Soul Murder Revisited: Thoughts about Therapy, Hate, Love, and Memoryby Leonard Shengold
Since the publication of Dr. Leonard Shengold's highly acclaimed book Soul Murder in 1989, issues of child abuse have become the subject of much public debate. Now Dr. Shengold offers his latest reflections on the circumstances in which the willful abuse and neglect of children arises and on the consequences of this abuse, providing compelling examples from literature and from clinical material.
Dr. Shengold describes various types of child abuse as well as techniques of adaptation and denial by soul murder victims. He explores the psychopathology of soul murder, addressing such issues as instinctual drives, aggression and sexuality, love, and narcissism. In a chapter on sadomasochism, he relates the story of Algernon Swinburne-who may have been a victim of soul murder-and he tells about Elizabeth Bishop, who, like Swinburne, has been able to use artistic creativity to transcend the damage sustained by early childhood trauma. Finally he offers suggestions about therapy for the abused and neglected, emphasizing the need to restore the power to care about and love others in order to ameliorate soul murder's narcissistically regressive effects.
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Belief in the existence of other human beings as such is love. --Simone Weil (quoted in Auden, A Certain World)
The observations in this book are extensions and illustrations of themes involved with child abuse and neglect taken up in my previous books, most specifically Soul Murder: Child Abuse and Deprivation (1989), together with some related issues. Time and aging have broadened my perspective, and since I wrote Soul Murder child abuse and deprivation have become subject to much more public attention and debate.
Some amount of lack of care and even torment is inevitable in the course of everyone's growing up. Soul murder is the term I have used for the apparently willful abuse and neglect of children by adults that are of sufficient intensity and frequency to be traumatic. By that I mean that the children's subsequent emotional development has been profoundly and predominantly negatively affected; what has happened to them has dominated their motivating unconscious fantasies; and they have become subject to the compulsion to repeat the cruelty, violence, neglect, hatred, seduction, and rape of their injurious past.
Although child abuse has become the subject of clamorous attention and serious study in recent years, there is still much that we don't know about its frequency, its causes and effects, andespeciallyhow to react to it, treat it, and reduce its occurrence. Because mistreatment of children by adults is based on something inherent in human natureadestructive and sadistic driveI don't think it can ever disappear.
The dramatic term soul murder probably was coined in the nineteenth century; it was used by the great Scandinavian playwrights Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg. Ibsen defines it as the destruction of the love of life in another human being. In psychiatry, the term was made familiar by the paranoid psychotic patient Schreber, whose Memoirs (1903) were the subject of one of Freud's long case histories (1911).
Freud's first ideas on the causation of mental illness were based on the consequences of sexual abuse in childhood, which he at first called "seduction by the father." He initially accepted as historical truth the stories his patients told him of sexual assault in childhood; only later did he realize that manybut not allof these stories were fantasies. Freud's appreciation of the power of unconscious fantasy led him to the discovery of childhood sexuality and of the Oedipus complex, some of the basic assumptions of his (and subsequent) psychoanalytic thinking. But Freud remained aware of the objective reality of seduction and cruelty suffered by some of his patients.
What appears to be the willful hurting of the helpless and the relatively innocent is a subject full of contradictions and complexities. I have learned how difficult it is to generalize about the former victims of child abuse. My patients have been healthy enough to sustain intensive therapy or psychoanalysis. I have not directly studied those who as children ended up in the law courts, hospitals, or morgueswhose souls, and sometimes bodies, have been fully murdered. My patients did not fit into one diagnostic category but ran a psychopathological range from those who were predominantly neurotic to a very few who might be called psychotic. They also varied greatly in their degree of psychic health (emotional flexibility, ability to love, talents, creativity). Soul murder is a crime, not a diagnosis. Human beings are infinitely complex and varied and cannot be reduced to diagnoses; nor are they made homogenous by having undergone similar traumatic eventsonly complete murder accomplishes that aim, although concentration camp conditions can approach it.
