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by Robert M. Young

I am not going to talk about laws, about which I know little, but about the psychoanalytic theory of the place of law in the dynamics of human psychology and society. I am also going to talk about the primitive processes which lead us to transgress and about what psychotherapy has to offer to damaged minds, offenders and prisoners. My main aim is reflective, but I will offer some practical thoughts at the end of my remarks.

I want to begin by spelling out Freud's ideas about culture and the origins and role of law. He says that 'civilization describes the whole sum of achievements and the regulations which distinguish our lives from those of our animal ancestors and which serve two purposes — namely to protect men against nature and to adjust their mutual relations' (Freud, 1930, p. 89). At the heart of his theory of culture was the belief that there is an irreducible antagonism between the demands of instincts and the restrictions of civilization. But succumbing to those restrictions does not free humankind from distress, since Freud also believed that civilization was the cause of neurasthenia (p. 60). Every aspect of civilization depends on sacrifice or renunciation of instinctual feelings (p. 95). Even the most rarefied aesthetic experience — the love of beauty — was derived from the inhibition of sexual feelings. (p. 83).

Instinctual renunciation provided energy through the mechanism of sublimation, the channelling of sexual energy into more socially acceptable activities: 'Sublimation of instinct is an especially conspicuous feature of cultural development; it is what makes it possible for higher psychical activities, scientific, artistic or ideological to play such an important part in civilized life' (p. 97). Putting the point bluntly, then, civilization is censorship (p. 136). He took a dim view of people: they are not nice. In consequence, civilization 'is perpetually threatened with disintegration' (p. 111).

The basis for all other acts of sublimation is the renunciation of rapacious sexual urges. The energy for cultural life is withdrawn from sexual life, which civilization tends perpetually to restrict (pp. 103-4). The foundation for all taboos and laws was the thwarting of the polymorphous sexuality of the primal patriarch. Overwhelming power is often accompanied by disinhibition of the urge to break sexual taboos. When people seek power, most settle for a modest amount and, on the whole, remain within the bounds of the conventions that set limits for our greedy and rapacious impulses. Indeed, middle class success is almost synonymous with respectability. But if one reads the biographies of very powerful men, sexual licence is a common theme - mistresses (lots of them), young girls, starlets. I am thinking, for example, of Howard Hughes; Jack, Bobby, and Edward Kennedy and their father, Joseph; H. L.. Hunt (3 simultaneous families); James Goldsmith (two); Mafiosi and their whores; the high-rolling swindlers of Texas savings and loan associations and their whores (O’Shea, 1991); East European dictators and Chairman Mao, who had young women served up to them like bunches of grapes. I need hardly stress this point in the light of our daily news.

The media reflect this. In the film 'Prime Cut' (1972), orphan girls were hand-reared from childhood to puberty to meet the needs of the men who bought them at auction (on display in a barn, nude in the hay), to be kept drugged and used as sexual slaves, until Gene Hackman attacks the villains and saves Cissy Spacek and Shelly Duvall.

In my opinion the clearest filmic expression of this basic psychoanalytic truth is 'Chinatown' (l975), for which Robert Towne wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay to which the director, Roman Polanski, added additional perverse piquancy. Its genre is the 1940s detective thriller, in which the threading of a highly symbolic labyrinth leads to the perverse truth that with enough power one can with impunity break the incest taboo. In the last scene the detective, Jack Nicholson, is finally led away by sympathetic friends at the moment he discovers that he cannot prevent the patriarch, John Huston, from having his incestuous way.

The old man and his daughter, Faye Dunaway, had been lovers and had a daughter. The mother dies pointlessly, in spite of all of Nicholson's efforts to find out what was going on and prevent disaster. Huston gains custody of the progeny of the incestuous affair, his daughter/granddaughter, Diane Ladd, because the corrupt and uncomprehending authorities defer to the man who is so rich and powerful. He has surreptitiously and illegally gained control over all the life-giving sources of water for the entire area surrounding the world's most opulent and sprawling metropolis, Los Angeles, in particular, the San Fernando and Owens Valleys, and thereby controls what became a veritable Eden of truck farming, much of which he bought up by using the names of innocent, trusting elderly pensioners. The psychoanalytic symbolism of water and rapacious power, of the relations between generations and of the dangers inherent in voyeuristically seeking to decipher the mysteries of the primal scene are evident throughout the film. Much of the story is based on historical truth involving one of the greatest engineering feats and one of the most audaciously corrupt land-grabbing and profiteering projects in history (See Dunne, 1982; Caughey, 1977, pp. 222-35, which includes a contemporary account entitled ‘The Rape of Owens Valley’; Kahrl, 1982). Jack Nicholson lives on a road named after the key figure in the true history, Mulholland Drive. William Mulholland — Hollis Mulray in the film — was the architect of the vast scheme for diverting water to the San Fernando Valley and to Los Angeles. He is also famous for a terse speech at the ceremony when the aqueduct was turned over to the city. It symbolised the rapaciousness of those who profited from the corrupt land deals: ‘There it is. Take it’ (quoted in Caughey, p. 235). The author of the screenplay spent a number of years studying the history of this scandal.

