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Pekowsky, J. (1988). “Say You're Sorry”: A Sadomasochistic Transference. Psychoanal. Rev., 75(3):459-468.

(1988). Psychoanalytic Review, 75(3):459-468

“Say You're Sorry”: A Sadomasochistic Transference

Judith Pekowsky

“Say you're sorry,” Miss X demands, at first angrily and then pleadingly. She has been angry with me for several weeks now, alternating periods of sulky silences with old complaints about me. These complaints are intended to prove that I am bad and that I hurt her, but Miss X no longer quite believes in their substance. Now, however, a rather trivial lapse in my memory has given her new ammunition for her attack. My forgetfulness proves I am inattentive, unconcerned about her, bad, and hurtful. Hence her demand.

Although when I reflect on it, variants of this episode have taken place many times before in Miss X's treatment. This time her demand, “say you're sorry,” suddenly brings to mind an article I read many years ago with the same evocative phrase as its title.

In the article, “Say You're Sorry,” by Lawrence Kubie and Hy-man A. Israel (1955), the authors describe the dramatic reversal of a severe regressive state in a five-year-old child. The little girl, a bright youngster, had suddenly and for no apparent reason begun to refuse to answer to her name. She then stopped talking almost completely and practically stopped eating. Within a few weeks she had regressed to the point where she lay in a corner of her bedroom, mute and withdrawn, wetting and soiling herself.

She was hospitalized. When brought in her crib to a case conference, she was at first totally unresponsive to attempts to engage her. Then she began to make a humming sound. The nurse accompanying her was asked if the patient had ever said anything intelligible. She recalled she had once thought she heard the child say, “say you're sorry.” As the authors report:

At hearing the nurse use these words, the child turned slowly and looked at her searchingly, then turned back to the examiner silently.

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