This is the fourth 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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One of the after-shocks set off by my breaking my leg the first time, when I was three, took the form of what I remember as the recurrent nightmare recounted in my immediately preceding post, a nightmare in which an axe-murderer was on the loose in our house, bent on the brutal murdering of my entire family. Then, thirty-eight years later, when I was forty-one and broke my leg a second time, that second episode set off reverberations in recollections of the recurrence of that old nightmare when I was a child. As I also recounted in my last post, those reverberations in and as my memory of that recurrent dream culminated before long in a flash of insight wherein I saw, at forty-one, that the axe-murderer of my childhood nightmare was none other than myself—in psychoanalytic terms the “projection” of the boiling rage the fist breaking of my leg set off in me, a projection of that rage onto and into my nightmare’s image of an axe-murderer.
The insight that the after-shock of breaking my leg the second time in 1987 brought me, insight into what had happened when I broke it the first time, way back in 1949, was that the only way the child I was at three when that first blow struck could process what was happening to him was, at least in large part, by such a projection outside himself of the rage with which he affectively responded to that blow at the time. To use one way of putting it, that child could not directly “own” his own rage. He could not “own up to it,” as we say. The reasons for that were complex, including some pertinent to the very idea of “primary” or “precocious” trauma, an idea I have explored a bit in some earlier posts.* But for my purposes here, I will leave such matters without further discussion, so that I can focus instead on something else—which is how what happened to me thirty-eight years later, when I broke my leg again, involved an interestingly parallel but very different “projection” on my part—significantly different from the one that occurred back when I broke my leg the first time.
In that second projection to go with the second time I broke my leg, in 1987, what in effect occurred was that the first projection, the one that came with the first time I broke my leg way back in 1949, got withdrawn and re-projected differently. As I have been explaining, in the initial incident and projection the child that I was at the time externalized the negative affect of rage, projecting it in and as the image of the axe-murderer in my childhood nightmare. What happened when I broke my leg again thirty-eight years later was, as it were, a taking back—an active withdrawal, in the same sense that we withdraw money from the bank–of that initial projection, with and in a new re-projection whereby what I experienced was transformed into positive affect.
That with-drawing re-projection thirty-eight years later of the first projection completed the latter, fulfilled it. As a man of forty-one I was at long last able to own and own up to what as a child of three I could not and, therefore, did not own and own up to. Thus—at last!—my leg finally broke once and for all. After that I was free—but only after that was I free—finally (!) to become (a process that is still ongoing to this day) who I had been all along. I will try to explain a bit more what I mean.
As I recounted in my last post before this one, by sheer luck and happenstance both the set and the setting in which I found myself in the summer of 1987 replicated the set and setting in which I had found myself in 1949 when I first broke my leg. To recapitulate what I already said along those lines in my preceding post: As there were three of us siblings playing during the incident in 1949, so were there three of us colleagues and friends serving as sibling-substitutes in the incident of 1987**; as there were two parents overseeing the activities of the three of us siblings in 1949, so were there two presiding figures to serve as parent-substitutes overseeing the enterprise in which we three sibling-substitutes were engaged in 1987. Finally, just as the incident of 1949, at least in its nearest after-shocks, involved an institution the day-to-day operation of which depended on the service of mostly-offstage nuns (a Catholic hospital), so did the incident of 1987 unfold in an institution serviced by mostly-offstage nuns (a place of retreat)–though of a different denomination, a difference that made no difference in terms of my twice-breaking leg.
I will let that suffice for my recap of parallels I’ve already mentioned in earlier posts. Now I will add some new ones that were just as important for what happened to me.
Another such parallel is that both incidents involved experienced abandonment for me. By speaking of “experienced” abandonment I mean to highlight that what matters is not whether the one undergoing such experience was “really” abandoned or only “thought” so; all that matters is that it was so experienced by that one. So, as I did in fact already recount in an earlier post, the first incident in 1949 involved for me an experienced abandonment at two points. At unconscious or at least pre-conscious levels I experienced my parents as somehow abandoning me to the physical pain of the initial breaking blow to my leg, and then repeating and deepening that abandonment by leaving me with all my pain in a hospital for ten days in traction. Well, in parallel with that first incident, the one in 1987 also included me experiencing myself as being abandoned by the two parent-substitutes involved. At the very heart of the abandonment in both cases what was at stake was feeling myself crucially left alone in torment by those whom I trusted to “take care of” me. The excruciating physical pain that went with the first incident, in 1949, was absent in the second one, in 1987. However, even in 1949 what most mattered in my experience was not the physical shock as such, as intense as it must have been, but the affective—“existential” would not be a bad word for it—shock of finding those I trusted for care not there for me, not pulling me out of my pain and rescuing me, but leaving me alone in it. In parallel, the pain in which I found myself in 1987 was the non-physical but nevertheless still excruciating pain of coming to feel publicly humiliated, as I perceived it, not only in the presence of the two “authority” figures I was trusting in, without them intervening on my behalf, but also, far worse, by their very hands—at least indirectly, insofar as I humiliated myself by my own behavior, but which behavior in turn was a matter of me doing just what I thought they were giving me to do. Beyond that, the details of the episode do not matter for my present purposes, any more than does the question of the “accuracy” of how I experienced things, at least in any usual sense of that term.
