A Plea for Doubt in the Subjectivity of Method

Elisabeth Hanscombe


Photograph by Gonzalo Echeverria (2010)
      Photograph by Gonzalo Echeverria (2010)

Doubt has been my closest companion for several years as I struggle to make sense of certain hidden events from within my family’s history. The actual nature of such events, although now lost to us, can nevertheless be explored through the distorting lens of memory and academic research. I base such explorations in part on my intuition and sensitivity to emotional experience, which are inevitably riddled with doubt. I write from the position of a psychoanalytic psychologist who is also a creative writer and my doubts increase further when I use the autobiographical impulse as a driving force. 

I am not alone with such uncertainties. Ross Gibson, an historian and filmmaker, uses his doubts to explore empty spaces in the Australian landscape. He looks to see “what’s gone missing” as he endeavours with a team of colleagues to build up some “systematic comprehension in response to fragments” (Gibson, “Places” 1). How can anyone be certain as to what has transpired with no “facts” to go on? he asks. What can we do with our doubts? 

To this end, Gibson has collected a series of crime scene photographs, taken in post war Sydney, and created a display – a photographic slide show with a minimalist musical score, mostly of drumming and percussion, coupled with a few tight, poetic words, in the form of haiku, splattered across the screen. The notes accompanying the photographic negatives were lost. The only details “known” include the place, the date and the image. Of some two thousand photos, Gibson selected only fifty for display, by hunch, by nuance, or by whatever it was that stirred in him when he first glimpsed them. He describes each photo as “the imprint of a scream”, a gut reaction riddled with doubt (Gibson and Richards, Wartime).

In this type of research, creative imaginative flair is essential, Gibson argues. “We need to propose ‘what if’ scenarios that help us account for what has happened…so that we can better envisage what might happen. We need to apprehend the past” (Gibson, “Places” 2). To do this we need imagination, which involves “a readiness to incorporate the unknown…when one encounters evidence that’s in smithereens”, the evidence of the past that lies rooted in a seedbed of doubt (Gibson, “Places” 2).

The sociologist, Avery Gordon, also argues in favour of the imaginative impulse. “Fiction is getting pretty close to sociology,” she suggests as she begins her research into the business of ghosts and haunting (Gordon 38). As we entertain our doubts we tune in with our uncertain imaginations. “The places where our discourse is unauthorised by virtue of its unruliness…take us away from abstract questions of method, from bloodless professionalised questions, toward the materiality of institutionalised storytelling, with all its uncanny repetitions” (Gordon 39). If we are to dig deeper, to understand more about the emotional truth of our “fictional” pasts we must look to “the living traces, the memories of the lost and disappeared” (Gordon ix).

According to Janice Radway, Gordon 

seeks a new way of knowing…a knowing that is more a listening than a seeing, a practice of being attuned to the echoes and murmurs of that which has been lost but which is still present among us in the form of intimations, hints, suggestions and portents … ghostly matters … . To be haunted is to be tied to historical and social effects. (x)

And to be tied to such effects is to live constantly in the shadow of doubt. 

A photograph of my dead baby sister haunts me still. As a child I took this photo to school one day. I had peeled it from its corners in the family album. There were two almost identical pictures, side by side. I hoped no one would notice the space left behind. 

“She’s dead,” I said. I held the photo out to a group of girls in the playground. My fingers had smeared the photo’s surface. The children peered at the image. They wanted to stare at the picture of a dead baby. Not one had seen a dead body before, and not one had been able to imagine the stillness, a photographic image without life, without breath that I passed around on the asphalt playground one spring morning in 1962 when I was ten years old. 

I have the photo still—my dead sister who bears the same name as my older sister, still living. The dead one has wispy fine black hair. In the photo there are dark shadows underneath her closed eyes. She looks to be asleep. I do not emphasise grief at the loss of my mother’s first-born daughter. My mother felt it briefly, she told me later. But things like that happened all the time during the war. Babies were born and died regularly. Now, all these years later, these same unmourned babies hover restlessly in the nurseries of generations of survivors. 

There is no way we can be absolute in our interpretations, Gibson argues, but in the first instance there is some basic knowledge to be generated from viewing the crime scene photographs, as in viewing my death photo (Gibson, "Address"). For example, we can reflect on the décor and how people in those days organised their spaces. We can reflect on the way people stood and walked, got on and off vehicles, as well as examine something of the lives of the investigative police, including those whose job it was to take these photographs. 

Gibson interviewed some of the now elderly men from the Sydney police force who had photographed the crime scenes he displays. He asked questions to deal with his doubts. He now has a very different appreciation of the life of a “copper”, he says. His detective work probing into these empty spaces, digging into his doubts, has reduced his preconceptions and prejudices (Gibson, "Address"). Preconception and prejudice cannot tolerate doubt. 

In order to bear witness, Gibson says we need to be speculative, to be loose, but not glib, “narrativising” but not inventive, with an eye to the real world (Gibson, "Address"). Gibson’s interest in an interpretation of life after wartime in Sydney is to gather a sense of the world that led to these pictures. His interpretations derive from his hunches, but hunches, he argues, also need to be tested for plausibility (Gibson, Address).

