Giving form to a life: the significance of autobiographical exploration

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  • 1 Adelphi University, USA
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On coming to be

The four pictures are quite unremarkable. Two were taken in a photographer’s studio on the occasion of my initiation into First Communion and Confirmation in the Catholic Church. In these black and white prints, all of us are smiling stiffly. The other two, taken by visitors with cameras, provide extremely rare documentary evidence of my existence as a child. I was excited to receive digital copies of these prints from one of my sisters as a gift for Christmas 2007. However, after studying them intently for a few minutes a wave of discomfort washed over me, and then a feeling of depression. I put them back in the envelope and did not dare reopen them until today, two months later. To my wife’s suggestion that I have them framed, I brusquely said no, without explanation.

Why is it so difficult for me to look at these childhood pictures? Is it part of normal mourning for a childhood that has passed, never to be recovered? I have noticed that when my students complete the sentence stem “As I look back on my childhood, I feel…” by far the most common response among students is a sense of loss that their childhoods are gone, never to return. Perhaps this is the powerful allure of Peter Pan’s perpetual youth. Then again, following Alice Miller (e.g., 1997), it could be that entry into the world of parental demand is so alienating that we spend our lives in mourning or in denial about the losses of our childhood. It is hard for me to tell if my losses are uniquely particular to me or banal in their commonness. Either way, these photographs remind me of the powerful pull of my past and cause me to search for a nuanced understanding of what constitutes my coming to be in the world. Perhaps Roland Barthes is correct when, in Camera Lucida (1981), he claims that every photograph contains that “rather terrible thing… the return of the dead” (p. 9), since photographs evoke a profound sense of otherness and an invocation of the spectral self (p. 14). Barthes goes on to suggest that interesting photographs contain a punctum (p. 42), a detail from which it is possible to re-view events from an angle that opens up expansive possibilities. In Barthes’ terms these photographs seem, therefore, to have metonymic significance for me in opening up a window into my childhood. (O’Loughlin, 2009: 46–7)

What puzzles me most, perhaps, is that nowhere in my education in Ireland, nor in my graduate studies in the United States, were there opportunities for autobiographical introspection. To the contrary, I was taught to put my feelings aside and to adopt a distant and omniscient (male?) authorial voice. While my psychoanalytic training was an improvement, the didactics and supervision were predominantly technical and focused on the dynamics of the patient. Psychoanalysis, on the whole, has been far more interested in intrapsychic and family dynamics than in ancestral, colonial or genealogical legacies (O’Loughlin, 2020; In press a). Feeling estranged from myself and my writing – long before I discovered psychoanalysis – I began looking for answers and, in the process, discovered a group of feminist and social-justice-oriented female writers whose work opened an invitation to autobiographical introspection and explorations in locatedness that have been formative for me. Among these writers were Gloria Anzaldúa (1987), Mary Catherine Bateson (1990), Barbara Christian (1987), Carolyn Heilbrun (1988), bell hooks (1981), Audre Lorde (1984), Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa (1981), Trinh Minh-ha (1989) and Adrienne Rich (1979).

In ‘Giving an account of oneself’, Judith Butler reminds us of the inherent location of subjectivity in the Other. Absorbing the desire and demand of the Other, Butler (2001: 26) notes that ‘my account of myself is never fully mine, and never fully for me’. We are constituted by a history that precedes us and one that we can never fully know:

The ‘I’ cannot tell the story of its own emergence and the conditions of its own possibility without in some sense bearing witness to a state of affairs to which one could not have been present, prior to one’s own becoming, and so narrating which one cannot know. (Butler, 2001: 26)

Piera Aulagnier (2001: 52) puts it more dramatically, noting that the child’s genealogical destiny is foreclosed by those who ‘demand that the child conform to an image of the child that occupied the cradle long before the body was placed in it’. This complicates the issues of agency and authorship since we are constructed through impingements from alterity and thus interdependent and entangled with caregivers and the ancestral lineages and prohibitions they necessarily embody. In addition, the language in which I communicate my narrative depends on a structure of address received from the Other, and therefore even the very act of narration is constituted in proscription. Therefore, the power and potential of autobiography – the giving an account of oneself – is not merely an act of narration. It is an act of coming to be, of gaining ownership of one’s origins and constitutedness. The feminist authors I cited earlier allowed me to begin the struggle for agency and ‘I’-ness by working through the genealogical traces and occlusions that constitute my being.

