When, after our preliminary sessions, I informed “Ella,” a woman in her thirties, that from now on she could if she wanted to use the couch, she burst into laughter. She said she thought the couch was a thing of the past that no one used any more. It took her a few more sessions to finally decide to use it, after, that is, she was able to trust that I would not look at her body while she was lying there but would only listen to her words. Ella had consulted wishing to overcome a major blockage in her capacity to write her dissertation. She was already a college teacher but had decided to go back to school and complete the Ph.D. program in which she had performed brilliantly, except for the writing blockage. During the first years of analysis, we found that her difficulty with completing her Ph.D. resembled what happened every night in her dreams: she would start having a “normal” dream, each time with a different beginning, but the dream always had an identical ending that would wake her up in a state of anxiety: “someone was vomiting a white liquid.” We were gradually able to associate the recurring scene with many themes in her life and the analysis seemed to take a rather productive course as Ella worked-through a number of issues dealing, for instance, with her mother’s breast cancer, her own pregnancy and motherhood, marital discord and separation, and things of the sort. One day, I realized that it had been a while since she last reported a scene of vomiting in her dreams.
Two years or so into the analysis, however, I had to move my office, and this is when Ella’s analysis took a rather different turn. The new physical setting would reveal that the couch she had derided, rather than belonging to the past of psychoanalysis was in fact a significant part of her own past—a past, however, that was far from bygone. As she lay on the couch for the first time in the new setting, Ella was indeed brought in the presence of something she did not expect to experience again. A few moments after lying down, she reported a growing sense of discomfort. “It feels,” she said, “as if I am on train rushing backward at high speed. I am not well; I think I’m going to sit up.” She hesitated for a moment, but then decided to stay as she was and started describing what was going on. It was not the couch alone, she said, that caused her disturbance; it was the bookshelves lining the wall that stood at her feet. The bookshelves had brought back the vivid experience of something she well knew but did not think was that important, until, that is, that first session in the new office.
From age seven to fourteen, Ella was frequently brought at night into a room lined with bookshelves similar to mine. The one who brought her there was “T,” a consultant her father hired to help with the family business and who stayed with them for six months or so every year. T would show up just before summer and leave before the first snowfall, and every night or so he would quietly wake up Ella and take her to his room. T was never harsh or violent, and if she did not feel like going to his room, he would respect her decision. About what went on in the room, Ella only remembers him sitting on a couch, herself sitting on his lap while he “did things” to her. Hard as she tried, she could not remember what he did, nor could she say how she felt in those moments. She only remembers that all the time she was with him in the room, she stared at the bookshelves.
Ella went back time and again to her story with T, but what was remarkable is that she never considered those events very important or traumatic in themselves.
Obviously, her reaction to my bookshelves told another story, and her lack of clear memories about the “things” T did to her suggested that she had “frozen” her reactions to the sexual abuse. Yet, in Ella’s account of those seven years, there seemed to be no trace of any psychical or behavioral problem with her. She grew up as a normal child, she said. In fact, as time went on, Ella became quite accustomed to the special relationship she had with T and she even took pride at the fact that among her many sisters and brothers, she was the only one to whom T would bring presents when he came to stay. Only later, now an adult, did she wonder why her parents never took notice of this “special treatment” she got from T, but, at the time, she ended up considering herself as T’s official “fiancée,” plain and simple. She also somehow knew that all this had to be kept secret, so she never reported it to her parents.
Things, however, took a more dramatic turn one summer, when T arrived for another six-month stay. Ella, now fourteen, had decided to wear for the occasion something sexy in honor of the man she considered her lover. To her dismay, however, T was less than pleased. When they were finally alone, he told her she should be ashamed, that decent girls should not dress that way!
On the couch, Ella now realized that T’s response had felt like more than a betrayal; it had shattered her world. In the après-coup experience of the analysis, she now felt as if the curtains were torn and the reality of what had been going on for seven years was suddenly shown to her in a crude light. This was never a love relationship, she discovered. T’s blame had sent her back to the state of a child who had been abused in more than one way: sexually, but also by being led to believe that she was T’s equal partner in a love story. As she grew up, Ella had managed to put this story on the back burner, so to speak, and seemed to never have taken the full measure of what had happened, at least not until she lay down on the new couch, with a view of bookshelves that propelled her back in time, or rather, pulled her childhood experience back into the present.
What had happened? The sudden turmoil Ella experienced in my new office is, I believe, a good illustration of how “the unpast” (Scarfone, 2015) reemerges in the present, reiterating a traumatic episode, while, by the same token, giving the analytic dyad an opportunity to work it through and relocate it “in the psychical domain” (Freud, 1914, p. 153) or “in the past tense” (Winnicott, 1963, p. 91). In temporal terms, it is a matter of bringing into the ordinary course of time the traces of trauma that had remained encapsulated in a shell of “actual time” (Scarfone, 2015). Thus, whereas the unpast is, by definition, impervious to the passage of time, its reactivation by the analytic process—mainly within the transference—allows for the mechanism of après- coup (Nachträglichkeit) to operate, eventually allowing such unpast to become a quieter past.