Dreaming While Awake: The Use of Trance to Bypass Threat
Abby Stein, Ph.D.
IN the early 1990s, I participated in a study broadly concerned with the genesis of violent behaviors in a group of hospitalized offenders. Some subjects were in the hospital merely to have a broken wrist set or to investigate a tubercular-sounding cough; others were receiving lengthy psychiatric evaluations following suicide attempts, seizures, unprovoked assaults, or extravagant episodes of mania. The purpose of the research was to employ analytic methodology, in an intensely focused manner, toward the investigation of three conditions that clinical practice, as well as a burgeoning literature, had suggested were correlative to crime: childhoodtrauma, mental illness, and dissociation. A second, related purpose was to examine the relevancy of dissociation diagnoses to legal issues of competence, consciousness, volition, and sanity.
I interviewed sixty-four men whose crimes ranged from petty larceny to double murder. The vast majority reported having been physically assaulted during childhood. Almost half of those interviewed had endured grisly episodes of maltreatment at the hands of caregivers. Many had suffered severe burns, broken bones, loss of consciousness, ongoing sexual molestation, and threatened—as well as actual—attempts on their lives by parents or parental surrogates.
Considering the sadism of their primary caretakers, it was not surprising to discover that many inmates had well-honed peri- and posttraumatic defense repertoires. When a history of severe maltreatment was coupled with other signs of neurological or psychiatric illness, dissociative tendencies were quite pronounced, and included a frequent and intense resort to derealization, depersonalization, and amnesia.
Of note, the eleven most pathologically dissociative offenders had committed the most vicious crimes: kidnapping, attempted matricide, murder, arson, serial rape, aggravated assault, and armed robbery. Five of these men professed amnesia for their offenses, although none claimed to be innocent of the crimes with which they were charged.
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