Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Past Present Puzzle

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on February 5, 2014


“The most remarkable thing is this. The patient is not satisfied with regarding the analyst in the light of reality as a helper and advisor who, moreover, is remunerated for the trouble he takes and who whold himself be content with some such role as that of a guide on a difficult mountain climb. On the contrary, the patient sees in him the return, the reincarnation, of some important figure out of his childhood or past, and consequently transfers on to him feelings and reactions which undoubtedly applied to this prototype. This fact of transference soon proves to be a factor of undreamt of importance, on the one hand an instrument of irreplaceable value and on the other hand a source of serious dangers……The analyst may shamefacedly admit to himself that he set out on a difficult undertaking without any suspicion of the extraordinary powers that would be at his command…

Another advantage of transference, too, is that in it the patient produces before us with plastic clarity an important part of his life story, of which he would otherwise have probably given us only an insufficient account. He acts it before us, as it were, instead of reporting it to us.”

S. Freud, “An Outline of Psychoanalysis” 1940, published posthumously.

Monte and Marla come to mind. . Monte, a psychiatrist, comes to me concerned about his troubling relationship with his mentor Marla. Monte’s mother, ninety-two, just passed away, after a long illness, but Monte wants to focus on his trouble with Marla. Suddenly, Monte begins to have a strange look on his face, as if something really significant has floated into his head, and after a long and confusing pause, he says, “you know, having gotten together with my siblings when my mom passed away this past week, I began to think that Marla was shockingly similar to my sister Lianna. In all these years, I never put that together,” Monte says, as if his mother’s passing has opened up a closet in his brain, and he finally found his old shoe. “For a long time I told myself that Marla was a ‘new relationship’ for me, a bond which was unique in my life and not a repetition of my previous relationships where I felt so used and not seen. It is true that Marla does not resemble my mother or my father, and so I thought I was breaking the mold, but I also realize that Lianna, ten years older than I am, also had a huge influence on my life, and I idealized her in a very similar way that I idealized Marla. I cannot tell you how haunted I am by this thought, this idea, which seems so obvious now, but was hidden from me for  decades.” I begin to think about the transference that Monte is describing towards Marla, thinking about the article by Arnold Cooper MD that I just read,which reminds me that there is a “release of memories” meaning that as defenses diminish, thoughts can be connected in new ways. The ability to think is clouded by anxiety and fear, and so I imagine that Monte was too fearful to connect Marla with Lianna for fear that he would have to give up the notion that Marla was going to mentor him towards a successful career. Monte held on to Marla as “the shepherd of his future” only to be come away feeling that Marla threw him under the bus when there was a political battle during a committee meeting. This reversal of his fantasy devastated Monte such that it was very hard for him to think clearly about Marla, about his poor judgment of her character. Years after he severed ties with her, he allows himself to consider that he plunged into disaster, in part, because as he trusted Lianna to watch his back as he was growing up, only to find out that Lianna intensely wished he was never born, so too, he wished that Marla could secure his future, only to find out that Marla treated him like a competitor and not a protegé. This epiphany gave Monte a calmness which he had never experienced before. Suddenly, this part of his life made sense, whereas before, he cringed at the thought of his investment with Marla. Transference, in this case, outside of the transference to me, was, as Freud said, the holy grail of therapeutic action.

4 Responses to “Past Present Puzzle”

  1. Jon said

    Sometimes it takes traumatic events to learn deeper truths. This does seem to the case with Monte. I don’t want to say that he is a slow learner, but hard lessons do not come easily….

    Also, new icon for a new email address…

  2. Shelly said

    I feel badly for Monte, who from childhood, seems to have trusted the wrong people. So innocent, he looks for the good in others and others betray him. I admire him. Do you think he will be able to advance in a professional manner without the guidance of Marla, who really has been so detrimental for him? It took a death for Monte to recognize that both Lianna and Marla had really stabbed him in the back their whole lives. How sad. How can you help him overcome these feelings?

    • Yes, Monte’s experiences are sad because early traumas were painfully repeated in his adult life. The desire to avoid that sad truth kept him in a repetition, rather than a thoughtful phase, and fortunately, through the death of his mother, he was able to allow his grief about her loss spread into grief about not having the siblings that he thought he had. This journey of grief will help him work through (rather than “overcome”) his feelings such that he will have the freedom to have more nurturing relationships. Thanks.

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