Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Of Rats and Mice: Attaching a Negative Meaning to Trivial Events?

Supposedly I attach a negative meaning to trivial events. My condition is called "ideas of reference." I tend to draw inferences about people and events based on very slim information, things in the environment that most people wouldn't even notice, let alone remember, or attach any meaning to.

Be that as it may.

Years ago, the Freud scholar Jeffrey Masson filed a lawsuit against The New Yorker Magazine, which had published a series of articles about him. The articles, written by the journalist Janet Malcolm, were later compiled into a book titled In The Freud Archives. Masson claimed that Janet Malcolm and the magazine had libeled him by attributing statements to him that he never made in his taped interviews. In the articles Malcolm had placed several statements, attributed to Masson, in quotation marks.

In any event, the litigation went on for years. Often compared to the interminable Jarndyce v. Jarndyce lawsuit in Dickens's Bleak House, Masson v. Malcolm had traveled a long, misted path through five complaints, one dismissal, two appeals, a hearing before the U.S. Supreme Court, a hung jury, and finally, a completed trial, decided in Malcolm's favor on November 2, 1994.

Jeffrey Masson was quoted as saying about the litigation (if I may be permitted to say "quoted as saying"): "Once you get your teeth into something, I don't think you let go."

So what does this have to do with attributing a negative meaning to trivial events? There's an intriguing book about child abuse by the psychoanalyst Leonard Shengold, M.D. titled: Soul Murder: The Effects of Childhood Abuse and Deprivation. In the book, Dr. Shengold goes to considerable lengths to demonstrate that a patient's associations to teeth, biting, and rats -- animals that gnaw constantly -- can be signs that the patient is struggling with the effects of emotional overstimulation from childhood. References to teeth, biting (and rats) can be, according to Dr. Shengold, an indicator of past child abuse.

Perhaps, Jeffrey Masson's protracted legal dispute with Janet Malcolm represented the displacement and symbolic repetition of an emotionally-charged drama first enacted by Masson in childhood: a drama too emotionally-charged to "let go" of. In psychoanalysis a statement such as "Once you get your teeth into something, I don't think you let go" is one that solicits interpretation.

And why is it permissible for a psychoanalyst to attach a negative meaning to a patient's trivial utterances, but a sign of pathology for an observant psychiatry patient to attach any meaning to the seemingly trivial details of his daily life?

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