How did I come to make a film about Dr. Vamik Volkan? The project arose from my experiences being a woman of a particular family rooted in the southern United States. As D.W. Winnicott said, home is where we start from.
My family dispensed propaganda concerning the illusion of love. Our group of seven operated according to what Wilfred Bion called the “basic assumption of dependency.” Bion categorized small groups according to a handful of emotional dynamics, and this was one, written by him as “baD” (basic assumption Dependency). Dependency groups, he claimed, have a distorted relationship to time. Mine was no exception. My beloved kin speak with diphthong vowels as if sliding back in time through their double melodies of speech. Our small group was led in the most traditional way. We submitted to a beloved patriarch and to the biases of our geography. Our southern state lumbered under intergenerational guilt for African American slavery, and still does, while at the same time lamenting the loss of Confederate monuments.
There is a bronze confederate statue on the quad at the local college campus, UNC-Chapel Hill, commonly known as “Silent Sam.” This is ironic nomenclature considering the stories of shared trauma it holds. This young soldier, long the target of heated controversy, was pulled down by protestors last year. As it is said, time stood still in the south when Lee surrendered to Grant — a moment that crystalized its impotence and which we continually return to. Volkan calls this temporal regression “time collapse,” and his primary example is the Serbian loss of the Battle of Kosovo (1389), called up by Slobodan Milošević at a Kosovo rally in 1989. This is portrayed through a climactic scene in my film.
Time collapse is a sign of petrified grief or what Volkan describes as “complicated mourning.” Mourning is a major theme is his work. How does one get over loss? Studying his work, I realized how the south suffers from nostalgia. This condition in large groups gives rise to swings of historical helplessness and totalitarian launches — as with the Nazi flags in Charlottesville (2017). I am reminded of another term Bion developed from his work with war veterans in small groups: “beta.” Beta elements are a person’s undigested facts and emotional experiences before they can be accessed, named through language, and thus converted to conscious thought. The southern states in this nation are the poorest. They own the most guns and the most Bibles. In other words, the south swims in beta.
Volkan’s work helped me see my childhood in a broader political, cultural, and historical context. Telling his life story was also a way of discovering mine — my roots in a southern region and how my personal identity is bound up with this. I have a memory of a black nanny who helped look after me as a child. I befriended her daughter and recall us playing together one day. She shared her bag of caramel candies while her father counseled me sternly from beneath his curved-bill cap: “Don’t take too many.” How many Sugar Babies is too many? Careful I don’t cannibalize a people. My aggression learned to move in labyrinthine ways.
Through blind luck, I landed in analysis and was like glass for the first time. I could see inside myself! I kept trying to put it into words, but the assertion “I am” remained thorny, sometimes shrouded in a thicket of emotion. My first two analysts died before termination, one from heart failure and the other from a pulmonary embolism as she was walking home from a concert. Their sudden deaths were lacerations through time, the silence inside me the weight of 1000 tons. I turned to aesthetics and memorializing Volkan’s work with its focus on grief. It was also perhaps my plain determination: by God, this analyst will stand. He will endure.
I do know this. Poetry can heal. It can help cure the sufferings of thought. Poets are more powerful than kings. My task was to craft a structure for both affect and distance. One technique I drew from Brecht’s Epic Theater: verfremdungseffekt, the “alienation effect,” a knowing through distance. Bertolt Brecht, a German director and playwright of the avant-garde, endorsed alienated acting where the performer cites the character’s emotions rather than identifying with them. This distinction between character and actor engenders in the spectator a feeling self and an observing self. In Brecht’s words:
Suppose a sister is mourning her brother’s departure for the war… Are we to surrender to her sorrow completely? Or not at all? We must be able to surrender to her sorrow and at the same time not to. Our actual emotion will come from recognizing and feeling the incident’s double aspect. (Bertolt Brecht, Brecht On Theatre, ed. & trans. John Willett, NY: Hill and Wang, 1957)
This was for me a theory of containment: for the recognition of a dual experience, identification, and disidentification. Verfremdungseffekt makes the familiar strange. And strangeness creates breathing room, clearing space for something new.
I didn’t know what I was going to make or mourn when I asked Volkan and Jerry Fromm to do interviews at the Erik Erikson Institute for Education and Research many years ago now. But disentangling from familial history was somewhere in mind and negotiating the psychic terrain between me and not-me. These men understood that culture and history have a significant place in our emotional lives. They knew, too, that people in numbers are frequently savage. The consulting room is afterall a very civilized place with its tissue boxes and tidy fifty-minute hour. Thankfully some Freudian disciples venture to the far side of clinical walls. Volkan writes recently of Turkey under the religious AK Parti (AKP) and the soul murder of citizens, those repelled by this authoritarian regime. He describes a severe sociopolitical split, as in the United States, and a tide of destructive change in national identity. AK propaganda appeals to children by printing Spider-Man on prayer rugs. Adherents to the party talk on television of redacting the name “Charles Darwin” from schoolbooks and refer to women without progeny as “half-human.” This malady of the soul is the will of the group eviscerating personal identity.
But I am saved this fate.
In three of the refugee camps where Volkan worked, there was one poet who wrote the history of the people, helping internally displaced people rebuild self-esteem and integrity. Even in refugee camps, it seems, poetry has residency. It was in Tbilisi, Georgia, where Volkan’s interdisciplinary team from the Center for the Study of Mind and Human Interaction (1987–2002) worked the most intensely with one family who had escaped ethnic war in Abkhazia. The grand patriarch of this family was a philosopher and poet, Nodar Khundadze, who wrote one poem every day to be read aloud ritualistically over breakfast. (see below) Volkan, acting as participant-observer, helped members of this small group integrate the internal images of their life before and after exile. His purpose was much like that of the daily compositions of verse. Several years later, the family built a room in his name, but really a place for themselves: small, but with a fireplace and mantel on which was set the book of breakfast poems. My film about this makeshift room gave me a space of possibility and self-engenderment — a potential space — one I share with Georgian refugees. ■
When I see your hand begging
My dignity suffers.
I cannot give you my soul (suli)
Since it is impossible to give one’s soul to someone.
But, I have nothing left except my soul.
I am pressing against prison bars.
If you need my life,
I can give it to you.
— Nodar Khundadze
Molly S. Castelloe, PhD, earned her doctorate in performance studies at Tisch School of the Arts, New York University, and is a candidate at the National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis. She has a blog for psychologytoday.com on group psychology called “The Me in We” and garnered the Gradiva Award for her documentary film Vamik’s Room, on the life and work of Vamik Volkan, www.vamiksroom.org
(1) Killing in the Name of Identity: A Study of Bloody Conflicts, Vamik Volkan, (Pitchstone, Charlottesvillle, VA: 2006)
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