Analysis of a Narcissistic Wound: Reflections on Andre Green's "The Dead Mother


This paper examines the "dead mother complex," defined by Andre Green (1986), and gives particular consideration to the patient's seduction of the father in order to defend against longing and rage towards the "dead mother." The author provides vivid, in-depth clinical studies of two patients who grew up with such a mother. These studies offer insight into the patients' complex inner worlds especially as revealed through the author's countertransference experiences.

ndre Green's (1986) concept of the dead mother, a mother who is present in body but absent in soul, has been very meaningful to me personally. Having been raised in a Kibbutz where mothers were physically absent most of the time (parents were allowed only three hours a day with their children and often did not have even that much time with them), I often experienced feelings of longing for an absent mother. In reading Green's paper, "The Dead Mother" (1986), I felt his concept might apply to a wider scope of experience than that of a sudden loss of the mother's emotional connection. The early narcissistic wound Green describes can also be observed in patients with narcissistic mothers who were depressed throughout the patient's childhood or were otherwise consumed by life away from their children (as in the kibbutz).
© 2006 CU^yModem Psychoanalysis, Vol. 31, No. 1



or blank as in states of emptiness . her professional life lacks focus and in her personal life she experiences disappointment after disappointment. the child's anxiety that accompanies the wound is destructive as well. impotence to love. 146). seductive quality. she dresses colorfully and has a soft." (p. Green argues." accompanied by a profound dissatisfaction with life as a whole (p. when she first started analysis. have experienced a sudden loss of their mother's affection and emotional connection. . but it is merely a "suggestion. might cause a narcissistic wound to the child's ego. Green tells us. So sex carries great ambivalence fbr Sasha. perhaps a new explanatory tool. feminine. the translator explains in a note. to make the most of one's talents. Clinical Examples Sasha is a patient with many such longings and an impotence about life. . yet special. he made her feel. And since any wound is the result of destructiveness inflicted upon the child." In a group Sasha told with great sadness of another beginning of a relationship with a man that ended badly—another triumph of seduction that went sour. according to Green. The previous week she iiad discussed how sexually attentive her father was and how disgusted. I wondered if this wound is also inflicted when there is a complete absence of symbiotic attachment. 148). leaving him forever consumed by his bereavement (p. Donna is another patient whose father's sexual attention made her feel both special and repelled. She is a very attractive woman now in her early fifties who. bearing "the colors of mourning: black or white [blanc. 159). to multiply one's assets. The mother. 143). Donna began treatment with me more than 10 years ago. in their infancy. A beautiful young woman. Green (1986) describes a dynamic that analysts encounter with patients who. becomes emotionally dead to the child. even though she is physically present. Such a psychic situation. Green's dead mother complex has provided me with an new way of thinking about some patients. can also mean blank]. The clinical picture then is that of a patient who exhibits "impotence to withdraw from a conflictual situation. Although she is a talented artist. Black as in severe depression. . She moves like a cat with an air of sexual suggestion. This kind of wound. dressed almost exclusively in black. "plays a formative role in the organization of [the child's] psyche" (p.46 a M I c H A L ADIV-GINACH Further.

