By Elizabeth A. Waiess, PsyD

 Note: This November 2012 clinical paper’s author, Elizabeth A. Waiess, PsyD, is a psychoanalyst in private practice in East Lansing, Michigan. She is the current president of the Michigan Psychoanalytic Council. Dr Waiess may be reached at waiess@frontier.com. The author requests that permission be obtained prior to copying and distributing to others.


This paper is drawn from my own 30 years of clinical work, from psychoanalytic readings and hundreds of hours of supervision and consultation.  In discussing the behavior of cruelty, I have in mind individuals who have basically good physical and neurological health, who are not taking the specific drugs which can cause uncontrollable destructive impulses and actions, and individuals who have the capacity to learn from experience if not the inclination.  For the majority of this paper, I use the term “analyst” or “psychoanalyst” rather than psychologist, social worker, psychiatrist, clinician or therapist.  In using the term ”analyst”, I am including “psychoanalytic psychotherapist”.

Destructive Behavior Toward Self, Others and Animals

Psychological understanding of behavior can provide a means of preventing future neglectful or destructive behavior.  Understanding a behavior and excusing a behavior are very different mental abilities that humans have.  “Excusing” often is a means of quickly moving forward, very often circumventing understanding and implies “no hard feelings”.  Understanding searches for sources, meanings, even a deeper process of

attempting to relate to that person—to put yourself in their shoes, whether deserved or not.  This is truly mature thinking.  It is very difficult to step into the place of someone who has caused deliberate pain to self, another person, or an animal.  However, understanding a behavior does not include removing cultural or moral responsibility for actions.

It is a given in psychoanalysis that one of the ways  for a human being to change a behavior is to appreciate his unconscious emotions and thoughts behind the behavior, and thus become completely responsible for one’s actions.  Imposing a moral can effectively control behavior through guilt or shame.  Fear of painful consequences, physical, relational, or psychological, can have the same effect in the short run.  Both approaches, moralistic or threat of consequences, even when internalized can become ineffective when the individual experiences powerful enough emotions and impulses, or is in a setting which offsets the effect of the consequences.  This is true for all of us.  While a parent, for example, can have the moral to not hit his child, when tired, frustrated, maybe in physical discomfort, and angry about something already, the parent’s past experience of being hit, for example by his own parent, can overwhelm that moral, and be relived in a moment of re-enacting a slap or hit that the parent quickly regrets (Siegel and Hartzell, 2003).  In the area of psychological trauma, this sometimes is understood as a “flashback” when the individual not only feels as though he is in the traumatic moment but by all outward appearances acts as though he is in the past as well, and the child he hits symbolizes himself.  It is no longer an internal private experience.

In the privacy of the home and in our most important relationships, the wish to be loved can be a powerful emotional motivator to inhibit destructive impulses.  “I would like to slap him, but he stood by me through my own problems, I don’t want to hurt him.” This was said by a middle-age woman whose husband was developing what she thought were signs of dementia—his incessant worry and raging at her were examples of uncharacteristic behaviors in him.  Her love kept the brakes on her impulse to slap him, even though she had grown up in an incredibly assaultive and neglectful home where she was beaten.  When she finally did throw something at her husband, the couple decided it was time to get professional advice, or to divorce.

Psychoanalysts often work with clients in private practice and clinics who have difficulty in managing destructive behavior toward dependents, for example, their supervisees, patients, customers, clients, students, their own children, and elderly parents they are taking care of, and the world at large, such as pets and livestock and even land and water.  I am thinking of “dependents” as including individuals who have a lower power status than the client in the social, work, cultural or school setting, or who come to the client for specific types of assistance or knowledge, or who actually rely on the client for safety, food and other basic life necessities.  This also includes stewardship.

Psychoanalysts have understood the critical importance of the early relationship between baby and parent for the very life of the child, physical and psychological.  As the baby is raised, so will that individual raise his/her own children, with very important exceptions to the rule.  Within the parent-child relationship the child learns what is means to be human and comes to think about himself and others accordingly.  Is it good to be in contact with humans, or is it filled with risk, uncertainty, even pain?  Do the adults seem to be willing or even pleased to be able to meet the child’s needs, or do the needs cause fear, stress, anger, resentment.  Are the needs even noticed?  These are very different learning experiences in regards to dependence.  Children take in information about emotions by watching the parents and direct contact with them on a moment-to-moment basis:  they learn what emotions are, whether it is permissible to have them, how to express them, how not to express them, the difference between feelings and actions.  Anyone or anything which can symbolize to the individual his younger years when he was vulnerable in relationship to others, will engage his pre-existing life experience and meanings on how someone or something that is dependent may be treated or should be treated (Sweet,2012).

Developmentalists have known for a long time that the human child is born with the capacity for life-sustaining behaviors, such as crying which draws the attention of the cargiver.  This sometimes is referred to as aggression.  That term, however, can be confused with violence.   I understand “aggression” as being the result of the need or desire to remove an obstacle in our way of what we personally understand is necessary to live.  It is impossible to imagine a child being born without that capacity.  Humans all have the original capacity for aggressiveness; parents and caretakers obviously manage their own impulses well enough, otherwise no human would survive childhood.   I believe that violence is a behavior that has to be learned and is not innate.

Children require adults to engage with them in finding the way to optimally manage uncomfortable emotions and sensations which result from interaction with the world.  The child requires a parent who thinks that pain is not enjoyable, and who certainly does not enjoy inflicting pain on those who are dependent.  It actually is very difficult to get a human child to be consistently cruel to others and animals.

