November 17–23

How to apologize properly, primers to better understanding your sex life, and why you think people are paying more attention to your flaws than they actually are.

What Happened to Your Psyche the Day JFK Was Shot?

How the forces of history shape our psychological and political development

I remember November 22, 1963 like it was yesterday. I’d stayed home from school sick. My dad, who flew for TWA, was home between trips. My mother was in town at the laundromat. Joe was sitting in his chair, reading and smoking a cigarette; I’d just come downstairs in my flannel nightgown for a snack when the phone rang. It was my mother. “Tell your father to turn on the TV,” she said, her voice quavering. “The president’s been shot.”

Trembles shuddered through me as I put the receiver down and told my father the news. His face turned ashen; saying not a word, he grunted in the direction of our set. Turning it on, the two of us sat together, silent and seared with feelings we didn’t have a name for, taking in the black and white images sweeping a twelve year-old girl and a thirty eight year-old man into the flood and storm of history-in-the-making.

Death, murder, guns, politics, America, Communism, news, the stoic anchor Walter Cronkite against my father’s frozen blanched face and my mother’s shocked voice and rush of tears all fused into one Shakespearean moment that, for me as for others, forever parted the veil between politics and psychology. “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” was not just a pop culture question. To answer it located a person along both a political and personal timeline, validating the truth that we are as emotionally and psychologically impacted by large, historical events as we are by the parental abandonments and failures of childhood.

Exploring the boundary between psychology and politics and culture has existed almost since its inception, when Freud penned Civilization and Its Discontents. The Algerian analyst Franz Fanon, in The Wretched of the Earth, documented the psychological effects of oppression on minorities in colonial systems. During the feminist and civil rights movements individual problems came to be seen as not merely personal, but as embedded in the values of the surrounding culture. Today the lingering trauma of September 11th and the epidemic of PTSD among veterans of the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan wars are reminders that the wounds of history cut deep into the human psyche.

Still, dealing with political issues in the privacy of the consulting room has not always been standard practice. In his seminal 1998 book, The Political Psyche, Jungian analyst Andrew Samuels, a political activist and professor at the University of Essex in England, challenged the "isolation of the consulting room." As an analyst practicing during the Persian Gulf War, he began to notice the link between patients’ private conflicts and those of the larger world. “While some clients were using Saddam Hussein to talk about their father,” he says, just as many were “talking about their father when what they really wanted to talk about was Saddam Hussein. So it wasn’t just that the external world was a way into the internal world but that the traditional stuff of therapy was masking the attempt to talk about outer-world issues.”

Samuels began to change the way he himself practiced therapy. Honoring rather than dismissing his clients’ gut reactions to major public events, he noticed that they would “reveal previously hidden, passionate political convictions” they’d held like guilty secrets. In addition to sexual, moral, intellectual, creative and spiritual energy, he theorized, individuals also possessed an inborn "quantum of political energy.” According to Samuels, the political history of a person—the wars, famines, natural disasters, epic triumphs and tragedies of their era, along with their family history and immediate environment—shaped the trajectory of their personal political development. As much as people suffered from personal problems, he realized, so too did they suffer from an inability to find their role in the body politic.

Inspiring people to take up the tasks of citizenship—“Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” —was President Kennedy’s towering talent. His vision for space exploration and bold leadership on civil rights, coupled with the innocent beauty of his young family, enlivened and charmed the country. Dallas psychoanalyst A. Chris Heath, MD says that while he was born two years after Kennedy’s death, he “still remembers the excitement my family had when they talked about him, as if he was still living. I was told that Kennedy was full of hope; they were confident that he could make the US an even better place. Maybe the trips to the moon were the fulfillment of his dream.”

Thinking psychologically, Heath ponders why people “were (and are) so excited about the possibility of conspiracy. There is a kind of troubling energy that surfaces when people talk about Kennedy’s murder.” Most imagined conspirators are "spoken of as alien from the rest of us, reflecting and reinforcing our hatred for the marginalized ‘other’ who we believe may have helped commit Kennedy’s murder,” Heath says. “And if that marginalization played any role in the murder, then we all played a part—which makes it likely this kind of thing can happen again.”

Heath also reflects on the degree of hate involved in the murder of the “nationally shared hero of the Camelot legend.” Kennedy’s courage, charisma and message of hope, says Heath, made people feel excited and included. He “evoked a warm place in our hearts, and triggered the timeless archetype of the hero that exists in each of us as a potential.” That heroic archetype within everyone was also attacked that day, says Heath, further personalizing the loss the country sustained.

Perhaps, says Heath, the hero within can't be killed. Completion of the mourning of Kennedy's murder, however, would “have to involve acknowledgement of the potential for hate within each of us, so in turn we can help others who are troubled by hate. If we can fulfill John F. Kennedy’s passion for making people feel included by attempting to understand the bully or what makes a person full of hate, then we can once again embrace hope. I hope to hear more of that; not just in Dallas, but in the whole country.”

For myself on the occasion of this fiftieth anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination, I mark not only the loss of a leader who dared to take the country into new frontiers of freedom. I also look back and mark the dawn of my own political passions and activism. Even today, the strains of Camelot still thrum beneath the words I write in my search for a deeper, truer American democracy.

And you?

View Snapdragon Films’ book video to learn more about my forthcoming books, America on the Couch: Psychological Perspectives on American Politics and Culture, and American Icarus: A Memoir of Father and Country.