In Green's (1986) words each "relentlessly endeavors to retain the primary object and relive." or "I couldn't wait to see you. "You are supposed to feel hopeful for me. to a lingering depression. Donna talks about her love life in the same way she talks about her sugar addiction: she says she cannot eat any sugar at all because. at a deeper level she is still the same stubborn depressive she has been all along.Reflections on Andre Green's "The Dead Mother" a 47 looking bland with her clothes always tightly zipped up. ending one relationship after another with a deep sense of failure. They both have had love objects with whom they were consistently unable to connect. They both experience themselves as failures in their professional as well as personal lives. That is my last hope. "I missed you so. They use food as they use sex. Although she has branched out to pastel colors and often reveals some cleavage." she has told me repeatedly. Donna and Sasha's seductions have the same feeling to them as their food addictions. "My mother used to brag about letting her babies cry themselves to sleep. As she walks into the session. 167) The addiction is to the repetition." Yet in all these years she has never asked me one personal question." Donna explained in a session. They both use food as they do sex: not to get the feeling of satisfaction but rather to repeat the feeling of emptiness. even a small amount is enough to throw her into a binge. and it is here that . and to a profound dissatisfaction with themselves and their lives. to an inability to find pleasure in anything. focused way. They are resistant to the analysis in a very stubborn. i."(p.e. its loss. whom they experienced as indifferent to them. while Donna's mother managed to dominate her family with her depression and overeating. Sasha had a very weak.. but at the same time they are seductive. repetitively. Both patients project a feeling of depressed hopelessness. nor has she shown the slightest interest in me other than as an agent of hope. she often makes a comment like. to the black hole. Their love lives proceed from one feeling-state to another where the objects (the men) are but instruments of those feeling-states. like an alcoholic. Sasha used to be bulimic. On occasion both patients eat ad nauseam. Both patients had depressed mothers. They both always return to a sense of emptiness. almost invisible mother. coming to it with a hope that it will give them life. yet revealing an underlying destructive intention in the way they use it. Both patients also struggle with similar issues regarding food. insisting on how important the analyst is to them and needing to feel like her favorite. which is their base line. the emptiness. they share the experience of not feeling loved by their mother. but that symptom dissipated in the first few years of her analysis. the depression.

The repetition appears to have a pre-object origin and to be inspired by the death drive. They tend to opt for being part of a hidden sexual liaison as opposed to being the legitimate love object of a real man. a poor substitute for the real object of desire—the mother. Indeed it felt as if there was no replacement for the emotionally dead mother. Sitting in the room with Sasha or Donna. they are on the whole attracted to men who are incapable of connecting. Applying Green's conceptualization. Both Donna and Sasha seem to prefer covert seductions that give the feeling of secretly being the chosen one. They can. In line with this hypothesis. talk endlessly about their feeling states. and they consume a big chunk of the air space in the group if not by talking then by sulking. I see it as a defensive structure against the murderous longings for the dead mother. Green's dead mother complex provided me with a context in which to understand the role of the seduction of the father. The seduction of early life is an empty seduction. The seduction of the father provides an escape for both father and daughter. Donna and Sasha are unable to get interested in anything or anybody. and true to their unconscious intention. the desire to consume the mother. not in whether he will ftilfill the promise. one has the feeling that they actually long for a static. to become her rather than to get something from her. He is promptly discarded as soon as he becomes emotionally interested in them. yet it is not about the father but rather their longing for the dead mother. I hj^jothesize that a deadness of depression loomed over Donna and Sasha's lives from the start—a deadness they were defending against and at the same time holding on to. Likewise the seductions of their present lives are empty as well. in both group and individual sessions. seductive relationship with the father as a defense against rageful longing for the emotionally dead mother. Was it because they were still struggling for their mothers' love that no other . however. They report feeling worthless and regress to depression.4S a M I c H A L ADIV-GINACH Green is so helpful in explaining the early cannibalistic impulses. Their interest in the actual man is only in what he promises. thus leaving them in that familiar desert of longing. non-feeling state and that they are resolutely committed to this destructive course. no separation from her because they never had her. Seduction of the Father It is my hypothesis that these patients are using a secret.

