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Child Abuse Negl. 1987;11(3):319-30.

Developmental origins of moral masochism: a failure-to-thrive toddler's interactions with mother.

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C. Henry Kempe National Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Child Abuse and Neglect, Denver 80220.


The case of a toddler diagnosed as failure to thrive with an unusual history of "accidents" illustrates the circumstances which may account for the infant's intense attachment to a sadistic love object and lead to moral masochism in adulthood. The observed behaviors of the toddler in interaction with mother show the pathological consequences of the infant's openness to influences of the social environment. He becomes attuned to his mother's wishes and performs behaviors which successfully evoke her attention and reciprocity even if these behaviors are contradictory to his survival. The mother's own experiences with unempathic and hostile parents are reflected in her attitudes and behaviors to the child. Suffering and victimization evoke her interest although she lacks the capacity for an empathic response to pain. Berliner's work on the origin of moral masochism, as well as the work of Steele on generational repetition, suggest the processes through which the infant's attachment to a sadistic mother gives rise to masochistic tendencies which may be reenacted throughout life in an effort to reproduce the affective feelings associated with mother's love and affection.

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