The perverse father: myth and reality – Udo Hock

padre e figliaIn our panel we want to address a topic that has been largely neglected by the psychoanalytic community, and even excluded from its official concerns: namely, the perverse father in his dual existence as a mythical figure as well as a real person. As a result of this process of (official) exclusion in the history of psychoanalysis, the perverse father – in the form of a ghost or a phantom – has repeatedly haunted clinical practice as well as metapsychological theory, without ever finding a – or his – place within psychoanalytic concepts or in the case histories that we share with each other. Although all three of us have devoted a great deal of thought to this subject over a long period and we have also published on it, we nevertheless view our work as a beginning, as a first approach to this complex issue, which has been accompanying and even pursuing psychoanalysis ab origine, as a subterranean and thus invisible presence.

Our presentation is divided into three parts. I will begin by presenting a number of theses designed to sharpen up the significance of the perverse father in psychoanalytic theory, subsequently Rotraut de Clerck and Wolfgang Berner will enlarge upon the topic on the basis of some of their own clinical cases.


The aetiology of the father

First I would like to tell you about a discovery I made in the course of working on the theme of the perverse father. I would like to demonstrate that the exclusion of the perverse father from the canon of psychoanalytic concepts is not a random act, but historically went hand in hand with a specific policy on the part of Ernest Kris when he was editing the letters to Fliess. The starting point for this discovery was the famous letter from Freud to Fliess, dated September 21st 1897, in which he lists four reasons for abandoning his seduction theory. You will recall that, according to the seduction theory, sexual seduction scenes, especially between fathers and daughters, play the decisive role in the aetiology of hysteria. As we know, Freud’s second argument for rejecting the theory was that the myriad numbers of perverse fathers that would need to be postulated as the cause of the unexpectedly frequent incidence of hysteria was, as he put it, “rather unlikely” (284, German version of the Freud-Fliess letters). 

But where are the traces of this discarded aetiology of the father to be found? In my research, I noticed first of all that only in the letters to Fliess is the figure of the perverse father mentioned, and that Freud maintains a persistent silence on this figure in his published texts, and especially in the Studies on Hysteria: the formulation doesn’t appear in his collected works just as it is the case for the related theory of “paternal aetiology” (ibid., 251) or “the aetiology of the father” (ibid., 312). You have to know that the letters to Fliess from the years 1887-1904 met a special fate, which is not without interest for our purposes. We know that they were published for the first time in 1950 in an incomplete edition (Ernest Kris, Anna Freud et al.) and it was not until 1985 that a complete version was published by Masson in English, followed by a German edition in 1986, edited by Michael Schröter, and then a French edition as late as 2006. 

A comparison between the versions reveals that especially those passages in which Freud – prompted by clinical material that was particularly hard to stomach – takes a firm stance on the issue of the perverse father, were omitted in the early version from 1950. Due to time constraints, I can’t discuss these features in detail, I can only encourage you to read the letters yourself, in order to get an idea of the kinds of emotional abysses these perverse scenarios lead to. In particular, in the letter dated December 22nd, 1897 –  thus after the official abandonment of the seduction theory – Freud outlines a scene between patient /daughter, father and mother, the brutality and gruesomeness of which seems hard to imagine, but which is nevertheless introduced with the sentence: “The following little morsel speaks in favour of the inner authenticity of infantile traumas… “, going on to describe the father as a “Mädchenstecher” (“girl stabber”), whose erotic desires required inflicting bloody injuries” (ibid., 314).

If one reads the obsessively detailed descriptions of perverse acts from that time, one remains perplexed and baffled. No wonder that Freud discussed them only in the innermost circle with Fliess, and that Ernest Kris systematically omitted them in his first edition of the letters to Fliess in 1950. Back then, it would have been too much to ask of the broader public to have exposed them to certain passages from the founding father of psychoanalysis, without Freud himself falling into disrepute as a dangerous pervert with morbid fantasies. The publication of these passages in an unabridged edition of the letters finally led to a new debate about Freud’s early seduction theory, a debate connected with the names Jeffrey Masson in the USA and Alice Miller in Germany. However, the debate focused far too much on the actual abuse of children by adults and especially by their fathers. The metapsychological status of the perverse father, however, remained completely under-illuminated, and ultimately absent.

But what is the status of this scandalous figure from the early history of psychoanalysis elsewhere in Freud’s work? Already distorted to the point of unrecognizability in the first edition of the letters to Fliess, the perverse father and his theoretical counterpart, the aetiology of fatherhood, left only a few traces in Freud’s writings: neither in his theorisation of the unconscious nor in his wide-ranging theory of perversion does the perverse father feature centrally. Of course, the perverse father did not simply disappear, but rather underwent a transformation. In the course of further developments, he moved on from being grounded in a real event and became more and more a phantasmatic figure, an idol or archetype of an obscene, disgusting lust, as found in particular in perversion. Freud erected a mythical monument to this figure in the form of the primal father in Totem and Taboo. The press is particularly fond of reporting on such father figures, who time and again attract the attention of collective fantasies (dictators, autocrats, cult leaders, etc.).

