PSYCHOANALYSIS IN A POST-TOTALITARIAN SOCIETY
My point of departure in this lecture is the claim that totalitarian regimes breed cultures of victimization. After developing this argument in the beginning of my presentation I shall proceed with exploring life in Bulgaria by focusing on some of its most salient characteristics which confuse the mind and frustrate the eye of the foreigner. In this I take a perspective which I find methodologically sound.
The key element in this perspective is the proposition that political violence, by virtue of which totalitarian regimes establish and consolidate themselves, has long lasting devastating effects on the victims, who, in cases like that of Bulgaria, are the majority of the citizens of the country. The effects which these people experience are often akin to disturbances resulting from major loss, for example, due to natural disaster, and of intensity, that would warrant specialist care if judged against the standards of Western clinical practice. These disturbances would not, however, take on clinical meaning, because, given the fact that they affect the majority of the population, it could not be afforded to acknowledge or recognize them as conditions legitimating entry into the patient role. It is against the background of this reality that I seek to establish a function for psychoanalysis.
Let me first of all explore the connection between totalitarian regimes, political violence and victimization. As a concept from the interpersonal realm, "victim" builds on the experience of helplessness and hopelessness that befalls individuals, who have been denied the right to make a choice. Becoming a victim is a traumatic event, or one, which, in terms of the Tenth Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10), is "outside the range of usual human experience" and would be markedly distressing to almost anyone...".
Being turned into a victim by means of interpersonal violence, either physical or emotional, is outside the usual range of human experiences because it contradicts the assumption we ordinarily make "that we can rely on an implicit social contract with other human beings in terms of 'live and let live' " (C. Sluzki, 1993). Interpersonal violence betrays this expectation and confronts us with the awareness that we have failed to predict correctly. Events start to unfold in stark contrast to a deeply ingrained belief that we can master those elements of our environment, which other humans bring forth.
The particularly devastating traumatic effects of political violence, as a special variety of interpersonal violence, is traced to the fact that the source of violence emerges as a result of a role shift taking place with agencies such as the police or the secret service. This shift from a protective to a violent role is unannounced and happens in the absence of clues as to what is going on. Since the police force is there in order to offer protection, when it engages in violent action against a person, the implication is clearly that this person is bad or evil. The fact that meanwhile a role shift has occurred evades the victim, at least initially. The experience is similar to that of a child fallen victim to incest. This hesitation to grasp the new meaning of the roles is reinforced by action on the part of the victimizer intended to disorientate the victim about the nature of the experience by re-labeling it, by denying its painful effect, or by employing other devious strategies.
For such a development to become possible a special context is required in which "some members of the social system have the power of deciding and enacting for all members of the system what is going to be validated as "real"; by these means the other is denied or invalidated as a social subject and is treated as a social object." (M. Pakman, 1991). No social arrangement could have come closer to this description than the one brought about by the totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe. In Bulgaria, for instance, no public sphere, no academic activity, no field of art or culture was spared the humiliation to have to accept as "the reality" of its subject matter what had been decreed by those with the power of deciding. To participate socially and professionally thus inevitably meant to acquiesce to a meaning imposed from outside. Genuine experience in the sphere of social life vanished.
To summarize, political violence victimizes individuals, groups or whole nations, just as major loss, resulting from disaster, does, only its effects are more devastating because one is abused by an agent primarily intended to act as protector. Totalitarian regimes provide a context for victimization because of an arrangement intrinsic to totalitarian societies which deprives the majority of the members of the social system of the ability to consent or dissent.
