“The Fragile Bond”

Excerpt From “The Fragile Bond” by Augustus Napier, PhD

New York: Harper and Row, 1988

(Reprinted with permission from the publisher)

During that period, I was a member of Al Pesso’s training groups. Pesso’s approach-which the reader will recall from the angry confrontation that the young psychologist had with a role-play “father,” described in Chapter 2 is ideally suited to someone attempting to come to grips with strong feelings about a person who is dead or otherwise unavailable. Even though Al was in Atlanta only twice a year, I realized that his visits offered me an opportunity to work “symbolically” on my relationship with my father.

The remarkable thing about Pesso’s approach is that it allows one to do things in a symbolic environment which would never be possible in “real life.” We tend to accept what happened to us at the hands of our parents as law, as emotional “givens.” The power of psychomotor structures lies in their capacity to reorganize our perceptions of what is possible for us. “I could never express such anger to my parents,” we say to ourselves, giving up on our feelings. “I could never have a parent love me in that way,” we say with a sigh. 

Our lives have an implicit order. Within this form we carry out dialogues with important figures, and we live out our part in a complex story which involves many others. We become psychologically “stuck” in this history when there is a blatant injustice, or an incomplete sequence: “My father and I loved each other, and although he told me he loved me, I never told him that I loved him.” Since he died before I could tell him that I loved him, I am a prisoner of unexpressed emotion within this relationship. The same could be true of anger: “My father got furiously angry at me, but I could never get angry back.” So I am a prisoner of this unexpressed emotion, which is my side of the angry “dialogue.”

We also become caught in our historical families by our sense of injustice: I deserved to be loved by my parents (a universal human longing), but I wasn’t. Therefore, I am imprisoned by what should have happened between us, but didn’t. I can’t leave my family psychologically until I feel loved by them.

We would all prefer to work out these dialogues in person, to “balance” them by expressing our side of the relationship; and we would like to have been treated justly by our families. But it is not always possible. After having failed us in childhood, our parents refuse to talk with us, they become frail, they die. Sometimes we have to finish the dialogue within our own heads, to “make it right” symbolically-so that we can go on with our lives; and so that we can find what we need from others, Psychomotor work allows us to do such things safely, and within our own control. it is not as satisfying as honest talk with real parents, or as useful as a healthy childhood. But if we need it, it can be extremely helpful.

I did several “structures” with Al, but I remember the first one most clearly. it took place in the same bare, carpeted room which I have already described, sunlit and circled by other students. Sitting in the center of the circle before this smiling, jeans-and-sneaker-clad figure as he set his electronic timer, I felt extremely anxious. What would I say that I wanted to work on? I wasn’t sure, though I sensed that it had to do with my father.

Suddenly I was talking: “I want to work on my father. His problems, my problems with him.”

“Can you tell me something about those problems?” Al asked warmly, watching me carefully as I talked about my family history.

As I described some of my anger at my father, I said, “I think what bothered me most was the sense of his weakness”-and my voice broke-”and the realization that he often wasn’t there.” Then I added, “But I have difficulty even feeling my anger toward him.”

Al pointed out that my voice had broken when I used the word “weakness,” and then he waited to see what my reaction would be. Sensing the accuracy of his probe, I felt tears welling up inside me; then just as rapidly, they receded, “You close down on your feelings very quickly,” he observed. I knew that it was true; insight into myself I had. What I didn’t have was the freedom to feel strongly and spontaneously.

Silence, while Al thought, the group watching intently. Outside in the hall I could hear the quiet hiss of the coffee maker. “Let me make a suggestion,” he said. “Why don’t you choose someone to role-play an ideal father, someone who would be strong.”

At the mention of this possibility, I felt a roil of excitement, fear, anxiety. “Okay,” I said tentatively, looking around the room. Finally I settled on a tall, strong-looking man whom I liked. “Would you role-play an ideal father?” I asked.

“I will role-play an ideal father,” he said in the ritual convention of Pesso’s work, rising and walking out into the center of the room. I immediately stood up.

