Dreams at the Interface of Personal and Collective Trauma

Courtesy of Gregory Pagano

Currently trauma is often defined, less in terms of the personal (the individual), and more in terms of the collective (the social-political) with its potentially insidious soul-destroying qualities. This is Maria Root’s concept of everyday or “insidious trauma.” Root, here is referring to the “traumatogenic effects of oppression,” racism, marginalization, and hegemony.

Presently, psychoanalysts recognize the resulting condition of psychic paralysis that exists in an individual exposed to collective psychic trauma. Such individuals are said to have a psyche colonized by collective and colonial imperatives, including the internalized attitudes of cultural inferiority. (Fanon, 2008)[1] This internalization often entails “the loss of an unnamable domain…which one might…mistake for constitutional exile.” (Kristiva,1982)[2]

Constitutional exile (the feeling of being set adrift, disoriented, and disconnected from oneself) produces one of the most damaging aspects of psychic trauma. This is the loss, of a connection to one’s interiority, and access to a creative unconscious that can provide the psychic space for the reparation and reconstitution of internal processes, impacted by trauma. The result is a devastating inhibition in the growth of awareness of the extent of the psychic injury, and above all, a loss of a linking to one’s autonomy and agency that could provide the psychic space for repair.

Many schools of psychoanalysis emphasize the power of the unconscious in the healing of a socially traumatized psyche. Some point to dreams for bringing a more detailed map of the psychic territory impacted by the trauma, and exposing the linkages to other vulnerable places within the individual. In this context, Jung offers what he terms “The Spirit of the Depths,” [3] an aspect of psyche, composed of both conscious and unconscious processes, available through our dreams, that offers a space of reflection, born of an understanding of the images that flow from the unconscious.

It is this force, according to Jung, that offers the vision to unshackle both an individual life and also provides the symbols that offer recovery from the impact of a culture that may be tumultuous, disorienting, and assaultive to its members’ autonomy. These kinds of dreams can prove fertile for the personality, enabling it to move creatively forward, reacquiring or transforming inadvertently overlooked parts of the self, and linking them to those encapsulated by the trauma.

It follows, that our dreams, once embraced, can provide, one way, that we can return from a place of exile, homelessness, rootlessness, and powerlessness, and help reinstate the inalienable rights denied by a corrosive, society. Our dreams can offer us entrance into the psychic space that we can call “home,” a home that offers acquaintance with what is essentially ours, initiating autonomy from what has been destructively imposed. Freedom, redemption, depth of feeling and understanding of the world around us, and ourselves, is intimately connected to keeping the door ajar to this psychic space.

There are some dreams that appear to be specifically commenting on the “Spirit of the Times”—the impact of the social context—the collective—and at the same time seem to be commenting on the personal. These dreams offer the special gift of shedding light on both the distinction between the personal and the political, and their juncture, giving insight to their linkage, and their impact on each other.

I have termed this type of `dream, “dreams at the interface.” Although not all dreams prompt a feeling that they are commenting on the “Spirit of the Times” as well as personal complexes and issues of the individual dreamer, Lama Z. Khouri in her poignant essay “Buried Neck Deep” in Room 10-18.5[4] offers just such a dream and gives us the opportunity to study the linkage between the personal and political in some detail.

As we explore Khouri’s dream we will see how the personal and political have interacted to produce her current experience. The dream, itself, with its message understood, can help her restore generativity and choice in her psyche, a psyche that she describes as impacted through her identification as a Palestinian (a people, both colonized and abandoned by other Arab countries, their plight overlooked) and having a profound emotional connection to, and understanding of the people of a village in Gaza symbolically (and literally) described by her as an “open-air prison.”

It is almost impossible, not to pause, as one attempts to absorb the catastrophic and emotive power of the image, which is center stage in Khouri’s dream, dreamed 12 years ago, when her son was age 4, and now again is rising to consciousness. It seems that such an image can only emerge from a psyche that has had the primary experience, and in addition been a primary witness to, the insidious traumatogenic power of oppression. The dream imagery carries forward to her consciousness and ours the soul-destroying aspects of collective trauma.

