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Psychotherapy After Mohamed Atta

Psychotherapy After Mohamed Atta

Portland, Maine, can now lay claim to another famous man. Like our poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, he was inclined to champion those dispossessed from ancestral homelands. And like Joshua Chamberlain, the theologian/general who won the battle of Gettysburg, he was an imaginative tactician with a fondness for scripture. He shopped in our Wal-Mart, ate at our Pizza Hut and slept at our Comfort Inn. His name was Mohamed Atta.

The stylish Atta was first spotted in late August by an observer I consider reliable. He was seen in the company of some regular Arabic-speaking customers at a local convenience store. Beyond that report, Atta sightings have multiplied, as always happens in the nascent phases of a myth. Waitresses are sure that they served him and librarians that he used our public library's computers several times. But this Egyptian lawyer's son had long before succumbed to the temptation of becoming something more (or less) than human. In methodically orchestrating the deadliest terrorist attack in American history, he became the latest incarnation of an archetype: the Devil to us, and (since the archetypal world is always and ever polarized) the great Martyred Hero to others. Carl Jung's term for Atta's fate was "identification with the collective psyche" (1967). In its grip, one becomes "the fortunate possessor of the great truth," manifesting "megalomania in thefamiliar form it takes in the reformer, the prophet, and the martyr." Jung had good reason to emphasize this particular pathology, having been himself taken in by it for a time in the guise of Adolf Hitler.

While Jan. 1, 2001, officially began the new millennium, Sept. 11, 2001, was our millennial event. The devil-hero Atta, like Hitler before him, embodies the "rough beast" that William Butler Yeats foretold, the one that "slouches toward Bethlehem to be born." Like the final, sudden crack of an earthquake, Sept. 11, 2001, was the result of powerful and unseen forces -- in this case, cultural forces -- whose shifting has been underway for many decades. These forces have been pushing what we psychiatrists sometimes call the human Self away from historically recent developments in the direction of individuality and back toward more typical, collective forms.

The Self, as we and our patients experience it, is not an immutable aspect of human nature whose basic form we can take for granted. In many important aspects this Self is a culturally determined phenomenon, and it has been changing even during the brief time that psychodynamic psychiatrists have been around to describe it. And today, whether 21st-century humans memorize the Koran or wear Tommy Hilfiger jeans, they are increasingly defined by what they belong to and not what they uniquely and individually are. We are being subsumed into a world of collective symbols. It is fitting that Atta ate his last meal at Pizza Hut before he steered a jumbo jet into the World Trade Center. His world and ours is a world of brand names.

Some of us saw this new cultural context coming, but we are all, finally, surprised by it. Barely a century old, the tradition of psychodynamic psychotherapy -- by which I mean those therapies whose aim is to restore and develop the Self rather than only to modify behaviors -- now finds itself pivotally placed. Therapists occupy this position not only because of our various skills in treating anxiety and psychological trauma. Most fundamentally, we find ourselves here because we advocate for the healing potential of individuation. In doing so, we offer an alternative both to the rantings of Osama bin Laden and to the videos of Britney Spears.

We may debate whether or not the pursuit of uniqueness in helping individual patients to understand the themes and plots of their own lives has any ultimate value. We may even persuasively argue that the pursuit of uniqueness actually further alienates our patients from an increasingly collective world, leading them away from the comforts of fitting in. But we can't deny the fact that this pursuit is the foundation of our profession. Psychodynamic psychotherapy stands in opposition to the individual's imprisonment by any set of collective symbols that would wholly define his or her identity. Whether they are a response to material deprivation (radical Islam) or to toxic overabundance (MTV), we have learned that collective symbols, taken literally, impoverish the soul.

Writing in New York before the Trade Towers fell, the historian Jacques Barzun described in detail the course of a 500-year experiment in Western culture that was coming to a close as he worked. This experiment involved the development of individual selves on an unprecedented, mass scale. Its inaugural event, the one whose opposite bookend would prove to be the Sept. 11, 2001, disaster, was Martin Luther's challenge to the Catholic hierarchy: 95 propositions nailed to the church door in Wittenberg in 1517 that questioned the Church's right to determine the status of the individual before God. Luther's was a civilized kind of "attack" on another building that stood for the reigning power structure.

In medieval Europe until then, collectively defined human selves found their identities as part of something. Peasantry, clergy and noblemen all found their place in a putatively "divine" social scheme. An elite priesthood, literate in Latin, communicated the conventional behavioral prescriptions by means of images and icons, whose penultimate form was the didactic stained-glass window. These prescriptions included explanations of, and acceptable channels for, the various unruly human passions. For the most part, the illiterate masses complied, faithfully fulfilling their pre-ordained duties. The only alternative in their society was to be marginalized. But Luther's attack was emblematic -- like the earthquake's final crack -- of a cultural shift that had long been in process. Printing presses, literacy in vernacular languages, geographical mobility, growth of the money economy: all these conspired to give more and more opportunity to the autonomous, self-defining, questioning individual.

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