The waking nightmare that we call history

Excerpts from The Social Alter, by Lloyd de Mause

Psychohistory must take up the task and carry out the voyage of self-discovery under the conviction that nothing can ever be discovered about society “out there” until it is first seen as existing “in here.”

[The] massive denial of the origin of individual emotional problems in the traumatic abuse of children is in fact one and the same as the massive denial of the psychological origins of social behavior. They are two sides of the same historical coin. Both are rooted in the fact that our deepest fears are stored in a dissociated part of the brain that remains largely unexplored and is the source of the historical restaging of these traumas. Only when the contents and psychodynamics of these dissociated traumatic memories are made fully conscious can we understand the waking nightmare that we call history.

The extensive work of LeDoux has provided wide evidence that there are two memory systems in the brain, the earliest, the early emotional memory system, being located in neural networks centering on the amygdala, while the later, verbal, declarative memory system is located in networks centering on the hippocampus, which does not begin to mature until we are 3 to 4 years of age. Early fears and other traumatic memories, even in other mammals, are not only stored in this separate module of the brain, they are fairly permanent, and are usually inaccessible to the conscious working memory of your prefrontal cortex with which you think. LeDoux thus gives a neurobiological basis for the psychotherapist’s finding that everyone continues to react to dissociated early memories as though they were vividly present later in adult life.

Thus our early traumas become wired into separate emotional memory module and become projected onto the historical stage in such a manner that they appear to be happening to the group rather than being internal, creating group-fantasies so intense and compelling that they take on a life of their own, a life that is imagined as happening in a dissociated sphere called “society.” History, therefore, is a dissociative disorder designed to help achieve homoeostasis by discharging increasing anxieties experienced in common with others.

Let us consider a typical example. An anti-abortion demonstrator goes home at night after picketing an abortion clinic. He has trouble getting to sleep. He falls asleep, then wakes up from a nightmare in which he hears a fetus screaming out, “Help! They’re trying to kill me!” He gets up, goes out to the abortion clinic and shoots a doctor.

What the traumatic restaging model sees in this typical “political” act is a person reliving an earlier personal fear of being killed, a fear that began with his experiencing some sort of terrible distress while a helpless baby or even as a fetus and compounded by other traumatic fears during his childhood. These early traumas are stored in his early emotional memory module which acts as a “trauma sink” to collect his traumatic incidents and related defenses so that the fuIly conscious main part of his personality can proceed with daily living tasks.

This separate, dissociated self begins with our very first traumatic memories and feelings and is experienced as a world of fantasy, peopled by witches and dragons and heroes and monsters, organized by narratives in books and on TV and played out with toys and games and in peer groups all split-off parts of the psyche, experienced as “not-me” and dissociated from “real” personal life, but all nevertheless very real and emotionally intense. As the child grows up, he or she begins to integrate this fantasy life into his or her social life with peers in “play,” using cultural content to create scenarios that become adult group-fantasies that embody, re-enact and provide defenses against early traumatic content.

These group-fantasies are dissociated and seem to have a life of their own, a life we term “social” or “political” or “religious.” The process is similar to that observed in the creation of alters, or alternate personalities, in people who have Multiple Personality Disorders.

Social alters are distinct, separate, complex, integrated, and with their own repertoire of behaviors that are dominant in the social sphere. The main difference between social alters and most alters of a multiple personality disorder is that social alters replace the usual denial of recent actions by amnesia by denial of emotional connection to these actions, maintained through group collusion. Thus, even though one may be co-consciousness of the activities and feelings of one’s social alter, one has no consciousness of the connections between it and the rest of one’s emotional life; in other words, one always goes to war because of the chance appearance of an enemy, never because of anything that is currently happening in one’s head or heart.

Social alters are organized neural modules providing emotional suitcases into which we stuff our most traumatic split-off fears and feelings, containing our continuing lives as traumatized children, abuser apologists, inner persecutors, heroic avengers, and other consciously intolerable parts of ourselves. Except for a few psychopaths and psychotics, most of us keep these suitcases in the closet with the door locked, seemingly away from our daily lives, but we lend the keys to group delegates whom we depend upon to act out their contents for us so we can deny ownership of the actions. Periodically, when our despair becomes too great to dump into others and our alters seem too distant so that we feel depleted of vital parts of ourselves, these suitcases explode, and their fearsome contents are loosed upon our everyday life in what we term wars or revolutions or other social violence.

