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Freud’s “Death Wish” Makes Tragic Return Visit

According to reports, Emma Kelly, a 43-year-old British adventurist, went missing while kayaking in the Amazon jungle in South America. Police in Brazil have arrested three men, including a teenager, who they said robbed and killed her.

The teenager confessed to taking part in the slaying and said he was with six others at the time. The teen told police he and his cohorts shot and threw Kelly in the Solimoes River. Authorities are working to identify other suspects.

This story appears to be an example of Sigmund Freud’s theory of the “Death Wish.” Freud wrote, “The goal of all life is death.” He believed humans have a life instinct and death instinct. They have an instinct to live and reproduce which is called eros. The death drive, thanatos, seeks destruction and a return to an inorganic state. In some cases this aggressive drive turns inward, resulting in suicidal or reckless behavior. People, for various reasons, wish unconsciously or consciously, to die. This seems to have been the case with Emma Kelly.

Relatives released a statement noting that “she was dearly loved by us all and her strength will be sorely missed.” Previously she had taken solo trips on the Pacific Coast Trail and in the South Pole. Obviously these relatives saw her as strong and brave for taking these trips. But upon closer inspection, her behavior seems more compulsive than strong.

She knew of the danger of Kayaking alone through the part of the Amazon she chose to explore, and even took self-defense classes before the left. She was aware that there were dangerous sections that were controlled by pirates and drug traffickers. And yet she chose to go anyway.

Along the way, she kept people informed of each stop of the journey through Twitter posts. “So in or near Coari (100 km away) I will have my boat stolen and I will be killed too. Nice!” she wrote on September 10. Two hours later she wrote that she saw 30 to 50 men in boats armed with “arrows and rifles.” She went on to post, “My face must have been a picture!! (Town was uber quiet…too quiet!” She added at the end, “All goo…”

She was on day 42 of a 4,000 mile trek along the Solimoes River. That was her last post before she went missing.

Emma Kelly took on challenges that others would not take on and in the process lived a life of excitement and adventure. On a conscious level she and her relatives and friends thought of her as someone who was taking on dangerous challenges but knew what she was doing. That is, she convinced them she knew what she was doing, and they wanted to believe her and admire her, so they did.

But her posts belie her dawning sense that she had taken on more than she should have. She predicts that her boat will be stolen and she will be killed, and quips “Nice!” She could have turned her kayak around and headed back at that point. Why didn’t she? Later she sees 50 men in boats armed with arrows and rifles. Why didn’t she turn back when she saw them?

Her awareness that she was headed toward a dangerous area known for pirates and drug dealing, her premonition about being robbed and killed, followed by the disqualification “Nice!” appears to be a form of denial, since it was presented in a humorous way. In order for people to do dangerous things—to take the plunge—they need to deny the reality of the danger. Their ambition to do something heroic prevents them from the kind of objective thinking that is necessary in such situations. These statements also suggest that on some unconscious level she wanted this end.

The question then arises is, why do people do things that involve this kind of certain danger? She knowingly went alone into an area known for pirates and drug dealing. The solo trip to the South Pole did not entail such dangers; however it did entail environmental dangers (extreme cold, etc.). Sometimes people who live on the edge have depression they are countering by doing brave deeds that appear to flaunt death. “If I die in the process, that’s fine,” they seem to be saying. “Maybe I’ll go out a hero and be long remembered.”

Today people don’t mention the unconscious very much, not even psychoanalysts. It is viewed as a kind of rudeness to suggest that unconscious forces are in play. It is as though you are insulting someone by second-guessing their motives. However, on the other hand, are we making people who behave recklessly into heros? Are we enabling rash behavior?

Emma Kelly seems to have played out some drama in which she was the star. Her constant tweeting from the time she left up until the very end indicates that may well have been the case. And the drama ends with her being savagely murdered, making her a tragic heroine. It may be that all of her trips were ways to distract her from some inner demons which she never mentioned to others and of which she may never have been conscious.

Did she have a death wish? Freud would probably say so. Others might not. Either way it is a tragedy that a spirited woman with many worthwhile qualities would get herself into such a messy end.

Freud’s “Death Wish” Makes Tragic Return Visit

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D.

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D. is a licensed psychoanalyst in New York and has been practicing for over 37 years. He works with adults, couples, families, adolescents, and children. He has graduated from three psychotherapy institutes and received a Certificate in Psychoanalysis from the Washington Square Institute in 1981. He has been an Adjunct Assistant Professor of psychology at the Borough of Manhattan Community College since 2002 and has authored thirteen books on psychotherapy and psychoanalysis as well as four novels and a book of poems and drawings. More recently he wrote 20 screenplays (winning four first-place awards at festivals) and produced and directed two feature films.

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APA Reference
Schoenewolf, G. (2018). Freud’s “Death Wish” Makes Tragic Return Visit. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 15, 2018, from


Last updated: 7 Mar 2018
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 7 Mar 2018
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