Daniel Stern’s passing

One of our heroes has passed….and while those of you stateside may catch the news this morning, for others who missed it, the NYT wrote a nice piece about him, which I’m sending on via the link in the email below this one.

I feel moved by his passing to eulogize, spontaneously. Why? Next to my hero-triad Benjamin-Chodorow-Butler, there is no theorist who has inspired and influenced me in such a wide variety of ways in just about ALL my adult life and work. Is this true for you too?

I first bumped into Stern’s work by luck, during my clinical internship in 1987 at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center where he gave the most coherent and fascinating talk I have ever heard about the inner world of babies. He rocked my world, knocking over Mahler’s autistic stage and shifting the whole psychosexual business from linear phases to overlapping intersubjective domains of development. I was young and green, but his 1985 book, so cogent, so compelling, felt intuitively much more alive than much of the standard developmental fare I’d had in my first years of training.

A decade later, Stern’s notion of merger states as a normative capacity was instrumental in my PhD research on the deep intensities of sexual role-play games. Together with the range of other intersubjective psychaoanalytic work on sexualities, Stern made it possible to conceptualize how people can get so intense and wrapped up in each-other as to feel like one, and then gradually return to themselves….without by definition becoming psychotic or being borderline.

In the 10 years following, Stern’s work cropped up again and again. On the one hand, alongside works by Tronick and Lyons Ruth and the Boston group on the early non-verbal relational forms of knowing that are fascinatingly present and influential in psychotherapy and all relationships. Our intervision group read these articles, and was amazed by the depth of insight that could be generated by reflecting on this blindly unreflected yet clearly ever-present and influential dimension of our experience.

By contrast, we found ourselves unexpectedly impatient with Stern’s foray into phenomenology in his book the Present Moment in psychotherapy and everyday life. Perhaps we were not prepared to slow down quite that much.

In the same period I was using the Motherhood Constellation alongside van der Pas’ theory of parenthood in my work with parents, finding it greatly helpful in connecting up the host of outer world circumstances of motherhood with the inner world of the mother.

My own motherhood came about in this time. While intensely living the phenomenon I had heretofore studied, I re-read said constellation, now in Dutch, in Nicole Vliegen’s thesis on new mothers and babies. Suddenly I found myself again, my experience explained, such as my intense transference to the baby nurse who had stood in for my real mother far across the ocean.

A few years later, delving into the literature on maternal ambivalence, I encountered my first critique of Stern in Rozsika parker’s book Mother Hate, Mother love. She noted that he – unintentionally, and together with the entire field of developmental psychology – created subtly oppressive norms for mothers to be held up against, as developmental objects for their babies, intersubjectivity notwithstanding. My colleague Gwen Marcelis always describes Stern as the ideal grandfather, white haired, kindly and understanding. And ultimately, unwittingly, paternalistic.

The final chapter of this spontaneous eulogy is about Stern’s work on Vitality Affects. I tried, while reading this book when it first came out, to really imagine the (unrememberable) experience of the baby, of the basis of all experience lying in the sensation of movement. Vitality is movement: a gestalt, a complex system, the basis of which is movement and dynamism. Can you imagine this? For me, it felt strange, not an immediately intuitive source to which I could reduce or scale back.

It got me thinking in the same way Michael Eigen’s work did some years back when he questioned the central oral metaphor of psychoanalytic thinking and wondered why instead we didn’t think of breathing which is so much more profoundly crucial and basic to survival. It was like I was living with some other central metaphor and Stern was waking me up, just as he did back in 1987, to another way of looking at things.

In the past year, I deepened and intensified my involvements in yoga training and dance improvisation, and found myself thinking more than ever about the mind-body relationship, as well as picking up this book again. And now the movement basis of vitality, started to make more sense.

In fact, last month, I wound up citing extensively from Stern while giving a phenomenologically oriented talk on embodiment at the University for Humanistic Studies in Utrecht. It pulled so much together in one simple but profound inquiry (recently echoed by Charlie Rose’ series on the brain, which confirms the same–everything starts with movement!). The talk, and Stern’s powerful clinical examples of reaching inchoate experience and affect through embodied practice, made clear for me the power and importance of bringing this dimension into psychotherapy practice and everyday life. Of living more consciously in and with our bodies, which are always there and yet, many are the ways that we collectively, personally and professionally split apart from this dimension of experience.

Stern illustrates the notion of vitality affects as the basis for everything else by noting how quickly we notice and instantly understand when someone is no longer alive. All motion ceases. We are profoundly wired to register this, just as we are profoundly wired to perceive and interpret in the flash of a millisecond, our own and each other’s aliveness, in motion, in nonverbal relational ways of knowing, in mother-baby attunement, in dance, music, psychoanalysis, and life.

From an autumnal Amsterdam I learn, as I waken: Stern is gone, in a flash, from a heart that failed him. I imagine his own vitality slipping away, dissipating into the ether. But his very vital ideas continue to live on in my heart and mind and perhaps in yours too.

LINK: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/19/health/daniel-stern-who-studied-babies-world-dies-at-78.html?emc=tnt&tntemail1=y

New York times November 19, 2012 Compiled: 12:32 AM
Daniel Stern, Who Studied Babies’ World, Dies at 78
Dr. Stern, a psychiatrist, increased the understanding of early human development by scrutinizing the most minute interactions between mothers and babies.


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