The Terrorist Within

(based on an excerpt from The Paranoia of Everyday Life)

A telltale characteristic of paranoia is the primitive defense mechanism once designated by Melanie Klein as splitting of the object. It refers to the basic psychic failure to tolerate and process the intrinsic complexity, ambiguity and ambivalence of objects of our affection. Someone under the sway of this defense mechanism will tend to love or hate whatever it is that captures its fancy. Emotions will be expressed in a binary way, black or white, either/or. Internal contradictions, inconsistencies, qualifications that crop up are regarded as impurities that must be purged away.

We immediately see that what we are calling paranoid triggers are split off, all-bad, hated aspects of something that is threatening the person, something that has considerably more dimension and subtlety than is being admitted. To see this clearly — the amazing fascination this undeniably primitive defense mechanism continues to hold for us — we need to go no further than our decades-old, ongoing romance with gangsters, crime families and violence. I begin with the current rage, HBO’s beloved Tony Soprano.


America’s Favorite Dysfunctional Family

In a memorable scene, teenaged Meadow, enraged by her father’s bullying control, dares to call him a hypocrite. In a manner she certainly does not expect, and has apparently never witnessed, Tony gets in her face and snarls, “You trying to tell me something?” Unknowingly, she has touched a nerve, hit a paranoid trigger in her father, that for a moment threatens to push him over the edge. We see Meadow viscerally cringe, as she never has. “N-no,” she whimpers.

The fear she palpably feels (and we in the audience feel for her) is far more than the fear of a father’s wrath; it is the fear of subhuman violence exploding in her face. For just a moment, she has glimpsed something subterranean from which she has up until now been scrupulously protected. For over the years the series has made a point of demonstrating that Tony Soprano, serial-killing mob boss of New Jersey’s largest crime family, never lays a finger on either Carmela, his wife, or his daughter, Meadow (although occasionally, when he deems it necessary, he is not above mildly cuffing Anthony Jr., his only male heir, for what are considered unacceptable upstart remarks). We are meant to believe that this shows a radical and near perfect split between how Tony behaves to the two families that dominate his life. To make the point more forcibly, it portrays Carmela as the physical aggressor in the relationship, someone capable, when sufficiently provoked, of throwing objects, even occasionally swinging out at her husband.

Throughout it all, Tony as the supposedly non-violent husband and father, grits his teeth and bears his wife’s endless stream of putdowns. It is only when she taunts him with being secretly in love with his underling Furio, a stone-cold killer, does Tony aim a vicious punch in the direction of his wife’s face (only managing at the very last second to divert it into the wall where it leaves an immediate, gaping hole). For crime family aficionados, the scene is reminiscent of Michael Corleone in Godfather II who — his wife taunting him that she has willfully aborted his son because “this evil must stop” — for the very first time savagely slaps her. It could be said up until this point, that neither Carmela nor Meadow and Anthony Jr. — who both tease their father, but only go so far — have ever in the slightest tested his boundaries. We see why now.

To reinforce in yet another way the magnitude of the split between his two families, we are repeatedly shown how at one Tony Soprano is with the Mafia code. At a blink of an eye he will order to be killed — sometimes personally doing it himself — whoever needs to be eliminated. The illusion cherished in pop culture is thus dutifully upheld that even the most vicious gangsters when at home can be truly as loving to their respective families as anyone else.

It is characteristic of paranoia that, denying complexity, it approaches matters of the heart in a binary fashion: there is to be absolute loyalty or absolute betrayal. To fantastically narrow the range of options in this way, to brand anything less than unbroken fealty as tantamount to treason, is to create a false sense of omnipotent control.

In this Sopranos gangster version of a supposedly American family, the split between loyalty and betrayal could not be more dramatic. Loyalty of a family member is repaid by a fiercely jealous, vigilant protectiveness. Betrayal, especially if by a trusted member of one’s crew, results in near instantaneous murder. In perhaps the series’ most gripping scene we see this Mafia code of ritualistic murder graphically enacted when Tony Soprano discovers, hidden in the dresser drawer of his best friend, Big Pussy (whom he “loves”), the smoking gun-wiretap he has been looking for.

