The rat man

Bergasse 19, Vienna.

Bergasse 19, Vienna.

On October 1, 1907, the young Ernst Lanzer walked through the doorway of an elegant five-storey building at 19 Bergasse Street, in the Alsergrund district of Vienna. He asked the building’s doorman about the purpose of his visit, and he told him that Dr. Sigmund Freud lived on the mezzanine floor of the building, but his office was located on the ground floor.

A few minutes later, while waiting his turn, sitting in the waiting room of the psychological office, Ernst Lanzer thought about the events that had occurred in recent months and that had concluded with that medical visit. Little could the young Viennese imagine that a year later he would become part of the history of psychoanalysis and would be known to posterity as “The Rat Man.”

Sigmund Freud’s consultation at Bergasen Street, 19 in Vienna.

Ernst Lanzer.

Ernst Lanzer was a 29-year-old young man who came to Dr. Sigmund Freud’s office for the first time, after having read in a book some notes on “word association” as a working method of the Viennese doctor.

The reason that led him to Freud’s consultation was the constant ailments he had suffered for four years. After a few minutes of waiting, the door of the consultation opened before him and he had the opportunity to speak for the first time with the now famous father of psychoanalysis.

Ernst told Freud that as a child he was assailed by obsessive ideas that made him suffer. He had the constant fear of cutting his neck with a razor, but above all, he confessed that the main reason for the consultation was the fear that something bad would happen to his father and a Viennese lady with whom he is in love.

That afternoon, Freud was able to verify that Ernst was an intelligent young university student, who had lost some years in his studies due to his psychological problems. He explained to the young man his method of work, “free association.

She gave him an appointment for the next day and encouraged him to tell about everything that came to mind at the consultation, even if it seemed ridiculous, of little importance or considered it disgusting, shameful or insignificant. Thus began a treatment that would last approximately nine months and that would conclude with the cure of the patient’s symptoms.

Ernst Lanzer was the patient analyzed in “The Rat Man”

Salzburg, 1908.

On April 27, 1908, in the city of Salzburg, Dr. Sigmund Freud took the floor before an audience made up of forty-two psychoanalystically oriented psychologists from six countries around the world. Professor Carl Gustav Jung christened the meeting the “First Congress of Freudian Psychology.”

That day Freud explained to his colleagues, for more than four hours, the case of a patient of his, suffering from an obsessive neurosis, whom he had treated in recent months and which would be the basis of the article “ On the subject of a case of neurosis obsessive ”that Freud published in 1909. Before the watchful eyes of his colleagues, Freud exposed the case of a patient, whom he called“ P ”and that was none other than the young Viennese Ernst Lanzer.

The case of “P”

Freud recounted, as in the first session, “P” encouraged to say the first thing that occurred to him, he told how every time he was tormented, he used to go to see a good friend, whom he asked insistently if he despised him and if he thought that he was a bad person. His friend invariably denied it and told him the opposite. In this first confession Freud established a transference between the good friend and the psychoanalyst: The patient came to Freud expecting an acquittal of everything that made him feel guilty.

Some sexual experiences.

After this first therapeutic bond, the patient recounted how as a child a beautiful young woman let him pass under her skirt and touch her belly and genitals. This gave him great pleasure and since then he wanted to see naked women, but thinking about it inevitably felt frightened, thinking that he was doing something wrong and as a result some misfortune was going to happen to his father.

These thoughts were held in the subject today, despite the fact that the father had passed away several years ago. The patient recounted other experiences of a sexual nature from his childhood days and the feeling that his parents were aware of everything he was thinking, since he firmly believed that his parents could hear his thoughts. It is from this moment that “P” considered that his pathological process had begun.

In his later writings, Freud would masterfully analyze how the neurotic pathological process appears clearly delimited in this visit:

“There is a sexual desire (to see a naked woman), a painful consequence (your father may die) and a series of actions aimed at avoiding misfortune (you should not think about naked women.)”

First Congress of Freudian Psychology in Salzburg (1908).

The torment of rats.

At another later moment, “P” revived a painful memory that gave name to the pseudonym by which years later he would be known: “The Rat Man.”

While in the army, he heard from an officer, who had a proven reputation as a sadist, a torture method used in China, which consisted of bringing a bucket full of rats to the prisoners’ buttocks and introducing the rats through the rectum.

As soon as he heard the narration of this cruel torment, “P” had the certainty that this torture was going to be applied to his father and his beloved.

An unpaid debt.

The next day, the same captain who narrated the torture of the rats told him that he had to pay a colleague some money that he had paid for the payment of glasses that “P” had lost.

From this moment an obsessive thought was created in him: If he returned the money to his companion, the torment of rats would be applied in reality to his loved ones. This created great anxiety and enormous doubts, debating whether to pay the debt to his partner or not to do so to avoid tormenting his father.

After endless maneuvers, always unsuccessful, to pay off the ridiculous debt of 3.80 crowns, he ended up confessing that in reality who paid the money was not his partner, but a beautiful young woman employed at the post office, and it was she who should hand over money.

Freud encouraged “P” to delve into his memory and search for memories of possible hostility with his father, and “P” recalled an event, when at the age of twelve, he was in love with a young girl, but it was not reciprocated.

That made him think that if his father died, perhaps the young woman would pay more attention to him. Thinking that she had wished her father’s death, to achieve an erotic end, made her feel very guilty. Sigmund Freud explained to him that  an intense conscious affection towards a person, usually goes hand in hand with an unconsciously repressed hostility towards that same person.

Reproaches about the death of his father.

