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Shengold, L. (1963). The Parent as Sphinx. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 11:725-751.

(1963). Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 11:725-751

The Parent as Sphinx

Leonard Shengold, M.D.


I have stressed a somewhat neglected view of the Oedipus myth as exemplified in Sophocles' plays: the preoedipal relationship to the mother, or, to put it better, to the primal parent. This stress is not intended to minimize the oedipal connotations of the Sophoclean dramas which, like all art on the very highest level (Shakespeare, Dostoevski), are an encyclopedia of creative psychological insight. Using Jocasta-Sphinx as the imago of the bad primal parent, I have compared aspects of the character of the son-husband Oedipus to those of children seduced by psychotic mothers. Much more is to be said on the effects of incestuous violation of children than has been brought out by the parallel that is the thesis of this paper. However, I feel the comparison is valuable because the myth brings clarity to the clinical data.

Following Freud's parallel of the unfolding drama of Oedipus Rex to the course of an analysis, one can better understand the therapeutic effects of a psychoanalysis on the patients studied. They achieved: (1) The eventual, albeit terrible, ability to see,

know, and stand for the truth; most particularly the truth about the parent's psychosis and incestuous destructive intent (cf. Oedipus' "and could a mother's heart be steeled to this?"). This involves a modification of the superego defect (the insistence on being "son of Fortune" and the unconscious need for punishment paralleling Oedipus' self-blinding), and the giving up of the massive isolation based on a need to approximate the psychotic parent's ability to deny reality (cf. mendacious, denying Jocasta). (2) A partial transcendence of the characteristic rage these patients are subject to (cf. Oedipus' ungovernable temper, his "tragic flaw"). The rage is there on the basis of an identification with the murderous cannibalistic aggressor (cf. the Sphinx), and also as the legacy of an overwhelmingly stimulating trauma. Like the "anal rage" described by Ruth Mack Brunswick, this affect involves a combination of feeling both the subject and object of destructive angry forces.

The effect of the psychoanalysis is to undo the damaging identification with the psychotic parent: not only freeing him from the mother as incestuous object (Jocasta), but also from the mother as destructive symbiotic partner (the Sphinx). Oedipus, too, is freed: first, by killing the mother-Sphinx after solving her riddle; finally, by knowing and acknowledging the full truth personified by the "analyst-figure," the seer Teiresias. But he remains crippled and blind until his apotheosis. In my patients too, despite marked improvement (like Oedipus, establishing an identity by being able to "walk away" from the bad primal parent-Sphinx), there were indelible marks that traumatic incest had left on their character. I intend to deal with this in a subsequent paper.

Cases where a psychotic parent has seduced a child are apt to evoke compassion in the analyst. This, although natural, must not, of course, be allowed to interfere with either amnesia removal or the technical management of the analysis. The latter still requires what Freud calls "surgical coolness." The poet's case is a very different one. What prompts Ivan Karamazov to "give God back his entrance ticket" to the universe is the knowledge of the "unavenged suffering" of tortured children. And Sophocles has his chorus cry:

Where such things are, what mortal shall boast any more that he can ward the arrows of the gods from his life? Nay, if such deeds are in honour, why should we dance and sing?

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