an interview with Vamik Volkan

MC: You’ve been practicing “informal diplomacy” for over 30 years. How did you become interested in international relations?

VV: In 1979, Anwar Sadat, President of Egypt, went to Israel, to the Knesset and he said that there was a wall between Arabs and Israelis. He said the wall was a psychological wall that constituted 70% of the problems between them. This statement was a turning point in my life. The American psychiatric Association’s Committee on International Affairs was given the task to examine Sadat’s statement. I was a member of this committee. my colleagues and I brought influential Egyptians, Israelis, and then Palestinians together for unofficial dialogues.

One day I’m conducting a meeting and next to me General Shlomo Gazit of Israel is sitting. Shlomo was a hero of the Six Day War and he was the general in charge of occupied territories. Sitting next to him there was a younger Palestinian psychiatrist. The Palestinian man was anxious sitting next to an Israeli general and he put his hand in his pocket and started playing. This went on for a while until I said to him “are you aware you are doing this?” And then he told me: he had a small stone in his pocket, with Palestinian colors painted on it. He told me that in Palestine in those days (1983-84) many people carried these stones, which represented their Palestinian-ness. Although I’ve been exposed to the meaning of large groups from childhood on, this incident of the Palestinian sitting next to General Gazit brought the importance of group belonging clearly to my awareness.

MC: Your journey in political psychology has also been a very personal one, too. Would you tell us about your personal story?

VV: To some degree my childhood and other historical events also played a role in my becoming interested in international relations. I’ll tell you about one of them that stays in my mind very vividly. When I was growing up in Cyprus, there was a time that people believed that the Nazis would come to the island and conquer us. They had bombed Crete and a common fear was they would also bomb Cyprus because they wanted to retaliate against British influence over the Suez Canal. As you recall at that time, Cyprus was a British colony.

I remember my father bought a German dictionary in case the Nazis invaded he would try to negotiate. He kept it in a black box – a big black -- where he also, by the way, kept a copy of Freud’s Essays on the Theory of Sexuality.

One day, in elementary school one I was playing outside and I looked up and a British Spitfire shot down an Italian plane, the plane exploded and fell not far from where we were playing. The Italian pilot came down by parachute and was saved. But we ran to the wreckage and I picked up a piece of glass from this airplane. Looking back now, I kept this glass until 1957, until I came to America. This piece of glass linked me to this event, which was very frightening for a little kid.

MC: Please explain your concept of “linking objects”?

VV: A linking object is an object that a person makes it psychologically speaking “magical.” This item links you to a trauma and often to a dead person. You put the image of the dead person or trauma in that object, psychologically speaking. You put your corresponding part in that same object and because it’s outside yourself you can postpone working through your emotions or mourning. Instead of feeling the psychological issue you externalize it.

Adults who do not have complicated mourning cherish keepsakes to remember a lost person or thing. A keepsake does not function as a repository where a complicated mourning process is externalized. A typical keepsake provides continuity between the time before the loss and the time after the loss, or generational continuity if the lost person or item belonged to a previous generation. On the other hand, a linking object is a psychological “tool” utilized for dealing with complicated mourning or sometimes reactivating “normal” mourning process years after the loss, as I will illustrate below. A dead person’s framed picture on a mantle with which the mourner is not preoccupied is a keepsake. When a mourner, even many years after the loss, is preoccupied with a similar picture by ritualistically touching it daily while developing tears, or locking it in a drawer while experiencing anxiety whenever the drawer is unlocked, or not being able to travel long distance without first placing the picture in a special location in his or her baggage we can assume that this picture now is a “magical” tool utilized to maintain complicated mourning

MC: This touches on one of qualities of your work that make it so exceptional, that is how you have been able to use your personal experience for creative and articulate theoretical formulation. The personal and the general are intimately, organically entwined. You have written extensively on the subject of mourning, that of complex and “perennial mourning,” of the problems of letting go. Would you speak to how we mourn?

