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TRANSFINITO International Webzine

"Noli tangere matrem" and infanticide

Eva Löwstedt

1.Infanticide and its negative: sadistic impulses.

During the autumn of 2002, Swedish media reported on two cases of infanticide and on one case of suspected attempt of infanticide.

Case no. 1 and 2

Two playing children find the dead body of a newborn child in a grove in one of Stockholm’s suburbs. In the following investigation of the police it appeared that the child was one of two newborn babies that one and the same mother had kept in the freezer after having strangled them immediately after their birth.

The woman’s teenage son contributed to the discovery of the crime by having taken the baby boy from the freezer and put him in the forest.

On interrogation the woman is supposed to have said to her defence that she did not want more children.

Case no. 3

A 3-year-old boy who after his parents’ divorce lives with his father is on an occasional visit at his mother’s. Walking through the city of Stockholm the mother and son stop on a high bridge. The mother lifts the son up on the railing and shortly after the son falls at least 20 metres down into the ice-cold winter water.

He survives, perhaps mostly because his winter zip suit forms an “air pocket” which keeps him floating until the rescue service picks him out of the water. When he wakes up from his unconsciousness he says: “Mum pushed me, mum did.”

The mother denies in an interrogation criminal action as well as criminal intention, but she is wondering and asking herself how the boy could fall from her hands.

Hiko Yoshitaka, "Point d’énigme", 2012

2. Is a parapraxis ( Fehlleistung ) to be legally sentenced just as hard as an intentional action?

When somebody is sentenced for murder it is required that the perpetrator has understood before the crime that he or she would cause another person’s death by his or her action.

Dealing with manslaughter in law they separate intentional culpa (lat. guilt) where the perpetrator has suspected that the person would die from negligent (lat. unintentional) culpa where the prosecuted person should have suspected. Unintentional culpa presumes that the person concerned can be blamed for not having done enough to acquire knowledge.

Case no. 4

In the beginning of the nineties a 4-year-old girl is found strangled in an apartment house laundry in one of Gothenburg’s suburbs. The parents are separated and the girl lives with her mother. The circumstances indicate that someone knowing the girl has committed the crime. The father is taken into interrogation but is released. The mother turns to the media where she appeals for help to find her daughter’s murderer. Shortly after the mother is detained and convicted of the outrage. She admits that, influenced by rage, she had taken her daughter’s life.

To kill somebody in an excited state of mind has in law the term “intentional killing without premeditation.” The affect is regarded as an extenuating circumstance and is often sentenced as a case of manslaughter while “with malice aforethought”, i. e. after collected and careful consideration, is regarded as murder.

Infanticide is a term of penal law for a mother’s killing of her child. The moment for the killing can be at the birth of the child as well as at a later moment. If so, the act must be committed since the mother is in an excited state of mind or at difficult distress caused by the childbirth. According to the penal code infanticide is sentenced milder than any other intentional killing.

Infanticide is like its negative – murderous and sadistic impulses – subjected to severe repression. In Sweden we are confronted with the results of this repression in such statements as “...all parents wish their children well”.

3.Crimes are actions imposed with punishments.

The conflict in the Greek tragedies takes place between personal desires on one hand and those of the Laws, the Gods and the people on the other.

One thing You want, another thing You should.

The Roman justice is still the foundation of the Occidental administration of justice. Our knowledge of the origin of Law is based on fragments which are brought about by different writers from later periods, such as the Twelve Boards; the oldest codification of the Roman Law was destroyed in a fire in the year 387 BC.

To penalize, i. e. to criminalize something is a political decision. Nature does not know any criminals, Society selects them and the selection can vary a lot in different cultures and under different social conditions.

The intention of criminalization is that the threat of punishment will influence the behaviour of the citizens. Need of such regulating presumes that there is a value or interest that should especially be protected. Such values can be life, freedom, health, properties and liberty of action.

The essential statute concerning Swedish crimes is the penal code in which the traditional serious criminality is mainly regulated. For crimes that are regulated in the penal code, intentional action is demanded, which means some kind of conscious thought or action. Consequently, the law sentences an intentional action more severely than one that happens by carelessness.

The laws outside the penal code are quantitatively more considerable with reference both to the number of different kinds of crimes and the number of committed crimes since it regulates crimes concerning traffic, drugs and taxes.

