Edith Buxbaum, Latency and Me:
Between the Oedipus Complex and Adolescence:
The "Quiet" Time - Letter to Edith
Esther Altshul Helfgott, Ph.D.
This essay appears in slightly different form in the Journal of Poetry Therapy, Sept 2005
Abstract: Through poetry, journal writing and epistle, the author employs her biographical study of Dr. Edith Buxbaum (1902-1982), Viennese-born Seattle psychoanalyst and disciple of Freud, to explore her own childhood grief, failures and guilt. She juxtaposes her experiences, as a Jewish girl growing up in Baltimore , Maryland , with the Freudian basis of one of Buxbaum's clinical case studies on the latency period. While the author appreciates psychoanalytic theory, she questions Buxbaum's contention that Latency period (approximately ages six to ten) is anything but quiet.
I guess you're wondering why
I've chosen to write a biography about you
"Why me," I hear you say.
"What did I do to unleash your wrath,
Who do you think you are
intruding on my life
which I've spent
all these past twenty-two years
in my jar of ashes
in Seattle's Washelli Cemetery?"
But then I see you smiling, Edith,
and now I hear you purrrr-
ing like the cat you named
And you're glad that someone,
even one such as I, is naming you
back into the world.
not to worry.
Even if I do poke fun
at psychoanalysis -
just a little
I'll be fair.
I'll tell both sides.
For after all, not everyone believes that, as you say, in the oedipal period, between the ages of three and five years old, a boy is so in love with his mother that he wants to destroy his father in order to get to her. Not everyone believes the corresponding scenario of the Electra Complex referring to a girl child's love for her father with the accompanying negative attitude toward her mother. As you and your Freudian cohorts say, the boy resolves the oedipal conflict by sublimating his lust for his mother through work and identification with the father. On the other hand, a girl resolves her Electra Complex when she develops a Marrying Self bent on having a baby.
Not everyone believes this, Edith, but part of me does. I lived an emotional life smack in the midst of these theories. Instead of detesting Freud and company for outlining them for me, I celebrate their ability to bring to the surface metaphors for those like you and me who can use them.
But for now, I turn from the oedipal to the latency period, the quiet time as you call it, which occurs during ages six and ten, give or take a year when, according to educators such as yourself, children can best be taught-- because their abilities to concentrate, to think abstractly and to reason have increased in comparison to the preceding years. Before the age of six or so, children are not as educable because they are so involved, albeit unconsciously, with sexual drive activity. It is in this latency period that children are best able to learn because, as you write, a diminished biological drive allows for the enhancement of ego development.
In this letter I write to you tonight, I focus on the latency phase of childhood, ages six to ten, because while reading your article, Between the Oedipus Complex and Adolescence: The "Quiet" Time, my diary entries are filled with Yes! You're right. How did you know that about me? But there are also times when I say, No, you cannot be further from the truth. Either way, I need to understand those years, and your article, Edith - may I call you that Frau Doctor? - however theoretical and dense at times, as psychoanalytic literature often is, brought me back to them. I thank you for that. And for the record, I'm glad I've taken on the task of writing about you. Because in so doing, you have helped me to remember and to write about mine.
In Between the Oedipus Complex and Adolescence: The "Quiet" Time, you write:
a girl's enjoyment for horseback riding is partly related to her proclivity for rhythmic movement, and horseback riding satisfies tomboyish and masturbatory needs.
Horseback riding did not satisfy my tomboyish and masturbatory needs, as you suggest. I was terrified of horses and still am; but horses did gallop through my fantasy life. From the time I was six years old and we moved from 1931 East Baltimore Street, in the first area of settlement for immigrant Jews, to 3603 Park Heights Avenue, in the second area of settlement not far from Barry Levinson's Diner, I dreamed I was the only child of the horseback-riding movie stars, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. I was their absolutely adored child. Every Saturday I could get somebody to take me (my parents were leftists and didn't care about shabbes), I walked to the Avalon movie theatre at 4300 Park Heights Ave. to watch the westerns with Gene Autry, Tom Mix, Tex Ridder and my parents, Roy and Dale. I was so proud.
According to you, Freud, and his daughter Anna, there is from the age of six onward a biologically determined lessening of drive activity. Well, if I experienced a lessening of drive activity in these years my earlier periods must have thrown me off the charts. This was the time in my latency phase that I had the hots for Roy and maybe for Dale too. If you and Freud and Anna are right, my dream to be the child of these particular 1940s movie stars was a manifestation, an acting out, or a putting into fictive reality the sexual feelings I was experiencing unconsciously during my oedipal and pre-oedipal periods, oedipal equivalent to ages three to latency; pre-oedipal representing birth to about age three. So then, latency was the period in which my fantasies manifested and developed until adolescence turned them into a full-blown Cinderella complex..
