Primal Scenes (Trigger Warning: Freud Ahead)


The Laura Kipnis Melodrama now requires psychoanalysis, terminable or interminable, of the most old-fashioned kind.

As you surely know, a graduate student in philosophy at Northwestern, hereafter known as G, filed Title IX charges against Kipnis on the grounds that the February essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education was “retaliation” against G’s earlier filing of a Title IX sexual harassment claim against a senior philosophy professor who (she claims) raped her.

G had previously acknowledged in court documents that she had been in a relationship with the professor, and that they had had consensual sex prior to and perhaps after the (alleged) rape. That acknowledgment is part of the public, legal record. G has not repudiated it.

But G now makes two different claims. On the one hand, she maintains that the long-term relationship with the senior professor, though close and warm by all accounts—-she slept in the same bed with him on many nights—-was never sexual. “We weren’t dating,” as she puts it plainly to a sympathetic interlocutor, hereafter known as Professor L, who has publicly taken up G’s cause in the most strenuous way, to the point of claiming that G’s narrative of events must be accredited as the truth, pure and simple. On the other hand, G insists that if the relationship did include sex of some kind, it was never consensual, even apart from the night of the alleged rape.

Is she lying? To herself, among others? Some of those following the controversy at Brian Leiter’s blog ( have said as much.

I don’t think so. To understand why, we have to revisit Freud’s concept of a primal scene as it evolved in the cases of Dora, the Rat-Man, and the Wolf-Man. For my purposes, the last case is the most important, but if you’re interested in the others, Jean Laplanche’s Life and Death in Psychoanalysis (1970, trans. 1976) is the place to start once you’ve read Freud’s “clinical” accounts. Laplanche is always riffing on Lacan, though, so maybe the thing to do is go first to The Four Fundamental Concepts (1973, trans. 1977), “The Unconscious and Repetition.”


Freud never resolved the ambiguities of this notion of a primal scene, perhaps because when he wrote up the case of the Wolf-Man between 1914 and 1918, he was still competing with Carl Jung for supremacy in psychoanalytical circles, formal and informal. So he was trying to assert the significance of fantasy, as against recollection of actual events, in interpreting the irrational utterance of his patients, and of human beings more generally, without offending everyone. As Peter Brooks puts it, Freud was still in search of “another kind of referentiality,” a different, perhaps arbitrary relation between thoughts and things, symbols and objects, language and world (like Peirce, Saussure, Stein, and the other founders of what we call modernism).

A primal scene, as it appears in the case of the Wolf-Man, From the History of an Infantile Neurosis (1918), is more construction than recollection; for it is not so much an event experienced by the patient as a story told by the analyst, a story that gives new life and new meaning to irretrievable memory traces. The retelling of the story by the analyst allows the arrangement of past “events”—-these are unspoken and unspeakable absent the analyst—-in an intelligible sequence and, accordingly, the insertion of the narrative’s subjects (these now include the narrator) in a temporal and moral order long removed from the original. Or rather, the retelling of the story by the analyst creates a new temporal and moral order that revises or replaces the causative effect of the original position, which was itself a product of narrative retrospect that would always be beyond verification.

In other words, what matters when it comes to primal scenes is not whether they actually happened; what matters is the conviction of things unseen (Hebrews 11). As Freud put it: “the patients themselves gradually acquire a profound conviction of the reality of these primal scenes, a conviction which is in no respect inferior to one based on recollection.”

He didn’t spare himself from the pitfalls of this faith born of plausible, meaningful narrative. Almost done with his story of the Wolf-Man, he writes: “There remains the possibility of taking yet another view of the primal scene underlying the dream—a view, moreover, which obviates to a large extent the conclusion that has been arrived at above.” And then again in a footnote: “It is also a matter of indifference in this connection whether we choose to regard it as a primal scene or as a primal phantasy.”


In Freud’s terms, the efforts and utterance of Professor L on G’s behalf sound like those of a conscientious analyst seeking to retell a life story, and thus reorient the dramatis personae. By the same token, G sounds like a patient whose new convictions about what actually happened between her and the senior professor are “in no respect inferior” to those once based-—and recorded in legal filings in the public record—-on recollection.

But she’s not lying, she’s found “another kind of referentiality.” Unlike the Wolf-Man, who objected to Freud’s analysis because it bracketed the experience of seduction he thought was formative in his development, G has apparently embraced the notion that there was no sexual dimension in her relationship to the professor, or, if there was, it was forced upon her. So her experience is not the issue; her narrative is.

Professor L runs a web site, and is writing a book, about sexual harassment of students by professors. Unlike almost all other observers of sexual practices on campus, she thinks this form of harassment is more significant than sexual assault among students. No wonder she has taken up G’s cause. Here is the operative sentence in her advertisement of this project, wherein she notes that she’s willing to travel to interview victims:

“Some students may not even recognize until years after the fact that a relationship previously thought to be mutual was not, in actuality, consensual.”

In such primal perspective, G’s two new claims make perfect sense. Recall that these claims are that (1) the relationship with the senior professor was never sexual, and/or that (2) if it were sexual, this dimension of the relationship was never consensual.

These claims aren’t lies. These are the inevitable results of retelling the story with Professor L as the presiding analyst. But, unlike Freud, who tried to talk his patients out of their retrospective assignment of genital significance to infantile events that couldn’t have borne that weight, Professor L has never questioned G’s claims.

That is a difference worth noting. And as we puzzle through this thicket of sexual politics, it’s also worth pondering.



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2 responses to “Primal Scenes (Trigger Warning: Freud Ahead)

  1. Paul

    “So her experience is not the issue; her narrative is.”
    “These are the inevitable results of retelling the story with Professor L as the presiding analyst.”
    This sounds very much like the issues surrounding the “repressed memory” controversies from some years back where the therapist assists the patient in recreating a traumatic experience that has been suppressed by the patient. Are you suggesting that G is being manipulated?

  2. I think you’re right to compare these moments, but I wouldn’t call it manipulation. I’d call it doing things with words.

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