Dissociation Dynamics, the Alice Miller Finding and the Social Organization of Torture: Reflections on the Chicago Conference


I attended the conference on “Investigating and Combatting Torture” held at the University of Chicago March 4-7, 1999

I propose that the body of knowledge known as dissociation dynamics applies to all facets of the torture question: clinical, political, social, cultural and legal. The better we understand dissociation, the more clearly we see the forces at work that generate torture, the forces that oppose it, and increase our strategic and tactical effectiveness. Secondly I propose that the reason why dissociation is the key to understanding torture is “the Alice Miller finding” that child-rearing practices regularly dissociate us all.

I will first give a summary description of dissociation and the Alice Miller finding, and then I will give some examples of their application to various facets of the torture question:

1) vicarious traumatization of human rights workers,

2) the perception of threat by elites and governments

3) the global learning curve in regard to torture,

4) maintaining the dignity of rigid patriarchal cultures in the face of the movement for women’s rights.

I think there is a 500 or 600-page book that could be usefully assembled that might have a title such as Dissociation Dynamics and Human Rights Work: A Manual for Activists and Researchers. This is not that book. But it IS an attempt to convince the Human Rights network to coordinate its resources to produce such a book.

Dissociation Dynamics

A preliminary note needs to be made that studying dissociation can itself be dissociating. So, if in the process of reading this paper you find yourself unaccountably “zoning out”, “losing consciousness” or going blank, please recognize that as a symptom that you are coming up against what we all need to come up against, and find a place to re-enter the text with your attention fully connected.

The term “dissociation” has been around for over a hundred years, but as a coherent body of knowledge it is still relatively new. Dissociation theory is a body of work that says the human organism is made up of certain basic components which can be harmoniously co-ordinated on the one hand or fragmented and disorganized on the other. There are various nomenclatures for these components, but they all include these five:

(1) the process of conscious thought (mediated by the neo-cortex),

(2) the memory banks of the unconscious (mediated by ?)

(3) emotions (fear, anger, sadness, joy)(mediated by the amygdala/septem/limbic cortex system),

(4) animal instincts (e.g., sense of time, of space (territoriality), sexual arousal) (mediated by areas of the brain around the brain stem, sometimes called “the R-complex” and sometimes referred to as “the reptilian brain”), and

(5) pure consciousness (for which no consensual mediating organ is proposed, but which I think may be the entire human body at an energy level with even less voltage and amperage than chi).

When these components are all working together, we are integrated or whole. When there is a disconnect or a diminished connection between any one of them and the others, we are dissociated.

Pierre Janet first used the term “dissociation” to indicate the condition of persons with “hysteria” whereby they had lost the capacity to integrate the memory of overwhelming life events.(Janet 1889) Fifty years later Abram Kardiner described the same set of symptoms more fully, in relation to the condition then known as “combat neurosis”:

…the whole apparatus for concerted, coordinated and purposeful activity is smashed. The perceptions become inaccurate and pervaded with terror, the coordinative functions of judgment and discrimination fail …the sense organs may even cease to function … the aggressive impulses become disorganized and unrelated to the situation in hand. … The functions of the autonomic nervous system may also become disassociated with the rest of the organism. (Kardiner 1947).

Contemporary clinical literature knows that dissociation has many and more subtle manifestations than the massive and trance-like disorientation of “combat neurosis.” Incest survivors who can function quite normally in everyday life talk about “leaving their body” when they recall their traumatic experience. Persons in clinical training to do trauma work and who are not aware of themselves having had any traumatic experiences frequently find themselves “leaving their bodies” for no apparent reason as a result of the training exercises. And in fact, this “leaving the body” becomes the hallmark of dissociation and trainees regularly note, “Oh, I just left my body.”, or “I am dissociating like crazy now.” as they become more sensitized to their capacity as an organism to “fly apart” under the pressure of an overwhelming stimulus.

