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Alternative Hypothesis of the Oedipus Complex: Little P. Story
Elena Cherepanov, PhD
19 December 2016
The author argues that the true OC (Oedipus complex) comes from identification with the family’s pet rather than identification with the father, as previously thought. In the classic scenario, the OC is interpreted as fear of punishment (i.e. castration) by the father for sexual attraction to mother; in the proposed hypothesis, a fear of castration is linked to a mother who neuters a pet. In a way, it is understood as punishment for maturation by means of castration. The tremendous social pressure to neuter family pets exacerbates the Oedipus complex and may have a profound effect on personality development, family relationships and even society. The Little P. case analysis and the following pilot study points at severe psychological consequences and wide-reaching social implications of such disastrous extent that psychologists cannot afford to ignore this issue any longer.
Key Words: Oedipus Complex, Mother, Fear of castration, Pets Neutering
Sigmund Freud, by Max Halberstadt, 1921
Ever since being introduced by Freud in 1909, the OC (Oedipus complex) continues to fascinate the generations of psychologists and public. According to Freud, it is expected that at a certain age a boy sexually desires his mother and wishes to murder his rival, the father who actually has the means and the opportunity. In our article we intend to demonstrate that at phallic phase of psychosexual development a boy, in fact, wishes to kill his mother instead.
Freud (1909) suggests that the reaction to the threats against the child aimed at putting a stop to his early sexual activities are attributed to his father. The young child faces the conventions of society and aligns prohibition with castration as the most powerful punishing tool for unapproved sexual activities. This phenomenon was first introduced by S. Freud in his famous case study called Little Hans. Hans was a little boy whose father happened to be Dr. Freud’s friend and supporter. The history is silent if he remained his friend after the case study’s publication. The father brought his 5-year-old boy (real name Herbert Graf) for treatment to the already famous Dr. Freud because the boy was afraid of horses after witnessing the frightening event. When Hans was four years old, he was at the local park in the company of the family's maid. A cart horse pulling a heavy load went mad and collapsed. Herbert was so scared that he became fearful of going out into the street. Freud successfully demonstrated that Little Hans’ fear of horses couldn’t be caused by anything else but the Oedipus complex and summarized his treatment in the famous paper entitled Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-year-old Boy (1909). In this article Freud, suggested that the fear of horses meant that the boy developed a sexual love for his mother and saw a father as his rival who he wanted to get rid of. But the father is bigger, stronger and has a larger penis. So the boy had reasons to believe that the father sees him as a rival too and wants to punish him by means of castration. Horses reminded the boy of his father, because they are also big, strong and have a large penis. The castration anxiety and phobia resulted from the incomplete repression and were the defense mechanisms being used to combat the impulses involved in Little Hans’ sexual development.
Herbert Graf “Little Hans”. He went
on to become a successful opera producer.
In general non-psychoanalytically oriented psychotherapy a therapist rarely comes across such a clear and unambiguous clinical representation of Oedipus neurosis as in the Little Hans’ story. Does this mean that the Oedipus complex is no longer relevant? Just like Freud, the author continued daily observations hoping for the accidental encounter. And exactly like Freud, the author incidentally stumbled upon a case which made the author painfully aware of the extent to which we, as parents, are ignorant about the Oedipus complex and, in this way, ruin children's lives by violently shattering their innocence. The presented case is called the Little P. Story not to confuse it with the classic Little Hans Story.
This problem first came to my attention when my 11 year old very close male relative (Little P.), who did not allow me to disclose anything more about him, coerced me into getting a kitten (which later turned out to be a male kitten, even though that wasn’t the initial plan). In the absence of my enthusiasm and complete lack of feline-related experience, my close male relative pro-actively found that the neighbor’s cat is very pregnant. Soon after, he secretly brought home a fluffy ball and informed me that my choice is either to let the kitten stay, or I will never see my relative ever again. The kitten needed a name, and, consequently, a gender identification. As it is well known, for an amateur it is almost impossible to determine the gender of a very young cat which soon became a subject of emotional discussions in the neighborhood. Those neighbors who suggested that it was a male kitten always added: “And you will have to neuter him”.