VV: Let me start from the definition of mourning, psychologically speaking. The easiest example is somebody you love dies. Let’s say you are not prepared for this death. One day this other person is sitting next to you, the next day he or she is gone, physically disappeared. Nothing left. Except you have an image of this person, in your mind doesn’t die. It remains in your mind. You retain a kind of mental double of the person who’s gone. So mourning means: what do you do with this mental double? You go over this mental double, the different parts of this relationship, both the good and painful aspects. You laugh, you cry. You go through anniversaries of meeting this person and then slowly this relationship, this internal relationship with this mental double, gets tamed. Mourning is a kind of psychological burial, but never all the way. It’s not like physical burial. We cannot fully bury it. It is always in your mind until you die. So in a sense the mourning process never ends. But it can find resolution in in a more practical way, when it becomes tame and doesn’t intrude in your life.

In the United States for the last 20 years I have been examining World War II orphans. They are now in their fifties and sixties. There were 180,000 children after World War II who were left without their fathers. Some of them never saw their fathers. I’ve been going to their annual meetings for 20 years and the war never ends. Often it’s passed on as a psychological task for their children to perform. But for some, after so many years, they're finding ways to mourn their fathers.

For many different reasons your relationship with the mental double of the dead person can be very creative, or on the other hand, very troublesome. Mughal emperor Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal in memory of his dead wife. Who the heck am I to say he is pathological? So dealing with mental doubles is complex.

MC: How does a morning process due to a major loss and trauma shared by tens, hundreds of thousands or millions of people belonging to the same large group effect international relations?

VV: There are different kinds of massive traumas. are natural disasters such as an earthquake in Haiti, the tsunami in Japan. But there’s another massive trauma that is different than others: injury by the hand of Others. People from one large group deliberately hurt you. They occupy you, humiliate you, dehumanize you, kill your family members and friends, and arrest many normal psychological functions. These kind of massive traumas are very different. So mourning means: what does a society do to deal with the mental double of lost things?

The mental double of a shared massive trauma at the hand of the Other and unfinished psychological tasks such as mourning, wish to reverse humiliation, desire to have revenge and so on are passed from generation to generation. Some of them evolve as “identity markers” for a large-group. Only one ethnic group or national group has this shared mental double. When this happen I call this shared mental double a “chosen trauma,”—chosen to identify one specific large group.

Imagine a large group as millions of people living under one tent. On this tent there are designs. One design is the image of your history. Thus I say, “under this tent there are millions of people, but they all can be connected with that image of history.” Chosen trauma is that image of history. People said to me, why do you use the word “chosen?” People do not choose to be traumatized. What I mean is these images are chosen as markers of the large group.

MC: What else societies do after a shared trauma and loss?

People build monuments. Whatever feelings we have, we lock them in the marble and metal. It took Americans a long time to build a World War II memorial, a very long time. I was there at its opening with probably 400 World War II orphans. And it was a tremendously big day for them, a turning point. At last they had a monument that where they could put unfinished parts of their mourning. The Vietnam memorial is the best, the best monument for helping Americans mourn. You go there, the names are there. It’s black marble so your picture gets reflected on the names. You have , psychologically speaking, a deep interaction with the lost ones.

MC: As founder and director of The Center for the Study of Mind and Human Interaction (CSMHI, 1987-2002), you studied the political and historical issues that feed social conflicts as well as their psychological underpinnings. This Center, the first of its kind, brought interdisciplinary teams of experts to traumatized areas in the Middle East, the Soviet Union, the Baltic Republics, The Republic of Georgia, Albania, Kuwait, the former Yugoslavia, Turkey, Greece, the USA. Please tell us about one memory of your work with CSMHI.

VV: I’ll tell you one very memorable experience where I almost got killed. Tskhinvali is the capital city of South Ossetia. South Ossetia is in the legal boundary of the Republic of Georgia. After the Soviet empire collapsed and everybody said, “who are we now?” Georgians and South Ossetians started fighting. In one of the wars between Georgians and South Ossetians, the Georgians conquered the cemetery of South Ossetia at Tskhinvali. During the fight, South Ossetians continued to die. Where were they going to bury them? There is a big schoolyard on Lenin Avenue, Number 5. So they buried their dead people in the schoolyard. Later on they put a statue there called “The Crying Father.”