You will like to know, Edith, that while I was lying in bed dreaming of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, I was sleeping in my parents' bedroom. I can see your eyebrow go up. You're absolutely sure, aren't you, though I don't have any recollection of it, that I saw my parents having sex? Anyway, I slept in a thin day bed and my sister, two years younger and presumably still in her oedipal period, slept cattycorner from me. Our older brother, dangerously approaching adolescence, slept in his own room down the hall.
Although my bed was smaller than even a twin bed, it always seemed to be filled with hoards of peoplenot just movie stars and relatives but the mean old man down the street who wouldn't let me skate on the pavement in front of his store. The delicattessener's wife with the gray-out running down the part in the middle of her black-haired head was there, in my bed. And so was Freddie, the bag man, who everybody said was richer than the whole block put together. He was there, and the doctor across the street, the one called the Neighborhood Abortionist.
The bedroom I shared with my parents and sister was a large room over top a tailor shop and sometimes we could smell the iron burning men's shirts. Mother couldn't wait to move from that apartment she thought it might burn up but I liked it. From our bedroom I could look out over Park heights Ave. to Reisterstown Rd. a block away. I could see the crazy man down the block try to get hit by a car for the insurance money. I could see Lenny Weinglass's house. He was the boy we called Boogie, who Barry Levinson made famous in Diner. Best of all, I could watch for my friend Butchy and run downstairs to catch him when he walked by.
Butchy was the only kid on the block who lived in an actual house, the row house his parents bought when they came from Germany. Germany. This was after the war, Edith, when you were already in America but not in Seattle yet. You were practicing psychoanalysis in New York and glad to be out of Vienna where you wouldn't have been at all by 1946, because you would have been dead. Dead. Or rescued from a concentration camp filled with incarcerated bodies and smoke.
These were the years after the war, Edith, when Father said: "Every good German is a dead German," and the little boy Butch whose German mother let me and my sister,
two little Jewish girls, as well as the scruffy, Kenny Pedicure, who gave me half of a five dollar bill we found in the back alley come into their German-clean living room to watch the Howdy Doody show on the only television set I knew about on Park Heights Avenue. This was when my father said Butch couldn't come in our house anymore. Mother said, Iser, he's only a child, but Father shook his head and said No. Father changed, though, a little bit, after I did something bad.
Part of the aggressive feelings in the latency period are displaced sexual feelings. The children's fantasies are full of aggressions; they fantasy that they are stronger and smarter than anybody, that they will conquer the world. Is stealing wrapped up with sexuality, Edith?. If so, stealing is one way latency-driven me expressed them. I stole three times during these years: Once I took a quarter from my mother's pocket book. Another time I stole a 25 cent blue pencil case from Sussman's drugstore, the kind of pencil case where you pull out a little drawer filled with a white note pad and #2 pencils. And once I stole from Butch, the German boy my father wouldn't let me play with until after this happened, but then Butch didn't want to play with me anymore anyway. Because what I did was bad, really bad.
This stealing I did is not just an example of misplaced sexual energy, as you might call it, Edith; it is an example of the shame I carry. I never told Mother about the quarter I stole from her. I never mentioned the pencil case from Sussman's drugstore. Only now, as I write do I speak about childhood acts that others, even I, feel are just that, childhood acts. I am interested in these acts of stealing, not only because I believe they represent a link between sexual expression and aggression but also because after all these years they still fill me with embarrassment that wriggles in my skin. It is not as if I have to get these experiences off my chest, that's too easy. What preoccupies me is this: I am still surprised that I stole, as if I thought myself too good a person to engage in typical childhood behavior.
This is what I stole from Butch, Edith: his Clarabel pin. He sent away for it with Kellogg's Rice Crispy Cereal Box Tops. I wanted that Clarabel pin with the round nose that lit up red when you pulled the string more than anything, maybe even more than I wanted Roy Rogers and Dale Evans to be my parents, and now I had that pin. And I had the gall to wear it on my jacket, outside of my house I wore it, as if I had no reason not to as if the pin really belonged to me. I had that Clarabel pin now. I took it from Butch's table in his bedroom where we were playing or maybe I took it out of his coat pocket. I don't remember, but I had it and I was wearing it. And the next thing I know, Butch and his mother are sitting in our living room with my parents and when I come in from skating, everybody is looking at me, including my little sister, and my father asks me to sit down.
