Restaging Fetal Traumas in War and Social Violence
Part 3

By Lloyd deMause


Piontelli's pioneering use of ultrasound to observe actual fetal behavior has, in fact, for the first time confirmed my own conclusions made from historical material about the relationship between the fetus and its placenta. Even birth therapists have objected to my theory that "the fetus begins its mental life in active relationship with its own placenta." Thomas Verny, author of the pioneering book The Secret Life of the Unborn Child, said that although he agreed that mental life begins in the womb with a fetal drama," he disagreed that the placenta has any role in this drama, saying, "Personally, in fifteen years of doing intensive, regressive type of psychotherapy, I have never yet heard one of my patients refer in any way at all to his or her placenta."117 David Chamberlain, author of Babies Remember Birth, agrees, saying, "I have heard complaints about all these things in hypnosis but never against a poisonous placenta.' The reaction is always against the mother herself"118

Until birth is complete, the fetus, of course, has never met a "mother," only a womb and a placenta and a umbilicus. Piontelli's ultrasound observations reveal the complex relationship between the fetus and its placental/umbilical "first object." Fetuses stroke and explore the placenta all the time, and grab the umbilicus for comfort when distressed. Their behavior toward the placenta and umbilicus correlates with later behavior patterns in their infancy, so that, for instance, when Piontelli watches one fetus use the placenta as a pillow in the womb, observing it "sucking the cord [and] resting on the placenta as if it were a big pillow...burying himself in the if it were a pillow," she then notices it has difficulty sucking the mother's breast after birth, preferring to use it as a pillow instead: "He is not sucking...he is leaning against's not a pillow you know!"119

Another fetus Piontelli watched in utero by ultrasound constantly licked her placenta and umbilicus while holding her hands between her legs on her vagina. The mother, who was both very overweight and whose "rather vamp-looking, low-necked, black velvety dress, together with her smeared and bright make-up, made her look quite 'whorish,' though in an outdated and clumsy way, like a character out of a Fellini film,"120 kept saying her baby girl would turn out to be "whorish" and had many conflicts about having her. The fetus responded to the maternal rejection by licking her placenta and masturbating:

She is licking the placenta now...look at what she is doing with her other is still there right in between her legs...licking the placenta God...she is really wild this just goes on and on...look how she licks it!...we can almost hear the noise...look...she is pulling it down towards her God!...her tongue is really strong...look she is doing it again...and again...and again.121

That this "seducing" of the placenta by this fetus plus her autoeroticism might have been defensive maneuvers designed to ward off fear is indicated by her later actions in therapy with Piontelli as a child. In therapy, said Piontelli, she seemed to have only two modes of being: (1) fear of everything as being persecutory and poisoning, so that she spent her early therapy sessions terrified and screaming, and (2) in "orgies," like a "whore," eating and licking everything and masturbating.122 Apparently her mother's rejecting attitude and poor uterine conditions had affected the fetal amygdalae; in monkeys, destroying their amygdalae cause them to mouth everything they come into contact with and try to have sex with everything they meet, exactly the same mouthing and masturbating orgies this child engaged in both as a fetus and infant. So intent on licking and seducing everything was this baby that she couldn't even suck her mother's breast:

The breast...seems to be a despicable object...she absolutely refuses milk...Her mother says, "What are you doing? are not sucking it, you are playing...she is not sucking it...she is licking it!"...she starts licking her mother's chest vigorously with the same wild motions I had previously noticed when she licked the placenta...She licked any surface or fabric which came into contact with her face. I saw her licking her mother's chest, her shoulders, her chin, her arms and the clothes covering them.123

As an alternative to her screaming and paranoid fear, the baby had developed a pattern of seducing both placental objects and herself, filling her abyss of anxiety with wild, orgiastic licking and masturbating:

She sits on the table with her legs wide open looking rather obscene. She inserts a finger inside her cup and licks it. Then she puts her hands between her legs while moving her tongue over her lips. She looks very excited and her face is all red now. I say that she's filling herself with prohibited excitement now. She puts her finger in her mouth and then almost inside her vagina, saying, "This or this, they are both nice..."

Piontelli's little children with fetal problems did not, of course, say their persecutors were "Poisonous Placentas," any more than did the adult patients of Verny or Chamberlain. Yet there is little question that it was the placenta that they felt had persecuted them while in the womb and that they still felt persecuted by after birth; in both cases their defensive oral and genital "orgies" were the same.

