Swans Commentary » swans.com July 31, 2006  



Welcome To Schizoia
Justin Frank's Bush on the Couch


by Ted Dace


Book Review



Justin A. Frank, M.D.: Bush on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President, Regan Books, 2004, ISBN: 0-060-73671-2, 247 pages (paperback)


(Swans - July 31, 2006)   You've just popped out of the birth canal. The doctor gives you a spank, and the nurse wraps you in a towel. As your retinas bathe in their first blast of light, your mother's face is forever imprinted on your mind. Already, a sense of doom is creeping up your guts. Yes, it's true. Mommy is Barbara Bush.

It's almost enough to make me feel sorry for the poor schmuck.

In his penetrating examination of George W. Bush's panoply of psychopathologies, Bush on the Couch, psychiatrist Justin Frank charts the trajectory of W's life from infant to infantile. Drawing on the work of Freudian theorist Melanie Klein, Dr. Frank contends that human life begins with a schism. The infant sees himself as innately good, while others achieve grace only to the extent that they cater to his needs. With plenty of nurturing, however, his black and white world begins to break down as he discovers he's still worthy of being loved despite his shameful, destructive impulses. Motherly love enables him to accept that he's a mix of good and bad, just like everyone else. Over time he "internalizes the maternal function," learning to make peace with his dark side on his own.

But when your mother is Babs, a self-absorbed, repressed, intimidating control freak who fails to respond to your emotional needs, the schism between good and bad cements into place, your world "peopled with unreal figures, uncomplicated by ambiguity," as Frank puts it. Allies are extensions of the self, while everyone else is the enemy. After 9/11, Bush perfectly expressed the schizoid mindset. "There are no shades of gray in this fight for civilization.... Either you're with the United States of America, or you're against the United States of America."

Bush never learned to integrate his fear, rage and guilt into his sense of self. Instead of accepting and processing these universal emotions and thereby leaching them of their power, he walled them off. To admit to his flaws would have meant allowing a crack to appear in the dam. The longer the barrier stays up, the more powerful the sea of negativity behind it and the more terrifying the prospect of drowning should it break. Bush "denies his fallibility, vulnerability, and responsibility," writes Frank, "because on a fundamental unconscious level he feels he must do so to survive."

Rather than come to terms with his destructiveness, Bush displaces it onto his enemies, finding in them the traits that disfigure his own psyche. The enemy-other is thus not a whole person but only a screen onto which his own evil is projected, a cartoon character more than a human being. Of course, there's no shame in brutalizing a caricature.

To empathize with someone else's pain, first you need to feel your own. By forcing the integration of negative emotions, sorrow can open the heart and heal a split worldview. But when his sister Robin died, little W was told to suppress his feelings and act as if nothing had happened. Fast-forward to 9/11, and big W has no idea how to respond, skipping directly from glassy-eyed incomprehension to fantasies of revenge, meanwhile exhorting his fellow Americans to forget about it and go shopping.

Frank cites numerous examples of Bush's wall of denial, such as his refusal to take responsibility for the failure to prevent 9/11 -- even falsely claiming he had received no warnings of the impending attack -- and his insistence that the Iraqi WMD debacle was due to bad intelligence, though it was distorted only so as to meet the administration's own specifications. When he unleashes a whopper like, "Free nations don't develop weapons of mass destruction," you get the feeling he believes it himself. Deep in delusion, he tells lies that can easily be exposed, such as his assertion to Kofi Annan that the U.S. offered one last chance to Saddam to let UN inspectors in before invading or his claim that he couldn't return to Washington after 9/11 because Air Force One had been targeted.

Then there's the lying about his gubernatorial record, his campaign opponents, his rationale for war, the true intent of such policies as "Clear Skies" and "Healthy Forests" and on and on. Despite his denials about DUI arrests, illegal money-making ventures, deserting his National Guard unit during Vietnam, etc., still he can say, "I have been very candid about my past." Though he defied the Securities and Exchange Commission, the US Constitution, the Geneva Conventions and the UN Charter, he can say with a straight face, "We have a responsibility to respect the law."

No matter how much death and misery he unleashes on the world, Bush's sense of his innate wisdom and goodness is never shaken. Like the mental patient who thought he was dead and famously claimed, "Dead men do bleed" when a doctor pricked his skin, the boy emperor thinks he's a humble servant of Jesus, a "compassionate conservative" who stands against "those who deliberately take the lives of men and women and children without mercy or shame." But maintaining such industrial-strength delusion comes at a price. Facing the constant threat that reality will flood back in, he must endure chronic anxiety.

Since talking is a good way of managing anxiety, language problems often indicate unresolved fears. As Mark Crispin Miller points out, W's dyslexicon doesn't manifest when he's speaking punitively but mostly when trumpeting the qualities that reinforce his delusional self-image, such as idealism, altruism, compassion, etc. His alcoholism, according to Frank, stems from a failed effort at anxiety management. Once his drinking got out of control and became a source of anxiety in itself, he turned to religion, giving his life over to God in exchange for a sense of certainty and omnipotence. His rigid exercise routine serves the dual purpose of maintaining order and bulking up his body, which produces outer strength to hide inner weakness.

