Upon returning from our Open Session presentation at the 2014 American Group Psychotherapy Association Annual Meeting, the actors were scheduled to begin reflective writing about the process of preparing their roles for The Great God Pan. Looking back, I remember when I originally introduced the task to the actors they were decidedly cool to the idea. I initially accepted that reaction as normative for actor types who prefer the spoken, rather than the written, word. But their collective ambivalence continued, with no postings submitted for the blog by the agreed upon timeline. Hmm…
In the spring issue of the AGPA Group Circle Newsletter I wrote an article about our creative process, stating that a “unique feature of the rehearsal process is the inevitability that the drama will get under our skin—and inside our hearts and minds and even our souls. We unconsciously start feeling, thinking and relating to each other in ways that resemble the characters and their torment.”
In The Great God Pan, all the characters are ambivalent about seeking or revealing the truth about past traumas, recognizing (consciously or unconsciously) the enduring impact on their current relationships, or re-experiencing the anxiety and shame that might be activated if they broke their silence. Upon reflection I came to appreciate how vulnerable the actors felt at the prospect of writing about their very personal identifications with their characters emotional lives and histories.
So we extended the timeline to the end of summer. I conducted personal interviews to begin the writing process in a more relational, ‘here-and-now’ way and acknowledged their reluctance with greater empathy. We agreed to collectively review the blog posts upon completion, in an effort to promote more safe, creative space for self-expression. I feel deep gratitude and admiration for the actors’ efforts to persevere and put into words some aspects of their personal experience, and wiser for having recognized the power of the play and its impact on our psyches.
Yavar Moghimi, M.D. (Jamie)
Life imitating art, imitating life imitating art… This statement captures the essence of what playing Jamie in The Great God Pan has been for me. This especially feels true right now, as I’m writing this blog post almost a month after I was encouraged to finish it. Procrastination is a favorite defense for Jamie. He’d rather not deal with things in the moment and instead, maybe give them, as he says to Paige, … “a week?”
One aspect of life imitating art for me personally is the relationship Jamie has with his parents and their negotiation over time seeing each other. These interchanges have felt ever more present for me since having a child of my own and seeing the role that my parents take as grandparents. In the play Jamie’s mother implies that the trip to Brooklyn isn’t tempting enough without grandchildren. I’ve noticed that even with a grandchild that does not seem to be enough of a lure for my own mother to come into the city very often. The play captures that feeling of wanting to see each other more, but how comfortable the distance has become in a way that I don’t think I fully appreciated until I embodied Jamie. The difference between what’s too much and too little is such a fine line when managing closeness.
The more painful aspect of life imitating art was experiencing the rupture of a relationship the way Jamie did with another cast member during the preparation of the play. I feel a bit ‘stuck’ writing this blog post because of the need for this to be understood as a central part of my experience playing Jamie. But I’m worried whether I’m going to offend or cross a boundary. How does confidentiality applies in these situations? There are also the feelings after a rupture of how I will be perceived by those that are aware of the rupture. Will I look bad? What aspects of myself came out that I would want to disown? Also, I feel that addressing this through writing is not going to pull me ‘out of the weeds’ the same way getting help from the group (acting ensemble) would. There is a paradoxical impulse to censor myself with the fantasy “if it’s not spoken, it won’t exist”. But I also recognize that the rupture I experienced was unlike anything else in my life previously and I find myself wanting it to be witnessed. I share the feeling that Jamie has at the end of the play that the abortion could have been prevented and I feel disappointment that life imitated art in this context.
In the end, what made this parallel rupture manageable was the guidance of our director and the help from the acting ensemble. I appreciated the uniqueness of the psychic space we have created at Red Well Theater, one that strikes an amazing balance between acting and group process. In any other theater setting the painfulness of the rupture would have been encouraged only as a part of my embodying Jamie’s experience. Instead, in the Red Well tradition there was an attempt to go beyond ‘life imitating art’ and have ‘art inform life’.
Kavita Avula, Ph.D. (Paige)
As psychotherapists, our success relies on being able to imagine how the ‘other’ feels and then articulate well-formed, insightful thoughts and ideas to our clients in a way that brings clarity and adds meaning. Empathy, of course, is paramount in this endeavor. It can get tiring to sit in a chair hour after hour, day after day, thinking the hours away. In order to stay engaged in this work, I look for ways to keep the days and weeks inspiring, stimulating, and dynamic. Art and creativity has been a major vehicle through which I have managed to keep my days from becoming monotonous and dry.
