The Evolution of Psyche and Society

(Part 3)
By Lloyd deMause


As mothers moved from infanticidal to abandoning mode childrearing (see Chapters 6 and 7), early Christians could internalize a mommy who doesn’t actually kill her children but only abandons them, both through emotional abandonment and through sending them to wetnurses, fosterage, monasteries, service with others, etc. Even profound neglect is less devastating than watching your baby sister be strangled, so early Christians could for the first time in history hope to get their mother’s/God’s love (redemption) if they show her their pain and get her pity.

This display of pain to get the love of the mother is known as the masochistic personality, a lower level borderline condition,179 which for the first time in history enables people to imagine that if they debase and torture themselves, the mother/God will feel sorry for them and might provide salvation, eventual closeness, rather than just helplessness and unbearable loneliness.

The gods of antiquity were distant, impersonal gods: "The gods might often mingle with men and women, but they did not seem to spend their time cultivating reciprocal love."180 As Aristotle said, "When one party is removed to a great distance, as God is, the possibility of friendship ceases."181 But the Christian God "loves and can be loved in return."182 For abandoning mode children, if you worship and love your Mommy/God, if you take over yourself her beating and tortures of your body, if you give up all personal needs and starve yourself and avoid sex, you will through your masochistic display gain forgiveness and perhaps even be allowed eventually to merge with Her.183

Christ is, of course, the main Suffering Victim Alter who has been sent to earth by God to display his wounds and ask for pity on behalf of mankind. While the narcissistic personalities of antiquity generally agreed with Socrates that "no one is willfully evil,"184 the masochistic personalities of early Christians put sin at the center of life and built up a church of expiation and confession that for the first time allowed pardon for the sins. The musings of early theologians about Christ sounded like the ruminations of the child about his or her mother’s mistreatment:

God abandoned him, he treated him as the most abominable of men; and after an infinity of disgraces, of ignominies, and suffering, without any regard that he was His own Son, he caused him to die by the most shameful and cruel torture there ever was…He worked his vengeance on His Son, as if He had nothing to do with him.185

But the Christian, like the abandoning mode child, then totally absolved the Mother/God of all blame by a simple trick, saying: "I am all to blame. I deserve the torture. Mommy/God will pity me if I torture myself." The trick is one regularly used today by lower level borderline masochists, who show extremely high occurrences of reported childhood neglect (92 percent)186 and physical and sexual abuse (59 percent to 91 percent), who cut and burn and torture themselves endlessly in order to punish themselves and gain pity from their mommy alters. Earlier gods in antiquity killed and tortured children, of course, but they, like Jehovah, only "laughed at the slaughter of the damned."187 The Christian God loved you for torturing and sacrificing yourself.

The masochistic display of one’s wounds had already become a popular group-fantasy of antiquity by early Christian times. Gladiatorial combats "to appease the spirits of the dead" were widespread, where warriors volunteered to be killed in the arena in order to display their wounds and gain the applause of the people.188 Wholly gratuitous wars were fought mainly for masochistic purposes; it was said that "warriors glory in their wounds; they rejoice to display their flowing blood…The man who returns from battle unhurt may have fought as well, but he who returns wounded is held in higher esteem."189

Christian masochism ritualized the absolution/penance ritual to assure adherents that when they felt unloved they could go to a church, relive Christ’s agonies, confess their sins, carry out penances and assure their Mommy/God that they still worshipped Her and that it was really the child’s/worshipper’s fault that Mommy/God was so unhappy.

Confession, penance and absolution are, of course, endless alter propitiations: "Gregory frequently expressed his fear that, because of God’s unknown and unpredictable severity, man could never know if he inflicted enough suffering upon himself to propitiate God…punishment should take the form of a constant, unremitting anxiety and sorrow for one’s sins…as teeth tearing the flesh."190

