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When the Body SpeaksReview - When the Body Speaks
The Archetypes in the Body
by Mara Sidoli
Routledge, 2000
Review by Heather C. Liston
Apr 19th 2001 (Volume 5, Issue 16)

Mara Sidoli, a child and adult analyst specializing in infant observation and the study of mother-infant relationships, explains in her introduction that this book is intended to "link Jung's concepts of the self and instinctual archetypal drives to Michael Fordham's concepts of the primary self and infant development." Fordham was Sidoli's own analyst, and his idea of the "primary self"refers to the "totality of the psyche and soma in a germinal state."

But wait--don't go away. In spite of a fair amount of unnecessary jargon, this book is neither incomprehensible nor dull. In layman's terms, the thesis of the book seems to be this: Carl Jung developed the idea of the "archetype," which is "the innate predisposition to experience life according to certain patterns." Michael Fordham believed "that archetypes were activated at the onset of life, from within the womb" and that Jung's theories could be applied to infancy and childhood. (So did Jung, by the way, so it's not entirely clear what's new about Fordham's ideas.) Sidoli studied with Fordham and has gone on to do her own observation, analysis, and research on infants and young children. Through her clinical work, she sees first-hand how the earliest experiences of babies--and particularly their relationships with their mothers--affect their later lives.

The result is some absorbing stories of people who had difficult or inadequate relations with their mothers in very early life and have to learn to live with, or overcome, the effects of those experiences later. Since no-one among us had a perfect infancy or an infallible mother, the book has a sort of universality that makes it intriguing. Many people will experience moments of recognition in these stories, and find interpretations they can apply to their own lives. Probably all babies experience moments of terror and feelings of abandonment. And probably all mothers experience some depression, anxiety, and fears about how to care for their new babies. Sidoli, incidentally, is compassionate toward mothers. She does not imply that perfection in mothering is necessary--she works from an ideal of the "good-enough mother"--and in her therapy practice she helps mothers learn to improve their relationships with their offspring for the sake of both parties.

Given the interesting subject matter, and the insight Sidoli often shows in her descriptions of patients and of therapeutic methods, it is disappointing when she muddies her work by descending into jargon and dissertation-speak. This, for example:

"In our culture, the new parents and the professionals involved in the birth are denied psychic space in which to process and work through the emotional experience and their ambivalent feelings about it." Whose culture? (Sidoli herself is an Italian living in Las Cruces, New Mexico where, in some ways at least, she must feel like a culture of one.) And who is the nameless force doing the denying? What, exactly, is "processing"? Is it really true that someone, at some time, has been able to do more and better "processing" than parents here and now? The use of the passive voice, especially in such vague and accusatory ways, suggests the worst of academic style.

And yet, when Sidoli tells stories of actual patients with whom she has worked, the book brightens up immediately. The patients described here range from the nearly newborn to the age of seventy-something. There is Barry, a toddler born to a hard-rock musician and a mother who thinks she needs to "toughen up" her son. She puts up literal and psychological barriers to keep the boy from getting too close to her, until he learns that the only way to get her to respond is to become violent. There is Hannah, whose psychotic mother is hospitalized through much of her childhood. Hannah dutifully meets all the demands of her sick mother, her exacting father, her sexually abusive grandfather, and her needy siblings until she seems to have no means of expressing her self except through her body. She develops severe backaches which do not begin to ease until she enters analysis in her late thirties and starts to understand the extremity and unreasonableness of the life she has been leading. And Michael, who, in his seventies, still allows himself to be physically abused by his wife because he has not learned to break a pattern that began with his mother.

The process of reading the book goes something like this: the reader becomes engrossed in a lucid and affecting personal story. She begins to empathize with the characters and yearns to know more about their development. Then, all too soon, she is bounced out of the story and into Sidoli's interpretation of it. She reads sentences like "The deintegrative phase is followed by a digestive phase called reintegration" and "in her unconscious a negative archetypal field would be constellated." She sees the author refer to the screaming of a baby as an "affect-loaded somatization." And if the reader is not writing a Ph.D. dissertation herself and looking for some key phrases to dump in, her attention begins to wander.

Do we need words like "constellated"and "cathecting"? Both are back-formations, and both have synonyms in common English. True, Jung himself used versions of "constellate" but still . . . it would be nice to see a woman of Sidoli's capability apply the analytic lessons of the master while also standing for clarity in the writing. Certain other words ("encoprectic," "reintegrative") do not appear in standard dictionaries and one wonders whether they truly add value to the text.

Some of the most interesting material appears in the penultimate chapter of this slim volume (119 pages in all), which is called "When the Meaning Gets Lost in the Body." This chapter offers some fascinating examples of "psychosomatic" patients, those who express psychological problems through physical suffering and illness. In service to these people, Sidoli disagrees with the belief of some professionals that psychosomatic patients are unanalyzable. "I have come to believe," she says, "that analysis can be done, but only after the meaning has been extracted from the physical symptom and redirected into the psychic field." There is good and valuable work here, although a lay person may need a little help interpreting it all.

First Serial Rights © 2001 Heather Liston

Heather Liston studied Religion at Princeton University and earned a Masters degree from the NYU Graduate School of Business Administration. She is the Managing Director of the National Dance Institute of New Mexico, and writes extensively on a variety of topics. Her book reviews and other work have appeared in Self, Women Outside, The Princeton Alumni Weekly, Appalachia, Your Health and elsewhere.


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