The Mother’s Signature
Bernard W. Bail, M.D.
“For each thing manifests its mother, which thus gives the essence and the will to the form.” –from The Signature of All Things by Jacob Boehme
All sciences strive to find the origin of the problem they’re investigating. We always turn to origins–it is in our nature. There is no doubt in my mind that with man’s very first breath he wondered about the origin of the world about him: the sun, moon, planets, oceans, mountains, trees, and meadows. The when, how, why. It is the ‘why’ that most stirs the imagination toward the inner world, evoking daunting possibilities of forces greater than man, than some men care to think.
No sooner was psychoanalysis discovered than the thrust of exploration ran progressively toward origins. In a little while the child came into view as a proper vehicle for investigation and study. Analysts examined and thought about infancy, just as the physical scientists have scraped away at the physical universe, picking and poking it in the incessant endeavor to discover the where, when, how, and why.
By now countless theories about mental functioning and personality development, and about childhood and infancy, have been set forth. Tools from many physical disciplines have been brought into the field of analysis, aiding us as we investigate the infant in all the physical and physiological ways possible. But, as analysts, we have to have faith in the tools of our profession. We must have the conviction of there being an unconscious and a conscious, and there being entities called dreams which can lead us to all the answers we want to know. If we pursue with purity the method of dream analysis discovered by Freud, we find that the dream is the Rosetta stone of inner mental life–or so my experience has taught me.
My experience has also taught me that all emotional illness is based upon the relationship between mother and infant, from the moment of conception–and even before the infant is conceived, for the mother already has a plan, albeit unconscious, that she will execute upon her future child. This is beyond the conscious fantasies she may harbor, the way all of us harbor dreams of the future. What the unsuspecting woman does not know is that the plan was already executed upon her. She has no other choice than to pass it on to her children. This process has such fixity that one may say it has a genetic quality. One can do nothing about it psychologically. Even so, I have found that analyzing even that which appears to be instinctual will yield to psychoanalytic exploration.
Since all analysts begin learning their profession by dealing with the adult, there is often a reluctance and fear on the student’s part in dealing with children, unless one is doing a child analytic course. Specialization in this area requires additional years of training, and few analysts are willing to spend the time in this direction. I do not think specialization is necessary, however, for in view of my work I have come to the conclusion that there is no such entity as adult analysis.
The adult of the patient before us does not need analyzing. He can dress himself, drive a car, shop for food, do work, and so on. Wherever adult function is impaired, there infantile trauma has been. Pathological mechanisms rush to the wounded site the way leukocytes rush to a wound. Only we do not see the blood, the swelling, or the heat, for this process all takes place in the mind–which is so vast as to be capable of containing and even concealing much trauma and pathology. Of course, if the damage is too great symptoms will emerge that the defense mechanisms no longer can contain. All emotional illness has its origin in infancy, and all illnesses can be traced to the infant’s relationship with first the mother and then the other members of the family.
It follows then that there is no such thing as adult analysis, for adult qualities and functions do not need analysis in the main. One is simply, and constantly, analyzing the infant in the adult–though there is no doubt that analyzing infantile expressions of pathology in the person will always improve adult functioning. To talk about these issues intellectually with the patient is of no use, for only when the infantile core, which is the emotional core, is available can something be done through interpretations.
As a matter of survival, all infants have to insure that their mothers will live. It has become clearer and clearer to me that babies’ minds have to split almost at birth, maybe even before, in order to accommodate a mother who is beset by emotional disturbances—and, of course, who amongst us is not beset by emotional disturbances. To ensure the survival of the mother the infant has to become his mother. Then the infant knows that he will live. All of this is unconscious in the baby’s mind and though the infant feels that a big problem has been solved, which it has not been, the infant will indeed live. The consequences that follow will trail the infant all the rest of its life, for he will have a life-long identification of being his mother. The mind will be split, and the entity s/he was supposed to be will never come into existence.
If there is not too much damage in early infantile life, one can live out one’s life relatively well or less well, depending on the vicissitudes given one. However, when the damage is too great; the infant is forced to give up his own pristine potential self in order to survive. The task of analysis is for us to reach that well defended and often hidden part and begin to set it free. This is not easily done. The patient himself will resist the analysis in a myriad of ways. And the sicker the patient is–that is, the greater the split–the greater the identification with the mother will be. It is sometimes so great that the patient is, for all practical purposes, his mother, and there is no patient.
Some 10 to 15 years ago I was analyzing a young woman who was very constricted, a constriction that covered a very infantile personality–all of which was hidden by an organized, professional stance. Professions hide much, as we all know. This woman delivered a baby in the course of her analysis, and it was a terrifying experience for her. So much so that she returned to the analysis within one week, driven by her anxiety. She walked into my office with a tiny baby in her arms. She sat on the couch, holding the baby awkwardly and away from her body. It looked as if she were holding something dangerous, something she needed to rid herself of immediately. The baby cried loudly, incessantly. I felt like getting up and taking the baby myself, but I did not. The patient began telling me her dream amid the squalling noises of the infant, who was lying now with her back arched. I listened to the material, trying to concentrate on the patient’s words.
When I felt I understood the dream in relation to the patient’s associations, I made an interpretation. The dream and interpretation are as follows:
“I had to do something and as time went by I became more and more frantic for I could not find out what it was I had to do and I thought if I did not, something terrible would happen to me. I wake up, my heart beating fast, sweating.”
