“I was not a wanted child. Of course I am a girl, and that explains it. It’s like no one really cares if I exist. My brothers are useless, but they are everything to them(her parents). It’s not like he (her lover) needs me either; I still take food for him everyday.”
This story entails painful images of an unwanted girl child rife with questions pertaining to her identity – her position in her family, and her position with loved ones.As a girl, she was seen as unimportant,and did not receive love and affection from her family. Left to compete with her brothers for attention, she internalized the idea that, as a woman she was always ‘less than’ and could never be enough. To her lover, she couldn’t belong, for he wouldn’t keep her in his mind or promise her a future. And the narrative continued; her existence did not account for much. But this determined a lot more than her social standing: how could she understand the meaning of her existence given her deprived circumstances?Her painful present was preceded by a painful past – of a history of relationships that were unfulfilling,emotionally and physically, sexually and sensually.
Why, in an article on memory and sexuality, is this story important?Here is where I mark the beginning of another story. This is a story of what Stuti, a patient in my clinic, had learned what she thinks about herself, and how this perception determined the nature of her relationships. We are, after all, in part the products of many internalizations, over many years. This is not to generalize that every girl child, unwanted or not,will have a similar trajectory. But in unfolding this story we learn about how a mind comes to make sense of experiences and construct a narrative of its own. As a disclaimer I would like to add that this story could be true for a boy child as well. This article is not to point out the differences between the experiences of people of different genders, but to highlight that our beginnings are marked when we are infants,regardless of our sex or gender.
Our notions of love, care, and nurturing develop from the way our primary caregivers raise us.As a psychoanalytic psychotherapist,much of my work entails understanding the body – both the language it speaks and for the silence it sometimes embodies(a language in itself). The story of the body begins at birth, in how it is touched, held, received, looked at, and mollycoddled – or not. That touch could be aggressive, not gentle, or even experienced as violating. The way we are held could fail to elicit positive feelings. The look, the way we are seen, could be dismissive – informing us that we are unwanted. We begin to understand ourselves from these early experiences and this lays the foundation for how we see ourselves and how the world sees us.
The memories we make are inextricably linked to these subtle communications, which are imprinted in our psyches and become a part of our stories. Stuti sat cold and dismissive in the clinic, never asking for water, extra time, or to reschedule her sessions.She couldn’t make any demands because she carried a history of feeling unsafe and being unwanted.Her gait almost frigid, reminded me that frigidity is a kind of understanding tied to a specific type of discourse –how we understand frigidity is determined by hetero-normative discourses.Was she ‘frigid’after all? She was unable to feel aroused by the touch of a lover or in various intimate encounters with him, and felt helpless and angry. She could feel nothing in his touch. Her sexual encounters had a quality of lacerations being inflicted on the skin, body, and psyche, as she described lying impassive in bed, while he repeatedly penetrated her.
Her aloof presence often left me feeling helpless and unable to reach her emotionally. She would reject my care and nurturing, often making me feel like an imposter who had little or no understanding of her pain – an unloving and violent father, a meek, dependent, and abused mother, and a lover who’d sleep with her but wouldn’t promise to keep her. Years of therapy painfully revealed her ‘unwantedness’ as deeply rooted in her body. Her story was one of a child who was aborted in her mother’s mind, unceremoniously accepted and cold-heartedly raised by her family. Her father questioned her legitimacy and kept her trapped within the house, reminding her that she was a burden to her family.
Psychoanalysis informs us that sexual exploration, touch, and trauma from infancy and childhood provide the basis of adult sexuality and relationships. An ill-conceived notion of the body prevents us from fully experiencing ourselves and further making sense of our experiences. It is a trap that leaves us feeling overwhelmed by external stimuli, not having the means to make sense of or process them. In the context of sexual pleasure, this causes a lot of difficulty for people assigned female at birth because for them arousal and orgasm involve the whole body and cannot be restricted to peno-vaginal intercourse alone.
