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Past is Relevant

This is perhaps the most crucial and problematic issue in my field. In a famously wrong assessment, a psychoanalyst named Peter Fonagy declared that the past is irrelevant. This wrong-headed proclamation is difficult to embrace, much less comprehend, because psychoanalysis came into being with the premise that analytic work would uncover a forgotten past that is unconsciously causative for current symptoms, a past that acts as a “prime mover” in driving behavior whether they be masochism, hysteria, depression or even psychosis.

It is currently in fashion to ignore history and hold to the conviction that everything of psychic importance emerges in the relationship between patient and doctor, what we call transference. Whereas there is some validity in that perspective, and it is a central tenet of relational psychoanalysis, history matters no more centrally than in situations of physical or sexual abuse of children.

Freud’s First Theory

It was Freud’s first theory that children were rather regularly abused by their caretakers, a view he had to renounce in part because of the anticipated outcry of such a statement. Over many years as a psychoanalyst, I fear there is much truth in Freud’s ghastly proclamation and see this quite often in my practice. I cannot be exhaustive about this matter except to say that people have children for many reasons; often, those reasons are unconsciously intended to heal wounds in the parents’ own conflicted childhoods.

Seduction does not mean rape or gross physical violence; it can often occur in loving environments that could be viewed as entirely benign. The problem is on the receiving end: what feelings does erotic interest from an adult to a child stir up in him or her? What makes these situations “traumatic” to the child/future patient is not captured by the facts, by what happened. The child has their own erotic interests and is always to latch onto adult intimate and exciting activity in which he or she longs to play a part.

As an example, sleeping in the parent’s bed, needed support for a child with nightmares, stomach aches, and such, can be quite stimulating as the child sees his or her parents in states of intimacy and undress.

Parental Behaviors Eliciting Emotional Reactions

Here are only a few of the complex fantasies/reactions that can result from early overstimulation

  1. The child’s horror at the physical threat to his/her survival
  2. Excitement that the child feels special and desired.
  3. Anxiety over keeping a parental secret.
  4. Terror at the prospect of giving the hated/loved adult away and losing his/her love.
  5. Excitement at experiencing premature adult pleasures.
  6. Guilt over participating in the betrayal of the other parent and the real-life penalties for such behavior.
  7. Pleasure at being treated prematurely as an adult rival in the Oedipal triad.

The Bottom Line

Every one of these emotional attitudes is potentially present and, worst of all, is impossible for a young child to work through and process. Rage covers guilt, pleasure covers humiliation and shame, love covers feeling betrayed, etc. And almost invariably, this activity causes neurosis symptom expression.

I had a patient who was sexually abused at eleven years of age by the family’s seventeen-year-old chauffeur. He was mourned for decades afterward because, in her eyes, he was the only one who cared a whit about her. Each situation is unique, and each story needs to be told on its own without agenda or prejudice.