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Peterson, C.A. (2014). Self-Object Misuse in the Production of the False Self, with Comments on Victor Hugo's The Man Who Laughs. Am. Imago, 71(3):315-336.

(2014). American Imago, 71(3):315-336

Self-Object Misuse in the Production of the False Self, with Comments on Victor Hugo's The Man Who Laughs

Charles A. Peterson, Ph.D.


This is the story of two children, dominated, coerced, and misused by others, the first by brutal parents and the second by a vengeful monarch. One of the characters is pen and ink, the other flesh and blood. The first was outwardly alive, but struggled with an inner deadness; the second was a fictional character brought to life in an arraignment of royalty. When children, their fates were altered, sacrificed, their moods coerced and their minds mystified, the result being a temporary restoration of mood in the powerful and a more permanent deformation of character and affect pathology in the powerless. Self-object misuse—in this case coercion and compliance—was the breeding ground of the False-Self organization.

The stages upon which our dramatis personae stride begin in the secure hold of the psychoanalytic situation, before moving to the impassioned pages of Victor Hugo's magnificent and psychoanalytically un-scrutinized novel, The Man Who Laughs. The essay will first present the case of a depleted narcissist with False-Self features seen over four and a half years of twice-weekly psychoanalytic psychotherapy. Like the treatment, the essay will be interrupted and informed by an insistent countertransference reverie, leading to a surprising link with Victor Hugo's The Man Who Laughs, after which it will return to the patient's therapy, illuminated by Hugo's work.

[This is a summary excerpt from the full text of the journal article. The full text of the document is available to journal subscribers on the publisher's website here.]

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