HE.S.T.A.F.T.A. - Scientific Society of Mental Health Professionals


  • Katia CharalabakiPsychiatrist – Systemic Psychotherapist

Reviewed by Katia Charalabaki, Psychiatrist, Systemic Psychotherapist

This book is written by Cypriot Michael Petrou, a Clinical Psychologist, Social Antrhopologist, doctor of Clinical Psychology, and Psychopathology at the University of Lumiere-Lyon2, and Psychoanalyst. The title on the cover itself stirs intense emotions in the reader-to-be, as well as the desire to delve and to share with his inner self and others the author’s endeavour. A vast number of psychological, social, historical and political concepts offer a substantial wealth to the reading material. The main features are the concept of mourning and the issue of the missing Cypriots, as a result of the Turkish invasion of 1974.  

An example is the reference to the “Ego” and the “Other Person”, the subject and intersubjectivity… The subject is attributed with its uniqueness, yet the individual need not be deprived of its sociability or historicity. Thus, work is done on the interconnections and points of contact between the subject and larger groups. The environment contributes to processes of symbolisation, mentalisation, hisoricisation, as well as their opposites: de-symbolisation etc. Man does not exist but in relation to the other person…

Symbolisation constitutes the mental capacity of creating and developing representations. The book includes detailed references to Symbolisation, Mentalisation, Subjectification, Hisotricisation (as Freud himself came to love the universality of science), as well as references to the contribution of Anthropology to the understanding of burial customs and mourning.

The mourning process requires the integration of suffering into the community, and its evocation through social words and practices that civilisation provides. Through intrapsychic and intersubjective bonds, meaning and fortitude can be drawn in the struggle to overcome the loss. On top of that, in Cyprus, the lamentation for those that are missing has been rendered a political matter. The reference to the concepts of “trauma repetition” and “repetition compulsion” is also important.

Psychic reality does not develop solely in the psychic apparatus of the individual subject, but also in the space of the bond and of the group (pluralistic and multispatial concepts)… HOWEVER! In Western civilisation, the cultural environment seems unwilling to contain individual and social suffering. Thus, the Western man lives in a solipsistic, tyrannical self-sufficiency, and experiences loneliness, social anonymity and cultural disorientation…

The author’s first conclusion: Psychic organisation, structure, processes and, above all, the suffering of an individual cannot be comprehended and sufficiently supported, unless they are correlated with the psychic processes of others and the contexts in which they are registered, which are the components of a multi-subjective aggregate…

And now we come to the “fragments of the sweet country”, Cyprus: the concepts of “death”, “loss”, “mourning”, “missing persons” etc.

First of all, the author asks: Why is it that Cyprus has always been the bone of contention for its neighbours? Is it because Aphrodite the goddess of love emerged from its sea, or because of its geopolitical location, of it comprising one of the most important crossroads between the East and the West, a centre of important commercial trades that has assimilated important ancient cultures? Afterwards, Michael Petrou goes into a description of the history between Cyprus – Greece – Turkey – Great Britain – the U.S. and the rest of the world that is both detailed and concise. The description centres around the dictatorship in Greece, the coup by Ioannides, and the reinstatement of Grivas-Digenis with EOKA B (the National Organisation of Cypriot Fighters). This is a history that has closely shocked our parents, as well as some of us… Its pinnacle was the Turkish invasion of the island on July 20 1974, which had a twofold effect: Terror in Cyprus regarding the possibility of another catastrophic invasion, and the stepping down of the dictatorship in Greece, with the subsequent restoration of democracy.

Extensive descriptions of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus are given, and deeper thoughts/analyses are presented, concerning the course, the present and the future of the situation on the island and its residents (whichever their ethnicity). In short, the clock of history.

Missing persons. Here also, a detailed reference is made to the victims of the wars of our country (i.e. the Asia Minor Catastrophe, the civil war), and an ancient case of a missing person is even discussed, that of Odysseus from the Odyssey’s “Telemachy”. There are missing persons from both sides: 1510 Greek-Cypriots and 492 Turkish-Cypriots. Crimes, murders, rapes against women, etc. from both sides and the accusation against both Turks and Greek-Cypriots from the UN for crimes against humanity. There is an extensive investigation regarding the fate of the missing persons: The study of transmutations and obstacles to the grieving process is referenced.

