OF VIOLENCE: CONVERGING PSYCHOANALYTIC
EXPLANATORY MODELS FOR POWER STRUGGLES
AND VIOLENCE IN SCHOOLS
This paper demonstrates
that several psychoanalytic models taken together converge to
collectively explain school violence and power struggles better than
each does alone. Using my own experience In doing psychoanalytically
Informed community intervention, I approach the problem of school
violence from a combination of Adlerian, Stollerian, dialectical social
systems, and Kleiri—Bion perspectives. This integrated model is then
applied to the Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colorado.
of the affective nourishment to which they were entitled,
their only resource is violence The only path which remains
open to them is the destruction of the social order of which
they are the victims. Infants without love, they will end as
adults full of hate.—R.A.Spitz (1965)
student confided in the Zen master Soen Nakagawa during a
meditation retreat, lam very discouraged. What should I
do?" Soen replied, "Encourage others." —As
quoted by K.Tanahashiand D.Schneider ( 1994)
takes a whole village to raise a child. —Anonymous African
only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men
to do nothing. —Edmund Burke
Freud’s numerous contributions to an understanding of the human mind,
one of the most important was the principle of overdetermination (Freud
1893, 1895). This explanatory concept helped him to fathom the almost
overwhelming complexity of the multiple causes of human problems without
oversimplifying the process. The goal of this paper is to examine a series
of models, and then, extrapolating from Freud’s principle of
overdetermination—usually applied to clinical syndromes in
individuals—to come to an understanding of power struggles in various
settings. Instead of explaining symptoms as arising from several causes
not "good and sufficient" in themselves (in Aristotle’s—and
Freud’s—sense), I arrive at formulations by applying four
psychoanalytic models with different perspectives and assumptions which,
when taken together, elucidate power struggles in a more comprehensive
manner than does each individually.
Some of the
data and ideas for this theoretical exegesis come from an intensive
research study of an elementary school that had the highest student
suspension rate in its district, and where there had been a sexual assault
on a second-grade girl by a group of second-grade boys (Twemlow, Fonagy et
al., in press). Now, four years later, the school’s students demonstrate
well-above-average academic achievement, and the school is so quiet that
on one occasion when I visited, I thought it was closed for the day
because there was so little noise! In short, the primary objective of the
research study was to help staff and students deal with their power
struggles so that coerciveness was no longer necessary for communication.
Our intervention had a remarkable and widespread effect on the school
community as a whole.
ABOUT COMMUNITY INTERVENTIONS?
A caveat is in
order to make a very fundamental distinction between two potentially
disparate views of what is "truly" psychoanalytic about
psychoanalytic efforts in the community. Whereas this is not the venue to
discuss what is fundamentally psychoanalytic about psychoanalysis, it
should be pointed out that for those using psychoanalytic concepts in the
community, there are two distinct "camps," sometimes generating
more heat than light when discussing their differing points of view. On
the one hand, Bracher (1992), for example, from a Lacanian perspective,
considered the "true" psychoanalytic approach to communities to
be one analogous to the classic stance, in which the analyst remains a
passive interpreter of group functioning, attempting to bring the group to
an understanding of its problems and to create solutions based on insight
that will then make it a working group. According to this viewpoint, any
attempts to intervene actively are seen as seductive, distorting,
manipulative, or as gratifying group transference phenomenon. The other
approach holds that, while transference-based expectations of group
participants needs to be monitored and handled, and while such
expectations are used to understand the etiology of the problem, the
primary intervention is not interpretative, but instead is directed at
actively changing how the group functions. I do not see such efforts as
seductive or contradictor) to any model of psychoanalytic activity, but
rather as an integral part of any typical supportive intervention basic to
the analytic process. The school intervention described in this paper is
one example of such a technique.
Gould (1991) divided psychoanalytic organizational consultations into two
types, according to whether they are more or less like clinical work with
patients. His Type I psychoanalytic approach utilizes technical procedures
and methods of psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic psychotherapy, such as
organizational role analysis and the techniques of the Tavistock Group
Relations Training Conference. Type II consultations are guided by
psychoanalytic principles, but utilize nonanalytic methods and techniques.
The modalities of this type are multiple and varied, they include many
types of interventional strategies designed to alter the organization once
its situation is psychoanalytically comprehended. Gould called these
APPROACHES TO COMMUNITY PSYCHOANALYSIS
Gould’s work, I propose a Type III approach, utilizing the "Tree
model" of Volkan (1998) and the "Engineered Conflict model"
of Twemlow and Sacco (1996). The Type III approach begins with a
psychoanalytic "diagnosis" of the problem, as well as the
establishment of a community-initiated, psychoanalytically facilitated
dialogue in which needs, wishes, and goals are articulated by leaders and
members of the community. Then an intervention is designed to meet the
goals and resolve the problem.
"Tree model" provides a potentially integrating framework for
these apparently contradictory approaches. Volkan (1999a), in
reviewing the results of a community project in Estonia, discussed the
analogy of a tree as a useful metaphor when considering how noncoercive
dialogue creates useful and ever-increasing options, like the innumerable
branches of a healthy, growing tree. The tree’s roots are solidly
planted in a model of human change derived from Freud: that the causes and
cures of problems reside in those experiencing them, and that the
community psychoanalyst’s task is to facilitate insight into these
processes with supportive, adaptive alternatives, derived from needs the
community analyst helps uncover.
that model, a similar process has been proposed (Twemlow and Sacco 1999)
in which diagnosis of the community’s problems follows the establishment
of dialogue in a background of safety and trust, with input from
representatives of warring and decision-making groups and the evolution of
a group consensus approach, and constructive conflict engineered by the
facilitator. The process to achieve this has been called "engineered
conflict" (Twemlow and Sacco 1996). The final step in this model is a
psychological "vaccination" campaign, whereby skills are
developed in community members to prevent conflict and to develop a habit
of collaboration, with development of insight and open dialogue. Thus,
ongoing community projects are more likely to continue beyond the
termination of the intervention and are themselves the visible outcome
It is at
this point that the specific projects of a sociotechnical nature (Type II)
have relevance. Such projects need to be nested in psychoanalytic theory,
but might make use of nonpsychoanalytic interventions—for example,
behavioral modification and psycho-educational skills training. The point
Volkan made, with which I strongly agree, is that the individuals of the
community are the ones who best know what and where the needs are and can
provide the point of entry for most effective assistance.
psychological goals of these initial dialogues are:
To learn to tolerate differences in others and negative
emotions without reacting impulsively or angrily (i.e.,
establishing a point of similarity).
develop a habit of collaboration around issues that are not
points of conflict—e g., in the school project discussed
earlier, obtaining play equipment and constructing soccer goals
became products of the habit of collaboration
develop personal relationships and perceptions of each other, so
that the peop[e and the process become humanized (i.e , part
object relationships become wL~ole object relationships). Thie
frequent negative e~perience of frustrated teachers who refer
problem children to unresponsive doctors is a theme that creates
part object relationships. If not worked through, such common
misperceptions can undermine the working relationship between
psychoanalyst and teacher. Off-site workshops and meetings in
homes help create a less defensive atmosphere.
deal with stereotypical racial, religious, and gender
perceptions of each other N4utual respect for differences must
be developed. For example, in our intervention, a Baptist
minister’s dislike of the teim "meditation" was
accommodated by referring instead to "relaxation
develop an agreed-upon common language to communicate ideas. In
this instance, the language of coercive power relationships,
exemplified by bully—victim— bystander interactions, was
understand that the process is not a magic bullet and needs
long-term, ongoing work.
To understand that only a collaborative, rather than
competitive, partnership will result in change.
To achieve an understanding by all participants that the
facilitator must remain neutral in the psychoanalytic sense,
i.e., nonjudgmental, warm, and caring.
