|Martyrdom of St. Dymphna|
As we have seen, Freud is not a reliable witness when he offers literary evidence for the existence of an Oedipus Complex driving mental illness. His version does violence to the actual events of the stories he cites, Hamlet and Oedipus Rex. He holds that the child wants to kill the one parent, and have sex with the other. Both plays, however, show the parent wanting to kill the child. There is incest, but the incest either does not involve the child (Hamlet), or it is against his will (Oedipus).
The real story line of these plays conforms instead to the legend of Saint Dymphna, the patron saint of mental illness since Medieval times: the parent wants to kill the child, and/or have sex with them.
Since Freud is untrustworthy on the literary evidence, which we can examine for ourselves, we have reason to doubt his word on the clinical evidence, which only he has really seen. If he can so distort the evidence we can see, he is at least as likely to have distorted the evidence we cannot see.
In fact, we can be pretty sure he did distort it. For the Oedipus Complex was not the first interpretation of this data that occurred even to Freud. He first saw something more like the Dymphna Complex. In 1896, Freud published a paper, “The Aetiology of Hysteria,” in which he confidently declared, on the basis of his clinical experience, that mental illness came, not from repressed Oedipal desires, but from—just as we now believe—childhood trauma. It was PTSD.
In the 1896 paper, he maintains that every patient he has seen had suffered childhood sexual abuse.
“In some eighteen cases of hysteria I have been able to discover this connection in every single symptom, and, where the circumstances allowed, to confirm it by therapeutic success” (Standard Edition of the Complete Works, vol. 3, London: Hogarth, 1953-74, p. 199; Jeffrey Masson, The Assault on Truth, 5th Ed., NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux/Untreed Reads, 2012, loc. 1219). In letters to his close friend and colleague Wilhelm Fliess, he calls this experience of sexual abuse “the key that unlocks everything” (undated letter; Freud, The Origins of Psychoanalysis, NY: Basic, 1954, p. 73; Masson, loc. 1050). “At the bottom of every case of hysteria,” he writes, “there are one or more occurrences of premature sexual experience, occurrences which belong to the earliest years of childhood” (“The Aetiology of Hysteria,” Standard Edition of the Complete Works; Masson, loc. 3094). He suggests that the motto of psychoanalysis should be “What have they done to you, poor child?” (letter to Fliess, December 22, 1897; Masson, loc. 1615).
Freud sees the issue as sexual assault specifically, and takes little notice of other forms of abuse: he does not consider any physical or emotional harm to the child of other than a sexual nature. This diverges from the Dymphna, Oedipus, and Hamlet legends, all of which speak also of attempted murder—a fairly serious omission.
This may, however, have to do with the state of psychiatry and psychiatric discourse at the time. Odd as it may sound now, it was accepted then as a bedrock principle that mental illness was caused by masturbation (Masson, loc. 1057). “There is no question,” writes Emma Eckstein in 1904, “as the leading figures in psychiatry tell us, that masturbation practiced in early childhood can have dire consequences for the mental development of the individual” (Die Sexualfrage in der Erziehung des Kindes (The Question of Sexuality in Child-Rearing), Leipzig: Curt Wigand, 1904, p. 14; Masson, loc. 2711).
Freud, too, believed this.
To Freud, therefore, the focus on sexuality may have been a given, an assumption he never thought to question. It is also an assumption of special value to someone seeking a purely material basis for our psychic ills: they can thereby all be traced to the Darwinian need for propagation of the species. Psychiatry accordingly validates itself as a science founded on biological principles.
Freud does seem to acknowledge, in some degree, that the issue may be the emotional or psychological experience, not the physical experience, of sex. The parent, he says, “is yet armed with complete authority and the right to punish, and can exchange the one role for the other to the uninhibited satisfaction of his moods” (“The Aetiology of Hysteria”; Masson, loc. 3279); while the child is “at the mercy of this arbitrary will” (ibid., loc. 3280). It would seem to follow that emotional abuse is the real issue, not sexual abuse; but Freud does not pursue this. It is too abstract, perhaps, for his “scientific” temperament. He remains resolutely materialistic: “stimulation of the genitals, coitus-like acts, and so on, must therefore be recognized, in the last analysis, as being the traumas which lead to a hysterical reaction to events at puberty and to the development of hysterical symptoms” (ibid., loc. 3148). In the end, it’s physical. It would be troubling to scientific objectivity if either real human emotion or ethics were really involved.