Nowhere is the profundity of Tony’s splitting shown so clearly as in this climactic episode. For he has been tormented for a very long time by a dawning suspicion that (unthinkable as it is) his friend has turned FBI informant. Somehow he has managed to rationalize away or outright deny the telltale signs that he is being betrayed: the startling tip by the crooked detective who works for him that Big Pussy, to avoid prosecution on a heroin charge, has actually turned informant; the months-long, sudden disappearance of Big Pussy that was never satisfactorily explained; the mounting evidence that someone in his innermost circle is leaking information to the Feds. But it is only when Tony, who dreams often throughout the series, meets up one night with a seemingly dead fish — who, addressing him in the unmistakable voice of Big Pussy, says, “Come on, Tony, you know it is me. I had to do it.” — does he finally admit what he has just been told by his oracular unconscious. For Tony does not need a dream interpreter to tell him that “sleeping with the fishes” is the Mafia term for ritualistic murder.

The transformation that follows is chilling to see. Almost the moment upon waking up, we see that quiet, fixed, stone-cold killer look with which the audience is well acquainted. Although not yet morning, Tony hastily gathers his crew and rushes to the home of Big Pussy. Under pretext of urgently needing to go to the bathroom, he goes upstairs, stealing into his friend’s bedroom, and carefully begins searching. When he discovers the wiretap hidden in the dresser drawer, he knows he has the smoking gun he needs to justify to himself and his crew what he is about to do.

The actual execution scene takes place in the isolated cabin of his private yacht far out into the ocean. The moment of truth — when Big Pussy realizes the real reason for what he thought was an innocent outing — is horrible to watch. We cannot help but be sympathetic to the poignancy of his terror as he stares childishly, beggingly, but hopelessly at his former best friends in the world and comrades-in-arms now transformed into a deadly firing squad.

There is only a single occasion in the entire series when this split between Tony’s two families is not upheld. In a very early episode, he is driving his daughter, Meadow, clearly the apple of his eye, to an out-of-state prospective college she wants to scout. Perhaps warmed by the coziness of the trip, Meadow decides to pop the $64,000 question, “Are you in the Mafia, dad?” After the reflexive, awkward denial, followed by some moments of palpably wrestling with his conscience, Tony admits, “Well, some of the money I make does come from illegal sources.” Grateful for the first crumb of honesty she has ever received in her life from her father, Meadow beams, “Thank you for your honesty.”

This father-daughter moment, to say the least, is short lived. For in a matter of minutes, stopping at a gas station, Tony, to his utter disbelief, catches sight in another car of a very old “rat”: someone who once betrayed a man very close to him and who for many years had safely disappeared into the hated witness protection program. In spite of the fact his daughter is sitting by his side, Tony simply cannot resist the chance to settle an old score. Crazily he swerves through traffic in pursuit of the suspected informant. Lying clumsily to his daughter as to why he is acting so bizarrely, he stalks the man until his suspicions are confirmed. Then, with Meadow tucked away in a motel, he steals to the man’s home, sinisterly waits for his chance, and the moment arriving — fierce, pleasurable, sadistic rage contorting his face — garrotes one more rat who thought it had gotten away.

The Sopranos works hard to make this incredible split — between loving, tender feelings on the one hand and murderous, psychopathic, criminal impulsivity on the other — plausible to the viewer. It succeeds in part, but only in part, by showing every other character in the series to be similarly divided — although not nearly as radically and pathologically as Tony Soprano — each in his or her own way. Thus we see Carmela, Meadow and Anthony Jr. having to deny over and over again the shocking truth that Tony Soprano, in addition to being the devoted, traditional family man they know so well, is also, when it is necessary, an unrepentant, calculating killer.

So staggering is their collusive denial, a kind of collective family brainwashing, that it is painful to watch. As viewers, we have been made privy from the start as to Tony’s real nature. We understand that when insecure Anthony Jr. bravely announces he has become an “existentialist” who does not believe in God, it is his childishly ineffectual way of standing up to his father. We wince at how pleased with herself Meadow appears to be as she teases her father for not being as cool and up-to-date as her friends’ dads. We suffer in silence as Carmela flirts with her seductive parish priest, experiences her first extramarital kiss after almost twenty years of faithful wedlock with a house painter, and fantasizes about making love to the Italian assassin Furio, whom she pathetically takes to be the first authentically sensitive man she has ever met.

