Little Soul Murders; Female Anorexia
Anorexia is the outcome of one of those little soul murders of childhood in which , to survive, a child gives up aspects of the self she might have become and instead becomes the mirroring extension of the all-powerful other on whom her life depended. By the middle of the nineteenth century doctors were beginning to notice that may of the young women brought to their consultation rooms were starving to death. They had been the best babies, the perfect little girls, but now at puberty they were driving their mothers and fathers crazy and making them suffer the anguish of watching helplessly as their precious child wasted away. Most of these young women were the daughters of solid, prosperous upper-middle-class parents and came from homes where there was no shortage of food or love or attention. Yet the girls seemed to have no appetite and were dying of malnutrition. None of the boys in these families were similarly afflicted, and the other daughters were chubby, rosy, and contented with life.
The disorder was first given its label, anorexia, loss of appetite, by Ernest Laseque in France in 1873 and by Sir William Gull in England in 1874. Gull stressed the nervous anxiety that accompanied the loss of appetite — hence anorexia nervosa. Laseque thought of the disorder as a variety of hysteria, another typically female disorder, and called the disorder anorexie hystérique. Some years later, another French physician, Henri Huchard, discounted the hysterical origins and recommended the more inclusive label anorexie mentale, the term by which the disorder has been known ever since in Italy and France. In Germany the disorder is referred to a Pubertatsmagersucht — compulsive pubertal emaciation. The Germans have the right idea. Anorexia implies a failure of appetite, but the disorder actually h as to do with compulsive self-starvation. The girls and women who are afflicted are preoccupied with eating, recipes, and food preparation and are hungry all the time.
Prior to the mid-nineteenth century there were only sporadic, isolated descriptions of illnesses resembling anorexia — a thirteenth-century monk, a sixteenth-century princess. In the twentieth century, as more and more cases came to their attention, physicians and psychologists were frustrated by their inability to solve the enigmas of this bizarre disorder. Because the doctors were focusing their attention of the most obvious and dramatic feature of the anorexia syndrome — eating or not eating — their theories concentrated on the “oral” components of the disorder. It took several decades for doctors to get to the deceptions that were hidden beneath the surface of the anorexia strategy, which, as we will see, uses the covert story of a conscious preoccupation with eating and appetite, Fresslust, as a disguise for unconscious genital lusts. And then, only in the 1980s did a few doctors begin to suspect that his typically female disorder might be a perversion.
While the doctors were figuring out how to classify and label this disorder, it got around that some 15 percent of anorectics died of starvation, and this fact, because it increased the anxieties of anorectics’ families and their doctors, contributed to the blurring of everyone’s vision about the underlying meaning of the refusal to eat and compulsive emaciation. When someone you love or care for is dying right before your eyes, you don’t bother to worry about underlying meanings. When that someone is starving to death, you force-feed her by mouth or nasogastric tubes; you giver her insulin therapy designed to bring on sweating, dizziness, anxiety, and eventually hunger, you coax her to swallow chlorpromazine to reduce her fear of eating; you anesthetize her so you can perform neurosurgery on her brain, the leucotomy that gets her to eat but turn her into a bulimic, a secret binger-vomited. Through all this the anorectic is unconsciously victorious, for to her these mortification of her flesh are a collaboration with her unconscious perverse scenario.
As psychologists became familiar with the details of the separation-individuation process, the mother-infant relationship began to be thought of as the key that would unlock the secrets of anorexia. Some were claiming that the anorectic is a girl who was unable during infancy to separate successfully from her mother. Now, at pubescence or puberty, when faced with the necessity to detach from her mother, she cannot imagine any existence away from the mother’s mirroring eyes. This longing for oneness with the mother makes it impossible for the girl to engage the conflicts of adolescence. Other psychologists focused on the love-hate struggle between the anorectic and her family, especially the mutual ambivalence between daughter and mother. They said that the girl has regressed to the rapprochement sub phase of separation; she clings to the mother and yet struggles to be free of her, much like a toddler in the throes of rapprochement.
