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Fratriarchy: The Sibling Trauma and the Law of the Mother
Juliet Mitchell
Routledge / Softcover / Feb 2023
9781032364407 (ISBN-10: 1032364408)
price: $37.95 (may be subject to change)
264 pages
Not in Stock, usually ships in 3-4 weeks

In Fratriarchy, Juliet Mitchell expands her ground-breaking theories on the sibling trauma and the Law of the Mother. Writing as a psychoanalytic practitioner, she shows what happens from the ground up when we use feminist questions to probe the psycho-social world and its lateral relations.

In this pivotal text, Mitchell argues that the mother’s prohibition of her toddler attacking a new or expected sibling is a rite of passage from infancy to childhood: this is a foundational force structuring our later lateral relationships and social practices. Throughout the volume, Mitchell chooses the term Fratriarchy to show that, as well as the up-down axis of fathers and sons, there is also the side-to-side interaction of sisters and brothers and their social heirs. Making use both critically and affirmatively of Freud, Klein, Winnicott, Bion, Pontalis, and others, Fratriarchy indicates how the collective social world matches the individual family world examined by established psychoanalysis. Decades on from Mitchell’s work on psychoanalysis and feminism which argued that feminism needed psychoanalysis to understand the position of women, Fratriarchy now asks psychoanalysis to take on board the developing practices and theories of global feminism.

This volume will be essential reading for analysts, psychotherapists, and psychologists, and anyone who wants to re-think the ubiquity of unconscious processes. It will also interest students and teachers of social theory, psychoanalysis, group analysis, gender studies and feminism.


'In her riveting new book, Fratriachy: The Sibling Trauma and the Law of the Mother, Juliet Mitchell makes a persuasive case for a psychoanalytic examination of sibling relations. Omitted from psychoanalytic discourse – until now – is what Mitchell characterises as "The Law of the Mother": the force that tempers a child’s homicidal impulses against their perceived usurper. In casting a light on horizontal relations and exploring their interactions with vertical control, Mitchell provides a fantastically entertaining and important feminist analysis of the functions of patriarchy and fraternity in a social world.'

Inbali Iserles, award-winning author of children’s books and fellow of the Royal Literary Fund (2020-2022), University of Cambridge, UK

'Juliet Mitchell’s astonishingly rich contributions to psychoanalysis and its social meanings, from Psychoanalysis and Feminism onward, culminate in Fratriarchy with a stunningly new conception of siblingship and what she tellingly calls 'the Law of the Mother.' This is a great and convincing work, taking us through psychoanalytic theory, and literature—finding its most eloquent enactments in Shakespeare. A major book by one of the leading thinkers of our time.'

Peter Brooks, Yale University, USA

'The contention of the existence of a horizontal axis along which siblings interact is the starting point of Fratriarchy. With her characteristic theoretical consistence and exquisite clinical sensitivity Juliet Mitchell proposes that the intersection of this looked axis with the hierarchical vertical patriarchal axis set the coordinates needed for an understanding of the universality of the prohibitions of incest and murder. The consequences of these prohibitions are different when operating on the horizontal and the vertical axes as they correspond to different Law-givers and different recipients. Mitchell’s Law of the Mother rules during the pre- social infancy prohibiting incest and murder between siblings along the horizontal axis. It is the necessary complement of the Law of the Father -to use the Lacanian translation of Freud’s formulation- that prohibits incest and murder in the vertical axis of filiation.'

Max Hernandez Camarero, former Vice-President of the International Psychoanalytical Association and Founding Member of the Peruvian Psychoanalytic Society. He has been honoured with the Mary Sigourney Award

'In the face of war, and gender, racial, and colonial oppression, it is crucial to define new frameworks of analysis that have the potential to end violence. Mitchell’s fascinating account of the Law of the Mother, sibling trauma, and the fratriarchy offers a route to deliverance articulated through new narratives about the self and the others, and a call to sisterhood.'

