A psychoanalyst’s journey into the Deaf world




I would never have thought that lear­ning sign lan­guage would have such an impact on my psy­cho­ana­ly­tic prac­tice but lit­tle did I know…It might seem sur­pri­sing for a psy­cho­ana­lyst, whose main wor­king tools are words and lis­te­ning to words, to find an inter­est in deaf­ness and in sign lan­guage. I star­ted wor­king recent­ly as a child psy­chia­trist in a Deaf chil­dren’s ins­ti­tute. This got me to learn and prac­tice regu­lar­ly French Sign Lan­guage (LFS). When star­ting this adven­ture, I could hard­ly ima­gine the broad impact it would have on both the cli­ni­cal and theo­re­ti­cal aspects of my prac­tice.

The jour­ney into the deaf World : a neces­sa­ry loss of iden­ti­ty

At the begin­ning, lear­ning sign lan­guage were pains­ta­king. The tea­cher was deaf. It was strict­ly for­bid­den to utter a single word for a whole week and this for six hours each day. It is no small feat to put aside all one’s voca­bu­la­ry and rely only on ges­tures to express one­self after all those years of ver­bal com­mu­ni­ca­tion and scien­ti­fic stu­dies. Among the deaf I was fin­ding myself a new iden­ti­ty as a “hea­ring per­son” just as I had dis­co­ve­red myself a “White” in Afri­ca, a “Latin” in English spea­king coun­tries, a “Euro­pean” in Ame­ri­ca or a “Gad­gi” among gyp­sies… I had to go as far as to for­get my name, the time for deaf people to chris­ten me and assi­gn me a sign. That sign can be a dis­tinc­tive phy­si­cal fea­ture, one rela­ted to one’s beha­vior or func­tion but it has nothing to do with the ori­gi­nal first or last names. This iden­ti­ty loss is tran­si­to­ry but neces­sa­ry to the jour­ney into the world of deaf people. One feels a loss of bea­rings and one feels expo­sed. Deaf people have this increa­sed visual acui­ty that scru­ti­nizes you in depth and makes you unco­ver parts of your­self you never had any ink­ling about, even after years spent tal­king on a couch…

At first sha­ken by all those unk­nowns, I was won­de­ring if I wasn’t was­ting my time with this lear­ning of sign lan­guage. I had expec­ted some clas­si­cal forei­gn lan­guage tea­ching with conju­ga­tions, voca­bu­la­ry lists and gram­mar. For­ged by all my years of stu­dy, I expec­ted I would be going home with home­work, lists of words to learn and verbs to conju­gate. So I was quite sur­pri­sed to find that a smile, a blown out cheek, a blink of an eye­lid or bul­ging eyes had as much value as a past par­ti­ciple or a modal verb ! Gram­mar is read on the face, no gram­mar book is nee­ded. My tea­cher would tell me later that in sign lan­guage, voca­bu­la­ry, mea­ning words or signs, made only 20% of a conver­sa­tion.
Hoo­ked like all hea­ring people to my ver­bal lan­guage as to a life buoy in the affec­tive tem­pest of human encoun­ters, I had then won­de­red what the 80% remai­ning part was made of. How could one unders­tand each other, exchange, talk or tell sto­ries with so few words ? French lan­guage has about 100000 words and in LSF dic­tio­na­ries there are only around 3000 signs. I would learn that this lan­guage rich­ness should abso­lu­te­ly not be mea­su­red by its lexi­cal field, but by its wide ico­ni­ci­ty enabling the expres­sion of many concepts without resor­ting to the stan­dard lexi­con. In France, since the “deaf awa­ke­ning” in the 70s, lin­guists like Chris­tian Cuxac have stu­died and theo­ri­zed the non-lexi­cal struc­tures of LSF, its visual and spa­tial gram­mar, they des­cri­bed its “high ico­ni­ci­ty struc­tures” and enabled its ack­now­led­ge­ment as a lan­guage in its own right in 2005.