At the moment of discovery, Dunaway says to the bewildered detective, who is slapping her between her utterances, 'She's my daughter.' 'She's my sister.' 'My sister.' 'My daughter.' 'She's my sister and my daughter. My father and I... Understand? Or is it too tough for you?' Nicholson asks, 'He raped you?' She shakes her head, and he begins to comprehend the polymorphous perversity at the heart of the mystery of the patriarchal social order. At the moment of disaster, as the mother dies and the sister/daughter is taken away by the triumphant patriarch, Nicholson's friends lead him away, saying, 'Forget it Jake; it's Chinatown' — inscrutable, impenetrable; there is nothing you can do to put things right. Prior to this tragic denouement, we have been told at various points in the film that his boyish epistemophilia had got him into trouble in Chinatown before. Someone had been hurt whom he had tried to protect, and his philosophy had become one of doing ‘as little as possible’, in fear of doing more harm. But his curiosity and Oedipal sarcasm always got the better of him — so much so that he during a large portion of the film he wears a bandage on his nose as a result of its being cut with a switchblade, because he was too nosy. Always ready with a quip, he responds to one crook’s question about what happened to his nose by saying, ‘Your wife crossed her legs’. Sex, curiosity, patriarchy, power, corruption, incest and tragedy are the strands which make up the tangle he unravels. It is also the tangle from which we have to extricate ourselves in order to maintain civilization.

According to Freud’s quasi-historical and quasi-mythical accounts in Totem and Taboo and Civilization and Its Discontents, the incest taboo is the foundation stone of civilization; all other taboos and laws were derived from this restraint (Freud, 1930, p. 100). 'Incest is anti-social and civilization consists of a progressive renunciation of it' (p. 60). Consists. The primal horde's restraint of the father was the basis of the totemic system, and this restriction is perpetually at risk and in need of reinforcement (pp. 100-01). This initially implausible claim has become increasingly credible, partly as a consequence of the growing exposure of the incidence of child sexual abuse and partly as the theme of ‘Oedipus Rex’ and ‘Hamlet’ have been seen as fundamental to the motivations and symbolism of civilization, for example, in Otto Rank’s classical study of The Incest Theme in Literature and Legend. (1912; see also Jones, 1949; Rudnytsky, 1987; Young, 1993-94)

According to Freud, the act of murdering the rapacious father gave rise, not only to totemism and thereby to civilization but also, to the basis of the Oedipus complex and the experience of guilt: 'We cannot get away from the assumption that man's sense of guilt springs from the Oedipus complex and was acquired at the killing of the father by the brothers banded together' (Freud, 1930, p. 131).

People are innately aggressive. 'Man is a wolf to other men' and hence must be tamed by institutions (p. 111; Gay, 1988, p. 546). The constitutional inclination to aggression is the greatest hindrance or impediment to civilization (Freud, 1930, pp. 129, 142). It is in this context that the space within which civilization occurs is described as bounded by the great opposition between love and destructiveness. 'Civilization is a process in the service of Eros, whose purpose is to combine single human individuals, and after that families, then races, peoples and nations, into one great unity, the unity of mankind... But man's aggressive instinct, the hostility of each against all and all against each, opposes this programme of civilization' (p. 122). The aggressive instinct is derivative of the death instinct. 'The history of civilization is the struggle between Eros and Death. It is what all life essentially consists of' (Ibid.).

This is a dour doctrine: life consists of - is - a struggle between love and destructiveness. Civilization consists of renunciation. He says elsewhere that 'love and necessity are the parents of civilization' (p. 101). We live our lives in a space between the two great meta-instincts, and the main forces at work are rapacious sexual and destructive instincts, guilt, renunciation and sublimation.

In a moment I am going to jump from my exposition of the ideas of the founder of psychoanalysis to some of its most recent original thinkers. Those who may thought Melanie Klein's renderings of the Death Instinct too pessimistic did not read their Civilization and Its Discontents. She says that the interaction of the life and death instincts governs all of life (Klein, 1958, p. 245).

