on mass and personal traumas

It’s odd that I’m in the middle of a psychology reading binge, given my professional interest in climate and the current horrific climate chaos that has millions of people displaced in Asia, people dying from record high temperatures in Europe, and your run-of-the-mill 38 degree celsius here in Toronto. But I won’t spare you my random thoughts on this reading on that account.

It’s odd that I’m in the middle of a psychology reading binge, given my professional interest in climate and the current horrific climate chaos that has millions of people displaced in Asia, people dying from record high temperatures in Europe, and your run-of-the-mill 38 degree celsius here in Toronto. But I won’t spare you my random thoughts on this reading on that account.

I had dismissed the entire field of psychology for many years on the basis of Freud’s “Oedipus Complex”, the idea that children want to have sex with their parents, something that always struck me as preposterous. A friend of mine suggested Alice Miller to me, though, and I found her answers to that particular argument convincing. Others have apparently made the same argument, it turns out. The argument is this – apparently Freud in 1896 came up with a hypothesis based on his “hysteria” patients that their “hysteria” was caused by childhood sexual abuse and the repression of the trauma from it. When he tried this hypothesis out, his peers rejected it. He found no recognition of it in society at the time. He himself apparently wrote in his journal or in a letter (I can’t remember which) something like – if hysteria is caused by childhood sexual abuse, and there are so many people with hysteria, then there must be so much sexual abuse, and there can’t be that much, therefore that can’t be the cause. Then, according to Miller, Freud began to construct the “Oedipus Complex”, which is an inversion of reality – instead of adults putting sexual desires and acting them out on children, Oedipus complex says it’s the reverse.

In Miller’s view, most mental problems are the result of some kind of childhood trauma, abuse, shame, or humiliation. Children are utterly dependent on adults for their survival, so a full understanding of the fact that they are being exploited and used rather than loved and protected would be unbearably painful to them. So they repress these memories and react by some kind of identification with the adults, even though the memories are stored in the body. Later on these things come out on their own children, or in other relationships or social – or, interestingly, political – behavior. Miller argues these points in a series of books, some of which include analyses of dictators and dictatorships like Hitler and Ceaucescu, where she shows (in a way that I found more convincing than I’d expected, given my tendency to look for political, economic, and cultural/ideological factors behind political phenomena) how they were enacting, on a grand scale, the humiliations and abuses that were done to them as children. Given that families children grow up in are basically totalitarian systems, Miller argues, it’s no surprise that adults tolerate and are complicit in such systems outside of the family. If children were treated with dignity and love, they would recognize massive-scale forms of abuse and authoritarianism and resist them, they would know that they and others deserve better. She also shows how some of those who did see through society’s hypocrisies, like Sophie Scholl, had a very different childhood background or upbringing than their peers. One interesting comment she makes in one of her books is this: could Jesus have been so insightful or compelling if he had had a normal upbringing? Did not his incredible confidence and critique of his society come in part from the fact that his parents explicitly believed he was a child of God? What if, Miller asks, all parents treated their children this way?

Reading Miller can be very painful if it makes you recall your own childhood humiliations and abuses, but it is ultimately a very hopeful idea. Because Miller believes that it is the blocking off of feelings that would have killed an unsupported child that creates all the problems, she believes that being able to experience those feelings safely, as an adult, with loving support, can create genuine healing. It’s very optimistic in that sense. She also suggests that specific problems and reactions in relationships have their origins in childhood trauma. Apologies if this is all cliched or well-known to you – it is all pretty new to me, since I had essentially shunned the field of psychology until recently. Actually I want to close with some thoughts on how these things turn into cliches or have their value diluted. But a few more thoughts on trauma first…

Thinking about trauma led me to a book (thanks to another recommendation) called “Trauma and the Body” by Ogden et al. It’s a pretty recent book and is based on a lot of scientific data about how people deal with trauma. There is a hierarchy of responses to traumatic events. First, a person will use his sociability – to try to talk an attacker out of attacking, for example. Next, the flight or fight response is activated. If that fails – as it frequently does with children who are smaller, weaker, slower than their adult assailants – the disassociation response begins. Being traumatized while disassociated causes later attacks of post-traumatic stress, disassociative responses, panic attacks, triggers, and so on. The book recommends a kind of sensorimotor therapy for this sort of trauma, in which the body can re-learn responses that didn’t work as a child but would work as an adult.

These readings have given me a much sharper eye for trauma and a different lens to look at my own and others’ behavior, including political behavior. I continue to believe that a lot of political behavior is rational and can be predicted, and for that matter resisted if necessary, on that basis. But there is an irrational dimension in all these matters that is very important to understand. Not least because it can help us all improve our relationships and communities. Our alienation from ourselves and one another serves the existing system of power. If people get used to being treated well and treating others well, it is much harder to threaten or control or exploit them.

Returning to a previous thought: what is the difference between a formulaic application of an idea and an honest engagement with it? When I mentioned Alice Miller to one friend, for example, she groaned and talked about how her parents used Miller to criticize each other and dwell endlessly on their childhoods while neglecting those around them. In other words they found license in Miller for self-indulgence. This is analogous to people finding in Marx or Lenin license for authoritarian behavior or people finding in anarchism license for having no political strategy or people finding in anti-racist analysis license for self-righteousness. I have begun to think that anything can be turned into a formula in this way, including parecon, or Chomsky’s writing on foreign policy. But knowing that everything can be turned into a formula is less interesting than figuring out how to *not* treat some ideas as formulas. What is the difference between a formulaic use and a non-formulaic use?

Readers might be relieved to hear that I think my psychology binge is coming to a close – it is all, once again, starting to sound the same to me. Last round I was reading about anxiety, depression, and addiction, and I started to think I could summarize it all as: “calm down, treat yourself well, and think of yourself as a good person.” Now I’m reading about relationships and it’s reading like: “be nice and treat other people with dignity.”

Still, there is a bit more to it than that. So before I close you can expect one blog entry on John Gottman, the psychologist who can watch a couple arguing for a few minutes and then predict with 90% accuracy whether they’re going to be together in 4 years. Think about the political implications of that…

Author: Justin Podur

Author of Siegebreakers. Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction. Teach at York U's FES. Author. Writer at ZNet, TeleSUR, AlterNet, Ricochet, and the Independent Media Institute.