He also does not stress that the sexual assaults are incestuous; instead, he speaks of sexual experience of any kind. However, it does seem that these “premature sexual experiences” were indeed usually incestuous; Freud avoids saying so explicitly, it seems, out of Victorian modesty. Freud writes of “the fantasy encountered in most female patients... that the father seduced her in childhood” (Minutes of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, New York: International Universities Press, 1962–1975, vol. 4: 1912–1918; Masson, loc. 322).
“At some time during 1895 or 1896,” writes Jeffrey Masson, “Freud had become convinced that the person most often guilty of the sexual abuse of young children (primarily girls) was the father. In the published letter of September 21, 1897, to Fliess, Freud writes: ‘Then the surprise that, in all cases, the father, not excluding my own, had to be accused of being perverse’” (Masson, loc. 1293). In his Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, 1916, Freud writes that among female patients “their father figures fairly regularly as the seducer” (Standard Edition of the Complete Works, vol. 16, p. 70; Masson, loc. 1797). Elsewhere he writes “With female patients the part of seducer was almost always assigned to their father” (Autobiographical Study, 1925; S.E. vol. 20, pp. 33–34; Masson, loc. 2593). Again, “almost all my women patients told me that they had been seduced by their father” (New Introductory Lectures, 1933, S.E. vol. 22, p. 120; Masson, loc. 2621).
Odd that Freud did not consider the fact that the sex was incestuous worthy of more mention.
Nor was this specifically a father-daughter dynamic; according to Freud’s patients, the assailant (Freud uses the euphemism “seductor”) was as likely to be the mother. His patients were apparently mostly women, skewing the sample, but even so, at one point he writes: “girls regularly accuse their mother of seducing them” (“Female Sexuality,” S.E. vol. 21, p. 238: Masson, loc. 2613).
In other words, if Freud’s account is to be accepted, most of his female patients reported under analysis that they had been sexually assaulted in childhood by both their mother and their father.
It should be noted that “seduced” is used here as a euphemism: another example, perhaps, of Victorian delicacy. More explicitly, Freud speaks of “a brutal assault committed by an adult or by a seduction less rapid and less repulsive, but reaching the same conclusion” (“L’Hérédité et l’étiologie des névroses,” S.E., vol. 3, p. 152; Masson, loc. 1258).
In 1905, Freud publicly retracted this “seduction theory,” that neurosis was caused by childhood sexual assault, and replaced it with the “Oedipus complex,” that it was caused by a childhood wish to have sex with the parent. The most obvious explanation was not the one he settled on as the real one.
Publicly, he gives his reason in “On the History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement” (1914; S.E., vol, 14; Masson, loc. 1769): the “Seduction theory” “broke down under the weight of its own improbability and contradiction.”
Privately, he explains to Wilhelm Fliess in correspondence:
“The continual disappointment in my efforts to bring any analysis to a real conclusion; the running away of people who for a period of time had been most gripped [by analysis]; the absence of the complete successes on which I had counted; the possibility of explaining to myself the partial successes in other ways, in the usual fashion — this was the first group. Then the surprise that in all cases, the father, not excluding my own, had to be accused of being perverse — the realization of the unexpected frequency of hysteria, with precisely the same conditions prevailing in each, whereas surely such widespread perversions against children are not very probable. (The [incidence] of perversion would have to be immeasurably more frequent than the [resulting] hysteria because the illness, after all, occurs only where there has been an accumulation of events and there is a contributory factor that weakens the defense.) Then, third, the certain insight that there are no indications of reality in the unconscious, so that one cannot distinguish between truth and fiction that has been cathected with affect. (Accordingly, there would remain the solution that the sexual fantasy invariably seizes upon the theme of the parents.) Fourth, the consideration that in the most deep-reaching psychosis the unconscious memory does not break through, so that the secret of the childhood experiences is not disclosed even in the most confused delirium.” (letter to Wilhelm Fliess, 1897; Masson, loc. 1492).
