Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD), also known as complex trauma, is a proposed diagnostic category of mental illness, one not yet recognized by the DSM, though more and more voices are shouting to have it included in the next edition. As its name implies, it is similar to PTSD, though crucial differences are to be noted.

Victims of PTSD generally experience one traumatic event (war, rape, disaster, or other life-threatening event); whereas C-PTSD victims experience repeated, ongoing traumatic events (continuous physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse, day-to-day life in combat situations as a soldier, ordeals as POWs or in concentration camps), such that the victims either have no means of escape or feel as though they have none.

If one has ever read the Marquis de Sade‘s unfinished novel, The 120 Days of Sodom, or seen Pier Paolo Pasolini‘s film adaptation of it, Salò, the casual observation of the plight of the victims–adolescent boys and girls who are forced to indulge the paraphilias of four wealthy, politically powerful libertines–would cause one to draw the unmistakeable conclusion that the victims, assuming any of them survive the four-month ordeal, will each develop a severe case of C-PTSD. They are stripped naked, sexually abused, humiliated, force-fed shit, and made to endure numerous other torments, all for the sadistic pleasure of a duke, a banker, a judge, and an archbishop (the story is, in part, an allegory of political corruption).

Other differences between PTSD and C-PTSD include flashbacks (PTSD) vs. emotional flashbacks (C-PTSD), the former involving reliving the traumatic experience with the five senses, as if having been taken back by time machine to when it originally happened; whereas emotional flashbacks lack the physicality of the relived experience, and instead the painful emotions (fear, despair, anger) are re-experienced.

C-PTSD also involves many symptoms often not felt so much by PTSD sufferers, including the following: difficulty regulating emotions (explosive or inhibited anger, making catastrophes out of everything, etc.); difficulty relating to others socially, a feeling of being irreconcilably different from others; a lack of a sense of meaning or hope in life; preoccupation with the abuser (a sense that the abuser is all-powerful, while also feeling an urge to get revenge on him or her), overwhelming feelings of guilt, shame, and self-hatred; and dissociation, including the forgetting of traumatic memories.

Symptoms common to both PTSD and C-PTSD sufferers include nightmares, intense anxiety, emotional numbing, and avoidance of anything that, or anyone who, may trigger the traumatic memories. A veteran with PTSD will avoid places with loud noises, such as bursting fire-crackers, which may remind him of machine gun fire. A rape victim may avoid all romantic contact with men out of fear of a sexual encounter that would make her relive the rape. And a C-PTSD sufferer who has been in a concentration camp perhaps may try to avoid seeing anyone in a uniform, which gives memories of guards or prisoners in uniform.

When children develop C-PTSD as a result of ongoing physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse, they may become clumsy, unable to concentrate, or lacking in empathy. Nervousness and fear can cause the clumsiness, self-hate and shame can cause the inability to concentrate (and vice versa, going in a vicious circle), and a lack of empathy can be the natural result of growing up in an environment devoid of empathy for the victim. “If they don’t care about me, why should I care about them?” is an attitude easily adopted.

Sensitivity to loud noises of any kind will be intolerable to victims of PTSD and C-PTSD. Startling noises can, if unconsciously, remind the victim of sudden slaps on the face, shouting, bombs going off, airstrikes, gunfire, etc.

I believe myself to be a sufferer of a mild form of C-PTSD, for I appear to have most of the symptoms. I must emphasize the word mild, for two reasons: first, having lived far from my emotional abusers for over twenty years has caused my symptoms to abate considerably; and second, I feel my suffering pales in comparison to that of people like Lilly Hope Lucario, whose wonderful website alerted me to this mental health issue. Perhaps I am wrong to say my suffering is less; after all, traumas are more a matter of being different than of being ‘lesser’ or ‘greater’ than each other.

I will now detail my symptoms to illustrate even further the experience of the sufferer of complex trauma.

Throughout my childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, I was subjected to various forms of emotional abuse, including gaslighting from my mother, who fabricated an autism diagnosis out of thin air, independently corroborated by no psychiatrists (in fact, two psychiatrists I’d received therapy from said they saw no signs of autism in me); constant bullying and belittling from my older brothers and sister, from whom I’d received virtually no defence from my ‘loving’ mother; explosive outbursts of verbal abuse from everyone in the family, usually for only mildly irritating things that I’d done; and bullying from my classmates at school, from coworkers on the job, and strangers on the street. I saw no escape, anywhere, and this was all during crucial developmental years in my life.

Enduring this kind of thing from people outside the family wasn’t so bad as it was from within, because one expects more of a loving attitude from one’s own flesh and blood. I feel betrayed by the five I grew up with; in my early twenties, I’d fantasize about getting far away from them, escaping from Ontario and going to Quebec. When I ended up in Taiwan, my fantasy had come true.

