Living in the Borderland: The Evolution of Consciousness and the Challenge of Healing Trauma (Book Review)

Author:  Bernstein, Jerome S.
Publisher: Routledge
Reviewed By: Kathryn G. White, Vol. XXVI, 4 (Fall 2006), pp. 64-65

Broadly speaking, contemporary Jungian writers fall into three categories: “classic” writers who amplify symbolic themes with little to no reference to psychoanalytic theories, “integrators” who link contemporary Jungian ideas to classic and contemporary psychoanalytic theories, and those somewhere in the middle. Jerome Bernstein’s Living in the Borderland appropriately fits right in this middle territory. He has written a book that will be interesting to many Jungians, that will feel speculative or “flaky” to use Bernstein’s word to many psychoanalytic rationalists, and will stir up some provocative ideas for others. Living in the Borderland is not a book to introduce contemporary Jungian thought to psychoanalytic readers, but is readable by non-Jungians. Although Bernstein does link his thoughts to psychoanalytic writers such as Joyce McDougall, Robert Stolorow and Harold Searles, his role is neither translator nor apologist. Rather, he uses psychoanalytic thinking as he uses the writings of linguists, historians of medicine and religion, scientific theorists, brain researchers, and Navaho teachers. Within this breadth, Bernstein is careful to introduce his many references. In particular, his description of the Jungian psyche and collective unconscious is short, sweet and clear..

Bernstein strikes out in new psychological territory, which he names “the Borderland.” The word “Borderland,” opens the metaphor of space or territory to describe phenomena “that does not readily fit into standard cause and effect logical structure” (p. xv). The title also implies some reframing of the “borderline” category of psychopathology. Indeed, Bernstein acknowledges the allusion to the diagnosis, and notes that in part he intends the concept to address dynamics that “are sometimes … used as a basic for diagnosing Borderline pathology” (p. 103). However, his goal is to differentiate certain aspects which may be seen in the context of Borderline personalities, but that he believes are not pathological. Whether arising within or without borderline pathology, they are subject to serious misunderstanding and iatrogenic wounding.

By “transrational” he refers to “objective nonpersonal, nonrational phenomena occurring in the natural universe… the kinds of experience that typically are labeled and dismissed as superstition, irrational, and, in the extreme abnormal or crazy.” (p. xv-xvi) Bernstein does not deny the reality of superstition or psychosis. He notes that in the clinical consultation, “Borderland features…are virtually always mixed with/accompanied by pathological features” (p. 137). And he is careful to distinguish between the imaginal world, the source of which is within the individual, and what he sees as the nonpersonal origin of Borderland phenomena. Bernstein feels that differentiating Borderland from pathological elements clarifies pathology and enables a less defended approach to the pathology. At the same time it allows healing of core trauma in the therapist’s witnessing without interpretation or evaluation genuine and often “secret” experience: “A major theme of this book is that there is an increasing number of people who have transrational experiences that are real—not real seeming “as if” experiences, but real” (p. xv-xvi).

Bernstein’s Borderland does not encompass all forms of transrational experience, although his clinical discussion is pertinent to all forms. Rather, he is concerned with a very specific form of experience that can link the individual with “split-off roots in nature.” Bernstein’s term describes a psyche that “straddles the split between the developed, rational mind and nature in the western psyche, and one who holds and carries the tension of that split and an emergent reconciliation of that split at one and the same time.” (p. 17)

This knowing of nature through direct non-scientific, non-dual experience forms the language and clinical examples of the book, while Bernstein’s concerns about environmental blindness and scientific hubris provide the energy to his writing. His long professional and personal relationship with the Navaho tribe have clearly imbued his thinking and impelled his openness to alternative systems of reality. This book centers on issues of nature, using the Navaho worldview and healing rituals as anchors. For those who are not captivated with environmental concerns or Native American symbolism, the book might, at first, feel a bit limited. In addition, the Jungian comfort with sliding quickly and matter-of-factly between myth, science and psychological theory may be a bit disorienting to non-Jungians. Jungians, being concerned with not only the personal unconscious, but also the cultural and collective unconscious take for granted that the individual psyche is always linked to social, ecological, and collective issues, and do tend to assume the reader can make the transition without explicit explanation—much as any psychoanalyst needs no one to explain why an early memory of being fed might have meaning. This thinking will be stimulating to some, perhaps less so to others.