One element is the fear of death. The phrase “one cannot wrap their head around it” is no longer a simple metaphor. Posttraumatic mental confusion can be observed even in the bravest, most militant wives of missing persons. Latent feelings of guilt by those who survived regarding those that did not. A defensive organisation of children against the narcissistic trauma created by the “wise baby” (Ferenczi, 1949).

Mourning: He we have the burial of the body, funerary honours, as mourning is not a personal matter. It is a societal event that affects, in many ways, the organisation of society and the bonds between its members. Death needs to be legitimised and socially validated. In Greek, the word for funeral (“κηδεία”) derives from a verb that means to take care of (“κήδομαι”) (in this instance of the deceased). The grave refers to the need for memory: memorial. Ancient stories are also referenced, like that of Antigone, and Niobe where the deceased are given their burial even if that means disobeying the laws. The gods kill a mother’s children. Yet the wives of the missing persons of Cyprus are not considered widows. The few that managed to remarry had to apply for and be granted a divorce since a widow certificate could not be issued (!). The missing person is conserved in a paradoxical status: “neither living” (since there are no news of him), “nor dead” (since there are no remains). Here too, the Ego splitting, which is an extreme defence mechanism, is studied. A part of the self recognises the loss, while another part of it refutes it. The missing person is not experienced as a loss but rather as an absence. And thus, as an absence, he brings to mind other wider absences that concern the Cypriot society as a whole.

Furthermore, the political stance taken on the issue of the missing persons/mourning from both sides (Greek-Cypriots and Turkish-Cypriots) highlights the efforts to gain traction in favour of their own political decisions taking advantage of the absence of dead bodies in promoting each side’s agendas: Reunification or Partition. Thus, conditions of “de-subjectification” as well as “de-humanisation” of both victims and perpetrators are created. At this point, several interesting (and novel for non-Cypriots) political references are made, regarding the responsibilities of the Turkish and Cypriot governments concerning the issues of the missing persons, and the sharing of information with their relatives.

There is also a detailed account of people (mostly women) that have dedicated their lives in fighting for the search for the missing persons. A conclusion that is drawn is that in order for the grief of the Cypriot relatives to heal, a public recognition and assumption of responsibility is necessary: Neither amnesia nor amnesty will suffice. Mourning does not equal oblivion, it entails remembrance. Meaning-making, metaphors and symbols allow meaning to be assigned to losses (the story of the Little Prince).

However, collective mourning caused by wars, dictatorships, genocides and state violence are particularly difficult to process, as its processing is not supported by the state and can even be hindered by it. Why? Because the creativity that emerges as a result of processing the personal and social mourning, and the liberation of new thoughts, comprises a threat for the status quo in question. Thus, the author discusses “secret coalitions” that obstruct the completion of the grieving process, with the issue of the missing persons in the epicentre. Rene Kaes, the Emeritus Professor of Psychology that prefaces the book, terms these coalitions a “perverse treaty of denial”. The perpetrators provoke guilt in their victims, as they not only impose silence, but they also attempt to make them believe, through “identification with the aggressor”, that they themselves are to blame for what is happening to them. Kaes mentions two processes that may serve in not allowing the obliteration of the grieving process: 1. The restoration of public discourse. 2. The process of historicisation, the connection of the personal and family mourning to the collective one.

Another central theme of the book is Trauma: Apart from the endogenous factors, traumatisation also depends on the environment as a defining factor in the course of the psychic processing. Trauma is the abrupt discontinuation of the dynamic communication between the container and the contained, and the breakdown of the alpha function (that is the process that allows thought). It is then that the subject feels completely helpless in the face of angsts that it is unable to manage. Often, in these cases, we observe repetition compulsion, stemming from an “inability to integrate”, in other words, the non-integration of the psyche. A withdrawal of subjectivity. Violence drives the subject out of the human condition, condemning it to radical estrangement and alienation. However, the rejection of monism leads to the connection of heterogeneous systems: soma - psyche, infant - mother, individual – group – society – civilisation etc.

