Numéro 8 / novembre 2012

An institution worthy of the subject's task ?

Today we will illustrate the way in which a young boy was able to turn to the institute in his work as a subject. What makes this case special is the fact that there is not, in its evolution, one particular transferential link. Rather, the institution itself has perhaps been able to constitute an Other worthy of the task to be accomplished by both the subject and the Other.

Sebastian arrived at the institute at the age of five. He is now nine years old. At the admission interview we encountered a young boy who was rather alert and attentive to what was happening around him but who presented a quasi-mutism accompanied by a frozen rictus that only rarely left his face.

During the interview, his father was not very talkative. According to him, Sebastian had a blockage that would have to be removed for him to develop like other children. It was the mother who attempted to attach some signification to her son's difficulties. She evoked on the one hand a whole series of deaths that marked the context of his birth and, on the other hand, the arrival of a little brother, Maximilian. The mother said: "He knew before I did that I was pregnant" and she added that Sebastian, who was 10 months old at the time, had been different ever since. After the birth of his brother, Sebastian stopped walking and began to manifest great jealousy, going as far as to claw Maximilian's face and push him to the ground. Importantly, Sebastian called his brother "Ian-ian" like himself when he was asked his own first name; "Ian-ian" is a doubled syllable that can be found in the names Sebastian and Maximilian. The parents then noticed that when they called Maximilian, Sebastian responded as well, and sometimes he even responded to any first name at all.

More important difficulties appeared when, at the age of two, Sebastian was put in school. He cried all day, isolated himself, did not communicate with the other children, hit himself on the head, soiled himself although he was potty trained, and incessantly demanded his mother. One month later, his parents took him out of school and put him in a nursery. At three he was entered into a new school. Things went a little better; he entered into contact with other students. But at five it became clear that Sebastian could not follow a normal schooling. He was then referred to us as a part-time resident.

At the beginning of his stay in the institute, Sebastian appeared submissive to the speech of those around him, that of adults as well as that of his peers. To any speech addressed to him he responded "Yes, yes!", which was not dissimilar to the "Ian-ian" of his first name. With perhaps a touch of irony on the part of his mother, he came to the institute wearing a cap on which figured the image of "Oui-oui", a cartoon character for very young children. He did not defend himself when he was threatened by others, although his rictus disappeared at these moments. He seemed to understand what was said to him. What surprised us the most was that this "mute" child was not really mute but constantly mumbled in a language that was his own and from which emerged from time to time the beginning or end of a word, a syllable, or an onomotopeia that we caught on the fly. Sebastian could not manage to enter into the code of the Other that would permit him to make himself understood. We nonetheless observed, however, that he wanted to speak and to communicate; he even occasionally initiated discourse with us. It was obvious that he wanted to tell us something but he could not succeed in making himself understood.

We thus decided to send Sebastian to a speech therapist in an attempt to have him learn how to speak in a way that would be understandable to others. But it was a failure. Sebastian was very nice during the sessions but also very withdrawn, and so no progress was possible. The same failure had been observed by the speech therapist who had treated him before his arrival at the institute. Nevertheless, this work allowed us to notice something rather specific regarding Sebastian's relationship with language. When he heard words, he most often repeated the last syllable: wagon-gon, matchbox-ox, music-ic, Sebastian-ian. This reminded us of the "Ian-ian", last syllable of his first name, undifferentiated from that of his brother.

We could now make the following hypothesis: an explanation of Sebastian's relationship to speech could be found in what appeared retroactively as a naming defect affecting the symbolic function. Naming is what indicates the presence of the parents' particularized desire for a child. At Maximilian's birth – perhaps the moment his psychosis was triggered – the consequences of foreclosure manifested themselves in a refusal of that external naming that would found him as a subject. This refusal allowed him to remain in the confusion of the "Ian-ian". What's more, we have also noticed in Sebastian an important dimension of mimesis. What seems to animate him is the movement of the other's body. If the other does not move in front of him, Sebastian blanches, unplugs. He does not begin functioning again until the other begins to move. Nevertheless, this mimetism can enter into a playful dimension that permits him to accede to something a little more singular. Sebastian appreciates making jokes and playing pranks; he likes to hide and to play tag.

