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On the Dynamics of a Frightening Urge and its Taming

Tomas Böhm and Suzanne Kaplan, London: Karnac (2011).

FOREWORD BY Vamık D. Volkan

Tomas Böhm and Suzanne Kaplan state that revenge is an essential factor in the psychological interplay between victim and perpetrator. An individual or a group of individuals initiate shame, humiliation, helplessness, and complicated mourning in a person who becomes traumatized and preoccupied with revenge fantasies. Sometimes these victimized persons commit acts motivated by revenge. The response of all trauma victims will be intertwined with what already exists within their internal worlds—what kinds of unconscious fantasies, mental conflicts, defenses and resilience they have. But this fact does not change the role of an external traumatizing event initiated by another human being, or a small or large group of them, in the appearance of trauma-related affects, revenge fantasies or actions.

The authors remind us that the revenge motif appears in literature, such as ancient Greek drama and Shakespeare’s plays, which is no surprise, as we notice it almost daily in our all-too-human individual and collective behavior. In spite of this, psychoanalysis has not provided us with sufficient examination and understanding of this motif. I will suggest some reasons for this relative neglect.

In his early efforts to develop psychoanalytic theories, Sigmund Freud gave up the idea that the sexual seduction of children came from the external world, and instead focused on the stimuli that comes from the child’s own wishes and fantasies for formation psychopathology. Since early psychoanalysts followed this tradition, classical psychoanalysis accepted this de-emphasis on actual seduction coming from the external world when considering the developing child’s psyche and generalized it to include de-emphasis on the role of traumatic external events for all their patients (Volkan 2006a). This de-emphasis resulted in the evolution of clinical psychoanalysis primarily as an investigate tool of an individual’s internal world with explanations about individual’s own psychological processes in forming it. This, I believe, was a reason for inhibiting, relatively speaking, the investigation of revenge fantasies and actions in clinical practice and the targeting of the instigators of the patient’s traumatizing events.

I thought of another reason for the neglect by psychoanalysis of revenge-inducing traumatizing events, this time on a societal level. It came to me in 2006 when it was Austria’s turn to lead the European Union. Austria declared that year to be the Year of Mozart and the Year of Freud, and I had the honor to be the Fulbright-Sigmund Freud Privatstiftung Visiting Scholar of Psychoanalysis in Vienna at this time, which included teaching political psychology at the University of Vienna for a semester and an office at 19 Berggasse. While working in Freud’s house for four months trying to organize an international meeting between psychoanalysts and diplomats to celebrate Freud’s 100th birthday, I pictured him at this same location as the Nazis were coming to power. I wondered about his response to a letter written to him by Albert Einstein in 1932, a year before Adolf Hitler became the dictator of Germany. Einstein asked if there is a way of delivering mankind from the menace of war and wondered how it is possible for a small group of power-hungry persons to bed the will of the majority and make them suffer a war (Freud 1932). Anti-Semitism surrounded Freud at that time. Was his pessimistic response to Einstein an attempt to deny the impending danger to himself, his family and neighbors? I came to the conclusion that this might be true even though, of course, he was conscious of what was happening in Europe. As Peter Loewenberg (1991) and Leo Rangell (2003) remind us, some aspects of a large-group history induce anxiety.

Freud’s pessimism about the role of psychoanalysis in large-group issues and in interventions for preventing wars that appears in his response to Einstein’s letter was mirrored by many of his followers. This, I think, has also played a key role in limiting for a long time the contributions psychoanalysis can make to understanding traumatizing external massive movements and large-group conflicts such as ethnic, national, religious and ideological conflicts, even though some analysts such as Edward Glower (1947), Franco Fornari (1966), Robert Waelder (1971), Alexander Mitscherlich and Margarete Mitscherlich (Mitscherlich A. 1971; Mitscherlich and Mitscherlich 1975) tried to open doors to such investigations.

This reluctance certainly played out in the clinical setting. Melanie Klein (1961), for example, did not pay attention to the war when she treated a ten-year-old boy named Richard in 1941. Harold Blum’s (1985) description of a Jewish patient who came to him for re-analysis illustrates the extent to which mutual resistances may prevail when both the analyst and the analysand belong to the same large group that has been massively traumatized by an external historical event. Blum’s patient’s first analyst, who was also Jewish, failed to “hear” their large group’s shared trauma at the hands of the Nazis in his analysand’s material.

I wonder how many Jewish analysts after World War II were like Blum’s patient’s former analyst and how many of them, without being aware of it, influenced the application of psychoanalytic treatment in a way that tended to ignore Holocaust-related external reality. I suggest that some of them who were very influential in the field of psychoanalysis, both in the US and elsewhere, exaggerated their bias in favor of a theoretical position called “classical analysis” that focused only on modifying the analysand’s internal wishes, fantasies, mental conflicts, and defenses without giving much attention to external realities (Volkan 2006a). We now know that in post-World War II Germany as well, there has been both German and German-Jewish analyst-supported (unconscious) resistance to exploring the intertwining of internal and external wars and the influence of Holocaust-related issues on analysands’ psyches (for a review see Volkan, Ast and Greer 2002).

