Just Eat My Fingers: Feasting on the Primary Process

by Stefanie Teitelbaum, LCSW 

“…on the one hand fear of demons and ghosts, and on the other hand venerations of ancestors”, Freud, S. “Totem and Taboo: Some Points of Agreement between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics, (1913[1912-13])

The part of me that eats is savage without much evidence of the work of neurosis and its primary defense mechanism, repression.  Bion’s (1957) differentiation of psychotic and non-psychotic parts of the personality elaborates the differences of defense organizations Freud began in “Totem and Taboo.”  Winnicott’s (1966) patient ate no food as food, as food was not food for her; she medicated her body.  The savage part of my personality eats no-food; it lacks the capacity to conjoin the elements of the substances it ingests so as to experience those things as meaning food.

Freud (1900) named the psychical process that transforms sense impressions to dream thoughts to dream content primary.  While often thought of  as the mechanism of release of excitation, it is the process of thinking that provides the release.    It is central to Bion’s work, following Freud, that thinking processes are structured like digestive processes.  In the psychic-soma, they are one.  Addicts dream they are drinking, snorting, shooting their absent substance.  The dream gratifies, relieves, soothes and begins the work of transforming the craving into symbolic thought.  I have never had a dream in which I eat, taste, bite, clench or spit.  My dream mouth, the neurotic mouth, does kiss, fellate, talk, try to sing and very recently, it screamed.  My psychotic eating mouth is deadened, decathected; it is dissociated,unaware of the enlivened mouth,unreachable by the transformative work of the primary process.  Tasting and spitting are the mouth’s differentiating functions of eating.  Tastes good, swallow, tastes bad, spit out.  I am a mad eater.  I eat madness: beta elements (Bion, 1959), bizarre objects, forces and sensations.

In this introductory statement, I have already referred to several defensive operations generally categorized as primitive, psychotic or borderline defenses.  Andre Green (1972) vehemently challenges that commonly held idea that borderline patients utilize primary process thinking.  Quite the contrary, they are unable to use the process, unable to think.  The borderline patient has external eruptions of primary process ideation.  Michael Eigen (1995) further posits that the primary process itself is damaged or missing, unable to do its work. The sense of emptiness I try to fill with food senses missing primary process.   Missing or damaged processing capacity needs conscious processing in primary ideation with the help of the analyst.  I’m confronting mad eating by coaxing madness from its unconscious hiding place.  Little Hans coaxed with his mother, and felt safe and warm (Freud, 1909a).  I’m cuddling with the primary process, a good breast.

In this essay, I play with a primary process reverie in which I reverse, represent, condense displace, dramatize and symbolize the psychotic operations of mad eating; the work of the negative, splitting and perversion, addiction, and primal repression.  This is hopefully representative of the way in which I work with the psychotic part of the self in my patients, but I can better present the thoughts using my own experience.  Eating is, after all, auto-erotic.   My grandmother is the ghost and ancestor I think about as I struggle with eating and weight.

Memory: I think I’m about 8 or 9Although I’m really too old to be spoon-fed, my grandmother feeds me as my mother gazes at us.   My taste and appetite are not considered.  The fork in my grandmother’s right hand moves towards my mouth, her left hand held up, fingers tall and spread, the loaded fork in her right hand moves in slow motion towards my open mouth, slack jaw.   She speaks from her toothless mouth:   “Just eat my fingers”.  She folds down one finger as I choke down a mouthful of food, tears and gagged up stuff.  Just five mouthfuls of fingers and I’ll have finished the hand. The slow-motion meal memory is endless.  I don’t remember eating the last finger and part of me, the little cannibal, still sits at the table eating my grandmother’s fingers. There is always another hand.  My grandmother is both ghost and ancestor, feared and venerated. 

“Ess mameleh”. Jewish parent coaxing a girl child to eat.

