Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Violent Trauma and Its Aftermath*

By Kevin Murphy, MSc.,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.

The experience of trauma is bad enough but its aftermath has an even crueller dimension. Trauma doesn’t happen once, it repeats, it comes back. Its major psychological after-effect is that it forces us, often against our will, to remember it, to rethink it, replay it, over and over again. Sometimes it even forces us, without us realising what we are doing, to restage and re-enact it. It is, as Freud called it, a compulsion to repeat. And it compels us to repeat because it wants us to master the traumatizing situation we were unable to master when it happened, to make us the agent instead of the passive recipient of that traumatic experience and to put meaning on something we were never able to put meaning on. And as if wasn’t enough, in what is perhaps the cruelest twist of all, none of this repetition brings us any closer to moving on, it only makes things worse.
It might come as a surprise to learn, although having watched The Act of Killing (2012) documentary it probably isn’t anymore, that offenders, even though they can cause massive trauma to victims, can become traumatized by their own actions too. Some can, but not all. The ending of this film, according to the publicity information, is a kind of surprise to people. They are surprised at the effect that is created for the central character, Anwar Congo – a politically-sanctioned killer of ‘communists’ 40 years ago and a leading criminal gang member - through telling the story of his atrocities. Yet, he follows the classic path you would expect from someone suffering from the aftermath of trauma, or post traumatic stress disorder.
A clue to his condition is found in the fact that he has traumatic dreams, or nightmares as we know them. The people he killed return in them. The dreams are repetitive, consistent and from I what I gathered are very often the same dream of the same victim. He has another key diagnostic marker for PTSD in the form of intrusive waking imagery, or intrusive ideas. He cannot get the open eyes of a victim he decapitated out of his mind. He is, to put it plainly, a man haunted by his past.
His decision to be interviewed for this documentary is consciously expressed by him as a desire to let current and future generations of fellow Indonesians - who seem to love him - know what a great gangster he was. He describes himself as a gangster and is proud of this status. He continually refers in the movie to the word gangster coming from the English for ‘free man’, which it quite obviously doesn’t and this is also an opinion many political and paramilitary leaders share, which is puzzling. According to Wikipedia, the similarly sounding word 'preman’, is Indonesian slang for a member of an organized gang, so presumably this is where the confusion comes from.**
Whatever about Anwar Congo's conscious reason for agreeing to be interviewed, we could argue that his unconscious is driving him to revisit the things he did in order to diffuse his anxiety and guilt, and quell his conscience by putting some frame of graspable meaning around them. You’ll notice that talking about his crimes isn’t enough and he decides very quickly not to tell the story but show the story in a crudely put together movie. Unconsciously, he has now shifted gear into another key marker of PTSD in deciding to restage and re-enact the traumatic events, even though he is unaware that this is what he is actually doing. And at least he is acting creatively.
Most of the offenders I work with have committed a crime that has both caused massive trauma to their victims but is also a repetition of an earlier trauma they, the offender, had suffered. And they display PTSD symptoms for the crime they subsequently committed, some with uncanny similarities included in the repetition. An example of repetition - in a military context - might be the movie American Sniper, particularly the scene at the children’s party where the Chris Kyle character played by Bradley Cooper attacks the pet dog because he believes it is a threat to the children. An immediate assumption would be that he is reliving the trauma of his wartime experiences due to PTSD. But the scene he has ‘chosen’ in which to re-enact has no overtly threatening, combat-zone triggers in it. The nearest comparison to this ‘family scene’ actually comes from an earlier scene in the movie where as a child his Bible quoting father is taking off his belt to administer a hard lesson about ‘defending’ one’s family and, by extension, one’s country. This allows us broaden our understanding as to why trauma affects some people more than others. Its ultimate effect is due to a layering of traumas that culminate in an overwhelming of the person’s internal defenses when major trauma occurs. But not all PTSD sufferers take it out on others. Looking at US combat personnel, a high risk group for PTSD and related depressive disorders, the United States Department of Veterans Affairs released a study in 2013 showing that suicides in the period from 1999 to 2010 were on average 22 veterans per day, or one every 65 minutes.
For the central character in this documentary, even though the re-enacting of his atrocities appears initially to have the desired effect, ultimately it doesn’t work. It is merely a repetition of the same narrative which, certainly in the attempt at a movie, continues to clumsily glorify the grotesque nature of what was done. He continues to find no meaning in it and comes to no understanding of why it still haunts him. And it will remain that way until he gets help to put meaning – his own and nobody else’s – on what he did. He has been fundamentally affected to his very core and maybe that’s why the ending is so impactful. In the scene where he shows the camera the place where he committed vile murders, he begins to spontaneously retch but does not actually vomit. In this penultimate scene we get to see his own body’s reaction to the trauma. It is trying to expel something bad from its very core but it can’t. Like Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, the character played by Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, he is confronted with the horror of what he did in the name of military expediency. Like Kurtz, Anwar Congo also has to consider the horror of what he did. And as part of that process he has to consider the enjoyment he once derived from that horror. This crucial aspect of enjoyment, or the amount of pleasure derived, is the defining element that centrally implicates us in the very thing that constitutes horror. Once we enjoy, horror is no longer something outside of ourselves that we can put ourselves at a safe distance from. Unfortunately, the same element so often works in reverse against victims of trauma. Sexual abusers in particular are experts at planting the idea in their victims that they (the victim) might have actually enjoyed what happened to them. And this is what constitutes the differentiating point between a post-traumatic effect for victims that can be short-lived and one that can last indefinitely.
In Anwar Congo’s case, as the perpetrator, the question of pleasure takes on an equal but slightly different significance. To kill for a belief or principle or an ideal is just-about bearable but to kill for pleasure is beyond morality. It puts us outside the human bond and very often that is a place we feel there is no coming back from. It is no coincidence that the fictional character (based on a real life person, by all accounts) of Kurtz in Apocalypse Now is geographically situated in a place beyond civilization, in a primitive setting deep in the jungle somewhere on the Vietnam-Cambodia border. In fact, Kurtz actually says in one of his letters in the movie: “I am beyond morality. I am beyond caring.” And like him Congo, the so-called gangster ‘free man’ is obsessed with ‘the horror’ of what he has done. But the ending of this documentary – and this is also why the ending is so surprising – shows us this ‘free man’ who, even though he lives in a society where his actions were sanctioned and encouraged by those in power and where he is still considered a hero to be feared and venerated, is anything but free. Instead he inhabits his own personal hell where he circles unendingly.

