,\SSUAIE THATACTUAL o v E i t \ w E L ~ m cexperiences in the course of a child’s development have a different-and more profound-destructive and pathogenic effect than do the child’s inevitable fantasies of being overwhelmed by aggressive and sexual impulses-fantasies that get attached to the mental images of even the most loving and caring parents. (It is not controversial that the experiences of early deprivalion are potentially devastating and pathogenic.) The clinical writings of some Kleinian theorists, for example, give the impression that the child’s actual experiences hardly matter. There ought not to be disagreement about the question of pathogenicity of experiences as against fantasies; the crucial clinical problem is: how do experiences of overstimulation and deprivation influence the motivating fantasies of an individual (cf. Fliess, 1956, p. xvii). Soul murder is my dramatic designation for a certain category of traumatic experiences-those instances of repetitive and chronic overstimulation alternating’with emotional deprivation that are deliberately’ brought about by another individual. The term does not define a clinical entity; it applies primarily to ,pathogenic circumstances rather than to effects. The phrase “soul murder” should be familiar because of its use by the paranoiac Daniel Paul Schreber, whose I “Deliberately” should be interpreted loosely; the inability to empathize with some psychotics makes their responsibility for their actions undeterminable.

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l\.lernoirs (1903) were the subject of one of Freud’s famous case histories (1911). My interest in soul murder started with a series of patients (Shengold, 1963, 1967, 1971) who were suffering primarily not because of unconscious fantasies of cruel and unloving parents, or fantasies of having been seduced as children, but because they had experienced beatings, torment, and sexual abuse at the hands of their parents or of parental substitutes. Freud had originally ascribed neurosis to such traumata in childhood, and then found that many (not all) of the events his patients “remembered” were products of fantasy. H e thus discovered primal universal fantasies such as those involved in the Oedipus complex. My patients, who had lived out Freud’s early theories of neurosogenesis, could not easily be classified according to one or two diagnostic categories. Although they shared certain characteristics, they differed in many ways-including variations in the severity of their mental incapacities. Their tales of the abuse they had suffered as children reminded me of a line from Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman, in which one character accuses another of having committed a crime that cannot be forgiven: the crime of having murdered her soul, of having killed her capacity for love and for joy. I recalled the use of the phrase “soul murder” in the Schreber Memoirs, and Niederland’s series of papers (1959a, 175713, 1960, 1963) which describe the cruel and bizarre childrearing ideas and practices of Schreber’s father that provided the ohvious environmental determinants of the soul murder. My thesis concerns the impact of the environment: that emotional deprivation alternating with abuse of children has lasting and profound effect-mobilizing certain defenses and structural changes, most of which tend to interfere with full, free emotional and intellectual development, and modifying the primal fantasies that motivate human behavior. Schreber describes soul murder as a terrible crime of which he was both accused and the victim. Not only is soul murder described as vague and mysterious, but the chapter Downloaded from apa.sagepub.com at UCSF LIBRARY & CKM on April 24, 2015



Schreber wrote using those words for its title was almost entirely expunged by the censor as “unfit” (1903, p. 61). T h e “unfit” apparently applied to the sexual meaning of the designation; the statements that escaped censorship show that, for Schreber, soul murder meant being deprived of identityand of sexual identity. Schreber did not originate the term.* T h e first use I have been able to find for it is in a book written in 1832 about Kaspar Hauser, a nineteenth-century foundling who had been brought up from early childhood in a dark dungeon where he had been deprived of almost all human contact. His story became famous, and a book was written about him (a best seller in its day) by a well-known German judge, Anselm von Feuerbach. (I think it most likely that Schreber had read this book; he too was a judge.) Here is von Feuerbach’s indictment of those who kept the youth imprisoned for most of his seventeen years:

. . . . it is the iniquity perpetrated against . . . his spiritual nature which presents the most revolting aspect of the crime committed against him. An attempt, by artificial contrivances, to exclude a man from nature and from all intercourse with rational beings . . . to withdraw from him all the nourishment afforded by those spiritual substances which nature has appointed for food to the human mind, that it may grow and flourish . . . such an attempt must [be] a highly criminal invasion of man’s most sacred and most peculiar property-the freedom and destiny of his soul. . . . Inasmuch as all the earlier part of [Kaspar’s] life was thus taken from him, he may be said to have been the subject of a partial soul-murder [von Feuerbach, 1832, pp. 55-56]. Von Feuerbach defines the attempt at soul murder in KasBoth lbsen and Strindberg used the idea of soul murder before Schreber. The deliberate or careless destruction of one person’s identity by another is a theme both playwrights employed. Downloaded from apa.sagepub.com at UCSF LIBRARY & CKM on April 24, 2015

par’s case chiefly in terms of intentional emotional deprivation and secondarily through torture and overstimulation. My historical references underline that soul murder has to do with crime: there is an inherent moral protest in the term. Soul murder is a crime characterized by man’s inhumanity to man. One man uses his power over another to crush his individuality, his dignity, his capacity to feel deeply (to feel joy, love, and even hate); and, a s implied in von Feuerbach’s description, to stifle the victim’s use of his mind-his capacity to think rationally and to test reality. In this century we have seen soul murder used against adults.in concentration camps and against prisoners of war. Orwell’s (1949) 7984 is a veritable primer on soul murder, which he portrays as a principle of totalitarian domination of society. I would start my own description with a casual extraclinical observation. A mother drags a reluctant whimpering child along a street. The mother, her face convulsed with rage, mouth twitching, stops suddenly and brutally slaps the child across the face. The little girl falls down, and the mother begins to kick her. Is the mother psychotic? Is she a drug addict (my sidewalk diagnosis)? What will happen to the child of such a mother, i j the child survives to grow up? And will the grownup child, in turn, kick her child?3 The effect of massive trauma and of deprivation on the development of the child has been studied extensively by analysts. Ferenczi’s 1933 paper is a pioneer effort on the incidence and effects of the sexual abuse of children, full of clinical value. Spitz (1 945, 1946a, 1946b, 1964) and Greenacre (1960, 1968) focus on the earliest years. In a series of papers on child abuse, using the term “battered child syndrome,” Brandt Steele (1970, 1976, 1977) and his co-workers ’Steele (1976) finds the compulsion to repeat their own abused and deprived childhood the crucial genetic determinant for the parents who “batter” their children: “If one’s early life was unfortunately beset by neglect and abuse, then one is likely to repeat it, and treat one’s offspring as one was treated” (p. 14). (Cf. Greenacre, 1960; Shengold, 1967.) Downloaded from apa.sagepub.com at UCSF LIBRARY & CKM on April 24, 2015