Cruelty has a very different line than aggression.  Humans long to be in safe connection and empathy with others.  While it is possible that a psychologically solid child can have an experience in adolescence that is distressing and painful enough to cause significant changes in the basic stance toward others, I think this would not be the usual source of the conscious or unconscious tendency toward cruelty.  Examples of adolescent tragedy would include a significant threat to life, such as rape or being shot at, or an unexpected violent death of a parent.  The key in these examples would be the response of the important adults in their lives.  Did the adolescent experience justice and protection, or is the adolescent having to fend for himself or being blamed, thus tempted to become the perpetrator in order to stay alive, rather than the prey.

Cruelty and unnecessary destructive behavior come out of physical and/or psychological pain that is unalterable, and certainly real threat to life.  This can be true for adults and certainly is true for children.   However, for children, there can be a certain amount of destructive behavior that is experimentation or identification.  One young boy uncharacteristically attacked and demolished a project we were working on together in play therapy.  When I remarked on how this was different for him, he said that he had just been watching Power Rangers, and what did I expect.  A twelve-year-old began smashing in walls and doors, throwing tables and terrorizing his family after he began playing violent computer games.  Generally in an otherwise healthy child, this behavior is going to diminish easily and not be repeatedly initiated by the child if the influence is dealt with by the parents.

The capacity to modulate, that is, do something about pain is going to vary according to the nature of the pain, the individual neurological capacity, the response of the caretakers, and the opportunities for learning.  It is not unusual for individuals who are at the end of their lives to become uncharacteristically verbally cruel toward those around them, because they are so uncomfortable or frightened and can do nothing about it.  Of course, medications can be a factor too.  In healthy adults, I understand self-initiated cruel and destructive behavior towards self, others and animals to have a base of prior experience in a relationship in which the individual was powerless to do anything to escape psychological and/or physical pain.  Additionally, there is the experience that this happens consistently and becomes the nature of the relationship.  Losing something important in a fire, earthquake or flood does not in itself motivate cruelty.  However, if the loss is severe and shocking enough, and the larger world is perceived as uncaring or even condoning the loss, then it is possible to develop hardness and even cruelty from those experiences.

Cruelty is very different from aggression and is the result of repeated psychological pain that was unattended by others or caused by others who the child thought were in a position to do something about it, if nothing else to acknowledge that this is a raw deal.  It is very helpful to a child who has to go through a medical procedure to be told by the parent, “I don’t like that this hurts, but it’s necessary”.  It does not help to glorify pain.  I have not worked with a single patient who was born with a tendency to cruelty.


Psychoanalysts are generally very interested in the relationships the client has with equals such as a spouse and coworkers, those who have some authority over him, and anyone who is dependent on him.  Clinicians generally place household pets, domestic animals, and other animals very close to the level of children and physically or mentally disabled adults in terms of requiring special empathy and concern by those responsible for their care and continuing well being.  In my experience, it is rare to find the therapist who does not have a soft spot for animals.  In psychology research, cruelty to animals is usually not an area of specialty but is subsumed under other forms of destructive behavior, such as spouse or child abuse.  Surveys and questionnaires given to a prison population is a common method of research.  From the perspective of a psychoanalyst, it is assumed that individual psychology and developmental history are involved, as well group dynamics, which result in the abuse of animals.   Therefore, psychoanalytic research on the topic of animal cruelty generally is one small part of a case description.  Generally, cruelty to animals is not talked about in the psychological or psychoanalytic literature to any extent.

Psychoanalytic techniques are very useful, however.  When working with an individual who describes hurting or killing a pet or animal, I try to be aware of my emotional reactions, i.e. my countertransference.  For example, while killing wildlife under any circumstances is considered cruelty by some, it is imperative that the clinician who holds this belief realize that not everyone in our culture would agree with that sentiment, and to continue listening carefully to the patient.  I listen for the emotion the individual describes in stalking, trapping and killing the animal.  Does the person become elated at “blowing something away” and uses hunting as a socially permitted way to vent his impulse to kill humans, or is it done consciously, skillfully, with respect for the animal and with the goal of making a clean kill and to cause no suffering. These are very different emotional motivations and reflect very different relational experiences.    Both are destructive in the sense of taking a life of an animal, but one contains the sense of entitlement and selfish power and is a self-serving, wasteful venting of rage and reversal of helplessness and fear; the other contains a sense of purpose, the sense of some empathy for the animal, pride in making a clean kill, and regret for any suffering that is caused by a shot that misses the mark.  The first individual would raise a red flag for me and I would be very concerned in regards to his treatment of people, especially those weaker than himself or of lower status.  The second one, not at all, though I would wonder about the meaning of hunting for an individual who is financially able to purchase all the food he needs.   Sometimes, the importance is in the link it provides to past relationships.

In order to work clinically, i.e., one-to-one, with an individual involved in any form of abuse, it helps to be in a culture which makes it clear that there are forms of destructive behavior that are illegal.  Causing unnecessary distress or pain to an animal is generally not sanctioned; “unnecessary” presumes there is “necessary” distress or pain.  Examples would be the distress and pain inherent in treating an animal for an illness or wound; or distress caused by removal of a wild animal that has wandered into a populated area; or distress caused in transporting livestock.  In regards to animals, there are forms of destructive behavior that have been institutionalized when there is a profit motive, such as treatment of animals raised for food, racing animals, highly desirable breeds of dogs and cats, exotic and wild animals.  When treatment which is cruel to an animal is normalized, what changes this are enlightenment, legislation, and financial inducement to affect broad societal change, and we have seen significant change in this area over the past 60 years, though much improvement is needed.  Still other behaviors toward animals are immoral or disgusting, but are not illegal.  For example, dropping off unwanted house pets on farm property is very common.  The farm families I talk to never want another cat, but they are too kind hearted to not provide food, water, shelter and even medical attention for an abandoned pet.

