This is the second 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. The incident at issue is my breaking of one of my legs when I was still a young child, then reliving the experience as an adult, years later, triggered by the chance coalescence of various circumstances at that time.
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When the leg I broke in 1949 as a three-year old came back to break a second time in 1987, what unfolded for me in my own experience through the course of the latter episode is what I can only describe as a sort of spontaneous “cure” of the sickness that had gripped me the whole while in between those two dates. I mean that in the sense of the notion of “cure” at issue in psychoanalysis. At least as I understand it, in Freud and his followers what is called a “cure” is the desired goal of psychoanalysis. It is the goal the reaching of which marks the whole course—sometimes a very prolonged course–of psychoanalysis, during a string of typically expensive therapy sessions, successful. By reason of reaching just that mark of success, the “cured” patient also now no longer needs continued therapy. Accordingly, the moment of becoming “cured,” that is, of reaching what therapeutic analysis aims at reaching, is also the moment when the analysis can be terminated, since after that—after being “cured”—there is no longer any need for, or point to, continuing analysis. Hence, as the end of analysis in the sense of its purpose, its point of success and fulfillment, “cure” is also the end of analysis in the sense of the point at which it ceases.
For me at the time and since, it was as if all the parties and circumstances involved in my summer vacation of 1987 conspired together to create for me an intense therapeutic setting. That setting, in turn, may as well have been designed in conspiracy to be ideally fitted to my own mental set at the time, the result being that the interactions between me and the other actors present in that setting at that time enacted, as it were, what may as well have been a play scripted in conspiracy in advance—a play about how, in my summer vacation of 1987, I finally got cured of the malady from which I had suffered for thirty-eight years (at least).
Had what happened been such a pre-scripted play, what the writers, whoever they were, would have written would have been a comedy, rather than a tragedy, to use those two classic categories broadly—and to take the two terms in their classic sense. By that sense, a tragedy is a play in which, to put it concisely, doom descends upon its heroic protagonist. Done well, it awakens fear and pity in appreciative spectators, as Aristotle taught, and sends them away cathartically cleansed to go on with their own (mostly un-heroic) lives, at least for a while, once the play is over. In contrast, a comedy is, in brief, a play with a happy ending for the protagonist, who not only does not need to be any sort of hero, but who in terms of the action of the comedic play necessarily is not one. Brought to completion in its happy ending, the successful comedy tickles and pleases the appreciative spectator. Then, once it is over, it sends that spectator away smiling, or at least with a lighter step, or a lightened burden of cares and concerns—at least for a while.
In my summer of ’87, hap and hazard so conspired that the interactions of all the actors, myself included, enacted, in effect, what may as well have been a classic comedy, with me as the protagonist. The play we all enacted on our shared stage, however, was the sort in which it remains uncertain to the spectator just what sort of play it really is—tragedy, comedy, or something else altogether—until the very end, when all the tensions of expectation generated up to that point are finally discharged, one way or another. That is, it wasn’t until the play ended well, that the spectator could conclude that all was well in it, and it turned out to have the happy ending required of comedies.
What is more, most of the actors involved actually remained ignorant of the fact that the play they had enacted was indeed a comedy, and not something else all together. That ignorance remains to this day, so far as I have any knowledge, for all but a few of those involved—myself, my two friends, colleagues, and co-actors, and possibly one or two others. As a matter of fact, it may only be I, the protagonist of this particular comedy, who ever really got the full joke, so to speak—that is, saw the depth of the comedic drift, the full happiness of the ending.
“I was cured,” as Alex, the protagonist, says at the end of Stanley Kubrick’s version of A Clockwork Orange–though in my mouth that line loses the wickedly biting irony which Kubrick has given it coming from Alex’s mouth in the film. I was “cured” not in that viciously ironic, vitiating sense, but in the sense that talk of “cure” must make in psychoanalytic therapy, if it is to make sense at all there: the Gordian knot that had bound me up till then was suddenly cut, and I was set free.
