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The Inner World of Trauma: The Lost and Recovered Soul Public Lecture and Seminar with Donald Kalsched, Ph.D. 4th and 5th April, 2008

Reviewed by Mary Arthurs

Donald Kalsched is a Jungian analyst and clinical psychologist working in the United States. He was in Ireland at the invitation of the Irish Analytical Psychology Association to give a public lecture and a clinical seminar on his work with patients who have suffered early childhood trauma. He has written and lectured widely on this theme and his book The Inner World of Trauma:  Archetypal Defences of the Personal Spirit (Routledge, 1996) explores the interface between contemporary psychoanalytic theory and Jungian theory as it relates to clinical work with the survivors of early childhood trauma.

About 70 practitioners gathered on Saturday morning in the Irish Writer’s Museum to listen to Donald talk about his work with patients who had suffered early childhood trauma. Those of us who had attended his public lecture in Trinity College the evening before were looking forward to hearing him speak more fully on trauma, the unmediated unbearable experience and the accompanying dissociation that allows the sufferer to go on living. We had been advised to read the fairy tale Rapunzal – she of the long hair trapped in the tower and kept captive by the witch. Donald uses the fairytale of Rapunzal to illustrate the archetypal energy, that primitive archaic energy, that is deeply rooted in the unconscious and that in its unmediated form tends to be over-powering. The dark energy of the witch has power over the young girl held captive in the tower. The innocent, relational, creative essential core is locked away in a prison for safe-keeping for ever. The energy that should be used for living life to the full is diverted into mere survival.

Donald opened with a poem by Emily Dickinson

There is a pain – so utter – It swallows substance up – Then covers the Abyss with Trance – So Memory can step Around – across – upon it – As one within a Swoon – Goes safely – where an open eye – Would drop Him – Bone by Bone. (Selected Poems, Everyman, 1996)

According to the Donald, this poem describes how the inner world comes to the rescue of the trauma survivor. In terms of the psyche, trauma is any experience that causes unbearable pain or anxiety. Anything that leaves the child feeling that the essence of who they are is defective or missing in essential value and therefore at risk of annihilation is traumatic. Dissociation is necessary for the individual to go on living; the pain is distributed to make it more manageable. It also saves something of spirit for later growth. This is a self-care system that allows one part to regress and the other part to progress.

Donald spoke of the split between the innocent part of the self that has been saved by an ‘imaginal inner world of companions’. This self is now in hiding from the real world with its undependable attachments. This is a world of tyrannical infantilism where the victim becomes the perpetrator, where the personal is projected onto the general and vice versa. He describes a ‘Self-Care System’ that protects the personality from disintegration, a system that a) makes meaning for child’s life, b) that regulates distance from the world of others – ‘all by myself’ might be the catchword, c) establishes self-regulation to control aggression towards the other and d) promotes self preservation by keeping feelings at bay, very often through addictions – a slow suicide. This is a world where there are no memories, only flashbacks and repetition.  Relationship is the conduit through which this painful work can be repaired. He articulates what we as humanistic and integrative psychotherapists have held – that relationship is the way through this impasse.  As the morning session drew to a close, Donald took questions and there was time for some discussion before we broke for lunch.

The afternoon session was devoted to a case presentation and lively discussion.

The message, if there was one, is that therapy is about making peace between the warring factions within the client. Keep relating – the therapy is all in the relationship.  Grief work is about suffering the loss. Trauma changes suffering into violence – against self and others. Therapy is about changing violence into suffering – grieving for the loss. He spoke about the mutuality of therapy, co-creation with a partner, where both are connected and affected by the work of therapy.

I was impressed by the coherence, integration, accessibility of Donald’s work, his ability to teach, to bring us all along with him into this world of trauma that I warrant is familiar to us all.

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