Ask an Expert

Featuring Vice President of the EBF and Professor of Social Work, Daniel Liechty


Lifton’s “Death Imprint”

Daniel Liechty

Daniel Liechty

Dear Dan, How is death anxiety modulated by [Robert J.] Lifton’s “death imprint?”

That is an intriguing question, and hangs somewhat on the exact meaning you intend in the word “modulate.” I will assume you mean simply ‘how does one impact the other.’ I hope that is close enough to your interests to make my answer useful for you.

As far as I recall, Lifton wrote about this topic in relation to his studies of those who are survivors of extreme violence, especially survivors of the American use of nuclear weapons in Japan and survivors of Nazi extermination camps in Europe. ‘Death imprint’ is one of a number of results found in such survivors, and indicates a situation in which the close up witnessing of death and destruction has created indelibly vivid and enduring images of death in a person’s mind. The effect is such that the person is essentially confronted with such images at every turn in life. Ernest Becker thought that all of us are ‘haunted’ by death imagery as a consequence of our knowledge that we will die at some point in the future. From Becker’s view, following the predominant opinion in psychodynamic psychology on how we deal with very unpleasant information, we repress that imagery and shove that knowledge deep down into our unconscious mind. There, it churns away and emerges in relatively disguised symbolism- in dreams, art and other areas of human creativity- as well as defensively in attitudes and behaviors aimed at protecting ourselves from harm (the irony being that it is often these ‘protective’ attitudes and behaviors that objectively create the most chaos and real danger in the world.) It is this repression of death imagery and its consequent anxiety that allows us to act in the world at all.

‘Death Imprint,’ as noted above, designates the situation of a person who is constantly confronted with memories and mental images of extreme violence and death. In current parlance, this would fall at the far end of the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) spectrum. A person in that condition cannot function in normal society and skates on the edge of clinical psychosis. Using Becker’s categories, we would say that this person’s vivid and extreme experiences of death and destruction have destroyed that person’s ability to adequately repress the knowledge of death at a level that allows normal functioning. Stated that way it may sound a bit glib in relation to the very real tragedy of that person’s life and experience, but it needs to be emphasized we are talking about the very extreme ends of this spectrum.

Whether we call this condition ‘death imprint,’ or PTSD, or ‘disturbance in ability to repress,’ the treatment must inevitably involve caring people and trained professionals whose aim will be to slowly help that person work through the traumatic material plaguing that person’s mental life, and allow that person to again function at a level of repression so that ‘normal’ living can ensue. Current diagnosis largely conceives of the problem in terms of chemical disorders in the brain caused by the experience of trauma, and current treatment regimen will likely include some sort of pharmaceutical intervention. Becker was very suspicious of such ‘medicalization’ of mental health problems, though he was working long before current neurological findings were available and pharmaceutical intervention was largely at a ‘hit-and-miss’ stage of development (some would argue we haven’t really moved much beyond that state yet!). In any case, I, for one, think that in addition to the medical perspective, Becker’s more ‘interactive’ perspective remains very valuable, if for no other reason than it emphasizes that even a person suffering from a condition of ‘death imprint’ and PTSD remains fully ‘one of us,’ trying to handle experiences of extreme violence and destruction with the same mental tools you and I have available. Rather than perceiving that person as ‘Other’ or as ‘sick,’ Becker’s perspective underlines that we are all one family, and fosters a much more empathetic and kind-hearted response, as folksinger Phil Ochs put, “There but for fortune may go you or I!”