Category Archives: object relations theory

What’s keepin’ ya?


My paternal grandmother Kate grew up on Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands across the Galway Bay from mainland Eire, and spoke not only Irish Gaelic, but a West of Ireland dialect of English. Consider her nuanced expressions for the verb to die: if someone kills you, you are “destroyed”; if you drown [see Riders to the Sea] you are “lost”; but if you die of an illness , you “get away.” [The custom on the islands is that your survivors must then “go tell the cows and the bees” of your demise. Dunno why…]

As a 5-year-old, visiting Kate in her final days, I was captivated by the idiom, to “get away.” It made it seem as if each of us is just temporarily tethered here on earth, like a helium balloon anchored by a little weight, one scissor-snip away from escaping the bonds of earth. So, what’s keeping us here? What are those “little weights,” which serve as our Life Anchors?

This is actually [excuse the pun] a heavy Existential question, to be asked of anyone who has attempted [or is contemplating] suicide, or who is coping with seemingly intolerable pain & suffering, and especially those grieving the loss of a loved one. The question is: “Who are your Life Anchors?” Who needs you to stick around, here on Earth? Actuarial studies suggest that if your life partner “gets away,” unless you have other Life Anchors, you are likely follow The Departed, within 12 months.

But here’s the Beauty Part [for everyone but the undertakers]. Life Anchors come in all shapes and sizes, and need not even be human, to keep you tethered. Pets prolong life, as do other individuals who are counting on you. They help you experience your own adverse circumstances as “highly inconvenient,” rather than intolerably “awful.” As the English would say, they help “take you out of yourself.” When my Uncle Dick “got away,” my Auntie Eileen [Kate’s daughter, much to their mutual chagrin], who had always been a cat person, became a Full On Cat Lady, feeding and sheltering as many as 20 at a time. Although they made her [even more] unpopular with some of her neighbors, those cats kept her anchored in life for 13 years of widowhood. Cheap at half the price, innit?

It goes without saying that Lili is one of my Life Anchors, along with my human family. What’s keeping her, in this picture? After all, this is one of two doors she can open from the outside and shut behind her. I’d like to believe that I am Lili’s Life Anchor, keeping her near through bonds of mutual love and loyalty. But it’s more likely her lack of opposable thumbs, innit?

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Ciotogach (Kithogue)


I’ve promised my daughters that one day we will turn the story of “Kithogue, the War Cat” into a proper book; but until then, she’s going to illustrate Peckham’s point about the value of chaos in uncertain times and situations. Mostly, I’m going to let Rosie’s letters, written from his little ship, the USS Vammen (DE 644), during the Korean War, tell the story, with a bit of mise en scene commentary from me.

Written “At Sea, August 11, 1952,” the first letter describes how he came to bring a cat aboard, on the last day before sailing from Hawaii to join his battle group in the Pacific. While visiting friends, “I made the acquaintance of a small kitten estimated at about 3 months old, and tentatively identified as a girl. What with one thing and another, she is now living in the cabin with me and eating wardroom mess cooking with no apparent harmful effects. She is not entirely housebroken. I have adopted a wait-and-see (and clean up) attitude. When we are in Midway, I will acquire a lot of sand, the island being entirely composed of this stuff, and see if her efforts cannot be localized. She spends a good part of the day playing in this typewriter. When I press the outer keys she bats at the inner ones as they come up and hit her in the nose. This pastime of ours has been observed by a few of the crew and, presumably, reported to the rest. However, I am still treated with all due respect; and cat (who at the moment is nameless) and I shall probably continue to play this damned fool game.”

For awhile he and the crew just called her “Neko-san,” (the Japanese for addressing a cat); but he decided the black marking on her back looked like “a lobster’s left claw,” so named her “Ciotogach” (which is Irish for left-handed). No surprise, I suppose, that this was also one of Rosie’s childhood nicknames, since he was a South-paw. By the way, does she remind you of any other cat who has appeared in this blog? [One whom he acquired, thinking it was female?]

