Thoughts on DAPL and Siblicide

Yesterday I was in Knoxville all day for the Appalachian Psychoanalytic Society's fall conference with Jeanne Safer who spoke on Siblings -- the family members Freud forgot. Today I'm reading reports of ongoing over-the-top attacks by police against peaceful water protectors at Standing Rock. Mainstream media prefers to focus on Trump, journalists who try to document what's happening in North Dakota get arrested, and others at the camps report that they are under surveillance and that attempts to share reports with the world are being blocked. Many accounts of human and civil rights violations against water protectors who are being arrested -- 83 of them yesterday -- make some wonder why President Obama and the Department of Justice remain silent.

All of this has set me wondering today about parallels with sibling violence and siblicide. What connected me to Standing Rock news today was Dr. Safer's discussion on Saturday of siblings doing harm to other siblings, while, in some cases, parents make excuses for the abusive sibling or otherwise fail to intervene. (Sibling violence and siblicide have been studied in humans and animals.) Several times while writing this post I felt the undertow that taboos -- such as the power and influence of sibling relationships in our lives -- generate to keep us quiet about them.

When I see things happening out in the world that media, leaders and ordinary folks don't want to talk about, I sometimes forget to subject it all to a psychoanalytic lens. Such an omission is likely one way taboos work to shut me up, after all, psychoanalytic exploration has a pretty good track record for exposing what's unseen and unspoken.

I guess this brings up a question of how any subject gets to be taboo, and, understanding that, how to think about dismantling the ones that cause huge amounts of suffering by remaining hidden. These are questions that, when I can remember to think about them, have sustained my interest in social and environmental justice work, and using psychoanalytic thinking out in the world.

I read two books this past year that have significantly expanded my thinking about collective engagement to change oppressive systems, and, in this blog, I hope to write more about what they brought up for me: Toward Psychologies of Liberation (Watkins and Shulman) and Environmental Melancholia (Lertzman).

It's Lertzman's work that I'm especially connecting with today as I consider the situation at Standing Rock with the Dakota Access Pipeline as a siblicide-in-progress. While Lertzman uses psychoanalytic ideas to explore human response to environmental degradation, I suspect that many of her discoveries can inform new ways to think about human responses to oppression of other humans based on race, gender, class and a host of other -isms and -cides.

What's going on at Standing Rock is one of those all-of-the-above deals -- ecocide, siblicide, genocide. We, the people, need to break the taboos and bring to light all processes now operating in the shadows of psyches and systems that sabotage love and justice.


More stuff to read on this:

Protest Response Puts North Dakota on the Wrong Side of History (Grand Forks Herald, 10/22/16)

Human Rights Abuses Escalate at DAPL Prayer Services in North Dakota (Huffington Post, 10/21/16)

"It's time for a grand jury" (Tom Isern, Facebook post, 10/21/16)

Obama's Legacy Rests on Whether He Stops the Dakota Access Pipeline (Indian Country Today, 10/17/16)

Why Psychology Should Be Part of the Fight Against Climate Change (Huffington Post, 1/18/16)

Daniel Stern, Who Studied Babies’ World, Dies at 78 -

Sad news...I read Dr. Stern's Interpersonal World of the Infant very early in my graduate work and psychoanalytic training, and continue to appreciate his work...

Dr. Daniel Stern, a psychiatrist who increased the understanding of early human development by scrutinizing the most minute interactions between mothers and babies, died on Nov. 12 in Geneva. He was 78.

The cause was heart failure, said his wife, Dr. Nadia Bruschweiler Stern.

Dr. Stern was noted for his often poetic language in describing how children respond to their world — how they feel, think and see. He wrote one of his half-dozen books in the form of a diary by a baby. In another book, he told how mothers differ psychologically from women who do not have children. He coined the term “motherese” to describe a form of communication in which mothers are able to read even the slightest of babies’ emotional signals.


Elisabeth Young-Bruehl: A Perfect Storm of Prejudices

[Cross-posted from Raising Cain.]

Recently I discovered a great blog -- Who's Afraid of Social Democracy -- by psychoanalyst Elisabeth Young-Bruehl. Today she posted an article on the subject of prejudice, and I thought I'd say a few words, toss in some quotes and post a link to it here at Raising Cain.

On her blog, Young-Bruehl writes about current affairs and reflects on contemporary political issues and questions. Prior to her psychoanalytic training, Young-Bruehl was a doctoral student of the political philosopher, Hannah Arendt, and eventually wrote her biography. Young-Bruehl has also written many papers and books on gender issues, as well as a book very relevant to her blog post today, The Anatomy of Prejudices.