In studying dissociation one also becomes aware that the ideal state of the human organism is a condition we can call integration or integrity, in which we are in contact with all of our sub-systems, including especially the full set of memory files stored in our unconscious. This is the condition of full communication between rationality, emotions, instinct and pure consciousness. There is no information that can make us leave our bodies. We become aware that this integration exists as an ideal, and we are rarely in it. I believe this is the condition some call enlightenment or satori.

[Therefore, in parentheses, we can offer a provisional answer to the question posed in the Chicago conference: “What does it mean to be human?” The answer has to be twofold. (1) To be human, in fact, means to be fragmented and prone to dissociation, and (2) To be human, as an ideal which is reasonable to work toward, is to be completely integrated.]

Moreover, as one’s sensitivity to the occurrence of dissociation increases, one becomes aware of another common condition: dissociation that is masked and unnoticed. This is the “relative integrity” of any particular culture. This comes from the function of culture to provide a “whole” repertoire of behavior adequate to the survival of the group, and include among its provisions an inviolable arcana of the repressed. In fact the capacity of culture to maintain the boundary of the repressed is crucial to its success. Gurdjieff called it “the sleep of culture.”

Therefore any time that we run across the “blank stare”, rote behavior without normal affect, or trance-like states, we know we are in the presence of a dissociated psyche. On an individual level — noting subtleties of eye-contact or the lack thereof — we might make the comment that, “Oh, he is not in his body.” Similar detection of dissociation can be applied to (a) situational groups, such as a mob, (b) to sub-cultures designed for the exercise of violence, such as interrogators or police, or (c) to whole cultures themselves as large numbers of ordinary or “typical” members of a culturally-defined group display a capacity to leave their bodies and not perceive palpably real events, such as Germans in regard to the Holocaust, or to leave their bodies and perform acts of animal instinct disconnected from normal emotions as during Indian Partition in 1947 (when much of the killing of four million people was done with technology at the level of hockey sticks).

Once one understands that these actions are indeed the result of dissociation, then it is easy to see why the thorough study and mastery of the subject should be of great interest to anyone seeking to intervene in the process of torture.

The Alice Miller Finding

The Alice Miller finding is that child-rearing practices themselves can and in many cases do regularly traumatize children. Miller is of course the Swiss psychiatrist trained in orthodox Freudian psychology who became puzzled by cases in her clinic and the lack of opposition to the Holocaust and decided to investigate child-rearing practices. (Miller, 1981, 1984, 1985) She uncovered very specific evidence in the form of child-rearing manuals published in German.

In the mid-nineteenth century a man named Schreber, the father of a paranoid patient described by Freud, wrote a series of books on child-rearing. They were so popular in Germany that some of them went through forty printings and were translated into several languages. In these works it is stressed again and again that children should start being trained as soon as possible, even as early as their fifth month of life, if the soil is to be “kept free of harmful weeds” (Miller 1981) .

But not just one linguistic culture is at issue here. The Germanic tribes were after all only one of the numerous groups that entered Europe from the steppe of Central Asia and are the forebears of all Caucasians. In The Chalice and the Blade (1987), Riane Eisler notes that the Kurgans replaced the Old Europeans in the second millenium before the Christian Era. The last surviving example of Old European culture was on Crete. Old European culture in the Neolithic Age — starting around 8000 BCE — had a highly developed agricultural organization, female goddess figures, social planning and non-warlike economies. It was much more peaceful and comfortable than its successor cultures. Old European culture was matrilineal, but not matriarchal. It was a “partnership culture”.

Two salient characteristics of the Kurgan cultures were the centrality of violence in their economies and their pre-occupation with death. They were also of course patriarchal, highly stratified, practiced slavery, and subjugated women. The Old Europeans did not appear to make a very big deal about death, but the extremely elaborate funerary practices of the Kurgans — especially for their chiefs — expended great energy in trying to “overcome” death.

If the second millenium before the Christian era seems like a long time back to go to find the source of contemporary child-rearing practices, recall that the traumatic impact of World War I is generally conceded to be the result of the mechanization of tribal hostilities that went back over a thousand years. So, 2000 BCE is not too far back to go, because child-rearing practices are the product of an evolutionary learning process, and cultural evolution, as we know, is quite slow compared to some other human processes.