His first concern, that the theory of childhood abuse was powerless to bring an analysis to a successful conclusion, contradicts what he himself claimed earlier: one of his justifications for the seduction theory in 1897 is that it had been “confirmed by therapeutic success” (“The Aetiology of Hysteria,” S.E., vol. 3, p. 199; Masson, loc. 1219-1223). This underlines the sad reality that we cannot accept Freud’s claims for his clinical evidence at face value.
Moreover, this is a non sequitur: there is no reason to suppose that knowing the cause of one’s suffering will end the suffering. Does knowing you broke your leg in a fall heal the broken leg? Indeed, neither the Dymphna story, nor the Oedipus legend, nor Hamlet suggest that merely realizing you have been abused is a cure. Rather, for both Hamlet and Oedipus, it is this very knowledge that causes the onset of symptoms.
This reveals a crucial point: Freud’s primary concern was not to find the cause of mental illness. Nor, for that matter, was it to cure it. It was to find a clinical technique employable by physicians like himself, and monetizable, to cure it. While it might be relevant for Freud’s purposes, this objection carries no weight for ours.
Nor, it should be mentioned, is there any clear scientific evidence that Freud’s eventual methods are any better at bringing “mental illness” to a conclusion. They are not, it seems, clearly superior to the “seduction theory” even in that regard. What we can say is that people are prepared to pay for them. Freud is troubled with “the running away of people who for a period of time had been most gripped [by analysis].” For all we know, this might be because they felt themselves cured; but it did not suit Freud’s purposes.
What to make of Freud’s fourth objection: “in the most deep-reaching psychosis the unconscious memory [of sexual assault] does not break through”? If this is true—that in the most serious cases of insanity the patient cannot seem to remember anything about incest—might this not simply be an indication of how serious the psychosis is? So much so that they are unable to communicate well enough with the analyst, or have lost contact with their own experiences and memories? After all, when you are in general denial of external reality, why would you not be in denial of this particular external reality? Or, might it simply indicate that the causes of common neurosis were different from those for the most deep-reaching psychosis? Why assume they are the same? Or again, the problem is as likely to be with the techniques Freud has developed for eliciting such memories; they may not be powerful enough to work on those who are deeply psychotic.
Leaves us with Freud’s third point, that the unconscious “cannot distinguish between truth and fiction.” This is obviously true: dreams do not restrict themselves to reporting real events. But this is an objection, not to the thesis that mental illness is caused by childhood abuse, but to Freud’s insistence on taking these accounts of sexual literally: that they must describe actual sexual contact. They might instead be a symbolic representation of emotional abuse.
To insist on a literal interpretation seems naive and wrong, just as indeed it later appeared to Freud. Hamlet argues against it: there the incest, as we have seen, is significant only as symbolic of a possessive and self-centred attitude; Hamlet himself is not involved. Nor, so far as we can tell, did Polonius literally rape Ophelia. Nor did Damon ever actually rape Dymphna: the intent was the point.
Unfortunately, Freud’s training and prejudices were those of a physician, a materialist, a doctor of the body. He did not accept or understand that statements can have meanings beyond their literal meanings, and that such meanings were not arbitrary. Once he was forced to abandon the idea that memories and dreams of incest must refer to literal experiences of incest, he was apparently inclined to understand them instead as “lies”―and impute mendacity to his patients. He knew nothing of poetry.
His patients were a pack of liars, then.
It was a short step to blaming them for everything.
“I dream,” Freud writes to Fliess, “of a primeval devil religion whose rites are carried on secretly, and I understand the harsh therapy of the witches’ judges” (letter of January 24, 1897; Masson, loc. 1469). Sandor Ferenczi, his closest disciple in his later years, records Freud saying “patients are riffraff” (Diary entry for May 1, 1932; Masson, loc. 2468).” Jung reports similar comments: when he tells Freud of his experiences with one schizophrenic patient, Freud responds, “But how in the world were you able to bear spending hours and days with this phenomenally ugly female?” (Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, NY: Vintage, 1962, p. 160).