*This was delivered at “Cinematic Encounters with Violent Trauma and Its Aftermath: A Public Screening and Discussion of The Act of Killing (2012)”, part of Trinity College Dublin’s TRAUMA Exhibition. The screening event was organised by The Irish Forum for Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, in association with the Science Gallery Dublin's TRAUMA Exhibition and Psychoanalysis +.

** According to Wikipedia, the word 'preman' originated from the English word pre-man, meaning before evolving to become human, reflecting the common perception of the physical appearances of the gangsters, who often look bulky, menacing, and clumsy while also being lazy and not progressive. It says that 'premans' are often perceived negatively throughout Indonesian society due to associations with violence and criminality. This root word is derived from a term which describes the "confluence of state power and criminality". However, organized crime in Indonesia has a more enduring and complicated history, as the confluence of crime syndicates with perceived legitimate political authority has a long history. While associated with brigandry and theft, Indonesian crime syndicates have periodically acted as enforcers to maintain authority and order. Their role was particularly important during the Indonesian Revolution against Dutch control from 1945 to 1949. Despite their significance to Indonesian history, syndicates are universally marginalized due to associations with violence and social illegitimacy.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Age of Rage

By Kevin Murphy, MSc.,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.

So much of what we hear going on in the world is bad news. Wars, terrorism, random shootings, organised crime, ubiquitous violence… We tend to try and understand these happenings in different ways, depending on the type of crime or violence involved. Wars are caused by ideological or territorial disputes between nations or within nations. Shootings are caused by deranged people with psychological issues. Terrorism is caused by political or religious idealism that ignores the rights of innocent people. Crime is caused by greed and unlawfulness. Rape is caused by people who like mixing violence with sex. The list goes on and it is depressingly long.
In order to deal with the dizzying array of circumstances and explanations as to why these things happen, it is sometimes useful to focus on the common element that runs through them all. Let’s for a moment consider a person who shoots dead two former colleagues because he was angry at them and the company they worked for. This was a former TV reporter in the US. He imagined they had disrespected him in some way. He killed them, captured it on camera and uploaded it for all to see. Then he killed himself.

What about the person who assaults another person because they pulled their car out in front of them? Or simply crashed into them by accident? There are compilations of these incidents from around the world on You Tube. They are, for the most part, aggressive, ugly and hard to watch yet the road rage on display obviously counts as entertainment for a particular audience.
Or how about a man who enjoys stabbing women during sex? We had a case of this recently in Ireland. Until he takes it too far and actually kills someone – which was, as the courts decided, his intention in the first place. Is that a purely sexual crime? If there was more to it, what part did an inherent anger and aggression play? It’s hard to imagine carrying out such an act without a large degree of aggression.
We could imagine, equally, a man dressed as a sad movie character firing an automatic weapon at a cinema full of people. This also happened in the US. Yes he may have been unhinged, as they say, but his madness didn’t take the form of sitting in a corner, babbling incoherently. It was madness but it was that barely recognised form of madness that allowed him buy weapons, plan his attack and nurture, indeed even piggy-back on, an extreme anger that we will, again, assume was present. How else can you motivate yourself to calmly kill innocent people who are out for a night at the movies? In fact, it might even be more useful to change the word anger for the word ‘rage’.
The word rage is more accurate because it suggests an anger that can potentially rise to an uncontainable level. After all, a great many of the crimes we get to hear about on an almost daily basis are committed in this almost uncontrolled state. The thug who kills someone with a coward punch usually has had alcohol to do the job of releasing his rage – he doesn’t even have to take responsibility for it. The rapist needs to be at fever pitch in order to allow him (they are mostly male) do what he does to women. And so does the murderer – even if the rage can be contained long enough to wait for the right moment to commit the act. The suicide bomber, likewise, has to be brought to a point of unquestionable rage, either by his own ideas or by the radicalised ideas of others, to carry out destruction. Even gangland hit-men are not exempt – they didn’t choose that career by accident. It offers a perfect conduit for tendencies that already exist within them.
And why limit it to individuals? What about an entire movement of religiously fuelled zealots who carry out acts of extreme sexual and physical barbarity? The aggressive violence and depravity of a group like IS has nothing to do with the religious message of peace, love and understanding. Behind it we can clearly see an intense rage that keeps the destructive momentum going. And, presumably, this appeals to anyone with an equally extreme rage to satisfy. And let’s not forget the interpersonal version of rage that we see in domestic violence.
We could go on with countless examples which appear to be very much to the fore nowadays in human activity. It would be tempting to blame it on inequities in modern society, or injustices in the allocation of the world’s resources, or the increased alienation and fragmentation of internet-fuelled social groups, or on the effect of a commercially exploitative Western society, or the push-back against this of a merciless religious fundamentalism. But aggression is a part of human nature that has always been there. There is something within the human spirit that chooses an aggressive and destructive path. Does this mean that human beings are inherently bad? No, but it means that the capacity for aggression and destruction towards our fellow-man is and always has been there.

