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Two Terrified Children


By Sharon R. Kahn, Ph.

Paper presented at the Ferenczi International Conference 2006 in Baden-Baden, Germany


        Sandor Ferenczi may have sought to recreate his unresolved family tensions within the burgeoning brood of psychoanalyst.   Ferenczi’s need for nurturance was of such intensity that even marriage could not offer a successful resolution for him, raveled as his needs were within a tendency to situate himself in triangulated relationships, where he could simultaneously satisfy his sibship needs and his reparenting needs.

        The need to always have a sibling present may have played some role in the formulation of mutual analysis, just as Freud’s primogeniture must have played a role in his formulation of and fierce adherence to his Oedipal theory, where a young boy, torn between his desire for the mother and his fear of castration by the father, must learn to identify with the father. 

        Disappointed in Freud’s adherence to the analytic tradition he had founded and unwillingness to explore innovations further, Ferenczi found in Groddeck the confidante he lacked, the elder brother whom would take over some of the nurturing functions the overburdened mother could not longer provide.  This paper will explore the role of ordinal position and the triangulated relationships between Ferenczi, Groddeck, and Freud in the formulation of their signature theories and how Oedipus won and Ferenczi’s children lost.

Two Terrified Children Versus Oedipus:  Oedipus Won

        Psychoanalysts garner entertainment and education from parsing the long running, misery-filled melee between Freud and his follower, Ferenczi. Like many good sagas, it offers stories replete with articulate protagonists, and, endless dissections of desertions, desires, denouements, deaths, and desuetude.   A neglected aspect of this relationship will be addressed in this paper, that is, how ordinal positions and cultural forces impacted on the triangulated relationships between Ferenczi, Groddeck, and Freud, and, served as an overdetermined variable in the formulation of their signature theories.  Ultimately, these variables yield insights as to how Oedipus won the zero-sum game for the analytic empire.

        Sandor Ferenczi, the eighth of twelve children, might have projected his ordinal position conflicts onto the burgeoning brood of psychoanalysts.  He looked to Freud to enact the role of his mother, a woman he blamed for his suppurating psychological flaws.   This perceived lack of individual nurturance so wounded him that well into his middle-years, he wrote a lengthy letter to Groddeck blaming his mother for making him into a hypocrite.  “…certainly didn’t get enough love and did get too much severity…how could anything but hypocrisy result….?”  (Christmas day letter to Groddeck, 1921, p. 8).  How is it that months after her death, years after his marriage,  decades after entering adulthood, well into that period of life where he would be expected to be raising his own children, he remains stuck in time, complaining in effect, “My mother just doesn’t appreciate me.”  Ultimately, this letter has value because what he could not obtain from his mother, he demanded from others. 

        As an initial recipient of such projections,  Freud could neither mother Ferenczi nor analyze him. (Rudnysky, 2002).   Weary of his friend’s neediness, Freud persuaded Ferenczi to marry his mistress, Gisella Palos, who only offered partial resolution for Ferenczi’s need for nurturance, as she failed to resolve his need to triangulated relationships, where he could form a dyadic alliance with a sibling against a parent—Otto Rank, Elma Palos, Elizabeth Severn, and Georg Groddeck, to cite just a few who fulfilled such functions. 

        Otto Rank may have initially represented an important fraternal figure, an early favorite of Freud, and an exciting intellectual collaborator, an analytic playmate.  Here was someone he could issue joint writs with, and not serve as a mere amanuensis for, as was the case with Freud.

        Palos’ and Severn’s  sexuality and vulnerability may have stirred his own passionate confusions.  Palos, the daughter of his mistress, came to him at her mother’s behest, seeking comfort after the suicide of her fiancée. She may have represented the maternal vulnerability after the death of his father.   Severn represented another aspect of his maternal imago, the stern mother he feared.  Finally,  Groddeck, whose passion and vitality burst the tethers of conventions from the moment he took the platform at the analytic congress and proclaimed, “I am a wild analyst,” may have represented a vigorous life-force tethered within his other relationships.

        Inevitably, such relationships represented aspects of Ferenczi unacceptable to Freud and may have woven the ravel for a confusion of tongues between Freud and Ferenczi  and may  explain why the Oedipal Complex held more sway for Freud than for Ferenczi and why Ferenczi, unable to achieve the intimacy he wanted within the rigid hierarchical relationship offered by Freud, turned to Groddeck  to form a new fraternity.

