Psychotherapy: Truth or Revisionist History?
A number of years ago, in the middle of an initial evaluation, one of my clients, Maggie, mentioned she had in her possession a diary that her mother, Katherine, had kept when Maggie was 15. Her mother had died, and Maggie had packed the diary away in her closet along with some letters her mother had written her father. Shortly after her mother's funeral, she had looked at the diary, skipping from page to page and skimming entries because she found it painful to read. Her adolescent years had been very difficult with serious drug and alcohol abuse, and she did not want to remember. Still her strategy of forgetting and trying to put everything bad behind her had not been totally successful. Although in her 30's and a lawyer, she had only recently stopped drinking, and she had not been able to establish a long term relationship with a man.
When I heard about the diary of course I was excited. To a therapist, having access to a parent's diary is akin to an archaeologist uncovering an ancient city beneath a busy metropolis. I asked if Maggie would read it, and I asked whether I could read it, too.
"It's long," she said, "more than 100 pages. Are you sure you want to read it?" She seemed surprised that I would take such an immediate and serious interest in her life story. She had been to a couple therapists before and no one had asked to see the diary.
"I do," I said. "It will help me understand you. Actually, we're really lucky to have the diary. We can see what family life was like that year through your mother's eyes."
The next week she brought a copy of the diary to our session and handed it to me apologetically. "Don't feel obligated to read it all at once," she said, fanning the pages to once again show me how long it was.
"It's o.k.," I said. "I'm looking forward to reading it."
When we had both read the diary, I asked Maggie about her thoughts on what she had read.
"I was such a bad kid - I made my mother's life miserable. She had enough troubles - I should have been easier on her."
I could see the shame in Maggie's eyes. Katherine had written openly about suicidal thoughts, her own drug use, her divorce from Maggie's father. The diary was filled with desperation. On top of everything, Katherine worried openly about Maggie who was getting into constant trouble.
After listening to Maggie, I said, "You know, I have a different take on the story. You were tough on your mother, but she was so preoccupied with her own world, her own unhappiness, she had no idea who you were, what your life was like. By adolescence it seems as if you barely existed except as Maggie, the behavior problem."
"I was Maggie the behavior problem," she said.
"You were more than just a behavior problem.
"I didn't feel like more. I never felt like more."
"Why do you think that was?" I asked.
"Because I was bad. Look what I did to my mother."
"You know, kids are not fundamentally bad. Often they do bad things because something is missing in their life, and they are trying to compensate--or they just want to escape emotional pain. The diary suggests your mother hardly knew you at all. She saw you and treated you as a generic kid--she missed everything that was special about you."
"How do you know there's anything special inside of me? I feel empty, and if I feel anything strongly, it's usually anger."
"I know because when you gave me the diary you apologized a number of times. You didn't want to put me out. I already know that there's self-consciousness and empathy inside of you - both part of your "specialness." If you were "bad" you would have handed the diary to me and said "Read this, it explains everything.
Maggie looked at me and shook her head. "I'm sorry, but all I can think is that I still should have treated my mother better."
"If your mother had seen and heard you, you would have treated her better. I know that for sure."
For a few sessions Maggie argued with me about my view of her and her mother. She had many justifications: she was sure her mother loved her, she always got Christmas presents and clothes--plenty of clothes. (I agreed with her on all these points - but they didn't change my feelings.) She continued to say she had rejected her mother during her teens for no good reason. She wondered if I were just making up an explanation to make her feel better. "You're just doing the therapist thing," she said. Furthermore, how could I know that there was any good inside of her? She was hiding all the bad stuff. She said I never saw her when she was at her worst.
In turn, I listened and gently stated my case, asking her to read the diary again because the necessary proof was there. I told her repeatedly that her mother was in so much pain and felt so neglected, she could hardly see beyond her own needs. She had little clue about who Maggie was - instead she parented by formula and the advice of self-help books.
Then, a few months later, Maggie started a session by telling a story. I could tell she had been crying:
"I was thinking about my Junior High School graduation after our last session. I hadn't thought about it for years. Not that I repressed it - I had just packed it away in some distant corner of my brain. You know, my mother didn't show up at the graduation, even though I had reminded her that afternoon. I looked around and saw all the other parents. I felt like I was lost in the desert or something. Afterwards, I bummed a ride home and found my mother asleep on the couch. I woke her up, and she apologized. "I never should have had a drink with dinner," she said. "I'll make it up to you..." Maggie paused and looked at me: "How could she ever make something like that up to me? The event was over, gone." Another big tear rolled down her face. "And now she's gone..."
I felt the usual chill when a client's protective walls crack for the first time and the sad truth begins to seep out.
Maggie looked me straight in the eyes. Fiercely, she said: "I don't know whether to love you or hate you for this...you know, for making me remember." Then she laughed the slightly bitter, little girl laugh that I would come to appreciate in the years that followed.
(Names, identifying information, and events have all been changed for reasons of confidentiality.)
About the author: Dr. Grossman is a clinical psychologist and author of the Voicelessness and Emotional Survival web site.
Staff, H. (2008, October 9). Psychotherapy: Truth or Revisionist History?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2021, March 3 from https://www.healthyplace.com/self-help/essays-on-psychology-and-life/psychotherapy-truth-or-revisionist-history