CREATING A PEACEFUL
SCHOOL LEARNING ENVIRONMENT:
A SUMMARY OF INTERVENTION ELEMENTS
impetus for my colleagues and me to become involved in the school project
mentioned earlier was a violent power struggle: the
attempted rape of a girl student by other students. The school met the
criteria for a violent community (Twemlow and Sacco
1999): a high
level of teacher dissatisfaction; a low level of parent involvement and
proactive problem-solving; adversarial relationships between school
personnel and the parents of problem children; school tolerance of power
struggles without an active plan to identif~’ and manage them; high
suspension rates and disciplinary referrals; a high number of dropouts in
nearby middle and high schools; many student fights; gang recruitment
activity; drug and alcohol use in nearby middle and high schools; and low
overall academic achievement.
from surface to depth, we developed our program after dialogue with
teachers, administrators, custodial and secretarial staff, students, and
parents The organizational structure involved maintaining consistent
supports, such as regular coordination meetings and consultant
availability, with continuity maintained by the psychoanalytically
informed project staff, who were aware of the psychological importance of
such containment. Bion’s (1967) containment model emphasized the
processing of negative as well as positive object relational
configurations, in contrast to the "holding environment" of
Winnicott (1965), which is more exclusively a positive and encouraging
model. In addition, the intervention was molded to characteristics of the
school in a way similar to a good therapy’s adaptation to fit the needs
of the patient. The method used was based on understanding and addressing
the etiology of the problem, rather than on forceFul attempts to
superimpose a corrective experience— e.g, truancy programs based on
improved detection and increased penalties. Table 1summarizes the main
components of the school intervention 1
described the methodology and context of this study, I will now focus on
psychoanalytic models for the nature of power struggles and how adults’
and children’s behavior and psychology influence such struggles
Creating a Peaceful School Learning Environment (C.A.P.S.L.E.)—Program
tolerance for bullying, being a victim, or bystanding
flags, posters, stickers, discussions, and a discipline program
focused on identifyiing and correcting power dynamics
a psychoeducational approach to self-awareness and
identification of repetition compulsions
arts-based skills training to replace or supplement physical
and supplementing adaptive ego functioning; restoring
self-esteem and self-confidence by strengthening sublimatory
Mentor and Peer Leader Program
children assist younger ones in solving power struggles
the value of relationships and collaboration in conflict
mentors provide conflict-resolution skills outside the classroom
a containment function (good and bad self-representations) of
the adult mentor creates a "net of safety’
AN ADLERIAN APPROACH
TO RITUALS OF EXCLUSION
group theory approach helped to inform my conceptualization of this
school’s group process (Ferguson, 1984). Adler described a healthy
attitude in the group as a sense of oneness and identification with the
community, with concern for others and their welfare. When an individual
lacks a sense of belonging to the group, he or she becomes an isolated
outsider, with attendant psychological sequelae, or instead strives to
find a place in the group by proving him-or herself. Adler felt that such
striving rarely leads to lasting, peaceful success. The goal of the
teachers in our project, then, was to help children know that each had a
place and that each belonged to the school community merely by virtue of
his or her existence. As a result of such knowledge, a child no longer
needs to "prove" him- or herself. Once that realization occurs,
children can expend their energies on contributing to the group, rather
than on proving individual value or status.
One of the
values of the Adlerian mode] is that it highlights the power of group
rituals of exclusion in the production of overt violence. The struggles of
those excluded then focus on acceptance in one form or another, usually an
acceptance that leads to disruption of the working function of the group
as a whole and of its peace and harmony. Adler (1958) noted that
"every human being strives for significance, but people always make
mistakes if they do not see their whole significance must consist in the
contribution to the lives of others" (p. 8).
Adler’s concept of identification with the group, my colleagues and I
set up our intervention to foster an innate sense of realization of
one’s fundamental right to belong to the group. Following on this
concept, we adapted ideas from Dreikurs (1957) to provide a succinct
typology for the meaning of disruptive behavior in young children,
theorizing that the child’s disturbing actions are based on his or her
basic aim of achieving a place in the classroom group. The defiant child,
from this point of xiew, believes that such behavior will lead to
acceptance by the group. He or she may adopt one or more of the following
pathological behaviors or attitudes to gain group acceptance.
mechanisms. In our culture, children often have few
opportunities to be useful contributors within the family group.
Thus, getting attention through socially acceptable methods,
like being "cute," is common. If being cute does not
work, more unpleasant methods—e.g., acting out—are often
employed, which may lead to considerable humiliation and
punishment. Dreikurs (‘957) commented that "children
prefer being beaten to being ignored" (p. 13). From
kindergarten through third grade, children’s relationships
with their teachers are still very much in a child—parent
mode. Thus, teachers in the younger grades often function as
direct parental models, with children not distinguishing
academic goals from parental containment and nurturing. It is
not unusual for teachers in these grades to comment on the
degree to which they see their function as primarily a parenting
Power struggles between children and adults. A
struggle between a child and an adult often leads to a
stalemate, with the child ultimately "winning" because
the adult’s authority is inhibited by superego prohibitions,
while the child is not as fettered. Even when the patient is
abusive, the child wins an indirect moral victory. In our modern
era, the child can further humiliate the parent or teacher by
phoning an anonymous child abuse hot line, oi by complaining to
parents about teachers or vice versa In these power struggles,
the roles of bully, victim, and bystander are interchangeable,
frequently fluctuating from moment to moment. My observation has
been that as long as the roles are interchangeable, dialogue
about reinclusion in the group is possible and can proceed. Once
the roles become fixed, however, as was likely in the tragic
Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colorado, serious
damage is usually imminent.
Fixed revenge or retaliation power dynamics. A
fixed revenge—retaliation dynamic occurs when the battle for
power reaches extreme degrees. The main goal of such battles is
revenge for being hurt. The purpose of the revenge, as Stoller
(1974) has pointed out, is to rebel against and retaliate for
the painful position in which the child feels he or she has been
placed by the parental figure. In children’s dynamics—and
sometimes in those of other groups—the hated one occupies a
powerful role. Thus, the bully in a school setting maintains a
powerful status based on his or her fantasies and those of peers
regarding the bully’s capacity to hurt and control. As
children mature into adulthood during the latter years of high
school, bullies often lose a great deal of their influence with
peers, unless the whole group is socially regressed and the role
of the bully controls day-to-day living of the group members, as
in gang-dominated schools. This can also occur in schools in
which the principal behaves in a way that reinforces such a
fear-producing, bullying image. I know of one such principal who
was proud of a portrait of General Patton hanging in a prominent
place behind his desk!
or imagined inferiority feelings A victimized child who is
passive and beaten down may become so discouraged that he or she
gives up the hope of playing a positive role in the group and
begins to display defeat and failure, with inferiority serving
as a defense against any expectations of him or her.
Nonparticipation is often an attempt to preclude more
humiliating and embarrassing experiences. Alternatively, a
victimized child may retaliate with massive, destructive
revenge, as in many of the recent school killings
behaviois and attitudes converge in the core concept of a power
struggle within a context of dominant-submissive power dynamics, which
I believe underpin all human and most primate relationships (Twemlow
THE DYNAMICS OF
EXCLUSION AND BULLYING
history is, in many respects, the story of ways in which individuals have
excluded each other from participation in social activities. Such
exclusion and exclusion rituals have a variety of motives (Hoover and
Milner 1999), both pathological and motivated by group survival instinct.
Such patterns are immortalized in literature, as exemplified by the
exclusionary tactics in The Scarlet Letter and the painful,
bullying experiences of Tom
Brown's School Days.
extraordinary impact of bullying on the psychological state of the victim
is well documented (Twemlow 1995a, 1995b). A chronically victimized child
shows similar symptoms to those of a victim of chronic domestic violence.
