Vamık D. Volkan, M.D., DLFAPA, FACPsa.

 
 
 
 
 
 
To Erol...
 
   
 
Vamık D. Volkan
 
 
 
 
 
I was born in Cyprus, a Mediterranean island. After completing my high school education there I went to Turkey for my medical education. In the summer of 1956 I finished Ankara University’s School of Medicine and six months later I came to America where I remained. During the last two and a half years of my life in Ankara, first as a rather poor medical student and then as a newly graduated physician, I shared a rather small room in an apartment complex with another Cypriot Turk named Erol. He had come to Ankara, as had I, for his medical education and was two classes below me at the same medical school. He called me “abi,” meaning “my big brother.” Since I only had sisters and no brother, I considered him to be my brother. During the time we were roommates, ethnic conflict began between the Cypriot Turks and Cypriot Greeks.
 
Three months after my arrival in the United States I received a letter from my father. In the envelope there was a newspaper article with Erol’s picture describing how he had gone to Cyprus from Ankara to visit his ailing mother. While trying to purchase medicine for her at a pharmacy he was shot seven times by Cypriot Greek terrorists. These people killed Erol, a bright young man with a promising future, in order to terrorize the ethnic group to which he belonged.
 
After receiving the news of Erol’s death I felt numb. I did not cry. I was in Chicago in a foreign environment in which I was close to no one, so I did not share the news of Erol’s murder with any other person. Even when I was undergoing my personal analysis some years later, I did not dwell on losing Erol. My “hidden” mourning process, I believe, largely remained just that—hidden. As a young analyst I felt close to the late William Niederland and, in a sense, I thought of him as a mentor. At the time it never occurred to me that my seeking out Bill, who had coined the term “survivor syndrome,” as a mentor might have something to do with my losing Erol and my own “survival guilt.” In 1979 I published a book called “CyprusWar and Adaptation,” in which I briefly described Erol’s murder. 
 
During the same year I began, by accident, my involvement in international affairs. Then, after working with Arabs and Israelis for over six years, I was involved in bringing together Soviets and Americans and later Russians and Estonians to find peaceful solutions for their large-group conflicts. At the same time I was trying to understand the psychology of ethnic, national, religious or ideological conflicts that are associated with massive losses. During these years I also visited Cyprus on many occasions, but it never occurred to me to visit Erol’s family or find out where his grave was.
 
Thirty-some years after Erol’s death I once more visited Cyprus. One summer night some friends took me to a garden restaurant, and one of them who knew Erol’s story pointed out a bearded man behind the bar and told me that this man was Erol’s younger brother. I spontaneously got up from my chair and approached this man and said to him: “My name is Vamık. Does this name mean anything to you?” He began to cry and I found myself also crying out loud, right in the midst of people dining with soothing classical music playing in the background. This event activated my mourning process which lasted many, many months. This time I was very aware of it.
 
I do not know if my reaction to Erol’s death can be called pathological or if it would be considered as normal. Erol’s death obviously induced elements of survivor guilt in me. Furthermore, when we were sharing lodging, there were times when I treated him as a younger brother and ordered him around, and now he was no longer available to forgive me.
 
Losing him also initiated reparative efforts in me. I fully became aware of this after my mourning process was activated in the restaurant. I realized then that the main reason for my choosing to study the topic of mourning in individuals and societies was connected with my previously unconscious response to Erol’s death. I was fascinated with my new understanding that my spending considerable time in conflicted areas of the world and refugee camps where victims constantly deal with losses was connected with my reparative efforts. I can say that I felt, using Otto Kernberg’s (2007) terms, a “moral obligation” or a “mandate” to work on behalf of Erol’s wishes. In my mind his main wish was to remain alive and not to induce guilt in me. 
 
I wished that people under the influence of ethnic, national, religious or ideological conflicts would not kill others belonging to opposing large groups. Instead, I wanted them to make peace. I became fascinated with the realization that I had chosen a Greek-American psychiatrist, Demetrius Julius, as my primary co-worker in our international efforts.  For decades Demetrius and I presented ourselves as a Greek and a Turk working together to tame aggression between warring parties. I also realized that I was partnering with a Greek in another arena as well.  I co-chaired the American Psychoanalytic Association’s Sexual Deviations Study Group with the late Charles Socarides, another Greek-American, for ten years. I was not fixated on the past; I was able to find other “brothers,” and some of them were even Greeks.
 