“That’s interesting,” Pesso said, noting my getting up to meet this new figure. After another moment of silence, he said, “What do you feel like doing?”

“I don’t know,” I said tentatively. “I don’t trust him, somehow.”

“Of course not,” Pesso said. “Why would you?” Then he added, “Let me make a suggestion. Why don’t you try pushing on him, to get an idea of his strength.” Then he instructed the role player to take a stand, one leg braced behind him to resist my efforts, and he showed me how to place my hands on the front of his shoulders. I recalled one of the drills in high school football in which one player braced himself while the other tried to push him backward.

As I sensed this man’s solidity before me-he was slightly larger than I was, and carefully positioned-I felt a rush of energy. With a broad smile, I pushed hard, and he struggled to maintain his balance. “That’s where your energy is,” Al said with interest. “You liked that.”

I was about to push again, harder this time, when Al interrupted me. “Wait, You might repeat your history here.” He was apparently worried that I might overpower the role player, and experience him as unreliable. Turning to the group, he quickly enlisted four other men to brace the ideal father. “Now try,” Al said with a smile.

This time when I pushed, the ideal father didn’t budge. He was a solid wall of masculinity. I pushed harder, straining to keep my feet from slipping. “Take your socks off so you can get a good grip on the floor,” Al advised.

Eager to try again, I quickly stripped off my socks and braced myself before the role-play father. Feeling another sudden burst of energy, I put my hands against his shoulders and pushed with all my might. This time my feet held firm, but so did the ideal father. The sense that this man was truly immovable released in me a primitive mixture of rage and delight. “You look like you still think you can defeat him,” Al said. “Try it again,” he urged.

Aware of my father’s vulnerability, and his punitive-ness, I had learned to monitor and conceal much of my own power, My contact with a “strong” figure allowed me to feel that my force could be contained, bounded by someone outside myself, and thus I was able to feel and to express my feelings, particularly my anger, more directly.

With almost certain conviction that I could topple not only this figure but the four men who backed him up, I put my shoulder aggressively into the ideal father’s stomach, lowered my stance to gain more power, and pushed with all my might. Although the ideal father staggered slightly behind my push, and exhaled with surprise, the men supporting him held firm. I tried again, this time letting out a long, agonized groan as I strained repeatedly against this immovable group. Somewhere in this long groan, which was a mixture of agony and relief, something in me gave way, gave up. Perhaps it was my lonely omnipotence, my conviction gained during my father’s long absence in the war years that I was responsible for the entire world and must somehow manage to be all-powerful. Perhaps it was the sense that I could overpower my father. With this giving way came a great relief

Suddenly all my impulse to challenge the ideal father was gone, and like a defeated boxer, I sagged toward the floor. Seeing the shift in my bearing, Al guided me. “You took like you want to rest.” Breathing hard, exhausted from all the physical effort, I sat down on my knees in front of the ideal father. It was a moment of vulnerability: defeated by the exercise, I felt lonely, conspicuous before the group.

My head must have tilted toward one side, because Al then commented, “You look like you want to lie down.” Accepting his sure interpretation of my body’s language, I lay down on the floor, curling up protectively. Now I felt even more alone, and of course Al saw that too. “Would you like some support from the ideal father?” he asked gently.

“Yes, I guess so,” I said.

“Why don’t you kneel beside him,” Al instructed the ideal father. “What if he put his hand on your shoulder?”

“Fine,” I said, feeling better as the man followed Al’s instructions. “What is going on? What are you feeling?” Al asked.

 “I’m remembering a time when I was a kid,” I said dreamily. Perhaps it was the solitariness of lying curled up on the floor, but I suddenly had a memory from the war years. My mother, my sister and I had gone to spend the summer with my father, who was stationed at a base in New Jersey, and we had just taken up residence in an apartment near the base. On one of our first days there, my father took me — I must have been four or five years old — with him to the army base. I suppose my mother had instructed him that I would need a nap in the afternoon; so after a morning of seeing the wonders of guns and barracks and marching men, I found myself on a wood and canvas cot in an enormous, sunlit tent, instructed to take my nap. My father was an officer, so I suppose he was allowed to take a nap too. His cot was on the other side of this great, sun-buzzed space, and before long he was sleeping soundly.