During recent decades, psychoanalytic approaches to trauma studies and trauma-related affects that Böhm and Kaplan also explore have changed drastically, although it is beyond the scope of this Foreword to review developments within psychoanalysis during this time period that encouraged studies on individual and shared traumas, their consequences, and their transgenerational transmissions. Certainly in recent decades we have seen—and still see—many impactful events and circumstances that affect large-group identity: large-group conflicts in Africa, the Middle East, Northern Ireland, India, South America, Korean peninsula, the collapse of the Soviet Union and former Yugoslavia, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, widespread terrorism, divisions between an “Islamic world” and “Western world,” globalization and economic difficulties. These and other realities have forced many large groups to ask “Who are we now?” Large-group regression, increased externalizations and projections that support bad prejudice, increased narcissistic investment in large-group identities and killing in the name of such identities (Volkan 1988, 1997, 2006) have spread in many locations in the world. These external situations have been key factors in inducing and perhaps forcing a trend among some psychoanalysts to move beyond the couch. Böhm and Kaplan, both psychoanalysts, have been among the pioneers following this trend with their work and research on societal issues, adult children of the Holocaust, extreme traumatization, and education enriched by psychological studies.

At the present time psychoanalysis is no longer hesitant to explore traumatizing external events caused by ethnic, national, religious or political large groups that utilize revengeful ideologies. After the September 11, 2001 tragedies, the International Psychoanalytic Association (IPA) formed the Terror and Terrorism Study Group. Norwegian analyst Sverre Varvin chaired this study group that lasted for several years (Varvin and Volkan 2003). The American Psychoanalytic Association established a committee on the United Nations that still functions. The theme of the 44th Annual Meeting of the IPA in Rio de Janeiro in the summer of 2005 was “trauma,” including individual trauma and shared trauma due to historical events where Böhm and Kaplan presented their ongoing work on the revenge phenomenon. There has been impressive scholarship as well: Raphael Moses (1982) examined the Arab-Israeli conflict from a psychoanalytic point of view. Michael Śebek (1994) studied societal responses to living under communism in Europe. Sudhir Kakar (1996) described the revenge–filled effects of Hindu-Muslim religious conflict in Hyderabad, India. Mitch Elliott, Kenneth Bishop and Paul Stokes (2004) and John Alderdice (2010) examined the situation in Northern Ireland. Nancy Hollander (1997) explored events in South America and later (Hollander 2010) in the United States after September 11, 2001.

My own studies on large-group conflicts go back to 1979 when I wrote about two ethnic groups in conflict in Cyprus. Since then I have written about the Arab-Israeli conflict, psychological processes in the Baltic Republics after independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Serbian group psychology after the former Yugoslavia was gone, the psychology of Albanians following the death of dictator Enver Hodxa, Kuwaiti responses to the invasion by Saddam Hussein’s forces, the Georgian-South Ossetian conflict, the Turkish-Greek as well as Turkish-Armenian relationships, the psychology of extreme religious fundamentalism and the psychology of suicide bombers (Volkan 1988, 1997, 2004, 2006; Volkan and Kayatekin 2006; Volkan and Itzkowitz 1994).

Analysts’ contributions to the understanding and consequences of external traumatic events have been accompanied by two other developments.

The first development is this: Some analysts are leaving their couches behind and actually examining the consequences of traumatizing events in their neighborhoods, women shelters, refugee camps and in foreign locations where massive murders, rapes and other unspeakable disasters have taken place. This is very important since it may be impossible to have a comprehensive understanding of massive traumatic events and the development of entitlement ideologies connected with affects, thoughts and actions linked to the revenge motif.

The second development refers to some analysts’ genuine interest in working with scholars and researchers from other disciplines. I believe that no one discipline can explain and attempt to find adaptive solutions to man-made, deliberate massive disasters occurring now in our globalized and turbulent world.

These two developments are rather new for psychoanalysts. Tomas Böhm and Suzanne Kaplan emerge in this book as models for taking psychoanalytic investigations beyond the couch and collaborating with knowledgeable and experienced persons who are not psychoanalysts in order to understand various types of traumas, revenge motifs and to find counterweights against revenge-taking by individuals and societies. In 2003 and 2004 they made two research trips to Rwanda. As they remind us, in 2003 18 of Africa’s countries were either involved in or just ending armed conflicts. In 1994 genocide had already occurred in Rwanda, and in this book they tell moving stories of people they met and interviewed there, a place where the revenge motif had gotten out of hand, most inhumane acts were performed, and within 100 days between 800,000 and 1,000,000 Rwandans were killed.

Could the victims’ wish to retaliate be considered pathological, and in what way? How could victims find self-esteem, restoration and justice? How can outside experts who came to Rwanda and worked there for a long time, such as my old friend social psychologist Erwin Staub whose work in Rwanda was very much appreciated by Böhm and Kaplan, deal with the unbelievable consequences of an unbelievable disaster? How do experts from different cultures learn to appreciate local customs of helping traumatized persons?

Reading this book, one quickly senses the authors’ intense sensitivity about what they had witnessed in Rwanda after the genocide while keeping their professional curiosity intact. They report that their two research trips to Rwanda initiated the writing of this book in order to examine the phenomenon of revenge and bring necessary attention to it. While they provide us moving stories from Rwanda to explain the revenge motif and related issues, this book is not only about events in Rwanda or societal trauma connected with revenge.

With references to literature, movies, history, gender issues and psychoanalytic theories, they examine the revenge motif, share their experiences in Sweden and elsewhere with individuals, couples, teenage gangs, schools, and “bystanders” who passively watch others’ misery. They refer to religious fundamentalism, examine the difference between “trauma linking” and “generational linking” among people and deal with the concept of forgiveness and strategies for treatment. Their flowing style makes this book easy to read not only for the professionals dealing with trauma affects, but also for anyone in the general public interested in learning about these dark, as well as hopeful, aspects of human nature.

With Böhm and Kaplan’s Revenge - On The Dynamics of A Frightening Urge And Its Taming, we now have a comprehensive study of the revenge motif as well as of what can be done to tame consequences of revengeful actions and find alternatives to taking these actions in the first place.


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