“The sense of guilt is an expression of the conflict due to ambivalence of the eternal struggle between Eros and the instinct of destruction or death”. - Freud, Civilization and its Discontents.
“From an analytic point of view, the only thing of which one can be guilty is of having given ground relative to one's desire”. - Lacan, Seminars, Book VII.
[TW for child abuse].
The reader will be asked to indulge me a little, give me the benefit of the doubt, and take my word for it that even I wasn’t masturbating violently at the age of three.
I had been admitted to hospital, for at least the second time, in 1981. I was bruised and underfed, with lacerations to my penis that required five stitches. I had been in the care of my birth mother and her partner at the time. Family lore recounts that, in order to explain the lacerations, it was claimed that I had pulled the protuberance until it tore. The doctors did not accept this explanation: the lacerations, they said, were such that could only have been caused by a razor sharp implement.
As a result, I was taken into the care of Lancaster County Council, before being transferred to the care of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. (Yes, the Right Honourable Humphrey Atkins had the immense privilege.) I was finally transferred to the care of my father and stepmother in 1984, who parented under the hapless eye of Social Services. And, at their request, Social Services temporarily withdrew their supervision in 1987, probably some time after I had been taken to ‘meet’ my birth mother in a forgettable encounter at a local social services field office.
How much can I trust in the integrity of this narrative? The fragments which I consider ‘memories’ from this period are phantasmagorical. For example, I seem to have a trace ‘memory’ of being held under water in the bath tub, but whether this recollection materialised after hearing of an actual event, or perhaps after a dream, I do not know. Nor, in this memory, is there any sense of distress or danger. How much of my memory necessarily segues into fantasy? I have no memory of having my penis attacked, or of having been thrown down the stairs, and yet at various points I have been informed by trusted sources that these things happened.
Memory is treacherous and, I would say, self-serving - or, less tendentiously, autopoietic. Through it, we construct meanings about ourselves that tell us who we are, and why we do what we do. Meanings which are, as far as possible given the source material, satisfactory in relation to our ego-ideal, what we like to think about ourselves. And then the ambiguity and uncertainty that is constitutive of memory in the first instance is obscured. The relationship of ‘facts’ to truth is never so vexed as when one attempts a rigorous inventory of the infinity of traces which experience leaves on the psyche.
The remainder of what I ‘know’ consists of my memories of second or third hand symbolisations of the experience several years later. There is also a documentary trace, a bureaucratic imprint, evidence accumulated over the years by the social services in Northern Ireland - medical reports, field notes, interviews, day books. This seems to promise something more objective - but then, one might ask, what are documents but yet more second or third hand symbolisations? What do they offer except an incomplete portion of a fragmentary record of guilt and shame and rationalisation and mistranslation and mistranscription and inaccuracy and official ideology?
These sources do not necessarily corroborate one another. The documents do not in every instance affirm what I already ‘knew’. And there are significant gaps in the story told by family and official sources, as there always are. It is in these gaps that fantasy takes its perilous hold. For all I know, none of this could have happened.
It is important for the purposes of this narrative that no motive, much less explanation, for the abuse has ever been offered, as far as I know. A man unloads his misery onto an infant, and you want to know why. At the most abstract level, one could invoke the ‘cinderella effect’ of which evolutionary psychologists speak, wherein jealous step parents are purportedly more likely to abuse. But while the existence of such a statistical effect seems plausible, the explanations offered by this school do not.
Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that it is all fiction. Not because it is, but because I find it useful to start with this position and see what truths emerge. Regardless of what happened, the abuse acquired a symbolic efficacy. It became a founding truth of my life, for others and therefore also for me. Insofar as it exists today, it exists in language, in its symbolisation.
In analysis, over thirty years after the events recorded above, something stirred in my unconscious, like a rat in a cellar. A parapraxis led me to this: I was unconsciously guilty about the abuse. I reeled.
You may assume that I would have known perfectly well the truism that guilt is often associated with abuse. I did not, and we could allow for the possibility that this ‘not knowing’ was itself an artefact of repression. At any rate, the thought produced a surfeit of associations that suddenly couldn’t escape my lips fast enough. How long had I felt hunted, as if I was going to be ‘found out’? How many times had I been told as a child that I just ‘naturally look guilty’ even if I had done ‘nothing wrong’? How many recurring dreams in which the ‘terrible thing’ that I had done was at least concretised - say, as a murder - so that I could be hunted for a reason? The relative truth of these babblings from the couch is not very important: the mere fact of such a plentitude of significations indicates that a motherlode had been struck.