However, it is important to note, that dreams rarely restate what the dreamer already knows, their gift is always to be our most informing friend, constantly surprising, urging us to notice shadow aspects of ourselves, existing, in the darkened areas of our psyche. Focusing on these areas, clarifies linkages, and assumptions that may give us the capacity to unlock doors to internally, and externally constructed prisons.

It is this aspect of Khouri’s dream that we look to for the vision to unshackle her personal complexes, and issues that have arisen in relationship to her collective experience of trauma. These personal issues can be just as catastrophic and immobilizing, left unnoticed, as the original collective psychic trauma. In addition, when the collective and personal aspects of the trauma are not sorted, their interaction can dramatically intensify psychic pain.

In addition, when such a powerful dream image rises to the surface of consciousness yet a second time, it carries the suggestion that there must be something important that Khouri needs to notice. Perhaps it might possess the quality of the “unthought known” of Christopher Bollas[5]. a “thought” that is existent in one’s psyche, but its poignant and transformational power makes it impossible to process.

She writes:

Lately, a dream I had twelve years ago has been coming back to me. I dreamt that my four-year-old son (he’s sixteen now) was buried neck deep in the middle of a neighborhood and surrounded by modest houses. Passersby would kick his face, but he remained silent, as if the kicks were part of life and not to be contested — as if, to survive, he needed to keep his mouth shut.

She explains:

This dream has had many meanings for me. Twelve years ago, I thought my four-year-old son in the dream was me: buried in a failed marriage with nowhere to go. Of late, my son in the dream has become the Palestinian people: “You either capitulate or we will continue to beat you to the ground.” Their struggle for freedom is terrorism, children throwing rocks are arrested or killed, many young adults have no hope —

Although many of the assumptions and images in the dream may seem resonant to, and even a result of living intimately connected to a colonized nation, it is important to note that there are many assumptions in the dream that are stated as “just so” aspects of life, and it may be those that the dream seems to be opening up for consideration and questioning. I have noted these in bold above.

Are kicks in the face part of life and not to be contested? The dream figure acts “as if” this is true He acts as if to survive, he needs to keep his mouth shut. Is it true that in orderto survive, one must remain silent?

Khouri says, at first, she thought the dream image was her, buried in a failed marriage with no place to go. However, one can be buried in a failed marriage without being silenced and kicked in the face, and buried neck deep with no efficacy, no motility other than the voice.

She says, later that she felt that the dream image reflected the reality of the Palestinian people. However, one can be oppressed, harassed, socially imprisoned, and impacted by the Israeli’s abuse without assuming kicks are part of life, and not to be contested, or without assuming that abuse is normal.

Most centrally one can be in an oppressive marriage, and/or oppressed by an aggressive nation, and still not decide in order to survive one must keep their mouth shut. The dream describes a certain conscious orientation to reality, certain assumptions about life, and what one needs to do in order to survive, and it shows the dream figure “buried up to the neck” in these assumptions, and immobilized by them. It appears to me that it is these assumptions that allow the dream figure no “wiggle room,”  and that it may be these assumptions, left unquestioned, that have accumulated to construct his “open-air prison.”

It appears that it is not the collective trauma itself that has destroyed the dream figure’s power, and autonomy. Rather it is these assumptions about life that has the dream figure catastrophically and hopelessly mired. The dream figure has no wiggle room in relation to the assumption that abuse is a normal part of life; that there is a normal and natural connection between abuse, and the inability to act; that the connection between abuse and silent acceptance is normal; and that silence, and immobility are the only survival techniques. Above all, the dream appears to be attempting to bring to the consciousness of the dreamer a new option—the possibility of questioning the wholesale truth of the powerful phase—”You  either capitulate or we will beat you to the ground.” 

It appears that the dream is here now, or 12 years ago, and is remembered, again, to continue its dialogue with her. The dream specifically throws light on these assumptions, and opens them to reflection.

Khouri, concludes her essay with these thoughts:

It is not enough for me to hold and contain the client’s pain. I need to do what I can to change their sociopolitical environment.

Impacted by the powerful image in her dream, I would also add that Khouri may notice dream images of her clients, or thoughts and associations that demonstrate personal vulnerabilities and narratives, that exist in their personal psyche in relationship to the larger collective trauma. Bringing these to consciousness, differentiating the power imposed from the outside, from the power given to the outside through internal personal assumptions, and personal narratives, giving the link between the two, heat, focus, and conscious reflection, may bring these “just so” assumptions to awareness, and create a greater inner sense of personal choice for her clients.