Psychotherapists regularly encounter placental images in their practice, yet, because they cannot conceive of fetal mental life in the womb, they ascribe these images to other sources. The most famous placental images are known to psychoanalysts as "the Isakower phenomenon," which often occurs when falling asleep. It consists of a sense that one is floating, with a "shadowy and undifferentiated, usually round [object] which gets nearer and larger."124 The floating and the round object are not, as therapists have assumed, memories of the mother's breasts; breasts come in twos and are rarely found floating. Isakower himself described the image accurately as a "disc," lying on top of him, an object another person said was shaped like a "balloon:" Other patients described it as follows:

I'm as small as a point--as if something heavy and large was lying on top of me--it doesn't crush me...I can draw in the lump as if it was dough--then I feel as if the whole thing was in my's like a's not unpleasant...125

a small cloud...became larger and larger. It enveloped everything...Somebody said it was poisonous... 126

A large, black plastic container, which resembled a garbage a cow's udder...127

Besides the regression involved in falling asleep or hallucinations on the analytic couch, overt placental images are also found by clinicians in deeply regressed patients, who often hallucinate blood-sucking monsters persecuting them. Most of these monster-phobias are extremely frightening, the patients fearing blood-sucking spiders or vampires or octopuses or Medusas or sphinxes.128 It simply makes no sense to call these blood-sucking beasts and spiders "phallic mothers," as Freud and Abraham did,129 particularly when they are accompanied by umbilical droplines.130 The vampire as a blood-drinking woman is another widespread fantasy; even when the vampire is Dracula, he is feminized by wearing a black satin cloak.131 Only the memory of the Nurturant Placenta can fully explain why we drink Christ's blood, and only the memory of a Poisonous Placenta can explain why devils are blood-red. Often both images are present at the same time in psychotics, as in the following description by Wilhelm Reich of his schizophrenic patient's hallucination of drinking from a bloody, round table:

They were drinking gallons of blood in front of me. The devil is red because of that and he gets redder and redder and then the blood goes to the sun and makes it on fire. Jesus was dripping blood on the cross by drops and this was being swallowed then he was seated on the side of the devil and drinking too--the table was round oblong of flowing thick blood (no feet on it). Mother Mary was at the corner watching. She was white as a sheet--All her blood had been drained off and consumed. She saw her son drinking that and suffered.132

Rosenfeld finds that images of being drained of blood are frequent in regressed patients, involving concrete "primitive psychotic body images" based on the notion that "the body contains nothing but liquids or blood and is enveloped by one or more arterial or venous walls...the experience of draining of blood and being emptied corresponds to the breakdown of this psychological image of a wall or membrane containing liquid or blood."133 A better image of the placenta cannot be imagined, though Rosenfeld didn't notice its uterine source. These patients often imagine that the analyst or others are literally sucking blood out of them. Mahler described a typical young patient of hers:

He was preoccupied with the fear of losing body substance, of being drained by his father and grandfather, with whom his body, he believed, formed a kind of communicating system of tubes. At night the father-grandfather part of the system drained him of the 'body juices of youth.' Survival depended on who was most successful in draining more life fluid from the others...He invented an elaborate heart machine which he could switch on and connect with his body's circulatory system so that he would never die.134


However disguised, the Poisonous Placenta and the Suffering Fetus are the most important images of the fetal drama, and the restaging of their violent encounter is the central religious and political task of society. I suggest that this battle with the persecuting placental beast constitutes the ultimate source of war and social violence, traumas that must be restaged periodically because of the neurobiological imperatives of early brain development. The center of society is wherever the fetal drama is restaged--as at Delphi, it is often called the "navel of the world," and is associated with World Tree worship.135 The evolution of society occurs as this fetal drama moves from the tribe to the kingdom to the nation and is enacted with larger and larger numbers of people entrained by its sacrificial rituals.

