Diana Semmelhack and Larry Ende [*]
We are often shocked to hear of groups that are said to take irrational actions, radically undermining the basic values on which they had previously relied. This is what some believe to have happened in the recent incidents of brutality by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib Prison. The Holocaust and the Inquisition have been described as related acts of group irrationality. These events, however, can be explained another way. According to a Kleinian analysis of group dynamics, these group behaviors can be linked to a pre-existing form of psychotic-like thinking that already tends to characterize our social groups, thinking that stubbornly fends off members’ inquiry into the underlying principles of the groups’ operation. Extreme incidents such as those at Abu Ghraib can then be seen to occur, not because unusual events have led the group to suddenly become irrational, but rather because these events have led to an increase in the dimensions of psychotic-like thinking which already tends to characterize our social groups. The primary issue, then, is not that extraordinary conditions have led to a situation where things have gotten out of hand, but rather the unchecked existence of psychotic-like processes in the everyday operation of our social groups.
A striking example of the phenomenon under discussion occurred on American soil during the Salem Witch Trials. According to Roach (2004), from the first arrest warrants on February 29, 1692 to the last executions on September 22, 1692, eighteen people were executed by hanging, one person was pressed to death, and four people plus one infant died in prison. When the executions ended, fifty-five people had confessed to being “witches” and over a hundred and fifty remained in jail, waiting to be tried or enduring temporary reprieves due to pregnancies. What happened in Salem to trigger the bizarre, murderous self-destruction of a community based on what are often referred to as irrational grounds? This essay explains the event in terms of the intensification of psychotic processes unknowingly accepted as part of our everyday group dynamics.
Overview of Klein’s Theory
Researchers have shown a close relationship between certain group phenomena in our society and psychotic processes (Jaques, 1954). Basing their views on the work of Melanie Klein (who believed that personality development includes psychotic processes), these theorists suggest that understanding psychotic mechanisms can facilitate the understanding of group behavior. Bion (1954), for example, believes that the emotional life of the group is understandable only in terms of psychotic processes. Jaques (1954) emphasizes how individuals use institutions to help defend against primitive anxieties linked with psychotic phenomena. And Menzies-Lyth (1960, 1988) has come to understand social structures as a defense against primitive forms of anxiety, guilt, and doubt.
Klein’s theory derives from Freud’s dual-drive model (Summers, 1994). Klein adopted Freud’s view that the infant is born with both libidinal and destructive impulses. She believed, however, that psychoanalytic theory had focused too much on the libidinal drive, while insufficiently recognizing the aggressive drive (or death instinct). Up until 1934, Klein accepted Freud’s model. From 1934 onward, however, she began to formulate her own ideas about human development which emphasized the aggressive drive. A key is her structural concept of “positions” (Segal, 1973).
Klein’s model of the human mind includes two basic positions: the paranoid/schizoid position, dominant when the infant is 0 to 3 months old, and the depressive position, which emerges when the infant is about 4-6 months old. In the paranoid/schizoid position, the infant relieves itself of anxiety by attributing its anxious feelings to an attacking external object, which the infant thus hates and rejects. The object (or caregiver) is seen as all bad, incapable of good. The infant is thus relieved from responsibility for the anxiety-provoking situation. Simultaneously, this fantasy of the all bad object enables the infant to seek refuge in the alternative fantasy of an all good caregiver who unerringly satisfies the infant’s needs. (In reality, the infant is typically thinking of different “parts” of the same caregiver.) When the infant shifts into the “depressive position,” she begins to feel guilty for her assault on the object, and then sets out to repair her relationship with the object.
Klein’s “positions” offer different ways of dealing with anxiety: persecutory and annihilation anxiety in the paranoid-schizoid position, and depressive anxiety in the depressive position. The shift from the paranoid-schizoid to the depressive position has been described as a change from a predominantly psychotic way of processing information to a predominantly non-psychotic mode.
There is a continuous tension between the two positions throughout the life cycle (Klein, 1958). Moreover, when a child, adolescent, or adult is under stress, paranoid-schizoid and early depressive mechanisms and phantasies can emerge, greatly reducing the individual’s grasp of reality. The fixation point of the psychotic illnesses, according to Segal (1973), “lies in the paranoid schizoid and at the beginning of the depressive position” (p. 74). If an individual regresses to these early developmental points, a sense of reality is lost and psychosis ensues.
The infant in the paranoid/schizoid position tends to undergo a cycle that includes shifts between 1) projecting fantasies onto the object and 2) introjecting the object (Klein, 1958). The aggressive drive gives rise to annihilation anxiety (anxiety that one will be annihilated by the object of one’s aggression). While the infant is also born with the life instinct (or libido), this force is not yet strong enough to assuage the aggressive drive. The infant uses projection to cope with annihilation anxiety. Summers (1994) describes the infant’s use of projection as follows:
The infant attributes its own destructiveness and the attendant anxiety to the breast, which frees the primitive ego from the anxiety of being destroyed from within… [but] the cost to the primitive ego of projection of aggressiveness onto the breast is the preconception of a new state of danger from without, as the breast holds the threat of destruction that once resided within-the ego (p. 74).
Thus projection of the aggressive drive onto the breast transforms annihilation anxiety into persecutory anxiety. The infant then attempts to reduce the external threat by introjecting the bad breast in an effort to control it. A cycle of projection/introjection develops through which the infant attempts to reduce one type of anxiety while triggering the other. If the infant has a large enough buildup of internalized good object experience (via adequate mothering and handling) and does not have an abundance of innate aggressiveness, the introjective/projective cycles will ultimately reduce the magnitude of persecutory and annihilation anxieties.