I hope you, at least, gentle reader, can see the problem. When Robert Burns wrote, for example, “my love is like a red, red rose”―would you really look at his wife, and at a rose, and accuse him of lying?
Nor is the image of the rose arbitrary. Could Burns have conveyed the same message by saying “my love is like a cabbage”?
Had he had a decent literary education, Freud might have grasped this from the literary sources. A play, after all, is in itself an extended metaphor. The Battle of Agincourt is not happening before you, on the Globe stage. Moreover, in Oedipus Rex, oracles are consulted. When did an oracle ever speak plainly?
Just so, the imagination by its nature speaks in symbols and metaphors.
This is what happens when a literalist and a materialist tries to make sense of the human soul.
But this alone is not enough to force Freud to abandon his seduction theory. Given that what the imagination produces is often not literally true, what leads Freud to conclude that it is not literally true in this case? It still might be. After all, in his earlier writing, Freud even claimed to have independent verification:
“I regard it as a fortunate accident that, out of eighteen cases, I have been able to obtain an objective confirmation of this sort in two. In one instance, it was the brother (who had remained well) who of his own accord confirmed — not, it is true, his earliest sexual experiences with his sister (who was the patient) — but at least scenes of that kind from later childhood, and the fact that there had been sexual relations dating further back. In the other instance, it happened that two women whom I was treating had as children had sexual relations with the same man, in the course of which certain scenes had taken place à trois. A particular symptom, which was derived from these childhood events, had developed in both women, as evidence of what they had experienced in common” (“The Aetiology of Hysteria”; Masson, loc. 3142-3148).
This brings us then to Freud’s second objection: “the surprise that in all cases, the father, not excluding my own, had to be accused of being perverse.” This is the crucial point, and it is surely a valid one. Most people feel no urge to have sex with any child, let alone their own. Let alone their child of the same sex. Let alone giving in to this urge. Yet if we are to believe Freud’s patients, or Freud’s account of his patients, all or nearly all were sexually assaulted by both their mother and their father in childhood. It seems unlikely that such a phenomenon should be so widespread.
However, this too is an objection to taking the reports of incest literally, not to the reality of childhood abuse. The soul speaks in parables, symbols, and metaphors; and it is most concerned with spiritual, not physical, affairs. Take the incest as a symbol of a smothering, possessive, self-interested parent, and the objection disappears.
When we, in common speech, say, “I got screwed,” or “he screwed me,” not to cite less delicate terms, do we always mean this literally?
The incest image must still be figuratively or symbolically important, otherwise why did the patient imagine it? And imagine it, according to Freud, associated with obviously heightened emotions: “in such a way that he seemed to be living through it with all the appropriate feelings” (“The Aetiology of Hysteria”; Masson, loc. 1280). But we experience similar heightened emotions, after all, while watching a horror movie. This does not prove that the events actually occurred.
In other words, Freud offers no valid reasons for giving up his initial and more straightforward thesis, that all had suffered abuse in childhood. He does have valid reasons for giving up the assumption that the abuse was only sexual. Yet, to preserve his thesis that the roots of mental illness are sexual, he surrenders the assumption that they are found in abuse. Perhaps this is because his primary commitment is to a material rather than a spiritual or emotional cause for “mental illness.” He needs to find as cause something that might concern a physician—as opposed, say, to a minister or priest.
In speaking of his disappointment at having to abandon his original “seduction theory,” he writes to Fliess:
“The expectation of eternal fame was so beautiful, as was that of certain wealth, complete independence, travels, and lifting the children above the severe worries which robbed me of my youth. Everything depended upon whether or not hysteria would come out right” (Letter to Fliess, September 21, 1897; Masson, loc. 1517).
Not such a rare or surprising sentiment; and not such a discredit to him. But it reveals Freud’s bottom line. It is not truth; it is fame and fortune. So what would happen if the true cause of mental illness was not useful to him in this way? Would he accept that, or keep looking? It was important for him, as a medical man, to find what looked like a physical, medical, cause for mental struggles.