C I 1 I 1.1 1 I\ I%USE ,\XI 1 I ) EI’ R 1\’r\TIOS


(Steele et al., 1962; Steele and Pollock, 1968) have concentrated on trauma during the child’s first three years. My own clinical material (Shengold, 1963, 1967, 197 1, 1974a) has dealt chiefly with traumata after three (cf. Fliess, 1956, 1961, 1973). Partial or complete destruction of the developing-or even of the developed-mental apparatus and sense of identity (“souI”) can occur at any age, but obviously, the earlier the trauma the more devastating the effects. Of course a fottch of soul murder can be an everyday affair. Every life contains occasions in which one is the victim or the perpetrator of an assault on a person’s right to a separate identity and to a full range of human responses. Few people are without at least moments of beastliness, of behavior so bad that the malefactor tries no! lo regisler what has been said or done. To repeat one of Freud’s favorite quotations from Nietzsche: “ ‘I did that,’says my memory. ‘I could not have done that,’says my pride, and remains inexorable. Eventually-the memory yields” (1886, p. 451). The victim’s assumption of the malefactor’s nonregistration of what has happened is essential to soul murder. But parental abuse cannot be called soul murder because of a few isolated incidents; to deform a soul takes chronic and repetitive abuse. Concentration-camp and prisoner-of-war experiences have proven that every man can be broken. Even tough old Bolshevik revolutionaries inured to Czarist prison and torture were, with the aid of new techniques based on a misuse of scientific psychology (see 1g84and Koestler’s [ 19411 Darkness a! &om), made to repudiate their life’s ideals and to submit to Big Brother Stalin. Children can be broken much more easily than adults, and the effect on them of torture, hatred, seduction, and rape-or even of indifference, of deprivation of love and care-is the devastating one of developmental arrest; for their souls-their psychological structure and functioning-are still forming (see the important work of David Freedman [1969, 1971, 1975; Freedman and Brown, 19681). Downloaded from apa.sagepub.com at UCSF LIBRARY & CKM on April 24, 2015




Soul murder involves trauma imposed from the world outside the mind that is so overwhelming that the mental apparatus is flooded with feeling. (The same state can result as a reachn to great deprivation.) The terrifying “too muchness” requires massive and mind-distorting defensive operations in order for the child to continue to think and feel. The child’s sense of identity (that is, the maintenance of the selfrepresentations) is threatened. The little girl kicked by her mother cannot turn to that mother at that moment for rescue. Yet, to whom else can she turn? How can she deal with the pain, fear, humiliation, and rage (above all the rage) by herself? We know that, when overwhelmed by feeling, people can faint away or (more adaptively) shut off all emotion (often by use of autohypnosis-[Flies, 1953; Dickes, 1965; Shengold, 19671). But if the crisis is recurrent or chronic, the regressive defenses of blanking out feeling will also become chronic. What is happening is so terrible that it must not be felt and cannot be registered-a massive isolation of feeling with confusion and denial is preferred. A hypnotic livingdeadness, a state of living “as if” one were there is often the result of chronic early overstimulation or deprivation. As Ferenczi (1933, p. 163) put it, “The misused child changes into a mechanical obedient automaton.” After a period of inherent infantile resistance to overstimulation, infants are vulnerable to “too muchness” coming from within or without the body. What insures survival through this dangerous period when the mind and a separate identity are starting to form is the care of a mothering figure. Spitz’s observations have shown that the child who has scant ernohnal care may not even survive (1 945, 1946a, 1946b). The child who is tormented by a parent must frequently call on that same parent for help and rescue. (The other parent is only too often weak or absent or an unconscious abettor of the tormentor. According to Steele, “A parent’s propensity for abuse is commonly supported by a corresponding tendency in the spouse . . . . thus the abuse or neglect of Downloaded from apa.sagepub.com at UCSF LIBRARY & CKM on April 24, 2015



offspring can often be an unconscious collusion or cooperation between the parents, even though only one of them is the active agent” (1976, p. 14). If the very parent who abuses and is experienced as bad must be turned to for relief of the distress that parent has caused, then the child must break with what he has experienced and must, out of desperate need, register the parent-delztsionally-as good. Only the mental image of a good parent can help the child deal with the terrifying intensity of fear and rage which is the effect of the tormenting experiences. T h e alternative-the maintenance of the overwhelming stimulation and the bad parental imago-means annihilation of identity, of the feeling of the self. So the bad has to be registered as good. This is a mind-splitting or a mind-fragmenting operation. In order to survive, these children must keep in some compartment of their minds the delusion of good parents and the delusive promise that all the terror and pain and hate will be transformed into love. (The compulsion to provoke the parental abuse can be partly understood as the child’s need to affirm in action that the nexl time the contact will bring love instead of hate.) The desperate need to hold onto the promise of the good and loving parent is the source of the greatest resistance to the therapist’s efforts to undo the delusion. Interpretations of “objective” reality threaten the loss of the mental image of the “good” parent; this loss restores the danger of annihilation (traumatic anxiety). The child’s mind is split into contradictory fragments to separate the bad from the good (cf. Ferenczi, 1933, p. 165). I a m not describing schizophrenia (although in psychotic children a more destructive fragmentation of the mind can also occur in response to trauma), but the establishment of isolated divisions of the mind that provides the mechanism for a pattern in which contradictory images of the self and of the parents are never permitted to coalesce. (This compartmentalized “vertical splitting” transcends diagnostic categories; I a m deliberately avoiding bringing in the correlatable pathological formulations of Winnicott, Kohut, and Kernberg.) Downloaded from apa.sagepub.com at UCSF LIBRARY & CKM on April 24, 2015