Since I formalized my anti-racist journey by becoming an activist in organizational anti-racism transformation, I've spent much time integrating what I'd previously discovered about human relating and relationships from my psychoanalytic training and practice. The intersection of the individual psyche and the collective mind of society has become an edge of tremendous interest and discovery for me personally and professionally.

That edge is not an either-or space: we need to know a lot about how people come to be who they are AND how the collective mind and societal systems come to be as they are if we want to get beyond racism. The individual and society co-create each other psychologically just as, in a parallel process, a baby and her mother co-create each other. If we would like to change ourselves and the systems in which we live, I believe we'll have to become aware of these complex dynamics.

I have a sense that Young-Bruehl's last two blog posts have opened doors and moved my thinking about all of this forward.

Speaking about a changing view of the nature of prejudice after World War II, Young-Bruehl says:

That decade of psychoanalytic work was extremely important because it opened up for exploration the whole domain of unconscious motivation. But, to my mind, it was also very flawed and replete with misleading generalizations. For example, in Adorno’s and Allport’s books, there is no prejudice against women because all prejudice is against minority groups and women are not a minority group. (By the same crazy logic, there would be no prejudice against blacks in South Africa because the blacks are not a minority group there…) During the Civil Rights movement of the late 1950s, the ethnocentrism synthesis began to unravel under pressure from people whose victim experience it misconstrued or overlooked. People of color pointed out that racism is not just like anti-Semitism. Look, they said, did the white people who invented tests to show the inferior intelligence of people of color also try to show the inferior intelligence of the Jews who supposedly masterminded the international Jewish banking conspiracy?

She follows the evolution of this notion further into the feminist "gender-race-class" discussions of the 1970's, but notes:

Meanwhile, prejudices continued to flourish in ever-changing appearances. Nonetheless, many hoped to be able to interpret America as a nation marching in the direction of being “post-racial,” and many hoped a “post-feminist” era was dawning because women have made considerable social progress. These hopes, it seems to me, reflect the still-prevalent confusion about prejudices and how they operate. Even if the acts and appearances that are typical of a prejudice do abate or ameliorate, the needs or unconscious purposes served by the prejudices remain –and can rise up again or reassert or take new directions as circumstances change. There’s not much lynching going on now, but huge numbers of black men are hung up in jail, and that is not very “post-racial.”

With that, I'll leave you to your own investigation of Young-Bruehl's ideas. I get uneasy sometimes excerpting from pieces that seem so coherent as Young-Bruehl's impress me, so I hope you'll read her entire article.

She references her previous post as well, and you can access that one here.

Speaker and Listener: a tale of mutual brain work

Cross-posted from my Speaking blog:

Many years ago when I first read Alan Schore's Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self, one of the ideas that blew some new doors open for me was the idea that the brains of infant and mother work together in a mutual project of creating a self. This idea has profound implications for all kinds of relationships and can inform our work toward personal and planetary healing and transformation.

Here's an excerpt from the abstract of a study that looked at nuerological detailed of mutual brain work:
Verbal communication is a joint activity; however, speech production and comprehension have primarily been analyzed as independent processes within the boundaries of individual brains. Here, we applied fMRI to record brain activity from both speakers and listeners during natural verbal communication.


The paper in filed at PNAS as open access. You can download the full text pdf here.

Further note on Schore's work: I found this first volume in Schore's now voluminous work almost overwhelming, primarily because of extensive references to studies at that time. He since has written several updated books that are much less packed and much less expensive. The page for the book linked above has links to several other of his books as well.

Some of his papers are also available online. If you are intrigued but not familiar with his work, you may want to start here and check out some of the Google search results.

Thanks to Norm Holland on the PsyArt listserv for the heads-up on the PNAS paper by Stephens, et al.

Bering in Mind: Oedipus Complex 2.0

Like it or not, parents shape their children's sexual preferences

In a forthcoming report in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign psychologist Chris Fraley and New Mexico State University’s Michael Marks—a study that would make Freud smile in his grave and give a long-fingered salute to his many critics—these investigators show that sexual attraction to one’s own biological parents isn’t as deviant or abnormal a thing as you might assume. In fact, evidence of these hidden desires, say Marks and Fraley, raise important questions for traditional psychological accounts of incest avoidance.


Great article at Scientific American by Jesse Bering. Read all of Jesse's post here.

From PubMed page for Fraley and Marks study:

Westermarck, Freud, and the Incest Taboo: Does Familial Resemblance Activate Sexual Attraction?

Fraley RC, Marks MJ.