The mind of suchi a child, under the influence of hormonal shifts, becomes
uncreative, perseverative, and very narrow in focus, resulting in a
despairing acceptance of the victimization because creative solutions do
not occur to the victim. Thus, submission becomes a way of life.
definitions of bullying (Olweus,1992) and our definition (Twemlow, Sacco,
and Williams 1996) need extension. We have called bullying "the
exposure of an individual, over and over again, to negative interactions
on the part of one or more dominant persons, who gain in some way from the
discomfort of the victims" (p. 297). Such an individualized
definition does not sufficiently emphasize two important features of
bullying: (1) the nature of gain by the bully; and (2) the
role-interdependent natures of the bully, victim, and bystander.
examples of bullying which are socially accepted in our culture today are
Hazing rituals on college campuses, which at times have
serious or even fatal consequences, reflect the way in which a
newcomer is absorbed into a group. In many ways, hazing is
designed to symbolically sever the initiate from his or her past
life through acts of extreme deprivation or cruelty. An oath of
loyalty to the new "family" is often required as part
of the ritual. Ultimately. the novice assumes the group
identity, and, as Ramzy and Bryant (1962) have pointed out,
there are further ramifications as the newest members of the
group perform acts of cruelty on the next novitiates, so as to
cement their apparent conversion to group loyalty as well as to
act out their displaced rage.
rituals whereby those who do not follow the religion’s
precepts are excluded from the group are exemplified by formal
excommunication. Such rituals have significance for individuals
committed to the religion, but may have little effect on
individuals of the larger, more diverse society as a whole In
contrast, excommunication in the more isolated Amish community,
where religion has great significance, may even prevent
individuals from pursuing their livelihoods within the group.
Blackballing is sometimes a function of unions. Union
members who cross a picket line can be blackballed, ostracized,
and ignored, if not physically brutalized and harassed Attempts
are often made to prevent strike breakers from obtaining work by
denial of union membership, rumor spreading, and negative job
Experience with Exclusion and Bullying
I was in general medical practice in a small coal-mining village, I
reported on the incidence of tuberculosis being transmitted to humans from
unpasteurized milk. Little did I know that pasteurization would have shut
out certain local milk suppliers, who had great influence with the city
council. In a brief space of time, local newspapers featured headlines
depicting me as a "Svengali," hypnotizing the community about
the value of pasteurization while neglecting the importance of God’s
natural, unadulterated milk! My wife was ignored when she went into stores
to shop, and my medical practice dropped off people traveled up to 300
miles for medical care rather than seek treatment with this ostracized
I would like to mention that the term ostracize comes from the
Greek ostraca, the word for potsherds used in Attica in the third
century B.C. The term was used to describe people whom community leaders
felt should be banished, just as school communities and larger communities
today less formally cast their votes by ignoring bullying, pathological
power struggles, and rituals of exclusion. Hoover and Millner (1999)
focused correctly, I think, on an aspect of such bullying behavior that
was missed in many other studies that reflect the more benign desire to
dominate Many exclusion rituals practiced by children and adults are not
based on the goal of preserving the group through exclusion of dangerous,
unhealthy individuals who may weaken it, but instead are more sadistic in
to my personal experience with bullying, and to view it in a positive
light, this exclusion could be seen to stem from the survival instinct of
that particular community and its milk suppliers. The solution in this
case was actually quite a simple one: I met with the president of the city
council and pointed out that I would have to leave the community if the
situation did not improve (That area had had considerable trouble
obtaining medical care.) Community members responded with apologies, and
an overwhelming number of patients returned, some bringing gifts of
vegetables and meats. Acceptance in the group required only that I remind
the townspeople of my vital role in the community; but had I assumed the
stance of victim and withdrawn From the group, everyone would have
suffered. Obviously, there is an interaction between the way in which
power struggles are filtered through the biological matrix and the
psychological makeup of the individuals involved.
BULLYING BY STUDENTS
observing and studying the ways in which children function in schools, and
particularly their power struggles, my colleagues and I have been acutely
aware of the similarities between children’s behavior and the
functioning of adults. Certainly, as the African proverb notes, it takes a
whole village to "raise" a child, hut child-rearing can become
pathological if that village has unconscious dynamics that encourage
exclusion of certain members from the group as a whole.
classroom setting, a bullying child is often the one creating a
disturbance—for example, firing "spitballs." Here the target
victim may be the teacher, who might become very upset and the object of
triumphant ridicule by the bully and his or her retinue of
bully—bystander disciples. The triumph is based on the teacher’s
having lost his or her "cool." Ultimately, the entire class is
victimized, since learning time is sacrificed. In our experimental
intervention (Twemlow, Sacco, and Twemlow 1999), the discipline plan
formed the foundation [or the whole class’s reflection on its role in
the disturbance, and in this sense, the entire class carried some
responsibility for the actions of the bully.
generally accepted that bullying is much more common among boys than
girls, especially physical bullying (Boulton and Underwood 1992; HazIer,
Hoover, and Oliver 1991) However, as society moves toward increased
acceptance of aggressiveness and assertiveness in women, there is already
some evidence that this is changing and may change further. Nonetheless,
current research indicates that boys bully more frequently than girls, and
even in the elementary school years, such bullying often has sexual
biological vulnerability and the developmental position of natural
aggressiveness in young children make them particularly susceptible to
dynamics in which power is operative. Bullying, up into the middle years
of high school, often has considerable social status amongst peers Thus,
there is a developmental, social aspect to the bullying that is maintained
by the psychological needs of the bully’s peers. To summarize, the bully
gains both social power and personal satisfaction from the combination of
an exalted position within the peer bystanding group and personal
sadistic/sexual pleasure at the humiliation of the victim. I will next
address the forms such humiliation takes.
is, in most cases, a Form of teasing, hitting poking, tripping, or
slapping contact. Physical damage is usually not great. It is the
humiliation of the child in the presence of peers that is the benchmark of
the bully. Too much damage to the victim may encourage sympathy for the
victim from peers and punishment for the bully. Dunking the head of a
child in a toilet, hanging obnoxious signs on the back of clothing, sexual
grabbing, and other forms of touching and poking are common physical
manifestations of bullying dynamics. Defilement of clothing, school bags,
and lockers constitutes less direct physical bullying.
Name Calling and
always occurs in the context of an audience and takes a variety of forms.
Teasing is often said to be in fun, but is very rarely enjoyed by the
object of the teasing, in spite of the bully’s protestation that the
teasing is meant in jest. Victims of this form of bullying are often
children who are vulnerable because of psychological factors, such as
shyness or low self-esteem, or because of physical problems, such as
seizure disorders, acne, or cerebral palsy. The put-downs serve to unite
the group and to stimulate strong feelings within it. Insulting nicknames
are not uncommon: "Elephant Man" for the ugly child, "Dumbo"
for the one with big ears, or "Tiny" for the obese child.
Occasionally, such a nickname is adopted by the victim as a form of
"undoing" or minimizing the damage done. The pressures on group
members to be connected with the powerful bully leader increase the
dilemma of the victim, since negative reaction to the verbal bullying may
lead to further exclusion from the group.
Rumors often exclude
children from informed peer groups, such as cliques or "street
clubs." Sometimes, this sort of problem reaches epidemic proportions
in schools. My colleagues and I consulted in a school with few
disciplinary and no academic problems,
but in which the younger children did not want to go to school, resulting
in complaints to the principal from their parents. This unhappiness had
been created by the formation of cliques that excluded younger children.
The older students were consequently engaged in our intervention program
as peer leaders and assistant instructors, thus strongly encouraging them
to act as mentors for younger children rather than as bullies. Some school
administrators are alert to this type of bullying exclusion of certain
children from overnight activities, birthday parties, and so on, but
usually try unsuccessfully to legislate it away, rather than to understand
and deal with the underlying psychodynamic causes.
There is an
echolalic form of bullying, i.e., mimicking speech or repeating the
victim’s last few words, or exaggerating the gait or other physical
peculiarities of the victim In late latency and early adolescence,
especially among girls, rumor-spreading is a very common form of verbal
bullying, frequently having to do with accusations of promiscuity, as the
following vignette illustrates.