        Freud’s primogeniture offered him certain knowledge unavailable to the other two, and partially explains his fierce adherence to, and insistence in the primacy of the Oedipal theory. Only an eldest such as Freud could remember a time when he was the sole recipient of his mother’s love. Ferenczi, the eighth of twelve children and the fifth son; and Groddeck, the fourth of five children and the third son; never had this, and entered into a vastly more complicated network of family relationships. Hence, it would be little surprising that the Oedipus complex held less resonance for them and played lesser roles in their psychoanalytic formulations.  

        Conquest was an early ruling passion of Freud.  Freud suggested the naming his youngest brother Alexander after the ancient world conqueror.  As a youth, Freud’s sisters piano lessons ceased after he complained their cacophony  imperiled his concentration.   Freud created himself as a superman, an aggressive conqueror, creating a more satisfactory universe than that which his passive ovine father bleatingly bequeathed to him, where roving anti-Semites can just knock  one about, unaccountable and unaccountably, and be apologized to. Freud rejected any vulnerabilities within himself.  Freud was first Hannibal, sworn to revenge, and later, Oedipus, killing the father he fails to identify with. Examples abound of Freud’s superman fantasies.  Freud advised his fiancée to fortify herself with injections of cocaine as insurance that she could tolerate the rigors of their nuptials.  Subsequently, and in serial order, he refused the offers of  Jung, Ferenczi, and Groddeck to analyze him, as he was unable to cede his authority to anyone.  Anyone who hoped to continue on with him, even his own daughter, Anna, had to honor this pretense, agreeing with her elderly, cancer-stricken father that though she would clean and change his jaw prosthesis, this quotidian  ritual would never be discussed among them.  To be in the winner’s circle, everyone has to enter into his state of denial.

        Oedipal theory postulates murderous feelings of rivalry against the father for the mother by a young boy, who must deal with his fear of castration by his father as punishment for this desire.  In order to successfully resolve the crisis, the young boy must learn to identify with the father. And Freud would not do so.  Freud focused on the son, not the infanticidal father who sets the tragedy in motion. Laertes, attempting to avoid the oracles prediction that his son would murder him and marry Jocasta plans to have a shepherd murder Oedipus.    Freud’s notion of oedipal conflict was “devoid of shame and blindness…[replete with] incest and parricide.” (Kilborne, 2003, p. 290).  Others view the components of the Oedipal phase as Freud's way of resolving his ambivalent relationship with his mother, (Ferenczi, 1933; Fromm, 1955; Kramer, 1995) as an aspect of Freud's misunderstanding of feminine psychology (Horney, 1937), as Freud’s  “failure to recognize the common bond between father and son.” (Colman, 2000, p.526), or as Freud's enmeshment in a patriarchal culture which emphasizes competition, jealousy, and prolonged dependency (Sullivan, 1925).  Freud’s Oedipus is a heroic conqueror, invulnerable, seeking no comforter.

        Ferenczi criticized Freud’s blindness to such alternative interpretations, “that the father must die when the son grows up...Freud as the son really did want to kill his father. Instead of admitting this, he founded…the parricidal Oedipus, but obviously applied only to others, not to himself." (Ferenczi, 1932/1988, pp.184-185).  No emphasis is placed upon a child’s vulnerability, need for adult protection, and, possible projection of adult fantasies, in the Freudian oedipal complex.

        In a macro-context, perhaps the oedipal theory could only have been generated and venerated within a weltanschauung of males situated within a monarchy.  In a monarchy, the only way a prince can attain full power is to be crowned king upon the death of his father.  Further complicating this is that in a hierarchical culture, adult princes who suffer the misfortune to have long-lived parents are often figures of public ridicule (Victoria's son Edward, for example, or Elizabeth's II Charles), for while the king has a fairly well-defined role, that of the prince is more ambiguous.  By contrast, in a democratic culture, mechanisms exist to insure routine transitions to power.   Adult roles are more fluid and less dependent on parental status.   

        Freud despised democratic societies:  he loathed America, Americans, and American émigrés.  He once stated, “It is a mistake, a gigantic mistake.” (Jones, 1955, p. 60).  And so, within the psychoanalytic realm, Freud is the potentate, Ferenczi, as well as all of Freud’s other viziers are impotent:  biologically and metaphorically, musing at one point, “I landed in the ‘service of love’….remaining dependent…subordinate…[Freud] does not allow anyone to be original.” (Ferenczi, 1932/1988, pp. 159-160). .

