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Faculty Highlights - Kirsten Jacobson

Thinking about space and humans’ place in it has always been fascinating for Jacobson. Growing up in the Midwest, she and her family would often take long road trips during summer vacation.

“I spent a lot of time being bored in the back of the car, but these were times when I had a lot of ideas take shape,” she recalls. “Looking out the window at the stars, I got infinity. It totally scared me and exhilarated me. I could think about infinity and how little it made me feel and how big it made me feel at the same time.”

Space provoked a sense of wonder in Jacobson, but she says for those with neuroses, their relationship with space may have become troubled as a result of a dysfunctional family dynamic. In many cases, the families of those with anorexia, for example, are enmeshed — people interfere in one another’s lives to the point where it is difficult to distinguish between the individual and the group. Family members often speak for other family members — in a sense, stealing their voice. Conflict is avoided at all costs. Parents overnurture their children, undermining their ability to learn or discover things on their own.

Someone growing up in such a family may develop a constricted relationship to the world — one in which he or she feels uncertain about or even restricted from putting himself or herself out there.

“Anorexia must not be understood as merely an ‘eating’ disorder or even a ‘body image’ disorder,” she writes, “but rather as a problem of one’s overall way of spatial being in the world, a problem that is rooted in an ailing system of interpersonal communication, not in an isolated individual.”

For the anorectic, whose sense of being in the world — in the shared family space — is already diminished, the disorder is a subtle way to claim power. Becoming physically smaller and withdrawing even further from the world allows the anorectic to silently — yet boldly — communicate a powerful message.

“The anorectic is basically trying to reduce her world to nothing,” Jacobson says. “She’s shrinking her world in a very extreme way. The thing I’m seeing in all three disorders is a basic form of world contraction. It’s less about the manifestation of symptoms or avoiding places or being wrapped up in not eating. In each situation, the person with each of these disorders is having a massively contracted world experience.”

All three disorders have high relapse rates, even among those who have gone through treatment programs. It is Jacobson’s hope that by looking at the spatial and family-relationship aspects of each disease, philosophy can help inform and enhance current conceptions and approaches in medicine and psychology that, she argues, may be inadequately addressing the problems underlying these disorders.

“In a way, this existential approach necessarily complicates the way in which treatment would be administered, because it demands that people be treated in their particular situations rather than as an instance of a field of equal test subjects. But given the current treatment failure rates, it seems that acknowledging the complications of people’s situations is called for and relevant, even if not cost-friendly or easy.”

Originally published in UMaine Today Magazine, Spring 2010

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