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Lester, M. (1957). The Analysis of an Unconscious Beating Fantasy in a Woman. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 38:22-31.

(1957). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 38:22-31

The Analysis of an Unconscious Beating Fantasy in a Woman

Milton Lester, M.D.


The patient, as long as she was the younger of two children, felt that she was the beloved little princess of the family. Her self-centred contentment was bolstered by the illusion that both parents loved her more than they did each other. In this way, she postponed dealing with her oedipal conflict. But when she was 6 came the shattering evidence of an intimacy that excluded her. Her sister was born. She wanted to destroy mother and infant and have father to herself, but guilt, fear of retaliation, and the impossibility of attaining her aims caused these wishes to be repressed. Instead, she identified with her intended victims. She provoked attacks from her parents, became the harmless, innocent, injured girl, and in this way obtained, as Freud describes, both punishment and disguised libidinal excitation from her father. Regression to orality also occurred. By over-eating, she tried to obtain a substitute gratification for her frustrated genital urges. Obesity was a negation of her wish to be sexually attractive to her father and thus allayed guilt. At the same time, it probably expressed in oral terms a wish to be pregnant by him, but this has not been clearly established.

At 12, stimulated by her resurgent, pubertal sexuality, the mother's absence from home for the birth of the younger brother, and the father's sleeping in the same bed with her, her fantasy of replacing the mother revived, only to be frustrated again. The incestuous and destructive desires intensified in puberty were again transformed, as at the time of her sister's birth, into a need to be beaten. Now, however, the beating was not physical, as it had been in childhood, but psychical, and it was not administered by her father but by fate. She also elaborated an additional means of dealing with her oedipal mortification and guilt: she would become an intellectual boy, like her elder brother. By winning recognition in that way, she could assuage her injured self-esteem, deny competition with her mother, and still seek, in the guise of a boy, to win her father.

Her choice and manner of work were meant to show that she was both a bright boy who merited admiration, but was exploited, and a devoted sister who served others, protected the weak, assumed everyone's burdens, and sacrificed her own desires. With her intimate women friends she played the rôle of the loyal, obedient daughter betrayed by a cruel mother. With her lovers, she was the undemanding child, mistreated by an angry father.

In all these activities and relationships she felt beaten by others. Feeling beaten fulfilled several functions. It was a demonstration that she was a passive victim and not an active attacker. It was a denial that she sought forbidden pleasures from her father. It was an avowal of weakness and non-competitiveness with her mother. It was a plea to be spared punishment since she had suffered already. But it was also an expression of her erotic attachment to her father and of her hope that he would gratify her. In feeling beaten she unconsciously insisted, 'My father does indeed have physical relations with me.' In her efforts to obtain this feeling by alloplastic involvement with persons in her environment, she resembled the 'acting-out personalities' described by Alexander (1) and Glover (8). By attributing her unhappiness to being beaten, she avoided seeing its true origin: that neither her father nor I had sexual intentions towards her. In this way, as Spiegel (9) describes in another connexion, she forestalled acknowledging the reality of her oedipal defeat and the necessity of relinquishing her oedipal attachments.

In analysis she sought to perpetuate the feeling of being beaten. When her own activity in arranging injury to herself was exposed, she began to experience her childhood sexual and destructive impulses. At that point she fell back on a second line of defence, as she had in puberty, by emphasizing her masculine strivings and minimizing the feminine. As this manoeuvre was analyzed, her oedipal desires, hopes, and fears emerged more fully, and she has had an opportunity to examine and resolve them, and make a new attempt at integration.

Freud thought that beating fantasies are more prevalent than is generally supposed, and Bonaparte regards them as even typical reactions of the young girl to her oedipal struggles. To some degree, the need to feel beaten and the pleasure in it persist in the woman's subsequent development. These tendencies, which assume pathological proportions in the masochistic perversion, can also contribute to various attributes, some negative, some positive, but all generally considered feminine. Among the former are the propensity to silent reproach, ready tears and martyred forbearance. Among the latter are willingness to bear hardship, generous devotion, and steadfastness in adversity. And even further away from pathology, these same tendencies, as Helene Deutsch (3) points out, may help prepare the way for that pleasure in sexual receptivity which is an essential trait of femininity in the normal woman.

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