Trauma, Repetition, and Affect Regulation: The Work of Paul Russell (Book Review)

Author:  Teicholz, Judith Guss and Kreigman, Daniel (Editors)
Publisher: New York: Other Press, 1998
Reviewed By: Karen J Maroda, Summer 2000, pp. 15-16

If you are asking yourself, “Who is Paul Russell?” you are not alone. Like his former colleague, Elvin Semrad, Paul Russell was a much-respected analyst and teacher in Boston, who was known for his intelligence and wisdom. He was also unpublished throughout most of his life, and this volume offers the reader two seminal papers that have never been in print. Only the first forty-seven pages are actually written by Russell, however. The remainder of the book consists of discussions of Russell’s contributions by Stephen Mitchell, Arnold Modell, Virginia Demos, George Fishman, and Jane Leavy. The editors, Judith Teicholz and Daniel Kriegman, did an admirable job of lining up the discussants, but gave us little information about Russell himself, other than that he taught in Boston, was a founding member of the Massachusetts Institute for Psychoanalysis and died in recent years. The editors describe this volume as a labor of love and presumably knew much more about Russell than they reveal in their very brief prefaces. Although Russell’s provocative and interesting papers certainly stand on their own, more information about Russell, including why he never published his papers during his lifetime, would have enhanced this volume. Both of his papers reveal his passion for psychotherapy and teaching, and his very personal involvement in the process, which naturally leaves the reader wanting to know more about who this man was and what lead him to the views he held so dearly.

Several themes emerge from Russell’s writing. One is that we are all constantly living the paradox of changing while remaining the same. He speaks of the repetition compulsion in this light, describing it as much as a renewal of life as a resistance to change. He says, “We cannot live without repeating; in a sense, our repetitions are what we are” (p. 1). However, he also notes that past is never just the past and the present is never just the present. Each present moment is a unique recreation of past and present that is infused with uncontained affect. The second theme of his work revolves around the therapeutic relationship and therapeutic action. He believes that all dynamic therapy relationships culminate in an essential crisis where the two competing realties of therapist and patient have to be contained in a unique way that allows for the intense affects of both persons. He says the therapist cannot escape the essential paradox of life that he or she must also change and yet remain the same in order to participate in the therapeutic process. Russell believes that “There is no real treatment process that does not include some piece of therapy for the therapist” (p. 17); and that “The most important source of resistance in the treatment process is the therapist’s resistance to what the patient feels” (p. 19).

Russell also speaks at length about the effect and essence of trauma, noting that it overwhelms the ego’s capacity to respond at the time and therefore leaves a residue of tension that can be bound and later discharged only by successive repetition” (p. 41). He places great emphasis on feeling and clearly sees the affective capacities of both therapist and patient as vital to the success of any treatment. He writes in an easy, readable style and writes simply but eloquently about the process. His papers would certainly be of interest to any therapist committed to the importance of affect in the therapeutic process and to a relational approach. Stephen Mitchell therefore ably fulfills the role as the first discussant of Russell’s work, noting his valuable contributions in both of these areas. Mitchell succinctly reconceptualizes Russell’s view when he says, “First, the threat to the analytic relationship is not simply a transferential displacement from the past; it is really happening in the here and now. The patient needs the analyst to feel and do things that the analyst is frightened to feel and do” (p. 53). All of the discussions vary in the degree to which they acknowledge and actually “receive” Russell’s communications. Just as I am doing within this review, each of the discussants inevitably read and misread what Russell said, and respond or failed to respond to his views. Each related in his or her own personal style, and took up the issues that spoke to them. I noted the parallel between Russell’s discussion of the analyst’s resistance to receiving the patient’s communications and the evident resistance, or lack of resistance, of the discussants to receiving Russell’s affect laden perspective.

To my mind, Mitchell “tracked” Russell the best, taking in his message with little distortion and appreciating his emphasis on affect even though Mitchell does not write from his position himself. Modell’s discussion is also admiring and enhances Russell’s views by discussing the affective research that confirms Russell’s perspective that the past is not a fixed memory waiting to be called up, like a file from a computer. He points out that a recalled memory is always a reconstruction that includes the here-and-now and all experiences in between. Though his discussion revolves around a limited aspect of Russell’s work, he works this point well and stays related to Russell.

Unfortunately, I cannot say the same of Demos’ discussion. Although it is very interesting and substantial, it takes off from Russell’s views on affect (which were influenced heavily by Sylvan Tomkins’ work) and turns abruptly to the work of Tompkins, never to return. Demos has her own agenda, and no matter how interesting, it does not suffice as a response to Russell’s papers. Fishman, writing as someone who knew and respected Russell, gives us a feel for Russell the clinical supervisor and Russell the man. Fishman describes Russell as elusive, that just when you think you know him, you find out you do not and he notes Russell’s appreciation of the mysteries of life. His personal approach and description of Russell fill in some of the aforementioned blanks left by the editors and help us to understand why Russell was so admired by those who knew him.

Finally, we have the discussion by Leavy, who does an admirable job of relating to Russell both intellectually and emotionally. She highlights parts of his papers that impress her and discusses the value of his approach to treatment. She also gives a more in-depth contextualization of his work, going from Freud to Winnicott to the intersubjectivists. She provides valuable and colorful details, like Elvin Semrad’s influence on Russell, who was his student; and Russell’s strong objections to Stolorow’s views, which had so much in common with his own. Leavy thus both empathizes with Russell, yet also steps away and looks at him from the outside, giving the reader the advantage of both perspectives. This book is easy to read and will be appreciated by any working clinician who is open to Russell’s perspective on the therapeutic relationship. I have only two criticisms of the book as a whole. First, I found it to be long on discussion and short on original material by Russell. Russell’s work comprises only a third of the book, the other two-thirds consisting of the aforementioned commentaries. Second, I felt that both Russell and the discussants omitted the names of analysts who have made significant contributions in the areas in which Russell wrote, Aron, Hoffman, and Krystal, to name a few. Nonetheless, I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys reading intelligent comments about important aspects of the analytic relationship, discussed with openness and candor.

Reviewer Note

Karen Maroda is the President of Section III and author of Seduction, Surrender & Transformation: Emotional Engagement in the Analytic Process, (1999) Analytic Press.

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