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Society, Trauma and Solidarity
Frozen memories, avoided memories:
difficulties in the therapeutic relationship with the victims of torture
Anna Sabatini Scalmati
EFPP - Rome, October 1-3 1999
Third European Conference on Child and Adolescent Psychoanalytic Psychoterapy
The object of the psychoanalytical situation is the analysis of the mind, of the forces that govern and sometime unbalance it towards psychosis and the flight from external reality. Every day during the therapeutic relationship we have to deal with the violence of the life of the psyche, the violence of drives and that between psychic agencies, the violence of oneiric representations, of defences etc.
The therapeutic setting has realised a set of technical devices - transference, free Association, the rule of abstinence and so on - to prevent the analysis of psychic reality from being distracted, taken off course, by the events of the outer world and from losing the specificity of its own basic area of research.
But the violence of History, of the Political State, of the Economic Order bursts frequently into the subject' life, and a violent fracture dissolves the gap between the psychic world and external reality. In these cases other points of view and problematic levels go alongside the dialectic concept of the complexity of the psyche, of it proceeding in a non linear way, with the metamorphosis between internal and external, actual and non actual, present and past.
Psychoanalysis inscribes the formation of psychic reality in the conflict between drives and psychic agencies and with the ties of the subject' family relationships. But, events such as wars, concentration camps, Shoah, ethnic cleansing, the nuclear holocaust, torture - which cannot be explained either by the intra-psychic area or by inter-personal relationships, but by the space which links the subject to his social environment or the historical conditions in which he lives - what effect does all this have on the psyche? And if there is, in fact, an effect, what happens in the web of representations and defences in the mind?
These considerations are present when the therapeutic work deals with the Victims of torture: institutionalised violence and horror.
In this work I present the Syndrome of Survivors of extreme situations. In the first place I discuss the peculiarities of this syndrome, that in general terms can be registered into the traumatic neurosis, and then I direct my attention to the legacy of the devastation of the mind, and especially to the theatre of memory
Some considerations about torture
Torture is a programmed, deliberate offence committed to the body and mind of an individual with the declared aim of annihilating him. The tortured person, who is completely secluded from 'civilised' society, is exposed to cruelty and is obliged to be helplessly present at the murder of people close to him, is repeatedly declared guilty and held to be solely responsible for the suffering he is undergoing.
Torture is an experience, in which the borders between life and death are repeatedly blurred. Within very few hours the psychophysical state of an individual is utterly and artificially altered.
Torture happens under the permission of a system. We don't have to see in the torturers' sadistic acts, in their unexpected bursts of libido and blind brutality, perverse people, even though they may be so. This is not the essential point; but the fact that there is a power behind them which is completely devoid of an ethical code, and makes the executioners of their rules - trained in schools where the teachers are doctors, psychologists and engineers - utterly insensitive to any moral doubt and any form of compassion. Among the different ways of diluting the Super Ego, alcohol, power and sex, the most effective is certainly that of giving all responsibility to the leader.
Torture is a way of branding a person. The body becomes the memory of visible and invisible scars, of execrable penetrations which have pierced the barrier between inside and outside, invading and violating the victim' most secret and private inner space; this invariably results in an unspeakable sense of shame produced by the memory of humiliating forced sexual intercourse in the presence of unspeakably brutal, mocking tortures.
To have a clearer identikit of the victims of torture, we must, first of all, free ourselves of the romantic myth which links the tortured person to heroism, or a new Prometheus, and remember that this is just an ordinary person, a victim of circumstances
Torture in fact is not a selected, shrewd way of repression, a treatment reserved only to single, specific individual, but a way of repression of entire social groups (the Jews, gypsies, homosexuals in Nazi Germany, the population of Cambogia, Chile, Argentina, Algeria, of the countries of ex Yugoslavia, of Ruanda, Congo, Kurdistan etc.).
The massacre of torture is not a foreseen event, even if this is true for some people, but it is an event which unexpectedly endangers the physical and psychic life of an individual.
