Solid contribution to the self-help genre
I found the Author’s writing to be penetrating and keenly sensitive. Dr. Solan is a gifted therapist who has offered a brilliant path to equilibrium through the concept of “healthy narcissism”!
I found her approach and techniques to be as valuable, and perhaps more relevant than Her predecessors Freud and Kohut. I was not a big fan of Freud’s drive theory, and thought that Kohut had a more useful approach with his “Self Psychology” method. Still, I am even more likely to use Solan’s steps,as they seem to make a great deal of sense. Especially the contribution Solan makes on separation-individuation and the important role parents play in the healthy development of one’s self.
Also of keen interest to me was the aspect of oral/anal stages,along with parental support.
My hope is Dr. Solan writes a book based on only her process ( which like all methods in psychology,builds on past best practices) and does this so for the average reader/average person. Why? The topic is highly important,and indeed a goal of all humans. Build and keep a healthy sense of narcissism throughout life while working through the inevitable “alien stimulation” which occurs to all of us.
Bob Moylan, LCPC
Vernon C. Kelly, Jr., M.D. Wyndmoor,
Pennsylvania, USA January 2014
״Many years ago, a colleague of mine, commenting on the insular nature of the thinking of many psychologists, noted that when a psychology graduate student enters the field, she or he proceeds down a hallway off of which there are thirteen or so doors. Once one picks a door to enter, they seldom if ever venture outside for the remainder of their career. Readers of The Enigma of Childhood are the beneficiaries of Ronnie Solan’s journey in and out of many doors.
She has taken on the difficult task of attempting a synthesis of the classical structures of psychoanalytic and object relations theory with multiple other theoretical systems, including the innovative, biologically-based theories of affect and emotion put forward by American psychologist and philosopher Silvan S. Tomkins. Whether she succeeds in this complex undertaking is up to the reader to decide. However, scholars and therapists interested in the psychological complexity of child development and its subsequent impact on intimate, interpersonal relationships would do well to not ignore the theoretical conclusions of someone with Ronnie’s broad academic background, teaching experience and extensive psychoanalytic practice working with children, adults and couples. She is an original thinker who has added her voice to those of the most important child development theorists of the past century, including Spitz, Piaget, Winnicott, Bowlby, Erikson, Anna and Sigmund Freud, Kohut, Mahler, and Stern, amongst others.
Of particular interest to couples’ therapists and theoreticians is that The Enigma of Childhood “highlights the unconscious emotional checks and balances that are first formed during the oral and anal stages and then accompany us throughout life—whenever individuals…are involved in a relationship….” She describes how shame may be activated in a couple over the exposure by one or the other of such oral stage phenomena as neediness and dependency or over the appearance of anal stage issues such as the need for control, mastery or obsessive-compulsive behaviors. This is, however, but a small fragment in an impressive undertaking that presents multiple perspectives on how the child hidden within us reflects our childhood experiences, not unlike, as she says, “a Russian babushka doll.” Readers are hereby warned, this babushka doll has more levels than most. It will challenge you as it gives you more and new information about what each partner brings to their intimate relationships.״
Vernon C. Kelly, Jr., M.D. Wyndmoor,
Pennsylvania, USA January 2014
Author of “The Art of Intimacy and the Hidden Challenge of Shame”
Co-Editor, The Psychology of Emotion in Restorative Practice: How Affect Script Psychology Explains How and Why Restorative Practice Works.
Co-Founder and Chairman Emeritus, The Tomkins Institute: Applied Studies in Motivation, Emotion, and Cognition.
