Book Review - The Emotional Life of Nations, by Lloyd deMause, New York: Karnac Books, 2002, 460 pp. $45.00 (cloth)

Reviewed by Robert Godwin, Ph.D.

"It is no exaggeration to state that human progress is a function
of the evolving space between mother and infant. . . . It is the baby who is the wild card in human evolution, the flexible template through which
culture has the opportunity to slowly improve itself generation by generation."

"deMause gives us an objective way to measure the psychological health of a given culture, and thus provides intellectual ammunition against the tide of cultural relativism that sees all cultures as equally good and all parents as equally loving."
-- Dr. Robert Godwin

I should acknowledge at the outset that upon my first exposure to the ideas and writings of Lloyd deMause some twelve years ago, something inside me "snapped," and I have not since then been able to think about history, politics, and culture the same way. Immanuel Kant is properly regarded as the first truly modern philosopher, because he was the first to shift the fundamental philosophical problematic to the nature of the knower, rather than complacently accepting the human mind as capable of accurately reflecting reality.

Similarly, deMause's writings achieve an equally revolutionary effect by turning the historical telescope around, looking through the other end, and seeing historical events shaped and ultimately caused by the evolving human mind, rather than an unchanging human nature being passively conditioned by the events of history.

Although human beings have been genetically identical for at least 100,000 (and possibly as many as 200,000) years, the software of the human mind has continued to evolve in completely unexpected and unforeseeable ways throughout that time. Thus, we cannot claim to "know" anything about history until we have some understanding of the radically different ways in which humans have regarded reality, and how it is that a single species can not only have so many different versions of reality, but why those cognitive maps have so seldom reflected reality accurately.

If history is, as Burckhardt said, "the breach with nature caused by the awakening of consciousness," then it certainly helps to know something about the structure of our consciousness, and whether that consciousness is a static, universal entity, or something which is itself subject to change and evolution.

The Emotional Life of Nations represents the fruit of a life­time of thought and research into the relationship between historical progress and the treatment of children. DeMause teaches us that ultimately we cannot understand history without appreciating that the unit of history is not the individual, culture, or nation, but the evolving mother-infant dyad, where the original "breach with nature" occurs.

It is no exaggeration to state that human progress is a function of the evolving space between mother and infant, something which the visionary deMause has always maintained, but is only now is being confirmed by researchers such as Allan Schore and Daniel Siegel.

Somewhat surprisingly, The Emotional Life of Nations is laid out in such a manner that it moves from the particular to the general (rather than vice versa): from shorter and more limited demonstrations of deMause's methods on to the more generalized framework elucidated in the latter (and much longer) chapters.

Thus Chapter 1, The Assassination of Leaders, analyzes murderous group-fantasies that were prevalent in the media leading up to the shootings of Presidents Kennedy and Reagan. Chapter 2, The Gulf War as an Emotional Disorder, applies similar methods to demonstrate the ways in which groups irrationally manufacture sacrificial wars in order to cleanse themselves of the intolerable accumulation of psychological "poisons."

And the timely Chapter 3, The Childhood Origins of Terrorism, conducts a much needed analysis of our current conflict with Islamic terror, going far beneath the surface to reveal the kind of ritualized abuse and humiliation that goes by the name of child rearing in the Islamic world. Here I am reminded of a statement attributed to Golda Meir, then prime minister of Israel, to the effect that peace would prevail in the Middle East when Arab parents learned to love their children as much as they hate Jewish children.

Part II of the book is devoted to three chapters outlining deMause's psychohistorical theory, including Restaging Early Traumas in War and Social Violence, The Psychogenic Theory of History, and War as Righteous Rape and Purification. Restaging Early Traumas may well contain some of deMause's most controversial theories, tracing wars and social violence to the dramatic re-enactment of fetal psychology.