Both Christians and Jews "engaged in a contest and reflection about the new-fangled practice of martyrdom,"191 even unto suicide. Jesus, too, says John, really committed suicide, and Augustine spoke of "the mania for self-destruction" of early Christians.192 Roman authorities tried hard to avoid Christians because they "goaded, chided, belittled and insulted the crowds until they demanded their death."193 One man shouted to the Roman officials: "I want to die! I am a Christian," leading the officials to respond: "If they wanted to kill themselves, there was plenty of cliffs they could jump off."194 But the Christians, following Tertullian’s dicta that "martyrdom is required by God," forced their own martyrdom so they could die in an ecstatic trance: "Although their tortures were gruesome, the martyrs did not suffer, enjoying their analgesic state."195

Even today, about 10 per cent of masochistic borderlines complete suicide,196 always with a maternal "Hidden Executioner" alter present to feel pity. Short of suicide, martyrdom and asceticism was built into every element of Christian ritual and practice. Monasticism was an orgy of masochistic penance for the sins of individuation, with fasts, flagellations, continence and pilgrimages routine requirements—restaging the starvations, bindings, beatings and expulsions to wetnurse of childhood. Yet, unlike earlier religions, Christianity allowed their priests to forgive, console and reconcile the sinner/child with Mommy/God after the punishment. Whereas earlier religions punished animals or others as Victim Alters, Christianity encouraged the punishment of one’s own body as a cleansing "second birth." Mommy/God could be pacified by martyrdom and one could receive Her/His love at last.

Octavius described the pleasure God had at seeing Christians suffering: "How fair a spectacle for God to see when a Christian stands face to face with pain."197 As Pope Urban told the knights in order to get them to go on the First Crusade: "We hold out to you a war which contains the glorious reward of martyrdom,"198 with its final reward, the love of God, since "only martyrs will attain to Paradise before the Second Coming."199

That priests were punishers leads one to wonder if they were not really concretizations of Perpetrator Alters, that is, remnants of abusers. Although one usually is used to identifying the "legions of demons and spirits" that made Christians gash themselves as the perpetrators, priests themselves are usually pictured as helpful figures. Yet priestly alters of masochists today often turn out to have the features of rapists,200 while psychotherapists who treat ritual abuse survivors find that "Satan usually turns out to be a traumatized child," raging over early sexual abuse.201 In fact, alters and religious fantasy figures usually contain remnants of both the perpetrators and victims of childhood traumas.

The Devil might embody the rage of the raped child, but he also has attributes of the rapist: he is naked, he has a "long nose" (penis), he is red (flush of erect penis) and he is "hairy" (pubic hair). The precise details of the image of Christ on the Cross are all from childhood. Christ is shown as an infant (naked, except for swaddling-band loincloth), abandoned by Mommy (God), bound or nailed to a wooden Cross (the wooden board all infants were bound to during swaddling), with a crown of thorns (the painful head-shaping devices used on infants before swaddling) and with a bloody hole in his side (evidence of the childhood rape, vaginal or anal).

Even the details of Christ’s life conform to routine childhood conditions. For instance, Christ got the bloody wound in his side, the subject of much theological concern, because his Father sent him down to be crucified—just as so many real fathers at the time sent their young children to their neighbors to be used as sexual objects—and the bad soldier stripped Christ and stuck his phallic lance into him—just as the bad neighbor stripped the child and stuck his erect penis into him. If sexuality meant memories of rape to most children growing up at that time, it is no wonder that Christianity preached sexuality was shameful, "a token of human bondage," and must be avoided at all costs.

The ritual of the Mass, too—with "the Lord, sacrificed, and laid upon the altar, and the priest, standing, and all the people empurpled with his most precious blood" (Chrysostom)202 —is equally a "rite of penetration," a restaging of childhood rape, as the frightening priest in his black robe circles slowly around the helpless, naked Christ. The deepest feeling behind all these Christian rites was the loneliness and hunger of the worshipper—the abandonment depression—so it is not surprising that images of real hunger often broke through during the Christian ritual.

Priests and worshippers often reported that during Holy Communion they would see in the host "a very young boy; and when the priest began to break the host, they thought they saw an angel coming down out of the sky who cut the boy up with a knife." Or else they would fear that the worshipper might not want to bite into "the Communion wafer if they could see that they were actually biting off the head, hands and feet of a little child."203

Even Christ himself, the Victim Alter, was thought to be terribly hungry: "Christ’s hunger is great beyond measure; he devours us…his hunger is insatiable."204 The abandoning mode child’s hunger—for love, food, care, support—is never forgotten, and it can be found at the heart of every Christian ritual throughout the Middle Ages.


