The Sin Eater.

Whether its Vampires, Frankenstein’s Monster or the Walking Dead, Modernity has a fascination with those who manage to negotiate the razor’s edge of what should be a pretty clear divide between sending out for pizza and dialing 911.

The confusion is then complicated by the question of which realm we are headed towards once the issue of whether we are sufficiently dead to qualify has been adequately settled.

Trying to exert influence over this might seem like a waste of time given the amount of life’s unheeded prayers, but up until the Industrial Revolution it was not uncommon for those at Death’s door, either side of it was good, to employ a ‘Sin-eater’ in order to swing the odds.

The Sin-eater, a person otherwise shunned by the community and living at its fringes, was tasked with taking on the sins of the departed/ing in order to facilitate their passage to a better place. This they did by ritually eating special bread over the corpse/to-be, and washing down their wickednesses with milk or cider.

Tradition dictated that a fee of sixpence also be levied. Even Sin-eaters have to live..

..for now.

The sin-eater represents something for which we seem to have no contemporary equivalent, the collision of love and hate that wishes the departed/ing safe passage whilst admitting the need to bus in a little extra help.

Dining on damnation had to be the world’s worst freelance gig; but the important thing is that the practice spoke to an implicit consensus that a person’s soul is not as discreet an entity as we might like to think.

We live in a soup of psychic material that can make it difficult to determine who’s ‘stuff’ belongs to who before the veil is even lifted, assuming that whatever we are suffering from must be the product of our own experience.

‘It is unsettling to imagine experiencing feelings and thinking
thoughts that are in an important sense, not one’s own.’ [Ogden

It nevertheless remains that in early life, and for those who remain there too long, the contents of our inner world are readily..

‘engendered in and processed by another. . . thereby relieving the self of the effects of containing them.’[ibid]

A man came to see me complaining of depression. He seemed more henpecked than depressed. It turned out his wife had sent him to see me and left him on the same day. It was too co­incidental. She had offloaded something on this man and then fled the scene to her new life.

I enquired about the ‘depression’. ‘Oh’, he said, ‘my wife told me it was depression and she is usually right about these things’. ‘What about the wife’s depression?’, I asked. He seemed surprised, ‘well, she used to be depressed when I first met her but she is much better now.’ I suggested to him that this might be because he was now carrying it for her.

He was not depressed but he was easily loaded down. We could meet to speak about that if he wished. He perked up. Next week he told me that when he got home there was a message from her on the answer phone, left at the time of our session, to say that she had suddenly felt overwhelmed with depression and desperately needed to talk to him! His house cleaning had immediately returned her chickens to roost.

Psychic material can be traded. Even Jesus dying for your sins is the first line in an arrangement that will involve crippling remorse and loads of being sorry..

‘Christian children all must be mild obedient good as he..’

People making amends for one another’s sins is as old as the hills. We fear its evil twin Contamination just as much, and with good cause, as any afternoon visit to the asylum will happily confirm.

madness is contagious.

and if you work in the place you will quickly be accosted by your own delusions of grandeur.

Karen Horney says that children deal with trauma in one of three ways, by either going Towards, Away or Against the object of their suffering. Those who chose to go ‘towards’ are often highly empathic in adult life. They are the backbone of the caring profession, teaching, public service.

But they are also prone to contagion by parental/collective ideals, undigested by anyone else in the family, that they carry or live out for Others as one of life’s crosses or as fate, but whose? The willingness to please can mean being a host to unbridled parental demons that have a way of sucking the life out of you.

Sometimes it can kill.

I spent three tours of duty subjugating already impoverished people and getting shot at before I realised I was high on something that had nothing to do with me. It had to do with a father who’s son was to be maryred for his country according to some hidden narrative. I was a bit player in an ancient drama. My death was so assured in his scripted mind, his debt to God so complete in its payment, that he even sold my stuff.

The adaptive child does not stop at being good. They are compelled to collude with unspoken parental expectations that the child live out a certain ideal, quite often something the parent has not managed to do for themselves and so needs to acheive by proxy.

What can develop is the riteous stance of having fulfilled a host of obligations fueled by the simmering fury of never having been truly seen or witnessed…

wiv croutons of centralised power and palling up to the gods..

Somehow whatever system seems to be in power it always winds up with autocrats playing god. Turkey has just voted to put all its powers in the hands of one man, having fought for centuries to escape the grip of autocracy. Within a generation of liberty, equality, fraternity, France had an emperor.  How does it happen?

It happens because that’s the way we like it. Rulers who think they are God are our style. It means that we can do it too.

The danger is that if you give a narcissist an army he will be obligated to pick a quarrel with his neighbours, with anyone…and not just for the adrenalin, the sure sense of purpose so necessary to inner chaos, nor even the kudos or the booty, the noble regime change nor base rape and pillage, not even the laurels of victory themselves but for the sake of being the right hand of God.

