Destruction as an Explorative Tendency
1. The destructive capabilities of a two and a half year old
The abrupt appearance of my younger brother into my life is one of my earliest memories. I remember being informed of my mother’s arrival from the hospital with a “surprise”. I remember her seated on the bed, cradling a foreign bundle in her arms. I remember the baby lying on his back on a white blanket naked, pink, wrinkled and crying, a black chord protruding from his belly button. I remember being told that he was my new baby brother and I was to expect his presence permanently.
I also remember my father handing me a plastic doll, my own new baby.
Being the soft, helpless mass he was at that time, my brother would obviously demand a lot of attention. The running joke is that my parents believed I might grow jealous and frustrated with the new baby, so they handed me an inanimate replica. If by any means, I felt jealous of my brother, exerting violence or some sort of disfigurement to the doll itself, instead of my brother, would act as an outlet for my frustration. If anything, it was understandable, albeit encouraged.
I do not believe in the lightheartedness or humor in their gift.
I believe their gesture was based on a genuine concern with respect to the physical capabilities of a resentful two-and-a-half year old.
My baby brother was not mine to harm.
The baby plastic doll was mine. What I owned, I could harm.
As my brother grew from a useless mass to a walking infant like myself, he became my partner in my assumed destructive tendencies (although there is no recollection on whether I ever laid a finger on the doll).
My brother and I would regularly attempt to damage each other as part of our playing routine. My arms were regularly inflamed with bite marks, his shins regularly throbbing with bruises.
However, we mostly were set out to break every object we could lay our hands on, both as team effort and individual competition: we threw plates off balconies, dropped and shattered milky cereal bowls, stretched my mother’s jewelry until the beads burst, beheaded and de-limbed stuffed animals of all species...we didn’t break everything, but we broke, stained, and tore a lot of things.
Was there a purpose to our unruliness? One might think it was some innate human drive expressed openly in children.
The Freudian concept of the Death-Drive proposes that humans have the intrinsic impulse towards both harmful and self-destructive behavior. It is associated with directing certain emotions such as fear or hate inwards onto oneself or outwards onto others. The death- drive was a hypothesis to explain why and how humans engage in warfare and the human mind continually returns to traumatic experiences.1
I believe in my case, there was no real emotional motive behind any of this turmoil, and it was simply part of growing up. As children of developing bodies and strength, in a world constructed for the proportions of adults, we were discovering that we possessed the ability as physical beings to damage, break and disfigure, both purposely and accidentally.
It allowed us to understand the limits of our bodies and the bodies of one another. Bound by a single household and the same parents, I could safely say my brother never played with others with the same abandon we played with one other.
Whether or not our actions were driven by emotional anguish (I don’t think they were, as I experienced an otherwise pleasant childhood. I cannot recollect any personal emotional anguish until puberty), they are reflective of a “destructive” tendency we had since our birth: a mutilating inclination expressed in the handling of our first possessions.
2. The transitional object: the first object I destroy
The image of a child dragging around a filthy, torn blanket is a ubiquitous one, and unsurprisingly, I was subjected to photos of this very scene. I imagine it is even cute: the juxtaposition of a small and pure being, pulling around a filthy object.
But before developing the strength to even grip a blanket, I was restricted, as all infants are, to the body of my mother. I depended on her physical being for warmth, comfort, nourishment and mere survival. As far as I could conceive, she, a soft, breathing, warm, lactating human, was experienced as part of myself. “The breast is part of me, I am the breast”. 2
Eventually as an infant grows, he gradually begins to identify himself as separate from the body of the mother, and separate from the breast. “I have it...I am not it.” 3
As pediatrician and psychoanalyst D.W Winnicott observes, infants begin to weave “possessions” into their lives. They recognize the breast of the mother as an external object. Eventually their own thumbs, finger and toes act similarly as objects of comfort and oral stimulation. They begin to understand what is inside and outside their body. 4
As an infant develops, he begins to utilize objects, usually choosing one, that is neither part of his body nor of his mother’s body in the same behaviors: groping and sucking on the edge of a blanket or teddy bear. This inanimate, transitional object is of great importance to the infant: to comfort him, protect him against anxiety, and aid him in sleep. The maturing baby exerts rights and ownership over the object, both affectionately cuddling it but also damaging it. 5
Parents are advised to tread carefully around the transitional object, not separating it from the hands of the child, washing it only when necessary. 6 Their attentiveness is ironic, as this object is truly an expression of pure freedom for the child.
This object also allows the infant to separate himself from the mother. As he cherishes it, he also stretches it, tears it, and sucks on it till the wool fibers unravel. There are no negative or positive repercussions to the outcomes of his actions. 7
Eventually, the transitional object is dropped. The filthy blanket is thrown away with little to no sense of loss, pain or grief. It is “decathected, relegated to limbo, but not forgotten”. 8
This pure encounter is eventually shattered. We begin to comprehend that things are outside and inside of us...with some conflict as well.
3. Subject/Object: two siblings and the torn stuffed toy
When I was around 6 years old I recall wrestling with my younger brother early one morning.
The cause of our conflict? A raggedy plush toy with eyes, arms and legs. As I trapped it between my chest and my crossed arms, my brother pulled and tugged at my sweater from all directions, attempting to free and take hold of the object of desire.
With the understandable frustration of a working-woman trying to sip her coffee on a Sunday morning, my mother loomed over us. She forcefully pulled the toy from my arms and with an inconceivable strength, tore it apart in one raging gesture, splitting our plush friend in half.
It erupted in an explosion of dirty, old cotton.
My brother and I still speak of the utter anguish experienced at this moment. What we remember most is dropping our small bodies onto the floor, in tears and screams, flailing our limbs in absolute agony.
The eruptive pain that caused us to roll on the floor bore deeper than any consumer or sentimental value to the toy itself, as we had only received it a few days earlier, and were surely to forget about it a few days later.
It is not unlikely for a young child to consider physical objects in his environment to be an extension of his very self and being. A child can easily cry at the sight of an adult forcefully throwing a pillow across the room, banging at a nearby wall, or, as in my case, tearing a plush toy in half. This sentiment could be possibly attributed to an individual high empathy, but also links to the psychoanalytic concept of identification, what Freud calls “the original tie to an object”. 9
Eventually and obviously this cognitive “error” fades. We learn to differentiate ourselves as subjects, separate from the objects of our environment.
However, the shedding of the transitional object could explain my mother’s seemingly brutal attitude to plush toys. She had witnessed her children’s shifted disinterest towards soft plush objects. As far as she was concerned, any crucial connection to soft objects had been shed years before. They were now just objects like any others. We had broken many objects in the past, why would this be any different?
4. Destruction as a primal gesture
There is contradiction, confusion, and inconsistency in relation to breaking toys and objects in the aforementioned anecdotes of my early childhood. I was given a doll to destroy, as my parents feared I would destroy my brother. A few years later, that same brother would bite my arms and legs until they bruised, and we would pull the heads off our own dolls and action figures for no apparent reason. In retrospect, we would cry at the sight of my mother tearing a random toy.
It is possible however, that the interest lies in the inconsistency of these anecdotes and a discrepancy in my memory of them altogether.
For my brother and me, developing an understanding of our physical abilities was not a chronological, linear process, but rather a muddled one. Through exerting force, destroying, pulling apart objects, toys and each other, we began to understand, associate, differentiate and empathize. We began to understand the limits of our bodies and the bodies of others.
Hitting, breaking, biting...were all pure and primal gesture that could no longer be accessible for the same intentions: the understanding of what is outside our bodies, what is part of our bodies, what is painful, what isn’t is crucial for the development of our consciousness.
All these stories also hint at something deeper. That children, adults, and objects belong to a single physical material reality. [...]
1. Freud, Sigmund. "Beyond the Pleasure Principle." In On Metapsychology. Pengiun, 1920.
4. Winnicott, D.W. "Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena." In The Object Reader, by Fiona Candlin and Raiford Guins, 64-79.
5. Winnicott, D.W. "Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena." In The Object Reader, by Fiona Candlin and Raiford Guins, p.67
8. ibid. 9. Freud, Sigmund. "Beyond the Pleasure Principle." In On Metapsychology. Pengiun, 1920.