Sometimes I remember those painful episodes from my past (which often included my brother, F., not only threatening and verbally abusing me with the shouting of four-letter words, but also slapping, shoving, and spitting on me, then gaslighting me about supposedly never having done anything wrong to me), and fantasize about what I’d say if I tried to stick up for myself; but the feeling of overwhelming power that my tormentors had over me meant I felt that asserting myself would be futile. In my fantasies, I’d get overly emotional, bursting with a rage I couldn’t control, even acting it out. My bullies almost seemed to be there, right in front of me and receiving my rage, instead of me really being all alone in the room. I’d snap out of it and end up feeling even more worthless than before, because of how foolish I’d feel, like that moment in Hamlet when the title character says:

“Am I a coward?/Who calls me villain? breaks my pate across?/Plucks off my beard, and blows it in my face?/Tweaks me by the nose? gives me the lie i’ the throat,/As deep as to the lungs? who does me this?/Ha!’swounds, I should take it: for it cannot be/But I am pigeon-liver’d and lack gall/To make oppression bitter, or ere this/I should have fatted all the region kites/With this slave’s offal: bloody, bawdy villain!/Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!/O, vengeance!/Why, what an ass am I!” (Act II, scene ii)

I think these experiences I’ve had are examples of emotional flashbacks.

I have always had difficulty regulating my emotions, in particular, my explosive anger, something I learned from my family, since for them, blowing up was the solution to every problem. My wife finds it a terrible trial when I go crazy over every minor problem; but her minimal, controlled anger with my emotional excesses proves that my family’s explosive anger with me was not unavoidable–I hadn’t left them with no choice but to blow up. They just rarely considered other options.

Whenever I have a problem, or even contemplate the possibility of a problem, I tend to make a catastrophe of it in my mind; then, the problem usually gets resolved with relative ease, and I wonder why I got so upset about it. I’m a prophet of doom and disaster for my life. I lie in bed, imagining disasters befalling me, and my anxiety ensures that I often don’t sleep properly.

All that bullying from my family created bad object relations that resulted in bullying at school and elsewhere, causing me to have difficulty relating to others in general. The early relationships one has with one’s primary caregivers are crucial, for they provide the blueprints, as it were, for all future relationships. So if those early caregivers bully you, belittle you, and otherwise betray your trust, you take that with you and assume people elsewhere will treat you in the same way; for as a little kid, you scarcely know any other kind of relationship.

Though people with C-PTSD typically feel isolated from the world, none of us are islands. Every human personality is in symbiotic relationships with others of some kind or another, including the worst relationships that cause the loneliness of the C-PTSD sufferer. We internalize bad object relations, those of our abusers, and they frighten us away from the rest of the world. Those bad internal objects form the inner critic, an internalization of our abusive parents, elder siblings, bullying classmates, and anyone else who may have hurt us, and we ‘learn’ that this is just the way the world is.

These bad object relations haunt our minds like ghosts, like demons possessing us. WRD Fairbairn elaborated on this idea in his book, Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality. In my analyses of The Exorcist and The Shining, I quote the relevant passages, so if you’re interested, you can look them up there.

In my mind, I do battle with an inner critic every day. I hear him accusing me of various things: lacking consideration for others when, for example, I’m riding my scooter to and from home (i.e., road rage); being mean or selfish; or doing stupid things in general. I feel myself fighting back against this inner critic, trying to show justification for my actions; and while many might agree with my justifications, my inner critic is never convinced, for he is an internalization of my ever-bullying family members.

My mother used the autism lie to make me feel irreconcilably different from others. She explicitly said to me, “You’re different,” in a heavily condescending tone when she rationalized excluding me from being involved with my sister, J., and her dying husband back in the mid-2000s (see my blog post, Emotional Abuse, where I discuss my sister’s husband dying of cancer, and my mother not wanting me to fly back to Canada to visit the family). The consistent lack of empathy the family showed me, whenever I tried to tell them of my pain, added to this feeling of being too different to fit in socially, as well as to my learned helplessness.

I’m obsessively preoccupied with my abusers. In their assumption that I don’t care about anyone but myself (one of their rationalizations for abusing me), my surviving family members (R., F., and J.) probably think that I rarely think about them. How wrong-headed such an idea is! I think of them, as well as my dead parents, every day without fail. I rarely think of them with kindness, though, just as they assuredly never give me such consideration, despite their bogus claims of loving me. I’ve dreamed of revenge, or punishment, more accurately, on my late mother and siblings, not as spite for spite’s sake, but to get them to understand the wrongs they’d done me; since just telling them wasn’t enough, I had to hit them over the head, so to speak, with a sledgehammer.

But even hitting them with that figurative sledgehammer wouldn’t be enough, for they will never listen, so assured are they of their own would-be righteousness. They feel all-powerful to me, impossible to get through to, for they’re always ready with a rationalization, a minimizing of their guilt, or an invalidation to silence me. Even my mother seems all-powerful in death, since her internalized object remains forever in my head, as Norman Bates’s mother is in his head.

My abusers’ omnipotence in my mind leads inevitably to undying feelings of shame, guilt, and worthlessness in me, even though it was their emotional abuse of me that provoked my disowning of them. No contact was the only way to keep them from meddling in my mind; and this was especially true of my manipulative mother during her last few years on this earth, for she’d been the ringleader of them all.

