Research & Studies

David Lotto: Book Review (The Journal of Psychohistory, 2018.)

“James Skelly is a sociologist, peace activist, educator, scholar, ethicist, and long time member of the Wellfleet psychohistory group started by Erik Erickson and Robert Lifton in 1966.

The book he has written is an exploration of identity, both as a personal account of the author’s journey through his evolving identity, and a rich and scholarly meditation on certain aspects of identity, particularly the destructive consequences that can and have followed from the politics of identity-chiefly, the many forms of violence inflicted on people in the name of some large group identity.

Several psychohistorians, most notably Vamik Volkan, for example in his book Killing in the Name of Identity, have addressed the issue of the psychological motives and structures that are implicated in the violence and destruction of war, genocide, and ethnic cleansing.

As its title implies, Skelly sees identity as something that can be constricting and limiting, often imposed from the outside. In his words:

The basic thesis of this monograph is that having an ‘identity’ appears to solve the most fundamental existential problem-who we are, and to an extent, the corollary problem of why we are on this planet. But the consequence of this impoverished ‘solution’ is that we not only kill in the name of identity, but that we are imprisoned within the identity from the moment of birth by others far more powerful, until we at least tacitly agree to become our own jail keepers while besotted with the illusion of our freedom. (p. 25-26)

Skelly uses Daniel Ellsberg as an example of rejecting one’s identity. Ellsberg was a member of a circle of high-level government employees who facilitated government policy, in this case, conducting the war against the Vietnamese. He rejected this identity as a whistleblower, a truth teller; one who values democracy. Ellsberg came to believe that for democracy to work the people of this country needed to know the truth about what its government was doing so that they could make informed choices about what policies to support or disavow. Ellsberg has been quite vocal with his praise for both Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, both of whom made the same ethical choice that he did; that going public to make the American people aware of some of the things their government was doing in their name, was more important than obeying the law and upholding their oaths to keep the government’s dirty secrets-to keep hidden information about what violence and violations of privacy our armed forces and intelligence agencies were committing in the service of carrying out their missions in the Global War on Terror. For Ellsberg, the most serious rupture in casting off his former identity was not that he expressed antiwar sentiments, but that he was disloyal to the group to whom he belonged. He broke, literally as well as symbolically, his oath to keep the secrets, no matter how nasty they might be, of the group to which he belonged, and those who employ them. In the eyes of many he was a traitor; he violated the sacred heart of tribal or national identity, that first and foremost, one must be loyal to the group.” (Excerpt from the Book Review)


Lotto, D. (2018). The Sarcophagus of Identity: Tribalism, Nationalism, and the Transcendence of the Self. The Journal of Psychohistory, 45 (4), 316-320.