Analysis in the Shadow of Terror: Clinical Aspects

Henry Abramovitch
Jerusalem, Israel
Israel Institute for Jungian Psychology

My name is Henry Abramovitch and this is Avi Baumann. We are both analysts living and working in Israel during these terrible times. We will each speak about how this terrifying cycle of violence has affected us, and our clinical practice. I will speak first about my own personal reactions and some selected clinical implications of doing analysis in the shadow of terror. Avi will then deal with collective and theoretical issues concerning evil, drawing on Greek mythology.

My first reaction to the recurring violence and suicide bombings is a relentless confrontation with mortality. Every day I wake with a lingering sense that this day will be my last. This death anxiety is no paranoid fantasy but very much based on synchronous events and many near misses: bombs going off in cafes I just left; after demonstrations against the Occupation I had just attended; in buses that run past my house; and perhaps the most distressing, when I was showing an analysand out of my office, a voice distorted by a loudspeaker called out to us, “Please remain indoors!” Stepping back we watched together as the bomb squad robot examined and disarmed a suspicious object lying across the street. At that moment, we were no longer analyst and analysand, but victims of a participation mystique of helplessness that seemed to break down the boundaries between us. “My death” seemed to be getting closer all the time, pursuing me, waiting for me, taunting me that I would never arrive to stand before you today!

But standing before you in lovely Barcelona – where terror, in general, and terror against Jews in particular, has such a long history, I am possessed by another more terrifying and perverse fantasy. In this fantasy, I am speaking to you just as I am doing now, when the door of the hall opens. A member of the Congress staff enters. She looks around and sees me at the microphone. Making eye contact, she indicates that she has an urgent note for me that cannot wait. She walks up to the podium and hands me a note. The note screams out at me that my dear wife and lovely children, my entire family have been destroyed in a terrorist attack in Jerusalem. I break down before you …

If the next time the door opens, you feel a twinge of anxiety, then I will have succeeded in infecting you and your psyche with the pervasive anxiety which living under the shadow of terror entails. Terror attacks not only the body but also the psyche, attacking our primordial sense of security, that the very ground of our life can be so brutally and unexpectedly fragmented. At the height of the daily explosions, I would jump at any loud noise; I would become uncharacteristically fearful whenever an analysand was late, especially if I knew they were coming by public transportation. I would dread the phone call telling me that one of my patients was blown apart or dismembered. To do analysis, we need the safe container of the temenos (Abramovitch 1997; 2002), the magical enclosure that says: “Here, we are safe; here, we can explore, even the most violent fantasy” – so long as it remains fantasy. Once the boundaries between fantasy and reality are gone, analysis becomes impossible. Violence and analysis do not mix.

The bombings also force all of us to confront evil, both the evil done to us, and the evil that necessarily arises in occupying another people. Jungian psychology has much to say about evil, both personal and archetypal, and I feel we in Israel are having an intensive daily workshop. Jung wrote: “When evil breaks out at any point in the order of things, our whole circle of psychic protection is disrupted. Action inevitably call up reaction and in the matter of destructiveness, this turns out to be just as bad as the cause and possibly even worse, because the evil must be exterminated root and branch.” (CW 10, §411.)

When a suicide bomber explodes, their body is literally mixed up with those of their victims. This horrendous loss of boundaries between the bodies of victims and victimizers has, I believe, a psychic equivalent, in which the perspectives of victim and perpetrator, or even, observer and victim become fused. This psychic merging can be seen in dreams in which the dreamer is drawn against their will into the vortex of the violence, as both perpetrator and victim. A student of my analysand was blown apart in the horrendous attack at the Mt. Scopus campus of the Hebrew University. Soon after, my analysand had two dreams. In the first, she dreamed that the walls of her house were suddenly destroyed and all that was left was a hidden pile of old photographs. In normal times, such a dream might be understood to reflect personal issues connected with the breakdown of her marriage, or inner feeling of being exposed. But following the funeral of her murdered student, the dream clearly had a collective significance, indicating the abrupt loss of security, which a home is supposed to provide. As analysts, parents and teachers we often feel complicit in the deaths of our analysands, children and disciples, that we somehow did not protect them from their fate. This negative participation mystique in the terror itself was reflected in her second dream:

In my dream, I had bombed an educational institution in the old city of Jerusalem, at which I had studied. In the next scene, I was helping children escape from the building that was in danger of collapse, until someone came to stabilize it.

In this dream, my analysand is both attacker and rescuer, seemingly caught in a Sysphisian endeavor. Again in normal times, one might see a cycle of destructive rage and the compensatory, reparative rescue fantasy, with the analyst saving the psychic structure from collapse under the weight of her own destructiveness. But in the shadow of the bombing, the dream also reflected her sense of being complicit in the events, that somehow, irrationally, she occupies both sides of the victim-victimizer archetype. A similar sense of psychic confusion is reflected in the dream of another analysand:

There is terrible fighting between Israelis and Palestinians and I do not know which side I am on. In a large field, a plane strafes the center again and again and again … The Queen’s guards prepare to storm a school.