As a child, I had an odd habit of playing alone, in a solitary world of my own imagination, since my devastation over losing my childhood friend, Neil–from a 1977 move from Toronto to Hamilton–combined with the bullying I received in my new schools (as the ‘new boy’) and neighbourhood, made me feel powerless to make new friends (see Emotional Abuse for more on that story). On top of these problems, my brother, F., and sister, J., were bullying me, and my mother was gaslighting me with the autism lie. My escape into a world of imagination–along with a bad habit of talking to myself–seems to have been a mild manifestation of dissociation, or maladaptive daydreaming, a retreat from the painful world around me.

What my remaining family–my siblings, R., F., and J., as well as their families–imagines is my contempt for them (i.e., my refusal to communicate with any of them), is actually my need to maintain avoidance of them, to protect myself from future abuse. My ‘uncaring’ nature is really emotional numbness.

My mother claimed that my clumsiness was from Asperger Syndrome; I’d say it was from the complex trauma I’d acquired already from childhood, combined with a lack of playing sports, in which I’ve never had any interest. My difficulty concentrating, sometimes resulting in foolish mistakes or absent-mindedness, would be disparaged by the family as ‘stupidity’. My relative lack of empathy was something I’d learned, as a child, from those five stony-hearted people. On top of that, I can’t bear loud noises, which again is typical of a sufferer of C-PTSD.

I really do hope C-PTSD gets acknowledged in the next DSM. I also hope therapies for it improve, and that we sufferers get a chance to be healed by them one day. For now, though, we have to engage in self-care: this means being gentle with ourselves when we make mistakes, paying more attention to our strengths and talents, rather than our faults; it also means using self-compassion, or being a friend to ourselves, that kind, sympathetic ear we never got from those who should have given it to us. Other effective ways to heal ourselves include meditation and writing about our pain, as I have done here.

All those university students who complain about how exposure to controversial political opinions is “triggering”, and claim they need “safe spaces” so they don’t have to be exposed to ideas they don’t like, should consider redirecting their wrath towards its far likelier cause–an emotionally abusive or neglecting family. Research has shown that in the U.S., such family dysfunction is almost universal. Taking one’s anger out on people who have nothing to do with it not only fails to solve one’s problems, but also adds to everyone’s.

When we feel pain, we must take it to its source, not displace it onto people or things we only associate with the source of that pain. Bad object relations with abusive and/or neglectful primary caregivers is a common source.

Analysis of ‘Gaslight’

Gaslight is a 1944 thriller film starring Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, and Joseph Cotten, and co-starring Angela Lansbury and Dame May Whitty. It was directed by George Cukor, and based on the 1938 stage play Gas Light, written by Patrick Hamilton. Another movie version was done in 1940, adhering more closely to the original play; but when MGM did the 1944 remake so soon after this first film, they wanted to have all existing prints of it destroyed. Fortunately, the original film wasn’t ever destroyed, but this 1944 version still eclipsed it.

Bergman won her first Academy Award for Best Actress with this movie, while Boyer was nominated for Best Actor, and Angela Lansbury was nominated for Best Supporting Actress. The film was also nominated for Best Picture, and it won Best Art Direction. The film got a total of seven Oscar nominations.

It is from this film that the term ‘gaslighting‘ originated, for the villain, Gregory Anton (Boyer), uses this very tactic–tricking his wife, Paula (Bergman), into doubting her own perception, memory, and sanity by staging bizarre scenarios for her–in an elaborate scheme to drive her mad, have her committed to an insane asylum, then take possession of her old London house, originally owned by her aunt, Alice Alquist, whom he murdered years before.

Normally, emotional abuse is used on a victim for the purpose of having power and control over him or her; but Gregory, or Sergius Bauer, to use his real name, only wants to get rid of Paula so he can freely search about that old house, to find the coveted items he killed Alquist to steal–her jewels.

In one scene, he speaks of his great lust for precious jewels (about a half-hour into the movie). In another scene, we see him in the attic, searching furiously for those jewels, using a knife to hack through the cushion of the back of an old chair in a desperate hope to find them (about an hour and a half into the movie). This ruthless searching for treasure, violating other people’s property in the process, reminds us of the plunder of the Third World for resources, diamonds, etc., by Western imperialists. Remember that, just as an emotional abuser often controls his victim’s finances, imperialism deliberately stifles the economic growth of Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Since Patrick Hamilton had communist sympathies, especially in the late 1930s, when he wrote Gas Light, I feel at least some justification in making a leftist allegory out of this movie.

Gregory, who–as I see it–represents bourgeois imperialism, tricks Paula, who represents both the proletariat and those ‘brutal dictators’ that imperialism wants to remove, into thinking she is a forgetful kleptomaniac. He does this by deliberately moving items when she isn’t looking, then claiming she took them and forgot she had. He reveals her ‘forgotten thefts’ with a cruel frown, causing her to be frightened and hysterical.