Already then I immediately noticed the remarkable differences in the verbalization, level of generalized arousal, symbolic and non-verbal communications, and accompanied body language: females remained relaxed with a slight sense of enjoyment; while males, on the contrary, became tense and attempted to cover their genitals.
Once the kitten turned out to be a male cat, named Masik, the time came to make the decision about his neutering. At that moment I suddenly found myself in complete isolation, with no family supports, and faced the storm of questions from my pre-teen close male relative along with ferocious disapproval from my male family members towards this idea. Here is a typical conversation that went on multiple times a day:
Little P.: Why do you have to do That?
Note: The name of the procedure was clearly and intentionally avoided in a similar way how in Harry Potter saga the evil protagonist was called He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Rowling got the idea from two 1950s London gangsters called Kray Twins. "The story goes that people didn’t speak the name Kray. You just didn’t mention it. You didn’t talk about them, because retribution was so brutal and bloody...”. (See in Harry Potter Lexicon, retrieved from: http://www.hp-lexicon.org/wizards/voldemort.html). Similarly, the “N” word (Neutering) is clearly avoided by males, which by itself signifies the strong suppressed fear.
Cherepanov: When cat hits puberty, he becomes nasty and aggressive; and engages into extreme, violent and undesirable sexual behavior. He will become moody, unhappy, and smelly, will mark his territory by peeing on carpet, will run away, will get himself into trouble by fighting for no particular reasons, and may end up being killed.
Little P. : Are you saying, that when I hit puberty and will do the same things, you will also….?
This conversation usually was accompanied by genuine expression of pain and explicit body language unambiguously suggesting strong identification with the cat (i.e. covering the genitals), along with high level of neuroticism, intense fear, anger and hostility towards me.
Based on these observations, I presumed that a pet neutering may carry strong impact on the children, on boys, in particularly. The indirect confirmation of the significance of this hypothesis was found in the local veterinary clinic. In spite of vicious resistance at home, open threats, intimidation, and having to sleep with the doors locked from inside, I finally brought our cat to the veterinarian. There the doctor immediately warned me that they are not using the dreaded “N” word in the veterinary clinic. Instead they say Tutoring “to spare the feelings of males in the waiting room”.
Romanino, Scene of a cat castration, 1531-32, Castello del Buonconsiglio, Trento. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license. Retrieved from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neutering
Being taken aback by the intensity of emotional response to neutering, I was determined to check if the Little P. story was just incidental interaction or an important discovery of a very serious problem. To check if the symbolic meaning of neutering goes beyond the routine household event, the author administered a pilot study which confirmed the author’s worst fears. The study had two null hypotheses. The first hypothesis was that the pets’ neutering has no impact on personality and family relationships. The second null hypothesis suggested that pet neutering indiscriminately impacts both males and females.
The participants in the pilot study were randomly drawn from the neighborhood. The sample consisted of middle age adults (N=13) who had their male pets neutered. There were 7 males and 6 females; 9 Caucasians, 1 Hispanic, 2 African-Americans. All of the respondents were married at the time but not to each other. One participant (male) dropped out from study because in response to the first question he became too emotional and distraught to continue. The participants were asked to answer a small survey.
1. Who in your family made the decision to neuter the pet?
11 (96.6 %) of the respondents answered, that that was wife or mother, or other female member of the family.
1 (3.4 %) answered “I don’t remember” .
2. How did you feel about this decision?
All the females (100%!) responded: “We had to do that for the sake of our family: nobody else took the responsibility”.
All males (100%!), on the contrary, reported strong ambivalence, feeling of helplessness , identification with the animal (“I feel his pain!”), resentment and anger towards females: “For them it’s easy to decide. They don’t understand…” Males also clearly described their experience with neutering in terms of fear of castration, acute and severe trauma, and feeling of being betrayed by women.
3. How did the neutering affect your personality and family relationships?
Answers significantly differed between males and females. As reported, the neutering hasn’t been perceived as an issue by the females at all. In their decision they approached the issue from the practical standpoint without any emotional investment, and were surprised by strong reaction from their male family members.
Males, on the contrary, reported the event as extremely traumatic experience, which never really heals, and they still, many years later, have flashbacks and feel this as a personal failure. “My family life hasn’t been the same ever since” and “I still cannot believe that my wife/mother is capable to do this. I don’t feel safe in my own family.”
