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'From the History of an Infantile Neurosis' (Wolf Man)


The twenty-three-year-old Dr. Sergueï Pankejeff, alias the Wolf Man, first consulted Freud in the beginning of February, 1910, and became the subject of the longest and, by general consent, greatest of Freud's case histories. Dr. Pankejeff's health had collapsed in his eighteenth year after a gonorrheal infection, and by the time he met Freud, he was incapacitated and entirely dependent on an attendant. In Freud's eyes, he had an obsessional neurosis; modern opinion favors the diagnosis of borderline pathology.

Dr. Pankejeff felt that he was caught off from the world by a "veil," which could be torn away only after he received an enema. In a letter addressed to Sándor Ferenczi at the very beginning of the analysis, Freud wrote about his patient, "He would like to use me from behind and shit on my head."

In the case history, Freud focuses on the patient's early life. The very title of the case history, "From the history of an infantile neurosis," indicates a drastic expository selection from the four and a half years of the patient's first analysis with Freud. Freud used the case to demonstrate the lasting neurotic impact of conflicted infantile sexuality in order to refute the theories of Alfred Adler and Carl Jung. Despite Freud's claim of a complete cure, the Wolf Man continued to be seriously ill for the remaining half century of his life and was seen by many therapists (for accounts of Dr. Pankejeff's second analysis with Freud and the subsequent prolonged analysis with Ruth Mack Brunswick, see Gardiner, 1971).

The case history is noteworthy for having brought to attention the psychodynamics of the following phenomena: the primal scene (adults engaged in sex), the early oral organization of the libido, primary feminine impulses, deferred effects, the rare instance of a trauma arising from a manifest drama, the complexities of anal eroticism and the castration complex, and the multiple vicissitudes of an obsession. In a technical sense, the case is remarkable as an example of a most elaborate analysis of a dream, a detailed reconstruction of an infantile scene, and strategic reliance on forced termination of the analysis. Given the paucity of transference between Dr. Pankejeff and Freud in the clinical setting, one may suspect that the case material was immeasurably better understood and more highly organized in Freud's mind than in the patient's.

Freud described a whole range of mental disturbances in Pankejeff's young life, ranging from infantile anorexia and panic attacks to deficient impulse control, phobia, entrenched sadomasochistic tendencies, and various symptoms of obsession. Because he emphasized oedipal-derived pathology, Freud attributed major importance to the primal scene and the castration complex. Capital events determining the patient's young life were a primal scene observed when he was one and a half, a threat of castration from his nursery maid Grusha about a year later, his sister's seduction when he was three and a quarter, his traumatic dream when he was four, the outbreak of symptoms of obsession a half year later, and hallucinations at the age of five.

In a mimetic gesture, Freud devotes part 4 of his case history to the traumatic dream that Pankejeff had at age four about wolves (whence the patient's pseudonym). According to Freud's minute reconstruction, which mined each detail of the dream, the primal scene of coitus a tergo (vaginal penetration from behind) observed by the patient as an infant finally returned much later in a dream when he was capable of a deferred understanding. After writing up the case in 1914, Freud himself had a deferred understanding about the authenticity of the early primal scene (Freud did not include that revision in part 4 but deferred its inclusion, and hence his readers' ability to understand it, until part 5).

Notwithstanding Freud's reserve about the factuality of the primal scene, his comparative elaboration of clinical material in the case history remains problematic. According to Freud, the Grusha scene was more certain than the primal scene (1918, 113 ff.), yet he mentions the Grusha scene on 12 pages, or 10 percent of the case (115 pages), whereas he refers to the "less certain primal scene" on 46 pages, or about 40 percent of the case. Such a discrepancy over what is salient in the very showpiece of Freud's case histories proportionately undercuts its intrinsic value.

Another salient feature of the case history is that the initial years of treatment produced hardly any change. Freud submitted his patient to a "long education" before Pankejeff would share in the work of analysis, and once he did with any success, he forsook further cooperation. He thus became "unassailably entrenched behind an attitude of obliging apathy." Freud then took the drastic measure of unilaterally setting an irrevocable, fixed date for terminating treatment. Reacting to the pressure of a deadline, Pankejeff reportedly lessened his resistance and came forth with a flood of material that clarified Freud's comprehension of the infantile neurosis. In light of the patient's passive character and superficial compliance, many analysts hold that only Freud believed that there was a clinical breakthrough, not his patient.

Patrick Mahony

See also: Abraham, Nicolas; Disavowal; Infantile neurosis; Money and psychoanalytic treatment; Pankejeff, Sergueï; Primal fantasy; Primal scene.

Source Citation

Freud Sigmund. (1918). From the history of an infantile neurosis. SE, 17, 1-122.


Freud Sigmund. (1918). From the history of an infantile neurosis. SE, 17, 1-122.

Gardiner, Muriel M. (Ed.). (1971). The wolf-man by the wolf-man. New York: Basic Books.

Mahony, Patrick J. (1984). Cries of the wolf man. New York: International Universities Press.

Smith, Joseph, and Humphrey, Morris (Eds.). (1992). Telling facts: history and narration in psychoanalysis. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Viderman, Serge. (1970). La construction de l'espace analytique. Paris: Denoël.

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