Introduction by Moshe Halevi Spero
Professor and Director, Postgraduate Program of Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy
School of Social Work, Bar-Ilan University
Editor-in-Chief, Ma’arag: The Israel Annual of Psychoanalysis
THE ENIGMA OF CHILDHOOD by Ronnie Solan, Ph.D. (London: Karnac, 2015)
The interpretation of child development that clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst Ronnie Solan lays before us in the chapters to follow significantly enhances the vast literature with a fresh and intriguing perspective on the dynamics of the unfolding of the ego, and self, and its relationship to other selves. Bringing to the workbench the special sensitivities of a participant-observer trained in psychoanalysis and personally and professionally influenced by Jean Piaget, Solan’s approach deepens and expands our understanding of the challenge of human relationship between parent and child, couples and the partners in a psychotherapeutic relationship (clinical or supervisory).
There have been a few efforts to enlarge and update the post-Freudian psychosexual model of the early stages of child development— Irene Josselyn’s classic work The Psychosocial Development of Children (1978) springs first to mind, followed in more recent times by the empirical turn represented by the work of Daniel N. Stern (1985) and the essays collected by Joseph Masling and Robert Bornstein (1996). Each of these has emphasized a crucially new piece of the pie, though none in recent times has attempted an organized redeployment of the original Freudian stage theory. Even Margaret S Mahler’s watershed outline of the phases of early separation-individuation (Mahler, Pine & Bergman, 1975) begs for realignment with our revised insights into the microcosms of psychosexual development that have emerged in recent years. I have in mind especially the unique influence of the work of the various French schools of psychoanalysis and the post-Kleinians. Indeed, in the decades that have passed since the publication of these earlier works, we have experienced a sea change in our comprehension of preverbal mental experience, the role of mirroring and the aesthetic domain, pre-object relatedness, the anlage of early sensory mapping and rudimentary psychic envelopes, the pathways of internalization and symbolization, and other subtle dimensions of budding mentalization and the representation of self-other experience. These areas of advance have broadened the ‘reach’ or tensile strength of our clinical capacities; in turn, the clinical yield has sharpened our theories. And yet there has been lacking a scholarly and clinically-sensitive outline that would gather and align, and further refine, these developments, and present us with a suitably augmented model of the developing mind that might guide the psychoanalytically-informed student of childhood.
The enigma of childhood that Ronnie Solan wishes to illuminate in this important book is one that emerges essentially from a paradoxical dimension that is inherent to human development. This enigma is not always experienced as such (that is to say, we tend to experience an inchoate kind of anxiety regarding childhood without being able to localize or objectify the enigmatic experience); the enigma cannot always be spoken of as such except when problematized and refracted through the eyes of philosophers, poets and psychotherapists. Yet whether or not we apprehend this enigma as such, it quite literally churns within us—motivating our development, rendering it complex or conflictual, or stymieing us completely—as children growing up, as speaking beings (who must internalize the preexisting linguistic patterns which drench us in otherness and yet through which we must articulate our selves), and as partners in relationships. The same applies to the work of psychoanalysts and psychotherapists who struggle to navigate and articulate the unique and often contradictory qualities of relationship that unfold during the therapeutic process, and for whom the enigmatic quality of intrapsychic and intersubjective dynamics is the hub of the work. Given our pragmatic goals, we as psychotherapists have considerably less leeway for allowing the enigma of childhood to remain unexplored or merely metaphoric.
I was fortunate to notice the original stirrings of Ronnie Solan’s thinking on this matter that were published in the most suitable format for such observations, the Psychoanalytic Study of the Child (1991). It became immediately clear to me that she had grasped something fundamentally healthy in the role that narcissism can serve as a kind of necessary psychic buffer for the painful divide that exists within the constant movement of the self between its own separateness and joinedness (Solan refers to this as ‘jointness’). Despite Heinz Kohut’s revolutionary writing on narcissism during the late 1970’s, the prevailing view of narcissism was as an expression of pathology, and thus Solan’s notions struck me as quite novel. Indeed, it is entirely unironic that the capacity for joining that Ronnie Solan herself expressed through her writing lingered in my mind and work, and magically encouraged me to invite her to explore her conceptualizations further for a collection I was editing, resulting in the exposition of her concept of ‘befriending the unfamiliar’ (Solan, 1998).