There has since been frequent backsliding, by one analyst or another, to the original and, indeed, as we have seen, traditional thought that mental illness comes from childhood abuse. This was so for Freud’s nearest collaborator in his later years, Sandor Ferenczi. In his diary, Ferenczi writes that neurosis seems to be “the result of real acts on the part of adults, namely violent passions directed toward the child, who then develops a fixation, not from desire [as Freud maintained], but from fear. ‘My mother and father will kill me if I don’t love them, and identify with their wishes.’” (Diary entry of September 21, 1897; Masson, loc. 1964).
That sounds very much like Dymphna’s experience.
Ferenczi agrees with Freud in seeing the chief issue as literal sexual abuse; he too is, after all, a medical doctor, a “man of science.” But he is aware of the possibility of other forms of mistreatment. He sees scapegoating: “the parent who denies what he has done, or denies its harmful effects, often becomes physically abusive toward the child (projecting the wickedness onto the child).” He sees physical abuse: “Not only forced love,” he writes, “but also unbearable punishments can have a fixating effect” (“Confusion of Tongues,” 1932; Masson, loc. 3513). He sees emotional abuse: “Seduction,” he points out, meaning the incestuous seduction of one’s child, “is a form of hatred, not love” (ibid.; loc. 1988). “It is the hate [the adult feels for the child]” he writes, “that traumatically surprises and terrifies the child who is seduced by an adult, and transforms him” (ibid.; loc. 3554).
He also sees another important form of emotional abuse: “the terrorism of suffering.” “In addition to passionate love and passionate punishments there is a third way of binding the child to oneself and that is the terrorism of suffering. Children have the compulsion to smooth over all kinds of disorders in the family, that is to say, to take onto their tender shoulders the burdens of all others; naturally, in the final analysis, not out of pure unselfishness but to regain the lost peace and the tenderness that is part of it” (ibid.; loc. 1999).
This is a type of abuse dealt with in detail by Alice Miller: selfish, immature parents force their children to take responsibility upon themselves for all their parents’ problems and concerns, to act as their parents’ parents. If psychiatry has been slow to see the issue, literature and popular culture have not been. This is a classic element of the “Jewish mother” type, familiar on page, stage, and screen. One example is Breavman’s mother in Leonard Cohen’s The Favorite Game. “A mother,” Ferenczi writes, “can make a lifelong nurse, in fact a substitute mother, out of the child by bewailing her suffering, totally disregarding the interests of the child” (Ferenczi, op. cit.; Masson, loc. 3537). This is also, in a similar fashion, the “co-dependency” examined in detail by Al-Anon and Adult Children of Alcoholics.
Robert Fliess, the son of Freud’s first collaborator, Wilhelm Fliess, who trained as a Freudian analyst, also circled back to the idea that childhood abuse was the key to mental illness. He uses the term “ambulatory psychotic” to refer to the Laius or the Damon personality, a parent who is entirely self-centred. Their “psychosis,” he argues, is generally invisible to the world outside the family home: they appear to be normal, even upstanding members of society (Masson, loc. 1880). But the story is very different in their dealings with their children. Fliess writes:
“There is no place here to deal with the inexhaustible subject of the psychoses; I can therefore say only in passing that the child of such a parent becomes the object of defused aggression (maltreated and beaten almost within an inch of his life), and of a perverse sexuality that hardly knows an incest barrier (is seduced in the most bizarre ways by the parents, and, at his or her instigation, by others)” (Fliess, Erogeneity and Libido: Addenda to the Theory of the Psychosexual Development of the Human, Madison, CT: International Universities Press, 1956, p. 17; Masson, loc. 1906).