The possibility that identities can overlap helps us to understand why we put people into power who are bound to abuse it, since what we suffer at their hands is outweighed by permission to take example from them, to identify with them and play God in our own small way.

Watching Kim jong Un’s parade last week I realised that what so scared me about the tyrant was that his face beemed with spontaneous joy at what his heart knew was entirely orchestrated, by him.

Thousands of people moved like chess pieces but made to seem as though they had just spilled onto the pavement from the 9.05 to Pyongyang, all carefully wearing slightly different suits and the occasional shirt sleeve to create the illusion of a spontaneous and prosperous people all exuberant for the great leader, thronging through town, though also all in rows and waving like they had been taught it by a drill instructor.

Kim had created a reality so perfect in its conception that he was taken in by it himself. Isn’t that what God does? The people, all in mystical colour coded union with one another, individual trials and tribulations washed away by identification with the Great Leader who binds them to the Gods whilst propitaiting and gaining protection from them on the People’s behalf.

And yes, of course, the people are oppressed, but you have to wonder, given that whether its Mao in Communist China, Hitler in Fascist Germany or Stalin in Socialist Russia, the similarities seem greater than their differences. Which suggests an X in Humanity’s meaning-of-life equation…

until you recall that playing God is encouraged by the glorious leader and that sins can be traded.

provided you have the coin.







The Shadow of Empathy.

I once found myself in a relationship..

”what, just like that? You found yourself…., like some amnesiac that suddenly slid out of a coma?”

ok, I wound up in a..

”what, as a result of an accident or… like falling down a hole?”

ok, I was once in a relationship..


It was terrible. She was the Narcissistic Control Freak from Hell. It was so bad I went back into therapy to get support and perspective..

I dreamed that I was riding her like a witch on a broomstick. My analyst had a gift for describing without interpreting overly, ‘well Andy, you’re riding her and there is something witchy in what you are about..’

not to mention adrenalin and white knuckles…

The dream was telling me I was not some innocent party. I had a hand in what was happening. More than that, I was on some kind of dark mission.

What I found was that hanging out with hard core Narcissism reproduced a very particular set of experiences for me; isolation, feeling unvalued, desperation to be seen and acknowledged, stuff that was so deep in my psyche I could scarcely find the words for it.

All shmeered over with being the riteous grown-up  in the equation, ever ready to wag a finger at bad behaviour.

”There is nothing so dangerous as a mild man.” CG Jung.

Why? Because his shadow is free ranging the corridors of the unconscious.

I was offloading my own early traumas, my inner vulnerability and chaos left, right and centre. But I was doing it so unconsciously that all the impotence and emotional deprivation I was so keen to export just kept blowing up in my face.

”That which cannot come in through the door will sneak in by the window.’ African Proverb.

So, if you have a pattern of going out with people who prove to be exceptionally self centred and controlling, you are the common denominator in the equation.

What’s your mission?

It must be important if you’re putting yourself through Hell to acheive it.

It seems like the Empath is more evolved than the Narcissist. You might say that they/we at least have a sense of centre, a connection to self and others. But sometimes the caring has a carnivorous quality to it, or perhaps the sense that it is part of an undeclared campaign.

The work of psychoanlyst Karen Horney is useful in leveling the playing field between the seemingly eternal attraction of Narcissist and Empath, necessary for attending the unconscious factors involved. She suggests that children deal with the basic anxiety of being insufficiently nurtured in one of three strategic ways. They either move Towards, Against or Away from the world.

These strategies need not be mutually exclusive, but for the precarious child of parents..

”too wrapped up in their neuroses to love the child or consider him as an individual…’ K. Horney.

..these strategies then become extreme and sedimented. For the child whose inclination is ‘Towards’, affection can become clinging, compliance can become appeasement,  unselfishness can become sacrificial saintliness…

The empathic Towards and the narcissistic Against are likely to find one another more easily than Away. They are at least both headed in the same direction and neither depressed nor resigned like Away.

Sylvia Brinton Perera takes this all a step further. She demonstrates the unconscious martyrdom that lurks in empathic Towards’  experience of being victimised by the narcissistic Against.

Towards, by her compliant nature, makes a devil of aggression and ‘negative emotions’, all of which threaten the basis of primary bonds rooted in the self effacing solution. She has..

”no experience to distinguish between power as an ego necessity and its misuse in crushing punitive destructiveness.” S. B. Perera.

But being a Redeemer permits at least some expression of her vital self…

”rationalised with riteous indignation…. ” ibid

and shores up an unrealistic persona of noble innocence and virtue.

