Do you remember the story of Oedipus? Humor me for a moment. Before reading any further take a moment to review what you remember about that particular piece of Greek mythology. Like most, you’d probably eventually say, “that’s the story of the guy who killed his father and married his mother.”
But if you go back to the story itself, its most horrid aspect — the part that would seem destined to stand out — is that two parents viciously tried to kill their baby son.
Laius, Oedipus’ father and the king of Thebes, had raped a boy, who put a curse on him: his first-born son would murder him and marry his wife. When Laius and Jocasta had a son, they tried to sidestep the curse in the most vicious of ways. Jocasta used her brooch to pierce the baby’s ankles so a leather strap could be run through the opening. Tied up like a lamb for slaughter, the boy was handed to a shepherd to let him die on a mountain. To me, this is among the most blood-curdling tales ever. Yet no one remembers it.
Unlike the king and queen, both psychopaths, the shepherd took the damaged baby to nearby Corinth, where both king and queen were barren and glad to adopt him. They raised him as their own, never telling him of his origin. His feet were inflamed and so they named him Oedipus — swollen foot.
When he came of age, an oracle told Oedipus he was destined to marry his mother and kill his father. Believing those who raised him to be his real parents, he fled Corinth, and the prophecy. On the way to Thebes, he ran into a brutish man at crossroads, who told him to make way. But Oedipus, no doubt in a bad mood after the oracle’s words, had gotten there first. He refused to yield. When the man drew his sword, Oedipus fought him and killed him. That man was Laius, his father. Oedipus continued to Thebes. In the city, a sphinx was killing all passersby if they were unable to solve her riddle. The now-widowed Jocasta told her people she’d marry any man who solved the sphinx’s riddle, making him king.
With nothing to lose, Oedipus tried. “Who walks on four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon and three in the evening?” went the riddle, which the crippled Oedipus understood immediately. Man, he replied, crawls as a baby, walks as an adult, and uses a cane in old age. The sphinx backed down; Oedipus married the queen, and became king.
Years later a plague is savaging the citizens of Thebes. Yet another oracle told Oedipus the plague was the result of a terrible crime. The plague would continue until the crime was expiated. Against the advice older and wiser counsel, Oedipus investigated. He found the old shepherd who saved his life and extracted the full story from him under threat of death. Realizing he’d fulfilled the prophesy despite his best efforts, Oedipus took his wife’s brooch (the same she’d used to pierce his ankles) and put out his eyes.
Swiss psychologist Alice Miller, in a wonderful analysis of the story, suggested the abused child was never supposed to see what had been done to him.
So how then did Sigmund Freud come up with his bizarre hypothesis about childhood, using the Oedipus myth to suggest every child yearns to kill his same-sex parent and have sex with the opposite-sex parent? How does a story of parents who try in the cruelest of ways to murder their infant son; of a father who again tries to kill him at the crossroads, and of a mother who might actually have recognized the youth as her son (having been the one who inflicted the scars on his ankles) but married him anyway, not be seen as a story of child abuse?
Freud hadn’t always attributed adult-like sexual desires to child abuse victims. He originally considered abuse stories credible. Sufferers seemed to relive those awful incidents in rare, trance-like states, a pattern Freud recognized his patients couldn’t have possibly concocted together ahead of time.
Many of those patients were the offspring of prominent Viennese parents — the children of judges, doctors, professors, and clergymen — or the offspring of personal friends. He couldn’t imagine such people, as parents, would do the kinds of things his patients described in their sessions. So he found another explanation.
Ultimately, Freud was blinded by his prejudices, as if he’d put out his own eyes with Jocasta’s brooch.