Self psychology versus psychoanalysis in the understanding of David Berkowitz

Self psychology versus psychoanalysis in the understanding of David Berkowitz

According to our self psychological analysis, Son of Sam can be seen to have felt ribbed for attention and recognition over a period of time during childhood. The only alternative to nurture his grandiose self and get attention was for him to accomplish something outstanding- MURDER.

Kohut states that he did not intend to invent a new form for analysis, but that he rather intended to improve the classical psychoanalytic theory. Freud’s classical psychoanalytic theory and Kohut’s self psychological are such similar in many ways, but there are also several aspects in which they differ. The implications these differences have in the understanding of D.B., will be discussed in the following section.


2.6.1. From a theory about conflicts to a theory about deficits and narcissism

Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud

Freud emphasized, within the traditional psychoanalytic orientation, the instinctual drives sexual desire (eros) and the death instinct (Freud, 1964). These drives were seen as significant in the development of pathology. Conflicts between the id, where the instinctual drives come from and the superego where a person’s moral conscience belong, would cause a pathological personality development (Freud, 1933). Kohut (1990, p. 59) did not reject the existence of the psychological apparatus, but he designates the conflict-understanding as unsatisfactory. He does not see pathology as a consequence of unsatisfied solutions to conflicts between id and superego. Instead, he saw it as a consequence of a defect in the essential structure in the personality, the self (p. 16). This way each of them would probably have named D.B.’s problems as a consequence of respectively a conflict (Freud) and a defect (Kohut).

Abrahamsen (1985, p. 203) states that D.B. has a narcissistic character. The psychoanalytic view of narcissism is that it stems from pathologic fixations in the auto-erotism stage. This way, Freud sees narcissism as due to the fact that egoistic instincts and libidinal wishes have not yet been separated (Freud, 2001, p. 103). This means that there is a presence of libidinal id-energy in the ego-structure. Otto Kernberg, who is emphasizing object relations in his theory, also has the traditional perspective concerning narcissism. In relation to the psychoanalytic understanding of this concept, Kohut has stated: “Kernberg sees narcissism as something essential pathologic, while I understand narcissism as something essentially healthy.” (1980, In Karterud, 2000, p. 207). In relation to D.B., this means that Freud and Abrahamsen are likely to see the narcissism as having developed because of a pathological conflict in his psychological apparatus. Kohut would, on the other hand, have seen narcissism as having been developed as a totally natural consequence of not having got enough attention and that this need for gratifications therefore continues to exist.

In Freud’s theory of libidinal development, self-love, which he terms narcissism, is seen as the opposite of loving others (Kohut, 2001, pp. 103-104). Kohut disagrees to this. Instead of seeing these as excluding one another, he sees them as merged into each other (Mitchell & Black, 1995, p. 156). This is as if one is loved and acknowledged by other selfobjects, good feelings about oneself is developing and, if one is able to appreciate oneself in a healthy manner, one is likely to also be able to love others in a healthy way.

2.6.2. Development stages

Freud and Abrahamsen are engaged with strict childhood age-related psychosexual stages when analysing personality and pathology. Their point is such that a child’s needs and interests are changing in the light of the different stage they are in. Difficulties in the different stages are also seen as causing a fixation, meaning that the individual will potentially later return to that stage (regression). Such Abrahamsen has made the interpretation that D.B. has both an anal and an oral character as he saw him as having had fixations in these stages in his life (oral stage is the first 12 to 18 months of life and the anal stage is at from 1 to 1.5 years of life):

“His oral traits, sadistic in nature, were his avaricious appetite (as shown also in his being overweight), overeating leading to biting, foul language, his desire for the limelight and his indulgence in oral sex. His anal traits were his suspiciousness, hospitality, manipulation, ambivalence, impatience, cautiousness, control, and cruelty. All these were instrumental in establishing his emotional readiness for the brutal killing of innocent women. Eat or be eaten. Kill or be killed.” (Abrahamsen, 1985, p. 56).