That experience of abandonment, of being left alone in torment, left alone there by the very ones in whom I deeply trusted and by whom I could never have expected to be so abandoned, was only half of the crucial parallel, however. Coupled with that sense of abandonment in both cases, 1949 and 1987, was a equally strongly experienced blockage and even prohibition of processing either episode in terms of attributing any betrayal on the part of those in whom I trusted, and who were so suddenly and shockingly abandoning me to deal alone with my own intense pain. That is, in neither case was blaming the parental authority figures for my torment involved, as though they were somehow at fault for it.
In the 1949 case, what blocked me from such blaming was, in effect, that it would have been even more traumatic for the child of three I was then to entertain the possibility of such deep perfidy on the part those whom I loved and on whose constant and continuing love for me I was utterly experientially dependent—my parents—than it was for me to find myself suddenly and shockingly left alone by them, abandoned to my pain. Betrayal by those parents, for the young child I was in 1949, was even less conceivable than abandonment itself—and would have been even more tormenting.
Nevertheless, even at three I needed some sort of “account” of what was happening to me—some way of making sense of it. The sense it turns out I made (as I came to see it, finally, thirty-eight years later) was to relate to my abandonment, in all its torment, as deserved punishment. Given the strictly unthinkable thought that my parents would betray me, which thought would have torn all ground out from under me and cast me in free-fall into a bottomless abyss, the only thought left for me to think was that all the blame was my own, in effect.
Thus, the axe-murderer of my nightmares did double-duty for me by coupling the externalization of all my un-feel-able rage, on the one hand, and embodying my own self-condemnation—read as an affectively effective sign, my axe-murderer image functions as a sort of performative utterence wherein I pronounced a sentence of condemnation upon myself, as I merited for being the monster I projected myself as being in that same image—on the other hand. I have always preferred stones that let one kill more than one bird at a time, and my axe-murderer was just such a stone. He let me finish off the very ones who loved me, and simultaneously in the very process enact my own condemnation to the hell where I belonged, thereby finishing my despicable self off as well. In him I washed my hands of myself, like Pontius Pilate.
Fast-forward to the incident of 1987. Because of the conditions under which I had, voluntarily after full and careful deliberation, delivered myself, in company with my two colleague-friends, into the care of the two parental-authority figures who ran things in the setting at issue that summer, the idea of those figures not measuring up to the very trust I was putting in them was finally as unthinkable to me as betrayal by my parents had been for me as a child of three in 1949. I had submitted myself to their authority because I was experientially convinced beyond a shadow of an existential doubt that they had what I had long been searching for, without ever even knowing it until by hap I found my way to them. Finding them, or what I thought was them, finding the liberation, the deliverance that I took them to be offering me, was–as I had said more than once to my two colleagues when we all three decided to turn ourselves together for a time over to their care and supervision in the first place–“like going home,” but to a home I’d never known I’d left, until I found my way back to it. As I have already remarked, the details do not matter for my present purposes. All that matters is that, as I have also already remarked, the possibility of perfidy on their part was no less inconceivable to me with my mindset in the setting at issue in my summer of 1987, than perfidious parents had been to me thirty-eight years before, in 1949.
Thus, on both occasions, 1949 and 1987, I found myself, experientially, in what R. D. Laing and others have called a “double-bind.” Alternatively expressed, on both occasions I found myself in a condition of radical “cognitive dissonance”—or what might better be called “existential dissonance,” perhaps. I was, to put it colloquially, in an insane situation. As a number of others have observed before me, when in an insane situation the only sane thing to do is to go insane oneself. That’s just what I did, on both occasions, but in two different ways—different, yet complexly interwined in compound ways, as though to fit the compound, complex fracture of my leg that had first put me in ten-days’ traction.
In 1949, my insanity manifested symptomatically in my dreams, and recurrently in a choice variety of apparently bizarre, repetitive behaviors for the next thirty-eight years. Then, in 1987, I went insane differently—this time not at night in my dreams, but in broad daylight and in full public exposure.