The Red Well Theater Group is a wonderful combination of the intellect and the arts. Psychodynamics principles are applied but the recipients are characters in a play instead of clients from our caseload. Unlike other theater groups, acting skill comes second to being a therapist and this element is what makes all of the difference. A cast of therapists signifies that there will be processing galore. We will understand the characters inside and out and have a good laugh while we’re at it.
As a guest artist for 4 years, the RWTG has presented me with many opportunities to further develop my empathic attunement. My first role was playing a 10-year-old girl who develops a crush on a man who visits her unusual and isolated family. This was no easy feat as a woman decades older than her character. Then there was the mean girl I had to play when we did a rendition of a play that portrays Charles Schultz’s Peanuts characters as bombastic teenagers with a penchant for being vicious to each other. The lines of my character were so outrageous, it was extremely challenging to envision what would get her to that level of hostility, but I tried. Worst was the oddball, socially awkward recluse who gets set up on a blind date with a callous man only to have a one night stand after the two get held up at gunpoint! I have been waiting for the role in which it doesn’t feel like an incredibly large leap to relate to the character that I’m charged with portraying.
This finally happened for me when I was cast as Paige from Amy Hertzog’s, The Great God Pan. This character was a person closer in age, more relatable in terms of her personality and communication style, and dealing with some uncanny resemblances to some of my recent life experiences. What resulted was an incredibly therapeutic process that has helped me to relive and further work through my own unresolved conflicts. The role, unlike any other, in conjunction with the safety that the cast (otherwise known as a small group) created has contributed to profound healing in perhaps the most difficult passage of life’s journey that I have known.
Each rehearsal was what I imagine psychodrama sessions to be like and the actual productions – there have been two of them so far – have felt transformative. This happened partly because I felt that I could truly step into the character since I identify with her so much and and partly because I invited my family and closest friends to come and bear witness to my performance, which they all knew ran dangerously deep and close to my own ongoing suffering.
What was most striking was the way in which I feel about Paige and what happens to her in the play as my life continues and I feel more resolution in the areas that were once so similarly stuck. As time went on and two different performances took place, I found myself having a conversation with Paige that demarcated my own development and evolution from the moment I once shared with her. Never has my sense of what’s going on in a play changed so much. As I transcended my pain, I saw much more depth to all of the characters and had a much larger appreciation for each person’s pain (not just Paige’s). This learning was quite similar to that which I experienced in my own therapy group. When you take the time to truly listen and understand another person’s context, their behaviors – especially the most off-putting ones – begin to make sense. I have observed how the simple act of being compassionate can make all the difference in the world and can chart a different course for the future.
The RWTG is an extraordinary one. There are varying levels of experience represented from early career therapists to the most seasoned therapists and differing levels of closeness and comfort with the group. Like any good group, there are strong friendships and pairings and equally potent tensions and even hostilities. Rehearsals do not stop with understanding the play and its nuances; in our meetings, we check in with where we are in our lives, and with each other. We don’t always walk away feeling settled and content but the power of the group – the connection that exists among us, that joint endeavor to breathe life into a playwright’s characters and our belief in this work – preserves it’s integrity.
Connor Dale, LPC (Frank)
Frank’s the victim. He would never perpetrate. But Bob said “Find that part of you, Connor.” I want to think of Frank as a good guy! I want to think of myself as a good guy! Don’t make me go there, Bob. Don’t. Don’t make me. Don’t make me, Bob. But I did, or at least I attempted to. It was hard because I’m not comfortable with that place in me. I think it comes out when I feel threatened, inadequate, or when my needs aren’t getting met. It’s rehearsal time again. I don’t want to go. Why do I keep putting myself through this? And now I have to find that perpetrator part of myself? And then I became angry at a colleague and fellow group member who invited me to Red Well, Bob, and the group itself. I lash out at my colleague letting her know “I’m only doing this to make you happy!” I’m afraid. Afraid they’ll see how inadequate I am – as an actor, a therapist…a person. Push back. Protect. Deflect. Resist.