        What ultimately held resonance for Ferenczi was in perfecting his version of mutual analysis.  What he first scorned when practiced by Jung he ultimately adapted in response to the request of his patient, Elizabeth Severn.  Apparently, for them, that meant a literal role-reversal, with back-to-back sessions, one with him as analyst to the patient; one with him as analysand for the patient.  Ferenczi’s patients, like him, remembered markedly traumatic childhood experiences with adults who would not maintain appropriate sexual boundaries.  Ferenczi’s simple transcription of a session is pure gothic horror. The patient felt the “….weight of enormous body crushing her chest, then follow an endless series of terribly painful genital attacks…she now sees the whole event as though from the outside...sensation of being dead…the memory…preserved.” (Ferenczi, 1932/1988, p. 103).  Mutual analysis is a therapeutic remediation of their core trauma:  authority figures who created what Ferenczi was to call a confusion of tongues:  the child wants adult nurturance and affection but is sexually violated in return; the analysand wants analytic empathy and validation, but is emotionally violated by analytic austerity and skepticism.  

        More over-determined, later born children, such as Ferenczi, may have more experience being parented and nurtured by their elder-siblings.  When peril is perceived, younger children use their elder siblings as coping models.  It comes as no surprise that Ferenczi imagined mutual analysis as a dyadic cosmos replete with orphaned children:

        Certain phases of mutual analysis represent the complete renunciation of….authority on both sides; they give the impression of two equally terrified children….who compare their experiences and because of their common fate, understand each other completely and instinctually try to comfort each other.  Awareness of this shared fate allows the partner to appear….as someone one can trust with confidence (Ferenczi, 1932/1988, p. 56).

        There is a certain fairy-tale motif to the whole concept; like Hansel and Gretel, in a mutual analysis, two peers must cooperatively solve their dilemma, in opposition to the Oedipal theory, where there are no peers, only castrating rivals who must be neutralized if the hero is to be the reunited with his mother. Oedipus is the solver of the riddle:  he does not collaborate.  There are no validators here, only violators, and no happy endings to the dilemma which ensues.  Fathers die as instigators; mothers as colludes.  With Freud, there were no negotiations, no compromises.  As Ferenczi would become aware, to argue against the Oedipal would render him Freud’s murderer too!            

        Unlike Jakob Freud to his son; Baruch Frenkel, Ferenczi’s father, was a hero who fought to free Hungary from Austrian dominion, modestly refused to ennoble his name, and turned to founding a family. He died when Ferenczi was 15, a critical period as adolescents endeavor to establish a distinct identity for themselves, separate from their parents. (Erikson, 1968).   Ferenczi was deprived of his opportunity to realistically evaluate his father and became stuck, an “enfant terrible,” failing to establish a mature identity for himself.  The death of his father at age 15 before the formation of a realistic appraisal of the man, may have froze Bernat in time  for his son and rendered him immune from further filial analysis.  These affects might be unconsciously projected onto the mother, for surviving.  Instead of anger that  Bernat  abandoned his eight surviving children and anxiety over Rosa’s ability to handle her new dual parental role, Ferenczi, still in school,  may have experienced himself as a terrified child alongside his three younger siblings.

        Remaining stuck in a passive infantile identity contributed to Ferenczi’s temporary legacy of ignominy and therapeutic desuetude.   In life, he had difficulties making decisions and independently taking action.  He achieved only while enmeshed in hierarchical structures, excelling in school and fulfilling his compulsory military service admirably.  Interpersonally, he floundered, unable to commit to marriage and start a dynasty.  For most of his adult life he was involved in a triangulated love relationship between his wife and his step-daughter. If the whole account was not epistolary documented throughout the Freud/Ferenczi correspondence, it would be suspect as a comic Magyar pseudo-documentary.   Ferenczi was sexually involved in a love affair with Giselle Palos, a family friend separated from her husband for over 17 years.  In Volume 1, he falls in love with the recently returned Elma Palos, distraught over the suicide of her fiancée, consulting Ferenczi at her mother’s suggestion.  According to her version, after a few sessions:

        Sandor got up from his chair behind me, sat down near me

couch and obviously carried along by passion, kissed me and in

a state of great excitement told me how much he was in love

with me and asked me if I could love him.  I don’t know if it was

true or not, but I answered him ‘yes’ and I hope that I really believed

it…I don’t remember for how many days or weeks Sandor came daily

to lunch with us as my fiance before I realized that already I loved him

less than I had thought during the analysis (Dupont, 1995, pp. 829-831).

