Carl Gustav Jung. Unknown date.

Carl Gustav Jung. Unknown date.

Jung’s Childhood Nightmare

In 1956, a representative from the New York publishing company contacted the Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung to see if he might be willing to publish the story of his life. The psychologist's story was of considerable interest to publishers; his ideas had influenced his own field, but they had also affected debates in philosophy, anthropology, literary theory, and religious studies.

Many of Jung’s early ideas grew from an impassioned correspondence with the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. From 1906 to 1913, these two thinkers contributed to the expansion of depth psychology, whereupon Jung’s perspective began to diverge from that of his elder. Jung went on to develop his own branch of “analytical psychology” as distinct from Freudian psychoanalysis. Throughout his career as an analyst, Jung emphasized the importance of individuation, archetypal symbolism, synchronicity, the collective unconscious, and techniques of dream amplification.

September 1909 at Clark University, Worcester, Mass. Front row, Sigmund Freud, G. Stanley Hall, Carl Jung. Back row, Abraham Brill, Ernest Jones, and Sándor Ferenczi. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

September 1909 at Clark University, Worcester, Mass. Front row, Sigmund Freud, G. Stanley Hall, Carl Jung. Back row, Abraham Brill, Ernest Jones, and Sándor Ferenczi. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

At the age of eighty, Jung set out to work closely with his analytic colleague, Aniela Jaffé to fulfill the publisher’s request for an autobiographal work. Jaffé collaborated with Jung in the final years of his life, eliciting a narrative of events from Jung’s early childhood and years as a student, his time spent as a psychiatry resident, his encounters with Freud, through to the development of his own distinct approach and psychoanalytic orientation. Jaffé recorded and edited what would become Jung’s posthumously published memoir, Memories, Dreams, Reflections.


In her introduction to the memoir, Jaffé recalls that Jung’s attempt to narrate his story produced “a period of inner turbulance” for him during the first year of their work together. “Long-submerged images out of his childhood rose to the surface of his mind,” including one particularly salient dream from when he was only three or four years old. 

In the dream, Jung found himself in a meadow near Switzerland’s Laufen castle whereupon he discovers a hole in the ground. Going through the hole, he descends down a stone staircase, under a round arch, through a heavy green curtain, into a large stone room. A red carpet leads him from the entrance to a platform in the centre of the room occupied by a large, golden king’s throne. It is the throne of a fairytale. On top of this throne, however, Jung sees something that terrifies him—a monstrous Cyclops figure:

Something was standing on [the throne] which I thought at first was a tree trunk twelve to fifteen feet high and about one and a half to two feet thick. It was a huge thing, reaching almost to the ceiling. But it was of a curious composition: it was made of skin and naked flesh, and on top there was something like a rounded head with no face and no hair. On the very top of the head was a single eye, gazing motionlessly upward…. Above the head … was an aura of brightness. The thing did not move, yet I had the feeling that it might at any moment crawl off the throne like a worm and creep toward me.


Recoiling with fear at the sight of this phallic monster, Jung heard his mother’s voice call to him in the dream: “Yes, just look at him. That is the man-eater!” Jung recollects that he awoke paralyzed with terror, sweating and scared to death, and was afraid to fall asleep for many evenings afterwards, dreading the possibility of another nightmarish encounter. “This dream,” Jung admits, “haunted me for years.” 

The psychologist assigned a great deal of personal and theoretical significance to this dream. He understood it as the catalyst that would lead him to pursue a lifelong desire for answers to his own questions about the unconscious: “Who was it speaking in me?.... Who spoke to me then?... Through this childhood dream I was initiated into the secrets of the earth." In the memoir, Jung produces associations to the dream, carefully considering each symbol, although does not focus particularly on sexual connotations, turning instead towards the archetypal and religious significance of the phallus. As a child, Jung was unable to understand how this image of a “ritual phallus” could have arrived to him in the dream. In his later work, however, Jung theorized the phallus as an ancient symbol, a representative source of “life and libido, the creator and worker of miracles” and maintained that the phallus was “worshipped everywhere” in ancient cultures. Jung’s childhood dream might be understood as a precursor to his own hypothesis that ancient traces of cultural and religious symbolism may be shared across populations as a kind of species knowledge that one is born with, exemplifying his notion of the "collective unconscious."

