Identification Fantasies

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The term identification fantasies originally referred to imaginary constructions or even genuine unconscious fantasmatic scenarios through which the subject replaces a part of their Ego or Superego with a primordial figure from their family history, particularly the father, mother, or grandparents, such that this figure lives a small or large fragment of the individual's own existence as a substitute.

Only an interpretation that is integrated into an ongoing analytic process, where the psychoanalyst's own identification fantasies are also activated, makes it possible to detect these fantasies and understand their meaning as expressed through symptoms, behaviors, or even delusions, in the sense that Sigmund Freud spoke of delusions in the case of the Rat Man (1909d).

Used similarly by Alain de Mijolla in "La désertion du capitaine Rimbaud" ("Captain Rimbaud's desertion"; 1975/1981), the notion of identification fantasies was later used in the description of less pathological phenomena. It was especially useful in bringing a new theoretical perspective to the study of transgenerational phenomena, an area previously dominated by the overly mythical idea of "transmission from unconscious to unconscious," by providing the conditions for a more psychoanalytic consideration of the fantasmatic genealogy of each individual. Transmission does indeed occur, but by way of preconscious processes involving the third-party transmitters that are the earliest objects: parents or grandparents establish a relationship between the child and preceding generations via stories, traditions, secrets, and legends, which are thus perpetuated from generation to generation with varying degrees of alteration along the way. Given this fact, it is important from a psychoanalytic point of view to substitute the term intergenerational for transgenerational (the latter in any case being borrowed from other theoretical systems).

Identification fantasies often assume the guise of screen-identifications that involve a staging of personalities that are foreign to the subject, such as fashionable celebrities, idealized versions of people close to the subject, or legendary figures, but analysis can reveal their original, more modest, familial models.

The notion of fantasies is essential, for the "truth" the child refers to in exploring his or her prehistory is not necessarily that of actual, recognized and dated events (although why not, if such information is available?), but can be made up of more or less disparate fragments of representations and affects. These elements are often organized into "scenes" that fill gaps in the individual's history, and whose assimilation, or introjection, to use Sándor Ferenczi's first definition of that term, enriches the Ego by providing additional coherence to the subject's psychic universe. Such fantasies are not decorative but rather, like any other fantasy, offer libidinal satisfaction and an outlet for the actualization of desires within the dynamics of the drives.

Grandparents, whether living or dead, are an essential part of this process of fantasmatic genealogical organization, since the conscious and unconscious representations of them that are kept and transmitted by the child's parents are as essential to the formation of identification fantasies as the child's own perception of external reality, if not more so.

Psychoanalytic treatment is the best-adapted context for the recollection and opening up of identification fantasies, and for a repetition of the primitive quest that led to their construction. It is because the psychoanalyst allows the patient's fantasies to resonate within himself or herself, where they awaken echoes of the analyst's own intrapsychic explorations, that these fantasies can become a common ground where interpretation is possible and communicable.

Alain de Mijolla

See also: Identification; Intergenerational; Phantom; Primal fantasy; Secret.


Freud, Sigmund. (1909d). Notes upon a case of obsessional neurosis. SE, 10: 151-318.

Halfron, Olivier, Ansermet, François, and Blaise, Pierrehumbert (Eds.). (2000). Filiations psychiques. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Mijolla, Alain de. (1981). La désertion du capitaine Rimbaud. Les visiteurs du moi, fantasmes d'identifications. Paris: Les Belles Lettres. (Originally published 1975)

Mijolla, Alain de. (1987). Unconscious identification fantasies and family prehistory. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 68, 397-403.

Mijolla, Alain de. (2004). Prehistoire, de famille. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

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Identification Fantasies

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