In Memory and Autobiography, Leonor Arfuch (2020: 15) offers a definition that captures the situatedness, dialogicality, relationality and working through that are inherent in autobiographical work:

Rather, it is a profound work on interiority, on what, without drawing a boundary with fiction, could rightly be called autobiography … [Autobiography] does not only refer to a personal story of vicissitudes in chronological order but also the gaze resting on others, the dialogues we might have with them—even after they have disappeared—the flow of experience in time and space. So all we are able to learn of how the walker is inspired by the path, the historical and existential coordinates that cause him to stop in one place or another, the meeting with classical or contemporary, real or imagined people.

Arfuch is sensitive, too, to the notion of autobiography as testimony, and to ways in which ‘the traumatic trace of the events is inscribed in individual destinies’ and how, through autobiography, we may find ‘certain keys to a situated subjectivity in aesthetic, ethical and political terms’ (Arfuch, 2020: xix, emphasis in original). Drawing from Michael Holroyd’s work on autobiography, Arfuch notes the dynamic and agentic nature of autobiography as ‘giving form to a life that didn’t exist before the narrative’ (2020: xxi, emphasis in original). Echoing my reaction to the family pictures I received, Arfuch remarks on ‘the absence that presence unfailing carries in its wake’ (2020: 42) and she underlines the power of narration:

What is it that leads me, after so much time, to return to the past? Why make the most intimate experience of fear, humiliation, torture and pain public? Why relive each instance of suffering: abduction, confinement, torture, denunciation, sexual abuse, perversion, the loss of companions, the fear of death, exile? Because language inexorably carries with it the full weight of emotion. (2020: 61)

On precarity

My life, too, has been shadowed by ancestral and ‘inaugural losses’ (Kristeva, 1982). I was born into a family genealogy in which my parents were descended from the poorest class of Irish people. They were only a few generations removed from the catastrophic losses of Ireland’s Great Hunger. Living in abject poverty, in the shadow of colonialism and carrying an unsymbolised excess from their ancestors, they developed dispositions of fatalism and stoicism to endure their unmourned losses. My mother once remarked that there wouldn’t be any point in talking with me about her life as she could not discuss “the bad things” as they were “too awful”. I spent much of my first two years in hospital with a serious illness, and the hospital finally advised my parents to purchase a coffin and prepare for my death. In desperation, my father took me to the only other hospital in town where, in due course, I recovered. What did living with the knowledge of my potential death do to my mother, a woman whose own mother had died during her childhood, and who was prone to lifelong anxiety? How did my undoubted absorption of her unspeakable mortal anxiety affect my going-on-being? Could this be the root of the ‘nameless dread’ I have periodically experienced? Wilfred Bion (1962) refers to nameless dread as a kind of free-floating anxiety that comes from a failure of emotional containment – in my case no doubt due to my mother’s anxious preoccupation with death and my own knowledge of my dying. On the other hand, what of my father’s bold action that insisted I should live? Could this have served as a source of vitality? Could it explain my persistence in the face of adversity? I grew up to be a cerebral, tentative and hesitant child – holding thoughts and aspirations tightly but not daring to name them. Dutiful and parentified as a child, to this day I continue to labour in the shadow of ‘the tyranny of the should’ (Horney, 2013) – an inexhaustible desire to do more and do it better – to make reparations for my existence. (O’Loughlin, In press b)

Following are two excerpts from my writings that are illustrative of my uses of autobiographical reflections embedded within academic texts.

