How Marcel Proust taught me how to detect a sadomasochistic game, by Hendrika C. Freud

Perversion serves a Purpose

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Helene, an intelligent hardworking woman in her mid forties, mother of three, twice divorced, seeks treatment. She considers herself ‘unable to grow up’. Notwithstanding her low self-esteem, she mostly behaves quasi self-assured. She can flare up in unreasonable rages. Helene has had many boyfriends, some of them aggressive or even criminal types. Recently she met an intelligent and decent man with an excellent job. It so happens that Robert also seeks therapy. They both come once a week separately.

They are fond of each other, enjoy their sex life, but they have unstoppable fights and hold endless quasi-psychological discussions. Both are desperate for control. She is fascinated by violence and her job as a mental health professional is to diagnose criminal offenders. He is fascinated by the violence of her former partners. Both seem to act out their aggression via projective identification, namely by projecting it into others and thus enjoying it vicariously. He is a very passive man and she likes to be taken advantage of, at times unable to defend herself. Both are excellent in their respective professions.

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Bound to what we love and want to control

It is fascinating how their histories mirror each other. Both have mothers addicted to alcohol and not taking care of the family. They were burdened with all sorts of responsibilities not filled in by their parents, as both fathers denied the problem and were seldom home. Both are unsafely attached and anxious about loss of love.

Helene tells me that Robert compulsively questions her about her former sex life. He wants to know all the details she doesn’t even remember. He is jealous and accusatory. She feels cornered and guilty.

This rings a bell with me. The story in ‘The Captive’ from Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust, which I describe in my book Men and Mothers: The Lifelong Struggle of Sons and Their Mothers (Karnac 2013), comes to mind. The narrator regularly questions Albertine. He wants to know every single detail about her adventures with others, past and present. He pressures her to tell him everything and accuses her of deceiving him. He gets inwardly angrier and angrier, vexed by his jealousy, just like Robert, and claims he does not love Albertine anymore. Finally after hours of questioning, he tells her he wants her to leave him. But then she repents and admits her guilt, and so the game can take its next turn: they make up by making love and life can go as usual, until the next ritual presents itself. This sadomasochistic game has to be repeated endlessly, it is repetitive and stereotypical like all perverse games. But, like any other defence mechanism, perversion serves a purpose. It functions as a safeguard against mental breakdown. This way, the partners can avoid the intimacy they both fear more than anything else.

My therapeutic approach is to formulate and verbalize the purpose of their quasi-innocuous actions and to make them see why they need these ritual and repetitive sadomasochistic games. I do not promise to solve their problem, but rather tell them that it is there to stay, because it serves a purpose: taming their anxiety and canalizing their aggression. Meanwhile it is a miracle how they found each other. Both have for the first time a relationship that is satisfying and frustrating at the same time, but better than they ever experienced before meeting each other.

Hendrika C. Freud is a psychoanalyst and a member of the International Psychoanalytical Association and Association for Child Psychoanalysis. She is a teacher, supervisor and training analyst of the Dutch Psychoanalytic Society and and has been in private practice for more than fifty years. She is the author of Men and Mothers: The Lifelong Struggle of Sons and Their Mothers and Electra vs Oedipus: The Drama of the Mother-Daughter Relationship.

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Reviews and Endorsements

This fascinating book is an in-depth study of the complex bond which develops between mother and son, and of the perverse landscapes that can emerge from this relationship. The exploration of the complementary views on this theme – shared by Freud and Proust – is also of great interest and originality. We are all grateful for this thoughtful reflection which, without overlooking the father, further investigates the role of the mother in the understanding of both perversion and homosexuality. This book makes a very important contribution to the advancement of psychoanalytic theory and practice.’
– Dr Emanuela Quagliata, psychoanalyst, Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist at the Tavistock Clinic, member of the International Psychoanalytical Association, and the Association of Child Psychotherapists

‘The important topic of male sexuality – in its many variations – and the link to a highly ambivalent bond to the maternal figure are lucidly discussed in this book. The Author’s references to her clinical work and to literature, particularly Proust, are very interesting. This book can greatly help professionals and laypeople to understand the compelling need, potential value, and tragic limitations of atypical or perverse fantasies and behaviour.’
– Dr Paola Mariotti, psychoanalyst and author of The Maternal Lineage: Identification, Desire, and Transgenerational Issues

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