The impact of authoritarian regimes on families… and on the therapist (2017)

Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy. DOI: 10.1002/anzf.1237. A subsequent version was published by the Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences, 104(3):11-18

Author: Sluzki CE

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Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 2017

Transcription of the keynote presentation delivered at the 25th Congress of the International Family Therapy Association, Malaga, Spain, March 2017.


Carlos E. Sluzki


Repressive powers – authoritarian governments being the focus of this article, but it applies to any oppressive relationship – require of the part of the oppressed not only obedience but denial of the oppressive nature of their submission. There is a slippery slope from experiencing the imposed nature of the oppressive rules to adapting to them to denying both internal and external evidence of their existence. When totalitarianism appears on the political and interpersonal horizon, it is imperative to prevent that declining process by retaining the critical capacity to speak and to rebel against any oppressive injunction. It is equally important to help people – therapist included – coming out of tyranny to recover the words and the agency lost in their previous experiences.


  • The passage from a democratic to an authoritarian regime is frequently subtle in its progress – while sometimes brutal in its performance.
  • The default adaptive mode of submission to an oppressive authority, either by option (e.g., welcoming a leader that promises order after a period of chaos), by fear of the consequences if confronted (e.g., prison, torture, disappearance, or merely imperiled job security) or by indifference, leads to a progressive desensitization and ultimately silencing and blindness to any contradictory evidence.
  • This process of surrender of agency buries themes and vocabularies that may contradict that submission. Acts of governmental violence and acts of dissent are erased from perception and from conversation.
  • It is our responsibility as citizens and as therapists to defend the integrity of our language and our capacity to critically confront oppression for us and for our patients, so as to counter submission to authoritarianism.
  • And when working with people emerging from a period of collective (and individual) submission to an authoritarian leadership, it behooves us to help them to recover their words, as a way of regaining a world where agentic power is the rule, and not the privilege of the oppressor.

Helping refugee families to regain their identity after escaping from authoritarian, repressive regimes abroad is a noble quest, frequently embraced by therapists. Given the drastic increase in refugees – individuals and frequently families – I was planning to open a discussion with you about our experiences with refugee families, and perhaps weave together some leanings from all that.

However, new cataclysms are shaking my world, and foreshadows of cataclysms may be shaking yours. For it is a very different predicament to help families who are experientially and culturally so distant from our own lives – such as the case of those escaping wars, famines, and to live oneself under a progressively dystopian authoritarian regime – a trend that is expanding worldwide at an alarming rate. That context has an extreme short and long-term deleterious effect on the population, therapists included.

So, I will shift the focus of my presentation from refugee families – a dramatic plight and theme that deserves our dedication – to a focus on all of us now. Allow me to meander into the subject.

A month ago, at the age of 106, a truly sweet lady, Brunhilde Pomsel, died in Munich. She was an ordinary person, part of the huge cheering crowd that brought Hitler to power in Berlin 1933. She found a job in a secretarial pool in the government bureaucracy, and ended up as personal secretary to Joseph Goebbels, minister of Propaganda of the Nazi regime. She would answer his phone, record his remarks, even altering German casualty accounts so that Goebbels could present to Hitler a falsely rosy picture of the progress of the war.

After the conflagration and several years as prisoner of war, she lived anonymously for most of her life until discovered a few years ago by a journalist and filmmaker, who interviewed her and recorded her musings for a film he was making. Among her comments “I didn’t know, we didn’t know anything on the matter of the Jews. (in reference to the murder of six million Jews during the Holocaust). We knew about Buchenwald, but I though it was a rehabilitation camps intermediary and then the Jews would be transported to the Sudetenland, where were being relocated. ” (The Washington Post, 2017)

And I believe her. In fact, In spite of Goldenhagen’s (1997) powerful indictment, I believe that a part of the civilian population in Germany and Austria, living under a repressive regime and exposed only to the official news – that skirted the “final solution” strategy, among many omissions and distortions – regardless of how convenient their willful ignorance was, managed to simply not to know. We can do horrible things to our minds when we are under the dome of authoritarian, totalitarian regimes. In fact, it took two plus generations post-WWII for German writers to begin to focus not only on their country as perpetrator (their mea culpa) but describing their own suffering during (and immediately after) the war.

I wish to add here three personal vignettes to the subject.

