This is the fifth in a series of what will be seven 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 I was three and the shock-waves set off in me by the first breaking of my leg began rolling over me on a rising tide—and began rolling me over and over right along with them—what I most needed to feel was that something would hold me safe till the tide finally ebbed, and then continue to hold me safe lest I be swept out to sea with the tide’s retreat. For me as the child I was at three, that so necessary sense of security came from my blind trust in my parents being there to pull me through. Only by clinging to them and my own certainty of their ongoing love and power to keep me safe by enacting that love, was I able to survive the tidal flood—or at least so it was for me in my world at three.
My parents were not perfect, but they were good enough. As a wisdom I later learned from reading David Winnicott, the founding-figure of “object-relations” theory and therapy in psychoanalysis, has it, that means they were parents of the very best kind. My parents never read Winnicott, nor, so far as I know, ever even heard of him. For that, I am also grateful, since I also learned from Winnicott that one very effective way of failing to be good enough parents is deliberately trying to be that very thing, rather than just mucking around as best one can with the bewildering business of child-rearing. As Pope Gregory the Great wrote of Saint Benedict, the father of Latin Christian monasticism, my parents were “wisely uneducated” with regard to all such matters of parenting. By not even trying to be good enough parents, but just doing the best they could, they did everything I could have asked for, if I’d had the wisdom to know what that might be, which I didn’t (which in turn let me be a good enough son, I still have good reason to hope, years after my parents both died).
By failing to be perfect parents my parents wisely proved to be just what I needed when I broke my leg the first time. In their fumbling and bumbling love for me they made it a point to protect me from the truth, by telling me lies about how I broke my leg, beginning when I first broke it. I am especially grateful to them for that lie, for without it I would never have found myself in the double-bind that engendered my nightmare projection whereby I was able to preserve the illusion that was absolutely indispensible to me at the time. If I was not to drown in the waves of the rising tide of the shock of breaking my leg, I needed at three to believe that I had not only loving parents, but skillful one’s as well—so skillful that they may as well have been all powerful, that is, skillful enough to keep me safe from all possibilities of accidents ever happening to me. Had I had to confront the reality of their utter ineptitude at playing the divine role that my childhood, in common with every other, required them to fill, I would actually have lost what eventually proved to be my best chance ever to become hale and whole “this side of the grave,” as Gregory Bateson says. By closing all my exits, save that of my own dreams, my parents’ well-intentioned lie gave me that chance. Paradoxically, in that sense their lie proved to be not only well-intentioned but also utterly successful: It hit its mark. That is, their genuinely loving intention toward me (and no less toward my brother and sister, for that matter) fulfilled itself above and beyond all their own expectations, not despite but through their very ineptitude as divinities. (I cannot speak for my brother and sister, and I do not know whether the arrow of our parents’ love has yet found its mark for them. I can only speak for myself in saying that the thirty-eight years it took my leg finally to finish breaking taught me to trust that it eventually will find its mark, one side of the grave or the other.)
That may just be how divinity itself works: through the stumbles and fumbles of its wonderfully inept agents, rather like how otherwise unsolvable mysteries somehow got solved through the egregious missteps and pratfalls of the doltishly incompetent Inspector Clouseau in the old Pink Panther movies. At any rate, as it turns out I had had an insight to that effect five years before I broke my leg the second time. It came to me while I was sitting on a beach with my wife in Mazatlan Mexico in February, 1982, working on my second Pacifico beer of the day, but I had no way to hold onto the insight and build it into my life—or, rather, my life into it, to be more precise—at the time. Only in 1989, when I broke my leg again, was I able to begin that construction project, one which is still underway. So I will return to that leg and its breaking here, and leave the story of my Mazatlan weekend till another time, perhaps in some later post to this blog.
To return to my broken leg, as a child of three when I first broke my leg I was fortunate enough to have been given a good enough rearing by good enough parents to that point in my life that I was able to take the chance that my parents’ bumbling lie gave me. That the lie was a bumbling one was obvious even then, when they first told it. After all, I was there at the time I broke my leg, so lying to me about it could not possibly work. At least it could not work, unless by my own unconscious connivance I myself compensated for my parents’ incompetence at lying. Thanks to my good enough development to that point, my unconscious actually generously granted my parents’ lie its chance. I unconsciously (as it had to be, to work at all) took my opportunity to become an accomplice in my own mystification. I took it by projecting into a nightmare image the very rage that otherwise, had our laughable conspiracy to lie not given me the opportunity to take such a way out (the only way out of a situation in which every way out had been blocked to me: the way of going crazy, in short), would have consumed me. Without that nightmare, that rage would have had no other choice than to direct itself toward my parents, now exposed to me as the false gods they really were. Had that happened, it would have cut the ground out from under the illusion that—as Nietzsche says is true of all truth, I might note—was indispensable for me to maintain around myself, if I was not to vanish in the waves of my own shock.
