The loveless trajectory of sexual abuse

Photo: Illustration in CG Jung's "The Red Book".
Photo of Illustration in CG Jung’s “The Red Book”

Long before their falling-out, Jung wrote in an intimate letter to Freud, “… as a boy I was the victim of a sexual assault by a man I once worshipped” (cited in John Kerr’s A Most Dangerous Method). Jung also wrote of his infatuation with Freud: “… my veneration for you has something of the character of a ‘religious’ crush.” Jung’s feelings no doubt intensified the pain of losing his friend and mentor — a loss often described as a catalyst for Jung’s mental breakdown and experiments in active imagination, which led to the creation of The Red Book.

No doubt Jung’s feelings for Freud complicated their relationship. The crush may have reminded Jung of the dynamics he once had with the man who assaulted him. Perhaps Jung had an unacknowledged compulsion to overcome a sense of oppression activated by the assault. We’ll never know. Yet the loss of Freud as mentor and friend forced Jung to face how he navigated a deep split within himself in ways that denied part of who he was.

By the time Jung wrote The Red Book, he could declare, “the brightness of love seems to come from the fact that love is visible light and action.” Something profound happened between his mental breakdown and his magnum opus akin to what today some therapists might call “a healing journey.” How else could Jung speak so ebulliently of love? At least on some level (and likely a very deep one), The Red Book shows how one very brilliant man overcame psychic splintering and profound aloneness — and both often haunt survivors of sexual abuse.

Unfortunately, not everyone is as resilient as Jung. Far too many succumb to feeling part of themselves died with the abuse, as well as their hope to ever know safe, “true” love.

Jung was fortunate, although perhaps not unusual, in his transformation of trauma into creative works. (He suffered several psychological “wounds” in childhood — what today are increasingly called adverse childhood experiences.) Although it is presumed Jung did not suffer incest, this form of sexual abuse in particular has been described as precursor to genius. In a letter discussing philosophers, Schopenhauer wrote to Goethe the following about the influence of incest:

“He must be like Sophocles’ Oedipus, who, seeking enlightenment concerning his terrible fate, pursues his indefatigable inquiry, even when he divines that appalling horror awaits him in answer. But most of us carry in our hearts the Jocasta, who begs Oedipus for God’s sake not to enquire further; and we give way to her and that is the reason why philosophy stands where it does.”

And Nietzsche wrote in The Birth of Tragedy:

 “Wherever soothsaying and magical powers have broken … the magic circle of nature, extreme unnaturalness — in this case, incest — is the necessary antecedent, for how should man force nature to yield up her secrets but by successfully resisting her, that is to say, by unnatural acts?”

The Red Book shows Jung’s capacity to turn inward the eye of the soothsayer, not only in search of wisdom, but also the healing power of love. He struggles with distinctions between good and evil, divisions between self and society, as well as unacknowledged aspects of Self. Although the language and images are uniquely Jung’s, they nevertheless speak to the sense of being Other — to oneself as well as humanity — also common of those who have been sexually assaulted.

In her semi-autobiographical novella, Mathilda (1819), Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly (also the author of Frankenstein) portrayed the impact of being the object of incestuous attraction this way:

“My father had forever deserted me, leaving me only memories which set an eternal barrier between me and my fellow creatures … [His] unlawful and detestable passion has poured its poison into my ears, and changed all my blood, so that it was no longer the kindly stream that supports life but a cold fountain of bitterness corrupted in its very source. It must be the excess of madness that could make me imagine that I could ever be aught but one alone; struck off from humanity; bearing no affinity to man or woman; a wretch on whom Nature had set her ban.”

Sexual abuse causes a sense of alienation that pervades all relationships, starting with the relationship with oneself and extending to the most abstract affiliations. Feelings of guilt, shame, and inferiority are common. But so is righteous anger, the desire to protect the vulnerable, and even a rugged sense of humor. This mixture of seeming highs and lows occurs not because of a lost want to love or to be loved, but rather because of a lost capacity to trust love. And so the vacillating. Like planets in erratic orbits that can’t establish the safest distance from the sun. Well-grounded observers may gratefully consume the creative energy released by the process, although only the creator can say if the suffering was worth the trajectory.


Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1872/2008. The Birth of Tragedy, Oxford World’s Classics. New York: Oxford University.

Jung, Carl G. 2009. The Red book: Liber Novus. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Kerr, John. 1994. A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein. New York: Vintage Books.

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. 2011. Mathilda. London: eBook Versions.

© 2013 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).


  1. Jenny says:

    You speak so kindly and appreciatively about people who have suffered traumas and have abundance of creative energy…thank you for this insight.

    • Laura K Kerr says:

      Thank you so much, Jenny.

      I think lots of traumas can be avoided, especially traumas arising from people hurting other people. But the sad reality is most of us experience something overwhelming at some point in our lives that continues to haunt us. I admire people who transform wounds into creative acts, and give their experiences meaning as well as inspire others. And I try not to judge people still stuck in their defenses, and perhaps at times, even hurtful of others. They need help, and hopefully with the right kind of help, they too will learn to create meaning (and art and love) rather than trouble. For me, to think otherwise is to feel hopeless.

  2. Deena Harbaugh says:

    First let me say, I love reading your blogposts. Secondly, I don’t see much written about incest, so thank you. This very real thing that is happening to approximately 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 6 boys remains a “silent epidemic.” I guess its because it is extremely uncomfortable to talk about. I still find it mind-boggling myself because of its ugliness.

    I haven’t made it through your entire blog, but I wondered if you wrote about forgiveness. I’ve read so many other blogs about the importance of forgiveness. I don’t find it pathological to not forgive and I haven’t read anything about forgiveness that has convinced me I’ve got it wrong. I believe in “acceptance” instead of forgiveness. I would love to hear your thoughts about forgiveness.

    • Laura K Kerr says:

      Thanks so much for your questions. The reason I am not writing much on this blog about sexual abuse is because I am currently writing a book about it and the process of healing for both individuals and society. And you are right; it is a tough issue! And so this blog allows me to write about other topics since I am so immersed in the subject.

      With regards to forgiveness. I personally don’t think it is necessary for healing. I instead think it’s more important to not blame oneself and to learn to avoid revictimization. I think forgiveness is usually related to a person’s spiritual beliefs and thus is more a personal issue than a universal one that applies to all people healing from sexual abuse, including incest.

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