“Sasebo, Japan, 22 Sept., 1952” After a spell of off-shore bombardment along the North Korean coastline, the ship was back in its Japanese homeport, making ready to go back out. “I must tell you about the night the cat fell overboard. One of the officers had brought her back a ping pong ball. She had been playing with it in the wardroom, batting it around like a soccer ball and having the time of her life. About the time the movies started, someone opened the wardroom door and she managed to bat the ball out into the forward passageway, she right after it. From there, it went out on the main deck and forward to the foc’sle. She hopped right after it and got so engrossed in her game that she went right over the side between ourselves and the USS Marsh. The bow sentry heard the splash and then heard her yelling in the water. He ran aft along the side, keeping track of her as she drifted aft. She was yelling bloody murder so loudly that she could be heard over all the din of the movies. One of the men got a flashlight and shone it down in the water between the ships. She was swimming furiously and had the sense to swim into the beam of light if she drifted out of it. Another man got a swab [mop] and lowered himself down between the ships, with another man holding him by the feet. He was able to get the mop end of the swab near the cat. She swam to it and hung on for dear life. The swab was passed back up to the deck with the cat still clutching it, and we pulled the two men up. They decided they would have to give her a bath to wash the oil off her. Eventually, three big officers were able to overpower her and get her clean again. They dried her off and got some warm milk in her. She acted a little more demented than usual for an hour or so, but somebody found another ping pong ball, and she went right back to the game. This experience has given the ship a new sense of unity. Everyone aboard is concerned with the cat’s welfare now. She plays all over the ship and with everybody. If she gets too close to the side someone will grab her and put her in a safe place. If she walks into wet paint and gets stuck, as she did, someone will rescue her.”

“Yellow Sea, 4 Oct., 1952” This time, in the midst of battle, with a typhoon brewing. “Yesterday we nearly lost the cat again. She climbed up some rigging until she was perched in the whaleboat falls near the top of the boat davits, out over the side. About this time we turned into the wind so the carrier could launch planes. She was finally seen clinging to the ropes of the boat falls for dear life, with her fur streaming back in the 35 knot wind and, of course, hollering. One of the stewards climbed up and rescued her. I hope she stays alive until we get back to the States.” [She, and the rest of the ship’s crew, did.]

There are lots of other “Ciotogach” stories, like when the Rear Admiral visited the ship, and ordered that the “f%#king cat” [who was clinging to the seat of the steward’s pants, howling for turkey] be fed first. Talk about the sentimental Muscovites! No one aboard “her” ship, it seems, was able to resist that cat’s agenda. Yes, she was often an intrusion, but also a welcome distraction from the fearful experience of fighting in an underfunded [sound familiar?], unpopular, no-win war.

Although they remain “non-reg[ulation],” I am willing to bet that some cats [and even some dogs] are currently serving aboard our Naval vessels deployed in the Gulf, offering their shipmates the gift of chaos.

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Tame Thing


My parents may have been avant garde, in using Ying Tong [the Wild Thing] as a “therapy pet,” to break my cycle of paroxysmal coughing; but earlier still [in 1956] they got Alfred [the Tame Thing], to gently awaken me from my frequent nightmares.

My father’s name was Alfred, but his family called him Red, and his Naval Academy moniker was Rosie [by which he was known for the rest of his life]. Bestowing his unused name on our new puppy, he joked that Alfred-the-dog “could sign checks while (Rosie) was at sea”; and thereby hangs a tale. During the Korean War, my father’s ship [a Destroyer] was catastrophically damaged [either mined or torpedoed], and the initial news reports listed Rosie among the dead. We found out the next day, via cryptic telegram, that he was alive. In fact, he had been instrumental in saving the ship [he couldn’t swim]; and was then given a command of his own [a Destroyer Escort, which, years later, “starred” as the USS Kornblatt in the film Don’t Give Up the Ship]. Meanwhile, when Rosie finally got some shore leave in California, between deployments, we went to visit family friends in Hollywood, just in time for an earthquake! Not a huge one, mind you; but it made a lasting impression on my young [3 or 4-year old] psyche.

From then on, I was prone to nightmares [especially when my father was about to deploy] in which earthquakes and explosions at sea were combined to harrowing effect; and I developed a nifty knack for the Hitchcock-victim-scream, thereby waking up the whole household. When I was turning 8, an Academy classmate of Rosie’s, stationed with us in Newport, had a purebred Cocker Spaniel who had just had 3 puppies; and we got Alfred, whose job it was to keep watch over me by night, so that the rest of them could get some sleep.

Some years later, when both our family and Alfred’s dam’s family had moved to Annapolis, we took him to see his mother, who barked with disdain and chased him into the Bay. By then it had become clear that Alfred’s sire was not her usual purebred Spaniel mate, but Dusty [a mix of Chow, Spitz, and Husky, who could apparently scale a 6-foot fence]. What a sweet-tempered dog he turned out to be, though. More significantly, he served as a Transitional Object for me [a living teddy], to stand in loco paternis, when his namesake was away at sea. He had hybrid vigor and lived to be 18, spending many of those years interacting with the bellicose Ying Tong, whom he never stopped trying to befriend.