I now will elaborate on this difficult topic with the discussion of cruelty towards animals, and then move into the area of cruelty to self and others.  I will provide material from three case studies.  These were individuals seen many years ago and are no longer in treatment.  Identifying information has been omitted.


Case One

An adolescent was referred for therapy by the court for delinquency.  I don’t remember how we entered the topic, but the teen comfortably and with a grin told me about his cohorts and him torturing to death a stray cat.  The cat suffered and was terrified before it died.  Part of the torture involved burying the animal up to its neck.  I remember being frozen in place by the details and also with his ease in being able to commit this atrocity.  He read my expression accurately, because he followed up by saying, “oh yeah—we tie the tails of cats together too and throw them over a fence—I hate cats”.  I knew enough about the teen’s background by then to have an understanding of how he was capable of this cruelty, yet I hadn’t appreciated the depth of his own internal annihilation.  The cat symbolized himself and the tortured death involving childhood complete helplessness and disregard for his life that he himself had experienced.   He had been thrown away and worse.  The method also symbolized well how he annihilated his own thinking.

Children who are raised in dangerous homes, whether the danger is from the parents, older sibs, the neighborhood, or the predominant culture, will learn to stop thinking—to disintegrate and dissociate the experience, or at least the emotion associated with the experience (Wieland, 2011; International Society for Study of Dissociation and Trauma, 2012).  This is how individuals are able to say they were beaten, but it did not bother them at all.  This is a psychological defense which is outside conscious control.  Because the experience is “traumatic”, it is re-enacted all too easily—the person cannot step outside of it for any length of time.  While “geographical cures” are attempted, sometimes by moving from state to state or country to country, the past always catches up.  And this surprises them.  This teen attempted a geographical cure by skipping school.  This teen seemed comfortable with his cruel actions and enjoyed the discomfort of the therapist, which suggested that it was not the influence of his cohorts per se which instigated his cruelty otherwise he would be feeling some guilt or shame in the telling—but that the behavior was consistent with traumatization that pre-dated adolescence.  There was probable dissociation of the emotional and physical experiences so that they were all too easily projected onto the cat.

In 1905, Freud found that a child’s cruelty to animals or playmates was not a typical or normal course of development.  He thought the cruelty came out of a combination of serious problems that were not typical, in addition to the small child’s typical difficulty of curbing impulses.  Freud stated, “Children who distinguish themselves by special cruelty towards animals and playmates usually give rise to a just suspicion of an intense and precocious sexual activity.”  Addressing the child’s limited capacity for empathy he stated, “The absence of the barrier of pity brings with it a danger that the connection between the cruel and the erotogenic instincts, thus established in childhood, may prove unbreakable in later life.” (p. 193)   Within this discussion, Freud states his opinion that corporal punishment such as being spanked in childhood, could be one origin of self cruelty in the adult, which he referred to as masochism.  Stating the obvious, Freud thought that the roots of cruelty were in childhood, prior to age five.

Harry Stack Sullivan, an American psychoanalyst, worked with teen delinquents.  He thought the roots of delinquency were in the experience of a young child, around age 3, who had been raised fairly well to that point in time.  At around that age, the 3 year old naturally becomes quite bossy—basically wanting the parents and sibs to be slaves to his whims.  This is another very trying time for parents who do not want to crush the child’s self confidence.  Sullivan (1953) found that in his delinquents, this was about the time that the parents became cruel.  Refusing to work with the child who wanted a servant, they humiliated, insulted, and belittled the child.  Deliberate and conscious setting up of the child occurred—for example promising a trip to the park later in the day to a demanding child when they never intend to keep the promise, and then laughing at the child for being disappointed.  Or if the child wants something the adult has, deliberately throwing it away or destroying it in front of the child.  Sullivan observed the change in the young child to be a “malevolent transformation”.  The child then begins to view adults as “the enemy” and eventually those younger or weaker than himself are contemptible and are treated in cruel ways, as he was treated.  How could he know any other way to manage his own frustration and pain?

One of the most influential psychoanalysts in my understanding of violence is Fairbairn.  His observations of the dynamic mechanisms of violence and cruelty toward others are largely overlooked and forgotten, and yet are so very relevant to the issue of violence.  Like Sullivan, he found that the problem begins in earliest childhood, but even younger, during the oral phase.  The child comes to be convinced that not only is his anger destructive, but his love is poisonous as well.  He believes that he must have destroyed his mother’s love, not with his anger, but with his love.    “Thus he not only keeps his love in a safe, but also keeps it in a cage…Since he feels that his own love is bad, he is liable to interpret the love of others in similar terms.” According to Fairburn, he “makes a renunciation of social contacts, it is above all because he feels that he must neither love nor be loved.  He does not always rest content with a mere passive aloofness, however.  On the contrary, he often takes active measures to drive his libidinal objects away from him.  For this purpose he has an instrument ready to hand inside himself in the form of his own differentiated aggression.  He mobilizes the resources of his hate, and directs his aggression against others—and more particularly against his libidinal objects…he not only substitutes hate for love in his relationships with his objects, but also induces them to hate, instead of loving, him; and he does all this in order to keep his libidinal objects at a distance.” (p. 26)

Of course, the wider world plays a critical part for better or worse.    The child who eventually learns that cruelty generally is not acceptable in the culture but it is at home, will learn to suppress his impulses, or will restrict his cruel behavior to times he is with others who are cruel, or in secrecy.  He will learn to lead two different lives—the one he thinks is the real him, and the one that is socially approved.  The child who finds that his slightly wider culture (extended family, adults associated with the parents, school, neighborhood, etc.) establishes the same sort of relationship with him and other dependents as the parents did and condones it, will then see no reason not to behave openly in cruel ways.

