Saturday, April 23, 2011

Stuttering - defiance and fear of father during Oedipal phase

A woman in her thirties, whose 11 year old son lives with her brother, reported that at times he stutters.
Since I had never seen her son, on theoretical grounds, I conjectured that his stuttering could be a reaction to the fear of father during the oedipal phase.

My theoretical reasoning was as follows:

At the height of Oedipal Phase the little Oedipus has to halt his sexual inquiries and sexual interest, primarily directed towards the mother, out of fear of his father - the fear of castration in father's hands for encroaching upon father's domain. In fact the Urdu/Hindi word for stuttering is haklaana which is derived from the word hak meaning "rights over a domain". Haklaana, which is a composite word, when teased apart means - bringing in one's right over something.
So mother becomes the domain over which father and son's interests collide. Who has more right over her - the father over his wife or the son over his mother. In normal development the son bows out of the conflict, correctly judging the father's superior power, skills, material possessions and experience and gives up the sexual claim over the mother. But not without making a resolve to come back another day and turn the tables. If this wish to reverse the fortunes is too strong - because of unfavorable genes or disturbed relationships in the household - then all kinds of psychopathologies result. The wish to prematurely attack back the father in the sphere of language causes speech impediments such as stuttering.
The process behind the stuttering appears to undergo following twists and turns. The Oedipal sexual fantasies are primarily sadistic in nature. The conception of sex at that stage is that man does cruel, humiliating, punishing things to the woman, like overpowering her and beating her on her private parts. In fact the popular Hindi word for coitus is literally "man beating the woman on her buttocks". Therefore the fantasies provoke feelings in the child that they are dirty and wrong; along with guilt and anxiety that if these fantasies are found out by the father, he will brutally punish him. In fact he imagines that the father will subject him to the same humiliating thing that he is fantasizing doing to the mother. So the sadistic designs towards the mother - along with infantile masturbation which accompany these fantasies - are given up out of fear of the father. But it is not given up without an interesting development. The boy develops a keen eye for evidence/clues that will confirm his suspicion that the father does to the mother the very same things that he has compelled the boy to give up. [Herein lies the psychology of the human fascination with detective novels, murder-mysteries, whodunit, and scandals and corruption in high places.]
And these inquiries lead him to conclude that yes indeed the one who has scared me out of being a "mother f*****" is actually guilty of that crime himself. He is a mother f***** himself. And then comes the bitterness and revolt towards the father which lies behind human distrust of authorities and our fascination with dark deeds of those in high places. "What right has he to prohibit me from masturbating and indulging in sexual fantasies towards my mother when he does to her the very same thing. In anger he wants to inflict the epithet mother f****** upon his father [which lies at the core of Tourettes]. But as he imagines reproaching the father, the fear grips him that the father will retaliate and punish him for challenging his authority. So he cannot allow the insulting words to slip off his tongue. Therein lies the psychology of stuttering. The fear (inhibition) block the insulting words from getting enunciated. It is interesting that only certain sounds he has inhibition towards getting hold of. I will not be surprised if it turns out these particular sounds that he is forbidden from getting hold of to make his word and complete his sentence, which causes the stuttering, symbolize the penis, which he is now forbidden to get hold of to prevent masturbation and the accompanying sexual fantasies.
It will not be superfluous to add that the whole complex [disturbance] is thrown into unconscious through repression and the struggle now shifts on - gets displaced - to words and sounds that are far removed from words connected to sexual processes making it difficult to understand the roots of the disturbance and tempting us to believe that stuttering is more a neurological than a psychological disorder.
It is ironic that the child who is precocious in the sphere of words and language, and thus immediately resorts to words to put a halt to father's hegemony is the one who develops stuttering.

Now after the above theoretical discussion lets return to the case.

