The Long Birth Of Psychohistory

The psychohistory list is one of the most unusual on the Internet. I've been a member of it for almost five years and still it is impossible to gauge the daily messages its members will conjure up.


Society is the group-fantasy sandbox of adults.

Lloyd deMause


The psychohistory list is one of the most unusual on the Internet. I've been a member of it for almost five years and still it is impossible to gauge the daily messages its members will conjure up.

The below exchange is a typical one. It took place in January of this year between list member Anthony Coulter and psychohistory founder Lloyd deMause. Coulter wonders about the connection between the James Bond films and the birth process.

"My father just got a series of James Bond movies on video, and I've been watching a marathon of two movies so far … Two is enough to define a pattern in my world, though, so I'm reporting my observations now. I think that James Bond represents the group fantasy of the time it was made. So far, on Diamonds are Forever, three people have been smothered to death. In the last movie, Octopussy, there was an entire island filled with scantily clad women that started off as villains and ended up being the heroes. The latter is obviously a fantasy, but what of the first? Three people have been smothered in the first half-hour of a single movie! The year was listed as 1971. What stage was the American group fantasy at in 1971?"

A typical psychohistory type of question. You see a lot of these questions on the list. One of the key concerns of psychohistory is group fantasy cycles. DeMause and the discipline of psychohistory believe America goes through group fantasy cycles in a continuing pattern based around the birth process.

Lloyd deMause responds to Anthony Coulter's question. "In 1971" he notes, "America was in the final years of Vietnam, an unsuccessful attempt to reverse our feelings of impotence through sacrifice of 50,000 of our young men (and two million Asians), saying if they die for our sins (all the progress in the Sixties) their deaths would be punishment and we could all feel better. Vietnam failed. We were still impotent. We were trapped in our rebirth, our return to our own hellish birth memories, with asphyxiation being our main feeling. The smothering in the movie seems a reflection of this memory as Americans, stuck in the rebirth canal, felt strangled by being trapped in Vietnam."

A New Science Of Collective Psychology?

Welcome to the discipline of psychohistory which concerns itself with collective psychology, a field that, surprisingly, has never garnered much interest in both popular culture and the academic world.

Of course Jung was always interested in this area positing his collective unconscious in The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. And Freud was drawn to collective psychology towards the end of his life. In Civilization and Its Discontents he hypothesized that society as a whole might be collectively neurotic:

"It can be asserted that the community, too, evolves a super-ego under whose influence cultural development proceeds … The super-ego of an epoch of civilization has an origin similar to that of an individual … If the development of civilization has such a far reaching similarity to the development of the individual and if it employs the same methods, may we not be justified in reaching the diagnosis that, under the influence of cultural urges, some civilizations, or some epochs of civilization-possibly the whole of mankind-have become ‘neurotic'?"

Freud speculated that cultures might be studied like a patient on the therapist's couch and that an "analytic dissection of such neuroses might lead to therapeutic recommendations which could lay claim to great practical interest." He felt that one day it might be possible to "embark upon a pathology of cultural communities."

Since Jung and Freud there have been a number of efforts to apply the theories of collective psychology to culture but none have gained prominence as anything close to a general accepted theory. Rather the ideas of collective psychology have existed as more a bricolage of cobbled together ideas from a number of disciplines.

Psychohistory, or the study of the individual and collective life using the methods of psychoanalysis and history, is itself is a type of bricolage of disciplines existing in that twilight area between academic disciplines like sociology, history, biology, anthropology and psychology. It has always been a type of unwanted stepchild of the formal academic world.

As deMause observes, "Social scientists have rarely been interested in psychology." For this reason, there has always existed opposition to using psychology to study historical events. He notes that Emile Durkheim, founder of the discipline of sociology with his studies of suicide and incest, claimed that these paramount private acts were wholly without individual psychological causes. For Durkheim, understanding individual motivations was irrelevant to understanding society. In his famous Rules of the Sociological Method (1895), deMause points out that Durkheim noted, "The determining cause of a social fact should be sought among social facts preceding it and not among the states of individual consciousness.

Psychohistory suggests that a passionate denial of the influence of emotions on society has been at the center of the social sciences since their beginnings. As deMause says "The actions of individuals in society have been assumed to be determined by pure self-interest. Social behavior, using these models, cannot be irrational, empathetic, self-destructive or sadistic."

For deMause, this exclusion of the most powerful human feelings from social and political theory coupled with the elimination of irrationality and self-destruction models of society explains why the social sciences have such a dismal record in providing any historical theories worth studying. As long as social structure and culture are deemed to lie outside human psyches, motivations are bound to be considered secondary and reactive solely from outside conditions rather than themselves determinative of social behavior.

Underlying much of the foundation for psychohistory is the need to move away from an ahistorical, drive-based psychology to a historical, trauma-based psychology that can be used in understanding historical change.

