Without memory or desire

Remember the words to the song: We’re having a heat wave?  The weather at its extreme affects everything and when it’s hot day after day it’s hard to keep on thinking let alone writing.  It’s hard to sleep.  A sheet is too much.  The fan whirrs its way through the night and interferes with my dreams but the mornings at least are cool, at least for a few hours before the sun forgets we’re in autumn and bears down on us as though we are mid summer. 
On the other side of the world folks will be preparing for spring and normally I feel sad at the last of the summer but not this year.  This year there is a general plea across the sound waves, let it end.
Yesterday I received a letter in
the post, a short letter typed and tacked onto a plain white card with a photo
as its frontispiece.  I recognised
the handwriting on the envelope as coming from my correspondent and friend,
Gerald Murnane.  He and I have been writing to
one another for several years no, almost ten years by my reckoning, mostly long
letters but this time Gerald has told me that he wants me to know that his
letters will be reduced for the next several weeks/months because he is in the  middle of writing yet another book, his
eleventh I think. 
I have mixed feelings when I read
this note. Fair enough I think, he’s busy but then the internal carping
begins.  For one thing I’m jealous
of Gerald’s ability and opportunity to tackle yet another book – at the ripe
old age of 74 – and for another, even if I were totally immersed in a book,
which I sometimes am though never quite as thoroughly as GM, I
would not dismiss my regular friends with a fob off until their book is
I know this is unreasonable.  GM’s position is the more appropriate.  Why should he not consider his own needs? 
At least he has written to let me know as much.  He writes further that the photo included features ‘the sky at evening’ near
Goroke ‘when smoke from the Grampians covered western Victoria’. 
This weekend, a long weekend in
Melbourne for Labour day my husband is making tomato chutney.  Despite the heat.  His sister dropped off ten kilos of
ripe old fashioned tomatoes. By old fashioned I mean tomatoes grown in the
soil of her garden without all the added gizmos that commercially cropped
tomatoes include.  They taste
better as a consequence. 
Last weekend my husband made Italian
sausages, the week before German bacon. 
He’s on a home cooked produce burst which pleases him greatly.  
The only thing I can do is write, but
when the writing goes badly I can feel jealous of those people who appear to be
productive, like Gerald and my husband.  My desire to be productive can bring me unstuck.  