It is interesting in this context to read Sigmund Freud’s paper 'Why War?' which was written in 1932, after World War 1 had ended and before the Second World War would begin in 1939. This was essentially an exchange of letters between Albert Einstein and Freud on the subject of war. Einstein wrote to Freud on behalf of the League of Nations and its International Institute of Intellectual Co-operation to ask his opinion on the following question: ‘Is there any way of delivering mankind from the menace of war?’ The Nazi Party under Hitler was on the rise and had just won 37% of the vote in a General Election in March 1932. Einstein was writing to Freud in September of that year. In his letter, Einstein gave his own view as to why there is such a tendency in mankind. “Only one answer is possible. Because man has within him a lust for hatred and destruction.” He equally asked of Freud if it was possible to ‘control man’s mental evolution so as to make him proof against the psychoses of hate and destructiveness?’ And while he was specifically asking for Freud’s views on war, he was equally well aware that the aggressive instinct operates under other forms and in other circumstances. He concluded his letter with: “I know that in your writings we may find answers, explicit or implied, to all the issues of this urgent and absorbing problem. But it would be of the greatest service to us all were you to present the problem of world peace in the light of your most recent discoveries, for such a presentation well might blaze the trail for new and fruitful modes of action. Yours very sincerely, A. Einstein. Vienna, September, 1932.”

Freud didn’t have the magic answer to this and said as much. But he made a good attempt at it. He said that when a nation is summoned to engage in war, a whole range of human motives respond to the appeal; some high and some low. “The lust for aggression and destruction is certainly included,” he said, adding; “the innumerable cruelties of history and man's daily life confirm its prevalence and strength. The stimulation of these destructive impulses by appeals to idealism and the erotic instinct naturally facilitates their release. Musing on the atrocities recorded on history's page, we feel that the ideal motive has often served as a camouflage for the lust of destruction; sometimes, as with the cruelties of the Inquisition, it seems that, while the ideal motives occupied the foreground of consciousness, they drew their strength from the destructive instincts submerged in the unconscious.”
It’s an interesting idea when we consider it in the context of our world today: that the ideals which are pronounced as informing the motives of violent groups and violent acts – it is in the name of God, it is in the name of nationhood - in Freud’s view, are only an excuse to allow out more primitive aggressive instincts. It offers a very different view of aggression by nations, terrorist groups, individual criminals and even people who inflict aggression (verbal, emotional or physical) on their loved ones. It is also worth remembering that two of the most influential men in history, Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King, brought about real change without recourse to violence. The path of violence is a choice – wherever it takes place – that allows us access our more primitive destructive instincts.

Freud in his letter to Einstein recommended that anything that promotes a civilizing effect and sharing between nations reduces the likelihood of war breaking out. The same applies to individuals. The most serious criminals in history have one thing in common – they have difficulty connecting in any meaningful sense to other human beings. They are outside the fold, outside the human bond, and have few, if any, identifications with those around them. You will find the same characteristics in despotic leaders. Freud famously said criminals become criminal out of a sense of guilt – they are guilty so they commit crime to justify their guilt. We could equally add that one of the first things they are guilty of is the ‘crime’ of shutting off, psychologically, from their fellow human beings, even if they have done it without knowing it, i.e. unconsciously. When there is no feeling of human concern (we can call it love) to counteract it, the destructive instinct is given free rein.

In ‘Why War?’, Freud says of this destructive instinct: "… we are led to conclude that this instinct functions in every living being, striving to work its ruin and reduce life to its primal state of inert matter. Indeed, it might well be called the 'death-instinct'; whereas the erotic instincts vouch for the struggle to live on.” The death instinct becomes destructive when it directs outwardly against external objects. If it is directed inwardly then a persecution complex develops for the individual which has equally serious consequences. Either way, Freud considered this the biological justification for all the aggressive and destructive impulses of humanity. He concluded by agreeing with Einstein’s observation that, “… there is no question of getting rid entirely of human aggressive impulses; it is enough to try to divert them to such an extent that they need not find expression in war.”

