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In his book “Psychic Retreats” (1993) John Steiner speaks of the risk for patients of “withdrawal to a refuge … relatively free from anxiety but where development was minimal’ (p. 14). This observation may serve as a reminder to us, as psychoanalytic psychotherapists, of the risks of becoming too comfortable or complacent in our selected and preferred theories. We work hard to develop a theoretical framework which will help to contain and support us as we work with the challenging and painful material brought to us daily by our patients, and at the same time assist us to understand their struggles. But there is a danger that the theoretical safe havens which we create around ourselves may also dull our sensitivity, and render us myopic or tunnel-visioned. Or perhaps the theories which we have chosen appeal to us for the very reason that they permit us to remain comfortable with our pre-existing myopia or tunnel vision. We read papers, attend conferences, and associate with colleagues whose ideas are compatible with our own, or at least sufficiently familiar that we can remain undisturbed. We feel safe, but at what cost to our professional development? The inaugural conference of the Australasian Confederation of Psychoanalytic Psychotherapies, from which these papers are drawn, sought to offer something of an antidote to theoretical complacency.
The brief but comprehensive history of the Confederation provided by Timothy Keogh and Christine Hill in their Introduction details the long and thoughtful process whereby the Confederation came into formal existence. This process was marked by many challenges, but even more so by goodwill and a willingness to find cooperative solutions to these challenges — to find unity in our diversity. It was fitting, therefore, that the Confederation’s inaugural conference, on Saturday 29th February 2020, should be entitled “Unity and Diversity within the Group Mind of Psychoanalysis”. It was intended that the conference would provide members of Confederation MA’s an opportunity to meet, and to explore both the common ground and diversity in our thinking, and our practice. With that in mind, presenters were paired with respondents representing a different Member Association, and a different theoretical background. The result was a wonderfully stimulating and challenging day of broad psychoanalytic thought and discussion. The Confederation Board is delighted that the AJP has offered to publish the proceedings of the conference, in order not only to share some of the experience of the day with those who were unable to attend, but also to mark this significant milestone in the history of our profession in Australia.
Andrew Gresham’s paper entitled “Creative and destructive tensions: together or separately?” utilises King Lear’s “fool” in a post-Jungian exploration of the therapist’s role, particularly with patients who have difficulty symbolizing. Robert Hinshelwood has reminded us that, ‘It is necessary that the analyst feel the disturbance, and can thus be said to become disturbed himself.’ (1999, p. 799) Andrew’s paper highlights how this invitation to disturbance is heightened when patients struggle to symbolise, and explores some of the risks and opportunities inherent therein. Paul Coombe offers a commentary which reflects on the issues which Andrew raises as they might apply to psychoanalytic group work. He asks us to consider a question which emerged often during the Conference: Do we view people primarily in terms of an “isolated mind”, or as inextricably connected, interdependent social beings, and what are the implications of this view for our work with our patients? Despite the fact that presenters at the conference were working independently, this theme recurred throughout the day, and recurs throughout the papers.
Michael Moore presents a courageous and evocative clinical paper entitled “Should I Stay or Should I go?” (The Clash, 1982) incorporating a combination of raw and processed clinical anecdotes and dreams from a long term psychotherapy with a very traumatised man. Michael invites reflection on the diversity of our therapeutic approaches, informed by both differences in our theoretical understanding as well as the personal transformational experiences which impact our professional development and inform our therapeutic style. The rich commentary from Louise Hird explores both similarities and differences in how she might approach the clinical material, and in particular the tension in our work between a focus on manifest or latent content of the material. The emphases adopted by Michael and Louise perhaps reflect the recurrent theme of tension between the intrapsychic and the relational.
This theme is taken further in Antony Gleeson’s paper, “The Individual, the Group and Psychoanalysis”, in which he distinguishes between psychotherapies based on the primacy of the ‘individual’ and those based on the primacy of the ‘social’, and suggests that the latter may have been unreasonably neglected in the recent history of psychoanalytic thinking. He challenges us with the idea that “we easily accept the proposition that the group is comprised of individuals, but how easily do we recognise that the individual is comprised of the group?” He asks us to consider the question of whether we see psychological disturbance as an “idiosyncratic or a social phenomenon”, and the clinical implications of the standpoint we adopt. Allan Shafer takes Antony’s theme and runs with it, arguing that any attempt to theoretically separate “individual” and “group” creates a false dichotomy, and that “the therapeutic dyad is embedded in the unconscious dynamics of a social system” — that rather than either/or, we must think in terms of both/and. He also challenges us to consider that psychoanalysis may be struggling with a fear of, and defence against the group as a threat to identity.
Unfortunately, copyright restrictions prevented the publication in this issue of Louise Gyler’s paper “The violence of the real in unrepresented experience.” However we are fortunate that, with a little sleight of hand, it has been possible to include Joy Norton’s very rich response to that paper.
Louise’s paper (a version of which can be viewed online) explores clinical work with a patient who existed in a silent autistic-like inner world, with severe deficiencies in the capacities for verbalising, symbolising, and emotional contact. This left the analyst grappling with primitive preverbal countertransference experience. Joy’s commentary illustrates the pervasive power of such primitive material in undermining not only the analyst’s capacity to think, but also her own. She deftly conveys the struggle to reclaim her thinking mind, drawing on concepts articulated by Jung and others to construct a framework which facilitates thinking and containment of the extremely primitive, raw content. At the same time, she cautions against development of a conceptual understanding which might pre-empt, or foreclose on the emergence of the true meaning — that of the patient.
The original intention of the conference, and of this issue, was to include one paper and one response from each of the four Confederation member associations. In the absence of Louise Gyler’s paper, Timothy Keogh has granted us permission us to re-publish a paper recently published in Italy, “Unconscious processes that inhabit us: A view from the Antipodes”. This paper fits beautifully with the others in this collection, exploring developments in psychoanalytic thinking around the question of the nature of the unconscious, and the contributions of post-Freudian thinking about transference and countertransference, and the emergence of the intersubjective perspective. Timothy’s paper then explores the application of these psychoanalytic concepts in couple and family work.
Each presentation, in its own way, challenges us to consider whether we may have settled into an overly simplistic conceptualisation of the unconscious. All in all, this is a rich, stimulating, and at times provocative collection of papers, and I commend them to you.
Hinshelwood, R. (1999). ‘Countertransference.’ International Journal of Psycho-Analysis. 80:797–818.
Steiner, J. (1993). Psychic Retreats. Routledge, London.
Paul McEvoy PPAA delegate to the ACPP Board, and current Treasurer
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