In these circumstances we are tempted to discount guilt, to shoo it away, or smother it in lachrymosity in the manner of Good Will Hunting, rather than asking the question: under what conditions could such guilt be intelligible?
When one reads of how ‘survivors’ - a term with which I, respectfully, will not have anything to do - have experienced guilt, quite often there is a specific incident or supposed failure in mind. ‘If only I hadn’t worn that nightie.’ ‘If only I hadn’t made a mess in the kitchen.’ ‘If only I had done my homework.’ Yet I am talking about something that supposedly happened to me when I was three years of age. The guilt has no anchor in a memorable incident, and it relates to a time when I could not conceivably hold myself responsible for anything that happened to me. That, to me, suggests that guilt has nothing to do with responsibility.
In the popular explanations for ‘survivor’s guilt’ which appear on websites, there is an unfortunate tendency to tangle up guilt, shame and responsibility, which must precisely be distinguished. We are told such things as: ‘people feel guilty about their abuse because they don’t want to accept the frightening conclusion that sometimes they are not in control of what happens to them’. What if the truth is the precise opposite? That we feel guilty because we do not think we have any say at all in what happens to us?
With guilt, there is an anxiety-producing expectation of punishment. Someone else is in charge of one’s life, one lives according to someone else’s rules, someone else’s desire, and that someone else is always on the brink of visiting a terrible punishment.
To deal with guilt, one can try to prove one’s innocence - collate all the evidence in the hope that one day you will take it all the way to the highest court of appeal, whatever that might be, and get the verdict reversed. We should make some space for the possibility that this is what I’m doing here. One can preemptively ‘punish’ oneself, constantly impede one’s own desires, self-sabotage, or injure oneself. One can do things that are certain to get one ‘caught’. “Paradoxical as it may sound,” Freud writes, “I must maintain that the sense of guilt was present before the misdeed, that it did not arise from it, but conversely—the misdeed arose from the sense of guilt.” Or one can ‘confess’ to things in the hope that by attaching the guilt to something, and submitting to punishment or expiation, the guilt will go away. In this sense, attaching guilt to a specific ‘offence’ like wearing the wrong nightie is a way of alleviating the anxiety caused by guilt, at least temporarily. If I know what I’m guilty of, I don’t have to keep expecting punishment.
This is why people are mistaken to think they can avoid guilt by dodging responsibility. When I was an adolescent, a man responsible for my care told me, as if continuing a conversation: “You know, I would never take wee boys to bed unless they asked me to.” The details and context of this almost charmingly hesitant ‘offer’ need not detain us here: suffice it to say, the fellow was disappointed. But I think this guilty little desire of his had bedevilled him for a while, and that in the manner of phrasing his ‘offer’, he was clearly trying to push the responsibility for it onto me. He could not take responsibility for his desire, not only because I was underage and in his care, but also because he was married, and because the desire was obviously homosexual and this was a conservative backwater of Northern Ireland. And yet, even if I could have taken responsibility for him, this would still only have exacerbated his guilt.
But what happens when guilt is repressed? Freud considers that Shakespeare’s version of Richard III is a neurotic. Deformed, unfinished, sent before his time into this breathing world, scarce half made-up. Unloved by his mother, with an absent father, rudely stamp’d and wanting love’s majesty. Like all neurotics, he has a lot to be resentful about. Life has cheated him, and he wants reparation - and, as he constantly tells us, he means to get it by any means necessary. This is what incites the complicity of the audience in his plight: we have all been born prematurely, all cheated by life, and wish we had Richard’s lack of scruple. But while he carries out his entertaining plots without apparent guilt, this can only be because he has repressed guilt. What is repressed according to psychoanalysis, however, is not affect but thoughts - in this case, self-critical thoughts. In Act 5, Scene 3, they finally bubble to the surface:
‘My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain.
Perjury, perjury, in the highest degree;
Murder, stern murder, in the direst degree;
All several sins, all used in each degree,
Throng to the bar, crying all, “Guilty! guilty!”
I shall despair.’
But if, as Freud has already argued, guilt was present before the misdeed, that indeed the misdeed arose from the guilt, of what is Richard III guilty? Of being deformed. Of being rudely stamp’d. Of all the things that he resents the world for. And this has no end. As long as you live, as long as you have a libido, you can fuel this resentment indefinitely. It is inexhaustible: nothing can satisfy it. By precisely the same token, nothing can satisfy the guilt.
According to Freud and Klein, guilt is a coinage of aggression and, at the most fundamental level, of aggressivity. What does that mean? Aggressivity is not just what we understand as aggression - you know, we must eat and, when the pantry is empty, we may as well tuck into our fellow beings. It is aggression toward the self. And when aggression is repressed, it returns as guilt. And what is that, but another, metastasising, shapeshifting attack on the self?
