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Cruelty, Violence and Murder

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The line that separates those who kill from those who only think about it, and from those who injure themselves, is often thinner than we imagine. Convicted murderers serving life-sentences in England are among the subjects of this in-depth psychological study of what makes people kill.

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1. Aggression and Death

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Originally, Freud stated that death was unthinkable in the unconscious mind, but was euphemistically felt to have gone away. He was forced to alter this view in light of the curiously lemminglike way in which much of the youth of Europe went to be slaughtered in the impersonal battles of World War I. Dying for their countries seemed to predominate over fighting for their countries, at least in their thoughts and fantasies. When Freud changed his mind about the ideas people have about death, he wrote “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” (1920), in which he set forth his theory of life and death insdncts. Later, he seemed to be somewhat doubtful about it all, and at one point said to his followers, “You may accept this theory or not, as you choose” (Hoffer 1952, personal communication).

Melanie Klein took Freud’s theory of life and death as one of the cornerstones of her work, both dieoretical and clinical. The death instinct and the life instinct, she stated, began from the beginning of extrauterine life (work on prenatal life, particularly in Northern Italy, suggests that these two polarities begin a long time before birth).

 

2. The Death Constellation (I)

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Introduction to the Problem

For many years I have been endeavoring to disentangle the complicated ingrethents that contribute to the relatively uncommon crime of homicide. Although I have collected starting and at times shocking data in great quantities, there appeared to be no precise, underlying formula. Years ago I suggested the possibility of an intrapsychic patterning to which, naively, I gave the name blueprint for murder. Although this phrase was too sensational perhaps, it may be useful here. What I used to term a “blueprint” is quite common in people who do not commit discernible attacks on life processes. It also seems to be present in more people who commit crime than is readily recognized. What goes on in the inner worlds of conscious, and especially, unconscious, fantasy in these people requires investigation. Is homicide only one of the possible end points? Attempted suicide is common in the premurderous histories of persons incarcerated for homicide. Also, a large number of murderers attempt to or actually commit suicide after committing homicide. During the course of serious and persistent at-tempts to give psychotherapy to convicted murderers in one of Great Britain’s prisons, I observed that when the responsibility for the crime begins to be recognized and owned, the murderer usually develops hypochondriacal complaints accompanied by an increased incidence of psychosomatic illness ranging from colds to rectal bleeding or even, in one case, a radiologically confirmed peptic ulcer. Another man developed leukemia and died, though cause and effect cannot be proved.

 

3. The Indigestible Idea of Death

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Some years ago I was asked to give dynamic psychotherapy to a man who had been convicted of murdering another man. The patient had been sentenced to death and reprieved, with the sentence commuted to life imprisonment. Later I was asked to treat several more men serving life sentences for murder. What struck me most was the presence in the mind of the convicted murderer of a constellation of fantasies, dreams, thoughts, impulses, and ruminations to do with killing, annihilating, and obliterating. During the next few years, I tried to see if, by means of psychotherapy given by a psychoanalyst while the patient was in prison, the intrapsychic configuration I flamboyantly called the blueprint for murder (see Chapter 1) could be worked through. The aim was to work through to such a degree that the intrapsychic situation became relatively safe and the “blueprint” no longer remained the threatening encapsulation it had been.

Having achieved some limited success with the patients treated in prison, I turned my attention to people not in prison, people who had not committed murder but were thought to be in danger of doing so, or who themselves felt afraid that they might do so. Some of these patients had been picked out by colleagues— psychiatrists and psychologists—because they were thought to have a “blueprint for murder.” The psychologists recognized the situation when they studied the responses made to projection tests: the patients complained of murderous fantasies, dreams, or impulses. There was no difficulty in getting diem to therapy (psychoanalysis in two or three cases). When the blueprint was found in people who had no conscious awareness of murderousness, the problem was whether to let the trouble remain in intrapsychic limbo or to draw attention to it. If the complaints for which the patient had been referred had a life-threatening element that was recognizable in diem, it was thought advisable to link the test findings with the symptoms.

