Tamara Landau

THE TIGHTROPE WALKERS OF OBLIVION – Prenatal Origins of Anorexia and Bulimia


In my private practice as psychoanalyst, the anorexics and bulimics I have encountered were all women. I have listened to their symptoms as a creation related to the body, to gender and to feminine narcissism.

From the onset, I was struck by the ability of such analysands to hide their suffering behind a lively attitude. For the most part bright and demanding, they were ashamed to see a psychoanalyst as long as they considered “they had everything to be happy about”.  It is a step they take only when they reach the pinnacle of their suffering, once they feel it is deeply rooted. Most of the time, their suffering remains hushed, because they cannot relate their condition to a traumatic event experienced during childhood.

As time went by and by dint of listening to their self-inflicted violence, I arrived at the fact that both bulimic and anorexic behaviours stem from one single primordial cause: the desire to survive. Food obsession is their only possible anchorage to a feeling of existence.  The oscillation between ingurgitation and deprivation keeps perception of their body afloat. By means of weight fluctuations, they feel alive and their fits serve as a measurement of time. Between fits, they are tormented by an impression of emptiness and solitude; they perceive themselves as unworthy of love and interest.

Their thoughts continually cling onto food, like a castaway on a desert island still driven by the will to survive in the expectation of an unlikely rescue. This image dawned on me: like survivors under extreme circumstances, they stay awake by thinking of their favourite food in order to carry on living. But being in that expectation while in a constant state of deprivation, they lose the very smell of their favourite food. They are no longer hungry, but dreadfully fear a possible lack, hence their compulsion to fuel up with excessive food intake. It is in order to stay alive that they fill up until they are bursting with food. Nonetheless, they fear being full, for then they would feel already dead. Those who have a near-death-experience from hunger maintain themselves in that constantly calibrated emptiness to survive as long as possible.

Like a castaway who has found his sheet anchor on his desert island, they are derelict to the extent of forgetting their real needs. Why do they conceal such distress? What secret do they keep at the risk of their lives?

In psychoanalytical literature we come across the idea that food addiction stems from a failure in the organization of narcissism and a primordial mother-child link making the severance impossible. So far, no psychoanalyst has been able to shed light on the origins of these precocious failures.

In this book, I shall outline a genealogic and phylo-ontogenetic theory of bulimia and anorexia. I put forward the idea that anorexics and bulimics suffer from a failure in the symbolic organization of primordial narcissism and in the primordial relationship with the mother, due to the intensity of death anxiety and the traumas suffered by grandparents and parents during foetal life.

Indeed, the recurrent and painful words from those women have made it loud and clear for me that they are re-experiencing a catastrophic collapse, which, -as it dates back to foetal life- is generally forgotten and buried through the operation of primal repression4. They are similar to castaways, who guilty of having survived a disaster5 without anyone knowing, hide and prepare to face it again, as the second wave of a tsunami. The latter being birth.

They enter a survival mode, so as to save energy more effectively. Bulimics devour and stock grease in order to endure, but by filling up excessively they become short of breath and enter a trance that prevents them from speaking or moving.  However, anorexics stay alive by reducing their needs.  By deprivation, they also enter a trance that one would compare to the thrill a diver experiences when holding his breath underwater for as long as possible.

Both -resorting to different strategies- anesthetized their pain and emotions.  Deep down, they perceive themselves as invisible and immortal, in a state bordering between life and death, close to that of a child about to come to life.

Thanks to the permanence of these archaic survival instincts, these women hinted to me the existence of a violent trauma that occurred during foetal life and repeats itself before birth. To conceptualize and write about this prenatal primal trauma, by translating what they were trying to convey with their words and tones of voice, as well as with their body language and posture, I had to carve the stone. They would sometimes spontaneously bring me poems and drawings that portrayed the agonizing unborn child in them, something that turned out very useful to me. As a consequence, I was able to come to grips with states of foetal suffering. With primordial agonies that led me to think that the psychic life and the unconscious image of the child’s body form as early as conception inside the mother’s body,  imbricating with her anguish, wishes, signifiers and perceptions, emotions, representations and unconscious fantasies of the grandparents and of both parents.

I shall try to show how unconscious fantasies passed on by grandmothers can shape the destiny of a bulimic or anorexic even before birth.

To do this, I probed into the most archaic fantasies related to reproduction, which I refer to as primal maternal fantasies, by listening to the life stories of women as a poetic cor(e)-tex(t) engraved in their memory.  I cross-referenced this poetic input with that of scientific research, in accordance with Freud’s recommendation, in the footnotes at the end of each chapter.

This book is therefore a theoretical essay based on psychoanalytical practice and on listening to bulimic and anorexic adult women.  The first chapter describes their feelings and symptoms during our first session. In the other chapters, clinical cases help us shed light on the obscure aspects of these pathologies by revealing the unconscious fantasies structuring the organization of primordial narcissism and the unconscious body image, brought to the surface in analysis through transference and the analyst’s listening.

We shall see how the symbolic breach in the representation of time is the ultimate cause of bulimia and anorexia.

I invite the reader to embark on the journey I undertook in search of those ghost stars forlorn behind the galaxy and follow its different stages. Equipped with a detective’s magnifying glass, I shall try to put together the pieces of the jigsaw of that primeval Big-Bang that caused them to collapse into the black holes of parental memory.