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On IncestReview - On Incest
Psychoanalytic Perspectives
by Giovanna Ambrosio (Editor)
Karnac, 2005
Review by Lili Hsieh, Ph.D.
Oct 26th 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 43)

On Incest is a collected volume of six essays written by practicing analysts and psychiatrists from Europe and South America. Emerging from the panel on the theme of incest organized by the International Psychoanalytic Association Committee on Women and Psychoanalysis at the European Conference in Ravello, Italy in 2003, the six essays maintain a conversational style, making the reading an easy and smooth flow. Partly because of its conference proceeding format, partly, perhaps, because its contributors are practicing analysts rather than literary or cultural critics, the collection brushes quite lightly on the theoretical intricacies that the concept of incest has been fraught with since the beginning of psychoanalysis. Instead, in one or two comfortable sittings, readers can enter the virtual conference room and have wide-ranging discussions of incest from the origin, definition, and forms of incest to clinical situations and varied techniques. Although its organization a bit rudimentary and its theoretical engagement limited, the collection provides, as its subtitle indicates, multiple psychoanalytic perspectives of incest which can be interesting to practicing analysts, social workers, feminists, and students applying psychoanalysis to literary and cultural studies alike.

Incest is a famously elusive concept in psychoanalysis. The "foundational myth" of psychoanalysis is a story of incest. Yet, with his famous "abandonment" of seduction theory (or trauma theory) in 1897--"I no longer believe in my neurotica [theory of the neuroses]," as Freud blissfully confided to Wilhelm Fliess [Freud's letter to Wilhelm Fliess, September 21, 1897, in Jeffrey Masson, ed., The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess, p. 264]--Freud transfers the scene of incest to another plane, that of fantasy, thereby opening a whole new terrain for dream-analysis and infantile sexuality--or, psychoanalysis tout court. In a way, the origin of psychoanalysis lies at the intersection where the old route of seduction theory yields to the royal road of Oedipus Complex.

Although Freud's so-called abandonment of seduction theory, like his rejection of hypnosis and Charcot's cathartic method, is never a straightforward refutation but a Hegelian Aufhebun, a negation in retention, many never forgive him for "taking a flight" from the reality of sexual abuse in the romanticized notion of fantasy (or phantasy). One only needs to recall the names of Jeffrey Masson and Alice Miller to refresh the polemics surrounding the concept of incest in psychoanalysis. [Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, The Assault on Truth: Freud's Suppression of the Seduction Theory, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984; Alice Miller, Thou Shalt Not Be Aware: Society's Betrayal of the Children, translated by Hildegarde and Hunter Hannum, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984.]  Since the 1980s, incest has become a thorny, even dividing issue for both psychoanalysts and feminists. To deflect from the reality of incest is to blame the victims and perpetuating the crime, an assault on truth as Jeffrey Masson's famous title claims. For Freudian psychoanalysts, however, such a regression to pre-psychoanalytic theory of seduction is not only unpsychoanalytic; it is a betrayal, an act of treason. That the "truth" claim in both Masson and Miller is sneered at by psychoanalysts who opt for a more sophisticated "truth of fantasy" tells a lot about how incest remains an intriguing moot point in psychoanalysis.

That psychoanalysis should not be in denial of incest in reality is the departing point of the editor, Giovanna Ambrosio, European co-chair of the Committee on Women and Psychoanalysis of the International Psychoanalytic Association and editor of the journal Psycoanalisi. She writes in the introduction, "I intend to present the theme of really acted out incest, distinguishing it from incestuous fantasies" and "I think it is hazardous not to distinguish between fantasy and reality, especially when it regards the possibility of helping a patient"(3). The following essays are devoted to both the reality and the fantasmatic psychic mechanisms of incest, rather than championing one to chase out the other, as is usually the case in classical psychoanalysis or its "traitors." The competition between the seduction theory and Oedipus Complex notwithstanding, the contributors of this volume see both as essential to understanding incest in the analytic situation. The six papers take up different questions and perspectives, but at the end of the day they return to psychoanalysis, as the final contributor Brendan MacCarthy says, as "far superior to other approaches including medication" (119-20).

