It is in this context of ‘a world where the difference between delusion and reality was shown to be completely useless’, (Dessal, 231) that Gustavo Dessal’s remarkable new novel Surviving Anne (Karnac, 2016) explores the delusional reciprocities of the contemporary clinic of psychosis. It focuses on a different Anne to Allen, Anne Kurczynski whose mother, a traumatized Holocaust victim, unwittingly passes on to her daughter the effects of the trauma she suffered in the camp. The mother refuses to engage with the world whatsoever, including her children, leaving her daughter to madly compensate by embodying a ferocious form of maternal demand, succeeding only ‘in increasing the destructive power of that figure’ upon her own daughters who eventually flee with their father. (35) The novel follows the various case studies of American analyst Dave Palmer whose clinic includes an African American woman who defaces statues of black soldiers celebrated for enlisting in the Union army; an office cleaner who kidnaps babies because she is seeking her own mother’s lost child, a loss that resulted in her suicide; a Jazz trumpeter, the alcoholic son of a dead alcoholic mother; and an IT technician who stabs a woman psychiatrist to death, acting on the instruction of Jimmy Page who had been sending him secret messages through the song ‘Stairway to Heaven’.
It is primarily through the analysis of Anne, however, that the themes of loss and survival are worked though in the novel. Overflowing normal clinical limits, the analysis becomes something of an ordeal for Dr Palmer, but in the process an extraordinary story unfolds that is unpacked piece by piece in Dessal’s brilliant account of a woman’s fear, frustration and delirium. Palmer survives the analysis, survives the intensity of the transference, and through the process of ‘surviving Anne’ enables her to recognize herself in this signifier and thus survive the burden of her ‘dead’ mother, the holocaust ‘survivors’ whose life remains arrested at the point of the death of her baby sister in the Lager.
The recollections by Joseph, Anne’s father, of the escape from the camp reaches a thrilling climax when with the small party on the brink of starvation, he manages to steal some eggs from a German farm. Suddenly he is spotted by an armed man looking directly at or through him. Frozen in fear, resigned to his fate, Joseph recalls that ‘one of the eggs slipped from my hand, and on cracking against the ground made a barely audible sound which in my ears sounded like a grenade going off’. (128) But rather than rouse his enemy to action, at the sound he simply returns to his farmhouse. In a symbolic exchange that reverberates throughout the novel, the fallen egg pays for the survival of the couple and Joseph continues to nurse his traumatized wife for the rest of her life, therein allowing his own life to continue. ‘I stole her from death, I swore I’d care for her until the last breath … The most important thing is that doing that allowed me to live too.’ (239)
Following the author of the Seminar on the Purloined Letter, Dessal’s analyst thinks of his clinic as a kind of ‘lost property office’ where in the process of looking for their lost object, analysands ‘find something else they didn’t know existed.’ (236) The novel ends with the discoveries of three gifts, three rewards, the identity of which I will not disclose. One of them, however, in an echo of Anna O and her phantom pregnancy, is ‘the delirious product of the relationship’ (243) between Anne and Palmer that points ominously to the future of the clinic of psychosis in the context of the empire of technology.
1 Jacques Lacan, ‘There Are Four Discourses’ in Jacques-Alaim Miller and Maire Jaanus (eds) Culture / Clinic 1. University of Minnesota Press, 2013, pp.3-4, 3.
2 Jacques-Alain Miller, ‘Everyone is Mad’, Jacques-Alain Miller and Maire Jaanus (eds) Culture / Clinic 1. University of Minnesota Press, 2013, pp. 17-42, 19.