Summers highlights ‘projective identification’ and ‘splitting’ as two important defensive maneuvers infants use to reduce anxiety in the paranoid/schizoid position. These maneuvers tend to dissipate as the buildup of good object experience starts to outweigh bad object experience and the ego begins to integrate. An over-abundance of bad object experience, however, may greatly delay ego integration, causing the infant to continue to rely on paranoid schizoid defense mechanisms in order to control its aggressiveness.
In “projective identification, the infant attempts to reduce anxiety by projecting the badness . . . into the breast and identifying itself with the object; that is, the infant attempts to control its own aggressiveness by endeavoring to control the aggressiveness in the object” (Summers, 1994, p. 77). Klein (1946) viewed projective identification as the prototype of the aggressive object-relationship. In projective identification, as Segal (1992) describes it, the child or adult places in someone else something belonging to the self that may be too painful to bear. She does this by acting in such a way that the painful parts of the self are evoked in the other person. This defensive maneuver “involves a very deep split, where the aspects of the self projected into others are very deeply denied in the self” (p. 36). Projective identification is one way that children and at times adults attempt to deal with their own destructiveness. We attribute our own rage to someone else and then fear those whom we hate.
In ‘splitting,’ the infant attempts to keep the good and gratifying object (or breast) unspoiled by aggressiveness. In fantasy, the infant splits the breast into a good and a bad object. The infant thus avoids having to experience the anxiety of injuring the good object through its aggressiveness. In addition, since intra-psychic contact between the good and bad object is threatening to the infantile ego, the ego splits into good and bad selves.
In splitting, the infant directs all love and desire toward the ideal object which it wants to introject, possess, and identify with (Segal, 1973). Concurrently, she directs all hatred toward the persecutory object in an attempt to rid the self of everything that is felt to be bad or disruptive to the self. Adults often try to resolve conflicts by splitting their perception of people into all good or all bad aspects. When an individual relies chiefly on the defense of splitting, reality becomes grossly distorted, creating a world of “one-dimensional, one characteristic part objects” (p. 41).
Developmentally speaking, when early positive experiences and innate libido have been strong enough to solidify a good internalized object, the ego will begin to recognize that good and bad objects are the same (Summers, 1994). Split off components of reality start to become integrated, leading to a more realistic perception of reality. The infant comes to recognize the rather scary reality that the hated object is the same one which is loved and depended on for sustenance. She gains an awareness of objects and the self as whole (with loved and hated aspects). Infants begin to understand that they are aggressive agents, not simply victims of persecution. This integration of split off parts leads to the beginning of the “depressive position.”
In the depressive position, the child’s primary anxiety stems from her fear that her destructive impulses have or will destroy “the object that he loves and totally depends on” (Segal, 1973, p.69). As the infant recognizes a desire to injure the object, she feels guilt and a desire to repair the object, which is both loved and hated. If she has a sufficiently stable build up of good object experiences, the infant will be able to see that her destructive impulses have not irreparably damaged the loved object.
In its fragile state of ego integration, the infant relies on certain defensive maneuvers to help her cope with depressive anxiety. This includes, according to Summers (1994), the infant’s omnipotent phantasy that it can magically control bad objects and restore good objects, or mania. The child’s belief in her omnipotence strongly suggests a denial of reality. The “manic defense” denies external and psychic reality, exaggerating the internalized good object (Klein, 1935).
When the manic defense does not succeed in repairing the object, the infant may frantically attempt to repair it by means of obsessive mechanisms “in a desperate effort to repair the object over and over to prevent psychic disintegration” (Summers, 1994, p. 92). If all of the infant’s reparative efforts fail, depressive anxiety will not be reduced and psychopathology may ensue. The individual may become locked in an obsessive compulsive pattern, or fixated in a manic defense. If the anxiety triggered by not being able to repair the object is overwhelming and the internalized good object not solidly in place, a regression to the paranoid-schizoid position may develop. The ability to sustain loving relationships depends on the experience of having repaired the loved object. Individuals who have not had this experience may be unable to form intimate relationships out of fear that they will destroy the loved object.
Bion (1954) believed that Klein’s psychology of the individual applied to groups. He theorized that the emotional life of the group could be understood only in terms of the psychotic processes characteristic of the paranoid-schizoid and the early depressive positions.
Individuals, according to Bion, are driven to make contact with the emotional life of the groups in which they live. The task of making this contact is akin to the infant’s need to make physical and emotional contact with the breast. Connecting emotionally with the group and securing membership requires a “massive regression, to mechanisms (e.g., splitting, projective identification) described by Klein as typical of the earliest phases of mental life” p. 440). This regressed state is suggested by the fact that in most groups people forfeit their distinctiveness in order to become members.
Bion (1954) delineated two trends of mental activity that occur simultaneously in any group, the “work group” and the “basic assumption group.” The work group pursues the basic activity that the group has come together to accomplish (the task). This activity “… is related to reality, its methods are rational, and, therefore, in however embryonic form, scientific” (p. 442). The work group recognizes the need for the group to understand experience and to develop. Much like the individual who has dealt successfully with paranoid-schizoid and depressive anxieties, this level of group functioning is characterized by a relationship to whole objects, a prevalence of ego integration and the use of the symbolic function to give meaning to group activity. The work group may be distinguished by a leader who is focused on the task at hand, and therefore possesses contact with external reality.
