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Denial of incest: Between silences and misunderstandings

22 May 2021

Denial of incest: Between silences and misunderstandings
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Sans tire, Laurent Joliton Image Credit:

As a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, Laurence Guichard-Joseph has been confronted several times with situations of incest. Held to professional secrecy, she will not talk about the therapies she has carried out, but it is in echo of them that she writes, as well as in the light of Camille Kouchner's book, La Familia Grande. This article was first published in French “Le déni de l’inceste” in Revue Etudes, April 2021, no. 4281.

Each clinician can be confronted with the account of incestuous facts in multiple ways, they can be past or contemporary and each situation requires a particular prudence, a strong respect because this word which reveals the facts is of great fragility and requires from the subject, whether still a child or an adult, an immense courage. It is this immense courage that everyone recognises in Camille Kouchner, author of La Familia Grande. This book tells the story of how Camille Kouchner's twin brother was sexually abused by their stepfather and how this was kept silent in a family with free morals and where talk of sex circulated without taboos. The story of a contamination of silence is traced with great finesse. A 'taboo-free' word can therefore harbour a denial of incest for years and maintain it until the end. This book is a pure clinical testimony. Through its accuracy it has allowed other victims to identify with it. In a few days, its publication was the starting point of an immense wave of testimonies. Because of its accuracy, it allowed other victims to say "me too". This reminds us how much the #metoo discourse is a discourse that is responds to claim initiated by someone else. (1) La Familia Grande has functioned in this sense as a trigger, as a first and driving statement allowing, through its "clinical" qualities, to break the silence that has been the rule until now on this taboo that is incest. Speech has seemed impossible until now. Impossible or inaudible by a society that does not want to look at what parents do once the door of the house is closed? Inaudible because the voice of a child does not count?

After its publication, this book has also brought back a debate that is still latent, about a place in the history of thought where the word about incest was spotted, heard and identified as the cause of trauma for the first time. This is psychoanalysis, which today is in the dock for some. It is indeed, by some, targeted as responsible for a certain complacency towards incestuous acts and paedophilia. How can such accusations be made? What misreading do they come from? And for whose benefit?

The Freudian discovery

To understand this we must go back to the origins of psychoanalysis, that is to say to Freud's first clinical steps. Freud was a neurologist in Vienna at the time and came to Paris to attend the consultations of the famous Professor Charcot (1825-1893) at the Salpêtrière. Listening to the patients of Charcot, who was then studying the phenomenon of hysteria, like many doctors of the time, seeking to define its aetiology, Freud came to develop a theory: the theory of Seduction, which he also called his "Neurotica".

The field of "abuse" is a modern word which only appeared at the end of the 19th century because it implies the constitution of a real syndrome within the competence of the doctor, the psychologist and the social worker. All these professions are also modern, stemming from a new representation of the interaction between the family and the State.

Let us now take up the genesis of this theory. As early as 1895 Freud wrote to Fliess, his correspondent at the time, with whom he was building the foundations of psychoanalytic theory: "Imagine that I am guessing, among other things, the following strict conditions: in the case of hysteria, a primary sexual experience must have taken place (before puberty, causing disgust and fright).(2) "As we have said, Freud's stay in Paris opened his eyes to the abuse of children and when we hear in French "théorie de la séduction", let us understand that Freud chose the term "Vorfuhrungstheorie" in German, the word "Vorfuhrung" meaning misappropriation, abuse, crime by a "Vorfurher": the abuser, the perverse adult who misappropriates the child, the one who acts without his consent.

The original theory of psychoanalysis is to think that the trauma lies as much in the memory of this act as in its realization. Let us remember that in addition to his famous stay at the Salpêtrière, Freud attended Paul Brouardel's course between 3 October 1885 and 28 February 1886 at the morgue on indecent assault, child rape, and the difficulty in distinguishing between the real and the fake during expert examinations. The forensic literature of the time was full of these descriptions of rape and abuse of children. Clearly confined until then to forensic science and now for the first time included, taken into account, held to be true by a neurologist, what Freud was approaching was a colossal taboo.

In this sense Freud, the inventor of psychoanalysis, places incest, sexual abuse and paedophilia at the heart of his theory as a factor of psychological illness. The implication of the Freudian text is that there can be no consent from the child, that the child cannot exist and can only be taken away by violence.