I said to this woman, as she held her day’s old infant in her hands, that what she didn’t know how to do was to be a mother and I asked her to look at how she was holding her child, almost at arms length. On hearing her comments, she folded the baby into the crook of her arm, the baby quieted down and fell asleep.
To my surprise, as soon as I spoke the baby relaxed and fell into a deep sleep. Her red face lost its redness and became pink. Then the patient relaxed and leaned against the wall. This happened regularly for the next six months, without fail. Every interpretation quieted the baby and when she relaxed the mother did as well. That was the beginning of my understanding that talking to the mother was talking to the baby. There seemed to be no barrier between the two. It was a matter of two hearts in consonance–with one mind, the mother’s. Later other young women analysands brought their babies, often for lack of a babysitter, and the same thing would occur. Even with older children, interpretations made to the mother always affected and quieted the child.
You see, I was to discover that the baby has been imprinted with the mother, imprinted in the way it is to live and to die. We are all imprinted in these early moments and hours of life. Konrad Lorenz found this to be true of birds and other species, and I say it is true of mankind as well. The principle is the same. It is simply the law of economy at work. We hide our imprinting by our brains, by our intelligence, but a deep analysis uncovers surely and slowly beyond our technical knowledge and our cleverness the simple fact of our being imprinted. All things in the world, all creatures, have their signature. What is DNA except an imprinting device–so simple, but capable of great diversity? The fact that we are imprinted is not to be scorned or rejected or fought against. It is the nature of being, and we take our place in the universe as one of the creatures with the greatest potentiality for evolution–that is, if we can get past an imprinting that leaves us crippled, passive, frustrated, and bent on self-destruction.
Now it is clear that every person’s problem in life is not the Oedipal struggle. The problem is in how to find the spark of self that one was supposed to be as one came into existence, and the central issue is how to become oneself, and break free of the mother’s imprint. It is over this issue that the patient puts up the greatest struggle. Confronting this fundamental conflict is the most frightening task for the patient and for every human being.
Cure can only come about when there is a transformation. The patient has to repudiate his mother – now a maternal imprint3 within him — not by saying “I let you go,” but by an emotional letting go, which may take a very long time. The patient has to give up everything he has known from birth, renouncing the imprints of the mother and the father, losing all landmarks. It is only through a renunciation of the false self that a true transformation ensues. Short of this, if the choice is made by the patient not to sail on this journey, a fundamental change, a true transformation, will not be made. Only when there is evidence in dreams that the patient is fighting for himself, only when that tiny hidden spark slowly reveals itself, can we be sure of there being a transformation and a cure.
When a genius speaks I have always taken it seriously. I listen with devotion and awe, for these people are imbued with a touch of what I must call the “spiritual”–in the way we regard the great composers, scientists, artists who have had that incomparable vision. I think Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish historian, was on the mark when he wrote that civilization is the history of those few geniuses whose discoveries have enlightened mankind, pushing back the powerful envelope of darkness that constantly threatens to enclose us. Momentous discoveries have not only brought illumination to man, they have given us hope; they have brought hope of there being a unity in all phenomena, animate and inanimate, contained in the world and in the universe.
When Freud stated he was the most fortunate of men to be given the secret to the interpretation of dreams, he was absolutely right. He was given this opportunity and his genius seized it for he knew, beyond all, that it held the key to much of mankind. My work would say that dreams hold possibilities that not even Freud wrote of, though we cannot say what he might have thought or suspected. I understand dreams are out of fashion, which is paradoxical, for they represent messages from the unconscious and analysis is the one discipline out of all the scientific disciplines that knows how to broach this leviathan. Without dreams and their understanding there can be no analysis, and we are flung back a hundred years to the darkness from which Freud rescued us with his greatest work, The Interpretation of Dreams.
The unconscious may contain many things that we so far do not know about. But one thing it does contain without a doubt is the record of one’s life from the origins of that life-indeed, even to the formation of that life, egg and sperm. If one listens properly, these origins can all be recovered. When a patient tells us a dream, he is tugging at our sleeve, begging us to hear him out–to understand his infantile fears and trauma, the imprint that clouds and conceals his pristine self. In that room and on that couch he is saying he wants to be aware of his life, to become open to the secrets of his unconscious. He comes, we know, because he suffers. He comes because he does not want anymore to react to his life. He wants to be in his life. When he opens up the treasure of his unconscious, he will become greater than what he thought he was before, back when he was indrawn, constricted, and wearing all the masks that life has fashioned for us – masks that cost us our truthfulness, our simplicity, our essential selves.
The work of listening to dreams is very difficult, for every dream carries with it a charge of toxins that make us weary. It is not easy to bear the confusion, the disjoint of the communication–that is, it is not easy to bear the transference and the hatred that comes with this job. The participants also must have great endurance, and the truth will prevail only if the patient allows it to, for the patient always has a choice about how he wishes to live his life. The reward for the patient is immeasurable: freedom in letting go of the toxic material that has been lying in his mind, slowly paralyzing him out of his own life. It is this relief that gives the patient the impetus to go deeper, to trust more, to become as a child again and take the hand of the guide. Here all the strength, the skill and the experience the analyst can muster are important to hew to the truth of the dream, for the truth will be contained within it. It is all an analyst can do. It is the best an analyst can do.
Copyright. Bernard W. Bail, M.D. 2001