Venturing Beyond the Consulting Room: Psychoanalysis in Community Crisis Intervention

Mark B. Borg, Jr. PhD
William Alanson White Institute

Borg, Jr., M. B. (2004). Venturing beyond the consulting room: Psychoanalysis in community crisis intervention. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 40(2), 147-174.

Author's Note. I am very grateful to Drs. Jennifer McCarroll and Eve Golden for their contributions to the development and presentation of the ideas and experiences described in this paper. I would also like to thank Drs. Mark Blechner, Sandra Buechler and Sharon Kofman for their helpful critiques, suggestions, and support throughout this process.


In this paper, the author expresses a hopeful understanding of how psychoanalysis can be applied in community crisis intervention. The author draws on key concepts from the interpersonal tradition to revitalize community work and thinking with traumatized groups and communities in general. The author uses psychoanalytic concepts such as transference, countertransference, enactment, and working through to describe a community intervention in a four-year project with an impoverished community in South Central Los Angeles following the 1992 riots that occurred there. The author also arrives at new community concepts which are psychoanalytically informed and emphasizes how these can be helpful to individual clinicians in making sense of certain clinical phenomena that are opaque without an understanding of the community context of their patients.

DISASTERS CAN UNLOCK the darkest aspects of the human unconscious. They can also, however, provide important collective opportunities for altruism, self-sacrifice, and hope within communities. Some psychoanalysts have suggested that it is only because such opportunities exist that we are able to tolerate the dreadful eventualities that we face in life, and so must address in analysis (Buechler, 1995; Fromm, 1968; Mitchell, 1993).

Trauma corrodes the basic sense of safety that comes from accumulated secure experiences with others. Like grief, with which it overlaps, it may cause a sudden uncontrollable severing of affective ties, and, at its most radical, the complete obliteration of affiliative bonds. Communities exposed to trauma and grief may display patterns of disintegration and eventual adaptation that resemble the coping strategies of traumatized individuals. These coping strategies may result in deeply embedded and rigid defenses, or flexible and creative patterns that encourage the development of new ways of coping (Krystal, 1968; Lindemann, 1944; van der Kolk, 1987).

The recent tragedies that have struck at the heart of hope in this country and the world have moved me to think afresh about the processes of change that accompany trauma: the ones that encourage growth as well as the ones that can spur fixation or rigidity. Drawing on community empowerment theory and interpersonal psychoanalysis, therefore, I want to reconsider here the processes of individual and community change as I saw them develop in Avalon Gardens, a low-income housing community in South Central Los Angeles, after the riots there in 1992. I will explain and describe how interpersonal psychoanalysis can enrich the thinking and practice of community psychology, and how, in reciprocal fashion, community work can offer psychoanalysis a new venue, one outside the confines of the consulting room.

An Overview of the Interpersonal-Empowerment Intersection

I will start with a brief overview of empowerment theory and its relationship to interpersonal psychoanalysis. Interpersonal psychoanalysis developed from Sullivan's (1964) tenet that "everything that can be found in the human mind has been put there by interpersonal relations" (p. 302). Empowerment theory describes the processes whereby communities develop their own self-defined, workable collaborative solutions to problems in living (Rappaport & Hess, 1984).

Contemporary empowerment theorists focus primarily on increasing the power and legitimacy of local communities through mediating structures (Berger & Neuhaus, 1977). Mediating structures are small local agencies, institutions, and organizations that serve the local community residents, and provide a necessary function for them by helping to ensure that their needs and concerns are heard and met by large and often impersonal governing structures (Levins, 1995; Woodson, 1987). Such mediating structures may include churches, service agencies, and other groups made up of community residents, and therefore sharing their concerns. As was the case in the South Central intervention, often groups that form in the context of community interventions may themselves be transformed into mediating structures, grounded on the collaboration between intervention team members and local residents. Yet the long-term goals of such projects require that groups or organizations formed between residents and practitioners belong fundamentally to and reflect the needs of the indigenous population (Mondros & Wilson, 1994). They must be thought of as extensions of local communities, reflecting their own indigenous customs, practices, and tacit systems of accountability, rather than as rote instruments of distant government authorities, obeying abstract bureaucratic rules (Seidman & Rappaport, 1986)

Empowerment theory suggests that optimal functioning is a collaborative project between people and their environment. The experience of empowerment enhances people's capacity to manage their own lives (Rappaport & Seidman, 2000). Accordingly, assessments of community functioning must take into account the relationships, social structures, and resources in which existing competencies operate. Empowerment theory encourages the establishment of community- (rather than institutionally-) controlled solutions that can be responsive to the varying needs of different individuals, neighborhoods, and communities. Likewise, Mitchell (1993) has said that "Useful forms of meaning and hope do not lie preformed in the patient; they are generated when the analyst has found a way to inspire personally meaningful forms of growth and expansion from the inside out" (p. 225). This is as true of communities as it is of individuals. Treatment, intervention, and even social policy are empowering to the extent that they enable people to develop their own solutions to their problems, from the inside out.

The ultimate goal of the community practitioner is to promote community members' ability to define their community's unmet needs and advocate for themselves and their community in the world at large (Albee & Gullotta, 1997; Bright, 2000). The hallmark of empowerment is the functioning of collaborative processes. Empowerment processes have a way of shifting, multiplying, dissolving, and reappearing; most especially, they have a way of looking different to different residents and practitioners at different times throughout the course of the work. This is so because such processes reflect so many different facets of community life.

"Given the nature of social problems," Rappaport (1981) stresses, "there are no permanent solutions, no single this-is-the-only-answer-possible solutions…Problems must have many solutions that change with the currents" (p. 14). Both empowerment theory and interpersonal theory implement this philosophy. Both seek to expand the options available for dealing with problems in living, and to support the agency of individuals in their efforts to find creative, health-promoting, collaborative, and sustainable approaches to the inevitable complexities and anxieties of everyday life. Interpersonal psychoanalysis and empowerment theory, at core, stress the importance of paradox: the need to sustain, rather than foreclose, the tensions among opposing and conflicting points of view (Mitchell, 2000; Rappaport, 1981).