Evolutionary psychological theories assume that sexual aversions toward kin are triggered by a nonconscious mechanism that estimates the genetic relatedness between self and other. This article presents an alternative perspective that assumes that incest avoidance arises from consciously acknowledged taboos and that when awareness of the relationship between self and other is bypassed, people find individuals who resemble their kin more sexually appealing. Three experiments demonstrate that people find others more sexually attractive if they have just been subliminally exposed to an image of their opposite-sex parent (Experiment 1) or if the face being rated is a composite image based on the self (Experiment 2). This finding is reversed when people are aware of the implied genetic relationship (Experiment 3). These findings have implications for a century-old debate between E. Westermarck and S. Freud, as well as contemporary research on evolution, mate choice, and sexual imprinting.

Some Thoughts on Miki Kashtan's Article: Empathy and Good Judgment

I really appreciated Miki Kashtan's argument yesterday in her post on empathy, emotion and reason:

The concern about empathy reflects a long tradition of valuing rationality, and the Enlightenment’s imperative to overcome instincts, passions, and emotions through exercising reason. This exclusive focus on reason applies across the board: to moral theory, to the law, to professional conduct, and to our assessment of our own choices and decisions.

I want to challenge the idea that we make better decisions without emotions.

Kashtan goes on to talk about the cross-wiring of human mental and emotional systems being explored by neuroscientists such as Antonio Damasio, author of the very readable and thought-feeling provoking book, Descartes' Error.

I happened upon Damasio's work many years ago when I became interested in the emerging field of neuro-psychoanalysis. His work and others inspired a huge shift in the way I felt-thought about who I am and how I experience being human -- alone and in relationship to other people and to nature. I think about the systemic interconnectedness often, but perhaps not often enough. That in itself speaks to the way that threads of Descartes' "I think, therefore I am" are so tightly woven into the rug of assumptions on which we daily stand, and from which we make meaning of our experiences.

That's why I'm especially grateful when other people revitalize discussion of this fundamental relationship of feeling and reason as mediated by the brain, and continue to explore contexts in which such an idea can be played with more consciously. Kashtan has done this by relating this broader discussion to the possible values of empathy as a key emotional capacity to advance social and political transformation.

Kashtan makes reference to the backdraft discussion that occurred when Barack Obama suggested that empathy is a desirable capacity for a Supreme Court judge. The fiery debate that later shot its flame toward Sonia Sotomayor left hot evidence of the national feeling about reason versus empathy in our judicial system. (See her article for some great links about this.)

I, along with fellow grassroots activists for environmental justice, encounter similar resistance to the emotional roots of reason all the time. Recently activists got some suggestions from a federal agency that offered this bullet point on public comment writing:

“Leave the heart out". The agencies are looking for facts and will ignore emotion.

They didn't leave us totally without official avenues for emotional expression, however, suggesting that we take the emotional stuff to our Senators and Representatives. Not a totally bad idea, I suppose, unless your Congressperson happens to be among those who have publicly devalued the "heart" of the matter or demonstrated profound lack of empathy.

Here's the problem I have with such categorical dismissals of empathy, of resistance to matters of heart-mind. If cognitive and emotional systems are in fact cross-wired in the brain, the natural consequences of that structure -- most of which (for most of us) are beyond conscious control -- continue to operate nonetheless. Without awareness of this, humankind can continue to believe that it's possible to carve out territories of reason and feeling that can actually be enforced. This illusion makes it possible to believe in such things as righteous exclusion, marginalization, exploitation, oppression and killing.

When we choose, on the other hand, to cultivate awareness of our inherent heart-mind wiring, we free ourselves up to look inside, to explore how we identify ourselves, and how we relate to fellow beings and to the Earth, our home. Then we can begin to insist that we be allowed to speak both heart and mind -- any time and any place -- to mediate, as Kashtan suggests, the unconscionable suffering of people and nature:

The gift of empathy is that it integrates mind and heart in the very same act as it brings together self and other. When we ignore empathy, we pay an enormous price in the form of depression, apathy, victimization, and anger on an individual level, and crime, neglect, alienation, bullying, even war, on a societal level. When we cultivate empathy, our emotional health improves, and in addition also our sense of hope, and our capacity, both individually and collectively, to act as moral agents in addressing the enormous challenges facing us today.

If we can help each other get that far, maybe we can entertain an even wider-scale, collective integration of spiritual dimensions with those of body(brain)-mind-emotions.

Environmental Protection: Moving toward a higher law

Reading Paul Verhaeghe's On Being Normal and Other Disorders a few years ago had a profound impact on the way I think about myself as a psychoanalyst, Earth citizen, and activist for social and environmental justice. At about the same time, I was researching the impact of surface coal mining on Tennessee's headwaters.