History of Childhood

For psychohistorians, the crucial aspect of understanding historical change are the various traumas of child-rearing through history. Much centers around the relationship between parents and children. Psychic content is organized by early emotional relationships so psychic structure must be passed from generation to generation through the narrow funnel of childhood. Child-rearing organizes the emotional structure that determines the transmission of all culture.

Psychohistorians and deMause claim that the evolution of child-rearing throughout history is associated with many traumas. People project onto the historical stage earlier traumas and feelings in such a manner that events appear to be happening to the group rather than being internal.

All of this forms the basis of deMause's Psychogenic Theory of History. It is centered on a model that involves the shared social "restagings" of dissociated memories of early traumas, the content of which changes through the evolution of childhood. It posited that the central force for change in history is neither technology nor economics, but the "psychogenic" changes in personality occurring because of successive generations of parent-child interactions.

The evolution of parent-child relations constitutes an independent source of historical change. In deMause's The Evolution of Childhood, one of the foundation works of psychohistory, deMause notes "The origin of this evolution lies in the ability of successive generations of parents to regress to the psychic age of their children and work through the anxieties of that age in a better manner the second time they encounter them than they did during their own childhood. The process is similar to that of psychoanalysis, which also involves regression and a second chance to face childhood anxieties."

Pre-birth Sequence

One of the grandest traumas of childhood, psychohistorians argue, has always been the trauma of birth and even before birth, the pre-birth experience.

Much of this area is called Prenatal Psychology and is contained in the theories of people like deMause, Stanislov Grof, Francis Mott, Elizabeth Fehr and Gustav Graber. The idea is that consciousness begins before (rather than after) birth and that the major sequential symbolism is contained in the nine month period inside the mother's womb from gestation to birth.

One of the first to suggest a type of pre-birth consciousness and psychology was Otto Rank in his 1923 The Trauma of Birth. It was a book which was a major cause of Freud cutting himself off from the brilliant young psychologist. Freud's efforts at downgrading Rank's birth trauma theories were effective within the overall psychoanalytic community but the idea was far too important to go away even with the curse of Freud himself. In 1949, a quarter century after Rank's work went out of print, Nando Fodor released a book called The Search for the Beloved. It was a key event in reintroducing the idea of birth trauma into psychoanalytic thought.

Today, some of the most important work in pre-birth psychology is being done by Stanislov Grof. His research is contained in a number of central books, the key ones being Beyond The Brain (1990), Realms of The Human Unconscious (1994) and The Cosmic Game (1998). The basis of Grof's theories was his observation of several thousand psychoanalytic sessions in which subjects combined powerful psychoactive substances like LSD with a number of non drug therapeutic methods. These served as catalysts to open the unconscious processes. Subjects tended to move farther and farther back in time until they were engaged in the process of biological birth.

Grof's subjects reported a distinct archetypal sequence which moved from an initial condition undifferentiated unity with the womb, to an experience of sudden fall and separation from the primal organismic unity, to a highly charged life and death struggle with the contracting uterus and the birth canal, culminating in the experience of complete annihilation. This was followed by an experience of liberation which was perceived not only as physical birth but as spiritual rebirth.

Grof posited four "Basic Perinatal Matrices" which he felt his patients regularly relived under the influence of LSD. The sequence and description of these matrices are:

Primal Union With Mother
In the womb, fantasies of paradise, unity with God or Nature, sacredness, "oceanic" ecstasy.
Antagonism With Mother
Derived from the onset of labor, when the cervix is still closed. A feeling of being trapped and of futility, of crushing pressure, of unbearable suffering and hellish horrors, of being sucked into a whirlpool or swallowed by a terrifying monster, dragon or octopus.
Synergism With Mother
When the cervix opens and propulsion through the birth canal occurs. There are fantasies at this time of titanic fights, explosive discharges of atomic bombs and volcanoes all part of an overwhelmingly violent death-rebirth struggle.
Separation From Mother
Upon the termination of the birth struggle, after the first breath, there are feelings of liberation, salvation, love and forgiveness, along with fantasies of having been cleansed, unburdened and purged.

Here, there is an incredible similarity to other sequential patterns identified by Joseph Campbell in Hero With A Thousand Faces, Carl Jung in Symbols of Transformation and Erich Neumann in The Origins and History of Consciousness.

American Fantasy Cycles

While Rank, Grof and others discovered a type of uniform archetypal sequence of pre-birth imagery, it has mainly been Lloyd deMause who has attempted to translate this sequence to historical events. In effect, culture as a whole may pass through the same sequence involved from inception to birth.

As American culture passes through this sequence, deMause claims American group-fantasy cycles occur. Within each of these group-fantasy cycles are contained four sequences: innovative, depressed, manic and war. The sequences within each cycle appear in the following order and contain the following events:

Innovative Phase

A new psychoclass comes of age, and introduced new inventions, new social arrangements and new prosperity, producing a Belle Epoque, with warmer personal relationships and less scapegoating of women and minorities.

