The Uses of Uncertainty

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In 1900, for eleven weeks, Sigmund Freud met with a teenage girl stricken by hysterical mutism. We know this woman by the name Freud gave her, Dora. It wasn’t her real name. Precipitating the symptoms, she had accused an older family friend of making sexual advances to her. The family friend denied it and her father didn’t believe her.

When Dora began to talk, she claimed that her father was having an affair with the friend’s wife. She believed she was being palmed off in return.  By being receptive to her take on things, Freud helped Dora find her voice. If they had stopped there, it would have been a successful therapy; but Freud began to press her to accept her own part in the soap opera. He believed she had sexual feelings for the family friend. At that point, she stopped going to see Freud; cutting short her treatment. He went on to write a book about her, Fragments of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, making her case study the cornerstone of his theory of the unconscious. The case of Dora has been debated ever since, particularly by those of a feminist persuasion who point to Freud as an example of phallocentric cluelessness. To accuse Dora of having sexual feelings, at the age of 14, for an older man who was molesting her, they say, is the height of insensitivity and tactlessness, not to mention a support of patriarchy.

The novelist, Heidi Julavits, fictionalizes this case, setting it near Salem, Massachusetts in the 1970s, in her book, The Uses of Enchantment. Her protagonist is a teenage girl in a field hockey uniform who is abducted by an older man. Or maybe she just climbs in his car and talks him into driving her around. We never know. She actually doesn’t remember, having confused herself by the stories told about her by herself and about herself. She goes into therapy with a therapist looking to make a name for himself. He does what Freud does; he doesn’t believe her either and exploits her story in a book, using her as the cornerstone of his new theory.

If all this sounds complicated, it is. The Uses of Enchantment is complex, multifaceted prism of a novel. As if the central narrative wasn’t difficult enough, Julavits adds layers of meaning and significance. There’s a mother who dies, not wanting to see her daughter. There’s the history of the Salem Witch trials, another example of marginalized women. There’s a competitive relationship between the sisters, as well as between two therapists. There are so many things to consider in this novel it’s no wonder the protagonist forgot what the truth was; the reader certainly does.  It’s a brave thing for a novelist to confuse her readers. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.

Julavits’ book got me thinking about the role of certainty in the course of therapy. Most patients start therapy feeling pretty confused. The wife who doesn’t know whether she wants to stay married. The man who wants to stop drinking, until he comes upon the beer aisle at the grocery store. The anxious person who wants to know what’s going to happen. The depressed person who doesn’t know what she wants. The young man hearing voices, who doesn’t know what to believe. If they can settle on a story about their distress that makes sense to them and is affirmed by their therapist, they start to feel better. This is what Freud did for Dora, at first. Her loss of voice was symptomatic of her uncertainty. When Freud accepted her story on face value, she didn’t need to be mute anymore. She had what we call truth on her side.

The problem is, as Freud knew well, certainty is an insecure foundation upon which to build a life. Good therapy brings a client from uncertainty to a state of certainty. Great therapy goes back again. It is far more valuable for a therapist to help his client build up a tolerance for uncertainty because something will always come along to wash certainty away.

There is nothing better for building up a tolerance for uncertainty than to spend some time in psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysts say a lot of things, but nothing with any degree of certainty. It’s all theory; untestable theory, at that.  Examining unconscious motivations only brings up more questions. It’s not every client’s cup of tea. It certainly wasn’t Dora’s.

If you would like to get better at tolerating uncertainty, but can’t afford psychoanalysis, then I recommend Julavits’ novel. When you finish The Uses of Enchantment, you may not know what happened in the book, but you’ll know how the memory of our events is linked to the stories we want to tell about them.