Of the many failures that mark Bush's life, perhaps the most significant is his failure to become a man. Ordinarily, the developmental stage of "phallic narcissism" gives way around age six. Not so for W. In his crucial early years, his frequently absent father couldn't help him develop autonomy by separating from his overbearing mother and her "beautiful mind." He can fool himself and a few others with his erect posture, bulging biceps and "bring em on" bravado, but the rest of the world sees a scared little boy hopelessly dependent on his substitute president, Cheney, and his substitute mom, Laura. While most phallic narcissists have to settle for a well-equipped Jeep Commander, Bush "has the entire US military to function as his penis, and he swings it around with fierce power."

Humiliated by his unfulfilled need for love and approval from his father, who set unattainably high standards as athlete, fighter pilot, and businessman, Bush lashes out at the weak, says Frank, because they remind him of his own unacceptable weakness. Thus we see him torturing frogs as a child and gleefully mocking Texas death row inmate Karla Faye Tucker for daring to request a pardon. "Please don't kill me." Frank attributes the infamous smirk to the pleasure Bush takes at imposing onto others the pain he can't process himself. Occasionally it even spills over into giggles, as when he was asked how he could send to death someone whose lawyer slept through the trial.

Like many sadists, Bush's specialty is to raise hopes before sticking the knife in. It was only after praising Americorp and promising 50% more money that he cut its budget by 80%. The same pattern was evident with school kids and even New York firemen. He made sure to tease poorly outfitted troops with promises of excellent healthcare before cutting benefits and making them wait months, in many cases, to get treatment for wounds suffered in the course of his "budget" war of conquest.

Frank sees Bush's refusal to allow flag-draped coffins to be photographed as a sign of his contempt for soldiers who demonstrate precisely the kind of bravery (even if misguided) that he himself lacked during the Vietnam era. His central imperative is to protect his self-image of virility and moral good sense against anyone who might cast it into doubt, including nosy reporters with their "trick questions." When delusions of grandeur stem from a hidden core of paranoid insecurity, the diagnosis is megalomania. His greatest ally may be none other than Osama bin Laden, as the bigger the persecutor, the more inflated the ego of the protector.

Bush's emotionally stunted followers buy into his savior routine as much as he does. His "shock and awe" campaign in Iraq catered to their infantile need for fantasies of omnipotence in the face of helplessness. His assertion that terrorists "hate our freedoms" resonates with their preference for self-serving delusion in place of real-world complexity. Like children newly aware of their destructive impulses, his constituents must project their lower nature onto an enemy while identifying with an idealized father-hero.

But Frank leaves out the other side of the coin. If Freud were around today, he would categorize Bush as an "Exception," meaning someone who thinks he's above the law, never has to apologize, and is entitled to get whatever he wants. Just as his acolytes reflect his pathology back onto him, W reflects US pathology back onto us. It's called "American exceptionalism." Frank's book, published prior to the 2004 election, served originally as a plea for the removal of Bush from power, which only exacerbates his megalomania. But he held on, in part, because he embodies our own collective narcissism.

On the cover of this book is a question mark. Setting aside the banal issue of why the terrorists hate us, Frank zeroes in on the real mystery: why does George W. Bush hate us? Surely a person privileged from birth -- handed the White House as casually as the car keys on a Friday night -- has everything he could possibly want at his fingertips (including that other bush on the couch, Laura). What could ordinary Americans have that makes him despise us so much that he routinely lies to us, teases us with unkept promises and pushes legislation enabling him to secretly kidnap, torture, and murder any of us at any time?

Could it be that he hates us for our freedom from schizoia? Surely it's easier to integrate negative aspects of the self and attain a measure of peace than to project them onto others and live thereafter with the anxiety that the truth will eventually emerge. Such anxiety can only be enhanced when the cartoon evil of one's own creation comes to life and hurls exploding airplanes at your chief symbols of wealth and power. W has demons attacking him from within and without. Like a corporation imposing the costs of business onto the public, Bush is externalizing his private hell onto Iraq and Afghanistan and even his own citizenry.

If there's a flaw to Bush on the Couch, it's that Frank's explanations of policy decisions tend to be psychologically reductive. There's obviously more to the invasion of Iraq than Bush's need to one-up his dad. But Frank ably demonstrates the usefulness of psychological inquiry as a complement to geopolitical considerations. The neocons who put this true-believer in power to provide cover for their sinister projects may not have realized what they were getting themselves into. As the Republican Party fragments and the Middle East ignites, the puppet president "engages the nation both as agent and victim in a perilous psychodrama that rages far beyond his control."


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Justin A. Frank, M.D.: Bush on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President, Regan Books, 2004, ISBN: 0-060-73671-2, 247 pages (paperback)

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About the Author

Ted Dace is a freelance philosopher living in Los Angeles. His articles on science can often be found at skepticalinvestigations.org.



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Published July 31, 2006