Furthermore, trauma registers itself in the genealogy, and this registration causes harmful effects on the offspring. We refer here to the collective trauma and its transmission from generation to generation. Often, young people with missing persons in the previous generations of their families idealise them. Idealisation is a primitive defence mechanism that supports the splitting of the object into good and bad. The idealisation of a missing person is a defence against the experience of traumatic loss, in contrast to latent feelings of anger, guilt, shame etc. Under these conditions, the lost object continues “living” in a crypt inside the psyche. And often, this crypt is passed on to the next generation through the birth of a “ghost”. Loss is irreversible. Absence, on the other hand, is a potential presence, an expectation, a promise to return. Here too, the essential difference between death and disappearance is mentioned. However, the pain pertaining to absence is perpetuated, as mourning is precluded.

Afterwards, there is a reference to coalitions and their bearers. There are coalitions of a secret, of shared disillusionments, and unrecognisable coalitions that are formed around the bearers of “grief”. There are treaties of rejection that form parts of unconscious coalitions. On a socio-political level, we could say that the political leadership reinforces the individuals’ desire to find their missing relatives, thus agreeing with the denial of the personality and the splitting of thought, in exchange for political benefits. This last point, however, is not explicitly stated; it is instead a commonly known secret. The author points out that these kinds of contracts are not only important for the persons that partake in them, but are also pervasive for Cyprus as a whole. They are contracts that do not promote life and truth, but are based on a commonly known secret and a lie that exist within the denial of reality. As a result, the relatives of the missing persons and the entire Cypriot society remains stagnant, fixated on the past, awaiting for the living dead, when the members of the society themselves are in fact the living dead. Here also, the author explains that he decided to put the word grief in quotation marks when utilising the term bearers of “grief”, as it is a grief that nobody wants to complete. These are collective, social processes that reinforce faith in the impossible, persistent delusion, and illusion.

In regards to trauma, sometimes the management capabilities of the situation are destroyed, which results in the trauma tending towards death, psychic death, which can lead an entire part of the people, if not the people as a whole, to annihilation. There is a distinction between trauma and mourning: trauma refers to something extreme that results in immobilisation, and a deathly downfall of thought. Successful mourning tends towards life, motion, and creativity. It is the psychic work of managing loss, and accepting the reality that the object is no longer here. And of course, the social and cultural containment of mourning is necessary. Psychic destruction is multiplied when it coincides with an environmental and social destruction like war. Impairments in institutions and social frameworks allow violence to turn towards the social group and its members. Natural disasters unite people, social ones disconnect them (Freud, 1930).

The mourning of Greek-Cypriots concern all the parts of the self that were lost by individuals. In any process of mourning the object, there is always a mourning process for the parts of the self that have been deposited on the object. These are two inseparable mournings. As far as the mourning of Greek-Cypriots goes, through the relatives of the missing persons, it has to do with all that was lost: relatives, land, homes, properties, dreams, a state. Mourning means memory, and mourning the memory means History. Oblivion is an important factor in the creation of a nation. “Where national memories are concerned, grief is of more value than triumphs, for it imposes duties, it requires a common effort” (Ernest Renan, 1882). The first conclusion is that we should begin our reconciliation with our History. The second one is that the integration of the work of mourning can lead to the acceptance of the novel and the stranger. The failure of this integration leads to arrogance and catastrophic omnipotence that threatens Cyprus, Hellenism, and the entire world.

Lastly, I will offer a personal conclusion regarding Michael Petrou’s important piece of work. The author himself notes that it is a synthesis of Psychology and Anthropology. I will add that it is a synthesis of Science, Sociology, History, Politics, Poetry (hence its title), and human experience.

We thank him!

Read the next article:

ARTICLE 11/ ISSUE 24, April 2024

Book Review: THOMAS H. OGDEN, THIS ART OF PSYCHOANALYSIS Dreaming undreamt dreams and interrupted cries. IKAROS Publishing, PSYCHOANALYTIC SERIES

Katia Charalabaki, Psychiatrist – Systemic Psychotherapist
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