(917) 710-7578Howard Z. Lorber, csw
Psychotherapist & Anthropologist
It was unendurable. [José]
wanted to scream. But his voice didn’t exist anymore. . . .
Death was just like that. Your own destiny, alone, in the
dark. No help, no protection. Death is vulnerability, individuality.
— Zero, Ignácio
de Loyola Brando
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.
# 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
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 work up disappointed I wasn’t dead. I felt kind of weird.
of an abusive man
of the literature on abusive relationships describes the men (and women)
involved as having “low self esteem.” However, there is very little in this
literature that indicated just what this notion might mean. Since, however,
“low self-esteem” seems to figure greatly in our understanding of domestic
abuse, it is crucial this it is unpacked conceptually and operationally.
de Loyola Brando’s novel, Zero, is an astute satire of a society and a
man caught in a vice, the jaws of which are an ever more brutally repressive
state and an ever growing commercialism. Within these jaws, José, the
protagonist, and his compatriots struggle to have a sense of self, a sense of
having an emotional existence. He
finds his life empty, denuded of every shred of coherent cultural life, and the
structure of the novel parallels his inner state: all fragments, bits and pieced
of thought, of feeling, of other’s lives, of the daily round. He turns to
violence; no, he does not turn, he sweats violence, he erupts violence, he
becomes violent in the same way he becomes sexual, in the same way he becomes
married, in the same way his body functions: activity quite beyond his control,
knowing he participates in it, yet somehow as someone outside the performances.
This sort of fragmentary social and emotional connection is found in his
marriage, and so is violence. José’s becoming violence is parallel to and
reflects the jarring, numbing violence of his society. His world is out of his
control, as is his own existence. “In the middle of this desolation ... the
silence is total.”
Zero to the dreams given above one can see profound similarities in structure
at the dream material — which is very much similar to the dreams reported to
me by other abusive men — the sense of a deconstructed self can be catalogued
Most prominent are the intertwined themes of hunger and deadness.
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.
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 the desire to form an intimate
union, intrapsychically and interpersonally. At the same time, there is the fear
that the desired union 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.
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
both José and for the abusive man whose dreams these are, there is a common
issue. This issue can be succinctly put as a ‘deconstruction of self’. That
is to say, the sense of having a coherent emotional existence is lost, leaving
shreds and tatters that, from time to time, loom into view and return to the
depths, much like the way the bits of a mobile come forward and recede. Also,
like a mobile, these fragments move and shift relative position due to forces
outside themselves. Thus, on an affective level, these men are always at one
and the same time, on the verge of a sense of emotional annihilation, and have a
sense of being at the mercy of others. They are, indeed, in many ways, the
‘sum of others’ views of themselves’ (paraphrasing both G.H. Mead and H.S.
for both the characters in Zero and the person caught—up in an abusive
relationship process, there is not simply a “low self—esteem”, but
rather, a powerful sense of endangerment to the very foundations of being. There
is, effectively, a sense of non— being. In Zero this loss of coherent
existence is based on the effects of a fragmented cultural life; in the dreams
of the abuser, there is a loss of coherent existence based on the effects of a
fragmented emotional life as they struggle with recognition by others. As
humans, cultural life —which includes relationships — provides framework for
the foundation of a sense of existence. This sense of lack, of loss, of hunger,
leads to rage and shame, to evanescent, but continually emergent, violence and
to a fruitless search for forgiveness for that violence. It is this process that
we treat when we treat abusers, and it is this process that is hidden by the
notion of “low self—esteem”.