A Victim of Rumors
sixth-grade girl was shy and quite slow intellectually in comparison to
her peers. She had highly upwardly mobile parents, who were extremely
ambitious and competitive, and an older sister who excelled in school and
was good at sports. Little by little, the girl was sexually humiliated by
the circulation of various rumors about her. She expressed the increasing
erosion of her self-image in drawings that revealed considerable anger and
depression, as well as envy of the peer acceptance of her friends. It was
not until a couple of years later that she acted out her rage at the
rumors and at her mother’s lack of empathy for her plight: One evening,
she announced at the dinner table, to the chagrin of her mother, that she
was sexually active and ‘just thought her mother should know." This
was said in a deadpan way, as if no further reaction were expected. The
experience with bullying children brings to mind the work of Stoller
(1974, 1985) on the nature of sexual perversion. Characteristic of such
sadistic bullying is the fetishizing of the victim, so that instead of a
whole object, the victim becomes a part object only. Fetishizing or
dehumanizing thie victim/child through the splitting off of humanity and
aliveness produces a less alive (less unique or human) fetish object,
allowing thie sadistic, bullying child to act out vengeful, hateful,
destructive fantasies, fueled by the painful and humiliated response of
the victim My experience is that the role of hostility in bullying is
similar to hostility in sexual perversions. In fact, I see bullying as a
form of perversion in which the bully expresses thiee basic unconscious
Rage at having to give up merger fantasies with the
mother—that is, renouncing the mother.
Fear of not succeeding in getting away from the
mother’s pervasive influence.
the mother for having been put in this predicament.
The act of
bullying reverses the positions of the actors in the drama, as Stoller
(1974) suggested, and also reverses the affects. The victim (of the family
pathology) becomes the victor. He or she moves from the passive object of
parental hostility to being the person in power, the tormentor. This manic
mechanism, as Stoller pointed out, allows the child to omnipotently become
the parent, and thus the perversion is a form of sublimation of these
three dominant affects. The movement from danger to escape and from danger
into gratification explains the intense vibratory quality of the
aggressive, sexualized arousal. The bullying, as it becomes more and more
intense, leads to an explosive triumph, with a "joyous," manic
quality often accompanied by laughter. Whereas this situation seems
extreme when applied to an elementary school child, it is not, in my
experience, a rarity. Sexual excitement may also be part of the etiology
of pathological behavior in other types of bullying children.
clearly pathological type of bully is the sadistic one, characterized by
prominent antisocial trends. He or she shows little emotional involvement
with the act of bullying itself. Sadistic bullies, whose prognosis is
poor, are often feared, especially if big and strong.2
should be distinguished from aggression: in acts of sadism, the intent is
that the object visibly suffer. Mihashi (1987) called the sadistic
exclusion of others kegare, an archaic Japanese term that meant
marking individuals for abuse as outsiders. In the past, the Japanese
culture institutionalized forms of self-humiliation as honorable rituals
in order for the defeated shogun to save face, with seppuku (ritual
disembowelment) being one such historical practice of samurai. In Japanese
schools today, humiliated children are sometimes forced by their peers to
eat grass (Mihashi 1987). That act of unpalatability contemptuously
implies an animal-like nature, thus reducing the child to the humiliation
of being less than human. In addition to the symbology of the act itself,
it is my observation that the victim of such bullying must also be shown
to be hurt, and the bullying continues until there are screams and cries
and pleading, often accompanied by laughter from the bystanding audience
and triumphant exultation on the part of the bully. Socially, such actions
convey a message about the undesirable nature of the victim, and perhaps
cement the group as a whole in a pathological way (Alexander 1986).
earlier clinical typology of bullying (Twemlow, Sacco, and Williams i996)
my colleagues and I described a sadistic form of child behavior. [n
sadistic bullies, anxiety is low, self-esteem is normal, sadism is
prominent, there is little fear of discipline, and empathy
is lacking. Such children probably comprise about one percent of the
school population. A bully of this sort often functions as a leader in the
elementary grades, but usually loses most of his or her social status by
the upper grades of high school. A sadistic bully has few true friends,
but many followers. Frequently, parents of such children model unempathic
aggressiveness in their own behavior. The mothers of these sadistic
bullies, often depressed and abused themselves, vicariously achieve
satisfaction from their children’s sadistic precociousness, and may act
it out by defending their children’s actions to authorities.
to be at least two ways in which the sadistic bully gains from the
discomfort of the victim. One is the sadistic experience of the bullying
act, requiring that the victim show discomfort. A spiraling ritual of
excitement occurs in the bully, often with highly sexualized and perverse
overtones. Sadomasochistic humiliation rituals are a recognized part of
our culture, from the cruel blood baths of serial killers like Ted Bundy,
who called himself a vampire while engaging in sexual torture of victims
(Doyle and Cave 1992), to the institutionalized sadomasochism in the
"S & M" parlors of San Francisco. The more humiliated the
victim, the higher the level of sexual arousal in the victimizer.
Experimental work on serial rapists (Marques 1981) shows that they are
most aroused by submissive, pleading victims. Sadomasochistic behaviot is
less recognized in young children; however, the following vignette
illustrates such a sexualized form of bullying.
~: A Sadistic Bully
A fifth-grade boy,
very tall and strong for his age, monopolized a great deal of classroom
time because of his regular, sadistic bullying. He had even been known to
threaten teachers with physical injury—quite unusual in an elementary
school context. He gained great strength from the knowledge that his
family could back up his threats, since his father was a prominent member
of a local criminal gang. Each day, the boy was picked up from school by a
tattoo-covered, well-known "hit man" The boy delighted in
showing off this man’s large muscles to any friends and other students
Much of his
bullying was sexualized. He enjoyed grabbing the crotches of female
classmates, who were rendered helpless by the elevation of his hand, so
that they not only suffered sexual humiliation but also had difficulty
standing. This would be accompanied by great laughter and clapping from
his bully—bystander henchmen. He used several forms of sexualized
bullying, including "humping" the display cases containing
school trophies, with the intent of frightening younger children while
symbolically denigrating the school’s achievements.
the boy was placed in a special classroom, he was soon mainstreamed back
into a "normal" classroom when the teacher threatened to resign
if he were not removed, since she feared his physical strength and
resented his total lack of concern for disciplinary procedures The staff
fantasized that the most effective procedures with this boy would involve
sadistic "bullying of the bully." It emerged that the only
individual able to control him was the school custodian, who had a
background of aggravated assault, and who had used whispered threats of
bodily harm to subdue him.
this boy responded quite gratifyingly to our intervention program, which
made use of his charismatic leadership skills by enlisting him as an
assistant instructor in the "Gentle Warrior" program. This
process ameliorated his sadism and allowed the emergence of more caring
and positive qualities. The physical part of the training facilitated
shifts in the aggressive and sadistic components of his character
structure, whereas the omnipotent aspects were satisfied by identification
with a teacher as a teacher’s helper, with the modeled behavior being
caring and compassionate rather than dehumanizing and bullying. On a
recent occasion, he was observed waiting for a school bus; a small child
nearby was wailing because he was unable to tie his shoelaces. After
looking around to make sure no peers were watching, the boy approached the
child, leaned down, and tied the younger child’s shoelaces himself!
A Victim of Sexual Bullying
sexual bullying can lead to extreme levels of victimization, as in the
recent case in Georgia of a bullied fifth-grade girl (Davis versus Monroe
County Board of Education 1999), which led to a United States Supreme
Court decision defining the school board’s responsibility in sexual
harassment. The signs of this child’s victimization included failing
grades and a suicide note found by the mother, reflecting the girl’s
extreme fear and humiliation. She experienced additional humiliation and
difficulty in speaking out about the problem due to the obscene and
repetitive nature of the sexual harassment, which occurred over a period
of several months. In this case, the male perpetrator pled guilty to
sexual battery after the girl’s mother notified police. After a number
of attempts to resolve this problem from within the school system, the
mother had given up hope that teachers or school administrators would take
any corrective action.
