Exploration of Animal-Human Relationships in Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy: Finding Pathways to Bridge Remnant, Disowned, or as Yet Undeveloped Parts of Self

Joanne Emmens


This chapter is concerned with the phenomenon of animal-human relationship and the multitude of ways that these manifest in the lives of ourselves and our patients. Our cross-species relationships with our family pets, memories of animals from our childhood, and associations to animal symbols from stories and mythology are arguably formative experiences in all of our developmental histories. In cases of complex trauma and severe disturbances of the self, this material contains important associations that in a similar fashion to ‘dreams’ can be harnessed in the service of accessing pathways to parts of self that as a consequence of trauma have become arrested or dissociated from awareness. Psychoanalytic developmental theories within the object relations tradition offer a framework for the exploration of what I have come to register as an elusive territory that necessarily defies any definitive or conclusive definition or pinning down.

Important ‘reservoirs for our projections’

Psychoanalysis, from its foundations with Freud, has attributed a special significance to the animal-human bond (Beck and Katcher, 1996; Akhtar and Volkan, 2005). Freud maintained close ties to the Darwinian scientific paradigms of the enlightenment era, emphasizing our similarity and common ancestry to our non-human fellow mammals. In relation to early developmental theory, Freud observed an affinity between pre-verbal children and animals, which he attributed to a readiness to empathically identify with their pet animal companions in a manner that is lost in adult years, observing that ‘[c]hildren have no scruples over allowing animals to rank as their full equals’ (Freud, 1955b, p. 127).

In relation to the real value of animals in his life, Freud is very articulate. His daughter Anna Freud recalls her father’s closeness to his dog

Exploration of animal-human relationships 15 companions in his later life, and how he openly admitted his gratitude towards their lack of ambivalence. She recalls him saying that ‘dogs love their friends and bite their enemies, in contrast to men who are incapable of pure love and must at times mix love and hate in their object relations’ (Jacobs, 1994, p. 851).

Freud’s friend, fellow psychoanalyst and dog owner, Marie Bonaparte (who gifted to Freud his beloved Chows) wrote a small book in which she describes her relationship with her dog, Topsy, through her pet’s diagnosis, treatment, and eventual recovery from cancer. This short book (Bonaparte, 1994) details with deceptive simplicity how Bonaparte’s cross-species relationship with Topsy’s mortal vulnerability (of which Topsy could not be conscious) allowed her to access her own pre-verbal and wordless fears around mortality, thus capturing her deep sense of attachment to life. In appreciation for Bonaparte’s manuscript Freud wrote,

My Dear Marie

Just received your card from Athens and your manuscript of the Topsy book. I love it: .....It really explains why one can love an animal like

Topsy (or Jo-fi) with such extraordinary intensity; affection without ambivalence, the simplicity of a life free from the almost unbearable conflicts of civilization, the beauty of an existence complete in itself; and yet despite all divergence in the organic development, that feeling of an intimate affinity, of an undisputed solidarity. (Freud, 1960, pp. 434-435)

Freud’s interest in and appreciation for working with animal symbols in his work with patients extended beyond an understanding of the impact of direct pets’ relationships, as is evidenced in three of his famous case studies 'Rat Man’ (1955a), ‘Little Hans’ (1955a) and ‘Wolf Man’ (1955c). Each case example serves to illustrate the individually unique way that the patients’ fantasies about animals can function as ‘reservoirs for [each individual’s] projections’ (Akhtar and Volkan, 2005, p. xiii) and so, in a similar fashion to dreams, can be worked with to allow access to these previously unconscious territories. Animals (whether as pets, memories, or symbols) therefore can function as conduits, facilitating the process of what Bion (1962) terms ‘reverie’ (a form of awake dreaming where thoughts begin to symbolize and become thinkable). In essence, the work of psychoanalysis (along with arguably all psychotherapies) is the creative endeavor of facilitating awareness of what has been obscured from our consciousness and so interrupts and distorts our relationship with our internal and external worlds.