Historically behind this dividing we can find an idea of a difference between what is rejectable in itself (lat. mala in se ) and what is rejectable just because it is forbidden (lat. mala prohibita ).

The concept of crime as such is formal not material, i.e. there is nothing in common for all crimes except they are acts imposed with penalty.

4. Most women do not take their children’s lives.
But the question is what allows such impulses in specific cases to be transformed into action, either completely into infanticide or into different kinds of physical or psychological maltreatment of children. Either intentionally and systematically or as a parapraxis ( Fehlleistung ).

The psychoanalyst Helene Deutsch (1884-1982) meant that the main reason for women having difficulties to realise maternity in an adequate way, to begin with to carry out the pregnancy, was a fear of losing themselves in favour of the child. This fear could manifest itself as a primitive fear of death, fear of the commitments and the restrictions the pregnancy leads to, of threats of losing erotic values, physical beauty and to have to make professional or intellectual sacrifices.

All these and many other experienced threats, often well founded, are, according to Deutsch, based on the law of nature that ”the old must yield to the new.”

The woman who becomes pregnant is confronted with the polarity life-death, which can be said to activate what in psychoanalysis is called the death instinct [or death drive] (Todestrieb).

The death instinct is, as we know, not a metaphysical concept. The death instinct is if anything a way of articulating an experience as well as an opportunity to renounce the mythologization of death.

In nearly all the pregnant women there is, according to Deutsch, a constantly active tendency to interrupt the harmony of the state of pregnancy. But an excessively strong or abnormal reaction to the physiological signals that are normal in pregnancy takes place only if additional motives leading to a quantitative increase of the normal response are present.

These impulses are in many cases problematic and subjected to strong repression. When they return (Nachträglich ) the woman is hit by certain difficulties.

It is in this way I have chosen to understand the symptoms that some mothers have developed when their children have fallen ill. These women I have met at the paediatric clinic where I was earlier active and where children were nursed for both acute and chronic conditions, where children survived and children died.

The women had in an acceleratingly magical thinking built up a causal connection which meant that they themselves with an intentional action or just as well absence of action on a single or on repeated occasions had caused their child’s illness.

The pretexts that the women gave for regarding themselves as guilty of this crime were ordinary banalities whose principal purpose was to keep their own forbidden sadistic impulses continuously repressed. The women could often refer to such details where they could support their opinion on fragments from medical or other information they later transformed into a reasoning where they saw to miss an alibi for their invented crime. These mothers’ guilt problems often tormented them badly and prevented them from adequately taking care of their child as well as from living their own lives.

In much the same way as the compulsively neurotic person worships and faithfully obeys, to the point of the absurd, his own built-up law, making himself deaf and dumb to logical objection, whether his own or that of other people, while on the contrary becoming still more concerned with safeguarding his prison, in a similar way these women stick to the sense of guilt of their child’s misery.

On one point we can admit that they are right; they have some time felt a desire in connection with the idea of doing something inappropriate to the child; or at least something that that they have condemned as the deathblow for their motherly love.

5. The taboo of motherhood.
The hypothesis that there is a taboo connected to the motherhood could explain:

1/ that the woman’s sadistic impulses against the child are repressed in favour of what I would call “ a white motherhood”, which is to be understood by analogy with the white asexual marriage.

2/ that the return of these impulses can be related to the child’s falling ill or having an accident and this gives the woman symptoms of serious guilt. The woman’s incomplete argument is that she is guilty of crime.

3/ that women handle their sadistic impulses against the child by acting them out, systematically or in the form of parapraxis. The effect of this can be both psychological and physical child abuse or result in the child’s death.

4/ that pediatricians and other hospital staff fail to see when the mother is concerned in the child’s physical and psychological problems. The father is more often accused, among other things of sexual abuse, but is he more often guilty? In the legal, or psychological sense?

5/ instead of naming such conceptions as ‘murderous impulses’ and ‘infanticide’ veritable lawlessness enters in the form of the politics of diagnosis (one example in the number of diagnoses is ‘Münchausen Syndrome by Proxy’).