Jung outside Burghölzli hospital in 1910

Jung outside Burghölzli hospital in 1910

Throughout the early chapters of Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Jung also considers his nightmare's significance in the context of his turbulent childhood, in which his father became separated from his mother who was temporarily committed to a psychiatric hospital for depression. Although Jung does not interpret his dream in terms of a childhood anxiety, there is a clear parallel to be drawn to the Freudian notion of castration. Jung’s separation from his mother during the time of her hospitalization might have also sparked a fear of punishment, a strong desire for her presence, and perhaps also a sense of loss in her absence.

During these difficult years of separation from his mother, Jung recalled a fondness for playing with bricks, especially for building small towers, which he would then enthusiastically destroy with an “earthquake.” Much later during his adult life, Jung would involuntarily recall this destructive game, vaguely associating this game with the underground phallus of his nightmare. Jung’s description notably resembles Freud’s well-known account of his grandson Ernst’s childhood game of fort/da (gone/there) from Beyond the Pleasure Principle, the child’s apparent reenactment of the mother’s absence and return. Jung’s game, however, perhaps might also be understood as a displaced attempt to master or control his own phallic anxiety in the dream given the obvious connotations of the construction (da) and destruction (fort) of toy brick towers as phallic objects.

As a child, Jung also struggled to connect with schoolmates, and remembered feeling that he might be the recipient of some looming danger. The "new peril lurked by day. It was as if I sensed a splitting of myself, and feared it. My inner security was threatened.” Jung describes this split as the emergence of two distinct personalities, Personality No. 1 and Personality No. 2, which would contribute to competing motivations throughout his entire life.

Personality No. 1 became Jung’s protective and professional self-presentation, an outer appearance that could be presented to others. In contrast, Personality No. 2 became a secretive inner self, hidden from other people, and belonging to the world of fantasy life. Sophia Richman has proposed that Jung’s childhood predicament reveals a “need to retreat into a world of secrecy and safety in order to prevent self-loss and the longing to reestablish connection with others.” By “splitting” into two distinct selves, Jung was able to cope with the unstable dynamics of his family and social life at school while remaining protected in fantasy.

Jung maintained his phallus dream as an inviolable secret, but sublimated this secret in the form of a “manikin,” a little uncanny double of himself that he had carved from the end of a ruler. He hid this wooden counterpart of himself on top of the roof beams in the attic of his family’s home. By hiding this little doppelgänger, Jung was able to maintain a sense of safety through a projection onto the manikin:

All of this was a great secret…. No one could discover my secret and destroy it…. In all difficult situations, whenever I had done something wrong or my feelings had been hurt, or when my father’s irritability or my mother’s invalidism oppressed me, I thought of my carefully bedded-down and wrapped-up manikin…. This possession of a secret had a very powerful formative influence on my character; I consider it the essential factor of my boyhood. Similarly, I never told anyone about the dream of the phallus…. The little wooden figure…was a first attempt, still childish and unconscious, to give shape to the secret. I was always absorbed by it and had the feeling I ought to fathom it; and yet did not know what it was trying to express.

At the time of writing Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Jung understood his dream of the phallus in the underground temple alongside his experience with the carved manikin to be crucial to his later developments as a thinker. He protected his dream as secret through his creation of a secret self. Jung maintains that he kept his experience of the dream and manikin a secret for decades, finally disclosing this information about childhood when he was sixty-five years old.

One of Jung's paintings from  The   Red Book.

One of Jung's paintings from The Red Book.

