A Parable for Our Time
I have been thinking for some time now that I’m glad my parents are no longer alive. It would break their hearts to witness what has happened to what my father used to describe as “America, the best country!” As a child I spent many a Fourth of July with him, lining our sidewalks with a procession of small American flags leading up to the huge flag hanging from the front awning. Of course, we had many arguments over the dinner table as I and my brothers got old enough to think differently about the United States, especially concerning race, foreign policy, covert operations in more places than I could ever have guessed…BUT this is the place my parents were eventually able to land—albeit with false papers—after experiencing indescribable horrors in Nazi Poland and post-war Germany. What I didn’t know about myself is how much of their experience of the United States I carried. How much my identity—my joie de vivre—depended on keeping what they thought about life here alive. How much my own experience of hopefulness was contingent on some very basic principles of democracy that “America, the best country” represented.
On June 24, 2022, the day the Supreme Court overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that recognized a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy, Heather Cox Richardson posted the following:
The Dobbs decision marks the end of an era: the period in American history stretching from 1933 to 1981, the era in which the U.S. government worked to promote democracy. It tried to level the playing field between the rich and the poor by regulating business and working conditions. It provided a basic social safety net through programs like Social Security and Medicare and, later, through food and housing security programs. It promoted infrastructure like electricity and highways, and clean air and water, to try to maintain a standard of living for Americans. And it protected civil rights by using the Fourteenth Amendment, added to the U.S. Constitution in 1868, to stop states from denying their citizens the equal protection of the law.
Now the Republicans are engaged in the process of dismantling that government. For forty years, the current Republican Party has worked to slash business regulations and the taxes that support social welfare programs, to privatize infrastructure projects, and to end the federal protection of civil rights by arguing for judicial “originalism” that claims to honor the original version of the Constitution rather than permitting the courts to protect rights through the Fourteenth Amendment… (Heather Cox Richardson, “Letters from an American,” June 24, 2022)
With this death knell to the era of my childhood and my parents’ “best country,” I have come to learn about myself in new ways. For the first time in my life, on the evening of the 2016 election, as it became clearer who had won, I felt on the verge of hopelessness. I knew of loss, of shallow breathing and an awareness that my world would never be the same without a precious loved one—my father and, much later, my mother. But not this. This heaviness left me motionless, searching for air. The next morning, I awoke downtrodden, in a gray fog, barely able to get myself to where I needed to be. I knew I was upset, but I didn’t recognize what was happening to me. (This reminds me of one other time I didn’t know what was happening to me.*) From that day on, I have had to guard against plummeting. It has become a disciplined practice. Of course, I have bursts of joy and moments I am able to embrace the beauty around me—life with my partner and children, the inspiring words of writers that renew my capacity for hope, cooking a good meal, time with friends, my patients, in the garden watching the butterflies, a good dance class, singing loudly, walking by the sea…
*Picture this. A Midwestern spring afternoon. Must have been after school, sun low in the sky. Possibly waiting to greet her father after his workday. A child of nine practices her cartwheels on the flat section of her grassy backyard. Pleased with herself as her legs shoot straight up, she lands on her two feet and is suddenly struck by not knowing who she is. She watches the body (her body?) from above with the acute sense that “it” will eventually die. When she instantly recognizes that “she” and “it” are the same person, she is engulfed in panic. “If it dies, I die.”
After that day, life is never quite the same for her. The strangeness of what happened remains a mysterious cloud that threatens to rain down on her once again.
A child at the dawning of adolescence realizes she will one day die.
A grown-up at the dawning of old age realizes her country is dying.
I read an article by Rachel Aviv published in the New Yorker, about a group of children in Sweden who presented with the same symptoms in which they were all but dead, having lost their will to live after losing hope in a world that held no place for them. After their families were denied asylum in Sweden, they ended up in hospitals with feeding tubes attached to their stomachs to keep them alive. Influenced by the initiative of one Swedish pediatrician, eventually more than 160,000 Swedes signed petitions calling for a reversal of the asylum rejections, allowing the children to remain in Sweden, after which time they gradually returned to life.
I was riveted by this story in ways I didn’t understand and felt compelled—as if I owed it to them—to think and write about their story. In the process of that thinking and writing, I discovered that for some children hope is intrinsically connected to being grounded in a world that holds and hears them. When that ground and those ears cannot be found, their minds and bodies shut down and they/we land somewhere on the continuum of dead/alive beings.
I have begun to think about the story of these children as a parable for our times. As the level of crises in the United States and abroad continues to intensify—particularly as we “progressives” in the US feel a terrible sense of betrayal by our fellow country people and concurrently impotent to stop the cascading destruction of democracy as we knew it—I am finding myself and many of my patients alternately more overwhelmed and dysregulated, needing much more help calming down, or feeling helpless and shut down in less extreme “dead-alive” states. Like the children who oscillated between states of sympathetic fight-flight to ultimate dorsal collapse, we follow in the footsteps of their nervous systems.
On a more personal level, I discovered that the experience of hopelessness is terribly threatening. We children were the embodiment of our parents’ hopes. Hopelessness has no place. Living in a country that no longer registers our voices (unlike our activist years, in which we felt we had the capacity to change the world—create an effective movement, end the war in Vietnam, shut down universities, fight good fights…) renders us as helpless and useless as they were during the Nazi occupation. I couldn’t save them, and now the country they bestowed with hope no longer holds us. I am failing them just as the “apathetic” children failed their parents when the Swedish authorities rejected their appeals for asylum. We are all “pipe children” (in the words of Joshua Durban), whose mission it is to realize internal social objects imbued with hope in a world gone bad. That is who we are.
 The recent Ken Burns series, The U.S. and the Holocaust, documents the restriction of Eastern European Jews fleeing Nazi persecution to seek asylum in the United States during WWII. My parents were among those Jews, hence they obtained false papers.
 I began this paper with a sudden realization while writing a talk for a conference in Italy. In the talk, I proposed that feelings of impending doom have been building for the past forty years as trickle-down economic policies evolved into a full-fledged cascade of desolating neoliberal and neoconservative fundamentalism, decimating any vestige of “civil society” as we knew it. As I described tracking the multiple vectors of this cascade, I arrived at a strange new place I had never considered.
Rachael Peltz is a personal and supervising analyst, faculty member, and co-director of the Community Psychoanalysis Track at the Psychoanalytic Institute of Northern California. She is an associate editor of Psychoanalytic Dialogues. She has a private practice in Berkeley, California, and works with adults, adolescents, couples, and families.
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