This is a basis for futility and learning to “have no fear” of authority other than the inconvenience of having to be watchful to not get arrested when older.  Further he may react with dismissal, surprise, mystification or even aggressively when presented with an opposing outside viewpoint.  After all, becoming an adult means establishing an oppressor/authoritarian relationship with those who are dependent or different and even more importantly, to vent one’s frustrations and painful hatred onto those who are dependent.  The next step is to be destructive to representatives of oppression, when it is safe to do so.

Volkan (1997) described in detail the parent-child relationship that many volatile cultures require.  Centuries-old atrocities and grievances are expected to be passed down through the generations.  The purpose is to not only to foster hatred, but to maintain a cultural identity.  Thus, hatred is kept fostered and can result in present-day wars which collapse the past and present.  Events which occurred centuries ago feel as though they happened yesterday.  Specific cruelties toward specific groups are normalized.  However, it is psychologically harmful for a human child to learn that there are groups of humans who should be virulently hated. Children are born to be in connection and in relationship with others—not just the immediate group.  Anger comes naturally as a result of frustration or pain.  To be instructed to hate individuals who have not directly frustrated, threatened or disappointed is to open the door to emotional problems of all sorts.  As the list of who to hate gets longer, the individual world gets smaller and more isolated; the person would necessarily learn to rely heavily then on the existing internalized relationships, i.e. parents, siblings, with fewer resources to make life easier and saner.  Also, in such a limited worldview, the individual becomes more prone to problems of delusions, projection and problems with reality testing because the opportunity and capacity for corrective experience is deficient.


Case Two

A woman in her early 20’s was referred for very serious symptoms of self mutilation and repeated suicide attempts.  She had threatened her caseworker with a knife in public.  She had spent a lot of her young adult life in the psychiatric hospitals and some time in jail.

This young woman eventually relaxed and started working in therapy.  She was one of several children in her family.  The parents had many problems of their own and spent very little time with the children other than when they were yelling or hitting them.  She had been a shy fearful child, and became a scapegoat in school from first grade.  Her parents told her she was the problem when she came home crying.  She began establishing cruel relationships with others as well as toward herself—mutilating her arms for example, which relieved her of sensations of numbness and assured her she was still alive.  This numbness was the result of her dissociating her feelings, including body sensations, in the presence of her overwhelming parents.  At other times, cutting her arms helped her with breakthrough feelings of unbearable rage and the agony of abandonment and wanting to be held.  Instead of assaulting her parents, she assaulted herself, plus she had the illusion that she was releasing the emotional pain by putting it outside of her.  Another patient bought a body piercing each time she went through similar experiences of extreme and disintegrating rage and agony.  Even the person doing the piercings asked how she could stand the pain.  She said that’s the point.  It focused her attention on the outside and away from the inside.

My patient who cut herself was inconsistent in the effectiveness of her meanness toward others; the knife that she threatened a caseworker with was only a 3 inch knife she had taken from her mother’s kitchen—not something terribly dangerous. But she did deliberate damage to a teammate during a soccer match, having crossed the line between what is allowed in order to win a game, and deliberately using the game as a cover to be hurtful.  However, I never really felt I was in danger when I was working with her.

Young women and men eventually talk about their thoughts of becoming parents, and sometimes this begins with a discussion of pets they have owned.  There was a family cat when I started working with her, and she assisted her mother with a home daycare.  I never heard from her that she mistreated the cat or the children.  However, she did tell me a story of how when she had her own apartment, she had taken in a puppy to keep her company.  The puppy, being a puppy, was not very good at that.  Instead, the puppy was a lot of work and when she tried to shut away the dog so it wouldn’t be into everything, it cried non-stop.  Her emotions were already in conflict about the dog.  She had wanted to be loved, instead she had a puppy that was dependent—a disappointment.  Then the puppy made a lot of noise and she couldn’t comfort it so it would be quiet.  It could be out and making a mess of her apartment but quiet, or it could be shut in the bathroom and do a lot of crying.  This paper began with the capacity for aggression that all humans have and this begins with the infant’s cry.  This person had been taught to hit, to become forceful when feeling pain and to be frightening.  However, there was a hierarchy:  her father had wanted to sleep during the day and when the children made too much noise, he would erupt from the bedroom, start beating the children and then throw them outdoors.  When she was a young child, crying for her mother to pick her up from the crib, the mother would come, but she would come yelling and frightening the baby—creating a freeze reaction in the child.  As a teen and young adult, she had learned that it is very wrong for her to be publicly threatening to others.  She then confined her cruelty to privacy and in guises.


Rather than even think of giving the puppy away, which would stir unbearable feelings of abandonment (because the puppy would still be alive and living a supposedly happy life with someone else), my young patient drowned the puppy.  Loss through death was not as painful as loss through abandonment.  She had never told anyone what she had done; she was not proud of it, but filled with fear and from her look, sure I was going to verbally beat her up and was ready to defend herself.  The puppy was long gone, and this was a young woman who was sexually active and fully capable of becoming pregnant and having a baby.  It was imperative as her therapist that I try to help her with the dilemma she was facing.   The way she told me about this cruelty was very different than how the teenager told me about the tortured cat.  She had internal conflict about cruelty, which indicates that she did experience kindness and protection in her dependent relationships as a child.  During her high school years, her parents placed her in therapy with a psychiatrist who was basically a kind person.  This was one relationship which was pivotal in the work that she did with me and her ability to use the psychoanalytic therapy to make a very basic permanent shift away from cruelty towards others.