Like Gibson, I hope that the didactic trend from the past—to shut up and listen—has been replaced by one that involves “discovery based learning”, learning that is guided by someone who knows “just a little more”, in a common sense, forensic, investigative mode (Gibson, “Address”). Doubt is central to this heuristic trend. Likewise, my doubts give me permission to explore my family’s past without the paralysis of intentionality and certainty.

“What method have you adopted for your research?” Gordon asks, as she considers Luce Irigaray’s thoughts on the same question. It is “a delicate question. For isn’t it the method, the path to knowledge, that has always also led us away, led us astray, by fraud and artifice” (Gordon 38).

So what is my methodology? I use storytelling meshed with theory and the autobiographical. 

But what do you think you’re doing? my critics ask. You call this research? I must therefore look to literary theorists on biography and autobiography for support. Nancy Miller writes about the denigration of the autobiographical, particularly in academic circles, where the tendency has been to see the genre as “self indulgent” in its apparent failure to maintain standards of objectivity, of scrutiny and theoretical distance (Miller 421).  

However, the autobiographical, Miller argues, rather than separating and dividing us through self-interests can “narrow the degree of separation” by operating as an aid to remembering (425).  We recognise ourselves in another’s memoir, however fleetingly, and the recognition makes our “own experience feel more meaningful: not ‘merely’ personal but part of the bigger picture of cultural memory” (Miller 426).

I speak with some hesitation about my family of origin yet it frames my story and hence my methodology. For many years I have had a horror of what writers and academics call “structure”. I considered myself lacking any ability to create a structure within my writing. I write intuitively. I have some idea of what I wish to explore and then I wait for ideas to enter my mind. They rise to the surface much like air bubbles from a fish. I wait till the fish joggles my bait. Often I write as I wait for a fish to bite.

This writing, which is closely informed by my reading, occurs in an intuitive way, as if by instinct. I follow the associations that erupt in my mind, even as I explore another’s theory, and if it is at all possible, if I can get hold of these associations, what I, too, call hunches, then I follow them, much as Gibson and Gordon advocate. 

Like Gordon, I take my “distractions” seriously (Gordon, 31-60). Gordon follows ghosts. She looks for the things behind the things, the things that haunt her. I, too, look for what lies beneath, what is unconscious, unclear. 

This writing does not come easily and it takes many drafts before a pattern can emerge, before I, who have always imagined I could not develop a structure, begin to see one—an outline in bold where the central ideas accrue and onto which other thoughts can attach.

This structure is not static. It begins with the spark of desire, the intercourse of opposing feelings, for me the desire to untangle family secrets from the past, to unpack one form, namely the history as presented within my family and then to re-assemble it through a written re-construction that attempts to make sense of the empty spaces left out of the family narrative, where no record, verbal or written, has been provided. This operates against pressure from certain members of my family to leave the family past unexplored.

My methodology is subjective. Any objectivity I glean in exploring the work and theories of others comes through my own perspective. I read the works of academics in the literary field, and academics from psychoanalysis interested in infant development and personality theory. They consider these issues in different ways from the way in which I, as a psychotherapist, a doubt-filled researcher, and writer, read and experience them. 

To my clinician self, these ideas evolve in practice. I do not see them as mere abstractions. To me they are living ideas, they pulse and flow, and yet there are some who would seek to tie them down or throw them out. 

Recently I asked my mother about the photo of her dead baby, her first-born daughter who had died during the Hongerwinter (Hunger winter) of 1945 in Heilo, Holland. I was curious to know how the photo had come about. 

My curiosity had been flamed by Jay Ruby’s Secure the Shadow: Death and Photography in America, a transcript on the nature of post-mortem photography, which includes several photos of dead people. The book I found by chance in a second-hand books store. I could not leave these photographs behind. 

Ruby is concerned to ask questions about why we have become so afraid of death, at least in the western world, that we no longer take photographs of our loved ones after death as mementos, or if we take such photos, they are kept private, not shared with the public, for fear that the owners might be considered ghoulish (Ruby 161). 

I follow in Gordon’s footsteps. She describes how one day, on her way to a conference to present a paper, she had found herself distracted from her conference topic by thoughts of a woman whose image she had discovered was “missing” from a photo taken in Berlin in 1901. According to Gordon’s research, the woman, Sabina Spielrein, should have been present in this photo, but was not. 

Spielrein is a little known psychoanalyst, little known despite the fact that she was the first to hypothesise on the nature of the death instinct, an unconscious drive towards death and oblivion (Gordon 40). Gordon’s “search” for this missing woman overtook her initial research. 

My mother could not remember who took her dead baby’s photograph, but suspected it was a neighbour of her cousin in whose house she had stayed. She told me again the story she has told me many times before, and always at my instigation. 

When I was little I wondered that my mother could stay dry-eyed in the telling. She seemed so calm, when I had imagined that were I the mother of a dead baby I would find it hard to go on. 

“It is harder,” my mother said, to lose an older child. “When a child dies so young, you have fewer memories. It takes less time to get over it.” 

