I have kept a journal for the past forty years – forty-one, actually, but there is a year between the first two entries. I was twenty-four when I started and I am about to turn sixty-five. The journal has grown to forty-two notebooks. I feel very lucky now to have this record of the events and vicissitudes of my life.
It began as an effort to work things out, to solve some problems. And it became an exercise in self-reflection and something much simpler yet more complex, or more ineffable, at least – a relationship with a part of me that was me and not me – a listener, a confidant, (almost) a friend.
There were no rules. I never expected to write every day and I didn’t. Conventions established themselves over time. I would just write the date, and then follow with my thoughts. Usually, something would be on my mind that I wanted to remember, or, more often, that I wanted to explore in the silence of my own mind and heart.
I didn’t usually reread what I wrote, unless I was embroiled in something difficult over a period of weeks or months and wanted to consolidate my thoughts so that I could make more sense out of them, or work through my feelings in order to solve a problem or simply survive it.
A tradition developed of rereading each volume as I would finish it, and I often also reread the recent year around the New Year, or around a birthday. These readings usually led to a summation, which was sometimes painful and difficult, since it often focused on open and unfinished areas of strife, but almost always leant energy and insight to the struggle.
As I’ve been reading the early volumes to gather my thoughts for this article, I am struck by a question that has never occurred to me before over these many years. To whom is the journal written? And, for that matter, who is speaking? The writer speaks as if someone is listening, receiving the words and the thoughts and feelings behind them. And as I contemplate this question, more questions arise, about self and about relationships. I find myself wondering, how is keeping the journal like psychotherapy – and how is it not? And does this line of inquiry have anything to say to us about how therapy cures?
I am a psychoanalyst and psychologist and have been in various personal therapies over the years. Neither my present career nor my own therapy was on the horizon when I started the journal. At its beginnings in 1971, I was a confused 24-year-old struggling actor, a single man living with his parents again after a failed live-in relationship with a girlfriend, and struggling on the brink of coming out as a gay man. I had some important and substantial friendships, but none in which I was all that comfortable revealing some of the intimate feelings of confusion, anxiety and despair that I was going through at the time.
Even more to the point, I was a young adult emerging from what is now known as a “dysfunctional family.” Communication was mighty poor in this middle class American home, with a depressed and socially withdrawn father and a mother who wanted things always to be “nice,” even if that meant ignoring the truth. I was close to my brother, and we did go deeper than the family norm, but, even there, there were severe limitations based on family dynamics and the neuroses of those involved, including, and especially, my own. Besides, this family had not been middle class for long, and carried the cultural burdens of its roots, including the idea that only crazy people went to therapy and brought shame on their family in doing so.
If I could liken the unspoken and unexamined listener of the journal to any living being that I had experienced at the time, it would be the family dog. There was that kind of safety to the experience – the opportunity to unburden yourself to someone who would not be judgmental, nor tell your secrets to others, nor hold things against you that in your own mind made you less than the person you wanted to be.
SOME THEORETICAL CONTEXT: A (VERY) BRIEF COURSE IN OBJECT RELATIONS THEORY
Reading the journal now, I find myself wanting to contextualize these thoughts in object relations theory, and specifically, in the writings of W.R.D. Fairbairn, a Scottish psychoanalyst who was a key figure in the later development of the school of relational psychoanalysis. The “object,” in psychoanalytic theory, is the target or goal toward which an instinct or quantity of feeling is directed. What are we after? Whom do we love, or want, or hate?
Fairbairn, who wrote his best work in the 1940s and 50s, chose to center his theory on the importance of “personal relations,” in contrast to classical Freudian libido theory, which placed “pleasure,” or the reduction of internal drives, at the core of motivation.
In Fairbairn’s theory, the infant’s absolute dependency on the first “object,” usually the mother (or, to parse it even further, the mother’s breast) coincides with a need to feel loved, and to feel that one’s own love is accepted by the mother. In the ideal situation, this early, total dependency goes well and the infant develops an ego, or self, that remains whole and able to forge a life of personal relations with other whole human beings.
However, since no mother is perfectly able to foster and maintain such an ideal relationship with her dependent – and then gradually more independent – child, the baby’s experience includes frustrations, rejections, and other traumatic states. These traumas, small or large depending on the quality of the rejection, cause the infant to split off and then repress parts of the experience of the mother and this process creates what Fairbairn refers to as “bad objects” within the infant’s own mind.
Furthermore, since these dynamics are only meaningful due to the affective charge involved in the need for attachment, a piece of ego that is attached to the bad object is split off and repressed along with it. These unconscious parts of self, other, and self-with-other, and the defensive maneuvers we subsequently develop to deal with their presence, are, for Fairbairn, the source of all problems in mental health. They color and poison our ability to love and to hope, to have faith in ourselves, in others and in the world.
In a relational psychoanalytic treatment, these phenomena are the ultimate focus, as patient and analyst strive together to uncover them, understand them, and gradually win back the emotional and interpersonal territory they have usurped from the whole healthy ego.
