Trust Scientific Meeting: 'Oedipus Wrecked’ - Constructing the unconscious phantasy through its emergence in the analyst’s mind”

Event overview

In most patients, classically recognisable Oedipal themes are present and dominant, emerging symbolically in dreams, phantasies and actions – and these remain largely unconscious.


But in the patient I describe, this appears not to be the case; dreams, fantasies and intrusive images of sexual relations with her father or a father substitute are so explicit and overt that it appears as though ordinary repression has failed. This causes her tremendous pain. Another notable aspect is that exploring these conscious fantasies and dreams at face value rarely seems to deepen our contact or lead to a fuller understanding of her predicament.

I will describe the way in which these conscious fantasies sit alongside other less obvious unconscious phantasies. In this other category, some can be divined and over time seem tangible and clearly belong to an earlier period in her history. But there are others too that are much more difficult to arrive at and yet seem to powerfully determine the way in which things are experienced. This paper is about these more fundamental phantasies – ones that are deeply unconscious and in a sense have never been known to the patient. They belong to that category of phantasy that Freud describes as having ‘never had a real existence…it is never remembered, it has never succeeded in becoming conscious…It is a construction of analysis…’ Their derivatives may appear as somatic symptoms or may be embodied in physical movements or gestures. At other times they appear as enactments. For Freud, the ‘construction’ of such phantasies focussed on the patients’ accounts of their behaviours. Today, most of us attempt to elucidate their nature through the analysis of the transference. But in the patient I describe, their construction seems first to require the emergence in the analyst’s mind of elements of the phantasy in a way that is itself an enactment of the phantasy.

The long struggle to understand this particular patient has had to wrestle with many things – not least a feeling of unreality about the patient and the transference where the ground is repeatedly felt to shift and slip away. The nebulousness of the contact, paradoxically, is sometimes the most solid experience I can have. I’ve come to see that one thing that interferes with my own functioning is the loss of space caused by certain aspects of her primitive phantasy; resulting in an experience in which I am too much a part of it and unable to be outside and observing it. This more fundamental phantasy although scarcely known to the patient, dominates her experience, in ways that both excite and disturb her; contaminating new relationships and preventing development. Moreover, it serves to protect her from the emergence of other traumatic aspects of her psychic reality that threaten to overwhelm her. Without some recognition of the existence and function of this phantasy, psychoanalysis is conducted on false lines.

Francesca Hume is the Head of Psychology Discipline in Adult and Forensic Services, Consultant Clinical Psychologist, and a Psychoanalyst. 



The Tavistock Centre, London
9 December 2019 11:30 to 12:45