Here deMause marshals fascinating, cutting-edge research into the capabilities of the fetal mind to support his re-enactment theory. While he may well have identified an important, heretofore hidden factor involved in the development and enactment of group-fantasies, I would be more inclined to an "aperspectival" approach, in which one attempts to view history from many different perspectives simultaneously, including, of course, the psychohistorical.

For example, while an economic or political system may have completely irrational roots that are better comprehended by a psychohistorian than an economist or political scientist, once the system is up and running, it generally gains a force and momentum all its own, so it then has a causal influence on the kind of psyches required to make the dysfunctional system run.

The Psychogenic Theory of History again employs cutting-edge research into the neurobiology of attachment and trauma to demonstrate how psychic structure is passed down from generation to generation. This chapter contains critical ideas about the social construction of reality based upon collective childhood experience: that is, how the psyche is colonized by parasitic "alters" that mirror the abuse and neglect experienced by the vast majority of children throughout history.

This highlights one of the truly odd things about human beings, and something which almost no conventional historian appreciates: unlike every other animal, we are not genetically determined, but genetically permitted. The DNA bestowed to us at birth, while necessary, is entirely insufficient to create what any of us would call a proper human being. Rather, this genetic material provides only a flexible mainframe for the storage and retrieval of a human being.

Our earliest relationships, in the degree to which they are unsatisfactory, lead to a paradoxical situation in which the poor parental bond is internalized and turned into a psychic entity, or "alter", that compulsively seeks to re-enact the unhappy situation later in life. What we call the "unconscious" is not, as in Freud's highly romanticized view, a seething cauldron of repressed, universal drives inherited from our animal past, but a latent structure designed to hold childhood trauma in escrow for later processing, so as to not threaten the bond with the parents.

As such, the content of the unconscious is actually quite variable in different people, cultures, and historical eras, while the structure itself is a constant, something that I believe was subject to normal evolutionary selective pressures -- no different than the thickened skin we evolved on the bottom of our feet to deal with upright walking.

Next up is War as Righteous Rape and Purification, which begins with a review of the standard historical explanations of war, which are found wanting. The main limitation of these more orthodox historical approaches is that they assume rational human agents who wish to do everything possible to avoid war, whereas deMause shows that the opposite is almost always true. The conventional approach assumes, for example, that deep-down, India and Pakistan would like to avoid a nuclear holocaust.

DeMause demonstrates that such an assumption of rationality should be a non-starter, and that otherwise incomprehensible wars may be understood as compulsive reenactments of childhood trauma, either revenge against the "terrifying mommy" or an attempt to kill off the projected bad-child self. But historians have always had a decided tendency to project civilized versions of themselves into other cultures and past historical epochs. This leads to a very narrow, corrupted version of history, as if it is peopled by gentle, mild-mannered, peace-loving academics instead of the fanatical, murderous, and willfully irrational beings who make planet earth look like the lunatic asylum for the rest of the universe.

DeMause gives us a view of war not from above the clouds, where it resembles a spectacular football game viewed from the fifty yard line, but from the ground, where implacable fantasies of revenge against projected social alters rule the realm. "Reality," writes deMause, "is quite beside the point."

But it's not all bad news. In Part III, on Psychohistorical Evolution, the chapter on "Childhood and Cultural Evolution" demonstrates just how far humans have traveled in psychological space since their first appearance some 100,000 years ago, when we had little more notion of a private self than a chimp.

Most anyone can make a baby, but that does not mean that the baby will grow up to be fully "human" as we understand the term. Rather, a baby requires certain non-genetic experiences with loving care-takers if it is to develop a coherent, flexible, self-reflective mind, and avoid the reproductive cycle of early trauma caused by poor parenting leading to crazy and dysfunctional cultural practices as a psychological defense.

DeMause demonstrates that the human infant -- particularly the female infant -- is the "missing link," the narrow neck we must all pass through on the way to humanness, a bridge over the awesome chasm separating the instinct-bound ape, or merely genetic Homo sapiens, from the truly human, which is characterized by a capacity for freedom, love, and creativity. It is the baby who is the wild card in human evolution, the flexible template through which culture has the opportunity to slowly improve itself generation by generation.

