The man who walked into my treatment room was an attractive young economist in his 30s. On the surface, my new patient appeared to be professional and accomplished. But he was unlike anyone else I’d treated in my psychoanalytic practice. Danny claimed to be possessed by a dybbuk, the wandering spirit of Jewish tradition that takes possession of a living sinner.
In a session, Danny described in graphic detail what he wished to do to a female acquaintance. “Her name is Leah,” he said. “I sit and think of her every minute, can’t stop. I imagine undressing her. Everywhere, on the floor, on the bed, in my office, on the train to Boston. I kiss her body all over. I whisper to her, ‘Leah. I love you. I need you.’ ” Danny looked at me and continued. “And she surrenders like she never has before, losing her senses, no longer thinking. She knows that I will bring her to a place she has never been to if only she agrees to lose control and follow me.”
Then he apologized: “It’s not me talking. It’s him,” he said. “The dybbuk.”
Danny watched pornography but he had no sex life. He was single and lonely. In his mind, masturbation was colored by a struggle between him and the devil. He expelled his demon, at least temporarily, when he ejaculated. All this, he was afraid, “sounded crazy.”
Danny spoke; I listened. He implored me to help him exorcise the ghost that was taking over his throat and speaking for him. He feared for his own sanity. I didn’t. I was convinced that over time we would both learn the dybbuk’s secrets.
Ghosts play a vital role in human psychology. They hold for us parts of our history and dissociative, or split-off, parts of our selves: shameful parts, scary parts, parts that need to be forgotten or denied. In expelling ghosts and spirits, both psychoanalysis and the Jewish tradition seek to invite them in first, wishing to get to know them. I was fascinated by Danny’s dybbuk and wondered if I could ask the ghost to come closer, to tell me more about himself.
In Jewish folklore, the dybbuk is a soul that finds no place in heaven or in hell, existing in the limbo between the two worlds, between life and death. The dybbuk roams, homeless, until it penetrates a living human body. It takes over the person, clings without letting go, like devek, in Hebrew, glue. Also named an “evil spirit” in Talmudic literature, the dybbuk seeks its repair, tikkun. The kabbalists use a ritual in an attempt to get the ghost to talk and engage in a conversation. But this is no easy feat, the rabbis warn, since the ghost that wishes to remain within the person’s body tends to cunningly conceal its identity. Tradition has it that the ghost speaks out of the person’s mouth in a different voice. It tries to mask its true identity so it can remain unidentified and evade expulsion. The goal, then, was to first identify the ghost and engage it in dialogue. But the rabbis also warned that in cases where the ghost expeller is afraid, his mission is destined to fail. One had to meet the ghost fearlessly.
In one afternoon session, Danny said to me: “Be careful—if you meet the ghost, something terrible will happen.” In order to meet Danny’s fears, I had to get in touch with my own childhood fear, the fear that something bad might happen, that terrorists might invade our house and take it over, that the world isn’t a safe place. From an early age, I had learned to overcome fears. My father had taught me in childhood to charge forward when I was afraid, just like in combat, to try to go on marching. “A brave person isn’t the one who doesn’t feel fear,” he used to say, “but the one whose fears don’t paralyze her, one who could keep thinking, functioning, while being afraid.”
With Danny, in moments when I felt the fear, when he explicitly warned me that his ghost was dangerous and scary, I had to stop and ask myself, “What is it that we are actually afraid of?” I wondered: Is it lack of control? The unknown? Aggression? Sexuality? His sins? My sins? Insanity? There were moments when I scolded myself for not being afraid enough, for being too curious, wanting to know more. I asked myself whether I was actively experiencing everything that my patient could not allow himself to feel—the excitement, the curiosity, and the passion. These were feelings that he was so afraid of he had to put them into someone else—into me and into the dybbuk.
In psychoanalysis, the term “not-me’’ helps to explain the phenomenon that Danny experienced. The term was first used by Harry Stack Sullivan over 60 years ago when he outlined “good-me,” “bad-me,” and “not-me” as self states. The “good-me” is everything we like about ourselves. It represents the part of us we share with others. The “not-me” allows the person to disconnect, to dissociate from any experience that is “too much” for an individual and that creates anxiety. But why did Danny need the “not-me” in the face of a dybbuk?
