Australasian Journal Of Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy
NO.1&2 - 2022
Australasian Journal Of
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy
NO.1&2 - 2022


Isla Lonie

States of psychic bondage are considered, especially as they are articulated in the language of fairy-stories. The processes of spell-binding are analysed, and the means of spell-breaking outlined.

In the model prison at Port Arthur, the lash was replaced by the cruelties of silence and total isolation in a building where the unglazed windows were placed deliberately to catch the full force of the Southerlies blowing up from Antarctica. These tortures were applied with the intention of forcing conformity from convicts whose capacity to continue to protest against their lot had led to their being labelled as incorrigible. Not much more than a hundred years ago, this prison was hailed as offering an enlightened approach to criminal punishment. To our eyes now, it seems that those who could so inhumanely subjugate their fellow men must have been in some sense mad. Coldness and isolation strike at the heart of human needs for attachment. These terrible ruins compel images of bondage: eloquent testimony to the means by which those incarcerated there were prevented from achieving individuation and self-expression.

From time to time patients come for rescue from states of psychic bondage perhaps no less hopeless, yet where their shackles may go unremarked, since they are invisible. James Anthony’s work on the psychological adaptations of the children of psychotic parents has indicated that among those designated as highly vulnerable and highly at risk, there was a group of ‘superkids’ who did amazingly well.1

These children managed not so much a defensive adaptation to their problems, as a ‘coping mechanism’ which was flexibly adapted to the difficulties of their continuing interactions with their psychotic parent. In particular, these children displayed numerous creative activities as well as often quite astounding intellectual capacities. As one of them remarked to Professor Anthony: “I always find something to do. When he (the psychotic father) gets that way, I read and play music and make my models and write essays. The teacher says I am the busiest child she has ever met.”2 The children who did best in this situation were those who managed not to be involved emotionally in their parent’s illness, or who had an effective ‘well’ parent who was able to help the child deal with the stress of the other parent’s illness.

The observations made here concern the adult children of parents with borderline personality organisations, rather than frank psychosis. These parents are typically in and out of tune with their child in a bewilderingly erratic fashion, and may have short-lived psychotic episodes which are usually later denied. It is relevant here that in ‘brain-washing’, a period of intense deprivation is followed by regressive gratifications, presenting a somewhat similar situation.3 These children very often become expert at ‘reading’ the parent’s mood and at ‘fitting-in’ with the parent’s emotional need, often at the expense of their own development. Alice Miller4 has recently written very movingly concerning this group, and has also noted that many of these children put their training in understanding the inner world of their parent to later use in becoming therapists.

I have used the word ‘enthraldom’ to convey the idea of states of psychic bondage, for not only does it conjure up images of enslavement, but it also carries a penumbra of associations to the archaic, the imperfectly understood, and so to pre-verbal experience. There is, moreover, a strong hint of bewitchment, implying that there are processes at work which are not open to intellectual comprehension by the one held in thrall.

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering
The sedge is wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.
I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful – a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.
I saw pale kings, and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried – “La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!”

Keats wrote ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ about the same time as his ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, some twenty-two months before he died:

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk …
for many a time,
I have been half in love with easeful Death …

While Keats was no doubt referring to the tubercle bacillus which carried off the hopeless and doom-laden youth of his generation, we are more likely to come across problems of chronic ‘depression’: crises over identity and individuation, and a sense of death-in-life in those who present themselves to us as bewitched. We are inclined to label them as suffering from neurotic depressive reaction, resulting from decompensation of schizoid or obsessional personality disorder. The concept of “empty depression” provides a more accurate description, in that it rescues us from the dynamics of guilt and underlines the essential lack of development of a core· of Self in these patients.

