Constructing Realities: Transformations Through Myth and Metaphor (Book Review)

Author:  Charles, Marilyn
Publisher:  Amsterdam: Rodopi 2004
Reviewed By:  Marilyn N. Metzl, Spring 2005, pp. 56-58

Hans Loewald’s theory of object formation (1978) probes the question of why the residues of early object relations are so resistant to change. Mitchell (2000) posits that what can happen in psychoanalysis is not renunciation or exorcism of bad objects but a transformation of them (p. 44) Loewald further conceptualizes that mental illness is reality without fantasy. In her sensitive and intuitive writings, Marilyn Charles wanders purposefully through the maze of psychic deadness and emerges triumphantly into the light, examining the transformation of bad objects through joy and creativity, joined on either side by Winicott and Bion, to teach us how to play in the impossible play space.

Marilyn Charles is a psychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice in East Lansing, Michigan, who works extensively with artists, writers, and musicians. She has a special interest in the creative process and in facilitating creativity in clinicians and in patients. Dr. Charles is a poet and an artist, and training and supervising analyst with the Michigan Psychoanalytic Council.

The book consists of a foreword by James S. Grotstein in which he introduces us to Marilyn Charles’ “highly readable, articulate, erudite, work in which she seamlessly glides between fascinating, poignant, and “alive” clinical material and current, broadly-based psychoanalytic theory.” In Charles’ previous works, she has written prolifically about topics ranging from emptiness in women (2000), to the traumatic effects of prejudice (2001), to women in film (2004), to mention just a few of her many investigations. The book opens with a quote from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass:

“‘I can’t believe that!’ said Alice. ‘Can’t you?’ the queen said in pitying tone. ‘Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.’ Alice laughed, ‘There’s no use trying,’ she said. ‘One can’t believe impossible things.’ ‘I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen.”

The author begins by observing, “I find some people very difficult to sit with. The work becomes a laborious and intractable process, as time moves slowly through effortful silences that feel interminable.” (p. 1) Charles proceeds to describe her understanding of the manner in which rigidity has become safety.

Charles discusses the difficulty of our work when there are very few openings for interchange with the other being that is present before us. Her book is dedicated to the dilemma of enlarging the space in which two minds meet and engage together. Charles considers ways in which to initiate and deepen the play space between individuals when the patient presents with an incapacity to play due to a split between the devalued self, a self that has been disowned, in order to protect itself from further abuse versus the surface self that has developed and has been constructed as a way of making one’s way in the world. According to her, the constructed self can help bring the underlying self to life but if the surface depends on denying the underlying self whatever aspects are being devalued, the underlying self becomes inaccessible and the quality of life and any potential for growth is impinged upon. The individuals presented in this profound, poetic, and moving book each found themselves with a sense of deadness, defectiveness, and unworthiness around which their public persona had been constructed. Throughout this volume, which consists of eight chapters, Charles leads us along the path illuminating the struggle between evasion and growth, challenging the hiding and self-protection that impedes growth. Her task, as she has outlined it in this volume, is to create conditions under which growth might occur. Charles quotes Bion (1994), “If psychoanalysis works at all, it works by bringing into experience, experiences distorted, forgotten, or never before fully experienced. The more slowly the experience comes into being, the more hopefully the encounter can be realized or re-realized.”

Chapter I, “On Wondering,” presents patients in whom there is little play space and little space to work and illuminates the fundamental working principle, which is the creation of space as an opening, a door into the process that leads to growth, and without this opening the work becomes dry and empty. Charles views the initial opening into the space as the analyst’s curiosity and desire to understand what the patient brings to the session. Charles views some patients as projecting a reality that is so entrenched that there is little room for change .The patient wants relief from painful symptoms, but will stave off contact and comfort at any cost. Charles uses her work and her curiosity about the meaning of the symptom to the patient, helping the patient to understand their, history and to understand their worldview to reduce the anxiety associated with getting out into the unknown. The first case presented is an anorexic woman with an eating disorder. This patient had difficulty inquiring into the meaning of her symptoms, which eventually become understood as an impasse between living and dying. The patient experienced herself as bad and as destructive, but in the analyst’s view, this patient had to protect her distance from the other and develop “ projective identification” which can be understood as the negative of playing .If the patient closes the analyst off from empathic connection, it becomes a struggle to offer hope and alternative possibilities.

The next case presented is a young man, isolated and alone, who allowed Charles to develop ideas concerning the distinction between elaborated and unelaborated thought in order to understand the origins of acting out, relying upon Bion’s (1967) theoretical understanding of a patient with a traumatic history of undigested elements in which extreme deprivation precludes” thinking about” and all things are undifferentiated and meaningless. In this formulation, if tolerance for frustration is adequate, deprivation may provide the interest for thought (p. 6), but if not, all energy is directed towards getting rid of what has become a bad internalized agent, which then precludes work and growth.

Winnicott (1960) is alluded to in a discussion of the danger of losing the true self in the presence of danger. The author views the analyst as lovingly and hopefully able to conceive of the patient as worthy, capable, and lovable, and “entitled to their existence on the planet” which soon gives birth to the deadened patient as a person more full, vital, and bearing fundamental aspects of the self. Initially, the patients are conceived of as stillbirths, carrying their mother’s depression upon their shoulders, resulting in a child “who is unable to hold on to the mother and to survive intact”. Charles sides with Winnicott in suggesting that the close space between the analyst and the patient allows us to bring the whole issue of being into focus for wonder and investigation. It is within the play space as potential space that the other can be destroyed and yet survives; their fears and fantasies and their willingness to think about the unthinkable can thus be tested. The people for whom the very act of “being with” has meant impending doom and annihilation, being born and becoming alive in the presence of another is a monumental task. In discussing potential space, the patient for whom being is a primary challenge can be helped to create an analytic space within which thinking might occur. Without space, the analyst’s words “fall on deaf ears.”