Work group activity, however, can be obstructed by basic assumptions. Group members, according to Bion, place aspects of their deepest anxieties outside of themselves and pool them to create the emotional life of the group. Basic assumptions act as defenses against these pooled primal anxieties, anxieties characteristic of the paranoid/schizoid and early depressive positions.
Bion describes basic assumptions as giving meaning to the complex, chaotic, underlying emotional life of the group. The basic assumption operating at any given time is communicated to members through projective identification. In projective identification unwanted parts of the personality of individual members are split off and projected into the emotional life of the group. Bion goes on to say that basic assumptions are:
. . . worked out on a level of part objects, and associated with psychotic anxiety and mechanisms of splitting and projective identification such as Melanie Klein has described as characteristic of the paranoid-schizoid and [early] depressive positions (p. 457).
Bion identifies three types of basic assumptions: dependency, pairing, and fight-flight. The work group bases itself on one basic assumption at a time. Group members are typically unaware of the powerful effects that a basic assumption may be having on the group’s functioning, including obstructing the task at hand. While the work group’s task may remain unaltered, the basic assumption can change quickly in response to the emergence of psychotic anxiety. If, for example, a ‘pairing’ basic assumption is unable to contain the group’s anxiety, a sudden shift may occur to a ‘dependency’ or a ‘fight-flight’ assumption.
The dependency assumption appears to emphasize guilt and depression. This basic assumption manifests in the phantasy that the group has met in order to be sustained by a leader on whom it depends for nourishment, protection, and material well being. The leader may become a deity who group members believe will magically solve all of their problems, including completion of the task. Members may experience guilt and depression in response to thoughts about the leader not living up to the group’s expectations. They may feel guilty or depressed in response to not feeling worthy of the leader.
The pairing basic assumption involves projections of messianic hope. Pairing usually finds expression in ideas related to marriage, or new ideas that would put an end to the status quo (e.g., phantasies concerning the birth of a messiah). For hope to be sustained, it is necessary that these ideas remain unrealized. During pairing, the work group tends to be pressured to produce “a Messiah, be it person, idea, or Utopia” (p. 448). This task, however, is likely to be sabotaged because hope requires that the Messiah cannot materialize.
Pairing, according to Bion (1954), “…is a person or idea that will save the group-in fact from feelings of hatred, destructiveness and despair, of its own or another group, but in order to do this obviously the Messianic hope must never be fulfilled” (p. 448).
The fight-flight assumption involves projecting hatred through violence against an enemy, or flight from a hated object. This assumption offers an opportunity for the unmitigated release of hatred. It meets the need for instantaneous satisfaction. The group may follow any leader licensing instantaneous attack or flight. Leaders not demanding a fight or flight will be ignored.
Panic and scapegoating often suggest the fight-flight assumption. Bion (1954) links panic with the primary emotions of fear and anger. The stimulus for panic is almost always an event that falls outside of the work group’s function. Police officers, for example, will not likely panic in response to a murder. A group of students in a classroom, however, would be prone to panic.
Those scapegoated, according to Volkan (1985), serve as a receptacle for the projections of unacceptable impulses experienced by the group. Typically, scapegoats are vulnerable to attack because of some characteristic that makes them different from the main group. The projection of unwanted parts temporarily relieves anxiety while justifying this displaced aggression. And this act of projection binds members of the “good” group closer together.
Certain factors typically make an individual or subgroup a candidate to become a respository for unwanted group parts (Hazell, 2005): one’s status, being a singleton, being located at a boundary, and one’s personal predisposition. Low status persons frequently become the containers of things that are regarded as dirty, unseemly, foolish, etc. Being the only one of a kind in a group can set an individual or subgroup up to be a container. Prejudice contributes to the projection into this minority subgroup or individual. The input and output boundaries of groups are hotbeds for unconscious activity, leaving gatekeepers particularly vulnerable to group projections. Lastly, individual history can prime an individual or subgroup to receive a certain type of group projection. Individuals, for example, who have been designated as black sheep in families may be predisposed to become scapegoats in groups.
Bion, identifies subgroups that exist specifically for the purpose of stimulating the activity of a particular basic assumption. He calls these subgroups specialized work groups. These groups neutralize basic assumptions so as to prevent them from obstructing the main group’s function.
Two examples of specialized work groups highlighted by Bion include the church (utilized by the larger group to neutralize the dependency assumption), and the army (which neutralizes the fight-flight assumption). Basic assumption phenomena can become dangerous when translated into action. Such a phenomenon “does not lend itself to translation into action, since action requires work group function to maintain contact with reality” (Bion, 1954 p. 452). Specialized work groups translate work group activity into the basic assumption mentality. The army evokes the illusion of absolute protection by force, while at the same time vigorously avoiding the use of it. The army therefore helps to neutralize the fight-flight assumption by preventing it from vitiating the main work group task. The church enables the larger group to pay homage to a deity (dependency function) for some notable product of the work group. The church thus fortifies religious beliefs, without obstructing the task at hand. If a specialized work group cannot cope with a basic assumption phenomenon effectively, however, the work group function could deteriorate. According to Bion (1954):
As work group function consists essentially of the translation of thoughts and feelings into behavior which is adapted to reality, it is ill-adapted to give expression to basic assumptions. For basic assumptions become dangerous in proportion as the attempt is made to translate them into action (p. 452).