Both Donna and Sasha are very particular about the environment in their sessions: they both need an exact amount of light and level of noise. the depressed mother. demand) for a particular feeling they never actually get. albeit temporary and utterly unsatisfactory. He also points out the patient's need to be admired ." Through their physical and psychical pain. sooner or later. It feels that in this role I am part of her narcissistic orbit. the ultimate love object of preverbal life. Thus. there is nothing there. I thought that perhaps they found refuge from the mother's depression. as Green (1986) suggests. a disappointment and is useful only insofar as it can produce a particular feeling for them. Sasha begins every session by telling me how full her stomach feels. the patient appears to be in a double bind between feelings of devotion to me—or. It could not overcome the emptiness of the early. Donna tells me. Such emptiness and fear that it will never be filled up by something good. Both women's longings conceal an immense hopelessness. devotion more to the analysis than to the analyst—and feelings of dissatisfaction with the analysis. Donna would often say." or "very uncomfortable. Green proposes that this idealization of the analyst is in the service of the seduction. mature love was of no interest to them. In the transference." or "full." Or "I am empty and filled with shit. Not really interested in each other. both yearning in vain for the mother's love. Their discomfort with the particulars of their environment in the session brings to mind their colicky states in life and their intense longing (or rather. The good that I was promised will never come to me. Because both Donna and Sasha felt sexually desired by their fathers. father and daughter settled for this conspiracy of seduction as a consolation for the object of love neither of them could have." or "It feels empty. and frequently ask me to make adjustments. she insists on keeping me posted during the session about the condition of her stomach: "It hurts. "I am empty. every object that comes their way is. all-consuming depression of the mother. with feeling shitty. which she avoids expressing at all costs. then. It comes to everybody else but not to me. Donna and Sasha express a longing for a particular feeling they cannot articulate and assign always to an unattainable object. Sasha would often say: "I don't know what I want." In the depressed monotone she commonly used in our sessions. in this conspiracy of the never-consummated relationship with the father—a conspiracy of the disenfranchised. during times of despair. Preoccupied with preverbal states. that it is up to me to keep her hope alive for her.Reflections on Andre Green's "The Dead Mother " o 49 object was able to fulfill this need? Clearly." She also shivers often when she is overwhelmed and tends to express her feelings in body states.

especially when it comes to her sexual experiences. he feels for the patients he describes. 159). but again the feeling here is that the analyst is not a separate object in spite of the idealization of her (pp. The patient has the feeling that a malediction weighs upon him. indeed. I find myself . 161-162). as if talking about them in her sessions is a part of the sexual experience. might I dare say love. It is this core of emptiness. . Interestingly. the object has no significance or not enough libidinal power and is eventually wiped out by the counterpoising strength of the dead mother complex (p. I have felt neither depressed nor dead in my patients' presence. Indeed her discourse seems cleverly designed to avoid any progressive communication whatsoever. But because of the drive intensity.) Donna discusses her constant conflict between being the bad girl and the good girl as well as her conflict between hope and hopelessness. suggesting this is where her energy goes. (She complains of having little energy for life. it is as impossible to hate as to love. She discusses them with a subdued urgency that tolerates no delay. He describes the patient's love affairs as projective actualization in an attempt to cure the narcissistic wound. colouring all the cathexes . that there is no end to the dead mother's dying. a narcissistic feeling. . surfaces again. yet in the tone of his paper one senses the profound devotion. Another aspect of Donna's narcissistic transference is the way in which she talks in our sessions.. There is a confessional as well as a kind of demanding pleasure in her recounting of her sexual experiences. indeed with a sense of secret pleasure. 153) Green (1986) does not explicitly discuss countertransference. (p. Pain. it feels stagnant. The Dead Mother Complex Green's (1986) dead mother complex helps us understand the destructiveness these patients bring to their love lives as well as to their analyses. and that it holds him prisoner..50 n M I c H A L ADIV-GINACH by the analyst. Her need to recount the occurrences of the week chronologically has a compulsive quality. of blackness. but above all. It is a hurt which is situated on the edge of the wound. a hole that Green (1986) depicts that seems to capture these patients' psychic state so precisely.