I of course did not give all these theoretical details to the mother who would not have followed them anyway. But whatever I told her did leave an impression upon her.
She commented that her son has not known his father at all. He had left the family soon after the child was born, and has not maintained any contact with the child. She herself had been quite irresponsible, indulging in drugs, when the child was in his Oedipal period. It is her brother, who is a fireman, and is stable and responsible, who took over the boy's parenting. But he is not strict at all. So she does not understand why the child would have fear of his uncle (the father figure).

I explained, "The fear may have less to do with actual parenting and the presence of real father than with the fear of phylogenetic father. The fear of the father may be hereditary and it may have emerged during the Oedipal phase affecting the speech regardless of what the family constellation was at that time."
Mother agreed with that and said that despite my brother not being authoritarian, my son does show shyness and fear around him. And she will tell what I have said to her brother.
A couple of months later, the patient informed me that she did have a talk with her brother who approached the boy and told that behind the stuttering lies a fear of him.
Per patient the stuttering gradually but surely has shown a remarkable lessening because of this conversation with the boy.

In another case of stuttering, this time of a young man, 30 years old, and professionally quite successful, I noticed that he shows remarkable duality of fear and defiance in approaching authorities. Sometimes he shows abject compliance and humility in his dealing with me at other times he is defiant, challenging, and even contemptuous at my respectability.
When he is challenging and contemptuous, bordering on insulting, if I counter him forcefully and try to put him in place he starts stuttering, as if he realizes that he went too far with me and should have bitten his tongue before speaking to me in such an equal if not superior fashion.


  1. Are you asserting that those who coined the word "Hak-Lana" knew all about Oedipal urges and consequences?

  2. Jay,
    That is a deep question and immediately throws us into the issue of how language and words evolved. Words arose to facilitate communication and they are sound symbols of things and concepts. The sound-symbols are not coined haphazardly by some clever person or a committee of clever people but gradually evolve in a culture through combinations and cleavages of earlier and simpler sound symbols which in turn arose from the sounds that things/objects make or emit.
    I don't think people have to understand all the psychological roots of a concept before giving a sound symbol to it that captures its essence. But generally languages show astonishing wisdom in defining the essence of a concept without knowing the full science behind it.
    For example our modern sleep and dream researchers after doing 100s of millions of dollars of sleep studies, using astonishing arrays of instruments, measuring REM and Non-REM sleep and evoked potentials from the deepest layers of brain cells, have come to the conclusion that dreams are chaos; random perturbation of cortex by pontine neurons and what we see in dreams are meaningless nonsense(Activation-Synthesis hypothesis of dreaming). The main thrust of modern science of sleep and dream research is that psychoanalysis is wrong and dreams are not wish-fulfillment but visual froth generated by 'neuronal infidelity'.
    Now contrast this with the wisdom of languages. Not a single language ever makes the mistake of considering dreams as anything else but our wishes coming true. Ignoring nightmares, anxiety and other dysphoric affects that regularly accompany dreams they all unhesitatingly equate dreams with desires/wishes. Words like dream-girl, dream-car, dream-boat, dream-job, in-your-dream confirm that language sees dreams as our fantasies turning into reality [in the dream-land of course].
    It is difficult to guess as to how much the person/s who started using the word 'haklana' to describe and capture the essence of stuttering knew about the Oedipal urges and consequence. They certainly would not have known it as a concept that the words Oedipus Complex evokes in us. But most sensitive parents know that children during the Oedipal phase do exhibit marked sexual curiosity and fear over it and do play with their genitals. So I am sure they had some inkling that the stuttering that appears to be a territorial-struggle has its roots in a child's asserting his sexual authority over the mother which throws him in a frightening competition with the father.

    1. Doctor Freud accepted/supported the idea that, in the beginning, every word in a language was directly connected to sex(ual act). Gradually, they took on other meanings which then became the primary meaning(s) of these words.

    2. Thanks for your comment Mohammed. I think he said all verbs had their primary origin in the sexual act. But I am not even sure of that. I will read some more on Freud's "The Antithetical meaning of Primal words" and his "Project for Scientific Psychology" where he talks about this issue and get back to you.

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