(917) 710-7578

Howard 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.

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 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.

--Dreams of an abusive man

Much 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.


Ignácio 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.”

Comparing Zero to the dreams given above one can see profound similarities in struc­ture and content.

Looking 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 as follows:

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

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 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.

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.

For 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. Sullivan).

Thus 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”.

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