The Family: Disease and Cure

Freud’s psychic system (id, ego, superego) and the Oedipus complex were all based upon the configuration of wealthy Victorian families – families which were often insulated from the rest of the world, where children focused their desires and envies on other members of the family – hatred of the father, desire for the mother, and so on.  These all flower most effectively within the “traditional” nuclear family.  As Klaus Theweleit notes:

“Desire orients itself directly towards the social arena…, and develops in a child in accordance with the conditions of the society in which it is raised.  If it is born into a family in which, under the dominance of monogamy, the mother is given a particular role as a sexual object, and if the family sees to it that the child has very little contact with reality outside of the family, the child will be forced to direct its desires toward something within the family.  That doesn’t leave much to choose from.” (pg 214)

Freud noted the family not only as a potential cause of personal ills, but also as a potential source of resistance to a sick society.  As Russell Jacoby comments:

…the family in its ‘classical’ form was not merely a tool of society, but contained an anti-authoritarian moment.  The family as an independent and (relatively) isolated unit preserved a ‘space’ in which the individual could develop against the society; as a mediator of authority, and not merely an instrument of it, it resisted as well as complied.  It supplied an intellectual and sometimes physical refuge, which is the source of resistance.  The notion — practically extinct? — that you can always come home indicates the protection offered against social domination.  Within this space, the family relationships not only partook of the prevailing inhumanity, but preserved the possibility of something else and better.  ‘In contradiction to public life, in the family where the relations are not mediated through the market and the individuals do not confront each other as competitors, the possibility exists for men and women to act not merely as functions, but as individuals.’  The use of ‘sisters and brothers’ by the left itself recalls the solidarity that at least for a moment was nurtured by the family. (pg. 108)

He goes on elsewhere to talk about how psychoanalysis was born to help individuals, those with a firm subjectivity, to manage life.  This subjectivity was formed in the context of the nuclear family, and many of the characteristics of the individual are inseparable from it.  The superego born out of the “violence and authority” of the father, the ego born out of identification with the same-sex parent and the ‘internalization of familial demands’ often fail to develop in the children of modern fragmented families.


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