The Silent Character:
Reading Fiction as an Avenue to Treatment
Literature translates information into experience. It turns facts into fictions. It is only when facts become fictions, become stories, become experiential. That’s the only time they become real.
Arnold Weinstein, PhD, Professor of Comparative Literature, Brown University
After four months of working with Mr. M, I was puzzled as to why he had come into psychoanalytic treatment at this particular time in his life, actually why he had come at all. He was forty-five years old, married, and in no obvious emotional pain. Mr. M was disconnected from his feelings, unimaginative, and opposed to any focus upon his inner world. There was no life, no motion, in the hours we spent together.
During one session Mr. M casually remarked that he had discovered an author while browsing in a bookstore several months before he entered treatment. Arnost Lustig, he indicated, is a Czeck concentration camp survivor who uses fiction to write of his experience of the Holocaust. Mr. M was struck by the title of one of Lustig’s books of short stories, Street of Lost Brothers, and had begun reading the first story in the collection while still in the bookstore. The manner in which he told me about this experience caught my attention, because there was a perceptible change in his affect and a quickening of his usually monotonic voice. It struck me that, unlike our experience together, Mr. M’s time with Lustig had affected him, had enlivened him. I also suspected that reading this story created in him a desire to enter into an analytic relationship. I asked if he were aware of how important this story was to him. What did he think and feel as he responded to it? In his characteristic manner, Mr. M replied that he had no idea how he felt when reading the story or whether his reading of it had been important to him at all. Perhaps, he said, I should read it myself.
Being both curious about his experience in reading fiction and desperate to find an analytic object (Green, 1975) through which the two of us could enter into exploring his inner world, I decided to seek out this author myself. Since I was invading a part of his private world outside of the analytic setting, I felt that I had to obtain his permission to actually do so. “Yeah. Sure. Why not?”, he replied. I said that my doing so would affect our relationship in ways that we could explore as we came to know more about its impact. I decided that I would take careful notes of my experience in reading. Before I read the story, my first thoughts had to do with how Mr. M seemed to be trapped in the concentration camp of his mind. I was not sure whether he himself felt stifled by his own being, or whether this was how I imagined life to be for him. I then recognized that the concentration camp to which I referred was the analytic experience where I felt tortured by a relationship which I felt was dead. It was an analytic relationship in which we were defined by the two-dimensional roles of analyst and patient. There was no escape into a more lively, colorful world where words and reported events possessed meanings and he, I, and the people in his life were animated into complex human characters. These associations of mine were all evoked prior to reading the story.
The first story in Lustig’s book is entitled “Morning till Evening”. In it the character Emanuel had important people ripped from his life. Two brothers for whom he had worked disappeared one night, apparently victims of the Gestapo, and his son was murdered in a Nazi death march. While the picture of his wife, Emily, evoked the barrenness, the hopelessness, and the perseveration of experience created by overwhelming trauma, Emanuel himself appeared to be alive as a human being who was not defined (reduced) by his present circumstances and who appeared to possess a sense of past and future that had not been destroyed by the Nazi’s attempt at extermination of body and soul. My personal translation of this story reflected the dual existence I shared with Mr. M in our sessions—both the barrenness of experience with him in the transference-countertransference and my hopefulness that our work together would enliven him. I also hoped that by my having entered (from my side) into the world of this story in which he too had entered (from his), the two of us might find a common ground upon to walk, after having read this story, I again asked Mr. M what his own experience of reading it had brought up in him. Without much feeling he spoke of the “horror” of the Holocaust, how it was “unfathomable that one could survive such an experience”. He thought in fact that no one could emotionally survive; they could only be “dead men walking”. He focused on the character of Emily. Emanuel was conspicuous by his absence. I asked about his reactions to Emanuel. “I don’t think he is real. How could someone not be entirely destroyed by what had happened to him? It’s a mystery to me”. I said, “It seems to me that he still had hope”. Mr. M fell silent. This felt like a different kind of silence—one that was occurring between the two of us, one that was shared by us both. Was this hope?
In discussing his concept of the analytic third, Thomas Ogden makes the following comment.
“Human beings have a need as deep as hunger and thirst to establish inter-subjective constructions…in order to find an exit from unending, futile wanderings in their own internal object world” (Ogden, 1994, p. 105).
Subsequent work with Mr. M is demonstrating that the short story we share has become an analytic object, an analytic third, that occupies the analytic space between us. It has come to mediate his experiences of hopelessness in the solitary existence of his internal object world and of hopefulness through the prospect of analytic work with another human being. It is through such conveyances that we analysts come to translate our patients.
In their works of fiction, writers must create a “place to live”(Winnicott, 1971) in order to communicate their experiences, because the facts of these experiences are either too painful to put into words, or they are inadequate to “evoke in one’s imagination even a shadow of the fear, anxiety, and hopelessness” (Lustig, 1994, p. 6) that one can possess in his own internal world. In this translation of experience, the stories become real. Perhaps it is that same place where we readers go in order to find words for our own experiences. Mr. M came to life through reading Lustig’s story. This resurrection could only occur because he had felt “read” by Lustig, felt read by this story in a way that he had never been understood before. In turn I, the analyst-as-reader (reader-as-ana-lyst), found, as did the patient, a point of entry into the repetitious wanderings of Mr. M’s internal world.
What is more, Mr. M’s experience of reading this short story appeared to have provided an avenue through which he could enter analytic treatment. It created an environment of hope that permitted him to suspend disbelief that there could be a way out. Once he and his analyst found themselves together in the analytic situation, this story further became a medium of exchange that was a way in to this world.
Lustig, A. (1990). “Morning til Evening” in Street of Lost Brothers.
Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press. (1998).
Auschwitz-Birkenau in The Holocaust: Memories, Research, Reference. The Haworth Press, Inc. Green, A. (1975). The Analyst, Symbolization and Absence in the Analytic.
Setting (On Changes in Analytic Practice and Analytic Experience)—In Memory of D. W. Winnicott. Int.). Psycho-Anal., 56:1-22. Ogden, T (1994). “Projective Identification and the Subjugating Third” in
Subject Analysis. London:Karnac Books. Weinstein, A. (1997). Lecture 1. Classics of American Literature. Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company. Winnicott, D.W. (1971).
“The Place Where We Live” in Playing and Reality. New York: Routledge.