Traces of the un-representable
– A study of children exposed to sexual abuse and their challenges in creating
Abstract to the first symposium for Psychoanalysis in Our Time: Representing the Unrepresentable
By: Marie Hagelskjær, PhD scholar at Center for Psychoanalysis and Center for
Sexuality, Language and Gender at The department of Psychology, University of
When suspecting or investigating child sexual abuse, we seldom gain unequivocal evidence of what the
child has experienced. The potential trauma rarely manifests itself as a concrete, matter of fact
symptom even though we often keep searching for it in such terms (1). In order to grasp the diffuse
nature of sexual trauma, we need a theory that conceptualizes the psyche as dynamic with the
possibility of repression, displacement and nachträglichkeit (2,3).
This presentation is based on research conducted in my ongoing PhD study. Here I try to capture and
examine the gaps of ability to symbolize and create psychic representations that children exposed to
sexual abuse convey. This is done by systematically observing abused children when they use the
projective imagery Play Room in cooperation with their psychologists. Play Room consists of a series of
illustrations that depict everyday situations always containing an element of conflict, emotion, and
interactions between children and adults. By encircling these gaps in a clearer manner, the
psychologists are enabled to investigate and support the child’s conscious and unconscious capacities of
creating meaning and psychic representation in the relationship with the psychologist and the
illustrations of Play Room.
The theoretical background for the presentation stems mainly from Jean Laplanche’s (4–6) and his
theory of generalized seduction and later work. These theoretical conceptualizations as well as our
clinical research will be used in the investigation of how sexual abuse creates a rupture in the child’s
development. We conceptualize sexual abuse as something that the child cannot comprehend as the
actions stems from an adult, perverse, enclaved sexuality. The abuse is solely on the adult’s premises
and leaves no room for the child to translate the experience in its own terms. The abuse has no place to
be, thereby creating gaps of the un-representable in the child psyche (1).
1. Zeuthen K. Kærlighed og overlevelse, barneseksualitet og seksuelle traumer. 1. udgave, 1. oplag.
Kbh: Akademisk; 2009.
2. Freud S. Tre afhandlinger om sexualteori. Kbh: Store Nordiske Videnskabsboghandel; 1934.
3. Laplanche J. Freud and the Sexual: Essays 2000-2006. Fletcher J, redaktør. 2011.
4. Laplanche J, Pontalis J. Fantasy and the origins of sexuality. J Psychoanal. 1968;49(1):1–18.
5. Laplanche J. New foundations for psychoanalysis. Oxford, UK; New York, NY, USA: Basil Blackwell;
6. Laplanche J. The theory of seduction and the problem of the other. Int J Psychoanal. August 1997;78
( Pt 4):653–66.
Biographical paragraph incl. institutional affiliations
I am currently PhD scholar at the department of Psychology, University of Copenhagen, affiliated with
the research group Sexuality, Language and Gender and Center for Psychoanalysis. In my project I use a
mixed methods approach utilizing statistical as well as qualitative data analysis, observations and
clinical work, in constant dialogue with psychoanalytic concepts and theory. My research interest
within the field of psychoanalysis and child sexual abuse stems from a long collaboration with associate
professor Katrine Zeuthen, who also supervises my PhD project. In 2010 I received a scholarship to do
research for a review of infantile sexuality and prevention of child sexual abuse. A work that has
resulted in the: Zeuthen, K. & Hagelskjær, M. (2013): Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse: Analysis and
discussion of the field. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, vol 26, 6. I have participated in the development of
the projective imagery Play Room in the period 2009-2013. My aim is to develop and broaden the
understanding of theoretical concepts of infantile sexuality and sexual abuse. Hopefully my research
will enrich the work of clinical psychologists with an assessment material that comes in dialogue with
the unconscious parts of the psyche and render possible an analysis of this.