Freud’s Jaw and Other Lost Objects. Fractured Subjectivity in the Face of Cancer

In April 1923 Sigmund Freud detected a lesion in his mouth that turned out to be cancerous. From diagnosis to his death, he endured 33 surgeries and 10 prostheses. In 1932 alone, Freud consulted with his surgeon Hans Pichler 92 times. Freud’s smoking motivated much of the fussiness with his prosthetic jaw: it had to be right at the palate edge, with optimal occlusion so as to get the most out of his cigars. For Freud, smoking facilitated writing and intellectual creativity; it provided exquisite enjoyment. An inanimate object thus served as a conduit of both vitality and grave illness—a testament to the entanglement, indeed, the indistinguishability of the life and death drives.

In 1977, after a biopsy of a tumor in her right breast, Audre Lorde fantasized about lopping off the agent of her destruction like “a she-wolf chewing off a paw caught in a trap.” (56) In the manner of a Kleinian infant, she directed her rage at the persecutory breast that betrayed her (once again) and ceased being her own. Lorde turned her poetry and personal survival into political acts of reparation, linking the ravages of cancer to racial and sexual injury and offering herself to queer communities of color as an object of introjection and identification.

In 1992, on the anniversary of her breast cancer diagnosis, queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick was en route to yet another academic lecture. She sat in a plane on a runway in frigid Toronto watching Pepto-Bismol-pink anti-icing fluid run down the window beside her. Seized by nauseating horror, she recalled the bloody lymphatic discharge draining from her body in the weeks following her mastectomy. In 1996, after imaging revealed a spinal metastasis that would ultimately kill her, Sedgwick emerged as a patient-teacher in her polyphonic A Dialogue on Love (1999), an account of a psychodynamic treatment intermixed with her poetry and her therapist’s notes. Through autobiographically inflected theoretical writings and the advice column, “Off My Chest,” Sedgwick engaged in what she called good pedagogy, instructing readers about love and mourning in the “prognosis time” of incremental bodily loss.

Lana Lin brings together the stories of Freud, Lorde, and Sedgwick, as well as insights from her own struggle with breast cancer in the tour de force, Freud’s Jaw and Other Lost Objects: Fractured Subjectivity in the Face of Cancer (Fordham University Press, 2017). With her three transferential figures, Lin explores what it means to loosen one’s grip on objects, to live with self-estrangement and threats to bodily integrity, and to understand loss as the maintenance of relationality. As cancer fragments and changes one’s relationship to time, it becomes a catalyst for reparation, invention, and love.

Anna Fishzon, PhD, is Senior Research Associate at the University of Bristol, UK. She is a candidate at the Institute for Psychoanalytic Training and Research (IPTAR) and author of Fandom, Authenticity, and Opera: Mad Acts and Letter Scenes in Fin-de-siecle Russia (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). She can be reached at

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