As stated, the enigma of childhood refers to a disturbing paradox that arguably characterizes human nature and the experience of being human; hence, this sense of enigma dare not be ignored. The paradoxical dimension Solan focuses upon is, in fact, a double or bifurcated phenomenon. The first dimension—which we might conceive of as outer-oriented—is that our sense of self is predicated upon otherness, modeled upon the others or ‘not-ourselves’ around us, and remains sensitive, throughout life and all relationship, to the amount of other-than-self that can be enjoyed. The second dimension—initially inner-oriented—derives from the fact that the self also emerges from a state of narcissism, total non-otherness, what we colloquially refer to as selfishness. To a large degree, we could not have a sense of self adequately distinguished from other without a complement of narcissistic investment.
These separate but interrelated tensions immediately confront the soon-to-become-ego, though they cannot yet be conceptualized. The ego must ask itself, we can imagine: ‘How much narcissism is required to protect the self, and how much narcissism must be sacrificed or submitted to some other kind of operation so that we might welcome, acknowledge, befriend others, otherhood?’ Or, in the query of the ancient Jewish sage Hillel (Pirkei Avot, 1:14): “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me; and when I am only for myself, who am I?”
This paradox effloresces the moment the infant (if not the fetus) opens his or her mouth, experiences a gap and foreign entities that enter this gap, and becomes responsive to stimuli from the sensory surround, especially through the Janus-faced barrier known as our skin—primarily definatory of the oral stage. The paradox is experienced again, relentlessly, as the child becomes more aware (as oral-stage achievements have disposed the child to be) of the presence of food and stool within the alimentary canal and the meaning of the other portals of the body—definatory of the anal stage. And this double-valenced tension increases exponentially as the multifaceted signifiers of gender and competitive sexual aims and objects further complicate and sexualize the achievements of the earlier stages—definatory of the Oedipal stage and its precursors. Here I must point out that Solan emphasizes primarily the oral and anal phases of separateness-jointness, and at times the reader sorely feels the underemphasis of the role of Oedipus; we must anticipate a further work from her which would complete her outline in light of the latter phases of development.
This perspective of double paradox is exceedingly important. For our contemporary theoretical formulations and clinical experiences have taught us that narcissism—that is, a kind of ‘sound’ or normative, secondary narcissism in contrast to the more limited use of the term to refer to pathological (narcissistic) states of mind—does not stand opposed to healthy selfhood or relationships with others. Rather, and most significantly, narcissism serves to cloak, envelope (to envelope, metaphorically, and also serving as a kind of ‘envelop’ within which the self is contained) and protect the self, regulating the wear-and-tear of intercourse with others.
The pleasure of self-experience is thus linked directly to our capacity to tolerate, seek out and enjoy, or embrace, enigma (‘paradox’ as such is not an affect state), as well as to be able to accurately attend to signals that indicate that the intensity or quantity of enigma might soon exceed some baseline of safety. In articulating her unique approach to how the ego contends with this dilemma, Solan speaks of the self ‘befriending’ otherness, creating a sense of familiarity about otherness, about itself in its relations with others. Her use of the term is apt since the root of the term friend is powerfully linked to love and joy. If I correctly appreciate her ideas here, it must be said that Solan is describing a protective apparatus that constantly replenishes the inner sanctity, subtlety and privacy of the self while restoring the capacity to engage others. In one of the many applications of her theory, Solan generously picks up one of my own areas of research and underscores how jokes and a sense of humor might be designed, at root, to maintain a protective envelope around our earliest perceptions of the enigma of otherness.
In Solan’s view—and I consider this novel and crucial—narcissism is reconceived as a veritable immune system for the self, elaborating upon Freud’s most fruitful notion of the stimulus barrier (or protective barrier). This enables her to further hypothesize a broader narcissistic autoimmune system that continues to operate throughout life, and she is able to distinguish eleven specific functions of this system. Health and pathology in the domain of comfortable and efficient self-other relationships—chiefly: the capacity to maintain a sense of familiarity in a world of non-self stimuli, entities, and processes—can now be more accurately conceptualized in terms of different levels and qualities of narcissistic immune functioning, that depends, among other things, upon the degree of internalization that has been achieved by the subcomponents of this system.
