The Exquisite Corpse, Family Constellations and the Fractal Nature of Time

Charles Long CATALIN, The Contemporary Austin – Jones Center, Austin.

One of my most haunting dreams, actually a dream into waking experience, happened several years ago.  I was just waking up from a deep sleep and felt myself rising up into my body, into consciousness.  First, I became aware of myself as a mountain, part of a range of peaks. I didn’t remember my name until I got to the very top of the mountain, and then I remembered that I am Evelyn.  It was shocking, recognizing this re-prioritized identity.  For a fleeting moment, my fundamental self was a part of a submerged (to my consciousness) ancestral range and only at the  peak lived my normal waking self.  It was an iconic moment, an anchor of knowing that has encouraged me to explore the  intergenerational transmission of talent and of trauma that I knew lurked in my family’s subconscious.  We recognize physical and intellectual traits that are passed along the family vine but what about deeply felt experiences and  patterns of behavior?   My mother’s family in Vienna, Austria experienced two World Wars and their shattering aftermath and my father was also a veteran and military officer. These traumas affected me subconsciously, while certainly impacting my parents’ capacity to nurture.

Psychoanalysts Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok’s book The Shell and the Kernel describes the process by which trauma is either assimilated into the psyche of the individual (introjection), often through a process of mourning. Or, by the creation of an exquisite corpse, trauma is entombed and buried in a subconscious crypt, where healing does not occur. Further, they suggest that these corpses can become ghosts, haunting families through several generations, unless they can be uncovered and healing and understanding are facilitated.

I bring this up hot on the heels of a wonderful movie I saw, The Book Thief. The story is narrated by Death who follows a young girl, Liesel, when she goes to live with strangers after the Nazi’s imprisoned her mother, during the build up to WWII. Eventually, the war destroys the lives of the villagers, the bombs fall and many die. It might as well have been the story of my mother’s childhood. It affected me in a powerful way, evoking painful impressions of how much my mother, grandmother and great grandmother suffered during two wars in Vienna. My father was a soldier too, but it is my mother’s family trauma that I’ve been the most impacted by. Those who lose their loved ones, their homes and their lives in war or other disasters are haunted. Sometimes I think this world has become overburdened with ghosts.

As part of a guided autobiography project, I started exploring and writing about family relationships and intergenerational transmission .  A friend recommended Bert Hellinger’s work on Family Constellations. While I won’t go into a lot of detail in this post, what peaked my interest was his theory that members of a family create and interact with an energy field they share and navigate more or less successfully.  The field is an integrating mechanism and meta consciousness that can include grandparents, former partners and the dead.  Anngwyn St. Just, whose book Trauma: Time, Space and Fractals discusses the transmission of unresolved trauma in the family and at the cultural level, suggests a new way of contextualizing this in time and place. Seeing time and space as a continuum, mapped in fractal patterns creates interesting perspectives on inherited family themes.

This video from Charles Long’s show illustrates both the way individual members are positioned, their submerged aspects and the fractal element in the map behind the grouping.  He has also incorporated sound and smell, a delightful multisensory experience.

This is just a preview of family constellation therapy and  my ongoing preoccupation with non-linear models of time.  Both have excited skepticism and appreciation, which we’ll explore further, anon.