Winnicott’s5 concept of False Self development with the True Self hidden. on the basis of compliance to the symbiotic mother seems to illuminate the problem more vividly than any other formulation. By ‘True Self’, he meant the capacity for sensorimotor aliveness without which there is no sense of being ‘real’. He related this to the earliest experiences of motility where “aggressiveness is part of the primitive expression of love … Each infant must be able to pour as much as possible of primitive motility into the id experiences.”6 He defined two patterns of development: in the healthy form “The environment is constantly discovered and rediscovered because of motility. Here each experience … emphasises the fact that it _is in the centre that the new individual is developing, and each contact with the environment is an experience of the individual.” In this situation, the infant makes a gesture, and the mother responds in such a way as to allow the infant the illusion of having created something, such as, for instance, a breast full of milk. The other form of development is identified with the development of a False Self structure as a defence against exploitation of the True Self. Here the mother acting out of her own emotional need, “repeatedly fails to meet the infant’s gesture; instead she substitutes her own gesture which is to be given sense by the compliance of the infant.”5 The environment is then experienced by the infant as impingeing, and “instead of a series of individual experiences, there is a series of reactions to impingement.”6

Masud Khan remarked “magic works only through accomplices and not with witnesses and recalcitrant participants”.7 An individual who has experienced life in terms of reactions to impingements from a period well before the development of speech (and the accompanying ability to symbolize what has happened to him), is unlikely to be able to achieve sufficient disengagement from these enmeshing circumstances to view them with any objectivity. The child and parent are likely to have become accomplices in a spell-binding process not easily reversed. Even although participation may at times be reluctant, there is still a need for a witness to explain the magic. Is it indeed, “all done with mirrors?” The word ‘enthraldom’, besides its meaning of binding in servitude, seems also to imply some willing or quasi-willing suspension of ego- function in the service of the needs of the other – a participation perhaps not entirely unconscious in the spell-making and soul-binding process. Those held in thrall do not readily free themselves, for they do not allow themselves to see how the enchantment works. They are charmed into viewing their enchanter as idealised; they abrogate their own ego-function to sustain the world-view of the other, which at best is questioned silently. Continuation of symbiotic attachment means there has been no establishment of adequate ego-boundaries or of individuation of self. A secret life of the True Self continues, but remains hidden and at the level of phantasy. Since it is not available for integration with the ongoing development of the personality, this is based on elaboration of the False Self. The child is apt to present as precociously adult, yet ‘brittle’ and liable to disintegrate under the stress of maturational demands. In order that the bondage may be broken, those in thrall are in great need of a third party who may act as a rescuer, since their own perceptions have seldom been validated. Winnicott was, I believe, the first to point out the importance of the father in normal development for providing such an Other to rescue the infant from the dangers of continuing symbiotic attachment to the mother. He went so far as to say that when children need to be separate from the mother “then if she knows their needs in advance she is dangerous, a witch.”8 I do not wish to imply here that only mothers can have this quality, for certainly fathers may also enmesh their children. Freud’s patient Dora provides a fine example.9 Inevitably, though, the mother is more frequently implicated , since the earliest attachments are usually to her. It falls to the lot of the therapist in these instances to be the witness or father-figure who ‘rescues’ the patient from such symbiotic enmeshment. I believe there are times when the ability to articulate the means by which an individual is held in thrall may be the important element in getting a therapy under way, and in freeing the patient to begin to experience an authentic sense of being.10

Winnicott spoke of analyses of the False Self which might continue for years on the false premise that the individual had a real existence.5 In these cases, involvement in therapy was on the basis of compliance, and although it might seem that much good work was done, no essential change could take place, because there had been no communication with the True Self.

Silvia Rodriguez has demonstrated how the shaman derives his healing powers though his understanding of the cultural signifiers, and that it is by the provision of language for the expression of “otherwise inexpressible psychic states” that cure becomes possible.11 It may then be important to reconsider some of our own cultural signifiers, in particular the fairy stories regularly told to children, for their usefulness in explaining how the processes of spell-binding and spell-breaking work.