 

4. The Death Constellation (II)

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In 1956 capital punishment was suspended in England, except for certain kinds of murder. I was approached by the prison medical audiorities and asked to take on for psychotherapy first one, then, soon after, several more prisoners who had been convicted of murder and were serving life sentences. The object was to see whether, and how, the psychic state of prisoners serving life sentences could be helped. If, as was envisaged, many (if not most) of diem were deemed safe as far as further killings were concerned, they could then be assessed regarding the wisdom of parole. I was appointed as a part-time psychotherapist because I was—and am—a psychoanalyst, not despite it.

The first two lifers I saw had been selected because they were intelligent, verbally gifted, and, apart from the crime for which each had been convicted, not diffusely psychopadiic. Later, the selection of patients covered a wider spectrum of disturbance.

It turned out that mainly these prisoners were fairly ordinary persons, but they possessed wiuiin themselves a part that was quite capable of killing someone, enemy and/or persecutor. In the ear-lier referrals I saw, there was a good deal of remorse: I do not mean self-pity. There seemed to be little evasion of the truth, though later, as therapy proceeded, it was often found.

 

5. Other Manifestations of die Deadi Constellation

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In one family, Caribbean in origin, that I treated there was a tough stall holder at a street market father in his late fifties, a mother a few years his junior, three sons, and a daughter. The mother could just about read and write, but was not of subnormal intelligence. The eldest son, in his mid-thirties, was a successful solicitor, entirely interested in young women. The second son, two years younger, was a carpenter, skilled at his work, but with a tendency to become depressed and inactive. The third son was a slick, clever businessman, a wheeler-dealer. Both younger sons lived with women many years older than themselves, clearly representing mother. The youngest sibling was a girl, attractive and wayward, who had caused her parents much anxiety by her unamenable, undisciplined behavior over which they had little influence. The family had been affluent, but times had changed and their standard of living had fallen dramatically.

The impression I got, through treating the oldest brother in as near to psychoanalytical therapy as possible, was that father was bright but operated at the frontier of criminality. He was kind, rough, quick to avenge grievances, proud, resourceful, and with a smoldering, explosive temper. Mother had bouts of depression, including some severe ones for which she had been given several courses of electroconvulsive therapy. She had made suicidal attempts from time to time, one or two having necessitated treatment in an intensive care unit. The second son had also made two suicidal attempts, or at least gestures, toward suicide.

 

6. The Nature of Aggression

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Aggression consists of the use of force to express feelings and to achieve aims. It is used to intimidate, to impress, to manipulate, and sometimes to subjugate other people and the environment and the various things contained in it. In former times the vanquished, whether other human beings or animals, were not necessarily killed but were enslaved so that they became subordinate factors and aids to achieve the further aims of the victor. Aggression is used for purposes of self-preservation and in the service of species preservation. It is used at times to save, rescue, and defend. These functions contrast markedly with the opposite functions mentioned above, namely, to dominate, to annihilate, or simply to seize and use. Aggression thus has a positive developmental function as well as a predatory function exercised for egotistic purposes, usually to the detriment of other people.

Pathological Aggression

These two aspects of aggression might be termed as normal parameters, but in addition to these there is a kind of aggression that from the first is essentially pathological. In this type of aggression, which may be characteristic for the particular individuals who use it as the habitual currency of their interpersonal relationships, there is violence and destructiveness beyond the need of the task in hand. Some of these people smolder sullenly for long periods of time only to burst out into flagrant aggressiveness in an episodic way for adequate or sometimes totally inadequate reasons. The important point is that the severity of the explosion into aggrievement gready exceeds the provocation that triggered it off. This suggests that something rather like a time bomb inside an aggressive kind of individual is so situated or anchored within the psyche that certain kinds of provocation can detonate it. Sometimes the detonating agent seems minimal and totally inadequate.

