By Kevin Murphy, Reg. Pract. APPI.
One of the questions people often ask is ‘how can talking about myself make any difference?’ It is, on the face of it, a reasonable question. Someone suffering from anxiety, or depression, or repeated negative behaviour, or unexplained symptoms, or an inability to engage with others sexually, or suffering post traumatic effects from abuse, will naturally wonder how such an ordinary human thing as talking can work. The answer to the question is quite simple: it is not just what is being said that is important, it is also the act of speaking.
Being able to speak about oneself in a considered, criticism-free way is a sign of health. It denotes a desire to try, no matter if it misses the mark sometimes, to put words on things that relate to ourselves and our experiences in life. It means that an inquiring drive is at work somewhere within us not necessarily to find answers to big questions but to put words on parts of our experience that have never had spoken words put on them, and that have long been the root-cause of guilt, anger, shame, frustration, embarrassment, panic, sadness, confusion, anxiety, and so on. Speaking allows us re-visit and re-examine events, ideas, experiences that were often poorly understood when they first occurred. We get a chance to reclaim something of them for ourselves, and stop them belonging to others. The actual work of putting words on these moments engages another part of our mind – the powerful associating agency that links single ideas together in combinations to bring newer meanings for us.
There is an interesting way of illustrating this but before we move to that we have to keep one more important thing in mind. Speaking is also a way of re-establishing our often ruptured relationship with memory. The famous French psychoanalyst Dr Jacques Lacan put it succinctly many years ago when he said: ‘We do not remember because we are cured. We are cured because we remember.’ And what is it we are required to remember? The answer is the past, our individual past, the past the no one except us has had, the personal history that makes us unique and different from everyone else.
Many people shirk this challenge. Many want to simply run away from it. And so, speaking will naturally be difficult for them. They’d prefer a therapy that does not require them to speak about themselves, and there are many to choose from and that is their choice. Some prefer medication, because that doesn’t require them speak about themselves at all. That too is a choice. Indeed, there are many other ways we can keep memory at bay, but unfortunately a lot of them are ultimately harmful and self-destructive. Contemporary society is filled with examples. What all this tells us is how difficult the seemingly simple act of speaking can be for some people and the variety of ways they use to try and avoid it. Speaking opens us up to ourselves and to our history, our story. For some, that is too risky.
This is not to ignore those people who have genuine difficulties in speaking but who still engage in the ‘talking cure’. The courage they display is evident. In these situations the issue of not being able to speak becomes part of the process of finding a way through. Just because someone has difficulty finding the words to say it does not mean they are beyond help.
But not speaking, as in not wanting to speak, is a different thing. If we move to the entirely other end of the spectrum and consider the most damaged and damaging type of people there are, we can perhaps get a useful perspective on this thing called speaking. The study of psychopaths teaches us something quite interesting, particularly serial killers. As well as their heinous crimes against ordinary and innocent human beings, you find they also have something quite unique in common: when they are caught they practically never speak about what they have done. Harold Shipman, the UK doctor who killed about 280 people many years ago never spoke at his trial or afterwards in any way about why he did what he did, or about his past. Danny Rolling in the US, the man on whom the Scream movies were based, never spoke about what he did and even got a fellow inmate to confess on his behalf rather than speak himself. Jeffrey Dahmer, known as the Milwaukee cannibal, could not explain and refused to talk about what he did. Dennis Nilsen in London, who chopped up his victims and flushed them down the toilet, spoke volumes once convicted but was incapable of understanding why or of putting it into words due to years of internal isolation from those around him; even Henri Landru who murdered 11 women in 19th century France refused to speak about it and refused to admit anything even when the death penalty was handed down. The same goes for Ted Bundy in the US, the savage killer of anything between 30 and 100 innocent women, some of whose bodies have still never been found. He did confess somewhat hours before his execution but even then words failed him and he was unable to speak fully about his crimes.
This is not to say that people who choose not to speak are psychopaths, far from it. This is to simply learn from extreme mental pathology that not speaking, at its most damaging, is a symptom of a locked-in condition that ensures the individual remains outside the human fold, beyond the reach of human comfort and its potentially curative properties. And in the case of serial killers that also includes beyond law, convention and moral order. Speaking in as open a way as possible, in contrast, then becomes a clear signal of well-being and health. Seen in this light, it now becomes a necessary tool for survival rather than just a whimsical choice of maybe I will, maybe I won’t. Sigmund Freud, who invented the talking cure, paraphrased Frederick the Great by saying that every man and woman must 'find out for themselves in what fashion they can be saved'. He was putting the responsibility back onto us. We have a choice.
*Based on a series of lectures on ‘Serial Killers’ delivered to 2nd year MA students of Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy at Independent Colleges, Dublin.
'The Words to Say It’ is the title of a 1975 book by novelist Marie Cardinal about her personal experience of psychoanalysis. It sold 2.3 million copies and was translated into 18 languages. It won the Prix Littre in 1976.