It must be recalled that new parenting modes begin with just a few people at a time, which means that ambivalent mode parenting and the resulting higher level borderline personalities—which begin in the twelfth century—continued for some time to be minorities in European families, co-existing with earlier masochistic, narcissistic and schizoid personalities in their societies. By the twelfth century, when Western Europe began to move in new directions, the empires of antiquity had collapsed in a masochistic orgy of military self-destruction.

The clinging needs of the new borderline psychoclass—a symptom of their feelings of isolation, emptiness and separation anxiety—were now defended against by constructing the profound personal bonds of feudalism. "The borderline," says Hartocollis, "is an angry individual. Characterized by oral demandingness, often with a paranoid flavour [and] a sense of emptiness or depression…making him feel chronically lonesome, frustrated, alienated."205 This emptiness was known to medieval psychoclasses as acidia, which one twelfth-century monk says is "a disgust of the heart, an enormous loathing of yourself…a great bitterness…Your soul is torn to pieces, confused and split up, sad and embittered."206

From the twelfth century on, acedia attracted much attention as a "turning away from God," again, the fault of the person/child, not of the God/Mommy. When people confessed to feelings of acedia and reported their feelings of despair and self-hatred, they were given severe penitentials by their priests to ward off their suicidal thoughts.

The clinging of the feudal bond is paralleled to the clinging tie to God and to Mother Mary and Jesus, who for the first time takes on overt maternal traits, even allowing worshippers to suck his breasts and wounds.207 Real ambivalent mode mothers were now nurturing enough so that one can even find descriptions of "God as a woman nursing the soul at her breasts, drying its tears and punishing its petty mischief-making…"208

Of course, in true borderline style, the price of some closeness with God is total devotion, the medieval Christian saying: "To my beloved, I will forever be His servant, His slave, All for God, and nothing for me."209 As contemporary borderlines say: "I know you will love and take care of me if I don’t self-activate. I’ll please you by clinging and complying with your wishes, so you will take care of me, and these bad (abandonment) feelings will go away."210

The advances of borderline personalities beyond lower-level masochistic psychoclasses were, however, profound, and soon began to carry Western Europe beyond the accomplishments of the rest of the world. Much has been written of "the invention of the self and individuality" beginning in the twelfth century. Prior to this period, there was not even a word for "self," and the word "personality" meant a mask held before an actor, i.e., a "false self."211 But "the practice of self-examination was deeper and more widespread in twelfth-century Europe than at any time before [and] medieval Europe changed from a ‘shame culture’ to a ‘guilt culture’" as inner motives and not just outer behavior became the focus of confessions and of literature.212

Autobiographies began to multiply, seals indicating personal identity began to be used more widely and writers began to wonder if God might allow a unique self for each person, a homo interior that was fashioned by one—"in the image of God," of course, but nevertheless made by one’s real self.213

The results in society from the twelfth through the fifteenth century of these advances in self were astonishing: a vast expansion in agriculture and early industries, the beginnings of both State formation and of capitalism, an upsurge in trade and exploration, a huge population growth as infanticide dropped, an enormous growth of cities and civil rights. Change became not only possible but preferable for the first time in history. Those people in these centuries who were still masochistic and narcissistic decompensated from all the change, became possessed by devils, imagined they might soon be thrown in Hell for their bold new aspirations, or flagellated themselves for wanting to be independent. Growth panic soon began to produce periodic fears of millenarian violence, leading directly to the apocalyptic expectations and witch-hunts of the Renaissance and Reformation.


The new childrearing mode beginning around the sixteenth century—the intrusive mode—was a leap forward, when mothers stopped sending their children to wetnurse and stopped leaving them hungry in their cradles, faced the tasks of caring for them boldly if uncertainly, ended swaddling, beat them less and reduced their being sent out as servants. As it was described earlier, "parents shifted from trying to stop childrens’ growth to trying only to control it and make it ‘obedient.’

