“Free Ham” by Bertino Marie-Helene
It is almost scary how people—in everything they do—are driven by hidden motivations inside them of which they are not even aware. The unconscious—the pivotal concept in psychoanalysis—is comprised of repressed feelings that shape people’s behaviors; specifically; dysfunctional behaviors. The story by Bettino titled “Free Ham” provides a lot of materials for psychodynamic analysis. It is told by a young woman who has an abusive father; when her house (where she lives with her mother) is burned, she moves to her relative, and this period of her life is filled with family-related events, some of which are moving, and other are very disturbing. Sam is struggling to improve her relationship with her father who lives separately, but he is a depressed and violent man who mistreats his daughter. Sam is experiencing psychological problems in the story, and her condition is caused by her relationship with her father, which can be proved from the psychoanalytical perspective.
First of all, it is important to note that “Free Ham” is a fictionalized first-person narrative that hardly reminds anything that could be told to an analyst during a session; however, certain information eligible for psychoanalysis can be derived from the story, and it is mainly associated with Sam’s relationship with her father. In fact, the most disturbing part of the narrative is when Sam’s father becomes angry and punches her; he could have punched her again if she had not left. His anger was caused by Sam’s gift: she had known that her father was into dogs (although he had never owned one), which is why she bought him a dachshund puppy.
He had told her that he did not want a dog, and her gift made him furious. He says to his daughter, “You have no head. Where is your head? You’re just like your mother. Stupid.” Sam’s response that seems to trigger her father to hit her was: “I’m pretty sure any anger I have comes from you, if it makes you feel any better.” It is evident from the description of this scene that Sam’s father is in defense; specifically, he employs the mechanism that Tyson calls displacement, which is “[taking] out…negative feelings about one person on someone else so that we can relieve our pain or anger without becoming aware of the real cause of our repressed feelings.” When Sam challenges her father by suggesting that she, in fact, did not do anything wrong, he demonstrates another mechanism—avoidance—and tries to escape the unpleasant and discomforting situation of revealing his repressed feelings by making Sam stop and punching her.
This scene can be further analyzed from the symbolic perspective; in particular, insight into what the dog represents should be gained. For Christmas, Sam did an “unthinkable” thing and bought a dachshund for four hundred dollars. She intentionally brought the dog to her father’s house despite his explicit statement that he did not want to have a dog because it is “[t]oo messy” and “[t]oo much to clean up.” From the psychoanalytical perspective, Sam’s conscious desire to give her father something that she thinks he lacks is caused by her—perhaps unconscious—desire to heal her own condition. Timko, Cronkite, and Moos suggest that parents’ efforts aimed at overcoming their depressive syndromes are predictors of lower depression rates among their children; at the same time, it can be argued that children, too, want to help their parents overcome depression because they (children) think that their own depression will be thus alleviated.
This is why Sam wants her father to have a “companion;” it is her unconscious driving force to improve his life so that her own life is improved. Interestingly, Sam does not choose any of the breeds that her father is apparently interested in (he reads a book of beagles and has pictures of silky terriers and American mastiffs on his walls). Instead, she chooses the one kind of dog that clearly represents a phallic symbol with its “long brown torso.” Tyson suggests that phallic symbols are associated with male imagery in dreams; however, it can also be argued that people’s dysfunctional behaviors can be associated with symbols in reality, too. It is possible that Sam subconsciously wants to compensate all of the perceived flaws in her father by reassuring his masculinity that is needed to build a functional father image.
Although the dog is an example of real-life (as opposed to dream) symbolism, dreams described in “Free Ham” supply symbols for analysis, too. At the very beginning of the story, Sam says, “Growing up, I have dreams that my father sets our house on fire.” Tyson suggests that buildings “symbolize the self, as if our body were the ‘building’ in which we lived.” From this perspective, the main character’s recurring dream means that she subconsciously feels the threat coming from her father, and the threat is rather serious: her father can destroy her life just the way fire destroyed her house in reality. It is noteworthy that Sam’s first response to the fire was to save the dog, and the symbolism of dogs resurfaces later in the story, as described above.
It can be speculated that, if Sam subconsciously links dogs to her father, her intention to primarily save the dog is associated with her desire to resolve the conflict with her father and the anger she has at him. However, she avoids revealing the repressed feelings by “stay[ing] away from people, places, and situations” that may trigger her. This is why, after her father rejects her gifts, Sam names the dachshund Stanley “because [she does not] know anyone named Stanley.” She tries to escape any associations, and her unconscious suggests that a dog should have a neutral name that does not have a direct connection to the actual source of Sam’s concerns; i.e., her father. However, hints still slip; when giving random examples of the meanings of fancy names, Sam explains her choice of the dog’s name: “Because it doesn’t mean rise from the ashes, or anything, in Latin;” it shows that she is trying to stay away from associating the dog with the fire that symbolically represents the threat from her father.
Finally, going back to Sam’s father, it should not be overlooked that their depressive conditions are connected. The very fact that they have the same name in the story suggests the connection. First of all, it is noticeable how Sam’s father keeps referring to her mother and blaming her; e.g., when he says to Sam, “You get that from your mother. Sure as hell don’t get it from me. There are no dropouts on my side of the family.” Again, this is an example of displacing; among other defenses, as classified by Tyson, Sam’s father also practices avoidance, and Timko, Cronkite, and Moos confirm that parent avoidance coping is a strong predictor of adult depression in their children.
When Sam’s father hits her after she confronts him by stating that she has anger from him, he says, “You can’t help what your parents give you. You hear that?” This statement indicated that he, in fact, may be fully aware of the fact that his personal problems affected her daughter, and he is in denial; i.e., according to Tyson, trying to believe that “an unpleasant situation doesn’t exist.” Denial can often be accompanied by aggression and violence because individuals who employ this defense tend to ferociously reject and oppose any evidence that suggests that what they believe is true is, in fact, false. Sam appears to be incapable of breaking her father’s denial, which means that unresolved issues will continue to negatively affect her life as well as her father’s.
In “Free Ham,” Sam engages in dysfunctional behaviors, and her issues are primarily caused by the unresolved feelings from her relationship with her father. However, it is noteworthy that the ending is rather optimistic. As it has been shown, Sam’s house that was destroyed in fire is a symbol of her own self; at the end of the story, she looks at things taken out of the burned house and thinks, “Everything that is supposed to be inside is outside, but the parts are beginning to look like something—home, maybe.” This suggests that, now that her psychological conflict with her father became explicit and reached its peak, Sam can now hope that everything that was taken out of her—like furniture was taken out of the burned house—will be brought back and arranged in a better way. In other words, the overwhelming experience of confronting her abusive father can resolve the unresolved anger and finally help Sam become happier.