I have been presenting papers on the consequences of child abuse for more than thirty-five years and feel humbled by how much I do not know about it. My patients were all different, despite certain predictable general similarities. Overstimulation (the result of sexual abuse and perhaps also beatings) evokes traumatic anxiety and rage in the relatively helpless child. With neglect and understimulation, the frustration of basic needs also results in rage and intense sexual craving; this is reactive overstimulation. In either instance, overstimulation requires massive defensive efforts by the mind (attempts to deaden emotion and impulse), which usually do not work well or consistently. Furthermore, children who are beside themselves with overexcitement, rage, and anxiety have an imperative need for external help. When the tormentor-seducer is a parent, it is frequently necessary for the child to turn for rescue to the very person who abuseda mind-splitting operation. The other parent is absent or an unconscious (frequently masochistic) abettor or both. If the adult abuser is not a parent, the child's rage is still directed at the parentsgenerally the motherfor having allowed the abuse to occur. Every child has an urgent need for good parenting, and this makes him or her cling desperately to whatever fragments of realistic benevolent parental functioning exist and to what is frequently the delusion of having had a concerned, loving parent. This delusionwhich sometimes exists alongside bitter hatred and accusationarises from the overwhelming need for a caring rescuer. One sees it in George Orwell's 1984, in Winston Smith's urgent compulsion to love the Big Brother who has destroyed his soul.
The most destructive effect of child abuse is perhaps the need to hold onto the abusing parent or parent figure by identifying with the abuser; this becomes part of a compulsion to repeat the experiences of abuseas tormentor (enhancing sadism) and simultaneously as victim (enhancing masochism). The child who is abused quite regularly takes on the guilt of the crimewhich the abuser may or may not have felt. This guilt, frequently manifested by a need for punishment, is augmented by the rage involved in the child's identifying with the aggressor and feeling and sometimes acting on sadistic and vengeful impulses. The pathological compulsion to repeat traumatic events results in the passing down of child abuse from one generation to the nextthe sins of the parents are visited on the children. So abused children, when they grow up and become parents, tend to abuse their own children, frequently in spite of conscious resolutions not to do so; the impulses at least are there, and frequently the actions too.
Attempts at the soul murder of children commonly have profound distorting and inhibiting effects on the victim's fantasy life and, especially, emotional life (part of Ibsen's definition of soul murder is killing the capacity for joy in another human being). They can cause a suffusion of sadomasochistic feeling and impulses (perverse sexual excitement and murderous wishes) that must be guarded against by massive inhibitory defenses, which do not always function consistently, and brainwashingeffecting many kinds of defenses including autohypnosis and a split functioning in the mind that makes possible what Orwell calls "doublethink" and "loving Big Brother." These effects appear in different varieties and combinations.
I have learned to be wary of generalizations about victims of child abuse. There are people who, like some concentration camp victims, appear to have been strengthened by the struggle to survive a terrible past, developing adaptive powers that exist alongside scars and deficiencies (see Rhodes and Rhodes, 1996). Observers have felt that for a number of victims of parental neglect (emotional deprivation) subsequent sexual abuse has resulted in some positive effects because sexual attention is at least some attention. (The child as need-fulfiller can feel central, at least transiently.)
It is always difficult for any adult observer to know exactly what has happened to a child. Legal authorities, obliged to investigate charges of sexual and physical abuse, are familiar with this problem, and so are psychological workers who hear traumatic stories from their patients or who begin to feel that such stories are there for their patients to tell. There is great difficulty in establishing facts about childhood from the vantage point of the psychiatrist who sees adults. Bodily care necessary in early development ensures that fantasies of having been seduced are universally present, at least in the unconscious mind. Conscious memories are unreliable, and any approach to certainty about historical truth can be dauntingly challenging. Even for those who see the purportedly abused child shortly after the alleged trauma, establishing what really happened and "who did it" may be almost impossible, and the attempt to mediate between the accused abuser's version and the child's (especially if legal considerations are involved) is frequently damaging to the child, particularly if the abuser is a parent. There is a universal psychological resistance to the idea of a bada depriving or abusingparent. Unconscious identifications with parents are the cornerstone of our identities and our self-esteem.
So the problem of differentiating fantasy from memory remains formidable for therapist and patient alike. The therapist optimally should be able to suspend disbelief in the possibility of adult and parental seduction and torment; that is, it should be neither assumed nor denied.
This needs to be emphasized. Thirty years ago, denial of the actuality of child abuse flourished ("It's all fantasy!"). Several years ago we seemed long past this predominant denial. But current controversy centers around the prevalence and significant consequences of the abuse of children. When I began to present papers about patients who told me of memories of being seduced or battered as children, usually at the hands of psychotic, addicted, or psychopathic parents, I was frequently told by older analysts that I was naive, that what I had accepted as having happened, was the product of the patient's fantasy. Besides, they sometimes added, it doesn't make any difference if child abuse has actually happened since unconscious fantasies of being abused are universal.