SOCIAL SYSTEMS MODEL FOR THE
summarized the importance of the roles of sadism and sexuality in the
aggressive action of bullies, I will now turn to another model for a
description of the fundamental dialectical nature of the
bully—victim—bystander roles. This model calls for a dynamic,
interactive, social systems approach to the understanding of power
works, my colleagues and I have detailed the role-dependent way in which
the bully interacts with the victim, influenced by the socially and
personally defined roles of others in the surrounding environment (Twemlow
1995a, I 995b; Twemlow, Sacco, and Williams 1996). The modem concept of
dialectic is central to a social systems approach. Concepts of dialectic
are derived from the work of the phenomenologist Hegel, and have been
extensively discussed by writers such as Fonagy (1998) and Ogden (1986,
1989). The seeing of one’s self in the other person and the influence on
oneself by the other are parts of an ongoing process in which human beings
define themselves in regard to both their separateness and their
similarities. Thus, the two opposites define each other and depend on each
other for their existence; neither would exist without the other. Marcuse
(1960) wrote that dialectical thought is a process in which subject and
object are so joined that the truth can be determined only within the
subject/object totality. It is my belief that dialectical struggles around
activity and passivity form part of the contextual background in all
relationships, including the analytic one, and become more conflicted if
aggression begins to dominate intimacy.
Such struggles are
not confined to human interactions. Dominant behavior is a well-known
ethological strategy for defense in animals via flight behavior. In many
primates, dominance is part of competition for resources, mates,
territory, and social status, and helps maintain genetic valiance within
the group. Flight behavior is used to avoid danger and harm, and is
phylogenetically very old (Dixon 1998). Animals—including human
beings—who are exposed to inescapable thieats oi attacks exhibit a
typical gaze-avoidant, imrnobile response. Dixon compared the behavior of
depressed patients to such arrested flight behavior. Although the response
of such a victim is not always adaptive, it at least arrests escalating
fear by cutting off fear-inducing input.
works (Twemlow 1995a, 1995b), I have shown how the complex dialectical
interaction between victim and victimizer is fueled by the bystanding
audience. Like cofactors in a chemical equation, the participants can
influence the direction of the equation. The bully—victim—bystander
relationship can be analogized to a mass law equation, with the bystander
being the cofactor driving the relationship in either direction, as
characteristic object relationship configurations in Tables 2, 3, and 4
result from fixed, traumatic object relational units. This typology
emphasizes the object relational configurations and role-dependent nature
of the dialectic.
be noted that these dynamic categories may bear little or no relationship
to statistically derived, clinical syndromes comprising DSM-IV approaches
to psychiatric disease classification Nonetheless, such psychoanalytic
diagnoses suggest clear courses of treatment. Once these traumatic object
relational patterns become fixed, the social system is set up for
difficult-to-avoid, violent destructiveness. In the early stages of this
dialectical interaction, the bully—victim—bystander roles are
interchangeable in a confusing, ever-changing kaleidoscope, involving
mainly the following defense mechanisms: projective identification,
counterprojective identification, extractive introjection, and altruistic
psychological research questions the importance of low self-esteem in
causing violence. Bushman and Baumeister (1998), in a study of college
students, found that negative, insulting evaluations of essays written on
an emotionally charged topic, such as abortion, increased the
aggressiveness of responses for all types of individuals, and that these
aggressive responses were strongest among subjects who scored highly on
questionnaire-assessed narcissism. The authors concluded that threatened
egotism is a significant cause of aggression. Measures of self-esteem
yielded no significant results. Bushman and Baumeister felt that such a
view contradicts the traditional one that low self-esteem causes
aggression. The results of this sophisticatedly designed study strongly
suggest that narcissistic hypersensitivity promotes aggressive responses.
In a useful and straightforward way, the authors distinguished high
self-esteem (thinking well of oneself) from narcissism (passionately
wanting to think well of oneself). In Gabbard’s (1989) classification,
the hypervigilant narcissist seems the most prone to violence. Those with
oblivious narcissism may brush off criticism more easily, but it is my
experience that hypervigilant and oblivious responses exist in a dynamic
equilibrium It seems that those who need to validate a grandiose
self-image with constant positive feedback respond most aggressively when
that feedback is not forthcoming.
A Clinical Typology of Bully Roles
anxiety, prominent sadism No fear of discipline Lacks empathy.
Impulsive About 1% of a school population Possible genetic
a feared leader. By high school, less popular Few true friends,
disciplinary referrals. Teachers feel helpless and sometimes
often depressed; Vicarious satisfaction from child’s
behavior Defends child to authorities.
critical, iden w/father
— Part Self Representatation
vengefulness — Affect
isolated, lonely, iden. w/mother — Part
Bully— Victim "Provocative Victim" of Olweus )
self-esteem Whines, tattles, has aggressive outbursts Truant and
tardy often. Late on assignments. Vegetative depressive signs
Lacks friends. Easily led Provocative and loud Unpopular with
peers Attention-seeking Uses helplessness to manipulate
staff splitting Resists direction. Often disliked by peers
Attention seeking. Uses evoked sympathy to manipulate
often violent, with victim—attacker patterns in parents.
critical, iden w/father
vengefulness — Affect
isolated, lonely, iden w/mother — Part
ADD/ ADHD diagnosis. Creates whirlwind classroom disruption.
Short attention span. Lack of empathy.
popular with peers due to teacher ‘favoritism" Seen as
odd~ or sick
receives special attention More likeable than depressed
dysfunctional and cooperates with treatment after initial
resistance, especially to medication.
critical, iden w/father— Part
isolated, lonely, iden w/mother — Part Object
A Clinical Typology of Victim Roles
withdrawn, physically small, self-doubting, sensitive to
criticism. Rich fantasy life, not depressed. School refusal.
Copes with fear by submitting
unpopular Submits easily to attack
Can be forgotten.
is often devalued by family and/or/or overprotected. May be
physically and /or sexually abused.
critical — Part Object Representation
school-age girl, usually in context of a "crush."
Schoolwork suffers. Do not see themselves as ill, but rather
martyr themselves, often to a bully who is seen as worth the
truant, preoccupied, distracted. Uses downers.
often repeating a parental pattern of martyrdom.
powerfulness with underlying inadequacy —Part
controlling —Part Object Representation
school-age girl, usually in context of a "crush."
Schoolwork suffers. Do not see themselves as ill, but rather
submissive, rescuing relationship to a bully who is seen as
capable of reform if handled the right way, namely, by the
an observed parental pattern of rescuing.
child to be rewarded for compliance — Part
sacrificing — Affect
A Clinical Typology of Bystander Roles
reexperiencing of trauma in an attempt at mastery.
with bully as helper; is a potential bully.
of domestic violence in home.
self-pitying. Poor academic achievement
immobility response to threat, suggestible, easily led, timid.
of sexual and physical abuse
an adult in authority,~ e.g., a principal who denies C obvious
problems. Tends to be C "teacher’s pet."
attitude. Naively positive thinker.
from fundamentalist religious family. Has external locus of
mature for age and aware of narrow-minded focus of peers. Liked
by teachers, but not a "teacher’s pet." Actively
intervenes to prevent power struggles.
detached observer. Hard to coerce to take sides. Might suffer
of high arousal, such as fear and anxiety, create a psychophysiological
response that deeply alters the permeability of psychological boundaries
between victim and victimizer. In one sense, the ego boundaries of victim
and victimizer fuse, creating a single entity from two minds. A primary
influence of this boundary permeability is stimulated by the sympathetic
and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system
secretes adrenergic hormones, which activate the psyche and body in
preparation for fight and flight. The parasympathetic response, through
glucocorticoids, has an opposite, relaxing and calming effect. Under
normal conditions, this combination of responses is adaptive and
reestablishes a homeostatic balance in the body and mind. In situations of
extreme fear or chronic victimization, however, such as in bullying and
domestic violence, exhaustion of the adrenals can lead to a premature,
exaggerated, parasympathetic calming response, creating a sleepy mental
state, muscular weakness, and inhibition of the blood coagulation
mechanism and immune system—thus paradoxically making the individual
more vulnerable both to ego boundary permeability and to physical injury.