Whilst defending against the anxiety of an independable world she becomes indispensible to it, a mistress of defusing ‘negativity’ she elects/is elected to serve transpersonal atonement for the family by allowing herself to be laden down with the ills of others like the sin-eaters of Old…

As such, she is also a ‘Chosen One’, whose self-sacrifice to collective ideals..

”finds expression in loyalty and service to the family that has rejected her..” ibid

repeated later in life through loyalty and service to the narcissistic Against who happily loads her down with shadow projections.

Towards, whilst attracted to healing and therapy finds it difficult to sustain ( I had eleven analysts, nine of which I ate for breakfast) because of the paradoxical agony inherant in being both pure victim and designated sin carrier to be cast out into the wilderness. The pharmacon, as both ill and cure, is potentially torn apart by the contradiction of their position, unfairly loaded down one moment and yet drawn like a moth to the flame the next when needed as a repository by their narcissistic partner/boss/colleague.

Its difficult to address because of the insinuation that Towards is just a masochist..

” Don’t make yourself a victim. Leave the situation, change it or accept it. All else is madness.” Eckhart Tolle

No, all else is Unconscious.

which might drive you crazy…

What gets forgotten is the deeply held belief, instilled from birth and reinforced throughout life, that value and atonement are to be had in being of service to the Collective to the point of abdicating one’s own destiny.

The redemption provided to others, the sense of being chosen, and the  virtue of a profoundly personal dedication to the Collective cause will go some way to off-setting the  isolation, inhumanity and degradation of this unholy…. arrangement.

but not much.

”Such perverted affirmation – being needed because one is [considered] inferior or hateful and loathsome is deeply felt by many who have carried the collective shadow of heroic western consciousness..’ ibid.

an ideal best embodied by the immaculate, careless, disdaining Against.

My narcissistic father had such a flair for enactment that his scapegoating of me took on literal proportions. I was sent to fight and die in a war that had nothing to do with me, in a unit that was renowned for its losses in combat…

the real horror was that I went so willingly, happy to fight and die, to sacrifice myself on the altar of Against’s cause. What else was I worth…? How else would I be loved?

Those that avoid the fires of self immolation reserved for the hard core ‘Towards’ become healers of one sort or another in due course. But only by realising the careless, precarious, conditional basis upon which we entered the world and the dark underbelly that is the legacy of Empathy.


Narcissism Redeemed.

In 1943 Goebbles commissioned a young writer called Gerhard Burger to write a script for a Nazi propaganda movie. Little did he realize that Burger was in fact the pseudonym of banned and wanted satirist Erich Kestner whose books Goebbles had personally burned only months before….

‘Burger’ wrote ‘Munchhausen’ for Goebbles.

It was a great success.

Did Kastner sell himself out?

I think not.

The story starts as you would expect.

Munchausen is a golden super warrior, an apotheosis of Man endowed with eternal life. He knows all of Europe’s royalty and has an elite band of faithful servants all gifted with special powers. There are all kinds of heroic shenanigins.

But Kastner threw in an ending so subtle it is almost lost in the sentimentality, a message so understated as to be subliminal.

Munchausen quietly renounces his special powers for the sake of growing old with the one he loves. A much more humble vision than Goebbles  might have intended, in fact something that managed to slide entirely under his radar. The final message of the film was what Kastner wanted it to be.

The way forward is by virtue of ordinariness and love.

Which is how it is with extremism.

And, by extension, anyone else who has ‘the syndrome’.

The so-called Munchausen syndrome is at the more colourful end of the Narcissistic spectrum. From a medical point of veiw it is ‘factitious’ insofar as its seen as just a case of someone wanting attention. But perhaps anyone who wants to be ill really is. The desire to be ill or to have a reason not to go out into the world really is pretty messed up.

It is also rather typical of the ‘puer aeturnus’ archetype that underpins narcissism, a wish to identify with only one tiny, idealised corner of the personality and to present oneself as this superior front to the world from whom admiration and solicitude can then be squeezed in equal measure.

The fact is that many a child laden down with parental expectations and archetypal projections is going to feel as though there is something wrong with them.

“The truth about our childhood is stored up in our body, and although we can repress it, we can never alter it. Someday our body will present its bill, for it is as incorruptible as a child, who, still whole in spirit, will accept no compromises or excuses, and it will not stop tormenting us until we stop evading the truth.” -Alice Miller

If they follow their own destiny they fail in their parent’s eyes. If they let themselves remain co-opted they betray their own destiny.

Such a conflict is bound to  end up in A+E.

Real or imagined….

”The gods have become diseases, producing curious specimins for the doctor’s consulting room.” CG Jung.

It’s easy to critisize the arrogant narcissist as a malingerer, as someone living a provisional life, refusing to put down roots in the real world, a Dorian Grey with

”too great a dependence on the Mother.” Mats Winther.

