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Trauma, Resilience, and Fantasy

Family fantasies perpetuate mental illness across generations.

Boris Cyrulnik, the famous French psychiatrist, has written convincingly about the possibilities of resilience among survivors of traumatic events usually suffered during childhood. In his classic work, "Resilience," he describes through case studies and a review of the literature how trauma survivors who demonstrate resilience often use fantasy to do so.

The fantasy creates what Dr. Cyrulnik terms an oxymoronic self-identity: The survivor has created a well-organized and detailed fantasy of what took place, who he or she is, and how he or she expects to be regarded by others. The survivor also has a public person who behaves in "normal" ways that are no different from individuals who do not have trauma histories. This duality or oxymoronic identity is stressful, but necessary if the survivor is to move forward.

The survivors who are mentally ill do not reference their fantasies and instead act on them, expecting others to respond to unrealistic wishes and perceptions. Within families, these individuals create atmospheres that are deeply destructive, frightening, and emotionally labile because the behavior they demonstrate has insufficient basis in reality.

Unhealthy families perpetuate the survivor's fantasy. Cyrulnik writes, "It is not unusual for a child to want to rescue her aggressor or preserve his image. So she lies in order to create a socially acceptable image in the mind of others. She invents an ideal father or a perfect mother, and disassociates him or her from the reality she is suffering in secret...The lie protects the child because it offers other people an idealized picture of his parents, and because that allows him to go on thinking that he is, like all children, and has parents who are normal. 'So I am not the child of a monster.' The lie that preserves the image of the parents actually helps to protect the child's self-image."

The healthier survivors have insight into the role of fantasy in their lives: Its importance, its salve on wounds. Families that want to be of help to trauma survivors who employ fantasy as a form of resilience can also get them professional help with counseling, psychotherapy, and medication that can stabilize moods and diminish psychotic thinking. Within the home, they can create respectful and loving environments which support the sad predicament of the unrealistic survivor while simultaneously not participating in fantasy. Rather they steer the family towards choices which recognize the individual integrity of each family member.

The rich irony of the child who perpetuates the fantasy is that it is not meant to help the sick parent, and it locks the child, long through adulthood, into a life that has meaning chiefly in what isn't real. The fantasy sharply limits insight, relationships, and cognition. It creates mental illness that often requires treatment although the original trauma did not happen to them.

But woe to the family members who break free of the cycle of fantasy.

Not only are they confronting a system that is based on past trauma, they are seen as attacking the children whose identity is based on that fantasy. And those whose identities are based on lies? They will fight back.