Freud, Jung and the loveless trajectory of sexual abuse

Freud, Jung and the loveless trajectory of sexual abuse

Long before their falling-out, Carl Jung wrote in an intimate letter to Sigmund Freud, “… as a boy I was the victim of a sexual assault by a man I once worshipped” (cited in John Kerr’s A Most Dangerous Method). Jung also wrote of his infatuation with Freud: “… my veneration for you has something of the character of a ‘religious’ crush.” Jung’s feelings no doubt intensified the pain of losing his friend and mentor — a loss often described as a catalyst for Jung’s mental breakdown and experiments in active imagination, which led to the creation of The Red Book.

No doubt Jung’s feelings for Freud complicated their relationship. The crush may have reminded Jung of the dynamics

Sigmund Freud. Image provided courtesy of

Sigmund Freud. Image provided courtesy of

he once had with the man who assaulted him. Perhaps Jung had an unacknowledged compulsion to overcome a sense of oppression activated by the assault. We’ll never know. Yet the loss of Freud as mentor and friend forced Jung to face how he navigated a deep split within himself in ways that denied part of who he was.

By the time Jung wrote The Red Book, he could declare, “the brightness of love seems to come from the fact that love is visible light and action.” Something profound happened between his mental breakdown and his magnum opus akin to what today some therapists might call “a healing journey.” How else could Jung speak so ebulliently of love? At least on some level (and likely a very deep one), The Red Book shows how one very brilliant man overcame psychic splintering and profound aloneness — and both often haunt survivors of sexual abuse.

Unfortunately, not everyone is as resilient as Jung. Far too many succumb to feeling part of themselves died with the abuse, as well as their hope to ever know safe, “true” love.

Jung was fortunate, although perhaps not unusual, in his transformation of trauma into creative works. (He suffered jungseveral psychological “wounds” in childhood — what today are increasingly called adverse childhood experiences.) Although it is presumed Jung did not suffer incest, this form of sexual abuse in particular has been described as precursor to genius. In a letter discussing philosophers, Schopenhauer wrote to Goethe the following about the influence of incest:

“He must be like Sophocles’ Oedipus, who, seeking enlightenment concerning his terrible fate, pursues his indefatigable inquiry, even when he divines that appalling horror awaits him in answer. But most of us carry in our hearts the Jocasta, who begs Oedipus for God’s sake not to enquire further; and we give way to her and that is the reason why philosophy stands where it does.”

And Nietzsche wrote in The Birth of Tragedy:

 “Wherever soothsaying and magical powers have broken … the magic circle of nature, extreme unnaturalness — in this case, incest — is the necessary antecedent, for how should man force nature to yield up her secrets but by successfully resisting her, that is to say, by unnatural acts?”

The Red Book shows Jung’s capacity to turn inward the eye of the soothsayer, not only in search of wisdom, but also the healing power of love. He struggles with distinctions between good and evil, divisions between self and society, as well as unacknowledged aspects of Self. Although the language and images are uniquely Jung’s, they nevertheless speak to the sense of being Other — to oneself as well as humanity — also common of those who have been sexually assaulted.

In her semi-autobiographical novella, Mathilda (1819), Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly (also the author of Frankenstein) portrayed the impact of being the object of incestuous attraction this way:

“My father had forever deserted me, leaving me only memories which set an eternal barrier between me and my fellow creatures … [His] unlawful and detestable passion has poured its poison into my ears, and changed all my blood, so that it was no longer the kindly stream that supports life but a cold fountain of bitterness corrupted in its very source. It must be the excess of madness that could make me imagine that I could ever be aught but one alone; struck off from humanity; bearing no affinity to man or woman; a wretch on whom Nature had set her ban.”

Sexual abuse causes a sense of alienation that pervades all relationships, starting with the relationship with oneself and extending to the most abstract affiliations. Feelings of guilt, shame, and inferiority are common. But so is righteous anger, the desire to protect the vulnerable, and even a rugged sense of humor. This mixture of seeming highs and lows occurs not because of a lost want to love or to be loved, but rather because of a lost capacity to trust love. And so the vacillating. Like planets in erratic orbits that can’t establish the safest distance from the sun. Well-grounded observers may gratefully consume the creative energy released by the process, although only the creator can say if the suffering was worth the trajectory.

© 2013 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved.

Laura K. Kerr, PhD, IMFT is a Mental Health Scholar and Registered Marriage & Family Therapist Intern in the San Francisco Bay Area. For more information, visit her website.

4 responses

  1. Yes, definitely. We know that adverse childhood experiences can create extremely resilient people, perhaps suffering one of the most heinous of crimes imaginable and recovering from it leads to genius. Must remember that so many victims of abuse do not recover and some do not survive.


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