Once again, guilt is the means civilization employs to inhibit aggressiveness. The aggression is turned from external authority to internal prohibition and makes up the stern conscience or superego (Freud, 1930, p. 123). Freud sees 'the sense of guilt as the most important problem in the development of civilization' and claims 'that the price we pay for our advance in civilization is a loss of happiness through heightening of the sense of guilt'. He calls this 'the final conclusion of our investigation', thus making vivid the juxtaposition of civilization and discontent in his title (p. 134). Peter Gay comments, 'Social institutions are many things for Freud, but above all they are dams against murder, rape, and incest' (Gay, 1988, p. 547).

I want to make a number of observations about Freud's theory of culture or civilization. First and foremost, it is mightily pessimistic and becomes the more so the more carefully one studies it. Peter Gay says, 'Freud's theory of civilization... views life in society as an imposed compromise and hence an essentially insoluble predicament' (p. 547). My own reluctant conclusion is that neither Freud nor Klein is unduly pessimistic, but even if they were, it is extremely important to know not only that the veneer of civilization is thin but just how thin it is.

Putting this point another way, much of the libertarian optimism of the 1960s was based on the — essentially Reichian — belief that underneath our repressed selves lay a wonderfully Edenic innocence waiting to burst forth if we could only free ourselves from the repressive confines of authoritarian society. But what did burst forth when attempts were made to remove repression was the contents of Pandora's Box and a lot of bad behaviour which was aptly criticised as 'the tyranny of structurelessness' (Freeman, 1970). So I've arrived at a point where I'm quite happy to respect the need for boundaries and institutions, though they should not be more repressive than necessary. Care must be taken to distinguish authoritarianism, which it is as important as ever to oppose (and rather more so in some societies), from legitimate containment, which provides a precious framework for living, without which we are lost.

We have seen that the elimination of the primal father is the precondition and the source of energy for all of culture and that the Oedipus complex was the beginning of religion, morality, law, society and art (Gay, 1988, pp. 330, 332). Freud also argues that the development of civilization 'parallels the development of the individual and employs the same methods' (Freud, 1930, p. 144). The same dynamic sources account for individual behaviour and social phenomena (Gay, 1988, p. 312).

The space which Freud gives us for culture is not only fraught and precarious; it is not truly social. That is, his theory is based on a swingeing reductionism. There are no mediations between the inner world and the social and cultural worlds. Freud said of The Future of an Illusion and Civilization and Its Discontents, 'I recognised ever more clearly that the events of human history, the interactions between human nature, cultural development, and the precipitates of primeval experience (as whose representative religion pushes to the fore) are only the reflection of the dynamic conflicts among ego, id, and superego, which psychoanalysis studies in the individual — the same events repeated on a wider stage' (quoted in Gay, p. 547). His biographer concludes, 'He could not have stated the essential unity of his thought any more forcefully' (Ibid.).

The essential claim of psychoanalysis, in Freud and in current work, is that by understanding the most primitive levels of the inner world, we will see what we need to achieve and maintain civilised behaviour in individuals and at every other level of society. I must admit that this often strikes me, as I imagine it does you, as a swingeing reductionism and that social, historical and economic forces cry out for their own levels of legitimacy and causality. Believe it or not, there need be no conflict here if you simply treat such forces as they exert their causality in the unconscious of the individual through the family and the early experiences which deeply predetermine how a person will behave. People who work with disturbed infants and children can trace the early manifestations of perverse mentalities, by which I mean children with characters where the moral order is inverted, where, as Shakespeare put it, ’fair is foul and foul is fair’. A baby of six months who had good relations with its mother and was then deeply traumatised can be seen licking a hard plastic object in an excited way, taking perverse pleasure in its oppositeness from a warm, human object. It can be seen, as it were, torturing the wholesome object.

The characteristics of the perverse have recently been spelled out in some ‘Reflections on Perverse States of Mind’ (Waddell and Williams, 1991). Perversion of character involves ‘the distortion and misuse of psychic and external reality: the slaughter of truth’ (p. 203). Perverse states of mind involve ‘a negativistic caricature of object relations’. There is an unconscious ‘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...’ The authors report the case of a child of four who was devoted to destructiveness and would say to his therapist, ‘I want to eat pooh food and to grow up and live dying.’ He was ‘enslaved to an anti-developmental alliance with a destructive part of the self which he idealised’ (p. 204). His inner world was in the thrall of a negativistic caricature of relations with loved objects (p. 206).

