Wednesday 22 November 2017

A rare and raw look behind the scenes of the private world of a patient and her analyst 'J'

It is unusual to find someone who is prepared to bare the details of their six-year personal psychoanalysis. Set against a backdrop of the Troubles in Belfast, Eina McHugh attends sessions twice a week, and this book is an account of the progress (three steps forward, two back) of a sometimes stormy relationship between her and her analyst, J.

She appears for treatment in 1988 at J's consulting room where there are three pictures on the wall: Freud, Jung and Assagioli, the founder of psychosynthesis.

A workaholic, her difficulties, it emerges, are psychosomatic symptoms, a terror of intimacy and great difficulty at even saying the word "sex".

It is no easy matter to convey the sense of a psychoanalytic session, but McHugh does this with great success: "On the couch there is no distraction of a reactive human face, no intrusive response, no disapproval. A crazy thought is let float, and the not-understood flits around like a feather."

Her account of sessions with J are vivid and dramatic, as can be seen from a few of the chapter titles: Struck by lightning; Dazzling truth; The black pit; Lightness.

When she finds out she is to be included in group therapy sessions, the transition from being special to J to sharing him with others is agony for her.

The group acts as a stormy rehearsal space for insights gained in her equally stormy analysis. Outside events, too, impinge on the process: a friend is murdered, and during one group session a huge bomb is slowly being defused beside the consulting room.

One difficulty with the account is that early life details of her parents, especially her mother, are hazy.

Unsurprisingly, as she is besotted by her father, she generates what analysts call a "positive transference", that is to say, she becomes enamoured of J.

He heroically sidesteps her seductive behaviour as well as her attacks, and although at times he almost comes to grief, inspiration saves him.

A touching aspect of her account is showing how the treatment has changed not only the patient but also the analyst. It is an old joke of psychoanalysis that those who want to learn to live with their problems ask to be analysed, but those who wish to be cured ask to be trained as psychoanalysts.

Bearing in mind that her therapy is a very particular approach (an unusual blend of Freud, Jung and psychosynthesis), this account gives the reader a good sense of the highly subjective experience of McHugh's being in analysis as well as J's experience of being her analyst.

Ross Skelton

Ross Skelton is a psychoanalyst and a senior lecturer in philosophy at Trinity College.

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