Not knowing which side one is on points to psychic confusion, even a refusal to choose sides and so implicitly, the urgent need for a third perspective. The ambiguous image of the Queen’s guard about to attack a school highlights this ambiguity: are they aggressors or rescuers, or both? The image of “a plane strafes the center again and again and again,” which in a personal sense might be understood as the aggression turned inwards, now seems to be the archetypal damage done to the Self by the repeating cycle of violence and counterviolence. Under the control of the victim-victimizer archetype, victims of violence victimize others out of a consuming sense of their own victimhood. The dehumanizing acts of one side draw out an inhuman response by the other. This danger was poignantly illustrated in the dream of another Jewish analyst:

In this dream, a friend asks me to pick him up and take him by car to an undisclosed destination. Suddenly, we are in the middle of an Arab village. My friend reveals to me that he is a suicide bomber who will blow us up along with the villagers in an act of revenge. I awake in horror.

This dream points out clearly how a weak ego can be taken over and commandeered by the shadow into committing immoral acts. In a different sense, it can be seen as a “big dream” in that it predicted the coming of a secret Jewish underground which now seeks to kill innocent Palestinians in retaliatory vengeance. This perspective in which Jews and Arabs, Basques and Catalans, Hutus and Tutsis lose their individuality, but are reabsorbed psychically into their primary group identity, resembles what Jung termed “re-collectivization.”

During times of terror, there is an ever-recurrent threat of “re- collectivization,” in which an individual is swallowed up in collective identity. Jung introduced this term in the context of the dissolution of the persona, writing: “For the development of personality, then, strict differentiation from the collective psyche is absolutely necessary, since partial or blurred differentiation leads to an immediate melting away of the individual in the collective. … Through his identification with the collective psyche, he will inevitably try to force the demands of his unconscious upon others for identity with the collective psyche always brings with it a feeling of universal validity – ‘godlikeness’ – which completely ignores all differences in the personal psyche of his fellows … the suffocation of the single individual, as a consequence of which the element of differentiation is obliterated from the community.” (CW 7, § 240). Re-collectivization occurs when, due to the stress of the individuation process, a person is re-absorbed back into the collective identity of his group. It can provide a wonderful sense of belonging and togetherness that the abdication of individual ego may bring about. But the process “can be a numbing, soul destroying experience – a robot-like fate imposed by a society in which individual capacities are numbed, destroyed or turned away from the task of creation” (Friedlander, p. 138).

I felt the pull of re-collectivization most strongly with Palestinian clients, who at times suddenly saw me not as a caring analyst but as the brutal “Jew,” or feeling the strain of telling secrets to one of the so-called enemy; in turn, I struggled with a corresponding regressive countertransference to see these as unique individuals, not as human beings struggling to individuate but as one of “them.”

I want to give a brief account of one of my Palestinian patients, with whom I mostly strongly experience the mutual impact of re-collectivization. I will call her Jamilla. She was a young professional in her late twenties, married, with a child. She elected to come to a Jewish Israeli analyst since she felt she could not trust the confidentiality of Arab therapists, some who she knew personally. As a result the decision to enter analysis was situated on contrast between safe and unsafe, familiar and stranger …

The whole analysis, from the outset, lay in the shadow of terror since Jamilla’s father had spent her entire childhood and early adolescence in an Israeli prison as a suspected member of a terrorist organization. He himself had not personally engaged in any actual acts of violence but was an ardent opponent of Israeli policy. She would visit her father periodically in prison and grew to dread these visits, both because she become fearful of him but also because she was an idealized self-object for the father. Only she, innocent anima child, gave him the strength to persevere during his long incarceration. Her unseen inner distress was expressed in a recurring dream:

“There is a baby in my parents’ arms at the edge of the sea. My parents do not notice as it slips from their arms and falls to the sea bottom, where it seems in suspended animation. The parents notice that the baby is missing but say that it is not a problem, and when they see the baby desperately swimming on the surface of the water, they say, “See, we told you there was no problem!”

Part of her was “drowned” and part of her was swimming desperately. At home, she grew up alone with her mother in a symbiotic-style “great round” (to use Neumann’s term for the maternal uroborus), and without the intrusive influence of father or paternal uroborus; but she needed to be seen as always coping, never making trouble. Culturally as well as psychologically, she was anomalous since she become accustomed to being an independent woman, free to make her own decisions, without the relentless concern with the family honor.

During suicide bombings, I felt the force of recollectivization when Jamilla saw me as the enemy; in the countertransference, I struggled against a similar tendency in which I perceived Jamilla, not as a human being struggling to individuate, but as one of “them.” The analysis began to take off only when Jamilla felt safe enough to blurt out “I hate all the Jews.”

Later, there was another dramatic incident. Jews place a “mezzuza” on the lintel at the entrance to their home (following the biblical commandment in Deuteronomy 6:9; 11:20). Typically, it is a small rectangular container, containing key passages from the Bible written on parchment, that is ritually hammered into the lintel. Observant Jews touch the “mezzuza” and then kiss their fingers as they enter and leave, as my observant Jewish analysands do at my office. On one occasion, on her way out, Jamilla reached over and “kissed” the mezzuza with great seriousness. Then, in the next moment, she turned and spat on the ground in disgust. This mimetic device of imitating a “Jew” was, I believe, a symbolic act, showing the psychic pressure on every ethnic minority to become like the dominant majority. Yet, her seeming act of religious devotion was revealed as a “trickster-like” act, which revealed her disgust toward to her own tendency to imitate the Jews, their use of their religious practices and their dominant/oppressive position in her homeland.

