Fonagy et al on defensive distortion in the service of relationship preservation

[This is an addendum to the essay on Richard Seymour’s disaster nationalism article]

Bornstein’s case narrative provided us with a relatively detailed look at a sequence of a boy’s defensive innovations in the midst of an exciting yet frightening family scenario.  I argue that the narrative, however much it is unique to the boy’s particular travails, is also characteristic of what children have to accomplish and how they accomplish it; all too frequently this establishes a precedent for regressively handling frustrations imposed later in life.  To the extent these solutions are psychologically salient and urgent, the subject becomes more prone to yield to the complex of ideology and institutional force that elites wield to suppress and redirect hostility away from themselves.

Here I will selectively summarize a study that investigated related problems but with a different methodology and goal.  Fonagy et al (1993) studied how parents’ past difficulties in “being heard” by their own parents were transmitted to their children, resulting in distortions in the parent-child relationship that Fonagy et al discuss under the rubric of “attachment.”  In the most telling portion of the study, they found that difficulties prospective parents had in talking about their childhood predicted problems in their relationship with their as yet unborn children.  Succinctly: defensive distortions in narrative flow of their reflections on their own childhood predicted problems in “emotional flow,” so to speak, between parent and child.  What was decisive was not whether the parent’s childhood had been “happy,” but whether they had come to terms with it in a way that more or less acknowledged its reality as opposed to defensively denying it.   Here is their own summary, playing off groundbreaking work by Selma Fraiberg in 1970s:

…Fraiberg identifies and illustrates how the conflicted past of the parents may interfere with their relationship with their child. She recognizes that “history is not destiny.” Clinical and epidemiological data both show that there is a considerable number of parents who in their childhood faced brutality, desertion, poverty, and death, and yet appeared not to imperil their bond to their child and the child’s bond to them. What determines whether the conflicted past of the parent will be repeated with the child? The chronicle itself, the historical “facts” of childhood, does not predict whether parenthood will bring grief and injuries or become the time of renewal. The determination to want something better for the child than one had oneself may be strong, but sadly, in  itself, conscious determination seems to fall far short of what is required. Fraiberg argues, on the basis of clinical experience, that the answer to this question must lie in the defenses used by the parent to cope with a difficult past. She mentions denial of the affect that was associated with trauma and the victim’s identification with the perpetrator as two characteristic defenses used by abused parents who are unable to withstand the need to inflict their own pain and childhood sins upon their own child. (Fonagy et al 1993, p. 958)

Of most immediate value are the vignettes of interviews with parents.  I’ll set aside Fonagy et al’s careful set-up and move immediately to quote (their article is linked in the bibliography):

Characteristics of Interviewees Classified as Dismissing/Detached

Narrative. The interviewee is very economical in style and the overall picture presented is sparse with respect to detailed memories. Subjects frequently explicitly assert their inability to recall their childhood. The significance of negative experiences, to the extent that they are acknowledged, tends to be denied.

Interviewee’s Personal History. Usually the interviewee presents indirect negative childhood experiences of being unloved and having been neglected and/or rejected.

State of Mind. Consistent with the inference that the interviewee’s experience was negative, and more painful than the individual is able to recall, the interviewee’s current state of mind suggests drastic defensive maneuvers, including splitting and denial, evidenced through an inability to recall and strong idealization. For example, one interviewee described his mother as “loving,” “caring,” “the world’s most affectionate person,” “invariably available to her children,” “an institution,” yet could not remember a single incident to illustrate this “general feeling.”


In this kind of interview, the dismissal may also manifest itself as an explicit reliance on personal strength and a claim to be unaffected by negative experiences. A young woman, subject to severe beatings as a child, laughed these off with the comment: “No. I would say, in a way, it done, it done me good, … I would have been spoiled, like, you know what I mean.” In addition, such interviews tend to contain multiple indications of incoherence…

Characteristics of Incoherent Interviews

Incoherence is characteristic of both D and E types of insecure patterns of interviews and is essential to their classification. Its characteristics include: (1) inconsistencies/contradictions between descriptions offered (e.g., loving, warm) and experiences recalled. For example, a woman who described her relationship with her mother as first and foremost constant and dependable, later on in the interview recalled a formative experience of painful separation, sitting in her cot screaming, not believing that mother would ever come back again; (2) irrational and bizarre reasoning, misattributions; (3) losing the line of the narrative, many irrelevancies (“what was the question?”); (4) rapid oscillations of viewpoint or voice; (5) lapses into jargon, and nonsense substitutions (in particular, psychological jargon); (6) metaphor inappropriate to the interview context (“I had a Shakespearean childhood with a touch of Sophocles”); (7) run-on sentences, sometimes in excess of 100 words; (8) extraordinary slips of the tongue: (“Er, I’d say we [mother and subject] were more friends than mother and father  … mother and, sorry, mother and … er … son; (9) repetitions of which the subject seems unaware.” (Fonagy et al, pps. 962-965 passim, my emphases)

In light of our concern with the disaster nationalism syndrome, what stands out about these interviewees is that being prompted to recall their relationship with the parents, i.e. the people on whom they were most involved in a dependent and passionate way, brings forth a response that veers away from a full account into defensively-shaped characterizations.  In Lorenzer’s terms, these parents fall back on stereotyped renderings, and these typically serve to protect the parents from the child’s aggression. Often this protection eventually involves another object’s peril as displaced aggression finds a target.

Here are their observations regarding parents whose narratives are not so defensively infused:

Characteristics of Interviews Classified Autonomous/Secure

Narrative. The interviewee shows awareness of the past and is aware of how past relationship experiences link with his or her current state of mind. The interview has the feel of a relaxed discussion.

Interviewee’s Personal History. The interviewees present a believable picture of parent(s) who provide a secure base during childhood. Alternatively, they present a highly coherent account of adverse childhood experiences which they appear to have moved beyond; and they seem to have gone some way toward forgiving their parents. For example:

(Interviewer) Were your parents ever threatening toward you in any way?

My mum was always threatening, … heavy-handed with the leather belt on bare backsides, kind of daily, where your skin swells up, that sort of stuff, which I think is kind of over the top!

Have there been many changes in the relationship to your mother since childhood?

I think there’s been a lot of change in the last five or six years. There’s been a lot of struggle, a lot of angst and a lot of stickiness. Things have shifted primarily because of my behavior, for example, demonstrating to them that this is the kid you’ve got, not the kid you wanted and myself accepting, these are the parents you’ve got, not the parents you wanted, but this is who they are.

State of Mind. The Autonomous interviewee’s state of mind is characterized by a relative absence of self-deception, the acceptance of the need to depend on others, an ease with imperfections in both self and parents, and a balance with respect to his or her own role in relationships. The interviewee accepts similarities between the self and the parents, gives indications of a strong sense of identity and of a belief in the influential nature of object relations.  (Fonagy et al, p.961)

Fonagy et al give some emphasis to an acceptance of the parents as they are.  I think it would be mistaken to draw the implication that a diminution of defensive processing would lead to acceptance of elite behavior and the exploitative institutions they relay upon.  Rather, the implication is that “autonomous” interviewees are autonomous in that they are no longer entangled with their parents in a way that demands modification of either the parent or the interviewees perceptions of them.  They are “adults” in that their engagement with reality doesn’t mobilize forms of thought that are embedded in and expressive of infantile object relations.  The parents are in a sense “just people,” not gods; they have been loving or awful and, now that we’re all grown up, that’s it.  As I have noted elsewhere on this site, some psychoanalytically-oriented theorists, Zizek being a prominent example, assume that it is only through neurosis, or narcissism, that the seductive powers of capitalism can be suspended enough for opposition to take shape.  It’s a shaky bet, and an unnecessary one.


Peter Fonagy, Ph.D. , Miriam Steele, Ph.D. , George Moran, Ph.D. , Howard Steele, Ph.D. and Anna Higgitt, M.D. (1993) “Measuring the Ghost in the Nursery: An Empirical Study of the Relation Between Parents’ Mental Representations of Childhood Experiences and their Infants’ Security of Attachment.” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 41: 957-989