Also, regarding what seems to be a wish in D.B. to appear as perfect and in centre of attention, Abrahamsen has a different understanding than self psychology. Whereas the self psychological interpretation is that it has to do with an immature development of the grandiose self. Abrahamsen implies, on the other hand, that D.B. has a fixation in the oral stage in his development, in which have made him dependent, helpless, and in need to be the centre of attraction. Abrahamsen sees the explanation for being manipulative, cruel and perfectionistic as fixations in the anal phase, in which extreme forms of these traits can be formed and create; “…a personality which is destructive to others and themselves.” (p. 56).

Kohut places minimal attention to the fixations, as he states that other things are much more relevant than them, and he is also doubtful regarding what can be known from these early days of living (Kohut, 1990, p. 64). This way, it can be difficult to conclude with the anal and oral character of D.B., without having anything to base the presence of the fixations on. Kohut also considered different areas of ages, and agreed to Freud’s psychosexual stages, but he was not as pedantic as Freud was about them and he saw different problems related to the stages. Kohut sees failures from selfobjects as having most impact if they occur before the Oedipal phase, which is between 2 and 5 years, but he also emphasizes the lifelong need for being recognized, mirrored and affirmed from selfobjects. However, Kohut does also, like Freud, talk about regressions. If the self has not developed into a coherent state during the first year of life, the non-existing coherent self with injuries is likely to cause difficulties later when selfobjects are lost or inaccessible. This is mainly due to the archaic selfobject representations that this might lead to later (Kohut, 2000, pp. 41-43, 90; Messer & Warren, 1990).

2.6.3. Unconscious desire to harm himself or a need for attention

unconscious-mindAt age 14, D.B. started enjoying extreme sport like rock climbing and mountain biking. D.B. states: “It was fantastic- that close walk with death-challenging God or fate.” (Abrahamsen, 1985, p. 50). Abrahamsen interprets this literally and states that D.B.’s interest in this was based on his unconscious desire to harm himself and eventually die from the damages (p. 51). Kohut does not by any means neglect the unconsciousness, but he does not pay attention to unconscious drives, and such he would probably not have interpreted this as presence of a “death drive”. From a Kohutian perspective, what is making D.B. fancy these extreme interests is probably the attention it gives him. This can be seen in this statement from D.B.: “My dad never objected to my going rock climbing even though it was dangerous and could possibly cause my death should I have fallen”. (p. 50). D.B. probably had a wish for getting his father’s attention by doing this. He also describes his friends’ views regarding his interests; “all my friends thought I was a fanatic and a nut”. (p. 51). This was also some kind of attention, and in self psychological terms, this was giving nurture to his grandiose self.

Abrahamsen states that D.B.’s death wish was a determinant for the murders. This as he saw his death wish as a part of his own self-hate, and that he by killing others, indirectly punished himself with imprisonment (p. 201). Self psychology on the other hand, would not put importance to this element in the killing.

2.6.4. The role of drives versus recognitions

freud_womanD.B. has stated: “If I were to have a good, mature sexual relationship with a woman, I wouldn’t have killed.” (p. 180). In relation to this, Abrahamsen states that D.B.’s unsatisfied sexual drive is the motive for the murders. He also claims that without the existence of a sexual drive, there would hardly be either murder or violence in the world (p. 162). Further, Abrahamsen claims that both D.B.’s fires and murders were primarily motivated by sexual drives, and states in which he states that sexual force;” is the force that initiates, stimulates, mobilizes, and maintains murderous impulses”. (p. 162). Abrahamsen claims that sexually immature people find pleasure in destroying (p. 180). D.B. does pose a sentence that can be seen as prove of Abrahamsen’s conviction, as he, in relation to the killings of one of the couples, said that: “I too was sexually aroused. I had an erection”. (p. 86). After he had been in the army, D.B. says that something begun to happen to him. He also explains that he felt that “a certain power of force” was working against him (p. 86). Does this mean that Abrahamsen’s Freudian view of the sexual drives was forcing D.B. to make the murdering actions?