 

7. Violence and Psychic Indigestion

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No disregard for the role of other factors in the etiology of violence is implied by my decision to write on how psychic indigestion can and does account for many acts of violence. There are constitutional, cultural, and social factors in the origins of violence, and these have been stressed by many audiors over many years. The role of what may broadly be called traumatic experience has not been entirely neglected in attempts to understand how violent states of mind are initiated and maintained: however, I do not think that its importance has been sufficiently stressed.

Psychically indigestible experiences are varied. Sometimes something is witnessed, like a motor accident in which one or more persons are killed or maimed, or perhaps a train or air crash. The event may have been part of a war or even a surprise attack by unseen guerrillas. It could be an armed holdup or a psychically unacceptable act of cruelty. Not all such experiences lay down a blueprint for future psychological trouble. Sometimes the individual witness of such events is able to work through the emotions aroused by the experience in the presence of a containing person. Sometimes a working through is undertaken unaided, together with some resolution or detoxication, as I prefer to call it. More often help is needed. This is often given by a parent, a close relative, a teacher, or a family friend. The characteristic of a containing person is that he or she proves to be able and willing to bear some of the burden of what has happened on behalf of the traumatized person to whom it has happened. But more important still is the capacity to accept the burden, work on it, and pass back to the person at risk a situation improved by clarification and by differentiation between the actual wrong suffered and any imagined or supposed harm. This process it is hoped is prophylactic against the buildup and persistence of an intrapsychic enclave that would pose a danger later, perhaps even years later.

 

8. Escalating Violence

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Anyone who stands at the edge of a sandy cove will have noticed how the power and fury of a stormy sea expends itself as the broken wave runs up the sloping sand and then gendy runs back down the beach, leaving a smooth expanse of sea-washed shore. This is what happens in ordinary circumstances with the ebb and flow of the tidal cycle. Under some conditions, however, forces such as cyclones, storms acting upon the sea, eardiquakes, or other volcanic actions stir the depths. They infuse a more inexorable menace into the situation, so that instead of losing power and slowly flowing back into the matrix of origin, each successive wave, more powerful than its predecessor, escalates the violence, sometimes to the destructive crescendo of a tidal wave.

Violence is an essential part of each one of us and, like the sea, it can run a benign course or it can escalate to a dangerous and destructive crescendo. An example of nondestructive violence is a man I saw who fainted and fell into fairly deep water. I was on the point of jumping in to save him when my colleague, a man so slow and gende in ordinary life that we liked to call him “the sleeping clergyman,” was in the water before me. His organized se-quence of violence ended with successful artificial respiration and the relatively quick recovery of the man. When things were calm, I mentioned that his rapid, life-saving, violent action seemed to contradict his everyday behavior. My colleague replied, “It had to be done. I don’t expend energy unnecessarily.”

 

9. Cruelty and Cruel Behavior

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It has been stated that criminals are deficient in conscience, have no consciences, or have no ability to distinguish between right and wrong. Melanie Klein drew attention to the fallacy of these views. She stated that the delinquent had not a deficient conscience, but rather possessed a different kind of conscience, in which there were savage, cruel, or primitive internal authority figures. It is generally known that an individual has the ability to tolerate only a certain amount of blame. If tins quantum is exceeded, a feeling of responsibility (related to depressive anxiety) is replaced by a feeling of being “got at.” In this case the individual is in the sway of another kind of anxiety, persecutory anxiety. What quantum of reproach can be tolerated varies from person to person and from time to time in the same person. Some people can tolerate blame as long as it is just, that is, so long as the external authority and the internal or conscience authority are in basic agreement. Some people react in exactly the opposite way. If the external authority and the internal one are not in line with each other, the capacity to tolerate may be exceeded and a switch from depressive to persecutory anxiety takes place. The difference between the two as far as emo-tional development and growth are concerned is profound. When anxiety is depressive, there is a capacity to learn from experience. In some cases of persecutory anxiety there is conformity because of fear, but never because of love. The strange and complicated Mayan civilization disintegrated in an untimely way because of its being founded and built up on rituals and devices whose aim was to propitiate savage deities.

