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Psychoanalyzing Saddam
by Stephen Rittenberg, M.D.
October 28, 2002

Oh dear, if society had only paid attention to Saddam Hussein's 'malignant narcissism' and wounded self-esteem at an early age, it would have prevented him from becoming the Iraqi leader, and certainly would be dealing with him now in a manner that avoids inflaming his narcissistic rage, such as by avoiding phrases like "regime change."

How fortunate we are to live in the Age of Therapy. Psychological profilers assure us on cable TV of the likely identity of snipers—(Angry white male, gun loving pickup truck drivers, teen age addicts of video games, etc.). And we gain insight into the character of leaders like Saddam Hussein from ‘specialists’ in applied psychoanalysis like Dr. Jerrold Post. We learn from Dr. Post, in the New Yorker, that Saddam endured a difficult childhood. His mother was a depressed widow when he was born and the stepfather who entered his life when he was 3 disliked and mistreated him. "These early experiences can be seen as profoundly wounding Saddam's emerging self-esteem," As a result, he suffers from what Dr. Post calls “malignant narcissism”. It follows, according to Dr. Post, that our policy should be one that avoids inflaming Saddam’s narcissistic rage. And he is concerned that the President's talk of "regime change" may be dangerous. "To the extent that Saddam comes to believe he has no way out, it backs him into a corner," Post said. "I'd worry about exaggerated retribution." In sum, Dr. Post’s ‘analysis’ encourages us to adopt a therapeutic attitude in which empathy takes the place of action.

How regrettable that we didn’t possess the sophisticated tools of modern day psychoanalysis in the 1930’s. We might have applied it to another potentially dangerous “malignant narcissist”. This political leader also had a very troubled childhood, essentially abandoned by both parents to the care of a family employee. He was sent away to boarding schools from an early age where he was a ‘behavior problem’, and where he was brutalized by regular floggings that drew screams of pain. He remembered the horror and the absence of protective parents all his life. He had early learning problems, usually finishing last in his class, and serious difficulty controlling his aggression. He was described as stubborn and lazy, and exceedingly provocative; once after a flogging, he stole the headmaster’s straw hat and destroyed it. Such behavior did not endear him to the authorities who took every opportunity to punish him. He said later in life that he lived in constant anxiety for years and was often physically ill. Reports by the authorities at school regularly referred to his “exceedingly bad” behavior, his constant lateness, his lack of ambition and his regular fights with fellow classmates. Once, before age 10, he got into a knife fight with a school mate winding up with a stab wound of the chest.

Unsurprisingly, as an adult he suffered from all the symptoms of what Dr. Post would certainly call ‘wounded self- esteem’ and ‘malignant narcissism’. He was beset by severe depressions with frequent suicidal thoughts`. He alternated between grandiose ambition and feelings of utter failure. He was reckless and belligerent and seemed to suffer from gender identity problems as when he compared himself to Joan of Arc: “It’s when I’m Joan of Arc that I get excited.”

Today’s policy makers, equipped with psychological understanding, would certainly not have allowed such a man, a war-lover who rejected negotiation with his enemies, to assume leadership. How regrettable for Western Civilization that we could not have been spared the accession to power of Winston Churchill.