What is the "phantom effect" referred to in the essay "Notes on the Phantom" by Maria Torok and Nicolas Abraham? http://www.sas.upenn.edu/~cavitch/pdf-library/AbrahamN_NotesOnThePhantom.pdf

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Karyth Cara eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Once we listen for the possibility of detecting a phantom, ... it is usually possible to formulate some likely hypothesis. ... Often enough, patients need only feel that the analytic construction does not endanger their own topography; they need only sense ... an alliance with the analyst in order to eject a bizarre foreign body .... In this way, "the phantom effect" (in the form of acting out as well as other specific symptoms) will gradually fade. (Maria Torok and Nicolas Abraham, "Notes on the Phantom")

"The presence of the phantom indicates the effects, on the descendants, of something that had inflicted narcissistic injury or even catastrophe on the parents" (Torok & Abraham).

  • narcissistic injury: disappointment or failure met with in the person of the selfobject through unmet, unfulfilled selfobject ministration to needs during the archaic stage. "Kohut (1977) described a developmental process by which a person becomes increasingly less dependent on significant others for self-regulation, he also stressed that dependence is maintained in a limited manner over the entire life course" (Banai).

In "Notes on the Phantom," Maria Torok and Nicolas Abraham describe a psychological condition that is not the result of instinct nor of Oedipal complex but rather the result of the existence of a persistent narcissistic injury to the person's parents or earlier ancestors. Torok and Abraham stress that to treat this condition as the result of something within the patient themselves is to risk compounding the symptoms with "bizarre and even delirious acts" (Torok & Abraham).

[R]eject the analytical stance that is ... bent on tracing the information received [from the patient] to instinct or to the Oedipal complex ... [which] would result in the patient's displaced acceptance of the phantom as part of their own libidinal life [their own topography] which could, in turn, lead to bizarre and even delirious acts. (Torok & Abraham)

Torok and Abraham used the term "phantom effect" to describe the symptoms manifested by a patient suffering from a phantom, which is a condition that haunts the patient but which arises in the parent's or other ancestor's psyche and dwells in their unconscious and which is transmitted to the patient through, to Torok and Abraham, unknown means: "The phantom which returns to haunt bears witness to the existence of the dead [experience, memory, secret] buried within the other" (Torok & Abraham).

Abraham draws an analogy between the effects of a phantom and Freud's description of the death instinct. Abraham points out that both concepts:

  • have no energy of their own
  • can merely be designated, not "abstracted"
  • pursue their "work of disarray in silence"
  • give rise to repetition
  • elude the defense mechanism of rationalization

Effects of the phantom are the chief means by which diagnosis is accomplished. After other possible causes are eliminated, the presence of a phantom can be constructed from effects on the patient's life situation. In the best circumstances, the effects of the phantom display as having been invested with libido that is manifest in "the patient's surroundings" as "hobbies, leisure activities, or professional pursuits" (Torok & Abraham). In turn, the surroundings also reveal the nature of the secreted "words" that sustain the phantom buried in the "tomb" of the other's psychological "heart" or literally buried in a tomb of death. The phantom effects on a patient's surrounding and life choices accidentally reveal a hypothesis of what the phantom is. In the worst circumstances, "phantomogenic" words [secret, phantom sustaining words, e.g., "forced labor"] are acted out in phobias, obsessions, and phantasmagorias that may be mild or may go so far as to "take over the field of the subject's mental activities" (Torok & Abraham).

  • phantom effect: the symptoms manifest by a patient who is the agent of a continuing bizarre foreign body of the family phantom, a secret injury or error buried within the living parent or with the ancestors of the family.


Maria Torok and Nicolas Abraham attempted to provide a revised metapsychological approach to their concept of the phantom in their 1978 joint work The Shell and the Kernel, part of a larger work called Anasémies, a difficult theoretical-clinical work of psychoanalytic and transphenomenological space with an important introduction by Jacques Derrida. The first volume of Anasémies is called The Wolf Man's Magic Word: A Cryptonomy (1976) and is devoted to the concept of the "crypt" and the "work of the phantom in the unconscious and the law of ignorance" (Bernard Golse. "Phantom"). 

A metapsychological approach is one that combines metaphysics with psychology. Metaphysics is the study of the study of the philosophy of non-material, abstract concepts (time, being etc). Psychology is the study of the mind and its functions related to the mind's affect on behavior. Their metapsychological approach combines the idea of the haunting phantom with the concept of its affect on mind function and behavior.

"The phantom is the work in the unconscious of the inadmissible secret of an Other [e.g., crime, illegitimacy, etc]. Its law is the obligation of ignorance. Its manifestation, as anxiety, is the return of the phantom in bizarre words and acts and symptoms (phobic, obsessive, and so on) [in the child of the parent/ancestor]. ... [with the occurrence of] a particular affect that Freud described as the 'uncanny'." (Torok & Abraham, The Wolfman, Chapter Six qtd by Golse)

Distillation of Characteristics of the Phantom

  • metapsychological fact acknowledged in all ages and civilizations either as an accepted "tenet" or "marginal conviction"
  • the gaps left in our consciousness and sunconsciousness by the secrets of others haunt us; it is not the dead themselves who haunt us
  • the returning phantom cannot be said to be the result of a failed process of grieving since it is the "burial of an unspeakable fact within the love-object": "Since the phantom is not related to the loss of an object of love [parent, grandparent], it cannot be considered the effect of unsuccessful mourning..." (Torok & Abraham)
  • the children or descendants objectify the buried "tombs" in the other through the phantom [give presence to the buried secret through the effects of the phantom], which folklore objectifies as a metaphor that is active in the unconcsious as the secret words that are buried with the other, buried with the love-object
  • the phantom is a formation of the unconscious that has never had conscious manifestation because of the profound nature of the secret
  • the phantom passes in a way yet to be determined from the parent's unconscious into the child's unconscious
  • the phantom's function is different from dynamic repression; its function is not to repress
  • the "phantom's periodic and compulsive return lies beyond the scope of [patient] symptom-formation ... [since] it works ... like a stranger within the [patient's] own mental topography" (Torok & Abraham)
  • the phantom bears witness to the secret buried within the other and at no time has direct reference to the patient
  • an alliance with the analyst is needed in order to eject the phantom, which is a bizarre foreign body
  • once the phantom is ejected, the "phantom effect" of acting out and other symptoms like phobias, obsessions, and phantasmagorias, will gradually fade

"The Torok and Abraham essays are part of a line of research that has developed in France through the work of authors such as Alain de Mijolla, Haydée Faimberg, Jean-José Baranès, and Jean Cournut, who have assumed critical positions with respect to the theory of the phantom and suggested other approaches to so-called transgenerational phenomena. The work of Abraham and Torok was continued by Serge Tisseron, Didier Dumas, and Claude Nachin (Bernard Golse. "Phantom").


Erez Banai, PhD, Mario Mikulincer, PhD, Phillip R. Shaver, PhD. "'Selfobject' Needs in Kohut's Self Psychology."

Bernard Golse. "Phantom." International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. Ed. Alain de Mijolla. Vol. 2. Gale Cengage, 2005.