The pre-conscious and entrances to ‘secret passages’ (Bolognini, 2010)

Through the process of this research on the role of animal-human relationships in our object relationships, I have increasingly come up against an intriguing paradox. Many authors (including myself in previous research) found a paucity of psychological research on the topic of animal relationships and even an active dismissing or repudiation (Akhtar and Volkan, 2005; Emmens, 2007). While there is an apparent scarcity of specific literature on this topic, there exists simultaneously an abundance of references to animals and animal symbolism that populate our own and our patients’ dreams, reveries and associations, and also potpourri our theoretical papers and constructs. It is as if the topic of animal-human relationships in psychotherapy is hidden in plain view. The nature and complexity of this obscuring are of much interest to me and feel to be an essential and necessary component of this topic. In reference to the complexities of these phenomena in our work, I am reminded of Bolognini’s evocative metaphor of our psychological ‘cat-flaps’ in his book titled ‘Secret passages: The theory and technique of interpsychic relations’ (Bolognini, 2010). Bolognini uses the symbol of a cat-flap (a small door embedded in the main entrance door to home) to illustrate structurally the functioning of the invariably complex communications between therapist and patient in which projections (from both patient and therapist) manage to come and go (to and fro) unnoticed (just as our cats move freely between indoors and outdoors and sometimes clandestine mice manage to enter the house even while the ‘official’ door is not kept open by us). Bolognini conjectures that the cat-flap device corresponds to a preconscious mental level and that these interpsychic ‘cat-flaps’ develop between the patient and therapist couple, providing a useful regulating function. Bolognini observes that over time and with the building of familiarity, the unique conditions of ‘analysis “constructs a cat-flap” and coaches the “cat” (the preconscious) to use it’ (ibid, p. 67). Throughout his book, Bolognini depicts the infinitely variable ways in which we ‘recognize’ or even ‘catch on the fly’ preconscious communications from working with dreams, enactments, and mutual reverie that allow us passage into precious ‘secret passages’ that become functional by way of us being made aware of them. Bolognini stresses the importance of the unintentional nature of these discoveries which cannot be planned or intentionally set up. In the same way as psychoanalytic ‘empathy’, Bolognini stresses that these phenomena are events and not reproducible methods or procedures. Rather than a scarcity of research or a repudiation of this topic, perhaps our ‘study’ of animalhuman relationship (which 1 observe as innately regressive) is facilitative of entry into and along these ‘secret passages’. Our relationships with our non-human family members occupy a space that is both real (as our pets are individual and separate beings in their own right) and in Winnicottian terms transitional (as a degree of cross-species imagination and anthropomorphism is inevitable). In my own and my supervisees’ clinical experience, I observe that tolerable emotional distance can be fostered when working with a patient’s free associations relating to animals (relationships and symbols), which is creatively facilitative of sensitive psychological exploration, allowing security to explore emotions from new perspectives. 1 am reminded

Exploration of animal-human relationships 17 of Ferro’s (2013) use of the metaphor ‘comfortable oven gloves’ in interpreting emotions that are ‘still too hot to handle’ for the patient. Ferro reminds us of the difficulty in integrating previously ‘split-off’ emotions without first having the ‘space’ to contain them.

The adventures of Pinocchio, secret passages and the development of conscience

Within any culture, it seems that animal characters and symbolism in myth, fairy tales, nursery rhymes, popular and classic children’s literature, and advertising populate our childhood as well as adult landscapes. The animal characters that populate many of our classic fables stand for symbols of virtue and vice and are used to illustrate dramatic transformations back and forth along these continuums. These nonsensical and fantastical inheritances perhaps contain universal themes functioning as a form of collective cultural ‘dreaming’. In this, I am reminded of Bion’s use of the metaphor of ‘two-way traffic’ in his playful suggestion that rather than writing a book on ‘the interpretation of dreams’, one should instead write a book on ‘the interpretation of facts’, translating them into dream language - not just as a perverse exercise, but in order to get a ‘two-way traffic’ (Bion, 1980, p. 29). 1 suggest that the practice of‘interpreting facts back to dreams’ is an essential and principal role of the artist, poet and ‘story-teller’ within our societies. Such ‘translations’ offer us narrative and company along many of our developmental pathways towards maturation and the complex and painful process of building our own capacities for ‘learning from experience’ (Bion, 1962). It is after all necessary to become aware of the cunning charms of ‘wolves’ (charlatans) and to learn the patience and wisdom of building secure protective houses of bricks rather than giving in to the ease and low cost of straw or sticks. The inherent dangers of remaining stubbornly in folly by refusing to ‘learn from experience’ (ibid), the consequences of our repetition compulsions (Freud, 1955d) are common and universal dreamlike themes of many of these non-sensical tales (or ‘translated facts’).

