Why did he copy his tormentors?

As a child and later a teenager in Mao’s Cultural Revolution, President Xi Jinping of China was arrested by the Communist Party several times, forced to denounce his father who had been imprisoned for political crimes, threatened with death and then sent to do hard labour for seven years in the countryside where he lived in a cave and put up with fleas, a brick bed and dinners of raw grain and porridge.  The way he dealt with it all is interesting.  In the words of a Chinese source used by the American government ‘he chose to survive by becoming redder than red’.

Xi studied Marxism, Leninism and Maoist thought assiduously and worked his way steadily up the Communist Party ladder.  Since becoming President in 2012, he has devoted himself to lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty (perhaps influenced by his early experiences) but has also overseen a relentless restriction of civil society including an increase in online censorship, a clampdown on freedom of speech and the arrests of dissidents and human rights lawyers.  He has been described as the most repressive Chinese leader since Mao.

An abuser’s impact on us

What’s going on here?  It’s difficult to know for certain but one wonders whether a process called identification with the aggressor might be at work.  It’s related to Stockholm syndrome whose name derives from a 1973 bank robbery in that city.  Four hostages were taken and they developed such sympathy with their captors, who had tortured them with ropes and dynamite, that they later raised money for their defence in court.

Other manifestations of identification with the aggressor include incidents of domestic abuse victims fighting with police officers who are trying to rescue them and then refusing to press charges against their partners and cases of Jewish prisoners in Nazi concentration camps behaving like their guards and abusing their fellow Jewish prisoners.

So identification with the aggressor is what it sounds like.  A person who has been victimized or traumatized by someone else empathizes with the perpetrator and may themselves become aggressive, domineering or terrorizing in their relationships with others.

The effect of being overwhelmed

How can this reversal happen?  Psychotherapist Roberto D’Angelo explains it well in his work, ‘Thinking about Identification with the Aggressor’.  D’Angelo points to two mechanisms which are probably operating together.  In the first, a person’s experience of being traumatically victimized by a vastly more powerful individual or force creates such devastating anxiety in them that they have to subordinate themselves like a robot to the will of the aggressor, guessing and gratifying each one of their wishes.  They become oblivious of themselves and identify totally with their abuser.  They merge with them so that the trauma itself no longer exists as an external reality.  This mechanism was first suggested in the 1930s by Hungarian psychoanalyst Sandor Ferenczi.

Becoming an aggressor

The second mechanism was proposed around the same time by Freud’s daughter, Anna, herself a formidable psychoanalyst.  In her view, the aggression is not just ‘taken inside’ but is enacted towards other victims.  Thinking primarily of the experience of children receiving a much stronger parent’s criticism’s or prohibitions, Anna Freud sees them as handing on that painful experience to somebody else, thereby getting revenge on a substitute.  And whenever the shameful, prohibited thoughts or feelings for which they’ve been punished re-surface, the child might also become aggressive as a way of combatting the anxiety of getting more punishment.  Freud thought that some children get stuck in this cycle of anxiety of aggression and carry it over into adulthood.

But perhaps the simplest thing to grasp in all this is the essential fact that we all take into ourselves ‘templates’ of relationships – good or bad – that we’ve had.  These templates are actually powerful living forces that get replayed in our later relationships.  History repeats itself.  But both ends of the relationship are in us so that some people may not only re-enact their role as victim but also the role of aggressor.

Brain imaging backs it up

It’s fascinating that modern neuroscience is backing up these old psychoanalytic insights.  We now know from brain imaging that when person A watches person B perform an action, mirror neurons in person A’s premotor cortex fire off just as if they were  performing the action themselves.  But not if they only watch the action happen once.  It’s only when the action is repeated a few times that the neurons light up.  It’s not difficult to see how that would link with the kinds of traumatic experience that I’ve been talking about.

Roberto D’Angelo quotes an incisive comment by another analyst, David Olds, which sums this up:  ‘‘ ‘Perception is being there’.  Especially with interpersonal perception and recognition, one does not simply perceive, one becomes.’’

Food for thought indeed!