Even Dr. Melfi, Tony’s psychiatrist who is treating him with Prozac for his panic attacks, seems to join in the group denial. Upon learning what her new patient really does for a living, she informs him that under law, and by the ethical canons of her profession, she is bound to immediately report any revelations whatsoever of ongoing or imminently impending criminal activities. So the rules of the treatment are that she cannot under any circumstances be placed in a professionally compromising position. Incredibly, she somehow thereby convinces herself that this makes it permissible to turn a blind eye to what she surely knows — that the man she is treating with Prozac is a psychopathic, homicidal mobster.

It is characteristic of the paranoid to hate the object of their persecution. In the gangster psyche, such hatred is taken to a heart-stopping extreme. There is the unforgettable scene in The Sopranos in which ten-year-old Tony accompanies his father, a loan shark and enforcer, to the neighborhood grocer. Although instructed to wait in the car, Tony, sensing something is up, sneaks into the store. In the tiny doorway of a back room he witnesses his father — as punishment for having fallen into unacceptable arrears on a gambling debt — chop off the little finger of the hysterically screaming grocer. Unexpectedly needing to explain to his visibly terrified son what he clearly was not meant to see, his father, appearing wild-eyed and psychotic-looking, justifies his action by underscoring the degenerate nature of the gambler’s addiction and the necessity of never being disrespected. He concludes his lecture to his son pleading, “What else could I do?”

Throughout the five year run of The Sopranos, this pattern of rationalizing acts of unnatural violence by expressing outright contempt for their hapless victims, is repeated. In every one of the many scenes of graphically depicted, explosive violence — for which the show is both famous and notorious — we are treated to this sneering sense of sadistic self-satisfaction. Each character, when forced to act as an enforcer, is shown as almost viscerally enjoying the beating they are administering. For the impulsive criminal who must act out his murderous paranoid rage, splitting of the object is a desperate but perhaps necessary defense. It may be — by so thoroughly discharging their savage impulses within the confines of their secret, ritualized criminal life — they are unconsciously helping to preserve a comparatively safe venue for the personal expression of their more tender, sentimental side (which, according to Mafia lore, has always been channeled towards parents, family and especially children).

How different this is from ordinary, everyday paranoia where objects of persecution tend to be kept under tight wraps, internalized, sublimated, or acted out in obsessive ways. Here, there is precious little real life drama. Here, by contrast, it will be the tiny details in our life that seem most to torment us. Here we move from fighting crime families and the federal authorities to fighting something that can even be as small and unheroic as a mouse.


George had not thought of himself as phobic in any way, and certainly not in regard to rodents. After all, he lived in New York City, and what were there, supposedly eight million of them? Like everyone else, he had seen his share. A rat moving about, or sometimes even strolling along the tracks of a subway station. A mouse darting from a sidewalk bush. On each such occasion, he would shudder for just a moment, stare transfixed at the spot from which the creature had materialized, and then quickly look away.

But George had never seen one up close. The most vivid personal experience he could conjure up went back to his childhood, when he was nine years old and living with his parents in a small, but comfortable two-story house in Hartford, Connecticut. The first thing he remembered was his mother screaming and his father almost simultaneously jumping up from his kitchen chair. Although he had been fortunately looking the other way, he could have no doubt that a mouse had just raced across the kitchen floor and disappeared somewhere beneath the large refrigerator that stood in the corner.

Even more startling to George than the sound of his mother screaming, was the panic that contorted the face of his father. Not only had he never remembered seeing his father acting that scared, but up until that time, he had never been aware of him looking nervous or worried about anything. Although his initial reaction had been to disbelieve his own eyes, he was unable to discredit his ears as well. For in the dead of night, in his bedroom on the second story which abutted that of his parents, he had been awakened by an odd metallic scraping noise that seemed to be coming from the downstairs kitchen, and he had realized, almost immediately, that the trap which, earlier, his father had baited with a sliver of American cheese and then cocked, had been sprung. It must be the mouse, thought George, squeezed in the trap, yet desperately trying to squirm free, that was producing the noise. His mother thought so, too: through the thin wall separating their adjoining bedrooms he could hear her strident voice, “Joe, it’s caught. Go downstairs and get rid of it.” Yet, even more tellingly, was his father’s cowardly rejoinder. “I’ll wait until the morning, when it’s dead.”