To use another way of putting the point, it was only by enacting, all unknowingly, a “disownment” of myself at the level of my own affective response to my own experience, enacting it by “projecting” what would otherwise have become a self-consuming rage toward my parents and the world at large “outside” myself and into my nightmare image of an axe-murderer stalking my family and me, that I was able not to let myself know the “reality” of my situation—a knowledge which I could not let myself know, if I was fully, and still in some sense whole, to survive the very “reality” such knowledge would have revealed to me. My projection of all that negative affect into and upon my axe-murderer gave me the only viable chance I had left for not dying of my broken leg.
Only because my parents were no more than good enough to let me get by well enough by hiding myself under the covers from myself by projecting the disowned part of myself into the axe-murderer I hid from in my nightmare, was I given enough sense of security—paradoxically put, the sense of security that only the illusion of security could have given me at that age—to keep on bumbling through on my own for the next thirty-eight years. Only thus was I able to keep bumbling along until at last, in the summer of 1987, the combination of set and setting I found myself in finally gave me a good chance of coming out of hiding from myself. On that second occasion, too, by my good hap my unconscious once again took its opportunity: It withdrew the nightmare projection of negative affect it gave me in my childhood, and recast it as the waking, daytime delusion that my parent-substitutes at the time were so filled with all-embracing love, humility, wisdom, and skill that for all intents and purposes they were divinities. The necessary, Nietzschean-truth of an illusion that manifested initially in the projection of a dream-image that let me disown my own negative affect had to be taken back and projected anew, this time not in dreams but in delusion, and this time not of dark, obscure, negative things but of bright, gleaming positive ones. The illusion of parental perfection that was protected by the nighttime projection of some horrible something stalking me in my dreams to do me untold harm was recalled, like a automobile in which a defect has been discovered, then corrected and sent back to me again, now become the daytime delusion of in reality being guided by a parental pair effectively exercising a boundless care toward me that knew my own deepest good and how to help me find my way to it. Caught in the very throws of my delusion in 1987, I could not but be awed before the utter humility of such selfless love as I then projected to be operative within my two main benefactors—and, indeed, by the entire conspiracy that I in delusion perceived to be operative around me, a conspiracy that included my two colleague-friends who were with me in our shared enterprise at the time.
Nor was that, the recall of a dream-projection of a deadly threat and its conversion into a delusional projection of a life-bestowing love, the end of the process—the long, thirty-eight-year process of breaking my leg at last, clean through. Rather, the end came, at least in the first of the clock-strikes announcing its hour, only at the close of that whole delusional day in 1987. It came when the delusion of that day in 1987, the very delusion that had come to replace the nightmare of that much earlier day in 1949, was itself recalled, withdrawn, taken back. It came, that is, when I finally came out of my delusion and “reconnected with reality,” as the saying go.
Utterly appropriately, given the slapstick comedy in which we were all acting, as it turned out, I came out of that delusion only thanks to the bumbling, fumbling efforts of my two clueless friends to help me. Neither of them had any idea how in the world, or out of it, one might break through such a blissfully self-reinforcing delusion of bliss as I was lost in. Everything they tried—whatever they said or did in hopes of somehow helping me regain my sanity—just became more grist for further grinding in the bliss-producing mill of my delusion. The harder they tried to free me from that delusion, the more it tightened its grip upon me. Yet they kept on trying. They did not leave me alone, as virtually everyone else (my two reluctant parent-substitutes included) certainly at least tried to do, walking wide paths around me, as animals—which we all are, of course, by our good hap–will instinctively (and without any malice whatever) do around an ill one of their kind, to avoid infection themselves by whatever has infected that one. Too blinded themselves, no doubt, by their friendly concern for me to give room for that healthy instinct of self-preservation to do its usual salvic work, my two friends did not abandon me. They stayed with me. They kept me company.
