Annie Rogers in Conversation with Thérèse Gaynor

Thérèse: It’s wonderful to have an opportunity to speak with you. You had asked me to clarify what in particular might be of interest to the readers of Inside Out, what they might like to hear more about? And I was left with a wonderfully open and yet difficult opportunity and in the end could really only look within myself to what I felt was the opportunity; and this is to hear a little about what seems to me to be a change in direction for you in moving into Lacanian analysis.

Annie: Now, eleven years after the publication of A Shining Affliction, it seems to me that book is based on another era in my thinking.  My treatment of the little boy whom I called Ben, and the way he led me into his expressive world of play, was certainly psychoanalytic in the sense that we made connections to things he did not consciously know.  That interest of mine in the unconscious changed into something far more specific than American psychoanalysis had to offer me.  It changed into an interest in the structure of language used by the unconscious via the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan.

As I continued to see children and adolescents, it seemed to me that there were more and more instances of something that was not conscious to the children in their speaking and in their play, as if they were trying to say something to me that absolutely couldn’t be known or said directly.

I became really interested in this.  I went after that edge of what could be symbolised only so far, and then the child or adolescent I was seeing just couldn’t take it any further. I began to look around psychology, in the US and in Canada, mostly at theories about psychological trauma.  And there was a lot of interesting new research, but nothing that spoke to what I was most intrigued by in my practice, this expression of something the child could not say directly.

The word I had for it was unsayable and by that I didn’t mean silent, I meant that there was something elusive and repeating that was coming into speaking and into playing, that suggested to me things that were crucial for that child.

Thérèse: And are you suggesting that it was also somehow unsayable for you?

Annie: Yes, in the sense that I couldn’t pin this unsayable down enough to figure out how to work with it. So not finding what I needed to find in the psychological literature, which outlined symptoms for whole populations rather than discussing a particular way a child was speaking, I turned to another field. I found this incredible book by Budick and Iser, literary theorists, they were talking about the unsayable in literature, and what they called the play of negativity in language, the play of negation, saying things by going around them and saying what they are not, or saying one thing and then another contradictory revision of it.

I began to understand these negations and revisions in speaking as the languages of the unsayable, and I tried to figure a way to talk about them and to track them in children’s narratives, working with graduate students at Harvard. During this time I got to know a really wonderful older man, a clinical psychologist in the States, in Boston, Dr. Charles Hersch. He had come to hear a talk I gave at a clinical conference on the languages of the unsayable. He had been treating an adolescent girl who had been severely depressed and had some on-again, off-again success, but was concerned about the girl and knew he wasn’t quite reaching her.  After he heard me speak, something had changed in his work. And he called me up several weeks later, I didn’t know him at all, and he said that he wanted to have lunch with me.  He wanted to consult about a case.   I didn’t know what I could say to him, but agreed to meet and so we met for lunch. He talked about his case and this started a wonderful relationship for me. I could think out loud to him, and when we had our lunches we talked about the unsayable, among other things.

It was around that time that I’d also begun to meet with two very good friends and colleagues in Cambridge Massachusetts, Dr. Meg Turner and Dr. Pierre Johannet, and I was interested in reading Lacan and sharing their interest in Lacan.  The two of them were engrossed in training with analysts in Quebec, Canada.  Well, one thing led to another and I joined a training seminar too at the Freudian School of Quebec, and met Willy Apollon, Daniel Bergeron, and Lucie Cantin, the three analysts who have deeply changed my thinking and practice.  Almost as soon as I began to read Lacan, I had this response of, “oh my God this is gold!”  There were some sentences that I could actually understand along with sentences that made absolutely no sense what-so-ever. I began reading and re-reading, and certainly not understanding everything, but knowing that this was the right direction for me.

I started meeting with these two colleagues and the Boston Psychoanalytic Circle, and I began to learn how to listen specifically for signifiers, for these sound bytes in speech that are cut in funny ways that the person who is speaking isn’t aware of.  Hearing the effect of listening this way for patients, it was just an electric kind of recognition.  While it will take me a very long time to grasp the details of Lacan’s theories, it has not taken me very long to hear those almost musically repeating sounds in speech. And because I had been thinking so hard for so long about the connections between different aspects of children’s symbolic play and what they could only say very indirectly, I was primed toward a new way of listening.  Because of the trouble that children were having saying what was happening in their lives and in their own histories, in the sense that they didn’t know and the sense that they did know, I had been trying to make room for the unsayable time in my work.  With Lacan, I began to hear the unsayable in signifiers, in sounds and words inserted in speech connecting things the child wasn’t connecting at all.  I just felt completely amazed.

