From a trauma perspective, Freud’s fort-da game replaces Oedipus

B0000852This post is largely based on re-reading Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920). If one reads the book from a trauma perspective, the fort-da game he describes is more important than the Oedipus complex in the formation of character.

Readers familiar with Freud will recall his puzzlement over the existence of traumatic nightmares. Freud was surprised because he believed that the mind is organized around the pleasure principle, which would imply that dreams are a variety of wish fulfillment. But, what pleasure could there be to the recurrence of a traumatic experience in a dream, what wish could a nightmare fulfill? “People,” says Freud, “have shown far too little surprise at this phenomenon.” (p. 51)

Freud answers that the pleasure in the repetition of an awful experience is the pleasure of mastery. In repeating the traumatic experience, the sufferer tries to master it. But what could mastery mean? It means that this time the sufferer will be prepared for the traumatic assault.

Trauma, says Freud, is the result of fright, an emotion that he distinguishes from fear and dread, both of which anticipate the danger. Fright is the sudden experience of an unanticipated danger. “It describes the state that possesses us when we find ourselves plunged into danger without being prepared for it.” (p. 51)

Reading Beyond the Pleasure Principle, it at first seems that Freud grants that the compulsion to repeat is even more primal than the pleasure principle. And while this may be his final conclusion, he does not give up on the pleasure principle so easily.


Freud’s one-and-a-half year old grandson, along with the child’s mother, Sophie, lived with Freud for a few weeks. Observant as usual, Freud noticed that the grandson would play an odd game when he was alone. First he would throw a spool with a string attached from his cot, making an “o-o-o-o” sound when it disappeared. Pulling on the string, the little boy retrieved the spool, saying “Da!” meaning “here.” Sophie explained to Freud that the “o-o-o-o” sound was the child’s way of saying “fort,” meaning away. The fort-da game it is called.

The obvious explanation, at least for Freud, was that the child was mastering his anxiety at his mother’s absence by playing a game in which he controlled the going and the coming of an object representing mother. In this way, the repetition of an unpleasurable experience was actually an attempt at its mastery, and in this sense a search for pleasure. To be able to master symbolically his mother’s goings and comings was both pleasurable, and a great cultural achievement, substituting symbolic satisfaction for the immediate satisfaction of the drives, which wanted his mother’s presence always (p. 53).

Not so simple

Trouble is, the little boy usually didn’t complete the fort-da game. He generally threw the spool, or other objects, away, and did not try to retrieve them. There was lots more “fort” than “da.” What are we to make of this if the child’s goal was mastery over the trauma threatened every time his mother left him? Freud has a couple of explanations, but the main one is that the child was taking control of the leaving itself, as though to say “go ahead and leave me, I don’t want you here, I’m the one who is making you go.” The goal, in this case, would still be mastery, not over his actual mother, but over his tiny world, which represented the larger world into which he was entering.

What if the spool were a transitional object?

I hesitate to interpret one psychoanalyst in terms of another, but it seems like Donald Winnicott’s idea of the transitional object and relationship might be a pretty straightforward way of thinking about the spool and the fort-da game. For Winnicott (1992), the child’s first transitional object is often a blankie or teddy bear. It represents me and not me, mother and not mother, at the same time. The most important thing is not to ask which is which, for the whole point of the transitional object is that it both connects and separates, allowing the young child to hold onto his or her parent while letting the parent go at the same time, using the blankie or teddy to represent both connection and separation.

It’s a bit more complicated than that, for Winnicott holds that all our lives we need and use transitional objects, they just become more abstract, the artifacts of culture, such as music, or art, connecting us to the social world while allowing us to be separate from it, enjoying art or music in our own way. This would fit Freud’s argument that his grandson’s use of the spool and string was a great cultural achievement, allowing him to symbolize in play a difficult and traumatic emotional experience, that of separation and connection with someone he loved and depended on.

Reinterpreting the fort-da game and with it trauma

Freud, as we have seen, sees psychic trauma as the result not of fear, but of fright, the sudden intrusion of an alien experience that was unexpected and unprepared for. The trauma lies more in the unexpectedness than the intrusion itself. The repetition that characterizes traumatic experience is an attempt to remember what was never originally experienced in the first place, for it happened before I was there, prepared to experience it.

This is what Cathy Caruth, and those who follow her line of thinking, such as Dori Laub and Shoshana Felman, mean when they say that trauma is an event without a witness. Trauma is the absence of presence. What if we think about the absence of presence along the lines of Winnicott? For Winnicott (1989), trauma is the disruption of the experience of going-on-being. What is lost in trauma is a sense of the continuity of one’s existence as a person.

The stopped watch can’t be reset

Unlike resetting a stopped watch, the gap in going-on-being can never be recovered; it is as though a piece of oneself will always be missing. It is these missing moments, experienced as pieces of the self that are not held together in time, that is trauma. In trauma it is the self that has gone missing. Not because one cannot remember the event, but because one has lost the experience of being a self in time. This is the reason traumatized people keep going back to the experience, keep retelling it, keep having nightmares about it: because they are looking for a lost moment of being in a vain effort to recover it.

Cathy Caruth comes pretty close to this formulation when she says,

the trauma is not only the repetition of the missed encounter with death but the missed encounter with one’s own survival. It is the incomprehensible act of surviving—of waking into life—that repeats and bears witness to what remains ungrasped within the encounter with death. (pp. 223-224)

I would put it a little differently. Trauma is an encounter with the loss of one’s continuity of being. It will never be resolved by remembering a traumatic experience, for it is not an experience but being that is lost. Trauma will only be resolved in the here and now, by taking up life again, feeling alive. One can’t go back and reset the clock to make up for lost time. One can only live in the here and now, and that is precisely what is so difficult for trauma victims.

Trauma victims are not freed by going over the past again and again. Nor are they freed when someone else hears their story and understands. Memory work is important, so that the lost time is no longer as terrifying. But completed narratives don’t fill the gap. They just help give the gap a beginning and an end. The real work is investing in the world now in all the ways people do: living, loving, working, building, making, doing. Sensory therapy, such as massage, or yoga, is often helpful, for it emphasizes the experience of the body now.

Conclusion: fort-da is the new Oedipus

Consider that the fort-da game, rather than the Oedipus complex, is the most important event of childhood. The trauma of being left, not out of a sexual relationship, but simply being left all alone without the internal resources to cope, absent a sense of the continuity of one’s being, is the fundamental trauma of childhood. It is this trauma that structures the rest of our lives, the way we cope with separation and attachment, and it is the trauma that is repeated in adult traumatic events when we lose the sense of going-on-being with ourselves.

One reason Beyond the Pleasure Principle is a perplexing book is because it assumes without stating that the trauma of separation is the most important trauma we shall ever experience. It begins with birth, ends with death, but along the way we experience it thousands of times in ways big and little. Freud’s grandson’s attempt to master this trauma symbolically is one way, the main way, we get on with life. That and the comfort of attachment renewed.


Cathy Caruth, Trauma, silence, survival, in Loss of The Assumptive World: A Theory of Traumatic Loss, ed. Jeffrey Kauffman, pp. 221-236. New York: Brunner-Routledge, 2002.

Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle and Other Writings, ed. Adam Phillips. London: Penguin, 2003. [orig. 1920]

D. W. Winnicott, The concept of trauma in relation to the development of the individual within the family, ed. C. Winnicott, R. Shepherd, & M. Davis. Psychoanalytic Explorations, pp. 130-148. London: Karnac, 1989.

D. W. Winnicott, Transitional objects and transitional phenomena, in Through Paediatrics to Psycho-Analysis, pp. 229-242. London: Karnac, 1992.


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