I recall a man who suffered childhood trauma, in this case abandonment by a parent, and largely dealt with it by putting the unpalatable experience out of mind. At one level he knew what had happened to him, having fixed upon a story of his life that included the trauma and was coherent, if limited in depth and scope. But he continued to struggle with the trauma as an emotional experience, in terms of its full impact on him and the extent to which it had affected him at different stages of his development. The abandonment had been too much for him to deal with as a child, and the way he found of rising above his experience seemed to work — to do the trick, as it were. It was later down the line that he found himself in the grip of the repetition compulsion, unconsciously and repeatedly trying to repair the internal psychic situation, but unable to do so. He looked everywhere for love and validation, but was unable to find what he was looking for because the feelings of abandonment and neglect from childhood could not be consciously admitted. In short, he did not really know what he was looking for.
Arabella Kurtz, J.M Coetzee, The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy,
The story of Eurydice has been misunderstood. What the story is about is the solitariness of death. Eurydice is in hell in her graveclothes. She believes that Orpheus loves her enough to come and save her. And indeed Orpheus comes. But in the end the love Orpheus feels is not strong enough. Orpheus leaves his beloved behind and returns to his own life.
The story of Eurydice reminds us that as of the moment of death we lose all power to elect our companions. We are whirled away to our allotted fate; by whose side we get to pass eternity is not for us to decide.
J. M. Coetzee The Diary of A Bad Year
“The stories we tell about ourselves may not be true, but they are all we have.”
I am interested in our relations with these stories we tell about ourselves, stories that may or may not be true. Let me select three cases.
(a) I have a story about myself which I sincerely believe to be true, in fact which I believe to be the story of me, but which some ideal, omniscient, God-like observer who is entirely independent of me and to whose mind I have no access knows not to be true, or at least not to be the whole truth.
(b) I have a story I tell about myself, one in which I wholeheartedly believe but which certain well-placed observers (my parents, my spouse, my children) know to be flawed, probably self-serving, perhaps even to a degree delusional. (This is a not uncommon state of affairs.)
(c) I have a story about myself in the way that we all have stories about ourselves: I concede that it may not be true by the standards of (a) or even (b); nevertheless, it is “mine”, it is all I have, and therefore I give it my allegiance. “It’s all I have, it’s the best I can do.”
The Monthly October 2014
Extract from The Good Story: Exchanges on truth, fiction and psychoanalytic psychotherapy, by JM Coetzee and Arabella Kurtz, to be published by Harvill Secker in May 2015. Copyright © JM Coetzee and Arabella Kurtz 2014