Having established this I would like now to explore briefly the effects of victimization on mental life. This I will do mainly by describing the feelings which one develops in the course of encounters with victims, who have developed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), one of the well studied conditions that result from trauma. For the sake of precision I want to remind that clinically PTSD presents with persistent re-experiencing of the traumatic event (e.g. intrusive recollections of the event, distressing dreams of the event, "flashback" episodes); with avoidance of stimuli associated with the event (e.g. activities and situations that arouse recollections); with numbing of the general responsiveness (e.g. diminished interest, feeling of detachment from others, restricted range of affect); with increased arousal (e.g. difficulty falling asleep, irritability, outbursts of anger, exaggerated startle response). Understandably, therapy can be offered once the victim is past the denial phase. The presenting problems may vary a great deal, being conditioned on the cultural patterns of illness behaviour. For example, former Eastern block countries have characteristically scotomized psychological illness and care, thus encouraging somatized styles of illness behaviour and culturally reinforced passivity in the therapeutic relationship.
Being in a situation with a person who has developed PTSD is not a pleasant experience. For many the encounters with such individuals are painful. Some do not find them likeable and when they bring themselves to admit this they are stirred to face a host of questions with no easy answers about their own human nature. To some, having dealings with such people is overwhelming, because it makes them feel put off, or misunderstood, or not trusted. Some tend to blame the negative experience with PTSD victims on themselves: they may develop guilt and try to cope with it by taking a paternalistic stance, thus forcing the victim into the dependent position. Others experience encounters with PTSD victims as anger: they may make projections on the victims and become paranoid. Xenophobic and ethnocentric paranoid ideas are currently in vogue. This list of responses could be extended easily. The point though should be clear by now: PTSD victims evoke feelings which signal how dangerously close one has come to a most repulsive aspect of human misery.
The interpersonal violence, to which individuals fall prey, can vary both in intensity, measured by the degree of perceived threat by the victim, and in exposure, measured on the basis of whether the violent action is isolated or repeated. The clinical condition, known as PTSD, which I briefly outlined above, is believed to develop mostly as a result of intense and isolated exposure to violence. The condition which results from submitting a population to repeated, low-to-medium level threat is yet to be named. Studies of victims forcefully detained for prolonged periods of time in oppressive settings suggest, that in addition to many of the signs and symptoms described above they characteristically develop cognitive distortions for the purpose of adaptation. To quote Carlos Sluzki (1993): "Applied to specific contexts of intent, this effect has been known as 'brainwashing' or 'thought reform': The values of the oppressor are progressively and uncritically incorporated by the victim; alternative views and evidence contradicting those beliefs are unnoticed or denied, and reflexive, critical thinking is self-censored. Individuals, thereafter, continue their lives with new conceptual and perceptual restrictions, without considering alternatives." And the author goes on to draw a parallel with the Schreber case, described by Freud, and to discuss the relationship between Schreber's delusions and his father's sadistic pedagogic methods.
It is to the effects of mass coercion in Bulgaria, as a country ruled by a totalitarian regime for several decades, that I would like to concentrate now in my presentation. Two conclusions deriving from what was said so far, will determine the perspective I shall take. Firstly, for several decades huge sections of the population of the country have been systematically admonished not to deviate from certain "correct" patterns of construing reality; rather than risking to become subject to undeniable, e.g. physical, violence, many have developed a blind spot for those aspects of reality, which the doctrine selected to suppress from being perceived and thus blocked from becoming topics of public discourse. Secondly, this was only possible with the help of mental operations, which left behind human minds, the functioning of which would be considered impaired if judged in a modern Western clinical frame of reference; in spite of the fact that the dysfunction was akin to clinically recognized entities, e.g. PTSD, entry into the sick role could not be socially legitimated because of sheer numbers, and therefore the definition of normal mental functioning, normal emotional life in particular, had to be adjusted to incorporate this dysfunction.
I will now try to lend substance to some of these speculations by describing in some detail an event which took place recently within the New Bulgarian University in Sofia. The NBU is the first nongovernmental school in Bulgaria chartered by the Parliament of the country after the events of November 1989. The NBU has made "social competence for democratic living" a stated objective of the education and training, received through its programmes. One of these programmes, that of legal education, was experimentally run for one semester in March through June this year. Since about every aspect of this programme deviated from didactic indoctrination, which was, and still is, the standing practice of producing uniform minds in the schools of the country, the university Board of Trustees considered it crucial to have a thorough evaluation of the first pilot semester. I was involved as a leader of a team of five which organized a weekend conference to assess how well the requirement to "bring the court into the class room" had been met with the use of the teaching methods which were adopted in order to encourage participation in class and to discourage less active involvement with the learning process.
