Counselling, Psychoanalysis, Psychosis, The Inner World, Ways of Being

Walls and Ladders

ladder and wall“I vividly recall when I was in analysis for the second time being determined that I was not going to use my analyst’s couch. I sat for three sessions in a chair crying hard as we visited painful material. Part of  me was well aware of how helpful the couch would be. Another part of me  saw it a wall that would imprison me. The following week during another tearful session my analyst gently suggested I re-consider using the couch. I relented. Climbed onto the couch and allowed it to hold me – as my analyst has understood it would. Sometimes walls are helpful. Sometimes not!”

This is a line from my last blog about walls. I want to re-visit this idea today. Robert Frost in his poem Mending Wall wrote “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know/ What I was walling in or walling out.” It seems to be a question that is not asked often enough. I have just had a brief exchange on Twitter. Someone had posted this link

It is about care workers abusing dementia patients “for laughs”. Understandably the writer had no time for this kind of behaviour. Yet it left me thinking of the myriad ways in which we can separate different parts of ourselves. We know that the guards in the Nazi concentration camps often enjoyed a concert given by the prisoners.The guards could be moved to tears by the beauty of the music. Yet send these same musicians to the gas chambers with no second thoughts. We may assume that those who torture others as part of their daily work go home and kiss their wives, play with their children and lead good lives. and tomorrow will go back and continue their torture – because this is their job. Care workers who abuse their patients are no different. Mostly they are “good” people who will think hard about their child’s birthday present and remember their wedding anniversary. They are not monsters with two heads full of hissing serpents. In an interview with the Daily Telegraph one man who became a torturer for the Taliban describes some of the things he did. “We always tried to do different things: we would put some of them standing on their heads to sleep, hang others upside down with their legs tied together. We would stretch the arms out of others and nail them to posts like crucifixions.” What I found most harrowing about this count was less the cruelty inflicted – deeply unpleasant though this is – but that this was not a mindless neanderthal thug from an impoverished and abusive home. He was a married man with a young child and a degree in Business Studies who came from a wealthy family. (He points out that he did not join the Taliban from choice. His 85 year old grandfather was held hostage by the Taliban. The price of his freedom was that another family member became a conscript. I am not at all sure what I might do in this situation. If my wife was taken and tortured, what price would I pay to free her?)

As ever a psychoanalytic insight takes us some way to being able to construct a theory about torture.

“Moreover, Freud found that the suffering which a person, or group of people, inflict on themselves by self-destructive lines of thought is very much bound up with a twisted ‘love of Father’. This occurs when the child has been made to feel worthless and degraded by abuse that it is received by a show of affection. Still further, the deep connection between paranoia, religion and homosexuality emerge here: “We have translated the words “unconscious feeling of guilt” as meaning a need for punishment by some parental authority. Now we know that the wish to be beaten by the father, which is so common, is closely connected with the other wish, to have some passive (feminine) sexual relations with him, and is only a regressive distortion of the latter.” ( It would be interesting to wonder how this man’s friends behaved, given that he was probably not alone in his situation.

It is not that much of a jump from a business man becoming a Taliban enforcer to care staff abusing their elderly patents. Vulnerability, need, defencelessness can provoke kindness, care and sympathy. It can also provoke violence, cruelty and sadism. We attack in the vulnerable those parts of ourselves we cannot face. Thus the patent who is demented inevitably reminds us of our own future.  Figures from The Alzheimer’s Society suggest that one person in every 14 over the age of 65 and one person in every six over 80 years has some kind of dementia. When we are young and healthy, we do not want Banquo’s ghost attending us all day. We do not want to acknowledge that we might well suffer the various indignities that happen in late old age.

A key psychoanalytic “doctrine” is the idea of Projection. “… the process by which specific impulses, wishes, aspects of the self, or internal objects are imagined to be be located in some object external to oneself.” (Rycroft A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis) Thus Gays are threatening me. Blacks are dangerous. Immigrants are taking over. Women are bitches. All are forms of projection. I locate my own fears, insecurities, murderous fantasies in some other group. And then attack them in an attempt to replace an internal “enemy” with an external one. I opened this blog with a quote from a previous blog of mine about walls. Having now read 900 words there might be question about what any of this has to do with walls. A short answer is that walls face two ways. They include and exclude with each category defining the other. Wendy Pullan from Cambridge University observes “There’s a tendency to villify those on the other side. It’s very easy to say: we can’t see them, we don’t know them, so we don’t like them.” (Quoted by John Henley in “Walls: an illusion of security from Berlin to the West Bank” The Guardian, Tuesday 19th November 2013)

So why build walls when as Janet Napolianto, recently US secretary for homeland security observed “Show me a 50′ wall and I’ll show you a 51′ ladder.” (op cit Henley 2013)

We don’t always want a 51′ ladder. Sometimes we want a 49′ ladder. Then we can reasonably claim that we are trapped. Which is where I began. I found myself increasingly unhappy with 49′ ladders and 50′ walls. I wanted some 51′ ladders to allow me to look over my walls.


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