From this clinical material, Freud will keep the figure of the perverse seducer, of the perverse seductress, but also of the irreversibility of the sexual encounter as traumatic. The Studies on Hysteria published in 1895, the founding work of psychoanalysis, sets out with great clarity the consequences of sexual aggression suffered by children. In it, Freud demonstrates the concept of repression, the cornerstone of the analytical edifice, which consists of putting traumatic scenes outside the conscious mind, outside the field, and placing them in the unconscious in order to remove pathogenic sexual representations. The famous statement "the hysteric suffers from reminiscences.”(3) can be understood in this way: faced with an element that recalls the sexual abuse of which the hysteric was a victim, the dams of repression break down, the traumatic memory can no longer be kept away from the psyche and the memory explodes in the memory, the illness develops. However, a few years later Freud reversed his position. We need to understand why and how the rest of his theoretical construction could lead to confusion, to the point where, for certain detractors of psychoanalytical theory, it became the place where incest was denied.

The abandonment of the Neurotica

In 1897, on 21 September, Freud wrote to Fliess: "I no longer believe in my Neurotica.”(4) What was the reason for this retreat? Freud cited three causes: first, the icy reception he received each time he presented the Theory of Seduction to a scientific audience in late 19th century Vienna. Secondly, the impossibility of bringing his analyses to a conclusion, that is, of going back to the traumatic memory itself, to the scene of the abuse, in other words of 'lifting the repression'.

Another difficulty that Freud pointed out seems to me decisive and at the heart of the difficulty of breaking the incest taboo. Indeed, it seemed to Freud that his theory of Seduction would transform all fathers into perverts, including his own. This theory is too subversive because it subverts the father figure in a drastic way in a society where such a reversal of the paternal edifice is strictly unthinkable. As soon as incest is mentioned, each place of thought sends us back to the inconceivable, which where we can approach a form of sacrilege. Sacrilege to come too close to the domestic sphere and the sacred privileges of the father over his 'domesticity'. Finally, the third and last argument: the absence of a clue to reality in the psyche, in other words: how can we be sure that the patient is telling the truth? Should all the symptoms of hysteria be linked to sexual abuse? How do we assess the veracity of the memory? These questions haunt the discipline but also, of course, the justice system. What is the value of a child's word in the face of the power of parental words, in the face of denial and the systematic rejection of accusations? Are children not always accused of having too much imagination? Of "saying anything to make themselves interesting? »

Clovis Asleep, Paul Gaugin, 1884; Image credit:

Let us understand that when Freud abandons the theory of seduction, he is in no way denying the existence of sexual abuse during childhood, he is removing the possibility of its systematicity when later in adult life symptoms appear. This is absolutely not the same thing. However, this has created confusion in the minds of some people, who at the same time refer to the child's words as 'fantasies'.

Where psychoanalysis was 'misunderstood

It seems to me that the second decisive factor that led certain detractors of psychoanalysis to criticise it and even to consider it an authorisation for paedophilia and incest, was the Three Essays on Sexual Theory published in 1905, which Freud never stopped reworking and annotating. This work, which caused a scandal, represents the Freudian revolution in his work on the drive that runs through the subject from birth to death. It was received as a provocation at the end of the 19th century, putting the sexual in the first place. Freud posits that there is an infantile sexuality, that is, that the child is traversed by a drive that it expresses in orality at first, then in anality and finally in the genital sphere at the time of the Oedipus Complex. In the Three Essays on Sexual Theory, Freud refers to the child as a "perverse polymorph",(5) a term that caused a scandal. How can we understand this expression? Let us remember that for Freud, any act caused by an impulse that does not lead to sexual reproduction is perverse. In this sense I recall that for him kissing was a perverse act, only coitus was not, since it allowed for the giving of life. Thus, to qualify the child as a polymorphous pervert was a way of marking the displacement of the drive in the body, of insisting on its protean character. This polymorphism, once childhood passed, would find fixed forms in adulthood which, according to Freud, explained the perversions of adults. He sought to explain clinical phenomena of adult life through childhood.

But if Freud identified and described these phenomena in the child, by locating the erogenous zones that are explored, he never asserted that the drive at work from birth should not find satisfaction as the adult conceives it in the sexual encounter. This is crucial and must be remembered.