There’s this notion in
psychoanalytic psychotherapy, care of Wilfred Bion, that a therapist enter
each session ‘without memory or desire’. 
It’s a tough one.  To my
mind almost impossible but the spirit of it is sound.  The idea is that you enter each session afresh, ready to see
what comes up and to approach it with an open mind. 
I try to take the same approach
whenever I settle down to write. 
To see what comes up for me, and hold no concern for the outcome.  It encourages a certain freedom of thought, especially the
idea that I have no expectations of how the writing will go, of what I might
produce, of whether it will be worthwhile or whether it will disappear along
with so much of my writing into the wastepaper basket of time. 
I’ve spent years at writing
school.  I’ve spent years at
therapy school and there are always rules about how to proceed, theories about
how to relate to the person who comes to see you, how to put pen to paper, your
fingers on the keyboard.  Everyone
has a slightly different take.
I have this urge now to write about
a video I watched yesterday of a certain Eric Wolterstorff  who teaches a bunch of
students on transference and trauma.   It comes in the form of a YouTube demonstration.  
I enjoy the way the man presents
his ideas and I enjoy his ideas. 
They derive in part from Freud’s thinking but they branch off into ideas
from systems theory.  One idea
being that in each group, beginning with the family constellation, people tend
to take on one of a series of roles at different times.
These roles ideally are fluid.  In other words a person can have a
preferred mode of operating most of the time but there will be times when the
person will slip into other roles. 
And that is best, according to Wolterstorff.  The roles each have their advantages and their
The first role – to me the obvious
one – the one into which I reckon I most readily slip is that of the
caretaker.  This is the person who
says to herself.  I don’t have a problem – she
may have one, but she tells herself she’s okay, namely not in profound need – I’m okay, but I’m responsible for everyone else here.  
The second role is that of the
identified patient, in the family, in the group, the one who is seen to be most
in need of help.  The IP as
Wolterstorff refers to him/her is the person who assumes, without words more
often than not, but through his behaviour, I have a problem and I’m not
responsible for fixing it.  
In  Wolterstorff’s words, ‘I serve you
in the relationship by holding the anxiety for both of us.  Your job is to take care of the
problems.’  I put myself in this
vulnerable position in which I am helpless and it’s your job, therapist
or other members of the family to fix things for me.
The third category is that of the
distancer.  The one who says, ‘I
don’t have a problem and I’m not responsible for fixing it.’  You lot can fight it out among yourselves,
I’m off.  And the distancer takes herself into the next room to watch television
while the rest of the family war on. 
The forth and final category in
this somewhat over simplified schemata is that of the outcast.  The outcast says in a somewhat aggressive
manner, again not so much in words as in behaviour: ‘I have a problem.  I am the problem and not responsible
for any effects on anyone else. 
Got a problem with that?’ 
It’s not my responsibility this problem so if you want me to change it
you’re going to have to set to work to fix it.
Wolterstorff  refers to these roles as a function of
what he calls ‘procedural memory’. 
Are you with me here?  or have you switched off? 
On paper it might seem boring but
coming as it does from this man whose delivery is comforting, thoughtful but
simple enough to understand, I found myself watching all four of these presentations and
wondering how they might apply. 
Wolterstorff also talked about ‘event memory’ where he described the way in which a group of people whom researchers interviewed ten years after the Space shuttle Challenger disaster recalled the event.  The people interviewed were about ten
years old at the time of the tragedy. 
Apparently, the subjects remember the core significance
of the event after the trauma but they tend to forget the peripheral details, the
things surrounding the event tend and tend to distort or alter them in oder to fill the gaps.    
This is typical for all of us when we try to remember.  We lose
contact with the surrounding details and so begin to construct bits and
pieces of memories from other events and times.
Memoir writers do it all the
time.  Therefore memory is
unreliable, though Wolterstorff argues and I’d agree, the core memory of the traumatic
event itself tends to stay and be remembered with some degree of accuracy. 
Which brings me to another aspect
of this talk which I found fascinating in relation to ‘event memory’, namely the notion
that part of our memory of the event is built around those who were there, and
the roles they might play. 
The questions are:  who was watching, who did it, who
helped and who was hurt?  Wolterstorff divides these roles into the observer, the perpetrator, the saviour and the victim,. 
Again he reckons it’s important that we can be fluid within these
It’s not helpful to get
stuck in any one role for good, though it seems some people do.
Hence I’d argue the value of
empathy.  Empathy enables us to see things from other people’s perspectives,
including the uncomfortable ones of being the perpetrator.  Who wants to see themselves as a bully?
 If we get stuck in a role or lose the ability to combine
roles, we cannot move forward fluidly throughout our lives. 
If you think on it, you too might
see that at times you take on one or another of these roles.  I become a bully because I am bullied.  I stand by and watched as
another person is bullied because I cannot bear to be the victim.  Let
someone else take on that role.  All
four positions move over time. 

18 thoughts on “Without memory or desire”

  1. Oh my goodness this is amazing. My life explained. My family relationships laid out. Especially those I am experiencing just now.

    I find myself stuck in caretaker role as the eldest of my quarrelling siblings in the wake of our mother's death, and I'm exhausted by it. I'm also, along with my husband and two other children, the frustrated caretaker of our eldest daughter who is the IP but who frequently sees herself as the outcast.

    And as for memory – in discussing our lives and upbringing with my younger siblings after mother died, I was astounded by their version of various family events and how they differed from mine.

    Well I think I'll make a cup of tea now and reflect on my place in my family, after all it is Mother's Day here in the UK. And thank you for your thought-provoking post, Elizabeth.