Because I understood how this act was her way of working out her identity conflict, I could accept it without evoking a collective, negative response. Imagine, for yourselves, how you would feel should an analysand violate some aspect of your home culture or collective identity. Accepting this symbolic violence allowed Jamilla to feel closer to me. She began to fantasize that I was not really Jewish but perhaps Christian. I understood this as an attempt to contexualize our analysis outside the Arab-Israeli conflict, as a defense against re-collectivization. It was safe to “love” a Christian whereas it was treason to “love” a Jew!

Gradually, she came to see me more as an individual, less as a Jew, and this in turn helped her to explore her own path within her own conformist culture. She began to have affairs, which if exposed might literally endanger her life. She had an orgasm for the first time. Ultimately, she considered breaking the social taboo and asking for a divorce. Her husband, who she saw as sensitive if weak, did not oppose her, but her father did. At this point, she made an unexpected, impulsive suicide attempt. There were two precipitating factors. One was that she told her father she wanted a divorce, and after an initial supportive reaction, she was later told that it would be simpler if she died than if she divorced. The other factor was that on the way to speak with her father, her car was stoned by twenty rock-throwing Palestinian youngsters, who mistook her for a Jewish Israeli. One rock smashed through the windscreen and narrowly missed her and her young son. This close encounter with intrusive aggression, I believe, destabilized her and made her feel unsafe from their rage, as she felt unsafe from her father’s homicidal threat.

One of the worst fates is to be violently mistaken by one’s own people as one of the archetypal “Other.” One can try to protect oneself from violence; it is much harder to protect oneself from being misperceived. She survived and continued her analysis, inventing in her own life what it might mean to be a Palestinian feminist. Other Palestinian patients of mine, however, were forced to break off their analysis because they literally could not come, held back by curfews, checkposts and perhaps the unresolved sense of betraying secrets to one of the enemy. I suspect the issues of doing analysis with “enemies,” whether current, historical, class or otherwise, is worthy of a conference of its own.

I think it is important to note undramatic responses to terror. I recall one patient who was present at a bombing at a café, synchronistically sitting at the same table I myself had been sitting just hours before. She was hardly hurt physically, a few scratches, her purse was covered with blood. She fled and her first reaction was what literary theorists call inability to narrate. She could not put together the pieces. “If I wasn’t really hurt physically, then nothing really happened. Shouldn’t I have seen more, heard more?” she would say. She went to great lengths to investigate what exactly happened, to construct a narrative, but for many months she was unable. At the same time, she began to be afraid of going to cafes, going downtown – “how can you know anything is safe?” After another bomb, she entered my consulting room and asked half joking, half seriously, “Are there any terrorists here?”

Ultimately she was able to construct a survivor mission, a reason why she was saved, telling her story as part of a campaign to raise funds for a children’s hospital which treats victims, Jews and Arabs. Similarly, the common task of treating actual victims of trauma has led to an unprecedented atmosphere of cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian mental health professionals, e.g., at the Palestinian Counseling Center or the Mobile Clinic for Mental Health.

When I gave an earlier version of this talk, I made a slip, saying, “death” instead of “thanatos.” A member of the audience commented and it made me think about the difference. Death implies grief, but also mourning and some possibility of rebirth.

Thanatos does not. It is death-like through and through. At times, I feel overwhelmed by the hopelessness of thanatos, that there will never be an end to the suffering, but doomed to pass on this terrible heritage to the next generations.

Nastasha Mandelstam (1999) wrote on the Stalinist terror:

Anybody who breathes the air of terror is doomed, even if nominally he manages to save his life. Everybody is a victim – not only those who die, but also the killers, ideologists, accomplishes and sycophants who close their eyes and wash their hands – even if they are secretly consumed with remorse at night. Every section of the population has been through the terrible sickness caused by terror, and none so far recovered, or become normal again for normal civil life. It is an illness passed on to the next generation, so that the sons pay for the sins of the fathers and perhaps only the grandchildren begin to get over it – or at least with them it takes different forms.

I believe that we are only beginning to understand the collective impact of terror, and understand the depth of its shadow.


  • Abramovitch, Henry (1997). “Temenos Lost: Reflections on Moving,” in Journal of Analytical Psychology 42:569-84.
  • Abramovitch, Henry (2002). “Temenos Regained: Reflections on the absence of the Analyst,” in Journal of Analytical Psychology 47:583-97.
  • Friedlander, Albert (1987). Destiny and Fate in Contemporary Jewish Thought. Eds. Arthur A. Cohen & Paul Mendes-Flohr. New York: Scribners’ Sons.
  • Mandelstam, Nadezha (1999). Hope Against Hope. New York: The Modern Library. Quoted in Angela Connolly, “Psychoanalytic Theory in Times of Terror,” in Journal of Analytical Psychology 48:407-31.