That is what saved me. Or, rather, that is what became the delivery system for my own delivery from delusion. My two friends just stayed with me, accompanying me–mainly as we walked endlessly around with one another, with no destination beyond the walking itself. Had they mounted attacks upon the fortress of my delusion, they would have succeeded only in strengthening it further, as I have already indicated. Happily, for my sake, they had no idea how to go about launching such attacks. So in their concerned befuddlement they just kept walking with me—and talking while we walked, and listening to me as I talked, which I did a lot.
As already articulated, when I broke my leg in childhood I projected into and upon a nightmare image the negative affects that, had they been allowed fully to affect me when I was three and first broke my leg, would have utterly incapacitated me. Then, thirty-eight years later, when at the emotional level I relived that childhood breaking of my leg, that earlier nightmare projection was effectively taken back or retrieved and completely recast in terms of purely positive affects. What is more, both the initial projection of negative affects and the later retrieving re-projection wherein those affects were transformed into positive ones were two moments or phases of one and the same overall process. That is, it stands between those two projections just as Freud says it finally stands between what he called the “negative” effect of trauma (numbing, dissociation, distancing, or “going into shock” in the face of trauma) and its “positive” effect (the “return of the repressed” in symptomatic, compulsively repetitive behaviors): in the final analysis, both are actually just the two sides of one and the same single process—that process which is itself the processing of the trauma as such.
However, as also already indicated, the entire traumatic process as such is not yet over, once it reaches that second stage of projection, the stage at which the initial projection gets recalled/transformed/re-projected, as occurred for me when I broke my leg “again” in 1987, thirty-eight years after I broke it “the first time” in 1949. Rather, the culmination and end—the final fulfillment–of the entire overall traumatic process of breaking my leg, to which both the “first” and the “second” times I broke it belong, occurs only when the “second” recalling-transforming re-projection of the “first” projection is itself recalled and thus, since the projection and the re-projection are both one and the same process (just as Freud’s “negative” and “positive” effects of trauma are, as he says, really part of one and the same overall traumatic effect), the entire projection that unfolds in that two-stage way gets recalled, in the sense of crossed-over, cancelled, or annulled.
Thus, for example, when in my own case the whole traumatic process—the whole “trauma as such”–was finally allowed to reach its culmination and fulfill itself, it ended up retrieving–withdrawing, taking back–both projections, not only the initial, “negative” one of my nighttime dream but also the subsequent “positive” one of my daytime delusion, and canceled or annulled them both together, crossing them over. Moreover, once the whole double-projection process was finally cancelled out, something was left behind—something fine, like a treasure left behind on the beach by a flood-tide once it finally ebbs away.
More precisely put, at last something that during all those years had been able to show itself to me only in tantalizing glimpses flashed, as it were, through flickering, unstable, subliminal images, was finally allowed to come to the fore, to manifest itself in a clear, focused, stable figure or form. At last, what had been struggling to form itself into a steady figure for all those years finally succeeded in con-figuring itself. What had really been there all along, the whole “sense” of what had been happening to me throughout all that time, stood revealed: the one simple truth of the whole process, of the whole traumatic event itself as such–“what it was all about,” what it “meant.”
What was that truth? In once sense, that is easy to say, and countless voices have said it throughout history, in an inexhaustible variety of ways. It was the truth, to put it in one of my own ways, that the only real security lies in giving up all illusions that one is ever really secure, which means giving up those very illusions that it was necessary to maintain around oneself for so long, until one was secure enough to give them up.
It comes down to this, that only when one is secure enough to give up all illusions of ever being secure enough, does one suddenly come to find that just that—the simple, unvarnished, dis-illusioned truth of one’s radical, ineradicable in-security–is always security enough, and indeed more than enough. Good enough is good enough, but only when we can succeed in letting it be what it is, do we find it good enough for us—and then, to our surprise, we find that finding to be so much more than merely enough for us. We find to our delight that good enough is good galore, that it is a super-abundance of good, more than enough to go around for all, giving each an overabundance of good in turn, of itself overflowing our hands and into the hands of others, sharing itself out in equal, immense portions to everyone, without anyone ever even having had to try to share it.
Our great good luck is that we are all finally without defense against what threatens us, whatever form that threat may take. But just as lottery winners must still show up to claim their prizes before they receive their winnings, so must we all still abandon the illusion that we can somehow secure ourselves against what threatens us, whatever that is, if only we manage well, as it were. We must abandon those illusions—or, rather, we must be brought to abandon them, since we can’t even manage that ourselves—before we can finally see what’s really been there all along, which is that no security is good enough security, and not only good enough, but ever so much more than that.
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My next two posts will complete this series on how I spent my 1987 summer vacation.