It does seem likely that D.B. was somehow occupied with the intimacy between the couples that he usually was going for. This is as most of the victims were couples that were sitting in parked cars in a typical romantic manner, and where D.B. had often observed them being intimate with each other. The question is how, as Kohut does not pay attention to sexual drives, he would explain why D.B. chose exactly this setting to kill in. Kohut would probably not have seen the sex in itself as a motivator, but he would rather see it as an issue about having been rejected gratification, recognition and about not ever having felt special with a woman and hence a general lack of ever being loved. What D.B. really wanted, was maybe to participate in the love and care that was present in the car, but as he did not dare, the only way he could be involved with this in, was to shoot the couples, or at least the women. However, even though D.B. himself denies any relation between his sexual impulses and the murders, Abrahamsen persists that the sexual drive is the fundament for D.B.’s killings.

Abrahamsen also suggests that D.B.’s frequent masturbation is a sign of drives and an immature sexuality (p. 167). Kohut sees frequent self-stimulating masturbating, as a way of experiencing joy. Doing this can give temporary comfort and assurance of being alive (Kohut, 1998, p. 97). This way, rather than describing drives as essential, a self psychological approach will see the repetitive masturbation tendencies in D.B., as motivated by getting away from his depressed life.

Abrahamsen interprets, based on D.B.’s statement that he prefers oral sex, that this is due, to his immaturity and oral fixation (pp. 166- 167). This way, Abrahamsen sees the preference for oral sex as stemming from the wish to pet and fondle, hence indicating that D.B. has the sexual behaviour of a five or six-year old (p. 167). The preference of oral sex, can, however, be due to the fact that he might be really scared of women. “I regard the females as dangerous. If enticed by the female, it may be dangerous. All women are deceitful because I myself was fooled” (p. 193). According to this statement of D.B., it seems like he is scared of being left. This can explain why it also is difficult for him to see them in their eyes (intercourse). His fantasy of having oral sex with the girls is possible not scaring him as much, as he does not need to have facial contact with them.

Based on a statement of D.B. about his mother having kissed him once without affection, Abrahamsen made an interpretation. He infers that she might have given D.B. the impression that kissing was wrong (p. 169). This episode, will in accordance to Kohut, be seen as having more to do with D.B.’s insatiable grandiose self, than it had with the idea that kissing was wrong.

The classical psychoanalytical belief is that the consequence of the Oedipal conflict is the boy’s fear of losing his manhood (castration anxiety) (Freud, 1992, p. 54). Abrahamsen is convinced that a failure in a solution of the Oedipal conflict has resulted in D.B. fearing that his father would cut off his penis and making himidisposed to feel inferior in later relationships (Abrahamsen, 1985, p. 171). Kohut would state, that what has happened to D.B. is more serious than a treat of penis dominance and that it instead has to do with the threat of a destruction of the core self (Kohut, 1990, p. 90-91). In self psychological terms, castration anxiety is not emphasized. Instead the feeling of inferiority is due to the intense need of feedback and recognitions from selfobjects (Schluter & Karterud, 2002, p. 139).

Also when D.B. says that he felt like he was filled with tension and that he felt it like an explosion when he killed, Abrahamsen relates this to drives and urges that needed to be released and he states that: “He was driven to murder” (Abrahamsen, 1985, p. 93). Abrahamsen also states that the commands that D.B. originally exclaimed was coming from demons, were in fact commands from his own sexual impulses (p. 209). It can seem like D.B. himself is talking about certain urges when he explains his emotions (explosion). Within a self psychological perspective, what made D.B. feel so free and released after the murders were not due to urges, but instead to the staggering of the seriously fragmented and vulnerable self.

