Signifying Pain: Constructing and Healing the Self Through Writing (Book Review)

Title:  Signifying Pain: Constructing and Healing the Self Through Writing
Author:  Harris, Judith
Publisher:  SUNY Press, 2003
Reviewed By:  Desnee Hall, Fall 2003, pp. 56-58

Judith Harris joins a long tradition of authors valorizing the benefits of writing (and other art forms) for dealing with pain in Signifying Pain: Constructing and Healing the Self through Writing. She combines her expertise as poet and teacher of writing with a lifelong interest in psychoanalysis to suggest that educators focus on their students as “writing subjects” rather than limit their interest to the writing product. Students can use writing as a means of exploring their unconscious to integrate experience and to develop a meaningful life story. Psychoanalytically informed teachers can foster this exploration, using the teacher-student relationship to facilitate the process.

Harris attempts three separate and ambitious goals: to demonstrate the cathartic, healing power in the act of writing, to note parallels between psychoanalysis, confessional writing and dramatic monologue, and to encourage the application of psychoanalytic principles and understanding to the teaching of composition and creative writing. Interweaving with these larger goals are themes that are equally compelling: women writing about their experience in patriarchal society, men and women making sense through writing of their experience of mental illness and of their treatment by psychiatry and the medical establishment, and the importance of taking individual suffering into the public realm, for it is only when private suffering is exposed that society can respond. These underlying themes all speak to the refusal of the role of victim through giving voice to one’s experience.

In her enthusiasm, Harris takes the analogy between psychoanalysis and the therapeutic benefits of writing too far by claiming that the writer’s audience is equivalent to the analyst. She states that the act of writing can accomplish as much as psychoanalysis without recognizing the differences between the processes and that both tools are limited without a rigorous attention to integrating what has been learned. In putting forward the benefits of writing to the writer (particularly confessional writing that brings painful truths to light), Harris indicates that the writing stands on its own merits, without addressing the distinction between writing that benefits the author from writing that is aesthetically meaningful and valuable to the reader. She assumes that giving voice to pain benefits the reader by articulating the reader’s own pain and establishing a bridge of shared human experience.

Harris’s focus is on pain, on its symbolization and transmutation through the act of writing. Pain accrues to many experiences in life: loss, failure, and trauma being chief among them. Painful experiences may be repressed, pushed from consciousness into the unconscious until such time as the person is better able to cope with the pain. In extreme cases of trauma, experiences may not be encoded verbally at the time of the trauma, but are stored as dissociated body memories and/or affect states (Solomon & Siegel, 2003; van der Kolk, McFarlane, & Weisaeth, 1996). Harris suggests that, because writing allows the author some distance from her subject, unconscious contents may begin to surface in the writing. The process of writing about painful or traumatic events after the fact brings them into the symbolic realm (language) over which the person has some control. This gradually allows the writer to know what she does not know, to accept and to process what has been unacceptable. This is a logical extension of the traditional psychoanalytic goal of making the unconscious conscious. The more painful the experience, the more difficult it is to integrate and metabolize the experience into words. Harris says that “personal writing can be a means of creating a stable identity and regaining ego strength lost in crisis or infirmity” (p. xv) and that “writing about personal experience translates the physical world into the world of language where there is interplay between disorder and order, wounding and repair” (p. 2).

Harris cites the work of James Pennebaker and his colleagues (1997, 1991) whose research consistently demonstrates the value of writing about stressful events. “Writing about traumatic experiences produces improvements in immune function and translating experiences into words forces some kind of structure onto the experiences themselves” (Pennebaker, 1991, p. 166). As the writer begins to tell the story of her trauma and to create a structured narrative, she gains mastery over the events.

Harris is a poet and uses her understanding of poetry to illustrate the parallels between writing about pain and psychoanalysis. She cites confessional poetry and dramatic monologue as two cases in point because both assume the presence of an audience. Confessional poets address their readers while dramatic monologues “cannot exist without an audience already present in the poem” (p. 111). What matters to a psychoanalytic audience is Harris’s correlation of the poet with the analysand and the empathic audience with the analyst.