in the patient's failure to repair this hole. the patient maintains ownership of the mother. 167). 151) because the physical presence of the mother and her emotional absence have left the patient forever longing for that lost life-giving connection. or absence in life" (p. I cannot give up on her. manifested by their utter destructiveness. The patient "is caught between two losses: presence in death. with the risk of losing her to other objects she might become attached to. Green explains that. Green's (1986) words help explain what I observe: We watch the failure of the experience of individuating separation (Mahler) where the juvenile ego. relentlessly endeavors to retain the primary object and relive. what remains is her desire to possess the object. I do not feel dead in their presence. p. or rather impersonation of. expressed phenomenologically by the sentiment of emptiness. 164). yet it feels like a barren connection. Here Green identifies the death drive ("proceed towards nought") as the dominant drive in these patients' lives. " a tendency of the ego to undo its unity and to proceed towards nought" (p. its loss. Further. by thus keeping her prisoner. which is the emptiness the patient fears and yet cannot relinquish. instead of constituting the receptacle for cathexes to come. . 167) There is "a hole in the texture of the object-relations with the mother" (Green. afler separation. It "is the condition of the renouncement of the object and at the same time its conservation in a cannibalistic manner" (p. such as rage and exasperation at the tenacity of her attachment to her depression.Reflections on Andre Green's "The Dead Mother " n 51 highly invested in them. so characteristic of depression. And although I occasionally feel hopeless. the patient is the "keeper of the tomb" in her identification with. Even though they report feeling dead. the dead mother. which on the level of the primary ego (which is melded with the object) gives rise to the feeling of narcissistic depletion. a connection in the service of the repetition rather than an indication of their progress. With Donna. Green sees in these patients a negative primary narcissism that is attached to the destructive instincts. according to Green (1986). I have recently begun to experience different feelings. (p. who remains her property. The patient is then paralyzed by ambivalence between keeping the dead mother dead yet present and reviving her. 1986. to become it. I also sense their connection to me. repetitively. which is always the result of a narcissistic wound experienced on the level of the ego. whose sabotaging of the analysis has been on the agenda for years. I feel mostly loving towards them and deeply interested in every nuance of their moods. 151).

only to call me in the middle of my next session and ask that I not deposit it.e. Naively perhaps. Donna has always made it seem as if I have betrayed her. i. she wanted to talk . It has been around the issue of raising her fees where a crack appeared in the tenacity of Donna's transference resistance. I feel all she wants from me is to be depressed with her. that there seemed to be no hope for her and none for me as her analyst. "So am I getting the new fee today?" With a gesture of utter discontent she gave me a check for the new fee. she stood up and took out her checkbook to pay me. hence. The deadness Donna brings to the analysis is that of no progress. It also appears that the patients perceive their depression as the source of a special connection to the mother and. I felt that she expected me to remain the depressive entity she could continue to consume with hidden satisfaction. I thought that emotionally evocative communication would bring about something new between us. I had been talking with Donna about a fee increase for a couple of months when. wellintentioned. they must hold on tenaciously to their depression. Yet underneath. It appears that the privilege of being the special one is central to the devotion to the mother's deadness that we see in these patients. she has been stubbornly devoted to avoiding progress in her analysis and never complains about the lack of progress. a privileged position is the reward for their devotion. therefore. In other words. and wants very little from me. Donna puts great efforts into being the best patient. her despair at an all-time high. she said. She is always a few minutes early. At one point I admitted to her that she had succeeded in defeating me. and all my prodding produced nothing but more protestations regarding the deprivation it would cause. but then she reverted to the old monotone depression.52 a M I c H A L ADIV-GINACH Secret Pleasures Sitting in the room with Donna. talks throughout the session. at the end of the last session of the month. For a session or two it did. Whenever I have brought up the issue of raising her fees. secret pleasure it provides. How dare I raise the fee of such a sweet. would take away her last chance of having leisure (pleasure) in life. notes if I am a minute or two late. while she keeps the dead mother dead so she can lie beside her as her favorite child and be with me as my favorite patient. hard-working patient as she? It felt like a break in the narcissistic transference.. She is stuck in this repetition and the destructive. can never give it up as long as the desire for the mother is still alive. giving up their depression means that they will never have the mother. Paying me more. I asked. pays on time.