No one has grasped this better than the Hungarian psychoanalyst Sandor Ferenczi (1873-1933) who was a prominent disciple of Freud and developed the trauma axis. This work is highly important because it sheds light on what the critics of psychoanalysis do not want to know. Indeed, we can even argue that the psychoanalytical heritage of the theory of Seduction is to be found in the work of Sandor Ferenczi and, in particular, in his major work Confusion of language between adults and children.(6) I cite this very clear passage:

Incestuous seductions usually occur as follows: an adult and a child love each other. The child has playful fantasies, such as playing a maternal role towards the adult. This play may take an erotic form, but it always remains at the level of tenderness. This is not the case with adults with psychopathological predispositions, especially if their equilibrium or self-control has been disturbed by some misfortune, by the use of drugs or toxic substances. They confuse children's games with the desires of a person who has reached sexual maturity (...). True rapes of girls, barely out of infancy, sexual relations between mature women and young boys, as well as forced sexual acts of a homosexual nature are frequent. (7)

Confusing the language of love and tenderness is what psychoanalysis identifies in the clinical field of incest and paedophilia. This confusion of languages is found with the greatest clarity in Camille Kouchner's book, which illustrates extremely well both how any sexual encounter between a child or an adolescent and an adult constitutes a trauma and how speaking out about incest requires the subject to tear itself away from its own foundation, since it is a question of denouncing a person from its own family, a person who is at the origin of its life or who represents a figure of fatherhood. Camille Kouchner perfectly describes the progressive dissolution of her family into silence, hatred and destructiveness. To denounce incest is to denounce the person who raised us, who took care of us, who transmitted the language, the word, the one who is supposed to learn to distinguish between Good and Evil and who creates confusion.

Perversion consists in confiscating the victim's word, which is synonymous with the denial of his consent. Here, psychoanalytical theory has been instrumentalised by paedophiles who misuse it and identify it with an era that is not the era of its birth but the one in which it was considered as a queenly discipline, during the years that followed May 1968.

The blurring of thought by the perverse act

How can the child understand that the person who is supposed to protect it can at the same time commit a crime against it? In order to protect themselves from this aggression, which will have the effect of psychic disintegration and shame on them and will lead to serious traumatic consequences, the children or adolescents keep silent, they allow themselves to be used as an object, afraid of the consequences that their revelations could have. This is what the paedophile, the incestuous parent calls "consent!" Which is, in fact, this stupefaction of the child who cannot express his refusal.

In Kouchner's book, the abusive stepfather threatens the victim with his mother's suicide. The adult uses his power, the attachment that his child has for him, and perverts both the body and language. Kouchner describes the scene where her twin brother tells her about the incest committed on him. This passage marks all the confusions in the sense defined by Ferenczi and already shows the effects of the blurring of thought due to perversion. Strictly speaking, it is impossible for the child to understand the possibility of such acts, their basis, at the time of the events. To qualify them as evil is initially inaccessible from a logical point of view. This can come later, thanks to the therapeutic work.

This work is in fact a long, painful time, sometimes interrupted and then resumed, during which it is necessary to return to the incest suffered in order to distinguish the roles to free oneself from the words and images and to be able to replace them by new terms, by a new perception of the roles: from being an accomplice, it is necessary to think of oneself as a victim. The therapeutic time aims at extracting the subject from the scrambling of the thought resulting from the perverse speech and to be able to rebuild an interior image outside this word and the acts which accompanied it. Subjected to the perverse ethic, the victims will have to re-interrogate the parental ethic in order to create their own, denouncing the incest is thus to question the ethic for a second time in their life. This is a task that requires time and commitment on both sides.

I quote the passage written by Kouchner where, as in all the clinical accounts I have heard, the child keeps itself in secret, destabilised by the act and covered by the shame of being the object of sexual desire, of being confronted with the traumatic sexuality of the adult.

My brother explains: "He says that Mum is too tired, that we'll tell her later. His parents have killed themselves, we mustn't add to it." I agree.

He also said to me: "Keep this secret. I promised him, so you promise. If you talk, I will die. I am too ashamed. Please help me to say no to him.”

And sometimes I don't know whether to get angry. He's nice to me, you know.

My brain shuts down. I don't understand anything. It's true that he is nice, my beloved stepfather.(8)

This last sentence describes three successive mechanisms. "The psyche cannot integrate it”: because the consequences on the representation of her brother and stepfather exceed the logical capacities of comprehension. In fact, to imagine this scene where the adult who has been "adored" until now enjoys his twin brother is unthinkable.