According to South Ossetian tradition, fathers are not supposed to cry. So if you make a monument and call it Crying Father, there is very complicated mourning. So I was very interested in seeing this place and we were visiting Tskhinvali with Georgians. So we walked there. As soon as we arrived, it took about three minutes, and I had a Kalashnikov at my head. It was such a “hot” place that a foreigner coming there induced in them unbelievable emotions. How dare I contaminate their sacred site? It all has to do with large-group mourning. Some monuments remain very hot because mourning has not taken place and going there re-traumatizes you.

MC: This experience coincides with your discovery of “hot spots,” which became an important element of your work in conflicted areas .

VV: Yes, when I go to a conflicted area I need to know what’s going on, not only by reading newspapers or talking to leaders or taxi drivers, or children, you need to know what else in this society because there are societal processes that are shared and are specific for that large group. My team and I found something we named “hot spots.” They are locations which became “symbols” of the conflict, such as the school yard where the Crying Father monument stands or locations where mass killings took place.

We found these places also when we were work in Paldiski in Estonia where the Soviets had built a nuclear factory. This location which Estonians were not allowed to visit, became very symbolic for Estonians after gaining their independence from Russian. A “hot spot” is where the aggression and victimization get symbolized, where all the historical images of the past condensed into the present situation

If you create a sense of security around a hot spot and bring representatives of the victimized group there together with those of the perpetrators, then people talk and you learning a great deal about conscious and unconscious processes. You sit down on a chair or a rock and listen to them you get to know what is going on emotionally in the societies. So hot places became a very important area for us to visit. It’s just like having a patient on the couch and the patient tells you a very important dream and you suddenly understand patient internal world. So hot places became like dreams for us to understand societal processes.

MC: You are the Senior Erikson Scholar at the Erikson Institute of Education and Research of the Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge, MA and you had spent a week per year with Erik Erikson, his wife and other scholars during the last years of Erikson. You have enriched and broadened his notion of “identity.” One of your main concepts is “large-group identity.” Would you explain what you mean by this?

VV: The concept of identity was not a psychoanalytic term before Erikson. Freud, as far as I know, only used it several times in his writings.

A large group is tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of people who will never meet in their lifetimes, but they have a shared identity whether tribal, nationalistic, religious, ethnic, political/ideological and so on. They share the same sentiments from childhood on: the same culture, food, dance, nursery rhymes, the same language and most importantly the same history. Some part of their history may be mythologized and fantasized : “We are Apaches,” “”We are Lithuanian Jews” “We are Kurdish,” “We are Sunni Muslims,” “We are communists.”

When our large group is attacked, or our large group narcissism is hurt, or we are humiliated as, as Arabs or as Jewish people or as Americans, we begin noticing our large group identity. In certain situations, large group identity becomes much more important than our individual identity.

If you go to refugee camps after a war you see that obviously they don’t have much to eat, they express concern for their children. They refer each other with their first names and so on. So individuality is there. But if you listen with a third ear everything is, “we, we, we.” Also there are “them,” those people “out there.” Large group identity becomes very prominent and under stressful situations, you will do everything, including accepting masochistic suffering, in order to protect your large-group identity. In all my years of work in international relations, I came to the conclusion that this abstract concept called large-group identity is the most important thing in international relations.

MC: You write about how, when large groups are under stress, their leader’s personality becomes very important. There are some leaders who are reparative after a massive trauma and then others who are destructive or “malignant.” Would you say something about the leader-follower relation?

VV: Under stress people, in general, look up to the leader. Sometimes a leader’s personality becomes very important in changing history. When Slobodan Milosevic came to power in the former Yugoslavia, obviously he had his own problems. But he ignited a psychological process that existed within the society. What existed was the mental image of the Battle of Kosovo, which had taken place 600 years previously. He reactivated their chosen trauma as if it occurred yesterday so that people came together in nationalistic way.