 Eat, little mother. Eat little mother

Finger food, finger eating.  Silverware confuses me.  Where do the flesh fingers end and the cold metal begin?  In an old recurring dream from before I began the first of my two analyses I’m dialing a rotary phone and I can’t complete the call as my finger repeatedly slips out of the hole.  I’m too frightened to put my finger firmly into the hole for fear the tip will be cut off;  circumcision, castration, cannibalism, vagina dentata.  Relief when touch-tone phones were introduced and the dream went away.  My first session with my first client as a social work intern was with a client diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.  She talks about the difficulty at work as she looks at her typing fingers and they disappear between the typewriter keys.  I know that dream, only she wasn’t asleep.  One word in the margin of my process notes from my advisor: “de-personalization”, a paradigm shift.   The auto-erotic element of eating is compromised by the imposition of another’s taste and appetite.  The food itself is foreign penetrator.  At least my fingers are mine, unless they are hers. The fingers she holds up are erect and splayed, both male and female.  Eating is then both cunnilingus and fellatio.  Freud’s (1936a) concept of de-realization is movement away from the father (implicit towards the mother).    Perversion, verse le pere, is movement towards the father (implicit away from the mother).  De-realization and perversion passing each other like ships in the night, unaware of each other.  My pregnancy weight gain was a modest 30 pounds, which I did lose fairly quickly.  I now weigh as much as my full term pregnancy.  Parthenogenesis is the hysterical disavowal of sexual intercourse (Mitchell, 2000).  When I was pregnant, I developed a craving for Kentucky Fried Chicken; “Finger Lickin’Good”.  Babies come from food, babies are lumpf (Freud, 1909a).  My weight represents a parthenogenic pregnancy, as I seek to give birth to a new self, even if it is  a shit self.

My patient dreams that she is snooping in my house and very ashamed to be peeking at my life.  My skin is like parchment, pale, wrinkled, bloated (Teitelbaum 2008).  My yo-yo diet cycles are getting smaller; at worst they were 40 pound swings, covering 4 sizes.  Now the cycle is about 20 pounds and 2 sizes.   My patient has an ostomy pouch.  I see the image of her pouch puffing up with watery feces in her image of my artificial skin swelling with my shit food.    She has identified the de-personalized second skin of adhesive identity (Bick, 1968, Meltzer, 1975) we share, and  the anality of my eating, the psychotic fusion of mouth and anus, stoma and breast, milk and shit, God and the devil (Eigen, 1986).

I started kindergarten in1953 during the Korean War.  I might get tuberculosis being around foreign children.  Air is dangerous.  Weight prevents TB.   My school day breakfast included warm milk mixed with a raw egg, sometimes spiked with Ovaltine to try, unsuccessfully, to make it taste better.  I knew I had been vaccinated for TB, but science lost meaning.  I went to school wearing dog tags, so that my living or dead self could be identified if the Chinese dropped the A-bomb.  Visions of the mushroom cloud played on TV.  Hiding under my desk during the school air aid drill, I wondered how this would help protect me from the mushroom cloud, but that glimmer of common sense dissipated quickly.  I don’t want to diet, I don’t want to die.  These terrors blended easily with my rather severe separation anxiety.  Between terror and breakfast disgust, I couldn’t keep my breakfast down.   I was called “the throw-up baby”; sitting by myself in school, often wet from having my clothing wiped off after throwing up; another second skin that could protect me from the dangers, of the outside world; the A-bomb, TB and people who weren’t my family.   It certainly created a broad parameter between me and the other kids.   My breakfast was compared to cow’s milk straight from the cow, like in the old country; a certain protection from TB..  Unpasteurized cow’s milk is designed to nourish a baby animal with two stomachs.   The Mother/Grandmother unit, my mirrored self has two stomachs, so should I.  I have two mouths, but only one stomach.  I have two Mommies, the parthenogenic parenting unit.

