Terror on the Couch

Dr. Eugene J. Mahon

Recent acts of terror in Paris bring to mind two clinical examples of terror experienced, struggled with and redressed.


Recent acts of terror in Paris bring to mind two clinical examples of terror experienced, struggled with and redressed, relatively speaking:  1. an observation of play in a schoolyard and  2, a segment of analysis from an adult analysand.  When on September 11, 2001 two planes crashed into the twin towers in Manhattan inducing terror in an alarmed citizenry for months, if not years afterwards, two four year olds were overheard having the following conversation.

Ryan: “Did you know that a plane just crashed into one of the twin towers?

Eve: “No, Ryan. Two planes crashed into the twin towers. Bad people did it, but our President is going to catch them and stop them; and if he doesn’t, I will.” One can only marvel at the ego of this child, its courage and resilience.

After September 11, 2001, an adult analysand, free associated to the terror attacks for weeks after the event. It resonated, of course, with many other genetic moments of fear and panic in the man’s life, but I want to focus only on the specificity of his associations to the actual events of the time.  He would imagine the plight of the passengers and crew, their terror and imagined passivity as he identified with their doomed situation. He could feel their panic in the hollow of his own abdomen, as if he were in the plane, as it inexorably approached journey’s end.  He found himself trying to resist this “identification” with their doomed passivity, as he  struggled to ignite a more active potential within himself.  He described how his defeated, deflated, overwhelmed “ego” could rouse itself from its passivity by imagining himself in the cockpit struggling with his assailants, kicking them, lashing out at them with belt and belt buckle or any other rudimentary homemade weapon he could fashion out of objects close at hand. In other words the aggression, which he  had initially divested himself of, as he  “identified” with the aggressors’ surprise attack that overwhelmed  his readiness to fight and defend himself, could be redressed if he forced himself to de-repress his own aggression and turn it from intimidated passivity back into active agency and courage. Weeks of “forcing” himself to ignite active fantasies within himself to counteract the debilitating passivities restored his customary courage. (This is a mere vignette: I am not able in this short space to address the contributions of the analytic context or indeed the whole genetic context of early life experiences and do justice to the whole history of the man’s ego development that allowed him to undo the effects of terror in a relatively short period of time).

I use these two examples as a mere springboard for a much larger psychoanalytic discussion of the damage terror wreaks on the individual ego and how such damage can be understood and redressed by therapeutic intervention. Freud made the crucial distinction between anxiety that can signal the ego to marshal its defensive strategies and fright, which depicts an ego that has been overwhelmed, since it did not have sufficient time to prepare itself for the surprise attack. If the ego has indeed been traumatically overwhelmed at the moment of terror it will not deploy its most sophisticated and sturdy defensive strategies: it will regress to a more primitive state of infantile defensive reactivity. In fact it is this assessment of the regressed state of the ego that allows the diagnostician to know that traumatic terror has indeed overwhelmed and damaged the ego in the first place. The therapeutic corollary, of course, is that when the ego retrieves its former resilience, the more developmentally advanced defense mechanisms reassert themselves.   This broad outline in no way captures the complexity of the therapeutic journey from a state of overwhelmed helplessness to a state in which mental stability and courage have been restored. The Parisians who went out to restaurants chanting “Je n’ai pas peur” had clearly retrieved whatever emotional stability had been initially taken from them. The challenge for mental health professionals is to understand how bravery can reassert itself so quickly in certain individuals and be so difficult to inculcate in others. The widening scope of psychoanalysis has provided no shortage of clinical experience that illustrates how terrorized many individuals are, based on the cumulative traumas of their childhoods. It is as if they have lived in a private reign of terror throughout their childhoods and indeed often throughout their whole lives. The therapeutic work of helping such individuals to restore some never achieved or too prematurely relinquished ego strength can be heroic and daunting. The therapeutic action of psychoanalysis or psychotherapy has never been easy to formulate precisely but all analysts agree that a therapeutic atmosphere informed by empathy and insight can be healing. If “man is born broken and lives by mending” as Eugene O’Neill suggested, individual mending must find the courage to hold a mirror up to its own broken developmental potentials and fix the rents in its own psychic ruptures, leaning on society and its institutions to be sure.  Psychoanalysis is but one of those institutions but an important one: since its origins, it has been attacked by intellectual terrorists that attempted to mock the daring of its revolutionary instinctual discoveries.  Traumatized and intimidated it has regressed at times, retreated from the daring of its bold discoveries, and acted perhaps like a victim of trauma and terror itself. But it has always redressed such regressive tendencies and reasserted its belief in the dignity of absolute intrapsychic truth, a dignity that marries instinct and intellect and insists that neither one can be allowed to browbeat the other, since dignity and virtue would be hollow concepts indeed without the marrow of instinct that gives them authenticity. In that context it is crucial for society to remember that terror is not a recent phenomenon.  Only a deluded man refuses to acknowledge the animal within.  History does not let us forget that the marriage between animal nature and sapient human nature was not a marriage made in heaven but rather in the hell of Darwinian expediency.  Realists acknowledge that it is still the best marriage imaginable. It is chilling in retrospect to contemplate the words of Robespierre in 1794 in a speech in the French National Convention: “If the basis of a popular government in peacetime is virtue, its basis in a time of revolution is virtue and terror—virtue, without which terror would be barbaric; and terror, without which virtue would be impotent.”  While this does sound like terror trying to rationalize its nefarious instincts, psychoanalysis still insists that man’s salvation depends on his acknowledgement that he is an instinctual animal who has learned how to curb his instincts and turn his would be barbarities into art, morality, insight, societal institutions. He insists that Eros and Thanatos exist side by side and must learn to co-operate with each other rather than devour each other. Freud insisted that it was aggression denied, instinct repressed that led to incessant cycles of war, war a tragic return of a repressed that never reached the insights of its own potential enlightenment.  When war-ravaged individuals return to society and find its structure alien to them, tormented as they are by recurring dreams of trauma, survival, guilt, panic, a toxic internal brew that they try to process and re-process in dreams, to redress the initial surprising fright that overwhelmed their egos, Freud argued that the recurring nature of these traumatic dreams was a desperate attempt to restore to the ego that split second of thoughtful, reparative, soul-mending they were robbed of by the suddenness of the moment of traumatic terror.  In a way all therapeutic interventions try to accomplish what the sleeping egos of these tragic, war-haunted soldiers try to accomplish every night in the desperation of their dreams: a redress of the fright that left the ego with only one psychic leg to stand on, so to speak—an act of regression.  The therapeutic relationship can be viewed as the agent of this redress even when the intrapsychic mending process is almost impossible to define.  In some way we help the battered ego to climb back into the cockpit and fight off the terrorists that have temporarily gained possession and control of the intrapsychic plane.  If the therapeutic process can be compared to a fantasy, as Loewald argued, it is a most healing fantasy, of course, in which courage tries to stand up for itself, rid itself of a regressive panic that insists at first that fright can only be redressed in regressive helplessness, and repudiate this initial collapse of the ego’s armaments.  Out of the therapeutic nurture of the mending fantasy must come a plan of campaign, of course. If thought is trial action, thoughtful fantasy must reach towards agency eventually.  Children at play are forever anticipating future agency, play a kind of blue print of developmental momentum and progress.  I have argued elsewhere (Mahon 2004) that play and working through are analogous in the sense that working through tries to put insight to work in real life rather than letting it settle into some intellectual complacency that tends to  “lose the name of action” as Hamlet put it.  Any therapeutic practitioner, who has struggled to get hard won insight not to “lose the name of action” but to fight to assert itself in meaningful action, knows the forward and regressive process of therapeutic work all too well. But all analytic process is analogous in a sense to the extraordinary labor of trying to overcome the effects of terror on the human mind. Those Parisian citizens who chant “Je n’ai pas peur” are indeed exemplary models for us all.  So is Eve and the analysand who insists on climbing into the cockpit to fight off his assailants, insisting that his ego recoup the courage lost in a moment of panic and terror.  There are many citizens who cannot do this so readily based on a host of factors, quantitative, qualitative, genetic, dynamic, constitutional.   All would have to be addressed as diagnostic and prognostic assessments are being made.  It is hard work that has its sorrows, disappointments but also its rewards. I remember working with a child who had been terribly wounded by the relative loss of her father which divorce had temporarily deprived her of.  She drew a picture of a house. She took quite a bit of care drawing the door of the house. “A door is a tear in a house” she said. Separation anxiety had its components of terror for her as she imagined the direst consequences of parental departure ,  a father dispatched forever in the child’s imagination because of a poorly understood aggression inside her that destroys the constancy of love within.  There was a tear in her soul that she couldn’t draw, the drawing a poignant displacement and sublimation of that pain.  Many months later in the playful atmosphere of therapeutic process as she discussed the divorce, the custody arrangements, the coming and going from one house to another I commented empathically “a door is a tear in a house”. She corrected me proudly and dismissively: “Oh I got over that!”.   I had not kept up with the progress of her ego and got what I deserved.  Chastened, but proud of her progress, it feels like one of the best errors I ever made! One senses that the time will come when a collective Paris, personified, will be able to say: “Oh I got over that”.  We all get over tragedy, trauma, terror not by repressing it of course but by remembering it. Memory may never be innocent again perhaps, but maybe it never was, never should have been: its best bet is to always insist that its love is more assured, more unassailable, when its own healthy, adaptive aggression is never lost sight of, never repressed, but always preserved as potential agency, even in the face of terror and depravity.

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