A disturbed group, in Bion’s view, is one in which the basic assumption level of functioning dominates, or even obliterates work group functioning. Such a group is usually characterized by part object relationships associated with psychotic anxiety and defensive mechanisms such as splitting and projective identification.
Jaques too (1954) stresses that Klein’s theory applies to group processes. Rather than highlighting basic assumption phenomena, however, he focuses on how individuals unconsciously use institutions to reinforce defenses against paranoid/schizoid and depressive anxiety. Jaques suggests that group members externalize “bad objects” and impulses that could give rise to primitive anxiety. Once externalized, these objects and impulses are pooled, thus creating the emotional life of the group. Members share unconscious phantasies with respect to the objects and impulses through projective identification. The group phantasies that evolve unconsciously defend against anxiety. Groups not only have explicit functions, but have “manifold unrecognized functions at the phantasy level” (Jaques, 1954, p. 482).
Jaques gives examples of social defenses against paranoid anxiety. Group members defend against “bad impulses” by putting them into members unconsciously selected to “introject these projected objects and impulses and either to absorb or deflect them” (p. 483). In the case of absorption, the members introject and contain the impulses, while in deflection they do not contain them, but project them onto someone else. Jaques cites war as an example of this defensive maneuver in operation. War manifests explicitly as a social structure consisting of two opposing armies backed by their respective communities. On a phantasy level, however, members of each community may be putting their “bad impulses” into the accepted enemy, who absorbs them. Community members rid of aggressive impulses by projecting them onto their armies, who in turn deflect them, directing them against the enemy.
Jaques describes a common group defense against depressive anxiety (characteristic of the depressive position). This consists of the “manic denial of destructive impulses, and destroyed good objects, and the reinforcement of good impulses and good objects, by participation in group idealization” (p. 486). This social defense mechanism is best seen in group mourning ceremonies. These ceremonies provide both the community and the bereaved with the opportunity to unconsciously co-operate in splitting the destroyed “bad” part of the loved object from the loved part. “Bad” objects and impulses are buried; “good” parts protected and idealized as eternal memories.
According to Jaques, social defense mechanisms can be beneficial to the individual as well as to the community as a whole. Consider, for example, the case of the group mourning ceremony. The social idealizing and manic denial characteristic of the group ceremony provides bereaved individuals with an opportunity to reduce internal chaos, to cope with the intense impact of death, and to continue mourning at their own pace. On a community level, all those associated with the ceremony can further their own mourning . They can therefore work through unresolved conflicts related to the infantile depressive position.
Menzies-Lyth (1960, 1988) further elaborates on social defense mechanisms. She examines how social structures defend against primal anxieties. Menzies-Lyth highlights the need for individuals’ defense structures to match those of the organizations to which they belong. Social organizations develop a structure, a culture, and a manner of functioning. These depend on the primary task, the available tools, environmental pressures, and, most importantly, the need to deal with anxiety. The social defense system protects members from experiencing anxiety. Such systems often institutionalize primitive defense mechanisms. These defense mechanisms include splitting, projective identification, and denial. While these defense mechanisms may facilitate the temporary evasion of anxiety, they contribute very little to its permanent modification and reduction. Rather than enhancing the organization’s effectiveness, social defense systems typically reduce an organization’s ability to accomplish its primary task.
From the perspective of Menzies-Lyth, paranoid/schizoid mechanisms may be especially significant when life and death anxieties are prevalent. Menzies-Lyth highlighted these ideas in a study of a British teaching hospital during the 1950s. In the hospital, part object relationships, splitting processes, and paranoid anxiety flourished. Nurses conformed to an unspoken rule which required them to split patients by referring to them as part objects, such as the kidney in bed five. They treated patients as if they had no existence before or outside of the hospital. Families of hospitalized patients oscillated between a view of themselves as under attack by incompetent hospital staff to an idealized view of staff members as miracle workers who would magically cure their stricken loved ones. Nurses were prone to see other nurses above them in the hierarchy as either wonderful leaders or horrible despots. And nurses perceived those beneath them in rank as incompetent. Finally, more mature nurses who refused to split their perceptions in the aforementioned ways either left the system or were rejected by it.
The fate of those nurses who would not conform to the hospital’s defense structure suggests that in any institution an unconscious match must exist between an individual’s defense structure and the organization’s defense structure. If the discrepancy between group and individual structures is too great, the group may feel that the individual poses a threat to the state of equilibrium maintained by the social defense structure. The individual may temporarily or permanently lose membership. An individual’s ability to survive in an institution may be determined by the capacity to behave in accordance with the institution’s defense system.
Resistance to social change, in the view of Menzies-Lyth, can indicate an organization’s reluctance to give up social defense structures used to ward off primal anxieties. Efforts to initiate change when such primitive defenses are operating may be extremely difficult. The institution is likely to respond to such efforts with acute anxiety, aggression, and hostility. Resistance to change is most likely greater in organizations which have social defense systems dominated by primitive defense mechanisms characteristic of the paranoid-schizoid position, such as splitting and projective identification. Paranoid/ schizoid mechanisms distort reality, preventing insight into the nature of problems. This prevents a realistic appreciation of the problems’ seriousness.
Application of Group Theories to the Salem Witch Trials
The ideas put forth by Melanie Klein and utilized by Bion, Jaques, and Menzies-Lyth shed light on the Salem witch trials. Before embarking on an analysis of the trials, however, we provide a brief overview of the Puritans’ worldview and the situation in Salem at the time of the trials.
