Warning: Lots of psychological jargon here. My understanding of the character through the lens of two psychological theories. Likely to contain SPOILERS for Batman films and/or graphic novels.
Psychoanalytic: The Batman universe is rich in material for psychoanalysis. For me, what stands out the most is the fascinating interplay of Superego and Id and the use of Sublimation (a Freudian defense mechanism). The bat, a symbol traditionally associated with the Id (all animal instincts, darkness, feral), is presented as the chosen mask of the superego (rules, right and wrong, morality). Where conventionally the two are believed to be in eternal opposition, through the Batman persona the Id is presented as successfully ruled over by the Superego.
Freud’s Model of the Mind
The mediator between Id and Superego, the Ego, is shown as the Bruce Wayne persona – the mask of the mundane, covering a moral centre driven to repeatedly attempt the symbolic “undoing” of a pivotal childhood trauma. Why is Bruce so driven to fight crime and try to make Gotham a better place? Because on an unconscious level, he is attempting to prevent the very incident that made him who he is – the murder of his parents. But because it is impossible to actually undo the murder, he is stuck being the Batman – it is a persona he cannot give up, even if he should ever want to, because to do so would be an emotional and symbolic “betrayal” of his parents. The very cause of his pain is now his life’s purpose and to give it up, or move forward, would be to give up that purpose.
Sublimation (to make sublime), in psychoanalysis, refers to a defense mechanism through which one’s unacceptable impulses are transformed into socially acceptable ones. The near-murderous rage, desire for revenge and violence that Bruce Wayne feels is sublimated into the more acceptable vigilantism of the Batman.
As his alter-ego (or rather, his true self) he can let loose these violent impulses in a controlled manner and context thus discharging the impulse and retaining moral ground and emotional equilibrium.
Furthermore, the Batman identity is masked not just for practical reasons but for the freedom offered by masks. To be an unidentified vigilante allows Bruce to be his true self and to drop the mask he wears everyday (To quote ‘The Dark Knight Rises‘, this mask is “Bruce Wayne: eccentric billionaire”). He can transform himself into whatever he wishes to be as the Batman – he is not bound by the same socio-cultural limits as he would be as Bruce Wayne. (And to quote again from Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, Rachel notes, at the end of Batman Begins, “This is your mask. Your real face is the one that criminals now fear”).
PAC model from Transactional Analysis Theory
Transactional Analysis (TA): One of the foundational concepts of TA is the Parent-Adult-Child (PAC) model which posits (in simple words) that each person is made up an inner Parent (our rules for living, how things are done – akin to the Superego of psychoanalysis), and inner Adult (our here-and-now processing and decision-making) and an inner child (feelings and perceptions stored from the past). It is hypothesised that we utilise all three parts, but it is usual for one or two parts to be dominant. This model is akin to the Superego, Ego and Id but with subtle differences.
In terms of the PAC model, it seems that Bruce Wayne has a strong inner Parent. The virtues of his parents are idolised and frozen in time because of the distorted perception of childhood memory and trauma. Thus, the recordings of behaviours, thoughts and feelings in the Parent state are very clear and fairly intense. The Adult state is developed and present, but with apparent contamination from the Child state (i.e., Bruce’s thoughts, feelings and behaviours in the here-and-now and consciously and unconsciously influenced by the thoughts and feelings experienced originally in his childhood) and the Parent state (i.e., the rules, shoulds/musts).
Model of Injunctions & Counter-Injunctions by Lee (1988)
Additionally, TA also theorises that we develop injunctions and counter-injunctions to direct our lives. Injunctions are statements about how we ought to exist, often phrased as “Don’ts” (i.e., “Don’t enjoy”) whilst counter-injunctions are means of coping with injunctions (“I can ONLY enjoy things if I am perfect/work hard/am strong/ please others”).
Injunctions and counter-injunctions are often subconsciously received either from those around us or developed by ourselves.
For more on injunctions and counter-injunctions, see this.
Bruce Wayne appears to have the following injunctions and counter-injunctions:
Injunction 1: Don’t be a Child – This appears to be an injunction that Bruce may have given himself after the traumatic loss of his parents, feeling it unsafe to be a child – to be vulnerable, dependent on others or to possess the natural free creativity and joy of childhood.
