Idealization, Idolatry and the Quest for Authentic Attachment
Early in my career, when I was in a post-graduate training program and just beginning to see clients, I remember when one of my first clients gushed hyperbolically about how wonderful I was. I was dazzled and delighted. “Maybe, just maybe I will be good at this!” I thought. When I proudly told my supervision group what she had said, a woman in my group, a year ahead of me in the program sarcastically retorted, “Isn’t transference grand?!” I went silent, feeling deflated and ashamed. And although at the time I thought she was snotty and mean, I never forgot her words.
Transference is the projection onto the therapist of feelings for a real or longed for important other, commonly but not exclusively a parent. What my colleague was reminding me, or telling me, was “It’s not about you, Dummy!” Also, we invariably come crashing down from the proverbial pedestal, to become worse than scum. I have since come to understand, how these projections can be some of the richest sources of information about a client’s often unremembered past. Neglect leaves such gaping holes in interpersonal memory, that other media of communication than the spoken word become the requisite vehicle for the telling and reconstructing of personal narrative.
I remember one client telling me, “I really don’t remember anything about other people. When I try to remember my childhood, I just see bushes, and maybe our various dogs.” We slowly began to learn her story by studying her present relationships, and dynamics she did remember.
It is curious to me, that as I find with many of my neglect clients, although I have blank or spotty memory about my childhood, I have vivid memory of books. I remember from second grade Sunday school a picture from a Bible Story picture book of Abraham smashing the idols. We were learning the Ten Commandments and the concept of “One God.” In Jewish synagogues there were to be “no graven images” meaning no images or statues of human subjects who might be attempting to upstage the One God. Abraham, in the picture, a young boy, not that much older than me, in his little toga with a stick thrashing the white marble statues to the sanctuary floor. I remember thinking this was very strange. The lesson was, we were not supposed to worship idols. Somehow I did not quite get it.
I was always a hero worshipper. I could not seem to find real people to connect to, I just did not know how. But I would create them out of some raw material that I found in the environment, and invent the relationships I did not know how to have. When I was about 12, my “first love” was Thomas Wolfe. He was an author who wrote mammoth 500-600 page novels, known to be autobiographical, where the protagonist was depressed, intense, insatiable, creative and desperately alone. Wolfe the writer died at 39. So even though he was dead, I believed I had found my match, he was like me, I was not the only one. Wolfe was from Asheville, North Carolina. It was on my bucket list to go to Asheville, see his home and the birthplace of all these stories that filled my world.
In 2012 I had the opportunity to go to Asheville for a Neurofeedback training. I was delighted! By now it was 45 years later. I had a different brain and a completely different relationship landscape, thankfully. I booked a hotel across the street from the Thomas Wolfe House, the boarding house Wolfe’s mother ran, that featured in all the books; and where the real people had lived. I spent a day taking pictures of everything there.
In the gift shop I bought a little miniature of the marble angel made famous in the title of his book Look Homeward Angel; and a 560-page biography. After the training I eagerly devoured the biography in the same devouring way that Thomas Wolfe the man had related to most people and things. I learned from the biography, that he was a misogynist, he was an alcoholic, he was antisemitic, he was racist. What was I thinking? Who was that young girl?
I recently heard Bessel van der Kolk say, “idealization is a defense against terror.” I was terrified that I was a different species, that there was never and never would be anyone like me. In my quest for a partner or twin, I had to make someone up. Wolfe was the clay. The void left by neglect is so gaping, it terrifies. We have to fill it with something besides bushes or book illustrations.
“Seremos Como Che”
In my twenties I became politicized. By then I had given up on being seen or known by my parents. My father’s suffering and his hero story or overcoming his suffering and making a successful life, became the model. But I also was angry and rebellious. I wanted to get his attention and approval, but I also disavowed that wish. So, I chose something that would perhaps outrage or anger him. At that time democratic governments were tumbling all over Latin America, smashed by military dictators not unlike Hitler. I adopted an identity as freedom fighter, out to overthrow fascist rulers, and perhaps even die doing it. The ideal was Ernesto “Che” Guevara.
Originally from Argentina, Che grew up with privilege and became a doctor. But he sacrificed everything to be an internationalist fighter, who led the Cuban people to freedom and died doing it. Perfect! That was who I wanted to be. The new female version of Che. Ever trying to fill the empty void left by neglect, find an identity, a way to be like my father, but not too much. To be seen and known, respected and loved. And with luck to die doing it, a noble way to end the pain. I tried to do this and had a terrible psychological crash doing it, which ultimately led me to psychotherapy.
The child of neglect, lacking a mirroring other, has no self to be. I have shown Ruth Lanius’s shocking brain scans of the child of neglect, whose brain is firing faintly if at all. The default mode network which is the home of the sense of self, is virtually missing entirely. “Without a self” as Lanius reminds us, there is no other. So we continue to create some version of relationship, but being distorted and alienating, they don’t last. Like many survivors of neglect, I left a trail of relationship wreckage behind me, until I finally attached to a therapist, and stayed for many, many years. I am happy to say I now have very fulfilling and mutual relationships, a partner of 35 years, and dear friends. But I did not grow the circuits in the way we were designed to. That is the task that neglect leaves us with. And that is why we must learn to become the therapists that can heal this.
In Cuba I saw a billboard that said “Seremos Como Che,” This means we shall be like Che. The emphasis is mine. We will aspire to emulate, but not to be him. The void of self is devastating. The tragic impact of neglect. Getting a spine, getting a voice, big tasks. And big tasks for the therapist to learn all the possible access routes to assist. We must also resist the temptation to buy into the inevitable projections, positive and negative, or even to recognize them when they occur. Another reminder of why the therapist who works with neglect, perhaps even more than any other therapist, must do their own personal work. We don’t want to miss that boat like our clients’ parents did!
My book “Working with the Developmental Trauma of Childhood Neglect: Using Psychotherapy and Attachment Theory Techniques in Clinical Practice” was published on the 31st August. It provides psychotherapists with a multidimensional view of childhood neglect and a practical roadmap for facilitating survivors’ healing.