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Esman, A.H. (1973). The Primal Scene—A Review and a Reconsideration. Psychoanal. St. Child, 28:49-81.

(1973). Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 28:49-81

The Primal Scene—A Review and a Reconsideration

Aaron H. Esman, M.D.

AMONG THE CLINICAL CONSTRUCTS OF PSYCHOANALYSIS FEW HAVE BEEN more widely entertained than that of the "primal scene." The view that the child's observation of parental sexual intercourse will have a critical, and usually damaging, effect on his subsequent development has been extensively enunciated in the literature. It has had a significant effect on child-rearing procedures and domestic arrangements, at least among middle-class Western families, and child guidance practice has been materially influenced by it. In recent years a number of writers have proposed far-reaching evolutionary and cultural derivatives of this individual experience; on the other hand, Freud suggested a phylogenetic base for its emergence in the individual's life.

It will be the purpose of this essay to review the background of this concept of primal scene trauma, to trace its evolution in the literature of psychoanalysis, and to reassess its status within the framework of current thinking in psychoanalysis and behavioral science in general. I shall begin by reviewing Freud's thoughts on the matter and then survey the contributions of other analysts. I shall also review some of the relevant anthropological and cultural data, and refer briefly to some recent pertinent contributions to the theory of trauma.


Dr. Esman is Chief Psychiatrist, Jewish Board of Guardians, and a member of the Faculty of the New York Psychoanalytic Institute.

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