Judith Herman notes (Trauma and Recovery, 1997) that when Freud talked about childhood trauma in “The Etiology of Hysteria” in 1896, its effects on his colleagues and his culture prompted him to suppress the whole topic forthwith and never return to it in his lifetime. The whole idea of the presence of trauma in western culture had to be subsequently re-discovered three times (twice by Abram Kardiner, that is, after World War I and after World War II, and for the third time by Vietnam veterans and women working on issues of rape and domestic violence in the nineteen-sixties and seventies) before its existence was publicly acknowledged.

This history powerfully suggests that childhood traumatization is indeed a regular feature of all western cultures, and if we look at the symptomatology carefully, there is no reason to suspect that many cultures on the whole planet are free of this phenomenon. Perhaps the aboriginals of Australia are the most interesting candidate for exception, and their child-rearing practices are about forty thousand years old.

Peter Levine (Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, 1997) is one of the leaders in contemporary trauma research. He cites a study of aboriginal societies that finds that “societies that practiced close physical bonding and the use of stimulating rhythmic movement had a low incidence of violence. Societies with diminished or punitive physical contact with their children showed clear tendencies toward violence in the forms of rape, war, and torture.” He then adds:

The work of Dr. Prescott and others points to something we all know intuitively: that the time around birth and infancy is a critical period. Children assimilate the ways that their parents relate to each other and the world at a very young age. When parents have been traumatized, they have difficulty teaching their young a sense of basic trust. Without this sense of trust as a resource, children are more vulnerable to trauma. (Levine, 1997, p. 228)

So, I take the Alice Miller finding to be that we are all traumatized, and all prone to being dissociated. This means furthermore that however clearly torture may appear as instrumental rationality (a defense of the integrity of the state), it also flows directly from the unconscious of a national psyche. As a product of the unconscious, its use follows psychological laws as well as social and political laws.

An important corollary of the finding is that among the cultures and social systems on this planet today, there are hugely important differences of degree in proclivity to dissociation. Miller herself says that in her clinical work, she came to the conclusion that “every perpetrator was once a victim.” This leads to the corollaries that terrorists are terrified and torturers are tortured. This is not to excuse. This is only to correctly diagnose, strategize and respond. In the Watergate story, “Deep Throat” told Robert Woodward to “follow the money.” In working to end torture we are saying, “follow the psyche.”

Application 1: Vicarious Traumatization

In the Chicago conference I noted that at least two of the presenters before us in Swift Hall displayed clear symptoms of vicarious traumatization. Vicarious traumatization is “the transformation in the inner experience of the therapist that comes about as a result of empathic agreement with the clients’ trauma material” (Pearlman and Saakvitne, Trauma and the Therapist 1995). Dissociation theory says: (1) this occurrence should come as no surprise at all; it is “an occupational hazard”, (2) the condition has known causes, and (3) it has recommended treatments. Furthermore, it is a condition that is not good for you. It debilitates and otherwise impairs, and so an anti-torture network needs to recognize and treat it as part of its standard equipment.

In the “Working With Trauma” training I received from the Hakomi Integrative Somatics team out of Boulder, Colorado, vicarious traumatization is given close attention, and the following points are central to the discussion:

1. Any one dealing closely with a trauma survivor must recognize that the management of transference/counter-transference in the case of trauma differs from the case of developmental problems.

2. The therapist must understand dissociation.

3. The therapist must be extremely cognizant of issues of boundary negotiation between self and client.

Points 2. and 3. go together. Dissociation is “catching”, and conscious personal boundary negotiation is not normally practiced in any culture I know of. (I would note that before I took trauma training I had never even heard the term “boundary negotiation”, and I had studied a lot of conventional psychology.)

Vicarious traumatization is a form of identification trauma that takes a long period of time to build up. But I think that identification trauma was going on throughout the Chicago conference, and there is no telling how many people experienced it how often. This is the trauma that occurs when some one identifies with some one who has experienced trauma, and it can be produced by actually seeing an event, viewing a picture or a movie, hearing a graphic description, and the like. Mild identification trauma does not incapacitate, but it is nonetheless better to name it than to leave it unmarked in an anti-trauma network or organization.