Especially since the 1970s, there have been a flood of others. Masson cites, apart from himself and Alice Miller, Elaine Carmen, Patricia Rieker, Trudy Mills, Florence Rush and Judith Herman. There have also, in recent years, been a number of autobiographies that describe just such abuse: Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Random House, 1970); Sandra Bulter’s Conspiracy of Silence: The Trauma of Incest (New Glide Publications, 1978); Louise Armstrong’s Kiss Daddy Goodnight: A Speak - Out on Incest (Hawthorn Books, 1978); Susan Forward’s Betrayal of Innocence: Incest and Its Devastation (Penguin, 1979); Katherine Brady’s Father’s Days (Seaview, 1979); and Charlotte Vale Allen’s Daddy’s Girl: A Memoir (Simon and Schuster, 1980). It is now, it seems, the standard view.
Unfortunately, as the titles of many of those autobiographies suggest, we are still generally focused on sexual abuse as the core issue. This simply does not make sense: emotional damage comes most probably from emotional, not physical, abuse.
Other elements of the Dymphna story also seem to be confirmed by the cumulative clinical experience. We have mentioned before Freud’s comment that “the disturbance rides the strongest horse in the stable” (quoted, for example, by James FitzGerald, What Disturbs Our Blood, Toronto: Random House, 210, p. 419)--that neurosis or mental illness seems to afflict the most talented in a family, or in society as a whole.
He is not alone in this perception. In 1860, the French physician Ambroise Tardieu wrote a pioneering account of French children subjected to extreme parental abuse, “Etude médico - légale sur les sévices et mauvais traitements exercés sur des enfants” (“A Medico-legal Study of Cruelty and Brutal Treatment Inflicted on Children,” Annales d’hygiène publique et de médecine légale, 2nd ser., 13 , pp. 361–398). He notes: “Their features reveal the deepest sadness; they are timid and apprehensive, often they look dazed and the expression in their eyes is lifeless. But sometimes, often in fact, it is very different: they have a precocious intelligence which only reveals itself in a dark fire in their eyes” (op. cit., p. 365; ).
Purely imagined? Romantic nonsense? Perhaps. But Ferenczi claims the same thing. He finds that his patients “display a strange, almost clairvoyant knowledge of the thoughts and emotions of the analyst” (“Confusion of Tongues”; Masson, loc. 3454). He suggests a theory: “The sexually violated child can suddenly bring to fruition under the pressure of traumatic exigency all future faculties which are virtually preformed in him and are necessary for marriage, motherhood and fatherhood, as well as all feelings of a mature person. Here one can confidently speak of traumatic (pathologic) progression or precocity in contrast to the familiar concept of regression” (ibid.; Masson, loc 1991). He theorizes that “they have been the victims of such cruelty on the part of their parents that in order to survive they had to develop a remarkable sensitivity to determine what their parents were really feeling, so that they could avoid their murderous rage.” Accordingly, they become “sensitives,” and are so adept at reading the emotions of their clients that they seem aware of—indeed, are aware of—hidden knowledge (loc. 2438).
Perhaps. But, whatever the reason, we have here confirmation of another aspect of the Dymphna complex: that the abused child has unusual intelligence and/or a special contact with the spiritual world. This is Oedipus’s signature ability to solve riddles. This is Hamlet’s knack of seeing through and reading the intentions of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, of Polonius and his manipulation of Ophelia. More abstractly, this is Oedipus’s ability to bless any place he visits, and Dymphna’s saving powers as intercessor.
One might explain this talent, as Ferenczi does, as a necessary survival tool. It might also be the result of growing up living life through another’s eyes. That may bring great suffering, but also teach empathy. “Gradually I came to the conviction,” writes Ferenczi, “that patients have an extremely refined feeling for the wishes, tendencies, moods, likes and dislikes of the analyst, even should these feelings remain totally unconscious to the analyst himself. Instead of contradicting the analyst, instead of accusing him of certain misdemeanors or blunders, patients identify with him” (ibid.: Masson, loc. 3403). It also rather sounds like sainthood.