  2. The snob in me looks down on those who churn out books. He says, “You can’t produce great literature like that.” Unless you’re Proust, I think but never having actually read Proust perhaps I’m attributing a level of greatness to him that he doesn’t really deserve. It’s been over two years since I finished my last book and I’m getting nowhere with my current project in fact I’ve hardly written anything since then despite having supposedly (although I’m not entirely convinced) recovered from my… let’s just go with the old-fashioned word ‘breakdown’ shall we. I’ve just posted a book review today. It’s of Jessica Bell’s novella The Book which she wrote in about three days and published a couple of months later and a part of me is so jealous and now she says she’s writing another book and I think all I’ve managed in that same timeframe are a couple of not-especially-brilliant poems. It’s a bad idea to compare yourself to others and yet we can’t help it. I console myself thinking that I’m saving myself up—I wrote nothing for three years and then Living with the Truth burst out of me—and I just have to trust my subconscious, keep feeding him good stuff and be patient. I’m better at biding my time than I used to be. I used to say, “I know only three definitions of ‘patience’: a girl’s name, a game of cards and an opera by Gilbert and Sullivan; I know no other.” I meant it too. But I don’t enjoy not writing. This stuff helps—I enjoy the physical act of writing even if it’s just blogs or comments—but it’s not as filling, as fulfilling, as my fiction. I worry though that by taking off the pressure in this way that I’m never going to get frustrated enough to write another book. When I sat down to write what ended up being Living with the Truth I was at screaming pitch. Remember I’d never written anything bar poetry at this point and the idea of writing a novel was preposterous but the need to write a something, an anything was so bad that I just sat down and started writing. And the rest is history. So I can completely understand Murnane not wanting to write anything bar his book. A man only has so much writing in him.

    I’ve been reading a lot about Alzheimer’s over the last few weeks. I’m calling it research and maybe it’ll help somewhere down the line. One of the books makes a good point about remembering: the key is in the prefix; the things we remember and the things we remember. Our memories are memories of memories of memories… I’m reminded of the game Chinese Whispers and wonder just how true any of my memories really are. I feel very negligent. It’s not until we get to a certain age that we start to realise just how much we have neglected ourselves by not exercising, by drinking too much, by eating the wrong foods, by not preserving our friendships, by not bothering to remember things assuming that once they’re in our heads they’re going nowhere. That’s probably true up to a point because with the right memory aid, a photo, a smell or a taste (let’s give Proust his place) we can dredge up things we hadn’t given a second thought to for, well, decades.

    Most of our memories don’t concern traumas. We’ve all had them but they account for only a tiny fraction of our pasts. I do wonder, if I even get Alzheimer’s (assuming I’ve not got it now—one never knows) what the dominant memories will be, the ones that’ll hang on to the bitter end. Amy Tan wrote, “People think it's a terrible tragedy when somebody has Alzheimer's. But in my mother's case, it's different. My mother has been unhappy all her life. For the first time in her life, she's happy.” I would like to hope that that happens to me.

    I may come back and talk about Wolterstorff and Bion later. The bird’s being especially noisy today and I’m having trouble formulating my thoughts.

  3. Elizabeth I wonder why you have stopped visiting my blogs. I feel a bit like you receiving your post from your friend but I was never given a reason.
    As for the peripherals of memory fading it makes me wonder why we still insist on having a court hearing about an event that is more than two years old. Seems the overcrowding of cases causes a backlog but it would also suggest that those not heard promptly do not get the same fairness.
    A lot is now being discovered about our brain functions. I wonder if they will help us with memory issues, both what we wish to forget and what we choose to recall.
    I don'y understand jealousy. I see it in others but I seem incapable to experience it. I have no idea why.

  4. Your commentary about memory and event struck a chord with me– for some reason, ever since I was a child and discovered writing, I have always wanted to record the reality of a situation, a moment in time. Encompass the TRUTH. The FULL TRUTH. Place stresses around "truth."

