This image of suffering seeping into the earth, and still haunting the place where it occurred so long ago, is, of course, suggestive of the way that suffering seeps into us, whose historical or social distance from it gives us little immunity from its ghostly influence.

(Jackson, 2005, p. 148)

Losses that go unmourned do not disappear when we cease to mention them. Their effects can be felt reverberating through the generations whether or not we name them. In fact, their effects may be even stronger when they go unacknowledged, for then there is no explanation for the unarticulated pain looming about the family tree. Loss then becomes the uninvited dinner guest who, nevertheless, punctually makes its way to the table and voraciously devours the meal set before it—a meal meant for others—to the dismay of its unwilling hosts. Green (2003) elucidates the intergenerational effects of unidentified and unmetabolized grief by exploring depression in terms of the mother-infant dynamic. The dead mother complex is a term used to describe the kind of depression that “takes place in the presence of the object, which is itself absorbed by a bereavement” (2003, p. 163). If a mother experiences a loss—the death of a spouse, parent, or unborn child, for example—and becomes absorbed in mourning, her grief creates a schism in her relationship with her child. She is no longer able to be responsive in ways she previously was, and her grief is felt by her child not so much as the presence of depressive symptoms, but as the void created by them in their relationship. The death of a close relative leaves hidden scars on the mother as she mourns, and the loss is evident to her child in the negative space created by her present absence. Thus she becomes effectually emotionally dead to her infant because she is consumed by loss. As the mother-infant relationship is so vital to the development of a sense of well-being in an infant, subjective darkness can be experienced by the infant vicariously through the mother, and in this way, unresolved mourning can be transmitted intergenerationally.

This absence is experienced by the infant as a psychological trauma, as the abrupt and unexplainable detachment of the maternal figure “is experienced by the child as a catastrophe; because, without any warning signal, love has been lost at one blow” (Green, 2003, p. 164). It is this disconnection that breeds depression in the infant, who absorbs her mourning but is unable to metabolize it because the loss remains unrecognized. At the root of this trauma is an overarching “loss of meaning, for the baby disposes of no explication to account for what has happened” (Green, 2003, p. 164). A loss of meaning can have devastating effects and is at the root of many depressive experiences.

In this situation, an infant may desperately attempt to avoid losing a connection with its mother by unconsciously identifying with and introjecting her. However, the mother who is taken in is a cold, dead mother, and so the infant becomes this dead thing in an attempt to hold onto her. The identification, then, is with the absence or void left by the object, or with the absence left by another object within the object (an identification with the mother’s lost object), rather than with the object itself. The infant, therefore, has consumed and is consumed by a negative space that is neither fully articulated nor denied. When it presents itself within the transference, “the agonizing struggle between yes and no is a vitiation of the world of the negative” (Green, 1999, p. 361). Green goes on to say that the refusal in these patients to choose, believe, and commit to a position, the refusal to invest in themselves is “nothing other than the refusal to live” (p. 361) as a result of the impossibility of occupying this space. In this way, depression is linked to the unconscious; the loss becomes something that is felt but not consciously known, which is evident only in the overwhelming sense of emptiness that permeates all subjective experience but is consciously unattributable to any specific trauma.

Emery (2002) discusses loss in terms of ghosting in the mother-infant dyad. He says, “The ghost-within returns neither as presence nor as its opposite—absence—but as the loss of loss, as the hollowed out space of the negative between no one and someone” (2002, pp. 175-176). Thus the cycle of unmetabolized grief is transmitted to and continues through the infant. According to Emery, an unmourned dead child leaves an imprint on its mother’s psyche, thereby creating an atmosphere of loss into which all subsequent children—“replacement children,” as he calls them—are born. A child born after an unsymbolized loss then serves the purpose of replacing and therefore negating the loss of the previous child; the new child is an “erasure of . . . trauma” (Emery, 2002, p. 170) and must serve that function with its existence.