Rage is not the exclusive property of the stereotypical ‘angry man’. It is just as much a part of female experience, and neither does it matter what age you are. For people of violence, there will always be ideologies or life choices that allow them channel their rage down negative paths. The task is to ensure we are not distracted by political, religious or socio-economic rhetoric that seeks to justify the unleashing of an ever-present tendency towards aggression and violence. For ordinary law-abiding folk the risk is that being unaware of its lurking presence leaves us unprepared to act in a way that allows this inherent aggression and rage find ways of non-violent expression by channelling it into more peaceful pursuits.

Monday, February 16, 2015

A Life of Seduction

By Kevin Murphy, B.A., M.Sc., Reg. Pract. APPI.
Psychologist and Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.

Recently a very famous Hollywood male actor said in an interview that after a life of womanizing he was now lonely and expected to end his days alone. On the face of it, it is a sad epitaph to an otherwise full and successful life. Yet this man has probably been a strong role model for many who identify with and possibly even try to imitate his lifestyle. The attraction of living the carefree life and of engaging in many sexual encounters is one that, for some, will never lose its appeal. In fact, it might be even more alluring today than at any other point in history. But what lies behind this choice of lifestyle? And why is it so routinely accepted as an enriching way to live?
Perhaps we should begin with why it is so attractive. In the first instance, there is the promise of ever more pleasure. Once a relationship loses its sparkle there will always be another so one doesn’t have to remain sad for very long. And who knows, the next ‘relationship’ might be even more exciting?
It also offers the illusion of freedom – no partner ever becomes ‘the one’ we can’t live without. I say illusion purposely and I’ll come back to that word. Then we have the repeated experience of winning over the object of our desire. This can be an intoxicating element depending on the individual. After all, when we have conquered someone’s heart, so to speak, we have made ourselves the ‘only one’ for them and that can often be considered a satisfying victory.
Having a succession of lovers also puts us in control of our lives. After all, we are directing ourselves along a particular path, with particular objectives and particular outcomes. It looks as though we have a plan.
Finally, a major advantage of constantly moving on is that we avoid the less interesting bits of relationships. Much like a meal where we only consume the parts we like, we only engage with the upside of the relationship, leaving when we are bored, or not in love anymore, or annoyed, frustrated or feeling threatened because we might have to take the other person’s wishes into account.