One of the things which psychoanalysis has to say to the law is that the hardest nuts who come through the legal system again and again and often from an early age are recapitulating infantile sates of mind of the kind I have just sketched. Violent anti-social acting out means that they cannot call in their inner worlds on the kind of containment of frustration, aggression and violent feeling which Freud called repression and which in most of us can be diverted by sublimation into aggressive sports, hobbies or kept within the verbal realm. Another thing psychoanalysis has to say is that such people can be helped, but the possibility of helping them significantly means the earlier the better and the more therapeutic the environment the better. They lack something which is the birthright of every child but which is damaged in perverse people. The mother-infant interaction, when it works, takes the violent feelings of the child from the child and into the mother, who contains the distress, detoxifies the desperate feelings of the infant and feeds them back in due course in a form which can be borne and thought about. This is also what is done in psychoanalytic psychotherapy. Make no mistake, it works with perverse children. I am thinking, for example, of a workshop in London run by a psychoanalyst, Eileen Vizard, for children who have sexually abused other children. None of the children treated in this project has so far re-offended. They move from the relatively intractable syndrome where the symptom is linked to orgasm to a more depressed state. They act out less and suffer more. That is, they learn to contain their impulses. It has been estimated that the average paedophile will abuse 380 children over a lifetime (National Childrens’ Home Report, 1991), this means that a great deal of pain and violence is headed off. I find this figure hard to credit, though I am assured of its legitimacy, but even if it is an exaggeration, much suffering can be prevented. I should also mention that one third of sexual abuse is committed by young people. It has recently been estimated that there are 1.1 million sexual abusers in the United Kingdom. Here is how Nick Davies arrived at this figure:


No one knows the exact numbers, but to construct a picture is to watch an arithmetical explosion. Start with a hard fact. At the last count, there were 2,100 child sex abusers behind the bars of British jails. Now think of all those who have previously been convicted but who have been released back into the community. You have to multiply by 50: according to the Home Office Research Department, there are 108,000 convicted paedophiles in the community. Now, think of all the child victims who are conned and confused and never report their abuse in the first place; and all those cases which are reported but which fall short of the demands of the courts; and all those cases of rape and indecent assault which are convicted but which are not statistically recorded as crimes against children. At the most conservative estimate, the NSPCC and specialist police agree with studies here and in the US, that the official figures for convictions record no more than 10 per cent of the paedophile population. Which means that today in Britain, there are probably 1.1 million paedophiles at large. Other studies suggest that the figure is very much higher.

This vast scale appears to be confirmed by 'prevalence studies' which take samples of the population and establish how many were childhood victims of sexual abuse. In the UK, the US, Germany, Switzerland and Australia, studies consistently find that around 20 per cent of women and around 8 per cent of men suffered sexual abuse as children. In the current population of UK children, that would cover 1.5 million girls and 520,000 boys, a figure that is consistent with the projection of 1.1 million offenders (Davies, 1998).

Aside from the many other reasons why this figure or something very near to it is important, I suggest that it means that we will not significantly reduce sexual abuse by means which are primarily retributive and custodial. I am arguing here, as I am throughout this paper, that we need to think in therapeutic terms in order to make any impact on this whole area of human behaviour.

Psychotherapy also works in therapeutic communities for adolescents who have gone through the juvenile detention system and are lucky enough to get into certain therapeutic institutions. I am thinking of the Cotswold Community in England and of other ones, e.g., Peper Harrow and New Barns School, both of which were unreasonably closed. They had remarkable results, measured by lowered recidivism rates, in some cases moving from 80% recidivism to 80% non-recidivism. The statistics for successful outcomes in therapeutic communities for adults are also significant improvements as compared with comparable people in the general prison population.

Psychoanalytic theory has things to say to the law, in theory, as well as in practice. Melanie Klein wrote a paper in 1946 which purports to spell out the basis in the infant’s development of all aggressive relationships. She concludes seven pages on the fine texture of early paranoid and schizoid mechanisms as follows:


So far, in dealing with persecutory fear, I have singled out the oral element. However, while the oral libido still has the lead, libidinal and aggressive impulses and phantasies from other sources come to the fore and lead to a confluence of oral, urethral and anal desires, both libidinal and aggressive. Also the attacks on the mother's breast develop into attacks of a similar nature on her body, which comes to be felt as it were as an extension of the breast, even before the mother is conceived of as a complete person. The phantasied onslaughts on the mother follow two main lines: one is the predominantly oral impulse to suck dry, bite up, scoop out and rob the mother's body of its good contents... The other line of attack derives from the anal and urethral impulses and implies expelling dangerous substances (excrements) out of the self and into the mother. Together with these harmful excrements, expelled in hatred, split-off parts of the ego are also projected onto the mother or, as I would rather call it, into the mother. [Klein adds a footnote at this crucial point, to the effect that she is describing primitive, pre-verbal processes and that projecting 'into another person' seems to her 'the only way of conveying the unconscious process I am trying to describe'.] These excrements and bad parts of the self are meant not only to injure but also to control and to take possession of the object. In so far as the mother comes to contain the bad parts of the self, she is not felt to be a separate individual but is felt to be the bad self.

