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Landau, B.J. (2003). Hysteria. By Christophr Bollas, Ph.D. London/New York: Routledge, 2000. 192 pp.. Psychoanal Q., 72(3):833-836.

(2003). Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 72(3):833-836

Hysteria. By Christophr Bollas, Ph.D. London/New York: Routledge, 2000. 192 pp.

Review by:
Barry J. Landau

Hysteria is an interesting and thought-provoking treatise in which Christopher Bollas presents a coherent and original theory that attempts to explicate the genetics and dynamics of hysterical character disorders. Bollas's theory centers on the traumatic consequences of what he calls the “sexual epiphany,” which he says occurs universally at around three years of age, at the onset of the phallic phase, and then again at the onset of puberty.

As Bollas conceptualizes it, the sexual epiphany is based on the normative awakening of sexual impulses and desires within the infant and early adolescent. With the arousal of sexuality, a fundamental shift occurs in the relationship to the mother. Up to this point, the mother has been “mama,” the provider and caregiver. With the dawning of sexual awareness, the mother becomes “mother,” who can now be the object of sexual desire, as well as someone with her own desires. Thus, the “innocence” characteristic of early infancy is shattered.

Bollas states that the central predisposition leading to hysteria is the experience of the mother as failing to acknowledge, celebrate, and encourage the child's dawning sexual development. The result is a turning away from sexual awareness by the developing hysteric in the effort to hold onto the love of the mother by preserving the illusion of sexual innocence. The parental interest normally devoted to the infant's burgeoning sexuality is displaced onto other parts of the body. This displacement is the basis for hysterical conversion reactions.

Bollas presents a number of vivid case vignettes to illustrate his thesis. He also uses generalizations from his clinical experience to further support his ideas. Bollas then uses this theoretical orientation as a springboard for wide-ranging clinical inferences, as well as further theoretical speculation.


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