Overview of Key Beliefs of the Puritans
By the end of the seventeenth century, belief in the reality of witchcraft was virtually universal in western society (Boyer, 1976). Throughout Europe, hundreds of thousands of people had been killed as witches. Despite important advances in modern science such as Newton’s law of gravitation, few people criticized existing theological beliefs in light of the new discoveries. It was common even among intellectuals to interpret the Bible in a literal fashion.
The Puritans of Salem were a people who had suffered religious persecution in the Old World. They came to America for the sole purpose of establishing their religion. Having endured persecution in England and elsewhere, the Puritans in turn came to persecute others who held dissimilar beliefs in America. They believed Puritanism to be the one true religion.
The Puritans lived in a theocratic society. Ministers were usually the main officers and administrators of the government. One who was not in good standing with the church could not vote or hold office. Such an individual could be punished through excommunication (a formal termination of church membership). This resulted in the loss of all property rights.
While belief in the devil and witchcraft was not isolated to any branch of Christianity, certain tenets made the Puritans of New England particularly susceptible to belief in the Devil and witches. The Puritan’s belief system stressed that an active evil force was operating with the goal of obliterating God’s kingdom on earth. The Puritans personified this force as the Devil. They believed, moreover, that the Devil was particularly interested in launching an assault on them, since they were the new chosen people.
The Puritan obsession with evil was linked with their relentless desire to affirm their superiority. Their domination of external realities reflected the domination of their inner lives, carried out for the sake of purity. Their Doctrine of the Elect highlights their emphasis on superiority. This doctrine stated that at birth or later an individual might be chosen by God to become one of the Elect (would receive God’s grace and eternal salvation). Puritans lived righteous lives to prepare to be an Elected member if the day came. It was widely assumed that those who were never Elected would not be saved.
If God could elect certain people to be saved, the Devil could select others to be bewitched. The Puritans were vigilant about identifying witches (those who had joined the Devil’s ranks). Once people entered into a covenant with the Devil, they would attack the innocent. It was widely believed that witches could enter into people’s bodies without them knowing it. Witches could assume the shape of innocent people and then torment others. The tormented ones would then accuse innocent individuals of being witches. The falsely accused would be brutally and unjustly admonished by the community. The Devil in this way would disrupt Puritan society.
The Puritans’ literal interpretation of the Bible, according to Levin (1960), condoned their harsh treatment of witches: Exodus 22:18 “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”. Yet most Puritans believed that once people confessed to being witches, they were free. The first step in the process of being saved was an open confession of one’s sins. Another faction of the church, however, believed that confessing to being a witch would eternally damn a person. Many innocent people accused of witchcraft who might otherwise have falsely confessed in order to save their lives, therefore, refused to do so because they believed that even a false confession would result in eternal damnation.
Historians have noted, moreover, that the Puritans’ concept of the Devil grew out of their acceptance of the Doctrine of Original Sin, which informed them that they were “worms, dogs, potential colleagues of the Devil until the grace of God … poured into them” (Levin, 1960, p. xii). They believed that they were tainted by evil at birth. This was supported by ministers whose sermons depicted them as being on the verge of damnation. They were seen as highly prone to becoming witches. Puritans believed that they needed to vigilantly purify themselves and their community of this inherent evil so they could accept God’s grace and become one of the Elect. Purifying themselves and their community meant living austere lives characterized by hard work, prayer, confession, and penance.
The Situation in Salem
The Puritans’ unique historical situation created tremendous anxiety for them. This historical situation included: their cultivation of moral superiority as a strategy for challenging the powerful British aristocracy; their resultant persecution and exile; the grandiose and paranoid traits linked with their ideology of being the chosen people; their struggle for survival in the ominous American wilderness; the growing disparity between their fanatical ideology and the reality of liberty both for the Puritans in England and for the population of the American colonies; and various local social and political disputes which were acute at the time of the Salem outbreak. When the Puritans could no longer suppress this anxiety, it began to emerge in the form of increasing attacks upon what they saw as the devil.
In February 1692, Elizabeth Parris, the eleven-year-old daughter of Samuel Paris, the minister at Salem Village, and her twelve year old cousin Abigail Williams began to unexpectedly have violent fits. The girls were described as falling to the ground “in strange agonies and grievous torments” (Levin, 1960, p.93). The authorities noted that these fits were similar to those of children who had been bewitched. These authorities confirmed the girls’ bewitchment when the girls acknowledged that they were taking palmistry lessons with the minister’s West Indian slave, Tituba. The Puritans considered occult activity to be directly tied to the Devil. Initially, the family tried to address the situation quietly at home through fasting and prayer. But the minister’s low key strategy failed when one of his parishioners advised Tituba’s husband that a witch cake-made with the urine of the afflicted would cure the girls. This cake Parris believed unforgivable, “for the good Puritan was forbidden to use the Devil’s means, even in fighting against him” (Levin, 1960, p. xiv).
Following the witch cake episode, word spread throughout the community that the girls were bewitched and that the Devil was in Salem (Boyer, 1976). Within days, the two afflicted girls and other young women who had witnessed them engage in palmistry with Tituba began to accuse various members of the Salem community of being witches. The girls and those who had witnessed the palmistry lessons continued to have fits. This afflicted group of young women convinced the authorities that they had not joined the ranks of the Devil, but that he continued to torment them with the goal of forcing them to become witches. The Devil would induce fits in them when actively trying to coerce them to join his ranks. Once a fit was induced, the Devil would promise the young women that they would feel relief from their pain if they became witches by signing or touching his book. Next he would show them a list of names of others who had signed his book. At times, the afflicted girls would have fits in response to the presence of witches who they said would appear to them as specters and then torture them in an attempt to coerce them into becoming witches. Throughout the trials, these girls enjoyed notoriety as they continued to accuse more and more people of being witches. When anyone questioned the validity of these accusations, the authorities would point out the penitent witches who had confessed as confirmation of the girls’ charges.