Thirty-odd years later, it was still not dead. George had come to me for therapy in order to exhume the state of his late marriage to his former wife of ten years, so as to better understand it, to come to grips with the appalling loneliness of sudden bachelorhood in a Queens apartment, and to divine, if he could, a more sanguine path that his life might take. Furthest from his mind (as he would later explain) was a need to confront a morbid anxiety concerning a possible inhabitation by rodents.

Yet, three months after I had first met George, when I believed that we had settled comfortably into a fruitful exploration of his post-marital, post-traumatic syndrome, that is exactly what happened. Visibly upset, George had arrived at his appointed time and promptly announced that something totally unexpected, something truly horrible, had just occurred. At about eleven in the evening, while he was lolling in the TV room adjoining the kitchen, he had seen something small and dark begin to flash from the border of the kitchen stove in the direction of the refrigerator, a distance of about five feet.

Instinctively, and instantly, as though to communicate his refusal to be visited by a rodent, George, jumping to his feet in the manner of his father years before, had yelled, “No!” And indeed, reacting to either the movement of his body or sound of his voice, the mouse, reversing its path in an incredible, seamless U-turn, had returned to the vicinity of the stove. But that, as George would tell me, was only “the beginning”, the crystallization of the first moment of terror occurring seconds after the sighting when, looking at his uncovered, bare feet and realizing at some point he would have to cross from the area of the TV room through the kitchen in order to go to bed, it dawned on him that no longer was he the sole occupant of his apartment. Like it or not, he had been joined by a repulsive visitor.

After more or less standing frozen in his tracks, and increasingly feeling that at the age of thirty-nine he was behaving like a ridiculous coward, he suddenly made a dash across the kitchen floor to the safety of the far side of the room. Turning to survey the territory he had just covered, George, out of the corner of an eye, saw a grey spot (which he presumed was the head of the mouse) cautiously advance from the bottom edge of a small garbage pail standing by the kitchen stove and, almost instantaneously, retreat.

Alternately frightened and then infuriated, George, arming himself with a broom from a hallway closet, proceeded to deliver a series of ear-splitting whacks to selected targets in the kitchen area in the faint hope of terrorizing the rodent into returning to wherever it had originally come from.

It would not be enough, George realized (noticing that he was actually pacing in small circles as he was thinking), to provide the security of the knowledge, that there was no creature prowling the premises, that would be needed in order for him to fall asleep. He would require traps for that. So, although it was late in the evening, he hastily dressed and headed for the all-night corner supermarket and bought every rodent trap they carried: small glue traps for mice, large ones for rats and, for good measure, some old-fashioned spring traps.

Returning to his apartment, just in case the mouse was freely and overconfidently wandering around, George leaned on the front doorbell to announce his arrival. He then opened the door, cautiously and carefully scanned the visible floor space, reentered the apartment, banged around some more with the broom, and immediately set to work deploying his arsenal of over half a dozen guaranteed traps.

That night George slept fitfully at best, but at least he wasn’t awakened by the odd metallic noise that had long ago roused him from his sleep, and when he did awake in the early morning hours he was by no means sure what he hoped he would find: a caught, half-dead, or dead rodent that needed to be disposed of, or an assortment of untouched traps that perhaps suggested the intruder had vacated the premises. When, fearfully padding from room to room, he ascertained that his fate was to be the latter, he felt relieved. Clearly he had overreacted, and given the unholy din he had angrily created with his broom, it made sense to think that the solitary mouse had been put to rout.

So, from that point on, a routine was established. George would return from work to his residence in Queens, lean on the bell just in case, and then compulsively check the contents of each and every trap. After four consecutive days in which nothing was discovered that he did not want to be discovered, he concluded that the scare, at bottom, had been only that a scare.

But on the sixth day, relaxing after dinner in his bedroom with a book, George became startled by the non-imaginary, and indisputably concrete sound of a trap being sprung. Impulsively leaping from the bed, he raced to the kitchen area, the site of the two spring traps that days ago had been carefully cocked and baited with American cheese and that so far had been unmolested. After first determining that the trap behind the waste basket by the kitchen stove was intact, George then saw, beyond doubt, that the spring trap that had been set by the baseboard next to the sink had not only been sprung, but had been completely flipped over onto its face.