Certainly there is some merit to these interpretations of the infantile etiology and ongoing dynamics of the anorexia syndrome. However, these well-meaning interpretations can and frequently do obscure the essential fact that anorexia is a solution to the dilemmas associated with becoming a woman. The anorectic is not an infant struggling with issues of separation-individuation but an adolescent or adult woman struggling to come to terms with genitality and female gender identity. The deception that she is only an innocent child struggling with infantile conflicts, a saint lacking in all sexual desires or shameful lusts of the body, is central to the anorectic’s perverse strategy. The anorectic presents herself to the world as a sexless child in a caricature of saintlike femininity. Behind her caricature of an obedient, virtuous, clean, submissive, good little girl is a most defiant, ambitious, driven dominating, controlling, virile caricature of masculinity. Although her mother consciously wanted a perfect good little girl, in her very determination to stamp out rebellion and active sexual striving, she was also communicating to her daughter her own repressed intellectual and sexual strivings, which throughout her own childhood and adolescence and adulthood she had been regarding as forbidden masculine wishes. And it is these unconscious wishes of her mother that the anorectic is now symbolically enacting and granting to her, with a vengeance.
From a retrospective point of view, that is, from the patient’s remembrances, her parents’ reports, and the fantasies that come up during therapy, the picture of childhood that consistently emerges is that of the intelligent, compliant baby girl who all too easily and willingly surrendered her omnipotence, aggression, autonomy, independence, and rebelliousness for the safety and self-esteem of becoming a narcissistic extension of Mother. Yet from a prospective view, looking ahead from infancy to adolescence, no sensible clinical observer would predict from observations of a girl’s relationship to her mother during infancy and childhood an anorectic solution to the dilemmas of adolescence.
As with any perversion or any other mental strategy, the origin or primary etiology of anorexia can explain very little except to say, that’s probably how it all began. In biological organisms, no matter how lowly, where or how that organism begins its existence does not determine absolutely what that organism will be at maturity. The higher a plant or animal is on the scala natura and the longer its maturing process, the more opportunity the environment has to alter the initial or early shape of that organism. The human child is always growing and developing in new and often surprising ways, and her environment is always changing and eliciting new responses from her. That is why we are always surprised that some children from the worst imaginable childhood homes manage to overcome their traumas and lead relatively free and independent adult lives, whereas children whose infancy and early childhood were “idyllic” may succumb to sever mental disorders in adolescence and adulthood.
The typical anorectic probably was one of those perfect good little girls. Still, not every perfect good little girl who is subjected to the little soul murder of having to be a mirroring extension of the mother becomes an anorectic. In the intervening years, changes in the family’s emotional constellation — the birth of another child, the father becoming a more active participant in the household, the mother’s melancholic reaction to the death of her own mother, a move to a new neighborhood, the father’s loss of professional prestige — and, most important, the flourishing during latency and early pubescence of temperamental, artistic, and intellectual qualities dormant during the infantile period can have the effect of alleviating, modifying, potentiating, or exacerbating the pathogenic possibilities set in motion by the little soul murder of infancy.
To return once again to my crochet needle analogy of human development, we know that adolescence is one of those crucial junctures of a life history that impel a reaching back to the infantile past. During the adolescent years when the body is changing rapidly and dramatically, a once sexually immature girl is noticing each day new signs that she is about to become a woman — just like her mother. Very soon she will no longer be a child who is excluded from the secret and mysteries of genitality. She will be a member of an adult generation with the sexual and moral responsibilities of an adult. In her efforts to come to terms with her own sexuality, every young woman is reevaluating and taking stock of her parents’ sexual life. It is in this adolescent striving to reevaluate and revise the past that the pathology of the anorectic’s infantile relationships with her parents becomes apparent. A little girl who gathers all her self-esteem from believing that she is a mirroring extension of her mother is a sexual being who experiences desire for the father. Until she is forced to notice the physical changes taking place in and on the surface of her own body, she has been able to dissavow that males have the genital parts that excite desire in females, that females have the genital parts that excite desire in males. With her sexless, gender-ambiguous body and with her ghastly, off-putting emaciation, the anorectic mocks the power of adult sexuality.
As the conjugator of childhood and adulthood, adolescence is always a battleground on which the past and future contend for the soul of the individual. With the anorectic, the necessity to integrate genital functioning into one’s gender identity induces a profound regression that arrests the individual in the past, blocking any potential movement into adulthood. If the biological changes of pubescent had not taken place, the dormant illness of infancy might not have revealed itself. If it were not for the psychological trials of adolescence, we might never have known that this best of all little girls, provided with every advantage of her consciously well intentioned family, had been subjected to a little soul murder and had been deprived of the authenticity of her being.
Until her changing body forced her to negotiate the dilemmas entailed in growing up from childhood to adulthood, the pathology in the anorectic’s infantile history barely showed. In fact, as her parents were proud of announcing to everyone, she was good, clean, neat, polite, well behaved, delicate, cheerful and charming, smart in a dutiful, obedient way, but never challenging or controversial — the perfect feminine type.
Originally published at proclivitiesprinciplewisdom.wordpress.com on March 12, 2018.