When he leaves her alone in the house, ostensibly to go out somewhere and work on composing classical music, but actually to sneak up into the attic from the back to search for the jewels, she notices the gaslight dimming in the rooms. This frightens her, for she has no idea who is causing it to dim. The servants honestly deny any knowledge of the gaslight dimming (just as the average worker doesn’t know of the ruling class’s tricks), and Gregory pretends not to know either; for it is he who is dimming it–hence the term ‘gaslighting’.

Always claiming Paula is ill, Gregory never lets her out of the house to be sociable, like a typical emotional abuser. (Symbolically, this isolation is also like how imperialism economically isolates such countries as Cuba by imposing embargoes on them, to bring an end to the regimes of those ‘brutal dictators’.) The servants believe she’s ill, too, and are cool towards her, upsetting her all the more. Of course, it is Gregory who has made the servants believe she’s ill, through triangulation; just as the corporate mainstream media tricks us into thinking ‘brutal dictators’ like Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi, et al, are madmen who must be removed from power.

By the climax of the film, Paula has been manipulated so thoroughly that she plods about, eyes half shut, as if she’s half-asleep, just like the average Western citizen, brainwashed and distracted by media nonsense. She believes her mind is going, that all she sees and hears is just a dream, as her cruel husband has convinced her.

I have elsewhere gone into detail about the nature and effects of emotional abuse, as well as about narcissism; hence my political interpretation of this film, instead of just elaborating on psychological abuse again. I feel a political interpretation is useful and necessary, because I see political gaslighting going on everywhere, all the time.

The media tricks Americans, for example, into thinking that one political party is evil, while the other is good, or at least has the potential for good, once the ‘good’ political party has been cleansed of corruption; when in reality, both political parties are working for the plutocrats, as are the media.

We are tricked into forgetting the imperialist crimes of previous years and decades, and even made to think that the Western imperialists are among the victims, rather than the victimizers. Here we see the microcosm of the narcissist, seeing himself as the victim and projecting his guilt outward, expanded into the macrocosm of the imperialists, who blame Muslims for terrorism instead of taking responsibility for US or NATO bombings of, or proxy wars in, places like Libya, Syria, Kosovo, or Iraq. Like Gregory, capitalists are murderers.

Gregory accuses Paula of stealing and forgetting her thefts, when in fact he is the thief (and a murderer). Similarly, the capitalist class excoriates socialists and social democrats for ‘stealing’ the money of the wealthy (through progressive income taxes), when in fact it’s the capitalists who originally stole from the workers (by overworking and underpaying them). Furthermore, the Western media has propagandized against socialist states like the USSR, calling them ‘totalitarian dictatorships’, when currently America has by far the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world, and polls have consistently shown that a majority of Russians prefer the USSR to their current state of affairs. All of this media deception can be called political gaslighting.

Gregory leaves Paula alone, and the gaslight dims, frightening her; then he denies this dimming. This is symbolic of capitalism’s alienating of workers, leaving them in a darkness of misery, then denying that the capitalist system is responsible for these problems. The servants go along with Gregory’s thinking, just as so many workers, police officers, and soldiers refuse to resist the system.

Scotland Yard Inspector Brian Cameron (Cotten), who revives the case of Paula’s murdered aunt, Alice Alquist, after the police have considered it unsolvable, admired Alquist’s singing; this admiration arouses his empathy for Paula, and he puts the pieces together and saves her. Now he is a policeman, and therefore an unlikely hero in any anti-capitalist allegory; but because he’s the only inspector among the British police still interested in this case, out of his empathy for Paula, his authority can be seen to represent one other than that of the establishment; in other words, instead of being seen as representing a policeman for the bourgeoisie, Cameron can be seen allegorically as a member of the militsiya. (Furthermore, in the 1940 film version, there’s a scene in which the inspector–originally named Rough–invites a group of poor street urchins into a pastry shop to buy them something to eat [about 21 minutes or so into the film], suggesting his sympathy for the poor. Recall in this context Hamilton’s communist sympathies around the time of the writing of his play.) His fighting with and subduing of Gregory can thus represent the vanguard of a revolution against the imperialist bourgeoisie.

I admit that my allegorizing here isn’t as smooth as that of my previous analyses, but I feel it’s necessary to make a link between gaslighting in relationships and that of politics; for I see the latter as an extension of the former, an extension that mustn’t be overlooked. Now, if my emphasis on contemporary imperialism seems odd when allegorizing a story written so many decades earlier, consider how much older capitalist imperialism really is: equally disturbing examples of it can be seen in Churchill’s disparaging of Muslims and the Indians he allowed to starve to death in the Bengal Famine; or in the late Victorian Holocausts of the late 19th century.

Emotional abuse in families, extending to other relationships, is a lot more common than most people realize. In the US, it has been found to be almost universal. America is a country where authoritarianism, disguising itself as ‘liberty‘ (check out the gaslighting there!), is also rampant; religious fundamentalism, an intrusive state, mass incarceration, police brutality, and neoliberal capitalism being the most notable manifestations. It isn’t a wide leap of logic to go from American dysfunctional families to this authoritarianism, then to imperialism: it’s all about power imbalances.

