ON PERVERSE STATES OF MIND
Margot Waddell and Gianna Williams
want to eat pooh food and grow up and live dying.'
than defining what we mean by perversion at this stage, we would like to begin
by giving some clinical illustrations of perverse states of mind and then
proceed from the observable material to formulate a hypothesis about its
meaning. Nigel, totally trapped in what we would call a 'perverse state of
mind', was not, at this point, reachable through interpretations about his
alliance with a destructive part of himself - what became known between him
and his therapist as 'the muddling Nigel'. He seemed, rather, to relish the
alliance. He would state firmly, 'I am not listening to you, because I like
listening to the ‘muddling Nigel’.
this part of himself came repeated slogans such as 'poohs are delicious, good to
eat'; 'making a mess is wonderful’. Blinking his eyes as he looked through a
narrow opening, he would say that he was busy – taking ‘poohtographs’.
Nigel’s slogans seemed not dissimilar to those broadcast by the Ministry of
Truth in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four:
'War is Peace'; 'Freedom is Slavery'; 'Ignorance is Strength'; or to
the contents of Hitler's document of dedicated social and political perversity, Mein
very idiosyncratic way of perpetuating ignorance, attacking truth and nourishing
himself with pooh-lies is graphically put across in his 'poohtograph' pun. His
perception of both internal and external reality is mediated by a filter, or,
better, a smoke-screen - an anti-thought 'muddler' to which he has sworn
alliance. As Bion puts it, 'instead of an understanding object the infant has a
willfully misunderstanding object -
with which it is identified' (1967, p. 117). This little boy's state of mind
recalls that of Winston
in the last lines of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
He gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn
what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark moustache. O cruel, needless
misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two
gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right,
everything was all right… He loved Big Brother (Orwell 1949, p. 311).
Nigel loved his 'best enemy', 'the muddler' He seemed to have taken refuge in
his ‘loving breast, i.e., the muddler's, at a very early age. His mother's
severe puerperal depression might have contributed to his turning away from a
dependent relationship and towards a very dubious source of protection. We are
not, however, seeking to trace the origins of perverse states of mind through
causal links . Let us say that Nigel was enslaved to an anti-developmental
alliance with a destructive part of the self that he idealized. He loved 'the
muddler' who told him that poohs are infinitely better than milk. He stated that
he was as 'never, never, never going to use the toilet, (aged four he was still
wearing nappies). Some areas of his development were, on the other hand,
extraordinarily precocious. Big
Brother - 'the muddler' – had allowed him to use his considerable intelligence
as long as he did so in the service of the Ministry of Truth. Nigel had taught
himself to read at the age of three and his vocabulary was vast, but he seldom
used words for communication or for making symbolic links. He hated creative
symbols and he hated positive links. When his therapist asked him what the red
colour in one of his pictures stood for, he answered with all imperious tone
'red is for red'. His continuous punning and coining, often assembled from
fragments of words with a similar sound, confronted his therapist with a sort of
impenetrable 'Newspeak'. His parents were
baffled by this kind of incomprehensible outpouring. So, initially, was his
therapist. Like Humpty Dumpty in Through
the Looking Glass, Nigel seemed to be saying, 'When 1 use a word… it means
just what 1 choose it to mean, neither more nor less' (Carroll, 1871, p. l00).
'There is only one ruler,' he shouted, brandishing a ruler.
violence Nigel perpetrated on words and their meaning seemed to be associated in
his mind (in spite of his hatred for symbolic language) with violence done to
babies. 'Baby dead, baby dead, killing babies,' he intoned as he ripped up a
book. On another occasion he tore a printed page 'in a deliberate way, with
slow, jerking movements’. His therapist described the sadistic feel of this
process, 'as if he were pulling the wings off flies… he again slowly tore the
paper into little bits, scattering them about the room and saying, as if
speaking into a microphone, “testing, testing".'
last example helps us to observe a central characteristic of Nigel's
identifications. So often in his behaviour he caricatured an adult, frequently
in the shape of a scientist involved in an experiment, the aim of which was, in
essence, that of baby-killing: 'Kill them, burn them, bury them underground.'
His father is, in fact, a scientist, and Nigel seemed at times to be wholly
identified, in what he took to be daddy's shoes, with a feeling of negativistic
caricature coming from the 'muddler', who would always be ready to assert that
daddies don't make babies, they, kill them. He was obsessed with counting: with
deliberately miscounting; with drawing pylons that tended to be associated with
the most cryptic 'Krypton Factors'. In one session he walked to the room
repeating ‘minus, minus, minus'. One wonders which victims he was totting up.
