The Mailer Review/Volume 13, 2019/Attachment, Abandonment, and Reconciliation: A Psychoanalytic Review of Susan Mailer’s Memoir as Bildungsroman

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« The Mailer ReviewVolume 13 Number 1 • 2019 »
In Another Place With and Without My Father, Norman Mailer
By Susan Mailer
Northampton House Press, 2019
316 pages Cloth ISBN-13: 978-1937997977
(USD $27.95)

I

The first line of Susan Mailer’s memoir In Another Place With and Without My Father, Norman Mailer reads, “MY EARLIEST MEMORY IS IN MY BELLY.”[2] This concise, aptly capitalized, one-line paragraph brings together memory and belly. This association casts a psychosomatic light on the author’s entire memoir, in which the enigma of the psychosomatic phenomena prevails. The exceptional coherence and intelligibility of the line owes much to author’s eleven years of being in psychanalysis, psychoanalytic training at Psychanalytic Institute in Santiago, Chile, and finally her experiences as a practicing psychoanalyst.

Accordingly, I would state this single one-line sentence gives birth to a theoretically open-ended and probing ensemble of arrangements of words, sentences, paragraphs, and chapters as the author’s memoir. From my perspective, in due course this extraordinary initial sentence will make manifest the capacity of growing and intuitively recreating narrative of vestiges of remembrance of things past. Then at a certain point in the narrative, lo and behold, it offers the reader formidable dialectical syntheses of the emotional and intuitive on the one hand and the theoretical and conceptual on the other.

Susan Mailer rightly foresees that her initial one-line paragraph’s brevity and acuity compel the reader to respond to it by a sort of penetrating explication de text (textual clarification), as the French Formalist literary criticism refers to it. In this case, a textual clarification is even more germane because she has a psychoanalytic background. From her specialized viewpoint, the paragraph legitimately demands a psychoanalytic textual explication. Thus, in an understated, succinct, and yet plurisignificant line, the author produces her own concise textual clarification. She discloses the first essential element at the heart of her memoir and leaves the rest to interpretive reader response activities. All the same, after the reader absorbs the hidden import of the sparse first line, more pivotal, informative details burst forth. The author writes:

The above paragraph makes available to the reader a particular diagnosis of various psychological, emotional, and intellectual aspects of the narrative of entire life. Without any undue drama, she deftly makes statements of foundational import of a specific picture, or better, a snapshot taken when she was an infant. This snapshot uncannily snatches, records, and integrates infantile experiences of attachment and abandonment, union and separation, and eventually unavoidable and dreadful anxiety. Yet, mysteriously, for me it consists of what one might call a psychological situation report.

As the saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Perhaps in this case, one might say thousands of words, because of its mnemonic overtones and connotations in a long memoir. This picture simultaneously evokes an early traumatic event and its attendant psychosomatic lived experiences as visceral emotional responses—persisting ones at that. The author chooses the noun “belly” and “memory” intentionally and adroitly. The reference anticipates and receives an immediate comprehension and empathetic reader responses.

To put it somewhat differently, this visceral retention of a psychic trauma becomes a stress-inducing psychosomatic problem for Susan Mailer. The ordeal affects her belly with distressing sensations. As we know, in demotic language, belly is a plurisinificant word. It implies guts, stomach, bowels, viscera, inner recesses, core, and depths—just to mention a few references. Viewed as a whole, that accumulation of significations has a claim on its own ontology, metaphysics and psychosomatics as the Ur seat of mind-body associations and sensations.

One can be certain that the author is acutely aware of the symbolic and metaphoric implications of “belly” as a substantive, which her father Norman Mailer also recognized as noteworthy and wrote about at some length in his essay “The Metaphysics of the Belly.” So belly incorporates a well-integrated corpus of intuitive, instinctual, and primal matters. Consequently, every time the author looks at this snapshot of herself with her mother, it induces anew the psychosomatic butterfly sensations in her belly.

Hence, the reader fully recognizes the seriousness of this specific picture, which serves as aides-mémoires (recollection aids) in the narrative of remembrances that ensue. This ordinary snapshot in plain black and white is a visually simple and plain photographic image. Just the same, it documents an event in its precise immediate fleeting spacetime dimensions. For the author, however, it would prove to be an intricate traumatic moment in her ultrasensitive infantile stage of life. This moment holds its own prominent psycho-ontological implications in and by extension her memoir. Only partially repressed and tangentially brushing against her unconscious, the harsh experience of abandonment registers itself in her psyche as an ineradicable separation as early sorrow.

By capturing a fleeting troublesome moment in her life as an infant, the snapshot marks the original site of the author’s generalized lifelong apprehension of human reality—in the triple significations of the substantive as anxiety, grasping, and latent realization. Her affective response to the snapshot experience leaves her with an irreducible quotient of unease in her early relationship with her mother, Bea (Beatrice Silverman) and inevitably with her father. She writes, “What had my mother been thinking when she left me for three months with my [paternal] Grandma Fanny? Why hadn’t my father prevented her departure, or at least mine?”[3] Consequently, all such questions initiate intuitive generative narratives of their own, which the author deftly develops them into her exceedingly readable memoir of learning experiences. The German language uses the term Bildungsroman for such a narrative of a person’s overall educational lived experiences.

Another consequential snapshot juxtaposes itself on the troublesome one that I have already discussed. This one proceeds the other on the same page and shows the author as an infant with her Grandma Fanny[4] It appears on the same page and precedes the one associated with the author’s distressing memory, both in the memoir and in its spacetime actuality. In contrast to the other snapshot, this discloses a moment of veritable happiness in the eighteen-month-old Susan’s life.