Fol­lo­wing the Milan congress in 1880, a pure­ly oral edu­ca­tion was advo­ca­ted and LSF was for­bid­den in deaf ins­ti­tutes in France for more than 100 years. During most of the 20th cen­tu­ry, many deaf chil­dren had their hands tied during school to keep them from signing. LSF sur­vi­ved but was affec­ted by this. It car­ries the urgen­cy, the power of expres­sion and the tone of liber­ty and insu­bor­di­na­tion dating from its years of oppres­sion. This reminds of the free­dom of the jazz music inven­ted by Afri­can Ame­ri­can slaves in New-Orleans. It took me seve­ral days, dra­wing forms in space at length with my hands, circles, squares, tri­angles … then cubes, spheres, pyra­mids, imi­ta­ting objects, miming situa­tions, watch and be wat­ched by other people, to recon­nect with the lit­tle mute child hid­den inside me and to lose myself to ges­tu­ral com­mu­ni­ca­tion. This is what the deaf nee­ded us to redis­co­ver before lear­ning the alpha­bet, the colors, the days of the week. And it was a re-acquain­tance more than a dis­co­ve­ry. For we have all kept in a part of our memo­ry this pre­ver­bal com­mu­ni­ca­tion of the mute child we used to be. One just needs to look at todd­lers. From nur­se­ry on, they are cap­ti­va­ted by ges­tu­ral nur­se­ry rhymes ; they are able to mimic ges­tures long before utte­ring their first words. As they grow up the ges­tu­ral abi­li­ty gets lost a lit­tle, as is the abi­li­ty to draw or play, except for those who remain connec­ted to their inner child, artists, crea­tor or those wor­king with chil­dren. And maybe even psy­cho­ana­lysts ?
Back in the metro after these days filled with silence looks and ges­tures, the pas­sen­gers’ silence sud­den­ly see­med very loud to me. Their looks, their moving hands made me bet­ter per­ceive the 80% non-ver­bal com­mu­ni­ca­tion the deaf had tal­ked about, pre­vious­ly invi­sible to my eyes.

Lis­te­ning with my eyes

Back in my consul­ting room, I star­ted lis­te­ning to patients dif­fe­rent­ly.
I sud­den­ly noti­ced on a young patient that I had been fol­lo­wing for seve­ral years a grab­bing hand on her throat whe­ne­ver she would talk about her mother. We recap­tu­red this ges­ture toge­ther and it was a key to the ela­bo­ra­tion of her ambi­va­lence towards her mother ; oppo­sing her was pre­vious­ly uni­ma­gi­nable.
Ano­ther patient would spend her ses­sions fid­ge­ting with her ring, offe­red by her parents. Parents she was unable to untie from for she was caught up in an inces­tuous and alie­na­ting back and forth with them. This ges­ture during the ses­sion became lou­der than all her speeches filled with com­pul­sive and repe­ti­tive rumi­na­tions and this also led to the ela­bo­ra­tion of her impos­sible sepa­ra­tion.
I picked out the ges­ture of this young man during our encoun­ters. He would always start the ses­sion by poli­te­ly “bor­ro­wing” seve­ral paper tis­sues, where he would pour his snot loud­ly and labo­rious­ly and then fiddle with those tis­sues during the whole ses­sion until final­ly sha­king my hand with his own still damp from his nasal secre­tions. This ges­ture clear­ly mar­ked his aggres­si­ve­ness towards me. His desire to dir­ty me in contrast to his other­wise meti­cu­lous­ly clean and polite ways. This ges­ture wasn’t part of his ver­bal speech, but unvei­led his beha­vior way more than all his ver­bo­si­ty. The time is not ripe to act on this unders­tan­ding, for the man is still very far away from his copro­phi­lia. I will still need to wait a few years for his defenses to loo­sen.