Vignette 1

While walking by myself on a deserted, off-season beach in Cancun, Mexico, circa 1980, I bumped fortuitously into an old friend with whom I didn’t have any contact since I left Argentina 9 years before. He just happened to be visiting the area after a meeting totally unrelated to the meeting that brought me there. After hugging, marveling at the “the world is a handkerchief” phenomenon, and exchanging questions about family and friends, I asked him how was life under the oppression of the military rule, by then in full repressive mode. He looked around alarmed – nobody but the seagulls on sight – shushed me and told me that we shouldn’t talk about it.

Vignette 2

I was scheduled to deliver a keynote presentation at a family therapy congress in Argentina 1983, three months after the first democratically elected government replaced the military dictatorship. Given the momentous occasion, instead of talking about the subject that appeared in the program (something about family and schizophrenia, I believe), I presented and discussed a moving and politically charged family consultation I had conducted several years before with a family victimized by the prior dictatorship, including the disappearance of two of its members. The public reacted with extreme alarm to the subject – “Carlos is crazy! He is putting us all at risk”; they scanned to find the exit doors of the conference room “just in case”, they were looking to see whether other attendants were staring to live so as to do the same), and it took them a while to realize that they were reacting to a peril that was no longer there, a tail of having been living under a mantle of repression that had already ended. That realization generated an outpour of emotions, a mixture of guilt and relief, a confessional of sins of omissions and need to repair (Sluzki 1990, 1997).

Vignette 3

I was invited to deliver an opening address to the fist Family Therapy congress that took place in Chile 1990, shortly after Pinochet’s dictatorship yielded the helm of that country to a democratically elected president. I also conducted a workshop for about 80 professionals that I titled “Forbidden words, forbidden worlds.” Its core activity consisted in a sequence that started when II invited them to tell me which were words that were risky to utter in public or by phone during the dictatorship. I wrote those worlds as a list in a blackboard. I then invited them to sit in groups of eight and begin to talk using as much as possible those worlds. As they begun to do that, their first reaction was of laughter, banterer jovially – they seemed as adolescents being asked to use as much profanities as they could, but soon the climate of the whole room became somber, as they began to talk about their own experiences during the regime, both professional and personal, to the shift to discuss how they practices and social practices would change under the newly recovered political freedom (Sluzki, 1994).

Where am I going with all this?

A couple of month ago, at my home office in DC, while emailing a note to a colleague, I discovered myself worrying about whether it would be safe to write an anti-Trump comment by email. Please notice: I am a U.S. citizen, lived in the U.S. for 46 years, traveled through the work (except to some Islamic countries, where I couldn’t get a visa because of my Jewish surname) but I am US-born, and therefore … a foreigner. What if the new rather wild and unpredictable administration is scanning all emails and confectioning a list of enemies of the regime? Would my family or I be in danger at all? Am I being paranoid or they are, or may be, REALLY after me?

But there was something in all this that that alarmed me more: What if I yield to my concerns, and begin to censor my own emails, and then my phone conversations? Will I continue in that slippery slope and cease talking about politically risky subjects, and then, just as an almost unavoidable follow up effect, censoring my thoughts, and, just to clamp the precaution, then my perceptions, being not to see or hear things that there to be seen and heard, and be outraged about them?

The threat of the Panopticon – the 19th Century project of a prison with 24-hour full total view of the prisoners, re-actualized by Foucault (1977) to refer to the repressive component of the social order and, more to the point, to the omnivision apparatus of oppressive governments – is looming!

And the tighter Panopticon of a repressive government (and society subsumed under it) is particularly dangerous not only to our own personal integrity but to our work both as political beings and as professionals: It erodes the values that are the core of work of toward increasing autonomy and solidarity, opacifies our critical capacity, and contaminates with mistrust our relational world, including the therapeutic relation. For therapy is, as we know, not a process of helping people to accommodate to a relation of submission to the world regardless of; it is a process of pushing their world to become more open and more agentic. And, operating on us as a slow slippery slope, we may not even see its progressive effect on us.

These are worrisome times. Far right, reactionary, populist, racist, sexist, anti-immigrants, anti-abortion rights, anti-ecological, anti-free speech, post-facts (post-truth!), authoritarian candidates and governments are gaining strength. At least two of them have already reached executive capacity: Trump and Putin. We could add to the list Marine Le Pen, the neo-Fascist populist French candidate, much of the Brexit movement ideology, Victor Orban in Hungary, Strache in Austria, the Sweden Democrats, the Progressive Party in Norway, and so may others worldwide. And, even if many of the alt-right parties may not triumph electorally, the effect of their rise is that the dominant center parties (at least in Europe) have moved several inches toward intolerance, as a way of capturing that electorate.