in an orderly world. Fink (1999). again. the key to the primal scene is that "it has taken place in the absence of the subject" (p. 150). On first reading. 159). 158ff). Addressing the destructive secret pleasures of these patients. in the case of these patients. Green (1986) argues that the secret of the dead mother complex is the fantasy of the primal scene (p. "OK. their need to control the light and noise in the session or intolerance of my being a minute or two late). in writing about Lacan. you can deposit the check. and/or imagined—that is reconstructed" (p. despairing rage at the failure of the mother to hold the infant and make her feel desirable. not for long. a world . In that session I said that rather than my joining her in her depression. She did not respond to my suggestion but instead began talking. I wondered about the relevance of the primal scene to these regressed patients. about men. the primal scene can be thought of as the initial outline of the world one struggles against. interestingly. in the sessions with both of my patients. In the case of my two patients." The depression lifted in the next session but. she turned to me in tears and said. and sexy. defines oneself against. In agreeing to not deposit the check. Green explains that. this corresponds to the time when the third person. its significance does not lie in actually witnessing the father and mother in a sexual act." interprets the absence of the mother's affection as a result of his drives towards the object. It is an impotent. Yet. overheard. appears in the child's universe (p. helpless. As the blueprint of the first primal relationship. Getting up at the end of the session.Reflections on Andre Green's "The Dead Mother" n 53 about it. Metaphorically. I felt the central role Green assigned to the primal scene might help elucidate the puzzling presence of sex in the room with my patients as well as the secret relationship each had with her father. too. I suggested that we discuss it in her next session. then our particular interpretation of the primal scene establishes the parameters of"our psychic world. the infant. the father. The infant's drives towards objects then become a source of rage. 70). and as is often the case. observes that the primal scene is a concept referring not necessarily to an actual scene observed by the child but rather to "a construction by the child—perhaps based on numerous scenes observed. in her compulsive style. it seems that the initial rage was against the mother's failure to provide the right physical/psychical environment needed to satisfy the infant's symbiotic needs (cf. or implied. Is the primal scene then the arena where we each learn to distinguish between reality and fantasy. Further. sex has been very present. and I will try to join you in enjoying life. according to Green (1986). "being at the center of the maternal universe. between desire and order? If so. how about if she were to join me in having fun and making money. but rather in the introduction of sex into the child's object field.

Case Vignette Here is how Sasha talks about her desire for sex. i.G I N A C H where the mother is also sexually connected to the father.e. "I ate too much.54 D M I c H A L A D I V .. She says. in the mother's absence. and my mother with her erazy anorexia. Sex. So what am 1 supposed to do? My stomach aches. "I cannot . The secret. for Nadia. She walks into the session complaining about her stomach. And every fat person he saw he made disgusting comments about. it appears. I remember now that we [she and I] are not doing what we are supposed to be doing. and although the sexual attention she gets from the father is necessary for her psychical survival. and I was afraid to be one of those fat ones. and I don't want to go. it feels like it is not the real thing. her success in seduction is a powerless and hopeless one. The rage may also be against the impotent and disgusting father. who failed to revive the mother and keep her sexually interested in him and who secretly turned to the daughter as a consolation the daughter both desires and is repelled by. then. Both father and daughter share in the failure to revive the mother." She continues. The father. becomes the only route to libidinal gratification and at the same time the source of all her hopelessness. In Sasha's words: Daddy always made me feel that I am his beauty. You neglected me for somebody else. really only wants the mother. and I should stay his beauty. but she must continue in her efforts to seduce the world with the hope that she will get the feeling she is seeking from the mother. With the father. The daughter. then. always thinking about how her stomach feels. a seduction without consummation. never-actualized affair with the father is a consolation for a daughter who sees herself as impotent as her father. not the feeling she really wants. It is too full and hurting. "In the dream. [Nadia is the woman who is now with her ex-boyfriend." stie says.] You defended Nadia and left me. secret object of desire life-giving on some level since. Later we discuss that she is constantly gazing at her stomach. it is the only libidinal connection she has. and the daughter experiences the father as the same impotent man he is to the mother. thus explaining the disgust she feels towards him. with despair. is a "secondhand" object for the daughter although she may find being his special.