The next chapter (the book's lengthiest), The Evolution of Child Rearing, contains abundant, seemingly unassailable documentation of just how poorly children have been treated over the millennia, ranging from child sacrifice, infanticide, and genital mutilation to "lesser" forms of abuse and abandonment, such as beatings, molestation, or being sent out to a wet nurse. Here deMause promulgates a view which is central to psychohistory but completely anathema to the conventional historian (let alone cultural anthropologist): that the achievement of empathy in even a minority of parents is a very recent historical phenomenon, and that most of the non­Western world remains particularly backward and barbaric in their treatment of children.

In so carefully and thoroughly documenting child rearing practices throughout history, deMause gives us an objective way to measure the psychological health of a given culture, and thus provides intellectual ammunition against the tide of cultural relativism that sees all cultures as equally good and all parents as equally loving.

Ultimately, deMause demonstrates that cultures are indeed adaptive -- just not to objective reality. Rather, cultures are adaptations to the unique human problem of having once been a helpless infant completely dependent upon the omnipotent and frequently malevolent beings called parents.

The final chapter, The Evolution of Psyche and Society, ends on a promising note, the operative word being evolution. Again, since the human genotype has remain unchanged for the past 100,000 years, we represent nature's first experiment in post-biological evolution. Indeed, perhaps history is nothing more than the brief (in geological terms) but nevertheless catastrophic stage any species must go through on the way toward full self-consciousness.

History, according to deMause, ultimately comes down to a chronicle of the slow and uneven process of integrating chaotic selves fragmented by childhood trauma into the relatively unified self of modernity. In the past (and in much of the world still), the average individual lived in a hallucinatory, demon-haunted world filled with projected fragments of dissociated psyches, populated by countless gods, devils, witches, spirits, and departed ancestors.

Only in the past fifty years or so have we begun to realize that humans do not begin life with a pre­formed identity, but that they construct and integrate a self in the "transitional space" between brain neurology and a caring other. The reason why history seems so crazy is that people were crazy; as deMause puts it, people in the past would "switch into their alters regularly, hearing voices, having waking nightmares and flashbacks, experiencing loss of time, periods of unreality and deadness, hallucinating persecutors, feeling unalterably dirty, sinful and hopeless, and acting out self-injurious episodes."

Today we might call this a serious borderline personality disorder, and in fact, deMause demonstrates how the DSM is a sort of archaeological road map of various personality types that have emerged through history, from the dissociated, schizoid psychoclass of tribal societies, through the depressive class of the renaissance and reformation, on to the neurotic psychoclass of modern times.

But if deMause is correct, psychohistorical evolution does not end there. Rather, there is a more fully individuated human being at the end of history, one who in my view would have two main features: first, a harmonious integration of the various parts of the psyche, and second, an ability to actualize latent capabilities, talents, and potentials that, in most people, remain stillborn due to a suffocating superego internalized in childhood.

Perhaps deMause is utopian in believing that human beings may yet seize the tiller of psychohistorical evolution by teaching more humane child rearing skills to the less evolved psychoclasses constituting the majority of parents. Nowadays we all realize that universal education gives children access to a cognitive world that far transcends the narrow prison house of the senses.

But deMause's mission is to show how being raised by empathic and loving parents gives access to an emotional world no less profound and transformative; in truth, it gives access to the real world that humans have been so painfully slow in discovering over these past 100,000 years.

Robert Godwin, Ph.D. is a Clinical Psychologist in Cajabasas, CA. Author of a book in progress, One Cosmos Under God: The Unification of Matter Life, Mind and Spirit, he may be reached at

Read the interesting blog of the author of this book review: One Cosmos

Also on this website, you may read Dr. Godwin's timely article, The Land That Developmental Time Forgot.

This book review is from the Fall, 2002, Journal of Psychohistory

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