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Finding the lost good object: The poetry in psychoanalysis

Some psychoanalytic theory is very much alive and at work in the world, even as “the couch” disappears from modern therapeutic practice.

The late Dr. Stuart C. Averill, center, and his son, Thomas Fox Averill, foreground, reclaim some of their lost good heritage.
Courtesy of the Topeka Capital-Journal

What’s happened to good, old-fashioned psychoanalysis? No one talks about being “on the couch” anymore. Instead, they talk about SSRIs, CBT, EMDT or DBT. The couch has taken a back seat to more modern therapies — a development driven as much by managed-care dictates as by truly dramatic advances in the fields of neuropsychology, biopsychology and psychopharmacology.

But a visiting poet on a recent wintry night reminded his audience of at least one marvelous way in which psychoanalytic theory of yore is still doing its good work in the world.

Poet and writer Kim Stafford, the son of poet and writer William Stafford, was in town Jan. 27 to mark the 100th anniversary of his late, great father’s birth during an event at Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis. About 150 well-bundled people arrived to hear Stafford read his father’s poems — and perhaps to catch an echo of the elder Stafford’s austerity, wittiness, and deeply transcendent vibe.

In coming to understand his father’s work, and even his own, Kim had taken a page from the work of Stuart C. Averill, M.D. (1924-1996), a Menninger Clinic psychiatrist who had applied “object relations theory” in the treatment of his severely traumatized patients. To put it simply, Dr. Averill had found success with patients through “recovery of the lost good object” – that is, through “recovering a preverbal experience of the ‘good mother.’ ” This meant helping patients reclaim a forgotten or lost positive experience, so that they could reinvest in the world through new “objects,” which could be anything from a particular person, a particular place or a meaningful relationship.

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Kim saw that the act of writing (for himself and for his father) held the same promise.

“Writing a poem … is a way of distilling the best we have from the past and from present thought,” he said after the event. “Many things are taken from us, debased, destroyed. But by writing, by seeking to describe, evoke, bring to life the best we have, we find a way to survive loss by cherishing what remains.”

Robert Burns and bagpipes

Dr. Averill was a World War II veteran and the son of a World War I veteran. His father’s war trauma and post-war treatment for testicular cancer precipitated and/or exacerbated mental health issues, triggering episodes of violence, “dementia praecox,” depression and psychosis.

The family was shattered, and Averill’s mother, who once sang and recited Robert Burns’ poetry in celebration of her Scottish heritage, became silent and joyless. Averill was just 7 years old.

As he matured, he gravitated to the field of psychiatry to “fix the world as he wished he could fix his father,” said his son, Thomas Fox Averill, a writer and teacher at Washburn University in Topeka, Kan.

Dr. Averill’s family trauma and his own unexpressed war trauma might have truncated that dream but for the fact that, in order to become a psychoanalyst, he had to undergo psychoanalysis himself. It was through this process that he discovered an even more compelling motive to heal himself and others.

“He realized he had lost his ‘good mother,’ ” Thomas Averill said. “And he had to go back and find her if he was ever going to work out his relationship with her or be happy.”

The “good mother” sang and played “Tam o’Shanter” at the piano and spoke in the Scottish dialect of her parents, who were both from Burns’ country near Dumfries and Ayr. The “good mother” had been loving, present, generous and loyal. As he reclaimed these memories of her, Averill took up bagpipes and began reading Burns’ poems out loud in the Scots dialect to his wife and four children. “This was all very surprising to us kids,” Thomas Averill said. “We didn’t even realize we were Scottish.”

In an essay for the Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, published posthumously in 1997, Stuart Averill wrote: “I could be in touch with my own warmth and good cheer once again, and I could mourn what I now know had been lost but not gone forever.”

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Spaceship and a moo-cow

To illustrate the efficacy of “recovering the lost good object,” Stuart Averill tells of several patients in his 1997 essay. Perhaps the most compelling is the story of Sam, a 4½-year-old boy who “terrorized his mother, ate dirt, was encropetic at times, and appeared to be antisocial toward all his peers.”

Averill describes long hours of tornadic play, in which Sam literally climbed the walls, “with my standing by or catching him as he climbed from chair to doorknob or windowsill.” Little was known about the etiology of Sam’s behaviors, but Averill operated on a hunch: “I began by telling him that I thought he once had something good but had lost it, and [that] it made him so mad that he wanted to make everyone, including me and his mom, suffer for it.”

Over time, Sam and Averill began to engage in more imaginative play, constructing a spaceship with office furniture and available toys. “We took a journey to a planet far away and he was very hungry. I was to play moo-cow and he was able to get all the milk he wanted to drink. We played this game for several days. I said that maybe he had found what he was looking for.”

Sam’s play shifted, he became “more loving and polite,” and ultimately “able to feel loved again.”

The account is very touching, not only because of Sam’s apparent recovery but also because of the time and patience Averill invested (by today’s standards, not exactly “cost-effective”). Not to mention Averill’s intuitive sense that Sam had lost something good and that he needed to get it back.

“And that’s what my dad was writing about, really,” said Thomas Averill. “You have to rebuild from a strong point. Rather than seeing yourself as a set of problems, you see yourself as someone who once was connected and once was loved. And you can love other people again. And you can love yourself again.”

Fathers and sons

In 1997, Kim Stafford and Thomas Averill met in Oregon, where Stafford lives and where Averill was giving a reading. They shared stories about their deceased and renowned fathers. They spoke of the challenges of being fathers themselves.

They spoke of their fathers’ lost good objects, and their own lost good objects. And how important it is to recover one’s own story.

Said Averill: “You have to have a narrative, and you have to be part of that narrative — not just a minor character or lost out there or at the whim of others all the time. And I think that’s part of what my father was doing — building that narrative from a place where you could start again.”