Evil Deeds

A forensic psychologist on anger, madness and destructive behavior.

Messiahs of Evil (Part Three)

    What exactly is a messiah complex?

As stated in my previous post, I believe Osama bin Laden is a religious fundamentalist cult leader with a major messiah complex. But imagewhat exactly is a "messiah complex"?

Psychiatrist Carl Jung is credited with first introducing the term "complex" into the psychoanalytic lexicon. Prior to Jung's relatively brief but fruitful collaboration with him, Freud utilized an altogether different terminology to denote the now famous "Oedipus complex." Later, Alfred Adler, another of Freud's former followers, introduced the notion of an "inferiority complex."

According to Jung, a complex (e.g., a mother or father complex) is an unconscious constellation of cognitions, memories, images, impulsions, opinions, beliefs, associations and other content emanating from a core or nucleus of repressed or dissociated emotion, drive or instinct. Complexes can behave like relatively autonomous "splinter personalities," powerfully influencing consciousness, cognition, affect and behavior. As Jung once said, we all have complexes; the question is whether we have complexes or they have us.

See All Stories In

Our Heroes, Ourselves

Heroic fantasy is hot. Why we want to save others—and be saved.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Complexes contain archetypal images that lie latent in the unconscious until being somehow stimulated, at which time they can, in certain cases, take complete or partial possession of the personality. The idea and image of Messiah or God appear to be innate (archetypal) potentialities in the human psyche. When activation occurs, some confused individuals misidentify themselves with this archetypal image, resulting in a dangerous form of ego-inflation seen typically in schizophrenic patients, or those suffering from delusional disorder or severe manic episodes.

In schizophrenia--and the psychoses in general--the imagephenomenon of what we clinicians call "religious preoccupation" is striking: Psychotic patients regularly report hearing the voice of God or the Devil. Persecutory paranoia can accompany such dangerous states of mind, and is typically the source of supposed defensive violence by cults toward demonized non-believers or outsiders. Jim Jones, the paranoid spiritual leader of the People's Temple, who claimed to be both Jesus and Buddha, led 914 of his tragically mesmerized followers--including 276 children--to mass murder-suicide in 1978. Marshall Applewhite similarly proclaimed himself a Messiah and predicted doomsday, finally leading his Heaven's Gate cult to mass suicide in 1997. In 1993, seventy-four members of David Koresh's heavily armed fundamentalist cult, the Branch Davidians, died a fiery death in a shootout with government agents in Waco, Texas. Koresh, who never knew his father, fancied himself the "final prophet." Like mass murderer Charles Manson, Koresh's dreams to be a rock star were frustrated after coming to Hollywood. What followed in both cases was a bloody path of destructive infamy, a wicked rage for recognition. image

We all have a "messiah complex" dwelling deep within. But not everyone becomes completely possessed and grandiosely inflated by it. The desire to redeem and "save the world," when kept in check, can be a very positive force in life, motivating us to do good and to leave the world a better place--if only infinitesimally--than when we came into it. But when one has been chronically frustrated in realizing this positive, creative potentiality, it remains stillborn in the unconscious, dissociated from the personality, rendering them highly susceptible to possession by the messiah complex. This is especially true when the sense of self has been underdeveloped or weakened due to trauma and other early narcissistic wounding.

Messianic religious sects are not unlike the psychedelic cult or "Family" that unquestioningly served and worshipped Charles Manson, obediently butchering the pregnant Sharon Tate and eight others at his bidding in the summer of 1969. Manson was convinced that by instigating a race war in America as a result of the random killings, he and his group would seize power in the ensuing pandemonium of "Helter Skelter." From what I've seen in taped interviews over the years, Manson appears to be at once narcissistically grandiose, intermittently psychotic, and profoundly antisocial. He bitterly alleges--with some merit, given his background-- that the world has done him wrong, which gives him the right to do the world wrong. This pathological inner rage and narcissistic need for retribution and revenge is at the core of sociopathy--which is why I refer to antisocial personality disorder as really an anger disorder. image

Manson, like Koresh, never knew his father. His mother was an alcoholic and possible prostitute who physically neglected, rejected, abused and abandoned him. In and out of juvenile detention since he was twelve--closely fitting the profile of so many antisocial characters-- Manson became a career criminal who has spent the bulk of his adult life behind bars. He is reported to have had an intense need to call attention to himself as a child and adolescent. Having failed to do so constructively or creatively through his music or otherwise, Manson (and Koresh) eventually succeeded in finding the fame they desperately desired destructively via their evil deeds.

We know that children who are frustrated in getting the positive attention and fulfillment of healthy narcissism they naturally need will turn to negative attention-getting behaviors as a substitute for positive or no attention at all. Manson himself admits "I'm still a little five-year-old kid." This is psychologically accurate: Manson, like most other messianic cult leaders, is basically an abandoned, damaged, deeply hurt, angry, resentful, fearful little boy who feels unloved and unlovable. By becoming cult leaders, they receive the unconditional love, attention and acceptance from their followers they always craved. And they can act out their infantile fantasies of omnipotence and control.

I suspect Osama bin Laden shares similar states of mind with other infamous cult figures, including "polygamist prophet" Warren Jeffs and self-proclaimed messiah Michael Travesser (Wayne Bent). Certainly, bin Laden sees himself as a messiah, the savior, of his own Muslim people, and perhaps, of humanity. Adolf Hitler, another messianic cult leader, also viewed himself this way, as did the entire German nation, following him blindly into a catastrophic World War with millions of casualties. Psychoanalyst Michael Stone (1991) notes that Hitler's father brutally beat both him and his brother daily with a whip, suggesting that Hitler's evil deeds (and his notorious "anger attacks") were, at least in part, a consequence of this horrific abuse: a hateful--and, ironically, hypersadistic--displaced expression of repressed rage regarding his relationship with his sadistic father.

imageIn Jungian terms, Osama bin Laden may be a classic case of inflation: a pathological over-identification with the Messiah archetype, the universally innate image of an embodied savior or chosen one. Many religions share this archetypal concept of Messiah, including Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Much like the archetypal notion of God, identifying oneself as God or Messiah is a disastrous form of ego-inflation. Such inflation is a grandiose narcissistic defense against profound feelings of inferiority and powerlessness. The wounded ego, with its debilitating, neurotic feelings of guilt, badness, shame, emptiness, unworthiness and helplessness falls prey to the equally neurotic (or psychotic) compensatory spiritual pride the ancient Greeks called hubris, providing self-righteous justification for evil deeds.

 

 

 

Dr. Stephen Diamond, Ph.D., is a clinical and forensic psychologist in LA and the author of Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic: The Psychological Genesis of Violence, Evil, and Creativity.

more...

Subscribe to Evil Deeds

Current Issue

Dreams of Glory

Daydreaming: How the best ideas emerge from the ether.