Perhaps those who, in his internal world, were
minus, minus, minus, 'killed, burned, buried underground’? The
caricature may be more graphic if
we remind ourselves that this sadistic little scientist was, as we said, still
elements of negativism, sado-masochism and caricature function under the aegis
of a destructive part of the self and are devoted to distortion and attacks on
truth. We think of them as essential features of the states of mind we refer to
as 'perverse', a negativistic caricature of object relations. There is a core
phantasy of the secret killing of babies instead of parenting babies - an
oblique form of attack on the inside of the mother's body. Our use of the word
'perverse', then, is confined to the relationships which bear these characteristics. In this frame of reference,
perversity has no connection with descriptive aspects of sexual choices - it can
be equally present or absent in heterosexual and homosexual relationships alike.
addictive quality of perverse states of mind can be more easily observed when
patients make their first attempts to disengage themselves from the domination
of an internal 'Big Brother'. We shall illustrate this point with dream material
from the analysis of adolescent and adult patients. An early dream in the
treatment of Charles, an eighteen-year-old boy seen some years ago, offered a
rather disturbing example of the kind of perverse state of mind we are
exploring. It occurred at a time when his infantile, needy parts were being
strongly pulled away from the therapy. He
was with a group of men involved in extracting a bomb from a long, metal shaft.
Charles became very frightened. He
felt like running away but was firmly
held back by the leader of the group who said, 'Now you are involved in it and
you are going to stay.' Charles found himself unable to disobey or question this
injunction. He carried on with the extraction of the bomb.
He then found himself with the same group [or, rather, terrorist gang] in
an airport where they were supposed
to plant the bomb. They put it under a counter; explosion was imminent. As they
were making their getaway, Charles looked at the people in the airport,
anticipating the sight of them as corpses when the bomb had exploded.
the aspects of this dream which
should be emphasized is the virulence of the gang formation. There is a fleeting
moment of fear and anxiety, perhaps an indication that, at that time, Charles
was in touch with the danger to which he was exposing himself by 'belonging' to
the gang. But when the entrenchment is so deep, it is not enough to say 'I am
frightened, I want to get away' (you can't play on the gang's heart strings). It
is not possible to give up membership of so powerful an internal Mafia
overnight. The ringleader (Godfather) is keeping Charles to task. Indeed, at the
early stage of treatment, Charles felt totally hopeless about change -
engendering a similar feeling in his therapist. He despaired of the gang, the
destructive part on the side of death, ever releasing him. He was on a
death-bound mission - a baby-killing venture, if we take it that the airport
represents the inside of the mother's body, filled with the babies that had to
be massacred. There is just the beginning of concern about life being put at
risk - the only hopeful aspect of this disturbing dream.
Rosenfeld clearly had this kind of patient in mind when he wrote:
The destructive narcissism of these patients appears often highly
organized, as if one were dealing with a powerful gang dominated by a leader,
who controls all the members of the gang to see that they support one another in
making the criminal destructive work more effective and powerful. However, the
narcissistic organization not only increases the strength of the
destructive narcissism, but it has a defensive purpose to keep itself in power
and so maintain the status quo The main aim seems to be to prevent the weakening
of the organization and to control the members of the gang so that they will not
desert the destructive organization and join the positive parts of the self or
betray the secrets of the gang to the police, the protecting superego, standing
for the helpful analyst, who might be able to save the patient. Frequently when
a patient of this kind makes progress in the analysis and wants to change he
dreams of being attacked by members of the Mafia or adolescent delinquents and a
negative therapeutic reaction sets in. This narcissistic organization is in my
experience not primarily directed against guilt and anxiety, but seems to have
the purpose of maintaining the idealization and superior power of the
destructive narcissism. (1971, p. 174).
must be added the more explicitly sado-masochistic aspect of the pathology,
which lends such personality organizations their distinctively perverse
qualities. It is well put by Betty Joseph: 'such patients feel in thrall to a
part of the self that dominates and imprisons them and will not let them escape,
even though they see life beckoning outside'. The point is that not only is the
patient dominated by an aggressive part of himself 'but that this part is
actively sadistic towards another part of the self which is masochistically
caught up in this process, and that this has become an addiction' (1982, p.
451). The same constellation was described by Donald Meltzer in 'Terror,
persecution arid dread - a dissection of paranoid anxieties' (1968).
processes are clearly illustrated in the following patients' dreams. Mr A's
characteristic mode of defence against the pain of separation, of intimacy, of
the experience of littleness and especially of the struggle for change, lay in
homosexual fantasies and dreams (not practices) usually of a part-object, or of
an anal kind. The nature of the internal conflict was expressed with great
clarity in a number of early dreams, typified by the following: He
was imprisoned in a dark house. Every time he attempted to escape over the
horizon to life, light and freedom, he was pulled back by a gang whose leader
bore the name 'Cave'. This leader
was linked, by association, to a character in the entertainment business who was
said, as a child, to have enjoyed pulling the wings and legs off insects.