Depressive Phase

The older psychoclasses become depressed by guilt over the prosperity and anxiety from the new social arrangements. The world seems out of control, as childhood traumas press for repetition, and the nation regresses, goes on Purity Crusades and fears of women, and creates an economic depression.

Manic Phase

As economic recovery threatens fresh anxiety, group-fantasies of threatening monsters, punitive mothers, polluted bloodstreams, suicidal imagery and poisonous foreigners proliferate. The nation reacts with a manic defense against its depression, engaging in speculative investment, wasteful military buildups, monetary and credit explosions, foreign belligerence and other grandiose attempts to demonstrate omnipotent control of love supplies.

War Phase

When a cooperative Enemy is found who can provide a guilt-free reason to go to war, the nation sends its youth to be killed in a perverse ritual. Images of restored virility and rebirth of the world predominate, and the nation returns to a new innovative phase after the sacrifice.

Since the American Revolution, deMause notes there have been four major group-fantasy cycles lasting from 36 years to 53 years in length. The approximate years for these cycles are the following:

  1. Cycle 1 (1780-1830)
  2. Cycle 2 (1830-1866)
  3. Cycle 3 (1866-1919)
  4. Cycle 4 (1920-1966)

If this is so, then America is now in cycle 5 which began around the mid-60s. These fantasy cycles have been based around the major wars of American history and a broad cyclic pattern alternating between economic depression and war.

The material analyzed by deMause to arrive at his findings show themselves in culture in such symbols as popular films and television programs, editorial cartoons, newspaper headlines, Op-Ed pieces and magazine covers.

DeMause argues that wars are symbolically linked to the birth trauma and when America is close to going to war images of strangulation appear in various media. The images of strangulation are associated with going through the birth canal and war becomes a type of symbolic rebirth for the nation. Interestingly, deMause also finds a foreign policy "mood curve" cycle alternating between introvert and extrovert with introvert broadly matching the war sequence and extrovert the depression sequence.

His theories about the relationship between war, birth and images of strangulation began when he started collecting emotional imagery surrounding the outbreak of World War I. As he describes in his Foundations of Psychohistory, in studying these images, he was puzzled by the recurring claims by the aggressors that they were forced to go to war against their wishes because of common claims that "a net had suddenly been thrown over their head," or "a ring of iron was closing about us more tightly every moment" or they had been "seized by the throat and strangled." Given the concreteness of all this birth imagery, deMause concluded that war was a rebirth fantasy of enormous power shared by nations undergoing deep regression to fetal traumas.

Pre-birth symbolism may also help see a number of the unusual hysterias today in new perspectives. For example, one leading psychohistorian finds a startling close symbolism between the sequential steps described by alien abductees and the birth process.

Birth of a New Understanding?

This all may sound far-fetched to some but deMause is a bold and dedicated scholar working outside the traditional academic world with a growing international following.

Lloyd DeMause is tall, slim, white-haired and seventy years old. He has supported himself, psychohistory, The Journal of Psychohistory, the International Psychohistory Association and its 20 institute branches around the world for 40 years by running his own publishing firm. His firm has published six books. Most of his articles show up in The Journal of Psychohistory which he edits and publishes himself.

For nearly five decades, he has been promulgating the gospel of psychohistory, and for nearly five decades he has met with disparagement and scorn. "All of this," as deMause tells us, "since academia (Columbia University) kicked me out for heresy." He is author of the seminal work in psychohistory Foundations of Psychohistory. His Reagan's America is considered by many as one of the most penetrating and unique perspectives ever written on the collective psychology of the Reagan years.

Yet for all his efforts, the implications of deMause's ideas for the study of collective psychology may not yet have realized their true importance or reached their real audience. For example, the original notion of evil may in fact come from the placenta as the original antagonist in the embryo's struggle for pure blood and space within the mother's womb. As the embryo grows, the placenta has a more and more difficult time purifying the mother's blood. Is the placenta the symbolic serpent in much mythology?

And too, deMause's analyses have often proved weirdly prescient. He predicted the defeat of Jimmy Carter, and the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan. He predicted what eventually became the Gulf War. "I don't want to focus on prediction," he says. "But I do think that a good scientist - if psychohistory is a science - should try to predict. Psychohistory is empirical. It's based on the scientific methods of psychology."

Unlike the analysis of individual dreams which dominated the Freud and Jung systems of determining collective psychology, deMause centers his analysis on popular culture. "We're a sort of monitoring center of national dream life." This has the ability to open up the field to a much larger group of "armchair analysts." And it is exactly these "armchair analysts" who go at it on the psychohistory list.

And perhaps in all those images of birth that Lloyd deMause so avidly tracks, there is the image of a new birth and wider acceptance for a discipline he has so fervently nourished for half a century. He has certainly proven to be a good parent to this little unwanted stepchild of a discipline.

(Note: Those interested in exploring psychohistory, signing up for the psychohistory list or subscribing to the journal should visit the Institute for Psychohistory Web site at www.psychohistory.com)


© 2001 John Fraim.

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