Ruby concludes that after World War Two, postmortem photographs were less likely to be kept in the family album, as they would have been in earlier times. “Those who possess death-related family pictures regard them as very private pictures to be shown only to selected people” (Ruby 161).

When I look at the images in Ruby’s book, particularly those of the young, the children and babies, I am struck again at the unspoken. The idea of the dead person, seemingly alive in the photograph, propped up in a chair, on a mother’s lap, or resting on a bed, lifeless. To my contemporary sensibility it seems wrong. To look upon these dead people, their identities often unknown, and to imagine the grief for others in that loss—for grief there must have been such that the people remaining felt it necessary to preserve the memory—becomes almost unbearable. 

It is tempting to judge the past by present standards. In 1999, while writing her historical novel Year of Wonders, Geraldine Brooks came across a letter Henry James had written ninety eight years earlier to a young Sarah Orne Jewett who had previously sent him a manuscript of her historical novel for comment. In his letter, James condemns the notion of the historical novel as an impossibility: “the invention, the representation of the old consciousness, the soul, the sense of horizon, the vision of individuals in whose minds half the things that make ours, that make the modern world,” are all impossible, he insisted (Brooks 3). 

Despite Brooks’s initial disquiet at James’s words, she realised later that she had heard similar ideas uttered in different contexts before. Brooks had worked as a journalist in the Middle East and Africa:  

“They don’t think like us,” white Africans would say of their black neighbours, or Israelis of Arabs or upper class Palestinians about their desperately poor refugee-camp brethren … . “They don’t value life as we do. They don’t care if their kids get killed—they have so many of them”. (Brookes 3)

But Brooks argues, “a woman keening for a dead child sounds exactly as raw in an earth-floored hovel as it does in a silk-carpeted drawing room” (3). Brooks is concerned to get beyond the certainties of our pre-conceived ideas:  “It is human nature to put yourself in another’s shoes.  The past may be another country.  But the only passport required is empathy”(3). And empathy again requires the capacity to tolerate doubt.  

Later I asked my mother yet again about what it was like for her when her baby died, and why she had chosen to have her dead baby photographed. She did not ask for the photograph to be taken, she told me. But she was glad to have it now; otherwise nothing would remain of this baby, buried in an unfamiliar cemetery on the other side of the world. 

Why am I haunted by this image of my dead baby sister and how does it connect with my family’s secrets? The links are still in doubt. Gibson’s creative flair, Gordon’s ideas on ghostly matters and haunting, the things behind the things, my preoccupation with my mother’s dead baby and a sense that this sister might mean less to me did I not have the image of her photograph planted in my memory from childhood, all come together through parataxis if we can bear our doubts. 

Certainty is the enemy of introspection of imagination and of creativity. Yet too much doubt can paralyse.  Here I write about tolerable levels of doubt tempered with an inquisitive mind that can land on hunches and an imagination that allows the researcher to follow such hunches and then seek evidence that corroborates or disproves them.  As Gibson writes elsewhere, 

I tried to use all these scrappy details to help people think about the absences and silences between all the pinpointed examples that made up the scenarios that I presented in prose that was designed to spur rigorous speculation rather than lock down singular conclusions. (“Extractive” 2)

Ours is a positive doubt, one that expects to find something, however “unexpected”, rather than a negative doubt that expects nothing. For doubt in large doses can paralyse a person into inaction. Furthermore, a balanced state of doubt fosters connectivity. As John Patrick Shanley’s character, the parish priest, Father Flynn, in the film Doubt, observes, “there are these times in our life when we feel lost. It happens and it’s a bond” (Shanley).


Brooks, Geraldine. "Timeless Tact Helps Sustain a Literary Time Traveller." New York Times, 2001. 14 Jan. 2011 ‹http://www.nytimes.com/2001/07/02/arts/writers-on-writing-timeless-tact-helps-sustain-a-literary-time-traveler.html?pagewanted=3&src=pm›.

Doubt. Shanley, Dir. J. P. Shanley. Miramax Films, 2008.

Gibson, Ross, and Kate Richards. “Life after Wartime.” N.d. 25 Feb. 2011. ‹http://www.lifeafterwartime.com/›.

Gibson, Ross. “The Art of the Real Conference.” Keynote address. U Newcastle, 2008.

Gibson, Ross. “Places past Disappearance.” Transformations 13-1 (2006). 22 Feb. 2007 ‹http://www.transformationsjournal.org/journal/issue_13/article_01.shtml›.

———. “Extractive Realism.” Australian Humanities Review 47 (2009). 25 Feb. 2011 ‹http://www.australianhumanitiesreview.org/archive/Issue-November-2009/gibson.html›.

Gordon, Avery F. Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. Minneapolis: U Minnesota P, 2008.

Miller, Nancy K.  “But Enough about Me, What Do You Think of My Memoir?” The Yale Journal of Criticism 13.2 (2000): 421-536.

Ruby, Jay. Secure the Shadow: Death and Photography in America. Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 1995.


doubt, desire for revenge, haunting, death photography, autobiography, psychoanalysis,

Copyright (c) 2011 Elisabeth Hanscombe

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