Ancient societies used to believe that because of growing pollution the universe periodically threatened to dissolve in primordial waters, and unless a war was fought between a hero--an avenging fetus--and an asphyxiating sea-monster, the world would disappear.136 The purpose of war and all other sacrificial bloodletting, says Frazer, was believed to be "to reinforce by a river of human blood the tide of life which might grow stagnant and stale in the veins of the dieties."137 We believe the same right up into modern times, with most nations repeating the cleansing war ritual four times a century for as far back as historical records have survived.138


The neurobiological effects of trauma and the compulsion to restage early traumatic violence and inflect it upon others and upon one's self are becoming fairly well understood through recent advances in neuroscience. Inescapable dangers and intolerable stresses subject the brain to massive secretions and subsequent depletions of a variety of neurotransmitters, including norephinephrine, dopamine and serotonin, which lead to hypervigilance, explosive anger and excessive sensitivity to similar events in the future, which are experienced as dangerous as the earlier incident.139 In addition, the hormones that flood the brain to mobilize it in the face of threats, especially cortisol, have been found to be toxic to cells in the hippocampal system, center of the neural network for consciousness, actually killing neurons and reducing the size of the hippocampus, making retrieval and therefore modification of early traumas nearly impossible.140 Thus, without the ability to modify early trauma through new experiences, the brain continues to interpret ordinary stressors as recurrences of traumatic events long after the original trauma has ceased.

Paranoid results are particularly true of the earliest traumas of fetal and infantile life, because the hippocampus is quite immature until the third or fourth year of life, so that the early trauma is encoded in a separate "emotional memory" system centering in the amygdala, the prime center of conditioned fear in the brain, memories which have been reliably found to be nearly "impervious to extinction."141 Early traumas, coded in the thalamo-amygdalancortical neural networks, produce fearful feelings that can remain powerful for life, long after the cognitive memories of the traumatic event itself are forgotten.142 Infants, for instance, who experience premature births or eating disorders at birth often fear all new experiences in later life--indeed, fear all new arousals--as though a new job or a new lover represented the same threat to life as birth once did.143 Thus Piontelli's fetus who licked her placenta and masturbated in utero continued compulsively to lick her mother's breast and masturbate after birth. It is also relevant to our hypothesis that early emotional traumas are intimately linked with social behavior that the amygdala, where these early trauma are recorded, is recognized as playing a central role in the social behavior of animals. For instance, removal of the amygdalae produces social isolates in most nonhuman primates, while having devastating consequences on the ability to mother, resulting in death for their infants.144

In addition, the continuing low serotonin levels produced by trauma decrease normal aggressive inhibitions (serotonin being the main soothing neurotransmitter) to such an extent that low serotonin has been determined to be central to social violence of both humans and other primates. Monkeys who have early separation traumas have low serotonin levels, and are "nasty, hostile, crazy," and often kill their peers for no reason,145 while traumatized children with low serotonin have more disruptive behavior146 and compulsively restage their traumas in their play and with peers, both in order to maintain some control over its timing--anything to avoid re-experiencing their helplessness--and also because they can thereby identify with the aggressor.147 Others repeat the original trauma by self-injury, as did the patient who tried to commit suicide by putting his head beneath his car and causing it to crush his skull, saying God had told him "to kill myself to be reborn," thus restaging his own experience of having his head stuck in the birth passage.148

Later traumas of childhood are then recorded in the same neural networks laid down by fetal traumas. Evidence for this is everywhere to be found, only we are unfamiliar with its meaning and overlook it. For instance, when a gunman came into Cleveland Elementary School in 1989 and fired wave after wave of bullets at children in the playground, killing many of them, the trauma was "seared into the children's memory...Whenever we hear an ambulance on its way to the rest home down the street, everything halts...The kids all listen to see if it will stop here or go on," said one teacher.149 But the trauma also stirred up the earliest level of fear, that of the Poisonous Placenta: "For several weeks many children were terrified of the mirrors in the restrooms; a rumor swept the school that 'Bloody Virgin Mary,' some kind of fantasized monster, lurked there.150"