To use a different but equally apt analogy–apt to my mind, at least—what happened to me in my summer of 1987 was the same sort of thing that happens to “the woman caught in adultery” who is brought before Christ by an angry throng in the Christian Gospel story. The crowd brings her to Christ expecting him to condemn her yet again, as the crowd has already condemned her before (not to go any further back in the string of condemnations, most especially back to the self-condemnation rooted in her own adulterous behavior, as its hidden motive and wellspring)—and in that very condemnation doom her to bear forever the yoke of her sin. As is well known, the end of the story is something very different, something not at all expected. Far from ratifying her recurrent condemnation in a final, finalizing, authoritative repetition that would have sealed her doom forever, Christ sets her free from all such condemnation and its perpetual re-enactment of her bondage in sin. Instead of tightening the knot of her bondage, he severs the knot, and sets her free—free at last to “go, and sin no more.”
As Christ’s liberating word frees the woman caught in adultery from the trap of her own sin, so did the play in which I unexpectedly found myself acting in the summer of 1987 deliver to me the word that freed me from an endless round of neurotic repetitions of the return of my own “repressed.” Letting me break my leg “again” by re-enacting all the important “action” of the “first” time I broke it—“important” by the standard of contributing to the binding effect of the first break upon me, for years and years after the hip-cast in which I was bound initially after I first broke my leg had been removed—the re-incidence of that break thirty-eight years after its fist incidence at last “cured” me of breaking my leg again and again forever, and set me free to go and break it no more.
The details of the re-incidence of the break in 1987 are unimportant. All that is merely accidental, not at all essential to what really took place then. The actual circumstances of that summer just served to trigger the liberating re-incidence of my broken leg. They just provided the occasion for that final, finalizing event–the final fall of what till then had just kept endlessly falling time and again upon me–the fulfillment and completion of the initial incident (incident, from Latin in- “upon” and cadere “to fall”).
Accordingly, all that I need to do for my purposes here is to give a brief sketch of some crucial connections—or, really, symbolic unities, which is to say unities at the level of the emotional or affective dimension of experience, which is where trauma truly happens, then takes its proper place, with luck, when it comes back around again. That is, I will just sketch some of the structural links that allowed me, set up as an actor on the stage of the setting in which I found myself in the summer of 1987, to relive at the affective-emotional level the breaking of my leg in 1949 when I was three.
First, as there were three of us siblings involved in the original breaking of my leg in 1949, so there were three of us friends and colleagues—the combination of the two, friend and colleague, it’s worth noting, bringing in some of the same interplay of love/liking and hate/competition that are typically brought into relations between siblings–involved when I broke it again in 1987. Next, as there were a mother and father involved in the original episode, so was there a two-member team, one man and one woman, in comparably “parental” positions of authority in the situation in which I was involved with my two friends/rivals in the summer of ’87. Furthermore, just as there was a hospital run by nuns in which I came to be sequestered in 1949 with my first break, so was there an institution run by nuns (not a hospital this time—but what it was does not really matter) in which all the actors in the play that got enacted with me as protagonist in 1987 were sequestered together. What is more, the isolation into which I was cast by the breaking of my leg the first time, leading as it did to my parents leaving me alone in full traction on a hospital bed all by myself, was replicated in 1987 (as I shall explain a bit more fully in my next post) when–as a result of my underlying sickness going public all of a sudden, in effect–all those present (at least all except my two friends), most especially including the two parent-authorities running the show, cut me a wide birth, as the animals that we all are tend to do, no doubt for sheer survival’s sake, whenever one of us comes down ill amidst all the others.
Thus, just as effectively as if it had truly been intentionally created by a group of conspirators, the setting in which I found myself in the summer of 1987 was ideally suited to provide me all I needed to relive the breaking of my leg years before, in 1949. That opportunity was as such also, at long last, the opportunity for my broken leg finally to heal after all those years, and for me to be cured of it. Thus did the play in which I, without even knowing it, had been acting the role of the protagonist finally, at its very end—and to my own happy surprise as that protagonist—turn out to be a comedy.
What a relief! Up till then I had all along figured, in effect, that my whole life I’d been caught up in what was, at best, a poorly written soap opera!
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In my next post I will continue my exploration of how I broke my leg a second time.