The themes of sin, guilt, punishment and redemption are not only pervasive in religion but deeply ingrained in the human psyche.
In recent episodes of the soap opera EastEnders, one of the characters, ‘Dot’ Cotton, has been behaving irrationally by trying to get herself arrested for shoplifting. The audience, however, know there is a hidden rationality to her actions: she wants to be punished for a secret crime. She helped her dying friend Ethel take her own life.
Criminals from a sense of guilt
Freud considered similar actions in his concept of a ‘criminal from a sense of guilt’ (‘Some character types met with in psychoanalytic work’, 1916).
Guilt can lead to criminal behaviour, rather than criminal behaviour leading to guilt
In these cases the crimes we feel we have committed are so well hidden (and under the influence of infantile amnesia) that they are unconscious. The crime functions as the atonement for a ‘sin’ which is unknown. Committing the crime brings mental relief to the perpetrator by attaching a definite wrongdoing to an obscure sense of guilt.
Having observed this curious fact – that guilt can lead to criminal behaviour rather than criminal behaviour leading to guilt – Freud asks where the guilt could have come from in the first place.
He concludes unsurprisingly:
“The invariable outcome of analytic work was to show that this obscure sense of guilt derived from the Oedipus Complex and was a reaction to the two great criminal intentions of killing the father and having sexual relations with the mother.”
Written three years after Totem and Taboo, Freud probably felt he had no need to further justify the essential truth of this statement.
For Freud the sense of guilt is something quite complex. It presupposes a triangular situation and the formation of a conscience or superego as a reaction to the Oedipal desires and anxieties. Melanie Klein assumed that guilt could arise simply from the law of retaliation: if I want to attack someone I fear that they may attack me back. If I think I have damaged the other person with my murderous phantasies, I may be anguished and full of remorse.
Thus Dot Cotton’s guilt may be not just the sense of sin in relation to God – punishment from the highest parental authority – but because, more disturbingly, she fears the ghost of her best friend coming back to haunt her.
Quotation from ‘Some character types met with in psychoanalytic work’ (1916) Standard Edition Vol 14
Schools discussion topic:
Think of three reasons why children might be ‘naughty’ and discuss them.
Further reading: Kalu Singh (2000), Guilt, Icon Books.