A case of a super­vi­sion col­league came vivid­ly in my mind : this man having a ten­di­ni­tis on the third fin­ger of his hand would spend his ses­sion the major erec­ted towards his ana­lyst while denying any hint of aggres­si­ve­ness in him­self. He was able to rea­lize it only when the ana­lyst poin­ted out that by this ges­ture he was clear­ly giving her the fin­ger…

Inter­pre­ting with the hands

Meanw­hile in my consul­ting room, there was a tur­ning point in Aristide’s treat­ment. The pas­sage to non-ver­bal and more spe­ci­fi­cal­ly ges­tures had a par­ti­cu­lar impor­tance in the dyna­mic of his the­ra­peu­tic pro­cess. When I first met him, Aris­tide was the per­fect lit­tle boy.  A todd­ler, nei­ther his shoes nor his knee-length trou­sers were worn down unlike chil­dren his age. Though I could alrea­dy per­ceive in his gaze a sort of inner wild­ness, Aris­tide stood still, very well-beha­ved, too well-beha­ved, and so clean he was unable to “pooh”. This was the rea­son his parents had brought him to a child psy­chia­trist fol­lo­wing mul­tiple medi­co-psy­cho­lo­gi­cal exams. He would only defe­cate under the action of power­ful mecha­ni­cal ene­mas admi­nis­tra­ted into his rec­tum seve­ral times a week. His parents who were a lot like him except for those sphinc­te­ric symp­toms were refrac­to­ry to the idea of a psy­cho­the­ra­py. It was to be dif­fi­cult to esta­blish and main­tain a fra­me­work along this cure, but Aristide’s defe­ca­tion after each ses­sion would help his parents to accept and trust me.

Aside from his polite ans­wers, Aris­tide didn’t play or talk to me. For more than a year I would use the “squiggle” tech­nique with him. This would enable him to express a lot of his inner wild­ness in his dra­wings. Angry cha­rac­ters who shou­ted, killed, insul­ted and kicked, their mouth clo­sed and their jaw clen­ching. Throu­ghout the ses­sions, the big clo­sed mouths with by big teeth would gra­dual­ly open and spit their words as car­toon speech bubbles where he would dic­tate me what to write. At first bles­sing dear Win­ni­cott and his squiggle, I star­ted to curse him when after a year Aris­tide was still not playing and ritua­li­zing his ses­sions around it. Aris­tide would come run­ning to his ses­sion and always start with the simple same words “Let’s do like last time, you go first”. Those were gene­ral­ly the only words spo­ken during the whole ses­sion. He didn’t even sit on the chair and would remain stan­ding, stiff in front of the table. I would then draw a line on the blank page, then him, then I and this would each time lead us to a dif­ferent dra­wing. His last dra­wing will be the one of the “color war”. A kind of huge brown doo­dle this time I was not allo­wed to intrude and we ended in a pen bat­tle. It pro­vi­ded an oppor­tu­ni­ty to move to figu­rine games. “You know we could also fight with ani­mals” I told him. He was inter­es­ted and at last we were able to play bloo­dy ani­mal fights and final­ly we were trans­for­med in wild ani­mals our­selves. He was “the tiger”, I could hear him on the stairs, arri­ving to his ses­sion rowing, which was not to his parents liking and it would be dif­fi­cult for me to make them rea­lize this was a pro­gress.

For­tu­na­te­ly by that time Aris­tide was defe­ca­ting. No more ene­ma, his parents had to accept the growls. During seve­ral ses­sions, I was devou­red by the tiger then by the shark, then we suc­cee­ded in uni­ting and hunt toge­ther, making up richer and richer sto­ries, and sta­ging ever more com­plex emo­tions. His knees were scab­by, his shoes were wea­ring out fas­ter. Aris­tide was moving, Aris­tide was playing.