For example, the original tales of Pinocchio written in 1883 by Carlo Collodi, contain many dream-like impossibilities and animal characters that allow us to play on the borders of dreaming and waking, of life and death, and reality and unreality. A house cricket functions as the young puppet’s external conscience before he has developed a capacity to develop his own internal conscience and capacity for mature object relationships. Pinocchio accidentally kills the cricket with a hammer in a fit of rage when he does not want to be lectured about the importance of being a good and obedient boy, the ‘cricket’ does not give up on Pinocchio and survives in the form of a ghost cricket to continue his work with the rebellious and defiant Pinocchio. In Winnicottian terms, Pinocchio’s journey from object relating to being able to ‘use’ (and so have a capacity to love and feel loved) his objects was fraught with obstacles and detours yet is ultimately successful due to thededicated maternal love of the ‘fairy’. Perhaps the ‘adventures of Pinocchio’, from wooden puppet to a real little boy, through many back roads, regressions, refusals and repudiations, parallel many of the psychoanalytic adventures (along secret passageways) that we all journey along with our patients, as we travel towards mature object relations. I believe that a capacity for ‘translating facts back to dreams’ is fostered in the therapy relationship, facilitating the poetic fluidity of‘two-way traffic’ that is strengthening of what Bion calls our alpha functions (our capacity to perceive and to recognize). Bion stresses that ‘following psycho-analytic principles, it is clear that the analyst should be alert to the tracking of symptoms in both directions. The problem [he reasons] is not a mind with one track, but a track that is oneway’ (Bion, 1980, p. 19).

A patient Melle, described to me her gratitude for what she termed her ‘slow, quiet transformation’ towards becoming her ‘real authentic self’ that although not immediately visible on the outside, she considered her greatest life achievement and most significant journey. Melle’s ‘quiet transformation’ seemed to be firstly inspired by her watching documentaries on elephant herds where themes of attachment, loss, mourning and despair slowly became knowable, thus precipitating her own capacity to mourn. Analogous to the tales of Pinocchio, Melle describes her previous life as having been ‘wooden’ and deadening, where she would alternate between imitative attempts to stay in proximity to her objects and fraught and dangerous periods of protest, anger, depression and despair.

Another patient Will, achieved a beginning capacity for emphatic concern towards another (his partner) and his own early vulnerable dependency, over a four-year psychotherapy in which first the defenses of powerful and dangerous animals were protectively identified with, leading the way to contemplate animals with not so developed defenses and even small (yet survivable) defects and deformities.

In the following paragraphs, I will discuss these two cases in line with our theme of making meaningful use of animal-human relationships (our objects in the room) that find their way into our therapy relationships.

Melle’s quiet transformation towards her authentic self

Melle, a 30-year-old woman, suffered a childhood characterized by physical and sexual violence, profound neglect and abandonment. At the beginning of her six-year therapy, Melle’s principal concerns revolved around a recent break-up with a man whom she knew to be ‘bad for her’, physically and emotionally abusive, and who had openly expressed his lack of love or concern for her. Despite knowing that this relationship was unviable, she found that she could not stop herself obsessively thinking about him. She experienced him to ‘pop up’ in her mind, innumerable times a day, which left her with an unbearable sense of ‘not mattering’ as a person. These obsessive and at times violently demanding thoughts seemed to fuel Melle’s severe

Exploration of animal-human relationships 19 depression and suicidal ideation. Melle feared that she would impulsively end her life in a violent fashion without really knowing why.

As an infant, Melle and her siblings were frequently left for days at a time without adequate food and were subject to years of sexual abuse by an older relative. Melle (an intelligent and courageous patient) was quickly able to link her ‘felt’ sense of the ‘pop up ex’ (a metaphor that she began to use for this brand of intrusive memory) as belonging to her ‘past’, where her family would call her a ‘nobody’. For Melle, a ‘nobody’ meant that you were so deficient that you did not reach the category of being a ‘person’. A ‘nobody’, was of no consequence to anybody and worse than being an orphan as any hope of eliciting love or care or of mattering to another ‘non-nobody’ person was deemed unattainable. It was a grimly definitive category of being that encapsulated a form of felt exile from being a real human being.