'Much of the hatred against parts of the self is now directed towards the mother. This leads to a particular form of identification which establishes the prototype of an aggressive object-relation' (Klein, 1946, pp. 7-8).

Note carefully that we have here the model — the template, the fundamental experience — of all of the aggressive features of human relations. Six years later Klein adds the following sentence: 'I suggest for these processes the term "projective identification"' (ibid.).

She goes on to say that if the infant's impulse is to harm, the mother is experienced as persecuting, and that in psychotic disorders the identification of the object with hated parts of the self 'contributes to the intensity of the hatred directed against other people', that this process weakens the ego, that good parts are also projected and that 'The processes of splitting off parts of the self and projecting them into objects are thus of vital importance for normal development as well as for normal object-relations' (pp. 8-9). In the course of all this, Klein makes it quite clear that the very same processes involve 'anxieties characteristic of psychosis' (p. 2). I am relating these matters in the way that I am in order to make it apparent that the very same mechanisms are at work in a wide range of internal processes.

It has become apparent in subsequent research and clinical work that projective identification, an unconscious process, is the fundamental mechanism involved in all communication. We project something out, evoke a response in others, and the feedback loop goes round and round. However, when the inner world is disturbed, we can distort the response to feed a preconception. We can even impute a response where there has been none or none to speak of. That’s how Brer Rabbit lost the use of each of his legs as the Tar Baby did not respond to his increasingly winding himself up. Projective identification is an evocative mechanism. We project something into another, unconsciously putting it into them and willing them to identify and give us back what we accuse them of, hope for, fear in ourselves. In its extreme forms it is the basis of romantic love, of a pop fan’s adulation, of the reverie between mother and baby. But, in its virulent forms, projective identification can be joined with splitting, stereotyping and scapegoating and forms the basis of racism, gangs and virulent nationalism. How otherwise can we treat fellow humans as if they were monsters, animals, sub-human. How else, indeed, can our gang, our soldiers, our Serbs or Croats or Muslim fundamentalists, our Stealth Bomber pilots and missile launchers do what they do.

To become a member of a neighbourhood, community, nation, gang, cult, fraternity, religion, or other belief system is to be socialised into its complex system of projective identifications. These constitute identity and the coastlines of we-theys which makes us ‘one of us’. This counts for street gangs and the Mafia, too.

The unbearable and unacceptable parts of the group and the individual may be wishes, fears, idealisations, denigrations. When they get split off and projected into others, anxiety in the self and the group is diminished. When the others take them up and behave according to the stereotype, the projection is vindicated: in the 'lazy nigger', the 'cunning yid', the 'crazy/lazy/drunken Indian', the 'fanatical Arab', the cunning Jamaican taxi driver, the retaliating gang. Both sides then live on in a set of mutual projections and reprojections. Those involved in racism are among the most virulent in human nature. They rank with, and often combine with, torture, murder, foetocide, genocide — the most violent and snarling expressions of spite, perversity and cruel depravity. I am thinking of rape, castration, bayoneting, lynching, gassing, extermination and related forms of behaviour toward inferiorised peoples such as blacks, Tamils, Jews, Indians, Palestinians, Protestants, Catholics, Kurds, Armenians, Bosnians, Muslims, Croatians.

Racism is also a close integration between socio-economic, historical, and unconscious forces at work in the individual. It is an illusion of a naturally determined social differentiation between racial collectives which serves to justify a particularly violent relationship of domination and subordination. If we adopt this position it becomes clear that slavery was not born of racism but that racism was the consequence of slavery and its sequellae: brown, white, black, yellow, Italian, Chinese, Irish and so on. The economic and social relationship comes first and finds plenty of scope for mediation through individual human psychic processes. According to Banton (1987), the first evidence of English racism lay in the eighteenth century among Barbados planters who found it convenient to describe their slave workers as beasts without souls. Slavery came first; racism was its rationalisation.

