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Christian, C. (2009). The Piano Teacher: A Case Study in Perversion and Sadomasochism. Psychoanal. Rev., 96(5):769-784.

(2009). Psychoanalytic Review, 96(5):769-784

The Piano Teacher: A Case Study in Perversion and Sadomasochism

Christopher Christian, Ph.D., FIPA

The Piano Teacher (Jelinek, 1988) is an intensely evocative, semi-autobiographical novel (Weedon, 1997)1 by Nobel Prize laureate and Austrian author Elfriede Jelinek that provides an unusual glimpse at the artistic rendition of a woman with a severe sadomasochistic character disorder. The novel tells the story of the enmeshed relationship between Erika Kohut, a piano teacher with sadomasochistic perversions, and her overcontrolling mother, with whom Erika lives. The novel's incidental contribution to psychoanalysis lies in the fact that, as Grossman (1986), Novick and Novick (1987), and others have observed, women with severe masochistic perversions, like the piano teacher, very rarely come to analysis, and when they do they are among the most difficult cases to treat. The Piano Teacher serves as a challenging substitute for a real case study to a condition that remains, as it did half a century ago, “one of the most complicated subjects in psychoanalytic theory and one of the most difficult problems in our therapeutic work” (Berliner, 1940, p. 322).

In this paper, I propose a way of understanding the type of female perversions illustrated in The Piano Teacher. My main thesis is that in certain cases where a father, by virtue of his absence or his character, has not facilitated the daughter's differentiation and separation from an all-engulfing mother, the child attempts to differentiate from the mother by becoming the father, assuming the father's role vis-à-vis the mother, and embracing the realm of the paternal symbolic order.

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