As the book unfolds, Ronnie Solan details several of the most significant and until now only partially delineated components of this fascinating paradox in order to reduce the sense of puzzlement that the enigma of childhood/selfhood tends to evoke within us. I am not thinking here of a dry, intellectual riddle that we would prefer to see finally resolved. Rather, I am referring to a deep existential knot that straddles the core of the psychological experience—the experience of self and of other—over which we stumble, or learn to enjoy, at every moment.
Hell, then, is not merely ‘other people,’ the typical misinterpretation of Sartre’s important phrase in his play No Exit (1944). Hell is not the other as such, it is not ‘out there’; hell is the otherness that is indelibly part of self. This principle psychic anxiety stems from the fact that self will always enigmatically signify other; that we inevitably come to see ourselves as an object in the world of other persons’ consciousness and by virtue of enigmatic qualities within the language spoken to us that we cannot ever entirely identify or decipher (Laplanche, 1999). This enigma is at once alien and familiar, and the task of the narcissistic processes as conceived by Solan is to help maintain a balance.
The enigma of childhood, of the self in relation to narcissism and otherhood, might rightly be compared to a similar range of experience that captured Freud’s attention long ago, and has preoccupied us since. I am thinking of the experience of the uncanny, Das Unheimlich, un-hominess, the sense of fremde, strangeness, the antonym of freund…that odd, or enigmatic sense that someone or some experience is simultaneously known and unknown, familiar and unfamiliar. We are generally aware of the fact that we cannot conveniently dilute the peculiar discomfort and sense of apprehension and expectation that the uncanny evokes by insisting upon a decision: “Which is it?” It would distort the true value of the uncanny if one were to force the experience into an overly dichotomous frame, just as Donald Winnicott brilliantly admonished us to not compel the child to declare whether he or she found the transitional object or created it. To do so would destroy all that is special about transitional experience and to ultimately impede the development of symbolization. More, any effort to prematurely or unnaturally modify the experience of uncanniness or enigma that comprises specific dimensions of psychic development would result in diminishment, numbness or schizoid compromise. Rather, we must rely on the narcissistic immune system, as Solan defines it, to safeguard the lambent quality of enigma.
I will end my words with the following thought. It is refreshing to note, with indirect but inescapable relevance to the enigma of self, narcissism and the other, the following delightfully acidic personal episode offered by Freud, a gem that has been inexplicably (uncannily!) ignored in the vast psychoanalytic literature (1919, p. 248n):
Since the uncanny effect of a ‘double’ also belongs to [the study of the uncanny], it is interesting to observe what the effect is of meeting one’s own image unbidden and unexpected… I was sitting alone in my wagon-lit compartment when a more than usually violent jolt of the train swung back the door of the adjoining washing-cabinet, and an elderly gentleman in a dressing-gown and a traveling cap came in. I assumed that in leaving the washing-cabinet, which lay between the two compartments, he had taken the wrong direction and come into my compartment by mistake. Jumping up with the intention of putting him right, I at once realized to my dismay that the intruder was nothing but my own reflection in the looking-glass on the open door. I can still recollect that I thoroughly disliked his appearance. Instead, therefore, of being frightened by our ‘double,’ … I simply failed to recognize [it] as such. Is it not possible, though, that [my] dislike of the double was a vestigial trace of the archaic reaction which feels the ‘double’ to be something uncanny?
I believe that Freud has offered us a compelling portrait of an enigma of childhood—if not the enigma of childhood!—that has lingered into adulthood. A deeply archaic, incompletely resolved sense of unfamiliarity or dislikeability that had managed to lie dormant (perhaps it is an anal one), hidden within a sense of self generally viewed as cohesive, known, predictable, and familiar, suddenly emerges— jolted, violently (einen heftigeren Ruck)—as if dislodged by accident, temporarily distorting the sense of reality. That there is a ‘higher’ oedipal connotation to the painfulness of the pseudo-encounter described by Freud (the paternal ‘elderly gentleman’) does not fully mask the deeper reverberations of sheer otherhood.