 The issues which the six essays present are interestingly variegated. Simona Argentieri's "Incest Yesterday and Today: From Conflict to Ambiguity" asks how the changes of familial structures over the past few decades should also change the psychoanalytic theory of Oedipalization and gender identity. Setting the theoretical tone for the book, Argentieri advocates a hybrid, middle ground of "post-Freudian" theories--drive psychology, ego psychology, self-psychology, and object relations school--to look for a psychoanalytic theory of incest for today. Juan Eduardo Tesone's "Incest(s) and the Negation of Otherness" looks especially at the psychic mechanism of the incest perpetrators. For Tesone, the incestuous wish of the perpetrator is "a wish to be omnipotent" (54), "one of the severe forms of narcissistic disorders" (57) that obliterates the otherness of the child. Monique Cournut-Janin's "Incest: the Crushed Fantasy" takes into consideration different forms of incest: father-daughter incest, father-son incest, mother-son incest, and mother-daughter incest. She offers several interesting cases, including a brief discussion of Freud's case of Katrina, whose incestuous relationship with her father was disguised as an uncle to niece seduction when Freud published it in Studies on Hysteria (1895). Estela V. Welldon's interesting essay, "Incest: A Therapeutic Challenge" presents two propositions. First, she points out the dangerous countertransference that reproduces the incest dynamic when the analyst sympathizes with or becomes protective, even possessive, of the patient. Secondly, because power and secrecy is consistently the pattern inherent in the dynamic of incest family, Welldon believes that group therapy, in her words, "can become, if well administered, the best form of treatment for victims and perpetrators of incest" (94). Mariam Alizade's "Incest: the Damaged Psychic Flesh" relocates incestuous fantasies in prohibition and separates from it the "obnoxious incest"--the one that damages the biological and psychic flesh. Finally, Brendan MacCarthy's "Counterpoints" concludes by asking several interesting questions: Does the gender of the analysts matter? When does the incestuousness start, if it predates the act itself? Taking up Argentieri's suggestion that psychoanalytic theory needs to accommodate social changes to account for incest yesterday and today, MacCarthy pleads for more engagement with psychoanalysis for a theory of incest for us to think about "Incest: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow" (120).

Apart from being extremely readable, the strength of the collection lies in the various subtopics brought up by its six contributors. For example, Cournut-Janin's point that "mother-son incest is the one which has attracted the strongest prohibition; the mother-daughter pattern is still to a great extent unclear" (75) brings up the oftentimes overlooked role of the maternal figure in incest. It would be interesting to see how Cournut-Janin would engage with past feminist theories that valorize the maternal figure and differentiate maternal care from incestuousness. It is also hard to underestimate the potential of Welldon's proposal to turn to group analysis, even if it sounds transgressive to put the victim and the perpetrator in the same group. But as Welldon points out, the one-to-one analytical situation too often triggers the transference and countertransference that are the mimetic representation of the incestuous familial dynamics. Moreover, to bring in MacCarthy's point that in the analytic situation of incest cases, the analyst is constantly under watch of the patient to see if s/he will look "shocked, disapproved, become excited or even aroused" (119), group analysis can be a useful way to for the full circle of affective seduction to emerge and become an object of analysis.

Although the book is not devoid of flickers of original ideas, provocative questions, and illuminating cases, its theoretical depth suffers as the essays seem to keep to the original conference format. In some of the papers, case reports outweigh theoretical discussions. There are also moments of theoretical infelicities. Beginning from Argentieri's theoretical manifesto for the collection, the endeavor of the essays seems to be driven by a wish for a theoretical middle-ground. Yet a middle ground can be a compromise. Tesone's essay, for example, enlists different psychoanalytic theorists such as Laplanche, Green, and Ferenczi, only to arrive at an interpretation of incest perpetrators as suffering from narcissistic disorder, a theory which in fact meshes well with self-psychology. One asks: but isn't the inclination of narcissism and unconscious aggression against otherness a common denominator of human psyche? Similarly, the lack of theoretical precision leads Alizade to postulate a structural inclination to incest based on prohibition and an "obnoxious incest," without fully addressing the implications and differentiation of incestuousness and the bodily event of incest.

My final, albeit minor, complaint about the book is the somewhat mystic presence of the concept of cure. As a former social worker who was deeply frustrated by cases of incest clients, I waited for more specific guidelines for cure. As much as I appreciated the fresh light the book sheds to different aspects of incest, I grew uncomfortable after numerous narrations of the sufferings from incest (Alizade's essay, the one before MarCarthy's closing, ends with exasperating words of her patient, Natalie, "My bones hurt, my left shoulder hurts, my throat hurts, I always get colds and when I cough my forehead hurts… When my stepmother made me wash the dishes it was too much, I felt weak, my whole arm aches now...," p. 113). Apart from Welldon's discussions, the attention to techniques is scanty. The book's psychoanalytic venture into "real" incest is a pioneering and admirable step. Indeed, as MarCarthy concludes, we need to be more engaged with psychoanalysis for a theory of incest of tomorrow. That hope, I think, can only be fulfilled by more vigorous theorization of the seeds of ideas presented in this collection.


© 2005 Lili Hsieh


Lili Hsieh, Ph.D., Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow, English Department/Humanities Forum, University of Pennsylvania


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