Faced with this mimetism, our question becomes: can something can be mobilized for Sebastian? Can we hope to convoke him as a subject? What surprised us rather quickly was the fact that a few months after his arrival, Sebastian's parents told us that he had begun to speak and make himself better understood and that more comprehensible words and syllables had appeared. We had in fact made the same observation at the institute. This improvement was manifestly not connected with the speech therapy sessions but rather with the encounters he was making daily, in the workshops and in his environment. In fact, this seemed connected with what had been able to emerge as a wish, a demand belonging to him. From then on we began to be very attentive to any irruption of a non-mimetic demand, any maneuver that permitted him to obtain what he wished; we began also to question ourselves regarding the conditions necessary for Sebastian to make a choice.

But as we have already remarked, Sebastian can show himself to be very submissive to the other's speech, to which he responds most often with a "yes, yes!". The speech of the Other is thus an injunction. An example: although he usually takes a taxi to return home at night, someone asked him one day if his mother was going to pick him up that evening. Sebastian responded "yes" and, hence, refused to get into the taxi, convinced that his mother was coming. A lot of energy had to be spent to uncouple him from the words that he was realizing.

Taking into account this relationship with speech, how then were we to offer him a choice? In order that he might succeed we had to be attentive to how the problem was presented to him, i.e. in such a way that he would not simply become the puppet of the other's speech. If a choice was at stake, it was important to present both possibilities, because otherwise he responded to the only signifier that appeared.

Here is an example: at the beginning of the year, there was the matter of coordinating the workshops with school schedules. Sebastian seemed interested in a cooking workshop. But the schoolteacher pointed out that his class went to the pool at the same time and that Sebastian loved the pool. We agreed to let Sebastian choose. If we said, "Do you want the pool?", he responded with a "yes", and if we said, "Do you want the cooking workshop?" he responded with another "yes", even though he knew that the two took place at the same time. Sebastian thus took the question as an injunction. It was necessary to present him with the two signifiers "kitchen or pool?" and their context in order that a choice might become possible, that a gap be opened in such a way that the subject might slip into it. It was, moreover, at those moments that a modification on the level of speech was possible and that a word might appear. In the "pool or kitchen (cuisine ou piscine)" example, the syllable "-ine" being insufficient to specify his choice, Sebastian had to say the word "cuisine".

In these conditions – by spotting his non-mimetic demands and being attentive to the way in which we present the problem – Sebastian can begin to make choices and show himself to demand precise things that are his own. He thus demanded to come to the institute during his vacation, to learn how to ride a bicycle, etc. These demands are his and find themselves uncoupled from any mimetism. Recently, and surprisingly, Sebastian asked to come and sleep at the Courtil. He said that he was big now and that he didn't want to share his room with "Ian-ian" anymore. He wanted his own room with his own key. He was very determined and even had trouble taking the taxi to return home (always the same fixed relationship with the signifier). We decided to accept this demand because it seemed to us that it was an attempt on the part of the psychotic subject (sujet de la psychose)1 - outside of discourse, alienated from the signifiers of the Other – to operate a separation. The demand to board at the institute that separated him in reality from "Ian-ian" was only the consequence of this attempt. But the most patent effect of this operation was that after a few days of boarding full-time, Sebastian began to articulate his words in a way that was much more understandable.

Perhaps it is important to underline, in conclusion, that when Sebastian made the demand to stay full-time, our reaction was almost immediate: "Yes!" No one in the team hesitated. It is not easy, however, to extract from the mass of demands that burst forth in an institution for children that demand which is different from the others. The key instrument here was the team meetings. It is there that the different experiences of the educators with the children are shared, matched up, and refined, and the detail has its place. Things must be gone over repeatedly. It is this painstaking work that allowed us to be ready to acknowledge the subject's act.




1Translator's note: "Sujet de la psychose" emphasizes the element of subjection in psychosis, the subject as subjected to psychosis.