Something had not only totally eluded the snap of the trap, but had knocked it silly. But what? In order to find out, George called up an old friend, Will, who knew so much, and talked so much about the rodent problem in New York City that he was jokingly nicknamed by his friends “the exterminator”. (Years ago, as a poor young actor living on the Lower East Side, Will had been visited and eventually infested by rats, so much so that he had been forced to vacate the premises and to move in with a friend, until workers from the health department had at last grudgingly come, trapping nine rats in all, and locating and removing three nests that had actually been built in the temporarily deserted apartment. And even after Will had nervously returned, there had been the time when he had woken up in the morning to discover a very much alive rat stuck in a large glue trap: one that had squealed and “gone crazy” as he lifted it with a shovel and then dropped it in a bucket of water, where it quickly drowned.)

Even though it was a late evening call from a friend whom he had not heard from for over five months, Will grew instantly attentive and totally serious at the mention of a mouse in the apartment.

“Are you sure it’s a mouse?”

The question made George uneasy. “What do you mean?”

“Well, a mouse looks small, kind of round and grey. Rats are dark.”

“Well this was dark, I think. But small.”

“Did it have a long tail?”

How long is long? thought George, who was sorry he had called Will after he hung up, but reminded himself that the tail did seem somewhat long. Shuddering at the thought that his visitor might be a baby rat after all (which might explain why it was strong enough to knock over a spring trap without getting caught), he got dressed and made a return visit to the corner supermarket for some fresh supplies.

Back in the apartment, George deployed another six traps in new locations, and reassured that no rodent could possibly avoid all of them, he went back to his bedroom. During the following seven nights, buoyed up by the fact that his morning inspection continued to reveal no unwholesome surprises, he managed to regain his normal pattern of sleep.

By then he had convinced himself of a new theory: whatever had knocked over the kitchen trap had undoubtedly been startled by the vicious metallic snapping and therefore had fled. Mercifully, the thought of a rodent living in the same apartment with him had begun to fade from his mind when he awoke in the middle of the eighth night, cognizant only of an urge to urinate. As he was a light sleeper, accustomed to many such urges, he knew his way by heart through the ten feet of darkness separating his bedroom from his bathroom.

As soon as George had let himself in the bathroom, even before he had switched on the light, he had heard a rustling. And when he had occupied the bathroom, closing the door behind him, the rustling grew unmistakably louder and he could no longer ignore it. Although nauseated at what he might see, George glanced at a corner of the bathroom, from which the rustling seemed to be emanating. He saw a mouse two to three inches in length, grayish in color, with a medium sized tail begin to scoot parallel to the door frame, across the width of the tiny room, to the shelter of the nearest corner and then, as though equally miserable to be closeted within sight of George as he with it, try hiding behind the base of the bathroom sink.

Conscious of his naked feet, and the distinct possibility that at any moment the mouse, in its panic, might scamper over them, George retreated to the wall furthest from the sink. With his left arm, so as to provide a means of escape, he slid the bathroom door open a few inches (enough for the mouse to get out in a direction away from his bedroom) and proceeded to bang on the wall with his fist. Within moments the tactic had worked, the mouse scurrying through the window of opportunity provided by George, down the hallway and into a nearby closet.

Having bolted from the bathroom almost as quickly as the mouse, George had been able to see it in the act of disappearing into the closet, and determined that this latest hiding place would be its last, he frantically created an impassable line of glue traps along the outer edge of the closet door, which he now firmly closed. Only two choices awaited the rodent: it could discover, within the confines of the closet, an egress leading out of the apartment or it could endeavor to squirm its way back into the hallway corridor, where it would surely be trapped.

Still, it was not enough. Although he was as certain as he could be that what he had seen had been a mouse and not a baby rat, the experience of being closeted with a mobile rodent had done serious damage to his already fragile confidence. From such a perspective, a dozen traps were insufficient protection. In what was becoming a late night ritual, George got dressed and paid another emergency visit to the corner supermarket where he discovered that only a single, large spring trap designed for a rat was available. Better be safe than sorry, thought George, who purchased it.

Back in his apartment, knowing there was at least one live rodent on the premises, he decided, for good measure, to add the forbidding new trap to his arsenal before returning to bed. It was already, according to his kitchen clock, three in the morning. Exasperated that so much time and energy were being devoted over a period of weeks to a disgusting and ongoing pest control problem, George baited the trap with an extra large chunk of American cheese and then proceeded to tighten the spring.

