An Examination of ‘Learned Helplessness’

by Julia Evans on December 11, 2014

The Production of ‘Learned Helplessness’


‘Now I couldn’t endure the pain. I felt I was going to die’

‘I was literally suffocating inside the bag’

‘If he wants a confession, I gave one. Does he want me to resurrect the dead?’

: Sub-headings from ‘A voice from the void’, by Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Guantanamo Bay prisoner[[i]].

My reason for this exploration is that I have found conditions of ‘Learned Helplessness’ in my clinic. Most of my cases, do not involve physical abuse but what may be termed psychological abuse. The outcomes and presenting symptoms are very similar to those from the Schreber family[ii], Rosemary and Fred West[iii]’s family, CIA torture, and so on. In the ‘Interrogating Freud & Lacan’ group, Alison Fish has been exploring the American Virgin Killer, Elliott Rodger, and this may well be a similar case.

A description of ‘Learned Helplessness’

From the US Senate Report on the CIA, as reported in the Washington Post[iv]: In people, it “disrupts normal development and learning and leads to emotional disturbances, especially depression.” This is exactly what appeared to happen to Abu Zabaydah. With the backing of the CIA, he was stripped and exposed to loud rock music. Then, after weeks of psychological interrogation, the Senate report said Zabaydah became [[v]] “compliant.”

“When the interrogator ‘raised his eyebrow,’ without instructions, Abu Zabaydah ‘slowly walked on his own to the water table and sat down,’” one account said. “… When the interrogator snapped his fingers twice, Abu Zabaydah would lie flat on the waterboard.”

He had been trained. Like one of Seligman[vi]’s dogs[vii].

Other examples of ‘Learned Helplessness’

1) From a Panorama programme, as reported on BBC News[[vii]]:

The footage reveals the total subjugation of Dawn by her husband even in front of the officers.

Dawn told Panorama: “My mind wasn’t my own any more. I was frightened – I was frightened of the police, I was frightened of him, I was frightened of everything”.

“He didn’t seem to even think he was doing anything wrong,” she explains. “In his mind all he was doing was cooking me a meal.”

As they arrest him, Michael demands Dawn pack him an overnight bag – which she does, quietly and purposefully.

“You got me arrested again didn’t you?” he says threateningly.

2) From Nicci Gerrard, in The Observer, 1999[[viii]]: Rosemary West used a vibrator on Anne Marie’s bound and gagged eight-year-old body (her stepdaughter), before Fred West had intercourse with her. The couple whispered endearments to her as they fingered and tore her. They taught her to be grateful; they were ‘helping’ her. After they had abused her small, broken body, they stroked her, gave her a salty bath – were ‘so kind, so kind’, she said.

3) Further, Nicci Gerrard, 1999 : A child loves its mother. Anne Marie never complained because she didn’t know she was being abused. She remained grateful to her parents. After she had run away at the age of 15 (1979), she still sent them Mother’s Day and Father’s Day cards. The gaze she turned on Rosemary West in the dock (October 1995) was full of love and affection and tears. After she had finished giving evidence in the dock, she tried to kill herself. Two weeks ago, shortly after she jumped off Westgate Bridge, Gloucester (18th November 1999), she said that yes, she missed them still, despite all they did. ‘They were all I had.’

I encounter the same mechanism, unquestioning compliance, in my clinic. I view it as a signal that the family, or containing unit, is detached. There is no relation to the outside world so there is no possibility of separating from this enforced reality, even when children leave home – as for Anne Marie West and Daniel Paul Schreber.

Schreber describes what happens.

Schreber writes at the end of Chapter 1 of ‘Memoirs’[[ix]] : The whole Order of the World therefore appears as a “miraculous structure,” {term suggested from the outside – footnote 14} the sublimity of which surpasses in my opinion all conceptions which in the course of history men and peoples have developed about their relation to God.

From Chapter 2, ‘Crisis in God’s realms? Soul murder’ : This “miraculous structure” has recently suffered a rent, intimately connected with my personal fate. But it is impossible even for me to present the deeper connections in a way which human understanding can fully grasp. My personal experiences enable me to lift the veil only partially; the rest is intuition and conjecture. I want to say by way of introduction that the leading roles in the genesis of this development, the first beginnings of which go back perhaps as far as the eighteenth century, were played on the one hand by the names of Flechsig and Schreber (probably not specifying any individual member of these families), and on the other by the concept of soul murder.

A tentative, preliminary ending

If a human being is corralled in a world where the power is driven from the top downwards with the source of control being seen as unitary, then compliance is the only option. The subject loses their capacity for independent thought. They collapse into the field of the Other who is implacable. They lose any notion of self and are not able to operate as subjects. The CIA and others use this to control human beings. Even if the cage door is left open, they are not able to escape. The evidence from Daniel Paul Schreber, Dawn and Anne Marie West is that even when the design of the unitary cage is changed, the subject remains trapped within their ‘learned helplessness’. In my clinic, it is necessary to cut the subject free and then enable them to find other ways of being.


[i] From The Guardian: Saturday 17th January 2015 : A voice from the void, It’s eleven years since Mohamedou Ould Slahi arrived at Guantanamo Bay. It.s nine years since he finished his manuscript. And it’s two years since his editor finally got to see it. Now, at long last, his book is being published. Further information at:

[ii] The text by President Schreber : Memoirs of my nervous illness: 1903: D. P. Schreber or here

Commentaries on the Schreber case

Sigmund Freud: Psychoanalytic notes on an autobiographical account of a case of paranoia (Dementia Paranoides):1910 (published 1911c) : Availability given here

Introduction to Schreber’s ‘Memoirs of my nervous illness’: 1973: Samuel Weber or here

Presentation of the ‘Memoirs’ of President Schreber in French translation: November 1966: Jacques Lacan or available here

Seminar III: The Psychoses: 1955-1956: from 16th November 1955: Jacques Lacan or here

Translator’s introduction & analysis of D. P. Schreber’s case: : 1955: Ida MacAlpine & Richard Hunter : Available here

On a question preliminary to any possible treatment of psychosis : 1956 : Jacques Lacan or here

Case history of Schreber: 1910: Sigmund Freud or here

[iii] See my post Schreiber’s case revisited with echoes noted in the family of Fred West by Julia Evans on January 11, 2015 : Available here

[iv] ‘Learned helplessness’: The chilling psychological concept behind the CIA’s interrogation methods : By Terrence McCoy : 11th December 2014 : Washington Post Available here . Reference circulated on the “Alliance Opposing SR for Counselling and Psychotherapy” group : here. Thank you.

[v] See

[vi] For example, M. Seligman, “Positive psychology. Fundamental Assumptions,” : The Psychologist : vol. 16 no. 3 : March 2003. : the goals of Positive Psychology are defined by Seligman (Quote from p. 127. ) as the promotion of gratifications that “absorb and engage us fully, they block self-consciousness, they block felt emotions, they create a flow, a state in which time stops and one feels completely at home.

[vii] Quote from Wikipedia : In learned helplessness studies, an animal is repeatedly exposed to an aversive stimulus which it cannot escape. Eventually, the animal stops trying to avoid the stimulus and behaves as if it is helpless to change the situation. When opportunities to escape become available, learned helplessness means the animal does not take any action. From ‘Learned Helplessness’ : available

[vii] Could legislation halt non-physical domestic abuse? : By Victoria Derbyshire : BBC Panorama : 8 December 2014 : Available here

[viii] From ‘I can still taste the fear’. Most of us don’t want to remember the horrors of 25 Cromwell Street. But Nicci Gerrard, who was at the trial, says Fred West’s daughter has no choice : The Observer : Sunday 21 November 1999 : Available here  For further comment, see Schreiber’s case revisited with echoes noted in the family of Fred West by Julia Evans : Available here

[ix] Memoirs of my nervous illness : Daniel Paul Schreber (1842-1911) : Published 1903 : Translated and edited by Ida MacAlpine & Richard A. Hunter, 1955 : Availability Memoirs of my nervous illness: 1903: D. P. Schreber or here  : Freud’s comments: Case history of Schreber: 1910: Sigmund Freud or here