A useful link between family abuse and the authoritarian political establishment, given from the perspective of a prickly American cop, is in this disturbing video (a scene from the TV series Southland), in which a truant pre-teen boy with a ‘bleeding-heart liberal’ attitude is lectured that “discipline is not child abuse”–this after his mother has hit him with a belt two or three times for truancy. To some, this may seem like a mild punishment in itself, but many families have wildly different interpretations of what ‘mild punishment’ is, especially as regards hitting a boy with a belt. Consider the end of this scene in Goodfellas, again, ‘punishment’ for truancy.

The point is that there is always a ’cause’ for the abuser to fly off the handle and assault the victim either verbally, physically, or even sexually. This ’cause’ does not justify an abusive reaction, which is then minimized as “discipline” or ‘punishment’.

Similarly, and by extension, Western imperialists always have ’causes’ for their bombings of other countries, typically vilifying the leaders of those countries by calling them ‘brutal dictators’. To be sure, the dictators of the world have more than their share of flaws; but for the West to be judging them, given all the corruption that favours the rich and powerful in the West, is really the pot calling the kettle black. The corporate-owned media, ever in the service of imperialism, engages in gaslighting by giving us biased accounts of what is happening in, for example, Kosovo, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and now Russia, so we will see the bombings as ‘humanitarian’, a truly obscene series of lies.

Once the bombing campaign is over and the victimized country is subjugated (if not more or less destroyed), the ‘brutal dictator’ is removed or killed, and the imperialists take over, just as Gregory tries to remove Paula, then take ownership of her home so he can finally search freely for the jewels, which could be seen to represent the oil and other resources of the conquered countries.

Remember how Iraq was regarded sympathetically by America during the Iran/Iraq War, then the US turned on Saddam Hussein in the 1990s? Or how Osama bin Laden and the mujahideen had the sympathy of the US when repelling the USSR from Afghanistan (we all know what happened after that)? Remember how the West briefly warmed up to Gaddafi during the 2000s…then in 2011…? Or how Syria was an intermittent ally until the 2010s? Gregory’s attitude to Paula can be seen to symbolize this kind of political relationship. At first, the victims have their uses; then they’re devalued and discarded.

In order to solve the problems of political oppression around the world, we must first solve the problems of our own social relations. This must begin with the family, the foundation of all social relations.

To optimize family relations, parents must be as sensitive as they can to the emotional development of their children, starting right from the first months of infancy. Attachment theory explains the different ways a child learns how to connect with primary caregivers, then with other people; this includes unhealthy forms of attachment. When these forms of attachment are unhealthy, the child grows up with these bad object relations, which become the blueprint for all future relationships.

This leaves such a person vulnerable to the schemes of psychopaths like Gregory. Paula’s childhood trauma, of having seen the dead body of her strangled aunt, would represent the kind of ruptured attachment, or bad object relation, that has led to her being susceptible to the charms of Gregory, who idealized her during their courtship, devalued her during their married life in London, and almost discarded her into a mental institution, but for the intervention of Inspector Cameron.

Just as we must be warned of the idealize/devalue/discard tactics of psychopaths, sociopaths, or narcissists, we must also do the necessary healing work if we’ve already been traumatized by them, be they our ex-boyfriends, ex-girlfriends, ex-husbands, ex-wives, or bullying parents. The healing work includes learning about toxic people, engaging in self-care and self-compassion, meditation, cathartic writing about one’s own problems, and joining communities (including online ones) of other survivors, to give them support as well as receive it from them.

When the needed emotional health is either established, through good parenting (not ‘perfect’ parenting, but the good enough parenting that DW Winnicott advocated), maintained, by being wary of the fake idealizing of potential toxic boyfriends or girlfriends, or restored after surviving an ordeal of emotional abuse, then people can organize into communities, and develop the solidarity needed to combat the greatest emotional abusers of them all–the capitalist class and their stooge governments, their political flying monkeys.

As for the Cluster B individuals themselves, psychiatrists must work tirelessly to discover a cure for each of those pathologies, whether those pathologies be genetically basedphysiologically based, or caused by trauma.

We as a people need to learn what love really is: not just a pretty-sounding word, not empty sentimentality, but a genuine connection between people, a connection brought about not by stern moralizing or authoritarian forms of religion, but by empathy…the empathy Inspector Cameron felt for Paula, because of how she reminded him of her aunt.

Only through empathy can we hope to build a better world, one in which bosses don’t rule over workers by overworking and underpaying them, and by gaslighting them into thinking they are worthless if they can’t help bosses make a profit; a world where all racial, ethnic and religious groups are treated as equals, and gaslighting isn’t used to make people equate blacks with criminals or Muslims with terrorists; where the sexes are regarded as equals, and gaslighting isn’t used to make women feel worthless if they don’t provide pleasure, or to make men feel worthless if they don’t provide money; where LGBT people are given dignity, and gaslighting isn’t used to make them seem perverted.

To fix the world, we must start with the family, the foundation of society.