Through the process of therapy, Melle increasingly was able to link her habit of forming attachments to emotionally unavailable and/or abusive men who would exploit her, as having origins in her past traumas. She came to realize that the thought of leaving these relationships (or being left) evoked her terror of going back into what she referred to as ‘the dark place’ of being a ‘nobody’. As our work progressed over many years, Melle’s experience of deprivation became more apparent and in tiny steps, she started the work of being able to speak about and know her ‘past’ and to face into the wordless and as yet unthinkable trauma and associated losses of her early life. A definitive turning point occurred when Melle reported to me her interest in elephants and in watching documentaries about elephant herd culture where themes of traumatic poaching, orphaned elephant calves, separation and abandonment of calves, and reunions of mother and calf are movingly depicted. I believe these documentaries functioned as necessary ‘oven gloves’ (Ferro, 2013) allowing her a form of transitional space (Winnicott, 1971) where she could connect to and contain emotions (Bion, 1962) associated with her own early abandonment and traumatic neglect at a safe and tolerable distance.

Repairing damaged internal objects and faulty equations

Melle was able to imagine the tragedy of an abandoned baby elephant as arguably more painful than that of an orphaned elephant (a mother doesn’t choose to be murdered yet a degree of choice, at least, is perceived by an abandoned child). An orphaned elephant (if caught in time) has a possibility of being adopted and loved by a substitute mother (Melle would later recover a protective and sustaining childhood fantasy where she imagined being ‘given’ to a childless woman who would have treasured the opportunity to be a mother - and in this fantasy, she could imaginatively experience herself as a precious and wanted daughter). The concept of maternal abandonment was before now unknowable as it was unthinkable - to think about this reality was not viable as it would mean the child was actually alone.

The massive defenses employed to shield a child from this unknowable truth is lifesaving yet comes at an enormous psychological cost. As Winnicott’s (1971), famous quote ‘that there is no such thing as an infant, only mother and infant together’ asserts, humans (like elephants) perish without the protection and nurturance of the devoted parent(s).

An abandoned and mistreated child will formulate the equation that it is they that are lacking (defective/bad/faulty) in order to preserve the parent as ‘good’ and maintain the illusion that if they were to ‘fix’ themselves, then they would illicit the life-preserving love that in reality is their birthright (Shengold, 1989). 1 observe that it is a hugely painful and terrifying task to disturb or question this faulty formulation and that it is often clung to like a life raft. For this protective illusion to be maintained it needs to remain in an unquestioned holding pattern of suspended pending. To give up on the ‘wait’ (albeit an unconscious waiting) for the rejecting object to transform into the much needed protective parent would require facing into and beginning to mourn an as-yet unbearable reality; that those who one most depended on for survival were both absent and destructive towards our being.

Through her attentive watching of the elephant documentaries, Melle was able to conceive of and begin to internalize an early developmental blueprint of the necessary conditions for the development of a self. 1 believe it was important that the sad reality that not all baby elephants survived such abandonment as a consequence of not all elephant mothers being ‘good enough’ (Winnicott, 1971) was able to be witnessed and understood for this truth to begin to be mourned. Freud (1957), reminds us that we cannot mourn what we cannot know, and as discussed above, avoiding unbearable and unknowable ‘truths’ is the modus operandi of our defense system that fuels the creation of our symptoms.

1 believe that Melle’s viewing of these terrifying and heart-wrenching scenes from a cross-species perspective allowed the necessary ‘oven glove’ insulation to contemplate the nature of such early relational injuries and to start to contemplate the faulty formulations that preserve an illusion of care (now able to be registered for the first time as an absence). These documentaries illustrated to Melle how an infant elephant calf could not possibly be the cause of their own life-threatening abandonment which opened alternative perspectives to be thought about - such as the mother elephant’s own trauma around the threats of poaching, and scarcity of resources. These wonderings led Melle to be able to speculate on the impact of her own family’s legacy of intergenerational trauma.

