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.