She actually began taking steps to finding work and completing classes in college.  However, her parents, accustomed to having a sick daughter, abruptly pulled away necessary financial support, and she collapsed.  She returned to punishing herself with attacks on her body, with self imposed isolation, with being used sexually by others and totally financially dependent on her parents.  The two of us were able to help her quite a bit, but she left therapy before the work was completed.  An example of a gain was her decision to use a contraceptive which did not require she remember to take it every day.  In that way, she did not have to worry about murderous impulses toward an infant.


Case Three

I have worked with a few individuals over many years who have described being raised in hate groups and murderous cults.  Some of the most useful writings in this particular area are psychoanalytic.  Returning to Fairbairn, he discussed motives why an individual substitutes hating for loving:  “curiously enough one an immoral, and the other a moral motive…The immoral motive is determined by the consideration that, since the joy of loving seems hopelessly barred to him, he may as well deliver himself over to the joy of hating and obtain what satisfaction he can out of that.  He thus makes a pact with the Devil and says, ‘Evil be thou my good’.  The moral motive is determined by the consideration that, if loving involves destroying, it is better to destroy by hate, which is overtly destructive and bad, than to destroy by love, which is by rights creative and good.  When these two motives come into play, therefore, we are confronted with an amazing reversal of moral values.  It becomes a case, not only of ‘Evil be thou my good’, but also of ‘Good be thou my evil’.  This is a reversal of values, it must be added which is rarely consciously accepted; but it is nonetheless one which often plays an extremely important part in the unconscious…. (p. 27).”

Consistently these patients described the deliberate instruction of the child by the mother, father and adults in the group leading up to the killing of a human being.  Excellent reading is the work of Margaret Singer who wrote Cults in Our Midst.  While not specifically documenting hate cults, she describes techniques of indoctrination, intimidation, thought stopping, and mind control which are consistent across all types of cults, large or small.  Also, in regards to training and indoctrination of children and youths, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s website includes articles about the attempts of hate groups to recruit young people into their ranks.  The literature on hate cults can be confusing.  One of the best resources for sound, reputable articles and books on the topic is the International Society for the Study of Dissociation and Trauma.  This is a group that is familiar with their existence and able to assist in sorting out fact and fiction.  In addition, many child and adult therapists in this organization provide information on trauma based treatment for this specific population.   In regards to cultic killing and torture of animals, Sinclair, Merck and Lockwood (2006) provide an overview of what is known to date in the field of criminology about this behavior.

Without exception, children raised by parents who are members of hate cults have been subjected to physical and sexual abuse coupled with physical and emotional neglect and abandonment from the beginning.  In addition, children are subjected to deliberate preparation and indoctrination for being members in the cult—there simply is no option.  For example, all of my patients when quite young would be required to watch the deliberate destruction of a loved toy such as a stuffed animal or a doll.  When a little older but still less than five years, they would be required to witness the murder of a family pet or other animals.  A little older, they would be required to hold the animal down in participation, and depending on the cult’s intention for the child, later to perform coerced killing of an animal and then participate in the assault of younger children.

The adults were requiring the child to survive an emotional catastrophe and to manage the emotions in a way that was required.  For examples, instead of feeling fear to feel exhilaration; instead of feeling sad to feel anger at the animal because the animal was responsible for some reason; instead of thinking, to be blank; instead of being, to not exist.  Deliberate reversal of reality and meanings based on lies was the norm.  Never was the child to blame the adult, rather to hold the adult in high esteem.  The child was being deliberately and methodically trained for being psychologically capable of carrying through orders given by the group to participate in the killing of a human.

There are crucial differences in an adult being capable of participating in killing within a group setting (whether impulsive or deliberate and planned) and an adult being capable of carrying through a murder on his own, whether impulsive or planned.  These are very different behaviors and different dynamics.  It is essential to listen to the details of cruelty toward self and others which can take myriad forms and ask questions:  is this done in a group, or individually; who was the teacher of this behavior or the relational influence; who is the behavior supposed to impact the most; are the emotions felt; what are the emotions; what is the meaning; what did the person do after the violence.  All acts of psychologically motivated cruelty, whether toward self, others or animals have a meaning based in relationships.

The human child is born loveable, sociable and non-violent (Johnson, 2002).  The “bad seed” is a myth. Johnson is a psychiatrist who worked with incarcerated murderers in Great Britain.  He found that without exception, these were individuals who were violent because they had been raised in violence.  He consistently found what he called “frozen fear” experiences in all the inmates.  These were experiences from very early childhood which the person “locked away” because they were emotionally unbearable, yet these experiences then interfered in many different ways with development.  This included developing the ability to manage very difficult negative and positive emotions in relationships.  When in a circumstance that was similar enough to the original horrifying locked-away experience, the emotions overtook the person’s ability to think rationally and morally.  In the words of Johnson, “violence is infantile.” (p. 59)

One of my patients, who was raised in a cult and was finally escaping as a young adult, hesitantly told me he did not have pets because he had killed one of his, independently, as an adult.  He had been “triggered” by the animal’s insistence on attention, and had killed it.  Within the cult, he had been taught not to love, and to react with destructiveness towards anyone or anything which might love him (and thus threaten the cult’s control over him).  His solution was simply to not have pets, and to keep at arm’s length any humans who might like him.  While a very capable and intelligent person and outwardly kind, he refused to accept positions of supervisor, never was alone with children or adults who were weaker than himself, and never had anyone who depended on him.  While the original experiences that were re-enacted were dissociated, the killing of the pet was remembered and served to keep the person afraid of himself and isolated.

