Called to Account

As my student queries the 15 year old about her symptoms, it happens: she turns her head and gazes towards her mother.  Just as we invite her autobiography, our patient—she for whom we would advocate—abdicates. Sometimes, the parent will rightly recuse themselves. “Don’t look at me, he’s asking you.” Or, without a flinch, as in this case, the parent makes themselves the culpable messenger of their teenager’s history. As the parent delivers one response after another, my student persists in addressing the patient. But her head turns, and turns, … she disavows.

This is a characteristic moment, this turn of the head. For the relinquisher of accounts, the problem is often pain—headache. I wonder if their pain is tied up with the emergence of their vibrating, fledging, wings: their autonomy. In a way, the patient is wise to be wary. Questions carry hidden assertions on their backs, with un-intended side effects, yielding what one of my colleagues has learned to call an AEU—adverse event unit. You see it with interviewees who obligingly engage all those hidden assertions with enthusiasm, careening past their questioners in apogeic zig-zags of suggestibility.

As I caution my student, I flatten myself up against the hallway wall. Bring on the cascading narrative. Let it run like the bulls through Pamplona in July; count and record all the frenzied runners, words, pacing the hoofbeats. Drop your checklist, and let your eyes peer beyond that clinical architecture. Then, salute your interviewee at the finish line, bringing their words back with a flourish. It’s a way of inviting them over to the far side of that nice aphorism, “instead of waiting to see how the world will treat you, tell the world how you want to be treated.”

But this one won’t talk. How to disturb this alexithymia, awaken her, call her to account? A little firmness, a little playfulness, may loosen things up, as we strive to empower her to take charge of her own autobiography. Suddenly, she surfaces, contradicting her mother’s account of her symptoms. She’s protecting her story—hurray!

So often our wishes and fears scatter us, as though we spoke a different language, when we really don’t. When I lose the thread, I remember what that one we sometimes call God can do: collaborate with me to secure my history, the one I know now, against marauders, revisionists, inadvertent purveyors of lexical adverse events.


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