This post is part of a series on Defense Mechanisms for Mental Health Awareness Week 2016. To know more, read the introduction to the series here. You can read all posts connected to the defense mechanisms series here.
Paul Spector from the popular British crime drama, The Fall, is a serial-killer – who hunts down successful, young women and murders them in their homes. It is known that his mother killed herself when he was young. By day, he is a psychotherapist by profession and specializes in grief counselling.
Using the Freudian lens, we can surmise that a great deal of anxiety must underlie acts filled with so much aggression. Where there’s anxiety, there’s a defense. In this post, I choose to focus on Paul’s defenses which serve to help him come to terms with the idea/concept of death – more specifically, to help him process his grief of his mother passing away in her suicide attempt.
Stella, I don’t know what’s going to happen to me, to you, to anyone else in this world. All I know is, no one can outwit death. – Paul Spector
What Happens During the Murders: The Defense Mechanisms of Undoing and Splitting
It’s seen that once Paul has killed his victims, he spends a lot of time in acts of ‘nurturance’: bathing the bodies, grooming them, even applying nail polish etc. Now why would he do that? This can be understood by looking at two defenses – splitting and undoing.
When one fails to accept a complex entity (self or other) having both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ parts to it, into an integrated whole – there’s anxiety and so, Splitting occurs. This means that the psyche separates or “splits” objects into two categories, seeing the “good” side of a person or thing as the part it finds acceptable and the “bad” side of the person or thing as the part it finds painful or unacceptable.
His wish to punish her harshly for the part of her that left him to fend for himself is acted out in form of the murders themselves. At the same time, a part of her did provide him with affection – and he reciprocates and embodies that love by nurturing the bodies of the victims and appearing to care for them.
It’s about deciding on the essential nature of the world. Is the world a place of pain and suffering, of grief and despair, or is it a place full of joy, all sweetness and light? – Paul Spector
Undoing is a defense mechanism wherein one tries to ‘undo’ or ‘alter’ later in retrospect, an undesirable/threatening thought or action, by engaging in contrary behavior. This is important because the unpleasant thought/act causes anxiety and one feels the urge to do something to dissipate it by in some ‘magical’ way, ‘repairing’ the thought/act.
Even for a serial killer, the act of killing the women is gruesome – Paul usually suffocates them to death and must watch them struggle for breath. It is possible that later when he washes their bodies and grooms them – he’s trying to ‘undo’ in some way, his heinous act of killing them.
In simple words, this is the equivalent of saying hurtful things at someone you love and later, going out of the way to do something nice for them, to get rid of the guilt.
Additionally, his work as a psychotherapist and helping people deal with bereavement can be seen as another form of undoing – where he is inflicting death on one hand, and helping people grieve on another. It may also be noted that as helping people grieve also helps him, vicariously deal with his own grief.
This also made me reflect on why they probably call it The Fall. Autumn. Dried up leaves. The coming of death.
Leading Up to the Murders: The Defense of Counterphobic Attitude
Developing a Counterphobic Attitude refers to a peculiar response to anxiety – wherein you actively seek the object of your dread instead of avoiding it. Often, dare-devil or ‘dangerous’ activities are pursued in a counterphobic spirit, in response to denying the fear that is actually attached to them.
The object of the counterphobic attitude is coping with death, in Paul’s case – with him seeking death actively, almost with the intention of ‘mastering’ it:
I live at a level of intensity unknown to you and others of your type. You will never know the almost God-like power that I feel when that last bit of breath leaves a body. That feeling of complete possession. – Paul Spector
Basically, denial works in two ways: you either deny the situation or you deny the impact it has on you. So when something makes you anxious, in order to cope with it, you must first deny the anxiety and over-compensate this denial by actively pursuing the source of your anxiety to obsessive proportions.
However, Paul cannot seem to stop at one. The pleasure/relief achieved from the act of killing is short-lived. Once he has killed, the anxiety connected to death starts to build up – as a form of tension or an expectation/anticipation – which must be overcome once again by killing.
This is why, meticulous planning and preparation must go into the activity – it cannot be spontaneously performed. For him, this is something that needs to be successfully ‘conquered’. So if there’s too little preparation or if he must kill spontaneously – he may feel the fear, which he does, when he ends up unintentionally killing the brother of one of his victims.
With continued use of the counterphobic attitude in response to fears, this search, the seeking – formerly feared – may eventually become pleasurable in itself – just because it is sought actively.
This tendency of the feared object turning into the object of desire is seen in his feelings towards Stella Gibson, the Detective Superintendent directly in charge of his case. Initially, he feels thrown off by her intelligence, as she seems to be catching up to him. There is fear and powerlessness. But instead of hiding or fighting back, his psyche counteracts the fear by developing a sort of attraction towards her. That makes him sneak into her house, read her most intimate diary entries and get to know her deeply. Having intellectually weakened her position, this move puts him ‘back in control’ and he doesn’t have to fear her anymore.
But Why Even Become A Serial-Killer?
We know Paul’s mother committed suicide and he is probably struggling with the rage he feels towards her. It is possible that he interpreted her suicide to mean also that his mother didn’t love him enough and believed that a part of her was full of hate.
Introjection is when a person takes in the beliefs of others significant to them and makes them their own. For example, a child might adopt aspects of her parents’ personalities or beliefs such as their political and religious ideology, concept of right and wrong or attitudes about sex.
Using the defense of introjection, Paul internalized his mother’s hatred, into strong feelings of contempt for his own self.
Once a man has achieved contempt for himself, he achieves contempt for all man-made laws and moralities and is truly free to do as he wills. – Paul Spector
It is known that the psyche strives to maintain defenses, to protect the conscious from overwhelming anxiety. Thus, in order to maintain this introjected self-hatred, Paul must believe that he is a despicable person. To make that happen, he must engage in killings. Over time, this becomes self-reinforcing, that is, because he is a serial killer, he can continue to have contempt for himself.
But this contempt that he has for himself serves an additional purpose. He looks at the hatred and the associated killings as a means to ultimately destroy his being, just like his mother did.
Being a serial murderer is a form of slow suicide, deeply self-destructive. – Paul Spector
Dealing with the Aftermath: The Defense Mechanism of Compartmentalization
Imagine the amount of anxiety that Paul’ s psyche must be harbouring unconsciously – the initial childhood anxiety that he’s trying to cope with, in addition to the anxiety resulting from the murders that he’s committing. Yet, he manages to hold it all together – he is quite a successful and an empathetic therapist, a loving father to his children and appears to be functioning quite normally otherwise. How does he do it?
Basically, Paul seems to also be using the defense of compartmentalization.
Compartmentalization is a defense mechanism that allows conflicting or different ideas, feelings, mental states etc. to co-exist without each disturbing/leaking onto the other. In a much milder variation, if you’re able to segregate your ‘work state of mind’ well from your ‘personal life’ – then you might be employing compartmentalization.
However, this isn’t holding up well for him. When Paul sees his daughter’s drawings – they’re dark and reflect aggressive tendencies – a part of him is shaken up because now his two worlds are interacting. He then gives away the necklace that belonged to one of his victims, to his daughter – which seems like a sign of leakage in his so-far water-tight mental compartments.
When I look at Paul’s range of defenses, it seems as if his entire personhood is deeply intertwined with grief and it reminds me of him saying this to one of his therapy clients:
You don’t have to accept what has happened. I don’t subscribe to that model of grief. I don’t see bereavement as ever being resolved or accepted. There is no closure, no recovery. -Paul Spector
Post Contributed by: Sindhura Tammana
Image Credit: Fables Limited, Artists Studio, BBC Northern Ireland (This image is used under the Fair Use Policy, as it is part of a free, online blog and is not being used to sell any product or service.)