The Economy of the Totalitarian Mind: the Case of the Immigrant Child*

I am vexed by two intentions: to discover what form the theory of psychical functioning will take if a quantitative line of approach, a kind of economics of nervous force, is introduced into it, and, secondly, to extract from the psycho-pathology a yield for normal psychology. It is in fact impossible to form a satisfactory general view of neuro-psychotic disorders unless they can be linked to clear hypotheses upon normal psychical processes…the barriers were suddenly raised, the veils fell away, and it was possible to see through from the details of the neuroses to the determinants of consciousness. …The three systems of neurons, the free and bound conditions of quantity, the primary and secondary processes, the main trend and the compromise trend of the nervous system, the two biological rules of attention and defense, the indications of quality, reality and thought, the state of psycho-sexual groups, the sexual determination of repression, and, finally, the determinants of consciousness as a perceptual function—all this fitted together and still fits together! (Freud, 1895, pp. 283–284)


Immigration in early childhood can be considered as a traumatic situation. It often goes unrecognized since children adapt to most conditions and conform to their environment with astonishing agility. Inspired by the sensitive work of Sándor Ferenczi, and Donald Winnicott, regarding the psychic economy of maturational processes, the author explores the concept of totalitarian functioning and its obstruction of the growing psyche. Before birth we are all totalitarian, one with the mother; this symbiotic, invincible state of survival mode is prolonged as the immature newborn child ignores the requirements of reality and enjoys omnipotent pleasure through hallucination. The loss of place in immigration often becomes the loss of identity—the question of “where am I?” becomes confused with “who am I?”. Clinical practice exposes this fragility in adults torn from their home environment at an early age, forced into precocious maturity, never to grow up in reality. Through clinical examples, the author illustrates how totalitarian mental functioning of “all or nothing, right or wrong, black or white” is exposed in the transference and can be worked through within the psychoanalytical space.

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Correspondence to Kathleen Kelley-Lainé.

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Address Correspondence to Kathleen Kelley-Lainé, 109 rue de Vaugirard, Paris 75006, France.

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Kelley-Lainé, K. The Economy of the Totalitarian Mind: the Case of the Immigrant Child* . Am J Psychoanal 76, 376–388 (2016).

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  • immigration
  • early childhood trauma
  • totalitarian mind
  • identity loss
  • maturation