Kirby Farrell Ph.D.

A Swim in Denial


Self-Esteem and Your Inner Biker

Gangs and the psychology of abandon

Posted May 23, 2015

You’ve heard about the biker gangs’ clash in Texas.  Nine dead: less than a day’s auto fatalities, but presented as a “shootout,” as if it’s a wild fight to the death. Tensions turned trigger-happy during a gang powwow about pursuing “biker rights.”

The Psychology of Abandon diagnoses this as “berserk style.” We’re terrified of frenzied violence, but fascinated by it too. We pay media to hype it so we can feel pumped up, turning depressing routine into thrilling anxiety and anger. Research tells us that horror movies excite lovemaking. Rant media excites righteous indignation. 

Berserk abandon becomes a style when the idea or fantasy of losing control becomes a tool people use. Marketing regularly uses the idea of throwing off inhibitions to arouse customer desire. At one time or another nearly everybody uses berserk threat display to fend off others and boost their morale. The military, police, politicians, weather forecasters, and hellfire preachers make a living by pumping adrenaline.

The magic is in the possibility of losing control. Escape or defy rules and nagging inhibitions, and you feel expansive, confident as a bigshot, even godlike. For bikers, it’s the vista of “the open road.”  No rules, no boundaries. By contrast, if loss of control means layoffs, eviction, or maybe terrorist beheading, then berserk style inspires submissiveness: love of cops, soldiers, salutes, prisons, and the like. To submit is to conform. You belong to your ethnic group, your gender, your gang or family. You wear a uniform to blend in—khaki, a leather jacket, designer threads. And amazingly, in the group you feel bigger, confident, chosen. Significant.

We thrive on self-esteem, but it’s a ticklish, sometimes tragic balancing act. As a hungry infant, you must submit to parental rules and desires or you die. Yet you also want to be you, your own boss, in a fresh life, maybe even leading others. These motives are mixed up in everything from lovemaking to combat.

Okay, enough fancy stuff. What about those bikers?

To start: the “shootout” wasn’t a fight to the death. A few bikers shot to kill (out of panic? Rage?). Videos show most bikers “running away as shooting starts. . . .  A few tried to direct people inside [the restaurant], crawling on all fours heading for safety” (AP). Nobody knows how many bikers the cops killed. Afterward, police and news reported finding a thousand weapons, revised down to 320. Like Saddam’s phantom “weapons of mass destruction,” this hyped arsenal made the cops heroes and the bikers berserk savages. But a few days later Texas passed an “open carry” law, reminding us that Americans are more weaponized than anybody in history.

Bikers mirror the rest of us. They dream of total freedom on “the open road,” but also Hell’s Angels’ do-or-die violence, even as their club demands obedience—or they take away your gang patch. Like the “global policeman’s” plus-sized military, biker gangs are tools for pumping up heroism. Their “bad boy” heroism is a way of rivaling the bad boy military, which is always ambiguously outside the law when invading other countries and killing people, since “All’s fair in love and war.” To keep juices and cash flowing, gangs need feuds as the Pentagon needs wars and cops need robbers.

The gangs’ investment in heroism mirrors the straight world. They sport club badges like a general’s chest full of medals—“gongs” in military slang. New members have to earn badges like Boy Scouts.  Their Harley-Davidson hogs mirror elite BMWs, and like them, advertise heroic privilege. Their roar demands attention. As criminals, motorcycle gangs are usually associated with drugs that excite an outlaw version of the “high” that the straight world finds in consumer prestige and wealth.

Biker gangs may be more vicious than the respectable groups they mirror—though you might wonder. What’s striking is the way the gangs illustrate the basic struggle over self-esteem. Like the rest of us, bikers want to conform to enjoy the family’s nurture, but they also go for the heroic dream that Karen Horney termed “glory,” and Ernest Becker called “symbolic immortality.” 20thC psychologists from Freud, Adler, and Rank to Becker recognized that the heroic aggression compensates for vulnerability. We’re the childlike animals who worry about growing up. We hold our breath passing the cemetery. We have haunting words such as “futility.” The conflict is hidden in plain sight. In slang you can be a “working stiff,” yet a “stiff” is slang for a corpse with rigor mortis. No wonder the open road looks inviting.