I was beginning work with a little girl who was eleven and I used a signifier in the second session I had with her and she heard it.  It resonated immediately for her, and I realised then that I would have a different way of working with her.

Thérèse: it seems like you were making your own connection between the unsayable and the Signifier. For those who aren’t that familiar with the work of Lacan, can you say something about his theory of the Signifier?

Annie: You know part of the big challenge in this for me is that I really do want a bigger audience to be interested in Lacan’s work, and these terms are not easily explained. The Lacanian definition of a Signifier is that which represents a subject for another signifier. I could say that a word points to something, it doesn’t land and say something decisive, it points to something else. But the way that I learned to find it was to listen backwards and to hear the repetition of something in sounds.  These sounds pointed back to something else, and linked up with a piece of play, another word, or an image in a dream, or a bodily symptom, or a piece of history.  When this happened it startled the child or adolescent, and for me too, as the listener, there was that element of surprise.  The new connection reaches out and grabs you and leads you, and the child, to a whole other sense of what is going on. To me, that experience of surprise is really what makes a signifier a signifier. To me it points to crucial linkages that we would never get to by just trying to talk out loud or by being insightful about something consciously narrated.

Reading Lacan, really slowly and really carefully in combination with training, has given me a completely other language to work with.  Yet I don’t want to speak or write as a Lacanian, because lyrical language just matters to me, and the Lacanian world leans toward a very abstract, and sometimes obtuse, form of writing.

Thérèse: you have a second book coming out soon and I’m curious and excited to perhaps hear a little about it. Your first book, A Shining Affliction, has received major recognition all over the world and continues to have a major impact on so many both within and outside the field of psychotherapy. In it you invited the reader to witness something of your personal journey and how this impacted upon you professionally, and in that most rare of experiences within our profession, you shared your vulnerability and offered an exceptional gift to all those who are open to truly listening and following their professional development with integrity, openness and compassion. I’m eager to hear whether your second book offers a similar invitation?

Annie: Yes but in a very different kind of way. The book is called The Unsayable and it was really hard to write. Writing the book took me back to my own adolescence in a way that writing A Shining Affliction didn’t. I wrote about that experience in the first part of the book because there was a five month period when I didn’t speak, and it was linked to psychosis, a crisis when I was sixteen years old. I open up with that piece of my story and then in the second part, I begin with the earliest cases that I saw. I tried to take what children and adolescents were saying to me in their play that was both unconscious and unsayable and yet right there, right in the play itself.

In the third part of the book I write about a girl whom I call Ellen. I started seeing her when she was eleven and we finished her therapy when she just turned eighteen. I had not intended to write about that case because it felt way too sensitive and also particular to her. I had been struggling with that decision when I decided that I would take the pattern of her signifiers and her dialogue and her dreams and I would see if I could disguise her and her family without losing the integrity of our work together.  I saw that I could recreate the same pattern I had in my notes, the same pattern that preserved the original pattern with everyone disguised. And once I figured that out I felt ethically I could speak to this young woman and her family and ask her how she would feel about me publishing that story. This was an extraordinary thing for her to read her own case, and to say yes to me.

In the fourth part of the book I write about the time I was a Fulbright Fellow in Psychology at Trinity College, Dublin in 1997-1998. I had begun a study in the States, interviewing girls who had been sexually abused who were in a particular programme because they had themselves become perpetrators. I hate the label, but it conveys a repetition. Anyway, I interviewed children in Ireland, and worked with psychologists here who interviewed with me.  When I went back to the States I continued to interview girls who had horrific experiences themselves and had also re-enacted that abuse with a younger child, either physical or sexual abuse or both. I wanted to re-think what trauma in adolescence was, section four of the book is really about conceptualising trauma and how to think about trauma in adolescence.