So, this is a second answer to Sendak’s question, “How do children survive?” When their parents are physically, emotionally, or otherwise unavailable to protect them, children rely on the comforting presence of animals [imaginary, stuffed, or real] to help them through the rough stuff.

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"How do children survive?"


Maurice Sendak’s question is quoted at the top of an article about Where the Wild Things Are, in The Psychologist, the journal of The British Psychological Society [of which I have been a member since the 70s], written by an American psychoanalyst, Richard Gottlieb, whose thesis seems to be that Sendak had a rotten childhood, so he writes about children having rotten childhoods, who nevertheless, against all odds, survive.

Predictably, I beg to differ. Some aspects of Sendak’s childhood [like yours & mine] were rotten. His genius has been to transform his tough stuff into images [visual and verbal] that kids receive with delighted recognition: “I know just how Max/Mickey/Pierre/Really Rosie feels, cuz sometimes I feel that way, too.” In Gottlieb’s tone, I detect the whiff of unacknowledged wolf. He even tries to make psychoanalytic hay out of Max’s wearing “his wolf-suit” [which, tonight being Halloween, I’m betting we’ll see more than one of, at our front door]. To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a wolf-suit is just a wolf-suit.

Now, to introduce Ying Tong, the Worst Cat in the World, whom I credit with my childhood survival. Like little Maurice, I was a sickly child [although my parents didn’t “make a dog’s dinner” of their concerns about my health, unlike the Sendaks]. In the winter of 1961 I developed severe bronchitis, and my constant bouts of phlegmy coughing made it almost impossible to keep food down. When we had moved to the UK the previous summer, we had tearfully left our dog Alfred behind [because of the draconian 6-month quarantine rule], so on Christmas eve my father burst into the house [bleeding and swearing profusely], and pried a black & white, snarling Wild Thing off his neck, saying, “Merry effing Christmas!” My parents had secretly agreed that the family needed a local pet, to ease the loss of Alfred. The cat was a rescue from the RSPCA, supposedly female [and therefore named by my mother “Jingle Belle”]; but later assessed by the vet as Ever So Male: “Perhaps you would like to call him ‘Jingle Bill’?” We fell into the habit of calling him Ying Tong, after the Goon Show song, “Ying Tong Iddle I Po.” [Another gem of non-lexical vocables, suitable for lowering anxiety.]

The cat was the bane of the street, commando-raiding the neighbor children’s outdoor tea table and making off with their Marmite sandwiches; climbing another neighbor’s sapling tree and chewing off all the buds. Inside the house, he would lurk under my bed, snarling with menace. I would do the longjump from the hallway to under my bed covers, and he would pounce, trying to bite me through my many layers of duvet. Then [and this is the Beauty Part] he would curl up on my chest and fall asleep. My parents theorized [and I agreed] that the very credible threat of a woken up Ying Tong’s wrath would strongly motivate me to resist the urge to cough, thereby keeping my food down and my strength up. And, lo, I survived! And, despite his rotten disposition, I just loved that cat.

The week we were set to move back to the US, a worried neighbor knocked at our door, asking if we owned “that large back & white smooth.” My mother said, “Yes. What’s he done now?” “Well, I’m afraid, been run down by a lorry. He’s in our front garden,” said she. Cheer up. He didn’t die from his injuries, which were extensive: a broken hind leg, a broken jaw, and a gash in his side. In fact, he became [marginally] sweeter. Because he chewed off his plaster cast on the voyage home, his leg fused in a straight-out position; but that did not affect his agility or speed. When we got to our new duty station, we were [unexpectedly, but joyously] reunited with our beloved dog Alfred, and were also given a gray & white cat [whose markings were identical to Ying Tong’s]. That cat had 7 kittens [none of which was going to St. Ives], all of whom learned to sit with one hind leg extended, in apparent emulation of “Uncle Ying Tong,” who lived to the age of 18.

So, my answer to Maurice Sendak’s question is: Children survive by consorting with fierce creatures [both human and 4-legged; both inside themselves and Out There]. To make the wolf [or a vicious cat] your friend is sometimes the key to making it into adulthood, against all odds.

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Solipsism


Briefly, to lay the groundwork for a longer post on Field Dependence, here is Seamus, when he was a (rescued) kitten in Philadelphia, enacting the philosophical notion that one can only know one’s own mind. That the rest of the world might only exist as a product (figment?) of one’s own imagination. If Seamus wakes up, we might all go poof!

Currently, grown-up Seamus lives in Chicago, “imagining” the rest of us.

In psychology solipsism has been regarded, variously, as a psychotic delusion (a form of megalomania) or merely as an unattractive character trait (as in, “It’s all about me. Welcome to ‘The Me Show.'”)