The pilot results suggest that the pets’ neutering has adverse impact on personality and family relationships and causes severe psychological trauma in some family members while the severity of the impact depends on the gender of the pet owner and strikes the male pet owners.
The initial study was anecdotal and interpretive. Obviously, the sample size and limited questioner doesn’t allow the scientific inferences or generalizations. Despite that, the pilot data clearly demonstrated the overwhelming trend and calls for further research. The results seem sufficient to raise concerns about adverse effects of the pet neutering on the self image, self-identity and the relationship in the family.
In the classic scenario, the Oedipus complex is the anticipation of the punishment by means of castration, executed by his father; here we are dealing with the fear of castration by mother as punishment for maturation. In our hypothesis the Oedipus complex originates primarily from identification with the pet rather than identification with the father. Despite the differences between classic and “pet-related” Oedipus complex, they both result in the neurotic fear of loss of genitals. From the pilot study it appears that pet neutering may have significant and even traumatizing impact on the male Ego and has devastating effect on the family relationship. The data analysis demonstrated that more research is needed in order to develop effective assessment and treatment of the Oedipus complex. Otherwise, we may be facing an epidemic of Oedipus neurosis of unknown proportions. It is stunning that the Little P. phenomenon has been overlooked by psychologists, but it can be explained by the denial of the issue: psychologists also have neutered their pets and had to face their family members.
The survey results demonstrated the striking gender difference in responses. The females remained almost untouched by the challenge. The possible explanation is that, according to Freud, the females tend to suffer from “penis envy”. And, in this way, the neutering of male pets may carry the therapeutic effect for them. But this statement requires further research along with exploring the correlation between the pet’s and owner’s gender in case of spaying/neutering of pets. Does this phenomenon have the same presence in dogs’ owners as it has in cats’ owners? These and other fascinating questions are waiting for answers.
The study of the pet-related Oedipus complex offers better understanding of animal hoarders (who categorically refuse to spay/neuter their pets) and will allow psychologists to develop effective treatments.
Freud discovered that fear of castration lead to the fear of horses. If to leave the situation unattended, we may face a world where the whole generation of males will be afraid of females (something that we observe already happening); as well as males who will suffer from feelings of inadequacy, and will refuse to leave their houses because of horse phobia, as happened to Little Hans.
The preliminary findings clearly demonstrate the prevalence of the problem, suggest the new conceptualizations, and offer the alternative hypothesis of the Oedipus complex. The epidemiological estimation of the castration fears with subsequent neurosis is based on the overwhelming numbers of pet owners who had their pets spayed or neutered. The Humane Society of US presented the following statistics which were compiled from the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association (APPMA) 2007-2008 National Pet Owners Survey. Even the modest estimate indicates the enormous epidemiological potential:
The anticipated devastating impact of mass pet neutering of males calls for urgent measures:
While I was working on this article, I came across the article published by Associated Press “Rhode Island requires that cats be fixed”. It says that Gov. Don Carcieri signed a law making Rhode Island the first state in the nation to require cat owners to spay or neuter their pets. Cat owners must spay or neuter pets older than six months unless they pay $100 for a breeder's license. Violators can be fined $75 per month (2006). Humanity is on the verge of psychological catastrophe…
The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (1953). Trans. James Strachey. 24 vols. London: Hogarth, 1953-74.
Lord Voldemort: Data (n.d.). The Harry Potter Lexicon. Retrieved from: http://www.hp-lexicon.org/wizards/voldemort.html
Rhode Island requires that cats be fixed (n.d.), (06.10.06). Associated Press. Retrieved from: http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20060610/ap_on_re_us/brf_fixed_cats_2
Whack-a-Freud Game (n.d.). Retrieved from: http://www.postmodernvillage.com/games/freud.html
2007-2008 National Pet Owners Survey (October 3, 2009). The Humane Society of US. Retrieved from: http://www.hsus.org/pets/issues_affecting_our_pets/pet_overpopulation_and_ownership_statistics/us_pet_ownership_statistics.html.
Elena Cherepanov is a professor at the School of Psychology and Counseling at Cambridge College.