Monday, January 20, 2014


This story is about “attachment,” a psychological concept about early infant forming.  It draws on two sources: the wikipedia entry for Sandor Ferenczi and an article by R. Chris Fraley at  The story is invented.  There are footnotes: lyrics and informal tests to take.  This is a fantasy, not realistic.

The woman was an opera singer who wished to expand her career to singing in jazz clubs.  She discovered to her dismay that her throat stiffened and closed when she sang in such intimate settings. In an opera role or a concert setting, in spite of the huge audience out there in the dark, she was fine because she couldn’t see faces.  But in a club, with nearby people at tables, she locked up.  At first the thought was that she was affected by the smoke, but that didn’t seem to be right.  Then others theorized that if she would just knock back a stiff whiskey before she sang, she would loosen up.  But that didn’t work either because she lost some of her skill at phrasing, even pitch.

Reluctantly she came to the shrink.  He was known to work within a set of theories known as “confusion of tongues.”  That sounded about right for a singer.  When she told him that, he laughed -- not mockingly but warmly.  Then he explained.

Sandor Ferenczi

“This is the theory of Sandor Ferenczi, who began as a Freudian analyst but broke with him over the issue of incest.  Freud felt all these women were making up accusations against their fathers, but Ferenczi believed them.”

Blushing, the woman turned her head away.  She was not lying down but in a comfortable chair facing the analyst.  She wore a formal suit and pearls with her dark hair up in a French twist.  The suit was bright red and expensive.  Her posture was excellent.  “I was never the victim of such a thing,” she said.  “My father was an honorable and protective man.”

“Well, it’s not about actual sex, nor even tongue kissing!  The idea is that adults and children speak different languages and therefore misinterpret each other, which can lead to trouble.  The language -- not words but body language -- of a caregiver is similar enough to that of a lover that the two can easily be confused.  

“An example given in the pop source Wikipedia is that of a little girl who wants to play “house” with her father and gets into bed with him, as she knows her mother does.  Suppose this is early in the morning and the man is still half-asleep.  The little girl caresses her father and kisses his face.  He embraces her and holds her against him, but -- well . . .   He is passionate and she is merely affectionate.  His response is too much and she is overwhelmed, freezes and then flees soon enough that nothing really happens except her emotional reaction.  But that can be indelible.  A conscientious father then wakes and becomes properly paternal.  But maybe not.”

“That strikes me as totally bizarre.  I find it completely unnatural.”

“The problem of misunderstanding, confusing “tongues” in the sense of language as though one person were speaking French and the other Chinese, is part of a larger field of thought about things like borderline personalities, narcissism, and anxiety.  At the most basic level it is a mammal response.”

“You mean, ANIMAL?   I don’t think I’m in the right place.  I speak several languages in order to sing them but I am not an animal.”

“It’s not exactly being an animal.  It’s called “ethology,” the study of the underlying evolution of the animals that has carried over into human behavior, embedded in our bodies and brains.  For a baby to survive, it has to relate to its caregiver, whether that baby is a cat or a horse.  Humans are no different.  

“Experiments suggest that about sixty per cent of babies easily attach to their caregiver in this particular way:  if the mother leaves the room where the baby is, the baby will cry for them, search, call, and be entirely distressed.  When the mother returns, about 60% of babies will hurry to be comforted.  About 20% will be angry and approach the mother but scold or strike her.  Another 20% will turn away as though they didn’t even care.  These are the ones who may have parents who don’t attach, get things wrong, don’t respond.  Some of these babies seem genuinely not to care or be concerned.  Others, when attached to physiological monitoring equipment, show telltale signs of emotional reaction like fast heartbeats or increased tension.

“The suggestion is that relations between lovers is similar enough to childhood intimacy for the reaction to persist in adults.” 

“How do I know anything about it at all?  As far as I know, I had a perfectly typical childhood.  My parents took good care of me.  I never lacked for anything.  In fact, they were major supporters of my singing career.”  But her eyes filled with tears.  It was a giveaway.

He handed over the tissue box and they sat in silence for a few moments.  Then he said softly,  “Could we try an experiment?”

“I suppose.”

“Would you sing something for me?  But don’t sing it to me.  Open that window and sing it to the birds out there.”  And truly, there were house finches in the tree outside caroling away.  “They’re all crazy in love with each other, you know.  Pairing off. They will welcome your voice.”

“What should I sing?”

“You choose.”

She began a little haltingly, but it was a soft day with enough breeze to make the tree sway and the birds joined her.  Her throat opened, her tongue relaxed, and her lungs filled.  The therapist was amazed at the choice of song, the "Habanera" from Carmen, and even more amazed at the change in her.  It was as though a bright shawl had been thrown over her, transforming her into a passionate powerful being.  In French she sang,  

L’amour est un oiseau rebelle
Que nul ne peut apprivoiser,
Et c’est bien in vain qu’on l’appelle. . .
(Love is a rebellious bird that nobody can tame, and you call him quite in vain. . .)

The therapist interrupted.  “Please look at me!”  She turned.  As soon her eyes met his, her throat clutched and she stopped.  All the confident power dropped from her shoulders.  She sat down again.

Only the sound of the therapist scribbling.  “Are you in any relationships?”  She was not.  She had never married nor did she have siblings.  Her parents had died a few years ago, basically of old age.  She had been a late child, much wanted and closely managed.  The parents had come from a background of achievement in the face of hardship and did not belong to any circle of friends but delighted in music, particularly opera which they had known in Europe.  Though they were happy to be in America, they tended to always look to their first home.  They were loving but strict.  Dating was not approved.  After school she practiced her singing.  Luckily, she was gifted.

Over many weeks, they talked.  Her life was isolated, with her friends limited to her manager and a few other singers.  Opera roles at a high level meant going from a company in one major city to another so she was often living in hotels.  The therapist sympathized, sharing that if he didn’t make an active effort to maintain contact, his friends wandered off, and he could hardly make friends with patients.  There were many tears.  

It was one thing to see what was going on in her life, but much harder for her to FEEL it and even harder to risk changing.  Gradually she did change.  Even singing something so sexy and passionate as Carmen was protected on a stage, a role in a fantasy.  Singing on a platform into a microphone was real, in a human context.  As weeks went on, partly by imagining, partly by experimenting, she came into the circle of friendship, learned to speak the language of love.

One day the therapist felt she was ready to sing for him again.  This time she chose a torch song:  “That old black magic has me in its spell, that old black magic that you weave so well . . .”  She was not singing it to the therapist, but it was clear that she had someone in mind.  Her throat did not close.  She was relaxed, her arms open, ready to receive, in total control of herself.  He was mesmerized.  “The lover I have waited for . . .”

“Is this about the person I think it is?”  Of course it was.  It was about her.


“The Habanera” from Carmen
“That Old Black Magic”

What’s your attachment style?

Your style in close relationships:

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