He says, Essie, did you take the Clarabel pin? And he stares his father's stare. It's ok. I just want you to return the pin to the boy, if you took it. Mother looks at me in that silent way of hers and I shake my head. I look my father straight in the eye and say No, I didn't take it. I close my lips and say not one thing more. I sit in the chair and shake my head back and forth, and everybody in the room except maybe my father and the generous German woman, know I'm lying.
Dear Edith, in your article, Between the Oedipus Complex and Adolescence: The "Quiet" Time, you write: Rhythmic games like jump rope and jacks, with accompanying jingles and songs, are played by girls in all countries. In my journal, I respond: Edith, the absence of personal information in your theoretical work deprives the biographer and her readers of important data. Life history informs theory. So when you claim jacks, are played by girls in all countries, Do you base your assertion on your own childhood play or on actual research. Do kids play jacks all over the world? Do they play jacks in the Third World? Or were jacks merely an important organizing tool for you at six, seven, eight or nine years old? I know this is a mundane issue, but did you use your feelings about jacks to come to a theoretical conclusion?
I realize I'm being defensive but I want to know if you sat on the floor and played jacks with your girlfriends the way I did. I have the internet as you did not, so I google "children's games, ball and jacks." Once more you put me to shame. Jacks is a modern day version of the game of Stones, sometimes called Fivestones, and, according to one website, was originally played with sheep knucklebones. Jacks is played all over the world including Mexico, Thailand, Nepal, Indonesia. In Korea, the game is called Kongki Noli. In Ghana, Pombo and not only girls play it as in Korea and elsewhere, but boys and whole families play, and they use seven stones, not five. Which you probably knew, didn't you Edith?
Still, this exercise in a biographer's defensiveness and antagonism toward her subject brings me to one of my writerly pastimes: Imagining you, Edith Buxbaum, as a child. For the life of me, I can't imagine you playing jacks. I played jacks all the time, not just during latency from 6 10 but into my early teens. In summer I could play all day: in the morning between Canasta, Mr. Rochester and Jane Eyre, in the afternoon, between lunch, hopscotch and the mad woman in the attic and in the evening between the library stacks, Alan Kaplan's telescope, and Wuthering Heights.
I played jacks on the cement outside our apartment. I played with my sister on our scratchy bedroom floor, and with my girlfriends' on their front porches. It was my mother who, as soon as she saw my hands were big enough, around four or five years old, taught me how to play. We sat on the cracked linoleum floor, and between pinning up this rich woman's dress or that, she taught me how to play Frontsies and Backsies, Cherries in the Basket and Strawberries in A Cup, Twosies and Threezies and Pancakes in A Frying Pan.
I can't imagine you playing jacks, Edith, not with your mother, nor your friends. To me you are always old and haughty, and your mother is even haughtier. You are European, cultured and stuck up. I'm one of three children my Russian immigrant father calls his American children. I can't imagine you as child because I don't have information about you then. You're all psychoanalysis and theory except for the few words you told an interviewer when you were seventy-eight years old. Perhaps I can't imagine you as a child because I can't imagine my father as a child. I can't even imagine you playing jacks with the children you analyzed in your office. But maybe I can see you playing jacks with the children. Yes, I can see you being kind to them, and warm and easy and wanting them to learn and to heal. The fact is, I'm jealous of you, Edith Buxbaum. I come up short when I view myself in your light. I feel lack, less than.
I want to know if you sat on the floor and played jacks with your mother. You had no siblings, but lots of friends and extended family. Did you play jacks with your maternal first cousin, Bruno Bettelheim? He was one of your best childhood friends, and you lived in the same apartment building at 66 Neubaugasse when you were growing up in early-1900s Vienna. Your grandparents owned the apartment building your families lived in, and you ran back and forth from each other's apartments. Bruno had an older sister, Margarite (who in old age committed suicide, as Bruno would in 1990. But you weren't living then. You didn't know of their suicides. You died of ovarian cancer years before). Did Margarite run back and forth with you and Bruno? Did she play jacks with you? Somehow I doubt it, but why is this important? Why do I focus on jacks?
You write: "Girls' organization around games such as jacks and jump rope give their aggression form in the same way that football and war games contribute to the organization of male aggression."
Edith Buxbaum is nine years old. It's 1911. She's bouncing a volley ball-sized ball and laughing with a group of youngsters. They're European and live on a narrow cobble stoned street like the one near us on Park Heights Ave. There aren't lots of kids running up and down my block. They're missing. Where are they? I'm banging on a door and yelling let me in. But no one lets me in so I go away, almost glad no one's home and I can be independent from everybody else.