He was amazed at how much more powerful this trap was than the (by comparison) diminutive ones used to kill mice, for it took both his thumbs to pull the rectangular frame all the way back. The problem was he needed to free one hand so he could connect the bar which held down the lethal spring at the far end of the trap to the tiny bait with American cheese at the other end. To do that it was necessary to carefully slide the end of the bar through a hole in the bait.

So, pressing his right thumb as hard as he could on the taut frame, he slowly lifted the bar in his left hand. And suddenly George completely lost control of the trap: the frame slipping from under his thumb and then violently snapping shut. He could barely comprehend what had happened and certainly could not react. He saw the spring trap seemingly catapult itself about six inches from his right hand into mid air; and almost simultaneously he felt a sharp pain on the side of the pinky of his left hand, as though it had been struck by a hammer.

George instantly realized that somehow as the trap was springing shut it had caught the side of his finger with a glancing blow. Had it trapped it squarely, judging from the fearsome impact from only a glancing blow, George did not doubt his finger would have been amputated. As it was, it seemed to be rapidly turning partially blue and swelling up to nearly twice its size before his very eyes. His first thought was, is it broken? And he wiggled it to see if he could move it (indicating it was not broken) which he could do to a limited extent. His next thought was, what would his former wife, who had been so indispensable in emergency situations such as this, have told him to do? And remembering what she undoubtedly would have said, make a compress of ice and press it against the injury to reduce the tendency to swell, George did just that. For the next hour, standing alone and miserable in the center of his kitchen, he extended his little finger which, fortunately, did not continue to swell and, more and more, did not appear to be broken.

The following day, George made a point of visiting two new grocery stores and purchasing an additional ten traps, running up his total to over twenty. He was aware that he derived malicious pleasure, as well as genuine comfort, from the extent to which he had booby-trapped his apartment. And when five more days had passed without so much as a sign of disturbance in a single one of the multitude of traps, he began to believe that the rodent had most likely evacuated the premises through some aperture it had discovered within the recesses of the hall closet.

But on the sixth day, George finally caught a mouse. Almost immediately upon opening the front door, he saw it: squatting motionless on a small glue trap set by the base of the kitchen stove not far from the locus of the original sighting. As George entered the apartment and moved slowly forward to examine the dead-looking mouse, it moved. As he took another step to make sure that what he had seen had been more than a last-gasp death rattle, the mouse began to palpably squirm in the trap and to squeak. It was grey, fat, with a medium sized tail and very much alive. Suddenly George understood why the instructions on the back of the glue trap were devoted exclusively to the preferred means of deployment.

As George began once again pacing the floor, he realized that the means of actually killing the filthy rodent that had been plaguing him for nearly three weeks, lay squarely in his hands. Should be bash it with the broom? He imagined squishy insides staining the floor. Should be flush it down the toilet? What if it couldn’t flush and just stayed there? The method he settled on (suffocate it), although equally repulsive, seemed the safest.

His heart palpitating, he positioned a large glue trap over the head of the squeaking, mired mouse, and carefully dropped it, creating in effect a glue trap sandwich. Hoping his work was done, George quickly stepped back to survey the damage he had wrought. To his amazement, the large upper trap that was almost a foot in length, in testimony to the rodent’s will to live, started slowly to wave. Knowing now he had no choice but to get his hands dirty, George, using the handle of the closet broom as a lever, began pressing the two glue traps together. His aim, as he told himself, was not to crush the mouse but to force glue up its nose, so as to asphyxiate it.

And, after a respite of about fifteen minutes, gritting his teeth and forcing himself to peek between the sandwiched glue traps at the inert, grey, pancaked body, George was satisfied that it had worked. Lifting a corner of the upper trap with his forefinger and thumb, he slid the remains into a plastic bag, which he then carried to the incinerator in the outside corridor and deposited in the dump chute.

The following Sunday, at Will’s behest, George arranged to meet his first professional exterminator, a friendly, efficient man who conducted a thorough tour of the apartment: searching the kitchen area for telltale droppings, examining the pipes, radiator, the base of the plaster wall, and plugging with plaster or steel wool whatever holes or crevices he encountered. Forty-five minutes later he announced the results of his investigation. “I don’t think you have a mouse living in the apartment now. And we got all the holes so nothing that isn’t here already will be coming into the apartment for a month, that’s guaranteed. There is always the possibility, of course, they might create a new hole.”