For the etymologists, the word “thrall” comes from Old English “thrael” via Norse “thraell”, probably from a Common German root “thrakh”, meaning “to run”. If this is the case, the word now would have a meaning opposite to its original intention, so suggesting something of the contradictory quality so evident in most concepts of the witch. We are inclined to think of the witch in terms of imagery such as that accompanying the Hindu goddess, Kali, worshipped on the darkest night in November with sacrifices of slaughtered goats, who is depicted with red palms and eyes, her tongue, face, and breasts covered in blood, and with fang-like teeth. This apparition wears a necklace of skulls, earrings of corpses, and a girdle of snakes.

The witch in fairy-tale and myth, although often enough presented as a hideous old woman, may appear initially as beautiful and sexually enticing as in Keats’ poem, and only later, when her victim is fully in her power, does she assume her true guise, and show her potential for destruction. In Greek myth, this is true of both Circe, who entices the crew of Ulysses with sexual charms and later transforms them to swine, and of Medea, who manages to become the wife of Aegeus, the King of Athens, despite the fact that she has recently murdered her children, the offspring of her liason with Jason, the Argonaut.

It may be, however, that the transformation fails to hide the evil entirely. In Spenser’s Fairie Queene, (1589), the witch, Duessa, is described as having ‘neather parts misshapen, monsterous’, and in Madame D’Aulnoy’s (1698) tale of The Yellow Dwarf, the Desart Fairy is uncovered by the heroic King of the Golden Mines when he notices her griffin’s feet showing incongruously beneath the hem of her maiden’s gown.12 (A griffin is a mythical beast with the head and wings of an eagle and the body and hind parts of a lion). This would seem to be a more polite reference to the gaping genitals portrayed at times by the ancient Greeks as an attribute of Hecate, the goddess of the Underworld, who presided over enchantments and magic charms, and sent demons to earth to torment man, but who gave in addition, riches, victory and wisdom. She was believed to haunt crossroads with her retinue of slavering dogs, and was offered as sacrifice, black puppies and she-lambs, suggesting that her taste lay in eating babies, a theme echoed later in many of the European fairy-tales.

In the Sleeping Beauty, as recorded by Perrault, (1697) (La Belle au bois dormant), after the Prince penetrates the thicket where the Beauty lies asleep, he rapes her, and leaves her with two children. His mother, in secret an ogress, plots to eat the children and their mother. In Hansel and Gretel, the witch sets out to fatten up young Hansel in order to eat him, and is foiled for a while when he extends a bone for her to feet instead of his finger. Likewise, in some versions of Snow- White, the wicked stepmother asks her huntsman to deliver Snow-White’s heart to her chamber with the implication that it might be eaten. It is perhaps relevant here to mention our very own recent witch-hunt, where the media took an obsessive interest in Lindy Chamberlain’s mode of dress, and her apparently affectless behaviour, and where a primitive fear of the witch appears to have taken precedence over the usual more rational processes of the administration of justice.

Just as the witch may entice with sexual charms, she is even more likely to present as a benign old woman with gifts of food, who may lure unwary children into her clutches, as is the case with the regressive gratifications offered the starving children in Hansel and Gretel. In Snow-White also, the stepmother poisons the unmothered heroine with the bite of a poisoned apple which she offers in the guise of an old peddlar-woman. It is noteworthy that where the gratifications are more primitive, the children seem strangely unaware of the danger which they are in. The problem of bad introjects is made very explicit in Hans Andersen’s talc of The Snow Queen, where Little Kaye’s heart and eye are pierced by a sliver of glass from the distorted mirror of envy which makes him impervious to his danger in accepting a ride amid the furs in the cold queen’s sled. As she kisses him, his heart is turned to ice, while she remarks that she could kiss him to death, but he thinks she is beautiful and ‘could not imagine a wiser or more lovely face’ – as nice an example of idealisation as one might wish for.