True empathy begins with intrusive mode parents, producing a general improvement in the level of care and reduced mortality, leading to more investment in each child." The difference between borderline and depressive personalities today has been documented to be a result of far less overt sexual and physical abuse during childhood, with far less impulsivity, low self-esteem and self-destructive acts in the depressive, despite the presence of sadness as a major emotion.214 This is because what the depressives are doing that borderlines cannot yet do is facing their abandonment depression. Psychotherapists find that after treating borderlines and confronting their defenses for some time, they then become more depressed, having finally to face the abandonment fears of their childhood rather than running away from them into clinging, self-destructive behavior, since "depression accompanies improvement…the beginnings of identity integration, the development of integrated self and object representations [and] conscious guilt and remorse."215

Ever since Huizinga analyzed the "sombre melancholy that weighed on people’s souls" after the close of the Middle Ages, the period has been well known for its deep despondency, when, says Donne, God "reserved for these times an extraordinary sadness, a predominant melancholy."216

From sixteenth-century diaries to Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, books on inner life were little more than records of the writer’s depressions and how he tried to overcome them. Humanists glorified melancholy as the heightened self-awareness of the intellectual, the cost of individualism, and they were right. Melancholy had to be faced for one to be what Pico called a man "restrained by no narrow bonds, according to thine own free will in thou, thine own maker and molder, fashioning thyself in whatever manner thou likest best."217 Both Jaques and Hamlet were proudly presented by Shakespeare as "melancholy philosophers," wearing black with pride, "condemning abuses, but never condemning earthly existence."218 Ficino speculated on "Why Melancholics Are Intelligent," noting that the most bold, learned people he knew were always melancholic,219 and philosophers gave the excellent advice that friendship was the best antidote to "melancholy, the malaise of the age."220

Elizabethans thought melancholy "both a very wretched state and a very happy state…[and] melancholy was often praised and sought after as a great felicity," a mark of an intellectual who had "risen superior to the petty concerns of ordinary men and occupied with thoughts of worth and dignity,"221 thoughts of personal meaning and self improvement.

Though Mommy’s/God’s grace might only come after "holy desperation" for the depressive personality of the Reformation, though Her forgiveness might still be "unpredictable, unknowable and incomprehensible," if one obeys Her dicta then She might be a forgiving God who cared for you.222

Luther could now hope that God would actually love him because He was sometimes kind! This hope suddenly allowed an expansion of the real self, and the world, and its activities suddenly became invested with new vigor. For the new depressive psychoclass, Mommy/God didn’t need you sexually, so celibacy was not necessary. She could forgive, so one could actually trust Her and cast oneself upon Her mercy. She paid attention to your need for food, so you didn’t have to fast your whole life. She actually listened to you, so you could individuate your self beyond clinging to religious and political authorities.

Dissociation and splitting declined for these depressives—achieving for the first time what Melanie Klein calls "the depressive position" which allows merger of the good breast/bad breast split—so women were not split into virgins and whores (Mary and Eve) but were for the first time seen as human beings with both good and bad qualities, and marriage for the first time in history became a worthy goal rather than just a way to legitimate fornication.

By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the new mode of intrusive childrearing had catapulted Western Europe far beyond the earlier psychoclasses of the rest of the world, giving their minority of depressives a new sense of self worth and the ideal of cumulative, necessary progress which led to the modern world we know today. The growth of knowledge, the invention of printing, the new questioning of authority, the exploration of new lands and ideas, all were evidence that "European people had altered in some fundamental way"223 —a change in their psyches, not in their environment.

For the first time in history, Mommy/God "was relegated to a vague and impenetrable heaven, somewhere up in the skies. Man and man alone was the standard by which all things were measure."224 Science began its spectacular leap into the unknown. Political systems without divine sanctions and economics that were based on real trust became the goals of society. Joy in life need not be something sinful, hope was allowed and freedom for self exploration did not need to be disobedience to Mommy/God. These lessons—first learned in families at the feet of innovative mothers—soon produced new institutions to express these new freedoms, particularly in France and England, where childrearing was most advanced.