There may be many more ‘positives’ to be added to the list but even as it stands you begin to wonder if there is any downside to this way of life. And so the question, what drives it? Is it purely about pleasure? Our famous actor claims he is lonely, and even though we may have to take that with a grain of salt, there is likely to be some truth in it. The end result, then, of his self-defined philandering is ending up with no-one. Now the interesting thing is that historical and literary examples of the same way of living indicate the same result.
Giovanni Giacomo Casanova was one of the most famous womanizers of them all. Born 1725 in Venice, the eldest of six children, he was a seducer of women and probably the first ‘playboy’. Ironically he was due to be a priest but he was caught in bed with someone at the seminary and expelled. He got fired from his next job for the same reason and so began a wandering life across Europe. Along the way he ended up in jail for witchcraft, made and lost fortunes, became a spy in Venice, met Pope Clement XIII, Voltaire, Rousseau and Mozart, and had seemingly endless romantic exploits. And yet after a life filled with adventure and mishap, he ended his days as a librarian, frustrated, bored and alone, apart from the company of his fox terriers. Even the location of his grave remains unknown today.
Fiction too has its version of the man who loved every woman. Don Juan is the Spanish fictional equivalent, again a womaniser who eventually seduces a nobleman’s daughter and kills the girl’s father when he tries to avenge his daughter’s honour. And, Casanova was no stranger to duelling either. But with a far more dramatic twist than Canasova’s life, Don Juan then defies the ghost of the man he has killed, refuses to repent and is eternally damned. Interestingly Casanova too said he regretted nothing of the way he lived. Both men however, one real, one fictional, end their lives alone and faring badly.
The message of fiction and history, if that is what we can call it, appears to be that a dissolute life – one dedicated to sexual conquest – does not lead to happiness or well being. I mention it because the influence of this kind of ideal can still be seen today. Our famous actor is just one high-profile example. But in the therapeutic setting one often comes across the man - particularly the married man with children - who wants to enjoy all other women, or as many as he possibly can. One even comes across the female version also.
Now there is probably a small book to be written on the moral view of all this but that is best left to the moralists and perhaps those with religious agendas to pursue. Of interest here is the psychoanalytic perspective which offers an understanding of something that is often taken for granted as being simply what ‘red-blooded people’ do. And, just to point out, this is not to stigmatise someone for having numerous lovers. The issue in question here is of a different order. This is a lifelong compulsivity that is more aimed at seduction, winning over and then departing in order to start again. As we can see from the examples above, it doesn’t do the person themselves any real good. And it is equally not pleasant for any partners who feel they were exploited and then cast aside.
In order to get an understanding of behaviours like this it can often be useful to examine the end result and work backwards. In the Hollywood actor’s case we have a man who devoted his life to the pursuit of women with essentially nothing to show for it. Allied to that is the prospect that he might end up alone. If, for argument’s sake, we take this as our starting point and ask a simple question: what if the end result was actually the ‘thing’ he was, without knowing it, looking for in the first place? What if, without knowing it consciously, the real priority of the man in question (it could equally be a woman) was to end up alone? Of course, people will argue that this is impossible. How could anyone do something like that? Well, one of the central elements in psychoanalytic theory is that people act against their best interests on a regular and consistent basis. That’s why people who get into a pickle can’t believe they ended up there. Yet they did, and usually by their own actions.
Or if we look at Casanova we know that he had a record number of sexual conquests to his name. But he holds another record – the record for departures and separations. In essence, by his own actions he not only repeats the process of attaching to another person sexually, but he constantly repeats the act of separating from them and being alone. If there is anything in this as a possible theory, then we have a further question to ask. Why would someone want to repeat the pattern of being alone for their entire life?
Well in the first instance, it wouldn’t seem like this to him. He would only be aware of the constant search for a new woman to enjoy sexually. Even in that we get a glimpse of a constant search for something that never really exists. There is no satisfying the appetite that he is attempting to satisfy. There is no finding the 'thing' he is trying to find. The pleasure being derived from it, however, blinds him to what is happening on the other side of the same equation.
He starts off being alone and then there is the choosing of the new love object and the beginning of the seduction phase. This is then followed by the consummation of the relationship and then, for whatever length of time, he engages in the relationship itself. Inevitably, he gets tired of the new partner and an excuse is made – it doesn’t really matter what it is - to bring it to an end. And so the pattern repeats again. What you usually find is that the beginning phases are extremely pleasurable for any seducer. It is a romantic time, an exciting time, very little is demanded other than they be a perfect lover, do the right thing, say the right thing. The safest place for anyone to hide is the place where their partner is completely enthralled by what is happening. There inevitably comes a point, however, when something more is demanded of them. It could be something trivial, or indeed important, but it requires them to step outside the phantasy of all-satisfying, unconditional love and deal with something real. When you hear these men talk of the moment a relationship changes for them, when the bubble bursts, this is the moment they speak about. It could be something as mundane as going to a family celebration, or the supermarket for the weekly shopping, or the suggestion of moving in together, or even the belief that the partner has been won over totally and there is no longer any challenge in it. If someone is structurally designed to have one eye on the exit, it doesn’t really take very much.
But on each and every occasion the serial lover is stepping away and repeating the experience of being alone. And if this is what is being repeated it suggests that this might be the hidden objective. Quite obviously the business of remaining in relationship with any one person is deeply problematic for them. This further tells us that something in the way they learned to bond with others from an early age was not pleasurable for them. There is more comfort for them in distance rather than closeness. And this will often run counter to the pleasant nature of the person, how considerate they were, how thoughtful. For a time, they appeared to be the perfect partner, the ideal. And that’s very much the impression they wish to leave behind each time. There’s not much chance of creating a legend if people are glad to see the back of you when you go.
It’s probably a roundabout way of coming to something we always knew. The person who can’t settle on loving any one person has a deep-seated difficulty with interpersonal intimacy. They have no problem with physical, bodily intimacy. In fact, they substitute it all the time for the other kind. The emotional kind of intimacy, though, never gets brought into play. It remains protected, hidden away. And yet the emotional kind of intimacy is the only one that can ensure the relationship has an authenticity that extends beyond the physical. Without it, there really is just a series of sexual encounters with physical bodies. And at the end of such a compulsively and identically repeating series is it any wonder we might ask what exactly we are left with? The answer might be found in that little word I used at the beginning – illusion. And for many people it has not lost its allure.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Words to Say It*

By Kevin Murphy, Reg. Pract. APPI.
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.

