The Healing Crowd

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Manhattan Transference Part 6

Using psychodrama to reveal how a transference happens in a group

This is a serialization of the chapter by the same name from  Confessions of a Former Child: A Therapist’s Memoir This series began here.

In the psychodrama that followed, Elaine plays my grandmother. We began with a scene where my parents and I go to my grandmother’s Greenwich Village apartment for our typical Sunday dinner. I am the only man in this training group so I choose two women, one to play my mother, the other, my father. I come running down the hallway ahead of my parents towards a bowl of fried meatballs waiting for me. I can’t eat them fast enough. They are a special treat made for me by my grandmother, and I can’t wait to eat them. Food is love to my grandmother, and I love her food. As I eat them, my father kisses his mother hello, and my mother warns me not to eat too many of those meatballs. Elaine as my grandmother figures out the role very quickly, and starts arguing with my mother that I don’t have to worry about eating too much, that there is nothing wrong with good food, and insinuates my mother’s cooking isn’t so great. In no time at all I feel like I am six years old again. I am trapped, and don’t know how to speak up. It happens every week, and as much as I look forward going to Grandma’s house, I can’t stand the tension when we get there. We are barely in the door, and the trouble begins again. My grandfather (played by another woman in the group) comes out from a back bedroom to make an appearance. Within five minutes of arriving, my grandfather has his coat on and is taking me out to ride my tricycle. We ride along Sixth Avenue, then down the stairs to the subway. After a ride on the Staten Island Ferry, we come back just in time for supper. By then my mother, father, and grandmother all have long faces. At a make-believe kitchen table the group members take their positions as people in my family. As if Elaine had grown up watching films of our Sunday meal, she starts humming Italian songs, and bursting into little dance steps. This is all much to my delight, but my mother is making faces, and shaking her head disapprovingly. The woman playing the role of my father has captured the look of his weak smile, and as if she’d seen him do it a thousand times, starts looking for the Daily News to get lost in.

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I am speechless in the scene. To be drawn to my grandmother is somehow to betray my mother. But to disapprove of my grandmother, and be like my mother, doesn’t feel right. The scene ends with us finishing dinner, and my grandmother wrapping up food my mother says we have no room for in our refrigerator at home. My grandmother hands me the food to carry, with a special batch of fried meatballs to take home. It is at this point in the scene Alice asks me to be the six year old, but with my adult voice and understanding, and speak up to my parents and grandparents.

“You’re driving me crazy! Why do you have to put me in the middle? I can’t figure this out, I’m just a kid. I don’t realize that you, grandma are just setting me up to antagonize my mother, and Dad, why didn’t you speak up about all of this? This is a miserable spot for a kid to be in. Grandpa, I like getting out with you, but why didn’t you say something to Grandma about her antics. I’m sure you saw it, why else would you have left with me? I don’t know how to deal with all of this. That’s why I usually don’t speak much, and why as I got older, I never liked when people did things to attract attention to themselves. It reminded me of Grandma’s narcissism, and the trap it put me in.”

After the scene Elaine became my Mother. I am eight years old playing in the hallway of the apartment while she is ironing in the kitchen. I am making some noises as I play and my mother tells me not to be so loud. She has a cigarette in an ash tray next to the ironing board, and I notice she is crying, and coughing.

“What’s the matter Mom?” I ask.

“Nothing, just keep playing,” says Elaine as my mother.

“Are you alright?” I say as I move towards her.

Elaine coughs elaborately and cries, she knows this role just as well as the other. “Just keep quiet and keep playing. Let me think”

I was trapped again. I couldn’t make my observation, and felt distanced by my mother. It felt like she wanted me to notice, that everything revolved around her feelings, but when I responded, she couldn’t reply with anything other than something dismissive.

Read the final section here.

Daniel J. Tomasulo, Ph.D., TEP, MFA, is a licensed psychologist specializing in group psychotherapy and psychodrama.

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