Freud and Klein use the language of ‘instincts’, and the struggle of vital life forces - death instinct versus Eros - to explain this phenomenon. (I am reminded that Freud's actual term was 'Trieb' meaning 'drive'.) But such metaphors, to be workable, obviously need to be detached from the biologism of the imagery. Lacan considered aggressivity to entail a splitting of the subject against the ego. The ego is formed through a series of imaginary identifications, beginning with the ‘mirror stage’ in which the child recognises its image and forms a narcissistic attachment to it. What is most riveting about the image is its cohesion and unity - a stark contrast to the fragmentary experience of pissing, shitting, throwing up, dribbling, crying, uncoordinated movements, giggling, hungering, eating, thirsting and drinking, which is the lot of any human infant. But the image the child falls for is too perfect. To live up to it is impossible. The subject hates it in the same moment as she develops a narcissistic identification with it, and wants to attack it. As we grow up, we form successive and more complex identifications with parental figures, schoolteachers, media personalities, and so on.
In the language of ‘instincts’, one would assume that the ego, by resisting the disintegration of the subject, resists the death drive. What if the truth is the reverse? What if the ego is on the side of death? That is, on the side of the mortification of the subject’s desire. I said that guilt implies that ‘someone else’ is in charge. In a sense, ‘someone else’ is in charge. The ego is modelled on what ‘someone else’ wants. You are born, and even before you can articulate the question, you want to know: why am I here? What did mum and dad want from me? And what attitude shall I take to their desire? The ego is always concerned with what others think, what is normal, what parents will approve of (or what will really wind them up), and so on. And the more energy is spent trying to live up to the often absurd standards of the ego, the stronger the guilt becomes.
Fundamentally, if one is guilty of anything, Lacan said, it is of ceding ground relative to one’s desire. At first, this idea was extremely opaque to me. But the more I spoke, the more I read, the more I asked ‘what am I really guilty of?’, the more acuminous this dictum became. For example, you can imagine my disappointment when I happened upon social worker reports describing me as “submissive”, and as doing what I’m told without thinking about it. In the same fashion, picture how dispirited I was to alight upon observations about my presenting “no disciplinary issues” to the staff of the children’s home in which I was placed at the age of fourteen. Of course, no one is ever “submissive” all the time, and such reports are not the whole truth. Yet, I can’t shake the suspicion that they tell a truth. That, as a boy I was so terrified of physical punishment that I lied about everything, including about what I really wanted. That, I put conformity with what I imagined my parents and others expected of me, ahead of my own wishes. That, I found a way to take satisfaction in not speaking, in not stating my desire, in not articulating. That, I don’t know whether and when I stopped doing this. That, I don’t know whether or when I really worked out what I want. That, the guilt is metastasising within me still.
Yet, guilt is a tremendous, cohesive agent. It holds you together when there seems to be no other logic to your actions. It binds couples, when they no longer have any other raison d’etre. It keeps families together, when they have nothing else in common. It makes the education system ‘work’, inasmuch as it secures a sullen, joyless compliance from students and teachers alike. It even makes work ‘work’, as you’ll know every time you phone in sick. The whole financial system depends on guilt. Zizek argued, for once entirely accurately and to the point, that part of Syriza’s demarche was to break with the guilt of indebted subaltern countries, and precisely to treat the debt as the politicised imposition that it is. And at a more molecular level, I think it would be quite difficult to understand the hold that the bankers have over us if we didn’t understand the guilt we have about our debts.
We need victims, survivors, subalterns, and so on, to be guilty. We have so much invested in it, individually, institutionally and socially. So many satisfactions. It is easy enough for me to ask whether we can live without it. The more politically salient question is whether we actually want to, a question I think it would be mistaken to try to answer too soon.
You will want to know why speak about this, or why speak now? For whom, and what? This is another of those questions to which I ‘don’t know’ the answer.
I can only say that I think there is a poetics of abuse that is associated with the ‘Tragic Lives’ genre which I find lamentable and politically reactionary, and which I wish to undercut. This is the style of self-display that wallows in misery and catharsis, and has little to do with any kind of solution.
That, there is a politics of abuse which too often shades into moral panic, and which leads us away from dealing with genuinely traumatic truths and into the blind alley of sacralising victimhood on the one hand, and arming lynch mobs with the self-righteousness to burn down the houses of ‘paedophiles’ on the other.
That, above all, the silence itself is illusory, and that I must embark on the process initiated here, of speaking. For what is not spoken still speaks.
And that fact is, in a very palpable way, killing me.