        But Ferenczi is as ambivalent as she, and she, like Oedipus, is sent away, traveling to Vienna for more orthodox analytic treatment with Freud while Ferenczi continues to play Prince Hamlet, unable to decide whether to be a father and commit to a sexual relationship with a nubile female; or to be a son, and commit to a sexual relationship with a maternal female..  Volume II is filled alternations between love and loathing; admiring Giselle for her intellect, and annihilating her for her infertility. When Freud is about to lose patience, still unable to decide whether to be or not to be, he requested that Freud tender the marriage proposal to Giselle and then continued this unsatisfactory arrangement rather than divorce his wife and try again with Elma.  He looked to Freud to provide him with an empathic, attuned, ideal maternal imago to little avail. Eventually, he blames his inability to be sexually happy on Freud.   Ferenczi, unlike Freud, could not be an Oedipal winner–in his “Clinical Diary,” he claimed his mother branded him as her murderer. This intense confusion of tongues experience must have completed his feelings of impotence:  not even being allowed to utter his developmental resentments if such complaints had lethal potential.  “…that was the turning point at which, against my own inner conviction, I forced myself to be good, and obedient.” (Ferenczi, 1932/1988, p. 99).   He was mired in one-person relationships.  If Freud abandoned him, he risked losing an important psychic redoubt, writing in his Clinical Diary: “I was brave (and productive) only as long as I (unconsciously) relied for support on another power.” (Ferenczi, 1932/1988, p. 257).                     

        Disappointed in Freud’s adherence to the analytic tradition he had founded and unwillingness to explore innovations further, Ferenczi found in the Sanitarium Groddeck a friendly family and in Groddeck the confidante he lacked, the older brother whom would serve as role model and assume the nurturing functions that Ferenczi’s recently deceased mother never could provide to his terrified child.

        By the time Ferenczi initiated his relationship with Groddeck, in September, 1921, his mother had been dead three months and Groddeck had long been bereft of both parents and siblings.   Ferenczi suffered from nephrosclerosis and headaches at that time and sought treatment from Groddeck, as well as offering himself as an emissary and conduit to Freud. Groddeck interpreted kidney disease as a somatic manifestation of the individual’s straddling “two things…to be both childlike or grownup.” (Groddeck, 1923/1961, p. 188).   No wonder that Ferenczi found his stays there an “analytical holiday;” Groddeck reciprocated Ferenczi’s enthusiastic feelings.  Writing of Ferenczi, he stated: “I feel so close to him…we have become good friends.” (Grossman & Grossman, 1965, pp.125-126).  Ferenczi shaped his relationship with Groddeck into another sibship, where “disillusionment with parents, teachers, and other heroes, children unite among themselves and form alliances.” (Ferenczi, 1932/1988, p. 56).  Others saw the dyad as offering a mutual analytic therapy:   “Each man became for the other a surrogate for Freud, with the result that both men’s relationship with Freud…cooled.” (Rudnytsky, 2002, p. 170).

        Not only did Ferenczi and Groddeck turn to each other for what neither was able to obtain from Freud.  Additionally, Ferenczi began a correspondence with Groddeck and his epistolary output to Freud decreased.    His letters to Groddeck were intimate and analytic, making him into a confederate against that austere Freud.  He wrote to Groddeck about his early childhood sexual traumas, difficulties with his mother, and his continuing desire for Elma. (Fortune, 2002). Scanning the three volumes of the Freud/Ferenczi correspondence, one can concretely catalog the consequences:    Volume I of the Freud/Ferenczi correspondence spans six years and comprises 483 letters exchanged.  Ferenczi wrote an average of 42.0 letters per year to Freud. Volume II spans five years and comprises 344 letters exchanged.  Ferenczi wrote an average of 38.4 letters per year. Volume III, which encompasses the period of time after Ferenczi met Groddeck, spans 13 years and comprises 417 letters exchanged.  Ferenczi wrote an average of 18.2 letters per year.   (Brabant, Falzeder, and Giampieri-Deutch, 1996, 2000; Falzeder, Brabant, & Giampieri-Deutch, 1993).

        Groddeck, like Ferenczi, had a mother uninterested in devoting herself to his nurturance; Groddeck’s mother did not breast feed him and did not obtain a wet-nurse until he was three days post-natal. Caroline Groddeck’s identity was bounded by being her father’s daughter;  less so being her children’s mother or her husband’s wife.  Groddeck, like Ferenczi, had an intimate relationship with a married woman and married her, but unlike Ferenczi could, when desire waned, separate, divorce her and marry his much younger former patient.  Groddeck, unlike Freud, had little problems assuming a maternal imago: “An analyst could be a mother figure, peer figure, any type of figure.” ((Rudnytsky, 2002, p. 188).  Even more useful for Ferenczi, Groddeck was attuned to the ambivalent violence in mother-son relations, stating:  “There has never yet been a man who did not kill his mother.” (Rudnytsky, 2002, p.199).