In the fifth part of the book I return to myself as an adolescent and talk about the dreams that were occurring just a few summers ago that raised again for me the questions of my adolescence. I didn’t want to leave it as a story in the past, I wanted to share with the reader how I worked with my dreams myself and how this was kind of a way in to a new understanding of my own psychotic crisis as a girl. I continued to feel that there’s a huge problem in how people practice, particularly if they don’t do their own work and they can then end up projecting onto the children or adolescents or adult they’re working with.

Thérèse: I’m fascinated by where this conversation has come to and how you are expressing a concern that I believe is echoing a concern of a great many clinicians practicing in Ireland today.

Annie: It’s ironic to me that there is, especially in the US but also it’s pretty big here too, I guess, an industry of psychotherapy and psychology, even an industry of psychoanalysis, and yet it’s difficult to find good treatment.  I feel this most when I need to make a referral for a child because, unless I know the person’s work, there are so many people who are either not going to be particularly helpful or who are going to be harmful. That’s not to say that I could not harm someone myself, or that I’ve got it all sewn up or figured out!

Being confident about making a referral is important, for a child or for an adult who is going to risk asking to speak. One of the things that Lacanian theory tells me, more and more clearly, is that you can’t impose a treatment, that asking for treatment and wanting it is crucial to the work.

Thérèse: An important concept we can all benefit from really hearing. So what now? With your second book about to be published, where to from here?

Annie: I moved to take a new teaching position at Hampshire College a few years ago and I discovered that in taking up that position, I absolutely love these eighteen to twenty-two year olds; they are fantastic to teach, and they are also just old enough to enter into psychoanalysis proper.  I mean working on the couch, as opposed to psychoanalytic psychotherapy or some variant of it with children. So what I would really like to do next is to work with young adults on the couch. And I think that in order to learn it and to learn it well, I will need to just see young adults for a time, although I can’t imagine giving up the child work altogether.

I know from my own earlier analysis that when you lie down on that couch and there is someone sitting to the side of you, you certainly know that another person is in the room but you’re not cued into speaking socially. And in Lacanian analysis it’s really clear that you develop a relationship to your own unconscious and not to a person you expect to rescue you from your anguish. As an analysand what most people do is to try to find out first whatever they need to do to be the love object of their analyst, which is also what every patient coming into psychotherapy does. The difference is that if, as an analyst, you stay in what is called the analytic position and you don’t respond to anything but the unconscious material, then the analysand can develop a relationship to her or his own unconscious. If that happens then the patient naturally becomes engaged with the real questions of the unconscious and begins to do a different kind of work, and feels a different kind of responsibility for that work. The function of the analyst is not only not to respond to some things and yet to respond to other things, but also to hold an ethical stance to receive the knowledge that comes from the unconscious – it means that you don’t have a kind of theoretical knowledge of what’s coming, you don’t have an interpretation that you give to the patient, but you have an ignorance coupled with an interest and amazing things can happen. Because there is a map for an analysis, you know whether or not it’s working and where you are on that map, and that helps that kind of specificity, which was lacking in my earlier work and training.

I think that my interest in developing clinical work in relation to Lacan and publishing this work is really to open up a conversation with the clinical world, rather than to tell others to follow the Lacanian way. I think that my path is not necessarily anyone else’s path, and at the same time there are things that I have learned, especially from the analysts in Canada, that have altered my way of listening and thinking. I’m a writer and so it will be interesting for me to see where this book will fit into the world and where it will lead next. It’s nearly twenty years since I’ve begun to practice, and now it’s actually wonderful to feel yet again like I’m a novice, at the edge of something that is very powerful and still very new.

Annie G. Rogers is Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. Her research and writing traverses two fields: Clinical Psychology and English Literature (Poetry). The recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship to study children’s experiences of trauma in Ireland, and a Radcliffe Fellowship to write about her research and clinical work, she is the author of A Shining Affliction (Penguin Viking, 1995), and The Unsayable: The Hidden Language of Trauma (Random House, 2006). A published poet and watercolour painter, she lives with her partner in Amherst in the US, and in Lismore, Ireland during the summers. Dr. Rogers is a member of the Boston Psychoanalytic Circle of the Freudian School of Quebec, and is currently engaged in training as a Lacanian psychoanalyst.