As was mentioned in the introduction, a majority of serial homicides is involving the DSM-IV diagnosis; sexual sadism (Meloy, 2000). D.B., however, is different from most other serial killers, in that they oftentimes involve rape or other sexual behavior (Meloy, 2000). He did however claim to have had sadistic, violent and heterosexual fantasies. Abrahamsen states that this was expressed by killing women (1985, p. 176). The presence of sadism in the killings can also, according to a Kohutian perspective, be relevant. But Abrahamsen and Kohut view the nature of sadism different. Freud sees, just like aggression, sadism as a component of the sexual drive (Mitchell & Black, 1995, p. 18). Kohut however, would probably understand the sadistic fantasies that D.B. had about women and the killing of women, as being motivated by his need to provoke reactions from the others and this way causing the self to achieve responses and attention (Kohut, 1999, p. 141).

2.6.5. D.B.’s aggression, ambivalence and anxiety


The mainstream psychoanalytic perspective views aggression as stemming from the psychobiological foundation, where regression to undisguised drives, gives rise to aggressive actions (Freud, 1964). Kohut names this understanding as a simplistic contribution to the understanding of aggression (Kohut, 1978, p. 634). Instead of looking on aggression as a primary drive, Kohut sees it as a secondary pattern of reaction. Unlike Freud, Kohut does not see aggression or destruction as something that is anchored in human beings. Instead it is something that develops as a result of selfobjects failures and which might result in narcissistic rage that has earlier been described. Aggression does therefore not contain a biological desire to kill, but an understanding of a situation as threatening to the cohesion and understanding of self (Schluter & Karterud, p. 134). Kohut states that destructive anger is always motivated with damages in the self (Kohut, 1990, p. 90). This way, Abrahamsen and Kohut differ in their way of relating D.B.’s behavior to aggression.


Abrahamsen does, just like have been found in the self psychological analysis claim that D.B. is a contradicted individual with a divided behavior. Abrahamsen sees him as helpful on one side whilst he on the other side, is destructive (1985, p. 185).

Abrahamsen makes interpretation regarding the ambivalences that D.B. shows. He sees it as a consequence of the two sets of parents D.B. had in his life when he grew up, and hence he implies that an underlying reason for the murders, was that D.B. had been adopted (p. 203). He states that D.B. had an adoptive pair of parents that was the real parents, and another pair that was an imaginary one, which created a divided personality. The ambivalence, according to Abrahamsen, sharpened when D.B. met with his biological family (p. 198). Abrahamsen also relates D.B.’s ambivalence to the fact that he had been adopted and the time of life he found out about it. Abrahamsen states that D.B. found out about the adoption at a time when he was unable to differentiate between fantasy and reality and hence he grew up with one family that was fantasized and one family that was real, where he lived in the two worlds at the same time. This conflict was the fundament for his ambivalences where also Abrahamsen sees the manipulative tendencies to stem from (pp. 69-70). Abrahamsen also describes the problems in D.B. like this: “Berkowitz fought a tough battle between his unconscious drives and desires, and his conscious restraints- a conflict familiar, in some degree, to all of us” (p. xii). Hence Abrahamsen primarily sees the ambivalence as an inner conflict, like suggested by Freud (1933), with the libidinal drives on the one hand and the superego with its moral perspectives on the other side. Abrahamsen also sees the ambivalence as stemming from the oral fixation (1985, p. 56). Kohut, on the other side, sees ambivalences in a different way. He sees them as a result of a vertical split (illustrated in part 2.5.3.), in the individual, and not only as a horizontal split where the unconsciousness and the consciousness are the struggling parts. From this point of view, the grandiose and exhibitionistic self has been detached from the rest of the self. This causes polarization of the different poles of the self and the result is a giant instability of the emotional life. Abrahamsen states that D.B. was able to talk himself into criminal behavior (Abrahamsen, 1985, p. 192), and that he used his charm and seductiveness to mask his insensitivity and cruelty. He also sees D.B.’s good behavior as based on strive to make up for his actions and to manipulate others to think that he is good (p. 70, 187). But, it is likely that the vertical split is not as controllable as Abrahamsen seems to suggest. If one is being hurt or neglected, it is probably not an issue of choice to let the grandiose self step in as a defense against the painful feelings. What can this way, be conceived by others as lying, might be a manifestation of a grandiose self that is in charge. And, what the grandiose pole is expressing might be “the truth” for this pole, but not for other people. Lying can this way not be seen as a matter of choice.