The two radically divergent snapshots sketch out the author’s primal discovery of happiness as wellbeing in attachment, proximity and its antithesis as the problematics of abandonment and separation. Subsequently, her memoir unfolds as a dialectical series of syntheses between disappointments and fulfilments, separations and attachments. From this dialectical perspective, I would propose to take a closer analytical look still at these two originary opposing snapshots. Juxtaposed, I find that these antithetical snapshots put in motion the author’s intriguing voyage of self-discovery as a constellation of intentional, subjective-objective lived experiences. Her analysis later makes this journey amply conscious. This internal-external voyage contributes veritable insights to the author’s memoir. It provides her and the reader with sensitivities required for appreciation of radical changes and challenges, which a gutsy life of adventures necessitate.

As I have already indicated, the first snapshot discloses a glimpse of the author’s surrogate mother and primary care-giver, her Grandma Fanny, Norman Mailer’s mother. She impresses the reader as a caring substitute mother holding her granddaughter with a captivated smile. She affectionately holds Susan aloft in her arms without restricting her in anyway. Susan also seems to be equally in a kind of infantile bliss. She appears to be nearly a natural part of her grandmother’s body. Fanny has that primordial luminous maternal smile on her face, naturally exuding love, care, and concern. Thus, the snapshot impresses the reader that Fanny’s body as a substitute mother personifies the body of the mother of infancy in total attunement. Her body is replete with the primeval role Freudian psychoanalysis assigns to it as the enraptured and enrapturing center of the infant’s extraordinary universe.

One can say that Fanny’s body mediates between Susan and the surrounding world they both inhabit, whole and entire. She does so through recreation of unconscious intimations of transcendent consciousness as subjectivity whose object will cover all modes of future human relationships. It is so since the body of the mother of infancy is not merely another body among others. From the moment of conception on, there is an ineradicable oneness between the infant and the biological mother of infancy, whose traces outlast life’s vicissitudes. Yet under certain disruptive circumstances, the infant also possesses a natural flexibility to transfer this original corporeal and affective emotion to a surrogate mother or father.

A bright ambient familial light permeates this snapshot of infant Susan Mailer and her “Grandma,” where all appears idyllic and ideal, a transitory moment in the “Land of Milk and Honey,” the Abrahamic, “Promised Land.” Their image hints at an early narrative of veritable prenatal and infantile union, demarcating a safe and stress free psychosocial zone of human oneness—a good place to be even for an evanescent moment of a clicking of the camera’s shutter. Accordingly, everything in this image conspires to communicate to the reader-viewer a profound experience of childhood euphoria. The snapshot fully depicts an early but profound affective learning experience of attachment, bonding, and union. I would also suggest that is what the author also intends the snapshot will communicate to do reader. It does so, properly and well.

Thus, for infant Susan her Grandma Fanny’s body as substitute mother of infancy characterizes the embodiment of primal lifelong desire for unifying and fulfilling affective negotiations with others and the environing world. I would suggest that Fanny is the first educator in her granddaughter’s lifetime patterns of affective, spiritual, and even political and professional education. I will go even as far as saying that her relationship with her Grandma Fanny offers her a vibrant model of love of learning from lived experience. Love of experiential knowledge or epistemophilia emerges from intimate infantile discovery of the mother’s body. In my opinion, such love of knowledge precedes sexual awareness and later joins with it as other corporeal discoveries. As such, I would say that it gains an authentic place in the author’s Weltanschauung, a worldview with all of its unending epistemological and heuristic intimations. In due course, the mnemonic associations of her grandmother literally holding Susan on her bosom on a bright sunny summer day serves as a psychological working model for the author who unconditionally loves each of her two daughters and son. Her embodied childhood memories preserved by a snapshot serve as the avatar of all that is meaningful, unifying, and cheering in her memoir.

Later on the same day, however, the second snapshot offers a glimpse of Susan with her biological mother, Bea. She has just arrived to take Susan to live with her in Mexico, where she lives since her divorce from Norman Mailer. At the time, she lives with her Mexican companion and later husband Salvador Sanchez (AKA Chavo). With the passage of time, as mentioned earlier, this snapshot becomes psychosomatically problematic for the author and causes her the “butterfly effect” in her belly, which she describes so effectively in the seminal first paragraph of her memoir.

To the reader’s inquisitive eye, what emanates from the photographic image is noticeably a split-second of bewilderment for the infant Susan. The snapshot records for years to come a moment of awkwardness between mother and her infant daughter after three months of separation. Their get-together is unwieldy at best and veritably confusing. Both mother and child give the impression of being ill at ease with one another. It is nearly imperceptible, which makes it at once troubling and signifying.

Unlike the first image, in this second snapshot of the day Susan’s cheerful smile is gone. She seems to impart a twinge of infantile incomprehension and confusion, gently pushing her mother away. Bea also appears to be maladroit in managing to hold her daughter in her arms. She lacks the kind of attachment, affection, and intimacy Fanny exhibits so naturally and joyously in the preceding snapshot. The photo records a piercing moment of infantile separation and loss. The butterfly sensations Susan later experiences by looking at this picture are the psychosomatic results.

II

Years later in analysis, despondent about not finding her place in life as the daughter of a well-known writer, Susan confesses, “At times, I’d despaired; thinking I would never find my niche, never excel in anything,” and she goes on to reflect:

. . .

Citations

  1. Bion 2005, p. 86.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Mailer 2019, p. 3.
  3. Mailer 2019, p. 228.
  4. Mailer 2019, p. 6.
  5. Mailer 2019, p. 227.

Works Cited

  • Bion, Wilfred W. R. (2005). Leaning From Experience. London: H. Karnak (Books).
  • Mailer, Susan (2019). In Another Place With and Without My Father, Norman Mailer. Northampton House Press.