At the same time biker gangs project heroic muscle, they form a surrogate family. The Cossacks’ motto is, “We take care of our own.” Thumbnail sketches of the club mention toy drives and social events. A “band of brothers” can come on like pirates, but beneath the costumes, like the rest of us, they also resemble Peter Pan and the lost boys—who play at fighting pirates and crocodiles to turn that lost feeling into triumph.

This is not a put-down. Sure, Pan is famous as the kid who never grew up. But humans as a species are childlike —neotenic—with juvenile traits that last a lifetime. We’re born submissive, stay dependent for ages, and rarely stop playing. [1] Like the rest of us, Pan’s lost gang hears the clock ticking in the croc’s belly: the blinding headache of mortality. So they role-play heroic immortality by rescuing fertile maidens and putting down parent-figures. What’s more, they can fly, triumphing over space and time. This is the mastery symbolized by big Harleys and the open road. And guns.

But let’s not lose sight of the basic conflict. Most of us scurry away from gunfire the way Peter Pan keeps coming to the family nursery. He courts a mate—Wendy—but also he enjoys the family bosom, where he’s the bigshot, telling everybody who he is and refreshing his visions of larger than life exploits. Like the Pan gang, humans are suspended between the nursery and Neverland. We too live in a city, but it’s not very real to us or very inviting—unless of course it’s your wholly owned corporate Neverland. 

The conflict over self-esteem is tragic when it leaves dead bodies in a Waco parking lot or Fallujah. “The view of the Bandidos is that Texas is their state,” said Terry Katz, the vice president of the International Association of Outlaw Motorcycle Gang Investigators. “They are the big dogs of Texas, and then this other, smaller club—the Cossacks—comes along in 1969 or so, and they decide that they are not going to bow down.” [2]

The idea that either you’re the big dog or you bow down reduces choices and falsifies life. It masks the do-or-die violence that the psychology of abandon calls berserk style. It lurks everywhere in American culture, even in the nursery. If you doubt this, consider the way the Texas legislature is handing out guns like plastic spoons at a church picnic. At the last hint of a shootout in Waco, the authorities incinerated an entire Bible gang: women, children and all. Or think of cops shooting a 12 year old “lost” boy in Cleveland, or the US military blasting the open road through Iraqi oil fields because we feared for our lives. In Neverland all is play. Repeat after Tinker Belle: “Mistakes were made.” Nobody is responsible.

In sports, movies, and Texas shootouts, throwing off inhibitions—abandon—promises access to powers you didn’t know you had.  But watch out. Abandon can also pull the trigger on chaos—and reveal things about your self-esteem you might not want to know. Or maybe you really want to know what makes you and the croc tick. It's possible, and is its own kind of heroism.

1. Raymond Coppinger & Charles K. Smith, "Forever Young: Upon Reading Forever Young by Ashley Montague, The Sciences 05/1983; 23(3).   <<      

2. Manny Fernandez et al, “170 Bikers Charged in Waco, NY Times, 5/18/15.

+ + + + 

Helena Farrell for Tacit Muse
Source: Helena Farrell for Tacit Muse

When behavior becomes a cultural style, berserk abandon is terrifying yet also alluring. It promises access to extraordinary resources by overthrowing inhibitions. Berserk style has shaped many areas of contemporary American culture, from warfare to politics and intimate life. Focusing on post-Vietnam America and using perspectives from psychology, anthropology, and physiology, Farrell demonstrates the need to unpack the confusions in language and cultural fantasy that drive the nation’s fascination with berserk style.

Available at & from Amazon

<<This book amazes me with its audacity, its clarity, and its scope. We usually think of ‘berserk’ behaviors—from apocalyptic rampage killings to ecstatic revels like Burning Man—as extremes of experience, outside ordinary lives. in fascinating detail, Farrell shows how contemporary culture has reframed many varieties of abandon into self-conscious strategies of sense-making and control. Abandon has become a common lens for organizing modern experience and an often troubling resource for mobilizing and rationalizing cultural and political action.This landmark analysis both enlightens and empowers us.>>

Les Gasser, Professor of Information and Computer Science, U. of Illinois, Urbana-Champaigne.