As Joel Kovel tells it in his study of White Racism, those dark-skinned Africans were treated as descendants of Ham, the son of Noah. According to the Bible, Ham looked upon his father naked and had failed to cover the old man, though his brothers had done so. Ham's punishment was that his son Chus (or Canaan) and all his descendants would be black and would be banished from his sight. The crime of Ham — as the Hebraic and early Christian commentators understood perfectly well — was not merely disrespect. It was the castration of the father — the violent rejection of paternal authority and the acquisition of the father's sexual choice. The blackening and banishing of Ham's progeny is the retaliatory castration by the higher Father, God. The transgression which is used to rationalise racism was putatively an Oedipal one.

What is non-white and banished cannot be seen. The long-term consequence of this was, according to Franz Fanon, that in every civilised and civilising country, the non-white, usually the Negro but also the Native American or the East Indian or Pakistani, is the symbol of sin. Whatever is forbidden and horrifying in human nature gets designated as ’black’ and projected onto a man whose dark skin and oppressed past fit him to receive the symbols. The id becomes the referent of blackness within the personality, and the various trends within the id make themselves realised in the world as the forms of blackness embodied in the fantasies of race (Kovel, 1970, pp. 63-66).

Victor Wolfenstein points out that the relationship remains dialectical. It grips the oppressor and the oppressed. In his excellent biography of Malcolm X (the best book on racism I have read), Wolfenstein spells out the relationship as follows: 'Stating the point more generally, we may say the black identity (like any other externally imposed and therefore stereotypically limited identity) is a character-form of group-emotion, determined through the mediation of identification with the oppressor. Conscience and consciousness are both whitened out, and blackness becomes firmly attached to unacceptable, predominantly aggressive, infantile emotional impulses. Black people and white people alike come to have a character-structure in which the I, including the moral I, is white, and the id or It is black or at least non-white. Within this relationship, non-white people can think of themselves as fully human only by denying their true racial identity, while white people secure their humanity only at the price of non-white dehumanisation. Thus the concept of the emotional-group here emerges in the form of a dominating-dominated intergroup relationship. In this relationship the repressed sadistic tendencies of the dominating group become the self-hatred, the masochistic tendency, of the dominated group. Conversely, the alienated self-esteem of the dominated group becomes the narcissism of the dominating one. And through the work of secondary elaboration or rationalisation, the members of both groups are held firmly in the grip of a stereotypical false consciousness' (Wolfenstein, 1981, p. 145).

Kovel says that racism, 'far from being a simple delusion of a bigoted and ignorant minority, is a set of beliefs whose structure arises from the deepest levels of our lives — from the fabric of assumptions we make about the world, ourselves and others and from the patterns of fundamental social activities' (Kovel, l970, p. 3). The racial Other is the negation of the socially-affirmed self (p. xxix). We reduce the racial object to an alien Other — not me, not human, not clean, not inhibited, not civilised, not whatever I cannot bear or allow in myself.

He breaks racism into a number of subdivisions. Dominative racism is the direct oppressive relationship of the southern American states. Aversive racism is the exclusion and cold-shouldering of blacks and other minorities in the northern states. Metaracism is the product of an economic and technocratic society. He describes the historical transitions from dominative to aversive to metaracism as parallel to development from slavery to feudalism to industrialisation.

The end of slavery and the arrival of nominal desegregation has not improved certain aspects of the lot of blacks in America. In the decades after the American Civil War, there were 4000 recorded lynchings of black people, who were often hung in groups on festive occasions. Lynchings were ritual occasions, community festivals with magical associations: the fingers, toes and private parts of the victims were highly-prized, as were the links of the chains which bound them and the ropes which strangled them (Buckser, 1992, pp. 18, 22, 23). It was a respectable thing to belong to the Ku Klux Klan and in some communities still is. It was celebrated in the first feature film, ‘Birth of A Nation’, Woodrow Wilson admired it, and a Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court was at one time a member. I met members of the Klan while working in a Ford factory in the mid-1950s.

Moving ahead to recent times, black incomes have fallen relatively since 1970, and unemployment rose relatively by five per cent, while that of young people reached fifty per cent. The chances of a black person dying of alcoholism are three times that of a white person. The number of homicides is five times that of whites. The number of blacks in prison is a multiple of their percentage of the population. One quarter of young black men is in jail, on probation or otherwise under the control of the law. A black man in Harlem has less chance of living to fifty than the inhabitants of Bangladesh (Sunday Times 4 March 1990, p. A18). Similar misfortunes apply to the relationship between black people and the British mental health services. A black person is twice as likely as a white to be diagnosed psychotic, to be locked away against his or her will (‘sectioned’) and to be given drugs forcibly. The chance of being hospitalised is three times that of a white person (‘Hear Say’, BBC2, 28 August 1991).

