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.