Even the language of social alters is special, since they must communicate with other social alters in elliptical form in order that their unacceptable true content may remain hidden to our main selves. Therefore, group-fantasies are often conveyed by subliminal embedded messages rather than clear, overt language. Groups speak this embedded language when they are in a group trance. Leaders of groups must therefore be adept at trance induction techniques in order to accomplish their delegated tasks.

Nations, home of our social alters, act out what seems to be a nonpersonal history because social events appear to exist “in reality” but seem not to be a result of the intentions or emotions of any individual. Since the emotional connections between society and self are amnesic–nations appear to operate sui generis–individuals can deny responsibility for what they do and social events can appear to be wholly without motivation. Thus historians can write tens of thousands of volumes on war without ever once mentioning the word “anger.” The world has agreed to apply these emotional only to individual actions, and collude in saying that wars are fought only by abstract entities called nations that do not feel anger, groups that are alters to us because they embody and carry out our group-fantasies. The “nation” part of us never talks to our “real” self and is considered to be not really part of us. Soldiers who kill in wars, for instance, are not personally called murderers and politicians who cut off welfare to children are not personally child killers because these actions are imagined to be part of a different reality system, a dream-world of pooled social alters that is not really our responsibility, somehow not really “us.”

If helpless people are hallucinated to be vicious alligators, then obviously scapegoats exist as “poison containers” to feel our memories of hunger and despair at being unloved. Without poison containers, we would have to feel them for ourselves.

Poison containers live in a different world, a world of alters. It is the task of leaders to make them appear real rather than being just in our heads.

It is only because our social alters merge with the perpetrators in our heads that such massive cruelties as social exploitation and wars can be inflicted without the central self being overwhelmed by personal guilt. The switch to one’s social alter is particularly dramatic in those who have powerful conversion experiences, like the one Paul had at Damascus. This involves an apocalyptic moment when the person has a vision-like “inner voice” (alter) conversion experience that (a) all their difficulties in life have been caused by Evil, (b) they themselves have been sinful, (c) merging with a violent leader is necessary to save them, (d) a final battle with Evil is near and (e) they have been chosen to fight this final battle.38 There is evidence that this apocalyptic merging with the aggressor was experienced, for instance, by Hitler,39 in a “supernatural vision” that produced an “inner rapture,” presumably the feeling generated by merging with the father that beat him regularly with a hippopotamus whip when he was a little child. Further, most of the Nazis who wrote their autobiographies for the book Why Hitler Came to Power had similar conversion experiences in which they in periods of personal despair imagined they had merged with Hitler. So, too, most of the American “militia” members have had this merging-with-the-perpetrator “conversion” experience.


12 thoughts on “The waking nightmare that we call history

  1. A very powerful speech! Thank you for the link – it is well worth reading in its entirety and following up with your emphasized excerpts. It was delivered by deMausse at a professional convention in 1995 – not so long ago. He puts forth so many ideas, it is hard to find a place to start. But I really like the ending, and I’ll quote:

    “Psychotherapists, sensing the depth of irrationality in their clients’ social alters, shy away from examining their political and religious opinions, their social alters, and thereby miss confronting their earliest memories and most primitive defenses. Psychohistory must take up this task and carry out this voyage of self-discovery under the conviction that nothing can ever be discovered about society “out there” until it is first seen as existing “in here.”

    What are we told growing up to never discuss in “polite” company? Politics and religion. I have never been through psychotherapy, but I will bet that those are topics they only tangentially address with their clients. The alters of the therapists colluding with the alters of their clients. And as deMausse points out, and in such denial, they miss getting at the true source of their client’s problems.

    Does anyone know if deMausse discusses in any of his writing how a person could “heal” their alters? To not live with the fragmented pieces of personality and become the entire “main” person that he describes?

    It seems to me, at one level, he is nearly suggesting that society as a whole is so traumatized and fragmented that it would be impossible to escape it.

  2. Hi Debbie

    DeMause’s conception of who we are and how we got here is a radical inversion of our (contemporary, Western) assumptions – as in (dM believes), we started out in bad shape and are gradually getting better. Apparently, we (well, some of us) stand at one end of an evolutionary arc that began, as we did, with weak parent-infant bonds (ubiquitous infanticide and abuse), and that morphed throughout millenia of collective, trauma-induced psychoses, to the point we are at now of relative parental caring, parental health and safe environments for children. He describes the various forms of more or less brutal parenting and the distinct “psycho-classes” that result from them – psycho-classes that uneasily co-exist in the present, Republicans and Democrats being easily recognizable examples of two.