With the apparent signs of implosion or even collapse of the hegemony of the “progressive” neoliberal establishment (in a perhaps paradoxical if not perverse alliance with the new social movements – feminism, anti-racism, multiculturalism, LGBTQ rights) and the apparent vacuum of true progressive alternatives, we are facing a world being progressively seized by banal tyrants capable of perpetrating enormous evil with their small hands.

And I am not talking only about the dismantlement of social entitlements or even the assault of truth, the blatant use of “alternative facts.” In fact, truthfulness has never been counted among the political virtues. To quote Hannah Arendt from a superb 1971 essay titled “Lying in Politics: Reflection on the Pentagon Papers,” (1971a), also included in a collection of Arendt’s insightful and increasingly timely essays on politics, violence, civil disobedience (Arendt, 1971b), “Lies have always been regarded as justifiable tools in political dealings.” (1971a, p.30) In her 1963 incisive inquiry into how totalitarian tyrants take hold of a people, Hanna Arendt writes: “The essence of totalitarian government, and perhaps the nature of every bureaucracy, is to make functionaries and mere cogs in the administrative machinery out of men, and thus to dehumanize them.” (Arendt, 1963) And that applies to the rest of the population under those conditions.

That is the core of what Arendt called “the banality of evil”, a banality reflected in Eichmann, a bureaucrat at the center of the development and efficient functioning of the “final solution” who embodied “the dilemma between the unspeakable horror of the deeds and the undeniable ludicrousness of the man who perpetrated them.” (Arendt, 1963, p.94)

The essence of totalitarian governments, or moving toward totalitarianism, is not only to make people believe in the worldview of their discourse – even if based on unsustainable distortions – but also to enforce compliance through rewards and fear. This compliance and that fear endanger if not destroys our ability to be agents of change, to be therapists.

FEAR REDUCES CURIOSITY (and learning). Ambiguous context (when what is asserted doesn’t have a base, when contradictions within a given discourse are not clarified, when blame is externalized into a defenseless “other”) ambiguous context, I was saying, enhances fear. Under those political conditions of fear – and those of you working with the family politics of battered women know well – most people (victims) will comply.

Fear activates the down and dirty navigational system Type 1 (Think fast), quick defensive, automatic, stereotyping) at the detriment of System II type of thinking, the slow thinking that is required for critical thinking, curiosity, active ignorance, choices, concentration (Kahneman, 2011) Fear leads to the worst kind of blindness: when you don’t see that you don’t see.



Either fervor and elation (as black-and-white realities resolve doubts, externalizes evil and facilitates fanaticism), or confusion and numbness, a milder but similar reaction frequent in victims of recent torture, rape, random violence, where the source of violence mystifies its nature (Sluzki, 1993).


  • In INDIVIDUALS: selective perceptual inattention, disassociations (self split) (cf. Langer, 1991), restricted lives, guilt,
  • In FAMILIES: secrets, silences, social isolation trans-generational splits
  • In COMMUNITIES: polarization, submission, silence, scapegoating (externalization & violence to others)
  • In THERAPISTS: serious risks of blind spots, distorted capacity for empathy or resonance, restricted ability as change agents, facilitation of decontextualiziation and pathologizing (defining impacts of, or rebellion against, oppression as deviant), risks of becoming a cog in the repressive social machine at the service of the regime.

EFFECT OF THERAPEUTIC INTERVENTIONS IN INDIVIDUALS AND FAMILIES: (re-discovery) re-writing of history, elation + guilt/rage (thoughts of revenge!), empowerment and enhanced protagonism, (freedom), mourning and impulse toward reparation.

But, please note, those therapeutic transformations require therapists that have retained (or recovered) their integrity as change agents in the midst of oppressive milieus.

The responsibility of the therapists

How to preserve our integrity as therapists, as change agents, as anti-oppression, liberating agents? How to do self-preserving preventive work? And how to do it while meeting anger with compassion, intolerance with tolerance, fanaticism with social responsibility?

Our ethical and pragmatic mandate is clear: We have to preserve our capacity to think critically, and our freedom to act accordingly, especially under an atmosphere that threatens oppression, and to help our patients, individuals, families and communities, to do the same. Get involved in book groups, organize and maintain discussion groups with friends and colleagues, do journaling, get involved in community work to counter to challenge those narratives that blame the Other, that pathologize the poor and the minorities or blame them for their fate, and, further, pathologize disobedience.

Disobey. Resist. And that entails not only thorough mindfulness but also conversations … like this one.