When I thought about Frank having a perpetrator role instead of purely victim, I felt unsettled. I wanted to think of Frank as the nice healer…the helper. I wanted to think of him as the one who opens doors for the rest of the cast of characters to find ways to connect and heal, not as bringing on a world of pain and uncertainty for Jaime, his family, and his fiancee. This is how I see myself as a therapist – opening doors, allowing the work to be done. We began discussing this idea in our rehearsals. What boundaries were being violated in our group? That was it! I was expecting the group to violate my boundary; to fulfill my expectations of childhood re-wounding. I had found my connection with Frank. “I think I can find part of myself in Frank,” I tell the group. “I hate coming to these rehearsals, yet I keep coming because I committed to it…and (I take a deep breath) because I want to make you happy.” I want to make them happy like Frank may have wanted to make his father happy, but this doesn’t have to be a repeat of my childhood wounding. I choose to come to these rehearsals. I am not a victim; I am not helpless. How can I transform this for me? How did Frank transform his experience?
Frank opens the play and ends the play. Much of what we learn from him, we learn from the rest of the characters. He’s intense. He’s needy. He’s been in jail. He’s gay….very gay. Some of the stuff we learn about him, however, does come from him. He is working to accept himself as he is. He has been to 12 Step meetings. He struggles with addiction, and he perseveres in accepting himself daily. Frank was a victim, and he lives as a survivor. As I write this blog and recall the rehearsals, think of Frank, and think of myself – as an actor, a therapist…a person – I struggle to accept myself as I am. As the rehearsals went on, I reminded myself that I did not have to repeat my normal victim/perpetrator pattern. I could, through accepting things as they are, transform my experience in our group and in my life. The rehearsals went on, and I felt my experience changing slightly each time, as I attempted to let go of my expectations that my past would reappear to victimize me again. I can be who I am.
As we debriefed in John’s house, I thanked the group. “I kept coming to these rehearsals even though it was hard for me. I came for a reason, though. What I found was a group of people who welcomed me in, had a wealth of experience from which I could draw, and gave me the space to figure some things out for myself. Thank you.” About a month after our debriefing, I started a new job as an Addictions Psychotherapist working with primarily gay men, many of whom have experienced childhood sexual abuse. I work hard to recognize transference and counter-transference in my work, and I always have. Now I pay specific attention to ways in which I may be enrolled as the perpetrator in the group. What boundary violations are occurring in this group? As a result of just touching on my own perpetrator behaviors, I can more readily see them and give attention to them if the group enrolls me as such. Bringing the perpetrator into the group, instead of my shying away and rejecting that uncomfortable transference, allows us, as the group, to transform the experience in some way.
Liz Marsh, MSW (Joelle)
In so many ways, I feel this play is really about missed connections. It’s about people wanting to be close and yet somehow, not finding the words or the time. Each time we’ve read the play together, I am most touched and horrified by the phone conversation between Cathy and Jamie.
Most of my relationship with my parents takes place over the phone (with the very recent addition of Skype) and it has been that way for a long time. It is often difficult for us to connect. I sympathize with Jamie in wanting to appease his parents and maybe also keep them a little bit at arm’s length. I know the feeling of hanging up the phone and knowing something was lost in the ether.
I think there’s probably something in this for my character, Joelle, as well. As the audience, we know she’s in contact with her parents and maybe they’re even paying for her therapy, but there is an emotional disconnection. In preparing for this role, I have wondered what it looks like when she calls her mom…
… And so here we are, a group of group therapists doing a play about a lack of ability to connect. And what keeps popping out at me is how connected I feel to Red Well as a group.
This year I had a smaller role in the performance. That has allowed me more flexibility with my level of involvement. For the first time since I started participating in Red Well, I allowed myself to take a few rehearsals off and to miss out on some of the action. But a curious thing happened. Even though I perceived myself to be less involved, both in the action of the play and with the rehearsal process of the group, I continued to increase my connections with the group and the individual members.
For me, there is no doubt. This play has deepened the creative and emotional connections of the Red Well Theater Group. I’ve been continually impressed with the depth of debriefing process and the intimacy amongst our membership. Could it be that we are somehow doing the unfinished work of our characters? Reaching out to each other as a way to cushion and repair that fleeting phone call between Cathy and Jamie? Regardless, I feel blessed to be with my fellow thespians on this journey. Thank you all for the connections.