At the planning session of the team two guiding principles regarding the running of the conference were identified. In the first place, since participation was a key characteristic of the pilot legal education programme, it was deemed crucial to render participation a core feature also of the procedure for evaluation of the programme. This we regarded as lending consistency or ismorphism to our work. From this followed the team's choice of approach to administering the conference, to recruiting the participants and to running the event. A brochure was sent out to all who had been involved in the pilot programme of legal education - teachers, students, administrators - and the conference membership was composed of those who applied to participate. The task of the conference was defined as the preparation of a systematic description of the legal education programme that will provide as full a picture as possible of the experiences of the participants in the course of the semester. The format of the conference included plenary sessions, small groups and working groups.
In the second place, since deficit in competence for democratic living was a key preoccupation to all involved with NBU, the team hypothesized that a conference setting implying networking and horizontal relating, i.e. "skills for democratic living", will pose unduly stressful requirements to the participants; regression and confusion about authority could be expected.
I will now report some of the actual group dynamics at the conference as perceived by the team. Only one teacher and only one member of the administration applied to participate; both were accepted and both did not attend without notifying anybody. The team interpreted this as an indication that the problems with authority, which the university faculty members and administration staff had, were grave indeed. This was further confirmed by the fact that the question, repeatedly raised during the event and which eventually became its central issue, was, where the members, the team, the groups, or as a matter of fact, the conference itself, took their authority from.
For example, the fantasies as to the source of authority of the team were several, among them being psychoanalysis and the world conspiracy. These fantasies surfaced in connection with a statement in the brochure to the effect that the Chairman of the Board of Trustees authorizes the team to organize the conference. This statement puzzled the members. They claimed that in their judgement it was "incorrect", because no member of the conference was of high enough position in the academic hierarchy of the law faculty to command such authority. There had to be other "concealed" reasons for the whole exercise. One could be, that a secret experiment was being conducted, concerned with "reading the minds" and "influencing the thinking" of the participants with the help of psychoanalysis. Another explanation put forward was a power struggle, fuelled by political interests: the conference was an attempt on the part of one faction to outmanoeuvre another; the absence of academics from the field of legal studies was "evidence" in support of this explanation; the students were caught in the fire between the two fighting factions; they had a conflict of loyalties being forced by one faction, i.e. the conference team, which had seduced them to join the conference, to reveal facts and give opinions of the training they had received from the other faction, i.e. the faculty members from the field of legal studies.
By the second half of the day the conference managed to work through these paranoid defences and started to explore feelings. Depression was the first to be named and as the group associations evolved depression became very deep indeed. At the end of the day the image projected on the conference was that of a helpless child, uncertain of his roots, identity or future, unloved by anybody, abandoned by his parents, most likely because he had been born ugly or deformed or short-witted. He was never going to be allowed access to the nice, important, breath-taking things that his parents and their friends and peers were involved in doing with his siblings.
At the close of the first day, while the group was settling into mourning, the team began searching ideas about the law faculty teachers and about the identifications that the students had developed. In the first place, it had transpired during the group sessions that the law teachers had found it unusually difficult to abide by the standards of the new diploma. In particular, they had failed to maintain a focus on experience-based and case- centred training; they had stayed with didactic instruction. They had kept the students at a distance from their actual experiences in the court room. This had upset the students and had prevented them from feeling accepted and trusted.
In the second place, the team asked themselves what the teachers wanted to prevent from revealing by not attending at the conference. A likely guess was, that by avoiding to participate, they did not want to bring into the open those aspects of their professional lifes, i.e. what they did in the court rooms, which they were hiding also from the students. They seemed to repress or disavow their fear of being exposed out of proportion. One indication that they did so, was information, shared in the group, that several of the teachers had made comments that the brochure for the conference had been "just mailed" to them, the implication being that they had expected to be personally approached to make a specified contribution at the conference.
