The Me in We

How group emotions and issues of collective identity change the world.

Violence and Social Action

Mental health professionals explore "American" character.

20th c. sign, shown by artist Hank Willis Thomas
"Violence and its Denial" was the subject of the annual conference held by The Association For the Advancement of Psychoanalysis. It opened with preliminary remarks about the Newtown massacre, the suggestion that America’s Second Amendment be repealed or at least subject to state license and regulation, and the question “Is ours a borderline country?”

The first presenter, artist Hank Willis Thomas, began by projecting photographs of mass-produced kitsch objects from 19th-century racist America: a Black Sambo figurine in Vaudeville pose, postcards of lynching and spectacles at the whipping post, a public sign: “No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs.” This brief reminiscence led the artist to comment on the loss of social status of whites during this era, following mass immigration into cities, the naturalization of blacks in the 1860s, and the suffrage movement—all of which wrought enormous social change.

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Thomas’ presentation culminated with “Winter in America,” a 5-minute video that uses black G. I. Joe figures to reenact the 2000 murder of the artist’s cousin, Songha T. Willis. Composed from interviews with a witness and the victim’s mother, the work recounts the tragic event that robbed Willis of a gold chain and his life when teenagers in a Philadelphia parking lot shot him as a young man. Stop-motion video recreates the scene when the victim, unresisting, was forced to lie prone in the snow. “Bang him,” intones a black action figure. A bullet is fired to the head; red colors the snow.

Thomas decried the current epidemic of violence ravaging African-American communities. Blacks are six times more likely to be murdered than whites by other blacks, often for trivial objects: bling, air sneakers, a $20 bill. Since the slave auction block, black bodies have been bought and sold. Thomas posits that they continue to be associated with contemporary branding. Some of his art employs Absolut Vodka and MasterCard ads to reveal a marketing subtext that transmits racial stereotypes, belittles the history of African-Americans, and perpetuates their dehumanization. Thomas points to how advertising, our world’s most widely spoken language, subtly reignites consumer nostalgia for the days of slavery and the Mason-Dixon divide.

The commodification of violence has a pornography of its own, stated the second discussant Ghislaine Boulanger, PhD, who addressed issues around the US war industry and PTSD. Boulanger conducted extensive clinical work with Vietnam veterans returning home. She quoted one veteran who described a dream in which he stared down a gun barrel and was startled to glimpse his little girl at the other end. Killing has an “erotic rush, a blood lust,” his therapist reiterated, something that our culture too little acknowledges. Even mental health workers disavow this unwanted knowledge. As Boulanger described it, violence shatters the core self, turns a person into a thing, an object denied history, and whose physical and psychological boundaries are enfeebled. Rather than being the author of one’s actions, one becomes the passive recipient of intrusive memories and disorienting sense perceptions, a refugee in one’s own skin.

Boulanger insists that massive psychic trauma endured in adulthood, what she calls “adult onset trauma,” be understood as a distinct experience from childhood trauma. Psychoanalysts frequently attribute PTSD in adulthood to predisposing factors or unresolved early developmental conflicts. For grown-ups who suffer massive injury, such as the adult residents of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, homes were lost, neighborhoods destroyed, communities dispersed. A field of emotional connection extending beyond the individual physical body was severed. The destruction of communal networks in adult onset trauma leads to tremendous isolation. Is this different from childhood aloneness following emotional shock? Boulanger mentioned a new free app, “PTSD Coach,” downloaded in 74 countries, which aids in monitoring the symptoms of sustained reactions to catastrophic injury. How can the psychoanalytic community provide a containing function for these populations and initiate social reforms that mitigate the ongoing effects of traumata?

As the final presenter of the morning, Joseph Cambray, PhD, was the only one to focus on work performed outside the United States and in response to natural disaster rather than manmade destruction. He showed slides of relief endeavors in China following the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, during which a team of analysts set up sand-play stations at orphanages and calamity zones. A shelter was created inside makeshift tents and Chinese children were invited to mold sand and manipulate miniature objects of their choosing, thereby constructing representations of their inner worlds. The experience was tactile, non-verbal, and symbolic. Among the most habitually used miniature among the thousands of sand trays was the image of an angel.

Key to the healing process was an unconscious communication that developed among sand players and percolated out into family and neighborhood. Debriefing therapeutic workers brought to light common narrative themes among sand-play participants. Rituals of healing gradually emerged based on the local mythology of the Qiang people who resided at the center of the earthquake area. Cambray identified this collective process among sand players as they filtered out into their community as an “emergent form.”

To further illustrate this phenomenon, he confronted the audience with a projection depicting a cluster of beetle larvae of the Mojave dessert. The strange structure was larvae gathered on branches in a shape simulating a female bee and exuding her pheromone in order to attract male bees. As the male bees try to mate with this simulacrum, the larvae attach to their chest hairs and are transported to a female and her hive where they can eat pollen. The point being that a large group dynamic unfolds in this species of the animal kingdom. This is a creative process that produces a result that is greater than the sum of the parts and manifests new, higher levels of adaptive functioning. Similarly, in the sand-play therapy, individual subjectivities were transformed in a social field of interaction something like a collaborative space of the “analytic third.”

According to Cambray, emergent forms have a neutral valence. They can take on dark properties, as in the collective mental illness that strickens American culture; what Robert Jay Lifton calls “gunism.” Bear in mind that after mass killings such as Sandy Hook, guns sales typically soar and people operate under the paranoid fantasy that acquiring more firearms will ensure their safety.

As a mother of two young boys, I thought of how the commercialization of violence in the U.S. has corrupted our children’s play space. Video game manufacturers and gun makers collude in a mutually-beneficial financial arrangement, at times sharing the same website to market first-person shooter games and actual firearms equipment. Leading distributers of gaming devices promote their products as a “digital playground” and what they do as “electronic arts.”

Yet Cambray emphasized how emergent forms work to increase survivability. Thus it is importance that psychoanalytic scholars and practitioners coalesce around the problem of American violence, catalyze community work in this area, and contribute to social and legislative reforms.

The Second Amendment was ratified to protect our citizens from British tyranny, but we also used it historically to reproduce that tyranny in the main instrument of slave control: the armed southern militias or what African-Americans of the south at that time called “pattie rollers.” Perhaps collectively we still suffer the post-traumatic shocks of our nation’s independence? The Amendment was composed when guns were single-shot firearms, and muskets required cumbersome reloading with powder. This law should be reevaluated in light of the current munitions technology of semi- and fully automatic weapons with unlimited ammunition.

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NAAP News: Uniting the Schools of Thought, V. 37, No. 1, Winter 2014.

Follow me: http://www.twitter.com/mollycastelloe

Molly Castelloe, Ph.D., is a New York based author specializing in group psychology and theater.

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