Ghosts and the spirits, the dark world in Jewish mythology, are linked with sins and sexuality. The spirits, for example, are often thought to be created through masturbation. Some of the mythology describes how after the first sin and expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the spirits slept with Adam and with Eve for 130 years, and ghosts, spirits, and Liliths—part human, part ghost—were born. The ghosts were associated with blood—that is, aggression, sins—but especially with sex and anything related to sexual activity, including what were considered to be lustful thoughts. The ghosts and the spirits grew and gained in power from semen ejaculated for mere pleasure—that is, not for impregnation. It was claimed that above all they loved detached sex that is not part of an intimate relationship.
John Hartman’s 1987 study An Analysis of Dybbuk is based on an analysis of 63 dybbuk cases documented over 400 years. The author discusses spirit possession in terms of individual motivation and societal restraints. He found that the dybbuk idiom provided a way to express and symbolize forbidden sexual wishes in a way that decreased the threat both for the individual and for the community.
I drew on this rich mythology while working with Danny. His dybbuk was both powerful and threatening, a force he believed might annihilate him and steal his “real” identity. Little by little, he revealed the story of a boyhood shadowed by violence and loss. The youngest child and only son in a family of five sisters, Danny had grown up in a Jewish home in Italy. His parents divorced when he was 7, and his relationship with his father was permanently severed. I learned Danny had been closely connected to his father. They had spent hours together, building toy airplanes and playing in the yard. Still, he’d been painfully aware that his father was abusive to his mother. Danny feared his father’s fits of anger. At the start of his treatment, Danny saw his father as cruel. He believed he was just like him and perceived the world as divided starkly between “the good ones and the bad ones.” The forces of good and evil were locked in a battle. But the good forces were weak. Only evil, in his view, could ever win.
“You know Leonard Cohen’s song?” he asked. “It goes like this: Everybody knows that the dice are loaded. Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed. Everybody knows the war is over. Everybody knows the good guys lost. It’s so accurate. Only kids believe that the good guys always win.”
Danny lived in the split. There was a part of him that sinned and a part of him that had to remain pure and any dialogue between the two forces was strictly forbidden. One was a threat to the other. He had rejected all his “bad” feelings of aggression, sorrow, and need—labeling them “not-me,” and pushing them away. The dybbuk was the expression of that part of Danny.
Danny and I gradually began to understand the dybbuk as a ghost that expressed Danny’s forbidden and shameful longings and desires. When he lost his father, he also lost the loving, creative, mischievous child. This buried inner child was different from the way Danny presented himself as an adult. Solitary, isolated, he lived alone and came for treatment because he could not create a meaningful, intimate relationship. He saw himself as a rigid, strict, manipulative man—exactly like his father.
As we recognized that child, Danny mourned, conjuring the beloved child he once was. He realized how alone he was after his parents’ divorce. His father was far away, and his mother became depressed and disconnected. Danny had to hold and process his feelings alone, an impossible task for a little boy. The emotional split into two became his way of surviving, his way of feeling safe. He created a defensive world where good and bad are divided, where he could keep the good safely apart from the bad and make sure the bad wouldn’t contaminate the good and spoil it. But while making sure his world was safe, he paid a big toll: He lost the ability to love and desire. Danny was afraid of his desires and couldn’t afford to open his heart and to want anything, emotionally or sexually. Sex belonged to the demonic world of evil.
As we recognized those dynamics, the dybbuk’s voice gradually weakened. Danny started to treat it as an expression of parts of himself, which allowed him to get in touch with his desire toward the woman he secretly loved, Leah. It was no longer the dybbuk who wanted Leah, it was Danny who loved and desired her, and a few months later they became a couple.
In that painful and intense process, Danny needed me to listen to his mysterious, irrational language without giving him psychological interpretations. He needed me to be there with him when he was afraid—and to feel the fear in my own mind and body. He needed me to know him from within and to love him. We both had to accept him as he was.
The story is published with the patient’s permission and details have been altered to protect patient privacy.
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Dr. Galit Atlas is the author of The Enigma of Desire: Sex, Longing, and Belonging in Psychoanalysis. She is a psychoanalyst and clinical supervisor in private practice in Manhattan, as well as a clinical assistant professor on the faculty of the New York University Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy & Psychoanalysis.