The Enigma of Childhood
The Profound Impact of the First Years of Life on Adults as Couples and Parents
Author: Ronnie Solan PhD*
The Enigma of Childhood is a compelling account of crucial developmental processes that evolve during the first three years of life and continue to express themselves in manifold but identifiable ways throughout our lifespan. One such key process is that of emotional immunity at the service of narcissism: Narcissism is visualized as a virtual ‘envelope’ that protects and maintains self-familiarity and continuity vis-à-vis disturbing sensations of otherness (whether of internal or external origin) which threaten to overwhelm us and derail homeostasis.
With the precision of a sculptress, Dr. Solan illustrates our innate need for familiarity and our attendant alertness to that which is not familiar (in other words, the ‘not-me’ or non-self). This innate need, which indicates the operation of healthy narcissism, underlies what may appear, at first blush, to be unrelated phenomena in everyday life—propelling us (from babyhood onward) to protect the familiar in ourselves against sensations evoked by the seemingly strange and uncanny, and thus, guiding many of our actions, both conscious and unconscious.
She goes on to show how despite the normal course of healthy narcissistic development, which occurs when we succeed in befriending strangeness and otherness, and thus expanding our ‘emotional intelligence,’ we nonetheless continue to respond with narcissistic injury to instances of otherness, whether in external or internal environments—until the emotional immunological process is able to ‘update’ emotional ‘data’ such that our self-familiarity, and our relationships with others are restored.
The Enigma of Childhood is replete with moving examples of how what may be initially experienced as threatening (e.g., the “Boom-boom” of thunder) can be demystified and ‘tamed’ by the sensitive and creative caregiver. For example, he or she may make up a song about the thunder, to be shared with the frightened infant/child, allowing him/her to master their fear and restore order to their kingdom. In the context of therapy with adults, the psychotherapist helps the patient identify the child within him/herself and recognize how he/she deals with such encounters, often freeing the person to expand their capacity to tolerate and/or embrace otherness, and in thus doing, to be more open to increasingly flexible partnerships.
Dr. Solan shows us how the emotional immunological process is at the crux of healthy narcissism, a hefty axis on which other aspects of human development are built. These include the ego, object-relations, and individuation, all of which the author elaborates in new theoretical and clinical terms that, once described, make intuitive sense and are readily accessible to readers, both professional and lay. In this book, the author focuses on the oral and anal stages of development, and their manifestations throughout the lifespan.
From the beginning of life and throughout the joint operation of healthy narcissism in conjunction with object-relations and ego functioning, we learn to immune ourselves from the initially overwhelming threat of otherness. Even during the temporary blurring of the boundaries between self and other that may occur during moments of happiness, as we expand and strengthen our own boundaries, we remain separate from the object.
Contrary to other developmental theorists, such as Mahler and associates, Dr. Solan sees the infant as being from the beginning a unique separate individual from the other—rather than one who is symbiotically tied to its caregiver at the inception of the separation-individuation process. Solan’s new concept of ‘jointness,’ which she also named ‘the art of couplehood,’ is intriguing, and involves infinite encounters in happiness of two separate partners in a virtual third transitional space, partners who (like the snails in her analogy) are able to freely enter in and out of this encounter.
Healthy narcissism may become pathological when the infant, during a symbiosis that is inflicted upon him by his caretaker, or subsequent to illness or bodily/emotional injury, may befriend this alien invader and embrace it as a ‘normal’ part of his self, becoming familiar with it. Here, that which we learn to perceive as and consider familiar is pathological to begin with. For example, in families characterized by child abuse, the interactions the child grows up with, what he/she is familiar with, deviate greatly from those in more benign families. He might develop a false self or view kindness by strangers with suspicion, as it deviates from that which is familiar to him.
In addition, when the ability to recognize the invader as such is no longer preserved, and the infant’s or adult’s narcissism wrongly identifies the non-self as if it were the self (e.g., “this is the way I am”), the person may attack him/herself, resulting in a decrease in self-esteem and the emergence of other ‘symptoms.’ Dr. Solan thus likens the erroneous embracing of the ‘invader’ as though it were part of the self, to autoimmune disease, whereby the body mistakenly attacks itself.
Under these conditions, symptoms may emerge, including those of a psychosomatic nature; an increase in self-criticism (and the concomitant lowering of self-esteem), and some form of self-destructiveness (which may also include the destructiveness of the object, whether real or imagined.)
In sum, the developmental principles outlined by Dr. Solan in her sparkling book, The Enigma of Childhood, provide a window into both our own and our loved ones’ psyches, offering some landmarks to guide us along the previously unchartered territory of healthy narcissism, a newly described developmental line that organizes our knowledge of ego, object relations and individuation anew.
The astute reader has an opportunity to learn how to use the child’s reactions and behavior to guide both partners through a mutually rewarding process, one that expands the child’s inner resources and resiliency to deal with stress and trauma.
In addition to her original conceptualization of familiar phenomena, it is obvious the author has endeavored to make her writings as clear and accessible to the reader as possible, and to self-market her vision of humanity as distinct from that of her distinguished predecessors, from whom she has stemmed.
I have no doubt that Dr. Solan’s unique voice, as recorded in this valuable volume, will be treasured by parents and helping professionals alike. I enjoyed it tremendously, and learn something new each time I consult it.
DR SARIT PLISHTY
PSYCHIATRIST OF CHILD AND ADOLESCENCE
MANAGER OF PSYCHIATRIC CLINIC OF CHILD AND ADOLESCENCE
 Ronnie Solan PhD was trained as a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst in Switzerland and in Israel, where she became a Training and Supervising Analyst. Prof. Jean Piaget and Prof. Rene Spitz were among her main mentors. She works in Tel Aviv with children, adult and couples. For very many years, she is a lecturing at the Israel Psychoanalytic Society in Jerusalem, the Postgraduate Psychotherapy Programs at Tel Aviv University and Bar-Ilan University. Her book The Enigma of Childhood, Karnac Books 2015, www.ronniesolan.com/EnigmaOfChildhood