To attain a grasp of the unconscious it helps to think of it as a tape player. If you don’t change the tape it will continue to play the same songs over and over and over again. The repetition compulsion, which is in all human minds, is not always a bad thing, of course. Many people play happy, positive tapes. But whether an unconscious is upbeat and light, or dark and destructive, be assured it will seek out the same people, and the same situations, resulting in the same psychodynamics, all through a person’s life.
One of the clearest examples of the repetition compulsion can be found when a person has had multiple relationships, including marriages, that have turned sour. I had a patient named “Ginger” who grew up in a small town in South Dakota. Ginger married for the first time directly after high school. Her husband managed his grandfather’s cattle ranch, was 6-foot, four-inches tall, had long blonde hair and a very muscular body. Her second husband, whom she married at age 26, was the owner of the town’s drug store. He was 6-foot tall, crew cut, and obese. She married her third husband at age 34. He was a diminutive man, about 5-feet, 6-inches tall, and weighed no more than 140 pounds. He owned and operated a chain of auto body shops.
When Ginger came to see me, this third marriage was falling apart and she was in a heightened state of anxiety coupled with depression. Although she had little formal schooling beyond the twelfth grade she was exceptionally bright and a dedicated reader. Ginger was certain that she was to blame for three failed marriages but had no idea what she was doing to cause the failures. “It must be all my fault,” she cried during our first session. “All of my husbands are so different!” I asked her to describe them and when she did I had to agree Fabian, Fatty and Shorty did appear to be very different.
By the third session, however, it became clear that the three men shared a number of similarities. All had a good senses of humor, they were dedicated to their jobs, none were close to their own families, none wanted children, none wanted Ginger to work outside the home. All three were borderline alcoholics and, occasionally, they all beat her up. Ginger kept picking abusive control freaks to be her loving wedded husbands. Bright as she was, she realized that when she dumped Shorty and went in search of husband number four, she would probably pick another guy who would beat her up. “Jim, you must help me. Why do I keep winding up with these pricks?”
I explained the repetition compulsion, told her it was coming from her unconscious, and that she should not blame herself. We then went to work piecing together her history before she ever met her husbands. It was not a pretty history.
Ginger’s father, a heavy drinker and her mother, a sometimes drinker, would occasionally have violent fights often ending with mom running to her bedroom and locking the door. The next day she’d be sporting a shiner along with bruised ribs. Ginger heard these fights, which occurred two or three times a year, as she cowered in her bedroom. After her mother left the fight scene, her dad would go to Ginger’s room, take her clothes off and penetrate her. As he was doing this he told Ginger how much he loved her. Ginger’s psychological history was disastrous.
It is important to note that during the periods of time between fights, the family appeared to be quite normal. Mom, who was not allowed to work outside of the house, prepared nutritious meals, kept a spotless home and made sure Ginger had the proper clothes to wear. She took an active interest in Ginger’s school work and her friends. Dad, a master mechanic at the local Chevy dealership, made a good living and was always home after work. His relationship with Ginger during those normal times she described as “friendly.” He liked to tease her but not in a cutting way. He could be very funny. On most Sundays the family attended church.
Over the many months of her therapy Ginger held on to the belief that, “Ninety-nine percent of the time I had a normal family life.” She insisted that when pitted against the 1 percent terrible times it was not so bad overall. This was a defensive neurotic shield, a mask that gave her the false belief that her childhood was nearly perfect. And she felt that the other families that she had witnessed growing up were much more unstable than hers. All my nudging, hinting and urging her to see that this was not so was to no avail. Ginger defiantly clung to the belief that her upbringing was mostly normal. I was ready to pull the last of my hair out.
Finally, out of desperation, I said to her, “Ginger, your father raped you two or three times a year for many years. This completely negates any of the nice things he did for you. And, Ginger, I’ll bet you anything your mom knew what was going on.”
That did it. The dam broke, and Ginger fell to pieces in my office. When she began to compose herself, some 20 minutes later, she blubbered out, “I know she knew! She had to!” The sobbing began again.
One of the predominant characteristics of the unconscious mind is that it wants to repeat, over and over, the dynamics that make it up. One of the dynamics in Ginger’s unconscious was that wives, from time to time, are supposed to be beaten up by their husbands. She put that dynamic in place by choosing the three physically abusive guys she married. But she had another dynamic that added to her damaged psyche. After dad beat up mom, he went to Ginger for solace. Ginger was put in the role of “good wife,” replacing mom. This dynamic consumed her with guilt and filled her with rage against her parents, which she deflected toward herself. She “won” the Oedipal conflict by replacing her mother, if only occasionally, and, therefore, deserved to be punished.
To begin the process of recovery, Ginger had to answer the question: “Why do I feel I must be punished by my husband?” To help her get started I added, “When a person seeks punishment, they must be feeling guilty about something. What, regarding your folks, do you feel guilty about?” It took us two years to answer that question, unscramble her feelings, and to turn her anger away from herself and to place it squarely where it belonged — directly at dear old mom and dad. By this time Shorty, who refused therapy, was long gone and Ginger was dating a guy who, at first, she was not attracted to but was now growing fond of. “Someday I might even love him,” she laughed. Ginger was going to be OK.
Breaking one’s repetition compulsions is never easy because they are so deeply ingrained in the unconscious mind. I used to tell my patients who were constantly finding themselves in lousy relationships, “If you are immediately attracted to someone, run like hell. That’s your very powerful unconscious trying to set up its pre-programmed destructive dynamics.” Though somewhat contrived, this advice was better than nothing until we could dig in.