Not only are the children held in a spellbound state in these tales, but the King also appears to be blind to the evils which the witch perpetrates. Occasionally he is presented as wordlessly sympathetic to the plight of his child, but it seems that he can never act to challenge the witch’s power effectively, and so never offers an alternative relationship which will enable detachment from the symbiotic bond with the pre-verbal mother. We may think here of the power of the word, and with Lacan, of the Word-of-the-Father, in forming relationships with whole Others.13

The spell-binding quality of the witch is made very explicit in these stories, where the child or youth is held in a state of imprisonment, either in some inaccessible tower, in an enchanted sleep, or transformed by magic into some loathsome form in which normal processes of individuation will not take place unless, for instance, a princess can be tricked or shamed into kissing a toad. Hansel is locked in a chicken-coop. Little Kaye is held fast in the Snow Queen’s castle beyond the Arctic Circle where he plays listlessly with a puzzle of ice which he cannot solve. Snow White and Sleeping Beauty sleep their lives away until rescued. Rapunzel languishes in a tower in the woods where the only access is by a high window to which the witch gains access by climbing up the maiden’s extraordinarily long hair. Even Cinderella, who is not visibly imprisoned, seems to be forced to present herself as dirty and unkempt until the Prince comes for her.

It seems that these children must never show their vitality and beauty to anyone except the witch, who demands possession of them, body and soul. We know what will happen if they do, from the tale of Rapunzel whose lover the Prince, is thrown from the tower and blinded by the witch, and who is herself cast out to wander without food in the depths of the forest: Snow-White incurs the wrath of her wicked stepmother by rivalling her in looks, which leads to a similar fate. We may surmise that the miserable or loathsome appearance of the one held in enchantment is a defence against the envy of the witch, where there is a dangerous individuation. Either her possession must be absolute, as it were within her own ego boundary, or the child is treated as a bad introject to be expelled quickly and thoroughly as possible. This is, of course, typically the behaviour of those with borderline personality structures where rapid affective changes result from splitting.

Finally, we come to the witch’s uncanny powers, which are seen as the basis for her capacity to hold her victims spellbound. In short, she usually knows too much. There is a sharpening and extension of the usual senses. The witch in Hansel and Gretel can smell children, although her sight is defective. Snow-White’s stepmother has the aid of her famous magic mirror which gives her virtually eyes in the back of her head. Rapunzel’s gaoler has an extraordinary prescience in knowing of the visit of the Prince. We might formulate this situation as the result of an increased capacity for projective identification, so that the witch has access to the unconscious of her victim and is in a powerful position to manipulate his or her reality. In one tale, this invasion of boundaries is developed to the point where the witch lady-in-waiting actually usurps the role of the princess who is relegated to the lowly position of the Goose-girl, while her erstwhile maid almost succeeds in marrying the Prince.

This power of invading ego boundaries is appropriate for the nursing mother and her infant, but disastrous for a child’s individuation if prolonged long beyond the establishment of a need for autonomy. It may be countered by the development of dissociated or confusional states in which thought is inhibited. If the child does not know what he could be thinking, then neither can the mother.4 The problem, though, is that without thought, the child cannot escape (except into psychosis).

In summary, witches in fairy tales have the following attributes:

  1. They offer regressive oral or sexual gratifications to deprived or otherwise vulnerable individuals. The danger of loss of Self in symbiolic union is frequently expressed in terms of incorporation by eating.
  2. They invalidate the individual’s reality
    a) by shape-changing
    b) by ‘re-writing history’
  3. They undergo violent and frightening changes of affect in the manner of splitting, and where they conceive a dislike of their victim, they behave in annihilating ways.
  4. They isolate their victims from other relationships.
  5. They violate ego boundaries by projective identification.
    These attributes have the following effects on their victims:
    1. They are held in a symbiotic and essentially pre-verbal bondage.
    2. They distort their perception of their own reality and that of the witch to conform with her presentation of reality. This frequently requires a massive idealisation.
    3. They inhibit their own maturational processes in order to avoid denigration and annihilation.
    4. They fail to develop relationships which may offer alternative identifications.
    5. The only effective defence against projective identifications may be to inhibit the powers of rational thought.
    6. There is a need for rescue.