If we consider my “moral obligation” and “mandate” to work on reversing Erol’s murder as sublimated activities, it will be difficult to call my long mourning process pathological. I wish to believe that Erol would appreciate my efforts to find peaceful solutions to massive human aggression.
 
In 2006, I spent three months in Turkey teaching political psychology and psychoanalysis. While there, I was also involved in a major meeting that brought together American, Turkish, Iranian, Israeli, Jordanian, Russian, Northern Irish, Austrian, and Indian representatives for unofficial diagnostic work on the so-called Western World-Islamic World split. I was also on various television talk shows, and during one such occasion I mentioned Erol’s story. The next day a woman called me and told me that Erol was her uncle. We had an emotion-filled meeting. She told me that she was four years old when her uncle was murdered, and she wanted to know more about him and his life in Ankara as a medical student. A few days later she came to see me, accompanied by a much younger woman, her niece, who also wanted to know about Erol and his world. During my moving encounters with these two women, I noted how transgenerational transmission was certainly at work. Furthermore, my meeting with them reactivated my mourning process.
 
At the University of Virginia when I was conducting clinical research on grief and mourning (Volkan, 1981, Volkan and Zintl, 1993),  my subjects were individuals seeking psychological help. Accordingly, during these studies my focus was on the pathology of unending mourning processes. We described how people whom I called “perennial mourners” keep a significant mental image of the dead person as an “introject,” a very useful psychoanalytic term that is seldom used these days in psychoanalytic writings. An introject is an object representation or a special object image with which the mourner wishes to identify. But the identification does not take place, and the object representation or the special object image with its “boundaries” remains in the individual’s self-representation as an unassimilated mental construct.  An introject excessively influences the self-representation of the mourner who has it. Accordingly, there is the persistence of object relations with the lost person.
 
In pathological conditions, having an introject of a dead person brings about its own unpleasant consequences for the perennial mourner who becomes preoccupied with it in an ambivalent internal struggle. This is reflected in the perennial mourner’s subjective experience, in that the person is torn between a strong yearning for a restored presence of the lost person and equally deep dread that the lost person might be confronted. The presence of an introject provides an illusion of choice but not a solution. In 1972, I coined the term “linking object” to describe the externalized version of an introject.
 
Perennial mourners “choose” an inanimate item from various things available to them in their environment and use it as a linking object. A linking object can be something the dead person used routinely, such as a watch or a bracelet. A letter written by a soldier in the battlefield before being killed may evolve into a linking object. Not all keepsakes are linking objects. A linking object becomes “magical” in a perennial mourner’s mind; it evolves as a meeting place for a special object representation of the dead person and corresponding self-representation. It has to be controlled by the mourner. When a letter that has become a linking object is locked up in a drawer, the mourner has, in essence, “hidden” the complicated mourning process in the same drawer. The drawer may be unlocked during the anniversary of the loss, the letter reread, but as soon as the mourner feels anxious, the letter is locked up again.
 
In pathological situations the linking object or linking phenomenon, such as a special tune, contains the tension caused by ambivalence and anger pertaining to the narcissistic hurt the loss has inflicted on the mourner. Initially, as I stated earlier, I focused on the pathological aspects of linking objects and phenomena only as a sign of a mourner’s “freezing” the mourning process. Later I noticed how a linking object or phenomenon can be a source of inspiration that gives direction to creativity in some individuals.
 
During the last fifteen years or so I became aware of how linking objects or phenomena can also be used to activate a “normal” mourning process long after the loss has occurred. I noticed this process among some refugees. I also witnessed this process among the World War II Orphans in the United States who lost their fathers during that war when they were small children or even before they were born. I had a chance to interview some 300 of these individuals who are now in their sixties, many of them in depth.  I observed that those who had linking objects or were able to create such objects or phenomena were able to activate their mourning process as adult mourners when they formed an association (the American Network of  World War II Orphans [AWON]) and began to share their experiences.
 
We do not “kill” the mental representation of the dead person until we die. The internal object relations with the lost person persist in one way or another and range from what can be considered pathological to what is thought normal. Often it is difficult to assign a “good” or “bad” adjective to our mourning experiences. The human psychological life can be considered as a series of losses, gains and complications due to losses. I believe that the nature of the original passage from the infantile schizoid position to depressive position and many other developmental factors, traumatic events, adolescent passage, unconscious fantasies, as well as the influence of culture and religion make mourning processes—even those that are considered normal—as personalized as fingerprints. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Copyright © Vamık D. Volkan and Özler Aykan 2007.
 
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Last modified on: Apr 20, 2016