Panel from “The Killing Joke”
One of the experiences associated with the Child state is laughter – and there are almost no instances of Bruce laughing in the graphic novels or films. The only time when we see him laughing freely (and even very disturbingly) is in the graphic novel, “The Killing Joke” at a moment when his very sanity is in question.
People with this injunction tend to be overly responsible, in control and along the lines of what is known as a Type A personality. The subconscious messages received may be “Always act like a grown-up!” “Don’t be so childish” “ “You need to be responsible” “You must be in control”.
Injunction 2: Don’t be Close – This too appears to be a self-given injunction in the absence of his own parents. Again, it seems to me, that this injunction arises from the traumatic loss of his parents (i.e., “I loved once and it brought me pain so I will not let people in again”). Variations of this injunction are “Don’t Love” and “Don’t Trust”. As is evident, people with this injunction stay distant and have difficulty with intimacy and affection.
Depending on which series of graphic novels one is reading (Pre-Crisis, Post-Crisis, or Post-Crisis Revised), there are different reasons for the eventual distancing of Dick Grayson and Bruce Wayne, but the reading that fits with this injunction is that Grayson grows tired of being Wayne’s protege and surrogate son in the face of Wayne’s apparent emotional distance. Much of Damian Wayne’s relationship with his father is similarly charcaterised by emotional distance and apparent coldness, leading to him being a very different Batman as compared to his father (‘Time & the Batman’ – amazing graphic novel, highly recommended).
Counter-injunction: Be Strong – Related to the ‘Don’t be a Child’ injunction, Bruce appears to function with a ‘Be Strong’ counter-injunction that requires toughness, emotional control and resilience. People with a ‘Be Strong’ injunction can often push themselves well beyond their emotional or physical limits (Bruce Wayne in Batman Beyond and in The Dark Knight Rises), failing to recognise healthy restrictions. This counter-injunction masks inner feelings of “Not Okay-ness” (inadequacy, rejection, sadness, rage etc), and as long as it is in place a person feels “Okay” or in control or able to accept themselves (conditional self acceptance). And so it is with Bruce: as long as he follows this counter-injunction via the Batman persona, he can live with himself, which is why he is never likely to give up his secret identity – it is so deeply tied to his very existence on a psychological and emotional level.
TA also proposes the idea of ‘life scripts’ i.e., that each of us decides upon a life story for ourselves (usually by the age of 7 years, with minor tweaking in adolescence) and then proceeds to live out that story.
Bruce seems to have a winning script, i.e., he is able to set goals for himself and is able to meet those goals. Eric Berne, the originator of TA theory, described a winner as “one who accomplishes (their) declared purpose” – and to which Robert Goulding added – “and makes the world a better place as a result”. The application is self evident here, I feel. Bruce sets out to be a vigilante and reduce crime in Gotham, and in most versions of the graphic novels and films this end is achieved to a large degree.
Arguably, however, his script may be considered a hamartic script. A hamartic script is one where the likely end is “the morgue, the madhouse or the courtroom”. In other words, a self-destructive script, and in Bruce Wayne’s case, his script is indeed likely to end in one of the three institutions mentioned formerly. In the absence of healthy emotional relationships, resolution of trauma and looking forward towards the future, and a life rich in positive experiences of self growth, Batman’s script is indeed self-destructive as it holds him bound to a trauma in the past.
In addition to winning, losing and hamartic, Berne also characterised script types as analogous to Greek myths (Script Process). Bruce appears to have an “Until” script process, otherwise known as a Hercules script. This script is characterised by “I can’t have fun/be happy/live my own life UNTIL XYZ is accomplished”. This is very much the case with Bruce. To quote from The Dark Knight (2008) “that day that you once told me about, when Gotham would no longer need Batman” is a day that shall never come – there will always be another evil to confront, another criminal to catch, another cause requiring justice or vengeance; and yet Bruce lives his life working with that day in mind, never pausing to savour his life as it passes him by.
And there you have it – my interpretation of Bruce Wayne/ Batman via aspects of psychoanalysis and transactional analysis. Share your thoughts in the comments section!