Had the students introjected that hidden bad part of their teachers, which got them involved in unseemly court practice (be it rumoured or phantasized)? Were they projecting that bad object, now internalized, onto the conference and the team? Were they re-creating at the conference a phantasy of the institution to which they belonged, i.e. the pilot legal education class of NBU, and was the team right in discerning in this phantasy of theirs the pivotal role of a hierarchical alignment dictated by external powers, and not contingent on authority deriving from participation and competence? Or was depression in fact the only permissible way in this culture to initiate a discourse on the topic of the bad father, which was, as a matter of fact, the preoccupation of the students, and of their fathers, and mothers, and teachers, and everybody in the country?
The team did not produce answers to any of these questions. It noted, though, that every one of them could be justly asked for virtually all Bulgarian institutions or organizations, known to the team in some detail. The team concluded, that its hypothesis, namely that a setting which stimulates horizontal, rather than vertical, interpersonal relating will be experienced as unduly stressful by groups of Bulgarians, was confirmed.
I want to finish this story by telling you briefly of the developments during the second day of the conference. The most significant event was that all the membership came as a group to ask for the director's blessing to proceed with the conference task - the description of the experience of the pilot programme in law. They were quiet, serious, determined, solemn. My feeling almost exploded in my stomach - so incredibly fast developed my love for them and I knew exactly what Bion meant by "containment".
For the rest of the day they applied themselves to the task with zeal and energy. The various working groups, that they formed, utilized fully the members of the team. At the end of the day the team had certainty that the description would be submitted to the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the university. This never happened.
Similar exercises, pursuing various specific tasks, in which the author has been closely involved in the last few years, have drawn their memberships from social and professional groups as widely divergent as high school teachers, prison social workers, nursing officers, psychiatrists, psychologists, businessmen. Human associations or networks, brought together for reasons, similar to the one described, have invariably evolved group dynamics of autonomous identity, but have failed to take authority from this new identity in order to persist outside and after the situation, once the provider of the containing function (in Bion's sense) has been withdrawn.
I suggest that this aspect of mental functioning in Bulgaria - the need for containment, is pronounced to an inordinately high degree and is experienced by visiting foreigners as a puzzling feature of interpersonal and group relations in the Bulgarian setting. By Bulgarians, on the other hand, it is experienced as a feature of the "national character". As such it is handed down by submitting the coming generation to a barrage of injunctions about correct thinking delivered with concealed or obvious threat, which passes for strong leadership and good parenting. As a result, Bulgarians, when faced with the task to construct a reality, which deviates from the one of the previous generation, develop cognitive deficits. They fail when confronted with the task to consent or dissent. This is regarded as a typical pathological defence against intolerable levels of anxiety, well known with trauma victims. The public sphere in Bulgaria is preoccupied, mostly unwittingly, with coming to terms with this characteristic. Many statements made, or positions taken, by Bulgarian public figures make sense, when seen as acts, motivated by an unconscious need to lend positive connotation to this feature, privately feared to be a sign of national infantility, at best, and of the decline of the nation, at worst.
I submit, that traditional patterns of exercising authority and parenthood on the Balkans have colluded with totalitarian socialism to produce a social setting which has brought about victimization on a mass scale; although vehemently suppressed at all levels the effects of victimization permeate the group and interpersonal behaviour and can be experienced by a perceptive outsider as an overwhelming need for a containing relationship.
I am not prepared to discuss at this point the patterns of parenthood and power on the Balkans. Nevertheless, I want to suggest in the light of events witnessed in Bosnia, that these patterns take their roots from the history and culture of these lands and have evolved around a different social convention for the toleration of violence than the one guiding us in the quest for human rights today. The restriction on individual autonomy through enforced mechanisms of stabilization was believed of key importance to the survival of the group and the society. This unfortunate idea has become a shared certainty in Bulgaria. Totalitarian socialism utilized it to its ends at the expense of mass traumatizing. The certainty is still there, further reinforced by the need of the trauma victims to suppress awareness of their plight. How much more survival can the mechanisms of defence ensure in the face of an impaired social system which stifles, rather than amplifies the individual creativity of its members, unaware that it itself exists for its members?
