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Friday, May 20, 2011

Looking Backward: Sources of the "Primal Wound" Belief

Very few ideas get created out of nothing, so it’s always interesting to look for the “ancestors” of beliefs that seem to appear suddenly and be spoken of by a small number of people. Ever since I first came across the “Primal Wound” (the belief that newborn babies who are relinquished for adoption thereby sustain a deep, lifelong psychological wound) , I’ve been wanting to find time to look for some historical background. I’ve found quite a bit-- all confirming the statement attributed to Gershon Scholem, that “Nonsense is always nonsense, but the history of nonsense is scholarship”.

In an earlier post, I pointed out the roles of the Czech psychiatrist Stanislav Grof and the British “clinical theologian” Frank Lake in arguing that unborn babies are aware, not just at 34 weeks, but all the way back to conception. Grof and Lake believed it was possible to know what unborn babies felt, by means of LSD experiences that they thought allowed them to recall their prenatal lives.

Just a little earlier than Grof’s and Lake’s work, a book called The search for the beloved (1949) was published by Nandor Fodor. Fodor had been a psychic researcher, “ghost-hunter”, and exorcist in England before training as a psychoanalyst. In an interview published in Psychoanalytic Review not long before his death in 1964, Fodor asserted that there was telepathic contact between a mother and her unborn child (Spraggett, A., “Nandor Fodor: Analyst of the unexplained”. Vol. 56, pp. 128-137). In a 1957 article (Fodor, N. “Prenatal foundations of psychotic development”. Samiksa Vol. 11, pp. 1-42), Fodor advised that all births should be by Caesarean section in order to avoid the shock of birth and possible resulting schizophrenia. In The search for the beloved, incidentally, Fodor advised that no psychotherapeutic treatment was complete until it reached memories at the fetal level. Emphasizing the influence of the mother on the unborn baby, he suggested that birthmarks are indeed caused by mothers’ experiences. He rejected the idea that most maternal shocks are not followed by birthmarks, saying “the cases in which the shock of the mother is not followed by a marking of the child’s body furnish no contrary argument. Negatives never prove anything “ (p. 330)-- an argument that has emerged a number of times in discussion of the “Primal Wound”.

A number of Fodor’s remarks in The search for the beloved foreshadow statements by Nancy Verrier and her followers. Here are some of them: “At first, the child is unable to realize that the mother’s breasts are not part of its own physical and psychic organism, that the mother is a being apart” (p. 174). “[F]oster parents and institutions cannot enter into the same psychic bond which the pre-natal community of life and immediate post-natal maternal care established “ (p. 165). “In the case of illegitimate birth the child’s reactions to life are bound to be completely abnormal” (p. 166).

Next question: where did Fodor get his belief system? Some answers to this question can be found by looking at the authors whom Fodor quotes in The search for the beloved. There are two major sources cited, one of whom in turn quotes the other. The first is the psychiatrist J.Sadger (I can find no first name for him, and assume that he is not the same person as Freud’s colleague I.I. Sadger). In 1927, at a psychoanalytic conference in Innsbruck, Sadger spoke of the need for analytic patients to go back to memories from infancy, birth, or earlier; if neurotic symptoms did not dissipate at that point, they need to focus on the embryonic period in earliest pregnancy, or even on their memories as sperm or the ovum. In a 1941 Psychoanalytic Review paper (“Preliminary study of the psychic life of the fetus and the primary germ”, Vol. 28, pp. 327-358), Sadger discussed whether the ovum consciously selects one or another sperm for fertilization purposes, and whether the zygote contains an inheritance of “the rejection or inclination of one [parent] toward the other at the time” (p. 330). He asserted that “I believe first of all that the embryo already feels plainly whether its mother loves it or not, whether she gives it much love, little love, or none at all, in many instances in fact in place of love sheer hate” (p. 336). Assuming that all events, physical and mental, are overdetermined by psychological factors, Sadger opined that “many a fall or other accident of a pregnant woman is nothing else than an attempt at abortion on the part of the unconscious” (p. 336).

Sadger in his turn seems to have owed some of his thinking to Georg Walther Groddeck, a second source frequently cited by Fodor. Groddeck was a physician whose ideas had some influence on Freud’s later work. In 1923, Groddeck published Das Buch vom Es (The Book of the It), a volume in the form of letters to a female friend signed by “Patrik Troll”. This volume was translated and re-published in 1947 as The Book of the It, with a preface by the British novelist Lawrence Durell. The “It” of this title had nothing to do with the Addams family, but was a vaguely-defined combination of a universal vital force and the learned anxieties and desires of an individual, working together through the unconscious mind to shape both physical and psychological characteristics of the person. Groddeck considered the primary motivations to be the desire of the child for the mother and the mother’s experience of sexuality while holding the child inside her body and while giving birth, an event that Groddeck seemed to perceive as a sort of reverse intercourse with the object being expelled rather than penetrating. Groddeck’s belief that all aspects of life can be influenced by the unconscious shows in his anecdote about telling a woman with a breech presentation that giving birth vaginally with a head presentation felt very good; he claimed that the fetus reversed positions within half an hour after this discussion. He attributed both infertility and impotence to unconscious rejection of relevant aspects of life-- and, by the way, claimed that a man could not penetrate a woman unless she “unconsciously” wanted this to happen.

Here we see some, though by no means all, of the precursors whose ideas are responsible for Nancy Verrier’s “Primal Wound” belief. Need I point out that none of them have any basis in systematic study of psychology, biology, or medicine? These claims date back to a time when few people asked for the evidence behind assertions like those of Fodor, Sadger, and Groddeck (but even Freud numbered Groddeck among the “wild psychoanalysts). We’d do well to think of these ideas, including the “Primal Wound”, in 2011 terms, not those of 1923.


  1. I could care less whether it could be scientifically "proven" or not! there are many scientific theories, especially in the area of mental health. Can one prove "scientifically" if anyone has PTSD? there are criterion, perhaps for an official diagnosis, especially for insurance purposes. But...then there is what psychologists and others in the mental health field believe and accept as "real."

    Further, there IS scientific data that supports Verrier's theories such as the smell and sight recognition tests given to newborns in which they can select their mothers from strangers.

    Here is my personal, unscientific "proof": While preparing for the home birth of my 4th child, I read that if you had a calm, natural birth and that child was verbal early enough - ask then where they were they were born. I asked my daughter when she was approx 18 months old where she was before she came to me and she said: "It was dark and wet." I nearly fainted!! My former husband also had total recall to the room in which he lived for LESS THAN HIS FIRST YEAR of life and shocked his mother by describing it! And, finally, I have known of adoptees who through hypnosis recalled first families or orphanages.

  2. Well,which is it? Do you care about evidence,or don't you? If you just believe what you believe, 'nuff said. If you want to appeal to evidence like what your child said, then you have to include all the kids who said it was bright and dry,too. These strolls through the cherry orchard are not good enough support, especially for an implausible claim.

    You do make me curious about how far you're willing to go with this... whether you'll be one of the sperm-remembering group. But, be that as it may, none of these things are the real point, are they? The real point is the claim that the unborn baby develops an emotional attachment to the birth mother. Why should that be true, even if the baby is born knowing all about the mother's smell (well-documented in mice) and looks (much confounded by other factors, and how could the baby know it anyway?)?

    It makes sense to argue that if the baby is born knowing nothing about the mother, he or she can't be attached to the mother. But it doesn't work the other way around. The baby could know all about the mother,down to her shoe size and social security number, and still not be attached to her. There has to be independent evidence of that part, and the unhappiness of some adult adoptees does not provide that evidence.

  3. Ehhhhhh I can't see that you've accomplished anything by delegitimizing "some, though by no means all" of the uncited sources that you suspect preceded someone else's idea. This has neither debunked the Primal Wound theory nor made any progress towards establishing an alternative explanation for its obvious and widespread symptoms.

    Don't get me wrong - I don't fully agree with the theory as Verrier has articulated it. It seems more likely that the post-traumatic symptoms experienced by adoptees later in life proceed not from the loss of a specific, rationally perceived individual, but from the individual experience of entering the world absent a maternal provider - who just so happens to be a specific person.

    Frankly, though - and I'm being honest as someone who passed through the site by coincidence, with no motivation or intention of returning - the last paragraph of your last comment reads like a platonic dialogue and misses the mark entirely. I think you know human development doesn't function like that, and I'm honestly surprised to hear you've written books about this stuff.

  4. I know there was a comment from one Martin Meader, but it seems to have disappeared. If he'll re-send, I'll post it.

  5. So you're surprsed, Martin?Then we have something in common, because I'm surprised too-- surprised at your unsubstantiated assertion that a disproportionate number of early-adopted adult adoptees are emotionally distressed. Can you cite some systematic evidence for this?

    You might want to look at the longitudinal study of Michael Rutter and the English-Romanian Adoptees project.

    If there's no unusually high proportion of emotional distress among early-adopted people, there's nothing to explain. My post was directed at reasons why PW proponents might want to seek an explanation even without evidence that one is needed.

  6. I'm adopted, internationally, and am so thankful to see theories such as the Primal Wound challenged. The path of destruction that this one theory has caused is enormous. Moreover, we need to critically think about the author, who is NOT adopted, who speaks as if she's really been adopted. A problem.

    Moreover, to the point of this site, the current modern world often forgets that our cultural notions of childhood have changed enormously in the past 100 years. Now we have the Millennials who are the sum of our cultural views on childhood - and that's another topic all together.

    Thank you for this very important work and commentary.