Likewise, a memory arose that tormented him about the death of his father, seriously ill with emphysema. He was in charge of his care, but one day when he fell asleep, exhausted from the work of taking care of the father, he died and this made him feel very guilty of his death.

Initially he could not accept that his father had died and hoped to meet him anywhere, but as a result of the death of an aunt and visiting the cemetery he became aware of his father’s death and felt horribly guilty, “like a responsible criminal” of his death.

This feeling made him remember a novel in which the protagonist, who cares for her sick sister, wishes her death to marry her brother-in-law. When the sister really passes away, she commits suicide unable to accept that she has wished her sister’s death.

Later, memories appeared that spoke of a less kind face of his father. At times, he was cruel and violent, punishing his children. He recalled a scene in which his father punished him harshly by catching him masturbating.

Other memories of his early childhood were a possible shot, real or imagined, to his brother of whom he was jealous. The conclusion for “P” was that his father had represented a serious obstacle in his sexual life, and threatened him with punishment for any manifestation of an erotic nature.

This image of the cruel father created in him a deep resentment that he repressed and manifested as the obsessive fear that the father would die every time he had sexual desires.

The torment of rats that gave its name to the famous case

Rats, heredity and sterility.

Freud encouraged “P” to search his memories for possible hostile feelings towards his girlfriend (the other victim of the cruel torment of rats).

“P” did not take long to remember how on one occasion his beloved left him for a few days to tend to a sick aunt and he got angry and wished the old woman would die and then he thought that he should commit suicide for having such depraved ideas.

On another occasion, he was jealous of a cousin who was flirting with his girlfriend. Jealousy led him to wish the death of his cousin and this made him feel guilty and forced to flog himself with hard physical exercises that were sometimes accompanied by suicidal ideations.

Suppressed hostility towards his father and his girlfriend.

“P” continued to delve into his memories and analyze other situations of love and hate that always ended up punishing himself with terrible physical efforts or endless prayers to atone for guilt.

Throughout the successive sessions, Freud managed to make all the hostility repressed by “P” towards his father and his girlfriend become conscious. “P” ended up understanding that the torment of rats was associated with the inheritance he would receive upon the death of his father: in German “raten” is rats and “ratten” is money.

If his father died there would be no obstacle to receiving the paternal inheritance and he could live comfortably with his beloved.

On the other hand, the rats were related to his girlfriend’s infertility. Rats were rodents that destroyed the guts of the tortured. His girlfriend could not have children due to having lost her ovaries in a surgical operation.

This infertility created an unconscious aggressiveness towards his girlfriend and this repressed hatred appeared in the fantasy of returning the money for the glasses to the young postal worker, whom he considered fertile and attractive and this fact made him feel very guilty.

The mechanism would be as follows: Paying the debt to the girl meant accepting that he wanted her sexually because she was beautiful and fertile, unlike his girlfriend who could never bear children. This was followed by the feeling of guilt over the unconscious hostility towards his girlfriend and the obsessive fear that she would suffer the torment of rats.

Publication of “Analysis of a case of Obsessive Neurosis”

Obsessive neurosis.

To the extent that “P” was able to bring up increasingly painful memories. After accepting in him the existence of aggressive desires towards his loved ones, his obsessive symptoms gradually faded away.

After nine months of therapy “P” left Freud’s office, now located on the first floor of Bergasse Street No. 19. His clinical case was masterfully presented by Freud at the First Psychoanalytic Congress in Salzburg, establishing the theoretical bases of neurosis obsessive.

In essence, the development of “P” disease had the following chronology. “P” knew, from having heard him in family talks, that his mother came from a very wealthy family and his father married her after leaving a poor girlfriend whom he loved, but getting rich by marriage.

A “P” in his family had prepared a marriage of convenience with a young woman from a good family whom he did not love. This placed him in the position of following in his father’s footsteps and leaving his beloved or rebelling against paternal authority.

“P” tried to resolve these conflicting feelings and only found one way to do it: to get sick. His illness prevented him from having to choose one or the other option and at the same time, in the symptoms of neurosis, he turned all the repressed hostility towards the two components of his vital dilemma: his father and his girlfriend.

Freud’s conclusions on “the man of rats”.

The conclusions that Freud draws from the study of the rat man are summarized in:

  • The paralysis of the will that affects the subject is the expression of an internal conflict with opposing options.
  • The patient with neurosis discards vulgar superstitions, but succumbs to his own obsessive ideas (despite admitting that they are absurd) and lives in fear and a prisoner of them.
  • Obsessive ideas are the result of a transaction between repressed unconscious hatred and conscious love for the same person.
  • In obsessive neurosis, repression acts, not by forgetting traumatic situations, but by displacing the affects linked to them. The obsessive patient remembers traumatic situations, but remembers them without any emotional charge. This affective load is displaced towards trivial facts giving rise to the obsessive symptoms.
  • The constant struggle between love and hate often leads to an ambivalence in his personality. So sometimes these patients are kind and loving and at other times they are cruel and sadistic.
  • This fight between love and hate is accompanied by eternal rituals with which he tries to atone for feelings of guilt.
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Alexa Clark specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. She has experience in listening and welcoming in Individual Therapy and Couples Therapy. It meets demands such as generalized anxiety, professional, love and family conflicts, stress, depression, sexual dysfunction, grief, and adolescents from 15 years of age. Over the years, She felt the need to conduct the psychotherapy sessions with subtlety since She understands that the psychologist acts as a facilitator of self-understanding and self-acceptance, valuing each person's respect, uniqueness, and acceptance.

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