The plight of the Native US and Canadian 'Indian' is worse and has been dreadful from the moment of 'discovery' of America. (The inverted commas refer to recent recognition that non-European explorers had reached the Western World long before Columbus did in 1492. See Carew, 1988. Moreover, since the country was inhabited, it didn’t need to be discovered.). Colonialism and racism were integrally related from the start and decimated red and black and then other peoples:


Modern colonialism, which began with the European rediscovery of the Americas de-civilised vast areas of the world. It began with a holocaust against Native Americans, twelve million of whom died in the first forty years of the Colombian era, continued against Africans, two hundred million of whom were estimated to have died in the Atlantic slave trade (nine million perished on the ships alone), and then there were countless deaths of Asian peoples as colonialism gained momentum (Carew, 1988, p.38).

These figures do not include the march West of the American Frontier, which completed the devastation of the Native American way of life. This has been called the longest undeclared war in history. The scale of the carnage was unprecedented in world history and remains unparalleled.

In addition to cultural degradation there is an erosion of the taboos at the foundation of civilization. Eighty per cent of the people in prison in Manitoba are aboriginals. When I last visited Manitoba I met the white doctor, Charles Ferguson, who was responsible for the welfare of Native Canadian children. He told me that there are whole communities where every member has been sexually abused by whites or natives or both and that the practice can be traced through many generations. More recently I have read about an ambitious and successful scheme for therapy and re-education among sexually abusing Indians at Hollow Water First Nation Reserve in Manitoba, where the Community Holistic Circle Healing employs a mixture of counselling and the threat of social ostracism in a community where 75% of the population of 1500 had been abused and 35% were abusers. Of the fifty people treated in this programme since 1991, only two have re-offended, and this model is being extended to Canadian and American prisons (Wheelwright, 1998). I note once again that with degradation of the norms of civilization comes the breaking of the incest taboo. I also note that racism and sexual abuse are psychoanalytically understandable bedfellows, just as racism and murder are, as was shown in lynching and in the recent dragging to death on the end of a chain of an innocent black man by white supremacists in East Texas. He was just walking down the road, and they offered him a ride and gratuitously killed him.

So, in both individuals and groups, projective identification is a primitive mechanism by which communication and our identities are formed and maintained for good and ill. The job of civilisation is to achieve moderate projective identifications. Murderers have virulent ones. My colleague Arthur Hyatt Williams has just published a book, Cruelty, Violence and Murder (1998), in which his decades of psychoanalytic work with murderers in prison is summed up in a whole series of stories of projective identification. Here is one. A man is sitting a train and unaccountably attacks the woman sitting opposite him, someone he has never met before. It emerges in his analysis that this man, whose job it was to clean cat’s eyes in the highway, has been rejected by his girlfriend, because her mother thought his job too menial. In his desperate grief, sitting there pondering this woman whom he believes to be staring at him like cat’s eyes, she is the rejecting mother, who so persecutes him that he absolutely must put out those eyes. He stabs her in the eyes and kills her. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth had similar desperate needs to kill off imagined enemies.

In preparing to give this talk I gathered some data about prisoners and mental illness and about the prevalence of some phenomena. A very high percentage are dyslexic and thereby effectively excluded from print culture.

A recent report on psychiatric morbidity among prisoners in England and Wales concluded,


A large proportion of all prisoners had several mental disorders. Only one in ten or fewer showed no evidence of any of the five disorders considered in the survey (personality disorder, psychosis, neurosis, alcohol misuse and drug dependence) and no more than two out of ten in any sample group had only one disorder. Rates for multiple disorders were higher among remand than sentenced prisoners (ONS Summary Report, p. 23).


Eighty per cent of Russian husbands beat their wives. From my work supervising psychotherapy cases in Bulgaria I would say it is about the same there. Sexual abuse committed against young people in residential settings is coming to light more and more in many countries. People who are sexually or physically abused or are the children of alcoholics are highly likely to manifest the same untoward behaviour in the next generation. Looking elsewhere, to the (East) Indian subcontinent, a recent survey alleges that up to three quarters of upper class and middle class young women have been sexually abused, most often by a member of their own family. Ninety-five per cent of women who cut themselves in a secure hospital in the North of England have been sexually abused. I conclude that violence, especially sexual violence, is very widespread, and we will not eliminate it solely by punitive attitudes and imprisonment. We have to understand and change these ways of behaving at the deepest level of motivation in the perpetrators’ inner worlds.