Confessional writing, often addressing themes of individual, social or political violation, allows the author to throw off the burden of guilt or shame that may have been demanded by those who abused, oppressed, or failed to acknowledge the pain of the author. Further, it allows the author to retell her story in her own terms, without impingement by others. This certainly parallels the process of psychoanalysis, where the analysand begins to construct a meaningful narrative of her life. But when Harris states that “when a reader empathizes with a writer’s signification of pain or illness, that reader is already a part of the cure” (p. 8), she takes the analogy with psychoanalysis too far. First, the reader is not audience to the writer’s pain in the same way that the analyst is to the analysand. There is no direct way for the reader to impact or shape the writer, although the reader may well be transformed by the writing. Second, the fact that writing can be healing does not imply that writing can “cure.” It would be wrong to think that the traces of suffering and pain can be eliminated through writing or through psychoanalysis. They can only be alleviated and better understood.

Harris argues that the imaginary reader or audience to whom the writer is writing influences the work. “Both psychoanalysis and confessional poetry provide a place in which subjects can vent conflictual feelings and ideas in the presence of a reflective and quizzical other. (Whether it be an analyst or reader, this other also comes to embody an observing aspect of the self)” (p. 178). This conflation of an imagined other (the reader) with a real other (the analyst) is problematic. It is precisely the separating out of the real analyst from the imagined (projected) analyst that is the meat of psychoanalytic work. Without it, the analysand is not able to understand and identify the ways in which she is shaping experience in painful or unproductive ways.

Harris further says that “a writer, like a patient in psychoanalysis, who is aware of exposing raw material in the form of dreams, associations, or even confessions, knows that whatever she has to say, however upsetting or shocking, is always dependent on a listener’s readiness to hear it.” Again, I disagree. One needs to disentangle the truly valuable effects of writing from the also valuable but different benefits of psychoanalysis. A writer is alone in the process of writing. However the writer may conceive of her audience, that audience remains a fantasy during the process of writing. The benefits of writing accrue to diarists who never share their work with others and to writers of the Great American Novel whose opus never leaves their bottom desk drawer. Those who offer their work to the world but find it poorly received also benefit from the process of having written. However one thinks of these benefits, they are very different from the experience of being in the room with an actual other three or four or five times a week and having one’s experience actually received, held, metabolized and answered in ways characteristic of that analyst’s personality and theoretical orientation.

As a teacher of creative writing, Harris places less emphasis on what students say directly and clearly in their own voice than on what they say in associative and allusive language. “The students must try to express what the poem itself, and not the writer, is trying to say” (p. 179). By allowing the poem to speak, the student may bring material that was previously unconscious into the open. This is a valuable process and certainly parallels that of psychoanalysis.

Harris also understands that “a student’s awareness of unconscious conflict, resistance, or self-defeating behavior is usually not sufficient to produce change.” But she believes that “students must share their personal experiences through writing so that genuine learning can occur” (p. 199). The fact that a student can now write about something that was previously unavailable does not mean that its impact has been understood or digested, or that there are not further things to be understood that are not yet available.

Harris encourages writing teachers to familiarize themselves with psychoanalytic precepts so that they can facilitate their students bringing unconscious material to light. Based on her reading of Lacan, she recognizes the “potentially therapeutic aspects of the teacher/student dyad” and the possibility that students will work to improve their writing because “they identify with and want to please the teacher” (p. 198). She encourages teachers to focus less on the writing product and more on the writing subject.

Although the relationship between teacher and student can be very powerful, encouraging students to “confess” and to reach for previously unavailable material can have a seductive and destabilizing impact that may go well beyond what most educators are prepared for. Writing, like psychoanalysis, is elusive. It can be healing, integrative, creative, and yet it can fail to fulfill its promise for reasons elusive and obscure. The reasons reside in the complexity of the human psyche and it seems, therefore, somewhat dangerous to encourage educators to venture forth into these, for them, uncharted waters.

Harris’s attraction to psychoanalytic thinking and its utility for the creative process is offset by enormous ambivalence in her depiction of the medical and psychiatric establishments. Although she champions psychoanalysis and counts herself as one of its avid students, her book as a catalog of maltreatment at the hands of doctors and mental institutions is daunting, from a discussion of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, to poems by Robert Lowell, Ann Sexton, and Sylvia Plath, to her personal autobiographical contribution describing an adolescent breakdown and hospitalization:

