A few years ago, Riggs’ Erikson Institute organized a conference called “The Legacy of Perpetrator Trauma in Groups and Families.” In two previous Fall Conferences, we had explored the transmission of trauma, primarily through various studies of those victimized by large-scale social catastrophe. This new conference was different in its focus on the transgenerational phenomena of children of perpetrators – a generation not guilty by deed but ashamed, guilty, responsible, and horrified by association.
The conference led me to re-examine a remarkable dream notebook from 1930’s Germany, kept by the journalist, Charlotte Beradt and published as The Third Reich of Dreams (1968). Beradt’s journal records the dreams of ordinary, “non-political” German citizens, just after National Socialism came into power – a natural experiment in what Gordon Lawrence (1991) calls “social dreaming”, that is, the way that members of a group, experiencing some sort of urgent context, dream what might be called collective dreams in an effort to understand and master the shared threat in their environment. To illustrate this form of dreaming as well as some of the dynamics of a perpetrator context, here are a few dreams that seem to capture the steady assault on a person’s inner life in the context of massive social trauma and malignant authoritarianism.
“It was about nine in the evening. My consultations were over, and I was stretching out on the couch to relax with a book, when suddenly the walls of my room and then my apartment disappeared. I looked around and discovered to my horror that as far as the eye could see no apartment had walls anymore. Then I heard a loudspeaker boom, ‘According to the decree of the 17th of this month on the Abolition of Walls….’”. This is the dream of a middle-aged doctor, who that day, in response to the block warden’s apparently casual, half-joking observation that he had no flag outside his apartment, thought to himself “Not on my four walls” (p. 22). The consequence in his dream is that his walls and all others are abolished. The physical boundary between private and public life no longer exists. Stunned by this experience, the doctor wrote his dream down, only to be accused of doing so in the next night’s dream. Beradt thus documents the penetration of the totalitarian Other into private life, including the private life of dreaming, thereby raising questions about the effect of such serious boundary disturbance, and presumably both sleep and dream deprivation, on a terrorized group.
Another dream on a similar theme: “In place of the street signs which had been abolished, posters had been set up on every corner, proclaiming in white letters on a black background the twenty words people were not allowed to say. The first was ‘Lord’, the last was ‘I’”. In this dream of an educated young woman, reference points, represented by street signs, are abolished. More fundamental reference points – “Lord,” representing a higher power or a moral order, and “I”, that is, personal subjectivity – are forbidden as well. The disoriented dreamer is left in a terrorized dyadic relationship with the unseen authority behind the posters. This woman’s comments that “To be on the safe side, I must have dreamt this dream in English”. Jacques Lacan returned Freud’s definition of clinical psychoanalysis to its original German: “Where It was, there I must come to be” (1977). This last dream suggests that the totalitarian process perversely reverses this trajectory: Where I was, only It will be, It referring to the dominant-submissive pairing between the State and its subjects.
As Beradt puts it, these dreams were “dictated…by a dictatorship.” She suggests that this “(d)ream imagery might thus help to describe the structure of a reality that was just on the verge of becoming a nightmare….The dreams we are concerned with were not produced…by some past conflict that had left a psychological wound. Instead they arose from conflicts into which these people had been driven by a public realm in which half-truths, vague notions, and a combination of fact, rumor, and conjecture had produced a general feeling of uncertainty and unrest. These dreams may deal with disturbed human relations, but it was the environment that had disturbed them”. In many dreams, she observes a “chorus” who intone statements like “There’s not a thing one can do,” or whose silence accuses the dreamer of a costly and misguided refusal to join.
Indeed, so many dreams include, to the dreamer’s shock, “silent and expressionless faces,” no human response at all when the dreamer expects and desperately needs one. In a sense, these dreams foreshadow the child development research of the “still-face experiment” (Tronick, 2007), in which a mother is instructed to break the communicative rhythm of looks, smiles and sounds with her infant, and instead present a “still face” for a short time. After efforts to re-engage, the infant invariably withdraws into what looks like hopelessness and reflexive shame. If one essential function of the dream-work is overcoming trauma-induced helplessness, Beradt shows us dreams in which the collapse analogous to that in the still-face experiment occurs, and terrorized helplessness is recurrently justified. In one dream, the dreamer is “no longer able to speak except in chorus with my group.”
Beradt calls this group process the “imperceptible and undramatic…transition from suggestion to autosuggestion”, as insidious as it is terrifying. As I noted elsewhere, “(r)elentlessly, we see the ethno-syntonic but ego-dystonic conflict resolved in favor of membership rather than identity or conscience. The totalitarian outcome is the self-alienated subject rather than the citizen, and the destruction of dream life – one space for self-other confrontation – is at the heart of the totalitarian method” (Fromm, 2000).
Beradt, C. (1968). The Third Reich of Dreams. Chicago: Quadrangle Books.
Fromm, M. G. (2000). The other in dreams. Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies, 2: 287-298.
Lacan J. (1977). Ecrits. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.
Lawrence, W.G. (1991). Won from the void and formless infinite: experiences of social dreaming. Free Associations, 2: 259-294.
Tronick, E. (2007). The Neurobehavioral and Social-Emotional Development of Infants and Children. New York: W.W.Norton and Company
M. Gerard Fromm, PhD, ABPP, is a Senior Consultant to the Erikson Institute for Education and Research of the Austen Riggs Center. Formerly he was the Institute’s first Evelyn Stefansson Nef Director as well as the Director of the Center’s therapeutic community program. Dr. Fromm is currently President of the International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organizations, and Secretary-Treasurer of the International Dialogue Initiative. A project of the Erikson Institute, the IDI is a group of psychoanalysts, diplomats, academics, lawyers and other professionals who bring psychologically-informed dialogue to areas of conflict throughout the world.
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