Melle began to recognize an internal sequence of conclusive thoughts that would take her to what she came to refer to as the ‘dark box place’. In times of stress, she would experience a ‘pop-up’ (an image of the unavailable ex-boyfriend/object). She would then feel a familiar equation forming in her mind around the ‘question’ of whether she was a ‘nobody’ or a ‘somebody’. The now absent and rejecting ‘object’ (the pop-up ex) would then lend evidence to the ‘fact’ that she was a ‘nobody’ and she would feel exiled back to

Exploration of animal-human relationships 21 the ‘dark box place’ which although dismal and depressing, at least offered the relief of the verdict being made and displaced her rage away from her original object (mother) and onto the ex-boyfriend. Later in her therapy, Melle came to recognize that the seductive pull of the ‘dark box place’ was the illusion that offered a definitive answer - affording her a resting place from the unbearable gamble of hoping for something different as well as protection from journeying out into unknown territory. Melle frequently reminds us both that she won’t be stopping anymore at the ‘dark box place’ as she now realizes the importance of ‘feeling [her] own authentic sadness’ and of the value of learning to ‘trust her loneliness’. Melle observes that although these states are difficult, that they are in the direction of ‘moving forward’ and most importantly away from ‘the dark box place’.

The pufferfish and a ‘stupid’ deaf cat; finding live habitats for disowned and displaced parts of self

Will, a young man of 25 years, survived a sadistically violent and bleak childhood bouncing between being in the care of his mother (who was addicted to alcohol and drugs), various state care institutions and a series of violent foster homes. A small and cripplingly anxious child Will ‘discovered’ alcohol in his early teens and tributes his alcoholism with having saved his life. He believed that nobody loved alcohol as much as he and experienced the effects of this as a ‘super-power’. However, after a few years, Will began to experience his ‘super-power’ as waning, and his anxiety returned in the form of psychotic paranoia (that people could see right through him, were accusing him of being homosexual and were planning to rob, sexually exploit and assault him). With alcohol no longer working and feeling in a more and more desperate state, Will increasingly engaged in criminal activities involving escalating vigilante-themed violence.

Identification with the aggressor

Ferenczi (Ferenczi and Dupont, 1933) postulated that the predominant defense available to children who are helpless in the hands of abusing adults is identification with the aggressor. When attachment figures are loving and kind then the child introjects these qualities in a manner that helps strengthen their capacity for independence, care and capacity to look after themselves. When the attachment figures are non-protective, violent, sadistic and terrifying then the child of course introjects these qualities (to an even greater extent) as a defence mechanism against these frightening experiences as indicated by Anna Freud in her example of a girl who counselled her younger brother who was afraid of dogs ‘If you be a doggie, the dog won’t bite you’ (Sandler and Freud, 1985).

A useful early metaphor that we found to symbolize Will’s defensive destructive violence and ‘prickly’ manner, was the ‘pufferfish’ who has anadvanced ability to sense danger and can swell itself up and defend itself with its extremely poisonous spikes. In our therapy, it seemed important to Will that we together researched (and were both interested in and appreciative of) this fascinating fish, finding out that it manufactured its own advanced potency of poison by harvesting ingredients from its natural marine environment (so that a pufferfish does not possess any innate poison and if living in a secure tank without enemies will be harmless). I noted a marked shift in our work and notable relaxation in Will after the ‘pufferfish’ metaphor entered our joint therapy vocabulary. I believed it allowed us the ‘oven gloves’ to examine both Will’s hyper-vigilant defences (his advanced ability to sense danger) as well as his defences of ‘harvesting’ whatever he could from his hostile and dangerous environment (such as alcohol and violent acting out) to protect himself.

The stupid deaf white cat

As our vocabulary of Will’s internal defensive world developed, we were able to increasingly get to know and find language for more vulnerable parts of him that contained a debilitating paranoia and scathing of ‘stupidity’. Will read into the gaze of others’ that they viewed him as ‘stupid’ and were calculating how they might exploit or punish him for this. Any perceived criticism (real or imagined) was experienced as confirmation of this paranoia, contributing to a chronic and exhausting sense of living on a perpetual battlefield.

