Memory: External and Internal

Next Shabbos is another special Shabbos, “ZACHOR” and naturally I turn to the Pesikta deRav Kahana for inspiration. The Midrash turns our attention to the intimate relationship between good and evil, the struggle between the twins Yaakov and Eysav. A king once placed a vicious dog to guard his vineyard. But the king’s son once foolishly tried to break into the vineyard, and the dog bit him. When the king wanted to remind his son of his foolishness, he would say, “Remember the dogbite.” 

Much has been said of the intertwining of good and evil in our world. I want to turn our attention as clinicians to the psychological complexities of the matter. As we learn from Melanie Klein via the most readable writings of Thomas Ogden, the small child keeps in as part of “me” what is pleasurable, and expels to the “not me” what is not pleasurable. In and out, good and bad, black and white, all or none. But then there is anger – not pleasure – at mother’s leaving. Will mother now become all bad, or like two mother’s, the good one and the bad one? That is what Klein called the “schizoid – paranoid position”. Small children – and the small child in all of us – recreate the dama by the mechanism of “projective identification” – a simple procedure with a formidable name. The child recreates the drama by getting mother angry, just to prove who is the bad one here. In time we develop the “depressive position,” another formidable epithet that just means that we can see the good and the bad in one person – and in ourselves. 

Unfortunately, Melanie Klein and then Otto Kernberg made exaggerated use of a “split” between these mechanisms, as if only very disturbed “Borderline” clients use projective identification. Ogden became enormously influential in toning down this split. We all experience projective identification in our everyday life. Witness behavior on the roads (especially Israeli roads). Now, one might expect Parashas Zachor to be the justification of the schizoid-paranoid,  AMALEK is bad and WE are good. The Midrash, in contrast,  teaches the depressive position, “remember the dogbite?”

This applies to our clinical work especially with our most difficult clients. It is all too seductive for us to pay attention to the client’s “pathological” mechanisms, as it distances us from awareness of our own participation in these mechanisms. That is of course the great danger of “DSMism,” something our second and third year students will be studying in depth this coming semester. The first difficulty in becoming a therapist is overcoming the “how different my client is from me” and becoming able to see our similarities. That is becoming a therapist “standing on one foot;” the rest – is supervision.