Emotional Health · Family & Friends

Family Ties: Lifeline and Gordian Knot

We have all known people who have about them an expectation of a certain kind of “destiny” — people who “know” they are bound for greatness or doomed to failure. Referring to this, Dr. Luepnitz recalled a wonderful quote from the novel The Lover by Marguerite Duras: “Very early in my life it was too late.” Lacan describes this phenomenon using the idea of the “Family Até.” This concept, central to classical Greek drama, involves the inevitability of a family curse — once predicted, it cannot be avoided by those who remain ignorant of it. It bears some resemblance to what family therapist Murray Bowen (and others) have called “intergenerational transmission of trauma”: family members transmit the same unconscious conflicts from generation to generation.

In her paper “Thinking in the Space Between Winnicott and Lacan,” Dr. Luepnitz presents a case history to illuminate some of these concepts. Her patient (A.S.) was a brilliant 35-year-old artist whose depression was so extreme that she had lost two jobs, stopped paying her bills and was on the verge of becoming homeless. She also had difficulty feeding herself and maintaining basic self-care. One of the first questions the analyst asked was about her name, which was an unusual one, a question that is always asked by followers of Lacan. A.S. was surprised, since no therapist had ever asked, but said she knew nothing about the name. When pressed she admitted that she was named for her great-grandmother who died in the Holocaust, but she knew none of the details because this was a topic the family never discussed. So it was immediately revealed that she was named for a person who was starved and erased, and whose memory was subsequently  erased. Dr. Luepnitz describes in her paper how reclaiming some of the details of her great-grandmother’s history helped A.S. become less of a living ghost herself.

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Someone I once treated, G.P., was named after her father’s father, who died a few months before she was born. Her mother had a son from a previous marriage whom her father had adopted when they married, and in agreeing to name the second child after the grandfather, whom she disliked, my patient felt she was presented to her father as a “gift” from her mother. G.P. also felt forced to identify only with her father’s side of the family, and worse, that her own mother had rejected her, or at best, had prevented her attempts to identify with her as a woman. As a result, G.P. had gender identity issues as well as an urgent longing for a close relationship with a woman.

While some of these very subtle issues are apparent only to therapists, many of the broader trends may be perfectly visible if you look for them. Do you know men (or women) who have followed so closely in their father’s or mother’s “footsteps” that they have mimicked the pattern of successes and failures as well as his or her career path? I know a family in which at least three generations of women have married very promising men who burned out in middle age, forcing the women to take over and become competent businesswomen in their own right. It is universally recognized that there is a repetition of trauma that occurs when the children of alcoholics marry alcoholics, or when sexually abused children become abusers themselves. The power and reach of untreated trauma is vast. Female victims don’t often become abusers, but they may have difficulty in preventing abuse again as adults or in avoiding traumas in other ways. And, if abuse happens to their children, they may be blind to it because of their need to deny their experience rather than be sensitized to it.

We are all shaped by the soil in which we are grown. Unlike trees, however, we can travel far from our point of origin and transform ourselves in many ways. Nevertheless, the basic psychic DNA, handed down through many generations, lives on. In the physical sciences, we are learning that by accessing DNA we may be able to alter its path in astonishing ways. The same is true with the mind. Dr. Luepnitz, who runs an outreach program for the homeless in Philadelphia, spoke of riding in vans that pick up street people and bring them to shelters. While riding with the homeless, she uses some of Lacan’s techniques, including asking about the origins of their names, to help bring these very guarded people into conversation about themselves. She has created an extraordinary program offering psychoanalytic treatment to society’s neediest individuals with measurable success. Everyone has a name, and everyone has a story.

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Bruni, Frank. “The Family Footsteps We Follow,” The New York Times, March 6, 2016.

Luepnitz, Deborah Anna “Thinking in the Space Between Winnicott and Lacan.” International Journal of Psychoanalysis, (2009), 90: 957-981.

Bowen, Murray (1978)  Family Therapy in Clinical Practice. New York, NY. Aronson.





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