VanderKolk (1989) coined the term traumatic bonding to explain the
way in which affect psychology creates a charged object relational
configuration (seLf and object representation), which then becomes highly
cathected due to extreme conditions at the time (e.g., contemptuous
bullying). This traumatic object relational unit can stimulate a
flashback, influencing later behavior in self-destructive repetition
elsewhere described a form of negative intimacy between bully and victim,
similar in form to lovesickness (Twemlow 1995a) Emotional dependency may
develop in the same way that it does in chronic domestic violence, with a
form of dependent [inking of the victim and the bully. Terror and sadistic
control, rather than love and caring, predominate. One victim, who
described herself as "spotwelded" to her rapist, could not get
him out of her mind, even changing her brand of cigarettes to his brand.
Intrusive thinking, alterations of consciousness, and a sense of
incompleteness, along with a total preoccupation with the bullying
attacker, are frequently described
proscription enhances the lovesick experience, as well as conferring on
the victim and victimizer in bullying relationships a social notoriety,
embellished in excruciating detail in the contemporary media preoccupation
with violence. The person I have described as the bully-bystander is
vicariously identified with the bully, and the victim—bystander is
vicariously identified with the victim. Both typically exhibit a similar
level of fear and arousal, with ego boundary permeability, and both can
participate as "cofactors" in the bully—victim dialectic,
depending on which way they are polarized. The avoidant bystander who
denies the existence of a problem, and the ambivalent bystander who is not
caught up in the regression, have less boundary permeability and less of a
A MODEL FOR POWER
DERIVED FROM KLEIN/BION
AND OTHER OBJECT RELATIONAL
object relations model for power struggles can best be illustrated first
by a theoretical outline of the typical object relational configuration;
second by defenses and affects synthesized primarily from the work of Bion
(1967), Klein (1935), and Ogden (1986, 1989), and finally by a clinical
illustration of the model that occurred in a school where fixed
bully—victim--bystander power struggles resulted in lethal violence.
identification is both a defense and an interpersonal communication, as
pointed out by Ogden (1986). It is a way of learning about somebody else,
as well as a way to disavow bad self- and object representations.
hamilton’s (1986) concept of positive projective identification
highlights the potentially pathological function of the projection of good
self- and object representations, when these are idealized or unrealistic.
Counterprojective identification, a term coined by Grinberg (1962),
is essentially an unconscious countertransference to the patient’s
projections, so that the analyst unconsciously functions according to
internalized projections from the patient, unaware of the differences
between his or her reactions and the patient’s. Thus, the borders
between self and object (or "us" and "them") are
blurred and can lead to power struggles, as Ganzarain (1999) pointed out.
highly boundary-permeable psychophysiological state existing in trauma
situations, such as that of prolonged bullying, an ever-changing,
confusing melange of mental contents defies clear delineation. The
endpoint of submission with domination can involve even apparently trivial
identifications, as with the brand of cigarettes of the attacker, and also
more potentially lethal ones, such as a hopeless submission to the
attacker—i.e., identification with the victimized self-representation of
the attacker. Bollas’s (1987) concept of extractive introjection is
useful as a special case of "object stealing," in which the
attacker extracts self-representations from the mind of the victim,
leaving a feeling of being empty of thoughts and empty of the capacity to
think, with a loss of the sense of one’s person. Bollas considered such
multiple extractions to be a "serious deconstruction of one’s
history" (p. i66) that can be irreparable. Such a situation exists in
the chronically bullied child, who might eventually erupt with serious
retaliatory aggression, either by murder or suicide.
Freud’s (1936) concept of altruistic surrender, not unlike Hamilton’s
(1986), of positive projective identification, suggests the projection of
positive rather than negative ideas onto the external object. Altruistic
surrender enables positive attachments to be established—with the price
of self-denigration, however. Common examples include the projection of
ambitions and ideals onto another person—for example, a school gang
leader. Some bullies cannot tolerate a benign, loving superego; the
projector may be unable to experience pleasure for him- or herself without
intolerable persecutory guilt. The bully—bystander role is a frequent
example of such an altruistic surrender, wherein the bystander’s
personal ideals and ambitions are projected onto the bully, and life is
lived vicariously through this pathological identification, with often
remarkable service and sacrifice to the bully—leader’s whims.
defenses connected with deep levels of regression, such as pathological
idealization, omnipotent denial, and splitting, are often involved at
various stages of the power struggle. From an economic point of view,
these primordial defenses defend against the catastrophic effect of
maldistribution of power, which becomes a threat to the ego.
Unadulterated, undefended power creates the same subjective state that
Bion (1967) described as "catastrophe" (p. 116), a state
of nameless dread of cosmic proportions.
idea of nameless dread specifically referred to a meaningless fear that
comes about in the context of an infant’s relationship with a mother
incapable of reverie. Children, and sometimes adults, who are consumed by
violent feelings seem immersed in this meaningless, powerless, omnipresent
terror. A key to taming the terror involves the idea of reverie as a
specific form of containment (Bion 1967). The reverie of the mother is a
particular quasi-therapeutic act of containment that ameliorates and
transforms catastrophe. If the mother fails to contain the infant’s
terror, she becomes a projective identification-rejecting object, which
then renders the baby’s experience meaningless, as is the dread that
affects both the perpetrator and victim of violence. What is reintrojected
from the reverie in the capable mother is not a "fear of dying made
tolerable, but a nameless dread" (Bion, p. 116). With recurrent
introjection of this projective identification-rejecting object, a
pathological introject forms, which destroys meaning and leaves the infant
in a mysterious, meaningless, terrifying world—which may not only strip
meaning from the immediate world, according to Bion, but may even give
rise to a superego structure that issues meaningless injunctions about
behavior. In the individual psychopathologies of violent people and of
victims, it is likely that the mother reverie was not present or was
extend this concept to a community level. The community itself can become
a container, and yet if it cannot deal with the terror of the
community—for example, terror in the context of violent schools—what
is reintrojected is a terrifying environment of meaninglessness, lack of
coordination, and especially lack of compassionate interconnectedness and
helpfulness, as seems to exist in a number of violent school settings and
in other environments that have deteriorated or have been destroyed. A
common effect of such an environment of meaninglessness is that the
individual is incapable of what Bion called alpha-betization (1967),
that is, the encoding and linking/connecting of beta fragments with
emotional experiences and with each other through naming, making them
available for thought and for dreams, fantasy, and feelings. Containment
is therefore a fundamental requirement for mental processes. The terror of
F falling endlessly, which Grotstein (1990a,1990b, 1991) described as the
‘black hole" (an elaboration of Bion’s  idea that the black
hole is not an astrophysical concept), is akin to the feeling of
falling endlessly, and, more generally, of being in a precarious state of
destructiveness of these aggressive forces suggests a powerful,
presymbolic, internal object field. The autistic-contiguous organization
postulated by Ogden (1989) extended Freud’s idea that the initial ego is
a body ego derived from bodily sensations. The autistic-contiguous
position organizes experiences of raw sensations and perceptions on
bounded body surfaces Anxiety in the autistic 2 contiguous positive is the
anxiety of dissolution of boundedness. This form of preconceptual thinking
is an early attempt to conceptualize the world in Bion’s sense.
Thinkable thoughts are produced from preconceptions (beta to alpha
transformation) The act of bullying and the act of violence may represent
a failure to verbally symbolize 2 and thus release catastrophic dread with
attendant urgency. The act of violence, then, is an externalized symbol
that binds anxiety (Alford 1997).