In Chapter II, “Ambivalence,” Charles describes her observation that in many individuals who have split off some hidden aspects of the self, there is a history of being ostracized or victimized by peers. Devaluation by the parents often sets up an internal sense of devaluation, which then invites the same from others. Bullies are portrayed as devalued objects that have taken the aggressive position and project devalued aspects of self onto another who is open to being devalued in similar ways. The difficulty of proceeding with patients for whom a devalued characteristic has become their own personal “death sentence” is portrayed as a struggle worthy of the effort necessary to reformulate our view of what we reject as part of being human rather than accept the shame of a perceived sigma. For many or these patients, rigidity has become a form of safety. These patients want relief yet resist attempts to liberate them. Charles describes ways in which she attempts to create a psychic space, an opening, a door into the process, without which, the work becomes dry and empty. The author cites Winnicott (1951) who describes this opening as a potential space in which the mother and infant are both joined and separated, although initially the mother and the child operate as a seamless entity. It is the introduction of the created space that is needed to meet the world on one’s own terms. Charles quotes Matte- Blanco, (1975), in describing spaces that are too restricted to enable this creative thinking.

Throughout the book, utilizing case examples and wonderfully appropriate snippets from Alice in Wonderland, Charles describes extremes in which the dialectic becomes a space in which symbols are formed and ideas created. In quoting Ogden, she describes the establishment of subjectivity and pursues the idea that the capacity to reflect, to think about, is crucial for development. Charles views reflection as dependent upon the ability to distinguish between concrete symbols and a more evolved form in which this symbol represents the object but is not confused and identified with it. A patient indicated to the analyst that her mother perceived her birth as a threat to the mother’s dominion. This patient subsequently experienced herself as inherently bad, feeling that she could never please her mother as long as she continued to survive as a separate entity. The patient then attempted to destroy herself and was left feeling depleted and annihilated. Presenting another case, Charles described her work with a young boy who was isolated and alone, feeling unappreciated and at risk of impending attack by forces beyond his control. The patient’s fantasy life was extremely limited and always tinged with the seeds of doom and destruction. .

Charles masterfully and eloquently weaves a tale of the importance of play for the development of the soul. Her patients flourish under her watchful gaze as she attempts to slowly, carefully and respectfully open a window into their psyche and allow the light of human interaction to enter. David is presented with his fear of knowing himself, a fear that does not allow him to think of himself as a hero in his own drama. David believes he has no value and speaks eloquently of his great sorrow as he confronts the word that cannot be spoken. Charles marvels at David’s persistence, but her willingness to play with him and their work together creates and opening through which he began to envision the possibility of play, and the analysis subsequently became enlivening rather than annihilating and his vision of himself as defective was healed. The author views the analytic relationship as a new mirror and new spectator with whom the play can take place. Comparing the parent-child dyad to the analytic relationship, imitation and recognition provide fundamental tools for growth by providing a new opportunity for the patient’s narratives to be witnessed and reformulated, providing recognition of past trauma in their lives and opportunity for new growth.

Charles reiterates Bion’s formulation that it is essential to distinguish between envy that is associated with gratitude and that linked to greed. Where the former is capable of linking to growth, the later is linked to breaking and destroying, and these two defenses must be affirmed throughout the treatment. The author formulates that the analyst’s willingness to know what cannot be known and her ability to contain what seems intolerable counters the patient’s assumption that the underlying truth is too terrible to bear and help move in the direction of growth rather than evasion. Bion’s conception of ”O” is presented as the ultimate reality, the eminently unknowable. “O” is that which we can approach, but can never truly know. In Bion’s terms, “O” can only “be become,” which can be understood as the attempt to understand the patterns and conjunctions in the world around us. Charles feels that our ability to learn, to think, or to know in any real sense is constrained by our ability to encounter what might be known and to tolerate the sudden encounter without defensively turning away or hiding from it.

In this wonderful, useful, and eminently readable book, Charles approaches Bion’s conceptualization of “O” as the “psychoanalytic vertex,” a way of being in the moment in which one is being receptive to whatever might be, including one’s intricate attunement to the being of the other. Charles concludes with the observations that if we can tolerate the swirling and resettling, possibilities are created that further in each of us the process of becoming. Charles writes beautifully that “the truth is held in just such a moment, when the pattern emerges and it is both implicit and explicit; in the moment and beyond; defying all containment, like one snow flake among the many, melting on the tongue” (p. 136).

It was delightful experience to be in the presence of Marilyn Charles’ sensitivity, to encounter familiar mentors on unfamiliar roads, and to read a treatise on the art of psychoanalysis constantly ensconced in the mantel of poetry.


Charles, M. (2000). Convex and concave, part I: Images of emptiness in women. American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 60, 65-80.
Charles, M. (2001). Stealing beauty: An exploration of maternal narcissism. Psychoanalytic Review, 88, 601-622.
Charles, M. (2004). Women in psychotherapy on film: Shades of Scarlet conquering. In Celluloid couches, cinematic clients: Psychoanalysis and psychotherapy in the movies, J.R. Brandell (Ed.). Albany: SUNY Press.
Loewald. H. (1978). Psychoanalysis and the history of the individual. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Mitchell, S. (2000) Relationality: From attachment to intersubjectivity, Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press.

Reviewer Note

Marilyn N. Metzl is a psychoanalyst in private practice in Kansas City, Miss., and is a supervisor with the Kansas City Institute for Contemporary Psychoanalysis


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