        Groddeck, like Ferenczi, was attuned to the role of the female in infantile life and phantasy.  Unlike Freud, who believed females envy male prowess as concreted by the penis; Groddeck believed males envy female prowess, as concretized by the ability to give birth.   Groddeck was an early advocate of a natural childbirth experience, offering education on labor and delivery, as well as teaching controlled breathing exercises to decrease fear, perception of pain, and reliance on medications. 

        Groddeck, the terrifying Teuton, was no passive vessel offering containment but a hyper- masculine mother, sublimating early experiences of maternal deprivation and murderous desires into a vigorous healing through massage and dietary restrictions. Perhaps Groddeck could tolerate Ferenczi’s need for intimacy, because, unlike Freud, such relationships did not arouse his homosexual anxieties.  He was no passive nurturer:  his treatments verged on the brink of violence. Groddeck’s therapy was literally hands on; whereas Freud’s analysis was emphatically hands-off one.    Frederic Kovacs, a former patient, wrote detailed letters about his treatment at the Sanitarium.  He wrote of a typical massage that he received “a pounding which would have done justice to a 200 kilo Cossack.” (Fortune, 2002, p. 119).   Groddeck acted as his belief that mother could be as feared a figure as father.  (Grossman & Grossman, 1965). 

        Groddeck offered as a feeding experience a diet of deprivation.  According to Kovacs, breakfast was “black coffee and a roll with a little butter.  Lunch was “soft white cheese or an egg with 15 grams of bread.   Afternoon tea: a buttered roll.  Finally, there was 80 grams of meat or a bit of fish with 15 grams of bread and black coffee.”  (Fortune, 2002, p.121)   And yet, despite this rough treatment, or perhaps because he combined this with hands on work, he tapped into affectionate impulses from patients.  Kovacs at one point stated: “among us, when one receives such hard blows…our custom is to return them. He said…before I leave, I could do that.  But I said that I would more likely want to stroke him. He really is a kind and remarkable man.” (Fortune, 2002, p. 131). 

        However different their approaches to treatment, at root both Ferenczi and Groddeck wanted to provide a curative setting for the patient.  Ferenczi believed that mutual analysis, with its emphasis on empathy, validation, and congruence, offered curative elements for the patient.  Healing is both through insight and through empathy.  According to Rudnytsky (2002):  “Since the analyst must in some way fail-that is, murder the patient, the criterion of a successful termination becomes whether the patient is able to forgive the analyst.” (p.139). 

        Groddeck’s earlier philosophy stated that the function of a physician was “to help set in motion the healing process” (Grossman & Grossman, 1965, p.59).   Groddeck’s Sanitarium structured this process:  walks, communal celebrations, limiting new admissions, and offering a Spartan diet.   Freud, who openly spoke of patients are “rabble” could not sympathize with this desire either.

        Despite these earlier psychoanalytic anti-Oedipus’s, the eldest son Oedipal narrative remained the dominant one in psychoanalysis.  What is it within us that privileges that, when we have alternatives from Ferenczi and Groddeck, to cite just two? 

        Ferenczi was betrayed by his fidelity to Freud, unwilling to found an alternative psychoanalysis.   Jones, Eitingdon, and Freud posthumously pathologized him and his treatments.  Groddeck was uninterested in founding an alternative institute (Durrell, 1961) and betrayed by the rise of post-war rise of big pharmaceutical companies who spread the mantra of healing within a bottle, and not within the body.  

        And that is the appeal Ferenczi offers: in an Oedipal empire, where success entails the suppression of sensitivity, he always found the victim salient. But it not a generalized desire.  Oedipus offers structure and a tidy resolution.  Everyone gets what they deserve.  Freud succeeded in his boyhood dream—he conquered.   Ferenczi’s terrified children have no such closure, wandering from tragic mishap to tragic mishap, hoping to survive unto adulthood with a partner to bear witness.   Analysts  identify with heroes. Freud gives them a superman, Oedipus; Ferenczi gives them none, only vulnerable victims straggling through a forest seeking their home.  And that is how Oedipus won and patients lost. 


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