117Thomas R. Verny, "Sometimes a Cigar Is Just a Cigar." The Journal of Psychohistory 10(1982):214.
118 David B. Chamberlain, "Commentary on Lloyd deMause's 'Fetal Origins of History."' The Journal of Psychohistory 10(1982): 224.
119Allessandra Piontelli, From Fetus to Child, pp. 114, 120.
120Ibid, p. 41.
122Ibid,pp. 185-191.
123Ibid,pp. 58, 60, 67.
124Geraldine Fink, "Analysis of the Isakower Phenomenon." Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 15(1967): 282.
125Otto Isakower, "A Contribution to the Patho-Psychology of Phenomena Associated With Falling Asleep." International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 19(1938): 331-34.
126Otto E. Sperling, "A Psychoanalytic Study of Hypnagogic Hallucinations." Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 5(1957): 115-123.
127Ibid, pp. 424-425.
128Ralph B. Little, "Spider Phobias." Psychoanalytic Quarterly 36(1967): 51-60.
129Leonard, Shengold, "The Effects of Overstimulation: Rat People." International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 48(1967): 409.
130Ralph B. Little, "Umbilical Cord Symbolism of the Spider's Dropline." Psychoanalytic Quarterly 35(1966): 587-590.
131Barbara Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge, p. 63.
132Willhelm Reich, Character-Analysis. Third, enlarged Edition. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1949, pp. 501-502.
133David Rosenfeld, The Psychotic: Aspects ofthe Personality. London: Karnac Books, 1992, p. 237.
134Margaret S. Mahler, The Psychological Birth ofthe Human Infant: Symbiosis and Individualation. New York: Basic Books,1975, p. 266.
135E. A. S. Butterworth, The Tree at the Navel of the Earth. Berlin: Waiter DeGruyter & Co., 1970.
136Mimea Eliade, The Myth ofthe Eternal Return; or, Cosmos and History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954; Mircea Eliade, Rites and Symbols of lnitiation: The Mysteries of Birth and Rebirth. New York: Harper sT Row, 1958; Norman Cohn, Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come. New Haven: Yale University Press 1993; Joseph L. Henderson and Maud Oakes, The Wisdom ofthe Serpent: Myths of Death, Rebirth, and Resurrection. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963.
137James George Frazer, The Golden Bough. Third Edition. Part VI. The Scapegoat. New York: St. Martin s Press, 1913, p. vi.
138Frank H. Denton and Warren Phillips, "Some Patterns in the History of Violence." Conflict Resolution 12(1968): 182-195.
139John P. Wilson, Trauma, Transformation and Healing: An integrative Approach to Theory, Research, and Post-Traumatic Therapy. New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1989, pp. 27-33; Bessel A. van der Kolk and Jose Saporta, "The Biological Response to Psychic Trauma: Mechanisms and Treatment of Intrusion and Numbing. Anxiety Research 4(1991): 199-212; M. Michele Murburg, Ed. Catecholamine Function in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: Emerging Concepts. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Press, 1994.
140J. Douglas Bremner et al, "MR1-Based Measurement of Hippocampal Volume in Patients With Combat-Related Posttraumatic Stress Disorder." American Journal of Psychiatry 152(1995): 973-980; The New York Times, August 1, 1995, p. C3.
141Michael Davis, "The Role of the Amygdala in Conditioned Fear." In John P. Aggleton, Ed., The Amygdala: Neurobiological Aspects of Emotion, Memory, and Mental Dysfunction. New York: John Wiley Sr Sons, 1992, pp. 255-305; Joseph E LeDoux, "Emotion and the Amygdala." In Ibid, p. 344.
142Joseph E. LeDoux, "Emotion, Memory and the Brain." Scientific American, June, 1994, pp. 50-57. Van der Kolk and Saporta, "The Biological Response to Psychic Trauma, p. 204.
143Linda Share, If Someone Speaks, It Gets Lighter: Dreams and the Reconstruction of Infant Trauma. New York: The Analytic Press, 1994.
144Arthur S. Kling and Leslie A. Brothers, "The Amygdala and Social Behavior." In John P. Aggleton, Ed., The Amygdala, pp. 353-377.
145Bessel A. van der Kolk, "The Trauma Spectrum: The Interaction of Biological and Social Events in the Genesis of the Trauma Response." Journal of Traumatic Stress 1(1988): 276; G. W. Kraemer, et al. "Hypersensitivity to d-amphetamine several years after early social deprivation in rhesus monkeys." Psychopharmacology 82(1984): 266-271.
146Gregory L. Hanna, et al, "Whole Blood Serotonin and Disruptive Behaviors in Juvenile Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder." Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 34(1995): 28-35.
147A. W. Burgess, et al, "Abused to Abuser: Antecedents of Socially Deviant Behavior." American Journal of Psychiatry 144(1987): 1431-1436.
148L. Bryce Boyer, The Regressed Patient. New York: Jason Aronson, 1983, pp. 127-129.
149Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam Books, 1995, p. 201.

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