Empowerment theory has been challenged. While critics commend those who seek to increase their own efficacy by gaining new skills (e.g., job training) or abstaining from self-defeating behaviors (e.g., substance abuse and crime), they lament the ubiquitous application of the much ballyhooed, yet often vaguely defined, empowerment nostrum to every problem imaginable (Ellsworth, 1989; Fetterman, 1994). Such critics claim that empowerment work at its worst may foster dependency by training people how to coerce or cajole benefits from governing bodies (Weissberg, 1999). Also, there is always a fine line between practitioners facilitating community revitalization programs in a framework of collaboration, and the possibility that these same "experts" might impose external or infantilizing measures. Therefore, the pragmatic focus on problems in living, mutuality, and pluralism that are highlighted in interpersonal psychoanalytic theory may provide an additional and important framework for community practitioners as they negotiate the potential pitfalls of empowerment practices. It is possible, as critics suggest, that the term has been expropriated beyond its intended use. It is the distinction between spontaneous empowerment activities occurring everywhere and the pragmatic use in dealing with real life problems that is fundamental (Riger, 1993).

Due partly to these problems with community empowerment, I believe than an interpersonal psychoanalytic perspective has something valuable to offer the theory and practice of community intervention. While interpersonal psychoanalysis and empowerment theory complement each other in their shared concentration on collaboration among individuals, I believe that interpersonal psychoanalysis can inform and improve upon how empowerment is conceptualized and implemented. From the psychoanalytic perspective that I am arguing in this paper, community revitalization, like individual analysis, requires the working through of historically entrenched feelings of hopelessness, depression, and powerlessness (Borg, Garrod & Dalla, 2001). This is especially so in cases where chronic trauma, intensified by the defenses against overwhelming anxiety that are called up to deal with it, interferes with collaborative functioning. This community level process of working through historically entrenched problems in living, exacerbated by trauma, is enhanced by a working understanding of transference and countertransference enactments, just as in individual analytic work.

Applied Community Psychology (A Four-Year Case Study)

After the riots in 1992 that were sparked by the Rodney King police brutality case in Los Angeles, a community intervention was launched to address both the explosive acute community crisis and the underlying chronic trauma in the area. Avalon Gardens is a Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), low-income housing project in the middle of South Central Los Angeles. It contains 161 units housing 473 residents. At the time of the intervention, the community was 82% African-American, 17% Latino, and 1% Caucasian. Eighty-five percent of the residents were on public assistance. Specific demographic data (e.g., low income and educational levels, and high levels of unemployment and crime) had been stable over time, and defined South Central as a "distressed community." Of all the local housing projects, HUD selected Avalon Gardens for the intervention for three specific reasons: 1) its close proximity to the riots, 2) its history of serious violence (one of Avalon Gardens' bordering streets was the accepted boundary line between the rival gangs — the Cripps and the Bloods), and 3) its population, which was representative of the South Central community in general.

These factors combined with its very active council of residents suggested to HUD that a community intervention in Avalon Gardens would have reverberations in the wider South Central community. The city hired a group of community psychologists to implement an intervention targeting chronic issues (such as poverty, unemployment, and drug and alcohol abuse), and acute problems related to the crisis itself (such as rioting, looting, and inter-racial violence). With the support and collaboration of the intervention team, of which I was a member, the citizens of Avalon Gardens formed a number of focus groups and began to work within them toward collaboratively developed action plans to address the needs of the community.

The intervention also encompassed a training and research program. The outcome studies at the end of it indicated that increased interpersonal functioning was the cornerstone of the changes that demonstrably took place (Borg, 1997). The outcome data do suggest that people were able 1) to learn how better to form and utilize social support; 2) to increase a sense of security within their community; and 3) to feel more in control of their social, environmental, and political lives.

Even given the striking findings, the training/research methodology that informed the intervention and explained its results does not appear to have captured the essential elements of the changes that occurred, both in individual experience and in the community as a whole. It was only looking back during my own analytic training upon the South Central intervention that I began to reconsider how crucial the processes of improved interpersonal functioning were to the development of change and growth in that community. I also began to realize how psychoanalysis could revitalize my own thinking about community work and how community work could provide psychoanalysis with opportunities for broader application, something that many psychoanalytic thinkers have sought over the years (e.g., Altman, 1993, 1995; Freud, 1921; Fromm, 1955; Jones, 1964; Milman & Goldman, 1971; Smelser, 1998, Sullivan, 1964). Given recent community tragedies, I have felt more strongly that this kind of application of psychoanalytic thinking is even more needed and that this story of a response to a large-scale disaster might be meaningful to other analysts.

Community Intervention

The intervention after the riots in South Central was structured as a series of training workshops. These were designed to provide a forum for collaboration among the residents, the intervention team, and representatives of the wider community surrounding them. The workshop format was then extended into the wider community for the next four years. Residents were encouraged to assess resources and problems, develop goals, and work toward meeting those goals. At its most basic level, the intervention was aimed at supporting the residents as they learned how to advocate for themselves. With the help of the intervention team, the residents devised better means of tapping into the resources available to them and increasing their awareness of the problems that had historically thwarted progress of this kind. The workshops conducted in the first six months helped the residents to create small focus groups that met weekly to follow through on community goals. These groups also came together monthly in a large meeting to assess progress and continuing strategies for development. Interestingly, the small community focus groups that initially developed reflected one of the main problems that the residents had pinpointed: internal segregation between subgroups (e.g., African-Americans and Latinos, women and men, etc.).

One of the original groups was the Avalon Gardens Men's Association (AGMA). AGMA was structured upon tested guidelines designed to foster and support collaboration among community residents, as well as between residents and the intervention team.[1] Ultimately the men of the AGMA created a structure that could (and did) outlast the intervention, simultaneously increasing the involvement of other community organizations in Avalon Gardens. For those reasons I will concentrate upon AGMA in this study.

Case Conceptualization

The application of psychoanalytic concepts allows for a greatly enhanced understanding of the dynamics of the Avalon Gardens community. In particular, psychoanalysis offers a highly developed means of understanding and working with chronic experiences of anxiety and trauma which can also be usefully applied to community-level dynamics.

From its inception, interpersonal psychoanalysis has maintained a pragmatic focus upon problems in living, and upon the impact of coping mechanisms that, while reducing anxiety, may become entrenched in such a way as to impede growth (Sullivan, 1940, 1953). Sullivan focused on how we use these coping mechanisms or "security operations" in our interpersonal exchanges. They protect us from anxiety but at the cost of limiting our ability to acquire information that might facilitate adjustment (as, for instance, in selective inattention and dissociation) through what Sullivan referred to as the self-system. The self-system is a concept that Sullivan uses to describe the total set of security operations. The self-system maintains the agency and integrity of the self through monitoring one's awareness of experiences that increase anxiety and/or decrease satisfaction and security. Brown (1995), following Sullivan (1954), describes the self-system as follows:

While self-system processes work to determine what is in and out of awareness, they are, nevertheless, always interpersonal operations in that they are always organizing self-experiences in the course of (real or imagined) interaction that (1) minimize disapproval and maximize approval and (2) are organized and internally consistent" (p. 873).

Similarly, Chrzanowski (1977) refers to the self-system as the master "anti-anxiety device" (p. 12).

Contemporary interpersonal theory focuses specifically on the transference-countertransference relationship as a means of addressing recurrent maladaptive ways of relating to others, and the areas of conflict, deficit, and characterological problems in living that they engender (Bromberg, 1998; Cooper, 1991; Fiscalini, 1994; Levenson, 1991; Lionells, Fiscalini, Mann & Stern, 1995). Transference and countertransference, as I am using these concepts, refer to habitual, repetitive ways of perceiving and relating to others that are formed throughout development in one's family and specific culture. A person's attitude toward his or her environment is, inevitably, made up of transferential appraisals, initially formed and subsequently maintained in familial as well as cultural contexts (Freud, 1921; Fromm, 1955; Goldner, 1991). Sullivan (1953), in many ways, captures the culturally context-dependent nature of transference and countertransference that I am utilizing in this conceptualization of Avalon Gardens. He states that individuals "gradually learn 'consensually validated' meanings…These meanings have been acquired from group activities, interpersonal activities, and social experiences" (p. 28-29).

Additionally, I would like to extend Sullivan's emphasis on cultural contexts to suggest that individuals in the same community develop common transferences based on their shared environmental experiences. For example, a common expectation of the residents in Avalon Gardens was that interactions with outsiders would ultimately become hostile and neglectful, no matter what the stated intentions. The idea that communities as a whole develop common transferences has been of great help to me in better understanding both the past and current community work in which I have been involved. Knowing that communities develop common transferences is also something that can be helpful to analysts doing individual work with people from specific communities, a point I will elaborate later in the paper.

In general, I use the concepts of transference and countertransference to refer to the transfer of internalized relational patterns from particular personal, familial, historical, and cultural contexts into one's current experience of self and other, which is also embedded in a specific though contemporary context (e.g., the practitioner/resident interaction). Following this, enactment, simply put, is the behavioral playing out, in interaction, of unconscious transference and countertransference themes. In this view, enactment is the vehicle for experiencing, expressing, and ultimately understanding these transference themes and the potential ramifications of such repetitive relational patterns in one's current functioning.

Maladaptive relational patterns in Avalon Gardens included racial, ethnic, and gender stereotyping, suspicion and hostility toward outsiders; and such ubiquitous manifestations of behavioral acting out as violence, neglect, and chronic substance abuse. From the interpersonal point of view, these problems were clearly linked to disturbances in real relationships with significant others, as well as to serious disturbances in the broader social, political, and cultural environments.

The intervention process revealed interactive patterns throughout the community that supported the inter-generational transmission of a deeply entrenched sense of futility. At first, the question of how, when, and why these patterns had developed met with bewildered incredulity in the group discussions, so ridiculous did it seem to the residents even to think of them as not being written in stone. Yet as the patterns were uncovered and explored the residents became able to see them as manifestations of defensive/protective mechanisms that served to diminish conscious awareness of day-to-day anxieties.

The violence of the riots unearthed the chronic as well as the acute distress within the community, or, to coin a more psychoanalytic description, the community character. As with individuals, communities also develop their own unique characters (Borg, 2002a). And again like individuals, in response to trauma, this character may develop rigid, repetitive modes of interacting. Community character reflects the unconscious internalization of the unwritten, unstated, but ever-present laws that function to decrease anxiety through governing and limiting the interactive patterns within a community (Borg et al. 2001). Therefore, community character, as I am using it, might also be a way of describing group-level self-system operations. Also in synchrony with my use of the concept of community character, Fromm (1941) describes character as "the specific form in which human energy is shaped by the dynamic adaptation of human needs to the particular mode of existence of a given society" (p. 305).

The concept of community character resembles Fromm's (1941, 1955) concept of social character, however, with some important differences. Similar to community character, Fromm (1941) describes social character as "the essential nucleus of the character structure of most members of a group which has developed as the result of the basic experiences and mode of life common to that group" (p. 305). In contrast to Fromm's concept of social character, the concept of community character provides ways of understanding and working with group level transference and countertransference and a way to describe interactions between individuals belonging to different groups. Furthermore, unlike social character, community character is enacted. Finally, community character is conceived on a much more local, and therefore more flexible scale. For instance, an individual might belong to several different overlapping communities, and the enactments in which he or she participates depend on: 1) which specific overlapping communities the person belongs to, and 2) which specific overlapping communities the person he or she is interacting with belongs to (or which communities the first person thinks the second belongs to).[2] These aspects of community character will be illustrated in the descriptions of community interactions that follow.

This concept of community character allows community practitioners to view community intervention through an interpersonally-oriented psychoanalytic vantage point. From this perspective, character is seen as the repetitive interpersonal behaviors or interactive patterns that characterize a person's or community's life. At the most basic level, these adaptive/defensive interactive patterns form a stable personality structure that can address needs for satisfaction and security in the face of anxiety. It is then reinforced, sometimes to the point of rigidity, according to the degree that these needs are threatened in a given relationship (e.g., between parent and child), in a specific community (e.g., by local beliefs, prejudices, and taboos), or within societies (e.g., by formal laws, sanctioned rules of conduct, or cultural norms).

At times of crisis a community's traditional patterns of defense are jolted and sometimes loosened. That is why such times are opportunities for learning and for change. Defensive patterns of interaction may get stronger as well, but even in this case the fact that they are in flux at all provides windows for intervention. Community character defenses transmitted across generations — prejudice, xenophobia, and stereotyped communicative styles — evolve to manage the pain and anxiety of chronic trauma. However, they can also congeal into a perpetual repetition of the trauma itself, as a result of the emotional and behavioral climate that they defensively create. Emotional symptoms (depression, alienation, paranoia, and so on) and resulting behavioral ones (such as violence, isolation, and crime) become widespread in the community and create a closed system. Disaster or crisis shakes this system, making it more accessible to intervention. Disaster is a new group experience. It serves as a new shared focus from which individuals and groups can explore chronic concerns (Borg, 2002a). I call this experience of high affective intensity the point of impact: the "emotional epicenter…where pain and anxiety become manifest and where the immediate trauma and longstanding difficulties and conflicts converge" (Borg et al 2001, p. 19).

The riots in South Central brought community residents, local and state police, business owners, governing bodies, and outside visitors into direct contact with one another for the first time in many years. The riots were the point of impact that opened the closed border of the South Central community to the outside world. The acute trauma of the riots opened up a history of conflict, anxiety, and pain between community residents and service providers, including law enforcement authorities, spanning generations. The resulting inquiry into the history of the relationships among these groups made manifest, and gave voice to, longstanding patterns of prejudice, suspicion, hostility, and violence. This is how intervention works to transform a narrow fixity into a growing space of awareness. Emotional experiences are articulated, allowed to escape from the rigid defensive structures that have developed to contain them, becoming once again accessible for the creation of more negotiable and collaborative solutions.

A community in acute crisis, like an individual, reacts to the changing patterns of interaction that result from a disaster. Ideally, community interventions respond to the community's specific needs, inevitably brought to the fore by crisis, and so become collaborative works-in-progress between the community and the intervening organization. In a sense, it is the crisis itself that creates the opening into the needs of the community and serves to delineate the intervention. The effort of overcoming difficulty stimulates growth; to the extent that it arouses people to interest and involvement in community action, it enhances community functioning. The new achievements gained through community action become the ground for further effort to work through new and old problems, and for community members to develop actively, rather than passively or defensively, new conjoint solutions.

Community theorists doubt that any valid learning can be imposed from outside the life-experience of the learner. The issues underlying the character structure of a community and its members cannot be understood without knowledge of how they came about, how they function, and the purposes they serve. It is in this effort to understand communities and how they interact with the outside world that psychoanalysis can be of the utmost help to community psychology. For example, psychoanalysts understand that things learned, accomplished, and internalized in the past provide the means for understanding the present. As in individual analysis, when community intervention is based only upon what is obvious in the present, superficial understandings and superficial measures may be adopted. Such measures eventually render the real underlying problems easier to miss, and more difficult to solve. Deeper understanding, on the other hand, enables more effective solution. I will illustrate how the psychoanalytic concepts of enactment of transference-countertransference themes, depressive character structure, manic defenses, and working through illuminated the community work that happened in South Central.

Enactment as a View Into Community Conflict

The roles of the community practitioners in the Avalon Gardens intervention remained extremely flexible throughout the intervention, and included participation in family dinners, weddings, funerals, and other daily activities. The practitioners also took part actively in the community empowerment process by joining the smaller community groups. All these varying interactions provided fertile ground for the enactment of transference and countertransference themes among community members and practitioners. Through the enactments, underlying conflicts became more amenable to intervention and supported the notion that transference dynamics are robust phenomena that shape our interactions with others continually, not just within the consulting room.

For instance, when the intervention began, a deep rivalry existed between the men of AGMA and the women of the community who were involved in the intervention. The women claimed that the men had historically been lazy and irresponsible and were more likely to sustain than to ameliorate the community's problems. This grievance, however, was only the most obvious manifestation of the competitive forces that had been working to keep various subgroups from forming functional alliances with one another. For instance, after the men formed AGMA, the women in the community thought it would be a good idea form an organization of their own. Heated debates ensued over which group would be recognized by community practitioners as the community's primary and legitimate representative body. In discussions that ensued, a female practitioner involved with the women's group and I began to enact a longstanding community conflict. I argued that the men in the community had historically experienced a heightened sense of disenfranchisement, due to overshadowing and marginalization by the women. The female practitioner argued that the men were not able to follow through with their commitments in their personal lives, and that there was no reason for the women to expect them to be responsible within this context.

By identifying, at first unwittingly, with the parties in conflict, we were able to empathize with community members' feelings of anger at having their efforts thwarted and their motivations maligned. Gradually, we were able to work through initial reactions of denial and projection and, by identifying mutual underlying feelings of helplessness and sorrow, to form a common bond. What creates change, according to Levenson (1972), is the practitioner's "ability to be trapped, immersed, and participating in the system and then work his way out" (p. 174). The experience of becoming embedded in and gradually emerging from this enactment enabled us to articulate the depth and nature of one significant longstanding area of community conflict. We were then better able to help community members increase their awareness of and communication about this conflict. Thus, enactment became the means of deepening awareness of pervasive community interactions and patterns of thinking, feeling, relating, and behaving.

In another powerful transferential constellation, the practitioners were experienced at first as undercover Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers seeking to infiltrate the community. In the group, the men exhibited a strong desire to be part of the community intervention, but they were perpetually standoffish in outside interactions. They downplayed their sense of hope, but still, they showed up for the meetings, which itself indicated their underlying desire to achieve a sense of ownership of the community. They were willing to work with practitioners, in spite of the fantasy belief that they might be working for the police.

Once this initial scenario was understood, a more pressing concern emerged: because the men (whether in fantasy or as a concrete belief) experienced the practitioners as LAPD officers, they feared the possibility that the gang members might think the same way. As the men understood it, this would create a real risk for them and their families. Therefore, working through the transference themes in the men's group meetings eventually led to the establishment of meetings with local gang members. While these meetings were not overtly framed as a way of asking permission to run the intervention, they did convey a sense of respect for the power that the gangs represented in the community. Revealing the intervention to the gang members also meant working through another set of transference themes: this time ones that gang members had formed to the project staff and those residents who worked with them. Their feedback on the process revealed views similar to those of the other residents about the hopelessness of counting on help from "the system."

As we explored these transference patterns, we began to feel that a chronic sense of trauma had haunted the community for as long as anyone could remember. We therefore considered the underlying affective environment in Avalon Gardens to be depressive when the work began.

Distressed/Depressed Communities and the Manic Turn

Depression is an experience of being out of touch with oneself and others; it results in the inability to mourn and in a sense of personal alienation and emotional isolation (Bose, 1995a, 1995b, 1998; Freud, 1917). Depression relates to an unfinished process of grieving, and is central to the formation of identity. Identity, in turn, is the basis of character structure. What Freud (1923) called the "character of the ego" (p. 29) is the crystallization of internalized others who were 'loved and lost' — the remnants of unresolved grief. Based on the absence or "loss" of a benevolent cultural environment (as reflected in chronic states of poverty and crime), the character structure of Avalon Gardens reflected how residents identified with their oppressive, withholding, impersonal, often hostile, though sometimes pitying (as in welfare, housing subsidies, and the like), external environment.

The central threat in depression is the loss of someone or something "viewed as necessary for the continuing functioning of the individual" (Salzman, 1972, p. 111). Therefore, depression is part of a dissociative effort to contain an unbearable experience of loss. Yet depression, by contributing to an avoidance of the traumatic loss, deepens it, thus becoming an obstacle to the necessary process of remembering and mourning (Bose, 1995a).

Traumatized individuals may blame themselves or their community for the failure to prevent the painful experiences in the first place. Sullivan (1954) described this perspective epigrammatically in his statement that "the depressive always hits the target and usually unhappily does this by self-destruction" (p. 297). The murderous rage of the depressed person is visible when the target becomes the self (as in suicide), but distressed and depressed communities also have violent potential in the world outside their circumscribed borders. The survival of communities such as Avalon Gardens sometimes requires that rage be redirected against the lost other, as Butler (1997) says, "against the dead in order not to join them" (p. 193). After witnessing the Los Angeles riots, can the world outside such communities rest assured that the violent, though generally suppressed, depression of such a community will be turned only against itself? Can the outside world maintain the necessary ruthlessness to sustain its explicit apathy about such depressive processes and, if it can, might not the rage in these communities target such apathy in violent protest?

Individuals attempting to deal with their personal conflicts often make use of society as a region where these conflicts can find expression and resolution. For a character plagued by vehement internal turmoil, the provocation of a corresponding violent turmoil in the outer world can serve as a catalyst for the enactment of the violence that perpetuates itself on a daily basis within systems of oppression. When the fury finally manifests itself (in war or riot, for example) the cycle is completed. Born of ungrieved loss and intractable depression, fury takes the manic turn, finds an adequate target (representing the lost other), attacks, and ultimately induces a reaction/response from the significant other. Mania differs from depression in part in that the attention and response of the other is demanded. We can understand the LA riots, therefore, as a social defense against South Central's underlying depression.[3] Furthermore, I understand the riots in terms of what I would call a manic rage that targeted both itself and the significant other, the representatives of the oppressing system that would absorb and react to the attack. In fact, conceptualizing rage as it may be entwined in manic defenses in addition to the more common understanding of its relation with depression may be a profitable area of future inquiry for psychoanalysts. This is also implied in some of the work of Sullivan (1956) and Klein (1940) on mania and it can clearly be seen at play in the Los Angeles riots.

Herman (1992) says that "traumatic events have primary effects not only on the psychological structures of the self but also on the systems of attachment and meaning that link individual and community" (p. 51). Trauma has been associated with depression in interpersonal theory (Bose, 1995a, 1995b, 1998) as the terrifying, though dissociated, experience that all the functional nurturing resources supplied by the environment have been destroyed. The transformation of a community's chronic depressive character into a rebellious uprising occurs when circumstances in the external world reflect the internal state of deprivation of the community. When this happens the defense against awareness of an oppressive and traumatic day-to-day reality breaks down, and an acute experience of loss and impending threat erupts into awareness.

Though depression may signify a state of perpetual resignation, the awareness of the loss that it defends against may create an opportunity to make a formerly unrecognized impact upon the environment. While this can result in a potential for reparation, it can also bolster a sense of manic grandiosity that reinstates a new defense against awareness of the loss. Without help, this can set up a cyclic process as the disturbing event (reflecting the original or ongoing loss) is possibly felt as the re-experience of a loss that has already occurred, and so can usher in either further depressive or newer manic defenses.

The LA riots, therefore, may be seen as an extremely dramatic, but short-lived, manic reaction to the chronic depression that overlapped with South Central's deep-seated sense of collective trauma. After all, if depression is the effect of a loss that is ungrieved and unacknowledged, acting-out may be the only way to signal the loss. Bose (1998) says:

The ultimate toxic experience in deprivation trauma is dehumanization, the experience of an inhuman environment in which the lack of human resonance and response leads to a sense of dejectedness. The rejections and cruelties that are perpetrated daily build a sense of rage and vengefulness that cannot be transcended (p. 3).

The riots in South Central Los Angeles certainly did not cure its underlying depression. However, they did serve as a call for help, by means of which the underlying pain and the intergenerationally sustained character structure and symptomatology of the community could be made more palpable, acknowledged, addressed, and understood.

In the aftermath of the riots, AGMA meetings gave the men in the community an opportunity to initiate a mourning process. Phillips (1997) says that "mourning is immensely reassuring because it convinces us of something we might otherwise doubt; our attachment to others" (p. 153). In the years that followed the riots, mourning allowed the community to put its underlying sadness and sense of loss, until then manifested in such defensive reactions as depression, rage, hopelessness, and powerlessness, into a new context.


Working through, as generally understood, implies the state of coming to terms with psychic hardship, for example the death of a loved one (Freud, 1914, 1937). As it applies to community work, and as I am using it here, working through, often referred to as "living through" in interpersonal theory (Fiscalini, 1988), is a process of coming to terms with the loss of a familiar and predictable environment and an acceptance of a new state of affairs in the community. Such a state of affairs generally ushers in new experiences of uncertainty, ambivalence, and anxiety. Tenzer (1995) states that

Working through in both classical and Interpersonal psychoanalysis involves repetitive, progressive, and elaborate exploration of resistance…and that the difference [in interpersonal psychoanalysis] is that the focus has shifted from pathology to the opening up of possibilities; the emphasis is not only on what impedes and constricts but also on what can enhance and mobilize…[in this process] there is a collaborative exchange in which both patient and analyst have a part. Together they may help the patient (and, coincidentally, the analyst) to develop new patterns of understanding and experience (p. 729) [emphasis mine].

The working though process takes into account the process of repetition in interaction and how such repetitions underlie and play out in the patterning of one's experience. It addresses the resistance to experiencing oneself in novel ways and, in so doing, repeating historical interactive patterns in present experiences. Therefore, in my view of the working through process, the goal is to become more aware of how one's history of embeddedness in social contexts has shaped one's experience while gradually increasing one's capacity to tolerate new experience across the domains of thinking, feeling, relating, and behaving. Working through involves becoming aware of alternative ways of experiencing oneself in interaction with others as well as in interaction with the environment. Working through is reflected in new, more flexible and communicative patterns of interaction.

The workshops of the original Avalon Gardens project developed into safe environments for ongoing discussion groups and the working through of deep-seated community conflicts. These areas of conflict made themselves evident in group transference-countertransference interactions. For example, most of the community residents perceived the members of the intervention team in terms of past experiences with local service-providing agencies. These agencies were generally judged unable to meet, much less understand, the community's needs. Some residents were tolerant of the service agencies' ineffective attempts to serve the Avalon Gardens community, but others were overtly hostile. They felt that they were being perpetually tantalized with possibility of help, and then perpetually disappointed by the powerlessness of the agencies to actually do anything to change their circumstances.[4] Many members of the team had a very hard time forming relationships with residents, so entrenched were the historically bound transference relationships being enacted in the intervention settings. Nevertheless, some practitioners and residents were able to use their roles in such enactments to deepen their understanding of the community's chronic distress.

The men in AGMA often experienced the practitioners as carriers of needed but withheld resources. As this transferential perception became enacted in the groups, the men were clear about their suspicious views of the team members as intentionally withholding, and they were clear too that such suspicions between Avalon Gardens and the service-providing agencies had a long history. In this context, it became imperative for team members to be open about the limitations of their own capacity to provide concrete resources.

For example, a practitioner inquired of one of the AGMA members about a meeting that he volunteered to set up, but subsequently "forgot" about. The member became angry, saying that he felt he was being blamed and judged. When this was explored in the group setting, other members supported the resident in his anger, and previously unexpressed angry emotions began to surface. This led to a powerful experience as the men described their common histories of hope and disappointment in previous community interventions. It became apparent that residents' unconscious wishes to be helped via passive gratification, the disillusionment of these wishes, and their subsequent fear of abandonment, were the underlying determinants of their hostile responses. This was also revealed through an increase in concrete demands for tangible services from the practitioners (such as building repairs, salaried positions, and cable TV), and overt expressions of anger and disappointment when these demands remained unfulfilled.

The airing of these emotions provided the first opportunity for community members and practitioners to have a real dialogue about their respective hopes, plans, resources, and limitations. Community members experienced themselves and the practitioners in a new way when their anger and fear, expressed in words rather than in sabotaging behavior, were met with attention, interest, and respect. For the first time, when practitioners began to explain the empowerment process, and their roles within it as facilitators rather than "fixers," residents began to feel some genuine, experiential understanding of what was actually being offered. The practitioners were also able to help the men get better at voicing their need for help and support.

As the work went on, the focus increasingly became recurrent patterns identified in community functioning, and how these patterns were playing out in the groups. Extrapolations from group process to community functioning were consistently elaborated. Many residents had initially enacted what one resident later called "the compliance-manipulation game." Almost every member of the community had at first expressed interest in intervention team meetings and workshops. As time went on, however, fewer and fewer residents attended the meetings. They "forgot," or were otherwise unable to follow through on their commitments. After the initial meetings, a core group of residents remained involved in various aspects of the project and later helped piece together the "game" that had been enacted.

This scenario had developed out of the historical relationship patterns between the community and the agencies that served it. One resident explained it as follows: "A service agency gets some kind of hype from the press or some major funding for a project. They then come storming in with hands outstretched. This is our cue to reach out our hands in acceptance, gratitude, and hope. But when no one's looking, the agencies pull back their giving hands, or worse, they tell us that we're not pulling our own weight and don't deserve help. Sometimes the trick is just to pull back our hands before they pull back theirs." Thus the decreased attendance.

Aside from their part in the compliance-manipulation game, some members of the core group that did remain involved in the project also acted out assigned roles in what they called "checking out the new program." Members of the ongoing groups revealed that many of the people who had attended the initial workshops were actually leaders of the community, members of what was called the Residents Advisory Council (RAC). At the time of the initial workshops, those residents overtly disavowed their leadership role. They were the gatekeepers of the community, however, and their endorsement was necessary if other members were to be receptive to the program. Their approval, like the gang members', was essential, especially initially. These two major forces in the community, the RAC and the gangs, conveyed two messages: 1) that the intervention would be allowed to function, and 2) that the intervention team would be under constant surveillance from the residents involved in the project. From the perspective of most of the residents, this was all part of a necessary strategy were they ever to see any "service" from the service agencies. At a deeper level though, in keeping with the depressive character of the community, it was a strategy of harm reduction and maintaining the status quo, rather than one of hope for actual change. This may be something for analysts doing individual work to also consider, that some patients, on a deeper level, may view their therapy as help with harm reduction (that is, maintaining their, at least somewhat functional symptomatolgies) rather than as a process that reflects their hope for actual change.

The working through process in Avalon Gardens involved insights, recognitions, and incremental changes that developed over the course of the intervention. In their explorations of the traditional rules, regulations, and hierarchical structures in the community, and of the transference-laden encounters with the project leaders, the residents communicated their recognition of, and willingness to challenge, the constraints of the community character. The piecemeal disclosure of this character, often carrying with it an air of taboo breaking, created breaches in what had been for many years a tightly closed system. The intervention thus became an ongoing cycle of enacting, disembedding, and understanding, leading eventually to decreased reliance on dissociative and depressive defenses. This expansion showed most significantly in the ways that the residents' repertoire of sanctioned interactions with each other and the outside world increased and became more flexible. For example, one major project to arise from the intervention was a collaboration between the LAPD and the community groups (spearheaded by AGMA). This previously unimaginable (especially as some gang members contributed) endeavor was part of a community police project in the area, where residents and police officers formed partnerships in a "safe communities" initiative.

The possibility of broader options grew out of residents' increasing insight into and recognition of the traditional power structure in the community, and the ways that this had contributed to wide-scale depressive symptomatology. For instance, the members of AGMA achieved a deeper awareness of what the women on the Resident Advisory Council (RAC) had been providing for the community: an unwillingness to give up on the possibility of change. Their realization that the RAC had been the guardian of hope in the community gave the men some empathy with the women's rivalrous feelings and early indignation towards AGMA. After all, the men were being heralded for their unique and special contributions to the community, while the RAC had been contributing to community revitalization for years without any sort of recognition. In fact, the RAC had often been slandered for its efforts. One AGMA member said in the beginning, "I'll join this group so long as no one thinks that I'm one of those crazy women" — crazy, he explained, because they entertained a hope for change. This same capacity for hope later became invaluable to the project.

The men slowly became able to make new relationships with the implicit internal power structure of the women in the community, which had previously been known only in stereotyped images. The RAC, for example, had already been working with community practitioners in other group settings, addressing the areas of rigid segregation between the various subgroups. As the men began to work with the entirely female RAC, they were confronted with the many ways that they maintained stultified views of women and other groups. Ultimately these confrontations helped the men of AGMA collaborate with the RAC, and together the two groups began to address the inclusion of members of various other subgroups into the community action plan, thereby gradually challenging part of the depressive (i.e., hopelessness) character of the community.

The work of AGMA illustrates in microcosm the ways that Avalon Gardens residents confronted and worked through resistances to change that had until then kept the community in a state of familiar, yet binding, homeostasis. For AGMA members, the working-through process became a way to counter the inertia of the familiar, as with their new ways of understanding the women of the community. Depression was this community's ultimate means of maintaining a status quo. To counteract this, the practitioners encouraged and supported the curiosity of the AGMA men, raising their tolerance for uncertainty, apprehension, and anxiety. These emotional experiences had existed before in dissociated states, protected by layers of such depressive symptoms as hopelessness and powerlessness. For the men of AGMA, exploring their hopelessness and powerlessness as symptoms of a problem developed into a sustained effort to expand their ways of perceiving themselves and their social and physical environment, and it enabled them to foster further novel experiences inside and outside the community.

Once the depressive aspects of the community character had become engaged and enacted, other areas of resistance surfaced. These included the anxiety aroused by threats to self-esteem and a sustained fear of the unfamiliar and unknown. There was a force operating in the community that seemed determined to hold onto, and enact, the defensive status quo. By working through resistance and its manifestations in the relational patterns within the community (transference), residents were able to challenge ways of life that were clearly not working well.

Many of the examples I provided, such as community members forgetting to either set up or attend meetings and their subsequent reactions to practitioner's inquiries, are probably familiar to psychoanalysts working with people from the inner-cities. I believe that these are just dramatic manifestations of a variety of scenarios in which a patient in individual analysis or psychotherapy enacts both passive resistances and wishes for passive gratification. Particularly in working with individuals who do not consistently attend sessions, something that commonly results in the termination of treatment, psychoanalysts might be incredibly challenged to understand this passivity as a communication about this person's experience in his or her community environment. When an analyst is sitting in his or her office waiting for the patient who hasn't shown up for the tenth time in six months, that analyst might be getting the most profound education possible on what it's like to live in a community where many of one's basic needs are unmet (for instance, many of the residents in Avalon Gardens had no running water in their bathtubs and showers for years, despite numerous maintenance requests). It is difficult to imagine that an analyst with such a patient would not be fully supported by the analytic community in terminating the treatment. However, sitting with the frustrations of a frequently absent patient (for which there is usually no recompense, since many of these patients use Medicaid which does not reimburse for missed sessions), and exploring these absences with attention, interest, and respect (not that this should preclude also discussing the clinical and financial difficulties created by chronic absences), may be precisely what is required in working with this population.

In fact, this is the community-bound transference at work. There is no other way to experience the environmental conditions that create a community-wide transference except through this kind of enactment and working-through. Perhaps analysts have inadequately understood these dynamics as a result of their being divorced from the community contexts in which they arise. And perhaps, it is this kind of understanding that might help us tolerate the considerable frustrations of working under these conditions.

Results and Follow-Up

At Avalon Gardens, attempts to question and rework problematic ways of living were fraught with danger. After all, the patterns of interaction there had been developed to control anxiety by limiting (conscious) exposure to threatening interpersonal experiences. For instance, one AGMA member died of diabetes toward the middle of the intervention. It was only at his funeral that I realized that he had been a prominent member of the local gang. I later was told that everyone in the group (except me) knew this. The pattern that I assessed in retrospect was one wherein the familiar "code of silence," as one member put it, was upheld and unquestioned.

In AGMA meetings subsequent to his death it was acknowledged that his presence had severely constrained the discussion of certain topics and endeavors when the group had first been forming. However, limitations like these had provided a measure of safety over the years, in that residents' felt that the rules the gangs imposed were clearly defined and thus made their world predictable to some extent. The community's reluctance to incorporate new experience was related to the anxiety aroused by challenging the habitual ways of pursuing and maintaining security. Many community members, for example, thought of the gang members not only as a force of terror, but also as a source of protection from other near-by gangs. In the context of the LA riots, however, the community's characteristic security operations did not work. Their failure forced community members to confront the anxiety and dissociated traumatic experiences that had sustained the community's character structure. The confrontation allowed chronic depressive symptoms to be actively addressed, and a working-through process was set in motion.

The statistical results of the research investigation showed that the empowerment intervention decreased the community-wide sense of psychological distress, and simultaneously increased the general sense of well-being (Mills, 1998). Specifically, the intervention was associated with a significant increase (p < .01) in the subjective experience of belonging. Inversely, the intervention was associated with significantly decreased (p < .01) behavioral/emotional impulsivity, and decreases in the subjective experience of anxiety, depression, and loneliness (Borg, 1997). The study also accounted for changes in factors such as criminal behavior, drug and alcohol use, employment rates, and violence in the community. Each of these factors was thought to be related to underlying depressive symptomatology, and each of these areas showed significant improvement (Boyd, 1998). Accordingly, the physical health of the community also improved significantly as seen on various statistical measures (Borg, 2002b). Most significantly of all, perhaps, the community service organization initiated by AGMA solidified an alliance among the groups in the community, and so provided a formalized means of sustaining the collaborative empowerment process that continued after the intervention was completed.

Upon follow-up in 2000, AGMA had sustained its alliances with the other organizations established within the empowerment project. These alliances were now the foundation of a resident-driven comprehensive community revitalization organization: the Avalon Gardens Community Service Association (AGCSA). Working in conjunction with a local umbrella organization, AGCSA obtained non-profit status and was able to develop and receive funding for its own community service projects. By the end of the intervention, this agency was able to give support to, and receive it from, other major community revitalization efforts underway in the area. Through their links with other community service organizations, AGCSA eventually formed the Los Angeles Urban Communities Task Force. This task force has remained a vehicle for promoting the healing of distressed neighborhoods in South Central Los Angeles.


The Avalon Gardens intervention was a four-year process. It was supported by untold hours of human service provided by practitioners and residents, by elaborate planning and organization, and by strong financial support from philanthropic organizations as well as local, state, and federal governments. Officially the project had been limited to the specific target community, but always with the hope that its effects would spread into the surrounding area, and this seems to have been the case. As I saw growth and hope extend from Avalon Gardens into the broader South Central Los Angeles area, I hope that we will see that such work can foster and sustain other future community endeavors as well.

The version of community empowerment presented here has been consistent with underlying principles of interpersonal psychoanalysis with regard to their shared emphasis on collaboration. Community work, like analysis, runs the risk of unintentionally dictating or imposing exogenous values, sometimes called colonizing practices (Ashcroft, Griffiths, & Tiffin, 1995; Fanon, 1967), and collaboration can help safeguard against this. Yet empowerment theory itself does not capture the complexity of the community work that I have reported here. Bringing in a psychoanalytic perspective helps to illuminate the full complexity of this successful community revitalization effort. In turn, community work can provide psychoanalysis with a wider venue for its ideas and practices. Recent tragedies, most specifically the September 11 disaster, have once again drawn our attention to the need to find new ways to enter the world beyond our consulting rooms. While community work with a psychoanalytic sensibility certainly stretches the limits of the traditional frame, I hope I have shown how indispensable psychoanalytic concepts such as the unconscious, transference, countertransference, and enactment, as well as community level concepts of character and defense mechanisms have enhanced my conceptualization of the South Central intervention and of community work.


1 For an outline of South Central intervention guidelines, see Borg (1997) and Mills (1998). For an overview of similar guidelines in other community revitalization efforts see Bright (2000).

2 I am grateful to Donnel Stern for his input in highlighting these distinguishing aspects of community character.

3 Both organizational theorists (Jaques, 1955; Menzies, 1960) and analysts (Altman, 1993; Bion, 1961; Eisold, 1994) have described socially structured defense mechanisms against anxiety, such as this manic defense, in dealing with group-level dynamics. Others have proposed that the development of disorganization or chaos in an organization or group can itself serve as a defense against anxiety (Newton & Levenson, 1973).

4 Altman (1993), drawing on Fairbairn (1952), has observed similar patterns in community mental health centers in New York City (p. 39).


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