It is true that we all have such fantasies and that in clinical endeavors the analyst or therapist works with the fantasies of the patientbut of course some of these are transformed memories. Also, traumatic stories can be used in the service of denial or evasion of personal responsibility for all faults"Look what they did to me!" The crucial question remains: Does it make a difference if a traumasay, the Holocaust, or a child's submission to family concentration camp conditions (Jarrell, 1962)was actually experienced? What we have to deal with in our patients is the effect of traumata on their fantasy life. I maintain my original conviction that having actually lived through overwhelming bad experiences makes for qualitative differences in the developing mental life of any individual victim. We know that in addition to what we are endowed with at birth, environmentwhat happens to us and around usalso forms our character and affects our fate (one of the themes of Chekhov's great play Three Sisters). Freud has shown us the crucial environmental influence of the parents and their predispositions.
Two extreme opposite positions have formed. There are those who feel that child abuse exists chiefly in the minds of therapists and theoreticians, who help create forced memories in their patients. Others assume that abuse of children is almost universala belief that certainly can and does foster false memories, especially by way of suggestion from therapist (or even therapeutic institution) to patient. Today in America the pendulum has swung toward what can be called "child abuse cults"; that is, some therapists start by assuming that every pathological manifestation is due to the patient's having been abused as a child. District attorneys and their confederates, presumably with the best of intentions, use suggestive and coercive techniques to extract accusations against adults from children who are assumed to have been abused. Therapists often use the powerfully suggestive technique of hypnosis to encourage patients to recallor to fabricateendless repetitive details.
Currently, there are similar therapeutic cults involving multiple personalities and satanic worship. All these may be based on actual pathological entities, but within the cults the possibilities are likely to be stretched to include every comerassumption, not suspension of disbelief, reigns. The appendix to this book is a revision of a commentary I wrote on a publication by two obviously dedicated clinicians, Jody Messler Davies and Mary Gail Frawley, which seems to me to show the danger of assuming that child abuse has taken place, mainly on the basis of patients' use of defensive mechanisms that exist to some extent in almost every human being. Therapeutic efforts can be compromised, patients and parents of patients can be maligned, family ties can be tragically severed by false certainties that are not properly evaluated or that may even have been created in the necessary but delicate, difficult, and sometimes impossible course of trying to establish what has happened in the past. (Davies and Frawley suggest that it is easy to do so!)
At present, in the understandable reaction to the widely publicized "false memory syndrome," there is the danger of a return to the denial of the abuse of childrenfalse certainty in the opposite direction. One sees this in the writings of the brilliant and combative Frederick Crews (see Crews et al., 1996) on false memory, in which certainty is accompanied (and perhaps motivated) by what appears to be an almost monomaniacal hatred of Freud. (Denial of child abuse is tempting because no one wants it to take place; it is one of those events that, to paraphrase Freud, disturbs the peace of the world.)
Sometimes the facts of the abuse are all too obvious, as we know from almost daily newspaper stories, even headlines. The burgeoning public awareness of the existencethe shockingly widespread existenceof child abuse is surely a great step forward from the years of predominant denial of the seduction and torment of children. But there is a price to be paid for the publicity: the danger of further confusing individuals (perhaps especially children) who have trouble differentiating fantasy from reality. I am not thinking primarily of very disturbed neurotic or psychotic people whose ability to make this differentiation is particularly deficient. We are all to some degree neurotic and in some part of our minds are subject to suggestion, distortion from our emotional complexes, and even delusion (more often than we would like to credit; see Shengold, 1995). To put this in another way, we can no longer believe in memory as the simple registration of what has actually happened in the past. It is infinitely more complicated than that. In his recent book The Island of the Color-blind, Oliver Sacks says: "Memory, as [Gerald] Edelman reminds us, is never a simple recording or reproduction, but [is] an active process of recategorizationof reconstruction, of imagination, determined by our own values and perspectives" (pp. xi-xii)and, I would add, by our psychological conflicts and complexes. We would now interpret Freud's statement that hysterics suffer from their reminiscences by assuming that this means suffering from what they have done tohow they have recorded, reacted to, and transformedtheir reminiscences.