On June 2nd, the chief justice William Stoughton sentenced the first witch to hang. The conviction rested largely on the testimony of the bewitched girls and on spectral evidence — “testimony that a specter in the shape of the accused had tormented the accuser or demanded that he sign the Devil’s book” (Levin, 1960, p. xv). The trials moved forward, and more and more people were convicted and eventually hanged.
Gradually, various members of the community began to suspect that the witch trials had gone too far. Leaders became concerned that accusations were being made within their own ranks. Common people, witnesses, judges, and jurors began to question the officials’ conduct. Dissension broke out in the community. These events led Governor Phips to change his position on the trials. His actions helped put an end to the executions.
Application of Bion
The Puritans’ work group focused on meeting basic survival needs. They sought food, water, and physical protection. They strived for unity to fend off ideological or material enemies. The theocratic nature of Puritan society can be viewed as a specialized work group. Prior to the witch trials, the theocracy appears to have coped with basic assumption phenomena in a manner that enabled the work group to function. The theocracy responded to a build-up of primitive anxiety within the group by allowing for shifts between the three basic assumptions. The doctrines established by the specialized work group express basic assumption phenomena. These beliefs helped the community maintain a sense of unity. Pairing is evident in the Puritans’ belief in the Doctrine of the Elect and their belief that the Kingdom of God would arrive at the millennium. Dependency is shown in the literal interpretation of the Bible and the belief in one God who is relied on for salvation. Lastly, fight-flight appears to have been manifested in the flight from the Old World in response to persecution. It is also evident in Puritans’ complete acceptance of the Doctrine of Original Sin, which required them to fight against evil in order to purify themselves and their community. And it is evident in the intolerance of anyone whose beliefs differed from those of the Puritans.
Bion’s framework can be extended to take into account the historical component of the Puritans’ anxiety. The historical situation of the Puritans, which involved them in a variety of disputes, threats, and challenges to their ideology, engendered great anxiety. Yet the Puritan character structure was rooted in the denial of impulses through their projection onto external phenomena. Hostilities and desires needed to be tracked down and expunged from their consciousness. Expressions of liberty such as the freedom to practice other religions were a terrifying threat. When they could no longer suppress it, therefore, the Puritans’ massive anxiety burst forth in a group psychosis. As suggested by Hazell (2005) low-status persons frequently become repositories for what is seen as dirty, unseemly, ignorant, foolish, etc. They act as containers for what is thought to be shameful, uncomfortable and undesirable. In Salem, those of the lowest classes and thus the most vulnerable — women, a Haitian slave, poor people — became targets for the projection of anxiety and hostility in the guise of being ‘witches’. The Puritans could finally release the intense psychic impulses which had been pent up for so long. In destroying these ‘witches’, the higher status Puritans tried to obliterate the anxiety within themselves.
Initially, the specialized work group was relied on in an attempt to cope with these anxieties ritualistically (through fasting and prayer). The anxieties could no longer be contained through ritual, however, when word of the “witch cake” got out. At this point, the work group function of the main group may have become vitiated by basic assumption phenomena which could no longer be coped with by the specialized work group. Once the work group had been disrupted, shifts between the three basic assumptions most likely occurred, depending on the intensity and nature of the emotions seeking expression at any given time.
The flight-fight assumption appears to have become more deeply translated into the reification of the Devil. An intense need emerged to wage a concrete battle against the Devil and his followers in Salem. By way of this basic assumption, unmitigated hatred could be expressed toward the socially sanctioned enemy (the Devil and his followers). Because the enemy was socially sanctioned, group members could avoid guilt in response to their open expression of vengeance toward the accused. Stoughton, who believed in vigorously prosecuting the witches, may have served as the leader of this basic assumption group. Many of those attacked by the group may have been targeted because they possessed characteristics not condoned by the larger group. The first three individuals prosecuted were likely candidates. According to Levin (1960): “Tituba was . a West Indian and a conjurer; Sarah Good was a destitute, wizened, pipe-smoking hag; Sarah Osborne had been suspected of immorality…” (p. xiv). Panic is evident in that the work group was not designed to cope with a direct attack by the Devil. The fear and rage characteristic of the group’s panicked state may have become split off and placed in the afflicted girls, who in turn acted out this affect through their panic attacks (“fits”). Processing the emotions associated with panic through their fits, the afflicted girls may have unburdened the larger group, allowing it to obliterate the enemy in a methodical and seemingly emotionless way.
Elizabeth Parris and Abigail Williams, the nucleus of the group of afflicted individuals responsible for most of the accusations, may have manifested the pairing basic assumption. The afflicted girls provided the hope of purifying the group through their unique ability to identify witches.
Dependency is evident by the group’s complete reliance on Stoughton to protect the community through his actions as Chief justice. Rigidly orthodox, Stoughton may have represented God on earth. The community saw him as a powerful source of spiritual nourishment and protection.
