Dead mother complex

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The complex of the dead mother was described by André Green in 1980. Evidence of it emerges during the transference, so it is often not identifiable when analysis is first requested. It is manifested especially by a "transference depression," a repetition of an infantile depression that is often not capable of being recalled. The essential characteristic of this depression is that it occurs in the presence of an object that itself is absorbed in mourning. The causes of this mourning can be many, and are not admitted by the maternal object. They are therefore, for the most part, hypothetically deduced through the analysis, with more or less certainty.

The main observable consequence on the level of the counter-transference is insight into a cold, hard, unfeeling kernel at the heart of the transference. This is the result of a brutal maternal decathexis that the child is unable to understand and that turns his psychic world upside down. After vain attempts at reparation, feelings of impotence became dominant. Complex defenses are then set up which associate a mirror-representation of the disinvestment in the maternal object with an unconscious identification with the dead mother. The result of this is the psychic murder of the object, which takes place without any hatred. The maternal affliction prohibits any aggressive expression, which would risk augmenting the maternal detachment. On the one hand, the pattern of object relations is punctured, while on the other, peripheral cathexes are clung to at the edge of this hole. Silent destructiveness does not allow the subject to reestablish an object relation capable of overcoming the conflict and opening the way to connections that would strengthen it, or else definitive adjustments serve only as a shield that prevents access to the kernel of the conflict. The only thing that endures is a dull psychic pain, characterized especially by an incapacity to cathect closely with any object having anything to do with affects. Hatred is as impossible as love, and it is impossible to receive without feeling obliged to give back, so as not to owe anything, even masochistic pleasure. The dead mother is omnipresent, but without being represented, and seems to have seized the subject, making him captive of his mourning for her.

This clinical picture develops against the background of the child's inability to grasp the reasons for it. Important measures of infantile depression are the loss of meaning, and the feeling of inability to repair the mourned object, to awaken the lost desire. Sometimes significant rationalizations displace the source of the conflict onto the external world, the mother's desire becoming inaccessible compared to what the child believes he has observed. The child then blames a failure of subjective omnipotence in relationships, leading, by compensation, to a reinforcement of omnipotence in areas less directly connected with the primary object.

An oedipal analysis of pregenital fixations and unconscious guilt is of no use in finding a way to move past this situation, insofar as analysis is not centered on the configuration of the complex of the dead mother. For the mother is not directly identifiable in the discourse of the patient. She only appears to the extent that the analytic situation succeeds in drawing out evidence of her silent presence without being able to find her in this absence where even indirect signs of her existence are missing.

Repression has erased the memory trace of her touch, of contact with her, and of the child's cathexis with her before the occurrence of his mourning for her, which put a sudden end to this forgotten relation. This is a repression that returns to bury her alive, even demolishing everything, including a tomb, that would mark her past existence. Winnicottian holding has collapsed in this situation, because the object has been encysted, with no trace of it left. The identification has been with the vacuum left behind by the disinvestment. The absence of all meaningful reference points cannot be too strongly emphasized. Since the modification of the maternal attitude seemed to be inexplicable, it led in turn to all sorts of questions which arouse a feeling of guilt, and these in turn are aggravated by secondary defenses and displaced onto elements that have been annexed for that purpose.

In effect, attempts to block problems not governed by repression of this untenable situation prompt some significant reactions. Their purposes are: (1) To keep the ego alive through secondary hatred of the object, by the frenetic, but unquenchable, search for pleasures, or through the headlong search for a possible meaning to the displacements that have been made; (2) To reanimate the dead mother, interest her, distract her, seduce her, give her back the taste for life, breathing into her by any means possible, including the most artificial, a joy of being alive; and (3) To compete with the object of mourning in a precocious triangulation.

The dead mother complex, as a powerful and intense element, naturally draws to it other components of psychic life, and is closely tied to its most important systems. Consequently the fantasy of the primal scene attempts to make intelligible the competitive relations with the hypothetical object of sudden mourning, and to reawaken the pain of being decathected, by highlighting whatever recalls the primal scene, and often in an apocalyptic way, through projective identification. The catastrophe thus envelops and retaliates against the maternal object, which shifts between indifference and terror. It is frequently the case that the father is the object of a precocious investment in an Oedipus complex that is rushed into for this very occasion, but lacking in its normal attributes. This variant complex brings with it not so much castration anxiety, but a feeling of impotent rage and paralysis, helpless against the violence that follows action against a supposed rival. The result is often an intensified feeling of emptiness, repeating and amplifying the most deleterious effects at the heart of the conflict.

On the bases of these clinical observations, André Green hypothesized a destiny of the primary object as a framing structure for the ego, hiding the negative hallucination of the mother. The dead mother complex demonstrates the failure of this process, forcing its representations into a painful vacuity, and obstructing their capacity to bind together in any preconscious thought pattern. The dead mother complex opposes a "hot" castration anxiety, linked to the vicissitudes of object relations, which can be threatened with corporal mutilation, to a "cold" anxiety, which is linked with losses suffered on the narcissistic level (negative hallucination, flat psychosis, dull mourning), resulting in the clinical treatment of negativity.