One of the questions people often ask is ‘how can talking about myself make any difference?’ It is, on the face of it, a reasonable question. Someone suffering from anxiety, or depression, or repeated negative behaviour, or unexplained symptoms, or an inability to engage with others sexually, or suffering post traumatic effects from abuse, will naturally wonder how such an ordinary human thing as talking can work. The answer to the question is quite simple: it is not just what is being said that is important, it is also the act of speaking.
Being able to speak about oneself in a considered, criticism-free way is a sign of health. It denotes a desire to try, no matter if it misses the mark sometimes, to put words on things that relate to ourselves and our experiences in life. It means that an inquiring drive is at work somewhere within us not necessarily to find answers to big questions but to put words on parts of our experience that have never had spoken words put on them, and that have long been the root-cause of guilt, anger, shame, frustration, embarrassment, panic, sadness, confusion, anxiety, and so on. Speaking allows us re-visit and re-examine events, ideas, experiences that were often poorly understood when they first occurred. We get a chance to reclaim something of them for ourselves, and stop them belonging to others. The actual work of putting words on these moments engages another part of our mind – the powerful associating agency that links single ideas together in combinations to bring newer meanings for us.
There is an interesting way of illustrating this but before we move to that we have to keep one more important thing in mind. Speaking is also a way of re-establishing our often ruptured relationship with memory. The famous French psychoanalyst Dr Jacques Lacan put it succinctly many years ago when he said: ‘We do not remember because we are cured. We are cured because we remember.’ And what is it we are required to remember? The answer is the past, our individual past, the past the no one except us has had, the personal history that makes us unique and different from everyone else.
Many people shirk this challenge. Many want to simply run away from it. And so, speaking will naturally be difficult for them. They’d prefer a therapy that does not require them to speak about themselves, and there are many to choose from and that is their choice. Some prefer medication, because that doesn’t require them speak about themselves at all. That too is a choice. Indeed, there are many other ways we can keep memory at bay, but unfortunately a lot of them are ultimately harmful and self-destructive. Contemporary society is filled with examples. What all this tells us is how difficult the seemingly simple act of speaking can be for some people and the variety of ways they use to try and avoid it. Speaking opens us up to ourselves and to our history, our story. For some, that is too risky.
This is not to ignore those people who have genuine difficulties in speaking but who still engage in the ‘talking cure’. The courage they display is evident. In these situations the issue of not being able to speak becomes part of the process of finding a way through. Just because someone has difficulty finding the words to say it does not mean they are beyond help.
But not speaking, as in not wanting to speak, is a different thing. If we move to the entirely other end of the spectrum and consider the most damaged and damaging type of people there are, we can perhaps get a useful perspective on this thing called speaking. The study of psychopaths teaches us something quite interesting, particularly serial killers. As well as their heinous crimes against ordinary and innocent human beings, you find they also have something quite unique in common: when they are caught they practically never speak about what they have done. Harold Shipman, the UK doctor who killed about 280 people many years ago never spoke at his trial or afterwards in any way about why he did what he did, or about his past. Danny Rolling in the US, the man on whom the Scream movies were based, never spoke about what he did and even got a fellow inmate to confess on his behalf rather than speak himself. Jeffrey Dahmer, known as the Milwaukee cannibal, could not explain and refused to talk about what he did. Dennis Nilsen in London, who chopped up his victims and flushed them down the toilet, spoke volumes once convicted but was incapable of understanding why or of putting it into words due to years of internal isolation from those around him; even Henri Landru who murdered 11 women in 19th century France refused to speak about it and refused to admit anything even when the death penalty was handed down. The same goes for Ted Bundy in the US, the savage killer of anything between 30 and 100 innocent women, some of whose bodies have still never been found. He did confess somewhat hours before his execution but even then words failed him and he was unable to speak fully about his crimes.
This is not to say that people who choose not to speak are psychopaths, far from it. This is to simply learn from extreme mental pathology that not speaking, at its most damaging, is a symptom of a locked-in condition that ensures the individual remains outside the human fold, beyond the reach of human comfort and its potentially curative properties. And in the case of serial killers that also includes beyond law, convention and moral order. Speaking in as open a way as possible, in contrast, then becomes a clear signal of well-being and health. Seen in this light, it now becomes a necessary tool for survival rather than just a whimsical choice of maybe I will, maybe I won’t. Sigmund Freud, who invented the talking cure, paraphrased Frederick the Great by saying that every man and woman must 'find out for themselves in what fashion they can be saved'. He was putting the responsibility back onto us. We have a choice.

*Based on a series of lectures on ‘Serial Killers’ delivered to 2nd year MA students of Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy at Independent Colleges, Dublin.
'The Words to Say It’ is the title of a 1975 book by novelist Marie Cardinal about her personal experience of psychoanalysis. It sold 2.3 million copies and was translated into 18 languages. It won the Prix Littre in 1976.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Love Without Sex*

By Kevin Murphy, Reg. Pract. APPI.
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.

The world around us is a very sexual place. We are sold all sorts of consumer products based on sex, we choose our partners, make conscious choices, and even choices we’re not aware of, on the basis of it. That’s why it is probably hard to imagine a life with little or no sex. Or, to put it another way, to imagine not finding another person sexually attractive.
Yet that is the experience that asexuals have. They are not sexually attracted to other people. Asexuality is a small but growing part of the population and it now has its own online communities. You could say that asexuality, like homosexuality before it, is coming out of the closet.
According to one US online community, the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network, asexuality is an intrinsic part of who the person is. “Asexuality does not make our lives any worse or any better, we just face a different set of challenges than most sexual people. There is considerable diversity among the asexual community; each asexual person experiences things like relationships, attraction, and arousal somewhat differently,” according to its website.
It also states that asexual people have the same emotional needs as anyone else and, like in the sexual community, vary widely in how they fulfil those needs. Some asexual people are happier on their own, some are happiest with a group of close friends, while others have a desire to form more intimate romantic relationships, and will date and seek long-term partnerships. Asexual people are just as likely to date sexual people as they are to date each other.