I leave you with that concern … and that hope.


I was asked by the Editor of this journal to add some comments on my clinical work with refugee families. While a full discussion of the subject escapes the core focus of this paper, I will gladly summarize some early questions that allow me to orient my subsequent work, as each of the areas they explore, while overlapping, involve different discourses, different expectations, and different risks. Needless to say, these questions would be calibrated by the panoply of different possible settings for us as well as for our interviewees: Are we working with a resettling agency in situ, are we located at an outpatient mental health center in a refugee campo I a third country, or are we providing services in what the World Bank labels “developed country”, perhaps in Europe, or the United States, or New Zealand?

  • What circumstances lead the individual or family to becoming a refugee? : political exile (activists at risk, or having been expelled by the authorities or at risk of abduction), life risk (civilian population in a war-torn region, women/children escaping abuse or trafficking), collective/children survival (droughts, famine), insecurity (gangs or marauding armies roaming in the area), et cetera. Was there agreement or internal family dissent in this move (even if forced to do it)? : Opens the floor to the “official story”, and sometimes to alternative if not previously suppressed narratives. Issues of mistrust and confidentiality of the interview – are we there to screen or to help, to explore whether they are bona fide refugees or to be of assistance – can be predicted from the start and require clarification.
  • Were there family members left behind (including disappeared, imprisoned, lost in the process of exile, those who stayed in the place of origin)? : Allows for the exploration of “ambiguous losses”, guilt, experiences of betrayal, hopes.
  • In their current view, are they planning to return to their country if/after the current situation (political, hunger/drought, etc.) returns to normal, to remain on their current location, or move to a third location (for instance, where other family members live)? Giving voice to all those interviewed (culture permitting), do all agree with one plan, or there are different projects in collision? : Again, “official” and alternative stories may emerge, as well as potential family conflicts and alternative worldviews of their future (Sluzki, 1976).
  • Are there family members who have been tortured, abused, actively victimized? : Opens the exploration to trauma work both with that individual and with the whole family, exploring distorting realities “injected” by the experiences of torture and violation (Sluzki, 1993) as well as the impact of the remnants of the trauma on all.
  • Any special needs? : Issues of children, elderly, infirm, may appear, within the background of major cultural standards, expectations and definitions (including the use of psychiatric labels!)

This is just some junctures at the beginning of a journey with a family that may be strained by their experience … or relieve to have crossed the River Styk, exposed to major cross-cultural experiences of dissonance as well a possibly unknown or unstable future – to which they may react by retrenching and mistrusting … or opening themselves up to the future.

This type of practice requires from us stretching our ability to become actually ignorant of the other’s cultural norms and expectations and become a respectful, curious, adapted visitor to their worldviews, while resonating emotionally with their sometimes wrenching plight without losing our ability to know our own personal and professional limits and boundaries.


Arendt, H (1963). Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York: Viking Press

Arendt, H (1971): Lying in Politics: Reflection on the Pentagon Papers. New York Review of Books, 18 November, p.30

Arendt H. (1971). Crises of the Republic: Lying in Politics; Civil Disobedience; On Violence; Thoughts on Politics and Revolution. New York: Harvest Books.

Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and Punishment: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books

Goldhagen, D.J (1997. Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. New York: Vintage Books,

Kahneman D (2011). Think Fast, Think Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Langer, LL (1991). Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory. New Haven: Yale University Press

Sluzki, CE (1979). "Migration and Family Conflict”. Family Process, 1979, 18(4): 379-390

Sluzki, CE (1990). Disappeared: Semantic and Somatic Effects of Political Repression in a Family Seeking Therapy. Family Process, 29(2): 131-143. An expanded version appeared as chapter in. Sluzki CE (2014): Presence of the Absent: Therapy with Families with Ghosts. New York: Routledge.

Sluzki, CE (1993). Toward a general model of family and political victimization. Psychiatry, 56: 178-187. Also as a chapter in D. F. Schnitman (ed.). New Paradigms, Culture and Subjectivity, New York: Hampton Press, 2001.

Sluzki, CE (1994). Reclaiming words, reclaiming worlds. Readings: A Journal of Reviews and Commentary in Mental Health, 9(2):4-7.

Sluzki, CE (1997). “Rekindling the experience of freedom: From the personal to the collective...and back. Human Systems, 8(3-4):225-238. .An expanded version appeared as chapter in Sluzki CE (2014), cited above.

The Washington Post (2017). Obituary: Brunhilde Pomsel, 106. January 30, p. B4.

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