." At some point I said that when she talks about her stomach." I ask. So I want somebody to give it to me. It feels like a cannibalistic wish in which sex has become the vehicle for getting back the lost life-giving feeling by ingesting the dead mother. Instead of sex. something to empty me clean and fill me. The "something big" she requires to keep her alive is connected in her mind to a penis. In her fantasy this longed-for penis will both fill her up and purge her at the same time. I am nothing. it feels as if what her stomach needs is something like mother's milk—warm fluid that fills the stomach slowly. And then she says. "I need somebody to let me be myself without inhibitions. and then I'll purge. and that purging will do good to both of us . and she says. then says. Conclusion How is the analyst to deal with all that? Green (1986) tells us. I have no place to go. She then asks me to say that she is clever too. She talked about Tommy's small penis and said as soon as she realized it was small." She pauses. "I need you to make it feel better. She said that felt right and asked if that wasn't what people want to have sex for." I feel loving and very tender towards her and I talk to her as I would to a child. and then I wanted to sleep with girls because only if we sleep together I'll feel close to them. which I do. . "It will make it feel better as if anybody I feel close to I want sex with—it will fill me so. she replies. condensed into a penis. "You make me want to sleep with you. and he will hold me so I can let out all my aggression and sadness and joy. poetically. she wanted to run away because she wanted a big penis that would make her feel good in her stomach. "What will David do?" After thinking for a moment. and she is left with an unbearable feeling for which she thinks the remedy might be "something big that will correct it. I need David [an old boyfriend] back. to scream. and then I can go back to Tommy. I used to feel such pain when I couldn't sleep with someone I was close to. I'll cry without a stop. I tell her how beautiful and loveable she is to me. to cry. It's been a long time since I last felt it.Reflections on Andre Green's "The Dead Mother " D 55 take this feeling and there must be something big that will correct it because if not—I have no right to live. ." 1 ask what it will do to her stomach if we sleep together." In the dream she is dissatisfied with the analyst (the archaic mother?) who is "not doing what she is supposed to be doing." The analyst in the dream leaves her for a competitor.

to maintain her perpetually embalmed. The fluctuation between hope and hopelessness that I experience with them is. blank. associative. This is what the analysand does to the analyst: he feeds him with the analysis. because of the power and the passion of their torment. one catches a glimpse of the mad passion of which she is. and. when the analyst succeeds in touching an important element of the nuclear complex of the dead mother. the ideal child. 163). they have developed a narcissistic defense in which there is a profound commitment to the repetition of the deadness of their early lives. This is to say that. the subject feels himself to be empty. Yet I want to believe. never wanting to move to the light of day and become the official woman in a man's life. Indeed. behind the dead mother complex. it is not love and life they are seeking although of course that is what they say they want. and remains. and a guard against madness. . I started thinking about my patients as addicted to the seduction. that they are capable of moving beyond this deadly repetition. not to help himself to live outside the analysis. therefore. unlike Moses. and alive in the presence of the patient because the challenge for the analyst is to support the disillusionment of the patient through the analyst's emotional investment in her (p. it became clearer that what I have been observing is a preobject condition. induced." interested in the patient. that renders mourning for her an impossible experience. as being the secret seductresses. and the analysis is indeed that transitional space between their narcissistic world and the object world. like Moses on the mountain. The subject's entire structure aims at a fundamental fantasy: to nourish the dead mother. they one day will reach the promised land of object love. but to prolong it into an interminable process. behind the blank mourning for the mother. Effectively.56 a M I c H A L ADIV-GINACH [Tjhe analysis induces emptiness. destructive deadness there is a spring of life waiting to be released. that underneath this powerful. Vacillating between narcissism and the longing to connect to an object world. between the pull towards life and the p^ull towards death. Perhaps my devotion to them stems from my own need for hope. Yet in the process of writing. Or perhaps my patients. can see the world of objects from afar but in their longing can never reach it. Green has elucidated for me the complicated construction of this particular narcissistic defense in which my patients desperately search for the lost feeling of being loved by their mothers. and not even the lost mothers are the aim of this operation. as though he were deprived of a stop-gap object. the secret superior lovers. (p. the object. For the subject wants to be the mother's polar star. 162) Technically Green (1986) suggests using the analysis as a "transitional space" and the analyst as "an ever-living object. for a brief instant.

com Modern Psychoanalysis Vol. MA: Harvard University Press.Reflections on Andre Green's "The Dead Mother" a 57 REFERENCES Fink. The dead mother. CT: International Universities Press. XXXI. A Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis: Theory and Technique. Cambridge. 19 East 88 Street New York. 2006 . NY 10128 mginach@rcn. A. (1997). 1. On Private Madness. Madison. Green. (1986). No. B.

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