A new ritual was get­ting ini­tia­ted at the begin­ning of the ses­sion, the miming game. We would mime, taking turns, some­thing the other had to guess. The parents ascer­tai­ning their child’s pro­gress and his plea­sure playing, pul­led back, the end of the cure was near. During one of the latest ses­sion, boos­ted by the lear­ning of sign lan­guage and tired by the slight­ly boring miming ritual pre­ce­ding our fabu­lous ani­mals’ sto­ries, the idea came to me to mimic him. I the­re­fore imi­ta­ted Aris­tide when he came to my office, I played a model lit­tle boy, rigid, consti­pa­ted, and then dra­wing stan­ding up ; I mimi­cked his angry mons­ters, the wide mouths clo­sed with teeth, the car­toon bubbles, the pen war, then the tiger the shark and our recent adven­tures. First dumbs­truck Aris­tide rapid­ly reco­gni­zed him­self and it made him burst into a beau­ti­ful laugh­ter. He told me “do it again!” And I ended up redoing my sequence seve­ral times under his wide ope­ned eyes. Then he mimi­cked me : the doc­tor with his com­pu­ter, the doc­tor dra­wing, figh­ting with pens being devou­red, the doc­tor sha­king hands with his parents and taking their money… this made me laugh in return. At the last ses­sion Aris­tide took the toy doctor’s case and but­che­red me with the needle, he ope­ra­ted my sto­mach, my head, my heart and even made me “a graft with a dead per­son”. Was this the pre­mises of a sur­gi­cal voca­tion ?
Much the same as an effec­tive laxa­tive his parents than­ked me for my “action” and we par­ted. During this cure, the child’s dif­fi­cul­ties to talk or draw for­ced me to deve­lop the non-ver­bal dimen­sions of our inter­ac­tions to the ful­lest. I was left won­de­ring what hap­pe­ned during the final sequence of com­mon imi­ta­tion. Could this be attri­bu­ted to a “ges­tu­ral inter­pre­ta­tion” on the ana­lyst side ? Indeed the intent in using mimi­cry was to extract latent mea­ning from the child’s beha­vior and com­mu­ni­cate it to him. The fact that Aris­tide would reco­gnize him­self and laugh shows the mes­sage was heard des­pite the absence of words. In the light of dear Win­ni­cot works, had I played, with my child imper­so­na­tion, the mir­ror role of the mother, enabling in the end a game of cross iden­ti­fi­ca­tions ? Had I used a psy­cho-dra­ma­tic tech­nic of role inver­sion enabling the patient to become aware of inner dimen­sions by seeing his role played by some­bo­dy else ? It is pro­ba­bly the com­bi­na­tion of these three refe­rences, hel­ped by the ges­tu­ral mimi­cry trai­ning conveyed by LSF lear­ning that enabled me to invent what hap­pe­ned.

A com­mon lan­guage : an illu­sion ?

Most deaf chil­dren grow up with hea­ring fami­lies without having a com­mon lan­guage with their parents and it strikes me that gene­ral­ly things are not too bad. Few parents of deaf chil­dren get to learn sign lan­guage. “But how do you com­mu­ni­cate?” people often ask them at the ins­ti­tute. Most of them ans­wer “we unders­tand each other very well”… This is what is cal­led ges­tu­ral mimi­cry com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Not that many words are nee­ded to create a com­mon lan­guage, a lan­guage where emo­tions can be conveyed.

I regu­lar­ly dis­cuss with my deaf psy­cho­lo­gist col­league on the situa­tion of the institute’s youth she reports. My sign lan­guage level is still quite poor, she lip reads and could talk intel­li­gi­bly with a whis­pe­red voice but we pre­fer to “sign” using the 80% of non-ver­bal com­mu­ni­ca­tion. I notice our exchanges are brief, but the essen­tial goes. When she relates her cli­ni­cal impres­sions on a young, I turn it into a visual thought, I emo­tio­nal­ly feel the situa­tion and I am not sur­pri­sed when I meet him, he is exact­ly how she des­cri­bed him. The essen­tial points are com­mu­ni­ca­ted, one doesn’t real­ly know how but they are.