Jung loosely generates a chain of associations from these memories of the phallus dream and building brick games to his visions of world destruction and “rivers of blood” in adulthood. He explains that in the autumn of 1913, he experienced the general atmosphere as darker, a sense of oppression that felt external within the environment “as though there were something in the air.” He recalls that this feeling grew stronger over several months until he was overtaken by a powerful vision: “I saw a monstrous flood covering all the northern and low-lying lands between the North Sea and the Alps. When it came up to Switzerland I saw that the mountains grew higher and higher to protect our country. I realized that a frightful catastrophe was in progress. I saw the mighty yellow waves, the floating rubble of civilization, and the drowned bodies of uncounted thousands. Then the whole sea turned to blood." Jung recalls several reoccurring dreams, regarding them as premonitions of world destruction leading up to the First World War.

Several variations of these dreams of total destruction can be found in Jung’s The Red Book: Liber Novus. In his memoir, Jung ultimately implies that some transmission from the collective unconscious leading up to the war intermingled with his own latent thoughts of the phallus dream and brick towers from childhood, resulting in these seemingly prophetic visions of world destruction.


D.W. Winnicott’s Dream of Absolute Destruction

In a provocative review of Jung’s memoir, British pediatrician and psychoanalyst, D. W. Winnicott drew a rather different set of connections about dreams, anxiety, and absolute destruction. Winnicott is perhaps best known for his innovative psychoanalytic theories on childhood play, selfhood, and object use, which are usually understood to have grown out of object relations theory developed by Melanie Klein. 

D.W. Winnicott. © Wellcome Library.

D.W. Winnicott. © Wellcome Library.


Although Jung’s influence on Winnicott’s thinking is often passed over, Winnicott was in active dialogue with many of the contemporary Jungians of his time. He regularly attended a study and supervision group throughout the 1940s with child analyst and psychiatrist, Michael Fordham, who had helped to found the first society of analytic psychology in London.

Winnicott's review of the English translation of Memories, Dreams, Reflections appeared in 1964 in the International Journal of Psycho-Analysis. Winnicott reflects on Jung’s relationship with Freud throughout, but he also presents some of his own ideas through an analysis of Jung’s childhood. He briefly discusses Jung’s nightmare as a projection of phallic excitements, but concentrates on Jung’s difficulties with object relations and selfhood.

For Winnicott, Jung’s reflections exemplify two of his own key concepts: the True Self and the False Self. These concepts provide a way of thinking about a person’s development of ego defenses and personality as structured in relation to difficult environments. For instance, Winnicott interprets Jung’s extraverted Personality No. 1 as a “False Self,” which provides a defensive surface impression or shell of the self until a safer environment or place of containment can be found. Jung’s more introverted “True Self” appears in Personality No. 2 through the description of the secret manikin. Winnicott suggests that Jung was likely able to construct a False Self through the use of the carved manikin in order to defend his True Self against disintegration and childhood psychosis.

While composing this expansion of his own ideas through the review of Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Winnicott also had a profound dream of destruction, which echoed Jung’s apocalyptic vision. In an account enclosed in a letter to Michael Fordham from 29 December 1963, Winnicott describes the contents of this dream in three distinct parts:

1. There was absolute destruction, and I was part of the world and of all people, and therefore I was being destroyed….

2. Then there was absolute destruction, and I was the destructive agent. Here then was a problem of the ego, how to integrate these two aspects of destruction?

3. Part three now appeared and in the dreamI awakened. As I had awakened, I knew I had dreamed both (1) and (2)…. Here I was awake in the dream, and I knew I had dreamed of being destroyed and of being the destroying agent…. I now began to wake up. What I first knew was that I had a very severe headache. I could see my head split right through, with a black gap between the right and left halves. I found the words ‘splitting headache’ coming and waking me up, and I caught on to the appropriateness of this description; this allowed me gradually to come round to being awake, and in the course of the half hour the headache left me.

Winnicott recalls that as he gradually returned to consciousness from this dream, he realized the latent content of the dream had been influenced by the review of Jung’s memoirs: “I was also aware as the dream flowed over me before I quite became awake that I was dreaming a dream for Jung and for some of my patients, as well as for myself.” The dream seemed to crystallize Winnicott’s own associative thoughts revolving around patients in his therapeutic practice, Jung’s memoirs of childhood, and his own personal experience of self-development. The dream of absolute world destruction allowed new psychoanalytic insights to emerge from latent material that had been percolating in his unconscious for years.

Winnicott’s dream enabled him to rethink theories of Kleinian object relations in an adaptation of developmental notions around infantile annihilation anxiety. Included in the letter to Fordham, Winnicott provides what is perhaps his earliest written formulation of an important addition to object relations theory and the basis for his well-known article, “The Use of an Object,” originally published in 1969, and reprinted in his well-known book, Playing and Reality:

In health the infant is helped by being given (by ordinary devoted Mum) areas of experience of omnipotence while experimenting with excursions over the line into the wasteland of destroyed reality. The wasteland turns out to have features in its own right, or survival value, etc., and surprisingly the individual child finds total destruction does not mean total destruction.

Winnicott is concerned here with the child’s movement from a primarily narcissistic relation toward a more developed way of relating to objects. In this more developed state of "using objects", the child recognizes that objects are separate from the self and have their own distinctive way of being. But crucially for Winnicott, this shift from object-relating to object-use means that the child must first destroy the object in order to experience separation and loss:

This change (from relating to usage) means that the subject destroys the object. From here it could be argued by an armchair philosopher that there is therefore no such thing in practice as the use of an object: if the object is external, then the object is destroyed by the subject. Should the philosopher come out of his chair and sit with his patient, however, he will find that there is an intermediate position. In other words, he will find that after "subject related to object" comes "subject destroys object" (as it becomes external); and then may come "object survives destruction by the subject." But there may or may not be survival. A new feature thus arrives in the theory of object-relating. The subject says to the object: "I destroyed you," and the object is there to receive the communication. From now on the [child] subject says: "Hullo object! I destroyed you." "I love you." "You have value for me because of your survival of my destruction of you." "While I am loving you I am all the time destroying you in (unconscious) fantasy."

For Winnicott, this is where fantasy begins for the child as it matures and separates from the subjective object (mother) and moves towards experimenting with objective objects. The child develops a capacity to “use” the objective object and to destroy it in unconscious fantasy through this very use. This destruction places the object outside the child’s sense of omnipotent control that might be found in primary narcissism. This destruction, however, must be able to occur in an environment of containment so when the child destroys the object, the object is somewhat protected or sustains the destruction.

As Jan Abrams has proposed, this means the “infant who is able to perceive the world objectively has had the experience of the object surviving his destructiveness” and that the “object stays more or less the same and does not retaliate by rejection or punishment." When the objective object survives the destructive attempts, the child experiences the resilience of the object and can begin, as Winnicott puts it, to “live a life in the world of objects, and so the [child] subject stands to gain immeasurably; but the price has to be paid in acceptance of the ongoing destruction in unconscious fantasy relative to object relating.”

Winnicott’s theoretical intervention, here, incorporates destruction as playing a part in the child’s creative construction of reality, where the object is placed outside of the self. As a result, the child grows to understand that the object has its own autonomous modes of being and may contribute to the child’s sense of self according to its own unique characteristics. It is through this destructive process that the child recognizes the otherness of the object. For Winnicott, this process can only occur if the child is able to integrate a “good-enough” object to separate from the subjective object. This partially explains psychoanalytic treatment’s effectiveness in its capacity to allow the patient to explore destructive impulses against a backdrop of “holding” or safety. So long as the psychoanalyst can withstand the patient’s attacks, the patient gradually internalizes a sense of containment in the continual survival of the object.

In his consideration of Jung’s childhood nightmare and the descriptions of destruction to be found in Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Winnicott came to his complex ideas about object usage. Reflecting on his own dream of world destruction allowed him to consider aggression as something central to human development and he came to realize that finding ways to integrate this aggression is what leads to the capacity to live creatively.

—Chris Vanderwees is a practising psychotherapist in Toronto and a postdoctoral fellow at Western University.

"Dreams of Destruction" © July 2018