For those who believe the world is a sexual place and that all human consensual relationships are based on something sexual, this might sound startling and new. The asexual viewpoint is that, sexual or nonsexual, all relationships are made up of the same basic stuff. ‘Communication, closeness, fun, humour, excitement and trust all happen just as much in sexual relationships as in nonsexual ones,’ AVEN says.
And that is true. For the asexual there is no difference between their emotional needs and anybody else’s. But because the sexual attraction is missing from any relationship they might have, there is a difference no matter what way you look at it. And it is that difference that needs to be understood.
The asexual position – one you will find very well understood by such groups as London organisation Pink Therapy which promotes a healthy attitude to gender and sexual diversity – is that the asexual person is better positioned than anyone to understand how natural it feels to them to have no sexual attraction to another person. In fact, for Pink Therapy, asexuality is itself a branch of human sexuality and if we accept the principle of sexual diversity then that is an argument we would have to go along with. However, the asexual position, equally, is one that is often misunderstood, or not understood at all, by a cultural context in which sexual engagement is arguably the dominant discourse, to the point of saturation. For that reason, the asexual experience more often than not is one of alienation, rejection and discrimination. It is not far removed from the gay or lesbian experience of ten or maybe twenty years ago in this country. And some would argue that the legacy of those prejudices still hang over certain attitudes today.
Be that as it may, the main area of conflict in which asexuality finds itself is in relationships with non-asexuals. A great deal of the asexuals in this country have, for one reason or another, not realised their asexuality and have entered into long term relationships – having children, having sex, doing all the usual things - in which they have had to hide this truth about themselves. But one’s true nature can’t stay hidden forever and so the asexual element has gradually made itself known and this has led to the non-asexual partner feeling confused, hurt and rejected. Admitting to oneself that you don’t experience sexual attraction to others is not an easy thing to do. Nor, once that has happened, is asking one’s partner to accept your asexuality as a part of what they understood to be a physical relationship. Not every relationship survives that experience. Equally, pretending that one’s asexuality is actually a lack of interest in sex, or a lack of attraction for one’s partner, or a result of a too busy schedule, or a headache, or some other diversion tactic, is a recipe for long term deception and conflict.
There are no easy answers for these issues, partly because this is new territory for most people. Academic researchers have only just begun to look at asexuality and among the many questions being asked is why at this point in western culture’s development have we seen a more vocal community of asexuals emerging. It is also asking how we can better understand the position in order to ensure asexuals can live as they wish to live.

• Based on an academic paper entitled ‘The Imaginary and Asexuality – A Consideration of Absence’ presented at the 11th annual conference of Affiliated Psychoanalytic Workgroups, October 11 – 13, 2013, Boston, USA.

Friday, November 1, 2013

On Stanley Kubrick's 'The Shining' *

By Kevin Murphy, Reg. Pract. APPI.
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.

“If we throw a crystal to the floor, it breaks; but not into haphazard pieces. It comes apart along the lines of cleavage into fragments whose boundaries, though they were invisible, were predetermined by the crystal’s structure. Mental patients are split and broken structures of the same kind.”
This was written in 1932 by Sigmund Freud and in terms of forensic psychotherapy is still valid today. Jack Torrance, the character played by Jack Nicholson in Kubrick's classic movie, certainly cracks up but not in a haphazard way, he breaks along discernible lines of cleavage.
All the trappings that he evidently values - family, ambition, self-regard, identity, even narcissistic aggression – combine to disguise treacherous fault lines lying just below the surface of his personality. These fault lines pose a threat because no authentic sense of personhood acts as the glue to keep the structure together. Instead there is anxiety, paranoia and aggression, elements that are present from our earliest infant stages and which most of us manage to positively reconfigure. But not Jack...
The moment Wendy discovers he is not a writer is the moment the subterfuge, the pretending, is no longer possible. His core delusion, the flimsy idea that was holding him together, has been shattered and someone will be made to pay. But he’s not a serial killer, carefully selecting his victims and enjoying the suffering he imposes. Nor is he a calculated wife killer, who might have locked her out in the snow and let nature do his dirty work. No, he’s a deranged layer-down of the law, the father’s law, the corrector of wayward family members, who will project his narcissistic fury into chopping them up into little pieces, teaching them a final lesson, as if he was the warped embodiment of an exaggerated righteousness.
Unlike most offenders, the thought of covering his tracks never enters his head. He is too intent on obeying a delusional command, handed down by the authoritative, fatherly figure of the hallucinated waiter, who corrected his family in the same way.
Even Jack’s caretaker job is a legal obligation, handed down by a higher authority who must also be obeyed at all cost. Yet the owner of the hotel, the other male authority figure, is kindly, understanding, patient, and is still fully in control. His name is Ullman (can we hear 'all man’ in this?), an ideal that Jack could have possibly identified with but chose to overlook, in the Overlook Hotel. Even chef Hallorann takes up a kindly father-figure position with Danny and is able to see in the boy something his own father has again overlooked.
Jack’s ideal man comes with frightful power over those below, fearful obligation to those above, and has so little mercy or forgiveness or patience it is almost cartoon-like in its simplicity.
The lines of fracture for him run fairly and squarely through his place in the world as a man and as a father, provider, protector.
From the start his paranoid psychosis has been emerging. We see it in resentment to his son and disinterest in his wife, his moments with both characterised by coldness and an unnerving sense of distance.
In terms of the wider metaphor, characteristic of psychosis, Jack is withdrawing from external reality to an inner world and not just in his dealings with his family. His weak foothold in the social order, in his questionable ability to support his family, is already evident when he withdraws to the solitude of the hotel. He then withdraws further to the stifling embrace of hallucination and delusion. The final withdrawal comes when his psychotic rage, directed at his all-knowing son, drives him into the metaphoric maze of his own mind where a frozen, catatonic state awaits.
Jack’s inability to position himself as father would have us question his experiences of being fathered. Equally, his ambition to be a writer when he patently can’t write – and language disruption is a key indicator of psychosis - would have us ask why this and not some other money making scheme? The choice has a grandiosity about it, much like his skewed view of fatherhood. Even the setting he writes in is like a throne room and yet how incongruous he looks in it. Being a writer promises prestige, an elevated place from which he might overlook a great swathe of humanity, as author, authority figure, as an all-man to be looked up to. Unfortunately for Jack, that coveted place is only available through the malevolent sycophancy of his hallucinated barman and waiter. When he comes apart, it is along lines of pre-existing fracture and what we see in the gaps that emerge is a lack of any authentic sense of being, which could very well be the thing that has always haunted him.