My doctor, Dr. Panicky, believed in hypnosis, which he explained as the purging of original trauma through regression techniques. I would lie down on the cabbage-green couch, and he would swing a pocket watch over my head while I counted down from twenty and hyperventilated. Then he would take my hand and move it with his hand in some peculiar parody of an exorcism. I would wake up screaming in a fetal position. This would happen rhythmically and punctually three times a week. I still cannot read Kafka. I now understand that this technique is a distant descendent of Charcot’s first experiments on hysterics. I was merely a casualty of some misreading of an old classical text handed down from some magistrate of the psychoanalytic establishment to this third-generation doctor, who was fond of cigars, sadistic puns, and marble paperweights. This doctor was board certified; my parents scraped together every dollar they could to pay for these treatments. In the very, very far distance of a corner of the soundproof room, I still imagine I can feel the weight of his body, see myself wrestling off the bulk of this man with his red beard, chain watch, vest, and notepad [italics in the original]. (p. 245)

Harris does not comment further on this experience, which at best speaks of incompetence and at worst sexual misconduct. Given her understanding of the damage resulting from inappropriate application of psychoanalytic principles, it is surprising that she encourages educators, with even less understanding, to apply psychoanalytic techniques.

There is a lack of psychological sophistication in this book that will be frustrating to most psychoanalysts. Harris does not make important distinctions between repression and dissociation, nor does she recognize the importance of working through material that has been “excavated” from the unconscious through techniques such as writing. She includes hypnosis as one of the tools of analysis (p. 93), perhaps based on her horrifying experience with Dr. Panicky. “We must recognize that psychoanalysis itself, even as Freud practiced it, as a beneficial cure for psychological conditions, is an abreaction of trauma in the interest of undoing trauma itself. The process of recovering a patient’s trauma uses several known methods including hypnosis, free association, and the flooding of memories” (p. 39). Most analysts today would not recognize themselves in this description.

It seems that Harris claims too much for writing and at the same time not enough when it comes to the possibility of healing. In her discussion of Sylvia Plath’s and Anne Sexton’s angry poems to their fathers, she acknowledges that these poems may reveal a self-destructive desire to be fused with the father. “Such expressions of rage directed at the paternal object are often more dangerous to the daughter than the external threat of the father himself” (p. 85) and may represent a way of keeping the relationship to the father alive through an abusive and destructive fantasy rather than through having to deal with reality. There is no healing here and both authors’ deaths by suicide suggest that their writing was insufficient to their pain. And yet the fact that writing could not avert the depression and suicide of these authors does not invalidate its enormous potential to help each of us examine and integrate our experience.

Perhaps too many boundaries are blurred in this book: boundaries between confession and analysis, between mental illness and the human condition, between writing as an art form and as a tool for self-discovery, between therapy and education. Every life contains pain and suffering but not all pain is traumatic and not all suffering leads to breakdown. The agony of depression leading to suicide or of bipolar illness resulting in multiple hospitalizations is different from the “common misery” that belongs to being human. It is obvious that writing did not cure Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton or Robert Lowell or any number of other truly wonderful writers. Did writing ease their suffering and was suffering necessary to their art? Harris does not make this clear.

Harris is writing within a tradition that acknowledges the important relationship between writing and pain. Isak Dinesen said “All suffering is bearable if it is seen as part of a story.” But writing is only one aspect of creativity and pain but one aspect of being human. The overarching relationship, as Deena Metzger writes, is between “creativity and self-knowledge. Ultimately, one informs the other. Soon creativity and self-knowledge will seem like twin sisters, similar but distinct comrades who have a common origin.” For me, psychoanalysis has more to do with self-knowledge than with the alleviation of suffering. Harris is not the only one to link creativity to suffering (see D. Aberbach, 1989), but this seems to me to narrow the definition of both creativity and self-knowledge, especially for a target audience of educators and college age writers in university classrooms.


Aberbach, D. (1989). Surviving trauma, loss, literature, and psychology. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Metzger, D. (1992). Writing for your life: A guide and companion to the inner worlds. San Francisco: Harper.
Pennebaker, J. (1997). Opening up: The healing power of expressing emotions. Rev. ed. New York: Guilford.
Pennebaker, J. (1991). Self-expressive writing: Implications for health, education, and welfare.” In Nothing begins with N: New investigations of free writing, edited by Pat Belanoff, Peter Elbow, Sheryl Fontaine. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
Solomon, M. F., & Siegel, D. J. (Eds.) (2003). Healing trauma. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.
Van der Kolk, B. A., McFarlane, A. C., & Weisaeth, W. (Eds). (1996). Traumatic stress: The effects of overwhelming experience on mind, body, and society. New York: Guilford Press.

Reviewer Note

Desnee Hall is a psychologist in private practice in Scarsdale, NY. She has published articles on disclosure in psychotherapy and uses expressive writing in her work with groups and individuals.


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