Laura López Paniagua

'In Juliet Mitchell’s Fratriarchy the author drives her argument with freewheeling and exhilarating force, into the prevailing foundations of psychoanalytic thinking---the Law of the father, the paternal function of the Oedipus, and its antecedent, the earliest relationship with the mother, "good enough" or not. What is left out , she asserts, is the separation and loss of infancy specifically through the replacement of the toddler by the baby he/she is no longer. This trauma is a product of "The Law of the Mother," and its consequences are death of the toddler, who dare not risk, by fulfilling the wish to murder the baby, his or her own death by maternal abandonment. Mitchell puts this dilemma powerfully, starting with the psychoanalytic writing of Winnicott and Klein, the British pillars of early infantile experience. Their early cases all start with the trauma of the birth of the sibling, but their theoretical focus backs away from this trauma, looking for antecedents in the first months of life. Juliet Mitchell says look again, at the trauma which is equal for boys and girls, and which marks the entry into all the relationships outside the family, those relations which will eventually find expression in love and war. Confusions of love, sex and gender, the ubiquity of war, are the discontents we live with and Juliet Mitchell has much to say to illuminate the world in which we find ourselves. And she offers more than she explores in relation to adolescence. It is a riveting read.'

Sara Flanders, British Psychoanalytic Society, UK

'Juliet Mitchell is a field-defining thinker. In the long awaited Fratriarchy, Mitchell brings her world-renowned work as a feminist psychoanalytical and political scholar together with her personal observations on child development and sibling relations as a practitioner over the past twenty-five years. Central to Mitchell’s distinctive argument is the misdiagnosis of ‘sibling trauma’ and the far-reaching social and political consequences. Theoretically radical as well as autobiographical, this is an extraordinary book and a ‘must read’ for all those with a curiosity for understanding human society through familial dynamics.'

Jude Browne

'Juliet Mitchell trained as a psychoanalyst in the 1970s and worked full time in private practice in London and then in Cambridge where, in 1996 she combined this with an academic post. Since her retirement from Cambridge in 2008 she continues to write and teach on psychoanalysis worldwide. She is currently Professorial Research Associate in the Psychoanalysis Unit, UCL where she established and directed the M/Phil and PhD programme.

It is, astonishingly, more than forty years since the publication of Juliet Mitchell’s Psychoanalysis and Feminism. This famous and ground breaking text reclaimed aspects of the intellectual and therapeutic thrust of Freudian psychoanalysis within academia and the Clinic. In that text, Juliet Mitchell wrote that psychoanalysis is ‘not a recommendation for a patriarchal society but an analysis of one’.

Later in her extensive writing on sexuality and psychoanalysis, she asserted again that psychoanalysis is not prescribing how men and women do or should live their lives but instead it analyses how they come to be such beings in the first place (1982, p3). Her psychoanalytic work is rooted in knowledge of many traditions, having written and edited highly regarded texts on Lacan (Feminine Sexuality 1982) and Klein (Selected Melanie Klein 1986). And she is equally at home in the writings of Donald Winnicott. But the backcloth to all her work is her thorough knowledge of Freudian texts.

Juliet Mitchell’s extensive knowledge of the major psychoanalytic traditions has not meant that she is arguing for a melange of theories. Far from it, she writes:

To say that Freud’s work contains contradictions should not be the equivalent of arguing that it is heterogeneous and that it is therefore legitimate to take their pick and develop it as they wish. (2003,p1)

Alongside the appeal against doctrinal rigidity, Juliet Mitchell values interdisciplinary thinking, not, as she puts it, because anything goes, but simply because we need anything we can to consider the development of the unconscious psyche. As with her depth of knowledge of many schools of psychoanalysis, she can make claims for interdisciplinary thinking because her own academic trajectory has been through literature, gender studies and anthropology.

Her writing on sexuality was in the vanguard of what has become a rich seam of contemporary thinking on sexuality in British psychoanalysis. Writing on Lacan led her to recover concepts that Lacan privileged, but for a British psychoanalytic audience. So, for example, she retrieved the notion of Nachträglichkeit, which Strachey translated as ‘deferred action’, and which the French more helpfully translate as the après coup (1982p16). Mitchell argues against what she sees as a move away from the Freudian theory of sexuality. She considers that some later developments in psychoanalysis look not at how sexuality is constructed but ‘what each has got, not what distinguishes the sexes.’ This constitutes a ‘return to biology…a natural heterosexuality and original masculinity and femininity’ particularly in the Kleinian notion of the primal and determining unconscious knowledge of the vagina (1982p20/21) to the neglect of the concept of bisexuality. In 1986 she faced head on the feminist critique of the Freudian notion of castration. She described how the formation of the human psyche was inextricably linked with the existential questions, questions of origin: where do babies come from? what is the difference between the sexes?.

Over the last two decades, following the publication of Mad Men and Medusas in 2000, Juliet Mitchell has elaborated her initial work on Freud’s first cases in the Studies on Hysteria. Focussing on the strange fate of male hysteria with its emphasis on trauma both in feminism and in psychoanalysis, she noted the missing link: the sibling relationships. Indeed she described how ‘Siblings came to me as a revelation in the late 1990s after I had spent many years thinking there was something "missing" in our understanding of hysteria. To my relief, I found Anna Freud thought the same!’ (2013, p227) From this ‘revelation’, Mitchell has staked a claim for the lateral axis in the structuring of the mind. Freud focussed on the vertical axis of the oedipal complex, the child’s desire for one parent meeting the prohibition of the other parent. Later psychoanalytic theory, particularly Object Relations theory continued the focus on this axis but elaborating more on the mother-infant dyad, the pre-oedipal dynamic. Without ever seeking to underestimate the importance of the vertical-parental axis, Juliet Mitchell contends that this has been privileged at the cost of ignoring the lateral siblings and their ‘heirs’ on the horizontal axis.

She describes the ‘simultaneity of murder and adoration’, and how each sibling ‘evokes the danger of the other’s annihilation’. The birth of a rival, the new sibling, the competitor for parental love threatens the existence of the subject. This evocation of the danger of annihilation at the birth of a new sibling can be experienced as the death of the subject’s self in the mind of the mother, as she is taken up with her new one. The child’s wish is to annihilate the new born rival, to make it disappear: ‘the sibling by seeming to stand in my place, has killed me.’ And then ‘Into the wish to kill the one who annihilates the subject by its existence, rushes the love that was also present in the anticipation of another self….the life drive flooding in to mitigate the death drive (2013p28/29)

In her elaboration of the lateral axis in the social and at the same time individual story she contends that the possible resolution or mitigation of murderousness often means that rivalry can be seen as the solution to jealousy, rather than synonymous with envy. The rivalrous sibling’s murderousness is transmuted and sanctioned in aggressive play and healthy rivalry – a socially acceptable solution which can easily collapse into pathology. She convincingly argues that the mother, faced with the ferocious murderousness of the jealous, usurped older child, institutes what she describes as the ‘law of the mother’. Mother recognises the toddler wants to be rid of the baby who has taken its place. She suggests that mother sanctions rivalrous play as a solution to the potential murder. This conceptualisation of the law of the mother has led her to much new writing in recent years.'

Rosemary Davies

Table of Contents

Introduction Part I: The Toddler's World 1. From the 'Sibling Trauma' to the 'Law of the Mother' 2. Taking It Like a Toddler 3. From Toddling to Walking; From Speaking to Talking 4. From the 'Sibling Trauma' to the Horizontal Axis of Social Relations Part II: Three Theories 5. Donald Winnicott: Narcissistic-Psychotic Development. Do Siblings Count? 6. Using Wilfred Bion: the Social and its Models 7. Questioning Fraternity: J. B. Pontalis - 'Death-Work' and Brother of the Above Epilogue: The Social Child's World: Latency and No Latency Part III: FRATRIARCHY: Tomorrow, Today and Yesterday 8. Oedipal Sexual Difference 9. Horizontal 'Gender' and Bisexuality 10. Fratriarchy: Tomorrow, Today and Yesterday

About the Author:

Juliet Mitchell FBA is a psychoanalyst, socialist feminist, emeritus professor, and author.

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