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Howard Z. Lorber, csw

                    Psychotherapist & Anthropologist



Fragment Of An Analysis: Two Dreams Of An Abusive Man

Dream #1:

Someone . . . I used to be a super, my entrance was on a dead end street and around the corner was a walk—in apartment where a friend of mine lived for years. There were steps, a very narrow entry. There were two doors, an entrance door from the street a few steps to the apartment door. I had to take care of dogs, three of them, for a friend. There were three dogs. One of them was a white pit bull. The dogs hadn’t been fed for days. There were pane glass doors with the glass busted out in some of the panes and the dog stuck his head through. Someone was standing outside at the door looking in.

Dream #2:

This was really weird. I heard from some people that if you dream and see yourself die in the dream you’re going to die at that moment. In the dream I was walking around, but I was dead. It was in my old neighborhood, my family was there; my mother was there and so was my sister who is dead, she was alive at this time. I was in the apartment walking around. I knew I was dead. My body was there functioning like everyone else. I said to my mother:

"You know I’m dead." She said "no". She placed her chin on mine. I told her that’s not the way to check to see if someone is alive. I told her to check my pulse by taking my wrist. She did so. My heart was going three times the normal rate so that if someone had that heart rate they couldn’t be alive. Dead people are supposed to float around like Casper [the Ghost] so I stuck my legs up and started to float. I woke up disappointed I wasn’t dead. I felt kind of weird.

--Dreams of an abusive man


These dreams are fairly stark and they are clear as a bell.

In the first dream we find a starving white pit bull — a beast as he said that has "destructive tendencies", that also is "the most powerful dog for biting and has the most powerful jaws" — who is being fed not by its owner, but by someone else. The patient’s association to the color ‘white’ is something "with no life in it". So he’s representing a starving animal that is, at the same time, as he said, "a thing with no life in it".

In the second dream we find this theme reinforced.

He’s dead, but to everyone in his family he seems alive. In his associations, as directly in his dream, he senses all his family members are dead as well since he’s saying he’s "functioning like everybody else." His sister, since dead, seems to hold a special place in this dream. She is alive, as he states, though she is dead. This both underscores the thematic structure alive/dead and the split—off representation of the mother as dead—while— alive. In fact, in this patient, the sister was symbiotically merged with the mother as her "go-fer", and was "sickly" with asthma and eczema, and was disabled from leaving the house from age 14 onward. The sister, thus, represents both the live part of the mother and her deadening capacity.

In the dream he looks to his mother, not for help, but for affirmation. Her affirmation is inappropriate and is only just barely covert in its sexualization. (And his associations confirm this: he states that this is the position of a kiss, then says, "but that’s my mother" and makes a face of disgust). He becomes angered. He feels he needs to show her what to do, that "she is incompetent" (as he states in his relating of the dream), and that he can take charge. Behind his association to incompetence is the mother’s "use" of him to fulfill her duties as superintendent of the apartment building where they lived, her incompetence as a protector from his "psychotic" father (after all "she kept him around for all those years"), and her incompetence as a mother ("One time it was my birthday; my mother was watching TV around 11 I went to her and said 'Today's my birthday’, then I went to sleep").

His anger remains after he recognizes her as incompetent. He is not only not recognized, in the dream, for who he is (even if dead), but is an object of her sexual desire. He becomes aroused (his heart rate goes up) and he feels ashamed and guilty. He longs to have sexual intercourse (with his "legs stuck up"), to dissolve boundaries (to float) and not to be alive in such an isolated state. He longs also to be forgiven, not to die, to be protected from the deadness he finds inside himself and from the acts he performs to ward off that deadness, on the one hand, and the murderous rage he holds towards his mother.

The most salient themes to be drawn from these dreams in respect to this patient, and to abusive men generally, can be catalogued as follows:

1) Most prominent are the intertwined themes of hunger and deadness.

The starving dog is dead not because it is a starving, but because it is dead in its very nature, since it is white and the patient associates white and whiteness "not dream in which the patient finds himself "dead" but "just like everybody else". That is, there is a sense of deadness that envelops everyone, but not in the same way: his sisters are dead like him (three dogs, three sibs), but his parents (mother) are dead in a way that is also provocative and exciting.

This combined conviction of (internal) deadness and danger and its ramification is one of the most important and characteristic intrapsychic themes expressed by this man, as with many of the men I see. It is a function of the process of splitting—off and repudiating the overly exciting and abandoning parental imago while, at the same time struggling with that imago (or set of imagos, e.g. live—dead sister) (8) in order to keep it repressed.

2) Closely associated with the sense of being a starved animal is the sense of longing for another — for one’s owner, or good provider; for the shadowy stranger who looks on but does not engage.

There is a longing to be recognized for who and what one is; there is a longing for, and disturbing sexualization of, connection to another; there is a longing to be forgiven for that sexualization.

