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The trace of L'objet Petit O through the case of Anna O.

The Letter, Issue 3, Spring 1995, Pages 100 - 108


Patricia McCarthy

Josef Breuer, Anna O.'s analyst, at the end of his theoretical contribution to Studies on Hysteria, consoles himself and his readers regarding the incompleteness of the then current understanding on hysteria by quoting Theseus, Duke of Athens in A Midsummer Night's Dream. While Theseus, as spectator, says of the play "the best in this kind are but shadows, and the worst are now worse, if imagination amend them", Brener considers his "clumsy hypothesis" on hysteria as "gaping lacunas which have been concealed rattier than bridged". These hypotheses he considers naturally defective and "must attach to all physiological expositions of complicated psychical processes". "And even the weakest (of them) is not without value if it honestly and modestly tries to hold on to the outlines of the shadows", "unknown real objects". His acknowledgements of an irreducible unsatisfactoriness between our representations or ideas and the thing or the process itself is a fitting introduction to this question of a trace of l'objet petit o through the case of his celebrated patient, Anna O.

The case of Anna O. was the first case history of the new science of psychoanalysis. It was here that Breuer demonstrated that hysterical symptoms erected themselves in the place of speech, that they could be talked away by speech. As we know, Anna O. took this method unto herself as her "talking cure". Essentially, this is the story of a young 21 year old woman who developed an overt hysterical illness contemporaneously with her father's organic illness. Her father, of whom she was "passionately fond”, became ill of an affliction of the lungs in July 1880 which failed to clear up. He succumbed nine months later in April 1881. Anna O. became ill at the same time as her father and, although she assiduously assisted her mother and the other sick bed attendants in caring for her father for the first six months into his illness, (which involved shift work and long hours of sitting by his bedside day and night), she had developed the "whole assemblage of hysterical phenomena without anyone knowing it" before she "took permanently to her bed" in December 1880. Until the death of her "adored father" three months later, it appears she was hardly aware of his condition and his death on April 5th, 1881 came as a great shock to her, with a further deterioration in her condition. By June 7th, 1881, three months later, she had become so unmanageable that she was transferred to a sanatorium. The account of her treatment with Breuer spans another year until June 7th 1882, the anniversary of her transfer to the institution by which date she determined that the whole treatment with Breuer should be finished. So his involvement with Anna O. dated from sometime before her taking to her bed, that is before December 1880, until June 7th, 1882.

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