to the movies. At one point in our rough-housing together, my brother, six at the time, pushed me. We had a German Shepherd dog named Duke, who was possessive and protective of us, and never far away from us when we were at home with him. He was there lying on the floor as we played, and when my brother pushed me, I tripped over Duke. The result was a compound, complex fracture. It put me in the hospital for ten days flat on my back, with my legs up in traction. Though my family is not Catholic, it was a Catholic hospital, staffed by nurse-nuns.
Ever since I can remember, I’ve always known that I broke my leg at three. But I always knew it second hand. Moreover, it was not until I broke my leg again thirty-eight years later that I found out the real story of what happened that night when I was three. It was not until then that I discovered my parents had misrepresented the whole thing over all the intervening years. They had made up a story—intending, I am sure, to spare both me and my poor brother what they no doubt perceived as the pain that knowing the truth might bring us–that became the official, sanctioned family account of the incident. By that family myth, there was no push to implicate my brother. Nor did Duke share, however unintentionally, in any blame by lying there for me to trip over him. Rather, I supposedly went to the kitchen, good little boy that I was (of course), to fetch a facial tissue for one of the adults in the living room (my paternal grandfather and his second wife helped play the adult roles in the official family story, along with my parents). While I was returning to the living room with the tissue, as the myth had it, I tripped over a jump-rope we kids had left lying on the floor in the den, through which I had to pass on my way. I fell and broke my leg. The jump-rope was to blame.
No memories of my own ever gave me reason to contradict that officially sanctioned, well-intentioned lie. I have no ordinary memories at all of the incident itself. I remember nothing of our siblings’ play, or of my brother pushing me, me falling over Duke, the breaking of my leg, the pain, or even being in the hospital as such. I do remember coming home from the hospital, with a full cast to the hip; and I remember when that cast eventually came off, cut off me by our family physician in his office. That even includes an olfactory remembrance of the rank stench my own flesh gave off, when it was finally set newly open to the air again after its long time under the plaster of the cast. But I have never had any recollection, at least in the ordinary sense, of the traumatic event itself, the breaking of my leg and my consequent hospitalization, taken there by my parents to be left all alone in the hands of unknown nuns.
By recollection “in the ordinary sense” I mean eidetic recollection, memory manifesting itself in the form of representational images (regardless of whether those images are “true” or “false,” as such notions are usually understood—a matter I have pursued before at this blog-site, but one not directly pertinent here). I have never had any eidetic recollection of the traumatic event I suffered when I broke my leg at three. Eventually I did have, however, an emotional recollection of that event—or what might fruitfully be thought of as a re-construction of it, at the affective level, as I will return to later. That, however, brings me to when I re-broke my leg thirty-eight years later, when I was forty-one.
That second time I broke my leg gave me no new broken bones. It was not a second time I broke my leg in that sense–the sense in which, for example, one might at one time break one bone, then years later break another bone, or even break the same bone again, maybe re-breaking it at exactly the same place. That latter sort of thing has also happened to me, as it turns out. When I was seventeen I had a bad automobile accident in which, among other things, I broke my left clavicle. The doctors elected not to put a pin in the bone, then reconnect it at the point of the break. Instead, they put my arm in a sling and left the collarbone alone to mend itself, resulting in a bit of a bulge where the mending occurred, because of a slight overlap of the two bone-parts there, and an all but unnoticeable slump to my left shoulder. Well, just five years ago I had a bicycle-accident in which I broke the same clavicle again, at the same spot, the weakness there helping the break along.
But the second time I broke my leg was not like that. It was not another break, either of another bone, or of the same bone again, even at the same point as the first break. Rather, it was, I would like to say, literally and numerically the very same break happening again, for a second time, the repetition of one and the same break, its coming back to strike again. What happened that second time, when I broke my leg again, was that the impact of the trauma that first struck me when I was three finally registered, as it were. Only then, when it struck “again” thirty-eight years after it struck at first –only then, in the shock of that long delayed “after-shock” of that first shock itself, to use a term that appropriately alludes to my immediately preceding series of three posts, on the work of French psychoanalyst Jacques André—did it finally get recorded. Only then, in that so belated after-shock when I was forty-one, did what had happened, setting itself in play by hap, all those years ago when I was three and broke my leg, finally take place.