Underneath the specificity of the Borderland phenomena that he describes, Bernstein speaks compellingly about what he perceives our western culture as ignoring and actively dismissing. Woven into and underlying every page in the book is a critique of the western mind’s over-reliance on what is seen as “rational,” and the forgetting that the “rational” and “science” itself are mental constructs, extremely useful, but limited in scope. He reminds us of a world outside of the logical, scientifically validated, tangible data that our culture sees as ultimate reality. In this, he takes on a serious critique of the “western ego,” which he sees as caught in narcissistic grandiosity (“inflated,” to use the more common word in analytical psychology.)

In many situations less dramatic than Borderland experience, we have neglected to assert the truth of what is psychologically “real” in deference to our culture and out of a kind of complacency. This neglect through time has caused all of us who are engaged in psychoanalysis and depth psychological work to find ourselves shocked by the literal aspects of current “scientific” and “empirical” approaches and the ridicule and criticism of what we see as the core values of our practice. To us these values have to do with meaning and experience. As “science” sees, we are irrational and our knowledge unproven.

Every time we talk about “the relational field” or the experience of projective identification we talk about non-tangible psychological reality. Our use and understanding of it might be rationalized and justified by some statistical data about what factors influence it, or perhaps even better for the literalists, some brain studies about what happens neurologically. But, these data would not in any way change our primary empirical knowledge of its importance to us in the consulting room. As I was finishing this review, the New York Times online reported that we now have brain evidence that hysteria “actually exists.” Why is brain evidence more valuable than thousands and thousands of hours of consensually validated clinical experience? Are not the tools of science merely the tools of the knower?

We all know experiences that are individual and that cannot be localized with physical instruments nor always confirmed with statistical rigor. But, if we are good at what we do, we use them, and all the “science” in the world will not affect our experience of them as “real.” This realm of experienced human reality is difficult to talk about at best, and even more difficult when one is in a profession that is seen as “scientific” and logical. So, many of us never speak of what we accept as meaningful in our consulting rooms. Others of us ignore and in many ways refuse to allow our patients to bring in these experiences, and others of us work hard at the mental gymnastics necessary to qualify all of our thoughts and words into “as if” statements. “It’s as if you felt your father’s soul came to say goodbye to you as he was dying.”

Bernstein himself, although clearly reasonable and grounded, is not so concerned to be careful, and so he is fearless in his critique and about accepting that perhaps his patient really does know how cows feel. Yet, how often do we experience the synchronistic, the dream about what can’t be known, the experience of seeing something from the ceiling of a room when one’s body is traumatized below? One of the most important points Bernstein raises is that if we adopt a too rational need to fix and understand reality as tangible, literal, testable, then we will shut down what we see, what we hear, what can be said to us, and therefore how we can help our patients. We will tend to pathologize what is not acceptable in our culture, but what might have been taken as insight and truth in another. To accept an experience from a Native American, from a Hmong, or from a Balinese, but not from an American of northern European heritage is to reveal an underlying value system that puts science and rationality as primary.

Questions then: Are we patronizing cultures when we accept from those of particular ethnic heritage experience that cannot be accepted from northern European, as the DSM does for Schizotypal Personality Disorder? Are other worldviews mistaken and Western European more accurate? Can we hold both meanings at the same time? Can we accept that something does seem to exist at times that follows principals of meaning and timing rather than following scientific principals of controlled replication? Can we say “These things don’t happen to me, but they seem to happen to you and I’m okay with not knowing how that works?”

Living in the Borderland will be annoying to rationalists. And there is a bit of choppiness in the style. For example, his constructed epilogue “myth” feels forced and dead, without the emotional energy of his psychological theories. This is not surprising since psychological theories are some of the living myths of our time, and a Jungian should know that the new myth must seem true to be alive. A story only works when it feels real, not when it is constructed to prove a point. The impact of Bernstein’s book will lie not in his myth, but in his concept, in his challenges to our own highly defended world views, and in the ideas those challenges provoke.

Kathryn White


Kinetz, E. (2006). Is hysteria real? Brain images say yes. The New York Times, online edition, September 26, 2006. Retrieved September 26, 2006, from source.
Von Franz, M. L. (1978). An Introduction to the Interpretation of Fairytales. Irvine, TX: Spring Publications, pp. 31-32


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