Barbara Keezell, MSW (Cathy)
I have had enormous resistance to writing the blog post, the part of this venture with Red Well and the Great God Pan that I’ve found the most difficult. I’ll explain this more a little later. My participation in the rehearsals and play has been stimulating and enlivening. They created a new mental space in my life, one that at times felt like an oasis. I developed new relationships with the others in the production & the process enabled me to access awareness about various unwelcome parts, like the tin-eared part of Cathy, who doesn’t really want to hear what her son has to say, as it’s too painful to consider. How many times do we all want to avoid painful conversations, despite being therapists? I reluctantly encountered that part in me as well. Cathy tries to take steps to make amends in her second scene, expressing disappointment in her self and concern about the potential negative impact she’s had on her son. As a mother myself, this part was easy to access. It’s hard not to wonder at times what I might have done long ago, inadvertently, when my children had difficulties, although this, like what actually happened to Jamie, is unknowable. We can’t go back and “know” the “truth”. And even if we could, each observer would view the “facts” differently as there is no absolute truth.
The opportunity to try on different roles during the course of our rehearsals and to debrief after each rehearsal was instrumental in making this a working group, effective in creating space for all sorts of feelings and reactions. At times, the process what generated reactions, just as we find in our own groups. As one person says something, it leads to another’s association, and a whole new thread is developed. This is why the debriefings were so powerful. There was a community effort & the sense of safety that one develops in a group after awhile. It spawned new ideas, reactions, feelings, yet in a contained way.
There is none of this sense of safety in the play. There’s no safety net. Except for Frank who is supportive of Jamie in the final scene, the characters are all quite isolated. They are not able to be wholly supportive of one another. This was in stark contrast to the debriefings. It perhaps is more similar to the feelings I have about the blog. I prefer the collaborative effort. Sitting at the computer and writing by myself is more isolated, just like Cathy. It also will end up in the stratosphere someplace, unlike the discussion in our groups. It feels as though something is lost or that I am not able to succeed, perhaps like Cathy in her 2nd scene, at capturing the essence of what feels important to convey. Something will be lost, just as is lost in most of the interactions & relationships in the play. So much is not said. So much is not communicated & so much is missed in each of the interactions. The characters are not able to get their needs met as they miss one another. Perhaps the blog feels like a repetition of that & thus something that has felt too uncomfortable to replay, only this time it’s occurring in real life.
Rob Williams, MSW (Doug)
It is early spring now in Washington, our AGPA open session was several weeks ago and as I’m walking home from work, I notice that that I am looking for the “signs of spring.” This is certainly an unexpected impact of the play, integrating the action of the play into my real life. I’ve discovered that bringing the role of Doug to life in our dramatic play reading impacted me in ways that I could never have anticipated.
My first realization was how I had been shaped as a child to take care of those around me. In one of our early rehearsals, the gentle critique I received from some of my trusted and compassionate fellow actors, brought into greater focus the way I had been approaching the role of Doug, Jamie’s father. As usual for me, I am approaching the role as I approach my role in life by being the OPPOSITE of how I would have expected my father to behave. My own father was emotionally unavailable, self-centered, and angry much of the time. It became so clear to me as I listened to Liz’ and Barbara’s comments that I was being the father I would have wanted to have if I were Jamie. Unfortunately, that’s not the character in the play!
It has been cathartic for me to play Doug in this way. I’ve really gotten in touch with my own emotionally abused inner little boy and it is comforting to know that I can have such compassion for him. I’m saddened for myself and for my father that he could not access that part of himself. I believe in my heart that he showed me as much love as he could. I just needed so much more than I got, much as Jamie needed more emotional connection with his parents.
I had to re-tune myself over the later rehearsals and see if I could be “meaner”, as John said, or at least more self-focused on Doug’s needs and more emotionally disconnected from his wife and son. Doug is going to see Jamie because he wants to relieve himself of his guilt or confirm it based on what may have happened to Jamie 27 years earlier as a result of Doug and Cathy’s actions. He’s not there so much to comfort Jamie as to get some comfort for him self.