When I broke my leg again in 1987 I remembered what I could not possibly have remembered before then, for the simple reason that it had not yet taken place—and did not take place until I thus remembered it. Strange memory, indeed–one that remembers something that has never taken place before it gets remembered! Just what sort of memory is that–a memory that creates the very event it remembers?
The answer I propose to that question is, to give it an initial formulation, that the sort of memory in question–the sort that is genuinely a creative memory, in which it is “remembering” itself that first actively constructs or builds the place for the event that gets “remembered” finally and literally to take, so that the very occurrence or happening of that event, its e-venting or coming forth, can complete itself, as it were—is, in short, traumatic memory. It is the memory of trauma, the form to which any memory must con-form, if it is to be a memory of a trauma. Once again I will use my own experience of recollecting, in the summer of 1987, a traumatic event from my early childhood to elaborate.
As I have already said, I have no eidetic memories, no memories in the form of visualize-able images, of what happened to me when I broke my leg in 1949 at the age of three, nor did my experience of recollecting or remembering that event years later in 1987 involve any such images. However, as I have also already said, in 1987 I emotionally or affectively remembered that earlier event. In a sense, in 1987 I relived the experience or lived through it again. I lived through it again in the same sense that is at issue in the phenomenon of “transference” in the theory and practice of psychoanalysis.
In and at the stage of “transference,” the patient, the one being analyzed, unconsciously comes to relate to the analyst in the same way the patient originally related to those at whose hands, or at least while among whom, the patient first suffered whatever it was that, through the analysis itself, eventually emerges as what underlies the neurosis or mental-behavioral issue that brought the patient to seek help through psychoanalysis to begin with. In transference, the patient “projects” upon the analyst emotions originally felt toward the patient’s parent or other significant person who was the focus of the symptom-originating earlier situation—most typically the emotions involved in a love-hate relationship. So projecting, the patient “relives” the originating situation again, this time in the therapeutic setting of analysis. By so reproducing the originating situation within the analytic setting—at least so psychoanalytic theory and practice hold—the patient, with the help of the analyst, has the opportunity to find some way to resolve the problem that, in the originating situation, exceeded all the patient’s capacities to resolve it.
It is only if and when psychoanalytic therapy reaches that stage of “transference,” that such an opportunity, one of resolving something theretofore irresolvable, opens up. Thus, only if and when that stage is reached does there emerge the very opportunity of any psychoanalytic “cure” occurring, and therewith of the prolonged analysis itself proving to be “successful”
In my summer vacation of 1987, I took part, along with two of my colleagues who were also personal friends, with a number of other individuals from diverse places and backgrounds and whom my two friends and I had never met till then, in a joint project over a period of days. By pure serendipity, the setting and the dynamics of the group involved, conjoined with my own mindset in relation to the group and our shared task, ended up creating an opportunity for me to go through something analogous to psychoanalytic transference, and to go through it “successfuly.” That is, in the same sense as that at issue in such transference, what I did in my summer vacation of 1987 allowed me to relive the breaking of my leg as a child thirty-eight years before that, in 1949. And in my case, the “analysis”—that is, the equivalent, altogether outside of any therapeutic analysis at all, of such analysis—proved to be “successful.” That is, my later re-experience of my broken leg of many years before proved to be one in which I did not just break my leg again, but was able this time finally to heal that break, which until then had never been properly mended, without me or anyone else even knowing it. I’d been limping around all those years with an un-attended broken leg without anyone, including me, ever even noticing I had a limp, let alone that my leg-bone still needed proper mending. It was only when I “re-broke” it in 1987 that I was at last “cured” of my broken leg of 1949.
Lest I create a fall impression, or engender an expectation doomed to undergo frustration, let me add that I still limp. It’s just that I now limp differently.
It may take me a while to explain.
To be continued in my next post.