* A presentation based on this article was made at the UCD Science + Film Festival screening of The Shining (http://www.ucdscienceexpression.ie/), which took place at The Lighthouse Cinema, Dublin, October 31, 2013.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Fifty Shades of Being One Step Down

By Kevin Murphy,Reg.Pract. APPI.
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.

For those who have read Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘The Second Sex’, the foundational feminist text of the 20th century, the success of a recent light porn trilogy must have them scratching their heads in wonder. What happened to the women’s movement? Where is the indignation at being portrayed as inferior to men? What has become of the feminist ideal that women do not need men to define who they are?
All, it would seem, is so much history. The modern equivalent is that a woman finds happiness in bending over backwards, no pun intended, to become the thing the man wants her to be. Such is the storyline of the above mentioned trilogy which has found favour with some 65 million buyers, most of whom are reported to be women.
In the story, the good looking rich young man – damaged by a childhood of abuse and deprivation – has a liking for kinky sexual practices. The beautiful woman – younger, impressionable and not rich – arrives awestruck into his gravitational pull and so an affair ensues, coloured by her amazement that one-so-great-as-he could find her attractive. Gradually she comes to be introduced to his practices and, after a very brief spell of being against them, starts to enjoy it. As tales of sadism go, it is about as user-friendly as you can get. Readers of this will not be searching out ‘The 120 Days of Sodom’ by Frenchman Donatien Alphonse Francois, otherwise known as the Marquis de Sade.* The modern version is politically correct down to the ingratiating habit the hero has of apologising for being the way he is, even for hurting her which in terms of sadism has got to be a first.
There is always a need for good entertainment in life. The danger with this type of narrative, however, is that it reinforces a message already out in the public discourse that a woman only has value in a relationship if she can figure out what the man wants her to be and can transform herself into that. Maybe that’s the inevitable direction that things go when so much time, money and energy is invested on appearance and playing to sexual stereotyping.
Unfortunately if you criticise this kind of commercial success you are accused of spoiling the party. The possibility that this kind of product offers complicit support for the exploitation of women is completely missed. And yet it is complicit in a most cynical way. Re-arrange the configuration of the hero of the three ‘novels’ and you get an entirely different picture. Keep him rich, but now make him a bit older, with a pot belly and a comb-over, and suddenly a rather different impression is created. Now it begins to have the creepy overtones that bring it closer to reality.
Perverse sadists come in all shapes and sizes but the odds are that if our heroine in the novel came upon one with less money, less status and fewer scolded-puppy apologies, the love story wouldn’t have gone far beyond chapter one. In reality, our heroine would have had a deeply unpleasant experience. It quite possibly could have scarred her for life. It could also have made it incredibly difficult for her to ever trust another person in relationship again, which is often what actually happens.
Not so in fiction-land where she saves the hero from himself while at the same time developing a taste for kinky sex, much as she might a new dish created by his personal chef. That wouldn’t be so bad were it not for the implicit message that the man – in this case rich, famous and slightly inarticulate – is always to be pleased. Decades of feminist outpourings to the contrary would appear to have missed their mark. There is instead the aforementioned trend in various contemporary versions of femininity that sees the role of woman to be whatever it is that pleases. For some, both men and women, it is apparently the perfect solution to the tensions already inherent in adapting the role of woman to the demands of the modern world. Perfect, that is, until the ability to please fades or becomes less impactful over time. Then the woman is left to her own inner resources to support a sense of identity and prestige in a world that tends to judge, harshly at times, on the basis of surfaces and appearances.
de Beauvoir’s partner, the philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, in his weighty tome ‘Being and Nothingness’, makes an interesting point in this regard. I referred to this in a slightly different way in an earlier blog but it is worth mentioning again. Sartre says the man who wants to be loved does not desire the enslavement of the beloved. He does not want to possess an automaton. The total enslavement of the beloved, as he calls it, kills the love of the lover. If the woman does become an automaton then the lover finds himself alone. Thus the lover does not desire to possess the beloved as one possesses a thing: he demands a special type of appropriation. He wants to possess her freedom as a freedom. In love, therefore, what the man desires is that he be the unique and privileged occasion of this freedom.
Of course, that’s assuming we are dealing with a man, or indeed a woman, who is able to love. Not everybody is able to love in the way they want. Love after all involves giving of oneself to another at many levels (as distinct from making oneself submissive to the other) and that can often be too big an ask for some people. Be that as it may, Sartre’s point is well made. Love, if we are to look at it in all its complexity, does not include ownership of the other as an object (our hero’s obsessively protective urges throughout the novels are regularly passed off as love), nor does it include control of the other as an automaton. But maybe that idea has had its time and maybe that time is gone. If it is, then we need to accommodate a new way of thinking about love and the nature of the relationship that emotionally binds (as opposed to physically binds) human beings together.

• The 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade was written in 1785. Four wealthy men resolve to experience the ultimate sexual gratification in orgies. They seal themselves away for four months in an inaccessible castle with 46 victims, mostly young male and female teenagers. Not for the faint-hearted.