In one of Freud’s most important work “Three Essays on Sexuality” he writes:

There may perhaps be an inclination to dispute the possibility of identifying a child’s affection and esteem for those who look after him with sexual love. I think, however, that a closer psychological examination may make it possible to establish this identity beyond any doubt. A child’s intercourse with anyone responsible for his care affords him an unending source of sexual excitation and satisfaction from his erotogenic zones. This is especially so since the person in charge of him, who, after all, is as a rule his mother, herself regards him with feelings that are derived from her own sexual life: she strokes him, kisses him, rocks him and quite clearly treats him as a substitute for a complete sexual object.”

Here Freud inserts a footnote;

“Anyone who considers this ‘sacrilegious ‘ may be recommended to read Havelock Ellis’s views(1903) on the relation between mother and child, which agree almost completely with mine”

Freud is apparently anxious to call attention to the fact that this ‘sacrilegious’ – scandalous – statement has been written at least by one before him. Freud continues:

“ A mother would probably be horrified if she were made aware that all her marks of affection were rousing her child’s sexual instinct and preparing for its later intensity. She regards what she does as asexual ‘pure’ love (…)

…if the mother understood more of the high importance of the part played by instincts in mental life as a whole- in all its ethical and psychical achievements- she would spare herself any self-reproaches even after her enlightenment. She is only fulfilling her task in teaching the child to love.

The psychoanalysis has, starting in Freud’s important text, contributed to tear down the taboo around motherhood. The psychoanalysis could in that way be regarded as accessory to what has appeared as a consequence of this: that motherhood is not unimpeachable, which the Roman Law probably was the first to state – noli tangere matrem.

That the commission of motherhood includes introducing the child into sexual life is reasonably something that – apart from being subject of denial – puts some women in states of uncomfortable disharmony. We are confronted with the result of this in clinical as well in legal situations.

6. The absence of sexual relation.

Jacques Lacan took an interest in Freud’s castration complex among other things by transforming it in his own terms in the following aphorism:"Il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel-There is no sexual relationship“.

We know that this statement has caused misunderstanding, for example that Lacan would have meant that there are no sexual relations, and on this he has, not without irony, commented “ the simplest for everybody.

The first time Lacan formulates this aphorism is in Radiophonie 1970 when he says: ”there is no sexual relationship formulated in structure”. He develops the thesis further in the seminar L´Etourdit 1972 where he states that the “phallus function” is the substitute for the non-existent relationship.

In the seminar La Topologie et le temps 1979 he comments on his statement ”there is no sexual relationship” asking what it is that compensates for it.

What does Lacan mean with a sexual relationship?

What is it he claims does not exist?

I’m going to start with the aphorism by applying it, not necessarily faithful to Lacan, to some cases from clinical observation, when we are confronted with the problem whether sexual abuse has occurred or not, we have to ask ourselves the following questions:

1 / Can the symptoms that an individual has developed be assigned to the fact that a crime is committed? That is; is there an action that from a legal point of view would be defined as criminal and which is the main reason of the child’s psychological ill-health, in present times or later in grown-up age?

2/ Is the story that testifies to crimes true, false or a mixture of these?

3/ If it is false, is it an intentional lie or a fantasy?

After his discoveries of the infantile sexuality and the unconscious fantasy life and its importance for the formation of symptoms, Freud is obliged to abandon the so called trauma theory. Freud no longer regarded the trauma as a necessary or sufficient condition to be affected by handicapping symptoms, but when light was thrown on infantile sexuality and the effect of its repression, the interest was directed towards the signification of the trauma for the individual.

On the 21st of September 1897 Freud wrote to Fliess that he had even lost confidence in his theory of seduction. He writes:” I don’t believe in my neurotica any longer ”. He begins to understand that his patients’ tales about seductions in their childhood in many cases reflected composed fantasies whose source was unconscious incestuous wishes. This change in Freud has been subjected both to misunderstanding and criticism.

7. In Swedish child psychiatry both the theory of trauma and that of seduction are fully alive.

To child and youth psychiatry a lot of cases come where the family is already subjected to an investigation as the children have shown symptoms of psychological ill-health and that there is a suspicion that the children fare badly for some reason. They are often children from split-up families living social misery with drug abuse, criminality, dispute of custody and great acting-out conflicts. Our imperative commission is to comment on the child’s psychological status. Very often in such connections the question is asked whether the child from these environments of different bordercrossing actions is also exposed to sexual abuse.

A very common scenario is that the child’s mother or somebody in her place like a female social secretary imagines that the child’s father or somebody in his place like a stepfather – has exposed the child to sexual abuse. What is given as reason is the child’s different symptoms of psychological ill-health and, in support of the pre-psychoanalytic theories about trauma and seduction, there is a supposition that precisely a traumatic or tragic act of seduction has taken place.

