Ghosts in The Nursery: How the Past Affects the Present

The title of the 1975 paper “Ghosts in the Nursery” by Fraiberg, Adelson and Shapiro haunted me as I became a mother.
Why should I be haunted?  I’m a therapist, I know the past affects the present.  Yet, how chilling….to vividly imagine that some nurseries are riddled with quite very many ghosts.  The ghosts that Fraiberg refers to are the kind that are unseen, tormented, and tormenting.  They don’t have voice, or body, or substance, but they have impact.  How?  They often manifest as symptoms, deep emotional wounds, and broken relationships.  Sometimes, the symptoms and problems are experienced immediately in the form of children acting out, or tension in the home.  Other times, these symptoms come out only years later in the form of a relentless depression, anxiety, or an eating disorder through adulthood.

Where do these ghosts come from?  They are your father’s or mother’s mother’s mother.  Sometimes it can be great great grandfathers and great great grandmothers too.  They represent the voices of the past.  According to the article, they are usually, the abusive voices.    The father’s voice who abandoned the family; the mother’s who favored the first born and neglected the others; the parents’ who wanted to control too much.  Theirs are the voices of ghosts that linger, and haunt, and continue the inter-generational transmission of past trauma.

In the above mentioned paper, the thesis and conclusion are clear.  The authors suggest that many people experience pain or difficulty during childhood, but not all parents inflict that same pain on their children.  What distinguishes those that do repeat the past trauma from those that make a conscious effort not to repeat the pain of the past?  The authors emphasize the importance of remembering the pain.  If one can remember the pain, then one is less likely to fall into “identification with the aggressor” (see below for explanation of this psychological concept) and hence the reenactment of the past.

The 1975 article reviews two case studies.  The first case  study well illustrates the authors’ point.  In this case, Mrs. March cannot give her daughter Mary affection.  She is emotionally cut off from her, and preoccupied with the thought of abandoning her, and giving her up for adoption.  She is also focused on the possibility that her husband is not the biological father of Mary.  Both of these preoccupations represent obsessions with the past, as Mrs. March herself was abandoned by her mother, and has a family history of promiscuity.  Her unconscious is fixated on the conflicts and dilemmas of past adult figures, and she is repeating their experience (identifying with the aggressor) rather than identifying with the victimized child in the situation.  After some time in therapy she begins to access  memories of her own pain (which she had previously isolated or repressed), and can cry over her own childhood wounds.  Only then can she begin to respond to her baby’s cries.  The case is successful since Mary’s initial developmental delays, lack of interest in the world, and lack of connection to her mother eventually resolve- she catches up to other babies her age in most social, emotional, and developmental categories, and only has some motoric lag.

*  *  *

I love this beautifully written article.  It is moving, and the empathy for the patients seeps through the words.

I agree with the central premise of the article, despite how simple it sounds: those that remember, don’t repeat; and those that don’t remember, repeat.   That is the crux of therapy, to remember.  However, I think it is worth pointing out that in general childhood is hard to remember, ghosts abound, and many of us repeat.

Childhood is such a distant past for us all.  Childhood has nooks, and crannies, and crevices; ghosts, and angels, and wolves, and elves.  It has textures (rough, gooey, soft, prickly), and sounds (caustic, soothing, perplexing), and smells (familiar and curious).  It’s full of things we did not yet understand, foods we could not yet eat, and things we could not yet express.

Who can possibly remember all of those?

I’ve heard it said many times that when you have a child some of the memories and sensations of youth suddenly spring forth.  Hugging my child brings back the hugs of the past, or the lack of hugging.   Seeing my child struggle brings back how my parents dealt with my struggles, or how they criticized rather than helped.  Seeing my kids relate to one another brings back previously forgotten fights with my brother, and how my parents created amity between us or enhanced the hostility.
The ghosts don’t so much whisper in our ears as they actually inhabit our bodies and take over, doing what is automatic to them.

But the ghosts are sometimes friendly ghosts, not just the kind that haunt and torment!  For instance,  they can enhance our well being in suddenly infusing us with the memory of a gentle, and kind touch, the one once received and the one we now offer our child.  Even when we are not traumatized by the past, it inhabits us and speaks through us, for better or for worse.

If our ghosts are more of the sadistic variety rather than a friendly crew it becomes especially important to turn on the lights, and stare the ghosts straight into their core PAIN…the pain that they harbor and the pain they inflict.  That is what therapy is for: turning on the lights so that we can at least see what we are contending with.  When the ghosts are of the friendlier or less toxic kind, it can almost be enjoyable to maintain the nursery’s mystical air, and allow the ghosts to create pretty mirages,  pleasurable reverie, and prompt us into further insight about ourselves.

What is your experience with ghosts in the nursery?  How does your past (the good, bad, and the ugly) affect you in the present?  How does it influence how you parent?

Fraiberg S, Adelson E, Shapiro V (1975).Ghosts in the nursery. A psychoanalytic approach to the problems of impaired infant-mother relationships. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry,14(3), 387-421.

To read full text article click here

For other Work by Selma Fraiberg:

The Magic Years by Fraiberg, Selma (1997) Paperback

Selected Writings of Selma Fraiberg

To learn more about my services:

Published by DrAnat

Hello, my name is Dr. Anat, and I'd like to invite you to blog to read some of my musings on "Therapy Matters" that occur to me between sessions. Join me to learn more about the process of therapy, parenthood, and reflections on the inner workings of the human psyche.

4 thoughts on “Ghosts in The Nursery: How the Past Affects the Present

  1. Yes, perhaps therapy would help resolve past trauma but alas, the vast majority of sufferers will either be prevented by their shame from ever seeking help, wouldn’t be able to afford it if they weren’t, or are already dead, self-medicated, or socially isolated.

    I grew up with a Pacifist mother and a Passive-aggressive father. I was taught to always “turn the other cheek” by my mother and then blamed for my unmanliness by my father. I am divorced, have one dead daughter (15), and am alienated from my three sons (24,28,32). There is no hope of recovery.

    “How do we measure the intensity of emotional hurt in a person? Do we guess? Do we ignore it and hope that it goes away? Is emotional hurt disfiguring? Is it so hideous to others that they are repulsed by it? If so, is the disfigurement life threatening? If it is, can it be repaired? If not, how much does a person have to hurt before they die?”
    – D. Stanton

    1. It is so hard when there is so much pain in one’s life. I don’t think one can measure it, but one can tell the story of one’s life to another fellow human and describe the pain as unbearable if it is so. It sounds like you’ve been through a lot in your life with some ghosts still lingering. I thank you for sharing your response to my post and hope despite hardship you have been through that it inspires some hope.

      It’s true some people don’t get help turning the lights on in their closets and facing these ghosts for all the reasons you’ve mentioned (shame, cost, and resorting to less productive coping skills and numbing strategies). But that just motivates me more to get the message out there, that therapy can help, that it’s important to take that impossible first step and reach out for help. It’s worth facing the imagined shame, rather than retreating into isolation. Calling for the first time is an act of courage. And it’s worth knowing that low fee or affordable options are available, at various community clinics or training institutes or grant funded research programs. Even if a clinician that you call is not available or affordable, she will offer referrals or at least give some direction in that regard.
      Best of luck to you…..

      1. Regretably, I am true to form. I used passive-aggressive behavior to respond to your legitimate blog. For this I truly apologize.

  2. Yes, rather like we don’t know what we don’t know. We can’t remember what we can’t remember.

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