Sign lan­guage is not uni­ver­sal as people often believe. There is the French Sign Lan­guage, the Ame­ri­can, the English, the Que­bec one and many others. Yet when two deaf people meet, it is a lot easier for them than for hea­ring people to use those infa­mous 80% of non-ver­bal com­mu­ni­ca­tion. They invent new signs or teach them to one ano­ther and can thus connect a lot more rapid­ly than two hea­ring people.

During inter­na­tio­nal congresses, exchanges are always very rich and in mul­tiple lan­guages. Some poly­glot col­leagues work with three or even four dif­ferent lan­guages during the same day. At the end of those exhaus­ting days swit­ching from one lan­guage to ano­ther, their minds are full and confu­sed bet­ween thou­sands of mixed words. And what remains them except the trans­fe­rence-coun­ter­trans­fe­rence rela­tion­ship ? This impres­sion, this cli­ni­cal sen­sa­tion that ties them to the patient and that they almost feel in their bones, beyond words, beyond the lan­guage used.

We assume we speak a com­mon lan­guage with our patients but is it real­ly the case ? Isn’t it an illu­sion, that makes us believe in an impli­cit unders­tan­ding, but car­ries away its share of misun­ders­tan­dings and resis­tance. The lan­guage com­mu­ni­ty could pave the way for resis­tances by abo­li­shing alte­ri­ty in a connec­tion of col­lu­sion. Shouldn’t the ana­lyst be able to dis­miss his own lan­guage in order to hear his patient’s uncons­cious beyond words in a form of pre­ver­bal emo­tio­nal lis­te­ning ? Turn back with his patient into the mute child expo­sed to his parent’s forei­gn lan­guage.

Sign lan­guage a high road towards uncons­cious

A speech in sign lan­guage is like a movie in three even four dimen­sions. One first places the time on a hori­zon­tal axis going from past to future, then one sets the scene on an ima­gi­na­ry stage, one next places the cha­rac­ters and then the action. In order to des­cribe each cha­rac­ter, the “signer” points his fin­ger at them and embo­dies them. He then becomes the one he desi­gnates and imi­tates his mimics and emo­tions just like an actor playing a cha­rac­ter. The obser­ver is is faced with a live­ly act that unfolds in front of him, fea­tu­ring his interlocutor’s thoughts.

Sign lan­guage chal­lenges meta­psy­cho­lo­gy. In the nine­ties, a French group of psy­cho­ana­lysts, inclu­ding Benoit Virole (1990) won­de­red about the sign sta­tus in men­tal repre­sen­ta­tion and about ana­lo­gies bet­ween sign lan­guage and dream lan­guage.

LSF by its figu­ra­tive dimen­sion and its plas­ti­ci­ty conveys men­tal images that have a clo­ser tie with the object repre­sen­ted. It gives a more direct access to uncons­cious by remo­ving the abs­tract sym­bols such as let­ters and words. Most signers use a pro­cess of meto­ny­mic or synec­do­chic repre­sen­ta­tion. In other words, they manage to res­ti­tute the tota­li­ty or the essence of an object through the repre­sen­ta­tion of a part of it or of one of its pro­minent cha­rac­te­ris­tic. The ges­tu­ral signi­fier brings us clo­ser to the pri­ma­ry sym­bo­li­za­tion, to the first men­tal repre­sen­ta­tions, and to the archaic or pri­mor­dial signi­fiers taking part in the gene­sis of thought. From a topi­cal point of view, the sign is situa­ted in bet­ween the object and the word repre­sen­ta­tion. From an eco­no­mi­cal point of view, it is at a cross­roads bet­ween pri­ma­ry and secon­da­ry pro­cesses.