During this process, I had some Eureka! moments of intersection between these fields of knowledge that seemed to spiral around Verhaeghe's main thesis: Our psychological identity is co-created with that of an "other" (say, a parent, a culture, a nation, a planet). If this is so, argues Verhaeghe, then the way we define any deviation from "normal" must also acknowledge that pathology is based on this self-other matrix and does not rest upon (or within) just one of the subjects.

In everyday life, such an idea is not of much consequence unless we want to "fix" a "problem." Then we have to remind ourselves that all treatment approaches depend upon a therapeutic relationship to be effective.

My Eureka! moment had to do with a realization that this healing principle operates whether I am working as a psychoanalyst to alleviate the suffering of a person, or as an activist to alleviate the exploitation and oppression of people and nature.

An example that came to mind was the difficulty activists often have when we engage with governmental and legal systems around protection of our homelands. Just as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) names psychological suffering in a way that takes us further from the sufferer, so does the naming of remedies in the limited language of environmental policy and law take us further away from the trauma of exploitation.


NWP 21 hearing in Knoxville, TN on October 13, 2009 [photo by Cathie Bird]

As I have written in other posts, the formulation of arguments in that setting is forced to mesh with the language of the laws that govern environmental assessment, regulation and enforcement. In recent years, political and regulatory bodies have claimed to make a space for "environmental justice" but, to date, we still have many examples of failure to protect land, air and water, in spite of our testimony.

I think we can look at these failed environmental "treatments" in the same way as failed therapies. Somehow, our diagnoses have been pinned to an environmental equivalent of the DSM. We need a new way of doing things that allows all parties in the relationship to be a subject in this intersubjective process. My "!" at the end of Eureka was that we have failed as a human collective to protect the environment because we have failed to see land, air, water, plants, animals  as subjects – as opposed to objects -- that not only exist, know and act, but have a right to do so.

For a time on the North American continent, this higher law was known and lived by citizens of the First Nations. After initiation of First Nations genocide by European colonists, governing documents and laws of the United States evolved to protect white male privilege. To the extent we allow such laws to remain on the books, we collectively and unconsciously endorse structural racism that inherently denies subjective freedom, especially for people of color and our shared environment. Environmental law specialist, Robin Craig, says that until citizen's rights to a clean and healthy environment are amended to the U.S. Constitution, it’s likely that scientific, economic and social justice will fail to receive due consideration.

Our collective task now is to figure and feel our way out of this mess. And though we don't often hear about it through mainstream media – or our public schools -- there is a lot of evidence that all has not been lost.

The ancient wisdom of a higher law continues to be held in trust for the national collective by our brothers and sisters of the First Nations and other Indigenous peoples of Earth. As a start we could demand that our local, state and federal governments at least consider the protection-production model of relationship to the environment practiced by First Nations citizens.

Earth and its citizens are moving – however slowly -- toward higher ground, though much of this journey and its long history remain unconscious. Which brings me back to Verhaeghe. In his Preface, Verhaeghe describes a certain polarization of surface and depth, with a pendulum's swing between what information has more value: what we can see at the surface or what is hidden but operates on human consciousness nonetheless.

"The sheer complexity of human behavior," notes Verhaeghe, "demands that we reconsider the nonvisible mental constructions directing it.”

So far -- in my own psychoanalytic explorations of humankind's relationship to nature -- it seems clear that such a process is a key to discovery of mental, emotional, structural and spiritual resistance that prevents planet-wide liberation of people and nature.


[Since this article concerns an intersection of psychoanalytic thinking and environmental protection, I am cross-posting it from my Earthbytes blog.]

Tikkun Magazine - A Spiritual Perspective on Family Courts

Family courts are also often inefficient and not necessarily the best way to make good decisions. The adversary system works fine for deciding a historical fact like who pulled the trigger or ran the red light: put the two best re-creations of the event in front of a fact finder and get a decision. But family court decisions involve not historical facts but future predictions—what arrangements will be best for the children? And the target is a moving one—the answer today may be very different from the answer next month or next year. Unfortunately, most of us legally trained judges are only superficially knowledgeable about the complicated issues of family dynamics and child development raised by parenting cases, and rarely are the resources and time available to get us the comprehensive, sophisticated evidence needed to reach the best result. Add the complicated procedural rules the adversary system needs to make sure the fight is fair, and staff the system with lawyers who are trained in legal combat and paid by the hour, and you have a system that makes the health care establishment look positively streamlined.


Cathie's notes: Great article from Bruce Peterson, formerly the presiding judge of the Hennepin County (MN) Family Court. Read the rest of the article here.