The debut of this conclusion is that an adult person among those closest to the child has discovered that the child owns, in their opinion, too advanced – not age adequate – knowledge of sexual things.

Case no. 5

A 14-year-old girl is one evening in the beginning of March taken by ambulance to the child and youth clinic after having at home around the dining table been affected by heartbeating, difficulties to breathe and a strong feeling that she is going to die.

During the ambulance journey the girl’s troubles are reduced and after the arrival at the hospital the girl feels good. The doctor on duty who meets the mother and the daughter late at night interprets the whole problem as an attack of anxiety, and mother and child can leave the hospital with a referral to the child and youth psychiatry.

The mother does not wait for the course of referral but initiates an emergent visit to the child psychiatric consulting already the next day and that is where I meet mother and child.

The mother, who lives divorced from the girl’s father since ten years, thinks that there is a sexual relation between the father and the girl and that the father because of this is guilty of criminal acts that the mother does not specify in detail.

What is mentioned by the mother is that the daughter since some time has shown an increasing anxiety and worry, lack of appetite, problem to sleep and has told her mother she doesn’t want to live.

The girl lives together with her two-year-younger brother with the mother and her new husband. The children meet their father, who has got a new family, a couple of weekends a month. The mother has earlier reported the biological father to the police because he had touched the boy too hard. The mother is now ready to report the father to the police again as she is convinced that the girl’s emergent psychological ill-health is due to the fact that the father has committed sexual criminal actions against his daughter. The mother refers her suspiciousness to the girl’s uttered words after a nature programme about the male, the female and the cub of a seal.

This mother does not make a secret that the main reason for her visit to the psychiatric consulting is that she wants a judgement, which confirms her suspicions of the father’s crime. She hopes that this time, unlike her accusation of the too hard grip of the son, she can eliminate the father as a suitable guardian of children.

The girl, who is well aware of her mother’s theories of seduction, comes slightly smiling to the individual talk with her mouth full with glittering braces and a red lollipop. She starts immediately saying: “He hasn’t done anything.” The girl can date the debut of the acute matter in her mother’s accusation against the father to her watching recently, together with a girl of the same age, a TV programme about seals. She and her friend had embarrassedly giggled at the erection of a male seal and had at the end of the programme continued to comment on what they had seen.

The mother’s conclusions that the girl is seduced and because of this traumatised are pronounced and preached with a lack of doubts which makes the investigations to be done with relatively small efforts. It is not often that a mother’s sexual fantasies are pronounced so unembarrassedly. The difficulties turn up when the beast in the shape of the father in this divorced woman’s fantasies of seduction is a criminal version that she wants to verify by means of the medical and social services and the police.

Freud did not deny the existence of sexual abuse against children. But if that was the case Freud’s experience was that these real events belonged to later years of childhood, and then are placed backwards to earlier years.

With a fantasy of seduction where no seduction has happened the child generally covers the autoerotic period of its sexual activity. The child protects himself from the sense of shame of the masturbation, Freud argued, by moving a desirable object in fantasy back to these very early periods.

This time-shifting we often have to deal with in clinic connections just as the childhood experiences which under analysis are made up or reminded, are once false, other times true and mostly a mixture of both.

Obviously crimes are discovered within the frame of the medical commission but most often not such crimes as are subject of people’s fantasies. The crimes that are revealed have rather turned out to be unimaginable and what is funny – or rather the opposite – is when sexual abuse has without any doubt taken place, my clinical experience is that the mother has been surprisingly blind – and deaf – to what has happened.

8. To what extent does Law protect motherhood, fatherhood and parenthood?

The possibility to make a “good enough” parenthood means that both mother and father regularly have to expose the child to some necessary violations; violation in the sense of the parent, in his or her upbringing and care of the child, regularly having to exert an influence in the shape of an outrage in relation to the child’s way and will.

I don’t need to point out that I do not talk about the criminal action ‘corporal punishment of the child’ but about the physical and psychological use of force that everyday care regularly demands. One example among many is that children – no matter what they want – are fastened in car-drives and that a lot of different situations demand keeping the little child with firm hand. With older children and teenagers the parent is forced to interfere differently, but the principle is the same.

