This is a public confession - since my undergraduate days when I first had to read Society and its Discontents, I gave Freud a big pass. What I learned about his theory through a liberal education was enough for me to dismiss him. His theories about everything being about sex, repressed sex, expressed sex, delayed sex, women envying men, all about the phallus, turned me off. I never understood his claims that women, who could become pregnant from one fast sperm, incubate life for nine months, and go through the birth process as heroines, could possibly envy an appendage. If anything, I understood that men had what is now called Venus envy, since they cannot bring forth life from their own bodies, they have to compensate.
Nor did I buy into the Oedipal fantasy that all men want to marry their mothers and kill off the father. Or that all little girls want to marry their daddies, that all dreams are sublimated sexual and libidinal drives. Or that the psyche conspires to conceal rather than reveal. It seemed a dark, driven and desperate world he saw, described and stamped on the Western psychological model. So off to Jung I went, his grasp of the mystery of Psyche, the inner workings of the Self in relationship to a developing ego, the telos of life being to live one’s life consciously and not be lived through the possession of autonomous complexes spoke to me. Jung allowed a more comprehensive lens through which to understand life than mere sex or even death.
So, in other words, I followed the established norm of choosing one of two camps, two psychological stances each of which disavowed one another. To all you Freudians, my apologies. This is what happened: I signed up for a certification program at the Assisi Institute entitled: After the Storm: Psyche’s Response to trauma, Resilience and Healing. The first book on the list for the program was Trauma, Growth and Personality by Phyllis Greenacre, an avowed Freudian. And I was stunned to realize that there was gold in Freud too! She wrote about the process of birth as the infant’s initial traumatic experience from the infant’s point of view.
She describes how pre-natal, natal and post natal experiences predisposes the infant’s organism to respond to trauma in particular ways. The biological process prepares the infant to respond to stimuli in the outer world. How the initial birth trauma goes, how the infant is held, how the environment responds to its stress and distress, in a sense prefigures how the adult will find ways to modulate stress, and respond to trauma.
Those of you well versed in Freudian theory know much more than that, but for me, the depth of attention to the infant’s experience awakened a respect for him that I had not had before. While I am not embarking on becoming a Freudian, I can find resonance in field theory, initial conditions that constrain how an organism responds to life and its vicissitudes. Perhaps it speaks to a more mature attitude to the greats, to do homage and respect for their work without holding them to be a God who must either be worshipped or destroyed. And while I may never speak fluent Freudian, I will study its vocabulary and engage in dialogue with respect and curiosity.
Dr. Silvia Behrend is a Certified Pattern Analyst, educator and mentor