The treatment of vicarious traumatization is similar to the treatment of any other form of trauma in that it uses (a) mindfulness, (b) resourcing, (c) slowing down, and (d) the restoration of physiological defense systems. It makes sense to have professional trauma treatment resources available to any anti-torture network or organization.

Application 2: The “Depth of Threat”

We know that torture tends to increase with an increase in the perceived depth of threat by a national government. Dissociation theory tells us that “perception of threat” includes a projective as well as an objective element. During the Cold War, the U.S. felt threatened by the Soviet system, and this perception of threat was integral to the U.S. training of third-world security forces in the methods of torture.

Yet, there is a curious paradox. The original blueprint for the U.S. posture during the Cold War was drawn up by the diplomat George Frost Kennan, who was an attaché at the American embassy in Moscow in 1947. He coined the term “containment” in a now-famous 8000-word message that he sent to the Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal. It is known now simply as “The Moscow Cable.” To end his analysis of the situation, Kennan commented:

The issue of Soviet-American relations is in essence a test of the over-all worth of the United States as a nation among nations. To avoid destruction it need only measure up to its own best traditions and prove itself worthy of preservation as a great nation. Surely, there was never a fairer test of national quality than this. …the thoughtful observer will find no cause for complaint in the Kremlin’s challenge to American society.

I would submit that the training of torturers is not one of the “best traditions” Kennan was thinking about, and so we find that this practice stemmed from the ambivalence of the national psyche, not from its integral vision. For pathological integral vision, we have to look to episodes such as Nazi-ism, Idi Amin, Pol Pot and Radavan Karadjic.

So, when as operatives in the field of torture we encounter an increase in the perception of the depth of threat, dissociation theory suggests that we can look for an ambivalence in the national psyche and explore the possibility of generating effective instruments of defense based on its “best traditions” rather than on unconscious fears and anger. It seems that this could apply very well to the present situations of Turkey and Israel as well as the United States. The more clearly we understand a particular national ambivalence, the more cogent can be our rhetoric in proposing an alternative defense.

Application 3: The Process of Global Learning

Dissociation theory gives us deeper insight into the process of global learning in regard to torture and human rights, and so equips us to intervene with greater precision and economy.

It was the Holocaust and the war which ended it that produced the Universal Declaration on Human Rights in 1948. Here was collective international horror that was able to be contained in a viable, consensual cultural envelope. On an infinitely smaller scale and much more recently, it appears to be the photographs of the 45 ethnic Albanians killed in Kosovo in February 1999 that provided the impetus for NATO’S Contact Group to agree on concerted military intervention to bring an end to the violence there. From events such as these we might conclude that it takes horror to bring about learning.

But I think there are other possible conclusions. One is that if we examine this learning process very closely, we may discover principles that can be applied pro-actively to contemporary conditions. For example, we might be able to show the inevitability of future horror rather than just point to the facticity of past horror. In the case of the Holocaust it is most interesting, for example, that John Maynard Keynes as much as predicted it in 1919. As economist for the British Exchequer he attended the Conference of Paris. But he was young and uninfluential then, and so he became quite depressed, went home early and wrote a book called The Economic Consequences of the Peace which among other things is credited with causing Woodrow Wilson’s defeat in the presidential election of 1920. In that book he wrote:

Economic privation proceeds by easy stages, and so long as men suffer it patiently the outside world cares little. Physical efficiency and resistance to disease slowly diminish, but life proceeds somehow, until the limit of human endurance is reached at last and counsels of despair and madness stir the sufferers from the lethargy which precedes the crisis. Then man shakes himself and the bonds of custom are loosed. The power of ideas is sovereign, and he listens to whatever instruction of hope, illusion, or revenge is carried to him on the air. (pp. 250-251) Keynes, John Maynard, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, (New York, Harcourt, Brace and Howe, 1920.)