similar constellation is evident in the dream of another patient, Mrs B, the
setting for which was, as she put it, a 'Nineteen
Eighty-Four-type building'. The
building - a huge barn-like structure, cavernous in its interior was the
headquarters of a Big Brother organization, under whose watchful eye uniformed
people laboured in the fields and orchards nearby. The patient found herself
unexpectedly at a distance from the main group, somewhere down a grassy track,
enjoying the beauty of the evening. She suddenly became aware that,
inadvertently, she had nearly escaped. Terrified that the alarm would be raised,
she ran, slipping and sliding, back to the muddy track to the headquarters. There she was met by her own big
brother - a man who had, in fact,
exercised a tyrannical hold over her and, as an internal figure, continued to do
from the obvious links in these dreams to the ganging up of destructive aspects
of the personality against the part that was making a bid for freedom and
beauty, there are three other areas to be emphasized. First, there arc the
unmistakable anal associations in each dream: Charles's dark shaft, suggestive
of the rectum; Mr A's dark house and the pull back into the cave/claustrum; Mrs
B's return up the muddy, slippery track. Second, Mr A's associations
to the gang leader not only echoed Charles's destructive gang but
revealed a clear link for him between pop culture as he experienced it (in terms
of slavish adulation) arid mindless group behaviour controlled by a propaganda
machine of mass media, not so dissimilar from the Nineteen
Eighty-Four setting of Mrs B's
dream, albeit slightly more disguised. What characterized these second two cases
was the perception of the unthinking nature of large group phenomena. Third, the
sado-masochism - explicit in the bombing mission of the first dream and the
torturing-of-insects associations in the second, implicit in the
dominance/submission axis of the Nineteen
Eighty-Four world - relates these dreams to what we have been describing as
the core perverse phantasy. Each clearly intensifies the painful struggle in the
individual between forces of philstinism, cynicism and perversion and those that
could be described as being on the side of life.
adult patients, each distinctively intelligent and creative, occupied outwardly
respectable positions in society, but the vitality of their objects was drained
by their predominantly narcissistic internal structures which, at the time,
precluded satisfactory love relationships. Their emotional equilibrium was
constantly threatened by persecuting anxieties and internal charges of
fraudulence and deception. In each case the dreams and fantasies belied the
conventional exterior - although they were at times intimately related to the
conformist crust. For the virulence of the perverse characteristics, which would
make their appearance, particularly at times of anxiety, seemed to be related to
that very thrust for conformity. (One is reminded that in William Golding's Lord
of the Flies - so eloquent a document of the pathology of groups and gangs
in the absence of parental authority - it is the choir who become the most
murderous and perverse gang of hunters.)
past, both Mr A and Mrs B had tended to carry out their learning by way of
rather primitive identificatory processes - either through conformity with
professional status (scientist/position-in- lab-pecking-order - patient A) or
with individuals in propria persona (a
father, an elder brother - patient B). This
relationship, between surface accommodation and covert sado-masochism, is
clearly borne out in the clinical material of a seven-year-old girl, Sally -
enacted, this time, in the context of an actual external gang which was found to
have a corresponding internal one. Sally had puzzled her therapist for some
time. She was intelligent, charming, pseudo-mature, co-operative, apparently
able to take everything in her stride - even at times of marital crisis and
gross sexual delinquency on her parents' part. The presenting symptoms, of
withholding faeces and soiling, disappeared fairly early in therapy. But there
remained an air of unreality in the sessions, a slight evasiveness and lack of
connection. There was something complacent, even smug, in her attitude to her
parents, which her therapist experienced quite powerfully in the transference.
These early sessions were characterized by a great deal of play which often
represented omnipotent, almost manic, possession of the therapist, of other
children's drawers and boxes and
their contents, and a simultaneous covert exploration of the underside of
things, with fantasies of creeping in by back passages, of spying, of secretly
watching, bugging, etc.
meaning of this material began to become apparent after a session in which she
wrote the letters of her name in capitals vertically down the side of a piece of
paper, and then divided a second piece in two, horizontally, drawing below the
line a series of figures, each corresponding to one of the letters of her name.
As she drew, she described these figures as a 'gang of children'. She identified
herself with the gang explicitly, describing them as playing in the playground,
'spying out things, looking through keyholes and locked doors'; and, 'when we
see children fighting, we let the teachers know'. Her air was that of a member
of some kind of army of righteousness - or, rather, self-righteousness The job
of the gang was to stop the fights by informing, thereby getting the more
unruly, but perhaps less conformist, children to toe the line. The spying,
intrusive omnipotent, sycophantic, self-righteous self was clearly engaged - as
a member of 'The SSG' (The Secret Spying Gang) - in a struggle with the aspects
of her personality which did not derive masochistic pleasure from, among other
things, her parents' delinquent behaviour. Despite the struggle, however, she
was unable to discern the truth of her painful experience, but rather masked it
by distortion, amounting to lies, perversely mistaking the hypocrisy of her
informer role for honourable, peace-keeping pursuits.