And yet of course the past has happened; soul murder has occurred; there was a Holocaust, and there have been many holocausts in human history. Pathological doubting is a consequence of child abuse, and sometimes what actually happened simply cannot be determined. Occasionally the memories are clear and there is even external corroboration. In many cases repetition of the past in the course of the treatment (usually in the form of transferences and projections onto the therapist) will make the probability, and even the certainty, of the traumata plain. Sometimes the therapist feels no doubt about the actuality of the abuse, especially if the accused parents are continuing their practices, sometimes as grandparents; it does not necessarily follow that the patient who reports "the facts" is similarly convinced.
The difficulty of establishing what happened is compounded in that, as I have stated, one of the common effects of child abuse is brainwashingthe cultivation of denial of what has occurred and the suppression of what was experiencedin the mind of the child-victim, who has the universal stake in needing good parenting. "This didn't happen" is often explicitly said or in some way forcibly implied to the child by the abuser, who may be motivated by an inner need for denial as well as a wish to evade detection and punishment. This order from without reinforces the child's own need to feel that "this couldn't have happened."
Substantial emotional neglect of childrennot caring for them and not caring about them as separate human beingsmay have even more devastating effects on psychic development than does physical abuse. Not being cared about means being deprived of the soul's basic nourishment: the accepting and welcoming feelings and smile of the mothering figure.
The American poet Randall Jarrell has written about Rudyard Kipling's terrible experiences as a child. After years of overindulgent parental love in India and of spoiling by Indian servants who obeyed his every whim, Rudyard, age six, was taken to England by his parents. There, he and his sister, age three, were suddenly and without warning left in the care of complete strangers who had made their availability for the custody of foster children known through a newpaper advertisement. The parents then returned to India and did not see their children for the next six years. "The House of Desolation" was Kipling's name for the establishment in which they were left, ruled by a sadistic, disturbed, capricious, and religiously obsessed woman. Jarrell (1962), who knew what an unhappy childhood was and was to die a kind of suicide, calls the place "one of God's concentration camps" (p. 146).
Kipling was disliked and persecuted by "Auntie Rosa," as he was forced to call her, and her envious son, who was older and less bright than Rudyard. (The father in the family was more accepting, but unfortunately he soon died.) Kipling wrote that he was "regularly beaten" (1937, p. 6), but his sister was treated as a kind of favorite by Auntie Rosa, who attempted to alienate her from her brother. The children were not starved but were subjected to extreme cold and to arbitrary and unreasonable discipline. It was the psychological rather than the physical beatings that Rudyard found hardest to bear, and most of all the fact that their loving parents had deserted themwithout any preparation and without having said good-bye. (Auntie Rosa would torture the children by reminding them of this.) The torment, backed by the accusatory delusional righteousness of Auntie Rosa, left Kipling with a terrible hatred aimed at his parents, a hatred that he had to deny but that often lies beneath the celebration and justification of authority in his writings. "Kipling's morality," Jarrell writes, "is the one-sided, desperately protective, sometimes vindictive morality of someone who has been for some time the occupant of one of God's concentration camps, and has had to spend the rest of his life justifying or explaining out of existence what he cannot forget" (1962, p. 146). This description makes it obvious that Kipling in part identified with the righteous tormentor, Auntie Rosa. The tormenting disciplinarian has to be right. Kipling became an imperialist and a defender of the established order, haunted by hatred that he needed to deny.
One finds a history of child abuse and neglect in the life and works of many other great writersfor example, Charles Dickens, Ivan Turgenev, and Anton Chekhov. I believe that some of their talents may have been adaptively motivated and enhancednot causedby the need to master the traumata, the attempts at soul murder, that occurred in their childhood. In Chapter 9 I discuss the English poet Algernon Swinburne, whose life, as deduced from his own writings and those of others about him, shows how difficult it is to be sure of just what happened to him as a child; yet it also seems clear that something "really" happened to determine his being haunted by intense masochistic fantasies that both fed and marred his writings. The environmental contribution that is known was the passion-fueling flagellation practices of the English public schools. I have similar feelings about the contradictory and multiple effects of trauma on creative patients I have treated over the years, whose pertinent case histories I cannot publish for reasons that concern confidentiality. Elizabeth Bishop's life and work, discussed in Chapter 10, offer a clearer case for soul murder, based on her misfortunes in having a psychotic, rejecting mother and in suffering the very early loss of her father.
