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Phantasy

by Julia Segal

Disguises
Daydreams are conscious and we can probably choose to have them or not. But less conscious phantasies go on without our awareness. We can pick these up in various ways.

A song may come into our heads for no apparent reason. With thought, we may discover the phantasies behind it. Looking out at the rain a writer friend told me he found himself singing "Uh huh, oh no, don't let the rain come down". He was puzzled as he found it easier to write when it rains. It was only when I asked him how the song went on and he said "My roof's got a hole in it and I might drown" that he remembered a roofer had told him he should do something about the state of his roof and it was worrying him. Some time later he reminded me that his mother had recently had a stroke which he visualised as holes in her brain. I wondered if he thought he would drown in tears if she died. The "oh no" made sense here. Tracing back from a simple snatch of song we can find anxieties which are just below the surface, expressed in concrete images. Below those, there are others. The song functioned to keep at bay both his own anxieties and (magically) his mother's death while disguising them sufficiently to allow him to work.

The concrete images are phantasies, woven together to represent and express anxieties and needs (his anxieties about his mother; his need to work). They use his experience of the present (his recent encounter with the roofer) and the past (the song itself; the belief in magic); metaphors (the "holes" in his mother's brain); unconscious magical thinking ("I can stop my mother dying by saying "oh no"). Phantasies in this sense are actions (a piece of magic) as well as causing actions (the refrain going through his head).

Sometimes we are aware of no more than a vague irritability in ourselves or someone else. With a bit of thought, we may be able to diagnose it quite easily; but we have to take that thought and there may be good reason not to. Another person may be able to see more clearly than we can.

In counselling, a woman with multiple sclerosis talked about herself and her family. I began to get a sense that she did not expect to live much longer. I asked her about this and, rather surprised, she agreed this was the case. I asked her why this might be, since my expectation would be that she would live for many more years. She did not know. I asked if her parents were still alive - puzzled, she said her father had died when he was 52; she was now 48. Suddenly she became aware that she had always thought she was like him and she was sure she would die at the age he had. She realised she had been unconsciously preparing for her own death for several years, and that this had affected her whole attitude to her children and her husband. In unconscious phantasy, we can say, she was identifying with her father and her own imminent death was a certain fact.

Fantasies which go on in our heads without our being completely aware of them can come out in other ways too.

The author Martin Amis in his autobiography describes how in 1977 an ex-lover showed him a photograph of a small girl, saying it was his daughter. He gave the photo to his mother. Later he met the girl amid some publicity. Amis describes the shock which made him "jump out of his boots" when Maureen Frely, reviewing his work, "noted the punctual arrival - just in time for my third novel, Success (1978) of a stream of lost or wandering daughters and putative or fugitive fathers, and that these figures recurred, with variations, in every subsequent book."

Amis continues:

"There was nothing I could do about this diagnosis. It chimed with something Patrick had said during our first talk on the telephone: "I expect it's been in the back of your mind" . Yes, exactly: in the back of my mind. Your writing comes from the back of your mind, where thoughts are unformulated and anxiety is silent. I felt there was something almost embarrassing about the neatness and obviousness of the Freely interpretation. But it also sharply consoled me, because it meant that I had been with Delilah in spirit far more than I knew." (The Guardian, G2 May 10, 2000 p.4)

Once Amis knew about the existence of his daughter, she turned up again and again in his mind - but in a disguised form. She existed in his mind in unconscious phantasy only, determining his writing without his recognising it.

Julia Segal works as a counsellor in the NHS. She has written extensively about the use of the ideas of Kleinian psychoanalysis in ordinary settings. She is particularly interested in the effect of parental illness on children. This extract is from her book Phantasy, part of the Ideas In Psychoanalysis series, published by Icon Books.

Ideas In Psychoanalysis
edited by Ivan Ward Icon Books £3.99



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