Category Archives: silent partner theory

"The Wolf Is at the Door"


Although we each have our own, personal associations to this metaphor [possibly involving 3 little pigs, Little Red Riding Hood, a Russian boy named Peter, even Kevin Costner…or Sarah Palin?], the received meaning of the phrase for several centuries has been, that one has fallen on hard financial times. [Everything old is new again.]

Since many of these scenarios end with the scary, intrusive wolf being shot dead, it’s a wonder that more bailiffs and repo men don’t get blown away on the beleaguered householder’s doorstep. One could argue that, by doing the dirty work of the householder’s creditors, these “heartless mercenaries” become de facto Silent Partners, who are prepared to destroy the lives of the debtor and his/her family. In many recent lost-his-job-and-went-on-a-killing-spree-including-himself stories, this Silent Partner dynamic is obvious.

But, even for those fortunate enough [for now] to remain solvent, the wolf-at-the-door is an archetypal symbol of threat. To understand why, let’s go back to Vienna, to the 300-year-old Spanish Riding School, for another animal story [attributed to Freud]. The Lippizaners are the horses that do “ballet” [high-level Dressage moves] to Mozart, whose shows are a notoriously hard ticket; but whose rehearsals are open to the public. I like to think that it was while watching such a rehearsal [perhaps seeing a groom leading two high-spirited stallions around the arena] that Freud asked a friend, “Which would you choose–to be pulled apart by two horses, or to be charged by two horses?” If you’re like most people, you would choose to be charged. The usual logic behind this is, “If they’re coming at me, I can try to jump out of the way.” Freud used this metaphor to illustrate the defense mechanism of projection. Rather than feel “torn apart” by two powerful, opposing impulses [such as the urge to act out antisocially vs. the desire to “be good”], an individual externalizes [projects] the impulse to behave badly onto a scapegoat [or wolf], and then tries to “jump out of the way” of it [saying, “That is so not who I am!”]. The problem with this temporary fix, is that the wolf can circle around behind you [called in psychoanalytic parlance–like a B movie title–“The Return of the Repressed”], and thus overpower your good intentions, causing you to act out antisocially, willy-nilly.

So, sometimes, the Big Bad Wolf at the door is not a sinister stranger. It’s an unacknowledged part of ourselves.

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Filed under Freud meant..., lesser of two evils, semiotics, silent partner theory

Another Look Back at Anger


Either the pace of homicidal/suicidal incidents has picked up, or the media’s coverage of such events has. A century ago, Emile Durkheim observed that in times of widespread social upheaval [such as massive unemployment] the incidence of anomic suicide rises. Well, here we are, folks. Anomie is that all-bets-are-off-including-the-social-contract attitude, which was cool in the movies when James Dean or Brando enacted it, but is not-so-cool in real life.

There is a theory–beyond Durkheim’s “WTF” and Murray’s unmet N Aff–which I have found invaluable in my 3-decade endeavor to predict who is likely to move beyond fantasies of revenge into lethal enactment of those urges. In 1975, on the day our class of Fellows in Psychology reported to an oh-so-posh and well-staffed mental hospital in Westchester County, we were informed that there had been a rash of suicides among the in-patients, despite the conscientious care and vigilance of the staff. A New York City psychiatrist, Dr. Stuart S. Asch, had written a manuscript to help explain, predict, and [ideally] prevent such events; and his working title was “The Silent Partner Theory of Suicide” [published in 1980 as “Suicide, and the Hidden Executioner”]. We each got a copy to read before we even set foot onto our [locked] wards. Since Dr. Asch also worked as a profiler for the NYPD in homicide cases, there are gorey examples galore in the paper; but here is the bottomline message: A person who is truly intent on committing suicide believes, at that moment, that SOMEONE ELSE WANTS HIM DEAD.

The would-be suicide believes, thus, that he is the victim of the Silent Partner’s homicidal wish, and may even try to get the SP blamed for “murder.” Over the years, in various clinical settings, when I have been the mental-health-provider-of-the-day[night, usually] called in to interview the nearly-successful-suicide, my first [Poetic] question is always, “Okay, besides me, who wants you dead?” In 34 years, each so-recently-so-sad individual has laughed at my little joke, and then fingered their Silent Partner: “My no-good, cheating wife!” “My Division Officer!” “My boss, who just f#&king fired me!” Now we’re talking! [Humiliation, Pain & Suffering, sometimes Fear.]

Here’s the scarey part for the general public. Someone who is truly suicidal is, at that moment, also potentially homicidal. When the original Silent Partner isn’t present for the would-be suicide to confront, any one aof us can become the [proxy] Silent Partner. In order NOT to be the proxy SP, you have to challenge–out loud, right then–this unbalanced person’s belief, that you, too, want them dead. [And just imagine your own fear-fuelled anger, at finding yourself in this bizarre situation!] NYPD cops do it so well. Spotting a person poised to jump from a window ledge, they yell up to him, “For Christ’s sake, what are you thinking? If you jump, you’ll turn yourself into a hideous hunk of meat on the sidewalk! Little kids have to walk by here.” [Subtext message: “I don’t want you dead. Really.”] It works so often, that it’s worth memorizing. You DON’T have to negotiate with the jumper, or “love-bomb” him with phoney affirmations of his wonderfulness. You just have to say [in so many words], “I don’t agree! I vote no!” Otherwise, your silence gives consent, and you become his mortal enemy, along with any other innocent [but silent] bystanders.

Obviously, however, someone perched on a ledge poses much less threat to members of the general public, than someone with an assault weapon. Yes?

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Filed under silent partner theory, suicide and murder