The second realization from my participation in the play occurred at the annual luncheon immediately following our open session on Saturday. I was asked to go early to the luncheon and try to reserve two tables for our group so that we could sit together. I found this to be a very difficult task. As I attempted to save our places at the table, and the vast hall became more and more crowded, I constantly had to disappoint other therapists seeking a seat and wanting to sit down. I was filled with uncertainty and dread that I was not properly fulfilling my task for the group. As other group members arrived and began to assist with the process, it became obvious that we had too many chairs and we could let some of them go but I still found it difficult to allow others to sit for fear that someone would arrive late and wouldn’t have a seat at our table. This feels like a parallel process with Doug’s guilt over sending Jamie to stay at the Lawrence’s for a week and failing to protect his son from danger.
At a deeper level, my own feeling that I had always disappointed my father, kept me trapped in this role of saving the seats at our table despite there not being a need for them. I was obsessively counting the seats and counting the number of folks in our group, trying to assure myself that we had enough. I couldn’t tolerate the thought of being a failure and the ensuing shame that I would feel. I was paralyzed and could not make a decision. The parallel process in the play is the experience of the parents, Cathy and Doug, being overwhelmed with shame and guilt upon learning that their child may have been sexually abused and how they had failed to protect him. In the play, we never find out and are left to our own conjectures about what happened to Jamie.
Thankfully for me, I had an understanding, kind, and tuned in, group with me. Liz first came to my aid and suggested giving up one of the tables but I wasn’t ready to let go of my responsibility just yet. It wasn’t until Mary, one of the senior members of our group, came forward and said, “I think it’ll be okay Rob, we can let this table go,” that I was able to relinquish my responsibility. I felt immediately relieved that I would not feel the burden of shame if someone didn’t have a seat.
And just like that, another corrective emotional experience unfolded, just one of many that I have experienced within this group. That’s why I keep coming back and why I do this work—for the love.
Rosemary Segalla, Ph.D. (Polly)
August is here and I finally face the reality of writing a blog. The word “blog” sounds foreign to me, as if I have been invited into another planet’s communication style. It leaves me wondering what purpose this blog task might serve for any of us. It also captures my own out of reality experience of my role as Polly. I think perhaps I have avoided addressing it for so long for reasons that have not been immediately available to me. There is the obvious, playing a gentle but demented woman can feel a bit threatening. There is enough dementia in my family of origin to both inform the role and threaten me with the possibility of it being my fate too, just like Polly! But, there are other issues too. One, for example, as I read the contributions of other cast members, do I actually want to be self-revealing? If I do that, just what do I want to reveal? Is it relevant to the play? This leads me to the idea of secrets, so much a part of the play, family secrets and how they continue to do their work undermining family members in subtle and injurious ways. As in the play, this has been a theme in my family. I know of the insidious impact of the unspoken yet do not feel able to break the silence that date from my own childhood so many years ago.
I think Polly epitomized denial and secrets. She sees the bright side in her visits with Frank and Jamie, forgetting the darker moments of distress and pain. She does not investigate why Frank was such a troubled little boy. She embraces his recovery, not troubled by his jail time. This sounds too, too familiar to me. The dementia, perhaps, serves a valuable function; only the good remains. Since being in the role of Polly, I have been considering the possibility of dementia being in my future. This is reinforced by the fact that my brother, twenty months my senior, has dementia. He still knows me but his expressive language is almost gone. At this moment, I have come to the idea that, in fact, it is probably ok if it should happen to me. It feels like a Zen-like acceptance of my own possible future. My current fantasy is that I will not rail against it, suffering it poorly. My plan, in my current alert state, is to embrace it, give myself over to it, relinquishing mind control, slipping happily away. A fantasy, of course, I may be nasty, or scream relentlessly, just like my beloved grandmother who lingered for eighteen years in that other land.
Well, this all certainly sounds grim but it captures what happens to each of us as we fully enter our roles, moving from acting to being, in subtle, gradual ways. There is no mention of my fellow actors in this blog. At first I found this curious but then it became clear, Polly wasn’t connected to them and in some way I have found myself isolated from them also. I do, however, embrace all of them on this journey to being.
John Dluhy, M.D. (Consultant)
October 20, 2013: 2nd rehearsal: Connor and Rosemary are missing, and Barbara is here from Boston. I really heard lines and their connectedness—or lack thereof—in the reading today. Actors begin to tentatively talk of emerging group dynamics: in the play and in us. The connections that are personal are also shared with the cast. The lack of memory connections and the shared memories are delineated and the key ‘two minutes’ in the play was identified. Everyone was involved in the debriefing. Moving.