As Ferenczi sees it, this tendency is naturally tied to a tendency to refuse to blame the parent for anything. “The overwhelming power and authority of the adults renders them [the children] silent; often they are deprived of their senses. Yet that very fear, when it reaches its zenith, forces them automatically to surrender to the will of the aggressor, to anticipate each of his wishes and to submit to them; forgetting themselves entirely, to identify totally with the aggressor” (ibid.; Masson, loc. 3474)
In his early study, Tardieu reports with puzzlement the experience of a Dr. Nidart, called to testify against the parents of an abused girl:
“What Dr. Nidart discovered, to his evident puzzlement, was that Adelina would ‘invent stories’ of what had happened to her, in order to cover up the crimes of her parents against her own person, ‘imagining’ falls and accidents, rather than allow others to know the horrible truth of what had been done to her. As we shall see, her parents had kept her literally hermetically sealed off from the real world outside, and in a pathetic, heartbreaking gesture of tenderness toward her own tormentors, she wished to protect them ... from the world” (Tardieu, op. cit.; Masson, loc. 397).
This is the same tendency Adult Children of Alcoholics and Al-Anon refer to as “enabling.” Elsewhere, is is known as the “Stockholm syndrome.” Ferenczi speaks of “introjection”: the guilt that the parent ought to feel is instead “introjected” into the child, so the parent can remain guilt-free (Masson, loc. 1980). This also appears in “scapegoating”; making it especially effective.
“She (or, more rarely, he) becomes ashamed, the victim of the unconscious remorse of the parent that is expressed in violent anger toward the child” (Ferenczi, op. cit.; Masson, loc. 1986).
Ferenczi says the child is sometimes obliged to deny objective reality in order to protect the parent from blame. As a result, “his confidence in the testimony of his own senses has been destroyed” (loc. 3484). This is what is sometimes called “gaslighting.” One can see how this might encourage the development of psychosis.
Another element of the complex that Ferenczi comments on is a great sensitivity to hypocrisy. We have already seen this in our literary examples, but perhaps not taken sufficient notice of it.
Masson writes, speaking for Ferenczi:
“The analyst behaved with neutrality, but actually felt something quite different. These feelings, especially when they were negative, were not conveyed to the patient. This, Ferenczi felt, was hypocrisy. Moreover, he noticed that his patients were very sensitive to this hypocrisy, and try as he might to conceal his real feelings, patients invariably uncovered them. This sensitivity to genuine emotional states began to preoccupy Ferenczi more and more (the diary discusses it at length). He speculated on why his patients were so sensitive to issues of truth and honesty” (Masson, loc. 2101).
This is a special case of the victim’s ability to see through hand understand underlying motives. But it seems to be an especially important issue. We see it in Hamlet’s testing of the sincerity of Polonius and Osric:
Osric: I thank your lordship, it is very hot.
Hamlet: No, believe me, ‘tis very cold; the wind is northerly.
Osric: It is indifferent cold, my lord, indeed.
Hamlet: But yet methinks it is very sultry and hot for my complexion.
Osric: Exceedingly, my lord; it is very sultry.
Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that's almost in shape of a camel?
Polonius: By the mass, and 'tis like a camel, indeed.
Hamlet: Methinks it is like a weasel.
Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.
Hamlet: Or like a whale?
Polonius: Very like a whale.
It is not just that the victim of abuse is able to see through hypocrisy: he or she seems to have an underlying need to do so. Perhaps this is the effect of growing up with counterfeit love, or with a parent who seeks always to manipulate. One craves sincerity, and doubts all assertions. It may also be the consequence of having often been “gaslighted.”
To review, then, the evidence from clinical psychiatry confirms the accuracy of the Dymphna legend as an analysis of the causes of mental illness: permanent emotional damage is most often caused, as a sort of PTSD, by abuse from self-centred parents. In the accounts of Freud, Ferenczi, Fliess, and others, we find again the motifs of incest and malice by the parent towards the child. We find too many other elements testified to by the literary version of the tale: an exceptional victim, with apparent spiritual powers or talents; a resistance to blaming the parent; selflessness and self-sacrifice; a need for sincerity.
The sad thing is that this has all plainly been understood, in ancient times, in Medieval times, and in the Renaissance; at least by some. The literary sources are testament to this. The history of psychoanalysis, then, has been of a long effort to escape the evidence, which has now collapsed. Leaving us dragging our swollen foot back laboriously to roughly the point at which it all began generations ago.
At how much cost in human suffering?