Educators found by experience that the age of 6 years plus or minus 1 is in fact the time when children can be taught because their abilities to concentrate, to think abstractly, and to reason have greatly increased in comparison to the preceding years.
Edith, I'm six when I learn to read, maybe a little earlier, late five. I'm in kindergarten, Mrs. Miller's class. We read Dick and Jane and Go Sally Go. We're still living in East Baltimore, and I go to PS # 27. A year or so later I try to teach my Uncle Benny to read. We had already moved up from East Baltimore to 3603 Park Heights Ave. in back of the tailor shop next door to Sussman's drugs. Uncle Benny and I sit at the kitchen table. I open my first grade reader to See Sally go. I read to him. Now you read Uncle Benny, but Uncle Benny can't read, Mama says. The part of the brain he needs to read is missing. I know you want to read with Benny but teaching him actually taxes his brain and frustrates him. I watch Uncle Benny's smile continue unchanging across his face and put my book away. I watch him eat the strawberry ice cream Mama spoons out for him.
Mother tried to teach Uncle Benny herself years ago. But she failed and failure with Uncle Benny became part of her character, an aspect of her personality. Like Father's gambling was a part of his personality. Or was failure already by age six or seven an aspect of my personality that I projected onto them? And did that sense of failure in me come from what you, Edith, call the oedipal period and maybe even before during the pre-oedipal or on the cusp of the oedipal when ..
When she was twenty-one, Mother went to NY to become a dress designer so she could make money and keep Uncle Benny out of the institution her parents put him in. She didn't succeed. I wasn't tough enough she told me years later. I wouldn't sleep with any of the bosses and they told me "Go back home to Baltimore, marry Prince Charming, have kids and live in a house with a white picket fence." She got married, had kids but none of the rest came true. And she could only have Uncle Benny with her on occasional weekends.
I DREAM OF UNCLE BENNY AND STRAWBERRIES
I'm eight years old, and Uncle Benny doesn't have to go back to the Rosewood State Training Center for Boys out in Reisterstown, Maryland anymore. He never ever has to go back because he lives in our house now and guess what his room is filled with strawberry ice cream. The walls are covered with ice cream. The chairs are. Uncle Benny's bed is made of strawberry, and the carpet is strawberry plush. In my dream, Uncle Benny's sitting at his desk, which mother and I bought for him. The desk is the color of strawberry. Uncle Benny's sitting at the desk and he's writing. He's copying letters out of my first grade reader, my Dick and Jane book. All of a sudden, a strawberry walks into his room. She touches Uncle Benny's shoulder. She touches his shoulder and it's no longer twisted into his sternum. Now, the strawberry touches Uncle Benny's spine and he sits straight up. She touches his knees and he gets out of the chair, stands straight to the sky and throws his cane into the strawberry waste basket. He bends down to pick up the cane and it turns into a strawberry ice cream soda. Uncle Benny drinks the ice cream soda and then in a voice that is no longer unintelligible, he reads Dick and Jane to me, the whole story, about Sally and Spot and the little kitty Puff. I awaken from my dream and run into the kitchen to find Mother wiping strawberry ice cream off of Uncle Benny's unshaven chin, which won't get shaved until Uncle Izzy comes home from the print shop. Then we'll get back in the car and drive out to Rosewood where we'll leave my Uncle Benny on the steps of his cottage.
Part of the aggressive feelings in the latency period are displaced sexual feelings. The children's fantasies are full of aggressions; they fantasy that they are stronger and smarter than anybody, that they will conquer the world.
I cannot conquer the tragedy of Uncle Benny's body, of his mind filled with fuzz and lack, but in the so-called Quiet period of latency before the hormones start jumping again, I continue to dream that Dale Evans is my mother and I have a horse to ride that I'm not afraid of. My father is still Roy Rogers, king of the cowboys, and he holds me close to him when we ride Trigger whose body is as sleek and fine as Uncle Benny's is lame.
Dear Edith, I have to end this letter now, but I want you to know that everything I read of yours makes me write. I don't agree with all you say, but your ideas make me think and I thank you for writing them. I'll write again soon. In the meantime, I think of Butch. In a recurring dream I return his Clarabel pin. I tell him I stole it and I lied. I kiss my father and mother and forgive them for my lack, and for theirs. Edith, latency was anything but quiet for me. Those years were noisy and complicated, as they were before latency and afterwards. As they continue to be, even now. I hope you are well, Edith.
Esther Altshul Helfgott, Ph.D.