I want to dwell, as I near my conclusion, on a matter which was on the front page of the Winnipeg press on the day I arrived, just as it often is in the British press: the idea that crazy people are inappropriately let out and that the public is seriously at risk from ’homicidal maniacs’. In fact and contrary to popular belief, a recent study of homicides in England and Wales shows that the number of convictions of people considered mentally disordered is not rising but falling and is currently half of that in 1979, before the mental asylums were closed and patients were turfed out into the streets. Compared with all killings, the number committed by mentally ill people is falling even faster. The proportion has dropped from almost half in 1960 to little more than one in ten today. Although convictions for homicide have risen five-fold since the early 1950s to more than 500, the number involving mentally disordered defendants has fallen to about 60. Pamela Taylor and John Gunn, professors at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, are the authors of this research, drawn from Home Office figures. They conclude that the likelihood of being killed by a mentally disordered person is probably less than that of winning the National Lottery. Even then, the victim is likely to be a relative or friend. There is a slightly increased risk of being killed by a stranger but that stranger is very unlikely, indeed, to be mentally ill. The reason that the public has a different impression is that the sensationalist tabloid newspapers make headline news out of practically every case of a killing by a mentally ill person. Sensatioalism sells papers, and what is more sensational (as horror films repeatedly show) than a mad killer running amok? The public concern which is thereby whipped up led the British government to call for an independent enquiry into every case (Brindle, 1999).

What does all this add up to? I will conclude with a small number of points. First, it behoves us to understand how people become violent, racist, abusing transgressors of the veneer of civilization, especially those who come before the criminal justice system. Second, people who become uncivil are in the grip of regressions to very primitive mechanisms and are highly prone to recapitulate and act out traumatic structures in their inner worlds. These are are increasingly well-understood in psychoanalytic research on infants and children. The key insight in this work is the extent to which we all remain in the grip of primitive, psychotic processes, ones which most of us manage — just — to contain and/or sublimate. The key people in this work are Klein, Wilfred Bion, Donald Winnicott and clinicians working in the tradition which they inaugurated. In consequence, we are increasingly able to see that, for example, the two boys who murdered Jeremy Bulger in Britain are not merely monsters, any more than Leopold and Loeb were when they did so on Chicago in the 1920s. They are not beyond our comprehension. Even serial killers such as Denis Nilson, John Wayne Gacy and Anatoly Onoprienko, a Ukranian sailor who killed 52 people, shows no signs of remorse and is now on trial (Whitehouse, 1998), are amenable to psychodynamic understanding (210 serial killers are listed on the web at http://members.xoom.com/tusko/index.htm). If they can be understood, they can in many cases be helped, the younger the better, of course. This is being proven in practice in several centres inside and outside prisons.

There is a relatively newly-established discipline called forensic psychotherapy. It has produced its first substantial collection of essays, subtitled ‘Crime, Psychodynamics and the Offender Patient’ (Cordess and Cox, 1996), and a new series in this field is to be published by Karnac books and edited by Brett Khar. I was privileged to be taught by two of the pioneers of this approach, R. D. Hinshelwood and Arthur Hyatt-Williams. One of the editors of that collection, Professor Christopher Cordess, a psychoanalyst, is a colleague of mine, attached to the Sheffield University Department of Forensic Psychiatry.

My basic point, once again, is that forensic psychotherapy can, without claiming to be a panacea, both illuminate and help people whom we are tempted to treat only with horrified incomprehension and retribution. The crime rate inside British prisons is eight times that in the general population I get to hear in supervision and from the couch quite a lot about the insides of prisons. One supervisee recently told me that in prison it is less risky to take heroin than marijuana, both of which are, of course, plentifully available, since the test for the latter can trace it for up to two months, so it is, in an important sense, thought less risky to use heroin. The current rate of HIV infection in jails is astronomical — for obvious reasons. Eighty-three imprisoned people committed suicide in England and Wales in 1998, an increase of a quarter over the previous year. Many were on remand, convicted of nothing. Nine were youngsters; one was fifteen. Surely we can do better than this.


This is the text of a talk given to the Faculty of Law of the University of Manitoba on 13 January 1999. I would like to thank the following people for helping me to prepare it: Margot Waddell, Graeme Farquarson, Brett Kahr, Christopher Cordess, Rita Aylward, Em Farrell.



(Place of publication is London unless otherwise specified.)


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Address for correspondence: 26 Freegrove Road, London N7 9RQ

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