Violence and the Totalitarian Perversion of the Mind

Dr. Eduardo Gastelumendi

Emotions, like childhood desires, fears, impulses and fantasies, prevail in adults in two different ways. They may be transformed and integrated, or repressed, split, or acted out.


Emotions, like childhood desires, fears, impulses and fantasies, prevail in adults in two different ways. They may be transformed and integrated, or repressed, split, or acted out. Besides having roots in childhood, violence, defined here as "the use of physical or moral force to subject others for the benefit of one's own narcissism or ideology," implies an attitude and a way of acting toward others that have contributed to human beings' survival across history. It manifests itself in everyday life in different ways. It can be free and benign, as in child play, or irrational and terrifying, as in wars, terrorism, and sexual violence. Furthermore, while we may consider it natural and universal from an evolutionary perspective, viewed from the vantage point of the current state of our civilization, it is barbaric, regressive, and opposed to our fundamental rights.
In this article I refer specifically to two forms of violence. One, terrorist violence, is explicit; it kills, mutilates, and terrorizes, and is rejected by civilization. The other one is buried, concealed behind the benign appearance of religious education. Yet like the first one, it causes deep damage to people's minds and emotional development. I am referring to the physical, psychological, and sexual subjection taking place in certain religious groups linked to the Catholic Church. Following the ideas developed by Temple (2006), who talks about a "totalitarian state of the mind," I believe that both forms of violence can originate in a "totalitarian perversion of thought."
I write from Peru, a land that witnessed fierce confrontations during the consolidation of the Inca Empire (thirteenth and fourteenth centuries), even before the traumatic birth of the Spanish conquest. At the same time, social and state violence were, and still are, common in Latin America. Few analysts and candidates in the region need to be told about the nature of this violence. We have experienced it from the mid-twentieth century until very recently, even today, and have somehow become used to dealing with it. Furthermore, despite our vigilance, Latin Americans are occasionally deceived by a populist (in a negative sense), demagogic state or have to endure dictatorships. The messages and letters read or sent by Venezuelan analysts at FEPAL and IPA meetings reporting their country's distressing situation feel topical and particularly painful. They move and anger us, and show the imbalance of forces between an authoritarian state on one side, and resistance to it on the other. So far, the state has been the strongest.
Not only has psychoanalysis contributed to understanding violence in general, but it has also helped in the recovery of victims of social and state violence. In addition, recent psychoanalytic studies (such as Zukerfeld et al., 2016) show how the state itself can help mitigate and repair the damage inflicted when it can acknowledge such damage publicly, administer justice, and punish the guilty. Nevertheless, the state is not always in a position to offer reparation. It is easier and more common for governments to try to forget what happened – as if that were possible.
During two decades (1980–2000) Peru suffered the attacks of one of the most violent terrorist groups in Latin America. The Andean Maoist group Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), led by a philosophy professor, Abimael Guzmán (who called himself President Gonzalo), assailed the Peruvian state, its institutions, and the population with such ferocity that it led law enforcement to respond in kind. The result was catastrophic: seventy thousand dead, mainly Andean peasants, and a convulsed, wounded, and terrified country. Shining Path was severely weakened in 1992, when its leader was captured, but the war continued one way or another till 2000. Even now there are remnants of it, mainly linked to drug trafficking in the Andean and Amazon regions. Coca farming and drug trafficking are certainly a breeding ground for endemic violence.
Much can be said about Shining Path, but I will only mention a fragment of an interview with its leader published in the 1980s, the period of greatest activity for the group. When the journalist confronted him with the organization's extreme radicalism (which drove its members to kill those who opposed their ideas) and with its leaders' refusal to negotiate with the government, Guzmán answered: “Are you asking me why we don't negotiate? Unlike you, the bourgeois, we aren't trained to negotiate. We don't need dialogue. We have our ideology; we have the Gonzalo thought."
It seems to me that this answer is an expression of the totalitarian perversion of the mind that I would like to discuss here. Temple (2006, p. 105) refers to the "totalitarian state of the mind," and points out that mental “totalitarianism develops and becomes a stable structure (...) related to the paranoid position." This mental organization draws its power from the death drive and contains sadistic elements and defenses against guilt. When referring to these states of the mind, the author claims that we can find them in national leaders and political systems, as well as in patients in our consulting rooms.
I would like to suggest that the totalitarian mental state should be considered a perversion due to its destructiveness, its connection with the death drive, and its concealment under the cloak of a virtuous ideal (social or religious). Such perversion is more frequent than we tend to perceive. In this state the mind is unable to reflect, and can neither gain access to the "intermediate area of experience” (Winnicott, 1971) nor, indeed, make room for doubt. The response to those who think or act differently is death, subjection, or denigration. We find similarities between Shining Path and the thought and actions of the ISIS terrorist group, despite the geographical and cultural distance between them and the different philosophies underlying them.
Having said that, I would like to describe another form of expression of this perversion that is not linked to terror and death but to idealist seduction and sexuality. Like the former, it draws its strength from the mastery and death drives. Terrorism is radical and brutal. It is tied to social and political power and is repudiated by most of the population. This other form of perversion, instead, is socially accepted and less violent. Yet it is also harmful, and very much so. I am referring to the perversion of religious groups, in the case of Latin America, largely Catholic groups. They push teenagers into a very restricted, dogmatic mental state and often resort to a sadistic form of domination that includes sexual abuse.
It is not surprising that religion provides the ideological foundation for violence, thought coercion, and terror. The bloody acts of ISIS have offered horrifying proof. In relation to Christianity, suffice it to recall the Crusades and the Holy Inquisition, manifestations of an age when Western society was oblivious to the human rights and freedoms we have secured today. Some groups linked to institutionalized religion (Catholicism in this case) constitute a threat even today. This phenomenon has become more visible in recent years and is being publicly denounced.
Religious groups, especially Catholic groups in our region, recruit teenagers and youth with their parents' consent. Members of these groups tend to take advantage of young people's legitimate aspiration to become better individuals and "change the world" to seduce and subject them. A charismatic leader makes them believe that he conveys "the truth." Blind obedience and faith in "revealed" truth are the rule. Such behavior runs against an integrated development that tolerates uncertainty and is potentially liberating. The totalitarian perversion of the mind reduces the ability of teenagers and youth to think independently. As if that were not enough, in addition to mental and psychological subjection, the leader often demands sexual subjection, which causes severe and lasting damage. Young people who become intimate with the leader (who embodies the idealized paternal image) in their yearning for internal growth may end up feeling betrayed and hurt "in the soul." The damage may be deep and permanent; their ability to trust their own intuition, themselves, and others is seriously affected.
In recent years there have been accusations against powerful Catholic groups and leaders in Latin America. In 2014 Luis Figari, founder of the Catholic conservative group Sodalicio de Vida Cristiana (Sodalitium of Christian Life) in Peru, was accused of psychologically and sexually abusing teenagers under his charge. Founded in 1971, his organization enjoyed great prestige among the wealthiest families in Peru and other countries in the region. Figari was expelled from the Sodalitium and has shut himself away in a monastery in Rome, a common "punishment" in these cases. In Mexico, in turn, there is a multimillionaire group, Legión de Cristo (Legion of Christ). It was founded in 1941 under a slightly different name by the psychopathic priest Marcial Maciel (1920–2008). Maciel was recognized as "the greatest fundraiser in the Modern Catholic Church" and as an active recruiter of new seminarians (Berry, 2010). In 1997 he was investigated and found guilty of sexual abuse.
Finally, in 2011, the Vatican investigated the highly respected and powerful Chilean priest Fernando Karadima (n. 1930), parish priest at El Bosque, in Santiago de Chile, and found him guilty of sexually abusing minors and of abusing his ecclesiastic power as well. His criminal indictment stunned Chilean society, for Karadima had the support of the local upper crust. These cases all have similar histories. It takes many years of internal processing for the victims to make the decision to report their abuse. Then more time goes by during which pressure is exerted on the Church leadership, who adopt evasive strategies until the case becomes public. Only then will some form of punishment be imposed, and perhaps fair redress will be obtained.
Abuse often takes place in situations of blind acceptance of religious dogma and of absolute obedience to an authority that is accountable to no one. It is an example of how totalitarian thought exerts a perverse attraction on the mind of society while hiding behind religious beliefs that use sexual repression as a way of dominating others. The most critical aspect of this problem is that all of this happens with the consent of the parents who, due, perhaps, to genuine religious conviction, weakness, or lack of confidence in their own abilities, relinquish their responsibility over their children's upbringing.
Violence will be either justified or repudiated depending on the roles played by the person exerting it and the person suffering it. Apparently, there is no happy medium, and the ability to think and understand is lost. Nonetheless, those in the position of observers, while emotionally engaged, can have a less polarized approach and hence reflect on the use of violence in a more nuanced and deeper way. The neutrality we maintain in our clinical practice may offer a clue. In our everyday work with our patients, aggressive or seductive "attacks" on the analytic process are frequent and expected. Our task is to identify them, avoid responding to them, and analyze them. To this end, we find a space of inner calm from where we can continue to think despite emotional turmoil. Kristeva (2016) relates this space to Pascal's concept of "perpetual motion."
As psychoanalysts or people who have undergone analysis, we have the unusual experience of having participated in a lengthy intimate dialogue that seeks to integrate emotions, thoughts, and desires. Being capable of recognizing aggressive and destructive drives within us, we are in an unparalleled position to understand perverse attacks on other individuals and on civilization. Moreover, as is the case in our clinical work, the best option is probably to continue to ponder these issues from a space of inner calm, without failing to express ourselves against everything that violence produces – fear, repudiation, pain, and more violence.

Works Cited
Berry, J. (2010). Money paved way for Maciel's influence in the Vatican. (National Catholic Reporter).
Kristeva, J. (2016).
Temple, N. (2006). Totalitarianism – The Internal World and the Political Mind.
Psychoanal. Psychother., 20:105-114.
Winnicott, D. (1971). Playing and Reality. London: Tavistock.
Zukerfeld, R., Zukerfeld Zonis, R., Carlisky, N. Bianchi Villelli, H., Calvo, A., Falcone, J., Frigerio, R., Pavón, M. and Rodríguez Rafaelli, N.  (2016). Efectos reparatorios de los juicios al terrorismo de Estado en Argentina [Reparatory effects of state terror trials in Argentina]. Winner of FEPAL's Psychoanalysis and Freedom Award. Calibán, forthcoming.