 

10. Brutalization and Recivilization, or Wildness and Civilizing for the First Time

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Differentiation is necessary between an original learning process and a reclaiming of ground lost during the process we call brutal-ization. The latter is a reaction to circumstances that are persecutory, perhaps through their seductive temptingness, as with drugs, alcohol, perverse or in other ways unwise sexuality or acquisitiveness, or aggressive behavior that has stirred a powerful counteraction by the agents of the law. In general, the relearning or reclamation of the brutalized person stirs up more resistance in the individual or group being reclaimed than the taming process in the young untamed person. The late Esther Bick once said that little boys were either naughty or nasty. You could do a lot with naughty boys, but far less with nasty ones!

I came across a good deal of brutalization in the course, and later in the aftermath, of World War II. One man mentioned earlier, a very good soldier and later a noncommissioned officer (NCO), killed someone in civilian life some years after the war had ended. In prison he said: “When I killed people I was told to kill when I didn’t hate them at all, I was praised and given a medal. When I killed someone who had really wronged me, I was given a life sentence.”

 

11. Latent Murderousness

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People who take part in organized violent crime and who aim at gain from crime do not fall under the category of latent murderers: somewhere in these people’s minds, though possibly not in the foreground of their conscious thought, is the possibility of killing and its counterpart, that of being killed. The persons I wish to consider fall into two main groups: first, those who are unaware that they harbor murder inside and discover it catastrophically in the course of a conflict; and second, individuals who know that they have something murderously destructive within themselves but devote conscious and determined efforts to keep it under control. In a particularly difficult situation or state of mind—mourning for a lost loved one or in a state of delirium, for example—the mur-derousness may burst out of its restrictions and controls and the deed done. Such people tend to reinstate their controlled selves and give themselves up to the authorities.

In The Show of Violence, Werthem (1927) regarded murder-ousness as a “ticking over in low key” inside the personality of the self (the psyche) until detonated beyond its controls and limitations. It then invades the rest of the personality. Before a catastro-phe takes place as a result of the eruption, all the efforts of the individual had been used to keep control over the situation. The eruption itself, termed by Werthem the catathymic crisis, results in all the energies of the individual being directed at completing the murderous deed. He added that after this a slow return to some sort of intrapsychic equilibrium usually took place. Of course, the external situation had now been radically changed. In many cases controls over murderousness can hold firm or, if in disequilibrium, can be reestablished; in other words, they do not automatically follow the course described by Werthem and resolution takes place.

 

12. Assessment and Risk

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In prison, the lifer has had time to look at himself, with or without psychotherapy, and may have changed over the years. The change may be insignificant or significant. Sometimes change is based on truth; sometimes it is a long way from truth. It may even consist of a confidence trick in which more often than not the lifer himself is among those conned. How can the situation be assessed, including with the person who denies having killed somebody even though he or she has been found guilty at trial?

Aftercare of lifers is a formidable task. It can be extremely interesting and in some cases rewarding, particularly if the lifer is willing and even keen to work with the probation officer or social services person assigned to the case. The story of the crime as told by its perpetrator is nearly always a cover story. The constellation from which and in which murder is generated is like the iceberg— only a small portion is visible. The rest is below the level of consciousness. Murder occurs concretely in most cases when it has been committed many times previously in daydreams, nightdreams, and sometimes in unconscious fantasy that has never become conscious. Sometimes, of course, it is committed in conscious fantasy and action.

 

13. Engagement and Treatment

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The care for and therapy of a person on lifetime parole is difficult. It is late in the day. The deed has been perpetrated, probably many years previously. The man or woman on parole has been stirred up, calmed down, reassured, and worried, and one can reasonably expect to find some well-established defense. This defense is likely to be directed against psychic pain and to protect personal sovereignty over the self, that is, defense against intrusion into areas of privacy. Part of the defense derives from the suspicion or belief that information obtained will be used against its owner—not the same as, but similar to, “taken down in writing and used in evidence.”