Analysis of ‘The Shining’

The Shining is a supernatural horror novel written by Stephen King and published in 1977. It was his third published novel, after Carrie and ‘Salem’s Lot. It was made into a film by Stanley Kubrick in 1980; and while the initial critical response to the film was mixed (with King especially disliking how Kubrick changed huge portions of the story), it is now considered one of the best horror movies ever made. King had a well-received made-for-TV miniseries version done in 1997, one that, naturally, was much more faithful to his novel.

His novel is a classic in the horror genre, and while his and Kubrick’s visions of the story differ so vastly, I find enough thematic material common to both that I will cite both versions in my analysis to make my point. These themes include the self-destructiveness of alcoholism, family abuse, the return of repressed bad internal object relations, repetition compulsion, and the death drive.

Though analyses of the themes in Kubrick’s film (the white man’s oppression of Native Americans, etc.) are well worth exploring, since they have already been looked into, I won’t be exploring them.

Jack Torrance has accepted a job as caretaker for the Overlook Hotel; and just as the hotel has a dark history, so does Jack. A former drinker and teacher, he has been on the wagon for fourteen months (in Kubrick’s film, five months) after having not only hit a student, George Hatfield (and lost his teaching job for it, ‘Up On the Roof’, pages 162-170), but also injured his own son, Danny (pages 23-25, ‘Watson’).

Ghosts inhabit the Overlook, which not only overlooks a beautiful mountain view in the Colorado Rockies, but also ‘overlooks’ (ignores, or doesn’t take responsibility for) the crimes that have been committed there. Jack’s connection with the Overlook–more and more complete as he goes mad in his attachment to the place, trying to ensure that he and his family never leave–shows how he is at one with the hotel. He has “always been the caretaker” (page 532, ‘Conversations At the Party’). The physical building represents his mind, with the boiler in the basement needing to be checked (to relieve the pressure) twice a day and once at night, for it symbolizes the death drive of his unconscious. There’s an interesting juxtaposition of ideas at the beginning of chapter 3, ‘Watson’, on page 22:

You lost your temper, Ullman had said.

‘”OK, here’s your furnace,” Watson said, turning on a light in the dark, musty-smelling room…Boiler’s on the other side of the wall. I’ll take you around.”‘

Jack’s anger and the furnace are mentioned side by side because they, and the boiler, are all one and the same thing. On the next few pages, Jack remembers injuring Danny for messing up his writing papers.

We learn through the course of the novel that Jack’s father had been abusive to him and his mother (‘Dreamland’, pages 335-338). Being abusive to Danny would be ‘normal’ to Jack, since his own dad’s abuse of him seemed normal: “In those days it had not seemed strange to Jack that the father won all his arguments with his children by use of his fists, and it had not seemed strange that his own love should go hand-in-hand with his fear…” (page 335). Similarly, his wife, Wendy, had a bad relationship with her mother. These bad object relations would haunt Jack and Wendy like ghosts…just as the ghosts of the Overlook will.

Wendy herself contemplates how the ghosts of her mother and Jack’s father could be among those in the hotel, when she thinks of Danny’s trauma: “(Oh we are wrecking this boy. It’s not just Jack, it’s me too, and maybe it’s not even just us, Jack’s father, my mother, are they here too? Sure, why not? The place is lousy with ghosts anyway, why not a couple more?…Oh Danny I’m so sorry).” (‘On the Stairs’, pages 491-492)

The isolation of the hotel, on a snowy mountain during a bitter winter, symbolizes the kind of social disconnect that often leads to problems like alcoholism and family abuse. In direct contrast, Danny’s psychic gift, the “shining”, as fellow shiner Dick Hallorann and his grandmother call it (‘The Shining’, page 117), connects him with people, and with the future, in an enhanced way. Jack and Wendy cannot contact the outside world (because Jack has destroyed the CB radio [‘Dreamland’, page 342], just as he’s ensured they can’t ride away in the snowmobile–‘The Snowmobile’, page 426), but Danny can “shine” all the way from Colorado to Florida to tell Hallorann of the threat to his family’s life.

The ghosts of the Overlook represent the ghosts of Jack’s past (and Wendy’s, to a lesser extent); but Danny, explicitly as such in Stephen King’s miniseries, points to the future, since “Tony” is actually Danny as a young adult (“Daniel Anthony Torrance”, page 639), advising his younger self to beware the dangers of the hotel (‘Shadowland’, pages 37-50). Thus, Tony is really Danny being a friend to himself, a form of self-compassion that can help victims of abuse to heal.

Redrum, or murder spelled backwards, represents not only the destructiveness of alcoholism–red rum, as red as blood–but also the destructiveness of looking backwards into the past, and letting internalized bad objects continue to dominate you, or letting bad old habits resurface and be compulsively repeated.

This brings me to my next point, what Freud called “the compulsion to repeat” in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Up until the horrors of World War I, he saw instinctual drives as geared exclusively towards pleasure, libido. The destruction of that war (Freud, page 281) compelled him to revise his theories and acknowledge a death instinct, what his followers would call Thanatos, which is opposed to Eros, the will to live. He now admitted that dreams aren’t always the fulfillment of wishes (Freud, page 304).

