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Psychic Contusion: Remarks on Ferenczi and Trauma

The Letter, Issue 4, Summer 1995, Pages 115 - 125


Martin Stanton

Few would now question that Sandor Ferenczi was an important pioneer in formulating psychoanalytic approaches to trauma. Unfortunately, however, this critical celebration is accompanied by a set of grossly distorted readings of Ferenczi's texts, as well as by serious misrepresentations of his radical transformations of psychoanalytic technique to work with trauma victims. The main distortions are that Ferenczi re-discovered the 'truth' of the seduction theory at the end of his life, so advocated that many mental disorders in adult life related to the traumatic experience of sexual abuse in childhood.[1] Of course, it is neither hard to see why this argument has become so current, given the discovery of the importance and extent of child sexual abuse during the last decade; nor, in this context, is it hard to see why Ferenczi has become characterized as the one analyst who was prepared to say that abuse was real, as opposed to contructed through fantasy, though in fact he said nothing of the sort. Moreover, this view of Ferenczi as the discoverer of the reality of trauma - has led to equally distorting conceptions of his so- called 'radical' revision of psychoanalytic technique to adapt to this increased awareness of real sexual abuse: particularly prevalent here is the notion that championed empathy, and advocated that analysts should go out of their way to be warm and understanding with their patients in order to facilitate the trust needed for disclosure of the trauma. According to some variants of this view, it is quite acceptable to hug or hold patients when they are distressed, or to loosen the boundaries between the consulting room and the outside world - such as going for a walk with them, or having a conversation in the street, should this be seen as beneficial to building up trust.

In this essay, I wish first of all to discredit this view, and show rather that Ferenczi's view of trauma had a much wider focus than child sexual abuse, and in fact centred rather on what is today called Post- Traumatic Stress Disorder. Furthermore, interest in trauma did not suddenly arise or transform with the famous Confusion of Tongues paper (1933).[2] Like all the pioneer analysts, Ferenczi's first insights into the nature of trauma came through his acquaintance with the work of Charcot and Bernheim: Ferenczi, like Freud, was particularly concerned with the concept of the idee fixe, the unprocessed amalgam of unconscious material which emerged (usually somatically) in the hypnotic trance or sometimes through therapeutic suggestion to the patient.[3] Moreover, idees fixes had neither a primary nor predominant sexual aetiology, but were structured around introjects - what was unprocessed in the idee fixe came from the other person. This remains central throughout Ferenczi's theoretical elaboration of trauma: for example, in The Confusion of Tongues he stresses that 'for our theory this assumption ... is highly important, namely that the weak and undeveloped personality reacts to sudden unpleasure not by defence, but by anxiety-ridden identification and by introjection of the menacing person or aggressor.[4]

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