    I haven’t seen that he recommends any particular form of individual therapy at all, though that may simply be because I’ve only just begun to read his work. One thing he does say very clearly is that cultures regress or progress depending on how mothers are treated and how mothers treat their infants, so even if you are severely traumatized and f**ked-up, if you want things to improve, support mothers.

    *Warning! This material is very dark and may be triggering. Approach with caution!*

    Read “The Emotional Life of Nations” (plus a lot of other good stuff) here:
    More here, from the Journal of Psychohistory:

  3. I would have thought most people in the West believe, eco-crisis notwithstanding, that we are better off today than we were a hundred years ago, much less a thousand. Certainly most people would agree that children are better cared for. I know I have often encountered disagreement when I suggested otherwise – and it’s one thing about LdM that I find questionable, his touting of cultural innovation as an ipso facto positive, even if the idea of a return to noble savagery is perhaps equally naive.

    In a 2010 interview, LdM cited Obama as an example of good parenting, i.e., good leadership. That, and the whole idea that republicans are psychopathic as compared to the nice friendly democrats is just silly, IMO. Talk about blind spots!

    The material at this post I think is astounding in its implications, however, and I’d agree with Debbie that it paints a picture of social reality that seems inescapable. Supporting mothers doesn’t seem like a real solution, because mothers need strong, upright husbands to support them, not social structures, and without supported mothers, male children won’t grow up into the kind of men who can support their wives. So it seems to be a Catch 22 situation.

  4. Reading these pieces of deMause lately has had me thinking about how his ideas may be expressed in other places. And I remembered a book that may present some of deMause’s thought. “The Stranger” by Albert Camus, which has, according to literary critics, the most famous opening line in fiction, “Maman died today.” Briefly, the story is about a Frenchman, living in Algiers, who learns his mother has died. He is a very emotionless man, who doesn’t seem affected by her death, or anything else in his life. In the course of the story, he kills a man, an Arab, for almost no reason, and puts four bullets into his already dead body. He is taken to prison and put on trial. But the questions by the judge and prosecutor focus more on his relationship with his mother than the man he killed. They repeatedly ask him if he loved her, and he shrugs, “No more than any other person.” His emotionless, remorseless attitude about his mother damns him more in the eyes of the court than his violence. And he is sentenced, to be behead – for the good of the French people.

    The judge says, “Of course,” he added, “we cannot blame him for this. We cannot complain that he lacks what it was not in his power to acquire. But here in this court the wholly negative virtue of tolerance must give way to the sterner but loftier virtue of justice. Especially when the emptiness of a man’s heart becomes, as we find it has in this man, an abyss threatening to swallow up society.”

    The day of his execution the man lies in his cell and begins to have emotions, real ones for the first time in his life, and they allow him to understand things that had been hidden to him before. He says, “I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.” Perhaps he finally understood what his life was – a poison container for their hate. It is ironic that his death is brought about more because of his mother and their relationship than the violence he commits.

    Sorry to bring such a dreary novel forward, (Camus is pretty grim stuff), but I think Camus was writing about more than just post World War II existential angst in this. I think he was understanding what deMause sees and gave it a voice.

    • “and it’s one thing about LdM that I find questionable, his touting of cultural innovation as an ipso facto positive, even if the idea of a return to noble savagery is perhaps equally naive”

      I think this sounds true to the reading experience of DeMause, where you get these graphs of upward climbs, but I take it the way I think he mostly means it: cultures innovating, are like children who are not learned to stifle their self-growth so that their angry Mother altars stop yelling at them for their abandonment of them (unloved mothers more need their children than love them and can’t help but understand their children’s growth as their deliberate abandonment of them, and so abandon them in turn to keep them in line), or which — as he perceives all primtive cultures as — spent most of their lives daily dealing with early hurts, so innovation becomes unknown. Hippies in the ’60s, hardly interested in a life of ongoing disruption and change but full of many of society’s most loved, are consistent with DeMause’s most advanced psychoclass. Mind you, in that they would have foresworn themselves of all insitutions that enfranchised hate, this is still very massive cultural innovation … Maybe the term “innovation” is the problem: sounds very machine aggress — startling, not soothing.

