Anatomy of Nightmares -or- Collective Dissociative Disorder

Dreamer: Dorothy, 32, American

Thank you for answering my query on my nightmares.

My nightmares included many people watching, the one in particular included being suspended in the air over a hole where blood, and inner body parts were falling out. The dream was in black and white although the blood was indeed red. I could see myself from outside.

In the short conversation you stated the question of whether I was abused as a child, I answered yes. I have been overwhelmed by your insight. I would like to ask more questions - the people who are in my dreams are always either in a circle around me or outside of a window, all they do is stare, they do not help. How can I get out of this constant nightly nightmare, what does it all mean, sometimes I find it hard to get to sleep because of them, I usually end up in the same place - all my doctor can do is give me sleeping pills, but of course this is not helping my situation. I have seen specialists and they cannot give me the answers. My husband only says "It's just a dream." I feel it's more.

Mr. Hagen's Reply: Anatomy of a Nightmare -or- Calling 911

The IIDR has received many such dreams which are interconnected to other topics such as torture. The images found in the theatre above are from the Abu Ghraib Prison. Much like in your dream, Gitty Genovese died in New York City because bystanders decided they did not want to get involved. In recent news in Canada a 66 year old Toronto woman (read article and watch news video) tragically froze to death, despite repeated calls for help, noone called 911. Other dreams such as Calling the RCMP and The Kafkaesque posted at the IIDR website attest to ongoing global problem of everyday depersonalizations we are are faced with on a daily basis. The image of the woman in the theatre above is Gitty Genovese.

Sexual Abuse: Anatomy of a Nightmare

Sexual abuse of children is a phenomenon that exists across North America. The tales of many children and adults who have the courage to come forward tell not only of sexual abuse which is problem enough, but sacrificial murder, ritual sex (by cults) and the mutilation.

Dreams of Dismemberment

A crucial aspect in the experience of the survivors of sexual abuse is the emotionally painful tension between the need to remember and the need to forget. Memory has the function of reinforcing our social identities by connecting our experiences with those of others within a community. The emotional pain of sexual abuse is experienced as an assault on the body and is represented in dreams as body dismemberment which is literally and metaphorically the purpose of all forms of (physical as well as mental) torture.

Dissociation, Depersonalization and Out of Body Experiences (OOBEs)

A fact that is not well documented in the literature surrounding rape cases and their treatment is that many victims experience the sensation that they are outside their body looking at it. I believe that this may be an ultimately maladaptive survival strategy which in effect is saying "this is not happening to me". The psychological dissociation of the mind from one's body becomes a defence mechanism to protect oneself form painful experiences. If the defense becomes habitual it can lead to full blown dissociative disorder.

This information about the collective experience of victims of rape and their out of body experiences was conveyed to me by a Canadian psychiatric nurse (working almost solely with abused women) a number of years ago when I was treating a victim of abuse. Depersonalization is one of the most common symptoms caused by trauma.

Bystanders -or- Film Noir of a Collective Nightmare of Depersonalization

That many stand by and do not provide help is not surprising. The case of Kitty Genovese, which the meda told us about years ago has recurred over and over since then. Although the literature states that sexual abuse started coming out of the closet in 1975, this is a myth which overreaches in terms of the facts. In my own (as well as other clinicians) clinical practice I am very aware that sexual abuse is still being actively covered up in our North American communities by lawyers, police and doctors who "overlook" the truth for a variety of reasons. 

Your dream takes place in black and white which is the style of "Film Noir". Film Noir is the dark side of the communal silver dream screen, providing a perspective by which we can read the pathological aspects of popular culture. For Hollywood, it is the Dream gone wrong. Film Noir circumvents the dominant narrative of legitimate social reality and exposes the dark side of society to the prurient, sensationalistic and voyeuristic gaze of an intrusive public. Private, criminal matters are revealed, creating an atmosphere of scandal. The dramatic energy of stories in the genre is provided by the attempt of criminals and corrupt officials to cover up their crimes from the prying eyes of the detective protagonist, who stands in for the audience. Film Noir is the communal dreamscreen where the dark side of western culture is made visible in the denouement. As your dream seems to show, sexual abuse is a narrative script which can be adapted to Film Noir.

The Horrors of Life -or- The Wound and the Voice

Up until the turn of the 20th century the word trauma or wound originally referred to an injury inflicted on the body. Medical and psychiatric literature, especially Freud's use of the word trauma, changed the meaning of the word. It came to be viewed as a wound inflicted on the mind. The story of psychological injury and trauma as a narrative experience is one from which escape is impossible and attests to the endless impact on the life of the survivor.

The story that trauma tells, is that it is "much more than a pathology, or the simple illness of a wounded psyche: it is always the story of a wound that cries out"(Caruth) in an attempt to tell the community of a reality or truth that is otherwise not accessible. The language of trauma resonates around the plea by the victim to be seen and heard, to break the silence and blindness of the community and thereby make transparent the mental horrors of life. The film Prince of Tides (see film trailer) based on the novel by Pat Conroy provides insight into the painful secret and psychological damage caused by rape in childhood.

Post-traumatic Nightmares -or- PTSD 

The medical community has had to reshape its thinking about a wide variety of experiences including war, rape, child abuse, robbery, auto and industrial accidents. These experiences are now often understood in terms of the effects of "post-traumatic stress disorder". The symptoms of PTSD are varied; however post-traumatic nightmares which relive the traumatic experience are invariably part of the clinical picture.

The painful repetition of the flashback can only be understood as the mind's absolute inability to escape or avoid an unpleasant event that has not been given insight and meaning. Traumatic neurosis then becomes the story surrounding the question; "What does it mean to survive?"

I am including some literature that might help to understand more:

  • Cathy Caruth, "Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History"
  • Susan Brownmiller, "Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape"
  • Joseph H. Berke (ed), "Even Paranoids Have Enemies: New Perspectives on Paranoia and Persecution"
  • Martyn Kendrick, "Anatomy of a Nightmare: The Failure of Society in Dealing with Child Sexual Abuse"
  • Hope these thoughts are of help and provide some insight,
    Mark H.

All material Copyright 2006 International Institute for Dream Research. All rights reserved.