I have a taste for disgusting food.  My breakfast disgust is a derivative of coprophasia; eating shit.  Disgust and spitting are a child’s defense against coprophasia, a pharaphillia, a perversion (Ferenczi,1919).  I do not have access to my spitting mouth.  Humans ess, animals fressDreck fressers, as my dual mother unit referred to people who were cheap. (For those who are not familiar with the joys of Yiddish, ess means eat, fress means gorge, dreck means shit.)  Dogs are coprophillic and  I love dogs.   Aside from the metaphoric shitty eating habits, I sometimes drink the coffee with curdled cream floating on top, eat yogurt with the pink/blue mold in the corners.  Chewing my cud.   Polymorphous perversion; melting and melding of the erotogenic zones’  fluids.  Snot, piss, semen, milk, even shit (with the Ovaltine variety), swirling in the glass.  Had it been a dream, I would have named the mixture a beta element, a bizarre object as a primitive representation of merging sense impressions.   Common sense is obliterated and replaced with a constant conjunction of false causality (Bion).  Being thin doesn’t cause TB, it is a consequence.  When I smell the brussel sprouts my husband cooks, my immediate reaction is to clean the cats’ litter box.  It smells like cat shit to me.  Steamed broccoli makes me gag.  I do dream smells accurately in dreams.  The psychotic nose is with me in waking life, and the sense links are attacked, good bad breast parts are constantly conjoined with opposite smells.   My mouth waters for junk food.   Green vegetables only get past my gag reflex when denuded of their meaning as food; they are medicine, good for me. .

The affect of disgust is the representation of abjection, the discarded object, the mutilated mother of primal repression (Kristeva,1982), the archetypical figure of the violence of separation. The return of the dynamic repressed is  a part of psychoanalysis.  The appearance of the primal repressed is a psychotic eruption. The low, wide armholes of my grandmother’s house dress don’t cover her mastectomy scar and the remaining elongated breast.  I remember that scar as diagonal, shoulder to waist.   She often didn’t wear her false teeth, her eyesight was compromised by diabetes, the smells from the bathroom the evidence of her digestive processes ravaged by the metastases in her esophagus.   Her generation was ravaged by cancer and diabetes, gorging themselves on the rich foods unavailable to Jews in the old country.  I imagine the dog tags and the nuclear threat hearken back to the pogroms of which my grandmother never spoke, but whose absent presence lives in me.  The old joke about the (loss of) meaning of all the Jewish holidays, “They tried to kill us, they didn’t, let’s eat”.  Meaning has been atomized (Ferenczi, 1932).

”The abdomen is the reason why one does not easily take himself for a god.”

                                                Friedrich Nietzsche

“Here’s Big Brother, singing and dancing, force-feeding you, so your mind never goes hungry enough to think.”

Lullaby”, a novel by Chuck Palahniuk

Control of the abdomen, control of thinking, is what made Grandmother/Mother godlike to me.  I see mutilated/mutilating mother in two famous dead heads; Salome’s John the Baptist, and the Medusa.  Dead head, dead thinking, and dead male and female elements of those two heads and no stomachs.   Mouths slack, disconnected from their digestive and sexual bodies.   The savage girl at the dinner table is a slack-jawed dead head when the no-food penetrates.The dead head in Strauss’s opera pulls glorious sonorities out of Salome’s mouth.  The Medusa head freezes. They reverse endlessly in me, like images in a hall of mirrors (Teitelbaum, 2012).   They have no bellies, like Schreber’s disappearing intestines (Freud, 1912).  A negative hallucination solution of mind/belly control; disavow their existence.  The masculine protest in my family was “No!!!”  The boys in my family said “no” through clenched jaws.  My aunt would take her young son into the bathroom when he wouldn’t eat, place him on the toilet, sit on him, and shove the food down his throat.  I watched this once and the scene remains frozen in time.   Where is the father?  My uncle, morbidly obese, died of a heart attacked. “I killed myself with a knife and fork”, he said on his death bed.  Although I could say much about dead mothers, there are dead words in the dead eating mouth about dead fathers who didn’t help us children escape food rape.  I’m not sure the totem father was ever alive for us children to murder.

