Ghosts and Demons in the Consulting Room: Psychoanalysis and the Specter of Trauma? Essays edited by Adrienne Harris, Margery Kalb and Susan Klebanoff


While I don't usually review specialized or academic books, two recent volumes written mainly by psychoanalysts are fascinating and topical for many reasons; --they require close readings, but are well worth the effort.
"Ghosts in the Consulting Room: Echoes of trauma in psychoanalysis" and its companion volume "Demons in the Consulting Room: Echoes of genocide, slavery, and extreme trauma in psychoanalytic practice" provide penetrating insights into the topic--broadly defined--of trauma and memory; (experienced, inherited or both); in survivors of everything from extreme family conflicts to mass crimes such as American slavery and the Holocaust, and trace the ways these memories are passed on from generation to generation. The essays presented here arose out of a supervision/study group led by Adrienne Harris, a supervisor and faculty member at the NYU Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis, who along with Lewis Aron and Jeremy Safran established the Sandor Ferenczi Center at The New School University. Members of that group are themselves both established faculty members at various psychoanalytic institutes in New York and gifted clinicians and authors. Their detailed descriptions of how they think through and work with patients comprise the first three chapters of each volume and safely guide the reader through heavily shadowed territory, often illustrating just how the relationship between patient and analyst can light the way toward healing deep and unspeakable wounds.
What makes these two volumes especially interesting is that they touch on so many different spheres and disciplines: film theory and social history, psychology (obviously), but also LGBT rights, literary theory and politics. There are real and metaphoric monsters galore: don't let the scientific sound of some of the essays scare you away, as there is literally an essay here for every reader (several of the essays are also written by non-specialists). What binds them together is that all of the analysts and other contributors here are in one way or another concerned with intergenerational trauma--i.e. how unresolved trauma is often passed on from parents to their children.
While the essays all have their merits, two in particular stood out for me in "Ghosts." Michael Feldman's "Travel Fever," follows an artist whose migrations through Europe represent unknowing attempts to come to terms with disowned aspects of his (paternal) Jewish family history, reawakening Feldman's experience of haunted travel in search of buried family secrets as a younger man. He intersperses his descriptions with observations that he made to his patient as treatment progressed--which makes the essay particularly interesting for the lay reader, as if he were following a short psychoanalytic mystery that partly unravels and resolves itself as he reads on. Adrienne Harris' "First kiss, last word" brilliantly interweaves personal history--memories of a trip to Barcelona with her late husband the film historian Robert Sklar--with an analysis of the Hollywood classic Stairway to Heaven.
In Demons, Galit Atlas's "The Dybbuk, it's me or him" considers the case of a "real demon" from Jewish folklore, while Alexander Etkind's "Wounded stories" looks at mourning and the prohibition on mourning in post WWII Germany and Russia through the work of leading writers such as Siniavsky and Derrida, as well as Soviet filmmakers Tengis Abuladze and Karen Shakhnazarov. The interdiction of mourning in its many guises goes back at least as far as Ancient Greece and Antigone, and these latest additions to the literature are wonderfully enlightening. And given the attention placed on race relations in America in the latest presidential elections, Janice Gump's "The Presence of the Past" is particularly relevant. In what is one of the apparently rare attempts to apply psychoanalysis to the history and effects of slavery on African Americans and American society in general, Gump relates the sometimes heart-rending stories of patients subjected to family violence and ridicule--as well as the nefarious effects of slavery on the African-American family structure itself--that she uncovered with several of her patients. Gump also relates having herself experienced physical and emotional pain while writing her essay, as if the trauma itself were being relived as she put pen to paper.
These thoughtful, intelligent meditations and case analyses (some 20 in all) have the extra merit of being both technical yet written in a language accessible to the lay reader, and of not adhering to one particular psychoanalytic school or methodology. (It would be interesting to also read essays on Native Americans, as well as on a whole array of events such as the Armenian and Cambodian Genocide: perhaps in a later volume?) Anyone interested in either psychoanalysis or the intergenerational effects on individuals of mass and individual trauma--or simply twentieth century history for that matter--would benefit greatly from these two challenging reads.

Purchase "Ghosts" at:
Purchase "Demons" at: