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Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Coerced abortions and the terrorist superego

I've been reading Group Psychotherapy for Psychological Trauma, edited by Robert Klein and Victor Schermer.

One of the chapters, by Andreas von Wallenberg Pachaly, is devoted to discussing "Group Psychotherapy for Victims of Political Torture". Wallenberg Pachaly worked with victims of state oppression and torture in East Germany. That torture was oriented toward changing how the victim viewed the world, as well as to persuading the victim to provide information about the victim's friends.

These torture victims would, inevitably, eventually be induced to betray their comrades and their beliefs, and to establish a kind of bond with their torturers and with the belief systems of the torturer. In other words, the victim is entirely cut off from his or her normal and usual beliefs and circles of friends and loyalties by being forced to betray them. Since everyone needs an affiliation, the person is then driven into an affiliation with his or her torturers.

Reading over this article, I was often reminded of women who have had coerced abortions. I define a coerced abortion as one where the mother wanted the child, but outside circumstances and influences made anything but the abortion seem impossible, to the best of the mother's knowledge and emotional or medical situation at that time.

Here are some excerpts that jumped out at me:

"The [psychotherapy] group thus becomes the first public space where the capacity to demarcate oneself from the world of torture can be developed. Pathological loyalty to a traumatizing system, which I have found in many of these patients, can be resolved."

"Before the therapist and the group can relate adequately to the victim, he or she has to overcome a gigantic wall of shame...eternal isolation of the victim is what the torturer has striven for."

"Shame and disgust with one's body and one's whole being are devastating effects of torture: 'What kind of person am I that this happened to me?', 'My body is ugly and spoiled; I hate my body,' 'My whole life is destroyed; I can't tell anybody what I experienced.' 'My psyche is sick and my head is crazy.'"

And of greatest interest to me, von Wallenberg Pachaly describes the frequent development in torture victims of what he calls "a terrorist superego".

In psychoanalytic theory, the superego is the partly conscious part of the psyche that "represents internalization of parental conscience and the rules of society, and functions to reward and punish through a system of moral attitudes, conscience, and a sense of guilt."

In other words, the superego is that part of ourselves that makes pre-reflective, automatic, instinctive-feeling judgments about what's right and what's wrong, sometimes accompanied by strong feelings of guilt and blame. (Traditional psychoanalysts view the ego as being the part that makes reflective, deliberative, rational judgments about right and wrong.)

Here's what von Wallenberg Pachaly says:

Healthy superego develoment is dependent upon a sincere, loving parent-child relationship. The group dynamics of torture, however, "prove" to a victim that ideals may be lethal. Torture attacks ideology, beliefs and ideals. During torture, the victim's ideals prove disastrous. Ego ideals crumble...A corrupt superego may result. The adult ego blames a corrupt superego, neglecting the fact that at times of torture there is no adult ego. From this, a terrorist superego and a feeling of total powerlessness may develop. The frequent "seemingly irrational" feelings of guilt are reactions to feelings of absolute dependency and total impotence. If the victim feels guilty, this allows him or her to feel active, rather than completely powerless and overwhelmed by external powers. At least the victim can view him- or herself as the cause of everything bad that has happened. The group can help to put such things in a realistic perspective.
What he is saying is that the existence of pre-torture ideals provide the foundation for what the victim is led to betray.

Translating what he is saying into the case of a woman who wants a child and a pregnancy who is nevertheless led to abort, her pre-existing ideals about affirming life, wanting this baby, viewing herself positively as a mother--these ideals are what she is led to betray and abandon in the abortion. The resulting strong sense of shame and guilt may lead the woman to feel that the problem was that her pre-existing superego ideas were not strong enough--or else, she reasons, she wouldn't have betrayed them by having the abortion. She forgets the extent of the pressure, the hopelessness of the situation, and only remembers the choice to abandon her pre-existing ideals.

Since the woman may feel that she abandoned her pre-existing ideals simply because they weren't held strongly enough, she may (unconsciously) decide that the solution to this is for her superego to become militantly blaming and shaming--strong enough so that she would never again violate her principles.

That's what I think Wallenberg Pachaly means by a terrorist superego, and it matches up pretty closely with the strong, even militantly aggressive, feelings of self-shame and self-blame that scorch so many women I know who had coerced abortions.

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