[ Self Psychology Bulletin Board ]
This article chronicles a six-year journey of understanding in which the
author strove to comprehend the profound sense of estrangement and isolation
that was a central feature of his own personal experience of psychological
When the book Contexts of Being (Stolorow & Atwood, 1992) was
first published, an initial batch of copies was sent
"hot-off-the-press" to the display table at a conference where I was
a panelist. I picked up a copy and looked around excitedly for my late wife,
Daphne, who would be so pleased and happy to see it. She was, of course,
nowhere to be found, having died some eighteen months earlier. I had awakened
one morning to find her lying dead across our bed, four weeks after her cancer
had been diagnosed. I spent the remainder of that conference in 1992
remembering and grieving, consumed with feelings of horror and sorrow over
what had happened to Daphne and to me.
There was a dinner at that conference for all the panelists, many of whom
were my old and good friends and close colleagues. Yet, as I looked around the
ballroom, they all seemed like strange and alien beings to me. Or more
accurately, I seemed like a strange and alien being--not of this world.
The others seemed so vitalized, engaged with one another in a lively manner.
I, in contrast, felt deadened and broken, a shell of the man I had once been.
An unbridgeable gulf seemed to open up, separating me forever from my friends
and colleagues. They could never even begin to fathom my experience, I thought
to myself, because we now lived in altogether different worlds.
In the years following that painful occasion, I have been trying to
understand and conceptualize the dreadful sense of estrangement and isolation
that seems to me to be inherent to the experience of psychological trauma. I
have become aware that this sense of alienation and aloneness appears as a
common theme in the trauma literature (e.g., Herman, 1992), and I have been
able to hear about it from many of my patients who have experienced severe
traumatization. One such young man, who had suffered multiple losses of
beloved family members during his childhood and adulthood, told me that the
world was divided into two groups--the normals and the traumatized ones. There
was no possibility, he said, for a normal to ever grasp the experience of a
traumatized one. I remembered how important it had been to me to believe that
the analyst I saw after Daphne's death was also a person who had known
devastating loss, and how I implored her not to say anything that could
disabuse me of my belief.
How was this experiential chasm separating the traumatized person from
other human beings to be understood? In the chapter on trauma in Contexts
of Being, we had proposed that the essence of psychological trauma lay in
the experience of unbearable affect. The intolerability of an affect state, we
further argued, could not be explained solely, or even primarily, on the basis
of the quantity or intensity of the painful feelings evoked by an injurious
event. Developmentally, traumatic affect states had to be understood in terms
of the relational systems in which they took form. Painful or frightening
affect became traumatic, we contended, when the attunement that the child
needed from the surround to assist in its tolerance, containment, modulation,
and integration was profoundly absent.
In my experience, this conceptualization of developmental trauma as a
relational process involving massive malattunement to painful affect has
proven to be of enormous clinical value in the treatment of traumatized
patients. Yet, as I began to recognize at that conference dinner, our
formulation failed to distinguish between an attunement that cannot be
supplied by others and an attunement that cannot be felt by the
traumatized person, because of the profound sense of singularity built in to
the experience of trauma itself. A beginning comprehension of this isolating
estrangement came from an unexpected sourc--the philosophical hermeneutics of
Concerned as it is with the nature of understanding, philosophical
hermeneutics has immediate relevance for the profound despair about having
one's experience understood that lies at the heart of psychological trauma.
Axiomatic for Gadamer (1975) is the proposition that all understanding
involves interpretation. Interpretation, in turn, can only be from a
perspective embedded in the historical matrix of the interpreter's own
traditions. Understanding, therefore, is always from a perspective whose
horizons are delimited by the historicity of the interpreter's organizing
principles, by the fabric of preconceptions that Gadamer calls
"prejudice." Gadamer illustrates his hermeneutical philosophy by
applying it to the anthropological problem of attempting to understand an
alien culture in which the forms of social life, the horizons of experience,
are incommensurable with those of the investigator.
