London mayor Ken Livingstone found himself in hot water after news broke of a fracas at a party in which he had a violent row with his pregnant partner, Emma Beal.
It was alleged that a fellow guest, intervening in the argument, was struck by Livingstone and ended up in hospital. Whatever the truth of the more serious allegations, one thing has been admitted by all concerned. There was indeed a scuffle with his girlfriend, and it was provoked by Ken seeing her smoking.
As an Englishman, it is possible that Ken Livingstone will hold the usual anti-Freud opinions that follows any mention of psychological factors in human affairs. It is typical of British culture. However in this case a bit of psychology and an awareness of the strange logic of the unconscious might help him understand both his own over-reaction, which caused such political embarrassment, and his partner’s smoking in the first place. Sad to say, I myself am in a good position to offer advice.
My own partner not only smoked while pregnant but increased her intake. A threatened miscarriage at twelve weeks did nothing to curb her habit. If I argued with her it would turn into a blazing row that put more stress on the growing baby. My mind was a storm of impotent rage, pain and frustration unlike anything else I have felt before or since. I know how it feels, Ken. In trying to cope with the trauma I envisaged the growing foetus as in a war zone – it was my genes against the relentless barrage of death attacks. The baby would be born healthy despite her mother, not because of her.
But where does this intensity of emotion come from? The helplessness that arises when a father cannot protect his child is obviously mirrored by the helplessness that a child may feel when it is abandoned or threatened by parents. Perhaps the one revives archaic memories of the other, and becomes a basis for identifying with the baby in the womb. If the womb is a war zone one can only suppose that this image is intensified by ambivalence from the past, the confluence of love and hate, need and dependency, that characterises the maternal relation.
The potential father, identifying with the foetus and unable to seek protection from his own father, is also under attack. And just as the little boy feels an enormous sense of betrayal when he understands the father’s privileged relation to the mother, so the sense of betrayal may play a key role in situations like this. Did Emma promise not to smoke and then light up in secret? In the realm of the unconscious such betrayal may evoke uncontrollable feelings that border on intense sexual jealousy. And once again, I know exactly how this feels.
But if Ken Livingstone’s feelings can come under scrutiny, what of the woman who I will unhesitatingly treat as the villain of the piece? (There are times when men should stick together and I think this is one of them.) Freud, too, smoked. In fact he smoked himself to death. And like the rest of us, he preferred to keep his self-destructive addiction away from any scrutiny by psychoanalysis. “My father smoked and it never did him any harm”; “It helps to calm me down”, “Its one of the only pleasures I have left”, “I’m addicted to nicotine” – these are the paltry ‘insights’ we get from the man who created psychoanalysis! I think we can do better.
In her brilliant and accessible book Pregnancy: The Inside Story, psychoanalyst Joan Raphael-Leff considers some of the complex emotions and fantasies that can surround the unborn baby, from both mother and father. A vast diversity of emotional reactions accompany the processes of pregnancy and birth, some of them so fleeting that they can only be captured through a psychoanalytic approach.
For myself, I took Freud’s early pre-psychoanalytic bullying tactics as my model, and confronted my partner with her symptom. The obvious explanation would be that the mother fears the child completely taking over her body – squeezing her out – as it soon threatens to take over her life. No doubt such feelings of claustrophobia played their part. But it turned out that far from wanting to harm the unborn child, I came to believe that she was smoking to protect the child from something worse.
This ‘something else’ – which in olden days may have been called ‘a sense of sin’ – was something emanating from inside. In the act of growing the child within her, in fantasy, part of her was attacking and poisoning it. The smoking was a prophylactic. A magical protection against this more noxious possibility, a desperate attempt to fight fire with fire.
Like pregnancy itself, smoking is ‘over-determined’. I have no idea what motivates Ken Livingstone’s partner to smoke during pregnancy. But I’ll hazard a guess that unless he opens himself up to the convoluted logic of the unconscious, neither will he.
Here’s wishing them both well for a successful birth.