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Greenacre, P. (1973). The Primal Scene and the Sense of Reality. Psychoanal Q., 42:10-41.

(1973). Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 42:10-41

The Primal Scene and the Sense of Reality

Phyllis Greenacre, M.D.

In this paper I present some aspects of the influence of the primal scene on the development and functioning of the sense of reality. These become evident in certain circumscribed distortions of external reality and especially in the creation and persistence of specific illusions. My conclusions are based on my own clinical experience, supplemented by the clinical reports of others and the findings of many colleagues who have done systematic work in studying the behavior of infants. Finally, I shall refer to and give excerpts from three sources: first, the account of the Wolf-man, whose infantile neurosis was published by Freud in 1914 and its later developments described recently by Gardiner (1971); second, case material from my own practice; and third, some reflections on the life and work of the painter, Piet Mondrian.


The term 'primal scene' is not always used with precisely the same meaning. However, it is generally agreed that the primal scene in one way or another has to do with the child's developing ideas, or fantasies, about the nature of parental intercourse. The term was first used to refer to the actual witnessing, through seeing or hearing, of the sexual relationship of the parents or their surrogates. It was recognized that while the primal scene was not clearly remembered by the young child, it combined with impressions from related experiences, giving rise to various infantile sexual theories.

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