Sometimes his patients would compulsively repeat actions that seemed meaningless or without a clearly pleasurable aim, such a when an infant boy threw out a toy and reeled it back, perhaps to master the sensation of loss, as when his mother wasn’t with him (Freud, pages 284-285). Similarly, Freud treated traumatized veterans who repeated irrational acts in the form of flashbacks, traumatic dreams (Freud, page 282), and the reliving of battlefield events.

Jack’s inability to control his anger and compulsive drinking are manifestations of this death instinct and its compulsion to repeat. He was destructive and drinking before, and he will be destructive and drinking again.

The topiary animals make for interesting symbolism. Normally, the presence of plants gives us a feeling of peace, of pleasure, especially when they have been shaped into aesthetically pleasing forms, like animals–how charming. Yet the Overlook’s topiary is of animals that move when you aren’t looking (‘In the Playground’, pages 311-314). By the time Hallorann returns to help Danny, the topiary lion attacks him (‘Hallorann Arrives’, pages 617-618). So what we have are plants that are superficially charming, yet bestial and frightening when one knows them better. And since they are the Overlook’s topiary, they are an extension of Jack’s personality: charming and sweet on the surface, his ego ideal, but inside…

Then there’s Danny’s frightening experience with the fire extinguisher hose, which seems to unravel all by itself (‘Outside 217’, pages 258-262). Again, seen in light of the idea that the hotel represents Jack’s mind, we see something that, on the surface, is meant to protect and ensure safety, as a father is supposed to do. Instead, the hose, a near phallic symbol, moves surreptitiously, slithering, suggestive of a snake.

Because the hotel represents Jack’s mind, the ghosts in turn represent his internal object relations. Delbert Grady could be seen to represent Jack’s internalized abusive father, since grey-haired Grady eggs Jack on to kill his own family, just as the voice of Jack’s father, heard on the CB radio, urges him to kill them (‘Dreamland’, page 341).

The ghosts want Danny for all his psychic powers, that ability to connect with others that Jack lacks. When Danny rejects the ghosts, they go after Jack. Thus the ghosts initially represent, in WRD Fairbairn‘s revising of Freud’s id, the libidinal ego in its relationship with the exciting object; then, when Danny has rejected the ghosts, they represent Fairbairn’s revising of the superego, the internal saboteur or anti-libidinal ego, with its turbulent relationship with the rejecting object (both objects being symbolized by Danny).

Since I assume, Dear Reader, that you aren’t familiar with Fairbairn’s revision of Freud’s id/ego/superego conception of the mind, and since I further assume you haven’t read my analysis of The Exorcist, in which I discuss this revision, I’ll present the relevant quotes again here:

“…the intolerably depriving, rejecting aspect of the other person is internalized as the ‘rejecting object’, attached to the ‘anti-libidinal ego’…[,] the split-off ego fragment that is bonded to the rejecting object. We can think of it as the ‘anti-wanting I’, the aspect of the self that is contemptuous of neediness. Rejection gives rise to unbearable anger, split off from the central self or ego and disowned by it. Fairbairn originally termed this element the ‘internal saboteur’, indicating that in despising rather than acknowledging our neediness, we ensure that we neither seek nor get what we want. The anti-libidinal ego/rejecting object configuration is the cynical, angry self which is too dangerously hostile for us to acknowledge. When it emerges from repression we may experience it as chaotic rage or hatred, sometimes with persecutory guilt.” (Gomez, pages 63-64)

Fairbairn’s revising of Freud’s drive theory replaces the drive to pleasure/destruction with an object-seeking purpose, for which instinctual drives are mere avenues to seeking or dealing with objects. Fairbairn may have rejected Freud’s drive theory, including the death instinct and the compulsion to repeat, as superfluous (Fairbairn, pages 78-79), but I find both useful in explaining the symbolism of the Overlook, two ways of looking at King’s novel from different angles. Grady, the symbolic ghost of Jack’s abusive father, is pushing Jack to kill because Jack needs his father-object, regardless of whether it is good or bad for him.

Let’s consider what Fairbairn had to say about needing bad objects. “…it is worth considering whence bad objects derive their power over the individual. If the child’s objects are bad, how does he ever come to internalize them? Why does he not simply reject them…?…However much he may want to reject them, he cannot get away from them. They force themselves upon him; and he cannot resist them because they have power over him. He is accordingly compelled to internalize them in an effort to control them. But, in attempting to control them in this way, he is internalizing objects which have wielded power over him in the external world; and these objects retain their prestige for power over him in the inner world. In a word, he is ‘possessed’ by them, as if by evil spirits. This is not all, however. The child not only internalizes his bad objects because they force themselves upon him and he seeks to control them, but also, and above all, because he needs them. If a child’s parents are bad objects, he cannot reject them, even if they do not force themselves upon him; for he cannot do without them. Even if they neglect him, he cannot reject them; for, if they neglect him, his need for them is increased.” (Fairbairn, page 67)

Going back to drinking represents finding a pleasurable thing as an object to replace the meaningful objects, Wendy and Danny, that Jack needs. As Fairbairn explains, “…from the point of view of object-relationship psychology, explicit pleasure-seeking represents a deterioration of behaviour…Explicit pleasure-seeking has as its essential aim the relieving of the tension of libidinal need for the mere sake of relieving this tension. Such a process does, of course, occur commonly enough; but, since libidinal need is object-need, simple tension-relieving implies some failure of object-relationships.” (Fairbairn, p. 139-140) In the Overlook, Jack is isolated in his own mind, driving him to self-destruction and other-destruction.