It would be better to ask how that dependence has been fostered. If a child is  covertly handed the responsibility of providing their parent with meaning then there will indeed be much hovering and disengagment from life in respect of such a sacred task.

It’s precisely such a child’s prescribed role to wait in the wings of  parental  ambition and to appear, saviour like, at just the right moment.

There’s no real getting on with your own life.

And you’ll feel as sick as a dog.

The modern rendering of the story…

shows the situation more clearly and gives us the resolution to the situation. The Baron’s identification with his superiority has created terrible inner conflict with the shadow,  the less than noble side of his personality. This is personified (as it is today) by ‘The Turk’, a Muslim Pasha with a taste for sado-masochism and decapitation who beseiges the city.

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow.. T S Eliot

Munchausen’s inner world has become so devoid of ordinary ideosyncratic material that he is compelled to identify with extreme, opposing roles in order to know himself. Even Catherine the Great is not sufficiently his equal.

”He becomes collectivized from within. The greater the identification with the youthful god, the less individuality although he feels so special.” ML von Franz.

This polarisation is hard work. So is covering over his inner emptiness given that his specially endowed servants are all captured or dispersed. The town’s regular troops are not fighting back because it is Wednesday. Ie his defences have regressed to autistic levels of functioning and so we find Munchausen depleted and close to death.

Narcissism in ourselves masquerades as self worth yet we see it clearly enough  in others to find it annoying. We forget the deprivation behind it, how it feels to be secretly running on empty all the time. We fail to ask what all this grandeur is compensating for or what kind of world the child was raised in.

The term ‘Symbiotic Omnipotence’,

is useful in developing some compassion for otherwise noxious people because it describes how cumulative trauma to the sacred feminine over generations has had a serious impact on the experience of childhood.

”The danger for the modern child is that his mother is invariably a dissatisfied woman.” S de Beauvoir.

Millenia of spiritual repression has taught women to be secret with their inner world. For as long as baby’s ‘primary process thinking’ is predominant..

when he’s little..

yes, thankyou..

he participates in that secret and is bound to be imbued with its archetypal power, dominated in fact by something he’s unconsciously identified with, he must be the one to save the day.

From fear she conceals her deepest longings her greatest value, her soul, in her child, her golden redeemer, the gifted god-child…

that cannot help ignore the human clay of need and dependence; made all the more difficult to spot because the child in the equation seems to gain from the situation with..

”enhanced effectiveness of each type of functioning in the total personality.’ M. Khan

..the super-charged buzz of redemptive power, the hopes, the dreams….

and so..

“there readily develops a covertly arrogant mysteriously concocted pseudo superiority and false knowledge.” K. Horney.

…..represented by the special and bizzare powers of Munchausen’s now scattered servants.

He is saved from Death only by the anger and determination of a small child who needs closure on his story.

This is the sorcery of literature. We are healed by our stories.

— Terre Tempest Williams

To recover, to tell the story, Munchausen must first find his servants. He needs the inner resources, the different perspectives, of I and me. The problem is that they are all so imbued with magical specialness that they have come to various bad ends, like  famous gunslingers that every punk kid wants to take down. Bertholde, the world’s fastest runner, has to be rescued from the Moon King, the masculine aspect of his Mother who keeps his potential trapped.

Gaining the freedom of his valet Bertholde has divine consequences. They are all tipped headlong into Vulcan’s underground forge where Munchausen meets and courts Venus. His valuing of the clumsy, gauche part of himself, his risking himself for the sake of relatedness, evokes a response from the divine feminine who is now clearly looking out for him.

But it seems it is ‘too little too late’. They are all swallowed up by a sea monster and taken down into the depths.

”Clearly they have been overpowered by the unconscious and are helplessly abandoned, volunteering to die in order to begat a new and fruitful life in that region of the psyche which has hitherto lain fallow…” CG Jung.

Munchausen must renounce the project to redeem others and get on with the process of redeeming himself. The search for his servants, the functional and unique components of his own personality is a ‘night sea journey’, a braving of the depths of himself in order to find new zest for life.

As you might expect, the servants Gustavo of great hearing, Adolphus of accurate sight and Albrect of fantastic strength are also in the fish, though they have lost their special powers. With suffering they have become ordinary. There is genuine compassion and fellow feeling between them despite their ‘failure’ to uphold the shining maternal ideal handed down to them and this acceptance of themselves and of one another precipitates their escape.

Their mutuality, their single-heartedness, conjours Munchausen’s horse Bucephalus to appear, instinctive martial energy (Bucephalus belonged to Alexander the Great), a symbol of dynamic transformation that orchestrates their escape.

The personality fears that to renounce the shared specialness of Symbiotic Omnipotence is to lose all love and belonging. In fact it is to find it. They experience that love can survive ordinariness.

In fact, that’s what it depends on.