Specificity of this trauma
Trauma is a violent shock, a sudden quantitative\qualitative acceleration of sensorial and emotional experiences. There is psychic trauma when the protective barrier of the psyche is forced, and the quantity\quality of outer stimuli goes into the psychic apparatus, and a more or less reversible disorganisation occurs in it.
A baby is potentially exposed to trauma to a considerable degree, on account of the immaturity of his mental apparatus and his dependence on the person who takes care of him. A baby' emotions, as they are primitive, can be dangerous; in the adult this is not so. His emotions can be threatening but do not overwhelm the integrative and executive functions of the Ego. He suffers trauma only if an event causes a sensorial and effective burden such as to humiliate his defences, leaving him helpless and powerless.
The trauma under examination gives rise to emotional difficulties and complexities to which we should give some consideration.
The violence and outrage of torture bring about a state of terror in the victim, an anguish which can spread from the torturer to all human relationships, harming the most primeval ties with the objects on which the life of the mind, the organisation of thought and social life are founded, causing the victim to withdraw in a significant way from any kind of relationship.
The power that tortures, and which has well learned to manipulate the unconscious, knows that every human being has an absolute need of reference figures, throughout his life, in order to protect himself from the archaic distress of annihilation. It knows that, in situations of total social and sensorial deprivation, where the support of others is more than ever necessary, the loss of object ties is suffered as an untenable danger. It knows that, the fear of such a loss can set in motion a process of psychic\affective regression, and that -to safeguard even the slightest image of security and to avoid the loss of hope in the existence of a protector the ties of submission and collusion can be activated with the torturer: the so called traumatic bounds.
It is necessary to add that the experiences of which we are speaking are not linked to a tragic event, such as an air crash, a car accident or the unpredictability of nature, trauma that, on the contrary, strengthen the cohesion of the community.
In the situations under consideration, there is a deliberate, human will, to be evil. Torture breaks the pact that joins people in a community, making the certainty of help vanish.
When the social context justifies the crime and the outrage, when the aggression comes from the State - the expected guarantor of the low and the forbidden of crime - when the narcissistic contract is brutally broken, anguish, caused by the collapse and absence of protective external objects, is added to the pain.
The defaillance of the social and of the trans-subjective, the disintegration of what was taken for granted, increase the sense of impotence, of lack of defences and experience of disintegration and death.
According to Hannah Arendt, the survivor of torture, apart from being a victim, is therefore also the witness of an event linked to 'evil', with the 'banality of evil'.
Consequences: the drama of memory
The events we have spoken about, the eruption of outer reality into the psyche,- cause in the mind the formation of splitting areas, areas fixed to trauma, such as the stigma of concrete effractions of the body and affects .
This is not different from erratic blocks - whose geological composition, heterogeneous to the neighbouring space, testify to the cataclysm which generated them and their extraneousness to the surrounding territory - the experiences which we are talking about, denote a) the violence of their settlement b) their origin from external reality c) the irreversible, structural alterations they cause in the Ego.
Trauma, that produces a sudden modification of the status quo, structures a splitting nucleus in the psyche, fixed to the traumatic event, to which the Ego reacts with a more or less massive anticathexis. This weakens the psyche and takes from it representative and affective material. The pressure produced in this field of force, results in an alteration of the function and structure of the memory which, in a sense, freezes around the traumatic events and then spreads its shadow to the space\time preceding these hurtful memories. The experience of horror brands the psyche and alters, as we will see, the work of the memory.
The memory of the violence, which one has been victim and witness to, becomes encapsulated in the pole of fixation, that has coagulated around the brutality of those experiences. It is useful to bear in mind that this pole is not produced by intra-psychic conflicts, but by the impotence of the mind to integrate, link and transform the affective and sensorial accelerations that have entered it into associative chains.
As a consequence of the encapsulment in the pole of fixation, the stimuli are not intercepted by the normal mnemonic flux, therefore they are not categorised and rewritten with an adaptable aim. Their memory - denied the process of uninterrupted ricategorising and rewriting through associative links (Edelman) - does not enter in such a way into the chorus of associative networks which proceed according to metaphors (Modell), integrate facts and give birth to meanings that spread out from one experience to another, until new and unfamiliar elements are assimilated.
