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Menninger, K.A. (1935). A Psychoanalytic Study of the Significance of Self-Mutilations. Psychoanal Q., 4:408-466.

(1935). Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 4:408-466

A Psychoanalytic Study of the Significance of Self-Mutilations

Karl A. Menninger

Before beginning a discussion of the various conditions under which self-mutilation is performed it will be helpful to outline the problem. In self-mutilation the self-destructive tendencies familiar to us in many clinical manifestations are directed upon a part of the body. We must try to determine the reason for the increased power of the destructive element and the reason for its direction back upon the self; we must also study the significance of the sacrifice and why a particular part of the body is selected for this function. We must examine on the one hand how inexorably the unconscious is bound to the talion principle of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, and on the other hand how it is that substitutions can be made in this demand.

I will first illustrate the phenomenon by a case paradigm. A rather pretty woman of thirty developed a severe depression with the delusion that all life was full of sorrow for which she was chiefly responsible. She was confined in a hospital and showed some improvement, whereupon her mother came one day and removed her against advice, insisting that she understood her daughter better than did the physicians and knew that she was well. She took her daughter home where a few nights later the patient arose while the rest of the household slept and murdered her own two-year-old child by beating it in the head with a hammer, saying that she wanted to spare the baby the suffering that she herself had endured.

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