How do these problems present in the therapy situation? In the first place, the essentially symbiotic relationship with the parent may not be apparent for some time, since one may be met with the apparently good coping mechanisms of the False Self. Sudden lapses of ego function are often a feature in the course of otherwise appropriate behaviour. There is commonly a massive idealisation of the therapist in the transference. As with the developing infant, a period of relatively undisturbed positive transference seems to be necessary in order to establish a situation in which the True Self can begin to have its own life. The therapist needs to make sense of the patient’s gesture and must be very careful not to substitute his or her own gesture. Careful and empathic listening is vital and sooner or later containment of the pain and rage which these patients feel over their parents’ shortcomings. Eventually there will need to be a period of mourning the loss of the idealisation both of the real parent and of the idealised therapist.

There is very commonly a situation in which the patient is concerned above all to please the therapist – this may mean being a ‘good’ patient, providing rich associations, vivid dream material, and so on. The patient’s ability to make his own gesture rather often appears as minor episodes of acting-out or acting-in. Lateness, silence, and so on may then be positive signs of a developing ability to create boundaries. Other relationships are frequently offered sacrificially with invitations to the therapist to denigrate them. Increasing differentiation and signs of difference from the therapist may lead to indications of confusion, thought block or disavowal as retreats from individuation, and can be interpreted in the transference. The therapist is commonly tested in various ways for reliability. Only when basic trust has been established, can the negative feelings about the parent be acknowledged. Once this has been achieved, then the negative feelings for the therapist may begin to appear in the transference. There is a need for sufficient space between the therapist and patient for creativity to flourish. Therefore the therapist must be careful not to invade with interpretations. In the later phases of therapy the use of the space between therapist and patient for practice in the give-and-take of aggression and humour is of great importance.

  1. E. James Anthony, ‘The Syndrome of the Psychologically Invulnerable Child’ in E.J. Anthony & C. Koupernik (eds), The Child in His Family, vol 3: Children at Psychiatric Risk, Wiley N.Y .. 1974.
  2. E. James Anthony, ‘How Children Cope with a Psychotic Parent’ in Rexford, Sander & Shapiro (eds), Infant Psychiatry: a New Synthesis, Yale University. Press, 1976. p. 245.
  3. W. Sargant, Battle for the Mind, Heinemann, London, 1957.
  4. Alice Miller, The Drama of the Gifted Child and the Search for the True Self, Faber & Faber, London, 1983.
  5. D. W. Winnicott, ‘Ego Distortion in Terms of True and False Self’ in The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment, Int. Univ. Press, N.Y., 1965. p. 145; p. 151.
  6. D.W. Winnicott, ‘Aggression in Relation to Emotional Development’, in Collected Papers, Tavistock, London, 1958, p. 211.
  7. Masud Khan, in D.W. Winnicott, Through Paediatrics to Psychoanalysis, Hogarth, London, 1982, p.xii.
  8. D.W. Winnicott, ‘The Theory of the Parent-Infant Relationship’ in The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment, Int. Univ. Press, N.Y., 1965, p. 52.
  9. S. Freud, ‘Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria’, S.E., VII, Hogarth, London.
  10. W. Bion, ‘Transformations’ in The Seven Servants, Aronson, N.Y., 1977, p. 140.
  11. Silvia Rodriguez, ‘Psychoanalysis of Psychotherapy’, paper presented at the 5th Annual Conference of the P.A.A., Port Arthur, Tasmania, June 1985.
  12. I. & P. Opie, The Classic Fairy Tales, Oxford Uni. Press London 1974.
  13. J. Lacan, Ecrits: A Selection, Norton, N.Y., 1977.
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