Yet as I ponder Freud’s intricate example it seems that he has also offered us a condensed isomorphism for the workings of the mind during psychoanalysis! That is, we can perhaps reconceptualize the private compartment—this suspended non-space shuttling along in a dreamlike state between states and across borders—the looking-glass on the open door of the train compartment and the remarkably delineated threshold between mental spaces within the compartment, as a simulacrum of the concept of the analytic frame. Momentarily distracted from convention and the etiquette of polite looking, the distracted mind, the mind in reverie, becomes more capable of gazing, or apprehending. The frame, through its magical involution of the dynamics of normative development, is designed to allow for the repetition of the ‘vestiges’ of an ‘archaic’ un-friendliness of the self toward some other, toward some sense of otherness. In the incident reported by Freud, the other is temporarily experienced as an uncanny double; at other times in the form of mildly dissociative experiences of jamais vu and déjà vu, and at still other times in the sharply psychotic experience of an imaginary twin (Bion, 1950). Our customary ‘night clothing’ or envelopes cannot always conceal this enigma, or they congeal it to the point where all we can handle emotionally are dichotomies, splitting, black and white values and formalities. Whatever inner conflicts caused Freud to suffer this derealized (Entfremdungsgefühl) and intrusive self-other experience, Ronnie Solan would hope we could befriend. The challenge for the analyst and patient is to gradually learn anew how to contain and befriend these experiences and restore a more hospitable attitude toward enigma.
Moshe Halevi Spero, Ph.D
Professor and Director, Postgraduate Program of Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy
School of Social Work, Bar-Ilan University
Editor-in-Chief, Ma’arag: The Israel Annual of Psychoanalysis
Bion, W. R. (1950). The imaginary twin. In Second Thoughts. London: W. Heinemann, 1967, 3-12.
Freud, S. (1919). The uncanny. In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 17. London: Hogarth, 1964, pp. 219-53.
Josselyn, M. I. (1978). The Psychosocial Development of Children. Second Edition. New York: Family Service Association of American/Jason Aronson, 1982.
Laplanche, J. (1999). Essays on Otherness. J. Fletcher, trans. London: Routledge. Mahler, M. S., Pine, F. & Bergman, A. (1975). The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant: Symbiosis and Individuation. New York: Basic.
Masling, J. M. & Bornstein, R. F. eds. (1996). Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Developmental Pychology. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
Solan, R. (1991). Jointness as integration of merging and separateness in object relations and narcissism. In A. J. Solnit, P. B. Neubauer, S. Abrams & A. S. Dowling. The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child. Vol. 46. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, pp. 337-52.
Solan, R. (1998). Narcissistic fragility in the process of befriending the unfamiliar. American Journal sis, 58: 163-86.
Stern, D. N. (1985). The Interpersonal World of the Infant: A View from Psychoanalysis and Developmental Psychology. New York: Basic.
Clear, practical guidance within a fascinating theoretical framework
Before reading The Enigma of Childhood, I had a limited understanding of psychoanalytic theory. I knew the basics of Freud, and the outlines of the varying directions his successors had taken. I had a good grasp of the ideas, but trying to apply them in a real world context would have had me stumped.
Which is why the work of Dr Ronnie Solan has had such a strong impact on me. Her work is not simply an intellectual analysis on a child’s experience. Nor is it just a guide to parenting. On a very fundamental level, The Enigma of Childhood is about the inner workings of every human being.
Solan – a student of Jean Piaget and René Spitz, among others – does a marvellous job at bringing abstract theory to life, using real-world examples to portray how our seminal experiences affected us in our own childhoods and play a part in how we relate to children of our own.
