Early in my career, a woman, who I shall call Gudrun, came to me for treatment, under duress. She was in an excellent job which seemed well suited to her but had been told by her boss that if she did not obtain Psychiatric treatment she was going to be fired. She recognized that she did not get along well with people; in most of her relationships she ended up feeling and being mistreated. There were a number of striking things about this woman, not least of which her beauty and intelligence. She was German and had come to the United States in her mid-20's in order to obtain her graduate degree, and had decided to stay in New York because she didn't see much of a future for herself in Germany.
My initial impression was that this woman was very appealing, even beyond her obvious charm and intellect. She was engaging, warm, able to become involved in a relatively intensive psychotherapy without any obvious difficulties in the area of emotional intimacy and openness, and I found myself wondering why she had been unable to ever have a long term relationship and why she evoked such powerful anger in her boss and co-workers. As time went on, I noticed there were significant missing parts of her history.
She was born a little more than 10 years after the end of World War II. Her father had been in the German army and after the war had been imprisoned in Stalin's gulag for several years before he was released and made his way home. Her mother was a teenager during the war and had lived through the war in Berlin. Her parents married when her father finally returned home after the war. She had no siblings. It took several months of therapy for both of us to recognize what was missing from her story: She had no idea what her parents had experienced during the war.
This was not unlike the "holes" in the history of people I had seen who were children of concentration camp survivors. The parents not only did not speak of their experiences, but the message was conveyed to the children that certain questions could not be thought about let alone asked. In children of survivors such absence of history was expected and could be worked with; I had no prior experience working with a survivor of the aggressor and did not expect the same lacunae.
A number of disparate pieces of my patient's puzzle slowly came into focus. She revealed she had spent a year living in Israel at 18; she considered converting to Judaism at the time. This was puzzling; she was a fairly sophisticated and cosmopolitan European secularist when she came to me. Another puzzling feature of her case was that from time to time I found myself on the verge of making cruel comments to her that seemed out of place in her therapy. I genuinely liked her, was unaware of any animus toward her as a German (how could she have any responsibility for the Holocaust?) and could not identify any particular piece of counter-transference that might provoke me to be cruel to her.
It was only after I realized that I was colluding with my patient in not exploring her parents' historical involvement in the events of World War II that her therapy came into clearer focus and we were able to understand why she was having the trouble she was having.
We found out that her father had joined the German army and had refused to have anything to do with the SS or Gestapo; he was overtly anti-Nazi and professed his animus toward the Nazis on a regular basis. After the war, the Russians had packed him up with many other German soldiers and sent them to the Gulag in Siberia where he languished for almost 10 years until finally being repatriated home.
Interestingly, all she knew of her mother's history of the war was that her family had to deal with significant privation late in the war and that she remembered being hungry. Notably, although she was extremely close with her mother and knew a great deal about her post-war history, her mother's pre-war and wartime experiences were conspicuously absent. When she questioned her mother about what her life was like before hte war, her mother always demurred or changed the subject.
At around the same time we began to explore her mother's background, she revealed, with significant difficulty, the existence of longstanding, relatively profound, sado-masochistic sexual fantasies. She had never acted on her fantasies but found them very exciting, though highly shameful and conflicted. What was quite remarkable to me was that, as opposed to other patients I had seen with sado-masochistic relationships, this patient's fantasies were overtly, extraordinarily fluid. It was often impossible for her to be sure if she were the masochistic victim or the sadistic perpetrator in the fantasy.
In the third year of her therapy, Gudrun took a month long trip back to Germany to see her parents. Her father was quite ill at the time and this was to be a farewell visit. When she returned she had a lot to tell me. She had had the opportunity to sit down with her parents and have long talks; she had finally confronted her mother on her missing history. What she discovered put her own experiences into a new light.
Her mother had grown up in Berlin next door to her best friend, a Jewish girl of her own age. Her mother's family and this friend's family were very close. The two girls were inseparable. When the Nazis came to power her best friend was shunned and teased at school for being Jewish; her mother distanced herself from her friend. One day the family next door disappeared. Not only were they never seen again, they were never spoken of again. The little girl's name was Giselle.
My patient was in tears, horrified, when she told me these things. She could not believe her mother and her grandparents had been so callous. How could she be related to such evil? Other Germans had risked their lives to save Jewish children and Jewish families; how could her family have been passive in the face of such cruelty?
Her shame at her own history was profound.
Only now could she better understand her own unconscious identification with the Jews. She was named for a lost Jewish girl. Her sado-masochistic fantasies came into better focus. She realized that all of her relationships were seen through the Nazi-Jewish lens. She could not tolerate being the Nazi, and thus had to always hide and deny her own aggressive feelings; alternatively, by provoking aggression from others, she could be the victim, yet this was not a stable or tolerable position either. Her inability to negotiate a path through these two extremes led to a kind of fixed psychic cycle that caused her to continually repeat a Nazi-Jewish enactment, alternately as the unconscious provoker and then as the conscious victim.
At the same time as we were working out the dynamics of this aspect of her character, I was able to better recognize that my ambivalence about her German background, and the forbidden questions I had had trouble asking ("what did your parents and their parents do during the war?") had led me to miss noting the ways in which she provoked me. (She was very practiced at the subtle art of unconscious provocation.) Once I began to see how she provoked, I was better able to understand my own impulses to be cruel to her, for what they were; part of an enactment of her unconscious fantasies derived from her familial background.
Gudrun was a sophisticated, beautiful, intelligent woman, fluent in five languages, a talented and charming example of a post-war enlightenment European, yet she also felt herself to have a sick, diseased core. Gudrun tried to escape Europe by coming to America and was partially successful, once she was able to identify the sickness within her.
How she came to resolve these conflicts, the long lasting impact of her family history, and any potential implications for Europe will be explored in a future post.