This theme is that of merger, that is to say, the desire to form an intimate union, intrapsychically and, correlatively, interpersonally. At the same time, there is the fear that the desired merger will lead not to a sense of being provided for, but to a sense that the other has power over the self. That other, however, is an alien presence, one that cannot recognize the self, that is incompetent to perform the act of recognition. In this sense, the other, like the mother in the second dream, is an object of contempt. At the same time that other is necessary in order to provide recognition for the self to be alive, to be whole. If the recognition provided, as it is in the dream, as a sexualization, an inappropriate (over-) stimulation, it is met with anxiety and guilt — a racing heart, a sexual longing, and a desire to be dead in order to expiate for that sexual longing. Since, at the same time, there is the longing for recognition, the power to grant absolution is given to the other as a means of providing recognition. The giving over of power to the other, however, is a giving up of the self, thus the feared loss of self in merger.

3) Finally there are rage and shame: there is rage against the mother (other) — the object of desire and fear — for both exciting and for abandoning, for sexualizing and denying that sexualization, for offering and withholding; there is shame that the self be seen a weak, as powerless, as in need of recognition and forgiveness.

In the first dream the dog has its head sticking through the broken "pane glass window", it strains against the window framework. The image is of the repressed desire straining to break free of its confines, to attain some sort of object, even if it is himself. Correlatively, it is he, himself who feeds the starving dogs. They thereby are not only him and his sisters but his mother and two sisters. He thus attains to the power to feed and withhold from those split-off object representations that have been made equivalent to mother and sister (and women, toute court); he attains to power by ‘giving’ (and withholding). This is borne out by a recent session in which he told me that his former woman friend, with whom he still tries to make contact, wrote to him, in the course of a note telling him once again to stay away from her, that he "has a lot of love to give", a phrase which he took to be a high compliment. He is confused by this: "Why doesn’t she want me back? She must want me back if she says this! But she wrote that she doesn’t have anything to give me; that she doesn’t want to see me." He wishes to bestow his love, to regain her love by giving his. In this effort he sends her "love notes . . . everyday'" though she wishes him to stop. He repeats his desire for his mother: ‘If only I could do enough for her she’d love me’, but she never does; ‘nothing I do is good enough for her; how could she do this to me?’

The process of giving and receiving is, in this context, also the power to forgive and the desire to repent. If she takes him back, she will prove to him that that which he did is not so terrible after all, that he is not so terrible after all. As he states time and again: "I made a few mistakes, but she said she wanted to marry me; how can you love someone one minute then, tell them to go and not forgive them." The power she has of forgiveness is, at the same time, the power to bestow the sense of goodness and well-being on this patient. Without it he regards himself as, on the one hand, as reprehensible ("I don’t know how I could have done it [bugged her apartment]"), and, on the other, as still the object of her desire ("I know she keeps calling and hanging-up; I can hear it on my [answering] machine. Why would she keep calling if she didn’t want to get back together?").

The process of bestowing power on the abused and now distant woman is, itself, both enraging and shameful. It is enraging because it revives the internal situation of the split-off rejecting object — the object that has the power of exciting and rejecting in its very nature, just as does the now sought—after abused woman. It is shameful because that rejecting object —here both mother and father (as in the first dream, the shadowy figure that looks but does not engage and in the second, the mother that does not recognize) — has been and is taken inside and is always pressuring to expel itself (as in a violent expulsion of excrement = ‘I feel like shit’ = ‘I was justified in bugging her apartment, even though it was sort of wrong’), on the one hand, and to be still desired ("I want her back" = ‘I have to take her flit’), on the other.

This last equivalence is crucial: the desire for the split-off imago, for the woman who is projectively the repository of that imago, is, at the same time, the focus of rage, for as soon as she is regained, she becomes the source of endangerment. In the case of this patient this was seen in his enraged response to the discovery’ the she was a "former prostitute". I put ‘discovery’ in quotation marks because the patient, mistrusting the women already for what he felt was a prior abandonment, searched through her effects for ‘evidence’ of her perfidy. In this search, he discovered what appeared to be a picture of her in a massage parlor brochure. ("It was her picture. She said her friends gave it to her 12 years ago because it looked like her. If it wasn’t her why would she keep it for 12 years?")

He questioned her before she knew he had this ‘evidence’ in his possession with a rageful manner, if his affects during his discussion of it in the sessions around this time are any indication. He then "caught her lying", that is, he made her defensive. This defensiveness provoked an even greater rage in him ("I can’t abide by lying. My father would lie to me all the time. That’s why I threw him out"). This rage frightened her and caused her to withdraw from him. He thereupon became confused and contrite, asking her for her forgiveness but in a way that projected the (defensive) wish to abandon her outward. ("I though she loved me. I forgave her anyway. Most guys would have left her without even saying anything. I asked her to take me back.") They then returned to a ‘harmonious’ state with his feeling that she ‘returned to , until he "noticed" her being less accommodating to him sexually. He again sensed her abandonment, and accused her of having other men, which she denied. Being "sure she was lying," he bugged her apartment in order to "discovered the truth," only to 'discover' her masturbatory activities. This 'discovery' led him to feel, not better that she was not having affairs, but worse, even more rejected and abandoned ("I could understand her not wanting me [sexually] if she had other men, but how can you compete with that [a vibrator]." He then played the tapes back for her as a 'punishment' (a projection of his own self-punishment for his shame), and she broke off the relationship. The abusive cycle was thereby complete. He is now, as I stated above, trying to "get her back" in order not to feel so reprehensible and ashamed for both bugging her apartment and for the sexual slight he felt when she rejected him for masturbation, i.e., for herself.