Footnotes

  1. Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, (London, United Kingdom: Pluto Press, 2008). 
  2. Julia Kristeva, (Leon S. Roudiez, Trans.) Powers of Horror; An Essay on Abjection, (Columbia University Press,1982). 
  3. Jung, CG, “Liber Primus,” The Red Book, (New York and London, W.W. Norton and Company, 2009), 241.
  4. Room-18.5: A Sketchbook for Analytic Action. (2018) Iptah.org (analytic-room.com)
  5. Christopher Bollas, The Shadow of the Object: Psychoanalysis of the Unthought Known (New York, Columbia University Press, 1987).

Joan Golden-Alexis, Ph.D. is a Jungian psychoanalyst and psychologist in New York City. Her practice consists of individuals as well as couples. (drjoangolden@gmail.com)


 

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Written in the Flesh—The Transformational Magic of the Tattoo

 

To tattoo one’s body is merely one of the thousand ways of conjugating the verb ‘to be’ that fundamental concept of our metaphysics—Michael Thévos

 What lies deepest of all in man, is the skin—Paul Valery

 

In the last several decades both in academic circles and as a method of healing, analytic psychotherapy and psychoanalysis, with its central focus on the unconscious and the multilayered psyche, has decreased in popularity. Seemingly, reflective of the current zeitgeist, cognitive therapy with its narrow focus of symptom reduction, has taken the lead. In the popular therapeutic discourse, symptom relief, has replaced symbolical understanding of the symptom—the symptom understood as an access point to unconscious and potentially transformative aspects of the personality.

In contrast, tattoos, and other forms of body modification, as a method of healing (having been utilized for centuries to cure arthritis, to express autonomy, and to connect with higher and sacred curative powers), have increased in popularity. Seemingly reflective and reinforcing of a zeitgeist which emphasizes the innate metaphysic of becoming and memorializing that metaphysic on the surface of the body, tattoos have made an explosive impact. Currently, tattoos creep like vines on the arms, legs and torsos of many, unabashedly and comfortably crossing gender, educational and social barriers.

In fact, ink art has exploded, and now according to research studies 15 to 38 percent of Americans have some kind of long-term body art. What was once considered self-mutilating behavior and a psychiatric problem has now become the cure. Body art is on the move, and for the first time in history American women are more likely than men to get tattooed; 23% have tattoos as compared to 19% of men; and 14% of men and women have two or more. It is a now a credible hypothesis, that the increase in body modifications have arisen to fill the vacuum left by the loss of a symbolic and metaphorical connection to the unconscious.

Tattooing and the process of tattooing brings the emphasis back to the body, the skin, and most directly to the multi-layered psyche as a focus of interest. In fact, except for psychoanalysis, little in my opinion more directly connects the body, and corporality to interiority and the Self, than various forms of body modification. Privileging the body, always privileges psyche; modifying the body, often awakens and strengthens linkages between consciousness, and the unconscious psyche.

Although many express the importance of the surface appeal of their tattoos, rarely does the narrative end at that point. Most, who tell their stories, weave an intricate connection between the tattoo of choice, the story of its healing potential, and its connection to the never-ending project of self-expression and transformation. “Written on the skin—the very membrane that separates the self from the world—tattoos are diary entries, public announcements, conversation pieces, counter-cultural totems, valentines to lovers, memorial to the dead, reminders to the self. They are scars and symptoms, mistakes and corrections.  Collectively they form a secret history of grappling with the self in relationship to body….” [i] In fact, tattoos often directly transform the place of profound wounding, (from sexual assaults, to deeply invasive or deforming surgeries) sealing and containing them, reclaiming the body for the Self and initiating a generative process within.

The defining feature of tattooing is the making of indelible pigmented traces which are inside or underneath the skin behind what seems like a transparent layer. When in tattoo, the skin is transformed, and gives its own half-life over to a newly “living” image. This underscores the tattoo’s potential to effectively represent the interior of the psyche. It is the transformation of an area of the skin into an image (or script) which appears to elevate the tattoo to a form of psychic expression. This combined with choosing a particular image, and designating a particular placement on the body, places the power in the hands of the person who is experiencing something internally and makes choices. These choices result in a physical permanent mark on the skin, and a potential point of deep connection with the unconscious psyche.