  5. The Outsider was THE book to read when I was a teenager – it was the gateway into the existential pantheon of Sartre, Hesse, Hamsun, Gide, et al., the On the Road of the literati, so that’s an interesting new slant on it. The Arab, as has no doubt often been pointed out, represents the uncivilized force of the id or unconscious. So the death of the mother would of course threaten to stir up those forces in Mersault’s psyche and the way to avoid that would be to disconnect totally from his feeling self (Moon-mother), on the one hand, and to aggressively dissociate from his unconscious by acting out his disowned rage against the mother, which otherwise has nowhere to go but inward.

    Once again that ambiguity of phrase (as with mother-strangled) “killing mother,” the mother that kills, and the mother that is slain (Norman Bates again!).

    I don’t mind the term innovation (very Uranian); I think it’s the assumption of culture as ipso facto good. Also, children may be better cared for today, but they are also over-protected, and this creates monsters of a different sort. What would deMause have to say about the schoolyard shooters, I wonder? Are they also evidence of the advancement of culture due to an improvement of child-care practices?

  6. lol, thank you for mentioning that, Jasun. I wondered about that until you mentioned the protagonist by name, then I realized it must have been a UK title. It is curious…”outsider”, “stranger”, “l’etranger”… Words that could belong with “alter” or “alien”.

    You introduced this thread with a quote from deMause “that nothing can ever be discovered about society “out there” until it is first seen as existing “in here.”

    Maybe that was what had me reaching for Camus yesterday. I reread the book looking for a way to see it through deMause’s eyes, and you are right, there is plenty there to be mined in symbols and metaphors.

    What I wanted to find was an artist’s/author’s view of a resolution to this theory, that if society is thoroughly, deeply traumatized and cannot see it, what happens next? Camus ends with Mersault gaining a glimmer of understanding at the dawn of the day of his death, only to know that he will lose his head. Mind and body are to be severed. That was the judgement of the court – for “the good of the French people.” I suppose a nihilist would say, yep that’s it…when society’s mind is severed from its body, the game is over. Or when our collective mind is transferred to machines and our bodies discarded. That’s too simple for me, but I don’t have an answer.

    If I may, I have a brief story regarding L’Etranger. In 1977, I was 17, and on the last day of the spring term, my English teacher handed me a copy of a French version of the book. Mr. Johnson knew I wanted to be a translator and suggested that I translate it over the summer and show him when fall semester began. He promised to critique my translation. I was thrilled and spent the entire summer translating it by hand into a couple notebooks. On the first day back in the fall, I ran up the stairs clutching my translation only to find students sobbing outside the building. I was told that he had shot himself in the chest that very morning, with a brief suicide note on the floor. I was stunned, angry and so shaken, I didn’t read Camus again until yesterday. All this with deMause somehow brought back the memory, and when I read it, it was as if I had just set it down rather than so many years to have gone by.

    The whispers of the teachers at the time were, oh..he lived alone, a man in his 40’s…and his mother died recently. None of that connected when I was young, but somehow I knew that the real answer was in the book he gave me. And perhaps now I can begin understand.

  7. Not sure about if he’s said anything recently about school-yard shooters, but his take on Timothy McVeigh in Chapter 5 of Emotional Life would appear to broadly apply. Not about over-protection, but abandonment. And in general, genuine advancement can only be accepted by the broad public for awhile — any era’s Golden Age. After that ongoing growth begets increasing numbers of people — fused to their maternal altars — intent on punishing kids, representatives as they are both of their guilty growing selves, and of their guilty vulnerable selves.

  8. History is commonly regarded as an attempt to produce a structured account of the past. It proclaims to tell us what really happened, but in most cases it fails to do that. Instead it is set to conceal our shame, to hide those various elements, events, incidents and occurrences in our past which we cannot cope with. History, therefore, can be regarded as a system of concealment.

  9. “This separate, dissociated self begins with our very first traumatic memories and feelings and is experienced as a world of fantasy, …”


    Twin Towers for Purim

    Purim has begun, and just like with Halloween, children around the world are proudly parading around in their inventive costumes. … but what about the poor kids that are used as models for their parents distasteful creative endeavors?

    Enter Ilay and Nehaoray, seven-year-old twins from Israel whose parents “playfully” decided to dress their children up in famous twin costumes: the Twin Towers. Not only are the kids dressed as the famous New York City buildings, they are fashioning the structures while on fire … with the planes sticking out of the side right near the children’s eye holes.

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