Since Freud taught us about infantile sexuality and about the mother’s role in preparing the child for sexual life, we also know of many situations which are given a sexual meaning where in fact there is no sexual relation, only in fantasy; either in the child or in the adult.

9. If one person’s action would give sexual fantasies to another; is there then a sexual relation?

I mention a matter of course in this context; fantasies are no crimes, but our actions can be defined as criminal. Let’s say that a man – or a woman – puts his hand on a child’s shoulder, cheek, sex or somewhere else on the child’s body. The adult who then is sexually excited by touching the child is defined as a paedophile if this fantasy is articulated.

If the child attributes the adult’s laying on hands or fingering to a sexual signification then we have to deal with the child’s fantasies of a sexual relation.

The variations of this are by natural reasons endless since in the relations between children and adults – except physical contact – things take place on the level of speech and glance. What is said and with what signification; what has the person seen or heard and what did it mean?

When somebody begins to articulate these fantasies of a sexual relation between a child and an adult it happens that this story becomes a commission for representatives of justice as well as of medical service.

Because of their complicated nature, these tales contain a breeding ground for series of misunderstandings, which often at a certain point are sanctioned as truth.

What has really happened? This question, the clinician as well as the lawyer, from their different commissions must ask themselves.

Case no 6

A 7-year-old girl, the youngest of three brothers and sisters, comes in emergency to the child psychiatry ward on the initiative of a social welfare secretary. What is said is that a younger friend of the girl has told her parents that the girls, in a garage in the neighbourhood have been exposed to sexual abuse by one, for them, wellknown and admired boy a couple of days before his 15th birthday. The boy denies completely the accusations but admits he has played and been together with the little girls.

The girl has symptoms of anxiety, restlessness and problems to sleep. It is taken for granted that the reason is the stated outrage in the garage a month earlier.

The first time I meet the girl with her parents she rattles off a story about what happened which has the character of a repetition, she has told this many times earlier and telling it again has no effect on her and it does not give me a possibility to determine what really has happened either. Rather it is a story that seems to have the purpose of locking all the possibilities to find the truth; now as well as earlier. Her story lacks the necessary gaps that a speech has that is not yet filled in – not yet set right – with material of fantasy, with an unconscious or conscious fabrication.

Shortly after also the girl’s 10-year-old sister is reported to the child psychiatry ward after telling her parents that the same boy has done nearly the same action to her. The reason for reporting the sister is an assumption that she is traumatised, no other symptoms are given. The family situation is chaotic; the father accompanies the mother on to the sicklist under the heading of depression where she has been herself since many years. It is not for medical service to decide if a crime is or is not committed. It is not either the commission of medical service to deny crimes if our hypothesis would look like it. These two facts do not exclude within the frame of clinical judgement and treatments that we witness that the medical effort in itself after a declared outrage is regarded as a pretext for the trauma to really have happened.

Or how to explain that in spite of the accused boy’s guilt never being legally confirmed, the poor parents got fully 300 000 Swedish crowns (33 000 Euro ) from their insurance company because of the sexual abuse. Shortly before the insurance company had asked for a certificate from child psychiatry telling that they had been patients related to suspicions of sexual abuse.

A year later the parents are back, at this time with their son, of the same age and earlier a friend of the suspected committer’s. A man from the neighbourhood has hit the son to the ground, according to the parents as a rest from this neighbour having meant that the boy accused was forced from the neighbourhood on false accusations by the family and their allies.

10.non liquet (‘it is not clear’)

According to older Roman Law the judge could finish a case by declaring that it could not be established which party was right. According to later Roman law and in modern legal systems it is fundamentally forbidden to let a trial be finished with such a declaration; the dispute must be settled.

At the witch-trials the women were thrown into the water as a method to find out if they were guilty. If they were drowned they were innocent but if they managed to save themselves out of the water this was taken as a justification for the accusations to be in accordance with the truth.

Today, we use other methods when the question of guilt is to be decided in difficult legal questions. But each time, including ours, has its own specific politics that during pressure produce a version – or a psychiatric diagnosis – which determines the liability issue legally, but whose relationship to truth is unclear.

By Eva Löwstedt

Presented at the Congress at the Villa San Carlo Borromeo

Scritture della rivoluzione cifrematica. Forum mondiale del secondo rinascimento, 3-5 dicembre 2004

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