For girls, the nature and frequency of loving, safe touch by relatives and other close adults often changes around the time of puberty. Fathers may take a step back and more closely regulate their physical interactions with their daughters. This withdrawal can sometimes be experienced as a rejection, which can be especially confusing in the context of the new stimuli that young women’s bodies begin to respond to during puberty.In the absence of a way to make sense of these experiences, women can experience these bodily stimulations as overwhelming and may feel the need to control them. In the absence of a system to make sense of these sensations and experiences these are translated in the mind as tabooed and unacceptable. Hence, women learn from a young age to process and silence these experiences, and to see themselves as ‘too much’. So,while on the one hand their position as women leaves them feeling ‘less than’, on the other, their bodies experience sensations as ‘too much’, with nowhere to go or make sense of them.
And hence, this tradition of rejecting our natural reactions and thoughts from a very young age can also end up tainting the sexual and intimate encounters we experience as adults. Stuti couldn’t imagine her body as alive, as an active agent that could desire, have needs, experience pleasure, and make choices. She carried in her psyche both the rejection of her family and her own subsequent rejection of her body.She saw her body as a passive vessel, something to be used for the pleasure of others – her performative self in upholding the duty of a ‘good-daughter’ for her parents, and while she lay in bed, a ‘good woman’ for her lover.She had learned that she was already ‘too much’ for him, so how could she dare to express her desires and needs? If she could continue to lay dead and let him have his way, he wouldn’t leave her – or so she hoped.
Memories can perpetuate violence and act as defensive structures in a struggle for survival. In the hope of belonging, of being loved and desired, Stuti continued to offer herself to her lover in a relentless struggle of no return. His departure further reinforced her notion of herself, leaving her angry and full of hate towards the world and herself.
In the Indian context women view their sexuality and desire as taboo,and this is underscored by our cultural and historical ideas of ‘good’ women. For example, the mythological figure Sita, often used as a paragon of ‘good’ (Hindu) Indian womanhood, allows for little sexual agency and prohibits sexual exploration outside of a matrimonial alliance with a man. For Indian women, sexuality carries the subtle flavour of a sin, further exposing them to accusations of being a ‘slut’ or a ‘whore’. This cultural precedent restricts Indian feminine identity to one of two choices: we are either mother figures or we are ‘whores’.
Hence, patriarchal renderings of historical and mythological figures form a collective memory that instructs Indian women on how to create their identities from a very young age, with no regard for their own personal experiences. Stuti didn’t know how to make sense of what she was experiencing during sex,but she was compliant towards the norm,towards the jarring way of life that had been conveyed to her. It can be dangerous and difficult to experience oneself anew,to experience oneself in any way other than the prescribed ones, for our own personal reservoir of memories determines to a large extent our interactions with our environment. To not feel able to string together our memories from our own perspective can be terrifying and prevents us from creating a secure sense of self.
Feeling safe is the basis of feeling free in relationships and in one’s own skin. Past trauma can lead the body to block its own unassembled stories, which further inhibits any experience of new stimulation. A dead body cannot feel, a numb body cannot feel, and an anxious body is already feeling too much and thus is unable to register any feeling. Trauma can affect our capacity to register new sensations, even more so in the absence of feeling safe. But there is always hope:in the ambit of a secure environment, and one’s capacity to open up, we can see things afresh;conjure up new memories and new stories.
Of course, building a sense of safety takes time and work; it is a slow process that requires a safe environment. However,the concept of linear progress is an ideal and is hardly ever the reality of a situation. Trauma can steer some of us towards jettisoning a part of ourselves in order to cope (it is not a very conscious process). This prevents us from feeling whole and integrated.Feeling safe and being able to trust again, are processes, which are healing in themselves, and are the first steps towards an imagination of building relationships anew.
Therapy is one such space where we can work on our experiences of safety and trust.And Stuti’s is one such story of a patient in the clinic,who in the absence of a nurturing external environment was able to develop a capacity to feel safe within and interact with the world freely. Her choices were to engage in more fulfilling and nurturing relationships. She was more present, no longer aloof,stood up for herself and found herself more integrated. In conjuring new memories with greater endurance and strength, she learned to heal the scars of her past in the pursuit of everyday life and living.
*Personal details have been altered to protect confidentiality.
Cover Image: Pixabay