One of the elements of my personal unconscious merry-go-round is the inclination to do good and then screw it up. This is known as “undoing” in psychoanalytic jargon, and it teams up nicely with the repetition compulsion. I can trace this tendency back to grammar school. When in the seventh grade, I was the “seventh man” on the basketball team. With four eighth-graders graduating it was automatic, in my mind, that when I got to eighth grade I would be a starter. When eighth grade came and practice began, I acted cool, dogged it and looked down on other teammates. Before I knew what happened I was again the seventh man on the team, on the bench, picking up more splinters.
Once in Little League, I hit a line drive like a rifle bullet that went between the center and right fielders. Knowing there was no way they could get to the ball in time to get me out (there was no outfield fence), I blithely started jogging around the bases. By the time I rounded third the fans and my teammates were screaming. I waved to them, mistaking their screams for cheers and continued to jog. I was thrown out at the plate.
I had an exceptional curve ball, and every time Butchie Johnson came up to bat all I had to do was throw him three curves and he’d strike out. Otherwise a very gifted athlete (you couldn’t get a fastball by him), Butchie simply could not hit a curve. One time in the bottom of the seventh with two outs (in Little League we only played seven innings), Butchie came to the plate. Our team was ahead by one run and their team had one man on base.
No problem. I had already struck Butchie out twice in the game so I threw two curve balls and he swung and missed both by a mile. To this day, some 50 years later, I can still recall what went through my mind. “I am going to show Butchie, my team, Butchie’s team, and all the fans that I can strike out Butchie Johnson with a fast ball.” I wound up and let it go and it was a good one —coming in low on the inside corner. Butchie swung and I think that ball is still going. He positively creamed it and we lost the game.
Remember I was programmed, “Not to be another Bob, but to be a first Jim.” I took this to heart. I had a Latin teacher in high school who had taught my straight “A” brother eight years before me. Once he asked me to stay after school for a talk. He told me that I had the potential to be the best Latin student he ever taught and that included my brother. All I had to do was work a little harder. I was never so shocked in my life, did not believe him, and quit studying Latin. I wound up with a “C.” (I still don’t believe him.)
In college I tried out for the tennis team. Members were chosen through an elimination tournament. My high school, and others on the south side of Chicago, had no tennis teams. We only played intramural. I was the best player in my school but that really didn’t count for much. In the college tryouts I found myself playing against a classmate, Dave McClenahan, who had been a member of his high school tennis team that won the championship for the entire state of Pennsylvania. Dave and I began to play and I actually won the first few games, then this thought went through my mind, “I shouldn’t be beating this guy. He was a state champ!” I promptly lost the first set and was demolished in the next. No college tennis for me. (Dave probably would have beaten me in any case but my self-diminishing pre-programming certainly made it easier for him.)
Also, while in college, I won the heart of a beautiful and wonderful girl. When Judy walked into a room all heads turned. We fell in love and dated regularly until I decided I should break up with her before she broke up with me. I knew that eventually she would learn what a boring, shallow person I was.
And so it went into adulthood. In the Army, instead of playing it safe and staying on the ground as a Transportation Corps Officer, running a motor pool, I volunteered to go to flight school. With this decision I wound up flying helicopters in the Vietnam War. Damn near got myself killed.
After the war, in my own business, I made a small fortune before I was 28 years old and continued making big money selling condos in Florida. Then I moved to Colorado and you know that story. By the time my analytic training was over I was broke.
Of course, I had never put together this pattern of “Do good then screw it up,” until my analyst pointed it out to me and we spent many months dealing with it. Even to this day I’ve got to be on guard against it. Such is the power of the unconscious mind and its wish to repeat the same dynamics.
“Psychic determinism,” is the cornerstone of psychoanalysis. It means that our emotions are built on previous emotional experiences. To demonstrate, here’s one more story about Butchie Johnson. Before going to the first grade I prided myself on being the fastest runner of the half dozen or so little kids on our block. Early in the first grade our teacher, Sister Leonise, took us to Foster Park for an outing. We played games, had a picnic lunch and were generally enjoying ourselves when Sister said, “Come on, children, let’s have a race!” I thought that was a great idea and as we got to the starting line I told Sister I was going to win, “Watch me, Sister!” I crowed for all to hear.
Our class consisted of kids from all over the parish, not just my block, and Butchie Johnson was one of them. Before that day I’d paid scant attention to him. Not only did Butchie beat me but so did another kid. I was devastated.
Sister Leonise, an angel in a habit, came over to me and put her cloaked arm around my shoulder. “You did really well, Jimmy. You came in third out of all those children.” Her kind words didn’t help as I realized, for the first time, there’s a big world out there and there are a lot of Butchie Johnsons in it.
There is no doubt in my mind that if six years after the race some kid other than Butchie was standing at the plate I would have thrown that third curve ball. But I wanted revenge on Butchie by blowing a fastball by him. I wanted to embarrass him as he embarrassed me in first grade.
Years ago I had forgotten about the race but the memory was resurrected when I wrote about the curve ball incident. (I had never forgotten that.) No thought, feeling or memory exists alone. And if I ever encounter Butchie Johnson again I will not succumb to the repetition compulsion by trying to get the better of him. I’ve been psychoanalyzed. I’ll buy him a drink.
Waynesville resident Jim Joyce’s memoir, Use Eagles if Necessary, is being published in weekly installments in The Smoky Mountain News. Each week we begin a chapter in our print edition and then put the entire chapter on our Web site. All previous chapters are available online. The book can be purchased at rockpublishing.com/eagles.htm, and may be ordered through bookstores after May 31.