"stomping for intimacy" and "blood brother," often
used in penitentiary settings, ‘are ways of getting close to someone in
the form of a brutal assault (Alford 1997). From this point of view,
repetitive bullying is a complex set of defenses, actions, and affects.
Ogden’s (1989) autistic defensives include rhythmically repetitive
phenomena, like head-banging, skin-picking, and bingeing and purging—to
which I add repeated bullying. These are all attempts to establish a
physical sense of continuity of surface to bind catastrophic anxiety. It
is rare that bullies engage in single acts, and their violent acts are
often experienced as calming. One serial killer I examined referred to his
killing escapades as "like grinding meat," which he could
conclude with a martini and a good night’s dreamless sleep. TI-ic
murders, he said, temporarily relieved him of omnipresent, paranoid,
enraged feelings of isolation, accompanied by fears of "falling
bully’s cohort of bully—bystander disciples often have to demonstrate
their loyalty through acts of submission and even self-humiliation, a form
of psychological "stomping for intimacy." Thus, a bullying
child, through either individual psychopathology, family dynamics, or
community psychopathology, or some combination of these, has developed an
incapacity for "thinking thoughts" in Bion’s (1967) sense, as
well as an incapacity for mentalizing (Fonagy et. al 1997). Instead, in
"seeing oneself in the other," the bully is unable to contain
aggressive impulses. Under these conditions, concern for the welfare of
others becomes submerged by an immediate survival need (i.e., to survive
annihilation by the impulses).
There is a
dramatic shift in the flexibility of interchangeable, coerced roles when
the perceived enemy becomes truly an enemy. This rather complex concept
has been explicated by Volkan's (1998, 1999b) idea of famliar enemy. In
convincing arguments based on the study of large group and ethnic
conflicts, Volkan pointed out that the enemy is a needed part of the total
global identity, in order to contain the disavowed self- and object
representations that for one reason or another need to be projected
outside of the self. The container implicitly agrees to contain these
disavowed parts while similarly projecting. A dynamic tension or armed
truce may occur between familiar enemies who develop a long-standing
relationship without being involved in direct conflict, or who are in
conflict only sporadically. Volkan’s idea was that as long as the enemy
is a familiar one, there is implicit agreement for this situation to
occur, so that a form of "stable instability" results.
production of a true enemy, conflict is inevitable; and the possibility of
negotiating with the enemy is destroyed. The enemy is truly an alien, that
is, neither human nor redeemable. From an object relational perspective,
the container then rejects the projections of the familiar enemy, and a
psychotic transformation occurs, so that the enemy comes to be perceived
as a direct threat against whom attack action must be taken.
SCHOOL POWER STRUGGLE:
THE COLUMBINE HIGH SCHOOL MASSACRE
most startling present-day illustration of the complexity of the
bully—victim—bystander relationship is the phenomenon of school
killings over the past two years, beginning with the one in Pearl,
Mississippi, on October 1, 1997,3
and most recently, the massacre at Columbine High School, Littleton,
Colorado. According to media reports, all the fatal shootings were by
Caucasian boys in nonurban schools. All the perpetrators experienced
severe bullying and were social outsiders, ridiculed by their peers. Luke
Woodham of Pearl, Mississippi, said, "I killed because people like me
are mistreated every day. I did this to show society; push us and we will
these children belonged to fringe groups, and all spoke quite openly about
killing people. For example, in Jonesboro, Arkansas, on the day before the
murders, Mitchell Johnson boasted, "Tomorrow y’all are gonna find
out if you live or die."5
Columbine [ugh School situation, Eric Harris and Dylan Kiebold fit the
aforementioned pattern They were children from middle-class backgrounds,
with parents involved in regular work and professional activities. Each of
them had two parents. Both were involved in traditional, all-American
activities, such as Little League ball games and Boy Scouts, until a year
or so before the shootings. Harris applied to enter the Marines, but was
denied because he had taken Luvox. They liked bowling and each had worked
in a pizza parlor.
innocuous facade, however, a core of murderous rage began to escalate as
the relentless bullying continued. The boys developed an intense
preoccupation with the video game "Doom," which depicted brutal
slayings of cartoon characters, offering bonus points for "head
these boys seems to have suffered a regression to an autistic-contiguous
mode of relating, with many persecutory, paranoid-schizoid features.
Reports of their relationships with others showed a rapid, regressive
deterioration in the year before the killings, when they displayed many
signs of primitive disintegration, which were not taken seriously by
either school or law enforcement officials. In that year, there were
reports to the local sheriff that the boys had made and detonated pipe
bombs, and had threatened to carry out mass shootings. A website
containing death threats toward other students "could not be
found" by investigators.6
news reports also suggested that the boys had openly displayed their
preoccupation with violence at home. Investigators found a shotgun barrel
and bomb-making materials on a dresser in the home of one of the boys;
none of these items had been noticed or taken seriously by the boy’s
There is a
tendency to search for explanations that ameliorate our community
responsibility for crimes like these. It is easier to imply that the boys
were seriously mentally ill (aliens) or pawns in a plot by adult
terrorists with political motives. Although investigations are still
ongoing at the time of this writing, it would surprise me if any such
causes are found. A forthright and honest approach to this tragedy reveals
that it is likely a "textbook" illustration of the lethal
outcome of pathologically fixed bully—victim—bystander dynamics. In
the year or so prior to the killings, before the bully and victim roles
became fixed, the Trench Coat Mafia, to which the killers belonged, openly
embodied extreme anti-American, neo-Nazi attitudes, with defensive
idealization of the role of the outsider. Conversely, the White Cap Jocks,
the bullying group, had strong athletic records and high social status at
every student interviewed for the news media after the tragedy had been
aware of this persecutory atmosphere. Until about a year earlier, the
Trench Coat Mafia had "given as good as they got": their
bullying activities included the creation of threatening videotapes for
school projects, the glorification of death and killing in other school
assignments, and unexpectedly and paradoxically rude and physically
violent responses when pleasant greetings were made to them. About a year
prior, these roles had become fixed, with the White Cap Jocks as bullies
and the Trench Coat Mafia minority as the outsiders/victims, while the
rest of the school—including the principal, who had "no idea"7
was going on in the school— comprised the bystanding audience.
striking are the many red flags raised by these boys, which can be seen
with hindsight as cries for help, and the fact that ignoring and
minimizing their distress signals could be seen as additional indirect
bullying by bystanders. The Trench Coat Mafia were given a page in the
school yearbook, where their serious views were described as though the
group were merely some sort of weird glee club. A further example of the
omnipotent denial of the obvious, basic bully—victim—bystander
dynamics was the community’s subsequent production of a plethora of
denial tactics and scapegoats, including the alleging of severe mental
illness, adult influence on the boys, lack of adequate surveillance and
security in the schools, lack of gun control, and "liberalism"
It was Vice President Gore’s opinion that the massacre was evidence of
the existence of evil in society.9
The idea of
evil places it beyond the pale of human Linderstanding and thus beyond a
possibility of resolution without divine intervention.
various potential explanations not only deny the facts, but also fail to
explain why this event occurred in an affluent, primarily white high
school (therefore, blame could not be attributed to young, unemployed,
African American men, as frequently occurs in such incidents). Our
culture, in spite of being a democracy and a melting pot, has a history of
persecuting outsiders. In a graphic account, a member of the Trench Coat
Mafia, who was not directly involved in the shootings, described the
taunting he received; he said life for members of the group was
"hell, pure bell." Athletes at the school called him a
"faggot," bashed him into lockers, and threw rocks at him as he
rode his bike home. He said, ‘I can’t describe how hard it was to get
up in the morning and face that."10
survivors of the massacre reported that, during the killings, the gunmen
were laughing with glee. as if they were enlivened by the experience;
perhaps this was a form of "stomping for intimacy" One gunman
was heard to say, "This is what you get for the way you treated
Clearly, the victims (the Trench Coat Mafia) and the bullies (the
White Cap Jocks) had disavowed their bad self- and object representations
by projective identification onto each other. The omnipotent denial of the
school principal, and the denial and/ or conscious avoidance by other
bystanders, illustrate a rich variety of defenses. If the situation were
truly not obvious to the principal, counterprojective identification with
denial is the likely explanation for this extreme and dangerous lack of
awareness. Many students may have felt too helpless and afraid to be
involved (as victim—bystanders). Some interviewed were honest enough to
express chagrin at their own avoidance. Extractive introjection
disempowers the self, leaving empty, helpless feelings, which perhaps
explains this subjective vacuity.
