I’ve been reading Fromm-Reichmann’s writings this weekend. She was a radical interpersonal psychoanalyst who was a trailblazer in the psychoanalytic treatment of schizophrenia. In one of her papers, she argued that it is mandatory that psychotherapists disabuse themselves of notions of social conformity or adjustment as being necessary for the psychotic individual’s recovery. She claims that the patient should have the right to choose to live the life they want and should not be forced to conform to society. In other words, she understood that the psychoanalyst ought to stay outside of the realm of ethics or social normalization precisely because it strips the patient of self-determination.
The amoral posture of psychoanalysis got me thinking about a notion that has long troubled me in my work as a psychologist, namely, forgiveness. I should clarify how I define forgiveness. From my perspective, forgiveness means the acceptance of the past event and the relinquishing of the negative affects (particularly rage and resentment) that accompany those memories. Generally, forgiveness also implies that the offended person expresses their forgiveness to the offender. As I’ve written elsewhere, a majority of my patients have experienced childhood adversity (neglect, psychological abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse, etc.). [Parenthetically, I’ve become more and more convinced that the primary cause of mental illness is interpersonal trauma, which is unfortunately radical in this day and age of the brain.] Anyway, as the traumatized patient and I begin to delve into the trauma history the question of forgiveness invariably emerges. “Should I forgive him?”
Now, the moralist (read superego) enters the room with his common-sense notions that forgiveness is absolutely indispensable for therapeutic recovery. “You just gotta let go. Forgiveness is not about forgetting, it’s about letting go. Life’s too short to be pissed off all the time. Forgiveness is more about you and less about them, etc.” All of these folk-wisdom sayings have to be addressed in therapy as the patient considers these questions. I’ve even heard some psychologists say, ‘you have to help the patient realize that his abuser’s troubled past is what motivated the abuse.”
The more I’ve grown as a psychologist and psychoanalytic thinker the more suspicious I’ve become of all of these ideas. First, the notion that one can just “let go” and “forgive” someone who chronically tortured them as a child is insulting. These individuals struggle with rage and anger that could annihilate the entire world. Unfortunately, the rage has never had an outlet and often leads the person to suicide or self-mutilating behaviors. It’s not that easy to simply “let go”. Second, the idea that recovery is predicated on forgiveness strikes me as questionable. I’ll say more about this later on. Third, I am deeply skeptical about trying to explain the presumed reason behind the abuser’s actions. For instance, “they must have been really sick or crazy or mistreated when they were children.” This idea never made any sense to me. Of course, trauma is transmitted across generations and people who are abused are likely to repeat the abuse as adults. However, if you think about it more deeply, someone who has experienced abuse (and thus aware of its devastating psychological consequences) should be even more strongly motivated to avoid inflicting the trauma on another innocent child. After all, they’re experts on how awful trauma can be for children. I refuse to rationalize the specific abuser’s actions because I don’t know why THAT adult chose to abuse THAT child. More broadly, the belief that the abuser was abused strikes me as way to explain away suffering in a meaningless world. Nothing like childhood abuse makes one realize how meaningless suffering is (what Simone Weil called “affliction”). I think we want to live in a world where evil behavior comes from an evil place. It’s terrifying to think that people with “healthy” childhoods can end up being abusive. Fourth, aren’t certain actions beyond forgiveness? Can one really forgive the sadist who tortures a child with no remorse? There’s a reason God created Hell.
I want to close with two ideas that are valuable for any conversation about forgiveness and psychotherapy. I’ll start with a short case example. Recently a patient asked me “why would my grandmother have allowed me to be molested and then called me a liar when I brought it to her attention? How can I forgive her?” Interestingly enough, the betrayal and abandonment of the non-abusive caretaker is often more devastating than the actual abuse. My response was simple: “I personally don’t care what you choose to do with your relationship with your grandmother. It’s up to you if you want to cut her out of your life or if you want to forgive her. What’s important to me is that you no longer allow her to control your life.” She said more recently that she’s tired of these experiences controlling her and that she wants to be free of her abusers. For me, this is the aim when working with trauma survivors: increasing their sense of control and power. Traumatized children are not allowed to have control over their body or mind as they are violated and exploited. Of course, the forgiveness advocates will argue that the only way to take back control is through forgiveness. However, I want to argue that the ultimate goal is not the relinquishing of rage but the achievement of indifference. In psychoanalytic terms, we want the patient to de-cathect their libidinal and aggressive investment in the internalized abusive and abandoning objects. In English, we want the patient to no longer be psychologically attached to the abusers within. I even like to think of the goal as achieving an apathetic disdain of the abuser. I would like the abuse survivor to have gained enough psychic distance so that when they think of the abuser all that comes to mind is a casual “fuck off.”
Second, I think the entire conversation around forgiveness distracts from the real problem: the abuse survivor’s inability to forgive herself. That is a forgiveness that I will absolutely advocate for. Self-blame is one of the most damning legacies of childhood abuse. When I confront patient’s who minimize the abuse, I tend to conceptualize this as the individual’s identification with the aggressor and challenge the rationalizations.