Before leaving, the exterminator presented George with a supply of traps preferred by professionals, but not readily available in local stores, and explained: “These yellow glue traps are more reliable than the big black ones, which mice seem to be able to slip through. The boxes here with holes in them contain poison. The mice play around in the poison, and then die. I like the old fashioned snappers (meaning the kind of trap used by George’s father thirty years ago) except today, you know, we find peanut butter works better than American cheese.”

George shook hands and received a final reassurance, “You should have no problem.”

In regard to real rodents, the exterminator was right. But as George was to bitterly learn, from the day that he had first sighted the mouse, and throughout the year that he continued to see me, he would be tormented by the mouse that was running around in his head. The mouse in his mind that he could not exterminate, “my internal mouse”, as he called it. It had become from that first day a permanent part of the repertoire of images populating his dreams: usually appearing as a grayish substance that would begin to expand, move and eerily assume an unmistakable mouselike visage. It was even more troublesome in the daytime when, fully awake, a sudden play of light and darkness, a flickering shadowy motion, a faint unexpected noise, could make him instantly, fearfully alert. And it was no surprise that the twenty-odd traps remained a fixture in George’s apartment and that each evening, returning from work, he would lean heavily on the doorbell in spite of the fact he knew perfectly well that there was at least no human occupant within to hear it.

It was a rare opportunity as his therapist to witness the startling power of something that had begun as an ordinary paranoid thought, the uneasy fear of a small, scurrying animal that had so inexplicably frightened his parents and had taken hold in his nine year old mind. Thirty odd years later, surprisingly transformed, it had reemerged with the force of a full-blown trauma. From the moment that George laid eyes on the mouse, an experience that lasted about a second, it preoccupied his mind. By his own reckoning he must have invoked the memory of that initial sighting hundreds of times in the months to come and if he were to tally the instances of all mouse-related thoughts and associations, the number would be in the thousands.

Such abnormal monopolization of thinking is all the more extraordinary when it is considered that it is almost primarily devoted to negative psychical qualities. Although the classical idea, that the person by repeating the trauma is endeavoring to master and undo it, is applicable here, the question arises how is this to be accomplished? And one answer, suggested by George, is through desensitization: to literally grant the object not only a second chance, but as many opportunities as are necessary in order to be revisited and reexperienced in a less disturbing and more humane fashion.

Viewed that way, what the traumatized person such as George is really trying to do when he repeats a trauma is to experience its absence of affect: that is, to encounter the original threatening object without being subject to an involuntary turbulence of emotions. By invoking the traumatic object on his own terms, through willfully orchestrating the timing of its arrival and departure, the person hopes to desensitize some of the affiliated noxious memories.

It is of course in the nature of a trauma to resist such efforts at containment and one of its most terrifying aspects is just this capacity, in spite of an array of psychic forces to suppress it, to return. In this regard, it is obvious that the phenomenal agility and elusiveness of the mouse (taking George almost three weeks to capture it) is an important reason why it is such a universal object of phobic dread. The fact that the mouse is alive, has mobility, intentionality and, so to speak, pursues you by actively invading your turf and doing everything it can to resist expulsion, all contribute to the uncanny impact it is capable of producing. This can be better understood if it is compared with a traumatic object which is inanimate: a stretch of deep water, for example, in which one has nearly drowned; a diving board one cannot jump off of, a knife that one has cut oneself badly with, a flight of stairs down which one fell. It is not insignificant that such objects are inanimate and, in the manner that dead things can be banished at will from one’s personal space, can be obsessively avoided.

But the traumatic idea that has moved inside one’s psyche cannot be banished. The traumatized person, who has painfully learned that he cannot prevent its recurrence, therefore repeats the traumatic event as a defense against the unbearable suspense of having to anticipate the moment of its return.

The intentional repetition effectively neutralizes the element of malign surprise which characterized the original trauma and is also an attempt to arrange a showdown with the traumatic object, but once again on his own terms. In this sense, desensitization begins to look suspiciously like calculated psychical combat training: the person revisits the unsoiled state of mind that antedated the inauguration of the traumatic event, superimposes the psychological minefield that unfortunately developed, and doggedly tries to familiarize himself to the new reality and present danger.