Until the next post, just for fun, make a mental list of the people you’re aware of, who regard you [and the rest of us] as mere bit players in their Big Show. Could be a politician, or a movie star, or even someone in your family. [In a family setting, this person is often referred to, jokingly, as “King/Queen of the Universe.”] We all know someone solipsistic. Could be they’re just crazy like a fox.

Next time, we’ll consider the alternative.

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"Ne Me Quitte Pas"


This song, from the musical review Jacques Brel Is Alive & Well & Living in Paris, was assigned to my flatmate & drama school classmate, Helen, to perform in our Off Off Broadway showcase production. Her boyfriend, Drew, found this hilarious: “You’re singing a Neil Diamond hit?” [It had been, under the title, “If You Go Away.”] We’ll get into what was lost in translation, anon. Macho Drew got “The Dove,” [a rather girly anti-war song]; and I got “Amsterdam” [in which I portrayed a drunken, jilted sailor–drawing upon my Navy childhood for verisimilitude]. We were all “playing against type.”

[Now, back to Sunday in the park with Lili.] Kids! No sooner have they firmly grasped that Mother is not a set of identical twins (a Good one & an Evil one)–but rather a woman of many moods (not all of them angelic)–than all you see is the back of them! [Thus, the French version of the Brel song: “Don’t leave me.”] My favorite New Yorker cartoonist, William Haefeli, who draws hatchet-faced urban sophisticates expressing interpersonal ambivalence, recently gave us 3 women @ Starbucks, one looking at her cellphone: “Let me see what my mother wants–aside from attention.”

As they say in the City (when you’re kvetching about your age), “Consider the alternative.” [The alternative, in this discussion, to the Empty Nest Syndrome, let me clarify, Metalingually.] In these grim economic times, some kids never get to check out of Mom’s Place, or they check back in, after an Existential Smack in the Snout [aka job loss], as “Boomerang” kids. [Research topic: “Do more ‘Kangaroos’ end up as Boomerang kids, than ‘Clydesdales’ do?” Too soon to tell. They’ve only just been identified as a demographic.]

Although countless songs have been written about longing for the absent Loved One [the kid, the partner, the pet…”Had an old dog and his name was ‘Blue.'”], we students of musical theatre learned some obscure but nifty ditties about the other half of the ambivalence–the Too Close for Comfort genre–one of the best being, “This Plum Is Too Ripe” from The Fantasticks. [You could look it up.]

Remember the post “The Lone Wolf,” which posed the conundrum, “Would you rather be smothered by your mother’s micro-management, or Erased from the Blackboard of Her Heart (and her will)? ” [Talk about obscure ditties, a college friend and I used to kill time in long choir rehearsals by inventing Country & Western song titles, and fobbing them off as real on supposed aficionados, who would brag, “Yep. Got that one on my shelf back home.” Our most successful offering was “Ah’m’o ‘Rase You from thuh Blackboard of Mah Heart.”] What most people crave is neither extreme [In-your-face-ness or Never-darken-my-door-ness], but a Tango, a dance number, a mutually-agreed-upon to-ing & fro-ing between intimacy & space. [As in “I just need my…”] How ironic [Poetic?], that a wildly successful social networking site–designed to bring people together–is called MySpace. [Picture another Haefeli scenario, in which the re-clothing lady reassures the still-unclothed gent in the bed: “If I were sleeping with other men, would I waste my time sleeping with you?”]

In NYC [at least, back in the day], these “dance routines” were hammered out in coffeeshops throughout the city, using the opening gambit, “So, whadda we got here?” [As in Woody Allen movies, if fellow diners can overhear the conversation, they are permitted (expected) to kibitz.] In my ‘hood, the West 70s, actual dance routines for actual musicals were hammered out in the dairy aisle of the pre-Fairway grocery store in the Ansonia Hotel. [Talk about tap-dancing around a tricky topic! The Ansonia’s downstairs venue, The Continental Baths, was the original social networking site. Bette Midler got her start there. Look it up, already.]

So, here’s the point. Although he was Belgian, Jacques Brel wrote & sang in French, where the subjunctive mood is considered cowardly: “If you (were to) go away…(then I would be so sad).” Non! Be brave! Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Just blurt out how you really feel: “Don’t go away!” Risk humiliation, already!

The other party still might go away, of course. Back in the day, they would offer you the parting valediction, “Gotta split.”

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"Gotta split."