November 17, 2013: 3rd open rehearsal: I sat silently and “played” Dennis Lawrence, the offstage character who is accused of child abuse—felt ashamed and guilty—had to look at the damage my own self-indulgence had sometimes wrought. I kept getting sadder and sadder with tears coming to my eyes in the reading of the last scene. I felt the need to forgive my own abuser (my godfather/doctor) and I momentarily, at least, felt the loss of an “old enemy”.
November 12, 2013: Consultation with Bob in his Alexandria office: We established boundaries and tasks: 1. Pre-reading. 2 Reading. 3. Debriefing. Be aware of subtle enactments of abuse dynamics—power and control. Privileged versus vulnerable. Role suction—becoming the abusive parent, a role I have not allowed myself to have—is a temptation to be aware of. Bob continues to be sensitive/reactive to my “pronouncements”, and feel I have to be careful in this role as consultant I have been given.
January 2, 2014: Consultation with Bob in his office: One hour with Bob on plans for rehearsal schedule. We reviewed pictures for the program cover. I favored the back of a muscular man—menacing. Then he showed me a framed print of his own (It’s in his office bathroom). It’s complex like a dream with a goose/female figure that looked sexual to me. On further study, I kept seeing more and it awakened associations to my own sexual abuse. The following morning in bed I had many explanatory memories, fantasies that explained my own sexual preferences based on that early abuse sequence. I also remembered some verbal enactments in different dream workshops I had attended. This play and its processes are working on me.
January 12, 2014: This first run through of the play with everyone in role: It was so emotional for me—the identifications with Frank, the dialogues move me. At times I was overwhelmed with my own feelings of sadness. The first relief came with Jamie’s outburst with Paige. I felt grateful for Paige and her assertive reactions to Jamie, and then to Joelle.
January 17, 2014: As usual a productive collaboration: I discovered that I offered two boundary violations—enacting a version of Dennis’ accused behavior. It seems that my feelings of excitement provoke these urges to act out. All of this was the result of listening to, and being aroused by the first reading of the play by the entire cast. I just listened and responded emotionally—a very powerful play, as read by our cast. I see now that the structured “go-around” from the fall, where everyone was invited to read a variety of roles, has served us well. We all have aspects of all the characters within us: Bob, John, Yavar, Kavita, Connor, Liz, Rosemary, Rob and Tom. I feel relief in not being the only one…
Eleanor Counselman, Ph.D. (Discussant)
Excerpts from her commentary:
In this play we are really seeing two traumas: one is the possible sexual abuse that occurred in Jamie’s childhood. The other is Jamie’s discovering that some of his childhood memories might not be true, and there might also be things that did happen that he had no memory for. In fact, the playwright, Amy Herzog, said in an interview that the play is less about sexual abuse and more about childhood and memory. To the extent that our collected memories shape our sense of self, his self is shaken by these discoveries.
Parenthetically, I found myself very affected by the uncertainty – was he or wasn’t he abused?
We are creatures of narrative. Narrative is the way we make sense of our experiences. Long before people could write, they told stories; before they told stories, they drew pictures. People keep diaries, write in journals, or create art as a way of reflecting on experience, and the practice of doing so may increase that reflective capacity.
Group therapy is about narrative. People come to groups with a particular narrative of how their life experience has shaped their model of self and of others. Through the work in the group, people change those models, and this change begins to create a different narrative. In my groups whenever a new member enters, the old members usually end up sharing their stories with the new member. I encourage them to see this not as just going over old stuff, but a chance to see what might have shifted in the narrative.
But what happens when the experience is so traumatic, so overwhelming that it is denied and repressed, truly dissociated from one’s conscious experience? A narrative is constructed around the experience. False memories are constructed to shore up the repression. Does this work? Probably, some of the time. But the experience and the traumatic feelings have a way of leaking out somehow – through anxiety, depression, nightmares, memory problems, emotional dysregulation, sexual problems, and difficulties in attachment. Jamie, as we have seen, has many of these issues.