Abrahamsen states that long before D.B. was told about it, he knew that he was adopted and that this prevented him from trusting his mother. This caused, according to Abrahamsen, failure in the separation process, with a following separation anxiety. This is an anxiety in D.B. that Abrahamsen emphasizes, and Abrahamsen states that this made D.B. vulnerable to emotional problems in life, manifested in anxiety, fear and insecurity (p. 69). The self psychological perspective emphasizes another form for anxiety. What is seen as having been one of the main causes for the murders, are the anxiety of dissolution of the self. In this view, the murdering episodes were necessary for D.B., so that he could avoid the extremely uncomfortable and anxiety provoking feeling of a totally fragmented or a disintegrated self.

Abrahamsen states that D.B. has many paranoid ideas. This is about people being against him and primarily girls. He relates these ideas to a fear of castration (pp. 171-173). However it does seem quit likely that D.B. is afraid of women and that it is a kind of realistic fear. He is afraid that they will reject him, in which he has experienced multiple times.

Abrahamsen has also made an interpretation to why D.B. tortured animals when he was younger. He states it was because he himself felt tortured and that he felt that he had been treated like a bug (p. 40). Kohut’s understanding of the torturing is probably not of the same art. Most likely, it would have been connected with the states of D.B.’s self. He needed to get attention and for one of the birds he killed, his adoptive mother’s, he obviously did it so that he would get more attention from her. Killing the other animals, might have made the grandiose self feel omnipotent and alive.

2.6.6. Summing up on the understandings in self-psychology and psychoanalysis

According to the self psychological analysis, D.B. can be seen to have felt ribbed for selfobjects over a long period of time. The only alternative to nurture his grandiose self and get attention to his self, can have been that he had to accomplish something outstanding- murder. Further, his narcissistic rage with the involvement of revenge, destructivity and non-empathic actions was probably essential in his actions. In self psychological terms, D.B.’s self-development has been deficient. This has caused an increased dependence upon others. This is because interactions with others are necessary to regulate ones own emotional reactions and because there is a need to confirm ones own “identity”. The person will then strive to control the close others, to make them fulfil the self object needs. All of these factors have probably been essential for D.B., in his effort to prevent total disintegration of his self. D.B’s killing behaviour is not bestial, in the correct sense of the word. Instead they were human. This is why it is substantial for psychologists and other professionals within the field, to dig into the rationale behind the behaviour of serial killers, and not claim them to be impossible to understand.

Essential in Abrahamsen’s psychoanalytic understanding of D.B., is, in accordance with Freud, the assumption that the destructivity is a consequence of a failure in controlling sexual, aggressive and destructive impulses. Fixation in the psychosexual stages and the resulting anal and oral characters are stressed and also the enduring castration anxiety. It is seen that the drama that is occurring in this phase, between the child and its parents, will be dependent upon whether the ego is finding a safe solution to it (Abrahamsen, 1985, p. 162; Freud, 1933; Freud; 1964). This way, it can be seen that the psychoanalytic theory is more concerned with the intrapersonal conflicts, than they are on the conflicts that are played out in interpersonal circumstances, like self psychology is focusing upon (Messer & Warren, 1990, p. 385). It can seem like the self psychological theory is contributing more substantially to an understanding, as it regards the context of interpersonal relationships in an understanding and not only to try to understand, without adding significant importance to the context of the environment, which seems to have played a crucial role in the case of D.B. The following figure is illustrating the main factors in respectively the psychoanalytic and self psychological understanding of D.B.’s serial killings:

self psychology or psychoanalysis for Psychopaths