I feel I have just established a function for psychoanalysis in Bulgaria. When in the twenties and once again in the thirties of this century the psychoanalytic ideas found way into the country, their supporters remained isolated from the academic environment at home and from the international psychoanalytic community. None of the psychoanalytic groups that had functioned in the country had seen itself as having a mission. In later years people who took to psychoanalysis, who got analyzed and started clinical practice, preferred to stay outside the country. Analysts from other countries, who visited Bulgaria driven by curiosity, chance, or politeness never identified with its people or causes strongly enough to see it as meaningful to stay behind and start systematic work for the introduction of psychoanalysis in a relevant to the local context way.
In the past several years as the problem of accommodating Eastern Europe to the civilization of the West are being gradually transformed into practical tasks that require action and funds, the need to have a deeper grasp of how East European minds function has become overwhelming both in the East and in the West. Ethnic conflict, minority rights, nationalism, religious fundamentalism, communist ideology and the like have been put forward as explanatory schemes, which promised causal solutions to puzzles of political, social or economic nature. I do not think that any of these promises has been kept. This only fueled more vigorous search for even more encompassing theories that explain away such complex phenomena as Eastern Europe.
An attempt to coin a master-plan for psychoanalysis was also made. It proceeded more or less on the argument that Mcdonald's and Coca-Cola had to be complemented with scientology and psychoanalysis in order to strike the right balance out. Doctrinal purity, strict selection of neophytes, comprehensive packages, long-, medium- and short-term planning, continuous monitoring and control and so on - everything had been thought out neatly. The fees to be collected from the newly-fledged millionaires, who were envisaged as constituting the core clientele of the Bulgarian psychoanalysts-to-be, were tentatively fixed in the thousands of lev (or several dozens of dollars). Special attention was paid to overcoming the major hurdle - the fee for the personal therapy of the trainees. The winning strategy, to which most resorted, was finding a patron in the West.
If, however, one perceives the function of psychoanalysis in Bulgaria in the context of the problems of survival and development on our continent, one would like to see it involved in the first place with facilitating the autonomy of persons and institutions by raising insight and self-awareness. Foremost in this respect will be the removal of blind spots as a way to access and to challenge the fixed ideas, presuppositions and certainties that plague them. In the second place, it should be acknowledged that even when coming hopelessly late in time psychoanalysis remains a strictly personal affair. Coming across, or fishing out, or stumbling into psychoanalysis will all be preferable, from this point of view, to the master-planning of its dissemination. What becomes essential in the third place then, is that psychoanalysts are around, that they are familiar with professional standards and that they are willing and open to provide the containing function until the fledglings grow feathers. This will certainly cost them a lot of turmoil, because every single tenet of the doctrine, as it has evolved in the West, will have most likely to be re- conceptualized.
Developing psychoanalysis in a post-totalitarian society is a task which suggests roles to many - here in the West and there in the East. This task is worth the efforts and its price is high. Nevertheless I see people here present who are already committed. It is largely Bob Young's inspiration for instance, that I am with you tonight.
Thank you Bob. Thank you.
Bion, W. Attacks on linking, Int.J.Psycho-Anal. 40:308-15.
Pakman, M. Notes on the cybernetics of violence. (Presented at the Conference of the Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA, November 3,1990.)
Sluzki, C. Toward a model of family and political victimization: Implications for treatment and recovery. Psychiatry (1993), Vol.56, May, 178-187; Paper delivered to Seventh Annual conference on 'Psychoanalysis and the Public Sphere', University of East London, 12-13 November 1993.
© The Author
Address for correspondence: Medical Academy, 15 Dim. Nestrov, 1431 Sofia, Bulgaria
The Human Nature Review © Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM