Jessica: The Autobiography of an Infant by Jeffrey Von Glahn Ph.D

This is a powerful, and at times uncomfortable, account of the relationship between a psychologist and his client over a long period of unusually intensive psychotherapy. The book is entirely about Jessica, and the psychologist’s sympathies are unequivocally with his client, to the extent that he “never doubted for an instant that she was giving me an exact account of how she had felt from start to finish of her experience.”

I did find myself doubting the accuracy of the ‘memories’ of her earliest experiences, though I didn’t doubt for an instance that Jessica thought she was giving an exact account of the clear memories she had of the highly sophisticated thoughts she processed while still in the womb, and the uncaring attitudes of the doctors and the nurses who delivered her (down to what they actually said to each other that demonstrated so vividly to her in her first seconds in the world that her uniqueness and essential ‘humanness’ was being denied and spurned). An internationally renowned linguist once told me that ‘thought is most accurately defined as language arrested at the muscular level’. I’m certain that a developing fetus and a newly-born baby are conscious of, and profoundly influenced by, the behaviour of those around it (particularly in this case the ‘stinking mother’); but intellectualising those influences to the extent that Jessica claims to have done requires language. That’s why we rarely remember much before we began to acquire the language we needed to codify the thoughts and deposit them in our memories.

Post hoc rationalisation and reformulation of feelings of being rejected and unloved from the outset into back-engineered ‘memories’ aside, this remains a gripping, blow-by-blow account of a deeply troubled young woman finding the courage to get back in touch with the unique ‘me’ that she felt was rejected by her mother from the moment of conception: the ‘me’ whom she had felt compelled to ‘kill’ in order to go on existing around people who would really rather have lived their lives without her. Given that she was around, however, they demanded of her that she be as good as gold at all times, suppressing all of her own natural feelings and needs in the interests of satisfying theirs in order to be tolerated by them.

Philip Larkin said “Man hands on misery to man. It deepens as a coastal shelf. Get out as quickly as you can, and don’t have any kids yourself.” Jessica’s mother, daughter and husband are all mentioned in passing in this book, but we know little or nothing about them. It is a great pity that Jessica’s mother did not have access when she was younger to the highly-trained help that Jeffrey was able to provide for her daughter. I hope most sincerely that Jessica’s young daughter will have a happier childhood and adolescence as a result of Jeffrey Von Glahn’s selfless work with her mother, though she may have inherited a genetic predisposition to her mother’s and grandmother’s mental and emotional proclivities. I had a good deal of fellow-feeling for the husband whom Jessica subsequently divorced. He must have tried to care for her and failed. A friend of mine from childhood once said to me of the situation he found himself in with the deeply troubled wife he had at the time: “It’s bottomless.” I spent almost thirty years caring for my ex-wife who had had a deeply unhappy childhood, up to the moment when she sat me down and said: “You’re the best friend I ever had, and I wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t for you; but now they’ve invented Prozac I don’t need you anymore.”

The relevance of these apparently spurious anecdotes is that there are untold stories around Jessica’s that I suspect are equally profound. They were not, and could not be, the concern of the author; but my awareness of them affected my responses to this book in which he seeks to re-calibrate current thinking about the life-altering importance of experiences in the womb and during the first minutes of life out in the world. Jessica’s pain was raw and real, her analysis of the reasons for it quite possibly unique; but whether we should place as much store on that analysis as her psychotherapist and the author of this book (the subject of his doctorate thesis) clearly does is something that every reader will have to decide for her/himself.

Perhaps it’s inevitable that we all bring our own baggage to a book like this one, and to some extent that baggage will affect how we react to it. I found it an absorbing and informative read, and therefore I recommend it highly in the hope that it will help at least some of its readers understand better the disturbed and disturbing emotional behaviour of someone they care deeply about.

There were some formatting and editing issues in the e-version I read. They intruded from time to time, but weren’t too distracting.