The first task is to establish some rapport, empadiy, and— later—trust, and to sustain and consolidate it. In 1971 I wrote a paper titled “Risks to the Worker in Dealing with Disturbed Adolescents.” What I still agree with in that paper is the need for continuity of relationship with at least one person. I designated three categories: the “guarthan,” for example, prison warden, the “carers” of which all of us are representatives, and a “continuity person.” This person need not necessarily be highly trained, though high levels of training are no bar to the effective functioning of a continuity figure. Guarthans may fit into the role very effectively after the guarthanship phase is over. I have known quite a few wardens and prison medical officers who maintained a continuity role by means of letters and occasional meetings with a prisoner, including some on lifetime parole. The caring and continuity roles can be carried out by the same person and at the same time. To get to know the lifer while he is still in custody and then to see him when he is released on parole is a good continuity function because, after a number of years in prison, the lifer is usually at risk for a period after his release. One of my lifers immethately stole two tins of concentrated soup from a supermarket after his release, thus showing how he wanted to be in the soup again and get back to prison (which had been benign, at least as far as he was concerned). A few years later he went to live on a kibbutz, which in his mind constituted a benign open prison!

 

14. From Fantasy to Impulse Action: Is This Reversible with Psychotherapy?

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When I was asked many years ago to give psychoanalytical psychotherapy to convicted prisoners serving prison sentences, I was impressed with the marked tendency in these men to move from fantasy to impulse and thence to action. This differed fundamentally from Julius Caesar’s “Veni, vidi, vici” in that the lack of thought and judgment that characterized the prisoner’s rush to action had not led to victory but to conviction and imprisonment. What was the main underlying mechanism?

Freud (1911b), in “Formulations on the Two Principles of Mental Functioning,” differentiated between those who rushed to action to unburden themselves of accretions of stimuli and those who could tolerate frustration. By stimuli he meant circumstances that burdened the individual with psychic pain. Those who are better able to bear the frustration of psychic pain for long enough perform a vital task, namely, that of reality testing. During reality testing the likely consequences of any action taken by them can be considered. In addition, two other things happen. One is the capacity to tolerate the pain; the other is that modifications of any subsequently chosen action will have had time to be thought out and tried out in fantasy. The enormous difference between the rush to action and the ability to wait cannot be overestimated.

 

15. Reparation

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Reparation for a crime that has been committed in the mind can only be healing to the individual who performs such a process. Its first stage is mourning. If there are no ongoing urges to commit the particular crime, then mourning for what has been perpetrated only in fantasy is not a particularly complicated process. The other end of the scale of criminal deeds is murder of a person by intention. The premeditated murder is particularly serious, and a great deal more deep and prolonged mourning and regret for the taking of the life of the victim is to be expected than seems to be necessary after a sudden crime, or a crime passionelle. One reason for the premeditated murder to be regarded as more serious legally and psychically is that, in the premeditation, the act of murder has probably been committed in the mind many times before its eruption into concrete, irreversible action. In the domestic murder the victim is usually the person toward whom deep feelings of murderousness are felt. If murderousness is felt toward someone, including a family member from whom the potential murderer may have long been separated, the person chosen as the victim may simply happen to fit the murderous psychic constellation.

 

16. The Micro-Environment

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Recently I came across a large pond that had been artificially constructed many years ago by men who were excavating gravel. When they came to the end of the gravel, a large hole was left that quickly filled with water. Thereafter an impressive micro-environment slowly developed, eventually reaching an ecological balance. There were trees around the edge, an array of plants, and a wide variety of freshwater creatures from water voles to frogs, fish, and dragonfly larvae. An oasis had formed that facilitated the settlement and breeding of diverse forms of life under conditions that favored growth and development. It was less exposed than the world around it. Although it was comfortable enough, eventually it must have been restrictive to some creatures. I began to reflect on the similarity between this micro-environment and that of the family. There is often the same protection from the outside world, interactiveness, ecological balance, and, ultimately restrictiveness. When the balance has been disturbed by forces acting within the micro-environment or impinging from the world outside the environment, homeostatic processes are set in motion to restore the balance. In the case of the family in which self-healing has failed, a point is reached when they are referred for or seek therapeutic help.