    Of course, now I realize memory blurs, blends, rearranges around perspective and familial positions. Or the loss of siblings. Sometimes I talk about this in my own posts.

    In my case I want my boy, my two-year-old to know me. To fully understand me. Is it possible? Not likely. Yet, I still try.

  5. This reminds me of an interview I once read with the cartoonist Charles Schulz, of Peanuts fame. The interview pointed out how the strip's characters personalities shift from time to time. Lucy may be abrasive, but there plenty of instances where Charlie Brown shows his ascerbic side. And while Charlie Brown may be the comic strip's famous loser, Snoopy loses more than he wins, though he's deluded in thinking otherwise. Schulz replied that none of the characters are consistent because in real life, none of us are, either.

  6. How thoughtful of your friend to send such a beautiful card and to let you know why he might not be writing so often. Sending something through the mail is so special, and does take thought and time, unlike a quick email.
    Having just completed a book I realise how much social energy was taken up with it, and it's a pleasure to be out and about mixing with people a lot more again. Good to stay in touch though, even briefly, and not to cut off completely.

  7. "…or have you switched off?"

    Yes, I did, I apologise, but it's so hot here ans words of writing styles and practises are just not holding my attention. my mind is on ice cream and swimming. I can do the ice cream, although I shouldn't, but not the swimming, which I really should.

  8. i didnt swtch off at all; to me, with my interests in memoir and in untangling personal history knots, this is a riveting post. some of this way of parsing perspectives, especially in a group therapy context, i am familiar with–but these roles are definitely extractable to family dynamics. i so look forward to reading your posts, elisabeth. your authenticity is always striking.

  9. I have always found the new theories of leading authorities is the field of Psychology interesting, especially when it comes to memories, interpretation of reality, and knowing what we know as opposed to thinking it or believing it even if it isn't exactly true.

    While I am sure E W may be on to something, rather than creating or talking in paradox about accepting a patients memories as truth but at the same time knowing their not, recognition of a line that divides the two might give better data, who knows maybe if the patients could be taught to recognize such lines maybe they would find solutions that worked instead of gouging out a niche market for an industry of now diagnosable illness with a slew of pharmaceuticals. I have always been skeptical about industries that have unheard of costs paid by the consumer to cover astronomical dollar amounts "earned" by the sales team. Most industries that manufacture and sell products that people need, such as medicine to treat an illness, do not require a sales team.

    It sounds logical, and maybe he fills in gaps with fantasy details, but interestingly enough I remember all sorts of peripheral details when I was around ten and the Challenger blew up, so while I don't know anyone who doesn't recognize the horrid character revealed in the smoke plume. The exact shape of said plume I bet Wolterstorff would call insignificant. I would be not be inclined to call it "filling in the gap" when nearly 30 years later any ten-year-old is able to pick that plume out of a line up of a dozen other plumes of smoke that sound like they match the description. But the thing is, until a child's environment is contaminated by the environments created by adults, they would be able to tell you details that the violating minds of adults cannot decipher even with access to the drone video footage (you didn't mention the crosswalk)

    It's too bad there isn't a killing of money to be made on teaching adults not to mess with little one's minds, or coerce them to adopt belief systems that are false, which might solve 90% of psychological/spiritual disorders, but there is no money in it so we will never know if its 90% or 99% of the ailments that are not necessary for children to suffer.

    I remember details much further back then five or six year old, but somewhere around sixteen months there may have been a minute or two that I was technically dead (not the minute or two convicts call months after serving time, but 60-120seconds) but so long as life can be revived in the same house you previously lived in (and no dickhead examiner is there to officially pronounce adulthood) it doesn't count, I only have a birth certificate in my county file, so I didn't break any rules, because it is true that there are rules, but there are also many men who will do everything the can to trick you into believing you must follow theirs, and even when we write laws that forbid them, they just find more subtle ways to control what they were never ordained nor had any authority to enforce. Even if you believe a lie, even if you know no better and you adopt a lie as truth, it doesn't change reality, not real reality. The truth is this is NOT a man's world, that's the lie he got children believe. I choose to recognize what Is real. Man and his stupid lies only apply to his life, and this one will be his last, because it was only promised two, and there was nothing in the contract that said it doesn't count if he doesn't remember the first one. And even if it were, Self-evident truths understood is suitable proof this is not first. An luckily, because so many are forgetful, it isn't required you remember, one only has to behave responsible enough as if he understood, which isn't hard. People who do that will remember, sometimes it just takes a while to stop confusing yourself with all the lies.