However, we have learned from Freud (1917) that we do not give up our attachments easily and unmourned losses are not forgotten. The atmosphere created by this unforgotten yet unacknowledged loss takes its toll on both members of the dyad. “This ghosting of the intersubjective transforms a sense of place into no-place, creating a background ill-at-easeness that disturbs any sense of home with mute suffocation: something is at once too present and too absent” (Emery, 2002, pp. 170-171).

For the new child, it is impossible to mourn the absent loss, because it is an unnamed secret. The metaphor commonly used for introjection and identification—two psychic mechanisms commonly seen in depressive states—is that of digestion; according to Emery (2002), the subject takes the object in, as if orally, and digests it so that it may not be entirely lost, usually by taking on the negative qualities while leaving the positive ones projected onto the lost object. However, it is impossible to introject an object that was never mourned and never known, because “A loss that is frozen in time and encased intrapsychically (within the mother) is not subject to the work of metaphorization” (Emery, 2002, p. 170). The loss becomes a secret that is locked away, and the secret itself becomes a secret that is never mentioned. The child, who is now unwittingly living in the shadow of his predecessor, instead incorporates the lost object into his psyche. Continuing with the metaphor of orality, Emery describes incorporation as a less successful process of taking in: “like swallowing with indigestion” (2002, p. 170). However, the effects of the lost child’s ghost are felt in every relation with the mother. The intersubjective space becomes a place designated for repetitious cycles commemorating the unspoken trauma between the living mother and her lost child. All interactions then become a symbolization of that which never was, a representation of the unacknowledged lost object.

Attachments become afflicted with insatiable longing, as the living subject and the ghost of the lost infant vie for relatedness and expression. Just as a depressed person may unrequitedly long to be loved in dejected silence, so too does the ghost struggle to be recognized. The split that occurs between child and mother and ghost is also felt internally within the subject. The ghost is present in every yearning, every repetition of asymbolia, and the living child is reminded of the unnamed thing in his very failure to be that which has been lost. According to Emery (2002), the ghost does not tolerate the subject’s individuality. Any differentiation between the living infant and the dead (perhaps as carried by the mother) becomes felt by the ghost as a forbidden betrayal, as a form of abandonment, because this deviates from the subject’s role as a commemorative placeholder. The subject becomes alien to himself, the necessary but unwelcome occupant of a body already filled with the ghost of a dead child. Thus, this state of existence is not too different from individuals in different circumstances, children and adults alike, who, for one reason or another, feel like they are dead inside or occupy a body that feels like dead weight; they too have lost something unknown and are perhaps haunted by the ghost of their former, happier, more hopeful, and innocent self.

The relationship between subject and ghost can be likened to that of a predator and its prey (Emery, 2002). The ghost needs symbolization, both intra- and intersubjectively, and feeds off of the relationship between the living child and its mother. Through enactments within this relationship, the ghost grows stronger and begins to stifle its host. The child cannot come into being as its own individual because the incorporated ghost’s presence begins to take up more and more space within the ego until it is suffocated, diminished by the unmourned loss. An example of this would be the mother treating her child in interactions as if he were her former child, with certain expectations of what role they each played, how their personalities interacted, and what the former child might have been like. However, the ghost cannot completely destroy the living child, as this would end any opportunity for representation: “Enough otherness must be preserved so that the other’s life can recover sufficiently to be available for future commemoration of these endlessly repeating . . . cycles” (Emery, 2002, p. 174).

As the ghost’s strength wanes into the background, the subject grows stronger, at times daring to attempt glimpses of self-realization, which are unfortunately short-lived. This dance between subject and ghost continues, like the waxing and waning of the shoreline. Though they feed off of each other, neither one is able to develop completely. It is in this way that the subject loses his subjectivity and becomes entangled with the ghost of the mother’s lost object. This experience of hollowness, of deadness, and of a failure to become an integrated subject is yet another example of how subjective darkness can be transmitted, manifested, and maintained across the generations.


1. Throughout this book, I alternate between male and female pronouns between each paragraph, unless quoting text that specifies a pronoun.

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