After literally hundreds of therapy sessions, this person decided to try to ease his loneliness by getting a small dog.  He was able to remember that he had killed a previous pet, and could now remember what he was re-enacting.  He found that if he was loving to the pet, such as petting it or brushing it, this eased his fear that he had about being reminded of atrocities.  The love for the animal was much stronger than the fear.  He was able to allow himself to think about what he was reminded of, and to think about keeping the animal alive.  And to make an independent conscious decision about what he was going to do.  I believe his care and concern for the dog was a very clear reaction to how he experienced my care and concern.  While he knew I certainly was frustrated at times, I also did not threaten or kill him. I also did not require that he stay with me forever.  I could think about my negative feelings, which usually stopped me from saying anything that would be destructive to the relationship.  He knew me quite well after hundreds of hours to intuit when I was feeling frustrated and had experienced living safely through those times with me.    I give this person credit for his courage and his wish to continue living and participating in constructive ways, despite having lived through the worst atrocities humans are capable of.


Psychoanalytic Treatment

As I mentioned previously, psychoanalytic concepts and techniques are essential if clinical work with individuals who have these sorts of backgrounds.  Freud found four aspects of mental functioning which he considered so important that they comprise the theoretical base of conducting an analysis:  the unconscious, resistance, repression and transference.  Knowledge of human development often is added as a fifth.  Any treatment which takes these into account is considered psychoanalytic treatment.


The Unconscious

“There are meaningful mental content including emotions which are outside the awareness of the individual which have important powerful influences on conscious experience” (Karon and Widener, p. 6).  This is one of the most powerful lessons that anyone can learn in treatment.  This knowledge can assist in feeling that one is not helpless and that somehow the symptoms do make sense.

A working knowledge of the unconscious is an invaluable assist in understanding cruel behavior.  For example, using Freud’s understanding that the unconscious is timeless, it is possible to think of the re-enacted flashback as content and emotion that is overwhelming the defenses; it explains why the past feels immediate.  This might explain why the person who acts in cruel ways often feels victimized by the person he/she is hurting.  The question then becomes:  under what circumstances do the defenses not hold, and what can be done.  Here, Krystal’s work regarding affect tolerance is relevant.  As the traumatized individual gradually becomes able to manage increasing intensity of emotion without disintegrating and without massive use of defenses, the content does not have to be re-enacted or re-repressed, and is less likely to be re-enacted in cruel behavior and somatization.  In Krystal’s words, what is necessary is a good forgettery.  Schore, et al. have established a firm neurobiological understanding of what happens to a person who has been massively traumatized in infancy and early childhood.  While using different terminology, they describe what Freud observed about the unconscious.   Treatment of my patient who was raised in a cult would have been useless without attention to unconscious content.  Dream association is where he began his journey into self-knowledge.

Often an individual remembers what happened that was traumatizing, but the emotion is suppressed.  This individual may have learned to be dismissive of the psychological damage that he lives with, or to use it as reasons to be cruel.  Therefore, the person can say that being beaten did not hurt him, or that being sexually abused had no effect.   Watching how the therapist reacts is very important for this person to begin wondering why he does not feel more than he does, though he is likely to be derisive at first.

Dreams are the single most invaluable aide in discovering the meaning of symptoms.  If I were to point to one psychoanalytic technique which has helped enormously in my work, it would be dream analysis.  Of course, once the analyst asks about dreams, they quickly become a communication between patient and analyst.  Asking the individual to simply associate to parts of the dreams is sufficient.  It is important not to assume the meaning of the dream.  One patient told a dream of a coffin rising to the top of the ground and opening.  I was having images of Thriller, however, the patient said his association was “resurrection”.  At times, the imagery of the dreams can represent the person’s mind; a house with many rooms can represent dissociated experiences.  A reoccurring dream of someone breaking into a house and not being able to lock the door in time can represent content which is threatening to break through resistance and repression, to finally be known consciously.  It is also possible to hear the person’s terror of himself and what he has lived, and the panicked struggle to keep content forgotten, but the specifics needs to be discovered by the patient.


Resistance and Repression

Freud understood these to be two sides of the same coin which is about the wish not to know, or the sentiment that there is no utilitarian reason to know, i.e., what difference does it make.  These are ego defenses which, of course, have been utilized a long time by the time the patient enters treatment, unless he is a child, of course.  Freud found that repression was an unconscious decision to forget and to make a particular mental content inaccessible to usual ways of remembering.  Resistance is an unconscious attempt to keep what is repressed just so.

Resistance and repression can ease under some conditions, such as feeling safer, just before falling asleep, when on certain medications, and when physically exhausted or sick, and often that is when a patient who has repressed experiences suddenly starts being flooded with physical sensations, images and/or emotions which are strange to them.   Dissociation works in a similar way.  The person often has built an entire life despite and around these experiences, even as an unconscious expression of these experiences.  To be suddenly swamped with images and emotions which are alien is disorganizing.  Often the patient or family will think the person is going crazy and might try to shut him down.