Remember the Object Relations Theorists? (No? Well, I guess it’s a case of “Out of sight, out of mind.”) These guys cannot be accused of “circling the lamppost” to discover the whys and wherefores of human behavior–they go way back into the “dark alley.” Some, like the Kleinians, go back up the birth canal, to “study” a baby’s in utero experience. [How? By doing Regression Therapy with grown-ups, to help them “recall” these early times.] The Beauty Part? Who could ever disprove such personal, pre-verbal memories? [A twin, I suppose. There’s a dissertation topic, there.]

Others observe actual babies–tracking their eye movements, their facial expressions, the various vocalizations they make–not unlike ethologists’ studies of other primates, dogs, rats, or wolves. In both kinds of research, there is alot of inference going on–alot of projection of the observer’s thoughts & feelings onto the subjects under investigation. Don’t you just bet? So, caveat legens.

You are an infant, lying in your crib in your nursery, down the hall from your parents’ room. [This is in 1940s America or Western Europe. That’s how it was back then. None of your Family Bed sleeping arrangements, except for the very poor.] You have already cried several times, and your Good Mother has shown up, to do the needful–feed you, change you, rock you back to sleep, whatever. The last time you cried, however, your Bad Mother showed up–with lightening bolts coming out of her head! That was scary! [Fear] Now, you need Room Service again. How can you possibly risk the reappearance of Bad Mother? Maybe you’ll just try to hold out a little longer, but Oy, veh! The pain & suffering you’re enduring! It shouldn’t happen to a dog! So you develop a Las Vegas philosophy: “Life is a crap-shoot. It’s even money each time, whether Good Mother or Bad Mother will show up. I’m feeling lucky, so here goes. ‘Baby needs new shoes!'” This early defense mechanism, wherein necessary-but-sometimes-angry-people are split into two people [one Good, one Bad], is called Splitting.

In the best of all possible childhoods, more often Good Mother shows up, than Bad Mother; so that by the time the kid is a toddler, he is brave enough to do a little research of his own. What if, while he’s hanging out with Good Mother, he reaches up and tries to twist her lips off? Unless she has read too many books on child rearing forbidding her ever to say a discouraging word to her child, she will eventually–having endured her limit of pain & suffering at the hands of her beloved offspring–turn into Bad Mother, right before the toddler’s very eyes, and tell him to “Knock it off!” If she believes this mild rebuke will scar him for life, she may try to hang in there and display the patience of a saint. This makes the toddler think, “It’s no use. I’ll have to inflict more pain,”which he will then do, in the name of research. On the other hand, if the books mother has read suggest giving the toddler [and herself] a Time Out, and she flees the room to compose herself, when she re-enters as Good Mother, the toddler will be none the wiser; and he will take longer to give up the defense of splitting. In the best case scenario, Bad Mother stays onscreen with the kid and allows him to charm her back into Good Mother, by telling her “Sorry,” gently patting her aching lips, and so on. Variations on this experiment must be repeated daily for about a year, for the kid to “get” that Mother is “two, two, two Moms in one” [sometimes in a good mood, sometimes in an angry mood]. In the worst case scenario, if Bad Mother appearances far outnumber Good Mother ones, the kid will never have the courage to try the lip-twisting experiment, and so will have to keep the primitive defense of splitting, with everyone he encounters.

This rather far-fetched theory became plausible to me with my first child case @ the Psychological Counseling Center @ Columbia. A 5-year-old girl I’ll call “Sonya” kept complaining to me that I had just ignored her in the corridor, before each session in the playroom. Reluctantly, I came to realize that she was making the same “mistake” my boyfriend [another grad student in our class of 12] had–to find me interchangeable with the only other shicksa in our year, Grace. In the interests of psychotherapeutic progress, I persuaded Grace to stand beside me in the corridor, for “Sonya” to compare & contrast us, saying stuff like, “See? Grace wears Gloria Steinem glasses, and I don’t. She’s wearing corduroys and I’m wearing a long skirt. See?” Then “Sonya” and I went to the playroom, where I expected to experience the joys of a child who had given up splitting. “That was so cool, how you stood beside yourself like that!” she said. [It’s not a one-trial learning kind of thing.]

Individuals whose childhood prevented them from doing the “terrible twos” research necessary to integrate the Two Faces of Mother into one person–capable of both positive and negative emotions–are those with a tendency for Black & White thinking. [Very little chiaroscuro on their projective test answers.] They tend to regard someone new that they meet [especially a potential Significant Other] as “Perfect,” right up until the first time that the person puts a foot wrong–at which point they become an “Evil Doer.” Do you see where I’m going with this? Human beings are not either Perfect or Evil Doers. They’re light & shadow, a little of both. Just like Dear Old Mom.

By the way, many authors of books on dog training have characterized the emotional make-up of a dog as “part wolf, and part toddler.” A little of both.

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