Memory, ensnared by the pole of fixation, from a living, mobile, selective element, humus of primeval representations, in continuous and potential mutation, changes into psychic padding that, inseparably joined to traumatic perceptions, fades away from the lines of force of life of the psyche.
As a genetic malformation cannot be repressed, the memory of these facts eludes repression. Where there is fixation, repression does not take place.
An involuntary and automatic memory is organised around the fixation pole closed in the past and resistant to any transformation. Paradoxically, we can say that victims of torture do not have memory, but hallucinatory representations.
Therefore, the recollections of trauma are not perceived as a tragic memory linked to a period in the past, but are relived, sometimes hallucinated as a new event.
The past returns and obsessively superimposes its shadow over that emanating from new ties and affects; today is perceived as being identical to what happened yesterday, so that events are coloured with a former meaning.
This pathological memory torments survivors with its immobility and rigidity giving them sleepless nights or nights interrupted by recurring nightmares. Strengthened by the weakening of anticathexis, which takes place during sleep the content of fixation overflows onto the oneiric scene. Thoughts take a regressive path and, without the dream causing any deformation, displacement and condensation, the traumatic scenes are re-presented.
A young woman from the Zaire says: 'Are these dreams? Can dreams be like this? No, these aren't dreams, this is reality which returns when I sleep and awakens me, and terrorises me. I've seen the same blood again, I've felt it anew on my skin; the same cut heads, I've smelt the same smell'.
This memory produces the effect of dimming the past as well as the present. The affects and ties that patients had once woven and given value and meaning to their daily lives, now seem irretrievable.
During therapy when we call patients' attention to the pre-traumatic past their answers become vague and evasive, hurried and impersonal. Years of life are compressed into a handful of words: no memory, no recall. One feels that the past, which has slipped out of their skin, has been deliberately evaded: We fell as if we are faced with a desert as if the traumatic experience has seeded a void around it.
One wonders, whether with regard to the enormity of the trauma, all has happened before has assumed lilliputian dimensions and been emptied of meaning and sense.
A more attentive analysis however makes us aware of the complex field of force that is mobilised in this area. What happened, in fact, was that the same pre-traumatic past, when life was safe, secure, nostalgically regretted, and idealised, was suddenly cut off and muddied. Its re-evocation raises the spectre of it loss. The past advances in parallel with its destruction: arrest, detention, the violence of days, weeks and months. Pre-traumatic recollections were poisoned by what happened afterwards. Remembering means exposing oneself to pain and desperation.
All this, and this should be remembered, is even more true for the patients that we see in Europe, apart from being tortured, they are refugees: people obliged to live far from their own country, in places where everything - climate, colours, religions, language, material culture - is different. Very often they are completely alone, they have lost affectionate relationships, social standing, homes.
It so happens that the trauma, and subsequently the pole of fixation, drag the dearest memories of the past into its vortex, dethroning good internal objects and with these every image of reassurance, refuge and hope.
These people are thus compressed in a paradox, due to a further specificity of the trauma under examination: its retroactive function.
Like very few others, in order to heal their wounds partially these patients need to resume contact with their pre-traumatic self, with the good internal objects on which their personalities were constructed. But this is made difficult, very often impossible, by the cone of the shadow that the trauma throws on the past and fixes to itself, darkening and draining any form of life.
Torture is therefore an experience that fixes the mind to the event, an invasion of the traumatic present that undoes the past and does not let see the future - In my opinion, this is a deliberate and internal consequence of its logic of annihilation.
The area of the personality harmed by these trauma is concerned, I think, with that connected to the right to live, and to survival. It has to do with the drives of the Ego or of self-preservation, which Freud spoke about at length, at the beginning of this century. It has to do with the primary pre-ambivalent violence, devoid of both sadistic or libidinous connotations, which Abraham and Kein spoken about. It has to do with the instinctive drive of self- preservation which allows the baby to grasp the nipple, tie himself to life and, at the same time, defend himself and fight against the first persecutory ghosts.