In 1389 a battle took place between the Ottomans and Serbs. During the battle the Serbian leader Prince Lazar was killed. There were singers and poets during the following decades who made the Battle of Kosovo a chosen trauma and the Serb leader who died in it a mythological hero. Six hundred years later Milosevic, ordered the excavation of the body of the Serbian leader, Prince Lazar, put it in a coffin and, for one year, took it around to Serbian villages where people again mourned Lazar’s death. During this time every night they buried Lazar. The next day, with great ceremony, they reincarnated him. I call this “time collapse,” when images of the past and also the emotions associated with that historical image come alive in the present.

Milosevic built a monument at the historic site of the Battle of Kosovo and spoke there at the 600th anniversary of the war in order to rouse an “entitlement ideology” called “Cristoslavism.” He brought alive the shared “memory” and its emotions, the victimization, the sentiment of “never again” and the desire for revenge. Some leaders use entitlement ideologies, to launch new tragedies. In our work in informal diplomacy, we realized how important these chosen traumas are, how they can be reactivated, and how they are a psychological factor in international relations. Unless you diagnose it at its beginnings and work to understand it you cannot tame such a political process.

When Russian delegates felt humiliated during years-long dialogues with Estonians they would start talking about the Tatar invasion. How many centuries ago did the Russians suffer under the Tatars? When you bring delegates of enemies together and they get anxious, they want to shore up their identity and so they go to their chosen traumas, their large-group identity markers.

My interdisciplinary team from CSMHI would analyze what gets reactivated under certain stresses and how it finds its way into politics. As I visit different parts of the world, I think to myself every country in certain ways has historical images that are shared. They get reactivated when there is a present conflict. We need to understand this and expand diplomatic negotiations by including such obstacles in discussions.

MC: What role does ritual play in consolidating group identity?

VV: There are peace time rituals and “purification” rituals. A new large group, under certain conditions that can be summarized as “who are we now?” (for example, after gaining independence, after a revolution, after responding the influence of a “bad” or “good” transforming leader) often becomes like a snake shedding its skin. The national cemetery of Latvia is a fascinating because it reflects their history of various large-group events. You see a tombstone with a hammer and sickle, on the next one a cross, you see the Star of David on a few, and on many a swastika. This situation reflected a fragmentation in Latvian large-group identity.When Latvia became independent after the Soviet empire collapsed Latvian metaphorically wanted to develop a “new” large-group identity and said: “Who are we now?” Thus, they searched for an object to externalize and project their unwanted aspects, aspects that would prevent them to get together and develop a new Latvian identity. Thus the parliament of Latvia wanted to exhume the Russian bodies in the national cemetery. I call this purification.

MC: You and your colleagues are some of the first to study how transgenerational transmissions take place as in The Third Reich in the Unconscious: Transgenerational Transmission and Its Consequences (Vamık Volkan, Gabriele Ast, William F. Greer Jr., 2002) How has your work on this subject changed how we think about the clinical setting?

VV: In the psychoanalytic literature there are papers referring to mutual resistances that may prevail when both the analyst and the analysand belong to the same large group that has been massively traumatized by an external historical event. We can wonder how many Jewish analysts-- some of them very influential in the field of psychoanalysis, both in the US and elsewhere --after World War II without being aware of it, influenced the application of psychoanalytic treatment in a way that tended to ignore Holocaust-related external reality. Practicing psychoanalysts and psychotherapists, with some exceptions, have basically tended to treat their patients without much interest in or attention paid to political or diplomatic issues and the enormous public health problems that are found in massively traumatized societies. Only during last decades we began to focus on the importance of the influence of massive traumas and transgenerational transmissions in individuals’ psychological make-up. Many scholars are contributing to this field and the continuing influence of the Holocaust through generations. In our book, we tried to illustrate how the Holocaust related transgenerational transmissions take place in depth through clinical examples.