In the play we meet Jamie and right away he tells us that he has a terrible memory. Frank tells him that he has something important to tell him and wonders if Jamie might have an idea what it is. Jamie denies that he does. Frank describes how he has handled the sexual abuse: a variety of levels of remembering (or not remembering): “things that I remembered that I chose not to think about,… things I didn’t remember until recently… and things that he’s recently described to me that I still don’t remember. Yet.” Jamie is firm in his denial and he externalizes. “I’m so sorry that happened to you, man.” And he quickly ends their meeting.
But Jamie’s sense of self is shaken by the revelation. He reassures himself, “I’m all the things I was three days ago, before I saw Frank.” And his father wants reassurance that he doesn’t think anything happened. Later in the play he struggles more with who he is, even if “something” did happen when he was four. In his argument with Paige he says, “You don’t get to put my whole life, me, in terms of it.”
His confidence in his memories is shaken too. He wants his mother to confirm that Polly’s sofa was indeed scratchy. He’s trying to figure out what was real, what memories can he really depend to be true? I found this to be emblematic of a central feature of trauma. Your sense of security, of knowing what you can count on inside as well as outside, is ruptured.
As group therapists, we are hopefully tracking not only what is being talked about but what isn’t. I thought of this group of characters as a group and was aware of how hard it was for any of them to say what was really on their minds.
Trauma is woven throughout this play. Frank believes he was a victim of sexual abuse. He believes that Jamie might have been as well. What about Joelle with her serious eating disorder? And Cathy with her brittle and somewhat dissociated presentation?
We know from current research in attachment that painful experiences are tolerated much better when there is support from another person. If trauma is repressed, then that support is not there. As Paige says when Jaime is telling her about Frank’s revelation, “when that kind of thing happens you can get, you know. Stuck.”
Avoidance appears in the next scene as well. Jaime asked Paige if she has talked to her sister about the pregnancy and she says “No, I can’t…be witnessed right now.” As they talk, Paige references sexual dysfunction, which seems to strike a painful nerve in Jamie. Apparently he has had a problem although as they both wryly note, he has overcome it too well.
So how can we think about the attachments in this family? Cathy, the mother, seems pretty disconnected from her son’s life. She doesn’t know his dog died six months ago. She complains about not seeing him but says Brooklyn is too hard and unpleasant to get to. Then she admits her anxiety about having offended Paige; but is she really contrite? She seems like she is walking the walk but not talking the talk and she doesn’t know how to be with her son. There is a brittle awkwardness about her. She says, “Frank and his family seem like characters in a book, they don’t seem very real to me anymore.” Has she dissociated herself from what happened? Does she have a trauma history? She supports Jamie’s denial that anything could have happened to him.
What if she had been in a group? What if the therapist had said to her and to Jamie something like, “what’s it like to consider that something this terrible might have happened to Jamie?” Her tears are breaking through as Doug enters. But after the joking about yoga, Doug asks what the visit is about – and the answer is that Jamie got a wonderful job!
Joelle – what is the meaning of her eating disorder? She introduces the concept of shame, sharing some of her embarrassing fantasies. We see more shame when Doug tells Jamie about his mother’s depression and how she didn’t want to tell her parents. Neither did he.
The “that couldn’t have happened” continues with the dad assuring Jamie that he had been very adult-like – at four. Doug is very relieved when Jamie continues to “not remember any of this.”
As someone who uses attachment theory in my work, I could not help but think about these characters through the lens of attachment theory. None of them appear to have secure attachments and it is painful to watch them attempt to reach each other for comfort and security. Thinking about it generationally (and we know that insecure attachment, not to mention trauma, can be transmitted generationally), Jamie’s parents don’t seem to have a strong relationship and their difficulties may have set the stage for Jamie’s sexual abuse at the hand’s of Frank’s father. Jamie and Paige are not securely attached, as we see by the way they don’t seem able to handle Paige’s pregnancy and that Jamie did not turn to her with the news of his possible abuse. Paige’s client Joelle, with whom she is trying hard to engage, eventually leaves her, citing her parent’s wish to use their insurance but Paige is skeptical. I wondered if Polly was meant to represent a secure attachment figure, but the story of her swinging on the vine and the vine breaking might instead symbolize even that bond not being durable.
Overall, I felt these people as sad, lost, and struggling to really connect with each other. That, of course, is the legacy of trauma…