In working with the young woman who cut her arms, much of her life story was conscious to her, but she had repressed the affect.  Working with her was a matter of validating her justifiable outrage, allowing her to think about how destructive she would like to be, and talking with her about what she could do that was helpful to herself.  Infant experiences were repressed, however, and these were the most important in determining her cruelty to others, for example, killing the puppy.  Providing a safe environment in which she knew she was not going to be told to be quiet lead inevitably to the story that needed to be told.  These can be transforming experiences for patient and analyst.

This sort of work requires that the analyst be willing to be a witness.   While the content cannot be changed of course, the internal experience of it can change, and that is what makes the experiences livable and knowable.  The dynamic unconscious meanings keep the person living in shame and guilt for example, which is unnecessary.  Adult knowledge, the care and concern of one other person, and the tremendous capacity of the brain to come up with solutions can eventually transform the experience of being victimized.  In regards to trying to destroy specific memories through medications, ECT or magnets, this of course requires patient consent and information.  Beyond this is a philosophical stance:  myself, I trust that it is the totality of our experience that makes us human; to artificially remove experience is to make us less than human, and certainly does not reduce suffering.  I can fully understand the wish to eradicate painful memory, however.

A student reported that her mother had received ECT for massive depression.  She was no longer depressed, but she also could not remember who her children were.  Was she suffering?  I do not know, but I do know that her children were.  The attempt to mechanically solve a problem that has an emotional basis usually is a temporary fix, and often leads to bigger problems.  This is almost a maxim.

Returning to the discussion of treatment, going with the resistance is the rule of thumb, as is allowing the person to talk for the purpose of understanding himself better.  It is easy to distract the patient into talking about easier topics, easier for the analyst at least.  However, allowing the patient to talk about an atrocity, and then shutting the patient up always makes the patient sicker.  This may very well be the most consistent reason for the failure of therapy with traumatized individuals.  There is no guarantee for the patient that the analyst will be able to stay in the room and alertly listens, and there is no guarantee for the analyst of what will come up in session.  This is when it is so helpful for a therapist to have a colleague she can talk to about traumatic content and emotions, or a consultant.



Cognitive understanding of transference is generally easy for a patient to learn; a truly difficult piece of work is transforming intellectual knowledge into self-knowledge.  Patients who are hurting themselves, others or animals generally know they have a big problem.  They know how the predominant culture responds to this problem, though their immediate culture may approve and condone.  As in the case of the teenager who tortured the cat, his immediate group participated, and so was encouraging—he evoked their memory for himself when he told me what they had done.  He was not alone while facing the accuser (me); in the transference I was policeman, judge, principal, and annihilating parent.  For the young woman who killed the puppy, she was uncertain whether I was going to punish her by calling the police, as a previous therapist had done, and so only hesitantly and incompletely told me the story.  Her body and facial expression all said she anticipated at least a verbal assault.  When that did not happen, she had a transformative experience.  She experienced my willingness to understand why she had killed the puppy, and thus to have empathy.  I did not think it was right for her to kill herself or an animal.  Now that she understood why she had killed, she was responsible for using that information to manage herself.  This was a new experience for her:  her parents always took the side that was against her.  She had more superego than she knew what to do with.  It was never her turn to be spared.  I understand the transference as the opportunity to make relationships easier for the patient, though working through these kinds of cruel superego transferences can be intense, frustrating, and exhausting.

When working with a person who has been cruelly raised, the psychoanalyst must keep in mind her own safety.  The transference experience can become totally believable when the patient is very afraid:  words, tones, behavior of the analyst can all be viewed through the lens of danger.  The patient raised in a cult at times felt that I was his mother, and actually had a hallucination of his mother standing behind me.  I handled this by not reacting in a frightened or frustrated way, but remaining matter-of-fact.  My emotion did not match what my patient would expect if his mother was truly standing behind me, and he was able to keep the real me in his experience, at the same time he had the hallucination.

Much has been written about the experiences of clinicians working with traumatized patients, primarily in terms of vicarious or secondary traumatization.  In addressing counter-transference, Haley (1974) said:

“When the patient reports atrocities, where does the therapist begin?  Perhaps we start by reminding ourselves that atrocities are as old as man and as close at hand as our own well-defended but nonetheless very real sadistic potential…When the patient reports atrocities, my experience has been that the first task of treatment is for the therapist to confront his/her own sadistic [cruel] feelings, not only in response to the patient, but in terms of his/her own potential as well.  The therapist must be able to envision the possibility that under extreme physical and psychic stress, or in an atmosphere of overt license and encouragement, he/she, too, might very well murder.  Without this effort by the therapist, treatment is between the “good” therapist and the “bad”, out-of-control patient, and the patient leaves or stays only because he has found the censure he consciously or unconsciously feels he deserves….Hopefully, by seeking out a therapist the [patient] is seeking understanding and resolution of his conflict and confusion rather than punishment or rationalizations…The therapist’s countertransference and real, natural response to the realities of the patient’s experience must be continually monitored and confronted for a therapeutic relationship to be established.” (pp. 195-6)

I would say that the majority of the work with patients who hurt themselves, others or animals, is primarily working with our own countertransference reactions and evoked memories so that rational decisions can be made about how to conduct the treatment and how to be with the patient.



Knowledge of infant, child and adolescent development is essential to the successful treatment of any individual.  One small example is an adult patient who was unable to remember whether I existed or not after leaving my office.  His brain was just fine, so he knew that he had an appointment with me, but he was incapable of feeling that he knew me.  I was able to draw on my information about a normal time period when a very small child is unable to keep in mind the reality of the parent, and so becomes very distressed when the parent in not present.  This information assisted at many levels.  For example, it helped me with my out-of-proportion frustration to the frequent phone calls at home in which the person did not seem to really need me, but wanted to hear my voice.  This information also was a marker for me for how young the person was when life-altering problems began.  I could comfortably ask him what he could remember about life prior to age five, knowing that it would be impossible to develop this particular deficit unless something had gone very wrong during that developmental stage.  Even more importantly, sharing a brief description of this information was helpful to the patient so he could know that he would not always have to suffer the timelessness of the very small child—the treatment could assist in starting the continuity of human relatedness.

