The Freud Museum

Events Archive

10 December 2006
10am - 5pm

Understanding Perversion in clinical practice and cultural theory

A conference to examine the meaning of perverse behaviour and violence

Morning Session
Clinical considerations of perverse psychopathology

Anthony Cantle (Psychoanalyst)
Introductory Thoughts
Stanley Ruszczynski
(Director Portman Clinic)
An Introduction to Working with Violence and Perversion
David Morgan (Consultant Psychotherapist)
The Analysis of Polymorphous Perversity

Afternoon Session
Perversion, femininity and the new feminism

Film Screening
Under the Skin (1997) 83mins.
directed by Carine Adler, starring Samantha Morton, Claire Rushbrook and Rita Tushingham
Introduced by Carine Adler.

Estela Welldon
Perverse solutions to mother-daughter conflict
in discussion with Carine Adler and Claire Pajaczkowska (Reader in Visual Culture at Middlesex University)

Conference Report

Morning Session
Freud famously begins his Three Essays on Sexuality with an investigation of the perversions as a "fundamental human characteristic" and evidence of the composite nature of the sexual drive. Modern theories of perversion do not see them as survivals of elementary 'component instincts' but as complex behaviours designed to cope with the impact of overwhelming anxiety, or as thwarted attempts to establish intimacy. This important conference, timed to coincide with Noble and Webster's exhibition 'Polymorphous Perverse', devoted the morning sessions to consultant Psychotherapists Stanley Ruszczynski and David Morgan, who used their long experience at the Portman Clinic to discuss the importance of the perversions in clinical practice today. Stan Ruszcynski began his talk by saying - with all seriousness - that even with a good imagination he can hardly believe what some people get up to, what they allow others to do to them and what they do to other people. He saw the 'dilemma of ambivalence' as at the heart of the oedipal conflict which perverse behaviour enacts or attempts to ameliorate, and in his clinical example of a masochistic man he explored the dichotomies of love and death, sex and love, aggression and concern for others. For Ruszczynski all perversion is in some sense a disavowal of reality, of the Oedipal 'facts of life', performed in the service of narcissistic withdrawal. 

The morning was expertly introduced by Anthony Cantle, who set the agenda immediately by reminding us that, through the primacy of transference, 'perversion usually comes into the consulting room in one way or another'. David Morgan described some of the difficulties of being on the receiving end of that transference relationship. The use of gross sexualisation by patients to overcome enormous psychic pain can have a direct impact on the therapist. In their behaviour the patient can enact and engineer the seduction, excitation, frustration and betrayal that they have experienced in the past, projecting these states of mind into the therapist. The therapist may become a mere receptacle in which to evacuate unpleasant feelings and trauma. In the face of such onslaught it is not surprising that the therapist is tempted to push the 'revolting stuff' back into the patient again, and it takes analytic strength to remember, as Morgan pointed out, that it is possible that these patients have never before had someone who is thinking about them as more than an object. Following Bion's idea of 'nameless dread', Morgan argued that "psychotic anxieties underlay all really perverse patients".

The morning session was a tour de force by both speakers and the chair, which was hugely appreciated by the audience of over 200.

Readers may like to know that Lectures on violence, perversion and delinquency edited by Stanley Ruszczynski and David Morgan and published by Karnac Books is now available in bookshops.


Afternoon Session
The afternoon sessions turned from the clinic to the realm of everyday life and culture, but there was still a strong residual link to the Portman Clinic. Estela Welldon's pioneering work in forensic psychotherapy exploded the myth that perversion was a male prerogative and revealed the importance of perverse aspects of female sexuality and mothering. Carine Adler's debut film Under the Skin, screened in the first session of the afternoon, was inspired by Estela's book Mother, Madonna, Whore (1988/1992), while the concepts of 'fetishism', 'scopophilia', 'sadism' and others have become important tools in film theory and art historical analysis. Under the Skin has been described as a "raw", "unnerving", and "brilliant" exploration of a young woman's "sexual odyssey". It is woman-centered, focusing on mother-daughter, sister-sister relations, and the female body as expressive of conflicts over femininity and social conformity. (Marcia Landy - Screen Online). The film depicts the compelling story of a young woman, played by Samantha Morton (recently nominated for a Bafta for her portrayal of Myra Hindley) whose life spirals out of control after the unexpected death of her mother. We were delighted to welcome Carine Adler to introduce the film and answer questions.

After the break Estela Weldon took up themes from the film in her talk. With her usual verve and style she considered such topics as: what is promiscuity? (a search for a penis or the search for a nurturing (absent) breast?); what promotes the fetishisation of the body? Is the escalation of sexuality as depicted in the film a manic defence against feeling dead (in identification with the mother)? How does the person shake themselves free of the perverse solution they have adopted and be able to 'find their own voice'? Estela's talk was delightfully complemented by Claire Pajaczkowska who, noting that the mother was played by Rita Tushingham, showed clips from 'A taste of Honey', the 1960s drama in which Rita Tushingham played the errant teenager. Claire emphasized the aspect of infantile need beneath the sexual seduction, which was evident in both films, and she used the juxtaposition to engage with the problem of memory and forgetting in the transmission of women's knowledge and experience. There followed a very lively and engaging discussion between Carine, Estela, Claire and the audience, which took us to the end of a thought-provoking and enjoyable day. 

We would like to thank, once again, all of the speakers who took part and gave their time so generously.

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