I’ve been on a diet most of my adult life, since I settled down in my second marriage and gave up singing opera and the thrill of seeking the next love/sex partner.  The singing and fucking diet really worked.  Singing is sometimes a bulimic experience, evacuating, emptying meaningless objects, a concretization of projective identification.  I was slim and animated, thriving on a diet of pepsi, potato chips, and squishy white bread with mayonnaise sandwiches.   I developed a wildly exciting repertoire of analingus fantasies, masturbating my consenting male lover or my raped male victim while I licked.  Playing the rusty trombone; the anality of music.  I’m a gay man, escaping boundless mother/grandmother femaleness.  It is a form of separation, projecting my male, female and neutral parts about (Meltzer, 1966). My fantasy is a negative perversion (Freud, 1905), primary process moving towards a mental experience.  If music be the food of love, lick on. Not too long ago, I decided to tackle the problem of memorizing piano music.  My piano teacher said simply, “you have to take your eyes off the music and look at your hands”.  Those damned fingers again.  Singing engages the mouth, playing the piano engages the fingers.   My eyes fixed to the music de-personalizing and de-realizing the production of music, just as my digestive system is de-realized.  Looking at my fingers, their stroking, striking, pressing the keys makes the sound.  I look a little at a time. So far, my fingers haven’t disappeared between the keys, but the anxiety is heart-pounding.   The anxieties of singing and playing piano takes me back to the picture of eating fingers with my mouth.  But I don’t feel anything looking at the memory.  I do feel the anxiety looking at my fingers making music.  It’s painful, but alive.

I gave up dairy, the breakfast milk slop, but I still have cream in my coffee.  I see representation, displacement, condensation, narration and even symbolization of the horror breakfast in that yummy cup of light coffee.  Nothing relieves a sudden attack of eating madness like a cup of light coffee.  Thinking of a cup of coffee serves the purpose of a symbol; it releases distress, hallucinating the coffee breast.  The coffee cup itself takes on the quality of an auto-sensuous shape (Tustin, 1990), a hard object often three dimensional when touched produces an emotional experience.  The sense of an inner space in the three dimensions is not experienced.  It has no belly, but it is has none of the violence of abject decapitation.  Its touch is quite comforting.  The breakfast affect has been processed from disgust to bliss.  After decades of not eating at all until 3 or 4 in the afternoon followed by a ravenous binge until sleep, I was able to have a morning cup of coffee.  I now have coffee and a banana.  Half woman, half ape.

Singing and eating are solitary experiences, requiring the capacity to be alone in one’s own body.  The addict often seeks seeking spirituality through addiction, the substance replacing a damaged background object, a support for a feeling of unity (Eigen, 2009).  A hole in the self the size of God is a central idea in 12 step thinking.  I think of Ferenczi’s (1932) atomized thoughts, Bion’s beta elements, (1962), Schreber’s radiating nerves (Freud, 1911), and the Kabbalistic legend of the light of Creation dispersed into atoms.  I seek the spark of God in the beta element, the awesome melody of the asshole.  The sound of the Shofar, the birth of the world, is a mighty blast of the rusty trombone.  No crazier than the Queen of Parthenogenesis, Athena, springing full grown from Zeus’ head.  Perhaps the myth is an upward displacement of Hans’s lumpf  babies.  It was Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom, who punished an innocent rape victim, a vestal virgin in her  temple, by turning the victim into a stone-making horror; Medusa.  A type of Midas, by stony look or golden touch, de-humanized, isolated, untouchable like a child covered in vomit-smell.