 

17. The Individual and Organized Crime

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The remarkable feature of organized crime is how relatively stable social structures are established, and how most criminals who are involved manage to achieve some stability within them. One wonders why the members of a criminal gang or subculture choose to obey the rules of the delinquent underworld and do not try to conform to the much more tolerant rules of ordinary established society. One reason for exchanging subjection to the rules of one regime for another that is harsher is that the aims of the criminal subculture coincide far more with the personal aims of those who drift or are drawn into its hegemony: its aim is power and often material gain.

It would be fair to postulate that a delinquent subculture has a social structure that in some way matches the personality structure of a large proportion of the individuals who gravitate toward it. About a third of the prison population, perhaps 40 percent, at any one time consists of men who show minimal neurotic or psychotic features, yet who are devoted to a life of crime, often adhering stricdy to certain terms of reference beyond which they do not venture. Their ordinary behavior, including toward their wives and children, usually cannot be said to indicate symptomatic behavior or personality disorders. One is forced to notice, however, that there is little or no evidence of emotional conflict over what they do by way of criminal action such as might be encountered in the neurotic criminal. There are no violent eruptions or incontinence of instinctual impulses, such as those that characterize the behavior of the impulsive psychopath. Nevertheless, it may be that when the personal histories of the criminals are traced back as far as their recollections can reach, exceptionally painful experiences have occurred. There may have been ill-treatment, bereavement, a long physical illness, or a crippling accident that seems to have given the individual a grievance that has enabled him to regard himself as one of life’s “exceptions.” Freud (1916) described such people in “Some Character Types Met with in Psycho-Analysis.” The paper is divided into three parts. One part deals with people who regard themselves as having been wronged or underprivileged from the start: King Richard III, for example, because of his deformity. They regard themselves as excused from the laws and restrictions that operate in the case of ordinary people. In the second section Freud describes people who are wrecked by success, people who, to achieve success, have fulfilled wishes that were forbidden not only by society but also by an important part of their own personalities. He cites Rebecca West in Ibsen’s Rosmersholm and Lady Macbedi as examples. In the third section Freud describes “criminals from a sense of guilt” showing that in some cases the guilt precedes the delinquent act, and through externalization of the guilt by means of the action, both the criminal impulse and the need for punishment are gratified. Incidentally, the external punishment for the token crimes committed was far easier to bear than the conscience punishment from within for what really was a much more serious crime, such as parricide or fratricide. The more serious crime was carried out only in fantasy, with only a slight spillover into a token minor crime in action.

 

18. Victims and Victimology (I)

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There are individuals who evacuate seemingly unbearable states of mind into other people or into another person and then attack that person. In so doing they attack the part of themselves that has been evacuated, the part they have been unable to digest and metabolize as part of their impulse or fantasy life. After offloading it they feel relief, but this is a temporary respite, as they then feel they will be attacked by the person into whom they have evacuated the dangerous, unmanageable part of themselves. The counterattack may be by the person in receipt of the projection, or by the part which is in the projector himself or herself. This part is felt to be angry at having been gotten rid of.

Some potential victims who have been treated this way retaliate violently on their own behalf. Some, however, seem to be born victims who unconsciously, or consciously and perversely, welcome ill-treatment, even to the point of becoming murder victims. There is a distinction between the perverse masochism of finding pleasure in pain and/or the threat of pain and serious damage—in other words, a more and a less serious category. An example of the latter is the young man who persuaded some youths to crucify him in a public park. Fortunately, he was freed; only much later was it revealed that he had asked to be crucified. Some expressions of masochism, and indeed of sadism, are extremely complicated. What is happening cannot be understood until the unconscious fantasy constellation is pieced together. Usually the individual addicted to a particular kind of action knows only a part of the constellation, most of which is going on below the surface in the unconscious mind. Whenever in a repetitive sequence of action there is a dividend of pleasure, it takes a lot of therapy and a good deal of understanding in depth before that dividend can be renounced.

 

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