 Delighted to be with my father again after nearly a year’s absence, and stimulated by all that I had seen in the morning, I was too excited to sleep; so I lay there feeling a mixture of pleasure at having a father again, and frustration and loneliness at the immense distance at which his cot and his sleeping seemed to place him. I had the clearest, most agonizing impulse to go over and snuggle up with him on the cot, to nuzzle into his great male army-ness, to soak up the fathering I had missed. But I knew it was forbidden; that he would only be angry if I did it. And so I lay on the cot waiting forever for his nap to be over, listening to the sound of a fly trapped in the tent like the hot, airless sunlight itself.

 As I recounted the outline of this memory to Al, he said warmly, “Maybe we could recreate the scene as you would have liked it to have been.” Suddenly I felt anxious, exposed, and my posture must have tightened visibly, because Al said, “That make’s you anxious?”

 “Yes,” I said flatly.

  “Your father wouldn’t have approved,” he suggested.

 “Good old homosexual anxiety,” I said, acknowledging my awareness of this common issue for so many men.

 Al said, “We could go several ways with this. We could work on your father’s anxiety about closeness to his son, or we could stick with the ideal father. Do you have any sense of which way you want to go?”

 I could still feel the reassuring presence of the ideal father beside me, and I communicated this awareness to Al. “Let’s have him say what you would have wanted to hear from an ideal father, then,” Al suggested. When I nodded approval, he added, “What would that be?”

 “He would say that he would not be anxious or disapproving if his son who hadn’t seen him in a year wanted to curl up and snuggle with him.”

 Al instructed the ideal father, who said, “If I had been your father, I wouldn’t be anxious or disapproving if I hadn’t seen you for a year and you wanted to curl up and snuggle with me.” As the ideal father said the words, I could feel myself relax a little. I remembered the warm containment of the tent again, the sound of my father’s breathing. “Anything else?” Al asked.

 I said, “He could say that it would be all right if I curled up and snuggled with him.”

 The ideal father said: “It would be all right if you curled up and snuggled with me.”

 “Do you want to try this?” Al asked matter-of-factly.

 “I guess so,” I said, still keeping my eyes closed, hanging on to the memory of my father.

 With some coaching from Al, who took his cues from me, the role player lay down beside me on the floor, facing in the same direction that I was, and draped his arm over my side. For a moment I felt anxious again, but then I recalled the ideal father’s reassuring words, and relaxed into the fantasy that this was a father who was not worried or ashamed about his son’s healthy need to be comforted physically. Aware of the group’s also relaxed, beneficent presence, and of Al’s easy comfort with this scene, I drifted into a reverie of contentment, feeling the heavy, protective arm of the ideal father over me. I have no idea how long I had been lying there, half-asleep, relaxing into the floor and into the fantasy, when I heard the tiny beep-beep of Al’s electronic timer.

 “Take a little longer,” Al said, and for another minute or two I held on to the scene, clasping in my memory the reassuring comfort of this kind of father. When I finally opened my eyes and blinked as I looked around the room, I was greeted by the caring, respectful faces of the other participants. The ideal father resigned from his role with a smile and said his own name, and I rose and again took my familiar seat by the wall.

 I did a number of other structures with Al in the next couple of years: one very angry one in which I vented much of my frustration with my father; one in which my ideal father became playful and humorous; and one tearful one in which I said goodbye to the aspects of my father that I loved. But the first structure I have always carried as a special talisman, and over the next few years it became a metaphor around which I built my struggle to be that kind of man: one who stands firm and strong, and who can bend to nurture. To this group of images I attached all the principles of this kind of maleness, this kind of being; a model toward which I tried, often with difficulty, to live.