Part I of this book, "Perspectives on Soul Murder," includes a number of papers, some revised, some new, that pursue topics connected with child abuse, centrally or peripherally.
Chapter 2, which describes the mythically and literarily derived "case" of Medea, focuses on a kind of parent frequently found in soul murder casesnarcissistic, violent, ruthless. Euripides' Medea is perhaps the first convincing portrait of a soul- (and body-) murdering mother in literature. In this chapter I specifically emphasize the importance to the parent of maintaining a symbiotic tie by way of gifts that are aimed at destroying the separate identity of the child. In clinical examples I give a few glimpses of modern Medeas. Chapter 3 uses clinical material from child abuse victims to comment on an aspect of castration anxiety that features the paradoxical combination of heightened awareness of and blocking out of potential warning signals (or hypersensitivity and hypnotic evasion; see Shengold, 1989). This is frequently seen in children who have adapted by courting as well as avoiding repetition of past traumata. (This is of course not the only reason for perceptive oversensitivity in people.) The emphasis in this chapter is on the sense of smell.
Chapter 4, "Once Is Never (Or Once Doesn't Count)," is a kind of extended footnote about a specific variety of denial allied with the need for false certaintya need to which we are all subject but which is especially striking and usually of pathological intensity in soul murder victims.
Chapter 5, which deals with some symbolic meanings of rings, illustrates defensive narcissism based on regression to the centrally important early developmental time of the management of bodily sphincters (whose mental counterparts function in both the defense [control] and the discharge of impulses; see Shengold, 1988). This is especially obvious where there has been overstimulation in early life. Pathological narcissism involves inhibition of the ability to separate from parents, which makes for a relative inability to care about other people. Soul murder is one way of establishing an excess of pathological narcissism in the child. Chapter 6, which discusses some similarities between concentration camp survivors and soul murder victims, introduces one of the major themes of this book: the need to restore the power to care about others, to love others (in life and in therapy), in order to ameliorate the narcissistically regressive effects of soul murder.
Part II, "The Background of Soul Murder," deals with topics that are essential to the understanding of soul murder but have much more general application to human development and psychopathology. It concerns Freud's controversial theory of instinctual drives (life and death instincts) and his less controversial descriptions of both health (love) and clinical manifestations involving aggression and sexuality (including mixtures such as sadism and masochism). Chapters 7 and 8 are limited glimpses of the complex phenomena involved, not definitive summings-up. Chapter 7 is a study of Proust's and Freud's similar views on love as both men define itmuch too narrowly, I feel. Their generalizations are limited to a pathological regressive kind of narcissistic involvement that is a compelling part of everyone's dynamic range of potential for loving others but for many exists in overwhelming proportion. And some of these unfortunates are soul murder victims. The chapter supplies more background for my conviction that the attainment of the power for relatively nonnarcissistic and less compulsive love is the prime essential for recovery from traumatic psychological damage.
Another essential is the acquisition of greater power over rage and aggression, manifest in sadism, masochism, and violence. Chapter 8's discussion of sadomasochism and beating fantasies is illustrated in Chapter 9, which deals with the poet Algernon Swinburne and his preoccupation with flagellation. Chapter 10, on Elizabeth Bishop, tells a soul murder story in which the child, like Swinburne, is able to use adaptive powers (inborn and perhaps enhanced in response to the trauma and deprivation of childhood experiences) that mobilize artistic creativity in an attempt at mastery, with the achievement of at least a partial transcendence of the damage sustained in early life. I stress Bishop's use of the image of the moth as evocative of the murderous-suicidal mixture of aggressive and passive feelings and impulses that can exist in the parent-child relationship.
Part IV returns to the specific question of soul murder: Did it really happen, and does that matter? Chapter 11 describes patients whose clinical picture resembles that of soul murder victims but whose pathology seems to stem chiefly from terror of their own impulses because they have been spoiled by weak, overindulgent parenting. The final chapter places soul murder in the context of human beings who are prone to violent emotions, impulses, and actions (sadistic and masochistic) and a relative failure (some combination of too much and too little) of the defenses against themwhether chiefly because of inherited overendowments and deficiencies, traumatic environmental excesses or deficiencies, or, most likely, an unfortunate combination of both. There are also some suggestions about therapy of the abused and neglected and those whose pathology resembles theirs.
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