  10. It's amazing, isn't it, Elegancemaison, how much those family roles become visible when we put our minds to them. And I can see the value of sometimes trying to force ourselves into other unfamiliar roles in order to allow things to move more freely. All too often we otherwise get stuck.

    I hope things improve for you with all these family stresses following your mother's death. I'm glad to have shed a little light on some of the dynamics, which you describe here.

    Thanks, Elegancemaison

  11. I reckon it's possible to write a book in a few days, Jim, and there are some who've done it but I suspect the book has been percolating within somewhere for an awful lot longer. After all the number of hours needed to get down words on the page are fewer than the number of hours spent thinking about said words whether consciously or unconsciously and in between there's probably lots of practice writing. You know the saying 'writers write.'

    I reckon it's pointless competing over time spent writing books. For me that's not the issue. For me the issue is simply getting it done. I've often heard about people who say all they want is for the book to be written. I can understand that. However much there may be occasional pleasures in the writing and for me there certainly are, much of the time is angst ridden and filled with doubt. I try to suspend expectation and write with little regard to the outcome as one of my writing teachers has urged, a sort of Zen approach to writing, but it’s not easy.

    As for memory I’m with you there. It’s such a construction and a reconstruction over time, and each time we remember we remember slightly differently.

    Thanks, Jim.

  12. You're lucky, Heidi to have so little experience f jealousy. Not everyone is aware of the feeling. And often it is an experience that is not encouraged and therefore many of us might want to bury the feeling for fear of being found wanting.

    As for my visits to your blog, please accept my apologies, life is short and I'm trying to get this book written but I hope to return soon, not only to your blog but to many others as well.

    Thanks, Heidi.

  13. I can understand your wish for your two year old boy to understand you, David-Glen, but it can only ever be an approximation. That's what I've come to understand late in the piece, that any understanding of one another tends to be overestimated. We can only understand one another to a limited degree. It's a worthwhile endeavour and certainly important to try to understand one another but we can never get it exactly right.

    Thanks, David Glen.

  14. I agree with you and Schultz, Kirk, like Charley Brown and the other characters from Peanuts we are none of us consistent and we move around in our roles and perspectives much of the time over time.

    Thanks, Kirk.

  15. I agree, Juliet, letters through the post are wonderful. I've been corresponding with this friend for a long time. His letters can sometimes run to the thousands of words as can mine. It's good of him to announce things will be quiet for a while. He's done it before and it always comes to an end. I just wish I had the same discipline sometimes.

    Thanks, Juliet.

  16. The weather's tuned at last, River, at least it has here. It's hard now to believe it was so hot. Today it actually feels cold. Long sleeve weather. Hooray.
    Thanks, River, for persevering for as long as you did.

  17. I've been thinking about these roles all week, Susan. To me they're fascinating and remain so. They help me to make sense of some of our group behaviour. I'm glad you find them meaningful, too.

    Thanks, Susan.

  18. I'm with you about the horrors of the giant pharmaceuticals wreaking havoc as far as mental health is concerned, Dusty who, but not in an absolute way. There are good things coming out of the pharmaceuticals to some limited degree.

    Because their primary aim seems to be one of making money, greed and self interest can get in the way of the greater good and that's tragic.

    There are so many ways things could improve if money were not the primary criterion for success. All we can do it seems to me is struggle on to educate and inform ourselves and others about how effective things are and when their influence is corrosive.

    Thanks, Dusty Who.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *