Reflections on the Death of Saddam and the Dark Lord’s Blindspot

Saddam Hussein was hanged at year’s end, 2006, and, though this gives me no satisfaction or reason by itself to cheer in the New Year, I have not lost any sleep over the execution, either. Those who want to see historical analogies hidden in the Harry Potter stories – and they are legion, I’m afraid – most often make the equation of Lord Voldemort and Adolph Hitler (with Cornelius Fudge and bowler hat playing Neville Chamberlain, Dumbledore and the Order standing in for Churchill and the gang, etc.). I have also heard mention that, though it wasn’t possible at story’s inception, the Dark Lord seems to be picking up characteristics of America’s favorite, mysterious bad guys; I have heard both Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein mentioned in this regard.

An article at Arthur Silber’s Sacred Moment weBlog that attempts to explain the origin of Saddam’s “malignant narcissism” mentions bin Laden and Hitler, too, struck me as relevant to our discussions here because of the following passages:

From Alice Miller, Breaking Down the Wall of Silence (1991):

Every abused child must totally repress the mistreatment, confusion, and neglect it suffered. If it were not to do so, it would die. The child’s organism could not withstand the dimensions of this pain. Only in adulthood do other ways of handling our feelings become available to us. If we do not make use of these opportunities, then what was once the life-saving function of repression can turn into a dangerous, destructive, and self-destructive power. The careers of such tyrants as Hitler or Stalin show how previously suppressed revenge fantasies can lead to destructive actions of near-indescribable proportions. We do not encounter this phenomenon in the animal kingdom because no young animal will ever be trained by its parents to such a complete denial of its nature in order to make of it a “good” animal. Only human beings behave so destructively….

It is in no way an exaggeration to say that every tyrant, without exception, prefers to see thousands and even millions of people killed and tortured rather than undo the repression of his childhood mistreatment and humiliation, to feel his rage and helplessness in the face of his parents, to call them to account and condemn their actions. Not without reason, that is what he fears the most and what he is constantly seeking to avoid by all available means. Once we have understood the mechanisms by which repressed feelings are acted out, we will find a way to protect ourselves from their consequences–not by producing more weapons, but by fighting for more truthfulness and awareness.

The same weBlog article cites a NY Times article by Elisabeth Bumiller titled, “Was a Tyrant Prefigured by Baby Saddam?” Bumiller profiles a CIA psychoanalyst who sees a common profile of “malignant narcissism” in saddam Hussein, Hitler, Kim Jong Il, and Osama bin Laden.

As Dr. Post recounts in his new book, “Leaders and Their Followers in a Dangerous World” (Cornell University Press, $29.95), Mr. Hussein’s father died, probably of cancer, in the fourth month of his mother’s pregnancy with Saddam. Mr. Hussein’s 12-year-old brother died, also of cancer, a few months later. The trauma left Saddam’s mother, Sabha, so desperately depressed that she tried and failed to abort Saddam and kill herself. When Saddam was born, she would have nothing to do with him and sent him away to an uncle.

At 3 Mr. Hussein was reunited with his mother after she had married a distant relative, but he was then physically and psychologically abused by his new stepfather. Mr. Hussein left home and returned to live with the uncle when he was 8 or 9.

“So that would produce in psychoanalytic terms what we call ‘the wounded self,’ ” Dr. Post said. “Most people with that kind of background would be highly ineffective as adults and be faltering, insecure human beings.” But there is, Dr. Post said, an alternative path that a minority of wounded selves take: “malignant narcissism,” the personality disorder that Dr. Post believes fueled Mr. Hussein’s rise in Iraq. Perhaps most important, Dr. Post says, is that Mr. Hussein is a “judicious political calculator,” not a madman.

Dr. Post, 70, the director of George Washington University’s political psychology program, consults privately for the Department of Homeland Security and for Pentagon counterterrorism officials. In his view, the world’s most dangerous leaders are often malignant narcissists, a category that he says he thinks includes Osama bin Laden, Kim Jong Il of North Korea and Hitler.

Why is this of interest to Harry Potter readers? The Dark Lord’s childhood, as we learned about in the Penseive with Dumbledore or the person Polyjuicing Dumbledore, was something like Saddam’s. His mother despairs of life when Tom Riddle. Sr., throws her off and dies in child birth. Tom Riddle, Jr., grows up unloved – and with a blindspot about the power of love only matched in size and importance by his will to power and disregard for others. The blindspot or incapacity for love consequent to childhood trauma is, if Alice Miller is correct, the cause and engine for the agonies the Dark Lord visits on the world.

No, I am not saying Lord Voldemort is an analogy stick figure for Hitler, Saddam, Bush, Churchill, anybody. I doubt the sobriety of anyone who does think Ms. Rowling is writing a historical analogy or one echoing today’s headlines.

What strikes me is that her over-arching theme is the power of love, and, specifically, the power of love to transcend death. It is no accident that her super-villian is a character blind to love because love-starved and, consequently, unable to love. I suspect that the loveless Lord Voldemort will meet his end via an act of sacrificial love, something which, despite his experience with Lily Potter he is unable to understand or anticipate. As the NY Times article put it:

[Malignant narcissist leaders] have little empathy for the pain and suffering of their own people, Dr. Post said, but they also can’t empathize with their enemies, a critical vulnerability in that “it’s very important as an effective leader to get into the mind of your adversaries.”

I am curious about Alice Miller’s theory and the Deatheater followers of the Dark Lord, to include Snape. Does it seem likely they become his folowers because they are compensating for, that is, masking the pain of their childhoods? Was Severus redeemed by the love of Albus Dumbledore? Are we witnessing a drama of those who grew up in unhappy, which is to say “unloving” homes battling with those whose parents loved them openly and generously?

If this is the case, it makes Harry’s relationship with the Dursleys and Severus’ with the Headmaster that much more interesting. Harry has become a Gryffindor/Slytherin hermaphrodite largely because of the influence of the Horcrux planted on his forehead – but growing up with the Dursleys certainly gave his shadow side a certain bite it might not have had otherwise. Severus seems to have all the makings of a Deatheater malignant narcissist from what little we see of his childhood; could Dumbledore’s admiration, encouragement, and acceptance been the love that not only saved him from the fate of a dark-hearted Deatheater but which made him a world saving Slytherin/Gryffindor androgyne, too?


  1. shadowquill says

    I feel that Severus Snape must be redeemed. I just got Who Killed Albus Dumbledore? for Christmas, and I was surprised that no one suggested that the person who had loved Snape might be Dumbledore. However, I believe that there were probably others who felt for him in some way. His mother is a possibility, despite her inability to stand up to her husband. The reason I doubt it would be Eileen, however, is that Snape probably resented her affection and viewed it as a weak apology for not leaving Tobias for the sake of her son (or something of that nature). Perhaps Lily’s affections (friendship? pity?) will play a part in Snape’s decision to aid Harry at some point.

    On the subject of Voldemort’s childhood…I think that he really was just born insane. I can’t find any hint that Tom was abused at the orphanage. Neglected, perhaps. Feared, most definitely. I’m briefly reminded of Dumbledore’s words to Harry about Sirius’s attitude towards Kreacher. Indifference can do greater harm than outright dislike? I’ll have to think about that one.

  2. Interesting point about Snape, shadowquill, but I disagree with your conclusions about Voldemort.

    The young Tom Riddle showed signs of depravity at a young age, yes, but his abandonment played a role in his development or else why would Rowling even mention it? Little Tom’s destructive tendencies were exacerbated by the lack of love and a parental figure in his early life.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think young Tom knew something of his father abandoning his mother rather early on. He had the whole story by the time he was in Hogwarts and lashed out at his father’s side of the family in revenge. As Hitler resented his Jewish step-father (I think it was a step-father, yet again correct me if I’m wrong), Voldemort hated his muggle father. In both figures, the hatred grew to cover a huge group of people with catastrophic consequences.

  3. It may not be that he was specifically abused as a child at all, but I think neglect is quite likely. No one would want to be arround someone who evidenced at such a young age such selfishness and malignant will towards others. No one wanted to stick around long enough to counter Voldemort’s inflated ego, and so its development was unihibited.

    Although Harry was mistreated, he was not isolated. Through being put down so much, Harry avoided so much self-centeredness, although that is in no way justification for the Dursleys’ treatment of him. Because Hagrid and Dumbledore showed him kindnesses and interest in him that he was unused to, Harry was much more receptive to positive relationships.

    Voldemort had already become so self-involved and seemingly relationship-less that he effectively closed off that part of himself, and was unable to recognise love, let alone receive it. I believe this fits with some of Miller’s ideas and the self-absorption evident amongst dictators. Moreover, it should be noted that childhood neglect can do significant damage, potentially worse than abuse; in fact, it is rated among top causes of post-traumatic stress disorder among men.

    I apologise for my over-lengthy reply to the initial reply discussion of the effects of neglect on Voldemort.

    Chicadi- Re: Hitler

    Hitler’s father was conceived by his unwed grandmother while a domestic servant to a Jewish family. There are no documents currently known of that say who the father was; it is possible that the head of the household had an affair with her. I think it just as likely it was another servant, or someone local. I also think it likely she was dismissed from service, as it was the height of the Victorian era. That may be the source of his dislike for the Jews.

    It also could be that the Jewish people have, unfortunately, been quite the common scapegoat throughout European history. Hitler certainly capitalised on this, and the idea that Jews were often stingy rich banker-types, when blaming them for the state of post-WWI Germany, and idea as offensive as it is ludicrous.

    I certainly accept the idea that one’s childhood can have a significant determinating effect on one’s adult life. I saw a documentary paralleling Hitler and Stalin. They were both raised oversternly, ended up clinging to religion fervently and then rejecting it (Stalin attended Orthodox seminary before being kicked out for radical ideas) and perhaps styling themselves state religions, and had problems with authority (probably due their paternal relationships).

    Does Voldemort fit this pattern? I think if we look at larger pictures, he rather does. There isn’t a stern father-figure, but there is rather arbitrary authority that he doesn’t seem to accept in the form of the orphanage, and he certainly has problems with it. That does bring up the question of why he accepts Dumbledore’s authority. I think that is answered rather simply: it’s better than where he’s at, and ultimately he reject it, and the Ministry’s authority, as well.

    I don’t see Voldemort clinging to religion much ever, but I certainly do see the perversion of it (the highly Eucharistic imagery of the scene in the graveyard), his fascination with ritual (eg. marking his followers, his selection of the horcruxes, etc.), and certainly styling himself as a god-like figure (in the sense that he is to be worshipped and obeyed, not in the sense of the all-powerful, loving God).

    woah, that was long.. my apologies to anyone… I get involved in topics and just go where my mind takes me. 🙂

    thanks to all for a great discussion.. I’d love to hear more about Snape, because I’m much less clear on him, and the idea of Slytherin/Griffindor androgynes.


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