I should also add that, when writing about transgenerational transmissions and related issues some colleagues still apply theories of individual psychology to large-group processes without taking into consideration that once they begin, large-group processes take on their own specific directions and appear as new political, social or ideological movements. Recently however, especially since September 11, 2001, practicing clinicians have shown more interest in large-group psychology.

MC: Animals have been a prevalent theme in your work, as symbols or what you call “reservoirs of externalization.” I understand that you like animals, as you do gardening and tending to your many fruit trees in North Cyprus. Tell about the birds of Cyprus.

VV: I was born in Cyprus when Cyprus was a British colony. But I came to the United States in 1957 after medical training and in 1960 Cypriot Turks and Cypriot Greeks on the island started fighting. Cypriot Turks were put in enclaves in only three percent of the island and they lived like that for eleven years in absolutely sub-human conditions.

In 1968 the borders of the island loosened up so I was able to return to Cyprus. It was the first time I went back the island and the first time my family was now able to leave their enclave and come to the airport to meet me. But they did not speak out loud, only whisper, because for six years they had been kept out of “enemy territory.” So we pass over into the enclave and I haven’t seen my mother, my sisters, and my father for ages and I have newly born relatives. My family takes me right away and they introduce me to three cages of birds! Parakeets, which are not native birds in Cyprus. They say to me, “this is the mother bird. These are the grandmother birds. Look at this new one.”

I was shocked. I had come to Cyprus with so much difficulty, with all kind of emotions. I go to my house and instead of introducing me to human beings, they introduce me to birds. The next day I go out to a little shop to get groceries and there are a hundred birds in cages. I cannot even get a piece of bread without stepping over them. Then I go to other people’s houses, everywhere… thousands of birds in cages. Again, you have to understand societal processes. Birds represented Cypriot Turks in cages, in enclaves; they were imprisoned. But as long as they took care of the birds, they believed that they, themselves, would survive. As long as birds sang, they had hope.

Later when I became known by some diplomats and state department officials they would call me and ask “what’s going on in Cyprus?” The only thing they would remember about the emotional tragedy was the story of Birds of Cyprus.

MC: What do you see, and hope for, in the future of psychoanalysis?

VV: I trained as a psychoanalyst in order to become a kind of therapeutic instrument, in order to help somebody who lies on my couch be able to, oh what should I say, play with the cruelties of life. Life is full of cruelties and you can play with them or suffer with them.

The same is true of large groups. But as psychoanalysts we rarely studied these things on the field. Nobody teaches you about international relations in medical school and in psychoanalytic institutes.

Large-groups are important especially now. The world has changed so much after colonists left Africa, after the Soviet empire collapsed. Everyone is saying, “Who are we now?” Globalization is good in ways, but it also threatens large-group identities. As an American, you may not understand this because America is what my friend Peter Loewenberg calls a “synthetic” country. People from different ethnic groups, different national groups and religious groups came together under one umbrella, “the great melting pot.” This is a different process of national independence and America is still a very young nation.

The rise of new communications technology is amazing. Why don’t we put that kind of energy and resources into understanding human nature? Even now, people ask me “where’s your evidence?” as if this is an evidence-based science, whatever that means. You cannot measure fantasies. You cannot measure unconscious processes or emotional feeling states. We can describe them. We see them and know they exist.

As psychoanalysts, we need to examine large-group processes with the same devotion we do for the individual. Hopefully these ideas will be systematized and incorporated into diplomatic relations. I suggest that nobody should be President of a country for 30 years such as Hosni Mubarak or Muammar Gaddafi. It’s as if leading a country were like owning a farm. After September 11, there is a wish and an urgency to use psychoanalytic ideas to understand collective behavior. The history of diplomacy is realpolitik, which works well when things are routine. But in a world of terrorism who do you talk to? We must bring our knowledge to politicians, diplomats and State Departments in order to find new strategies towards a better world. This is a noble profession.

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