Feeling and thinking are compromised; registration of what has happened and what is happening is compartmentalized and therefore inadequate. Orwell describes this in 1984, where brainwashing is used to enforce the delusion of the good “Big Brother. ”,Here is Orwell’s description of “doublethink,” a system of vertical mental splits that makes it possible to believe that two plus two equals five:

. . . to know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing both . . . to forget whatever it is necessary to forget, then to draw it back into the memory again at the moment it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again, and above all to apply the same process to the process itself . . . consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then once again to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed [1949, p. 36; note that Orwell knows about the use of autohypnosis (cf. Shengold, 1971)l. With the attainment of “doublethink” (imposed by the need for rescue during psychological torture), Winston Smith can go on to love the torturing “Big Brother.” Here is another example of prototypical brainwashing, from Dostoyevski: This poor child of five was subjected to every possible torture by [her] cultivated parents. They beat her, thrashed her, kicked her for no reason till her body was one bruise. Then . . . be.cause she didn’t ask to be taken up at night . . . they went to greater refinements of cruelty-shut her up all night in the cold and frost in a privy . . . smeared her face with excrement and forced her to eat it, and it was her mother, her mother did this . . . and that mother could sleep, hearing the groans of the poor child locked up in that vile place at night! A Downloaded from apa.sagepub.com at UCSF LIBRARY & CKM on April 24, 2015

little creature, w h o can’/ iinderstand what’s done to her, in the dark and cold of that vile place, beats her little aching breast with her tiny fists and weeps her bloody meek unresentful tears begging dear, kind God to protect her [1880, p. 286; my italics]. Since the child “can’t understand what’s done to her,” her mind is unable to deal with, to work over, what is not understood and what may not even be allowed to register. It is this inhibition of the ego’s power to remember and to test reality that makes soul murder so effective as a continuing force. The absolute need for good mothering makes the child believe in the promise that her parents and “dear, kind God” will be good and rescue her, and to believe that she must be bad. The moral facts get confused along with the realistic ones-the child can take on the guilt for what the parents do, guilt that the righteous, God-quoting parents may not even feel (or may not feel for ‘long). Ferenczi writes of what happens after a sexual attack on a child: “Moreover, the harsh behaviour of the adult partner tormented and made angry by his remorse renders the child still more conscious of his own guilt and still more ashamed. Almost always the perpetrator behaves as though nothing had happened, and consoles himself with the thought: ‘Oh, it is only a child, he does not know anything, he will forget it all.’ Not infrequently after such events, the seducer becomes over-moralistic or religious and endeavours to save the soul of the child by severity” (1933, pp. 162-163; my italics). Steele, like Ferenczi, is studying the abusing parents; he states that they were themselves abused as children and quotes their justifications, adding: “These three examples show how deeply embedded the pattern of abuse can be and also indicate the strong sense of rightness, if not righteousness, with which behavior learned from parents can be repeated” (1976, p. 15). This leads to a n enhancement of the unconscious need for punishment and to intense masochism (see Berliner, 1940; Fliess, 1956). Later in life, these Downloaded from apa.sagepub.com at UCSF LIBRARY & CKM on April 24, 2015



children, in a compulsion to repeat, turn to other people who are tormentors with the continuing delusive expectation that this time they will be loved. The child’s defensive need to “keep,” even to merge with, the parent is often complemented by the disturbed parent’s need to prevent individuation and to hold onto the child, who is regarded as part of the parent’s self-image (Mahler and Furer, 1968). Submitting to and becoming part of the tormentor (his victim-symbiont, as it were) can alternate with or function alongside a more total identification with the aggressor. (Ferenczi speaks of these two imagoes as “anxiety-ridden identification” and “introjection of t h e . . . aggressor” [1933, p. 1631. The identification with the aggressor enables the former victim to follow the compulsion to repeat, playing the active sadistic parental role. This, too, can be motivated in part by the delusive wish to make the bad parent good: “I’ll be father and do it, and rhis time it will be good. ” The child’s contradictory mental splits or fragments of impulse and identity-reflecting the confusion between tormentor and victim, good and bad-were alluded to by Ferenczi who also indicated the brainwashing (without using the term) that prevents synthesis: “When the child recovers from [the adult’s sexual] attack, he feels enormously confused, in fact, split-innocent and culpable at the same time-and the confidence in the testimony of his own senses is broken” (1933, p. 162). Weinshel, in a series of unpublished papers, designates a conscious intent to brainwash as “gaslighting.” Illustrative Cases

A4r. A . A father, a successful tyrant at home and at work, entered the dining room (I have used this instance of soul murder before; see Shengold, 1974b, 1975). The round table was set for the family meal. Beside each plate was the dessert-a fresh banana. Father made a complete round of the table, stopping at Downloaded from apa.sagepub.com at UCSF LIBRARY & CKM on April 24, 2015



every plate to reach out and squeeze the banana to pulp, every banana except his own. The older children and the intimidated mother, accustomed to such events, said nothing. But the youngest, a five-year-old boy, began to cry when he saw the mangled banana at his plate. The father then turned on him viciously, demanding that he be quiet-how dare he fuss so much about a banana? The child was left in confusion. What had happened? Who was to blame? Was father bad? Or was he himself bad? Mother and the others had not acted the way he had-why did he make such a fuss over a banana? The father, so confident of his greatness and his rightness, a godlike figure, must be good. But how could that be? (The five-year-old’s castration anxiety over his oedipal wishes would compound his reactions and make him more readily take on guilt.) Need enforces the preservation in the child’s mind of a delusional place in which the father must be good and right, and the boy bad and wrong. Yet somewhere alongside (in another compartment, as one patient put it: “I a m not a whole human being-I live in compartments”) is some registration that the father is bad. These mental compartments (vertical psychic splits, to continue the spatial metaphor) are walled off, and their contents cannot be blended. The child is prevented from bringing the contradictory pictures together by the danger of the rage which can overwhelm him and the good parent-image in his mind; but the rage is there. The boy learned early to cover it over with indifference but, underneath, the anger festered: to kill father or be killed by him, or to become bad father and crush those around him. T h e continued subjection to father’s tyrannical cruelty evoked a vicious cycle: the more the anger was suppressed (and this father saw that no angry manifestations went unpunished) the greater the feeling of danger from it. T h e boy’s unconscious became a murderous cauldron; compartmentalized and disconnected from consciousness was murder aimed at his father and at himself. T o be able to contain all this, the boy needed first of Downloaded from apa.sagepub.com at UCSF LIBRARY & CKM on April 24, 2015



all to establish what was happening to him. A more realistic, less masochistic mother might have helped the boy to do this-to identify and try to understand his father’s destructiveness. But only a brainwashed woman would have stayed with this father. As it turned out, the boy was (unlike the banana) not completely crushed. He did not fully accept his father’s order not to know and not to feel. Some isolated registration occurred, and the analyst was able to connect with the “mental compartment” that contained it. The patient gradually became responsible for his knowledge of his father’s character and how he had identified with him. The analysis progressed so that he was able to give up his autohypnosis; the feelings thereby released made emotional conviction possible so that knowledge could be more than intellectual and provisional. (Only when knowing involves a free range of feeling is brainwashing undone.) Within the structure provided by his conviction about the past and especially about his father, the intense rage, without disappearing, became increasingly tolerable. The contents of the “mental compartments” (although the compartmentalization was not ‘completely given up) became subject to synthesis of emotions and ideas. Avoiding denial and tolerating rage were achieved together. Ego and superego were, slowly, modified. Consider the effect of the incident I have described as typical and recurrent on the five-year-old boy’s developing sexuality. At the height of his oedipal development, he is driven to compete with a demonic father powerful enough to mold reality to justify his paranoid grandiosity and establish himself as a domestic Hitler presiding over docile subjects. Mother is a broken, yet worshipful, victim. With the boy compelled to register his father’s cruelty as good and right, he cannot adequately identify and come to terms with his antagonism toward his father. Although the prospects are dim that this boy would be able to transcend the overwhelmingly sadomasochistic nature of the relations between his parents-to transcend the need to become himself his father’s passive, Downloaded from apa.sagepub.com at UCSF LIBRARY & CKM on April 24, 2015



broken, worshipful victim, renouncing his masculinity as well as his identity, somehow, this particular boy was able to achieve some ability to work and to love (even, after his analysis, to love women). M r . B.

A superficially successful man, married and a father, sought analysis because he was chronically and sometimes desperately unhappy. His predominant depression was intermixed with a smoldering hatred for and fear of his superiors and peers at work. There were occasional fits of rage-usually directed against his wife. “ I have never been able to enjoy anything,” he said with bitter intensity. Although his parents had been extremely wealthy and had provided luxurious surroundings and the most expensive education, he had always felt deprived and cheated. “What my parents did for me they did for themselves; they never bothered about what I wanted.’’ There was no loving, no caring, “not even liking,” in the parental home. “ M y parents despised their children; I despised my brothers; and I despised myself.’’ He felt that he had been deprived of‘the capacity for humor: “ I can laugh only when I a m drunk.” Unfortunately, he was drunk all too frequently-alcoholism was a family problem that bridged the generations. The patient’s monotonous tone of accusatory complaint and his almost unchanging bitter deadpan expression seemed to me to represent a n ironical challenge: “Just you try to like me!” He had even said: “People tolerate me because of my abilities, but I a m simply not likeable.’’ The story of his childhood evoked for me F. Scott Fitzgerald’s psychologically acute, much quoted remark to Hemingway, “The very rich are different from US."^ T h e special ambience of the mansions of his childhood came from the contrast between his parents’ apparent lavish fulfillment of . Hemingway’s cynical rejoinder, “Yes, they have more money,” attests to his deficiency as a psychological novelist (see Trilling, 1948, p. 214).

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material needs and their unawareness or frustration of emotional ones. The parents were frequently absent during the patient’s early years. H e was brought up by servants in a nursery seldom visited by his father and mother even if they were at home. When he was in his parents’ presence, he felt belittled and humiliated by them, especially in response to any show of emotion on his part. The family ideal was to be cool, witty, and detached. T h e habitual teasing and sarcasm from both parents amounted to his being trained to regard empathic communication as a prelude to torment. It seemed consistent with adaptation to this background that he talked in a clipped monotone, like a machine. His mother had often told him that she was looking for a strong man when she married his father. Indeed, the father tried to act the generalissimo at home and in his business. Both the family home and their country estate had the aura of a cavalry post, and the patient did not doubt that their many horses received more care than the children. The strong-willed parents seemed to agree only about horses and in their abusive treatment of their sons; they quarreled constantly. (The patient talked of family life in military metaphor-as a war with battles, retreats, campaigns.) The parents divorced when he was ten. iMother had always said that she wanted him, too, to be a strong man, like her own father, who was a professional Army officer. The avowedly “Spartan” character-training the parents devised for their sons, featuring aloofness, nakedness, and the endurance of cold, was in confusing contrast to the luxurious parental life~tyle.~ Something of the current relationship with his mother was revealed by a birthday gift she sent him shortly after she was told that her depressed son had entered psychoanalysis. A note accompanying the gift stated that she was sorry to I feel that these parents were two of “those who have been maltreated in childhood [and] have an almost uncanny ability to find and to marry someone with a similar background and similar ideas about child rearing” (Steele, 1976, p. 14).

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hear yet once more about the weakness of his character. The gift (a true “gift of Medea” [see Orgel and Shengold, 19681) was a set of pistols that had belonged to her father. This twentieth-century Hedda Gabler was apparently telling her weak, deserting son: Take one of my father’s pistols and shoot yourself. The patient seemed to have some insight into his mother’s motivation. H e quoted a friend’s comment that to give a pistol to a depressed man was not exactly a loving act. But this comment was superficial as well as secondhand. T h e meaning of the pistols was overdetermined; the patient talked more readily (yet with little feeling) about the paternal phallic symbolism of the pistols than he did about their destructive potential. Although he paid lip service to his mother’s murderous intent when expanding on the quote from his friend, he essentially denied it. Like Medea’s victim Glauce, he could not resist the magical promise of the gift from an avowedly hostile witch: this time the gift, and the giver, would turn out to be good. H e found himself drawn to playing with the pistols. The patient’s father was a tyrannical, paranoid “loner” who quarreled with and alienated everyone. Both parents were heavy drinkers. With the drinking, the silent and embittered home atmosphere could suddenly be transformed by violence; the parents’ verbal abuse could become physical assault; and sometimes the parental battles would end in turbulent and exhibitionistic sex in the vicinity of the terrified children. (See Silber, 1974, 1977, on alcoholism and parental abuse.) The parents would then sometimes disappear for weeks. Indeed, the patient’s main complaint about his childhood was not the overstimulation but the intense emotional deprivation which he immediately transferred onto the analytic situation: “Nobody cared, and you don’t care! ” The parental sex and violence at least furnished some sort of contact. He was distressed by being unable to respond lovingly to his own Downloaded from apa.sagepub.com at UCSF LIBRARY & CKM on April 24, 2015



wife and children: “I do my duty though.” Any nurse or governess to whom he had become too attached was soon dismissed. H e had learned to hide his feelings toward the servants and was able, through craft, to maintain two meaningful relationships: one with a cook, and one with a gardener. These two substitute parents seemed genuinely concerned about him and actually listened to him. The gardener’s caring was unfortunately partly spoiled by the man’s sexual interest +in him after the boy became pubescent. He had found the man’s sexual advances frightening and disgusting, but he submitted for a while to being masturbated because he craved the emotional warmth. And he was able to discontinue the sex without breaking the relationship. H e had been, it became obvious in the analysis, greatly threatened by the intensity of his unconscious passive cravings. Both parents insisted that he be “manly,” and his strong temptation to turn in the beloved gardener to his father was a torment to the boy. It came as a relief to beisent away to boarding school. Perhaps the epitome of the recurrent tormenting combination of overwhelming promise and cruel frustration would come with the advent of Christmas. Every year a huge tree was beautifully decorated; presents were piled underneath. There was great excitement in the house, which was filled with guests. There was a ritual of opening the presents on Christmas morning. O n Christmas day the boy was permitted to play with the expensive toys he had received. But the next morning he had to help his father re-pack the toys in their boxes. They were to be given away, every one, to the “poor children.” How he hated those “poor children!” Of course he hated them instead of hating his father; they were nasty vermin like his younger brothers. T h e patient usually remembered the past as if he were a n only child, so intense was the hatred displaced from the parents onto the siblings; the parents cultivated the rivalry. No cooperation or community of feeling as fellow victims was possible for these brothers (cf. Orwell, 1949, p. 289, wherein Winston Smith’s soul murder Downloaded from apa.sagepub.com at UCSF LIBRARY & CKM on April 24, 2015



is culminated by his abandonment of fellow feeling for Julia). Christmas left the boy feeling wicked, guilty, and depressed; like Mr. A. he had a conviction of his father’s goodness that meant a complete suppression of rage toward him and a nonregistration of what had happened. The rage was untenable, and the absolute need to suppress it made for the brainwashing. The cruelty of the giving and taking was denied; the boy identified with the aggressor-his conscience taking over his father’s inhumanity. He was unworthy, and he accepted as valid his father’s professed charitable motives. He idealized his tormentor, denied the torment. As Christmas again approached, he would remember what had happened to last year’s toys, but there was a n almost delusional insistence on the promise that fhis time it would be different. H e was effectively deprived of his feelings, his memory, and his identity, and he became his father’s creature: the good boy, a pseudo identity marked by mechanical dutifulness and a cheerless, joyless, loveless existence. The brainwashing-denial and isolation-enforced and continued the soulless fagade. Underneath lurked murder and suicide; yet he functioned and he achieved. Discuss ion Human beings are mysteriously resourceful, and some do survive such childhoods, with their sexuality and with their souls not unscarred or unwarped but at least in some part intact. Others are crushed, predominantly or completelybody and soul, sexuality and soul. Despite the vulnerability of children and the prevalence of bad parents, a completely successful soul murder is probably rare. Why this should be so is mysterious; part of the explanation is innate endowment. What was it that enabled one of my patients with two psychotic parents to become, from age four on, the real parent in the family-a sane caring person who was able to help her siblings and even take care of her psychotic parents? I have Downloaded from apa.sagepub.com at UCSF LIBRARY & CKM on April 24, 2015



no adequate answer. The most important soul-saving force I know is the presence in childhood of another loving person who can stand in for the bad parent-a nurse, a grandmother, a n aunt (the two servants for Mr. B.) Some parents are able to care for the child through the earliest, most crucial years and then fall sick, or go bad, or die. Recent changes in family structure may have increased the vulnerability to soul murder. T h e disappearance of the extended family, with several generations living together, may have decreased the incidence of assault by the odd, paedophilic uncle, or by the psychotic, illused wet nurse, but it also has reduced the chance for dedicated care from family figures other than the parents (cf. Steele, 1946, pp. 12-13, for a fuller discussion of the “extended family” issue). T h e complexity of the subject of child abuse can be appreciated if one tries to connect the extensive trauma and deprivation suffered by the victims with the effects of the abuse-an examination that leads to respect for the enigmatic, contradictory workings of the soul. What one finds can surprise. I have seen that even the predominantly soul-destroying experiences of incest seem in some cases to be modified by soul-saving aspects-the child making use of some phases of the sexual contact to fulfill the need for attention and tenderness (cf. Rascovsky and Rascovsky, 1950)? Rosenfeld et al. (1977) raise the question of whether even childhood incest might have some positive effects in cases of terrible emotional deprivation (see also Bender and Blau, 1937). It is in no way to condone or minimize the often heartbreaking damage done to observe that some victims of soul murder seem to have been strengthened by the terrible experiences they have endured. Talents and, occasionally, creative power can arise from a background of soul murder. The ingenuity Ghlr. B’s sexual contact with the father-substitute gardener seems to have had partially beneficial effects because the boy was able, on his own, ncficbb to manage the situation, thereby reversing the predominant passive helplessness of his childhood. Downloaded from apa.sagepub.com at UCSF LIBRARY & CKM on April 24, 2015


55 1

and the drive needed to overcome or even to survive a terrible situation can become the motivation to change and transcend the hatred and the deadness, at least in creative work and sometimes also in human relationships. Healthy, or even superhealthy, areas of functioning can exist alongside the devastated, hate-filled, or emotionally dead “compartments” of the soul. I have described an example of this based on the childhood experiences of Rudyard KiplinS (Shengold, 1975). We have a few clear guidelines through the complex mysteries of pathogenesis. Freud’s views on the complementary series of constitutional and environmental factors remain basic; and those who are congenitally defective (whose deficiencies are not due to bad parenting and cannot be made up for by good parenting) are not to be considered victims of soul murder or child abuse. There is no doubt that the good mothering involved in “mirroring” is necessary for the establishment and maintenance of what Lichtenstein (1 964) calls “primary identity” (and what I am, loosely, calling the soul [cf. Shengold, 1974al). The great vulnerability of the earliest period in which there takes place formation of ego structure, of a separate self, and identity (involving “primal identity” [Lichtenstein], “core gender identity” [Stoller, 19731, and individuation [Mahler and Furer, 19681 makes early good parenting a basic necessity for all mental health and early bad mothering a basic ingredient for mental pathology. Yet, exceptions seem to exist, and specific examination of individual cases brings mysterious challenges to the generalization without depriving it of validity. It is, of course, most likely that those parents who have trouble with infants will go on to have trouble with the child’s later development, but one must be prepared for all sorts of variations and combinations in individual cases. The compulsion to repeat their own traumatic past can mean a parental pathogenic focus on one child, or on every child, or on every child of one sex; a particular developmental stage (of ego or Downloaded from apa.sagepub.com at UCSF LIBRARY & CKM on April 24, 2015



libido) can be specifically meaningful in evoking parental abuse; so can a specific pattern of sibling births. Timing is a most important factor in pathogenesis. The earlier the trauma and deprivation, the more likely the child will be overwhelmed and the more extensive the damage. Lichtenstein (1971, p. 164) stresses especially the first year of life when he writes of people (who sound like soul-murder victims) who experience what he call the “Malignant No.” *To them, every rebuff or refusal results in a n evocation of “feeling negated in one’s existence as a n individual.’’ From the point of view of parental pathology (the mirror image of the soul murder disturbances in the child), Steele and Pollock supply a vague borderline of three years of age which, they feel, divides the parents who primarily batter from the parents who primarily seduce: “It is our opinion that when the abuse begins on children aged four, five, or older, it is a different form of behavior and the attack by the parent is instigated by a different form of psychopathology. Attack on such older children is much more involved with matters of sexuality than is the attack on small infants” (1968, p. 104). M y observations confirm this (cf. Ferenczi, 1933). There is much more work to be done with observation and investigation of timing of trauma. It is, by and large, only in the later developmental stages of childhood (roughly past three years) that the specific details can be captured through memories in the analysis of adults. Some patients can remember further back. M y stress on external reality-overstimulation and deprivation-is not meant to minimize the basic pathogenic importance of internal reality, of the dynamic, drive-determined fantasies of the unconscious. One sees this oversimplification in some of the works of the followers of R. D. Laing: i.e., Schatzman’s (1 973) reduction of psychosis to “persecution in the family” (see Shengold, 1974b). Nor should preoedipal trauma reduce the importance of the Oedipus complex. What is crucial is how the preoedipal events influence and mold the Oedipus complex (cf. Berliner, 1940; Greenacre, 1960). Downloaded from apa.sagepub.com at UCSF LIBRARY & CKM on April 24, 2015



Treatment Whatever general principles of psychopathology can be derived from the question of the timing of trauma (one must envision a whole spectrum of possibilities with myriad possible combinations of pathological diffusions and refractions at many different points), any individual case faces the therapist with the challenge of getting the patient to establish, as best he can, what happened, how it happened, when it happened, and above all, to whom and by whom it happened. T h e effects of soul murder-child abuse and deprivation-can often be modified. iMore and more in these times we are trying to apply psychotherapy not to the so-called classical neurotic cases but to people who have been unloved, ill-used and depriveddeprived by poverty of material needs, or (more devastating) by the absence or the loss of proper pare.nta1 care; or deprived by nature of some ingredient necessary for them to be fully human (this last goes beyond soul murder). Can we help these people? Anna Freud (1976) says that we do our best as therapists with those who egos are damaged by what they have done to themselves; but, she asks, how much can we do for those whose egos are damaged at birth or by the environment in early development? These people come to us primarily not to change themselves but to change their environment. Can we help them modify their misery on the basis of a human relationship (which is what we do as analysts) if they have never had and therefore perhaps never can have a decent human relationship-if they have never had any good mothering? These are terrible questions. We require that our patients be capable of transference. Victims of soul murder may have very little that is positive to transfer. And, indeed, there are such people, as hopeless from the point of view of potential for improvement as the terminal cancer victim is at present in relation to physical therapy. We may be able to understand a good deal about how such people became what they are, but interpreting our knowledge may be of little help Downloaded from apa.sagepub.com at UCSF LIBRARY & CKM on April 24, 2015



to them. (Social changes guided by the knowledge of human development may someday have much to offer in the way of prophylaxis, as Miss Freud reminds us.) Treating soul murder means first of all discovering it. T h e psychotherapist must be aware of the possibility of the kind of parental pathology that can contribute to crushing the child’s sense of identity and capacity for feeling. The therapist must be able to suspend disbelief in the patient’s stories of cruelty and incest7-in order to help him with the most difficult task of differentiating fantasies from actual events. Patients frequently exaggerate and distort fantasy-laden accusations against the parents. It is the analyst’s task neither to assume that what the patient presents about his parents is true nor that it is false, but to observe and deal with how the patient himself works with the accusations: resists; distorts; denies; deals with the memory-quality of past events. The patient will try to make the analyst responsible for testing the reality of past events. This must be resisted. (Cf. Greenacre, 1975; see also Ferenczi, 1933, on the reality of patients’ accusations of sexual abuse.) There is great resistance to the idea of a psychotic or psychopathic or destructive parent, and the therapist has to realize that it is not only the patient who can have a need for the parents to be good. In conducting supervision, I have found supervisees to be, in general, more aware of the countertransference tendency to blame parents than the tendency to spare them. The therapist’s need (despite intellectual acceptance) to deny when parental destructiveness appears is as intense and as complex as the similarly held need to deny the Oedipus complex. (On these issues involving parental evil and evil wishes toward them, analysts should need no reminding that they are followers of one of the “disturbers of peace of the world” [Freud, 1915-1916, p. 2851.) Denial is often evoked in the revival of the patient’s ’There was incest in relation to Mr. A.

M r . A’s

family which involved the father, but not in

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childhood that is centered on the therapist. It is necessary in treatment to establish what happened to the patient (with concomitant release of appropriate feeling), and also to develop the patient’s knowledge bolh (not either/or, as the patient will-defensively-try to maintain, but both) of what his parents were and are like, and what he is like. T h e identification with the bad parent as well as the submission to him must become conscious. In brief: the patient must know what he has suffered, at whose hands, and’how it has affected him. The means he uses to not know, to deny, must be made fully conscious; the patient must give up his defenses of massive isolation and compartmentalization; often, one must analyze the use of autohypnosis to accomplish this (Shengold, 1974a). We must scrutinize, as best we can, the patient’s past reality and understand how his sense of reality developed in order to modify it toward eliminating inhibitions (Wallerstein, 1973). The most difficult task for the analyst is dealing with the patient’s transference and projection. These are people whose bad expectations are of almost delusional intensity and whose rage is at a cannibalistic pitch (threatening destruction of both self- and parent imagoes as the rage begins to be felt). Fear of his murderous rage is the greatest burden for the patient. It takes skill and empathy to help the patient in his struggle to tolerate the terrible anger, and in some cases it turns out to be too much for him to bear. And if this continues to be so, the responsible knowledge that the rage is there (even if it cannot be felt fully) enables the patient to think about it and to use it as a warning signal; this can make emotional growth possible. ( A h . B., for example, was not able to stand the re-experience of the full intensity of his rage toward his parents. It was just too much for him-he couldn’t take the panic. But he was able to begin to have the anger and [on his own, not just by using the analyst] to know it was there; thus, he was frequently able to avoid a n automatic identification with, or a submission to, the hated and enraged parent-figure. H e treated people better, and they treated him better.) The Downloaded from apa.sagepub.com at UCSF LIBRARY & CKM on April 24, 2015



superego can be modified if the rage becomes registrable and a t least partly dischargeable. The splits in the superego involving masochism and the unconscious need for punishment, along with a n arrant overpermissiveness can be at least partly synthesized; so can what I have called the “unassimilated introjects” of the good and the bad parents (see Shengold, 1974a, pp. 112-113). With successful therapy, the false identity and the as-if faGade, as the emotional relationship to the analyst is ‘allowed, can give way to a feeling of authenticity. T h e destructive and self-destructive robot is able to become a human being with a n ability to tolerate contradictions and maintain emotional ambiguity that is so necessary for full humanity. T h e analyst has the privilege of assisting in the psychological rebirth of a soul. Suinin ary

Soul murder involves the deliberate traumatization or deprivation by a n authority (parent) of his charge (child). The victim is robbed of his identity and of the ability to maintain authentic feelings. Soul murder remains effective if the capacity to think and to know has been sufficiently interfered with-by way of brainwashing. Questions are raised about pathogenesis. Some suggestions are made about treatment of those whose pathogenic fantasy life has been so influenced by traumatic reality. The need to identify with and to maintain the illusion of a good parent enforces the difficult resistance of denial (brainwashing becomes self-enforced). Paradoxically, in order to survive and adjust, some of these people so traumatized as children develop unusual strengths and gifts. REFERENCES Bender, L. & Blau, A. (1937), Incest and the sexual abuse of children. j’.Arner. Acad. Child Psjchiat., 16:334-346.

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Berliner, B. (1 940), Libido and reality in masochism. Psyhoanal. Quart., 9:322-333. Dickes, R. (1965), The defensive function of an altered state of consciousness: A hypnoid state. This Journal, 13:365-403. Dostoyevsky, F. (1880), The Urofhers h-aramazoo, tr. C. Garnett. New York: Xlodern Library, undated. Ferenczi, S. (1933), Confusion of tongues between adults and the child. In: Final Contributions to the Problems and Methods of Psjchoanalyis. Xew York: Basic Books, 1955, pp. 155-167. Fliess, R. (1953), The hypnotic evasion. Psyhoanal. Quarf., 22:497-511. -(1956), Erogeneitj and Libido. New York: International Universities Press. -(1961), Ego and Uodj Ego. New York: International Universities Press, 1972. -(1973), Sjmbol, Dream, and Psyhosis. New York: International Universities Press. Freedman, D. (1969), The role of early mother/child relations: The etiology of some cases of mental retardation. In: Adrances in ,\lental Science I: Congenital Alental Retardation, ed. G. Farrell. Austin: University of Texas Press, pp. 245261. -(1971), Congenital and perinatal sensory deprivation: Some studies in early development. h e r . J . Psyhiat., 127:1537-1545. -(3975), Congenital and perinatal sensory deprivations: Their effect on the capacity to experience affect. Psyhoanal. Quarf., 44:62-80. -& Brown, S. (1968), O n the role of coenesthetic stimulation in the development of psychic structure. Psychoanal. Quart., 37:418-438. Freud, A. (1976), A discussion of Andre Green’s and Leo Rangell’s “Papers on Change in Psychoanalysis.” In: Plenary Session on Changes in Psychoanalytic Practice and Experiences: Theoretical, Technical and Social Implications (L. Shengold &J. McLaughlin, reporters). Internaf.J. Psjcho-Anal., 57:261-274. Freud, S. (191 I ) , Psycho-analytical notes on a n autobiographical account of a case of paranoia (dementia paranoides). Standard Edition, 12:3-82. -(1915-1916), Introductorylectures on psycho-analysis. StandardEdition: 15. Greenacre, P. (1960), Regression and fixation. In: Emotional Growth. New York: International Universities Press, 1971, pp. 162-181. -(l968), Perversions: General considerations regarding their genetic and dynamic background. In: Emotional Grozcth. New York: International Universities Press, 1971, pp. 300-314. -(1975), O n reconstruction. ThisJournal, 23:293-312. Ibsen, H. (1896), John Gabriel Borkman, tr. \V. Archer. In: Collected H’orks, 11:179-353. New York: Scribners, 1926. Koestler, A. (1941), Darkness a f h‘oon. New York: h k i c m i h n . Kohut, H. (1971), The Anabsis of the Self. New York: International Universities Press. Lichtenstein, H. (1964), T h e role of narcissism in the emergence and maintenance of a primary identity. Internal. J . Pgcho-Anal., 45:49:56. -(1971), The malignant no: A hypothesis concerning the interdependence of the sense of self and the instinctual drives. In: T h e Unconscious Today, ed. hi. Kanzer. New York: International Universities Press, pp. 147-176. Xlahler, A l . & Furer, &(1968), I. On Human Sjmbiosis and the I’icissitudes of Indicidu‘afion.New York: International Universities Press. Niederland, \V. (1959a), The “miracled-up” world of Schreber’s childhood. The

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Psjchoanal$ic Sfudy o f f h e Child, 14:383-413. New York: International Universities Press. -(39>9b), Schreber, father and son. Psychoanal. Quarf., 28:151-169. -(1960), Schreber’s father. ThisJournal, 8:492.499. -(1963), Further data and memorabilia pertaining to the Schreber case. Infernal. J . Psycho-Anal., 44 :201-207. Nietzsche, F. (1886), Beyond good and evil. In: T h e Philosophy ofNicfzrche. New York: Modern Library, undated. Orgel, S. & Shengold, L.L. (1968), The fatal gifts of Xledea. Infernaf.J . PsychoAnal., 49:379-385. Orwell, G. (1949), 798.l. New York: Harcourt Brace. Rascovsky, XI. & Rascovsky, A. (1950), O n consummated incest. Internal. J . Psjcho-Anal., 22:42-47. Rosenfeld, A., Nadelson, C., Krieger, hi., & Backman, J. (1977), Incest and the sexual abuse of children. J . Amer. Acad. Child I’syhiaf., 16:334-346. Schatzman, X i . (l973), Soul Murder: Persecufion in the Farnib. New York: Random House. Schreber, P. (1903), hlmoirs of My Nervous Nlnrsr, ed. I. MacAlpine & R. Hunter. London: Dawson, 1955. Shengold, L. (1963), The parent as sphinx. ThisJournal, 11:725-751. -(1967), The effects of overstimulation: Rat people. Infernal. J . Psjcho-Anal., 48~403-415. -(1971), More about rats and rat people. Infernal. J . Psjcho-Anal., 52:277288. -(1974a), T h e metaphor of the mirror. ThisJournal, 22:97-1 15. -(1974b), Soul murder, a review. Internal. J . Psjchother., 3:366-373. -(l975), An attempt at soul murder: Rudyard Kipling’s early life and work. The Psyhoana[yfic Sfudy of the Child, 30:683-724. New Haven: Yale University Press. Silber, A. (1974), Rationale for the technique of psychotherapy with alcoholics. Infcrnaf.J . Psjchofher., 3:28-47. -(1977), The alcohol-induced hypnoid state and its analytic corollary. Infernal. J . Psjchofher., 6:253-264. Spitz, R. (1945), Hospitalism: An inquiry into the genesis of psychiatric conditions in early childhood. T h e Psjchoanabfic Study of [he Child, 153-74, New York: International Universities Press. (l946a), Hospitalism: A follow-up report. The Psjchoanaljfic SfudJ of [he Child, 2:113-117, New York: International Universities Press. -(1946b), Anaclitic depression. T h e Psychoanabtic Study of the Child, 2:313342, New York: International Universities Press. -(1964), The derailment of dialogue: Stimulus overload and the completion gradient. ThisJournal, 12:752-775. Steele, B. (1970), Parental abuse of infants and small children. In: Parenlhood, ed. J. Anthony & T. Benedek. New York: Little, Brown, pp. 449477. -(l976), Violence within the family. In: Child Abuse andn’eglecl, ed. R. Helfer & C. Kempe. Cambridge, Mass.: Ballinger, pp. 3-23. -(1977), Psychoanalytic observations on attachment and development of abused children. Presented at Annual Meeting of the American Psychoanalytic Association at Quebec City, April 30, 1977. -Kempe, C. et al. (1962), The battered-child syndrome. JAMA, 181 :17-24.


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-8r Pollock, C.


(1968), A psychiatric study of parents who abuse infants and small children. In: The BufferedChild, ed. R. Helfer & C. Kernpe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 103-147. Stoller, R. (1973), Splitling: A Case of Female Afastulinify. New York: Quadrangle Press. Trilling, L. (1948), Manners, morals and the novel. In: The Liberal Imaginafion. New York: Viking, 1950, pp. 205-222. von Feuerbach, A. (1832), xarpar Hauser, tr. H. Linberg. London: Simpkin & hlarshall, 1834. \Vallerstein, R. (l973), Psychoanalytic perspectives on the problem of reality. This Journal, 21 :5-33.

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Child abuse and deprivation: soul murder.

: AND DEPRIVATION: : LEOBARD L. SHEBGOLD. M.D. SOUL MURDER : CHILDABUSE I ,\SSUAIE THATACTUAL o v E i t \ w E L ~ m cexperiences in the course of a...
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