· · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · ·
Unlike the Heart: A Memoir of Brain and Mind
University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 2019, 285 pages, paperback.
‘Doing analysis is something like making art.’
Siri Hustvedt (268)
This book, Unlike the Heart, takes us into territory that is familiar to many women: the experience of having a baby who depends on us so utterly, it can become overwhelming. In order to understand her own such struggle, Nicola Redhouse uses her life experience as the core of her research. From here she delves into ideas that have evolved beyond the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, through to analysts such as Wilfred Bion, Melanie Klein, John Bowlby, Donald Winnicott and Luce Irigaray among others, concluding with the neuro psychoanalyst, Mark Solms, and the British Independent Group based analyst, Adam Phillips. Redhouse attempts thereby to reconcile the physical with the psychic and ephemeral. Her journey concludes at a conference in Holland where she talks to Solms over breakfast and delves further into his understanding of the human brain and how it intersects with Freud’s original project and drive theory. Such empiricism — the scientific view that holds each person can rely on their senses to understand the world — is pivotal to the story of how we can begin to wed the two, mind and brain, in a therapeutic matrix.
The book’s two autobiographical themes centre around Redhouse’s fear of separation. Marked initially by her sense of abandonment at the time of her baby’s birth when her mother cuts short a visit to Melbourne and returns to Sydney after an argument with her ex-husband.
The second theme: a father who leaves his marriage when Redhouse is nine months old and several years later lets his daughter know he is gay. Redhouse takes her father’s apparent change of gender preference well but also struggles to make sense of whether she was in fact wanted as a baby. As much as she loves him dearly, her father’s sexual preference haunts her throughout.
This then is a compelling story as it weaves in and out of many apparent polarities, between mother and father and whether Redhouse’s relationship to one or both has contributed to her post-natal struggles, or whether her experience after the birth of her baby has more to do with her physiological condition. Or is it in her temperament, her psychology — a sensitive child, and one driven to perfectionism? And how much is it connected to an eating disorder of sorts and a troubled adolescence under the weight of the pain associated with the abusive step father of her mother’s second marriage?
I suspect the family’s migration from South Africa also plays a part. The memory of her beloved nanny lost to her and her mixed feelings: nursed by such a woman and at the same time aware of the sacrifices this woman made in caring for a white family.
So many elements flesh out the narrative beyond the academic. Redhouse writes of her father’s ‘therapist look’ after she tells him of a dream in which he dies of a heart attack. “A kind of blankness but receptiveness to his eyes” (229). Then there is the story both sisters share, of a time when a little girl who is in treatment with their child psychotherapist father, tells each of them — in turn it seems — that their father loves her better. Two issues here: the lot of those whose parents work as therapists — they feel the pain of interest and love delivered to others unknown — and the fickleness of memory, in that both sisters remember this as their story. Could it have happened to both? Whether and how this contributes to the person Redhouse becomes or adds to the burden of her struggles postnatally remains uncertain.
In her psychoanalytic explorations, which take up the bulk of the book, Redhouse helps makes some sense of why to a lay person, analysts can behave in sometimes strange ways. For instance, her analyst Dr Parkes who to Redhouse even looks like Freud (78) comes across as helpful but distant, more distant than he might have needed to be. This then is one of the tricky things in reading about another person’s take on their analytic experience. It might not be how this analyst sees himself, or others see him. Add to this that some of the characters in the story happen to be colleagues and the plot thickens. This is the trap of the memoir, for those who know the people described or at least who think they recognise them. To avoid judging them in the way we might think about our friends and neighbours, to get beyond the salacious dimension and think into the heart of this story.
As a psychotherapist myself, it’s tempting to read into the experience of another person in therapy or analysis and judge their analyst’s words as somehow too much, not enough, or even spot on. This might be an occupational hazard for people in most professions, this tendency to judge our own on the basis of our subjectivity and experience. Still it’s fascinating for me to observe my own countertransference to this powerful book. Beautifully written and highly intelligent in the telling, it leaves me at times wanting to dispute certain interventions on the part of the various practitioners whom Redhouse approaches for help.