THE JOURNAL AS OBJECT AND AS THEATRE OF OBJECTS
Unlike Freud and some other theoreticians, Fairbairn does not conceptualize good objects with anything near his elaboration of the bad, and his theory remains a theory of pathological development rather than one of general psychology.
There is plenty of evidence of bad objects in my journal, particularly during the early years. There are entries in which I attack myself directly, usually in the guise of exhorting myself to do, or be, something different. It’s disheartening now to read examples of the even more insidious processes of doubting and undermining in the journal’s pages.
But, even more to the point here, I want to reflect on the concept of “good objects,” because as I reread it, I am struck by how my journal serves as such a significant one for me.
Anything can be an object to us, anything to which we develop a significant attachment. And it seems to me that my journal is both a good object in itself, and a space in which the good and bad objects of my past and gradually unfolding present have been at play and at battle over the course of these forty-one years.
Like canvas, brush and paint probably do for a painter, the journal in itself makes me happy. Over the years, its physical reality has gradually shifted from random notebooks and settled on Mead composition books, those old black-and-white marbled books. After some experimental forays into various sizes, I find that the nice fat books of 152 sheets feel just right. Early volumes show a variety of pens and colors of ink, but for many years, I prefer my favorite ballpoint pen, with blue ink, as the instrument of choice. The visual and tactile experience of these items, and the act of picking up the journal to write, contribute to each encounter with this good object. Even the touch of pen to paper, and the familiar sweep of my own handwriting, in this context at least, bring pleasure and – when needed – reassurance.
As I read over the early years now, I see that the process of journaling itself implies a hope that the metabolizing of experience will lead to insight and, thus, to change and progression. Furthermore, the writing itself facilitates a selective taking in – or identification, as some analysts would say – of positive influences.
Sometimes, these positive influences, or “good objects,” are strangers, memorialized in the quotations of wise men and women I have read or heard. For example, the following quote from a New York Times interview with playwright Peter Shaffer during the original New York run of his play Equus appears in a journal entry in April of 1975: “One has the right to . . . make one’s self – one isn’t born into one’s self – and it’s a hard job.”
Some of the most emotionally alive and deeply thought entries are those in which these internal others speak through the writer. Whether in the recording of a dream, or the transcription of a letter – sent or unsent – to an actual other in my life, or the detailing of a conversation with a friend or lover, or a note on a session with a therapist, the implied presence of the “other,” within my journaling experience, seems to create some affective spark that enhances insight.
I believe that these internalized figures constitute elements of our successful relationships in later life. I think they likewise constitute elements of both the transference and the real relationship between therapist and patient. Some therapists use a term called the therapeutic alliance, or working alliance, to represent the part of the patent’s feelings toward the therapist that enable him or her to show up session-after-session, to trust, to persevere through the sometimes painful process of therapy.
How do we nurture, heal, and develop ourselves? How do we learn and practice self-care? Is it not through the interplay with good objects inside us? Just how does that favorite teacher from grade school, or a long gone first love, or our childhood best friend, or the kind neighbor who, possibly unspoken, conveyed to us as children that she saw something worthwhile in us stay with us and contribute to our sense of goodness in the world and worthiness in ourselves?
That is what we do in psychotherapy – own the right to make our selves. This is also how my journal functioned for me. Psychotherapy has the advantages of having an actual thinking other to spar with us, to challenge us, to see around our blind spots, to trigger transferential phenomena, and, of course, to empathize with us, all in the service of helping us heal and grow.
With a journal one has only oneself. But is that really so? How alone, and how singular, is this self? I think that the process of journaling can serve a meditative function in that our existing good objects can be unconsciously summoned, come forth, encouraged and encouraging, and be further consolidated into our developing selves.
For example, during a period of anxiety about committing to my first long term relationship with a man, my partner and I went to see Paul Mazursky’s film, An Unmarried Woman (1978), which deals with various kinds of love and dependency. I recorded a dream from that night in my journal in which a previous relationship of mine was active once again. In the dream, I was considering living with this man and was troubled by the relationship’s instability, yet afraid that I couldn’t handle life by myself if it didn’t work out. This fear was translated, concretely, as things often are in dreams, into worrying about whether I could afford the rent if I ended up on my own. In the dream, I had a wise dog that said to me, “What’s the worst that can happen? So you’ll get a roommate or move to a cheaper apartment.”
The subtext of my dream was that my anxiety was threatening my choice to move forward in a commitment to love. Processing the dream in the journal enhanced my understanding of how I was sabotaging a chance at future happiness. It helped me understand that the dog, who responded to my internal crisis with humor, solace, and good will, represented a consolidation of trustworthy and loving others from my past.
The journal extended the positive effect of my dream by providing the space and time to savor, preserve, and metabolize these loving, nurturing others. Such moments of communion with a good object are reparative.
This is the essence of how the journal serves and enriches my life. It is clearer than ever why it feels like an old friend. During periods of therapy, it gave me an opportunity for self-analysis between sessions. And before, between and after those therapies, it has continued to provide a space in which to encounter and interact with the good internal objects that are the ever-evolving product of those who have loved and nurtured me.