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  • Writer's pictureJoe Collins

The Things We Carry

Tim O’Brien’s 1990 collection of linked, short stories (‘The Things They Carried’) is based on his experience as a young soldier in Vietnam. The stories he tells takes the reader on an emotional journey into relationships, traumatic experience and survival. The author uses a simple device of the unpacking and detailing of the soldiers’ belongings as a spur to reflect on memory and loss, as he explores the connections between the items, their provenance and the people with whom they are connected. Sartre’s famous observation that he cannot see a photograph – any photograph – without reflecting on loss and death does not just hold true to printed images. The past is easily reached. One might say that it is carried by us, not in an external pack, as it is by O’Brien’s soldiers, but within us, as a series of objects, which make up our internalised world.

The Backpack as Metaphor

O’Brien’s stories are powerful in themselves, but they also act as telling metaphors for the make-up of the internal world all of us carry – and indeed for the process of psychoanalysis, particularly the field of ‘object relations.’ As O’Brien examines the belongings of the soldiers in his platoon, reflecting on the connections between the objects those soldiers carry and their life and world view, so his readers begin their own reflection on what makes up the life of an individual; on what it is that makes connections between people; on how our lives are changed by the connections we make with others; and, most movingly – and seemingly oxymoronic - on how loss can provide so much more weight to carry.

Internal Objects and the Early Years

Of course, the things we carry within us are not ‘objects’ at all in the accepted meaning of the word. They are more likely to be ideas (often of ourselves), fantasies, snatches of memories and other subjective experiences which have become the driving force of many of our behaviours. These, intangible objects, will often relate in some way to those with whom we shared our early years. In other words, those people will have helped shape our internal thinking. The most significant of these early objects are likely to be our parents and through the process of our early development we begin to internalise some sense of our parents – something we will carry with us throughout life. It is a subjective experience – perhaps bearing limited relation to the real parents - But what type of parent might that be? Most would like to think that it is a supportive, affirmative voice. Perhaps, though, that parental voice (or object) carried within can be accusatory, expressing disappointment or disregard, something that would have been internalised by the child in the early years of development.

A New Relationship with the Therapist

At the heart of any psychotherapist’s work with their client is the relationship between the two of them. Thus, by merely starting the process of therapy, both the client and therapist are beginning to form their own objects (representations of each) relating to the other. It is not unusual for some clients to carry negative views of themselves – perhaps as failures or frauds. These ideas (or objects, if we are thinking theoretically) would have been internalised in the development of the early relationships they formed – perhaps with parents, family members, friends or teachers – many years previously. The role of the therapist in this situation might be to explore these ideas of self, and perhaps to reveal them as a subjective experience – and in so doing, offer the possibility of internalising different views of the self.

The Importance of Relationships

The psychotherapist’s attention will not only be on the objects themselves, but also on the relationships between those objects and others carried within and, crucially, outside of the client’s internal world. Tim O’Brien’s poignant collection of narratives deals with these issues intuitively. A soldier’s collection of letters from a girlfriend who has ended the relationship when he went to war, becomes an examination of the loss of fantasies of a future beyond war, and how – to slip into the vernacular – we might keep ourselves together in the presence of such loss. An officer’s ordered notebook provides insight into an inner world of anxiety and fear. The control and order of the notes might represent a desperate attempt to bring some order to the terrifying and arbitrary experience of the war in Vietnam. Hanging over all the stories is an absence: those friends and fellow soldiers that have been lost. Grief and loss weigh heavily on our internal world.

Our Internal Backpack and the Journey They Promise

The backpack we carry within us - our inner world - is made of lots of objects, and between all of them are a complicated nexus of relational connections, each representing a journey in itself. O’Brien’s book offers an opportunity for a vicarious tracing of just a small number of the objects (and relations behind them) the soldiers (and we ourselves) carry. The therapist will offer the client the opportunity to make many such journeys.

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