Return to mother

I have written elsewhere (for example, O’Loughlin, 2007; 2009; 2010) about the psychic effects of the lengthy hospitalisations that dominated my earliest years. I have long ruminated about the undoubted connection between those recurrent early hospitalisations and lifelong feelings of anxiety and narcissistic vulnerability of the kind that Bion (1961) characterised as nameless dread, and that Kristeva (1982) referred to as inaugural losses. I was born with a severe gastric condition that required multiple hospitalisations. The periods between hospital stays were characterised by regular bouts of projectile vomiting. This placed me in obvious distress, but also caused tremendous stress for my mother. We had no extra sets of linen, and there was no running water, washer or dryer for laundering soiled linen and clothing. While visiting the local hospital, my parents were often advised to gaze at me through the window in the door of the hospital bedroom as the staff said that I got “too upset” if they came in and held me. A saving grace for me was one nurse O’Halloran. She ‘adopted’ me in the hospital. She dressed me in other children’s finery, loved me and obviously provided a critical mirroring function in the absence of my mother. I experienced arrested development and ceased to grow. This, and a distended belly, brought on by starvation, led me to the brink of death. When my father was advised to purchase a coffin, he took matters into his own hands, and moved me to the only other hospital in town, where, in due course, I responded to treatment. My mother told me that when she came in to the hospital to pick me up at age two, the taxi driver accompanying her was aghast: he said I looked more like a newborn than a two-year-old.

There is much grist for analysis here. There was my own ongoing struggle to live, bolstered at a critical moment by decisive action on my father’s part to insist on more effective medical intervention. There was the persistent worry of my parents about the uncertainty of my life chances, compounded by severe financial austerity, and the need to simultaneously keep in mind and create containing environments for my two toddler siblings. One effect of this parental worry is that I developed a somewhat fragilised posture toward life. In a sense, you might say, I lived, but I lacked the robust vitality of my peers. Like Colin, the tyrannical disabled wheelchair-user boy with a crippled personality in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s (1909) The Secret Garden, I was closed off from the world by my fragility. My investment in that same fragility, however, also effectively hemmed me in. In the parlance of the day, I was described as a delicate child – one that needed a special diet and special treatment, and from whom wholehearted participation in life could not be expected.

Ruminations about vitality and resilience unexpectedly came into sharp relief for me in recent months as I journeyed back and forth to Ireland to join my siblings in keeping a vigil at my mother’s bedside as she passed through her final illness to death. What struck me as we sat with my mother over a lengthy period was the intensity of her psychic presence. As her physical presence declined precipitously, I felt she became increasingly alive for each one of us and the intensity of each of our responses to her fading presence seemed to reflect the ways in which she had infused each of us with our own particular form of vitality, resilience and life purpose. It was an almost mystical experience in which the realisation of our mother’s imminent passing evoked in each of us archaic experiences of primal love and desire and an attempt to articulate identifications with the maternal imago and to hold on to that desire. It felt like a sacred moment: a moment when the gift of her maternal essence was suddenly rendered manifest. While I had long paid homage to my mother’s desire that I live, and I had recognised that my identifications with her deep interest in books had led me to a scholarly career, it was only now that I really began to reflect on the intensity of her desire for my being. I saw this reflected in my siblings, too, most tangibly in my brother, who remarked more than once on his physical resemblance to our mother. While a final leave-taking is a sad and unspeakable process of relinquishment, I felt that this loss was balanced out by an uncanny communication of some basic element of vitality and urgent desire that bonded us together. We have been scattered across the diaspora, and emotional gaps had developed in our family over the last half century, yet we felt willed to come together in harmony and produced a testimony to my mother that bore witness to some fundamental essence or desire in her being that had infused each of us. In collectively composing the eulogy with my siblings, I had proposed saying that our mother had exhibited “ferocious aspiration” for all of us. My siblings gently vetoed the word ‘ferocious’, fearing that any potential negative connotation of the term might dilute in any way the goodness of the drive emanating from our mother. (O’Loughlin, 2017: 363–6)

Conflict of interest

The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.

References

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  • Arfuch, L. (2020) Memory and Autobiography: Exploration of the Limits, Cambridge: Polity Press.