In the situations under examination, this natural law is inevitably suppressed and denied. The instinct of self-preservation and violence linked to survival - violently suppressed and prevented from being given expression under the sign of the libido - shut themselves within the subject and become translated into repetitive behaviour, and instead of defending the narcissistic integrity, go against the subject itself with an inflation of aggression.
The instinct of self-preservation is an organic force and, for this reason, it cannot be repressed, on the contrary its essence eludes the alternative conscious unconscious. It can only be violently suppressed firstly by the force of State, and then by introjection, by the subject himself.
Crushed by political repression, subsequently strengthened by the instinctual stream linked to survival, inhibited in its aim, it is thus suppressed, while, as we have seen, the representation of facts remains unchanged.
This trauma produces inverted consequences in the psyche from what happened in hysterical repression where the representations are cut off from consciousness while the unrepressed affect undergoes a transformation.
Some therapeutic considerations
Within the paradox I mentioned earlier - the necessity and impossibility, for the retroactive function of trauma, to return to the past - there is space for therapy.
Therapy cannot change the events that have been experienced, the total abuse of the victim' body which has been treated like a peace of meat, but it can modify the affective component and the modality with which the experience was 'frozen' in his memory.
When a person has been the victim of torture, it is, first of all, necessary to know very clear that the effects of the violence experienced cannot be metabolised and symbolised by him 'until the analyst has recognised their nature and genesis outside the intra-psyche field'. According to René Kaes, violence, must first of all be 'brought back to the order that has produced it'. Furthermore is necessary, as Silvia Amati suggests not to muddle up the agents of violence with the 'internal fundamental objects- father and mother (Ö). Keeping places and personages rigorously separate is the first important step for avoiding confusion; later on in the continuity of the therapeutic process, the right moment will come for establishing similarities, differences and distance (Ö) and for recognising a continuity of style and a defensive modality'.
With this basic premise in the background, during therapy it is necessary to work in order to succeed in giving a place to events, to change them - from a pure and merely economic trauma - in events that, although they may be absurd and painful, are linked to choices and events which occurred in a precise temporal space. It is necessary to help the patient to distinguish between the remote past, the near past and the present, so that he can erect a psychological barrier around 'the facts' not making them less painful, but less invasive.
It is necessary to help him to re-establish links with his life space preceding the trauma, the space of childhood, adolescence and first maturity, when, it is hoped, he had positive experiences, so that the good objects can emerge with them and go side by side with them and oppose the interiorised persecuted objects during detention.
It is necessary to work hard on the introjection of persecutory objects - which have become appropriate containers for the same destructiveness of the individual - on the identification of these objects by the violent areas of the patient, so that he can make a difficult, clean break between them.
It is then possible that fragments from the past will reappear. If recollections of life recall other memories, the traumatic episodes not longer absorb all the mental space, and the trauma - a highly dramatic and painful moment which the patient will have to deal with throughout his life - can continue together with more meaningfully positive experiences.
It is possible that emotional states brought about by threats and torture, are transformed into representations and words when meeting a therapist endowed with specific competence and sensitivity. It is possible that the patient is able to infringe the injunction 'of keeping silent' behind which the Power hides whenever it wants to avail itself of its right to humiliate and degrade. It is possible that the 'word', a cathartic act that gives conceptual and verbal form to what a moment before, seemed incomprehensible and unassimilable, and which if it remains so will be full of pathological effects.
If all this happened it is possible that a psychic dynamic is set in motion whereby the time of the trauma coexists both with the pre-trauma period and the present; if this happens, the patient is able to function in every way in his present environment and his Ego - despite the torture - is able to recover an autonomous space.
- A.A.V.V., Violence d'état et psychanalyse, Dunold, Paris, 1989, p. XVIII.
- Silvia Amati, Recuperare la vergogna, In Violence d'état et psychanalyse, Dunold, Paris, 1989, p. 104.
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