One can conceive of the process of tattooing as a converting of the skin into a “ritual space” for healing.[ii] The tattoo and the process of tattooing, despite its conversion into a sanitized and modernized process, remains a form of corporeal transformation. What is external is transformed into something internal to the subject; and memory, a critical property of contemporary self-identity, is externalized and fixed upon the skin. Accordingly, tattoo artist Vkyvyn Lazonga claims that “getting pierced and tattooed tends to develop a person’s awareness of memory; the piercings or tattoos become points of reference that reinforce the self and history, and such practice do more than merely ‘remind’ or ‘reinforce’, they may also elicit who the person is or is becoming. In this sense they evoke, not only the registration of external events but internal depth.” [iii] Chinchilla, the British tattooist adds that, “everything that she inks on people is already inside them…she only opens the skin and lets it out.” [iv]

What is central to the conversion of the skin to a vehicle of psychic transport is what Alfred Gell, in his account of Polynesian tattooing, has termed the, “technical schema” of tattooing: “the puncturing, cutting and piercing of the skin; the flow of blood and the infliction of pain; the healing and closure of the wound; and the indelible trace of the process, a visible and permanent mark on, yet underneath the skin: ‘an inside which comes from the outside…’ the exteriorization of the interior which is simultaneously the interiorization of the exterior.” [v]

 Central to this process, is both the intentional wounding, the opening and then closing of the body, and the pain. Pain is an intrinsic and necessary aspect of the process of body modification and psychic penetration. Such practices speak to important and powerful concerns around flesh (body) and Self, linked with these processes of bodily inscription. Lacassagne[vi] speaks of these tattooed marks as “scars that speak”. I would add here, these are scars that not only speak, but in so doing, create a dialogue between inner and outer, and between interiority and exteriority.

This method of theorizing about the tattoo, is interesting as it captures a quality of the paradoxical and turns on the idea that there is an interaction or play between the “interior” and the “exterior” aspects of the tattoo, and the indelible mark that is simultaneously on and under the surface of the skin. This play of opposites, inside and outside, symbolic and corporeal and their interaction creating something new, underscores Jungian thought, and provides a context with which to explore with our analysands, (a population already involved in symbolic work) how tattoos function within their own internal-external processes, and opens the question, if this population, requires bodily inscription less than other groups.

In this context, it is interesting to understand, the moment when an analysand already involved in a deep symbolic connection to psyche, develops the need to have an indelible pigmented mark carved into their skin. Is that a moment akin to how Jung imagined the “big dream,” a notification from psyche of a momentous transition in the person’s life? Culling from the many narratives surrounding tattooing, I think this may be true.  But, if this is the case, the question arises as to why some analysands are called to mark the occasion in this way; why is it that he or she are called to have it, “written in the flesh”; and how does this act impact the on-going treatment? Cultural and social changes, provide the opportunity for those who seek analysis to feel comfortable tattooing, but this is clearly not the whole of what is involved. The link between the metaphorical connections involved in body modification, and the generative movement of psyche appears to be a fruitful area for further study.

[i] Mifflin, Bodies of Subversion, 2013, p. 147.
[ii] Lars Krutak, Spiritual Skin: Magical Tattoos and Scarification, p. 8.
[iii] V. Vale and Andrea Juno, ‘Introduction” in Modern Primitives, ed. Vale and Juno, p. 5.
[iv] Tattoo International, CLLV, November 1994, p. 11.
[v] Alfred Gell, Wrapping in Images: Tattooing in Polynesia. Oxford, 1993, pp.38-39, quoted in Susan Benson, “Inscription of the Self: Reflections on Tattooing and Piercing,” p.237…in Caplan, Written on the Body.
[vi] Quoted in Ibid p. 237.

Author
Joan Golden-Alexis, PHD, is a clinical psychologist, and certified Jungian analyst, practicing in New York City. She is on the teaching faculty of the Philadelphia Association of Jungian analysts, the Jungian Psychoanalytic Association of New York, and the clinical faculty of Yeshiva Graduate School of Psychology. Her practice consists of individuals and couples. She can be reached at drjgolden@earthlink.net.