Meaningful You

Voices of contemporary psychoanalysis

A Word, a Song, a Smell

On the transformative power of early language.

This blog curates the voices of the Division of Psychoanalysis (39) of the American Psychological Association. This post is by Henry M. Seiden, PhD, ABPP, who wrote a more involved article of the same name in the journal Psychoanalytic Psychology.

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I’ve been working with Willy, a man in his 80s and a refugee with his family from Hitler’s Europe. A year or so ago, I came home from a vacation to find Willy numb and literally unable to express his grief: his grown, eldest daughter had died.

His daughter’s death had not been unexpected. She had had advanced liver disease, the consequence, Willy had acknowledged ruefully many times, of a life of promiscuity and drug-abuse. Of her death and his inability to mourn her, Willy said with a kind of shrug, “I lost my daughter many years ago.”

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But at the same time he would also say, “There must be something wrong with me. I can’t cry. I can’t mourn."

“I don’t know, Doc,” he would say. “What’s wrong with me?”

Over the weeks that followed he would lapse into a numb silence and then into repetitive questioning and fruitless self-examination. I sat with him, I felt for him, I tried to give him a way to think about himself in all the ways psychoanalytic clinicians do: how he might feel; how I might feel; what it all might mean—the frustrated anger with his daughter compounding his sense of loss; the disappointment; his self-protective distancing from his own feelings...

All to no avail.

Then in a session some months after the event, Willy was talking about his wife. He was remembering the early sweetness of married life, how much his wife had wanted a baby girl, a little meidlele, he said in Yiddish, and how when the baby was born, he said, “We had our little meidlele.” And at that his voice broke and he cried.

There was nothing I needed to say at that moment. I offered him the box of tissues. I took one myself.

Surely this moment of breakthrough invites commentary from a range of perspectives, among them the meaning of having long been the helpless, angry parent of a chronic substance abuser; the conflicted mixture of love and rage and guilt engendered in the lifetime family romance (this was a child that Willy and his wife fought about passionately); the nature of adult onset trauma and its attendant numbness; the immigrant experience generally and of the holocaust experience in particular; and the interpersonal context of the treatment.

 But what struck me most was the nature and power of one word: meidlele. Words have resonances, connotations, extended meanings, and associations. And old words, like old songs or smells, connect us to and evoke old self states. In what language do we talk to ourselves at our most intimate and unguarded moments? In that session and at that particular moment in treatment, Willy was talking to himself in the language of his home.

English, the language of our treatment exchange, is a language Willy learned late. Indeed, although it’s his language of today, it is his fourth language. His family came to America from Europe where as a boy he spoke the language of the country where they lived but only at school and outside the house. His family spent some years in the course of their emigration in a Latin American country and there, in his adolescence, he spoke Spanish at work and on the streets. But Yiddish is first language, the language he heard first, and spoke first at home. And it’s the language he spoke with his young wife when they first met more than fifty years ago in New York, when she was a recent immigrant and a stranger to English. It was the language of the home they made together, and so the language of both his first and his second family home.

Meidlele, of course, means “little girl” in Yiddish. In its metaphorical resonances, it’s a term of endearment and tenderness, the “le” at the end a diminutive—not just girl but little girl, little baby girl, evoking all the feelings of parental love. And evoking the fragileness of the tiny babe-in-arms—the deeply felt need to care for her, to hold her and keep her warm and fed and safe at whatever parental sacrifice. To say that heimish word made Willy into a young father and husband again. Of course (and painfully) it made him into a father who had lost his infant daughter—a daughter he was helpless to save. Now, in that self state, it was that lost infant he could mourn.

And it was about that mourning that he and I could now talk, although (and perhaps, alas!) in English.

 

 

Kristi Pikiewicz is managing editor of the American Psychological Association's Division of Psychotherapy DIVISION/Review.

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