The dream-thoughts and the dream-content present them­selves as two des­crip­tions of the same content in two dif­ferent lan­guages;(…) The dream-content is, as it were, pre­sen­ted in hie­ro­gly­phics, whose sym­bols must be trans­la­ted, one by one, into the lan­guage of the dream-thoughts.” This is how Freud des­cribes the dream work in the chap­ter 6 of the inter­pre­ta­tion of Dreams.

Like dream and its sym­bo­lic figu­ra­tion, LSF turns thought into pic­tures using its ico­nic and its and figu­ra­tive gram­mar. It uses moving and conden­sa­tion mecha­nisms to pass from one repre­sen­ta­tion to the other let­ting the psy­chic ener­gy flow more free­ly. The pro­cess of trans­for­ma­tion of thoughts into sign lan­guage could be com­pa­red to the one from the dream that trans­forms body sti­mu­li diur­nal rem­nants and dream thoughts into mani­fest content. A speech in LSF is a pic­to­rial speech that like a dream gives access to the uncons­cious, pro­vi­ded one knows how to deci­pher the signs. Thus the deaf world becomes an Eldo­ra­do for the psy­cho­ana­lyst who like a gold hun­ter rejoices in advance of the trea­sures he will be able to explore…

Some signs have a mes­sage. By them­selves they tell a whole sto­ry. The sign for “white” uses the image of the white ruff worn by men from the past, the sign for “confess” mimics the ope­ning of cur­tains in confes­sio­nals. One sees what one is tal­king about and the­re­fore is more dee­ply and more inti­ma­te­ly connec­ted to the thoughts of one’s inter­lo­cu­tor, some­times even in a crude way. For example the sign for “gyne­co­lo­gist” repro­duces a woman’s spread legs on stir­rups. All signs from the sexual reper­to­ry direct­ly repro­duce the acts they are repre­sen­ting. No para-exi­ta­tion, one dives direct­ly straight to the action ! Moreo­ver signs are in three dimen­sions with some­times a move­ment asso­cia­ted to the ges­ture. They have a dyna­mic dimen­sion. The sign desi­gning the concept of “Id”, the second Freu­dian topic, is made of the right fist ban­ging into the left hand that is laying flat. This by itself is tel­ling, the pul­sio­nal push is mate­ria­li­zed by the fist moving up, the repres­sion strength of the super-ego concre­ti­zed as the flat hand against which it bumps. This by itself reveals a lot more than the “i” and the “d” put toge­ther. Some signs are the results of the conca­te­na­tion of seve­ral signs and also tell of a sto­ry. The sign for “schi­zo­phre­nia” is a com­bi­na­tion of the sign for “divi­sion” and the one for “slave” that could be trans­la­ted into “slave of one’s men­tal divi­sion”. The sign for “psy­chia­trist” is a mix­ture bet­ween “heal” and “soul” and could be trans­la­ted into “the one who heals the soul” unco­ve­ring an open air ety­mo­lo­gy.

Jour­neying for­ward

At one point I asked myself if I was not was­ting my time lear­ning sign lan­guage, now am I dai­ly ama­zed by the enrich­ment it brought me. I keep explo­ring this word and this fos­ters my cli­ni­cal prac­tice and makes me per­ceive more acu­te­ly all the non­ver­bal dimen­sion of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. This pre­vents me from a lot of mis­takes and makes me get fas­ter to the point and in the end save pre­cious time. Above all I take real plea­sure prac­ti­cing this lan­guage and get­ting rid for a while of all the hea­vy words, only to find them again later and play with them bet­ter. Those back and forth create a joy­ful and ful­filling dyna­mic.

Julia-Flore Ali­bert, pédo­psy­chiatre, psy­cha­na­lyste SPP.
Il sera publié en fran­çais « Voyage d’une psy­cha­na­lyste au pays des sourds » dans la Revue Fran­çaise de Psy­cha­na­lyse  2017/3 (vol. 81) Subli­ma­tions et tran­si­tion­na­li­té http://rfpsy.fr