  • Aulagnier, P. (2001) The Violence of Interpretation: From Pictogram to Statement, A. Sheridan (trans), Hove: Brunner-Routledge.

  • Bateson, M.C. (1990) Composing a Life, London: Penguin.

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  • Christian, B. (1987) The race for theory, Cultural Critique, 6: 5163. doi: 10.2307/1354255

  • Heilbrun, C. (1988) Writing a Woman’s Life, New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

  • Hooks, b. (1981) Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism, Brooklyn, NY: South End Press.

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  • O’Loughlin, M. (2009) The Subject of Childhood, Frankfurt: Peter Lang.

  • O’Loughlin, M. (2017) The emergence of the speaking subject: child therapy and the subject of desire, in B. Seitler (ed) From Cradle to Couch: In Honor of the Developmental Psychology of Sylvia Brody, New York: International Psychoanalytic Books.

    • Search Google Scholar
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  • O’Loughlin, M. (2020) Whiteness in the psychoanalytic imagination, Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 56(2–3): 35374.

  • O’Loughlin, M. (In press a) Cultural ruptures and their consequences for mental health across generations: the case of Ireland, in I. Lambrecht and A. Lavis (eds) Culture and Psychosis, London: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • O’Loughlin, M. (In press b) Negotiating agency in the formation of subjectivity: the child, the parental other and the sovereign other, in M. O’Loughlin, C. Owens and L. Rothschild (eds) Childhood Predicaments: Precarity, Desire, Loss, Liminality, (Im)possibility, Washington, DC: Lexington Books.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rich, A. (1979) On Lies, Secrets and Silence; Selected Prose 1966–1978, New York, NY: W.W. Norton.

  • Anzaldúa, G. (1987) Borderlands: La Frontera: The New Mestiza, San Francisco, CA: Aunt Lute Books.

  • Arfuch, L. (2020) Memory and Autobiography: Exploration of the Limits, Cambridge: Polity Press.

  • Aulagnier, P. (2001) The Violence of Interpretation: From Pictogram to Statement, A. Sheridan (trans), Hove: Brunner-Routledge.

  • Bateson, M.C. (1990) Composing a Life, London: Penguin.

  • Butler, J. (2001) Giving an account of oneself, Diacritics, 31(4): 2240. doi: 10.1353/dia.2004.0002

  • Christian, B. (1987) The race for theory, Cultural Critique, 6: 5163. doi: 10.2307/1354255

  • Heilbrun, C. (1988) Writing a Woman’s Life, New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

  • Hooks, b. (1981) Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism, Brooklyn, NY: South End Press.

  • Lorde, A. (1984) Sister Outsider Essays and Speeches, Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press.

  • Minh-ha, T.T. (1989) Woman, Native, Other: Writing, Postcoloniality and Feminism, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

  • Moraga, C. and Anzaldúa, G. (eds) (1981) This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, Bloomington, IN: Third Woman Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • O’Loughlin, M. (2009) The Subject of Childhood, Frankfurt: Peter Lang.

  • O’Loughlin, M. (2017) The emergence of the speaking subject: child therapy and the subject of desire, in B. Seitler (ed) From Cradle to Couch: In Honor of the Developmental Psychology of Sylvia Brody, New York: International Psychoanalytic Books.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • O’Loughlin, M. (2020) Whiteness in the psychoanalytic imagination, Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 56(2–3): 35374.

  • O’Loughlin, M. (In press a) Cultural ruptures and their consequences for mental health across generations: the case of Ireland, in I. Lambrecht and A. Lavis (eds) Culture and Psychosis, London: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • O’Loughlin, M. (In press b) Negotiating agency in the formation of subjectivity: the child, the parental other and the sovereign other, in M. O’Loughlin, C. Owens and L. Rothschild (eds) Childhood Predicaments: Precarity, Desire, Loss, Liminality, (Im)possibility, Washington, DC: Lexington Books.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rich, A. (1979) On Lies, Secrets and Silence; Selected Prose 1966–1978, New York, NY: W.W. Norton.

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