The obstruction of work group functioning is indicated by the fact that as the number of arrests increased, the survival of many residents was threatened. Families lost their farms, fields lay fallow, and many community members were left homeless. Upon his return to Salem, Governor Phips (Levin, 1960) describes the consequences of Lieutenant-Governor Soughton’s actions as chief justice in a letter to his superiors:
. . . his warrant hath caused the estates, goods and chattels of the executed to be seized and disposed of . . . proceedings hath dissipated the black cloud that threatened this Province with destruction; for whereas this delusion of the Devil did spread and its dismal effects touched the lives and estates of many of their Majesties’ Subjects . . . and indeed unhappily clogged and interrupted their Majesties’ affairs . . . (p. 94).
The basic assumption phenomenon opposes group development (Bion, 1954). Any movement toward development by the group will most likely be met with a hostile response from the basic assumption level of group functioning. Such resistance to change was evident in Soughton’s rageful reaction when Governor Phipps terminated the executions.
Application of Menzies-Lyth.
From Menzies-Lyth’s (1960, 1988) perspective, one would assume that many of those accused of witchcraft most likely threatened the Puritans’ social defense structure, and were therefore easy targets for the projection of impulses. Social defense structures institutionalize primitive defenses, such as splitting and projective identification. Puritan defenses were institutionalized in religious beliefs. Splitting, for example, is evident in the Puritan belief in a war waged between Satan and God. The external battle between God (all good) and Satan (all bad) may have manifested an internal psychic split endured by the Puritans in a desperate attempt to keep the good object untainted by dangerous impulses. Puritans who did not completely conform were viewed as bad and rejected by the community. Conformity required members to attend church regularly, interpret the bible literally, and demonstrate an extensive knowledge of catechism. Many who were accused of witch craft failed to conform to these standards. They may have threatened the social defense structure, eliciting impulses the Puritans sought to repress. John Proctor, for example, was convicted partially on the grounds that he did not attend church regularly. He also expressed skepticism about the whole idea of witchcraft and was consequently viewed as questioning the scriptures, a grave crime. Goody Osborne’s conviction rested largely on the fact that she did not know the ten-commandments.
These behaviors were unsettling because they questioned the dangerous, repressive mentality on which the Puritan society was based.
Those accused of being witches elicited feelings linked with freedom, diversity, sexuality and hostility, feelings the Puritans were at great pains to suppress. Puritan ideology dominates and silences the self. The denied feelings are then projected onto others, where they are attacked. Referring to the Nazis’ similar use of projection, Miller (1990) says:
The cruelty inflicted on them, the psychic murder of the child they once were, had to be passed on in the same way: each time they sent another Jewish child to the gas ovens, they were in essence murdering the child within themselves . . . (p. 87) . . . The enemy within can at last be hunted down outside . . . (p.91).This purging through assault then enabled the Aryans to ensure their own moral purity . . . (p.80).
The Puritan Elite (like the Aryans) could feel pure, strong and morally right if everything they had feared in themselves since childhood could be attributed to the witches.
The Doctrine of the Elect and the Doctrine of Original Sin institutionalize projective identification. The Doctrine of the Elect enables members to split off in fantasy good parts of the group and place them in the Elect members of the community for safe keeping (the Elect receive God’s grace). Once the good parts of the group were inside these members, they felt protected forever because the Elect could do no wrong and were guaranteed eternal salvation.
The Elect were not subject to accusations of witchcraft. Based on the Doctrine of Original Sin, group members who were not Elect were tainted by original sin and could therefore be viewed as containers for bad parts of the group. Non- Elect members had to submit to the ritualistic cycle of publicly confessing their sins, repenting, and finally performing an act of penance to have any hope of being saved. Once non- Elect members were charged with being witches, the accused were treated in such a way as to obtain verification of the fact (e.g., by obtaining a confession through torture). If those accused conformed to the ritualistic cycle and confessed to being a witch, repented, and did penance, they would be saved. Those who refused to confess, however, threatened the social defense structure. They could therefore be used as scapegoats without guilt.
Application of Jaques
Prior to the Salem witch trials, based on the ideas of Jaques (1954), the Puritan community can be seen as using a ritualized religious system to reinforce defenses typical of the depressive position (obsessive tendencies, mania, and denial). This reflects the theoretical position of Jaques (1954). The accusations of witchcraft appear to suggest a shift to an emphasis on the paranoid-schizoid position. This includes the use of more primitive defenses such as splitting and projective identification. Following the trials, there seems to have been a reintegration of group processes and therefore a lessened reliance on paranoid/schizoid defenses.
Before the trials, for example, non-Elect members of the community who were believed to be tainted by original sin focused on an obsessive struggle to repair the damaged object through prayer, hard work, and meticulous conformity to the mandates of their faith. Minister Parris encouraged group members to confess, repent, and perform ritualized acts of penance. The Puritans were caught up in a constant battle to repair the object through obsessive repetition of the confession, repentance, and penance cycle. Additionally, mania and denial were evident in the notion that there were Elect members of the community. The Elect members represented idealized objects who had been magically repaired through an influx of God’s grace. The group denied the mortality of these members (they were saved forever). And denial of the fallibility of the Elect is suggested by the idea that once they received God’s grace, they could do no wrong. The depressive line of defense appears to dominate group functioning up until the series of disturbing events (discussed earlier) which led to a build- up of annihilation/persecutory anxiety. This build-up triggered a shift to a paranoid-schizoid way of processing information. Primitive anxieties became dealt with through projective identification. The group projected bad internal objects and impulses onto members of the community who would then absorb these parts and contain them. Once objectified in the accused, these bad parts could more easily be controlled by the group through the elicitation of confessions. The bad objects and impulses could then be given back to the group in a partially metabolized and thus more tolerable form. And if the accused refused to confess to witchcraft, the group could symbolically rid itself of the bad objects and impulses by executing the witch.
