The Wound and the Bow

Soul Murder: The Effects of Childhood Abuse and Deprivation

by Leonard Shengold MD.
Yale University Press, 342 pp., $35.00

In his introduction to Soul Murder, Dr. Shengold confesses that he is “fond of meandering designs; this book proceeds more by association than by orderly progression.” In his acknowledgements he states that in his present book, Soul Murder, and in his previous book, Halo in the Sky (1988), he has “published most of the ideas and discoveries that have been derived from my practice of psychoanalysis over the past thirty years,” and elsewhere that unspecified portions of this book have already appeared as articles in four different psychoanalytic journals.

Dr. Shengold is a distinguished psychoanalyst—he is clinical professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine—who, after being in practice for over thirty years, has now collected some of the various papers he has written and woven them into the semblance of a book, as opposed to a volume of collected papers. However, despite the patchwork, the repetitiousness, and the “meandering design,” his book does have a recurrent theme, and this theme is vividly described by its title, Soul Murder.

“Soul Murder,” writes Shengold,

is my dramatic designation for a certain category of traumatic experience: instances of repetitive and chronic overstimulation, alternating with emotional deprivation, that are deliberately brought about by another individual. The term does not define a clinical entity; it applies more to pathogenic circumstances than to specific effects.

The term was first used by Anselm von Feuerbach in 1832 to describe the case of Kaspar Hauser, the seventeen-year-old boy who, locked alone in a cellar since early childhood, had “gradually regressed into a kind of obsessive-compulsive automaton.” But it was Paul Schreber’s autobiography, written in 1902 and later the subject of one of Freud’s most famous case histories, that entrenched the expression in the psychoanalytic vocabulary and supplied some of its most powerful illustrations. Shengold draws on these and many other earlier studies of soul murder, as well as numerous instances from literature and history of people devastated by the persecutions of an impersonal and merciless authoritarian force, in reflecting on the cases of abuse he has studied over the years and their implications for psychoanalysis.

In spite of the undeniable power of this testimony, however, there are objections to be raised to the imprecision of his use of the term soul murder. Although the concept is a vivid metaphor for describing the actions of persons who deliberately abuse, batter, deprive, torment, torture, and brainwash helpless victims, often children, it is nonetheless misleading in certain respects. Actual murder leaves the victim dead, with no possibility of living or reviving to tell the tale, while the victims of what Shengold calls soul murder are still alive and may under certain circumstances or psychological constellations be able to tell the tale, thereby regaining the spirit which their “murderers” sought to crush and recover the sense of identity and personal autonomy of which their “murderers” sought to deprive them.

Some creative artists are striking examples of survivors who live to tell the tale. Shengold describes…

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