Finding the Lost Good Object: The Poetry in Psychoanalysis

By Williams, Sarah T | MinnPost.com, February 7, 2014 | Go to article overview

Finding the Lost Good Object: The Poetry in Psychoanalysis


Williams, Sarah T, MinnPost.com


What's happened to good, old-fashioned psychoanalysis? No one talks about being "on the couch" anymore. Instead, they talk about SSRIs, CBT, EMDT or DBT. The couch has taken a back seat to more modern therapies -- a development driven as much by managed-care dictates as by truly dramatic advances in the fields of neuropsychology, biopsychology and psychopharmacology.

But a visiting poet on a recent wintry night reminded his audience of at least one marvelous way in which psychoanalytic theory of yore is still doing its good work in the world.

Poet and writer Kim Stafford, the son of poet and writer William Stafford, was in town Jan. 27 to mark the 100th anniversary of his late, great father's birth during an event at Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis. About 150 well-bundled people arrived to hear Stafford read his father's poems -- and perhaps to catch an echo of the elder Stafford's austerity, wittiness, and deeply transcendent vibe.

In coming to understand his father's work, and even his own, Kim had taken a page from the work of Stuart C. Averill, M.D. (1924- 1996), a Menninger Clinic psychiatrist who had applied "object relations theory" in the treatment of his severely traumatized patients. To put it simply, Dr. Averill had found success with patients through "recovery of the lost good object" - that is, through "recovering a preverbal experience of the 'good mother.' " This meant helping patients reclaim a forgotten or lost positive experience, so that they could reinvest in the world through new "objects," which could be anything from a particular person, a particular place or a meaningful relationship.

Kim saw that the act of writing (for himself and for his father) held the same promise.

"Writing a poem ... is a way of distilling the best we have from the past and from present thought," he said after the event. "Many things are taken from us, debased, destroyed. But by writing, by seeking to describe, evoke, bring to life the best we have, we find a way to survive loss by cherishing what remains."

Robert Burns and bagpipes

Dr. Averill was a World War II veteran and the son of a World War I veteran. His father's war trauma and post-war treatment for testicular cancer precipitated and/or exacerbated mental health issues, triggering episodes of violence, "dementia praecox," depression and psychosis.

The family was shattered, and Averill's mother, who once sang and recited Robert Burns' poetry in celebration of her Scottish heritage, became silent and joyless. Averill was just 7 years old.

As he matured, he gravitated to the field of psychiatry to "fix the world as he wished he could fix his father," said his son, Thomas Fox Averill, a writer and teacher at Washburn University in Topeka, Kan.

Dr. Averill's family trauma and his own unexpressed war trauma might have truncated that dream but for the fact that, in order to become a psychoanalyst, he had to undergo psychoanalysis himself. It was through this process that he discovered an even more compelling motive to heal himself and others.

"He realized he had lost his 'good mother,' " Thomas Averill said. "And he had to go back and find her if he was ever going to work out his relationship with her or be happy."

The "good mother" sang and played "Tam o'Shanter" at the piano and spoke in the Scottish dialect of her parents, who were both from Burns' country near Dumfries and Ayr. …

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