aspects of all these patients' material demonstrate how the links of relatedness
(theorized by Bion as links in Love, Hate and Knowledge) were constantly opposed
by a pulling away from freedom, individuality, intimacy and aesthetic
sensibility, into the mindlessness of group conformity (whether internal or
external), in the guise of respectability, social rank and status; or into the
gang mentality of 'Newspeak' and two-dimensional cultural forces. All these
processes function, ultimately, in negative modes which are more characteristic
of the anti-linkage, anti-thought, anti-knowledge - in short, minus L, minus H,
minus K - of Bion's negative grid.
negative grid is meant to represent a mental system for generating lies - in the
service of misunderstanding and anti-thought. These lies constitute, in Bion's
view, the poison of the mind. It is a notion which remained largely unelaborated
in his work - a kind of terra incognita
- yet to be laboriously mapped out by clinical exploration. But it is
scintillating with possibilities for better understanding the nature of
perversity as an aspect of character, as distinct from sexual behaviour or
choice. It wholly subverts the current propensity to attach labels of 'perverse'
or 'non-perverse' to categories of relationships - e.g., homosexual or
heterosexual - and places the distinctions, rather, in the area of psychic
reality and meanings as represented by different states of mind.
conclusion, however, it is the connection between these
intrapsychic processes and the social sphere that must be emphasized: the
connection, that is, between the basic assumption mentality in the individual,
mindless group mentality and the dynamics of the gang. A basic assumption group
is particularly rich soil for the implanting of gang propaganda, since its
members have renounced individuality and the capacity for exercising judgement
senseless chanting 'B-B'… B-B!', described
by Orwell as an act of self-hypnosis, a deliberate drowning of consciousness by
means of rhythmic noise' (pp. 18-19), and indeed Newspeak itself constitute
excellence. The basic assumption state of mind paves the way for the
unquestioning acceptance of the Ministry of Truth's slogans. Similarly the mass
mindless euphoria of the Nuremberg Rallies created a state of mind receptive to
Hitler's hideous propaganda and the slaughter of truth epitomized by Mein
Kampf. Recent events are confronting us with a comparable phenomenon: Saddam
Hussein undoubtedly relies oil this same basic assumption mentality to spread
lies about his crusade for the Arab cause.
It may seem that the
destructive phantasies of an omnipotent four-year-old, the slaughter of millions
of people in the Holocaust or the present threat of world war represent areas of
such different magnitude that they are incommensurable. The main point, then, is
the necessity of understanding that an individual's perverse states of mind can
get exported into the public sphere with dire consequences when social and
political circumstances offer fertile ground. It is alarming, but important, to
connect, for example, Charles's difficulties in extracting himself from the
internal gang with the fascination of the Nuremberg Rallies to the thousands who
mindlessly cheered Hitler's propagandist rhetoric.
In bridging the two - the individual mind and the public sphere - we have been investigating the negative forces in the personality and the ways in which the internal basic assumption groupings rooted in hatred of the emotions and ultimately of life itself, may find expression in external ways. The 'Fair is foul and foul is fair' mode of inversion and distortion, so brilliantly, elaborated in Macbeth, then crystallizes into the hardcore perversity of the little child's aspiration to 'grow up and live dying' and of the forces of oppression and hatred which spread death and despair across the world.
a slightly revised version of a paper presented to the 1990 ‘Psychoanalysis
and the Public Sphere’ conference in London
The authors would like to express their gratitude to Michael Somes for
permission to quote material from the case Gianna Williams supervised during his
training in child psychotherapy.
W. R. (1967) 'A theory of thinking', in Second
L. (1872) Through the Looking Glass., Harmondsworth:
Puffin Classics. Reprinted 1984.
Joseph, B. (1982) 'Addiction to near-death', Int. J. Psycho-Anal. 63: 449-56. Reprinted in Elisabeth Bott Spillius, ed. Melanie Klein Today, Volume I. Routledge 1988.
D. (1968) 'Terror, persecution and dread - a dissection of paranoid anxieties', Int.
J. Psycho-Anal. 49: 396-401.
G. (1949) Nineteen Eighty-Four. Harmondsworth:
Penguin. Reprinted, 1990.
Rosenfeld, H. (1971) 'A clinical approach to the psychoanalytic theory of the life and death instincts: an investigation into the aggressive aspects of narcissism'. Int. J. Psycho-Anal. 52: 169-78. Reprinted in Elisabeth Bott Spillius, ed., Melanie Klein Today Volume I. Routledge 1988.
for correspondence: Tavistock Clinic, 120 Belsize Lane, London NW3 5BA, UK
article first appeared in Free
Associations 2: 203-13, 1991.
Process Press Ltd.
The Human Nature Review © Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM