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Soul Murder RevisitedReview - Soul Murder Revisited
Thoughts About Therapy, Hate, Love, and Memory
by Leonard Shengold
Yale University Press, 1999
Review by Naomi Gold
Feb 10th 2000 (Volume 4, Issue 6)

Leonard Shengold is a practicing psychoanalyst affiliated with the Psychoanalytic Institute at New York University. Soul Murder Revisited continues the themes presented in his 1989 book Soul Murder, in which he explored various forms of child abuse and deprivation, and the accompanying psychological trauma that often follows victims into adulthood. "Soul murder" is a continual theme in Shengold’s writings, and this latest book is the latest in a long line of writings on this subject: "Dickens, Little Dorrit, and Soul Murder," in Psychoanalytic Quarterly 57 (1988); "The Effects of Child Abuse as Seen in Adults: George Orwell," Psychoanalytic Quarterly 54 (1985); "Kaspar Hauser and Soul Murder: A Study of Deprivation," International Review of Psychoanalysis 5 (1978); and "An Attempt at Soul Murder: Rudyard Kipling’s Early Life and Work," Psychoanalytic Study of the Child 30 (1975). As this partial list reveals, a particularly interesting feature of Shengold’s work is the use he makes of historical and literary subjects, and his descriptions of the ways in which writers who suffered abuse and neglect used their creative powers to transcend the pain and psychological damage inflicted by early childhood trauma. Particularly poignant in Soul Murder Revisited is Shengold’s in-depth descriptions of the writers Algernon Swinburne and Elizabeth Bishop. Shengold says of these and the other writers he profiles: "Some of their talents may have been adaptively motivated and the need to master the traumata, the attempts at soul murder, that occurred in their childhood" (13).

Shengold defines "soul murder" as "the apparently willful abuse and neglect of children by adults that are of sufficient intensity and frequency to be traumatic." For the children who have suffered thus, "what has happened to them has dominated their motivating unconscious fantasies; and they have become subject to the compulsion to repeat the cruelty, violence, neglect, hatred, seduction, and rape of their injurious past" (1). Soul murder, says Shengold, "distort[s] and inhibit[s] the emotional life of the child...tends to destroy the child’s capacity for joy and inhibit the power to care and to is especially damaging to the capacity for love that can partially transcend narcissism, permitting caring for others" (114). This mistreatment of children by the adults who are charged with their care, says Shengold, is "based on something inherent in human nature--a destructive and sadistic drive" (2). And because such behavior has its origin in human nature itself, Shengold states that such abuse will never disappear.

Shengold maintains a high degree of empathy with the child victims whose sufferings he documents, while never relinquishing a distinctly psychoanalytic perspective and mode of interpretation. In holding this intermediary position between empathy and the kind of therapeutic objectivity that facilitates insight, Shengold distinguishes himself from Alice Miller, who has become emotionally fused with the victims about whom she writes. Another strength of Shengold’s writing is that he eschews oversimplifications. While validating and appropriately empathizing with victims of childhood abuse, at the other end of the spectrum, in a complex and nuanced chapter titled "Narcissistic Pathology," he describes a group of patients who claim to be victims of abuse, and who present with clinical symptoms resembling those of "soul murder." Yet Shengold concludes of these patients that "In spite of their strong need to accuse their parents of something grievous...the analytic explorations turned up very little that was unusual in the way of parental evil or criminality" (245). The precipitating factor in these all these cases were parents who shared a "weakness of character and relative be forceful and firmly say ‘No!’" (246). These parents imbued narcissistic delusions in their children by instilling in them a belief that the world held "no tragedies or failures, only happy endings, and no death" (246). These children, upon realizing that "the inexorable conditions of life would not always permit the fulfillment of wishes" (251), displaced their rage at these broken promises onto charges--or perhaps one might say fantasies--of actual mistreatment by their parents. In a subsequent chapter, Shengold asserts: "The conviction that something traumatic has happened, right or wrong, should originate with the patient, not with the therapist" (268). Yet even in cases where patients "unmistakably" remember the abuse, there are always levels of doubt stemming from patients’ ambivalence about hating the parents on whom they still feel dependent. There are also, says Shengold, "false convictions" (268). This mode of interpretation is likely to be a controversial one in some circles; there are varieties of popular counseling and psychotherapeutic practice that affirm all claims of abuse as de facto evidence of abuse, and the presence of certain symptoms as further, incontrovertible evidence. It is precisely to this contemporary phenomenon that Shengold addresses the remark that "More observations about different kinds of pseudo-soul murder are needed in these times of controversy about charges of child abuse" (254).

Readers of this book will be helped by having familiarity with psychoanalytic theory, but those without this background will have no difficulty gaining valuable insights into the subject of child abuse in its various forms, the coping mechanisms of victims, and the complexities involved in diagnosis and treatment.

Naomi Gold is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Toronto School of Theology.  Her  dissertation discusses and critiques the way in which psychoanalytic object-relations theory has been used by theologically-committed analytic  writers to validate theological belief systems.  She has degrees in theology and religious studies, and has an active interest in the history and development of of "New Age" religion, religious cults, and the psychology of religious belief.
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