My daughter had at this time adopted a stray white cat which she named Walter. Walter, it turned out, was stone deaf and really not the smartest of cats. He had the habit of knocking objects off shelves and then jumping into the shards (drawing attention to and amplifying the mess he had made). His meow, due to his deafness, was deafeningly loud - so that we would frequently startle. I started to tell Will stories of Walter’s exploits so as to introduce a ‘character’ who was dependent on the care of humans yet whose ‘stupidity’ was tolerated and even considered endearing. Will, appeared to relish ‘stupid’ Walter stories and they perhaps offered a tolerable (oven gloves) distance from his own trauma and provided a necessary buffer for his envy. We could speculate on Walter’s early life as a stray or abandoned cat, of the possibility of in-breeding (a safe way of exploring his incestuous fears) and ultimately of Walter’s innocence and right to be just where he was in his life.

In a session that marked a turning point in our work, Will, seeming to forget himself, burst out for the first time with a spontaneous wish, ‘I wish I had a stupid, deaf white cat like Walter’. This was the first time in our work (over a three-year period) that I heard a spontaneous wish being openly verbalized. It was also the first time that I glimpsed an expression of warm vulnerability (a smaller Will). Our work after this session began to increasingly feel easier and that we could for increasing moments of time leave the ‘battlefield’ (that it felt to me he had forever inhabited) and experience more

Exploration of animal-human relationships 23 and more snatches of at least the possibility that the war may end and he could become a citizen (rather than a perpetual soldier) of life.

In small snatches. Will caught moments of feeling able to more comfortably inhabit his own skin. He described ‘flashes’ of experience where he could look at his partner and see a struggling and separate human (as opposed to his prior scathing conviction that his partner took much pleasure in feeling herself superior to him on account of being further along with the twelvestep program). Will reported an occasion where he noticed his rage subsiding to an unfamiliar feeling of compassion and the beginnings of empathic understanding and noticing. He said, ‘maybe this is how she gets to feel good about herself? 1 noticed when we were at her parents last time, how they -especially her dad - put down everything she says, and she looked sort of sad about it’.

The gamble of recovery - the difficulty of relinquishing protective illusions

Brenman (2006) stresses the essential function of the therapeutic relationship in supporting a patient to arrive at their truth. He observes that a patient will not be able to confront what is intolerable without first having developed a capacity to make use of a supporting object. He writes ‘Analysis does not answer historical questions but provides the security to explore them’. Both Melle and Will suffered early and sustained childhood trauma and neglect, which resulted in them being unable to internalise a safe parental object; so their capacity to form relationships with humans at the start of therapy was felt as too dangerous. In both of these very contrasting cases, creative and valuable use was made by ‘catching’ associations to animal material allowing us access into the realm of intersubjectivity and so understanding of nature and uniquely specific character of their relational injuries. These cases illustrate how working with patients’ memories and associations of animals can function firstly to contain (or find lodging) for previously split off‘unthinkable’ thoughts and then as a bridge towards developing enough of a sense of safety in our therapeutic relationship to begin to untangle from their traumas and grow towards their authentic (or in Winnicott’s (1965) terminology) ‘true selves’.

In Alvarez’s (1992) brilliant book titled ‘Live company’ she observes that we cannot help our patients to ‘re-introject’ lost parts of self in a surgical manner as especially in very severe disturbances, ‘something may need to grow for the first time’ and that this is a ‘slow and delicate process’ (p. 91). Working with severe disturbance has taught me of the futility of suggesting that a patient has survived their traumatic ordeal until they themselves can find a security to ‘discover’ this for themselves. Such patients have taught me that the most essential aspect of these joint explorations is that they arise spontaneously within our therapeutic relationships, and in a similar fashion to dreams, are infinitely variable and unable to be pre-determined.

prompted, or directed. I believe that allowing ourselves to venture into these imaginative territories of animal-human relating contributes to companionable ‘live company’ that allows a safe enough emotional distance for the intersubjective relational elements of traumatic material to become first ‘dreamable’ and then ‘knowable’, facilitating the essential healing process of mourning. 1 have learned of the need for consistent negotiation of this ‘distance’ that carries with it a quality of ‘space’ that is only able to be determined in the moments of its continual creation. It has been a privilege to travel along these immensely variable ‘secret passages’ with Melle, Will and many more patients’, and to participate in the mutually creative enterprise of these precious discoveries.


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