At some point while studying Gadamer's work, I recalled my feeling at the
conference dinner as though I were an alien to the normals around me. In
Gadamer's terms, I was certain that the horizons of their experience could
never encompass mine, and this conviction was the source of my alienation and
solitude, of the unbridgeable gulf separating me from their understanding. It
is not just that the traumatized ones and the normals live in different
worlds; it is that these discrepant worlds are felt to be essentially and
Some six years after the conference dinner I heard something in a lecture
delivered by my friend George Atwood that helped me to comprehend further the
nature of this incommensurability. In the course of discussing the clinical
implications of an intersubjective contextualism from which Cartesian
objectivism had been expunged, Atwood offered a nonobjectivist, dialogic
definition of psychotic delusions: "Delusions are ideas whose validity is
not open for discussion." This definition fit well with a proposal we had
made a dozen years earlier that, when a child's perceptual and emotional
experiences meet with massive and consistent invalidation, then his or her
belief in the reality of such experiences will remain unsteady and vulnerable
to dissolution, and further, that under such predisposing circumstances
delusional ideas may develop that "serve to dramatize and reify [an]
endangered psychic reality ... restoring [the] vanishing belief in its
validity" (Stolorow, Brandchaft, & Atwood, 1987, p. 133). Delusional
ideas were understood as a form of absolutism--a radical decontextualization
serving vital restorative and defensive functions. Experiences that are
insulated from dialogue cannot be challenged or invalidated.
After hearing Atwood's presentation, I began to think about the role such
absolutisms unconsciously play in everyday life. When a person says to a
friend, "I'll see you later," or a parent says to a child at
bedtime, "I'11 see you in the morning," these are statements, like
delusions, whose validity is not open for discussion. Such absolutisms are the
basis for a kind of naive realism and optimism that allow one to function in
the world, experienced as stable and predictable. It is in the essence of
psychological trauma that it shatters these absolutisms, a catastrophic loss
of innocence that permanently alters one's sense of being-in-the-world.
Massive deconstruction of the absolutisms of everyday life exposes the
inescapable contingency of existence on a universe that is random and
unpredictable and in which no safety or continuity of being can be assured.
Trauma thereby exposes "the unbearable embeddedness of being"
(Stolorow & Atwood, 1992, p. 22). As a result, the traumatized person
cannot help but perceive aspects of existence that lie well outside the
absolutized horizons of normal everydayness. It is in this sense that the
worlds of traumatized persons are fundamentally incommensurable with those of
others, the deep chasm in which an anguished sense of estrangement and
solitude takes form.
A patient of mine who had tried to cope with a long string of traumatic
violations, shocks, and losses by using dissociative processes left her young
son at a pastry shop on the way to my office. As she was about to enter my
building, she heard the sound of screeching tires, and in the session she was
visibly terrified that her son had been struck by a car and killed.
"Yes," I said, with a matter-of-factness that can only come from
first-hand experience, "this is the legacy of your experiences with
terrible trauma. You know that at any moment those you love can be struck down
by a senseless, random event. Most people don't really know that." My
patient relaxed into a state of calm and, with obvious allusion to the
transference, began to muse about her lifelong yearning for a soulmate with
whom she could share her experiences of trauma and thereby come to feel like
less of a strange and alien being. It is here, I believe, that we find the
deeper meaning of Kohut's (1984) concept of twinship.
Two final thoughts: 1. If trauma can have such a devastating impact on a
middle-aged man like myself, how can we begin to comprehend its impact on a
small child for whom the sustaining absolutisms of everyday life are just in
the process of forming? 2. Does the role of absolutism in everyday life and of
its deconstruction in psychological trauma shed light on the aversive
reactions of analysts to ideas that seek to deabsolutize and contextualize
(Orange, Atwood, & Stolorow, 1997) metapsychological doctrines they hold
To be continued. Maybe.
Gadamer, H. (1975). Truth and method, trans. J. Weisheimer & D.
Marshall, 2nd ed. New York: Crossroads, 1991.
Herman, J. (1992). Trauma and recovery. New York: Basic Books.
Kohut, H. (1984). How does analysis cure? Ed. A. Goldberg & P.
Stepansky. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Orange, D., Atwood, G. & Stolorow, R. (1997). Working
intersubjectively: Contextualism in psychoanalytic practice. Hillsdale,
NJ: Analytic Press.
Stolorow, R. & Atwood, G. (1992). Contexts of being: The
intersubjective foundations of psychological life. Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic
Stolorow, R., Brandchaft, B., & Atwood, G. (1987). Psychoanalytic
treatment: An intersubjective approach. Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press.