Self-Hatred in Psychoanalysis: Detoxifying the Persecutory Object (Book Review)

Author:  Scharff, Jill Savege and Stanley A. Tsigounis.
Publisher: New York: Brunner-Routledge, 2003
Reviewed By: Michael J. Diamond, Summer 2004, p. 66

This book affords a broad overview of the nature of persecutory objects and states of mind. Thirteen distinctive chapters, while varying in complexity and lucidity, sustain a rather coherent theoretical outlook. The book is oriented around both a conceptual understanding of persecutory states of mind and more practical ways of working with tenacious persecutory objects in individual, couples, and group therapy as well as in assessment and consultation. Many of the papers were first presented at an April 2000 conference held by the International Institute of Object Relations Therapy, building on Jill Savege Scharff and David E. Scharff’s object relational approach. Although the chapters vary in quality and sophistication, yet each has something useful for both inexperienced and more experienced analytic clinicians.

Each author writes from within the tradition integrating object relations and Kleinian theories to, in the editors’ words, “reveal the viciousness, hatefulness, and tenacity of the persecutory object, the breadth of its influence, and the object relations approaches we bring to understanding and detoxifying it.” (p. xv). Moreover, the writers made an effort to provide direct clinical material in order to help the reader to create the necessary technical conditions for modifying toxic persecutory objects. I felt this aim was essentially realized and that most readers will benefit from selectively reading this book. In fact, I did assign several key chapters to my own students, both experienced analytic clinicians and postdoctoral level trainees, and all found the readings helpful, as did I, in furthering both our understanding of, and proficiency in working directly with intrapsychic structures causing self hatred. I will briefly highlight the most noteworthy chapters in the remainder of this review while providing an overview of each article’s focal point.

Tsigounis and J. Scharff’s introductory chapter adeptly elucidates the nature and development of persecutory objects. Freudian, Kleinian and Fairbairnian perspectives along with clinical vignettes are employed in discussing the complex interplay between actual, early persecutory events and the individual’s emerging internal structure leading to the formation of persecutory internal objects. It is evident throughout the more theoretical chapters in the first part of the book, as well as in the subsequent clinical chapters, that each writer shares the idea that the prototype for the persecutory object lies in a complex interaction between external and internal objects—between actual mother-father-infant experiences and the child’s aggressive and envious fantasies directed against the parents.

J. Scharff’s second chapter takes up these issues in terms of the death instinct as she supports her thesis with clinical examples and further elaboration of the ideas of Freud, Klein, Bion, Fairbairn, and R. Britton. The distinction is clearly made between the classical view on the death instinct and Scharff’s favored Fairbairnian, object relational position pertaining to the tie to the bad object as the source of persecutory experience. In brief, Scharff’s object relational perspective propounds that aggression locked into a closed system of internal object relationships produces the death constellation. This toxic psychic structure, consisting of persecutory internal objects, is fundamentally interpersonally constructed and does not result from the death instinct.

David Scharff applies the theory directly to the clinical setting in the next chapter as he considers the strength of the sexual tie to the bad, “traumatic” object in psychoanalytically oriented couples therapy. The author dramatically illustrates how each partner becomes closely associated with the other’s painfully persecutory internal objects and how this is played out in the dyad in terms of shame and guilt. Ashbach next explores these affects of guilt and shame as signal emotions for heralding the activity of persecutory objects. The role of masochism and aggression as well as the clinical import of containment in the countertransference are discussed capably in this chapter. Two case studies ensue in the next chapters, one exploring the “noise” of the persecutory object and its link to Winnicott’s fear of breakdown (De Varela) and in the second, a case of Munchausen by Proxy demonstrating how disturbed mothers project persecutory objects into the body (Ravenscroft).

The second part of the book continues the clinical focus in describing work in individual therapy with both an adult (Kaufman) and an adolescent (Johnson), in conjoint therapy with divorcing couples (Bagnini), and in group therapy with a particularly unbearable countertransference (Hall). Later chapters respectively focus on treating the persecutory aspects of physical deformity during surgery (Altamirano) and the persecutory family transferences in family business consultation (Stadter). The concluding chapter, by Tsigounis, presents a useful summation of the limitations in detoxifying persecutory objects while encouraging readers to recognize the necessary frustrations and failures inherent in this type of work.

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