In working with patients who are cruel, knowledge of development assists in understanding otherwise baffling behavior.  Again, this is not for the purpose of excusing behavior, but to help the person gain a feeling of being safe enough and having compassion for himself.  Sometimes becoming capable of feeling guilt is the task.  It really is only through self-understanding that the patient will eventually manage what were previously uncontrollable urges.  Self-understanding is the only thing that holds the hope of living life, rather than just surviving.  I am convinced that the human who is relatively free of fear, and has real options about what to do about pain (whether environmental, physical, emotional or existential), who knows his life story in the true sense of knowing and has a real believable experience of being loved by one other human is incapable of cruelty.



There are individuals who are truly destroyed by life circumstances and who have no capacity for recovering—and those are a truly lost lives.  It is through our other patients who are capable of cruelty toward self, others and animals, yet who still are able to feel the conflict or emotional pain, or who are dissociated when they act violently, or deliberately using the influence of alcohol or drugs to numb themselves, that we learn some of the most valuable yet difficult aspects of being human.  It is through understanding that we can truly get to what it is all about, and perhaps change the capacity for violence, one person at a time.  Cruelty represents an entire continent of human experience which has yet to be psychoanalytically explored.  The patients described above, with the exception of the teenager, all became incapable of being violent toward others when they allowed themselves to not only remember what they had lived through, but the emotions as well.

It is not required of the therapist to externally verify the reality of what happened to the patient in childhood, but it is helpful to be supportive if the patient wants to try to verify reality with individuals who are still living.  Often they receive confirmation that the cruelty did occur as they remembered, but the relevance is dismissed.  Other times, sadly the entire occurrence is denied, especially if there is fear of loss of social standing or when acknowledgement might morally require someone to leave or divorce a perpetrator, or when the person is rightfully concerned about present day legal repercussions.  In my work with survivors, they have always felt that confirmation would have been helpful, but they did not really want to see the destructive individuals punished or to suffer anymore.  An apology or simple acknowledgement would suffice.  In some instances, there are court cases which are pursued in an attempt to protect potential victims and/or to recover the cost of extensive therapy, but they are the exception in my experience.

When working with an individual who is cruel to others or animals, it is helpful to keep in mind that self-harming behavior might be an intermediary step towards health.  As the individual internalizes a new experience through the work with the therapist, a period of self-harm might occur.  This is because the individual has a new super-ego to identify with (you), but is still dealing with the old one which requires cruelty.  At that point it is essential for the clinician to point out that, after all, the patient is alive as well, and why would the patient not treat himself/herself with the respect that he gives to other lives.  In the words of one of my consultants, the body and health need to be cherished.  While extraordinarily difficult, the individual is learning about managing or modulating powerful affects through the immediacy of the reparative work.    The treatment can be expected to require many hours of therapy and probably at a frequency of more than one time per week in order to have any long-lasting change.  It will never be neat, tidy or predictable.

Engaging a patient to bring about substantive change in cruel behavior needs to be approached with eyes wide open and with a good amount of personal analysis.  Close attention to counter-transference reactions is the key to possible success in the treatment.  It will be the rare patient who comes to treatment because he wants help with his cruelty towards others and animals.  However, in the course of assisting with a presenting problem of depression, anxiety, panic attacks, self-mutilation, alcoholism, drug abuse, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, bipolar disorder, to name a few, cruel behavior or impulses might be exactly what the analyst discovers.  It is good to know that this problem can be approached like any other: It is required to put the thoughts and feelings into words, especially the disgusting ones, and to know as completely as possible what one has lived, and what one still hopes to accomplish in life.




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Krystal, H.  Oral History and Echoes of Cataclysms Past”.  Unpublished manuscript.


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Schore, A.  (2009)  Attachment Trauma and the Developing Right Brain:  Origins of Pathological Dissociation.  In Paul Dell and John O’Neil (eds.)  Dissociation and the Dissociative Disorders:  DSM V and Beyond.  Routledge.


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Written by

Bio of Craig Oster, PhD

25-year survivor of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) & Co-founder / Scientist / Advocate at THE HEALERS campaign.

In 1994, at the age of 30, Craig Oster was given the “death sentence” diagnosis of ALS, better known as “Lou Gehrig’s disease.” Even though Craig’s physical functioning was slipping away, he went on to earn a Ph.D. in clinical psychology in 1996. Dr. Craig entered hospice in late 2008. Dr. Craig’s fierce holistic quest turned his condition toward healing and he was discharged from hospice on May 30th, 2009.

Dr. Craig co-founded THE HEALERS Campaign on New Year’s Day 2012 with a mission to:
  • Demonstrate as much wellness as possible using his integrative approach focused on diet/nutrition, mind/spirit, and physical exercise
  • Inspire people to constructively approach whatever “hand that they have been dealt in life”
  • Conduct innovative ALS scientific peer-reviewed research that has the potential to enhance the wellness and quality of lives of people with ALS and their caregivers.

Over 50 renowned integrative medicine doctors, other health professionals and scientists have joined Dr. Craig’s ALS scientific research and holistic health educational campaign advisory team.

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