The closest I can come to saying what happened to me in the middle of my 1987 summer vacation is this: I went to spend a day in the absolute elsewhere of a psychotic episode—specifically, of a full-blown paranoid delusion. That, at least, is how I have always categorized it ever since then, and that is close enough for all my purposes. Beyond that, I am happy to leave it to experts to decide about the “objective accuracy” of that categorization, if any care to waste their expert time on the matter. For me, it more than suffices, at least provided that one interpret the notion of paranoia broadly—broadly enough to involve what I will call a “positive” form to go alongside the “negative” form that, in my impression at least, paranoia more usually tends to take.
In the case of my own paranoid delusion, I was indeed thoroughly convinced, beyond all possibility of doubt, that there was a massive conspiracy focused on me going on behind my back. However, whereas (by my impression) in most cases the conspiracy that the paranoiac discerns everywhere to be at work is aimed at doing him harm, in my own case in 1987 the conspiracy was wholly aimed at doing me good. I was convinced, at a visceral and immediately perceptual level that could only confirm itself more profoundly with each new affection or perception, not that the whole world was out to “get” me, but that all the world was out to help me. As delusions go, one could not ask for a better one, surely.
That is, in my 1987 delusion I projected upon the two parental authority figures at issue the entirely positive affects with which, on that occasion, I was overwhelmed and swept away no less than I had been by the thoroughly negative affects of pain and terror and responsive rage thirty-eight years before when I first broke my leg in 1949, and projected those negative affects into and as the nightmare image of an axe-murderer. What is more, when the echoes of the events of my 1987 summer vacation at last died away–which took till that fall, on my way to take my wife to the airport, as recounted in my preceding post—all of the so much louder and longer echoes of what had first happened to me way back in 1949 died away too. When the din of all those multiple soundings and re-soundings finally stopped, it restored to me the blessing of silence, and thereby let me hear clearly again anew—and feel that way as well. In the process of all the noisy sound and fury finally dying away, I found to my surprise that the very negative affects that I had only just then discovered to have owned me for so long had also themselves vanished. Along with all the idiotic sound and fury, the rage and terror and pain were gone. Those dominant, dominantly negative affects no longer affected me, at least not in any dominating way. They had all been taken back, withdrawn, as I said earlier in today’s post, from their so-long-standing projection into and as my nightmarish axe-murderer, and recast no longer as something experientially outside me, but rather recast upon me and into me, transformed from pain, terror, and rage into joy, delight, and gratitude.
Said differently, when all the bells and whistles at last stopped echoing in my ears, I was finally able to hear that something had been patiently and persistently knocking on my door for all the while that din had kept itself up. It was knocking still. And now I was at last able to answer the knock, and open the door, at least tentatively, given how drained the whole process had left me.
When I did open that door, who I found standing there no one but myself, at last delivered. My now at last fully broken leg had done the delivering. In the end, when it was finally done, breaking my leg gave me myself to be.
Accordingly, ever since I broke it the second time, I have been very grateful for my broken leg. How could I not be grateful, given that it delivered to me such a sudden, unexpected, unmerited gift? What is more, what difference does it make to me–or my gratitude—how long the giving took? So it took thirty-eight years from the rap on the door that first announced the delivery, plus some months more than three years before that since the gift was first sent my way (which by hap was on January 1, 1946, the day I was born), for a total of almost forty-two years (till well along into 1987) for the delivery to be completed in my reception of it from the hands of the delivery system—my long-breaking, at-last-broken leg. So what?
My broken leg delivered me doubly–at least. First, it delivered me in the sense that we say the mail-carrier delivers the mail: It brought me to my own door. But we also call the mother’s labors in bringing forth a child a delivery. In that sense, too, my broken leg delivered me. Indeed, in terms of birth and birthing, my broken leg both delivered me of myself, as a skilled midwife might deliver a mother “of” her child, and delivered me to myself, as the same midwife might deliver a child “to” its mother, perhaps even placing it in that mother’s arms, for her then to cherish and nurture.
In sum (at least for this post), the truth I was at last given to see one snowy morning in October 1987 talking with my wife on the way to the airport to deliver her in turn to her pending flight, was that the day I broke my leg was the luckiest day of my life. In my next post (unless it proves to be the one after that—it’s hard to predict such things), I will address the next day, the day after I broke my leg, which is the day I’ve been living in ever since (like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day—a trauma-trip of a movie, by the way).
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This series on How I Spent My 1987 Summer Vacation will be continued in my next post.
* Especially in the series of three posts I recently devoted to the work of French psychoanalyst Jacques André—the series that immediately precedes this current one on my summer of 1987.
** It is worth noting, as well, that the differences in age between the three of us involved together as friends in 1987 was roughly the same as that between my sister (about 10 years older than I, as is the elder of my two colleague-friends), my brother (about 3 years older than I, and a bit more than that for my second friend), and me. Another good fit!