Projective identification may be evident in the “fits” that the afflicted girls presented with. These fits were described as being violent and out-of -control. At times, the girls would cry out in terror and make strange sounds. It may be that the girls served as containers for the rage and terror experienced by the larger group. A fit served as verification to the group that the girls did indeed hold the split off bad parts. The girls would then deflect these bad impulses by placing them in those whom they accused of witchcraft. The accused person could absorb the impulses, or deflect them. An example of an accused witch deflecting is evident in the testimony of Tituba. Tituba admits to being a witch and begs for forgiveness. She then accuses two other community members of witchcraft.
Puritan witch hunting also indicates splitting. The group ignored any benevolent acts that an accused individual engaged in prior to being charged with witchcraft. Once deemed a witch, the individual was viewed by the group as all evil, the devil incarnate. The group split off any aspect of the individual’s past identity.
Once the threat of execution ended, the group could begin operating from the depressive position. A more humanistic and interactive group process enabled members to reflect on what was taking place. The repressive social outlook underlying the witch hunt began to break down. A prohibition against the use of spectral evidence and the testimony of the bewitched may have led the entire community to reflect more rationally on what had happened. Once the persecutions were questioned, community members began to perceive those who were accused as whole objects. This is suggested by several members of the jury who publicly expressed remorse for potentially convicting innocent people after the executions were stopped. Confessions by various parties suggest an attempt to repair the objects that had been so brutally injured. Community members began to grieve, to process what had occurred. For over a ten year period following the trials, according to Boyer (1976), Salem officials and residents tried obsessively to repair the damaged objects through numerous public apologies and ultimately by awarding sums of money to the descendants of accused witches. Because the group members were more open, more reflective, and able to emotionally process, basic assumptions could no longer derail the group process.
The Salem witch hunts dramatize the close relationship between group phenomena and the psychotic processes in individuals described by Melanie Klein. Group dynamics related to those that led to witch hunting in Salem can emerge in any group. When under stress, groups, like individuals, often regress fundamentally to paranoid-schizoid/early depressive mechanisms — those of splitting and projective identification. This regressive thinking can interfere with the group’s purpose, resulting in blaming, incompetence, scapegoating, and in more severe cases, disruptions and scandals that can threaten entire organizations, as well as those designated as enemies. The recent cases of Enron and Arthur Anderson suggest psychotic-like systemic processes leading to distorted reality testing and ultimately the breakdown of these organizations. This pattern of group interaction has repeated itself numerous times throughout history, affecting entire societies. A Kleinian approach to psychotic group phenomena offers a framework for addressing such dangerous group behaviors.
The regressive defense mechanisms in question cannot be effectively addressed through intellectual discussion. The problem runs too deep for that. Addressing these phenomena requires an approach to groups which responds to the underlying anxiety of the dynamics in question. An example of addressing the anxiety would be for group leaders to cultivate over time the creation of a safe environment in which questioning the group’s underlying assumptions is understood as permissible. In this environment, group anxieties could be acknowledged, tolerated, experienced, processed, and responded to rather than dealt with unconsciously by means of primitive defensive mechanisms.
Sadly, most groups in our society are far from being able to handle such an open processing of anxiety. Group members, especially leadership, feel too threatened by an open discussion of the anxieties underlying group activity. Individuals in hierarchical organizations tend to feel they are too vulnerable, that they have too much to hide to enter into such discussion. In our society, when people can no longer tolerate disruptive actions linked with paranoid-schizoid (and early depressive) defense mechanisms, efforts are then made to put an end to these disruptive actions. This often results in great damage to some of the parties involved. Yet the defense mechanisms that helped to generate these disruptive actions are rarely addressed. This is because our society implicitly accepts and relies upon these primitive defense mechanisms, despite their resistance to rational inquiry and the harm they predictably cause. Until we change this social pattern, our work groups will continue to be shaped by, as well as to be now and again disrupted by, the dangerous psychotic-like defenses against anxiety to which our groups especially revert when under unusual stress.
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Menzies-Lyth, I. (1988). Containing anxiety in institutions: Selected essays. London: Free Association Books.
Miller, A. (1990). For your own good: Hidden cruelty in childrearing and the roots of violence. (Hildegard and Hunter, Trans.). New York: Noonday Press.
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Roach, M. (2004). The Salem witch trials: A day-by-day chronicle of a community under siege. Lanham, MD: Taylor Trade Publishing.
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Diana Semmelhack, Psy.D. is an Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology at Midwestern University. She is an advocate for the rights of severely mentally ill adults through her board memberships with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), DuPage County, IL. and New Beginnings Community Services. Also, Dr. Semmelhack has a clinical practice focusing on the using group work with severely mentally ill institutionalized adults. She has published several papers suggesting the efficacy of the group-as-a-whole model (based on the Tavistock tradition) with this population.
Larry Ende has his Ph.D. in literature from SUNY Buffalo and an MSW from the University of Illinois, Jane Adams School of Social Work. He is a published author. His clinical practice focuses on psychodynamic individual and group work with severely mentally ill adults and traumatized children. He is an advocate for the rights of individuals with severe mental illness.
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