The Freud Museum

Events Archive

21 May 2000

The Therapist's Body

Conference Report

The topic of this conference - a neglected one within psychoanalysis - was suggested by a Friend of the Freud Museum, Kalu Singh, who sent in a fine proposal which quickly caught the imagination of museum staff. He proposed four specific categories through which the problematic nature of the therapist's bodily presence could be examined: the therapist's body; the therapist's voice; the acting body; and the 'oracular' body.

Part of the therapist's task is to be aware of the patient or client's body. He or she is alert to the symptomatic meaning and value of the client's disaffected presentation of his distress - when tone of voice, deportment and gestures are not congruent with the words spoken. But what kind of awareness ought the therapist to have of her own body? And what kind of awareness should psychoanalysis have of the domain of the body in its practice? Alice Theilgaard, author of Mutative Metaphors in Psychotherapy entitled her talk 'The Neglected Body' in order to emphasise the relative lack of interest that has been shown in these questions in psychoanalysis. But the body will have its day, fixed as it is in the metaphorical nature of our language and as a form of communication which goes beyond language.

The criticism of 'neglect' could not be levelled at Joyce McDougall, author of 'Theatres of the Body' and an expert on psychosomatic conditions. In her paper she spoke movingly (and also humorously) of the emotional and physical toll it takes to be an analyst. The analyst is a 'prisoner of her chair', she observed. 'Of all the care-taking professions, psychoanalysis is certainly the most unhealthy!' She also described ways in which the therapist's body becomes integrated into the analytic work - for instance the traumatic impact, yet opportunity, if the analyst becomes pregnant.

Emotional tensions often manifest in the body and restrict the voice, casting a shadow over the meaning of the words spoken. Everyone knows the experience of failure of tone: the same words said differently producing vastly different emotions and responses. In order to explore these questions we invited Patsy Rodenburg, the foremost voice coach in the country and head of the voice department at the Royal National Theatre, to discuss her work. In her session she used her wide experience with professional actors to show how voice and body interact, illustrating her extempore talk with demonstrations using members of the audience. Rarely had one seen an audience so engaged and enthralled at a psychoanalytic conference!

With Patsy Rodenburg, the film director and performer Sally Potter contributed her own particular experience from the world of theatre. As someone who has been on both sides of the camera - just as every analyst must also have been a patient - Sally Potter spoke authoritatively about the particular demands of each position and the type of spontaneity and control required. The therapist does not act the part of a therapist. And yet perhaps she faces the same dangers of sterile repetition as the professional actor. The same question applies to both - how to be alive in the present while learning from the experience of the past?

Finally, the elusive 'Oracular Body'. It means that the client, and perhaps also the therapist, occasionally experience the therapist's body as the site and source of high knowledge and healing. This oracular-intercessionary modality is forbidden by the theory but most therapists will have experienced being tempted by it, and also having had it projected upon them by the client. In order to explore this we invited Howard Cooper, a trained psychotherapist and also a Rabbi, to contemplate his role in each of his professions. In a moving performance he demonstrated the use of a 'Talith' (prayer shawl), enveloping the body in a private space in which to contemplate meaning 'larger than ourselves'. One was reminded of the little space Freud created in his consulting room at Berggasse, sitting in his chair between the couch and the wall, a sanctuary and space for private reverie, yet connected to the universals of existence which are 'larger than ourselves'.

I need hardly add that the conference was a great success and an important contribution to psychoanalysis. It was chaired with great insight and wit by the psychoanalyst Anthony Cantle who reminded us of Freud's interpretation of overwork as a 'badly concealed attempt at suicide'. Let that be a warning to us all!

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