If I focus on this turn in Freud’s thinking, it is not in order to render the person of the perverse father abstract, to de-realise him. Indeed, in our own times too there are more perverse fathers than is commonly assumed – we encounter such relationships often enough in our psychoanalytic practice, which can be acted out in the transference. In recent years, especially in Germany, but also in the U.S.A., a scandalously high number of cases of abuse have come to light, in the most varied ecclesiastical and secular institutions. To establish the perverse father as a phantasmatic figure thus does not mean denying his existence as a real person, but rather to view him – beyond his actual statistical occurrence – as the incarnation of a borderline traumatic quality of lust. He has, as it were detached himself from his beginnings in the letters to Fliess and has become a kind of demon that persistently haunts Freud’s case histories, as well as our own clinical practice.

The history of this transformation of the real person into the phantasmatic figure can be most easily written by following the Freudian dictum “neurosis is the negative of perversion”. It is definitely Freud’s key statement for understanding the relationship between neurosis and perversion, and at the same time the essence of the “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality,” where Freud discusses the question on at least three occasions (Freud, 1905d, 65, 132, 140). But whereas in the letters to Fliess the perverse father had at least remained a defining, albeit subterranean figure, serving the purpose of tracking down the secrets of perversion as well as neurosis clinically as well as culturally and historically, it is precisely in the “Three Essays” that the perverse father remains strangely absent. Of course this is a unique and exceptional text, for it is here that Freud systematically embeds polymorphous-perverse sexuality in the psychic life of mankind. But the same systematicity renders him aseptic, especially with regard to perversion, and to some extent Freud sacrifices vividness to systematicity. Therefore, I propose to study the “trans-substantiation/trans-essentialisation” (Žižek) of the perverse father from the real person into the epitome of obscene lust on the basis of the five famous Freudian cases. For it is a peculiarity of these cases (Dora, Little Hans, the Rat Man, Schreber, the Wolf Man) that in each instance the father or a phantasmatic construction (Verarbeitung) of the father is accorded a central place in the patients’ symptoms, without Freud ever reflecting on this metapsychologically.

So it is that the Wolf Man and the Rat Man owe their names to a similarly blood-curdling idea: while the Wolf Man is tormented by the phobic idea of being eaten by the wolf, the Rat Man suffers from “the great obsessive fear” (Zwangsbefürchtung) that people he loves (his lady friend and his father) would have a particularly terrible punitive practice from the Orient inflicted on them (where rats are tied to the buttocks and burrow into the anus). With Little Hans, the central phobia concerns being bitten by a horse, which Freud interprets as fear of paternal castration. And Schreber suffers from the delusion of being impregnated by God, a father substitute, in order to create a better humanity from his womb. And finally, Dora. We know that, inter alia, she ends up in treatment with Freud because of an hysterical cough, which in his analysis, in his inimitable way, Freud links with the unconscious idea of oral sex between her father and Frau K.. Gradually Freud elicits from Dora that her father was impotent and therefore only alternative forms of sexual gratification were possible. It was after all irrefutable that, with her fitful cough, which was usually brought on by a tickling in the throat, Dora was imagining a situation of oral sexual gratification between the two people whose love affair was a constant pre-occupation for her (Freud, 1905e, 207).

So here it is again, this obscene perverse lust, embodied in an old impotent father, who “sells” his own daughter to Herr K. so that he can pursue his dirty affair with Frau K.. The father may no longer be the sexual aggressor in this instance, but he is nonetheless a necessary component of the hysterical/perverse scenery. Through her cough, Dora puts herself in the place of Frau K. – she is now the one who provides the impotent father with oral gratification.

So where has the analysis of the figure of the perverse father led us? Starting from Freud’s letters to Fliess I first went in search of traces of the perverse father in Freud’s work. The fact that in the official texts, and especially in the early “Studies on Hysteria”, there is not a single passage in which Freud explicitly refers to the perverse father, shows that from the very beginning the figure led a twilight existence, in (semi-) obscurity. The editorial policy of Kris et al., including Anna Freud, further reinforced this tendency, in that crucial passages relating to the perverse father were omitted from the first edition of the letters to Fliess in 1950. At the same time, though, Freud’s clinical cases are abundantly rich in material in which the father, constructed phantasmatically as the epitome of obscene lust, plays a role.

Patients are repeatedly working through this imputed paternal lust, which re-emerges in the formation of symptoms. Interestingly, and that can only be hinted at here, this rather special history of the perverse father after Freud, has, with few exceptions (for example, Slavoj Žižek), attracted no further attention – as if it were weighed down by a prohibition on thinking about it. Certainly in the numerous books published in recent years on perversion and on the father, one finds no mention of these early stages and their consequences. This applies to both the German and the English-speaking worlds. With our panel, we would like to invite you to participate in a renewed debate about the phenomenon of the perverse father, both in its clinical and theoretical significance, fully aware that we can only take some very modest first steps together here.




Freud, S. (1905d): Drei Abhandlungen zur Sexualtheorie. In: GW V, 27-145.
(1905e): Bruchstück einer Hysterie-Analyse. In: GW V, 161-286.
(1985): Briefe an Wilhelm Fließ 1887-1904. Hg. von J.M. Masson, Bearb. der deutschen Fassung von Michael Schröter, Transkription von Gerhard Fichtner. Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp.
Hock, U. (2010) Der perverse Vater. In: Jahrb. Psychoanal. 60, 123-150
(Dr. Udo Hock, Eichenallee 35, 14050 Berlin,