Political Freud: Volkan on group aggression

When Mikhail Gorbachev paid a triumphant visit to Charlottesville in 1993, few people knew that he came at the invitation of Charlottesville's only Turkish Cypriot psychoanalyst who specializes in large group regression and psychopolitics.

"It was like he was running for mayor," recalls Vamik Volkan of the high-profile visit.

For two dozen years, Volkan has worked to help overcome the destructive forces of group psychologies in cases of ethnic animosities. His brand of analysis has been credited with peace between Israel and Egypt and the "velvet divorce" between Estonia and Russia.

"I've been to god-awful places," says the soft-spoken doctor. "In places of unimaginable torture and human aggression, people lose their individualities and wrap themselves in ethnic identities."

Dr. Carlos Alvarez, a clinical psychologist at Florida International University, says he finds that Volkan's theories are applicable to many communities, including his own Cuban-American diaspora.

"When I came across his concept of 'chosen trauma,' I thought, 'Hey, I think I've seen this before,'" he said in a recent lecture on the tendency of second generation Cubans to identify with the trauma of their exiled elders.

Throughout six years of Arab-Israeli dialogues, two years of Soviet-American discourse, and other projects, Volkan says he has put numerous influential diplomats and negotiators "on the couch"– but never picked up the phone to confer officially with governments. He calls it unofficial diplomacy, but he says it could also be thought of as "trickle-down Freudianism."

"When groups regress and are full of murderous views of each other, realpolitik does not work," explains Volkan. "So one must do the foundation work and make influential people work through their emotional perceptions of the other side for a more realistic perception."

Volkan, who founded and led the Center for the Study of Mind and Human Interaction at UVA until his retirement in 2002, was recently awarded the Sigmund Freud Award from the city of Vienna, Austria. This month sees the release of his latest book, Blind Trust, which psychoanalyzes, among other strange human behaviors, launching preemptive wars.

"When leadership cannot separate reality from fantasy," he warns without naming names, "that's a sign of regression."

Vamik Volkan