Unfortunately, while depressives could begin to try to live out their new freedoms, they were still a minority in these centuries, and the earlier psychoclasses experienced the new freedoms of the age as terribly dangerous and certain to call upon them the wrath of Mommy/God. These centuries of progress were therefore also centuries of apocalyptic fears and wars, when people were certain that so much change would unchain Satan and his swarms of demon alters and that the world was certain to end soon.

Apocalyptic prophecies, cults and religious wars proliferated in Reformation Europe, particularly in areas like Germany where childrearing had changed the least.225 What Trevor-Roper calls "the general crisis of the seventeenth century"226 was in fact a psychoclass conflict, and the demons, witches and anti-Christs that roamed Europe at that time were all really the Persecutory Alters that inhabited the schizoid, narcissistic, masochistic and borderline psychoclasses that still represented the majority of Europe. These earlier psychoclasses responded with violence to all the progress of the period, "acting out with fierce energy a shared [millenarian] phantasy which, though delusional, yet brought them such intense emotional relief that they…were willing both to kill and to die for it."227 The new religious services of the Reformation were felt to be "full of wild liberty," and "beast-like carnal liberty" was reported seen at anabaptist prayer meetings, where services were said to be conducted in the nude.228

All the individuation would certainly bring punishment upon mankind, and pamphlets were circulated describing how clouds were raining blood and flocks of birds were holding cosmic battles in the sky "as auguries of some impending disaster."229 A placental "Many-Headed Monster" was hallucinated as savaging Europe, carrying out the Day of Judgement because "by now seven-year-old children demonstrated more wickedness than had previously been possible by evil old men…the world had become so wicked that things could hardly get worse."230 Religious wars broke out all over Europe, as "God was unable to bear it any longer and decided to cleanse his Church with a great scourge."231

Historians have long been puzzled by why the witchcraft epidemic took place in the centuries that were most progressive, but if the craze is seen as a reaction to growth panic it becomes explainable. Tens of thousands of women responded to their new freedoms by becoming possessed by their alters and falling into trances: "Observers spoke of the possessed as ‘choked,’ subjected to ‘thousands of cruel pinches,’ ‘stuck [with] innumerable pins,’ and ‘cut with knives and struck with blows that they could not bear,"232 as they restaged the memories of swaddling pins, parental blows and other childhood traumas.

Those who persecuted witches were obviously taking vengeance upon their mommies; indeed, most witches were either mothers or wetnurses.233 A witch was transparently a mommy, since she rode on a maternal broom, had special teats where "imps" sucked on her body, smothered babies in their cradles and came into your bedroom uninvited and seduced you.234 As Roper puts it: "Relations between mothers, those occupying maternal roles and children, formed the stuff of most witchcraft accusations."235 "Over and over again in the trial records, the accused women are addressed as ‘Mother’…the witch is a monstrous mother…"236

The rape of children formed a central focus for witchcraft group-fantasies. Descriptions of the sexual orgies that went on at sabbats clearly reveal their origins in childhood rape attacks, and young girls who had "convulsive fits" in court "as the Devil entered them"237 restaged each detail of their earlier rapes before their startled audiences. Nuns in particular were afflicted with demonic possession, going into trances and accusing priests of seducing them, which they often had really done.238

The extreme youth of those raped can be seen in their complaint that "the genital organs of their Demons are so huge and so excessively rigid that they cannot be admitted without the greatest pain."239 Entire villages would sometimes periodically go into trances together, call themselves "Benandanti," and fight Devils together, all while fully dissociated, "as if I was both sleeping and not sleeping."240 By the time the witch-craze had disappeared by the beginning of the eighteenth century, a million innocent people had died in an orgy of alter persecution caused by too much progress during the Reformation—just as six million would later die in the alter persecution caused by too much progress in Weimar Germany.


Article Citations

This article is Part III of Chapter 9 of deMause's new book The Emotional Life of Nations (New York: OtherPress, 2002). For more by deMause, see his website,

Go to Part IV of Lloyd deMause's The Evolution of Psyche and Society

Read Dr. James C. Duffy's article about why deMause's findings are believable and why resistance persists despite the overwhelming evidence he presents.

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