understanding provided by converging psychoanalytic explanations of these
events has prompted my colleagues and me to explore to what extent the
general public may be aware of these factors. In doing so, we took
advantage of one of America’s great national pastimes, "Giving Your
Opinion at the Diner." A local restaurant diner,12
a gathering place for many long and fascinating discussions,
provided the setting for us to ask Four questions of customers,
seventy-one of whom voluntarily and anonymously gave their opinions
concerning the Littleton tragedy. The results are summarized in Table 5.
these results are the level of awareness and strong opinions on the part
of the public about community responsibility for this tragedy. The
respondents in this sample believed that improved school security would
likely not have prevented the disaster, and that the media, the Internet,
and adults’ and children’s bullying of each other were significant
to the aim of contributing to an understanding of adults’ and
children’s power struggles, I have tried to apply psychoanalytic
explanations of clinical phenomena—such as Freud’s principle of
overdetermination—to models rather than to patients, in examining
tragedies such as the Columbine massacre. Rather than addressing the
problem exclusively from a particular school of thought, I have utilized
the work of many outstanding clinicians, as well as the findings of many
experimental and quasi-experimental studies, to present bases for these
I have also
proposed a new, combined approach to social problems, which I believe is
uniquely psychoanalytic. Complex problems like violence should be
approached both from a Type I perspective, using the analogy with
psychoanalysis itself wherein the role of the community facilitator is
like that of an analyst, and with the use of Type II sociotechnical
methods, including more specific interventions in which the group learns
to work together toward a common goal. Taking as a foundation Volkan’s
"Tree model" and my previous work with colleagues on the
"Engineered Conflict model," I have outlined the psychoanalytic
basis for a specific program intervention, Type III, based on open-ended
fact-finding and problem-solving dialogue, with the assistance of
analytically trained facilitators. This intervention has been shown to be
successful in ameliorating severe violence in an elementary school
(Twemlow, Fonagy et al., in press).
5: Public Opinion of the Columbine High School Tragedy
think better school security could have prevented the Columbine
High School tragedy?
think the media and the Internet contribute to violence?
think adults’ putting each other down contributes to
think children’s bullying each other in schools contributes to
It is my
belief that, when combined to form this approach, the four conceptual
models described in the foregoing more fully explain psychological aspects
of power struggles between adults and children than do other models or any
of the four alone. My colleagues and I have observed that adults are prone
to create and act out socially entrenched rituals of exclusion; culturally
validated exclusionary groups include, for example, country clubs and
trade unions, among many others Children also form special groups, such as
clubs, cliques, sports teams, and the like, which include or exclude other
children based on arbitrary criteria. Adler’s (1958) group theory seems
particularly useful in explaining how exclusionary processes occur within
social groups. His approach postulated that all individuals have a right
to membership in a group and should not have to seek or earn it Thus, the
group, in excluding others, may engender narcissistic pathology in the
individual excluded, who may avoid the group (victim) or force entry
In a more
individually focused study of coercive power pathology, we developed a
sadomasochistic model, derived largely from Stoller’s (1985) work on
sexual perversion. This model describes the sexualized, repetitive, and
ritualistic nature of bullying, both by adults and children, in which
humiliation and dehumanization of the victim yield a sense of
sadomasochistic excitement for the bully. The deep and primordial
intensity of bullying, as well as the enraged and furiously destructive
responses that may result, are best explained using Stoller’s approach.
colleagues and I developed the third model based on a study of literature
on primates and human behaviors (Dixon 1998), as well as our own research
on dominance and submission in human relationships. This social systems
psychoanalytic model assumes that the roles of bully, victim, and
bystander are dialectically structured. That is, they are dependent on
each other, and, all other aspects being equal, would noi exist as a whole
if each separate role did not exist. This belief, based on a model
invoking role suction, suggests a classification and treatment of
subgroups of bullies, victims, and bystanders, as outlined in Tables 2,
3, and 4. This model also allows planning of interventions that aim to
alter the input and output of the social system, and to rearrange the
distribution of power to correct the asymmetrical relationship between
bully and victim played out before an audience of bystanders.
model derived from Bion (1967), Klein (1935), and other object relational
views has been described and illustrated by the example of the recent
massacre in a high school in Colorado. This tragedy highlights the
primitive defense mechanisms and self-and object relationships that can
evolve and develop in a situation where all participants, including
bystanders, are caught up in unconscious primitive regressive defenses,
allowing serious victimization which in turn leads to lethal violence. An
understanding of these primitive mechanisms is useful to explain the
behavior not only of the killers, but also of the bullies—as well as
that of’ the bystanding community and staff (including the school
principal), most of whom seemed stunned at their own lack of foresight.
models were chosen because each one, in addition to explaining part of the
phenomenon observed, suggests a practical treatment intervention.
Collectively, then, these models suggest that the power struggles of’
subgroups need attention and examination by the larger community group,
particularly of rituals of inclusion and exclusion and how the subgroup
deals with outsiders. Clearly, children are at risk to occupy coercive
power roles, the adoption of which can be detected early, with
interventions designed accordingly for individual children.
In a subsequent
paper, additional models will be described which give other perspectives
on these phenomena, since these four models obviously do not represent the
only ones potentially useful in explaining such complex social and
individual phenomena. It goes without saying, of course, that in this
paper, I have focused on psychological models, but other relevant factors
include genetic sensitivity, individual psychopathology, availability of
weapons, inadequate social
control, and media focus—to name only some of the other broad areas that
contribute to this complex public health crisis.
More detailed descriptions of the program components are available in
Twemlow, Fonagy et al (in press) and in Twemlow, Sacco, and Twemlow
Other forms of bullies and victims are more easily manageable, and are
often considered in a more sympathetic way as victims of insecurity and
nonmirroring mothering As Fonagy, Moran, and Target (1993) indicated in
their groundbreaking paper on violence, children of this type do not
appear to be able to reflect on the nature of their own thinking (that is,
to develop a theory of mind or a capacity to mentalize), but instead are
caught ip in the throes of the paranoid-schizoid position, with a reactive
rather than reflective response to the aggression of others (back)
For a description of this event, see Tzme Magazzne, Special Report,
May 31, 1999,p 35. (back)
US News and World Report, May 3,1999, p 18. (back)
See The Washington Post, May 1,1999, p 87. (back)
Sce US News and World Report, May 3, 1999, p 17. (back)
See USA Today, May 13, 1999, p 3A. (back)
As expressed in a cornmentary after "Nightline—The Day After,"
ABC Television News, April 21, 1999 (back)
Topeka Capitol-Journal, April 25, 1999, p. 3A. (back)
Reported by a child interviewed on "Nightline--The Day After," ABC
Television News, April 21, 1999. (back)
Doug's Diner in Topeka, Kansas, owned by Doug Petrie. (back)
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paper is a first attempt at the distillation of a lifetime of
thinking about the roots of violence. The author would like to
thank Salman Akhtar, M. D., Peter Fonagy, Ph. D., Glen 0.
Gabbard, M. D., Owen Renik, M.D., Frank C. Sacco, Ph. D., Renshi
Stephen Twemlow, Vamik Volkan, M. D. and students of the School
of Martial arid Meditative Arts, Topeka, Kansas.
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