The person mentally rehearses the traumatic scene in order to more comfortably occupy it, much as an actor practices on an empty stage in the hope of one day commanding it in earnest. Until that day arrives, and it rarely does, he feels persecuted and abused by the trauma that holds him in its grip and alternately belligerent and determined that there is no other recourse but to fight back.

As Adam Phillips has noted, a phobic symptom, such as George deploying more and more traps in his apartment, may be viewed as an attempt to slow the march of time and freeze the possibilities of action. When there is a need to control the specific source of dread (e.g., catch the mouse) that cannot be met (the mouse is too frisky), it becomes apparent how powerful is the drive and why it is that it dominates the psyche. The greatest freezing of the traumatic object occurs when one can actually kill it, as George was eventually able to do with the mouse in his apartment. By contrast, the least freezing occurs when the object is literally alive and on the loose as the mouse was for several weeks. Since most traumatic objects were never alive in the first place, they cannot be killed. The best one can do, then, is to deaden their impact.

The relationship between the originating traumatic event and the individual psyche upon which it impinges, can be likened to a master/slave, sadomasochistic dynamic of power. Normally, being controlled feels like being puppeteered. Being controlled by a trauma, however, especially in light of its irrationally repetitive and unrelieved persecutory aspect, feels like being sadistically enslaved. In such circumstances, there can be no hope of appeasement through reason or cognitive working through. The only resort seems to be that of violent revolt, radically turning the tables and enslaving the tyrant, which is why the initial phase of the self’s attempt to desensitize the newly acquired traumatizing affects can be comparable to the experience of being forced to undergo combat training. By contrast, when someone perceives himself to be enmeshed in a non-traumatic but nevertheless controlling situation, there is always the chance of either finding a way out or, if one cannot, of ingratiating oneself with the controlling agency (for example, a boss) and thereby loosening the coercive pressure. When the control originates from an internal traumatic object or affect, however, it is obvious that there is no directive, intelligent agency with which to bargain and the situation, accordingly, feels more hopeless.

Because a trauma is so unnaturally frightening, it is not sufficient to call it oppressive: it is more apt to compare it to an alien entity (like a multiple personality), that somehow has lodged itself in the psyche. When the object is another human being, as so often is the case when someone psychologically, physically or sexually batters another person, to the degree that the experience is traumatic, a non-human alien identity will be unconsciously projected onto the perpetrator. For all of these reasons, a trauma represents the most direct experience a person can have, and perhaps the clearest example that a pathological process, or a pathogen is at work. From an experiential, phenomenological standpoint, a trauma is tantamount to an infection of the psyche.

Because of this, a common fear is that as one progressively succumbs to the spell of a trauma, one is either beginning to break down or may already have lost one’s mind. There is a basis to such fear: when the so-called normal person has been traumatized, in view of the radical loss of ego boundaries that is entailed, he has probably come closer than he ever has to the experience of being mentally unbalanced (although cognitive functioning generally remains intact, the characteristic profound emotional fluctuations are difficult to distinguish from a clinical mood disorder).

It is easy to see how ordinary paranoid fears — their runaway nature unchecked — can become phobic, traumatizing thoughts, thoughts that, assuming a life of their own, begin to prey upon their unsuspecting creator. Much of the maddening frustration one feels in such a situation derives from the depressing realization that there is now absolutely no court of appeal. Whatever is persecuting you does so so mercilessly it seems to be an alien presence.

This, of course, is clearly seen when the persecuting object is authentically alien (e.g., deep water, or a mouse). It is then frightening because, given that it is so unempathic and impersonal, once such an object begins to silently invade, control or even kill (e.g., deep water) there is nothing, no brake, to stop it.

There is no contingency of everyday life that is more unempathic and impersonal than the inevitability of our own death and the death of those we love. There is nothing more alien than the presence of someone we love, who happens, however, to be dead. There is no more fertile soil for the paranoia of everyday life.








Author. Psychotherapist. Writing about psychology for all to read. I also interview scientists.

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Jerry Alper

Author. Psychotherapist. Writing about psychology for all to read. I also interview scientists.