Jack uses a bug bomb to kill a nest of wasps found on the roof of the Overlook, where he’s been doing repairs and been stung by one of them (‘Up On the Roof’, page 153). Danny is fascinated with the wasp nest, and wants to keep it. Wendy is unsure if it’s safe, but Jack insists all the wasps have been killed (‘Down In the Front Yard’, pages 177-178). The ghosts of the hotel reanimate the wasps that night, though, and Danny is stung (‘Danny’, pages 195-203). Since the ghosts and hotel represent Jack’s mind, the stings represent a return to Jack’s abusiveness (and self-destructiveness, since he’s the first one to get stung); and his assuring that the wasps are dead and harmless represents his denial of abusive intent, gaslighting, and his empty promise that he’ll never repeat injuring Danny.

The Overlook, Jack’s symbolic mind, full of the ghosts of bad internal objects, and with a boiler of anger that Jack must regularly “dump…off a little” (‘Watson’, page 28) to relieve the pressure, always repeats its aggressions. Kubrick’s adaptation brilliantly brings out this repetition compulsion in such symbols as rug patterns, the phrase “forever, and ever, and ever”, and Jack’s “writing project”, an endless repetition of the saying, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Similarly, we see repetitive columns, doors, wallpaper patterns, and the sound of Danny driving his little three-wheeled bike on and off rugs and the hardwood floor, over and over again…sound-silence-sound-silence-sound-silence.

Danny refuses to believe that Jack, swinging the roque mallet, is his real father (page 639); it’s just the ghosts controlling him. But the ghosts, the hotel, and the roque-mallet-swinging madman are all Jack. Typical with abuse victims, they can’t bring themselves to admit their abusers really are abusers–it’s Stockholm Syndrome, or traumatic bonding.

Jack is supposed to be writing a play, a goal pointing to the future; but instead, he finds a scrapbook of old newspaper clippings related to the history of the Overlook (‘The Scrapbook’, pages 227-249). Now he decides, instead of writing the play, to write about the hotel: a project pointing into the future is replaced with one pointing back into the past. (In the miniseries, the scrapbook is titled My Memory Book, implying a symbolic connection with Jack’s past.)

Jack phones Mr. Ullman–the stern owner of the hotel and Jack’s symbolic superego (“Officious little prick“, ‘Job Interview’, page 3), a man who has hired him with the utmost reluctance (‘Job Interview’, page 7)–to talk to him about writing a book about The Overlook (‘Talking to Mr. Ullman’, pages 269-274). Ullman is furious with Jack for wanting to do such a thing, as he is with Jack’s impertinent attitude…just as the superego will be resistant to any surfacing of repressed, unacceptable desires.

Ullman has good reason to oppose Jack’s plan to publicize The Overlook’s shady past. It is a past filled with violence–mafia killings, a woman having committed suicide in a bathtub (“Inside 217′, pages 326-327), and Grady’s violence against his family. The scrapbook is found in the basement, Jack’s symbolic unconscious, and the violent contents represent his repressed bad internal objects (i.e., his father). The old parties represent his past of alcoholism. (“Unmask! Unmask!“) [‘The Ballroom’, page 464], Show your real self, Jack.

The ghosts of the Overlook want Danny, which means Jack needs a good internal object to replace his intolerably bad objects, a notion in Fairbairn’s therapeutic methods. Since Danny resists the ghosts, they want Jack, meaning the repressed bad objects resurface, causing mayhem. Having Danny, a good boy whose “shining” represents strong empathy and an urge to connect with others, would redeem Jack’s bad objects and help him to be a good man again, looking ahead to a future free of the past; but their evil is too great, so Jack instead spirals downward and backward into his violent, alcoholic past.

Dick Hallorann goes to great lengths to help a boy and a family he barely knows, because like Danny, his “shining” abilities give him strong empathy and an urge to connect, unlike the isolated, freezing cold world surrounding Jack’s mind, the Overlook. After Dick, Wendy, and Danny escape, we find them all together in Maine the following summer, Dick being almost like a new father to the boy. Danny and Wendy have escaped the dark, abusive past that Jack couldn’t escape, because ‘the shining’ is a light leading to a future of freedom and love.

Stephen King, The Shining, Pocket Books, New York, 1977

WRD Fairbairn, Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality, Routledge, New York, 1952

Lavinia Gomez, An Introduction to Object Relations, Free Association Books, London, 1997

Sigmund Freud, 11. On Metapsychology, the Theory of Psychoanalysis: Beyond the Pleasure Principle, The Ego and the Id and Other Works, Pelican Books, Middlesex, England, 1984