So, Keynes could see what was coming, but Eisenhower, Dulles, Marshall and Harriman — who were all in Paris then also — could not. They had to walk through the unfolding of the Treaty of Versailles from 1919 to 1948. Ah, then they understood what it means to be human.

And so, this seems to be a good field for study by human rights activists: how global human culture in fact is growing in its capacity for integration versus the forces that produce dissociation.

Application 4: The Dignity of Oppressive Cultural Traditions

Dissociation theory can probably help us “have our cake and eat it too.” The conference noted that the cutting edge of human rights progress on the international level is women’s issues and women’s rights. Now, we all know how deeply into the psyche go the customs that regulate sexual relationships and behavior. And those males among us who came through the Women’s Liberation Movement of the sixties as left-wing men know how personally challenging the emancipation of women can be. There was much traumatization on both sides of the sexual boundary in the sixties, and although that was necessary then, one would hope that we can learn to grow with less violence now.

As I reflect on this issue, I always come back to the presence of “pure consciousness” in the human psyche. I think there are some issues that only it can resolve. And I think that in every culture in the world, even the most rigidly patriarchal, there is a voice of pure consciousness that supports the powerful thrust of the human spirit towards integration, a state of consciousness that prizes passionately the equality and freedom of all. Therefore, a strategy to help us have our cake and eat it too might be to find that voice in every culture whose dignity is at issue and amplify it at every possible turn.

So, these are a few thoughts and reflections that I offer for your consideration and response.


I think we are dealing with three levels of traumatization. (And before we get too far, lets note that even talking about this stuff can be re-traumatizing. So we need to remind ourselves that besides this stuff, there is also the incredible resilience of the human organism, the self-healing elan of the human body. It is this latter, by the way, that the Hakomi people are tapping into.)

Level 3.  Extreme – NOT in child-rearing manuals, but tacitly approved by former cultures, only now becoming identified as “abuse” by some legal codes and national/regional cultures. This would be incest and overt sadism. Freud found a lot of incest in his research for “The Etiology of Hysteria” [see Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery.) He called it “premature sexual experience.” One of his colleagues who read the paper was doing his own daughter at the time. This is also at the root of a lot of multiple personality disorder (which they are now calling simply “dissociation disorder”). About 10% of a population experiences this?

Level 2.  Moderately severe – This level is :normal.” It is found in the child-rearing manuals, a topic of conversation in an average home — whacking, slapping, yelling, kneeling on corn, spanking, incarceration, etc. What almost everyone today has experienced. This is the stuff that Alice Miller found. So “the Alice Miller finding” just alerts us to the whole ball of wax. It remains for us to probe it empirically and carefully. About 80% of a population experiences this?

Note: It is thus the psychomotor reservoir that guarantees the success of military “desensitization” training. Which is why it exists at all, because it’s very, very old, handed down from generation to generation to generation by those tribes from the steppe.

Level 1.  “Invisible” traumatization — This is the traumatization that may be unpreventable. We have to re-observe newborns up to 18-months old to familiarize ourselves with how easy it is to overwhelm their natural self-defense apparatus. The overwhelm is the key. We also have clinical data on third-trimester traumatization: fetus takes in screaming argument between parents, mother’s shock at seeing 7-year-old daughter hit by care in front of home, older siblings fighting, etc. But all of these events IMPRINT self-handling templates — pre-verbal of course — but none the less active. 100% of the population experiences this, but randomly in terms of degree????

Now, since “everybody” experiences levels 1 and 2, a culture takes them for granted and handles them without markings. Their existence is only shown by certain “anomalies” that occur from time to time, or it is noticed by visitors from other cultures.

Level 2 is also the source of intuitive atavisms, such as the internment and torture of suspected IRA activists by the British in 1970. (I saw it on the history channel.), Argentina’s dirty war, Pinochet’s counter-revolution, ethnic cleansing, French anti-terrorist activities in Algeria, etc. etc. etc. There seem to be two challenges in regard to level 2: one is to even talk about it, and the other is to propose cogently alternative defenses of law-and-order.