It is Yom Kippur, 2011.  A sentence in the prayer book; ‘cease to hate’ catches my eye.  Hate and ate, only an exhalation separating them.   The liver, the primary processor of serum cholesterol is the soma-space for hate; bile.  My liver is overloaded with ate/hate.   LDL, the dangerous cholesterol, is a beta blob attacking my liver as their psychical counterpart attacks my ability to think.  Adonai, you are as close as breathing.  Breathing is dangerous; there’s TB and nuclear fall-out.  I’ve recently been diagnosed with asthma, and it is hard to exhale.  God air turns to devil carbon monoxide and I can’t breathe it out.  My asthma is breath constipation; maybe another upward displacement (Eigen,1977, Mitrani, 1993)   I’m relieved I really can’t sing now.   For the first time, I screamed in a dream.  The opera’s not over till the fat lady screams.  I screamed at a man until I ran out of breath, “Asshole! asshole! asshole!”  The last decathected scream before the baby gives up hope lived in a dream (Winnicott, 1969).  Dead fathers don’t hear screams.   My husband muses that men in my family were drones; after mating, their penises are ripped off and they die.  Harsh, but  there is no parthenogenesis in the hive.  Hives and eczema are part of my history too, but another time.  Asthma is an improvement.  It is clearly inside the body, and I can think more clearly than in the throes of an eczema attack, which is like being swarmed by bees.  I needed to kill singing to dream that last scream. I don’t have the internal economy to support both in the not-psychotic mouth, and I need the scream more right now.  Vomit is a body scream, but the transformative scream needs sonority.  Tonality is an element of affect, most readily making itself known in the voice, (Green, 1995). I’m hopeful that I’ll sing again.   I muse about a personal kashrut, a healthy diet, and the sinful way I defile this body God gave me by feeding it shit. I decide to have a Yom Kippur hate fast.

My friend told me a about her much-loved, venerated ancestor, her grandmother.  I felt a pang of envy that my friend loved her grandmother.  I never loved mine, and the guilt was overwhelming to my not-psychotic part.  An unknown, uncanny, mystical Jew jumped out of the depths of my personality when I was pregnant with my daughter.  It was assumed that my daughter would be named for my grandmother.  Bion’s (1962) reworking of primary process redefines awake and asleep.  When the psychotic part of the personality is dominant one can neither wake up nor go to sleep.  I awoke from not sleeping with a shattering “no”, the no I could never find when I was being fed or manipulated into eating more.  No way would I invite the transmigration of that poor battered soul into my child.  My “no” released my first experience of compassion for my grandmother, as well as empathy for my mother’s pain in my refusing the Law of the Grandmother.  There is no such thing as Man, in my family’s matriarchal theology.  The Yes implicit in a No, modulating the not yes/not no of compliance (Green, 1981).  Circumcise your heart, Adonai commands.  Remove the second skin blocking sensitivity.  My heart foreskin is an adhesive identity.  My grandmother is partial ghost partial ancestor.  My  aunt is a ghost who kept intruding on my hate fast, like a growling stomach.  If I were Molly Bloom, my orgasmic cry would be “No!”, a male orgasm.

“Childhood love is boundless, it demands exclusive possession, it is not content with less than all.”

Freud, S. “Female sexuality, 1931b

My friend’s grandmother observed no Jewish ritual, but was respectful of those who did.  However, she was adamant that one should not eat pork on Yom Kippur.  “There are limits, after all.”  I came home from Kol Nidre service, struggling but enlivened in my hate fast.  I picked up the (touch-tone) phone to call out for Chinese food and quickly changed my order from pork to chicken.  With a borrowed ancestral grandmother, there really are limits after all.  Thank God.

Stefanie Teitelbaum, LCSW
99 University Place, 4th Floor
New York, NY 10003
212 255-3284