Spanning the Oral and Anal stages of childhood development, from before birth to the age of three years old, The Enigma of Childhood is both a fascinating read and an essentially practical guide.
Part 1 deals with the oral stage, which Solan describes as “the stage of intimacy”. This stage spans from birth to twelve months, and has a permanent impact on how we relate to ourselves and others.
See, we all have memory traces formed from our emergence into this unfamiliar world. It’s a particularly traumatic experience, coming from the warmth and familiarity of the womb into “the chaos and boundlessness of the new world”. The following days and months are fraught with exposure to new and threatening stimuli, and our subsequent adaption of the strange into the normal.
Thus, the newborn clings to any hint of familiarity from the period he has spent in the womb. Resting on his mother’s bosom, he identifies the familiar rhythm of her heartbeat, and her voice is the sound he has heard since his time in the womb. His mother’s arms and the swaddling he is wrapped in are reminiscent of the boundaries of the uterine walls that contained him. “I am convinced – says Sheryl – that on hearing the song [that I sang to him during pregnancy], he listened so closely that he immediately stopped crying.”
The Enigma of Childhood (p. 25).
These familiar experiences contribute to the consolidation of the baby’s sense of self-familiarity in confronting the new, strange world. They lead to the development of what Solan calls our emotional survival kit.
This emotional survival kit consists of three parts:
- the emotional immune system, representing the function of a healthy narcissism
- the emotional self-regulation system, representing the function of the ego
- the emotional attachment system, representing the progression of object relations
After Solan provides this framework, she dedicates a chapter to each of these systems. Perhaps the most fascinating concept that Solan talks about in these chapters is the formation of narcissism, and her view that it is necessary and healthy for a well-functioning human being.
By means of narcissism, we are able to:
- Identify the familiar within us and around us.
- Resist and be alerted to the strangeness within us and around us.
- Safeguard our sense of continuity, wellbeing, self-esteem, and self-integrity.
- Restore the cohesiveness of our self-familiarity following the inevitable injuries emanating from the pressures evoked by otherness.
- Cope with the otherness of our fellow beings.
The Enigma of Childhood (p. 27)
Part 2 deals with the anal stage, which Solan describes as “a time of negotiation”. It lasts from twelve months to three years. Whereas during the oral stage, the relationship was the constant factor, now it is time to negotiate a level of separateness and independence. The parents have to learn to deal with the child’s changing abilities, keeping alert to the danger he might pose to himself, and implementing rules.
In confronting these changes, the toddler is often offended by his parents’ restrictions, and he experiences new frustrations which tend to modify the nature of their relations. The toddler becomes more assertive… at the same time, [he becomes] sensitive and vulnerable and craves to revive the familiar intimacy with the parents and make sure of their love for him. In addition, he… becomes aware of his parents’ separateness and realises that in order to remain close to them he must obey their demands.
The Enigma of Childhood (p. 165)
The remaining chapters of the book deal with managing this stage, by negotiating compromise between the parents and their child. They build on the definition and description of narcissism built in Part 1, and detail how to facilitate the construction of a healthy sense of self through narcissistic processes.
In this way, Solan covers the entire period from birth to the age of three, in terms of the child’s development. But The Enigma of Childhood is not only about the child. It is very much about the development of the parents as well, in relation to their child. The parents have gone through the same process of developing their sense of self, and they see it mirrored in the child. This mirroring can unwittingly cause the parents to react to their own emotional needs, which are sometimes not in line with the needs of their child.
Through stories of real children and parents with whom Solan has worked, we get to see a clear picture of how this plays out in practice. It becomes easier to identify how we can relate to our own needs from childhood, and how to raise a child without neglecting those needs.
The Enigma of Childhood, while providing a very strong and stimulating theoretical framework, thus give us a practical guide as to how to be better parents.
Dr Solan has written the perfect guide for both professionals and laymen. Her exciting contributions to the field of childhood development will surely see her books join the ranks of her mentors.