Fred L. Griffin, MD, is Training and Supervising Analyst at the Dallas Psychoanalytic Center. His comments and interview with BPSI Training and Supervising Analyst, Joan Wheelis, MD, about her recently published memoir originally appeared in the Winter/Spring 2021 issue of The American Psychoanalyst, which can be read here.
Below is a brief excerpt of the content:
There is a growing interest in memoir among the general readership, and
an increasing number of psychoanalysts who are writing books about their lives that readers within and outside the field are eager to read. This article centers on one particular memoir by a psychoanalyst, The Known, the Secret, the Forgotten, written by Joan Wheelis and published in 2019 by Norton. After a few comments to set the context, I interview Wheelis about her book.
Memoir and Clinical Psychoanalysis
Memoir is a literary genre that is more about the emotional experience of a life than the factual accounts. Memoirs are as diverse in their nature as their authors, both in the ways they are constructed and what they aim to do. Rather than trying to define what memoir is and is not, I am more interested in how it goes about doing what it does: how it brings order to one’s life; how it plays with memory and time; how it attends more to the subjective experience of what is emotionally true than the objective truth; how the process of writing memoir may lead to a discovery of meanings as it captures states of being; how writing memoir may be itself an act of becoming. All of this is to say, writing—and perhaps reading—memoir is not so unlike what happens in the analytic situation.
Memoir can create states of mind much like those found within the psychoanalytic process as consciousness is in fluid interplay with time and memory.
Why are Psychoanalysts Interested in Memoir?
Many psychoanalysts are drawn to creative writings and to their authors. It
is not only a scholarly interest that makes good writing so appealing, and not just because we rely upon words to achieve the talking cure. For those of us who love language, words are fascinating in the ways they are used to create implicit and explicit metaphors as the psychoanalytic process unfolds. Imaginative language—shared by analyst and analysand—has the potential to communicate the past, the present, the as-if experience of transference-countertransference, and the possibilities of a future. Through the creation of metaphor, the writer Cynthia Ozick tells us, “We strangers can imagine the familiar hearts of strangers”; this act “transforms the strange into the familiar (Metaphor & Memory, 1991).
Language in creative works, moreover, generates nuances of sound and rhythm; it can convey how it feels to hear and say words. In so doing, language communicates something more, beyond the words themselves. I am referring to how language works inside us, between us and others. The Known, the Secret, the Forgotten, Joan Wheelis’s memoir about her relationship with her parents, both accomplished psychoanalysts, beautifully captures such elements of language and memoir that many psychoanalysts find intriguing. Wheelis writes in her opening chapter:
My parents are both dead, yet their lives are very much within me. Time
and memory rushing in like waves on distant shores. Pulling shells and
stones and crabs out to sea and then tossing them back to shore again.
Loudly and then softly, inexorably.
This is language we can feel, that has the power to stimulate the imagination so we not only grasp something of its meaning, but also sense how the author is trying to reach the reader. Her words bridge the gap between her and us<…>
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