  • Bick, E.
    • (1968).  The Experience of the Skin in Early Object Relations, IJPA, 49:484-486
  • Bion, W.R.
    • (1957)Differentiating thePsychotic and the Non Psychotic Personality IJPA 38, 266-275
    • (1962) LEARNING FROM EXPERIENCE, Jason Aronson, NJ 1994
  • Eigen, M
    • (1977)“Breathing and Identity”, in THE ELECTRIFIED TIGHTROPE, Phillips, A., ed, Jason Aronson, NJ 1993, pp.43-47
    • (1984)Demonized Aspects of the Self, THE ELECTRIFIED TIGHTROPE , ibid,pp181-209
    • (1995) Primary Process and Shock, in PSYCHIC DEADNESS, Jason Aronson, NJ, 1996, pp139-148
    • (2009)“Sprituality and Addiction”, in CONTACTS WITH THE DEPTHS, Karnac, London, 2011, 17-30
  • Ferenczi, S.
    • (1919)) “Disgust for Breakfast”, in FURTHER CONTRIBUTIONS TO THE THEORY AND TECHNIQUE OF PSYCHO-ANALYSIS, Suttie, J. transl, Brunner/Maazel, NY 1980 p 326
    • (1932)      ‘Confusion of tongues between the adults and the child’;FINAL CONTRIBUTIONS  TO THE PROBLEMS OF PSYCHO-ANALYSIS, Balint, M. ed, Mosbacher, E. transl. Brunner/Mazel, NY 1980pp156-167
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    • The interpretation of dreams (1900 a), SE 4&5
    • Three Essays on Sexuality (1905b),The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 7, 123-246
    • Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-Year Old Boy, (1909a), SE10, 1-149
    • Psychoanalytic Notes on an outobiographical account of a case of paranoia (demential paranoides).(1912a[1911]) S.E. 4/5: 1-136
    • Totem and Taboo, (1913[1912-13]), SE 13, 1-163
    • A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis, (1936a), SE 22., 239-248
  • Green, A.
    • The Borderline Concept in, ON PRIVATE MADNESS; IUP, CT1972,pp 60-83
    • (1981)”Negation and Contradiction”, Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?:, Grotstein, J. ed, Karnac, London 1983, pp317-339
    • (1995) THE FABRIC OF AFFECT IN THE PSYCHOANALYTIC DISCOURSE; Sheridan, A. transl., Routledge, London and NY, 1999
  • Kristeva, J.
    • “Approaching Abjection”:  THE POWER OF HORROR Roudiez, L. translator, Columbia U Press, NY, 1982, pp1-31
  • Meltzer, D.
    • (1966) The Relation of Anal Masturbation to Projective Identification.  Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 47:335-342
    • (1975). Adhesive Identification1. Contemp. Psychoanal., 11:289-310
  • Mitchell, J.
    • Hysteria: From Catastophe to Trauma: MADMEN AND MEDUSAS: Reclaiming Hysteria, Basic Books, NY 2000, pp317-346
  • Mitrani, J.
    • (1993). “Unmentalized” Experience in the Etiology and Treatment of Psychosomatic Asthma. Contemp. Psychoanal., 29:314-342
  • Teitelbaum, S
    • (2008)”Allergic to People: building bridges in a ripped psychic-soma; American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 68:177-188
    • (2012)”The Many Sounds of Trauma; The Confused Tongues of Richard Strauss’ Salome”, unpublished paper, presented at the 2012 Ferenczi Conference, the Many Faces of Trauma, Budapest.
  • Tustin, F.
  • Winnicott, D. W.
    • (1966) Psycho-somatic Illness in its Positive and Negative Aspects IJPA 47:510-516
    • (1969)Additional Notes on Psycho-somatic Disorder, Psycho-analytic Explorations,  Winnicott, C., Shepherd, R., David, M., eds.  Yale, CT, 1989, pp115-118

Stefanie Teitelbaum, MSW, Fordham, B.Music, Juilliard, LCSW, NCPsyA is a Member, Supervisor and Training Analyst, and Faculty member of NPAP and IEA. She is IEA’s Dean of Students.  Articles  published in the American Journal of Psychoanalysis, Other/Wise (the on-line journal of the International Forum for Psychoanalytic Education), and the Psychoanalytic Review.  Contributed entries to The Edinburgh Encyclopedia of Psychoanalysis, and The Blanton-Peale Dictionary of Psychology and Religion.  Papers presented at conferences sponsored by IFPE, IARPP, The Clinical Ferenczi Conference, and the Social Theory Forum.  Former staff psychotherapist at the Lower East Side Service Center’s Drug-free Out-Patient Program and is currently in private psychoanalytic practice in New York City.  She used to sing opera.

One Response to Just Eat My Fingers: Feasting on the Primary Process

  1. Nathaniel says:

    In contrast, EMFs that have shorter wave lengths have a stronger impact.

    Several training centers offer extent level of programs with talented faculties.
    That crossroad provides a choice, a choice that can be made
    out of fear or faith.

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