For instance, when Dr Parkes says to Redhouse “I am not here to give you sympathy, I am here to help you understand,” (163) I find myself recoiling. This after Dr Parkes has expressed something of concern in his ‘oh dear’ response to Redhouse after she had reported enduring the worst headache for two days. Dr Parkes then apologises for the slippage in his words. He apologises as if it’s wrong to show concern. Like a “Freudian textbook” Redhouse says and I nod my head. (64).
To my mind, analysts must empathise to some extent otherwise the help they offer is limited. At the same time, there is a difference between sympathy and empathy as Neville Symington writes in his book, The Analytic Experience. Sympathy is akin to pity and no one wants or needs sympathy, with its implications of hopelessness; while empathy is far more nuanced, and Dr Parkes’s apparent distance might emerge out of his need to provide a safe space in which Rehouse can rail against him, in a way she is less able to do, in relation to her beloved father, with whom she “never fights”, though she has “explosive arguments with her mother”. (199)
Thus, through her transference to Dr Parkes, Redhouse begins to understand the pain of separation and how it impacts on her post-natal angst. And over time, this understanding offers her agency and helps her to understand better how she deals with that pain, for instance through excessive striving. Likewise, Redhouse recognizes that “a child who does not know about sex does not need to enter the adult world and leave the safety of their mother …[while] looking closely in my father’s house, threatened exposure to things I still found too confronting” (204). Thereby she acknowledges the impact of ‘idealizing’ her father and bearing the weight of shame at finding his homoerotic books.
I suspect this is the lot of all parents. We fail our children in subtle ways we may not be aware of at the time. And to give credit to both her parents, the adult Redhouse is able to talk to them about these things and fill in gaps in her understanding in relation to their own childhood struggles and parentage.
I’m reminded of a comment Mark Solms made at the recent Freud Conference in Melbourne when he talked of research that suggests one important change agent in helping parents avoid their own problematic experience of being parented, involves an active awareness of how they were parented. Being able to think about how it was for them as children and thereby developing the capacity to try other ways with their own children that are more helpful. Hence “the functional value of subjectivity and feelings” (248).
Redhouse explores this “Madness of motherhood” in conjunction with hints at sibling issues in the clash with her sister, Joni, who takes a more pragmatic and ‘scientific approach’ to life’s struggles. Initially, she debunks the psychoanalytic method, even as by the end of the book she too has embarked on receiving help through psychodynamic means.
The mind carries within its whole developmental history (24), including some sense of intergenerational trauma as in both Redhouse’s grandmothers in their different ways (171). Grandmother. Did it take the pain of post-natal depression to send both sides of the family back into the storehouse of their own memories to see connections they might otherwise have forgotten? And is this something so many of us do in order to get beyond the past that tends then to repeat itself in some form or another, including in the lives of our children. Is this why it took so long for Redhouse’s mother to tell her daughter about her grandmother Fay’s post-natal depression?
So, this journey through Redhouse’s parenthood, which is mired in a glut of research and conjecture, concludes with her thoughts that it’s best to sit with uncertainty. To value the unknowing that takes us into a more peaceful state, one that does not push for absolute answers.
The great strength of this book lies in the questions it asks. Redhouse asks the question was her postnatal depression a consequence of mechanical and organismic difficulties, or was it emotional, mental: mind or body. As if these states are separate. One left-over niggle: Redhouse discusses theory and treatment techniques as though they are divorced from the practitioner. Whereas, to my mind, the therapeutic relationship is fundamental, almost irrespective of the approach.
Even so, as much as Redhouse seeks for answers throughout, she does not offer them and also allows herself to sit in the see-saw position of believing she has been helped through a combination of factors, both pharmacological and also in the form of her talking therapies, including psychoanalysis.
It is also clear she has been helped by loving and determined parents who did the best they could while also hindered by their own parenting and life experience. And so, Redhouse challenges the “imaginary line between body and mind … where blame is so often laid as though suffering is a mind of laziness of soul; the body where control of the self is lost to the endless predications” (176).
Another example of Redhouse’s beautiful writing, from her luminous book and one I recommend. It offers hope to all those of us who struggle through early parenthood and beyond. It helps to know there are no easy answers but if we keep our minds and hearts open like Nicola Redhouse, we can find a way through.
Symington, N. (1986). The Analytic Experience: Lectures from the Tavistock. New York: St Martin’s Press.
Solms, M. Freud Conference Presentation, University of Melbourne 2019.
· · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · ·