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Signifying Pain

Constructing and Healing the Self through Writing

Judith Harris

Publication Year: 2003

A deeply personal yet universal work, Signifying Pain applies the principles of therapeutic writing to such painful life experiences as mental illness, suicide, racism, domestic abuse, and even genocide. Probing deep into the bedrock of literary imagination, Judith Harris traces the odyssey of a diverse group of writers—John Keats, Derek Walcott, Jane Kenyon, Michael S. Harper, Robert Lowell, and Ai, as well as student writers—who have used their writing to work through and past such personal traumas. Drawing on her own experience as a poet and teacher, Harris shows how the process can be long and arduous, but that when exercised within the spirit of one’s own personal compassion, the results can be limitless. Signifying Pain will be of interest not only to teachers of creative and therapeutic writing, but also to those with a critical interest in autobiographical or confessional writing more generally.

Published by: State University of New York Press

Series: SUNY series in Psychoanalysis and Culture

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. i-v


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix

...My thanks goes out to the writers and educators who have been the guardians of my words, and have generously and most graciously advised me throughout the writing of this project. Their wisdom has been immeasurable: Jeffrey Berman, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Stephen Rosenblum, Donald Hall, Mark Bracher, Marshall Alcorn, Peter Caws...

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pp. xi-xv

This collection is about the writing process and about writers who have used their literary expression as a means of signifying their pain and, through that signification, have found a better way to construct and heal themselves. Some of our greatest literature—from Keats’s odes to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” to Sylvia Plath’s confessional poetry—have been, in...

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pp. 1-16

More than other kinds of writing, confessional writing can broaden the vernacular of human understanding. Readers are moved by the liberation that touches the lives of those people who have endured painful experiences and then had the courage to revisit these experiences. These are not only the voices of suffering, but they are also voices of resistance, reconciliation...

Part I Speaking Pain: Women, Psychoanalysis, and Writing

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Chapter 1 The Healing Effects of Writing about Pain: Literature and Psychoanalysis

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pp. 19-36

Recalling periods of inner turbulence, plummeting into black moods can be a disquieting, if not distressing, experience. The mind, as Milton observed, “is its own place.” But, if biographer Leon Edel is right, pain can also be a powerful catalyst for art: “Within the harmony and beauty of most transcendent art works, I see a particular sadness . . . but it is a sadness that...

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Chapter 2 Violating the Sanctuary/Asylum: Freudian Treatment of Hysteria in “Dora” and “The Yellow Wallpaper”

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pp. 37-57

In her chapter “Writing the Wounded Psyche,” Louise DeSalvo cites several female writers who offer testimony how writing about their emotional problems became for them a vital form of self-nurturing. Healing through writing is a matter of using anguish and hardship to augment one’s understanding. The willingness to examine and to dramatize the dismal periods...

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Chapter 3 Breaking the Code of Silence: Ideology and Women’s Confessional Poetry

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pp. 59-79

...David Aberbach has suggested that the impulse to create usually happens as the result of some early damage to the self.3 Reviving painful events can be cathartic for people who must reconcile themselves with painful episodes in the past. Freud saw in the creative writer a capacity for launching fantasy as a means of protecting the already vulnerable and...

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Chapter 4 Fathering Daughters: Oedipal Rage and Aggression in Women’s Writing

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pp. 81-106

The desire for male recognition is often at odds with a female writer’s desire for literary primacy. Indeed, a female writer need not capitulate to the patriarchal demand that she stay subordinate. When permitted access to the imagery of the unconscious, a writer may well surface with demons instead of angels. When female writers find a vehicle for expressing their...

Part II Soul-making: Conflict and the Construction of Identity

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Chapter 5 Carving the Mask of Language: Self and Otherness in Dramatic Monologues

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pp. 109-120

Adopting a mask, or inventing a speaker through language, is often a helpful device for poets who wish to explore the conflicted aspects of their own personalities. The dramatic persona covertly expresses something the poet could not express from within his or her own consistent identity. As the monologue emerges, the poet immerses himself or herself into the flow of...

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Chapter 6 Giotto’s Invisible Sheep: Lacanian Mirroring and Modeling in Walcott’s Another Life

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pp. 121-133

...This ambition is problematic, given the indirection of a language that can only come into being through the presence of an other—through an other. As the Lacanian model suggests, subjectivity arises with the child’s entry into the symbolic order when he acquires language, a name, and social prohibitions. Subject formation is therefore based on assimilating a variety of elements within one’s social context including the crucial element...

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Chapter 7 Rescuing Psyche: Keats’s Containment of the Beloved but Fading Woman in the “Ode to Psyche”

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pp. 135-151

Because myths are populated by figures who are always larger and wiser than mere mortals, yet still embody human foibles, Keats could restore through myth what he could never wholly accept as irrevocably lost: a mother waning away from consumption, a brother afflicted with the same disease—both of whom he had failed to rescue from premature deaths....

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Chapter 8 God Don’t Like Ugly: Michael S. Harper’s Soul-Making Music

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pp. 153-165

Michael S. Harper’s poetry is about witness; about testimony, a precipitous dialectic of seeing and not seeing; of guilt and expiation, terror and beneficence. His poetry takes pain by the throat and does not yield. There is no passive resignation to the history of slavery in Harper’s lexicon; that history is always present as nightmare, demanding that we as readers recognize...

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Chapter 9 Kenyon’s Melancholic Vision in “Let Evening Come”

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pp. 167-173

...Sunlight is seen so indirectly, as a belated influence on what has already been nourished by it. From the poet’s point of view, the bales no longer initiate sunlight, yet sunlight is so resplendent in the barn it pleases the poet’s eye, her preexisting need for beauty. Sunlight is therefore worthy of praise. We should bear in mind that in this beginning stanza, we, as readers, are...

Part III Healing Pain: Acts of Therapeutic Writing

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Chapter 10 Using the Psychoanalytic Process in Creative Writing Classes

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pp. 177-189

Part of the appeal of the creative writing course may be that it offers students opportunities to explore their identities through writing. In the poetry course I teach, writing definitely becomes an absorbing process of self-examination with ethical as well as psychological dimensions. In my class as in most other classes, students are trained in a wide variety of literary...

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Chapter 11 Rewriting the Subject: Psychoanalytic Approaches to Creative Writing and Composition Pedagogy

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pp. 191-217

Although a hidden alliance may exist between creative writing and composition factions within English departments, that alliance has been hard won and remains both tentative and discontented. There is more tension between the two groups than camaraderie, and even more tension between creative writing faculty and literary critics. As Eve Shellnut observes from...

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Chapter 12 “To Bedlam and Almost All the Way Back”: The Image and Function of the Institution in Confessional Poetry

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pp. 217-237

In Ecrits Lacan presents the mirror stage as a platform for the subject to establish an organic relation with reality. Part of securing a relation to reality is the process of filtering out, or rejecting, images that do not fit into the organized concept of the self.1 At the same time, this structured identity (the “je”), is never identical to the subject’s felt experience. We cannot...

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Chapter 13 Asylum: A Personal Essay

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pp. 239-247

Treatments for mental illness during the twentieth century included psychotherapy in conjunction with hydrotherapy, vitamins, physical restraint, insulin therapy, and electroshock therapy. Hospitals modeled on McLean (where Lowell and Sexton were treated) were overcrowded and bureaucratic. Patients agreed to go into the hospitals for extensive diagnostic tests...

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Chapter 14 Signifying Pain: Recovery and Beyond

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pp. 249-253

...Such a sentiment prompts a rereading of Thomas Hardy’s “Transformations”2 where the truth of loss—of what surrenders or dies— is resurrected in another form: “A ruddy human life / Now turned to a green shoot.” In Hall’s poem, mud is the constituent of water and earth, dissolving and eradicating the differences between what something is made...

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pp. 255-257

On the day that I completed the first draft of this book, it was prematurely warm for March. I went to the post office to mail the manuscript, and then to teach my lackadaisical honors class. When an evangelical student from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, ignored my question about Byron, pointing out, instead, that my blouse clashed with my slacks, I knew it to be an ominous...


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pp. 259-279


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pp. 281-289


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pp. 291-304

E-ISBN-13: 9780791487068
Print-ISBN-13: 9780791456835
Print-ISBN-10: 0791456838

Page Count: 320
Publication Year: 2003

Series Title: SUNY series in Psychoanalysis and Culture