"I don't understand anything", that is, it is incomprehensible, inappropriate: how can evil be committed by the one who protects and loves? How could he do it? “It's true that he is nice, my belove stepfather is nice. "This phrase of reassurance directly wins over the confusion of the brother desperately seeking to legitimise the perverse acts. Would this kindness explain the initiation to sexuality, especially in this family with more than free morals? Where sexuality is proof of freedom and intelligence. Does the intelligence of this man, which is repeatedly highlighted, include showing what adult sexuality is? "To show it for real”, as the children say. These are the questions that abused children and teenagers ask themselves; they are always trying to understand without being able to identify the perversion clearly.

This desire, let us remember, let us hammer it home, is not a desire such as the adult thinks it is, nor does the child imagine it from its sexuality.

In incestuous families, all the words are in fact trapped so that the child feels bound to secrecy, the one who issues the protective word is also the one who violates, damages and this most often with loving words such as "It's our little secret", "I'm doing this to you because you're the only one who understands me", "Don't say it, the others wouldn't understand.” Thus, the acts that destroy a subject are accompanied by terms that confer a particular privileged value on him or her, and this often lasts for years, making the revelation of the facts even more painful, since it implies that this position is simultaneously lost and that the whole family falls into a perverse, twisted image which is intolerable for the victim. Revealing the facts to the clinician is one thing, making them public is another ("the whole school will know?"). Children cannot so easily tell the difference.

The diversion of Freudian thought

"I know my brother, he's scared. He's more than a little annoyed at talking to me, he's watching my eyes, trying to find out: "Is it bad, do you think? "No, I don't think so. Since it's him, it's necessarily nothing. He teaches us, that's all. We're not uptight [coincés]” (9)

To be “up-tight" would be precisely to "tighten" the generational barriers, to recognize their necessity and the major risk of their transgression. So many theoretical pillars of psychoanalysis. However, as we have understood, the reproach levelled at psychoanalysis comes from a simplification of its reading, from a diversion: to posit the existence of the drive in the child would be tantamount to being able to enjoy it (or even to wishing for it), to initiating the child into something that it would desire. This is not the discourse of psychoanalysis but rather the discourse of paedophiles who see themselves as initiators, as guides to a sexuality that would already be potentially present in the child. From this power, it would be necessary to move on to the act, with that imagined consent, , to be extracted but still to come. Some people have sought this justification in psychoanalytical theory, and this is certainly the scandal. A diversion of Freud's thought for the benefit of criminals.

Perversion consists in confiscating the victim's word, which is synonymous with the denial of his consent. Here, psychoanalytical theory has been instrumentalised by paedophiles who misuse it and identify it with an era that is not the era of its birth but the one in which it was considered as a queenly discipline, during the years that followed May 1968. These years of "sexual liberation" are also used by the supporters of paedophilia as a time to legitimise and erase the founding ban of civilisation, that of incest. Camille Kouchner's book sums it up in a striking sentence addressed to her late mother who knew what her brother was going through:

"Some would say that you were part of that ‘generation’. I think you were part of that ‘generation’.”(10)

Camille Kouchner here anticipates a reader who would see incest as the ultimate slide in sexual liberation, as "one more" transgression of that "generation". This is absolutely not the case. Keeping silent about the aggressions committed against her son, not wanting to know anything about it, that is to say, supporting her husband's perversion against her son, that is what is at stake. These "people" are the accomplices of incest, and the universality of this phenomenon makes this justification by using Freud and May '68 ridiculous!

Psychoanalysis has never ceased to remind us of the fundamental necessity of the prohibition of incest, as we have tried to demonstrate. The myth of Oedipus, chosen by Freud as the most significant example of the child's desire, illustrates by its tragedy the pitfalls of any incestuous act. This desire, let us remember, let us hammer it home, is not a desire such as the adult thinks it is, nor does the child imagine it from its sexuality. However, some people still like to take up the figure of Oedipus as a possibility to make psychoanalysis guilty of society's deafness to abused children, even if it means erasing the specificity of the Oedipal myth.

Oedipus Rex, Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1967; Image credit: Close-up Film Centre

The child's desire is a call to discovery. This search, which marks the journey of Oedipus, shows how the search for origin and the quest for sexual understanding of it can create the conditions of possibility for misunderstanding. This is the misunderstanding: what Freud sought to demonstrate with the Oedipus Complex is the indefectible link between origin, the desire to know and sexuality. But the misuse of psychoanalytical thought consists in transposing this epistemological field into a practical field that would suppose that the child seeks to live in his flesh a quest that is only psychic.

Perversion seems ready to divert and transform any discourse on the child's curiosity to its own benefit.

What psychoanalytic therapy can do

However, the reading of the analytical corpus, far from being a call for the sexualisation of children's bodies, will on the contrary be the best field of clinical exploration to understand how the corruption of childhood is possible, how the child himself is misused by what he knows to be criminal and perverse, without being able to reveal it because of his attachment and shame. The causes are to be found in the enjoyment of certain fathers or mothers (let us not forget) who project their sexuality onto the bodies of their children whom they consider to be their objects.

Psychoanalysts who choose to receive children in institutions or in private practice are certainly the best trained to hear how the sexual can break into their lives. We detect certain clinical signs, we learn to listen to them, not to rush them, we create a space of therapeutic alliance which allows the child to reveal facts of which he is victim and hostage. And when this is the case, it is our responsibility to break professional secrecy and report the facts to the Public Prosecutor as required by law.(11) Being a clinician is a commitment, a responsibility, some may have forgotten, so we must remember this.

But being a clinician also means sometimes moving forward in the fog, the temptation to take the law into our own hands must not be ours, so any report must be preceded by a consultation between professionals, by talking and thinking together, but if we share the same conviction then we are obliged by law to report the case of a child who is a victim of violence.(12) The field of "abuse" is a modern word which only appeared at the end of the 19th century because it implies the constitution of a real syndrome within the competence of the doctor, the psychologist and the social worker. All these professions are also modern, stemming from a new representation of the interaction between the family and the State. These cross-referenced competences are a guarantee of prudence and sharing of knowledge: taking the time to evaluate a situation, searching, understanding together.

However, it is quite astonishing to note the number of psychiatrists and psychologists who say that they have never found themselves in a situation where they had to make a report, when we know the figures for violence against minors. How can we understand such a discrepancy between the figures of the justice system, those of the social services and the reports made by health professionals? This question is important and requires further reflection on the part of the various professionals, reflection and training, but also concrete means. In particular, for liberal professionals who work neither in hospitals nor in institutions, they are on their own and have not necessarily received adequate reflexes in their training and not enough knowledge of the laws and in particular of the reporting procedure. However, it is unwise to receive children without being informed of the legal corpus that binds us, through our function, to society.

It seems to me that democracy and its legislators have for a long time favoured these powers of the father over his children, for a long time made legal procedures complex so that the child's word is considered difficult to 'receive', 'hear', worthy of the highest confidence in its examination. Incestuous acts do not need any era, any theory to exist, they will still be the lot of many children as long as the parents are not afraid that the child will speak and be heard. But this speech will not take place if it is not understood as a major stake in the world to come.



1. My proposition about #metoo discourse is to say that it works as a response to an initial denunciation by one woman allowing innumerable women to say “me too”. See Laurence Joseph, “Hashtag, On the new subjectivities that emerge throught the langage of social media,” Philosophy World Democracy, 12 April 2021.

2. Sigmund Freud, Letters à Whilhem Fliess, 1887-1904, PUF, Letter n.75, p.184

3. Sigmund Freud, Joseph Breuer, Études sur l’hysteria, PUF, 1978, p.5

4. Ibid., letter n.69, p.334

5. Freud, Three essays on sexual theory, p.118, NRF Gallimard, 2001.

6. Sandor Ferenczi, “Confusion of languages between adults and children. The language of tenderness and passion", Petite Bibliothèque Payot.

7. Ibid., p.43.

8. Camille Kouchner, La familia Grande, Seuil, pp 105-106.

9. Kouchner, p.105. The verb « coincés » used by Kouchner carries the connotations of both being uptight and of immobilising or tightening something.

10. Ibid. page 203

11. Non-reporting of the crime corresponds to Article 434-1 of the French Penal Code (3 years' imprisonment and a fine), which relies on the lifting of professional secrecy, Article 226-13 of the New Penal Code, which refers to the lifting of secrecy in order to inform "the doctor who, in agreement with the victim, brings to the attention of the Public Prosecutor" the abuse that he or she has observed within the framework of his or her profession and which allows him or her to presume that sexual violence of any kind has been committed. "Doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, nursery nurses, educators, social workers, nurses and lawyers have this obligation to lift professional secrecy.

12. By calling the Public Prosecutor or the Crip, the unit for collecting information of concern.

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