This morning Rachel (pronounced Raakal) came around to help me clean windows. As a rule I don’t like to hire domestic workers in South Africa because it is a form of wage slavery and well, there is a long history of slavery and dependence and exploitation here. Complicated.
But I cannot do the windows alone, I am not able to reach up high enough and so Rachel arrived and we had coffee and breakfast together and then set out step-ladders and buckets and squeegee things. Rachel had heard all about the burglary and she went around checking the locked doors and closing windows. A gesture of concern I thought, and just carried on wetting the glass.
But then Rachel went out to the garden shed and unlocked that door and brought in the axe and a small blunt panga for pruning bushes and hid them behind the wardrobe and I felt a breathless terror creep over me as I watched her, saying nothing.
‘These men will rape you and then kill you just like that,’ sa id Rachel, her face wrinkled with anxiety. ‘You must never open the door when you are alone. I know these kind of men. They will kill anything.’
I could feel myself going white and feeling giddy from terror as I thought about that axe, so I made some tea and sat down for a while.
It occurred to me that i was feeling not my own fear but Rachel’s terror, the trauma of Rachel’s life in a dangerous township with gangsters and mob rule and violence against women. I wanted to talk to her but I did not want to make her more afraid. It is possible that she could only let herself feel her fear for me, not her own terror. We sat and drank tea and we talked about mending pots and baking bread and the snow falling on the mountains despite the bright sunlight. And then we finished the windows.
When I first began reading and studying psychoanalysis years ago while having therapy (such a painful luxury!) one of the hardest things to accept was the role of the Unconscious in my own psychic processes. It repelled me to think that I was moved or motivated by impulses foreign to the waking self, instinctive drives of which I knew nothing. Almost as hard to accept as the recognition that I was somehow living fixated and in an obsessional state, trapped in a mystery called alcoholism.
But I am able to glimpse the Unconscious at work from time to time, and over the years I have gone back again and again to the insights of Lacanian psychoanalysis, studying from a distance the mechanisms of displacement and exaggerated defences at work. The Self I would rather not know with her unseen compulsions and projections and driven by terror, abnegation, sadistic death drives. We are none of us what we seem to be.
In The Interpretation of Dreams Freud recounts the dream of an exhausted father whose young son has just died. The father falls asleep and dreams that his son is standing beside his bed in flames, whispering ‘Father, can’t you see I am burning?‘ The father wakes to find that a candle has fallen over and set fire to his son’s shroud; he has been awoken by the smell of smoke. But within that dream is the trauma of loss and self-reproach that he was unable to save his son from death, the irony that the son ‘saves’ him by coming to him in a dream. The reproach of the son wakes the father because the sight of his child burning is too unbearable for the father to go on dreaming despite his exhaustion. And here too is the symbiotic, the mystery of intense identification with another, the sharing of terror and urgency.
But for Freud this is a displacement: what he hears in the patient’s dream is not the father’s anguish or the visitation of the dead child as a reproach, but the great Judaic story of Abraham who is ready to sacrifice his son Isaac to placate the vengeful and demmanding Father God, Yahweh. Abraham takes his beloved son Isaac up onto the mountain and binds his son to an altar, planning to kill him ritually and burn him as an offering. The son Isaac has no choice but to accept death at the hands of his father. The sacrifice is interrrupted: Abraham and Isaac experience the mercy of the hitherto unknown loving G-d who intervenes and spares the child. And for Freud as a secular Jew living in modern Christian Vienna, there is another symbolic pointer here: the God who allows his only beloved Son to die nailed to a cross in order to redeem humanity. Another kind of sacrifice, another displacement.
When we are faced with crisis or trauma, we find ourselves pinioned between what must be accepted and what may pass. There is the opportunity to encounter and contain the shadow of terror or annihilation. But there may also be a chance to bear witness to the trauma of another, to hear and hold what is intolerable for the other. As in the fellowship, there is a space for profound empathy despite difference.
This is not my usual way of blogging and I apologise to those who find it obscure or troubling. Working through any kind of violation is not easy and to have had intruders in my home has brought up old memories and fears. It strikes me that the double-edged gift of clarity given to us in sober living often means that we cannot but see the skull beneath the skin.