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A Psychoanalytic Slant: On Disavowal, War and Remembrance

06/13/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This posting is, essentially, a political one, but you might think of it as "deep background."

Since the days of Anna Freud, psychoanalysts have used the concept of defense mechanisms to explain how people try to avoid painful feelings or unwanted bits of reality. The idea has great utility and as a consequence has crept into general discourse. One of the defense mechanisms on my mind lately is a lesser-known one, "disavowal".

Disavowal is a trick of the mind whereby one knows something but doesn't know it at the same time. Practicing this sleight of mind, we keep a piece of reality in our conscious minds, but simultaneously pursue actions as if we don't know it. The more you think about it, the more intriguing it becomes as an explanatory tool - Wall Street, Madoff's Ponzi scheme, etc.

The image of a thick Plexiglas wall between the person and the disavowed reality is one I use often with my patients. You see what's beyond the wall, but it's not vivid, and you don't feel anything about it. Disavowal is both designed to get rid of painful feelings and is also maintained by the absence of feeling.

Lately, I have been thinking about disavowal in relation to war and remembrance, and the role effective remembering might play in mitigating our tenacious tendency to send our young people to war.

Last week I was in London, and visited St. James Cathedral. Much of the decoration in the church had to do with remembrance of battles and war dead. As I walked through the corridors and crypts and examined the brass and stone plaques on the walls, a few impressions struck me hard.

With only one exception, the memorials conveyed zero emotional impact. Smallish rectangular brass or stone plaques simply listed, with evocative visual elements, the names of fallen personnel and the places they fought or died. The absence of emotion-inducing components in a memorial facilitates disavowal--"these people died in this war, I know it, but it doesn't make me feel anything or change anything I think or do about people or war"

One plaque listed the names of two officers who died in a particular battle, and then said "and 150 of their men". The anonymous 150. That's disavowal, right there. And classism of the rawest sort.

Another plaque that really startled me listed battle after battle I had never heard of, fought by Lt-General Sir Thomas Picton.

Which of you reading this is familiar with the battles of Buzaco, Fuentes de Onor, Cuidad Rodrigo, Badajoz, The Pyrenees, Orthes, and Toulouse?

For what causes were these battles fought, and why did men die there? Where are those places for God's sake?

Only one war memorial at St. James packed a strong emotional punch -- behind the pulpit in the back is a complex memorial from the British people, honoring Americans who gave their lives protecting Britain in the second world war. Instead of walking by, you are IN this memorial. Facing the back of the church, there is a lamp, and a large stone banner with that inscription. Then, you turn around and in a glass case, there's an enormous vellum book with the names of the American war dead inscribed. The hair on my arms stood up. I felt something. The book is opened to page 19, and on that page the names all began with "B". These details stuck with me long past my trip through the Church. The unviewed pages, 20 and beyond, the letters beyond "B", gave a sense of ranks and ranks of war dead, lives lost. No disavowal here. It is affect--emotion--that bridges the gap between the thing we know but want to "unknow", to disavow.

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In an address to the American Psychoanalytic Association in 2009, psychoanalyst and Holocaust survivor Dr. Anna Ornstein invoked the Wall as a sacred space that allows room for the metabolizing of traumatic experience.

Standing at the Wall, we cannot separate ourselves from the stark facts of loss. It reminds me, by way of contrast, of the Bush administration's decision to prohibit press photographs of the return of the fallen at Dover Air base. Such a decision makes deliberate use of the psychological defense of disavowal.

I have noticed recently that struggles over disavowal have been prominent in Washington politics . When the Obama administration brought forward a composed 12-year-old boy to talk about his uninsured mother's final illness--and lack of treatment-- they directly assaulted the disavowal that allows us, as a populace, to knowingly (but unknowingly) support decisions and policies that would allow such a thing to happen. The Plexiglas shield comes down. The political opposition, instinctively understanding the power of this maneuver, cries foul.

Disavowal is a powerful force in the individual psyche and in the collective one, and it is routinely manipulated in political contexts. It is worth paying attention to. Information campaigns can be designed to magnify or diminish it.